At first, like most in the Area-08-B Engineering Sector, Doctor Richard Barnard paid close attention to the thunderous speakers. They usually broadcast the firm yet serene commands of Mission Control; heeding them was not merely important, but of capital importance.
He did notice there had been several changes. For one, those were not Thomas Graham issuing instructions; those were strings.
After a few seconds, drowsiness started to appear. At that point, by force of habit, Richard started to listen only with his ears, and left the rest of his brain to carefully analyze the message.
And such a bold message it was, he intimately appraised, smiling in spite of himself while the composing strokes of the masterpiece were filtered through his brain.
Boisterous, threatening, savage in all its magical, insulting depth. Intricate. Delicate. As he started to see the patterns filtering between the cracks, tones and times mingling and confounding the conscious mind to appeal to a hidden, traitorous subconscious that would desert its many posts to dance the anomalous dance intended by the artist, Richard noticed a key.
"Handel's Sarabande? Oh my."
Richard stood and followed the flow of the melody, carefully picking the anomalous primers here and there; those were, however, not the brute, senseless machinations that most people would use these days, but clean, harmonic to the melody.
"My, my, my."
Almost impossible to perceive and isolate; "my favorites", he ventured to nobody in particular, as others collapsed to the immaculate white tiles of the dry floor.
"Yes, don't worry, I'll be dealing with it," he vacantly shared with his colleagues, not minding their lack of response.
Most people were scared of memetic agents because they were usually insidious; how to discern what is an anomalous meme and what is not, on a novel? Or a painting? Or a song? Is it all a complex meme that has to be taken in as a whole? Does it have a primer within the mind of the observer?
"It may have multiple primers, even!"
Yet, for a watchful mind, how can memetic agents be insidious? They can only be patterns. Pay attention to the patterns, pay attention to the symptoms, and you shall know them.
"Pay mind to the patterns, though; why do you feel like singing when you are happy? That is the kind of spontaneous, self-examining question that makes you a good memeticist!" Richard uttered, smiling. "And now that I have a tune, we only have to, heh! Tune it out."
Most people, of course, were not memeticists; most of those engineers and technicians surrounding Richard had fallen to the floor of Clean Bay 4. Now that he had a vaccine, he allowed himself to let his subconscious process the music; but the music was a dull grey in comparison to the rough, sour feelings of the memetic hazards interspersed here and there, little knifes to the modern human brain. Little jolts and cracks.
Richard sighed, a little disappointed. Nothing really surprising there.
He crouched to examine one of his fallen comrades. It felt like he had not laid his eyes on them for a thousand years; such was the weight of understanding, they said. In an instant, everything changes, and so the old world seems, no, is new. He smiled behind the face plate of his sealed clean suit.
A quick look through the plate of Doctor Lindbergh, now oozing with vomit, told him all he needed to know.
"Vasovagal symptoms, yet not syncope. Massive feedback and parasympathetic failure. Eyes remain open and seeing, following movement, so lights on, nobody home, hum goes the drone," he sung, distracted; it was a mnemonic he used to recite by heart when in doubt on the specific objective of memetic attacks. In this case, there was brain function, yet no immediate sign of consciousness nor physical response to — he slapped the doctor, twice, without the slightest wince on her part — pain.
"Alright. I'll call that unresponsiveness, because the nipple-squeezing test is never fun for anyone involved," he confided in Lindbergh.
Her vacant expression remained.
His smile remained.1
"No response to threats, then?"
Her vacant expression remained. There was a stench of refuse, as bladder and gut emptied themselves within the clean suit.
His smile widened and he clapped, seemingly satisfied.
"Not a drone, and there's still a tongue!, then C-some, handsome," or, as he liked to say it, C-class amnestic by the fistful, "and a good night sleeeeep."
Richard placed the woman in the recovery position as the last tone died in his lips.
"Shame I don't have any C on me right now," the man pondered, suddenly serious. "They are good, those."
And then, the beautiful hazard that sung over their heads was replaced by a thunderous alert as the automated autocensor programs kicked in.
The memeticist stood for a second, paying attention to the PA system as it announced a preliminary diagnostic. All the screens in every networked device within the room busied themselves with automatic warnings; they were utterly useless and ironically precise.
Richard snorted and thought how disgraceful the whole business was. He hated losing in the memetics game, to anyone. The Foundation needed an automated memetic vaccine program, not merely an autocensor; secondary prevention was no good, primary prevention was necessary and (he smiled at the thought) this was the perfect example of why.
"You will increase our budget now, won't you, Big Os?", he gleefully chortled as he studied the autocensor program. His Memetics Sector had devised it some months ago, but it was frightfully primitive; it could recognize most potentially hurtful patterns, but whoever had strung these subtle ones so seamlessly into a melody…
Oh, they were good.
Line after line of data flew straight through his eyes as he absorbed information. A few minutes later, or perhaps a few hours later, he recalled protocol. "Ah, shouldn't we be warning the Area, guys?"
He looked upon his inert workmates. One of them was sobbing, trapped in some dark corner of his mind. Or perhaps simply enjoying the shade, now that the searing fire of the sun-song had been replaced by the thundering but soothing storm that was the alarm.
"Hmm. Yes, yes. Right, right."
The memeticist fought the first impulse he had (maybe if I tried some cognitohazards on them?) by reminding himself of the futility of such ambition (I'll probably end up filling the gaps with something worse anyways) and his duty to report (if they weren't hit first, anyways).
"In case you can hear me, no time for recovery positions, everyone," he said, opening the airtight door of the Clean Room. "Try not to swallow and breathe at the same time."
Richard did not care for the decontamination processes as he left the Clean Room (what was there to clean when you left it, anyways?) and traversed the large industrial unit of the Engineering Section. The inviting safe room and its many security measures were empty; the researcher walked past them, unfazed. No particularly dangerous activities had been planned for that day, after all. Nor warnings on any unplanned activities. No attackers that may have known how to overtake the PA system, or how to flood the place with mind-blowing memes, or where Area-08 was, or that it existed in the first place.
He cocked his head to a side, bemused. How easily they forgot "secret" did not mean "safe." Richard hurried, wide perspex windows and solid concrete walls to both sides.
To his right, seven D Classes had been left to the devices of three confused security drones in their testing area. The machines were unprepared for any play-possum war games, and so they kept beeping at the unresponsive D Classes. Richard didn't notice the wriggling as the drones pierced the men and women with their electrified spikes, yet he could not help but notice one of them had scampered to the furthest corner and stood still behind the unmoving body of another inmate; he made the mental note that he had to screen her for memetic resistance afterwards.
To his left, the largest Clean Room of the Sector, where the Foundation was building the modules that would eventually form the first Venerian aerostat. The room was no longer "clean", geniuses and qualified workers writhing on the floor, stewing in their own shit and puke. Richard didn't notice the expression in some technicians's face, who had struggled outside of his clean suit to try and get rid of some imaginary pest while screaming; he did wonder what the man screamed about (that response was incoherent with those of the other cases after all), but there was no time to go back and there would be security footing anyways.
Other people, better people, would have been bewildered or enraged by all this. Weaponized cognitive hazards, memetics in particular, were a horrible thing, after all. They would be scared, evidently. Even curious; curious as to how it was possible that they where still standing where so many others had fallen to the ground.
Richard kept strolling, serene, always smiling, to the elevator at the end of the concrete corridor. He even stepped up his pace, breaking into a run, to get to the elevator; as he called it down, Richard pondered the many fascinating secrets of the human psyche those new memes would unlock over the next days, as he would figure out how to treat them, erase them with amnestics, replicate them on brain simulators, then on people, and then erase them again… and do it all over again.
He entered the elevator; a uniformed guard was inside, counting the number of buttons in the floor selector. Richard gently pushed him aside and pressed the floor ground one.
The man went back to his counting, Richard noted, face frozen in an anguished smirk and pointing at them, from one to minus fifteen, over and over.
Richard took note, smiled from behind the face plate and did not stop him.
The elevator hit ground level, the door opening with a mellow, friendly chime…
The entire complex shook; there was first a roaring explosion. Then, a vibration and a constant, distant rumble, part a howl and part what the world would sound like if it was snapping in half.
And there was a familiarity in all of it, he thought, that wiped his smile and all other concerns and made him run.
The guard kept counting, Richard would remember later, but he was shrieking the numbers now.
The researcher ran, turned right where he should have turned left, kept running for a few more seconds and pushed the half-opened door to the left side of the Mission Control Hub of Area-08-B. He got blinded by the sunlight, but the bother only lasted for a second, as a completely equipped shuttle took off from Launch Bay 3.
He stared at the undeniably awe-inspiring column of boiling smoke that went on and on and on, and took it all in; the sight of the tiny needle-like shine on top of the cloud-like pillar, the thinning yet still deafening sound, the feeling it had grafted into his conscious self.
For the first time, he felt the suit was in the way. He slowly took the hood off and kept staring up. As the roar of the Foundation torchship shuttle Inquisitive died away for good, he managed to say:
"We got lift-off. Yes, we do, don't we?"
The two guards by the door, mercifully unconscious, did not see the smile their superior flaunted over them.2
"And that's you up there, isn't it, my lovable melomaniac?"
The sky held no answers for him, or preferred to be less than forthcoming.