qntm's drafts

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After Us, There's Nobody

Previously

Like everybody in the Antimemetics Division, Marion Wheeler took anomalous memory-reinforcing medications ("mnestics") nearly every day of her life. Among the Identity Warriors of Mobile Task Force ω-0, "Ará Orún", it was never in doubt that, on the occasion of her death, she would ascend into the noösphere, becoming a Bader-Ramjin Infomorphic Entity or a Type VI Volitional Spiritual Apparition or a "ghostie" or however she wished to describe her new self; then, she would join the Citizens of Heaven, and continue the Antimemetics Division's fight from higher ground, likely with fearsome effectiveness.

But Wheeler died under terrible circumstances. The Class-Z drug under whose influence she died did more than reinforce her memory, it destroyed her ability to anything but remember. She ascended, but what arrived in the noösphere, to a hero's welcome, was an ideoform so severely brain damaged that it was barely able to communicate.

After she was made as comfortable as possible and some initial diagnostics had been carried out, Sanchez off-handedly described her as "a Swiss watch filled with glue".

Ulrich screamed at him for saying it, screamed and would have hit him for his callousness. "How can she make it to Heaven sick?" she said. "Isn't that just Hell?"

The Director apologised, in the corporate, false way that he always apologised for anything.

"How much more does she have to go through?" Ulrich said. "Who deserves this life?"

It hurt all of them. Regardless of personal investment to the mission, it was difficult not to care for someone whom they had watched and guarded for years. Ulrich, though, had been recruited not long after Wheeler (then Hutchinson), and had been a closer friend to her than any of them. She had looked up to her, had served as confidant when Adam showed up, and then as co-conspirator in a hair-raising scheme when it looked likely that the budding relationship was going to be blown apart by Foundation bureaucracy.

They continued to take care of her in the same way they always had: in shifts. Wheeler, dimly aware of her situation, worked against the problem in the instinctive, fierce way she worked against any problem. She slowly became more coherent, but never became herself. Ulrich, on her shifts, saw that Wheeler spent most of her existence reliving her final moments over and over. She would recite what seemed to be half of a conversation with SCP-3125 itself, a conversation which several of ω-0 said they recognised from Operation Cold City.

"Ideas can be killed."

"Marion," Ulrich asked her gently. "Where is Bart Hughes? He's the only one who can stop this now. We know he's alive, or he'd be here with us. Just a hint. Just a clue. Please."

She was trying. Ulrich knew that she was trying to say: I don't know. I can't remember something I never knew in the first place. But all she could manage was:

"With better ideas."

"Keep asking her," Sanchez told Ulrich when she reported back to him. "At least once per shift."

"The questioning is causing her considerable distress," Ulrich said. "We know she doesn't know anything. It's cruel to keep trying. Sir."

"SCP-3125 is coming," Sanchez replied. "With the quick arm of the Antimemetics Division eliminated, there's nothing left which can stop it. Our real-world investigative capabilities are negligible, Hughes' sister doesn't know anything, and this is our sole remaining lead. I know you admire Wheeler—"

"She is my friend. She honored my memory when I died. My own family wouldn't."

"Ulrich—"

"We are the saints who guard! I will guard her!"

Sanchez paused. Ulrich's devotion to Wheeler — and the lesser devotion of the others — irked him mildly. He viewed Wheeler as… well, competent enough, but ultimately a failure. She was as much of a failure as everybody else in the Division, with only the uninteresting distinction of being the last of the failures.

But he was vulnerable to the kind of rhetoric Ulrich had just employed. It stoked a kind of fire inside him. Heaven knew he used it in his own communications often enough, for exactly the same purpose.

"Alright," he said. "The trawl in reality continues. There's a faint chance we'll find something of substance. Carry on as you were. No questions."

*

The following winter, SCP-3125 incarnated.

Its first act upon its arrival — or, depending on the degree of intelligent agency you ascribed to it, the first side-effect of its arrival — was the neutralisation of the Foundation. In the space of a night, an international staff numbering in the tens of thousands disappeared into oblivion, or became amnesiac, or simply dropped brain-dead where they were standing. Foundation Sites became hollow, inaccessible dead zones. A few anomalies broke containment in the chaos, to devastating effect; thousands of others were choked into irrelevant obscurity beneath SCP-3125's antimemetic pressure.

The world can only end one way, it seemed to be declaring, gouging its statement into the flesh of reality. My world. My way.

SCP-3125 had skirmished with ω-0 before, but it had always been unclear how much information about ω-0 it retained between skirmishes. In fact it was unclear, fundamentally speaking, how SCP-3125 thought at all. Its behaviour was inconsistent, unpredictable and frightening; records of its activities were cognitohazardous, discouraging close analysis.

In the end, the question proved to be academic. When SCP-3125 arrived, whether it knew ω-0 was there not, it took no special action against it. It had no need to. Most of ω-0's members' anchors were Foundationers, or Foundation-adjacent. With those people's minds blown away in the first strike, the dense web of mutual memory which had held the Task Force together for years tore loose. Fully half of the Task Force was cast into the void and died; the final, real death they had evaded for years.

Around dawn, Eastern Standard Time, Sanchez announced that it was no longer possible for ω-0 to stay together as a single entity. He split the remains of the Task Force into three. Ulrich and the malformed memory of Wheeler were assigned to the same subteam. Sanchez gave final instructions to continue to search for Bart Hughes, or any kind of ally among the living, be they Foundation or GOI or civilian. But the instructions were confusing and incomplete, because he hadn't thought them out, in turn because it was clear that he didn't have an iota of faith in what he was saying. He couldn't see a way to the far side of this. It was about little more than survival now. It was about figuring out terms on which to face death.

Ulrich never saw him again.

*

"I remember everything."

Wheeler said it spontaneously, while Ulrich was on shift, which was most of the time now. The sentence came out agonisingly slowly, as if each syllable was like climbing a mountain, but it was significant. It was the first thing Wheeler had managed to say which hadn't been a direct quote from her own expiring moments.

Ulrich was amazed, and told Wheeler that what she was doing was amazing. She was making progress.

For her part, Wheeler was crazed with frustration. It was like trying to talk to someone on the far side of four feet of clouded glass. She pulled together all the energy and concentration she could, and said:

"Adam."

"…I don't know where Adam is," Ulrich had to tell her. She knew exactly what had happened to Adam Wheeler. He had been placed into the antimemetic equivalent to witness protection. Out of respect for Marion Wheeler's decision and to preserve Adam Wheeler's safety, ω-0 had intentionally diverted their attention and destroyed their records of where he was relocated. "He might be alive. I don't know. If he's dead, we might never find him."

Wheeler said nothing else.

"We'll remember him together," Ulrich said. "That counts. It counts for something. You and I know it does."

*

The noösphere was becoming uninhabitable. It was warping around SCP-3125's presence like space around a black hole. Aside from that, the ω-0 subteam was steadily running out of anchors. It could have been a systematic purge, but it could just as easily have been simple statistics. Ulrich's own anchor, a woman who had never known what the Foundation was but who remembered Ulrich with a heavy heart nearly every day, was killed around that time: found in the hills where she'd been hiding and dragged down into the inferno.

The subteam had to split again, this time into pairs. Ulrich stayed with Wheeler, clinging to her like a rock, remembering her and being remembered in turn. A cooperating pair could survive untethered for a little while, this way, but not forever.

"Adam," Wheeler said. Speaking exhausted her reserves, and they were slow to return. It felt as if she had a finite number of words left in her, and speaking each one brought her an inch closer to the end. "Adam."

"I know," Ulrich said. She didn't know what Wheeler was trying to say.

"Daisy. Look."

She looked.

And it was him. He was nearly unrecognisable. It was some kind of miracle, it had to be, that Wheeler had picked him out from the violent, insensate mass of victims which was now SCP-3125's core. He was overrun with SCP-3125. At first glance it seemed to occupy every nerve in his body. But there was a flickering seed in the back of his mind, a final remnant of what he had once been, as tiny as a sand grain. It wasn't growing. There was too much pressure. But it was trying to. He was pushing back.

He was alive.

Ulrich boggled. She had known that there was something weird and deeply unusual about the way Adam Wheeler's mind was structured, a kind of thick-skulled resistance to external interference. In fact, she knew that thousands and thousands of people in the world shared that immunity — but that was another way of saying that, among the billions, such people were fantastically rare and difficult to locate. Efforts by ω-0 to locate such people and recruit them as allies had failed. They did not look special or behave radically differently from others. There was no signal flare which went up. Maybe they were all dead. Maybe Adam Wheeler was the only one left in the whole world.

But he was left. He was alive.

"Okay," Ulrich said. "Okay." She allowed herself a few moments to contemplate the terrible odds against what needed to happen next actually happening. And then she went to work.

Ulrich's ability to interact with the physical universe was extremely limited. Other operatives of ω-0 had been able to create full-on poltergeist activity, changing the temperatures of rooms and throwing furniture around, but she was not that kind of specialist. She could do little more than place phone calls and write on walls. Those abilities weren't likely to get Adam Wheeler moving. Simple words were never going to reach him. The man wasn't even truly conscious.

What Ulrich could do was something the Task Force dubbed Identity Offense. She could interfere with the internals of living minds to make things happen. Usually enemies; usually the mental equivalent of blunt force trauma, to make them die. But she could act with surgical precision if it was called for.

Operating on Adam Wheeler was difficult and time-consuming. His mind was tough, and it was continually bathed in SCP-3125's radioactive presence. Ulrich would cut, and then wait as Wheeler's mind self-healed, which took days, and then she would cut again. The seedling metaphor served well. The operation reminded her of tending a plant. And the whole procedure took real-time weeks.

"He's going to recover," Ulrich told Marion Wheeler. She was uncertain, but she said it anyway.

"It's my fault," Wheeler replied. This was the first thing she'd said in days, and the last thing she would say for days more. She was conserving strength.

She was, Ulrich realised, dying.

*

Now Ulrich watches from a great, abstract distance, as Adam Wheeler folds up.

His mind is breaking apart. It's an awful and incredible thing to watch. Even passing into the maw of SCP-3125 and back wasn't enough to permanently break him. But this was it, the silver bullet. That was the way to hurt Adam Wheeler in such a way that he would never recover. Present his wife to him, a brain-damaged wreck, just in time for her to die.

Ulrich writes on the blackboard — off to one side, so as not to mar the image of Marion Wheeler, and in different handwriting:

I'm sorry

I'm so sorry

Adam, please come back to the phone

I need your help

Adam is prostrate on the floor, and becoming catatonic. He doesn't hear it when Ulrich tries calling the other office phone, the one on the other desk.

And she, too, is dying now. She and Marion were anchoring one another as best they could, but it's the end of the line. She has, perhaps, hours. The noösphere is closing up around her.

"Alright," she says, to no one. There is no one else left.

She rolls up her figurative sleeves. This will not be too difficult for her. Adam Wheeler's revived memories of his wife shine inside him, and around the edge she can see the faint scar where they were blocked out the first time. She has a better vantage point; she can do a cleaner, more permanent job.

This will hurt. Just as much as it did then.

"I need that," Adam says. He's still face-down. "Don't take it. Please."

Ulrich writes,

You need to save the world

There's nobody else

Adam doesn't look up, but he says:

"To hell with the world. It can burn."

To be continued