Ojai
rating: +70+x

Foundation Agent George Barsin is monolithic: nearly two metres tall and rectangular-shouldered, like a Bruce Timm cartoon. He is bald, bearded, and immaculately presented. His suit is tailored; there are few which will fit him off the rack.

He arrives at the Green place first thing after dawn, six o'clock. The address is isolated, an acre or two of ill-maintained scrubland off a spur of a spur of the main highway north out of Ojai.

Barsin is part of the Foundation's Anomalous Religious Expressions Division. They do cults.

"Green" is not the name of the cult which Barsin is here to confront, but a codename. Barsin doesn't know the real name. At the briefing last night, it was explained that there are legitimate security reasons to use codenames instead of true names here, but those reasons were not explained. Barsin, no fool, took this to mean that there is some form of cognitohazard surrounding the true names. Or a memory-clouding phenomenon which makes them impossible to record. Or — and he's dealt with Foundation research staff for far too many years to not consider this — somebody just straight-up forgot to record the real names, and is trying to cover for themselves.

If there's an SCP number, he hasn't been told it.

*

The house is an ugly white sprawl. One storey, wood construction, no two windows alike in design… decaying. There are piles of junk, lumber, rusted vehicle components, drums of filthy green water. Willow and sycamore trees are encroaching from two-and-a-half sides, drizzling leaves and seeds and miscellaneous biological gunk all over the roof, clogging the gutters. Through the windows, only closed curtains and blinds are visible. The front door is standing ajar.

Barsin proceeds inside, cautiously. The entrance opens almost directly onto a large lounge/diner/kitchen area. The room is darkened, light mostly spilling from the entrance door — Barsin leaves it open — and feeling its way around the edges of the window coverings. The place is dirty, and smells of mould. The still air is like an oven, and it's extremely quiet except for the faint, animated sound of someone talking, away down the hall, words not entirely clear.

"—wasps and, yeah, it's going to be sharp inside. When you're made to move, that's tloi kwrlu dlth you'll bleed from—"

Barsin goes down the hall, passing a wall decoration which was once a mirror but has been completely painted over in black.

After a brief search, during which he ascertains that the rest of the house is empty, he comes to the final room. This door is closed, but the focused rambling is coming from inside:

"—at home, it's super easy. I'm going to give you something. An easy two-part project for you to take away, and don't forget alth amnth below. Part one: find someone weaker than you—"

Barsin knocks, loudly, twice.

The patter stops. Nothing else is heard. Barsin opens the door.

The room is dark, its window blocked with a thick curtain. There's a computer desk in the corner opposite the door, about as cluttered as a desk can realistically get, strewn with partially disassembled hardware, USB keys, chocolate wrappers, scraps of paper, ballpoint pens. There's a gaming mouse, unable to move for junk. There's a good-quality video camera setup, a monitor, video feeds on the monitor, dust.

There's a cheap, skeletal swivel chair in front of the monitor and a young man of about twenty slouched uncomfortably in the chair. He is skinny, with discoloured, pale skin which Barsin thinks could be caused by malnutrition. He has what was at one point a stylish, fashionable haircut but is now in some disrepair, and when he turns around Barsin sees that he has dark rings around his eyes. It looks as if he hasn't slept in a year. He reeks. The room is filled with that odour, almost thick enough to see.

In the same way that the anomalous viral/religious phenomenon — the cult, gathering around and above this young man like an anvil cloud — is named "Green", he himself is named "Red".

"Good morning," Barsin says. "We saw your streams."

The youth pulls his headphones down. "The fuck are you?"

"My name's George Barsin. I'm part of an organisation which— ah—"

Red launches out of his chair like a rabid greyhound from a cage. He comes fist-first, losing the headphones. Barsin shifts his weight slightly to his left, leaning away from the punch. He catches Red's arm and pulls it forward, violently, deflecting the attack's momentum and bringing the youth teeth-first into the door frame. Red stumbles back, crouching. He finds his footing swiftly. Froth is developing at the corners of his mouth, mixing with blood. Scrabbling around the junk on the floor, he puts his hand on a soldering iron.

As Red comes forward again, Barsin wastes a critical split second trying to trace the iron's cable, to figure out whether it's plugged in and hot or not. It's not, but that's enough distraction that Red gets right up there, driving the iron up into Barsin's gut with both hands. There's an electronic screech and a spark of orange light; the iron holes Barsin's shirt but skitters off his abdomen, opening a long tear. There's bare skin underneath. His shield is invisible, partly mythical, and protects his seemingly exposed head just as well as the rest of him.

Barsin takes Red in a headlock. Some haphazard kicking ensues, less well-choreographed. Red has a demon's energy behind him but Barsin has, to be blunt, arrived prepared. In a few more moves, Red is disarmed, stunned, flat on his back and good for nothing.

Barsin takes stock. The number of genuine, fight-for-your-life fights he's been in is still in single digits. This one ranks about in the middle. Fifteen seconds of activity; both of them made mistakes. A learning experience.

"Then I'll dispense with the introductions," he says to Red. "The live streaming vector was novel. We hadn't seen that before. Very effective compared to the generic self-help-book-and-walled-compound model. You get one point for originality, out of ten. But we predicted it decades back and we had the containment procedures ready to go. We have people at the streaming services. As I speak, we're locking you out of your account. We're using your own channels to distribute inoculation codes."

Barsin tries to tidy his shirt up. It's not going to work. Never mind.

"But you're the source," he says. "A simple inoculation code would glance off. Physical intervention is required." He reaches inside his jacket — where he has a perfectly serviceable gun, which he elected to leave where it is for this confrontation — and produces a device not unlike an ophthalmologist's scope. He kneels, lifts Red's right eyelid and aims the scope at it, projecting a brilliant white spot of light which bathes the entire eye and causes it to lock open. Almost all of Red's musculature locks up as well, effectively pinning him to the floor. His teeth clench.

Barsin says to Red, "This man is innocent. Nobody can deserve what you've done to him. Release him and leave this reality forever."

Through gritted teeth, Red says, "Who. The fuck. Are you?"

"Alright." Barsin pushes another button, changing the projected light pattern from a pure white disc into a complex spiral star design in red and blue. There's a crack like ribs being forced apart. And the youth screams. It doesn't sound like Red. It's a full-body scream, anguished and hopeless and as loud as he's physically able to make it. It comes up from his belly and goes on, flat out, until he runs out of breath and gasps and does it again, arching his back and clawing at the floor. After the second full breath he cools down to a sobbing wail.

"Jesus Christ, don't send me back. Please."

"I won't. It's okay."

"Don't send me back. I can't see. Who's there?"

"It's okay. You'll get your sight back. My name's George. What's yours?"

"There's a pit," the youth says, choking, "and it always gets worse. It doesn't stop. There's no bottom." He babbles incoherently for a moment, and then trails off. His eyes dance, blindly.

"You're in a really bad place right now," Barsin says.

The youth vehemently agrees.

"Something has gone wrong," Barsin explains. "And that thing, that horrific thing which went wrong, has found you and abducted you and replaced you. It's out here now, using your skin as a finger puppet, walking you around, making you talk. Replicating. That nightmare you're having is being had by a hundred thousand people right now. That's the bad news. The good news is that we caught you. And I can still see you in there. And there's good chance that we can get you out."

"A 'good chance'?" The youth breathes twice. "If you can't—" he begins urgently.

"Focus on the red and blue spiral," Barsin says. He still has the scope pointed into the youth's eye.

"What? I can't see anything."

"That's because you're not directly connected to this optic nerve anymore. But your mind is locked inside something which is. You can't see the spiral, but somehow you know what it looks like. You can sense its shape, like a pattern of heat on the back of your hand." Barsin's voice is becoming slower, taking on a hypnotic rhythm. "The spiral idea is going in. It's spreading and flourishing. Occupying more space. The more you think about the spiral, the more you realise you can't think about anything but the spiral."

The youth seems to have nothing to say to this. His breathing stabilises.

"Your thoughts are slowed," Barsin continues. "The spirals fill you up, recursively, like ice crystals, until you can't move. Your brain knows it's being poisoned. Even though you're blind, you feel a reflexive need to look away or block out what you're seeing. A long enough exposure is fatal."

There is a long, heavy pause, during which Barsin does nothing but shine poisonous light into the young man's eye, while studying that brightly illuminated eye himself, tracking the progress of the ocular response, waiting for a particular tell. It's not a clear-cut thing; there's a small amount of guesswork. He waits until he's sure. Finally, he releases the button on the scope, shutting it off.

The youth is now completely inert.

*

Barsin stands up, knees creaking. He relaxes, sighs. His shoulders untense a little. He puts the scope away.

"You can think of this as memetic chemotherapy," he says. He says it to himself, mostly, to fill dead air. The young man can only hear pink fuzz now. "The spiral symbol is an elementary cognitopoison. A long exposure is fatal. But a just barely non-fatal exposure is recoverable. You will recover from this poison, and Red cannot. You will survive and Red will die. Because you, my man, are an intelligent, creative human being, and Red is…"

He reflects on his briefing, and what he knows of the Green phenomenon, and the hundred thousand people suffering and raving inside it right now. They are in all parts of the globe. He has seen some photographs of what takes place in homes occupied by Red's appalling messages. He's heard a strictly limited amount of highly redacted audio.

Dispassionate people make better field decisions, that's the rule he was always taught. But remaining dispassionate is harder on some days than others.

"…a piece of shit."

Barsin potters around the room for a little while, taking a closer look at some of the computer hardware. Nothing notable there, although he finds a stand for the soldering iron. There's also a narrow camp bed in the room, with a bedraggled sleeping bag. He clears the sleeping bag away and loads the youth onto the camp bed, in a recovery position. He pulls the curtain open. It's an obnoxiously sunny day, and the Sun is aimed right in through that window.

Finally, Barsin picks up the swivel chair and settles into it, on the far side of the room, where he can keep an eye on his patient. He pulls a Foundation-issued phone from his pocket, along with a horrendously tangled pair of cheap earbuds, which he begins to untangle.

He relaxes into his monologue. It's not as if anybody is listening.

"Fact is, I didn't need to come here. There's more than one way to physically intervene when something like Green comes around. You know what the original plan was when we found out about you? Orbital laser cannon to the top of the head. We can do that, my man. From time to time. Your house would be a circle of scorched timber with you a burnt marshmallow at the middle of it. That's our latest methodology for dealing with virulent, single-culpability memetic anomalies. We do it at arm's length, at the longest possible distance, unblinkingly and unfeelingly, and to hell with the details. It's brutal. Impersonal. Very expensive in orbital laser maintenance. We say to ourselves that it's effective. Maybe it is. I'm not at that level. I don't get to see the statistics.

"But what I do know is that we can always do better. And I looked at the file and I looked at you, and… I took a long shot. Honestly, I'm a very small guy in the grand scheme, but I stood up in a pretty intense meeting with people who I don't really have the authority to say anything to and I said to them — this is a paraphrase — 'There's a completely innocent kid at the centre of this. He doesn't deserve this. At minimum, we've got to make the gesture.'"

A shadow passes across the room. Barsin looks around briefly, but whatever it is has gone. He thinks nothing of it.

"And then I also said, 'If it works, it'll save us a boatload of money.' I think that part was the part which got their attention. But I got the thumbs-up. So here I am. Trying to save your life the hard way instead of just atomizing it. It'll probably take all day. Six, ten hours. Don't worry. I have podcasts."

He finishes untangling the earbuds and screws the first of them into his left ear.

"Your people must really hate you," Red says.

Shit.

Barsin draws. Late. Obviously nobody should be able to talk right now, but the real reason he draws late is that the comment lands. It should just pass him by but there is a sharp, spiteful element of truth to it. Truthfully, nobody was a fan of the idea. Barsin has been saying for a long time, with gradually increasing volume, to gradually increasingly senior Foundation overseers, that a chat beats a fight. He's been ignored over and over. Yesterday, when they finally said that he could try it, it was grudgingly. And so a momentary flicker of foul suspicion appears— did they know? Did they really just— kill him?

They didn't. He knows, of course they didn't. But it's too late. As he fumbles the gun out, Red has already sat up, grinning like a ventriloquist's puppet, and turned his head to look right at Barsin. They make eye contact, and this time Red's eyes are open all the way, allowing Barsin to see straight through to what's on the other side. Green comprehension leaps out of the pit at Barsin and grounds itself in the back of his skull.

He recoils instinctively, breaking the connection and covering his eyes. He stumbles, falling backwards out of the chair and into the corner of the room. His orange, crystalline shield fluctuates, panicking in its own way because of what just passed through it. Intermittently, it turns impermeable, cutting off Barsin's frantic breathing. Then it snaps off and dies.

Barsin doesn't have the training to fully comprehend the idea complex he was just exposed to. He has a basic level of practical memetics training; he can administer the spiral treatment and a few others, and protect himself from certain attacks which would knock a generic human over like a domino. But he's an entry-level practitioner, not a specialist, not a scientist. The sheer scope of Green is beyond his ability to comprehend. He feels like one of the men Louis Slotin killed, a Demon Core criticality witness. He knows he's dead. The only question is how long it's going to take.

Red swings his legs off the bed and stands, keeping his grin fixed on Barsin. "A spinning red and blue light. How backward are you?" He seems to grow larger, and to sink backwards into space, a hole where a human should be. Barsin finds he can't make himself move out of the corner. It's like he's pinned. There's a creeping, staticky numbness in his hands.

He understands his error now. He might as well have tried to poison the ocean. He sees the whole thing, Red's grotesque vision for the world, his/its immense, vicious promise. The rot is everywhere. Those hundred thousand infected are a foretaste. The spores are flourishing secretly in every aspect of reality: in people's lungs, in their minds, their words, in the soil, in the sky. Maggots and cancers and star signals. How can anyone think like that? How can anyone want that?

"You—" Barsin means it in the singular. There's no distinction between Red and whoever that original human was. There's no one to rescue. It was a damn ruse.

It was voluntary.

"You made this happen?" he manages. "It didn't abduct you. You invited it. Hacked your own soul in half and offered the pieces up, for no reason at all? You've latched yourself onto the front of something unimaginable. You can't comprehend how badly this is going to end. You've murdered yourself."

Red advances on him.

Gun. Barsin's mind is disintegrating. But it gets that one word out. Gun.

It's on the floor between them, gleaming in the shaft of orange light pouring out of the window. Barsin fights himself and wins and lunges for it, only then finding that the creeping numbness in his extremities isn't just affecting his hands, it's affecting his own ability to perceive them. He doesn't know that it's a minor antimemetic clouding effect; all he knows is that there's a stump at the end of his arm. Both arms. The gun is inoperable. All he can do is push it around the floor. He shouts, miserably and helplessly. Red laughs, and doesn't even bother to kick it away.

"The Foundation will stop you," Barsin manages, like a mantra.

Red cocks his head, as if he knows the word "Foundation" from somewhere. "Are all of them as weak as you?" He concentrates.

Comprehension goes both ways. Barsin dimly understands what Red represents, which means Red, in turn, dimly understands what Barsin represents. Red perceives the power structures which dispatched Barsin into this hated burrow. Red perceives the shadows of the "people at the streaming services", and the Mobile Task Force Barsin doesn't know about, skulking out at the property's perimeter waiting for a go order which will never come. Red perceives the four or five "brutal", "impersonal" suits seated at the top of the operation, webbing it together. One of them is toying absently with their laser strike keystick, twirling it around the back of their thumb over and over, dropping it.

That's as far through headspace as Red can search, because that's the limit of the people who know about him, it, Red. That's the hit list.

A shadow blots the Sun out again, the same one as before, for longer this time. Red looks out through the window, giving it a curt nod, and it departs.

Barsin slumps to one side, dead up to the shoulders now. Conscious that any of these words could be his last, he says, "You think you're in control. But it's going to kill you too. We can get you out. You can help us contain it."

Red crouches, still grinning. "Look at me. Look." Barsin looks. He doesn't have a choice. It hurts. Red makes sure he is being heard loudly and clearly: "No."

"Z…zayin. Three four six. Samekh shin," Barsin whispers.

Red blinks. "What?"

Something bleeps.

"Ae star," Barsin says. "Ae star."

"Shit." Red looks around, suddenly genuinely alarmed. The phone. He lost track of Barsin's phone. He finds it, beneath the bed. He snatches it up. There's a voice authentication interface, and authentication is nearly complete. "Stop. Cancel. Undo." Nothing happens. Wrong voice. He drops the phone, scrabbles for the gun.

"Zaelochi anaeora. Fire," Barsin says.

Red puts a bullet through the phone. And a second through Barsin's skull.

He looks up at the ceiling, waiting, still alarmed. And he waits.

But nothing else happens.

Next: Immemorial

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