The woman known as L.S., infamous leader of the Serpent's Hand, also known to the Foundation by the name of The Black Queen, read a book by candelight, wearing the cap she almost always wore when she was L.S. She read a few lines in the book, thought some more, read another few lines, thought a bit more.
Technically, the Wanderers' Library did not have day or night. But day-night cycles were key to maintaining the healthy magical and psychological function of all manner of beings — as a great many books within the Library itself could tell you. So, many of the Library's wings had implemented magically simulated day-night cycles. Bright light during the 'day', darkness and dimmed lights at 'night'. Decoration and style varying per wing.
Here in the East Aera Wing — the Library was big enough to have wings named this way, like countries — it was night. 'Night' here meant swirling star-patterns, black and white in a purple sky above the fog masking the top of the stacks. A vision from another world. — the night sky of Statta Melo. L.S. had taken a Way there once, very briefly. A fairly awful place, with air like acid and everything trying to eat your fingers and toes and eyeballs. But L.S. had always remembered that sky like a Van Gogh painting, and so she often came to this wing to relax before making a major move.
Just one day and two minutes. Months of preparation had gone into this, and there was only one day and two minutes left.
She'd had plenty of advance warning, after all. One of the birds whispering in her ear. Another Little Sister, sending her a message from another world. Letting her know when to make a key, long-awaited move.
L.S. watched the clock tick down to only one day remaining. One day. Zero hours. Zero minutes.
She snapped her book shut and headed for the Archives.
Two Months Ago
Kendra Campbell stared at the interview subject seated, handcuffed, across the table, and hated her.
It wasn't just the subject sitting in front of her, one Joanna Middle-Name-Redacted Cross, that Campbell hated. She hated working on Mobile Task Force Tau-9. She hated being called a "Bookworm". She hated investigating magic, she hated researching a fucking magical library she'd never even seen, and she hated investigating a magical organization almost entirely made up of self-righteous pricks. (Often self-righteous magical pricks.)
But just for right now she probably hated Joanna Cross the most.
Campbell fiddled a little bit with the annoying newfangled recorder they'd given her before the interview, and found the red button labeled "record" in neatly lettered machine writing.
"Please state your first name and last name for the record," Campbell said.
Cross smiled. "This is our thirty-fifth interview," she said. "Or should I say, your thirty-fifth interrogation of me. You already know what I will and won't answer. What makes you think this time will go any different?"
Campbell stared at her for a long minute, then looked at the list of questions on the paper in front of her.
"Interview terminated," Campbell said. She found the red button labeled "record", pressed it again, stood, and left the room.
"I don't understand why we're still interrogating her," Campbell said, slowing to match her pace with the leisurely strides of her boss's boss, Dr. Gears. She was in trouble, she knew she was in trouble, but she'd found that Gears didn't even notice jokes, let alone snark or… petulance. "She's said the same exact things in all thirty-four previous interviews. What's the point of number thirty-five?"
Gears took his time answering, which was mildly unusual. Campbell resisted the urge to try to figure out what he was thinking. Gears bore the same facial expression as Gears always did, that look of bland calculation. That name — that too-perfect name, the name Campbell still wasn't sure was a joke, a code, or a fortuitous coincidence.
"And why me?" Campbell asked. "I'm a researcher, not an agent. I have exactly zero training in this kind of thing. Zero."
"The reasoning is above your clearance level," Gears said. "However, the fact that you are a researcher and not an agent is why you were given a script. Additionally, you are working on items recovered from the breach in which the interview subject was captured. Therefore, you are an appropriate choice for interviewer."
"But…" She trailed off in frustration.
"You have done admirably in following the letter of the rules," Gears said. "As instructed, you did not deviate from the script. It was acceptable within the rules for an interviewer to end an interview early for reasons of an emotionally distraught state. However, I'm not convinced that your emotional state merited ending the interview after hearing the answer to only one question."
Gears interrupted her. That was also unlike him. "Unless, Doctor… you wish to encourage us to assign Butler to take further interviews with your subject."
"Butler? What? But—-"
Again, interrupted. "Butler is the only other option on your team deemed appropriate to interview this subject."
That was the other thing about Joanna Cross. Joanna Cross had a sister. A half-sister, but they'd grown up together. A half-sister who just happened to be assigned to Mobile Task Force Tau-9. A funny woman, also a doctor, a bit of a nebbish but in an endearing way, going by the name of Rita Butler.
Campbell stared into Gears' passive, implacable face, and gave up. She wasn't sure if this manipulation had come from Gears — if Gears was even capable of being so directly manipulative — but it worked either way.
"I'm sorry," Campbell said. "I apologize."
Gears nodded. "I have scheduled your next interview for tomorrow morning."
Hell, Campbell thought, at least she wasn't getting any punishment. And, you know, she had been pretty unprofessional. The Foundation sometimes seemed to care about professionalism, now and then. If she wanted any chance of getting promoted to the level where she wouldn't have to fuck around like this anymore, she should be taking it.
So she went for interview number thirty-six with Joanna Cross, and as usual, Joanna Cross answered the questions by mostly refusing to answer them. Cross would only confirm what the Foundation already knew: that Cross was a Hand agent. That she was a female human in biology as well as appearance. That she was part of a larger team conducting a raid on Site-17, all others of whom had escaped.
And that was pretty much it.
"Why did your team breach Site-17? What was your goal?" I'm not going to tell you.
"Was your goal to remove SCP-239, referred to the Serpent's Hand as "The Witch Child", from its containment cell?" I'm not going to tell you.
"Were you involved with prior attempts by the Serpent's Hand to breach SCP-239's security?" I'm not going to tell you.
"How many people were in your team?" I'm not going to tell you.
"How did your other team members escape?" I'm not going to tell you.
"What anomalous objects did you make use of?" I'm not going to tell you.
"Please identify any other members of the Serpent's Hand. Include fulls names, ages, descriptions, and places of residency if known." I'm not going to tell you.
"Which SCP objects in Foundation custody are you aware of?" I'm not going to tell you.
And so on. Campbell had stared at this list so many times that she was beginning to wonder if there was supposed to be some supernatural memetic effect attached to it. If there was, it seemed to be affecting her more than the woman on the wrong side of the interrogation chamber.
Campbell fiddled again with the recorder before terminating the interview. That recorder seemed less annoying the second time around. At least it was something new.
"Doctor?" Joanna Cross asked.
Campbell froze with her hand on the door handle and looked back at Cross. Cross had never once initiated conversation This was, in fact, the first time Cross had ever said anything that wasn't a response to a question—-
"Word of advice, Doctor," Cross said. "Come back when you're ready to ask me questions that aren't from your script."
Campbell opened and shut her mouth.
"I'll make you a deal, Doctor," Cross said. "Come interview me tomorrow. Without a script. With your own questions. I'll give you some answers then. Otherwise, don't come back at all. If you do come back with a script, I promise I will never answer a single question you ask, not in the hundredth interview, not in the two hundredth. Tell that to your bosses — make sure of that. I wouldn't want to ask you to break any rules. Tell them to ask their friends in the GOC what a geas is. Tell them the reason why should be obvious."
"What the hell are you talking about?" Campbell asked.
"I'm not going to tell you," Cross said. She smiled. "Say hello to my sister for me."
Rita Butler had been keeping to herself, mostly, since everyone found out that her sister was a Hand agent and in custody. She'd been as surprised as everyone else — she hadn't spoken to her sister since the incident in which she'd been recruited by the Foundation. Containment breach by SCP-682, of all things — now that gave you special cachet in water-cooler conversation. 682 was one of the big-name SCPs, one of the ones that everyone knew about, including all the people who weren't supposed to be, and 'her' breach had been an especially spectacular one, with 682 escaping from emergency Foundation transport and rampaging through New York City like some kind of classic movie monster. He'd even smashed up one of the smaller skyscrapers, despite having only been loose for fifteen minutes total. Rita and her sister had gotten lucky — they both ended up in the hospital with minor injuries, even though they'd been right at ground zero when 682 came crashing out of the sky.
A night on the town with 682 was quite the introduction to the paranormal, and so when the Foundation came calling after her, she said yes, happily, and never looked back. I mean… jokes aside, that had been the most terrifying experience of her entire life. To think that the world was chock-full of things like this… to not know, the be vulnerable again, sounded like the most terrifying thing in the world. Not that the Foundation was the safest job, but at least they were the ones with the best handle on the situation.
Her sister Joanna hadn't gotten that option, though. Maybe the Foundation didn't need more anthropologists-with-a-minor-in-religion. Or maybe she'd failed whatever behind the scenes personality test the Foundation had administered. No one had told Rita. Either way, Joanna was mindwiped, and Rita joined the Foundation.
She'd thought that was the end of it — seeing really, just like any other job, it's not like she told Joanna much about her work as an ordinary biologist anyway — and then, this.
Joanna Cross, her sister. Joanna Cross, the Hand member. Joanna Cross, the terrorist.
It was enough to make you hole up in your room forever and never come out. And indeed, that's what she'd done for the last month, only emerging to take care of her assigned duties. But she was just so tired of being alone. Not just this month, but always — since the death of her husband, the only other person from the Outside who'd known about her work with the Foundation, and the other members of Tau-9 and her other co-workers were just so distant, and maybe if she just reached out a little —
So tonight, when MTF Tau-9 went out for drinks, Rita went with them. "Out" was just to the Site-17 bar, but hey, at least they had a bar. Site-19 just had a cafeteria, and the food was crap. Site-17's bar was pretty good.
So she went. And started thinking of all the answers to the questions she'd get. Yes, she was sure she had no idea that Joanna was a Hand member. No, Joanna had never tried to recruit. No, Joanna hadn't come to recruit her. No, she didn't know anything about what was happening with her sister, that was High Command's bag now — which wasn't entirely true, since Campbell had awkwardly told her all about the entire odd situation, but still.
Unfortunately, or fortunately, by the time she got there, Tau-9's local section leader, John Peters, was already stumbling drunk and rambling.
"It's about courage," he proclaimed. "Anyone can get skill. Talent is bullshit. Courage is the most important thing."
"Man, you're just talking bullshit," his second-in-command said. What was his name — Ramesh Patel? God, Rita though, that shouldn't have been hard to remember. She really needed to get out more.
"Courage!" Peters dramatically raised his fist into the air, ignoring Patel. "The courage to act! To act when no one else will."
"And America?" Patel asked. "The America to act, to America when no other America will."
"Goddammit, Ramesh," Peters said. "This is real talk time, goddammit. This isn't just… isn't just rhetoric."
"You need either many more drinks or far fewer," Patel said, and tried to take away Peters' glass.
Peters pushed him off. "No, man. No. I'm not just talking bullshit. Like… let's get real world here. Let's use a real world example." Peters swayed back and forth, surveying the room, and his eyes settled on Rita. "You! Butler!"
Rita jumped a little on her stool and set down her vodka. "Sir?"
"We're off-duty, goddammit," Peters said. "Butler. Butler. My friend, my compadre, my pal. Let's say… let's say there was a bomb in Site-17. Across the site in Section 3. A bomb right now. Someone just called you and told you. You have no way of knowing when it's gonna go off, just that there's a bomb. And it definitely WILL go off. You just don't know when. You with me so far?"
"I got it," Rita said. "Bomb."
"Bomb," Peters said.
"Bomb," Patel repeated.
"Right," said Peters. "Alright, so let's say we got that part of the site evaced, but some poor old lady grandmother scientist, maybe someone like Bartholomew from accounting — okay some poor old dude grandmother scientist — look, he's stuck back there, because he broke his hip or some shit. Everyone except us is tied up being, I dunno, containing skips or being eaten by gremlins or something. And you… all of us, but you too… we gotta decide which of us are gonna hop in a truck and go into Section 3 and get this old lady. No one's gonna get ordered to do it, so forget that bit." He took a drink, and looked at Rita again. "Or old dude, right. Whatever. So?"
"I don't get what you mean," Rita said.
"I'm talking about courage," Peters said. "Which of us would have the balls to go outside and jump in that truck and drive over to Section 3 and go save that old lady? Would you, Doctor Rita Butler, have the balls to go rescue that old lady, even though you might get blown to kingdom come along with her? It's a key question. A question we all gotta ask ourselves."
"I don't know about that," Rita said. "I can't drive, so… I don't think I'd have to, er, confront that question."
"Well, shit," Peters said. "I didn't know that. Why the hell not? Let's get you some driving lessons, stat! How about it?"
Rita looked down at her cup. "I've never needed to learn," she said. "It doesn't really agree with me. It's scary, inconvenient, and I pretty much live onsite, now…" She felt strange, defending something completely different than she'd been expecting to defend.
"Oh, goddammit," Peters said. "Look, I…" He looked at his glass. "I need another fucking drink. Let's come back to this, Butler. Just one second—"
And then Peters and Patel got into a minor scuffle over Peters trying to get another drink, that turned into a short-lived barfight, that turned into Peters being carried out by others, singing some unrecognizable song at the top of his lungs.
No one ever got around to asking Rita about Joanna, or about the status of her loyalties to the Foundation.
Twelve hours after the interview, Campbell sat in her research lab, examining Joanna Cross' equally frustrating counterpart: a series of pale blue origami flower chains found on her when she was captured. "Blue lily chains/faerie chains", the label said. Reports from Tau-9's field agents had given the nomenclature. Reports from the same field agents confirmed that the flower chains had a number of unknown anomalous effects, and were increasingly popular amongst the younger Hand members. Precisely what anomalous effects the chains were supposed to have, the reports did not say. Or maybe Campbell just wasn't cleared to know.
Either way, in the last few weeks she'd run about every test she could think of on them, twice. And they seemed about as anomalous as suspicious-looking dirt.
She began gathering up the papers strewn across her desk. "Enough for tonight," she said aloud.
"Enough of what?" a voice asked from behind.
Startled, Campbell glanced backwards. A too-pale man in a labcoat approached her desk.
"Hello, Doctor Campbell," the man said.
Campbell squinted in the fading light. She hadn't noticed that the lighting in her office had gotten so dim — or, hell, at least it was hopefully the lighting and not some horrible subtle anomalous side effect of these stupid flower chains. Either way, the man wasn't wearing a name tag.
"Sorry, do I know…"
Then she saw it. That necklace with that ornate amulet. The red jewel gleaming in the center of a starburst.
SCP-963-1. Doctor Bright.
Without thinking about it, Campbell felt the papers slip from her hand.
Campbell had seen Dr. Bright in person only once before, during the chaos of the Site-17 breach in which Joanna Cross was captured. She'd seen a breaching SCP, a humanoid with a featureless face and scaled black skin, morph its hand into a long, sharp sword — a German Zweihander, actually, complete with the tiny spierhaken prongs emerging from the blade a short way up from the hilt — and shove that Zweihander directly through Bright's chest in one swift motion. When it withdrew the blade, the spierhaken caught on the necklace around Bright's neck, and that amulet came away with it.
And then the faceless horror suddenly became docile. Because it had become Bright.
"Relax," Bright said. "I'm here to give you good news."
He held out a slim file folder. She took it.
"I didn't know Senior Staff came to hand-deliver good news," Campbell said. The back of her throat was dry.
Bright chuckled. "We're changing your orders. Take a look."
Campbell flipped open the file folder and read the instructions. They were remarkably short.
"Really?" Campbell cleared her throat. "Sorry, did I read this right? I can ask Cross literally anything, so long as I am the only one who comes up with the questions?"
"Don't worry." Bright's tone was open, friendly. "If she ends up telling you anything you're not supposed to hear, we'll just wipe your memory. Not a big deal."
Not a big deal.