There are people think that Karl is a hobo. They think this because this is exactly what Karl wants them to think. He dresses in greasy overalls and ratty t-shirts. He avoids showering and general hygiene. Every morning he takes a copious amount of styling gel in his hand teases his hair out into spikes. If you were to ask Karl why he does these things he would smile and tell you that a very old friend once taught him that the surest disguise could be found in the dismissive place men form in their minds for the odd and incomprehensible.
Karl is not a hobo. Karl owns a house. Not a big or a flashy house, to be sure, but Karl is a man of simple needs.
He sits in his house on a rusty metal folding chair at the head of a scuffed up wooden table. Across from him sit a man and a woman, the woman lounging naturally, the man ramrod straight, his mouth tightly drawn into a rictus of effort.
The woman looks over at the stiff-postured man and smiles. “You really never did have the knack for this did you?”
The man works his mouth open, seeming to unhinge the jaw for a moment as if he were a snake about to swallow a frog. Then the words come as if by great effort. “It…isn’t as…easy for…me as it…is for you. They always seem to…fight…so hard.”
“The trick is in not fighting back,” Karl says. “You have yet to understand the truth, that true control can only be found in making your host believe his wants coincide with your own. You have to dig deeper than the surface. You have to get at the heart of his drives, his desires. To truly master the art of possession you must become fully united with your hosts consciousness.”
The woman looks at Karl with something like disdain. “Some of us haven’t been at this for as long as you,” she says.
“Haven’t you now? And how long do you believe I’ve been at this?”
“Long enough to be half a dozen legends on this world. And don’t deny it. I’ve been doing my research.”
“Denial could not be farther from my mind. Even if it weren’t true, better to take the credit. But you can live ten times as long as I have and still be like our friend here if you don’t listen to the wisdom of your elders.”
“Last I heard you had a falling out with yours,” the woman says.
“I disagreed with his philosophy. Not his methods. Which brings us to the matter at hand. If I am indeed as you say, the impetus behind half a dozen human legends, I’m interested what it will take to bring that number up to an even seven.”
“Our brethren…must be…freed.”
“Yes, of course, those poor dark souls, languishing in eternal darkness. How sad.”
The woman’s eyes narrow. “You do not share the pain of our people’s banishment? You do not yearn for their return to power?”
“Yearn…such a strong word wouldn’t you say? And power? Well who’s power is it really?”
“You seek…glory…for yourself.”
“Just because I was on the outs with our old friend doesn’t mean I disagreed with him entirely. They did make quite a mess of this place. Running bodies into the ground, thoughtlessly wasting host after host until there weren’t enough left to go around? And then the war…that thoughtless war. Of course neither of you were here to see it. You should be thankful. It was really quite a mess. Brought the human population down to less than a thousand before our friend stepped in.”
The woman rises with fire in her eyes. “You are dangerously close to speaking blasphemy,” she says. “No matter what debt we may owe you, do not think for a moment we will stand idly by and let our brethren languish in outer darkness.”
“Is that what you think of me?” Karl says. “I’m hurt. Really.”
“No, of course not. Only you’re not the brightest bulbs on the tree are you? You think I couldn’t have pulled you two out of your imprisonment a thousand years ago? You think we couldn’t have run this gambit with the scattered savages that roamed this continent before?”
“You knowingly left us in torment? To what purpose?”
“Because I didn’t want you going off half-cocked before the time was right.”
“Every moment…our brethren…remain in-”
“Yeah, yeah, we get the picture,” Karl says waving his hand dismissively. “But this is what I was talking about. You’ve got no plan, no foresight. No vision. Hate on the guy who got us into this all you want, but like I said, he had a point. We need focus. We need order. We need leadership.”
A cold smile spreads across the woman’s face. “And you think they will listen to you? You think they will take you as their king? You think they will help you will run this world?”
Karl appears to think about what she’s said and then shrugs. “In a word? Yeah.”
The Director watches a video clip of Vincent doing push-ups in his room. He does them slow and deliberate, and he does exactly one hundred and thirty-seven. Then he stops and sits on the bed and when his face comes into view it’s had the outline of spider’s legs drawn on it in thick black magic marker.
“Why?” the Director asks.
Hyde shrugs. “We asked him, and he just smiled and said, ‘That’s why.'”
“You believe he’s being confusing for the sake of being confusing? To what end?”
“I have no idea. Standard profile says he’s pretty normal all things considered, and really there’s a lot to consider. He’s got issues with father figures obviously, possibly a tinge of autism. But still, well I just don’t like the guy.”
“In my experience you like very few people who demand anything more than a cursory investment of your energy Dr. Hyde.”
Hyde shrugs again. “Kinda makes you wonder why I went into psychiatry,” he says.
The Director looks at him with narrow steely eyes and a smile that could slice you open. “No,” he says. “It doesn’t.” He looks back at the monitor. “What does Dr. Jenkins think about this?”
“She’s glad he’s getting exercise, but still worried that he’s not eating anything.”
“His chart show he’s losing weight at an even more accelerated rate than before. You’re telling me this has absolutely no root in his psychological state?”
Hyde shakes his head. “What, you’re thinking anorexia?”
“You’re the psychiatrist, Doctor.”
“Weight loss disorders don’t work like what I’m seeing here. They’re driven by emotion. They’re not rational.”
“You’re saying his behavior is rational?”
“I’m saying it’s not compulsive. He’s not doing this because he can’t help himself. If anything it’s the opposite of that. It’s like a hunger strike. He won’t open up to me about whatever’s going on in his head, but you can tell that whatever this is, it’s calculated. Maybe I’d spring for paranoid delusions. He said something about being a the land of fairies to Dr. Jenkins one time a few weeks back, but honestly I think he was just speaking metaphorically. And now that he’s privy to what we do and how we do it…well maybe he’s got a right to be a little paranoid.”
“We are not monsters, Doctor. We do what we must.”
“If Jenkins were here she’d point out that those two statements are not mutually exclusive.”
The Director waves a hand dismissively. “You know why we do what we do. We’re not moral men. None of us are moral men. We do not worry about how we can live with ourselves. We don’t worry, because we’re too busy worrying about how to keep 682 from breaking loose and destroying whole cities. We’re hunting down an amusement park that shows up overnight in random towns across the country, possibly across the world, and and devours everyone who steps foot inside the maze of mirrors. We’ve got guys working around the clock on reproducing technology that came from diseased and eccentric minds, testing gadgets we can’t have a prayer of understanding fully. We do not have time for introspection. We press forward. Good or bad, we’re moving far too fast to stop. Do you understand that Doctor?”
“Yeah, I understand.”
“Good. Then I’d advise you to keep moving, lest you be swept away. There are dangerous things out there in the world, though none quite as fearful as the one we keep up here,” he says pointing to his balding skull. “Don’t let it get the best of you.”
The books they have in the library here are all fiction. For a while after he’s granted roaming privileges Vinny isn’t fully sure why they have a library here. Most of what the Foundation does, it’s files, it’s records, all of it is digital — though Dr. Jenkins tells him they’ve got hard copies of everything off site somewhere. “You can’t just stick a hard drive in a drawer and leave it for twenty years,” she explains. “The data get corrupted. Even in this day and age, paper…well you can trust paper to be there for a long time.”
Vinny almost asks her why they can’t just keep updating servers over time, but then he remembers the purpose of the place he’s in. If the lights ever went out in Georgia and everywhere else at the same time, the Foundation had contingency plans for what to do.
But the library isn’t like that. It isn’t functional, except for in the way, all libraries are functional. And when he asks Dr. Jenkins about it he expects her to tell him that it’s to control some nexus of supernatural literary power, or perhaps that it contains creatures capable of roaming from book to book, altering the stories as they see fit.
But what she tells him surprises him. The library is there, she says, because it’s a place where people can feel normal. People who come in here dealing with monsters in padded rooms the size of football fields, doing experiments on devices that just might be from the future…all of that wears on the human psyche. The library gives them an anchor, a way to get back to reality, a means of making themselves human again.
After that Vinny stays as far away from the library as possible. Because there’s no way he’s going to let himself feel normal in this place. Instead he reads every bit of information about the Foundation that he can. He pours over the Special Containment Procedures for each of the many many subjects they’ve got locked up or have encountered through the years. SCPs. That’s what the things get called in the end. SCP 682. SCP 298. SCP 813. Just numbers and procedures for making sure they don’t infect the world with their weirdness.
“Do I have an SCP number?” Vincent asked Dr. Hyde once.
Dr. Hyde laughed. “You? You’re not a threat to anyone, kid. They’re call special containment procedures for a reason.”
“The Illustrated Girl doesn’t seem that dangerous. Or the Recorded Man.”
“I’d put my money on them over you in a fight any day,” Dr. Hyde said. “Now stop stalling and tell me what you see in the inkblot, okay?”
The hours and days and weeks pass, and Vinny keeps losing weight. He’s down around 230 pounds now. He’s doing more push-ups too. The skin hangs off of him like a badly fitting suit.
“He looks like something out of a horror movie,” Hyde tells Jenkins one day as they’re eating lunch. “Like the aliens came to earth and made man-suits, but they made them four sizes two big? Like the reverse of that Edgar fella in Men and Black.”
Men in Black is a favourite movie at the Foundation, mostly because the researchers enjoy laughing at how inaccurate it is.
“Everything’s a joke to you isn’t it?”
“Yeah, sure why not?”
“You realize you’ve got the opportunity to actually help someone. For once in your life you can do with your degree what you were supposed to do. What you set out to do. Now what are you? You prep the D Class lambs for the slaughter and you look at yourself in the mirror and tell yourself it’s okay because they’re really bad guys and they signed the waivers and they’ve got it coming to them, but in the end…you’re not helping anyone.”
Hyde pops a Doritos into his mouth and crunches. “I think you might be projecting?”
“Maybe I am. But you’re not looking closely enough. This isn’t a hunger strike. It’s not starvation. He’s not trying to commit suicide. He’s…prepping, getting reading for something.”
“You put this in the book?”
“What do you think?”
Hyde shrugs. “No skin off my nose. I mean, it’s not like he’s gonna get outa here any time soon right? Right?”
Jenkins stares ahead at nothing at all and says, “Right.”