Blood/Brain
rating: +131+x

Previously

There's no day/night cycle.

Something like a week into his trek, Wheeler realises that he can perform an experiment. He selects a building with a high ceiling to sleep in, a library. Before turning in, he sets up a Foucault pendulum. He suspends a heavy rock by wire from the ceiling and sets it swinging. The following morning, the slow pendulum is still swinging, and it has precessed. It's swinging at about a right angle from the mark he made before he went to sleep.

That means the world is still spinning.

On reflection, he doesn't know if it proves anything. It's not clear whether the Sun or the Moon still exist, or any celestial object at all other than the red-black eye socket at the horizon. The eye never moves. It casts long, threatening shadows, while being bright enough to blind Wheeler whenever he has to walk in that approximate direction, which is about half the time. Regardless of the physical evidence, it doesn't feel as if he's walking on a real Earth, or fully awake. He feels like an ant, crawling across the face of a rough-hewn monolith, crawling into and out of the runes chiselled into the face of that monolith, runes which form an unstoppable, apocalyptic mythology. He has migraines, and there are blotchy multicoloured zigzags in his vision by the end of most "days". He feels as if the whole world is perpetually dropping away from beneath his feet, like he and it are both plummeting into an abyss.

He has not been caught yet. The violent phenomena Ulrich warned him about have not appeared, which makes him feel increasingly lucky, and nervous. He carries a looted gun, which he's practiced with a little — he's a better shot than he would have guessed, using his right hand alone. (His left hand, the mangled one, does nothing but shake. He has to keep it clutched to his chest when shooting.) The gun gives him less reassurance than he'd like. It feels as if, were he to end up in a situation, it could metamorphose suddenly from a working firearm into a fiddly metallic liability, an explosive distraction in his pocket. On occasion, on the horizon, he sees a skyscraper-sized figure stalking past. He holds still, or hides, and it doesn't see him. Other than that, the world is seemingly deserted, standing empty, like an overturned car in a muddy ditch. Open doors, lights still blinking. Wheeler feels… detached. Lucky. Guilty.

He keeps away from cities. He has not, yet, come within eyeshot of a sarcophagus — Ulrich was evasive in describing them, and advised him in the strongest possible terms to stay away from them. But on another "night", he selects a bad place to camp, where the wind and the local geography funnel the noise from one of the sarcophagi up to him from the valley. The noise, despite its faintness and distance, cultivates such intense and intolerable nightmares that he has to get up, pack up again and walk further away, as many more miles as it takes. The noise creates, in him, things which he dearly wants not to be flashbacks.

He goes into a shop and, along with packaged food and bottled water, steals a cheap digital wristwatch. It has a date function. Today is Monday the 17th of April; it's just gone lunchtime.

Time is still passing. On some level, all of this is factual. It's happening.

*

And if it's really happening, then, what?

There is no longer any ambiguity about what, specifically, is happening. Not in Wheeler's mind, or in anyone's. The world has long since passed through SCP-3125's antimemetic boundary layer and into its radioactive core. There is no longer a need for SCP-3125 to pretend that it is not what it plainly is. What else could it be? What difference could it make now, what could oppose it? It stands there in plain sight. Wheeler sees it. All of conscious reality sees it. It's happening everywhere, to everyone. It's not physically possible to conceive of anything else.

There is no worse case scenario than what's happening now. There's no race against time; there's no ticking clock; there's no last second, the last second was years ago. There's nothing to avert. This is it, the final game position, the highest and most refined form of human civilisation. This is the shape of the next million years.

SCP-3125 stands there. Monstrous, casual and indifferent.

And Wheeler is alone with his thoughts for a long period of time, and has little else to think about, and he wrinkles his brow, and he blinks a long blink, and looks again, and he realises what it was that he wasn't seeing—

SCP-3125 is standing there. Like a human stands.

*

He reaches Site 41 at the beginning of May. His body clock has wandered far out of skew by this point; it's technically around midnight when he first lays eyes on the place.

There is a protective field surrounding it, stamped into reality by the detonation of the antimemetic warhead, radiating out a few hundred metres beyond the Site's perimeter. It's a psychological repulsion, not a physical one. A thick bulwark of irrelevance. There's nothing here. Just keep walking. Despite being warned about it, Wheeler succumbs to the effect. Thirty minutes' walk down the road, he double-checks his map and realises what's happened and turns back. This happens a second time. On the third attempt, he makes it through. Dead reckoning and willpower.

For some reason, he had been imagining an ancient, dramatically overgrown ruin, but the containment breach which led to the Site's destruction happened only eighteen months ago, and the bomb blast which concluded the outbreak was figurative, not physical. About a third of Site 41's main building has been torn down, but the rest is perfectly intact and unmarred. Mother Nature has not reclaimed it. Gnarled trees are not sprouting from the damaged side.

Wheeler exhales. There is a still, safe atmosphere about the place. It's as if Site 41 has its own cool microclimate. It's easier to think. Even the light here is fractionally yellower, more natural.

The Site's main entrance is sealed with steel doors, but Wheeler circles around to the damaged side of the building, and is able to effect entry over the rubble. He moves at a medium-slow pace. He can't afford to blunder into anything, but if he goes too slowly, he knows, he'll overthink the situation, and become scared, and have to retreat all the way out of the building. The late Daisy Ulrich promised him that the Site was Safe. She then went to rather disconcerting lengths to explain precisely what "Safe" meant. No entities capable of spontaneously, actively harming a person; no entities in need of active, dynamic containment procedures. A Safe SCP can be left in a dark, locked room indefinitely with no risk, she explained.

"A nuclear bomb is Safe," she said, giving the canonical example.

"Well," he replied. "Up to a point."

The Site is Safe, he tells himself, creeping forward. The most dangerous things he's going to find are rats and— he jumps back, aiming his flashlight at a frightening shape— corpses.

The corpse is seated against a corridor wall. It's clutching a combat knife, which it seems to have buried up to the hilt in its own inner thigh, opening a gushing artery. Wheeler backs up against a wall, unable to look closely at the body but equally unable to let it out of his eyesight, in case it… does something. He feels faint. It doesn't help that at exactly that moment, the fluorescent lights in the corridor come up, triggered by his movement, giving him a much better look at the scene. The scene is about as bloody as any suicide can be.

"No, thank you," he says. He backs up. He backs all the way up the corridor and through the ruin to the virulent red place which passes for daylight, and there he throws up.

*

It takes a long time to talk himself back into it.

He finds many more bodies. Some of them are in groups, having died during violent altercations, or during more complex scenes which Wheeler cannot fully parse. Some of them are dismembered, or just scattered pieces. Some of them appear to have been dead for significantly longer than the rest; they are little more than wafer-thin skin wrapped around skeletons, and there are strange things written on the walls beside them. Wheeler never works out why.

There's still power. There's running water.

At first, nearly every door he meets is locked. But he steels his nerves, and returns to each of the dead Foundationers in turn, and retrieves their keys and security passes. Soon, he has the run of the place, with only a few highly secure control rooms and containment units denied to him.

At this point, his task has become open-ended. If Hughes is not somewhere on Site 41 — which he almost certainly isn't — Wheeler needs to find information leading to his true location. He needs data.

He collects devices: phones and laptops and computer terminals, Foundation-built with chunky form factors. Most of them need passwords or PINs, which he can't get, but a few can be unlocked using security passes or biometrics, which he can get if he carries the device back to the relevant corpse and presents their face or finger to the scanner. The devices still have power, too. Wheeler is unable to find anything resembling a battery readout on any of them. He is slowly learning a key lesson: the Foundation builds things to endure. And though the Foundation as a group of people is absent, the physical systems they built are still here, and functioning, and ready.

The SCP database is the most obvious icon on every device's home screen. Ulrich told him to look out for a particular sigil, concentric circles with three inward-pointing arrows. Inevitably, like an uncounted number of newcomer Foundationers before him, Wheeler loses a significant number of hours browsing the entries. The Foundation has a specific and recognisable house style, which is to describe even the most mind-bogglingly weird anomalies in absolutely mundane, factual terms. Even heavily redacted — different users see different amounts of redaction, but there is plenty of data which he can't access no matter whose identity he uses — it makes for bizarrely compelling reading.

Hughes is mentioned numerous times in the database. He seems to have multiple overlapping research specialities, and is credited in many entries as a containment architect. Wheeler takes detailed notes, assembling a picture of the man's career progression… and then randomly stumbles into the Foundation's own personnel records for Hughes, which line up almost exactly with what he just worked out.

There are huge holes in the personnel record. The last entry relating to Hughes' actual activities is in 2007. And then in 2010, after a gap of years, there's a final note, a single unauthored sentence:

It appears that those who know Hughes' fate meet it.

END OF FILE

Wheeler frowns at the unhelpful note for a long minute. It reads like a riddle. Wheeler was, for a long time, a crossword puzzle fiend, but it seems improbable to him that a clandestine organisation like the Foundation would leave cryptic clues for one another, rather than clear, direct instructions. Which means the note is probably intended to be read simply and literally: Don't look for Hughes unless you want to meet the same fate.

Wheeler tilts his chair back and stares at the ceiling, contemplatively. On the other hand, the note also means:

Hughes can be found. It's been done before.

*

There's no day/night cycle, but he's worn out. His body is telling him that he needs to sleep. He sleeps on a sofa in an employee break room, on the far side of the building from the red eye. There's a snack machine, and there are snacks in the machine, but he doesn't have any cash. He considers breaking the glass, but if he screws it up and cuts himself badly there isn't a single doctor left in the whole world who could stitch him up. He considers, and rules out, looting the nearest corpse for a dollar.

As he tries to sleep, something comes to him, an acute, anxious energy. It grips him by the shoulder. Get up, it screams at him, distantly. You cannot rest. Do the arithmetic. It's all still happening. MOVE.

He rolls over and ignores it.

And it bothers him, intellectually, that he can ignore it. He wonders if there is some vital organ missing from his body. He should be quivering with anger and terror right now, yes? Why, in his heart, is he so calm?

He looks at SCP-3125, whose very existence, on paper, should paralyse him with fear. He looks at what SCP-3125 is doing, which should fill every fibre of his being with furious purpose. And he looks at his own significance to the whole endeavour, and his own guesstimate of the odds. He does the arithmetic. And the product of all those factors rounds down to damn near zero.

This isn't going to work. That's why.

This has to stop! It has to end! PLEASE!

Curled up in his sleeping bag, eyes screwed shut, Adam Wheeler mutters to whatever may be listening:

"It isn't going to work."

*

Near the site entrance — he can't figure out how to unlock the steel doors, even from this side — he finds a security office, with printed floor plans of the whole Site. He crosses off the rooms he's visited, and the rooms which are destroyed. Everything remaining is locked. Above ground, anyway. Underground, there are warrens of tunnels, and dozens more containment units. And, thirty floors below ground, a single incredibly large vault of unstated purpose. This final vault draws his attention in, magnetically.

Ulrich assured him that the Site was totally Safe.

As the freight elevator descends, Wheeler finds that a kind of anxious pressure is building above him. The air is rapidly getting warmer, and he's just realised that if the elevator breaks down right now, he'll likely be helplessly trapped, and die. He shouldn't have used it. He should have used the emergency stairs. Too late.

The elevator lands. There's an empty corridor. He follows it, drawn forward. There's an airlock at the far end, a wall of white metal big enough to drive a truck through. The airlock is closed, but there are seven or eight overlapping circular holes punched through it, making a combined gap which is easily big enough to admit a human. Beyond the airlock, there is a vast dark space. Wheeler has climbed through the hole and walked five paces out into the darkness before he even thinks about what he's doing.

There are shapes out there, illuminated by the scant light falling from the airlock corridor — lumps which could be more dead people. Wheeler's own shadow blocks much of the light. He takes out his torch. It is absolutely silent down here, and the temperature is uncomfortable, making him sweat. The rest of the huge vault, as far as he can shine his light, is totally empty — but his torch is not powerful enough to illuminate a space this big, so it's hard to be certain.

He advances. A loud tone is building in his ears as he gets closer. There are… he counts… fourteen dead. Thirteen of them, dead in a rough circle around a fourteenth, a woman lying flat on her back. Just outside of the circle, there is a military truck with the inert remains of a complex machine mounted on its back. This, Wheeler surmises, is the antimemetic warhead. There is a cable leading down to a control unit lying on the floor, under the hand of the dead woman.

"Ah," he says, with a note of regret. "So you're the one."

Her security pass looks different from the others. It has a bright diagonal stripe across it in red and orange. He takes it. There's a roaring in his skull. He can't see it clearly at first — something is disturbing his vision, a gold-white spot in the corner of his eye, an artifact from the combination of extreme darkness and bright torchlight. He squints. It says "Marion Wheeler / Site Director".

He stares at it for a long time, weirdly disoriented. He doesn't exactly know why. It is, of course, a very commonplace name; if he stopped to gawp at every other Wheeler he met, he would never get anything done. Still, she's the one with her hand on the switch; she's the one who ended this local outbreak. Out of every dead Foundationer on this damned Site, she's the one who didn't die for no reason at all. He feels as if he should say a few words.

But they do not come to him.

He makes one quick circuit around the vault perimeter, scanning the floor and the wall, looking for anything interesting and finding nothing but construction tools and scaffolding. He returns to the airlock and then the freight elevator. He glares at it for a long, frustrated moment, and then accepts that it would be unsafe to use it again.

The emergency stairwell is perfectly well-lit, but thirty floors is a mountain. Three times on the way up, he has to stop to rest his knees.

*

The Site Director's pass gets him everything. Every control room, every containment unit, every file. He gets the whole story. He puts the last piece in place. He leaves a note, following the same hopeless, diligent ritual as the rest of the Antimemetics Division before him. He emerges from SCP-3125's "inverted containment unit" with extremely clear written instructions from himself to himself. He knows exactly where he needs to go.

As he moves down the forest road away from the Site, he reaches and crosses the edge of the antimemetic crater. He squares his shoulders, re-entering the presence of SCP-3125. His inner ear starts freefalling again.

"Where were you, just now?" someone calls out to him.

He stops walking. He squints into the intense light ahead of him, shielding his eyes. He can just about make out a figure standing there. The trees on each side of them rustle and move. They're too tall. Spider-scrapers. A wave of dread hits Wheeler, followed closely by one of perverse relief. This is it.

"Why can't I track you?" the unidentified man says. His voice sounds faint. "You're so weak, it's like you don't exist. I just wasted two days trying to pick you up again. What's wrong with you?"

Wheeler says nothing.

The man is closer. He didn't walk, but the distance between them halves, and his voice is easier to hear, though he is still too bright to look at. His body structure blurs and flickers. "You're not one of Them," he says. "And you're not one of Us. And you're definitely not the hero. You don't count for shit, memetically. Why are you wasting your time on this? Whatever the fuck this is. You should just kill yourself. It's not going to work."

Wheeler knows that.

The light collapses. The figure smashes into focus, becoming physical. It's a real human. A skinny twenty-something: scruffy, uncut hair and a sketchy beard. He is shirtless, and there is a deep, black pit in his clavicle, a hole where he has clearly been very badly wounded. Blood has run down his chest, soaked his jeans and forearms, and dried black. Fresh blood is still coming, building up thick layers, which shouldn't be possible. Wheeler doesn't spot the second hole in his gut, obscured by too much blood.

Wheeler is trying to keep his expression neutral, but he knows it isn't working. He can feel his left hand, his bad hand, starting to shake. A part of him still wants to ask the guy why. But there is no possible answer.

"This is what the human race really is," the man explains, spreading his hands to gesture at the whole world. "We lied to ourselves that we could be better, for thousands of years. But this is it. This is what we've always been. We've never been anything else."

"That's—" Wheeler begins, then stops, suddenly remembering something. He claps his left hand to his chest, draws with his right and shoots. It's a good shot. It's a lucky shot. It takes the man directly in the eyeball, and blows out the back of his skull. He falls, twisting as he falls, landing on his broken face.

Wheeler gasps, remembering to breathe. He almost drops his gun. He gets a tighter grip on it, keeping it aimed at the blasted ruin of the man's head. He wants to throw up. He controls himself. In through the mouth, out through the nose. He's okay. "Let him talk for too long," he says, apologetically.

He pulls out a Foundation brickphone from his pack. He pushes some buttons, entering coordinates, and then retreats far down the road. He retains visual contact with the dead man for as long as possible, then turns away and kneels, placing the phone on the road beside him. Following the detailed instructions he found in the control room, he grinds his palms into his eyes and presses his face against the ground. And he says:

"Aeloni zaenorae. Fire."

The orbital laser strike comes diagonally. It lasts for a split second, and is easily bright enough in the visible spectrum to have instantly blinded him if he were looking. When Wheeler returns to the scene, there's no body left. Just a scorched ellipse of asphalt.

He says, to the scorch mark, "I was going to say something along the lines of: 'That's a lie. That's what you are. You're the lie.' But, ah."

And if the bastard can regenerate from that, I'm done for, well and truly.

He looks up. The atmosphere isn't changing. The sky isn't returning to blue. There's still that heinous pressure. SCP-3125 remains the dominant force in the universe.

But as he turns, hearing movement in the forest all around him, he realises that the immense spider forms — he'd sincerely forgotten about them, they were standing there so quietly — are dispersing.

To be concluded

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