Your Last First Day
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Previously

Marion Wheeler is curled in the corner of Site 41's main freight elevator, descending, clutching a shiny red ray gun almost as long as she is tall. The gun has a two-tined prong instead of a barrel and its stock is a weirdly asymmetrical mass of pipework, more like a Swiss watch or a small intestinal tract than a weapon. The gun is SCP-7381, and it comes from a long-dead planet — not too distant a planet, when all's said and done — which conventional astronomy has yet to observe.

A tornado of violence and destruction is tearing through Site 41 and through the minds of everybody working at Site 41. Ceilings are being brought down, the site pharmacy is a sucking hole at the side of the building. The armoury is buried; that's why she had to go through Area 09 and is now toting anomalous weaponry instead. The Antimemetics Division operatives she meets in the corridors are all broken; some of them curled up and raving while their minds evaporate and they die one memory at a time, some infected with a collection of ideas which compel them to shout guttural phrases in strange languages, and to procure blades — never guns — and work on those demented victims, and each other, and themselves.

Wheeler doesn't recognise any of the people. Their faces are all wrong, torn up with hatred and misery and vindictive glee. She's been trying to avoid fighting, but she's had to kill one man in self-defence. Fired at his heart, SCP-7381 simply erased a half-metre-wide cylinder of matter, removing his upper torso and lower jaw. He fell to the ground in four pieces. SCP-7381's beam is invisible, silent and recoilless. It was like using a child's toy gun.

Wheeler is petrified, but more than that, angry. "This is too much," she says, out loud, willing her heart rate back under control. "I can't deal with this. I shouldn't have to deal with this. It's my fucking first day!"

*

But how much sense does that make? Wheeler studies her reflection in the dark glass of the elevator control panel, and she tours the interior of her own skull, examining her thought processes. There are hints there, which would be difficult to articulate to someone who didn't know her as well as she knows herself. She isn't thinking like a newbie. She's instinctively breaking the problem apart, the way an experienced Foundation operative should. Hell, a newbie wouldn't even know how to carry out a detailed psychological self-examination of this kind. A newbie wouldn't even think of it, a newbie would just suffocate.

"The first thing it did when it saw me," she explains to her reflection, "was eat everything I knew about the Division. And everything I knew about it. If I had a plan, it ate the plan. …But I'm still me. So I can come up with that plan again. It's already right in front of me, I just need to see it. If I were me, what would my plan have been?"

She scratches absently at her left wrist.

"Taking some hardcore mnestic drugs would have been a smart first step, I guess," she mutters. "Reinforcing my mind, so that it can't erase the rest of the steps. Damn." The nearest source of mnestic medicine is the site pharmacy, but it's already been destroyed, and in any case the elevator is headed down, away from it.

No. Stop. The pharmacy's been destroyed? How do I know that?

Well, because she was there. She remembers finding the pharmacist crushed to death beneath a fallen medical cabinet, her skull an unrecognisable splatter of scarlet. She remembers the floor being torn away beneath her feet, and only barely making it out of that portion of the building alive.

She remembers— a modular package coloured Safety Orange, with an enormous black Z on it. Her heart nearly stops at this. Oh, God. What did I do?

She remembers the dozens of warning signs covering the package; she remembers the three-factor authorisation procedure she had to follow to get into the sealed container where it was stored; she remembers the centimetre-thick book of medical advisory information, which she discarded; and, rolling her left sleeve back, she finds a fresh needle mark with a speck of blood, and remembers administering the injection.

This was my plan? This is what it takes to fight SCP-3125? I've killed myself—

Class-Z mnestics are the last word in biochemical memory fortification. Class-Z mnestics permanently destroy the subject's ability to forget. The result is perfect eidetic memory and perfect immunity to arbitrarily strong antimemetic interference.

The dose is taking effect now. Wheeler didn't read the book because she already knew every word of it. She knows everything that's about to happen to her. She can already feel her mind hardening, like steel, and the developing symptoms of extreme sensory overload.

She can see everything.

There are extra buttons on the elevator control panel, the lowest of which, the thirtieth floor below ground level, she's somehow already pushed. The walls of the elevator are covered with graffiti scrawled by the desperate and dying, people whose conceptual presence was eradicated from reality years earlier by the Alastair Grey antimemetic kill agent, reducing them to the level of ghosts. In one corner of the freight elevator there is even a half-corpse, unidentifiable, so many layers removed from reality that not even flies can smell it, its cells winking out of existence asymptotically over the course of years.

There is a fistful of tiny white worms exploring the floor of the elevator car, near where she's sitting. Revolted, Wheeler shuffles back from them, shaking one or two more of them out of her hair. The worms are among the most widespread and successful antimemetically cloaked organisms in the world. They are everywhere, in every biome, in every room.

She can hear a long, alarming drone noise, a continual roaring which has the texture of ambient noise and is continually getting louder. It's as if it's been there for her entire life, and it's only now that she's begun to hear it.

It's too much data. Too much sound, too much light. Having her eyes open is like jamming them full of needles. She clamps her hands over her ears and screws her eyes up. Even like this, she feels the vibration of the elevator's slow descent and the heat of the failed air conditioning and the movement of her clothes on her skin, and meanwhile her vision is flooding instead with what could be hallucinations. The human sensorium routinely generates huge amounts of data and the human brain is adapted to discard almost all of that data nearly immediately. Altering the brain's behaviour to retain that data is extremely dangerous even for very short time spans.

Wheeler takes one hand away from her ear for just long enough to punch the metal wall of the elevator car, bloodying two knuckles. The pain gives her a focal point, a memory which screams a little louder than the rest.

And she finds the plan. She doesn't remember it; she bootstraps it from first principles, in a handful of minutes, just like she's done a hundred times before.

"I know how to beat you," she says.

"No," SCP-3125 says to her. "You don't."

*

The elevator stops at the thirtieth floor below ground and its doors grind open. They wait, open, for a long time. Further up the elevator shaft there are the distant rumbles of more parts of Site 41 being reduced to crumbs.

Still crouched in the corner, Wheeler mutters, "SCP-3125 doesn't have a voice."

"Of course I do," it replies.

"SCP-3125 is a five-dimensional anomalous metastasized mass of bad memes and bad antimemes and everything in between, seeping through to our physical reality. It isn't coherent and it isn't intelligent. It can't communicate. This is an auditory hallucination."

SCP-3125 scoffs. "You know what I hate most about you, Marion? You're consistently, eternally wrong… and yet you're still alive. All those lost battles, every year of that entire lost war, but somehow you always cobble together enough dumb luck to walk away unscathed. The eternal sole survivor. You don't deserve that kind of luck. Nobody does."

While it's talking, Wheeler leans hard on the ray gun to get to her feet. She lodges one shoulder against the wall of the elevator car, still with her eyes closed. She braces herself, and opens her eyes. The corridor ahead is empty. There's an airlock at the far end, this one large enough to drive a truck through, built from ultra-toughened white metal alloy in Bart Hughes's established style. There's a panel beside the airlock. She closes her eyes again and hobbles forward, using the ray gun as a crutch, stretching one hand out ahead of her as guidance.

"Someone has to be last," she says, gritting her teeth. "Someone has to be the best."

"Your team is dead," SCP-3125 says. "Their minds have been pulled out, like eyeballs. They're hollow people, with holes in space where their brains were. The war is over! Finally! It's just you, Marion, a division of one! Dying from mnestic overdose, two hundred metres underground, cared for by no one, known to exist to no one, up against an immortal, unkillable idea."

Wheeler reaches the airlock and fumbles blindly with the panel until she finds the slot for her keycard. For a few seconds it seems as if nothing is happening, then a yellow light flashes, the enormous mechanical interlocks unlatch and the door cycles open with all the fuss of a flower's petals unfurling. Noise, Hughes always held, is a symptom of imperfect engineering.

Behind her, she hears the freight elevator close up and return to ground level, and she knows that someone has summoned it, intending to pursue her.

"Ideas can be killed," she says, stepping into the airlock.

"How?"

"With better ideas."

As the airlock cycles closed, so does the hermetic seal. SCP-3125 is shut out.

*

If something can cross over from conceptual space into reality, taking physical form, then something can cross in the opposite direction. It must be possible to take a physical entity, mechanically extract the idea which it embodies, amplify that idea and broadcast it up into conceptual space. A bigger idea. A better idea, one designed specifically to fight SCP-3125.

An ideal. A movement. A hero.

The machine Wheeler needs to build is the size of an Olympic stadium, and she doesn't have a fraction of the heavy memetic engineering experience to do it, let alone the material resources or the time. But she knows — someone taught her, she doesn't remember who — that an Antimemetics Division operative is as good on their first day as they're ever likely to be. And the same must be true of the Division as a whole.

She tells herself: We won this war on the day it began. When we encountered SCP-3125 for the first time, we built this bunker. Bart Hughes faked his death and sequestered himself here so he could work uninterrupted, while the rest of the Division held on for as long as humanly possible, buying time for this moment. I know this is what I did, because it's what I would have done.

I'm the final component. He's waiting for me.

*

The space beyond the airlock is gigantic, structured and lit like an aircraft hangar and filled with hot, stale, dry air. Wheeler, still mostly blind, stumbles forward across an expanse of more than a hectare of flat, dusty epoxy flooring. "Hughes!" she shouts into the void. "It's time!" Nothing comes back but the echo.

She glances up for a second. The space is empty. The castle-sized memetic amplification/broadcasting unit which Bart Hughes was meant to be building is absolutely absent. Hughes himself is absent.

Maybe the entire machine is antimemetically cloaked? she wonders, momentarily. It would be a smart way to conceal the operation even from the rest of the Foundation. But her brain is curdling in the strongest mnestic drugs ever manufactured. There's genuinely nothing here.

Almost nothing. At the centre of the space there's a small outpost, a group of trestle tables with tools and toolboxes scattered about the place. Parked behind it is an unmarked military truck with flat tyres. On the back of the truck is a squat, squarish machine the size of a shipping container, with unshielded wiring and exposed pipework, and a long cable leading to a heavy-duty control panel on the floor. To the untrained eye, it is not at all clear what the machine is designed to do.

It's the antimemetic equivalent to a hydrogen bomb; the Division's answer to a site nuclear warhead. Activated, it would contaminate Site 41 and everything and everyone on it with antimemetic radiation. There would be no Site 41 and no Division afterwards; nothing any of the escaping, infectious staff did could have any effect on the real world.

It's the wrong machine.

It can't destroy or contain SCP-3125, or even injure it. All it can do is sterilise today's outbreak. The other symptoms will persist. Fifty or ten or five years from now, or maybe one year or maybe tomorrow, SCP-3125 will return, bringing with it its MK-class end-of-world scenario. Human civilisation will be entirely eradicated as an abstract concept, and be replaced with something unimaginably worse. There will be no one to fight it.

Wheeler leans there on the ray gun for a long moment. The pressure of information in her mind, continually increasing, reaches a point where she can't take it any more, and she starts to break. The Class-Z has been in her system for long enough now that she knows for a fact she has irreversible brain damage. There is no antidote. She'll be lucid for another hour, then spend the remaining two or three hours of her life vegetative.

That's right, she thinks. It's almost a relief. This is good. This is right.

I've survived too long. I forgot what universe this was. For a while there, I thought, maybe… this was the universe where we win sometimes.

The agony in her head is like an ice axe now. She drops the ray gun with a clatter, sinks to her knees, lies down and waits for either death or a better idea.

*

A being superficially resembling Paul Kim arrives at the outer airlock door. It examines the airlock uncomprehendingly for a few moments, then finds the keycard slot. It hunts methodically through Kim's pockets, then remembers the keycard around its neck. The airlock cycles once more and not-Kim goes through. Behind it, the freight elevator is returning to ground level a third time, to fetch the rest.

In the next room, the being which is not Paul Kim finds Wheeler, unconscious, with the ray gun dropped beside her. There is also a military truck, which it disregards.

Not-Kim lets its keycard fall from its fingers and scoops up the ray gun. For a moment it contemplates the unconscious Wheeler, then examines at the gun itself, remembering how it works. It turns back to face the airlock and fires, punching fat cylindrical holes in the white metal of the inner door until it's gone, then the outer door too, breaching the hermetic seal. A faint smile returns to not-Kim's face as SCP-3125 and its familiar, comforting signals flood into the bunker.

A dozen more non-people are arriving by freight elevator, former Antimemetics Division bodies. "I've found her," not-Kim calls out to them. It drops the ray gun where it's standing, as if it simply forgot that it had been carrying anything, and pulls out its knife again. It holds the knife between two fingers, in a casual, offhand sort of way, as if it were a pencil or screwdriver.

The infected non-people gather with not-Kim around Wheeler, looking down at her with alien expressions of disgust, or pity, or malice.

"Why isn't she opening up properly?" someone asks. "She can't meet them unless she wants the signals."

"Start with her eyes," says someone else. "It'll make the rest of her easier to correct."

Not-Kim leans down to start work, then hesitates, its knife a few centimetres from Wheeler's eye. She's whispering something, so quietly that only it can hear her clearly.

"None of this happened, Paul," she says. "You and I never existed. There is no Antimemetics Division."

There's a sharp click as the bomb finishes its powering-up sequence. Nobody in the room can hear this but Wheeler. Nobody in the room can perceive the bomb but Wheeler. All they can see is an empty truck.

The world goes black.

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