"El, it's finished."
Lyn Marness is more than ninety years old and hasn't stood at his full height in ten. He was a tower of a man in his prime, two metres tall and built like a boxer. Nearly nobody he ever met was able to look him straight in the eye, at least not and tell him "No". Illness has gradually eaten away at that over the years. He feels as if he lives at the bottom of a deep bath, everybody he ever meets looking down at him from slippery, unscalable walls, none of them able to reach down to help him. He's spent his final months crumpled up in bed like a dying spider, changing to a corpse's colour ahead of time. It might have been bearable if he'd lost his mind, but he remembers what he used to be: a leader, a powerhouse. He used to be able to alter the course of terrible events for the better, to get justice. He used to protect people.
"El. You can wake up now."
But there's a warm wind through his thin colourless hair and there's direct sunlight coming down on him now, and the heat is filling him up like a tonic. He's outside; it's been too long since he was last outside. When he opens his eyes he sees his lake, the one in the Northwest which he used to have all to himself every summer. He's on a boat, his boat, lying on a blanket laid on the deck. A few kilometres away behind them is the little lake house, empty.
It's perfect. He didn't know he had the strength left to safely leave the hospital, let alone travel this far. But if he'd put his mind to it and selected a final moment, this might have been it.
"Do you remember me?"
Marness looks, with eyes which are strengthening. The woman speaking is seated on the deck beside him, attentive. She has a large plastic box full of medical supplies open in front of her, and a light suit jacket laid on the deck beside it, and she has her sleeves rolled up so she can work. As he watches, she carefully disposes of a needle.
A dim memory surfaces and starts taking shape. The woman is twice as old now as when he knew her last, and visibly twice as confident. It would be difficult to forget her. He taught her everything he— well, everything he could remember at the time. He remembers her as a field agent. He remembers sending her through Hell, a fistful of times. "Marion."
"El," the woman softly explains, "you died. You died surrounded by grieving family. They loved you very much, and they cried over you. The funeral for the fake is in a few days, but unfortunately you won't be able to see it yourself. You're dead now, and this is what comes next."
"Marion. Hutchinson." Marness feels gold spreading through his bones, miracle juice.
It's Wheeler now, but she doesn't correct him. "When you retired from the Foundation, El, we did what we do to all of us who retire; what all of us agree to when we sign up. We gave you some medicine which made you forget. As you stepped out of the door for the last time, all the work you did for us — great work, which saved lives — evaporated away, and your cover story sealed over those years and became reality. That's why you've spent your whole retirement believing that you were a former section chief at the FBI. It's what you wanted, it's what we wanted, it's what you agreed to.
"But you, alone, agreed to something else as well. And you must be starting to remember, now, what that something else was. I've injected you with a serum which throws the human aging process into hard reverse, and it affects everything: organs, tissues, memories. You'll be coming up on it soon. Remember?"
"Yes," Marness croaks, remembering, dizzy.
"You signed over your final twelve hours to us. You asked for a full and happy and well-deserved retirement… but now, for the last day, you work for us again, because of one particular job. I have it in writing here, you see? Do you recognise your signature, and mine? I witnessed."
"Do you remember who you are?"
"Doctor Lyn Patrick Marness, of the Foundation," he says. "Antimemetics Division founder."
Wheeler smiles with relief. It's good to see him again.
"We need some memories from you," she explains. "Memories which nobody else in the world has access to, and which are buried so deeply that we can't extract them without killing you. So this afternoon, that's what we're going to do. We're going to extract those memories, and once we're done, you'll be dead."
Marness has already begun to regress to the time when he himself set this wheel in motion. He remembers, very clearly, discovering the mystery in his own head, the blank spots which he couldn't explain, and couldn't safely access with any kind of chemical or physical technique. He remembers deferring the mystery until now.
"What happened in 1976?" Wheeler asks.
Marness sits up. His skin is beginning to clear and his breathing is improving.
He feels as if his brain is cleaved in two by a wormhole, such that his eyes are focusing on different time periods. In his right eye he sees the lake and the boat he's dying on; in his left he sees a collage of electrifyingly familiar past faces and places. Bart Hughes with his grin and thick glasses and baby face, looking like some kid dressed up as a Foundation researcher; the original Site 48 crew, great techs but a hopeless excuse for a softball team; young Marion with steel-strong nerves and a mind like a laser; suits and lab coats and MTF operatives. And everywhere paperwork, and floods of serial numbers.
He starts to speak.
1976 was the year he founded the division. He brainstormed the whole thing in one legendary week, hammering out the science and then distilling the first chemical mnestic with the help of a hand-picked trio of assistants, the first Antimemetics researchers. No antimemetic SCPs had even been observed up to that point — the entire operation was a shot in the dark — and yet the team immediately struck gold. Passive black holes of information, active predatory infovores, unrememberable worms which covered the human skin like dust mites… contagious bad news, self-sealing secrets, living murders, Chinatowns.
Wheeler wonders if there might be something more serious awry with Marness' head. His version of events is hopelessly romantic. In Wheeler's experience, nobody looks back on Foundation work fondly.
"But it was all too fast," Marness says. "Special containment procedures take time to develop, much more time than I took. The Foundation as a whole acquires about a dozen new SCPs annually. I found that many in one year, essentially single-handedly. It was too easy. It was as if I knew it all already, and was just catching up.
"And then… one day I realised I couldn't remember my life before Antimemetics. I knew I'd been a Foundation operative for decades prior, that was where I got the authority to start my own division, but there was nothing else there. It was a wall in my mind, which even mnestics couldn't get me past. I went to the paper archives and looked at my own personnel file, and…"
Marness trails off. Not because he's forgotten what to say next, it's deliberate. The trailing off is exactly what happened.
"You woke up back at your desk half a working day later, remembering nothing," Wheeler says. "You went through the loop a dozen times before someone realised what was happening and broke you out of it."
Wheeler knows all of this. The file still exists, and the antimemetic effect still clouds the back half of it. All of this would be over in a second if any of that back half could be read.
Marness goes on. "When I assembled the evidence what I found was… well, a hole. Like a jigsaw with only the edges and corners. So I did the only thing I could do, I looked at the shape of the hole. And, together with Bart Hughes and others, I formed a theory.
"This is not the first Antimemetics Division. Before 1976, there was another one. I was part of that division; possibly, I led it. Certainly, I am the only known survivor of it. Something happened to that team. Some antimemetic force chewed up and swallowed the idea of the Antimemetics Division itself. I was let off lightly; I lived. The rest of those people, whoever they were, however many of them there were, are missing without trace."
Wheeler nods. "This much we know already. I was there when you wrote the note, remember? The question is known. It's the answer that we can't get to without killing you. It's the answer that we've waited all these years to get at. I'm here to ask you: What. Happened?"
Marness covers his right eye and grimaces, trying. He fails. "It's not there. You haven't sent me back far enough, there's still that wall there in my head. I remember why the question exists, but I don't remember the answer. I need more."
Wheeler swabs his arm, and gives him another ten years.1
Marness seems like another man once the second X dose takes effect. Wrinkles are sliding back up into his face, muscle mass is returning to his limbs, but it takes Wheeler a second to realise the real reason why; she's just booted him back across the field/desk agent transition. Marness has regressed a little way past senior management, the realm where most problems were solved by saying the correct words, and into a time where he survived through physical fitness, situational alertness and hands-on experience.
Marness gets to his feet for the first time in years. He scans his surroundings, examining the placid golden lake and the sky and the boat itself. He doesn't sit down again. He smooths down his hospital gown, wishing he had a sweater and, separately, some fishing gear. He brushes a hand through new, old hair. His sideburns are back.
"We weren't Foundation at first," he says. "The first Antimemetics Division was a U.S. Army project. It ran parallel with Manhattan during World War II. We called ourselves the Unthinkables.
"It began as an experiment in advanced propaganda. The objective was to cut through the physical conflict and find a way to rupture the ideological machine, to obliterate the idea of Nazism. After two years, enough theory had been developed that the task had been reduced to an engineering problem. Another two years, and the engineering problem had been reduced as well, and what we had built was a very special kind of bomb.
"Unfortunately, we didn't understand what we'd built. Back then, we didn't have the mnestics or the shielding that we could use to protect ourselves. We didn't understand how far ahead you need to think when you're working with this kind of technology.
"We got looped. It was textbook. We built the unthinkable bomb and test-detonated it… and it worked perfectly. The bomb destroyed itself, and erased its own successful detonation, and flattened all the knowledge which had gone together to build it. We forgot that we had ever built the bomb at all, and started over.
"To our credit, we realised pretty quickly what must have happened. There was a four-year gap in our progress now, and there was no other way to explain it. But by the time we put the pieces together the second time, the war was almost over. The Nazis had been defeated by conventional means, and the Japanese had been broken by the first atomic bombings. So we completed the second antimemetic bomb, and after that, we sat on it."
Marion Wheeler is silent for a long moment.
"The U.S. Army," she says doubtfully, "was secretly developing antimemetic weaponry as early as the 1940s."
"We sure were," Marness says, with more than a hint of pride.
"Of course, there is no one in the whole world who could back this up."
"That's right," Marness says, flashing a smile he hasn't flashed in decades. "You only have my word for it. Cute, huh? Still, this is why you resurrected me, isn't it? For the sake of one more good war story. God, I've missed shop talk."
"I resurrected you because I want a very specific question answered," Wheeler says. "Although I can see that in a way you've already answered it. This bomb was the means, wasn't it? The old Antimemetics Division—"
"—bombed themselves. Somehow."
"That's right," Marness says.
"From context," Wheeler goes on, "I assume that they knew what they were doing that time. I assume it was not an accident."
"It was not," Marness says.
The displaced half of Marness' brain is anchored in the Seventies now, so the True History of the New Original Unthinkables is an open book to him. And he reads:
"After the war the second bomb collected dust for years. We began sketching improved designs for a third bomb, but around that time oversight was starting to flicker out. We completed our research and production objectives, and were given no further objectives. Funding became shaky and we couldn't figure out why. It wasn't entirely clear that the project overseers knew what we were doing. Or even that they remembered we existed. It was a side-effect from the research, of course, one we had no way of managing at the time.
"In 1951, a cult movement began in Ojai, California. It was… wrong, everything about it was just wrong. In a matter of days it was a national phenomenon and still growing. It was all over the news. To spread that far in months would have been credible, but days was simply impossible. We, in the team, could see that the philosophy behind the cult was unnaturally contagious. It was the opposite of unthinkable, it was unforgettable. We knew that this was what our bomb was designed for. We prompted the overseers for direction. But there were no orders.
"At the time that the outbreak began, we were a U.S. Army laboratory, through and through. Eight days into the crisis the Foundation 'acquired' us. All the classified research, all the material resources, and all the compliant top staff, including me. Anybody who wouldn't comply was mind-wiped and sent back to the Army. Twenty hours after the acquisition, we deployed the second bomb and the cult was gone. Nobody remembered it, nobody remembered being part of it, zero loss of life. A completely clean detonation.
"After that is when everything really kicked off. Once we started working for the Foundation, the pace of research ramped up. Every new technological advancement uncovered new hidden SCPs. I passed the Foundation field exams and went out catching ghosts. My life turned into the Twilight Zone. I—"
Marness blinks hard. He covers one of his eyes, then the other.
"I remember all these different people now," he says. "It feels like my memory is in stereo. Almost every antimemetic SCP we caught before the wipe in '76, we caught again soon after the wipe. That means I remember two acquisition logs for each one. I remember two Antimemetics teams and I don't remember who belongs on which side of the wall. Do you remember Goldie Yarrow? The neurologist? Studied the mechanism of anomalously accelerated memory loss… wrote a library on the subject…"
"Dr. Ojobiru? Julie Still?"
"El, this is important. Are you at the right place in your own timeline to remember what happened yet?"
Marness focuses. And he discovers that he is. Something changes in his eyes, as he stops reminiscing. He speaks more slowly now, his voice dropping almost to a whisper:
"There is an SCP which your division has never seen. The SCP which my division couldn't contain. The escapee. This is what you wanted, isn't it, Marion?"
"Yes," she says. "This is the data I'm killing you for." She leaves a gap where, if she felt there was anything to apologise for, she would apologise.
Marness locks eyes with her. "It was eating my division alive. It came at us so hard and so fast that the only way we could stop it was to self-destruct. But we had no site nuke, and in retrospect it is obvious to me, now, that this was because the SCP had consumed our site nuke first of all.
"If you know it exists, it knows you exist. The more you know about it, the more it knows about you. If you can see it, it can see you. And you can see it. You've been looking right at it all afternoon."
Wheeler is suddenly acutely aware of her surroundings.
There are only two of them on the boat. The boat is anchored more than a kilometre from any of the lake shores. She hasn't brought any backup with her. There's a radioactive prickling in her brain. She doesn't—
Red flag. Why didn't I bring any backup with me? That doesn't make sense.
There should be a team at the lake house. There should be an MTF operative and a medic here on the boat with me. And a second boat. At minimum. Am I all alone out here? Why did I do that?
She pulls her gun, but doesn't aim it at Marness yet. "Where is it? Is it in you?"
Marness' voice is becoming urgent. He covers both of his eyes again. "Destroying all knowledge of it was the only way to destroy it. And restoring my memories was a foolproof way to bring it back!"
It's in his eyes. Most likely his left eye. Wheeler backs up to the other side of the boat, draws a bead on the centre of Marness' head, and says, "El. Are you still in there?"
"There is a way to fix this," Marness hisses, dropping to his knees. He keeps his eyes screwed up and gropes his way forward blindly, on his hands and knees.
"El, you need to tell me what this thing is."
"That's the opposite of what we need to do," Marness says. "You need to set another bomb off."
"We don't have that bomb. We lost that technology—" Wheeler begins.
"You've always had it! There's an engineering lab in Site 41. You know it. An underground complex the size of a football field. In pristine condition, and totally disused. Why? Think about it. That's where your bomb's installed."
"But that just sets us back to square one. If I set the bomb off," Wheeler says, knowing full well that she is thousands of kilometres from it and can't hope to reach it in time anyway, "how do we contain this thing?"
"We won't," Marness shouts. "We can't, ever! Don't you get it? The whole division is looped! We start the division, we run headlong into this thing, and either it eats us, or we wipe ourselves out in self-preservation. The idea of antimemes is as old as forgetfulness itself. Humans have been looping through this problem over and over again since long before the Forties. Maybe for centuries!"
His blindly probing fingers find the medical box. It's too late.
As Wheeler watches, a waving black pedipalp coated in dark hairs forces its way out through Marness' left eye. Marness screams. Still on his knees, he grasps the pedipalp with both hands and tries to break it, but it's solid, as if it has bones inside it.
"What is it?" Wheeler shouts at him. "That can't be the whole story. Where is it from, what does it want? Can it reason, can it speak?"
A second spider leg, significantly longer and spindlier, slides out through Marness' trachea, ruining his throat and voice box and producing a gout of blood. He gurgles. A third leg shoots from his abdomen, like a spear.
Wheeler shoots Marness in the head. Marness falls forward, limp, then rises back up, lifted by the three spider appendages as if he is a puppet being controlled by something gigantic and invisible. His arms raise, as if suspended by wires.
Wheeler squints. She fires four more shots over Marness' head, at the likely body mass of the invisible puppeteer, and fires the rest of her clip almost directly into the sky. The whole boat vibrates, along with the surface of the lake, as if responding to infrasound or a localised earthquake. Then the boat shudders violently and starts to lift out of the water, raised by more unseen appendages.
Wheeler holsters her gun and goes for the medical box herself, pulling it away from Marness' floating feet. There's a compartment with Class-B amnestic, the fast-acting stuff, in serum form. She does a hurried burst of mental arithmetic, measures out the correct dosage in a syringe and, hands shaking, plunges it into a wrist vein. The boat is still rising. Whatever the monster is, it's colossally tall, or maybe it flies.
She is, of course, already dosed up to the eyeballs with mnestic drugs. Otherwise, she wouldn't have been able to perceive any of this. Foundation medical literature warns in the strongest possible terms against putting both kinds of drug into the same brain. Best case scenario, this ends with her in the hospital.
They're thirty metres up in the air now, ten storeys. There's a stabbing pain developing in her left eye. She kicks her shoes off and throws the gun away. She goes to the edge and contemplates the drop for a disbelieving second. She jumps.
It takes two heart-stopping seconds of freefall for her to hit the water. The chilled hammerblow of the impact is enough to blank her mind out. By the time she surfaces she doesn't remember where she fell from, or why. And likewise, the skyscraper-sized being which claimed Marness and the boat has forgotten about her.
"What the hell," she gasps, treading water. "What the hell, where the hell?"
There is nothing above her, no explanation. Only the symptoms of the drug cocktail give her any indication of what just happened: a sensation like hundreds of tiny lumps of hot solder in her brain, and pain and exhaustion spreading to all of her tendons. She wants to die.
Swim, says part of her. Get to shore first. Then you can die.
The extraction team finds her around dusk, unconscious on the lake shore. They stabilise her in the helicopter, then take her to Site 41 for examination, and to have her system flushed.
She spends a solid eight days at home, detoxifying: no mnestics, no amnestics, no exposure to dangerous memory-corrupting SCPs, no work visitors. "No work," the doctor also tells her, pointlessly.
It isn't anywhere near the first missing event in Wheeler's life, nor is she the first person in the Antimemetics staff to have such an experience, but the sensation is no less disturbing for its familiarity. As per procedure, she writes a report summarising everything she can remember. The gap in her memory is about thirteen hours.
Then she adds her report to the extensive, complex map of Missing Time which the whole division maintains collectively. It is a map of holes, and the map is becoming large enough that very faint patterns are gradually forming. The outline of an enemy is becoming visible, or perhaps a group of enemies.
When she quizzes the extraction team later, none of them remember who activated the emergency beacon which summoned them. In fact, the beacon itself cut out long before they landed at the lake. Wheeler compares the current size of her division with her best estimate of what it should be. Maybe she needs a few more key people here and there… So, assuming the division was fully staffed before the event, maybe those empty roles are the people who died this time around. Maybe one of them activated the beacon. A commendable act, by someone now only known to exist because of that single act.
It's weeks later still that Wheeler discovers the largest new hole in her memory:
Who founded the division? When?
Next: CASE COLOURLESS GREEN