/dev/scp (Styrius')

OÙ ÉTAIS-TU PENDANT TOUTE MA VIE ?

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Mais bordel, qui s'infiltre chez une employée senior de la Fondation, alors que cette dernière est à l'intérieur ?

Marion Wheeler habite au fond d'une forêt de conifères, à bonne distance de la grande ville la plus proche et à bonne distance dans la direction opposée du Site 41. Il est tard, en plus, et elle est en train de lire dans son lit lorsqu'elle entend le clic feutré caractéristique de la serrure de sa porte d'entrée. Elle lève le regard, et fixe le mur pendant une seconde tout en écoutant les légers bruits de pas qui se déplacent dans le couloir.

Elle marque sa page et attrape son téléphone remis par la Fondation. Il n'y a pas de personnel de sécurité permanent chez elle — la Division est en sous-effectif et on a nettement plus besoin que les opérateurs entraînés restent au Site — mais le bâtiment et le terrain autour disposent de contre-mesures électroniques costaudes. Elle découvre donc que ces dernières ont été désactivées, tout comme les capteurs et les caméras. Elle n'a pas été notifiée de cela. La personne qui l'a fait disposait d'un code valide.

Mais qui ?

La Fondation a des ennemis. Il est vrai que sa liste d'ennemis motivés et crédibles est surprenamment courte, et que la liste des groupes assez stupides pour essayer de tuer ou de capturer quelqu'un de son niveau est plus courte encore. Mais elle n'est pas vide, et faire ça n'est en fait pas si difficile ; très peu de gens mis à part les O5 ont le privilège de voyager entourés d'un cortège de voitures. Le vrai tour de force, le tour impossible, serait d'éviter la riposte qui viendrait ensuite. Mais si l'un d'entre eux pensait vraiment qu'il pouvait le faire ? Et s'il avait décidé que le jeu en valait la chandelle ?

Wheeler déclenche l'alarme silencieuse. Elle repose son téléphone sur la table de chevet et prend son arme. Elle roule en dehors de son lit, place quelques oreillers là où elle était, se déplace silencieusement jusqu'à la porte de sa chambre et attend à côté de celle-ci, à écouter et à réfléchir.

Cette porte, la porte de sa chambre, ne peut pas être ouverte discrètement. Elle grince comme pas possible, donc si elle passe par là elle doit être prête à attirer l'attention. Il y a un grenier, mais l'accès est à l'entrée et ne peut, encore une fois, pas être ouvert discrètement. Il n'y a pas d'autre chemin possible vers le sol sauf à sauter par la fenêtre, et quelqu'un doit être resté y faire le guet. Même si elle atterrissait dans les buissons vivante, elle devrait encore quitter le périmètre avec une entorse à la cheville.

"Combien ?" serait peut-être une meilleure question que "Qui ?". S'ils sont assez nombreux, elle pourrait déjà être vouée à mourir. Si les agresseurs sont précautionneux et tentent de l'éliminer, elle pense pouvoir Home Alone peut-être huit d'entre eux avant que les probabilités ne tournent en sa défaveur. S'ils se dépêchent d'atteindre le deuxième étage et sont équipés d'armures, deux d'entre eux suffiraient à l'acculer, même si elle arrivait à utiliser la cage d'escalier comme goulot d'étranglement. Tout cela suppose, naturellement, que les agresseurs ne sont pas anormaux. S'ils le sont, et s'ils ne se trouvent pas dans les, disons, trente pourcent d'anomalies pouvant être neutralisées d'une simple balle dans le centre de gravité et d'une autre dans la tête, elle serait sans doute impuissante même après l'arrivée de l'équipe de renforts. Qui devrait être là dans, au mieux, une dizaine de minutes.

Un grincement. Cette fichue maison. Quelqu'un arrive par les escaliers, sans faire aucun effort de discrétion. Ce sont des pas doux, aussi. Comme si la personne avait enlevé ses chaussures. Et l'un d'entre eux seulement ? C'est presque insensé.

Profitant des cinq secondes dont elle dispose, Wheeler parcourt du regard la pièce plongée dans le noir, à la recherche d'une deuxième arme. Elle sait qu'il y a des aiguilles de tricot dans le salon au pied des escaliers ainsi que des couteaux, de bonne qualité, dans la cuisine. Mais elle ne pourra pas les atteindre. Il est trop tard. La porte est en train de s'ouvrir. L'homme paraît vouloir dire quelque chose au moment où il entre, mais il ne parvient pas à aller plus loin qu'un "Je— gloup", et c'est tout. Son visage est aplati contre le sol, sa joue contre l'épais tapis couleur crème, avec Wheeler sur son dos qui écrase ses deux poignets avec ses genous. Elle jette un regard insistant au bas des escaliers pendant une seconde ; il n'y a personne. Elle presse son autre joue avec le canon d'un pistolet. "Tu parles, tu meurs", siffle-t-elle. "Tu essaies de bouger, tu meurs." Elle jette un coup d'œil aux fenêtres, vérifie les escaliers une seconde fois, écoute attentivement. Il n'y a pas de bruit. Il n'y a rien à voir.

L'homme a la cinquantaine et est élancé. Il porte un luxueux costume noir taillé sur mesure. Son visage est anguleux, ses cheveux sont épais et grisonnants et il porte des lunettes à monture invisible, qui ont sûrement été déformées par leur impact avec le sol. Il porte également de la joaillerie discrète en platine : une montre, des boutons de manchette et une bague.

Ils restent à l'arrêt dans cette position, tel un tableau. Il ne tente pas de bouger, regardant toutefois Wheeler avec méfiance, du mieux qu'il peut étant données ses lunettes délogées.

"Où sont les autres ?" demande Wheeler.

"Ce n'est que moi, Marion", répond-t-il.

"Qui es-tu ?"

Il reste silencieux un moment, mais, lentement et subtilement, son visage se décompose. "Je, ah. Eh bien. Eh bien, c'est vraiment arrivé, n'est-ce pas ? Je me suis toujours demandé."

"Qui es-tu ?"

"Il y a un monstre qui te suit partout et qui mange tes souvenirs", dit l'homme. "SCP-4987. Tu le nourris au compte-gouttes avec des informations sans conséquences pour qu'il n'aille rien chercher de plus important. Tu regardes des jeux à la télé. Le bouquin que tu lisais à l'instant. Sur ta table de chevet. C'est un livre de culture générale. Pas vrai ?"

Wheeler ne dit rien qui puisse confirmer ou infirmer cela, bien que ce soit vrai. Lorsqu'elle a faim l'entité se manifeste comme une tache dorée-blanche brillant dans le coin de son regard. Elle n'est plus là à présent.

Elle a déjà assemblé les pièces du puzzle. Ce qui s'est passé est tellement évident qu'elle se sent insultée et en est stupéfaite.

Avec une note de désarroi dissimulée mais toujours décelable, elle demande : "Quel est ton nom ?"

"Adam", répond-t-il. "Adam Wheeler."

*

Évidemment, elle le fait détenir.

Elle donne l'ordre à ses gens de l'interroger — doucement — et de faire d'importantes recherches de fond sur chaque mot qu'il prononcera, tandis qu'elle demeurera à distance de l'enquête pour éviter toute contamination. Elle résiste à l'envie qu'elle a d'interférer, et particulièrement de rendre visite à "Adam" pour demander des réponses de manière personnelle. Elle va dans son bureau, se roule en boule dans le canapé qui s'y trouve et tente de rattraper un peu de sommeil, mais n'y parvient pas vraiment.

Sept heures plus tard un Fondationnien toque à la porte de son bureau, amenant avec lui un épais bloc de feuilles imprimées et une tasse de café assez forte pour la paralyser. Wheeler prend d'abord la boisson, acceptant cette dernière comme une sorte d'étape d'authentification avant de laisser entrer l'homme. Elle se rasseoit sur le canapé et respire les vapeurs du café, penchée au-dessus de celui-ci pour en absorber la chaleur.

L'homme s'asseoit lourdement sur une chaise lui faisant face. C'est un individu trompeusement trapu, perpétuellement mal rasé, à deux doigts de la quarentaine, et il s'agit indiscutablement de la personne la plus dangereuse du Site. Il est l'instructeur de combat et d'entraînement physique de la Division ainsi que le chef de leur seule Force d'Intervention Mobile. Son nom est Alex Gauss. "Ils, euh", dit-il, "ils ont pensé que je devrais être celui qui vous apporterait leurs résultats. Même si je n'ai pas du tout participé aux recherches. Parce qu'"on s'entend bien". C'est eux qui le disent. Personnellement, je ne vois pas en quoi."

Wheeler reste concentrée sur le café. "Qui est-ce ?"

Gauss ouvre la première page du rapport, plus pour se donner des airs qu'autre chose, puis le referme. "C'est votre mari. Chaque mot correspond. Les preuves physiques sont innombrables. La moitié de la Division le connaît, moi-même y compris. Votre zèle et votre adhérence au protocole sont honorables, mais ce qu'il y a à retenir, c'est que SCP-4987 a mangé plus qu'il n'aurait dû."

Wheeler acquiesce. Cette affirmation correspond à la sienne, assemblée au cours de la nuit d'après ses réactions instinctives et une analyse des faits. D'où est-ce que son putain de nom aurait pu venir d'autre ? Elle n'était pas née "Wheeler". Mais elle devait obtenir une vérification indépendante.

"Est-ce que c'est déjà arrivé ?" demande-t-elle.

"Non."

"Est-ce que ça pourrait arriver une deuxième fois ?"

Gauss hausse les épaules. "Vous devriez le savoir mieux que quiconque."

"Je devrais. Et je le sais. Et je peux vous dire ceci : J'ai dressé SCP-4987 pour qu'il ne fasse que ce que je lui dis de faire. Je le nourris d'après un régime strict, il ne mange que les souvenirs que je lui permets de manger. C'est un parasite mémoriel rapidement progressif et universellement létal, et il est dressé. Et maintenant, quoi, il se dit soudainement qu'il devrait arrêter de m'écouter ? Ça colle ?"

"Si vous dites que ça ne colle pas, ça ne colle pas", répond Gauss précautionneusement. "Mais d'après mon expérience sur le terrain, tout peut arriver deux fois."

Wheeler a assez attendu, et prend une longue gorgée de café. Elle fixe la vapeur qui s'enroule, comme si elle tentait d'y voir l'avenir. "Mais qui est-ce ?" demande-t-elle à nouveau. "Après ça, vous le connaissez mieux que moi. Comment est-il ? Est-ce que vous l'appréciez ?"

Gauss fait une grimace extravagante. Cette question est l'arrière-arrière-grand-mère de toutes les questions lourdes de sens.

Wheeler le regarde dans les yeux et lui assène, "Donnez-moi votre impression personnelle d'Adam Wheeler. C'est un ordre direct."

"…C'est un gars assez gentil."

"'Assez gentil ?'"

Gauss fait claquer sa langue. "Je ne l'aime pas", admet-il. "Personnellement. Pas vraiment. On est polis l'un avec l'autre. Mais il aura toujours l'air un petit peu trop suffisant, et un petit peu trop intelligent. Il… m'agace, tout simplement. Est-ce que je jetterais quelqu'un dans une cellule pour ça ? Non."

"Est-ce que je l'apprécie ?"

"Vous—" commence Gauss avant de s'interrompre. Il regarde ailleurs. Puis un petit sourire commence à s'esquisser sur son visage, un sourire que Wheeler ne se rappelle pas avoir vu auparavant, pas dans une relation de travail depuis des années. "Ouais", dit-il. "Ouais. C'est la bonne personne."

*

Nom complet : Adam Bellamy Wheeler. Né le 27 février 1962 à Henge, Derbyshire, Royaume-Uni, fils de Rosemary Leah Wheeler née Wizst et de Jonathan 'Jack' Philip Wheeler. Pas de frère ni de sœur. Instruction : École primaire de l'Église Anglaise de Henge, École secondaire de Tous les saints de Matlock. A montré une grande affinité musicale dès son jeune âge. À l'âge de seize ans, a commencé à être reconnu comme l'un des violonistes classiques les plus doués de sa génération. Est allé à l'Université royale de—

Wheeler saute trois pages.

—après avoir souffert une blessure mineure pendant une tournée à ████████, a fait la rencontre de SCP-4051, qui avait infesté une aile de l'hôpital où il était traité. SCP-4051 était protégé par une forme inhabituelle de camouflage antimémétique à laquelle Wheeler — à l'instar d'approximativement 1 personne sur 145 000 dans le monde — était (et demeure) immunisé. Sa tentative d'alerter les autorités de la présence de l'infestation susdite fut interceptée par une station d'écoute de la Fondation. L'opératrice Marion A. Hutchinson (100A-1-9331), à l'époque agent de terrain basée à—

Une autre page.

—résistant aux procédures d'effacement de mémoire conventionnelles. Hutchinson demanda une exemption, qui fut acceptée sous le raisonnement que même avec ses souvenirs laissés intacts il serait impossible pour Wheeler de partager des détails concernant SCP-4051. Ils développèrent subséquemment une relation amoureuse.

"Oh, ils 'développèrent subséquemment une relation amoureuse', n'est-ce pas ? Dis-m'en plus, espèce de biographe sphérique gris et monotone, je suis captivée, là."

La biographie ne contient pas grand chose passé ce point. La vie d'Adam Wheeler passée dans des tournées, à jouer, à enseigner et occasionnellement à diriger, écrire et composer est documentée avec une précision exhaustive et dénuée d'intérêt. Il fait l'objet d'enqupetes de fond et est placé sous surveillance, et doit constamment montrer qu'il ne représente aucun risque de brèche. Il finit par recevoir le niveau d'accréditation extrêmement bas accordé aux partenaires à long terme externes à la Fondation. Ils se marient. Elle prend son nom, ce qu'à la lecture, elle trouve légèrement irréaliste. Blah blah.

Il n'y a rien sur sa personnalité. Rien sur leur relation. Pas de contenu.

Elle se rappelle avoir appréhendé SCP-4051. Il n'y avait personne, là-bas. Elle ne se souvient de rien.

*

Jusqu'à la fin de la troisième phase d'interrogation, Adam Wheeler suppose la bonne foi. Il se dit que la répétition est un zèle attendu, une nécessité procédurale dans cette organisation. Ce n'est que quand ils lui redemandent "Quel est votre nom ?" avec un tout nouvel interrogateur pour la quatrième fois qu'il comprend enfin : ils ne l'aiment pas, et ils n'ont rien à faire de ce qu'il pense être son nom. Ils essaient de l'accabler, jusqu'à ce qu'il ne puisse plus penser, jusqu'à ce qu'il ne soit plus que des particules de poussière qu'ils pourront trier pour en récupérer des données.

Il réagit mal à cette réalisation. Il demande sa femme, et demande sa femme, et ils l'ignorent, et ils l'ignorent, et elle persiste à ne pas apparaître, jusqu'à ce que c'en devienne une forme froide de torture. Les questions continuent de venir et rien ne les arrête, que ce soient de mauvaises réponses, des moitiés de réponses, des mensonges, des digressions. Ils ne s'arrêtent pas jusqu'à ce qu'il commence à s'endormir au milieu de ses phrases.

Il se réveille dans une Unité de Confinement pour Humanoïde standard, un appartement standardisé doté d'une chambre et de fausses fenêtres holographiques, de murs imprenables et de discrètes modifications exhaustives pour la sûreté et la surveillance d'entités anormales. Celle-là se situe au premier sous-sol, mais il ne peut pas en être sûr. L'ersatz de lumière intense affluant à travers la fenêtre de la salle de vie principale est assez authentique pour qu'il puisse bronzer.

Il se réveille sur le canapé, avec un sursaut, et un sentiment de grincement et de déshydratation. Il réalise qu'il a dormi dans son costume, et que ce dernier est plissé. Il déteste ça, cette sensation de ne pas être aussi présentable qu'il pourrait l'être, ni même d'être vraiment présentable, en fait. Ce sentiment va le ronger jusqu'à ce qu'il puisse trouver, au minimum, un rasoir et de quoi changer de chemise.

C'est le clac métallique émis par la porte en se déverrouillant qui l'a réveillé. Il lève les yeux et se les frotte. C'est sa femme. "Marion ! Oh, mon Dieu." Il bondit et court à sa rencontre. Elle l'arrête à quelques pas de distance, avec un geste et un sourire froid. Et ça, ça lui fait mal. Ça lui fait mal plus que tout.

Alors c'est vraiment arrivé. SCP-4987 a arraché et mangé la partie de Marion Wheeler qui se souciait de lui. Elle n'était pas absente à cause d'une brèche de classe-K sans rapport. Elle avait juste choisi d'être ailleurs, indifférente.

Il ne l'embrasse donc pas. Il reste à une certaine distance, poliment. "Comment tu te sens ? Tu as dormi ?"

"Je vais bien."

"Je peux voir que t'as eu ton café. Tu as mangé ? Viens là, je vais te faire quelque chose." L'unité dispose d'une zone de cuisine rudimentaire. Il la fouille et commence à explorer les placards. "Il doit y avoir quelque chose de comestible par là. Des oeufs et du lait, au moins. J'ai honte de dire que je m'étais plus ou moins endormi sur place quand ils m'ont mis ici, donc je n'ai pas eu l'occasion de regarder ce qu'il y avait. Ou bien est-ce que vous gardez l'endroit vide, et dans ce cas la nourriture arrive par un trou dans le mur ?"

Marion commence, "M. Wheeler—"

Adam lui jette un regard déçu.

"D'accord", dit-elle, "Adam. Viens, s'il te plaît, et assieds-toi. Tu as raison, il n'y a rien dans aucun dans ces placards."

Il ferme le placard et s'asseoit en face d'elle à la table de la cuisine. "Des œufs brouillés sur du pain aux céréales toasté", suggère-t-il. "Avec beaucoup d'ail sur les œufs. C'est ce qu'il nous faut à tous les deux, là. Surtout à toi, parce que si je ne te fais rien de substantiel tu finis par boire ces malheureux milkshakes au goût de pâte à papier-peint tous les jours de la semaine. Ou bien tu sautes les repas entièrement."

"Adam. Nous sommes mariés depuis dix-sept ans, est-ce vrai ?"

"Oui."

"Je ne te connais pas."

"Tant pis", répond Adam. "Je doute que ce soit un vrai problème. Tu m'as parlé, beaucoup de fois, de tes gars qui se sont perdus dans leur boulot et qui ont dû réinventer leurs personnalités complètement. Tu adores regarder ça. C'est comme voir des papillons émerger de leurs chrysalides. Les meilleurs de tes gars peuvent se reprendre en main en moins de dix semaines. Imagine la vitesse à laquelle ça va aller pour toi."

"Non", répond Wheeler. Son ton est clinique, factuel. "J'ai bien peur que ce ne soit pas possible."

"Qu'est-ce qui n'est pas possible ?"

"Je ne peux pas entamer une nouvelle relation maintenant. Et certainement pas quelque chose d'aussi sérieux qu'un mariage. Tu as une accréditation nominale ; tu sais ce qu'on fait. J'ai des responsabilités. Je n'ai pas de… 'temps'."

"Ça n'est pas 'nouveau'", rétorque Adam, impassible. "C'est pré-existant."

"Non", explique Wheeler. "Cette relation est terminée à présent, et nous ne sommes plus dedans à l'heure qu'il est."

Adam la fixe pendant un long moment, se pinçant les lèvres et loin d'être heureux. Il lui demande :

"De quoi est-ce que tu te souviens ?"

La question est si vague que Wheeler ne parvient pas à répondre verbalement. Elle écarte légèrement les mains, demandant par son geste : "Quoi ?"

"Tu ne te souviens pas de moi. SCP-4987 a aussi clairement mangé la partie de toi qui s'inquiéterait si tu m'oubliais. Et, en plus de ça, il y a aussi la partie de toi qui aurait eu de l'intérêt pour un brunch. 'Qu'est-ce que tu as oublié d'autre ?' serait une question stupide, donc au lieu de ça je te demande, qu'est-ce qui reste ? Je veux que tu me dises tout ce dont tu te souviens."

"Tout ce dont je me souviens ?"

"Oui. De 1995 à maintenant."

Il s'agit toujours d'une question ridicule à première vue, et le premier instinct de Wheeler est de l'éluder, mais elle y réfléchit. Elle réfléchit, dans l'intention de tenter honnêtement de répondre à la question. Et elle trouve des trous. Il manque un tas de détails. C'est comme si on lui demandait de "dire quelque chose" et qu'elle oubliait immédiatement tous les mots.

"Je me souviens… de mon travail", répond-t-elle.

Et de son trajet jusqu'à chez elle, et du moment où elle allait dormir, et puis de son trajet jusqu'à son lieu de travail le lendemain. Des bâtiments grands, hostiles. Des traitements chimiques, des procédures de confinement, des tas sans fin de nombres opaques, d'exercices physiques personnels. Courir. Calculer. Ne jamais, jamais s'arrêter de calculer. Elle se souvient, avec une clarité injuste, de très mauvais rêves d'une grande diversité.

Et à part ça, rien. Une énorme, profonde fosse.

"Tu ne te rappelles rien de bien, n'est-ce pas ? Rien qui puisse être bien.", dit Adam.

"Quand tu rentres à la maison, ce que tu ne fais pas tous les soirs, tu es toujours sur le point de t’effondrer. Ça n’a jamais été un travail facile, mais ces dernières années ont été pires que tout, parce que tu es sur le point de conclure à l’existence de quelque chose d’énorme. Tu m’as expliqué que tu ne pourra jamais, vraiment, me dire ce que tu fais, sans que cela ne me tue. Et je— je ne pouvais pas supporter ça au début, et je hais toujours ton boulot et je pense qu’il s’agit d’une monstrueuse farce— mais je t’ai fait confiance. Et j’ai arrêté de poser des questions. Mais je peux voir, d’après le… le cliquetis de tes mains et les choses que tu dis, et la manière dont tu dors, qu’un genre de guerre se déroule en coulisses. Que tu es en train d’y perdre des gens. Que tu en es presque à la fin. Et que tu es sur le point de gagner."

"So I scramble your eggs, and I play the violin for you, and between us we hack out about three-tenths of what I would consider to be normalcy. Not because you can't do this without me, you could take the whole universe by yourself if you really had to, but: to blazes with that, you don't have to.

"It didn't happen instantly. But it happened pretty damned fast. We had music in common at first, Bach and Mendelssohn. We had tobacco in common and a mutual hatred of The X-Files. Then it was coffee and wine. And then after some time it became hiking, and birdwatching, and Perseid meteors. We like Bruce Lee flicks. We watch Law & Order and Jeopardy! and we read stacks and stacks of books. No, in fairness, it's mainly me for the books. You don't have the long-term time to spare anymore."

He pinches the bridge of his nose for a second. Any two people can find that much common ground. Just being in the same place for years doesn't count for anything. What do they have?

"We communicate," he says. "Better than anybody I've seen. We can be apart for two months while I'm on tour or you're overseas and snap right back and pick up a conversation from the word we left off. We are connected. We are in the same headspace. You'll see it all. It'll happen again, just as fast. You've just got to give it a chance."

Wheeler is almost there. She sees the shape of what Adam is describing. It's distant and unclear, but if she concentrates she might be able to bring it into focus. It worries her, for nebulous reasons she can't completely articulate, but she can almost understand how there could be room for it. How it could lock into her life as it currently exists, and still make sense.

But Adam just said something crucial. He said a keyword which means the marriage counselling session is over and this is now a situation. Wheeler can't ignore it. She forces herself to drop the other thread and seize this one.

"What war?"

And now Adam really doesn't know what's happening. "Good God. The war, Marion. I don't know how else to describe it."

"What war? How many people?"

"I don't know," Adam says. "There are names. Names you stop mentioning, and then you ignore me when I bring them up again. I assume there are reasons. I don't know the specifics. How could I know? Why don't you know?"

Wheeler races through the reasoning. The existence of a war computes. It confirms long-term existing suspicions. It could have been going on for years without her realising it. It makes sense to her that she could be fighting it, winning, even, and not know; managing her own memories or losing them in skirmishes. This certainly won't be the first time she's uncovered it. It makes sense that Adam, naturally gifted with the mental equivalent of a thick layer of blubber, could stand on the edge of the conflict and dimly be able to perceive it. And the Division — so understaffed.

People are disappearing around her.

"And what if—" she begins, and stops dead in the middle of the thought, as if the thought itself was stolen out of her.

"And what if we get back together, and—" she begins again, and this time hard instinct seizes her around the midsection and bodily hauls her back from thinking a thought which, it knows, would kill her. She's Wile E. Coyote, she's already run off the edge of a precipice into clear air, and thinking that thought would be like looking down.

She feels SCP-4987 moving around her, abstractly bound to her, a winking speck of glitter in her eye. "Something's wrong."

Adam scratches at his own eye. "Do you see that?"

"How can you see that?"

"I have a mild immunity to antimemetic influence," Adam says. He knows it's in his file and he knows Wheeler has read the file, but apparently it needs to be said again. "I can tell when something is fritzing with my memories. I can resist it. Up to a point. So, Marion, I was hoping to have a relaxed conversation over coffee and get around to this topic organically, but I'm going to have to skip to the end: I have the impression that SCP-4987 is trying to kill me."

"…No," Wheeler says. "That's not its behavior model. It doesn't sustain itself that way, by eating people. It eats memories. And it's never done this. Not to you, nor me, nor anybody. Not since the very early days. It's tame. It does exactly what I tell it to do. Even when I'm waiting, and I'm bored, and I let it eat my short-term, it sits and waits to be told to eat."

"Then what is it doing to us?" Adam is getting nervy, and won't let go of his eye. He stands up and backs away. "I would like it if we could figure this out quickly. We don't have a way to put SCP-4987 down."

There's a sound in Wheeler's mind, but not in her ear, like a distant chorus of baying dogs. She stands too, and moves after Adam into the middle of the containment unit.

She says, "It's trying to protect you."

"I— How does wiping your memory of me protect me?"

"I can't explain," Wheeler says. "And I can't explain why I can't explain. I don't fully know myself. There's an ███████████ ███████."

"A what?"

"You can't be here," she says. "You can't be in my life. You have to leave, or you're going to die."

"I'm not leaving you," Adam says. "Christ, that's why we did it in the end. Got married, I mean. It was scintillatingly obvious to both of us, very early on, that we were forever. But I wanted to get it on the public record. I stood up in front of everybody I respect and I swore to them that I would protect you. Forever!"

SCP-4987 is agitated. Wheeler feels it flitting around the room, incoherent, trying to tell her what it needs.

She says, with sudden actinic clarity, "I must have made an identical promise."

Adam doubles over, blinded in both eyes now. Closing his eyes does nothing, covering his eyes does nothing. The gold-white light is strobing for him, moving into violet. He panics. "Help. Help me. I can't see." He reaches out, unsteadily, for Wheeler's hand. She lets him take it and pull her close. The light doesn't fade. He clings to Wheeler for a few moments, and she holds on to him until he realises that SCP-4987 is completely within her control, and this is all intentional.

"You're going to do this?" Adam says. "This is the Foundation mandate, this is what your definition of 'protect' amounts to? You've got no idea what you're about to do to yourself. You don't even know me."

"I think I know," she replies.

"You will feel this for the rest of your life. Every day, you will wake up with a sick cold feeling in your stomach where there used to be a real life. And you'll wonder why."

"I'm going to win this war," Wheeler says to him. "I'll beat the universe. And then I will come and find out why."

Adam holds on to her for another long, long moment. He can hear the baying too, now, and he can even barely perceive what it is, far off behind the hill, that SCP-4987 is frantic about. That distant dot, that fleeting second-hand glimpse of the shape of it, far off, is enough to terrify him.

He has faith. He knows how fast Marion can put the jigsaw pieces back together, work against a universe which makes no sense to her, isolate the truth. He knows she can take the universe. But a sharp misgiving jabs him in the stomach and he can't stop himself saying: "And what if you lose?"

Elle l'embrasse. C'est le baiser d'une inconnue, il n'y a rien dans ce baiser qu'Adam puisse reconnaître. Il s'éloigne, troublé. C'est un murmure maintenant : "Et si tu échoues ?"

*

Wheeler quitte l'unité de confinement ; elle claque et verrouille la porte derrière elle d'un seul mouvement. Le lourd crac métallique fait trembler tout le bâtiment.

Il y a des gens dehors. Gauss, Julie Still et quelques autres, qui comparent des notes entre elles. Ils ont l'air effaré.

"Faites refaire son histoire", leur dit-elle. "Il ne s'est jamais marié. Déplacez-le là où je ne le trouverai jamais, incinérez toutes les preuves, puis contactez-moi pour que je vous soumette à un effacement mémoriel chirurgical. Je passerai en dernier."

There are people outside. Gauss, Julie Still and a few others, comparing notes. They look appalled.

"Fill in his backstory," she tells them. "He was never married. Relocate him to where I'll never find him, incinerate all the evidence, then report to me for surgical memory erasure. I'll do myself last."

Gauss a l'air d'avoir une objection à faire. Elle lui jette un regard noir.

"Mon mari est mort", déclare-t-elle.

Suivant : Enfer frais

ENFER FRAIS

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There's another conglomeration of severed fingers in the last room, coating the room's interior like the innards of an exploded elephant. Parts of the sprawl are feeling their way, like mould, into a medical cabinet and the rest is splayed over a foetal shape on a medical gurney. The mass reacts sharply to the new light as Wheeler opens the door, rearing up and angling parts of itself toward him. Wheeler reels backwards and pulls the door to just in time; there is a heavy, fleshy thump as the mass hits the door from the far side. The door holds.

Wheeler trips on his own foot and slumps against the far wall. The shape on the gurney was a coiled-up human. Not a corpse, but a living human with one wide-open eye whose whole body was being slowly consumed and processed into more fingers. They were growing out of his throat. Wheeler didn't see this. He thinks he saw it, but he knows he couldn't have.

And that's it. Wheeler casts around the corridor. Every other door he's tried is blocked or locked. The place is below ground, so no windows. No navigable ventilation.

There are two more gunshots up at the far end of the corridor, ear-splitting in the enclosed space and echoing for many seconds. Hutchinson rounds the corner at a dead run, gun in hand, and reaches him quickly. "Find a way out?" she asks, pointlessly. She can read Wheeler's expression. He's found nothing good.

"This place is infested," Wheeler says. "Every room, all the stairwells… This is absurd."

At the far end of the corridor, the main mass heaves itself around the corner. From this distance, it looks like an ambulatory eight-tonne pile of mouldy mashed potato and fat, wiggling maggots. There are toes in there as well as fingers, and small teeth, and bits of bone. It has twenty bullet holes in it, and blood is flowing from all of them, but if it has vital organs they must be elsewhere in the building because none of the wounds have slowed it down or otherwise altered its slow, methodical homing behaviour. It smells powerfully and creatively disgusting, like concentrated medical waste.

It lurches forward in intermittent phases, coating the walls and floor with scarlet ooze as it moves. It'll be on them in about half a minute, squashing them against the end of the corridor and then pulling them into the mess to be remade.

"I think we're done," Wheeler quavers. "Thanks for trying."

Hutchinson, for her part, just stands there, gun lowered, watching the thing come. It moves slowly, like a steam roller. It fills the corridor almost to the ceiling.

She has two bullets left and she's considering where to spend them. Shooting the mass itself is like shooting pudding. She'd kill for a grenade. Even a fire axe would be something. She might not be able to stop the thing, but she could at least make herself known with a fire axe. She could make it feel some regret.

"There are worse fates, I guess," Wheeler goes on, finding himself unable to stop talking, "than being digitised by that thing, but not all that many."

Hutchinson glances in his direction, apparently paying him direct attention for the first time since they met, sixty crowded minutes ago. She says, "Riser cupboard."

"What?"

She pushes Wheeler aside. There's a white-painted wall behind him. There's a lock in it, and a long vertical seam. She spends a moment choosing the right part of the lock to shoot, and shoots it out. Behind the tall, wide panel which opens is a shallow, dusty, metal-edged space like an elevator shaft with no elevator, allowing filthy pipes and cables to pass vertically between floors. She looks up. There's just enough room to admit a person.

"Can you climb?" she asks Wheeler. Without waiting for a response, she sheds her suit jacket, sticks a flashlight between her teeth and hauls herself up into the darkness. After a brief moment of scuffling, there's another gunshot. The other riser cupboard door.

"No," Wheeler finally manages. "No, I can't climb!" The mass is almost on him. He's transfixed by its motion, its all-too-familiar grasping behaviour.

"I figured," Hutchinson calls down. A hand descends, a human one with the conventional number of fingers. "It's clear up here. Come on, I'm braced. Mind this lip here, it's metal. Come on!"

Wheeler keeps his own jacket on and buttoned; it's the only part of the situation over which he still has firm control. He has to jump to catch hold of Hutchinson's hand, and just as he jumps, the main mass lunges for him, crossing the last few metres in a rush and catching hold of him by one foot.

He sees himself die.

His sweating hand immediately starts to slip out of Hutchinson's. She braces her other arm and hauls him up fifteen or thirty centimetres with an angry grunt, then releases his hand for a split second and reaches down like a flash to take firmer hold of his wrist. She keeps pulling. The mass closes around Wheeler's foot like aggressive, proactive quicksand. He yelps and kicks at it with his other foot until it finally pries his shoe loose. The mass retreats for a second, taking a crucial moment to realise that its prize is not living flesh, but by that time Hutchinson has hauled Wheeler up another half-metre and Wheeler has started pushing himself upwards off the pipework with his feet. The mass lunges again, but falls short, and seems too unintelligent to climb after them. It sloshes around, probing its surroundings, perplexed by the shoe.

Hutchinson hauls Wheeler over the lip into the next corridor. He scrapes his ribs badly and arrives crawling, eyes watering. He doesn't die. He can still see himself dying. He stays on all fours for a significant amount of time, processing what just happened.

"Fuck!"

Hutchinson is already standing, and apparently not even significantly exerted. "We need to get to the roof. I might be able to get a signal out from there."

"You're at the gym pretty often?" Wheeler pants, sitting back. "You train for fresh hell like this?"

"Yeah."

"That's great," Wheeler says, "because I play the violin. It's not quite as physically demanding. As careers go, I mean. When you said you were a county health inspector, that was an enormous lie, wasn't it?"

Hutchinson ignores the question, out of habit, and waits impassively for the man to cool.

"This is asinine," Wheeler declares. "This is brain damage." His skin crawls, and grotesque visions flood through his brain. Eventually he recovers his breath and gets to his feet. He stands lopsided, so he takes his other shoe off and throws it back down the riser for symmetry.

"We need to get to the roof," Hutchinson says again.

Wheeler blinks a long blink, then focuses on something around the corner, something on the wall which Hutchinson can't see from where she's standing. "Yeah. One second." He goes to it — it's a red panel — and pulls something down. "Here, you were having no luck with the gun. Try this."

It's a fire axe.

*

He stepped on a rusty nail backstage after the show, and came to the emergency room for a tetanus injection. While waiting, he slowly realised that more than half of the people waiting with him were clutching partially or entirely severed fingers. Bandsaw accidents; hands caught in car doors; hands trapped in door hinges; hands crushed in machinery; every one of them unrelated. There was an epidemic of physical injury, which should have been impossible, and when he tried to bring it up with the medical staff they didn't seem to understand what he was saying.

And then he saw one of the fingers escape. He followed it as it wriggled away down a long corridor to a far corner of the hospital, to an ajar door which nobody in the hospital seemed to be able to perceive except for him, and into a different building where there were no people at all, just hundreds and hundreds of wriggling, exploring, slowly reproducing and lengthening fingers.

He slammed the door and tried and failed to get someone, anyone, staff or patient, to see what he was seeing. He found a payphone and dialled for emergency services and ordered off the menu, asking for emergency industrial-scale pest control or hazardous containment or psychic support or something.

And there was a long pause, and he was connected to what was either a very measured, dispassionate human or an impressively articulate robot operator. It told him to wait by the phone; an associate would be with him shortly. Marion Hutchinson arrived in person, slightly less than fifteen minutes later.

He showed her the door. They went a few paces inside, Hutchinson crouching and aiming some kind of flashlight/scanner at the finger worms. Behind them, something reached out and gently pushed the door closed with a click. They turned, and saw what it was, and ran.

*

Hutchinson hacks her way through the last of the flesh-clogged stairwell. They're almost at the roof. This part of the distributed infestation doesn't seem to be mobile, although it is freakishly grabby.

Wheeler stands three paces back from her, partly to avoid the backswing but mostly so he doesn't have to watch. It's butchery, and it's grisly, and Hutchinson barely seems perturbed by it; she slices methodically until there are waterfalls of gore coming down the stairs and soaking her shoes and his socks, and she does it with the manner of someone trimming a hedgerow.

Whunch. Krunlch.

Wheeler is shivering, and starting to crash. If he doesn't stay still right in the middle of the stairwell, the remaining fingers tug at his hair and sleeves. In another few minutes it may finally dawn on him that this is really happening. "This is crazy, this is nuts," he says to himself, over and over.

"What was that word you used back there?" Hutchinson asks, suddenly.

"Mmm?"

Whunch. "Don't tune out. When the mass was coming down the hall. Did you say 'digitized'?"

"…Um." Wheeler seems to change gear, and wake up. "Yeah. Uh, but, in the old sense of the word—"

"'Digit' meaning 'finger', so 'digitized' meaning 'turned into fingers'. I just got it." She's smiling, he can tell from the sound of her words. Chlunk. "That's great."

"It is?"

"What kind of violin music?"

"Uh. What kind would you like? Tonight's— last night's— Christ, yesterday's concert was Prokofiev's Violin Concerto No. 1. And a few other pieces, of course, but that was the main course for me. That was where I got my teeth in."

Hutchinson stops hacking and turns around. She actually looks him in the eye. "That piece is a nightmare."

"It's a challenge," Wheeler admits, brightly.

"No, I mean it's chaotic. It's unlistenable."

"I can play anything you like," Wheeler states.

Hutchinson appears to spend a moment considering this possibility. "Bach. You can play some Bach?"

"Just get me to a violin."

Hutchinson thinks for a moment longer. She smiles and nods, and goes back to hacking.

*

And they hit the roof, and Hutchinson's radio finally works, and she calls everything in. She speaks in rapid keywords which Wheeler can't quite follow, although he can pick out his own name and "hazmat" and a repeated word which sounds to him like a brand of cassette tape: "Memetix".

It's very nearly dawn. This wing of the hospital is a few storeys shorter than its main body, so rows of bright-lit wards look down over the roof, while the roof looks out over two sprawling car parks and then greenery and roads and a faint, dull red where the Sun is due to come up. Hutchinson quickly ascertains that there is no fire escape from here; the intended fire exit from the roof is the stairwell up which they just came, so they'll have to wait for a helicopter. Or, more likely and less romantically, a long ladder.

"Backup is coming," Hutchinson concludes. "They have to come in from the next city over, so it could be a few hours. They'll have decontamination gear, antibiotics, blankets, tedious debriefing forms, you name it. But most importantly, coffee."

Wheeler makes an inarticulate sound, the sound of one who could use the coffee, and after that, a drink. "God, I have another concert today," he says. He sits on the thick perimeter wall, rubs his eyes, rubs his sore feet, and begins to shut down.

"You'll be there," Hutchinson says. "The nasty part is over. You did well for a civilian. I've seen far worse."

"Worse than this?"

Hutchinson says nothing.

"I'm sorry." Wheeler opens his eyes again. He gestures at the mayhem from which they just escaped, the fire door and everything it leads to. It's all still down there. "You've seen worse than this?"

Hutchinson, again, says nothing.

"What is this? What happened here?"

At first Hutchinson doesn't answer this either. She walks away across the roof and spends an entire minute staring at the forthcoming Sun.

And then, surprising Wheeler and slightly surprising even herself, she walks back to him and says:

"SCP-4051, which is the number we just assigned to this infestation, has an intrinsic property which makes it nearly impossible for sapient organisms to perceive it. It's a form of camouflage. It's not invisible, it's a mental blocking effect. Information about it goes nowhere, it gets suppressed. People walk past this building every day of the week. They don't see what's blocking the windows. They walk past that door and don't realise it's standing open. It could have been here for decades. The researchers will get the whole story eventually."

Wheeler finds in this explanation something he halfway understands. "So… living fnords?"

And this actually slows Hutchinson down for a second. She gets that reference. She read those books when she was younger, years ago, before joining the Foundation. But she's never made the connection between fnords and the work she does. For as long as she's been working there, she hasn't even thought about it. The irony is intense enough to burn.

"Yeah," she says.

"Except that you can see them," Wheeler says.

"I have specialist training," Hutchinson says, declining to mention her drug regimen.

"And I, also, can see them."

"You seem to have a mild natural immunity to memory-clouding phenomena," Hutchinson explains. "It's rare, but it happens. At a hospital this busy, someone like you was bound to stumble into this place sooner or later." And escape alive, she privately adds. "But the point is… this infestation, SCP-4051, is a snowflake. I don't mean that it's special and unique. I mean: it's part of a blizzard.

"I work for an independent scientific research institution with a specialist focus on the containment of hazardous anomalous phenomena. We have an international mandate and formidable resources and… unimaginable responsibilities. We… we watch the blizzard. And we guard the little fire. We're called the Foundation."

Wheeler's full attention is on her now. He feels tense and exposed here, vulnerable to extraordinary natural forces from which by rights he should be fleeing. But he's also fascinated. Hutchinson has a faintly ethereal attitude to her. It's as if she's not standing on the same planet as everybody else.

"So you're not FBI," he says. "Either, I mean. That was my other guess."

Hutchinson wrinkles her nose. "I hate that show."

"I don't believe I mentioned a show," Wheeler says mischievously.

"They do everything wrong," Hutchinson says. A nerve has been touched. She shuffles irately. "They don't have enough people; they don't trust each other. They don't spend nearly enough time on paperwork. Paperwork saves lives. But most of all? I hate the will-they-or-won't-they. For what, five years? It's forced, it's farcical." She glares at Wheeler. "It doesn't take that long to know. You will or you won't. And then you do."

Wheeler reads her expression carefully. "You do?"

"Yeah," Hutchinson says, smiling again. "Yeah, I think you do."

A distant rapid thudding noise slowly becomes apparent. Hutchinson sees the source of the sound first and points. "Backup's here. And it looks like we rated a helicopter after all."

Suivant : Ojai

OJAI

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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 irradiated, 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.

Suivant : Immémorial

IMMÉMORIAL

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"Ms. Wheeler! Ms. Wheeler!"

Marion Wheeler has just finished a scheduled inspection of SCP-8473 and is about to go for a cigarette. Someone is running up to meet her outside SCP-8473's containment unit. Wheeler recognises her as Dr. Eli Moreno, a trainee field researcher who joined the Antimemetics Division only six months ago.

"Dr. Moreno. Can I help you with something?"

"Uhm." Moreno interlocks her fingers nervously. She is a full head taller than Wheeler and half her age, with scraggly hair and exceedingly thick glasses. She lacks experience. But she is very smart, and she is learning very fast. In another year, she'll be among the best people the Division has, or has ever had, and Wheeler is looking forward to that. Wheeler loves nothing more than competent people.

Still, as the pause lengthens, that day of competence seems to be in the future. "Dr. Moreno, I normally expect my people to get to the point a little quicker than this."

"There's— a stone in the forest behind the Site," Moreno blurts. "It's monumental. It's like a skyscraper, it blots out the Sun. Do you know what I'm talking about?"

"Yes."

"But I've never seen it before. I don't understand how it's possible that I never saw it. It casts a shadow across the whole Site. I mean— Was it always there?"

"Yes."

"Is this because—"

"—you took your first routine dose of ops-grade mnestics this morning, yes."

Moreno seems alarmed. "That's how it works? Something that big can just be right there and we don't see it?"

"Yeah." Wheeler checks her watch, and mentally moves some scheduled commitments around. Extend this "smoke break" to the rest of the afternoon. Leave the scheduled inspection of SCP-3125 where it is. Review promotion cases after the gym instead of before. Evening meal… at this rate, never…

Moreno, suffocating under the weight of follow-up questions, finally asks, "What is it?"

Wheeler gestures to her left, down the corridor, indicating that she is about to walk, and that Moreno should follow her. "I will show you."

*

In the database it's SCP-9429. Moreno hasn't read the entry; she doesn't have access.

The stone is a single, unbroken, 91-by-91-by-147-metre vertical cuboid of ancient, weathered, dark basalt. It sits at a very slight angle, leaning fractionally to the north. Its regular angles clearly mark it as a carved object, a human-made artifact. It rises out of the forest to the east of Site 41 and dominates, not to say obliterates, the views in that direction from the windows of the Site's main block. It is, by volume, massively bigger than the Site itself, even including its underground extents. It looms. It is absolutely unmissable. The idea that anyone could fail to notice it for any period of time is, Wheeler has to admit, more than a little unnerving.

Wheeler leads Moreno up the short forest track to the stone's perimeter, and then right, following its perimeter, in its shadow. It's a wet day, and rain is dripping from the very top edge of the cube as well as from the conifers which grow right up beside it. The rain makes a constant white hiss, deadening other sounds.

"There's a weak antimemetic clouding effect surrounding it," Wheeler explains as she picks her way along the track ahead of Moreno. "To most people it's effectively invisible. You've been up to the top of some of these other hills, I'm sure. You should have seen it clearly from up there, as well, but you looked straight past it. That's normal. There's a related effect which removes people's memories after they've visited the stone. That effect is much stronger. It'll cut right through your mnestic drug regimen, and mine."

"So we'll forget all about this?" Moreno asks.

Wheeler holds up a battered little notebook and a cheap blue ballpoint. Moreno understands; she is carrying a notebook and pen as well. Information suppression is a complicated spectrum. Sometimes a written note is the only thing which will make it out of a zone which suppresses memories, electronic data, radio signals and even audible sound. Alongside the mandatory Foundation-issue "brickphone", many Antimemetics Division operatives habitually carry some combination of an instant camera, a mechanical tape-driven dictaphone, a notebook, a walkie-talkie…

Not that Moreno was expecting to need anything today.

"Of course," Wheeler continues, "one side-effect of the clouding is that I don't exactly remember the way. I guess we could set up sign posts, but somehow it never gets done… not because of antimemetic effects, you understand, just plain laziness… ah, this looks like the way up."

They come to a passage in the side of the stone. In fact it is not a passage but a tremendously deep groove, cut all the way from the top of the cube to its base, a slot with a thin line of overcast sky visible overhead and steps leading up. Wheeler begins to climb and Moreno follows. They climb in silence for some minutes. Moreno stops a few times to write down a note or two, hunching over to shield her notebook from the drizzle. Then she hurries to catch up with Wheeler, who maintains a steady, indifferent pace.

Some time after Moreno has lost count of the steps, the stepped groove makes a ninety-degree turn to the left and continues to ascend. Wheeler stops here, above Moreno, and turns to quiz her.

"What do you have so far?"

"What is this place?" Moreno asks.

"You tell me."

"Uhm." Moreno hesitates for a moment, uncertain where this is going. She checks her notes. "Uhm, well. Geologically speaking, this stone is an alien. At first I thought there had been a mountain on this spot which was excavated into this shape by human hands. But the rock itself is wrong. It's different from the mountains and hills near here. You'd have to travel at least five hundred kilometers to find basalt like this. Which means it must have been excavated elsewhere, maybe carved there, and moved here."

Wheeler says nothing, but her demeanour seems to indicate that Moreno is on the right track.

"Which isn't possible," Moreno continues. "This is a single stone. Judging from its dimensions and density, it must mass north of three million tonnes. That's now, after carving. And that can't be done. Human civilization cannot move objects of this size. Not in a single piece. The technology doesn't exist."

"Correct."

"So how did it get here?"

"Good question."

Moreno waits. She doesn't have the answer to the question, so she waits for Wheeler to supply it.

But Wheeler does not. "What else?"

"…It's been engraved," Moreno says, indicating the walls of the stepped passage. "Using tools. And I noticed the exterior walls are the same. There's a lot of weathering, but here and there between the biological crud there's this very clear, regular pattern. Right here, see? Tiny vertical rectangles. Like a… block cursor on an old computer terminal."

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"Or a tombstone in typography," Wheeler suggests.

Moreno blinks. "…Yes. It's a uniform pattern. Very detailed work, which would require quite good tools even by modern standards. I think this pattern is supposed to cover the entire exterior of the stone. And if that's the case, the blocks are so minuscule and the stone is so large that there must have originally been hundreds of millions of them."

"Correct," Wheeler says again. "Anything else?"

Moreno thinks for a minute. She stares up into the rain, reflecting on the atmosphere that the stone, or sculpture as she supposes it would be better described, projects. Loneliness, quiet, desolation, awe… intimidation. And some fear. Although, with that intimidating, fearful atmosphere, there's no sensation of danger. No threat.

"'We considered ourselves to be a powerful culture,'" she says aloud.

Wheeler hears this, but asks no follow-up question. Apparently satisfied, she turns and continues climbing the steps, and Moreno follows.

The passage makes several more turns, carving out an erratic, squared squiggle. Moreno takes no further notes. Her knees are about ready to explode by the time they reach the top.

They emerge, blinking at the light, on a wet, windswept, slightly slanted plateau. There are more of the tiny tombstone indentations underfoot. The edges of the cube are some distance away but they are not marked; the dark grey surface just ends at a straight line not far out, and the horizon itself is below it, not visible. This gives Moreno some vertigo, particularly since the surface tilts towards one corner, and the engraved basalt underfoot is slick, wet and getting wetter.

There is a small cluster of Foundation scientific equipment up here, chunky weatherproof units stacked up under a canopy. There's a table, with a rugged, beaten-up computer terminal, switched off. Further away is a diesel generator.

Wheeler ignores the equipment and paces away in a different direction, facing away from Moreno and out at the sky, playing with her cigarette lighter, although not actually lighting anything. The lighter is actually a tiny propane burner intended for lighting stoves, given to her by her mother before she died. Wheeler no longer remembers this.

Moreno waits for a while, arms folded for warmth, gradually getting wetter. She doesn't seek cover under the canopy, because Wheeler hasn't. She senses that something is about to happen. Wheeler is normally quite poised and difficult to read, but she looks apprehensive; upset, even. Focused intently on the lighter flame, Wheeler seems to be unable to look her in the eye, as if she doesn't want to push through with the next part of whatever this is actually supposed to be. Orientation? Initiation? Hazing?

What was that about getting to the point?

"It's a memorial," Moreno says.

"Hhn." Wheeler snaps the lighter shut and pockets it, moderately impressed. Only moderately, though. "That's right. Of course, I practically told you that, when I mentioned tombstones—"

"How many Antimemetics Wars have there been?"

That gets her. "Damn. So much for slow-burning theatrics. Someone told you? You read the entry?"

Moreno looks at her shoes. "Uhm. No. Really, I've never seen this place before. I was just guessing."

"You look embarrassed," Wheeler says. "You're embarrassed that you hit the right answer thirty minutes before I was expecting you to. You think you've shown me up. Right? Eli. Look at me."

She looks.

"Keep operating at that level. Don't slow up for my benefit, or anyone's. It's important."

"Will you tell me why we're here?" Moreno asks, for what she hopes will be the final time. And in another part of her mind, a fatal chain of calculations starts.

*

"The problem," Wheeler says, "is that every single person in the world with reliable access to high-grade mnestic medication works for me, here. And the Division is pitifully understaffed. There are forty of us, including you and me, and forty pairs of eyes is not enough. We cannot look at enough of the world at once. There is an appallingly large percentage of the world which no human has ever properly looked at. This is unbearably limiting to all forms of antimemetic research. Antimemetic biology, antimemetic paleontology, antimemetic cosmology, antimemetic archaeology… These disciplines, all of them, barely exist. They are nowhere.

"Nevertheless, we have seen this culture's cities. One or two still exist. Pure dumb luck is how we found them. A Division researcher takes a vacation, drives across Nevada while still on the dose… sees something on the horizon. That sort of thing. The cities are physically ruined, and there are heavy antimemetic effects shrouding them which make them nearly impossible to study, even for us. Large, simple things, like this stone, survived better, but even so… We think this stone was one of the last things they built before they died out.

"They were human. They were probably significantly more technologically advanced than we are. They existed tens of thousands of years ago; perhaps hundreds of thousands, we can't know for sure. It's difficult to determine what really happened to them because their entire cultural memeplex was lethally irradiated. Their core cultural concepts, the things they created, and stood for, and valued highly, can never be known or propagated again.

"We think an idea stole into their culture which they did not have adaptations to defend against. A complex of ideas. A Memeplectic/Keter-class end-of-world scenario."

Wheeler pauses, letting the rain patter for a significant moment.

"…And we just forgot?" Moreno asks. "The rest of us. Who survived the War, and became modern humanity. You and me and everybody. We, what, looked away? And walked away and 'moved on'?"

"Yes."

Moreno staggers, vertigo swelling up and briefly getting the better of her. "Hundreds of millions of people died and we just forgot? Is that what you wanted to show me? You want me to write that down?"

"Yes," Wheeler says. "Yes. Write this down. It's the first thing you're learning today. Humans can forget anything. It's okay to forget some things, because we are mortal and finite. But some things we have to remember. It's important that we remember. Write to yourself something which will make you remember."

Moreno nods. It's raining too heavily, so she retreats under the canopy and uses the table. Even so, a few rain drops spatter her notes. She writes intently and rapidly, for some time. What she writes is rushed and unrefined, with large parts crossed out. She wonders how she'll react when she reads it for the first time.

After a while, Wheeler joins her under the canopy.

Moreno, staring at her notes, asks Wheeler, as if she doesn't already know the answer: "And the second thing?"

Wheeler says:

"It is possible that their culture had an equivalent to the Foundation. It may even have had an Antimemetics Division. If they did, their Foundation, and their Antimemetics Division, failed them.

"It's a big reality. It's a big Foundation. There's a lot of Keters and a lot of Keter-class scenarios. So, maybe the end of the world will be some other Division's problem. And yes, a big part of the job we hired you for is basic research. Lab work, as safe as it gets. And yes, it's been thousands of years, and it may be thousands of years more.

"But maybe it won't. And maybe it will be our problem. To answer your original question, there has been one Antimemetics War that we know. Potentially others that we don't know of. And there is, undoubtedly, one to come."

Moreno says nothing. She looks dismayed, broken. She's right to be, and Wheeler is familiar with the reaction. This is, indeed, part of every new Antimemetics Division operative's orientation. The magnitude of responsibility can be hard to handle. It should be.

"Welcome to the Antimemetics Division," Wheeler says. "This is your first day."

*

Moreno writes for some time longer. Wheeler waits, silently. The rain doesn't let up.

"But what was it?" Moreno asks. "What was the idea?"

"SCP-9429-A," Wheeler says. "We isolated the memeplex itself in the Seventies. We have it on a slab in a Vegas room, basement level two. It's mostly harmless now. It's so culturally alien to modern humans as to be nearly incoherent. Think Egyptian heiroglyphs. I'll show you another day."

"I can read Egyptian heiroglyphs," Moreno says. "Are you saying it couldn't come back?"

"In that form, it's highly unlikely."

Moreno points at something, far away in the sky.

Wheeler looks. There's nothing out there. Just overcast sky and rain. "What do you see? Under heavy mnestic doses, some people say they see ghosts here. We even have some supposed interview logs. Personally, I think their veracity is dubious…"

"Um. It doesn't look like a ghost. It looks like a… an anorexic… kaiju. A monster. A pillar made of spiders. It's taller than this stone. At least twice as tall. It's coming here. Is this normal?"

"No." Wheeler is already racing through the checklist.

"What is it?"

"I don't know."

"This isn't part of the hazing?"

"No. I will never lie to you, Eli. I swear." An antimemetically cloaked entity which looks as monstrous as Moreno is describing has an approximately zero percent chance of being benign. They need support. Wheeler finds that her phone has no signal. Checking Moreno's is pointless, she already knows. The only way to get a message out of here is with a written note. A paper airplane, thrown off the top into the woods?

"It's bending down. I think it's looking at me," Moreno says, watching a space in the air descend. There isn't even a hole in the rain which Wheeler can perceive. "Its head is gigantic, it has to be ten meters wide. It has… graspers and arthropod legs all over it. Dozens of eyes. Some of them are blinded. There's someone riding it."

"What? Describe the rider."

"Caucasian male, twenties, skinny. Jeans, trainers, dirty brown hair, needs a haircut. He's been shot. He's bleeding out all over but he doesn't seem to notice. In the liver, and again in the throat, just above the clavicle. He's smiling. He… he says, 'No. That never happened.'"

Wheeler spends a split second wondering whether the gunshot wounds are intentionally creepy detailing, or whether the man is genuinely using some kind of advanced antimemetic power to ignore a mortal wound. And, if the latter, how, and how he originally sustained it. But more urgent questions are afoot. "He sees you?"

"Yes."

"Does he see me? Hear me?"

Moreno is transfixed and is starting to look genuinely frightened. "He wants to know who I'm talking to."

"Don't tell him. He doesn't get information about us, understand?" Wheeler pulls her walkie-talkie from her waist, sets it to broadcast an emergency beacon, turns and hurls it overarm as far as she possibly can, in the direction of the Site 41 main building. With luck, it'll land intact in the forest, outside the suppression zone cast by SCP-9429, summoning a Mobile Task Force. "Ask who he is."

Moreno is standing very still, with her arms clamped rigidly at her side. "Who are you?… He says… he says he's nearly finished. He says he's going to kill me."

"Like hell. Eli, listen to me. We're running for it. Back down the steps. If we can get to the perimeter of the stone it'll flush our memories."

"I can't move."

Wheeler hauls on one of Moreno's arms. She can't be moved. "Put one foot in front of the other!"

"It's got a hold of me." Moreno is goggle-eyed and starting to hyperventilate.

Wheeler disengages and surveys the situation. She can't see or touch any grasping spider legs, or the monumental face which Moreno can't look away from, or the rider. But she believes Moreno that they're there, real for some value of "real". She claps one hand to her side; but of course she isn't carrying her sidearm, because this is a Safe SCP on a Safe Site, and why would she be? Not that it even makes a difference when this mythical rider is able to laugh off gunshot wounds. There aren't enough options in front of her. She very badly wants to swear, and bites down hard on her tongue.

Moreno screams.

"Eli!" Wheeler shouts. "Don't look at it. Look at me."

"I can't."

"You're stronger than this."

"I'm not," Moreno cries.

"You're the best we have," Wheeler says. "I'm not making that up. You're seeing this thing when nobody else could. That makes you smarter and stronger. You can fight it. Invasion drill!"

"It hates us so much," Moreno says. "I can't think through it. I can't see. Please. Please don't."

Wheeler knocks her out. She circles behind Moreno, plants one hand on her shoulder for stability and punches her behind the ear. Moreno sags in place, then falls forward to her knees. Wheeler is just about able to catch her before her skull connects with the ground.

But she didn't hit her hard enough. Moreno is unconscious only for a second. She struggles as she comes back. It's like she's waking from a nightmare into another nightmare. She clutches at Wheeler's hand. She can't scream. Her heart stops.

Wheeler rolls her over and administers CPR, but without equipment there's very little chance of her restarting Moreno's heart.

Nobody's coming. She didn't throw the walkie-talkie far enough.

It's almost fifteen minutes before she gives up.

*

And then Wheeler is collapsed against the wall of the passage, on the next-to-last step, about to leave SCP-9429's field of influence, trying to figure out what in the fuck she can possibly write to herself.

What the hell was that thing? All Moreno did was think of it and it killed her. She was as good as any of us. She was as capable as she was ever going to be and she wasn't good enough. How do you fight an antimemetic monster which only eats the best antimemeticists?

You… you could try to build some kind of countermeme. But you'd need to be shielded while you worked on it. You'd need a hermetically sealed, self-sustaining lab as big as an arcology. Like the ones Bart Hughes used to build. Like… the one under Site 41.

God. How long have we been fighting this thing?

There's a rustling behind her. She turns to look. Far away up the steps, there he is, the rider Moreno described. A scrawny young man with a hostile frown and, yes, two steadily oozing gunshot wounds. His shoes are soaked in blood.

He calls out, "Marion Wheeler! I owe you for the lake."

Wheeler stands up. She doesn't know what lake he's talking about. But she says nothing.

The rider gestures. Blue and brown and black spiders of all sizes cascade around the corner, flooding the passageway up to his knees, pouring over his shoulders, tumbling down towards Wheeler. They make a strange, organic rustling as they pour, like wet leaves. There must be millions of them. The spiders would probably be much more effective if she was at all afraid of them.

It's too bad. She's just learned a great deal about this entity; that they have history together, and that it personally dislikes her, and that it apparently has a humanoid mouthpiece… and a lousy imagination. But she has only a second before the cascade of arachnids overcomes her, and that's not enough time to even write a single word. Moreno's death, then, was for nothing.

She steps backwards, over the threshold.

*

The rain is finally easing off. Wheeler lights a cigarette and heads back to the main building. It's almost time for her scheduled inspection of SCP-3125.

Suivant : CAS ROUGE HAINE

CAS ROUGE HAINE

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Si Adam Wheeler prenait le temps d'y penser, ou si quelqu'un lui posait les bonnes questions, il pourrait mettre des mots sur le fait que son existence ne lui apporte aucune satisfaction. Il découvrirait, par cette introspection, qu'il est, en fait, très loin d'être "heureux", et que quelque chose de vaste et de significatif manque dans sa vie. Mais il n'y pense pas. Il y a un néant entre ces questions et lui. Objectivement, académiquement, sa vie est remarquable. En tant que violoniste professionnel, il gagne sa croûte en faisant ce qu'il aime le plus. Il a du talent, de la reconnaissance, du challenge, de la diversité, des applaudissements, et une richesse modérée. Qu'y a-t-il à questionner ? Pourquoi ne devrait-il pas adorer cela ?

Durant les moments plus lents, une inquiétude grise se fait ressentir dans le fond de son esprit. Elle est là dans les minutes qui suivent son réveil le matin, avant qu'il arrive sous la douche ; elle est là pendant les temps morts dans les coulisses quand il ne peut pas utiliser son téléphone et qu'il n'y a rien à faire à part attendre avant d'entrer en scène. Le fait qu'il semble exister dans une sorte d'ombre étirée, projetée par une vaste classe de pensées qu'il est incapable de penser, le perturbe de temps en temps. Mais le reste du temps, dans sa vie quotidienne, son agenda est aussi rempli que possible par son manager et lui-même. Il joue, seul et dans des orchestres, il enregistre, il compose et enseigne. Chaque semaine est un défi différent. Il se maintient occupé, et le sentiment s'en va lorsqu'il est occupé.

Le matin du jour de l'arrivée de వ, tandis qu'il se brosse les dents, une minuscule limace noire tombe du coin de son œil dans l'évier de l'hôtel.

"Mpfghl ?"

Il se frotte l'œil en question, tout en bavant de la mousse à travers sa brosse à dents. Il se regarde de près dans le miroir. Ouaip : il y en a une autre, plus grosse, qui grandit là-dedans, et sa queue ressort par le canal lacrymal.

"Je serais mieux sans ça", marmonne-t-il. Il crache, se rince, puis sort une pince à épiler de sa trousse de toilette. Précautionneusement, il pince le minuscule bout de la limace qui s'agite, et l'extrait en tirant dessus. Ça ne lui fait pas plus mal qu'extraire un poil de narine. Il la jette dans l'évier avec son amie et ouvre le robinet, les faisant partir en même temps que la mousse de dentifrice.

Il fixe le trou d'écoulement pendant un long moment. C'est comme s'il oubliait quelque chose. Il n'arrive pas à s'en souvenir. Il secoue la tête, et part s'habiller.

*

Wheeler est en tournée avec l'Orchestre Symphonique de Nouvelle-Angleterre depuis presque un mois. Ils en sont à leur dernier concert, c'est leur dernière nuit, et Wheeler ne sait pas trop comment se sentir. Être en tournée, pour lui, est une opportunité d'explorer un genre de style de vie liminal, dans lequel il peut suspendre un tas d'inquiétudes mondaines et ne faire qu'exister comme un être qui se réveille, voyage, joue et dort. Mais si neuve que soit l'expérience sur le papier, la poursuivre pendant cinq semaines est éreintant. Arrivés à cette partie de la tournée, même les membres les plus enjoués de l'orchestre commencent à être à fleur de peau, et le livret de partitions est devenu éculé et répétitif. Il serait plus que temps de passer à autre chose.

La nuit derrière, son manager lui a laissé des messages au sujet de ce qui était prévu pour les semaines à venir. Il devrait probablement prendre le temps de les écouter.

Morning rehearsal starts at eleven. Wheeler takes a taxi from the hotel to the venue, bringing his tuxedo and his violin with him. His violin is an heirloom, more than a hundred years old, and while he's touring it never leaves his sight. (His tuxedo is just a tuxedo.) The concert hall is as close to the centre of the city as it gets, at the heart of a rat's nest of busy roads, which means the taxi journey is a slog, even setting out after rush hour.

At the stage door, the place is in chaos, but it's only the typical pre-show chaos which Wheeler has spent much of his professional life navigating. He finishes a quick cigarette outside before joining the bustling flow of technicians, performers and administrative staff. He finds his way to his dressing room, changes, unpacks his violin and tunes it. He flicks through tonight's music, more out of boredom than a need to refresh his memory. He has the whole set memorised.

With some minutes to kill, he checks the headlines on his phone. Yet again, something dreadful and new which he doesn't understand is going viral. Today's fad is, you paint a black vertical rectangle on the wall, or on a mirror, or over the top of a picture. And then you chant something. Wheeler can't quite pick out the words of the chant. They're in a language he's not familiar with. He's no singer, but he's performed pieces with lyrics in Latin, German, Greek, French… whereas this language has a bizarre manufactured sense to it, as if it were simply English with the vowels and consonants all switched around.

Rehearsal goes reasonably. Wheeler long ago swore that he would never coast through a performance, and he plays decently well. But it seems to him as if a lot of the orchestra is distracted. Some cues get missed. He makes meaningful eye contact with the conductor a couple of times, and they share a frustrated look. When they break for dinner, late in the afternoon, the conductor, whose name is Luján, privately remarks to him, "Their eyes need fixing."

Wheeler doesn't wholly follow. He rubs his own eye with a finger, reflexively. The memory of the morning tries to punch through, but fails. "You mean, laser surgery?"

Luján responds with a few incomprehensible syllables and stalks away.

*

The auditorium opens and the seats fill. As ever, there's a brief, grey dead time while Wheeler waits for all the machinery of the performance to spin up. The anxious feeling is stronger than usual today. It grips him, an uncharacteristic urge to run away. Sure, he thinks. I could just junk my career, right now. Pack it in and make for the stage door. Maybe the taxi'll still be there.

But he pushes through it. It's just a juvenile fantasy. It's been far too long a tour. One more show and it's over.

And finally it's time, and he's out there, under the spot, in his element. The first piece of the night is Shostakovich. Its first movement is a sedate, haunting, almost melodramatic nocturne, but before too long the concerto changes gear and becomes energetic, discordant, feral. It's lengthy, too, a real work-out, and much of it is brutally difficult to execute. He's on form tonight. Close to flawless, and his audience — which he cannot see or hear — seems rapt.

Four-fifths of the way through the piece, a kind of spell breaks. Something changes in the atmosphere of the auditorium. The temperature in the huge room seems to rise by several degrees. More concerningly and noticeably, the music behind Wheeler begins to trail off. The conductor stops too.

Perplexed, Wheeler continues to play for a moment or two, keeping to his own internal time. But after another moment it becomes clear that something is wrong, something which everybody can see but him. He steals a glance up from his instrument, and finds that Luján is staring at him. In fact, every musician in the orchestra is staring at him, all of them wearing the same expression of stony, barely-contained ang—

They've been replaced.

The orchestra is gone. All seventy of them. The things which have replaced them are not human but alien, ill-proportioned pillars of pinkish-brownish flesh. Each has, at its top, a heavy protuberance studded with goopy biological sensors and rubbery openings, and, sprouting from the very cap, lengths of various kinds of vile, off-coloured moss. They are draped in black and white fabrics, weirdly cut to either conceal or highlight their blobby, inconsistent body structures.

Wheeler reels with fright. He almost falls off the front of the stage. His stomach convulses and he wants to vomit, but a frantic fragment of his brain hasn't panicked yet and tells him, Wait. Nothing's changed. That's what humans have always looked like. Right? What's happening? What's wrong?

He glances, petrified, out into the darkness of the audience. The silent energy radiating off them has changed. They've been replaced too, he knows. And they know he hasn't. That's what's wrong.

Clutching his violin to his chest, Wheeler stumbles across the stage, past the conductor, towards the wing. As he does, the musicians rise slowly from their seats, letting their own musical instruments drop to one side or the other. Wheeler trips over a cellist's music stand, recovers. The conductor is following him, with the other musicians close behind.

Wheeler reaches the wing. There's a pair of stage hands there, waiting for him. They have the same placid, angry expressions as everybody else, and the same set jaws. Wheeler stops and turns back. His heart feels like it's going to take off.

Luján, or, rather, the biped which used to be Luján, walks right up to him. He is a little shorter than Wheeler, but much heavier-set. Rooted to the spot, not thinking clearly, Wheeler holds his violin up, as if this will shield him. The conductor takes the instrument from his unresisting hands and breaks it neck underfoot, perfunctorily, as if crushing a box for recycling.

Wheeler backs off, hands raised. He bumps into the disapproving stage hands, who gently and wordlessly try to take hold of his arms. He shakes them off and is just about able to twist past them. He dives into the warren of corridors backstage. And then he runs like hell.

*

Four floors up, in some remote, poorly-lit corridor which hasn't seen regular use in years, he finds a bathroom. He goes in and throws up. This makes him feel a lot better. He washes his mouth out and then lights a cigarette, quickly filling the tiny space with a haze of smoke. That helps too.

The adrenaline has run out and his knees are still wobbling from climbing too many stairs. But it doesn't sound like anybody is closely pursuing him. So, in this safe moment, he asks himself a serious question: Did I just have a panic attack?

He doesn't know what a panic attack feels like. Having put so much distance between himself and the stage, what happened there feels like a crazed dream, a paranoid hallucination.

But… No. Luján broke his violin. That part definitely happened; he remembers it with distressing clarity. His relationship with Luján has never been much more than tepidly professional, but the man was a professional. To vandalise a precious instrument like that would be unthinkable for him, or anybody in the orchestra. There is something wrong.

With everybody.

Except him.

He flicks his cigarette butt into the toilet. He grips the sink, and looks at his reflection, and as his eyes slowly force their way back into focus, he realises, with some alarm, that what he is looking at is not his reflection. The mirror above the sink has been sloppily painted over with a tall, black, dripping rectangle. It's giving off heat; staring at it is like staring into an open oven. And he can hear a dull, grumbling, mechanical kind of noise coming from behind it. Like distant, muffled woodchippers.

He exits the bathroom and slams the door and leans against the far wall, watching the door, as if something could very well open it and come after him.

There was another one, he suddenly recalls. Another painted block, this one on the wall in his dressing room, right behind his chair, facing the back of his head. He should have seen it in the mirror whenever he was sitting there, but he didn't. And not only that, there was one in his hotel room. It was painted over the picture hanging over his bed. Did the hotel staff paint it? When, why? Why is he only remembering this now?

The viral video isn't new. Why did he think it was new? It's been circulating for months. For as long as he can remember. Forever. And— in every venue where he's been on tour, in every city, on windows and billboards, and in small rooms and liminal spaces, people have been painting these— doors—

There's a second half to each video. He remembers now. He watched it passively, over and over, and never saw it. Something comes through. It's been leaching into the background of the world this whole time, in plain sight, and he never saw it, and it's here now

He's having a psychotic break.

No. That's not what's happening.

Something is trying to interfere with the way he thinks. The block symbol is jammed into his mind. He can't dislodge it. He can't think about anything else.

He looks back along the narrow corridor down which he just came. The darkness at the far end of it is yet another dark, vertical rectangle. He hears the footsteps of a multitude of people coming from that direction. Not running. Just walking briskly enough to harry him.

He needs to get out of the building. Get help.

The stage door.

*

He takes a confused zigzag route back down to street level. There's nobody in his way, and the stage door itself is unattended. He cracks it open.

Night has fallen since the performance began. There's a minor road right outside, behind the concert hall building, a yellow-lit cul-de-sac with a loading bay and some unattended trucks. There's a major road adjoining the minor road, rammed with stationary traffic. Some of the vehicles are, indeed, taxis, but all of them are unoccupied, and most have their doors left open. There are colossally tall darkened figures stalking down the streets, so dark and slender that Wheeler actually fails to notice them. There is screaming, a grotesque, awful screaming coming from many human mouths, coming from somewhere down the main road. But that's the only way he can go.

It's everywhere, says his last sane splinter. Not just the concert hall. It's everyone.

As he creeps towards the main road, someone, another occupied former human, pokes their head around the corner, then calls to others in the strange language, pointing him out. Wheeler stops in his tracks. In another moment, ten or eleven non-people are advancing on him from the road. Two of them are carrying something with them, a limp, badly broken human— a normal human, Wheeler realises with some shock, like him. The victim's heavy winter coat is torn open and his inner clothes are saturated scarlet. When the non-people carrying him catch sight of Wheeler, they toss the man violently aside, into the street, where he lands in a pile against a car wheel. He grunts with pain as he lands, face down, and once he comes to rest he takes a deep breath and lets out an inhuman, traumatised cry. But he doesn't try to move again. The non-people ignore him.

Behind him, Wheeler hears the stage door swing open again. He doesn't dare glance back.

This can't happen, says that last splinter. This is possible, yes, real things exist which can do this to the world. But it doesn't happen. There's someone whose job it is to protect us from this. We're supposed to be protected.

Someone stops it from happening. Someone steps in. At the last minute.

But the last minute was a year ago. And she died.

Marion.

Oh, God.

"Help," he says, to nobody.

A feeling of weightlessness rises up in his stomach. Gravity seems to upend and pitch him forward into the waiting arms of the non-people. They restrain him. They spend some time debating what to correct first, his eyes or his fingers. Right up until it starts, he's thinking, hoping: Maybe it won't be as bad as all that.

Suivant : Ará Orún

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