Wild Light
rating: +124+x

The meeting room is Containment Unit S167-00-1006, which is the skull of a stillborn Cryptomorpha gigantes.

The hollowed-out space inside the skull cavity is a prototypical Vegas room — a place where what happens, stays. People go in, they come out, their memories are sieved out of the universe as they leave, and they remember nothing. The skull was acquired in the Nineties. The information suppression effect is a byproduct of the species' natural antimemetic camouflage, a phenomenon which rendered the colossally tall creatures somehow nearly impossible to observe in the wild. It's a phenomenon Dr. Bartholomew Hughes and his team spent years figuring out how to replicate. They've got it, now. They can synthesise C. gigantes bone, extruding it in prefabricated pieces from steel grids. They can bolt the plates together to make hermetically sealed boxes. Passive memetic insulation, no need for complicated machines; it's got a lot of potential.

The skull is forty-five metres long, sixteen wide and fifteen tall. It resides at the centre of a vast purpose-built containment unit of its own, surrounded by the rest of the same C. gigantes individual's bones, laid out in meticulous radial patterns for space efficiency. The ossuary occupies about a third of the containment unit's floor area. The rest comprises immense industrial vessels which hold its harvested organs. Some of them are actual vessels, repurposed cargo ships loaded with brain matter and skin tissue.

The floor plan of the warehouse is clear enough, navigable if grim. But from ground level, on foot, the place is a vertiginous, intimidatingly macabre place, even fluorescent-lit around the clock. Hughes walks down an echoing canyon created by, on his left, a hundred-metre-long foreleg bone and on his right, the blue steel container holding the creature's first stomach. Ahead, the skull peers down the canyon at him, a distant yellow-white tower, fuzzed with scaffolding and disused scanning rig, its eye sockets vacant black.

As he walks, Hughes has to remind himself continually that these are all the remains of a single organism, one of the tiniest examples of its species.

Behind the skull, where there used to be the creature's first neck vertebra, there is now a large compound mechanical airlock, a ramp and some steps, and a staging area. The staging area serves as a miniature customs desk, tracking every person and item entering and leaving S167-00-1006. Although memories are wiped on exit, written and electronic records emerging from the interior have to be handled manually. Standard procedure is for the first person exiting the room to bring written instructions for the Filtration Officer, telling them what other information from the room interior needs to be scrubbed, and what is safe to retain. Usually the list of information to retain is very short.

There are seats, scanners, a coffee machine, a trolley loaded with cleaning equipment, and a stack of cages for the germs. Parked just outside of the staging area, there is also a limousine — bulletproof.

"Where's everybody else?" Hughes asks the Foundationer who meets him, whose name is Bochner. "I'm not late."

"This way, please," she says, leading him to a seat near a scanner. Hughes has gone through this procedure a dozen times now, so he knows to hold his left arm out. Bochner tears the wrapper off a sterile bracelet-like sensor and clamps it around Hughes' left wrist, then observes a nearby screen. "They went in almost an hour ago," she says.

Hughes frowns. That's not usual. Why would they tell him a different start time? Why would they need an hour of preparation time before he showed up? "Did they say anything?"

"Of course not."

Hughes hasn't the slightest clue what this meeting is about, or what any of the previous meetings were about, or even if they have a common topic.

Actually, he does have some clues. The timing of the meetings is one. The first took place early this year, and when they emerged, amnesiac, they were clutching written instructions from themselves to themselves to continue meeting monthly. Around October, the meetings became weekly. They had three last week. And after Friday, they created a new schedule: they meet for ninety minutes every morning, starting today, Monday.

A more significant clue is the list of attendees. Other than Hughes, three high-calibre researchers from his own organisation are in attendance, along with the directors of Sites 41, 45 and 167, the last of whom is Michael Li, the Foundation's chief of Antimemetics and Hughes' direct manager.

He steals a glance at the car parked behind him. There's also this guy. Or gal. Hughes doesn't know for sure to whom the limo belongs, but the list of people in the world who have the authority to drive a street vehicle into a Foundation containment building is extremely short. Well, not to prevaricate, it's thirteen people. There is an O5 in the room. An O5 is extremely interested in their covert discussions. This is a new and nontrivially alarming development.

He nods at the car. "Shouldn't this place be lousy with private security right now?"

Bochner shrugs.

"Anybody go into the unit with the O5? Bodyguard? Anybody stay in the car?"

"No."

Hughes glances at the car again. The windows are tinted, though surely there's a driver behind the wheel, at least. But where's the real protection? Maybe it's all invisible. Microbes. Occult spells of warding. He feels like the car is watching him back.

"Open your mouth, please." Bochner puts a disc-like cap on Hughes' head, presses an emitter to the roof of his mouth, and fires two pulses of radiation through his brain. "Any psychic intrusions?"

Muffled by the emitter, Hughes manages, "Uh-uh."

She pulls out the emitter and discards it. "Did you experience REM sleep in the past twelve hours?"

He wipes his mouth. "Yes."

"How many digits do you have?"

"Ten."

"Count them for me, please."

Hughes spreads his fingers and counts them. "One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten." His right thumb is "five".

Bochner injects him with a substance which will prevent his body from rejecting the germ, then lifts a germ out of one of the cages. It splays its tendrils out, confused, not a fan of being picked up. "Tilt your head back and look at the ceiling, please. Eyes wide open. And, if you could take off your glasses."

Hughes obliges, handing his glasses to Bochner for scanning. "I dislike this part," he states.

Bochner has no comment. She lays the germ over his eyes, like a sleep mask. There's a cold, sludgy sensation as it wraps itself around his chin and hair, then the tendrils meet behind his neck and begin knitting with his spine. Hughes sees darkness for a few worrying seconds, then a circular indentation forms in the germ's hide over the top of his right eye, and there's a feeling like part of his brain dislocating, and a fake eye opens where his real one would be. The fake eyeball is around four times the size of his own. Though it is singular, its four pupils grant him decent depth-perception, and he can see a little way into the ultraviolet.

The germ is acting as an external block of short-to-medium-term memory, and as a proxy between the conscious Bart Hughes and the real world. When the meeting is over, the germ will be removed and incinerated, along with all memory of the meeting.

There are other amnestic approaches — gas, injectable drugs, surgical techniques, occult rituals. These are safe, proven technologies for mass use on the general public and Foundation staff alike, but they all operate on the same essential principle that the unwanted knowledge has already entered the mind and must now be removed or suppressed after the fact. Such procedures are imperfect. Memory removal can leave critical fragments behind, occasionally enough for people to rebuild dangerous wholes; and mnestic technologies for causing suppressed memories to reassert themselves are continually advancing. Recent developments on the latest-generation family of biochemical mnestics, Class Z, seem likely to produce a substance which renders all after-the-fact memory erasure techniques irrelevant. The only amnestic defence against Class Z will be decapitation. So, if there's advance warning time, it's better to physically compartmentalise, to airgap; to outsource the memories to another organism entirely and never let them touch your own mind. You can't be forced to recall something which you genuinely never experienced.

It's a complex and dynamic field, one of several fields in which Hughes is a world expert. There are machines which could perform the same task as the germ, silicon modules you wear like a headset, plugged into a surgically implanted jack behind your ear, but Hughes would rather die than submit to interfacing his brain directly with a computer, especially a Foundation-made computer. Nobody is getting his brainwaves. When he joined the Foundation, thirty years ago, he put a DNU in his will — Do Not Upload. Everybody thought he was crazy.

Of course, using both the germs and a Vegas room feels rather like overkill. That's another clue.

"Your belongings have been scanned," Bochner tells him. He refills his pockets and takes up his laptop. Walking slightly unsteadily because of the new weight he's carrying on his head, he climbs the stairs to the airlock.

*

Hughes would be the first to admit that a typical Foundationer has appalling taste. A typical Foundationer picks brutal functionality over aesthetic pleasure one hundred times out of one hundred, and a depressing percentage of Foundationers don't even comprehend the distinction. Hughes sees this reflected in the architectural choices and interior design of the Foundation's buildings and offices, and in its labs and containment facilities, which commonly cultivate a hopeless, bleak-cliff-edge atmosphere. He sees it in its machinery, its devices, its tools and even its font choices. Hard edges, clashing colours, failing aircon, impersonality, clutter, claustrophobia.

And so, S167-00-1006's interior is a surprise and a delight. Hughes actually sighs. It seems like someone hired a designer. The place is spacious and modern, well-lit, with select walls painted in bright secondary colours. There's not a bit of exposed concrete in sight.

S167-00-1006 isn't a single space but a self-contained suite laid out on two floors. There's a central meeting area with a double-height ceiling, a long oval table and Herman Miller chairs. Along the left wall there are smaller breakout meeting rooms with frosted glass walls and doors. Above those, reached by a flight of stairs, there's a kitchen area, and in the back are some additional rooms, restrooms and storage. The carpet is grey and orange, a non-repeating hexagonal pattern. The place is well-ventilated, and smells of coffee.

There are four people waiting for him. Marion Wheeler, who runs Site 41, is descending the kitchen stairs, holding a steaming disposable cup. Graves, director of Site 45, is at the main table, typing at a laptop. Michael Li is at the back of the room chatting with O5-8. All of them are wearing germs. The four huge eyeballs of the four germs swivel in unison to stare at Hughes as he comes in. It's a highly disconcerting effect. Hughes forces himself to smile back.

"You're here," O5-8 says. He is… strange-looking, even accounting for the germ. Hughes has never seen an O5 before, and O5-8 looks very unlike what he expected. He tries not to stare, but his own germ is extremely good at staring.

"You're all caught up?" Hughes asks. The nature of the asynchronous work loop is that the first quarter of any meeting in a Vegas room is spent reading notes left from prior meetings. Hughes' (correct) guess is that there's been an hour-long pre-meeting, and then everybody broke for coffee, and now they're resuming.

"We are," O5-8 says. He takes a seat at the head of the table, with Graves to his left. Li sits to his right, and Wheeler to Li's right. O5-8 indicates a particular vacant chair, opposite Wheeler, where a printed document is waiting for Hughes to read it.

Hughes sets his laptop down, hesitant to approach the document. "You want me to read this now?"

"Take as long as you need."

"Where's my team?" Hughes asks. "We're three bodies short."

"Read the document, Dr. Hughes," O5-8 says. He seems upbeat. Perhaps he's projecting an upbeat facade to help Hughes to forget exactly how much authority and power he wields. His net worth is said to be essentially infinite. It's not really about money at his level. He, and his kind, can do anything.

Hughes sits, and reads.

The document is a scientific paper purportedly authored by Hughes himself, with various of his fellow researchers co-authoring, including two who should be in this room now. Hughes doesn't recognise the paper's title or content, but that's nothing special in his line of work. The text is written in his own formal, academic style, so he has no reason to doubt its authenticity.

It's a brisk read, very dense and to-the-point, written for a target audience of other memetics scientists. In the abstract, it announces the observation of a new, titanically powerful and dangerous (anti)memeplex, provisionally designated SCP-3125, for which the authors plan to seek Apollyon classification.

"Hmm."

The main body of the first page describes eight different phenomena, most but not all of them anomalous, most but not all of the anomalous ones controlled by the Foundation and having SCP designations. From a cursory glance, the phenomena appear to be totally unrelated, either to one another or to the proposed SCP-3125. Hughes suspects he could derive the implied link between them, given a few minutes, but elects to read on. He flips the piece of paper over. The whole document is just two sides of A4.

The other side is mostly mathematics. There is one graph, and one equation, and a brief technical description of two highly novel memeplectic transformation procedures, which the authors dub "amplification". Then there's—

—something like a jump scare in text form. There's a crucial logical leap, and for Hughes, the arrival of comprehension is so blunt, so sudden and frightening that it physically startles him. Even knowing that the word "Apollyon" was on the table, even primed to expect something extremely nasty on this side of the paper, he recoils. "Oh, fucking hell."

Nobody else says anything. They wait, expectantly, for Hughes to gather his thoughts and draw some conclusions.

He reads the rest of the paper, figuring out what it's going to say almost live as he reads it. As he reaches the end, the initial shock hasn't worn off. The sheer scope of SCP-3125 is a significant distance beyond his current comprehension. He's had a glimpse of it through a keyhole. He would need time in front of a computer to play with the results to get a grasp of it.

No. He needs to build filters first, the equivalent of lead-lined gloves, to let him manipulate this radioactive idea complex with some degree of safety. He feels like it may have glimpsed him.

Apollyon classification is reserved for highly destructive active anomalies which are functionally impossible to contain — something past Keter. An Apollyon-class anomaly is an anomaly more or less guaranteed to ultimately destroy the world, no matter what is done to stop it. The only thing which can avert that particular XA-class scenario is if something else, likely some other Apollyon-class anomaly, destroys the world first. Their relative threat level is measured not in material containment resources but in inevitable years. Off the top of his head, Hughes would put that figure as a single digit.

"Yeah, this is it," he says. It's bizarrely liberating. "This is the one that's going to kill us." He looks around the table. "Did we obtain Apollyon classification?"

"No," O5-8 says.

"No?"

O5-8 smiles thinly. "Current thinking in the Overseer space is that Apollyon classification is a confession of defeat. It's bad for morale. It cultivates defeatist attitudes. Aside from the special classifications, Keter is considered the top of the hierarchy as of right now. All extant Apollyons are likely to be re-evaluated and re-classified Keter over the next year or so. Other than that, what do you think?"

Hughes says, "You want containment procedures? We've had this conversation a bunch of times before, correct?"

"Let's imagine this is the first time," O5-8 says.

Hughes stares darkly at his paper. "We could exterminate all intelligent human life," he says. "If there are no sapient hosts in this universe, SCP-3125 can't incarnate."

There's a faintly stunned pause. "Yes," Wheeler says. "You've pitched that approach before. And I don't think any of us here have ever been completely sure if you were serious."

"I'm completely serious that we could do it, and completely serious that it would work," Hughes says. "Our mission statement is 'Secure, contain, protect'. Somewhere down the line we really should look into adding 'and keep as many human beings alive as possible' to that."

"It's implicit that humanity is what we protect," Graves says.

"Secure the anomalies, contain the anomalies, protect the anomalies. How does it scan otherwise?"

"We're getting off-topic," Wheeler says. "We're not exterminating all sapient life."

"We could immediately terminate and suppress all memetics and antimemetics research worldwide," Hughes says. "We would have to systematically dismantle the whole scientific field forever. Stop all the experiments, scrap all the research, brainwash all the researchers. If nobody actively researches this field, nobody will ever find SCP-3125. It stays buried in the farthest reaches of ideatic space indefinitely, like radioactive waste." He looks up at the ceiling. The problem is interesting. "Ironically, the most practical way to do that would be to develop an artificial meme. One which encodes the idea that memetics research is intrinsically worthless and harmful. Enrich it with religious or pseudoscientific virals and release it to the general public. A year after it got out we'd be tearing our own labs down. Unless the Antimemetics Division's institutional immunity to that kind of external threat was strong enough to stand up to the pressure. Interesting scenario. Even if we don't go in that direction we should definitely think about wargaming it in simulation, see what outcomes are likely—"

"Bart," Wheeler says.

"No, hiding wouldn't work. It could be introduced externally or occur naturally—"

"We know. Bart, that's already happened. SCP-3125 is incarnating as we speak. Look at these precursor anomalies. We're in what you called the foreshadow. It's here."

Wheeler's referring to predictive models which Hughes must have created himself during prior meetings, models with which he doesn't have time to familiarise himself. Still, he gets it.

He wishes he didn't get it. His fear comes from a completely different place from most people's. The sheer alien scale of the adversary is enough to intimidate most into petrified submission. From a cursory read, SCP-3125 looks like a nightmare scenario; it's going to turn human civilisation into something beyond Hughes' ability to imagine. But that's every Monday in this job, and in any case Hughes doesn't have much of an imagination. He is intimately familiar with almost the entire SCP database, and he's a world authority in anomalous containment. The few areas of science he doesn't have genius-level ability in, he has trusted colleagues who do. They are all solved problems, locked boxes.

This is different. He has more ideas, but there is, mechanically, no way to start working on the problem. It would eviscerate him the moment he tried to comprehend the entire problem. He'd need to design and build the box while already inside the box he was building. He would need to box the universe.

He looks around the room's walls. They seem to be holding up.

"We could hide in units like this for the rest of our lives," he says. "Our whole species. While SCP-3125 roamed our reality unchecked, like a plague. I declare this to be the exterior of the containment unit. Done."

No reaction.

"I don't think we can do it," he says. "If SCP-3125 is live in consensus nominality right now, the game is over. I don't care if Apollyon classification lives or dies, from where I'm sitting this anomaly is functionally uncontainable. I… my team and I may have said something different on prior iterations. I could be in the wrong headspace to see the answer. We are all of us different people from day to day."

"No," O5-8 says. "You say the same thing every time."

"So that's it. Is that it?"

O5-8 says, "The objective of the Foundation is protection. In the majority of cases this involves the secure containment of anomalous entities; the establishment of special containment procedures such that such entities can be kept safely, and indefinitely. Standard guidance is against active neutralization and to avoid destruction at all costs. Everybody in this room is aware of this. However, senior Foundation officials such as me have the right to waive that guideline under certain narrow conditions. I am exercising that right. I deem that in our reality, SCP-3125 cannot coexist with human civilization. We're going to destroy SCP-3125. Forever. Does that change your outlook any?"

"Special neutralization procedures," Hughes deadpans. His expression is worsening by the minute.

O5-8 adds, "I know that neutralization is… generally considered easier than mere containment."

Hughes says:

"When I first joined the Foundation, I asked my mentor, who retired many years ago, 'What's the biggest anomaly we've ever contained?' That he was cleared for, I meant, of course. And he told me about a very old rumor he once heard, back in his earliest days, when he was just starting out. The rumor was that Abrahamic religions had not always been monotheistic. Originally, there were three capital-G Gods. And sometime in the past hundred and fifty years, the Foundation had killed two of them.

"I believed him. I was very young and inexperienced, and naive, and kind of in awe. It wasn't until years later that I thought back to the conversation — and the fact that I'd never heard that rumor, or anything like it, from anybody else — and realised he had been bullshitting me.

"And now it's decades later still, and modern memeplectic technology is a hundred billion times more advanced than it was back then, and I built thirty percent of it, and I look at what the Antimemetics Coalition handles on a quarterly basis, and I know better than anybody on the face of this Earth what is or is not possible, and…"

He trails off. They're all waiting expectantly for him to say something. He can't get there. He's in the wrong frame of mind. Maybe he's in denial, maybe the solution is an idea he doesn't want to take on board. How ironic—

"What did I say? Just tell me."

"Your team suggested that just because SCP-3125 is the most powerful memeplectic threat ever observed doesn't mean it's the top of the hierarchy," O5-8 says. "You suggested that it would be possible to synthesise an idea an order of magnitude still more powerful than SCP-3125, specifically designed to neutralize SCP-3125, and under our control. A countermeme."

"That would take… That could be… possible," Hughes hazards. "It would be insanely dangerous. It would require tremendous resources. And ten to twenty years of real time work, completely uninterrupted. To avoid observation, we'd need to be hermetically sealed away from the exterior universe for that entire time. We'd need a lab as big as a Launch Arcology. Wait a second."

His brain has just caught up. He realises the context in which he's saying these things. And he's been working for the Foundation for a long time.

"It's done," he says. "The lab, it's been built. It was built decades ago, in secret, and we put our best researchers inside it and now the work is done. That's what we're meeting for, now. We're ready to go. We're figuring out how to deploy the countermeme. That's brilliant! If I'm right, that's brilliant. Am I right?"

"Bart," Wheeler says. "When you joined the Foundation, you were taught that a day would come when you would have to, with very little preparation, sacrifice much or all of your existence to protect what most needs protecting. You've worked here for thirty years. And all of that time you knew that that sacrifice would be in your future someday. We were all taught the same thing."

It feels to Hughes as if a shadow falls over him. He looks at Michael Li, his director, who hasn't spoken yet.

Li says, "You're right that the lab is built. Construction was completed in the last forty-eight hours. The construction crew have been amnesticized and dismissed. But the work hasn't begun yet. That's what today's about."

Hughes says, "…That's where my people are."

"That's where your people are," Li says. "They're in the bunker, waiting. We have your cover story prepped. We're faking your death. It's time. You're going under now."

"Now? No. I… I doubt that."

"Your team volunteered. I took care of them myself. They're good people," Li says.

"Like hell," Hughes says, "did I volunteer for this."

Wheeler says, "Bart!"

Hughes says, "Any prior version of me who agreed to this was a God-damned moron, and I disavow his opinions. This is a prison sentence. I don't want to spend twenty years not able to see the Sun. I don't want to be buried alive in work. I have…"

He trails off, and stares through the table, eyes defocused. He was about to say, "I have family."

But he doesn't.

There's still his sister. She's Foundation, like him. But he can't talk to her, and she can't talk to him. They've tried.

He tries another tack. "This… has a low probability of success. The timeframes are bad. It's 2008. SCP-3125 will be here by the end of the 2010s—"

"It has an excellent probability of success," Graves says.

"Define 'excellent'," Hughes says.

"Better than fifty percent. If it's you." Graves produces a thick report which presumably backs him up.

Hughes peers at the document. He can see his own name on the cover. God damn it. Fifty percent is good. If he were anybody else in this room, he'd seize the chance with both hands.

Graves goes on. "You convinced us that this had to be done. And that you had to be at the center. You were prepared to make the sacrifice." He opens the document to a page in the back. The eyeball of his germ roves the page rapidly and finds the passage he wants. "Allow me to quote your own words to you: 'SCP-3125 represents an omniversal-scale threat. It threatens neighbouring realities to ours. It threatens microverses within our macroverse. It threatens universes which embed ours as fiction—'"

"Go ahead and think of it as a prison sentence, if it helps," O5-8 interrupts. "Rescind your consent if you'd like. But the next place you're going after this is the bunker."

Hughes glances around the room's walls again. He makes it too obvious what he's thinking.

"The door's locked, Dr. Hughes," O5-8 says. "You're not exiting until we're through here."

"What's the cover story?" Hughes asks. "How were you planning to do it?"

"A helium gas leak in S167-B03-312," Graves explains. "The leak will be real. There's a forged body in there already, impossible to distinguish from a real one. We've tampered with your public schedule for the day. It puts you in that room, not this one. As for—"

"He's stalling," O5-8 says to Graves and the others. "He doesn't need to know any of this."

"Name somebody else," Li suggests. "Being serious. Who in the world, other than you, stands a credible chance of solving this problem? Who could we send instead?"

Hughes says nothing. There's nobody. Really, nobody in the world. And he can do it.

Li presses, "Is there anybody else? Even if they didn't want to. Who has the skills we need, who isn't already in the vault?"

The world shifts positions a little. Li's standing now. Wheeler looks around alertly, gripping the arm of her chair. She has a fountain pen in her fist, uncapped. It's like she just remembered something. O5-8 glances at Wheeler, puzzled at her reaction to, apparently, nothing. Hughes doesn't notice anything.

"It's just me," Hughes says.

"It's just you," Li says. "That's good enough for me."

"Hold on a second," Wheeler says.

Li pulls a gun out of nowhere. Hughes' germ's enormous pupils shrink to violet pinpricks.

This is no part of any plan, everybody in the room knows it. It's a real gun. It's impossible that he could have it. Wheeler starts to rise out of her chair. Her own sidearm is locked in a box outside.

Li aims at Bart Hughes' chest and fires twice. The first round pierces him in the lung. The second round, fired as Hughes collapses, nicks his laptop screen, which is bulletproof, and ricochets up into the meeting room wall.

*

Li turns, now aiming at O5-8. He gets two more rounds off, each causing an earsplitting electronic shriek and a flash of luminous green light as O5-8's protective ward absorbs the energy. Wheeler lunges at Li from behind his gun arm, deflecting it upwards with one hand while plunging the fountain pen into his throat with the other. Li struggles. Wheeler pulls hard, opening his throat all the way up. Li's fingers loosen and she spirits the gun away. Li gurgles in agony and stumbles backwards, clutching futilely at his wound. He smashes his head — well, the germ he's wearing on his head — against a glass meeting room door, and slides down it into a spreading red lake. He's neutralized.

There are two seconds in which nothing happens.

O5-8's eyes meet Wheeler's. "Your thoughts?" he asks, urgently.

"Michael Li was compromised, I don't know how," Wheeler says. She makes the gun safe, holsters it and vaults over the table to check on Hughes. He's dead, she finds. Graves is dead too. When in the hell did Graves get hit? What just happened in this room? "This whole Site could be compromised from top to bottom—"

"I have follow-up questions," O5-8 begins. A bolt of lethally intense heat and light interrupts him, scorching the wall behind his head. He ducks.

Wheeler turns to track the source, aiming the gun with bloody hands. Something is lasering its way in through the containment unit airlock. It's a powerful laser, wielded with robotic precision. It's happening almost too fast to see.

"My personal security," O5-8 says. "It heard the shots."

"Call it off," Wheeler says. "If this unit is breached, SCP-3125 is coming for all of us."

"The unit's hermetically sealed. I can't send any kind of signal until the door's open."

"That's a problem—"

The airlock splits, and is torn away in segments. An enormous gloss black armoured mechanoid looms in the gap, crouched to peer into the room. It looks exactly as if O5-8's limousine got up and started walking. It's still impossible to guess whether there could be a human pilot inside it. Behind it, in the distance, Bochner is immobilised, sealed to one of the staging area chairs with a sizeable glob of transparent orange glue. She screams, "Help!"

For Wheeler, it feels as if a black wave rolls over her, pouring into the containment unit from outside. She drops the gun and raises her hands. Being found holding the smoking gun isn't likely to be a good look, and she doesn't know for sure what heuristics, human or electronic or otherwise, control the mechanoid; it could be prone to making bad decisions.

"Stand down," O5-8 says to his bodyguard. It stops moving, but its single laser doesn't, flickering as fast as the eye can follow between four motionless targets: Wheeler, Hughes, Graves and Li. It's waiting for movement.

Li, not completely dead, twitches. The laser pulses once in retaliation, atomising his head and germ. The laser settles down to a shorter pattern, looping between the three remaining targets. Wheeler doesn't move a millimetre.

"I said, 'Stand down'!"

This time O5-8 seems to be heard. The laser clicks off and settles into a neutral position.

Wheeler relaxes. "Li was compromised," she says again. She hurries to the back of the room, where a medical kit is mounted on the wall. "We need to get you out of here. Then we need to sterilize the Site."

"Compromised when?" O5-8 asks. "By whom? I was given to understand that SCP-3125 rendered its victims wholly bodily subordinate to SCP-3125, biologically incapable of doing anything but propagate its core concepts. Li was still high-functioning."

"We've miscalculated something," Wheeler says. She throws most of the kit aside, keeping only a strangely-shaped capsule with a thin nozzle and pink fluid inside.

"And the gun? We were all searched on entry."

"I don't know." Wheeler can think of several ways to get the gun into room undetected. It could have been planted in the restroom by Li on a prior visit. Bochner could be complicit. Perhaps others. She thinks there's an extremely strong chance that the three members of Hughes' team have been murdered too.

She doesn't have time to think about it. She applies the capsule to her right wrist and infuses the first half of the dose. It's fast-acting chemical amnestic. She hopes that splitting one dose between the two of them will be enough.

"Isn't this the part where SCP-3125 makes an appearance?" O5-8 suggests. "I certainly feel… something. In my head. My germ, I should say."

"Me too. Roll up your sleeve. You also need to deactivate your shield for a second." He obliges, and Wheeler gives him the rest of the drug. Wheeler sorely wishes the shields were standard issue, but they are exceptionally hard to come by, and there are serious controversies and side-effects associated with them.

Outside, Bochner has been gurgling and starting to speak in tongues. Now she screams again. When Wheeler looks, something long and dark, sharp as a javelin and bifurcating into filaments, descends from somewhere in the ceiling of the warehouse. It curls around the chair Bochner is glued to, and lifts her up into the air. A second thin feeler makes an appearance. It probes Bochner's glue-covered midsection, curiously, and then pushes itself through her, like a pin through paper.

She wails, litres of blood gushing out and splashing to the floor below her. The feeler withdraws, then makes a second hole beside the first, and continues in that fashion.

More spider legs impale O5-8's mechanoid bodyguard, and pull it away from the airlock, rapidly dissecting it into sparking pieces. The laser flashes wildly as the machine dies. It's no use.

In the distance, a site-wide containment alarm starts up.

"It's a memetic threat," O5-8 says, mostly to himself. "Where do the arachnoforms come in?"

"Do you have alternate transportation?" Wheeler asks.

"S167-B02-101, there's an escape pod," O5-8 says.

As he says it, Wheeler writes it down on her hand with her bloodied fountain pen. "Underground? You're sure? Is there a code for the door?"

O5-8 lists five digits. He clutches his head. His germ is twitching unhappily and changing colour and texture, as if an infection is spreading across its pale blue skin. "I can feel it. It's like— steel jaws. This is… most unpleasant."

"We need to get to the escape pod," Wheeler says. "There's nothing else that matters. We don't need to remember why. Got it?"

Spider legs reach into the airlock and begin tearing the room to pieces. They're fast-moving and grabby and angry. They know there's something important inside, but they can't get to it. The skull bone is too strong to be broken apart.

O5-8 doesn't have much field experience. The amnestic is blurring his thoughts. "I'm deferring to you," he says, dozily. "Escape pod. Lead on."

Wheeler takes his hand. She's got Li's gun in the other — a decent amount of ammunition left. "With me," she says. She's done this before. She doesn't know it.

The warehouse ceiling starts to cave in.

*

But what is it?

Where is it? What does SCP-3125 look like? Its motivation, its origins, its modus operandi— how much of that can be known? Does it have to be known, to solve the problem? Does it matter how intelligent the intelligence is, once it's inside the box, once it's checkmated?

And what actinic, mind-wrenching form could the countermeme take? How could human hands assemble something so devastatingly powerful and hold it steady; what human mind could wield it without exploding from the inside out? What would deploying that concept in anger do to human ideatic space? How far out from the solution is modern memetic science, a year, a century? What insane impossibility has Hughes just committed himself to?

He doesn't know anything. He knows Site 167 is coming apart, and something violent and psychotic is flooding its corridors and its people, a livid roving swarm which makes every human into the worst possible thing a human can be, a thing which stands wrong, which looks wrong, colourless and furious. He races down the corridors, and then down ventilation shafts which will take him deeper. He's small, and he has quick, slippery locomotion. He can make it. He can lock himself in.

He doesn't know what a germ needs to survive. All he's seen is the cages. He doesn't know Bochner's care routine. Does it live in water, in C. gigantes blood plasma? Is it fed a formula? He needs to reverse-engineer his own biology before he starves. He doesn't know the model of his mind. It hurts to think.

But he can think.

To be continued

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