Philadelphia, The Navy Yard
Dr. Vanessa Graff is sitting at a table overlooking the ocean, hands trembling with the greatest rush she has ever experienced in her life, when the woman who doesn't exist steps out from behind a building and waves hello to her.
The woman's hand seems to move in slow-motion stereo, double-exposed afterimages of her hand flickering colours of the rainbow. By the time she's finished sitting down at the table, Graff is starting to wonder if even the trail-mix of medication she took beforehand wasn't enough to prevent the heart attack. The only clue she's not dead is the fact that she can still feel her brain frying slowly in a cocktail of mnestic sludge.
"Hhi," she manages to gulp out between clenched teeth.
Her visitor looks like a patchwork human — when she puts her hands on the table, her left looks baby-soft while her right is cratered with liver spots and veins jutting out underneath it. "Your first time on the Y-Class?" she croaks, pointing at the foil packet still clenched in Graff's trembling hand.
"All of the new ones had the sweats the first time they tried those things. Induced synaesthesia isn't easy on the brain." She smiles pleasantly, exposing yellow-and-white checkerboard teeth. "So, you found us after all this time."
Graff nods and her hearing pops and whistles as her sense of balance decides to take a week's leave. "Yyou don't hide yoour tracks very well, Mmelinda."
"Well, you're right. We didn't. Didn't think we'd need to at the time, not that it was ever our choice to begin with." Melinda Williams breaks into a coughing fit, and when she stops, she sounds about an octave younger. "So what ratted us out then?"
In response, the doctor gestures at the space around them. "Seemmed pretty obvious to me," she says, and even her rising gorge isn't enough to suppress her smug grin. "I think yyou know what I'm talkking about too."
Williams nods and leans back in her chair, staring out at the ocean. "Do I?"
"Does Project Viewpoint ring a bell?" Graff shudders as another wave of nausea wracks her body. "I wwas part of the research teaam on the skip for a while, beffore I got my docctorate. You knoww, I thought it'd be easier to find more about the project, but most of the ddata was lost. Even after trying to… convince the higher-ups that I needed the information, it turns out we just didn't have any of it. All I had was a couple of internal memos, but that turned out to be enough.
"I grasped at straws and wwondered if there was any more information on the personnel behind them, so I did a cursory search on your name and got a couple of iinteresting results."
Even before she pulls out the roughly crumpled piece of paper from her pocket, Williams can tell what's on it. Her guess turns out to be dead right:
Item #: SCP-320i
Object Class: Keter
Special Containment Procedures: [PREVIOUS PROCEDURES IRRELEVANT] Each SCP-320i instance is to be contained through the use of a Mariotte-Pashler antimemetic perception filter. Each SCP-320i instance is to be placed at a location which experiences large amounts of traffic and/or has a high population density…
"Yyour watermark was amusing," Graff continues, "and it took me a little over half an hour to break it. Neat trick with the blackbboxes, by the way."
"I knew someone had allready pulled the wool over RRAISA's eye with that particular ttrick, so I applied it to a ccouple other memetic skips where I had access. Turns out you ccould find all sorts of interesting things if you did that — perhaps an entire database to go with the new numbering system. And then someone emailed me, claiming to be from your department, and the rest fell into place from there."
"Good. Excellent. Very well done, Miss Graff." Williams smiles. "So why didn't anyone think about this sooner?"
Graff blinks as her train of thought is roughly shunted into a different yard. "Huh?"
"I don't doubt your ability for one moment, but surely someone else could've come up with this. Like you said yourself, if we left that many trails, someone else had to have found them. Who says nobody else did what you did?"
"Nnnobody." Graff thinks about what she's just blurted out for a few seconds, then slowly begins conjecturing into the darkness. This only exacerbates the throbbing in her temple, but she keeps going. "Of course someone must've done it before me. Vang probably could've blitzed that encryption, if he'd seen it. Hell, anyone of the fucks back at Info Haz. could've done it, bbut… but I just don't remember them."
The pain fades in an exhilarating rush as she continues her train of thought: "Of course I don't remember them. That's why I needed the, the—" She stabs at the crumpled foil packet. "—mnestics, isn't it. Something happened. Something big happened to you and that's why anything, anyone you touched can't be remembered." Her grin gives way to a look of puzzlement. "So what happened?"
Williams' mouth opens as if she's moving to speak, but after a protracted moment of silence, her face drains of colour and she leans back in her chair, forehead sheened with sweat. "I—" Again, she tries to speak, but it's like her words are being snatched out of mid-air and eventually she just gives up.
"A-are you okay?" Graff leans in and briefly wonders if she's going to need to explain the dead body in a couple minutes, before realising something that's been staring her in the face: "Wait, you're not gonna be able to rremember it either. You'd have a gap in memory, a bloock…" …and that's the thing you're trying to get past now, she completes in her head.
As if nothing's happened, Williams relaxes in her chair and says, "Who says nobody else did what you did?"
Graff swallows before she speaks, lips dry with fevered dehydration and the sudden realisation that she's far out of her depth now.
"Nobody," she repeats. "Ssomeone could've easily done somethiing like what I did, you left too many trails to folllow, it's just we forgott them all. Or I did. Or the peopple I work for." This time when she moves her head a little, there aren't as many half-shadows spilt across the pavement. The mnestic's starting to wear off and she only has so much time left. "So ttell me. What happened at Viewpoint?"
Williams draws a shuddering, deep breath and suddenly she's aged a decade once more. "It… I know it didn't start with Viewpoint. Something came before that, but I'd loop myself if I go back any farther. But everything after Viewpoint, that's all crystal-clear." She coughs again and Graff notices something like an IV running down her arm, gold liquid seeping into her vein.
"Viewpoint started as a U.S. propaganda effort and mutated into an attempt to build a memetic panopticon. We were experimenting with the idea of breaking the ideological machine altogether by just beaming whatever we wanted straight into people's minds. We were building an infolaser, and we were making progress on the theory fast. Far too fast, but we didn't know that at the time — we were just happy to be making some serious progress on what half the world would've called pseudoscience at the time.
"So when we found the first abnormalities in practice, it was like hitting a skyscraper in the middle of the desert. Turned out when we were broadcasting the first of our test signals, something or someone was absorbing the signals at- at an informational level.
"We thought we were shouting at someone on the other end of a room without noticing the brick wall between the two of us. So we investigated further, sank even more time and money into these things we thought nobody had ever come across before. Men like holes in space, spiders on faraway islands, graffiti on the walls — all of these things. And then we found something we'd made, years and years ago. An antimemetically cloaked frigate, the USS Eldridge.
"Turns out we- we must've looped ourselves. Somewhere back then we must've tested some form of antimemetic weapon on ourselves, something that made us all collectively forget. There were signatures on the cloaking device, names of people I didn't, maybe couldn't know. Did we split from them after we got looped, did they die in the blast?"
Her face slackens again in the way it did the last time she tried talking about this and Graff can't help but jump. Something in her gut is being pushed away from Williams like an solid lump of iron and she can't help but feel intensely nauseous. The veteran doesn't look much better either, as her face has gone sallow and her brow sheened with sweat.
"It only spurred us on, of course: we rebuilt infodynamic theory in a matter of weeks, made headway into psychotropic biochemistry — we got to the point where we could have entire fleets camouflaged with a device the size of a cupboard, you know that? And then we decided to point the Viewpoint array at the sky, and we found that breakthrough. And none of us remember it.
"Whatever that thing was, it destroyed a little under half a decade's worth of work. Viewpoint's probably gone now, isn't it? Whatever the thing was, it must've destroyed it, taken out any traces of the thing what found it, anything… in mental proximity… it corrupted everything we'd done, mangled the ideas behind it. And then two decades later I woke up at the Foundation, heading an entire division."
Williams takes a deep breath to recover from her sudden outburst and suddenly, she's staring straight-ahead at — no, behind her, Graff notices with creeping dread. More importantly, she realises that this is the most lucid Williams has been about whatever calamity befell her team that day.
She's remembering, and Graff can't afford that.
A moment stretches wide over an eternity — wrinkles begin to pull away from Williams' eyes, liver spots begin to fade. She's in the grip of something and Graff starts backing her chair away from the other woman. "Who got you to come here?" Williams asks, lips pulled tight over her teeth.
Graff fumbles for words. "I got an email."
"From who?" The whip-sharp way she snaps those syllables carries youth with it, carries confidence Graff didn't see in the mangled mish-mash of body parts that was her former body.
"E-Elizabeth, Liz Day, she said she was your assistant—" Graff is beginning to notice that the harder she looks into Williams' ever-increasingly youthful eyes, the more she thinks she can see something moving behind there: something that's ugly and writhing and painful. Then she blinks and in a matter of moments the mnestic adrenaline seems to be leaching away from her limbs and Williams is running away, oh god she's runnning away—
Even with the sudden tiredness weighing her down she's still more than a match physically for Williams and in a matter of moments she's caught up. "Doctor!"
"Stay back! Tlaol assistant is an antimeme, you're an antimeme, she's—" Williams collapses to her knees, fumbling and scrabbling for something in her pocket. "X-X-class, gotta…" Her eyes are rolled to the back of her head and her body continues to pop and squirm as something moves undeneath it. "Ojobiru, we… mlgn have found something important, hlai get to Marness—"
That's a bad name, bad concept, and Graff can feel it like a sledgehammer to the frontal lobes as something tries to push its way into her head, the only reason she's even staying conscious at this point the leftover mnestics still flowing through her system. Drunkenly, she runs away, limbs weighed down by the continued command, Forget, forget, forget, forget, runs towards something that should be there — something that should be there if her conjecture is right.
She runs off the pier with the last spurs of fight-or-flight energy coursing through her body and jumps.
And strong arms appear out of nowhere to pull her up. A voice, asking her:
"What's today's date, Vanessa?"
"The date…" Graff squints at the woman's face, but her vision is blurred and the stranger's face is slipping away from her. As is everything, really: the floor and walls are sliding into a mess of steel and rivets and lifebuoys…
And then it stops abruptly as it started and the only reason Graff isn't celebrating how her bet's paid off is because she doesn't ever remember making it in the first place. That, and the fact that the Y-Class seems to have found her way into her body again and it's taking quite a lot of her concentration to not vomit all over the floor in front of her.
"I'm." Graff opens and closes her mouth blankly for a few more seconds, before finally getting a hold on her larynx. "How did I get here?"
Liz Day sighs deeply and rubs her eyes. "I don't think you want to know. I'm not even sure you can know."
"Oh." Then Graff realises — holy shit, she's been abandoned on the deck of a ship. One that seems to disappear when she's not looking at it, one that she can just barely keep in her mind's eye, one that's… "Oh."
"You're back with us, then?"
"This is it, isn't it," Graff says. "This is the Eldridge, the lost ship of the Counterconceptual Division."
"And," Day adds, "It's also just lost a captain."
"You… you're not." Graff bursts out into a brief cackle, before choking it off. "You're not seriously saying."
"Well. We have an unfinished trip to a place called Samothrace, and no captain to sail us there." Day grins, shrugs and starts walking away. "Your call, really."
And Vanessa Graff finds herself on a boat that shouldn't exist, watching a woman who doesn't walk away.