Tombstone
rating: +162+x

Previously

All memetic horror aside, Wheeler thought Site 41 seemed like a pleasant enough place to work, at least above ground. Decently spacious, if unattractive, offices; large windows, plenty of natural light, scenic forest views. Safe.

Site 167 is a hostile, sprawling industrial wasteland, four square kilometres of secure containment warehousing, research laboratories and administrative offices. Wheeler is put in mind of a fossil fuel power plant. The buildings are grim, functional and aggressively unattractive. There is no greenery. The ambient noise in the complex is a harsh roaring — it was built on a flat plain, and the wind races down concrete canyons and past sharp building edges.

Just over half of the site, Wheeler discovers, has been erased from the face of the Earth by an orbital laser strike. There is an edge where the intact buildings and roads abruptly end, and beyond that edge there is nothing but blackened, level wreckage. Wheeler guesses that the laser shut down mid-redaction when the site's antimemetic warhead was triggered, but he can't be sure of the exact chain of events. It doesn't matter. It doesn't significantly harm the odds. What he's looking for is below ground.

Wheeler is at his limit. He has travelled too far, and he has been travelling for too long. He cannot exist in SCP-3125's universe for much longer, sane. It is all still happening, and the fragile responsibility of being the only one alive who can do anything to stop it is like a steadily tightening vice around his skull. He is exhausted, and slowly losing his vision to bright migraines, and dismally lonely. No more detective work, no more Sites. This needs to be the end.

Between buildings 8 and 22E there is a vertical access point, a thirty-metre-wide hexagonal shaft with a yellow gantry crane across its mouth. The shaft was used for lowering construction machinery and materials into the site's extensive underground complex. The shaft is so wide and deep that it has strange effects on the movement of air near its lip. It feels to Wheeler as if it's trying to pull him down. There are metal stairs lining the inner wall of the shaft. He descends, and then follows his map into Site 167's underground complex. Unlike Site 41, this was certainly not a Safe site. There are warning signs everywhere, many of whose symbols Wheeler cannot immediately parse. Very soon, he begins to encounter heavy bulkheads, sealed with electronic locks. Marion Wheeler's security pass opens them, every time.

Containment unit S167-00-6183's airlock is identical to the one he encountered at Site 41, just as the architectural diagrams suggested. The only difference is that this airlock is still visibly airtight — no holes. Wheeler swipes his card through the reader with a shaking hand. The door cycles open, revealing a sterile white antechamber, stale-atmosphered after years of disuse. He stands in the middle, waiting for the second half of the cycle.

This is it.

His heart is pounding. It's not good for him. He doesn't have a heart condition, that he knows of. But how would he know? Every living cardiologist is in hell.

He asks himself the final, worrying question, for the final time.

"But if you're here, Dr. Hughes, and you've built the machine, and the machine works: why didn't you come out?"

He answers himself, as a kind of inoculation against the bad news he knows is coming:

"Because the machine doesn't work. Because you couldn't build it. Because you're dead."

The inner door cycles open.

*

The atmosphere in the vault is tropically humid, and thick enough to taste. It tastes unpleasantly organic, like lymph or some other obscure bodily fluid. There are overhead floodlights, of which perhaps one in ten are still shining. There is junk everywhere. To Wheeler's left, there is a rough semicircle of monolithic autofactory units, each six or more metres tall, with piles of fabricated junk around them: furniture, tools, food containers, hard foam bricks, circuit boards, spools of fabric. To his right, stacked, stretching away along the long, concave wall of the vault, are hundreds of empty shipping containers. He would have to walk for ten minutes before he found one still containing raw materials.

Ahead of him is a three-metre-tall wall of steel which curves away to the left and right, enclosing almost all of the vault's floor space. Just visible over the top of the wall, heaving slowly under the weak yellow light, is an immense, sleeping organism. From here, Wheeler can only see the curve of its back, which is a glossy, moist black, mottled with green. It is round, almost spherical, like an ice cream scoop of liver taken from a human two kilometres tall and dumped into this enormous — Wheeler gulps as he makes the association — Petri dish.

Wheeler does not notice the metre-thick pipes which run from the autofactories over the edge of the dish and in, providing various necessary liquids. He does spot the tall towers arranged around the organism, spraying a translucent mist down at it from all angles. Suspended from the ceiling to the left and right, roaring continually, are ventilation units as large as houses.

There is no one around.

Wheeler clears his throat and addresses the room, as loudly as he dares. "Is there a… Dr. Bartholomew Hughes in here?"

Nothing happens. The roaring of the ventilation units continues. The organism continues to heave slowly.

Wheeler raises his voice somewhat. "I'm looking for a machine called an—"

It wakes up.

"—irreality amplifier?"

The thing turns, pushing huge volumes of fluid around its dish, enough that a wave of it sloshes viscously over the side of the wall. It lurches up to the wall. As more of it becomes visible, it becomes clear that there is little more to its body plan than what was already visible. Aside from stubby flippers, it is simply a huge, near-spherical lump of biology. It seems to peer eyelessly at Wheeler.

Wheeler concludes that he does not wish to be here. He turns to leave, and is startled to discover that the airlock door has closed behind him, as silently as it opened. "Ah." The airlock controls are to one side. He does not run, for fear of attracting attention with sudden movement, but he walks over, briskly, and pulls out his stolen security card again. As he's about to swipe it through the reader, a stringy red web lashes out from nowhere and restrains his wrist, preventing him from proceeding.

Wheeler struggles for a second to pull his arm free, but the webbing is gluey and has a freakish rigidity to it, as if there are bones inside it. It won't let him move. He glances back, and doesn't get a good enough look at the organism's body to spot where the web originated. The organism has opened its eye now, a single eyeball tens of metres wide, which must account for a significant fraction of its body volume. It has a vivid pink iris, and four enormous, black pupils.

Its voice isn't truly audible. It arrives in Wheeler's head like maddening static, a mosquito's whine in stereo.

DO YOU HAVE IT

"Have what?"

NO DOCTOR. NO MACHINE

A thinner strand of webbing shoots out, attaching itself to the security pass in Wheeler's hand, plucking it delicately from his fingers. The strand withdraws and holds the pass in front of the organism's eye.

WHEELER

"Ah," Wheeler says. "Yes, it's something of a coincidence actually—"

The strand tightens, lifting Wheeler by his arm. He twirls uselessly, barely able to see what's happening. There is a blur of luminous pink, and he is plunged, screaming, directly into the largest of Bart Hughes' four pupils.

*

The bunker was empty when he got there. His associates were missing. He was forced to presume them dead. And, in a rare lapse of forethought, he had neglected to bite off one of his human body's fingers before fleeing the scene of the shooting. With no human tissue sample to work from, he had no way to clone himself a replacement body. He was, he realised, trapped.

Wheeler had told him that, to protect the cause of the Foundation, he would have to sacrifice much or all of his existence. And she had only been reminding him of something which he had always known, intellectually. Still, he had not imagined this. And even if he had, he could never have imagined what this would be like, to experience from the inside. Several times, he came close to quitting. Dysmorphia alone almost killed him.

But. He had a duty. The problem had to be solved.

He attacked it in his germ form for over a year. He developed tools for himself, computer peripherals and writing implements adapted for his short but dextrous tendrils. He built miniature chair-analogues and other furniture. He developed, for himself, a little life. A fitness plan. Some hobbies, even. He slept in baths of nutrient sludge.

Before the end of the first month, he had proven to his satisfaction that the countermeme he was searching for existed beyond the comprehension of human intellect. A human being's mind would figuratively burst into flame upon contact with it; it was quite possible that their literal body would too, as a violent reaction to the profound, unalterable wrongness of every aspect of the universe around it. To create the countermeme, he would need to start from a human carrier of a suitable, "single-celled" base idea, and amplify that idea artificially using a machine.

By the second year he had designed and built enough of the machine to know that the machine could not be built. Theory and practice were diverging too far. Tests were failing in troubling ways, which pointed to fundamental architectural misconceptions. His machine would not and could not do what it was designed to do. He scrapped all of his schematics. He needed a different approach.

(There is a struggling figure mounted on the back of his retina, drowning beneath yellow pinpricks of focused light, drawing oxygen from his bloodstream and firing back minuscule thoughts. The figure is losing his mind with fear and revulsion, though he is a little more resilient than he gives himself credit for, and he is adapting. "It's you," the little man manages to gurgle. "There's no amplifier. You're the amplifier.")

He sequenced, and then reverse-engineered, his own genetic code. He built life support equipment, and re-architected the interior of the vault — which had always been the plan, if not to this extent. He refactored his physiology, in stages, over the course of years, until his brain was of a size and complexity to think monumental, radical, irreducibly complex thoughts.

("But why didn't you?" the speck asks. "You could have opened the vault at any time. What were you waiting for?")

Once, while exploring human ideatic space, he saw himself. He created a rudimentary memetic descriptor of himself, refined it, focused, guessed a little, and there he was: a complex of brilliant lights in the shape of a man, amid a swarm of similar people, living and dead and real and fictional. It was fascinating, and sobering, to see himself in that grand context, from that elevated perspective. He was tiny. He waved. He waved back.

And when he saw himself, he came to understand what he was; what his role was. He was the mad technical genius, the crazed inventor who architects the final weapon. But he was not the one to wield it. The spark, the base idea he needed to amplify, was not in his head, and was not in the vault with him. Mathematically, it never could have been. That was not the shape of things. It had to be delivered by someone else.

(The speck stops struggling. He has looked, with some effort, to his left and his right. He has now, finally, seen that there are other figures mounted here with him on the retina, older figures who have mostly been interpolated into the membrane, and no longer have independent life or thought. This causes him no small amount of alarm. He says: "…By who?")

Hold still.

(The speck's brain explodes, like a diagram.)

*

There is a forest.

There is a nice big house in the forest, and a garden behind the house, a trimmed lawn encircled by tall conifers. There is a rough circle of chairs on the lawn, and about twenty-five people seated or standing around or chatting in groups, with drinks and burgers, and there is a queue for the barbecue. There is a tall column of smoke rising from the barbecue. It is an outstandingly beautiful day, and nothing terrible is happening at all.

Adam Wheeler knows he is broken now, because he can't accept the scene. It's too sudden, and too pleasant, to be real. He feels normal, clean and healthy. He gasps and almost cries when he realises that his hand is back.

Someone walks up to him, offering a handshake. "You must be Adam. It's a pleasure. Bart Hughes."

Hughes is a very youthful fifty, short and skinny, with thick-lensed, thick-rimmed glasses and a flurry of wild, greying hair. Wheeler shakes his hand, more or less automatically; in his other, he has a bottle of beer. "I work at the Foundation," he says. "Obviously. Containment architecture, biomemetics, a whole mess of odd jobs."

"Hughes," Wheeler repeats. "I was— er, looking for you."

"You found me," Hughes says. "Good job."

"…What is this?"

"I didn't think you'd remember. This is where we met. Originally, I mean. Briefly. We shared about ten words, maximum, and I don't remember a single one of those words, and I barely remember you either, no offense. But I remember the barbecue, and I definitely remember that I met you at the barbecue. So, I figured it would be a more agreeable setting for the conversation we need to have."

Wheeler does not recognise the scene, either the location or any of the people. "This is your memory?"

"Yeah. Come on, let's talk."

Hughes leads Wheeler across the lawn and selects a pair of chairs in the sun. He sits, and gestures for Wheeler to sit across from him. Wheeler does so, uneasily. Hughes rests his elbows on his knees, and gathers his thoughts before he begins speaking.

"Adam, you don't have the idea we're looking for. The seed for the countermeme. You're the wrong guy.

"You would know if you had it. It would be impossible not to know. You would feel electrified by it. Driven forward by the high ideal it represented, every waking moment. It's what should have brought you here. I don't know how you made it here without it."

"…I didn't know I was supposed to bring an idea with me."

"There's no way you could have known," Hughes reassures him. "Nobody exterior to the vault knew. I didn't know it myself until I was already locked in. This is normal. We form these plans, and something unexpected happens, and the plans go out the window. And, under great pressure, we are forced to demonstrate creativity."

Wheeler takes a deep breath. He squares his shoulders. "Alright. Where is it? I hope it's in North America. I don't want to have to go all the way back to Site 41. But I will. If you can wait that long."

Hughes is shaking his head. "You can't do it. Even if it was that simple, and there was just a place I could send you to collect it, like takeout… you can't carry an idea like this. You've never had that capability. You don't believe. You've never had to. You're the wrong guy."

"…So where does that leave us?"

Hughes turns, looking meaningfully toward the barbecue itself. Wheeler follows his gaze. There is a woman tending it, with her back to them, chatting with the people in line for food. She seems to be the centre of attention.

"Marion," Wheeler says.

"She had it," Hughes says. "Well, to speak accurately, there's no singular it. It's a massively diverse phase space of possibilities. Millions of people in the world had different ideas which could have worked. But she was one of them."

"Was," Wheeler says.

"Yeah. She died."

Hughes turns back to face him. He hesitates, drinking some more beer while he chooses his words. He is not a medical doctor. He does not have anything which could be considered a bedside manner.

"Adam," he says. "I've been examining your brain. There are layers and layers of damage there, and a lot of it looks deliberate. Some of it may even be self-inflicted. You have had memories suppressed, and restored, and falsified and erased again, and on top of that you've survived what should have been fatal exposure to SCP-3125, and you've been through a great deal of completely non-anomalous trauma. So… you would be forgiven for not having worked it out by now. The hole in your life."

"No, I know," Wheeler says.

With some caution, Hughes asks, "What do you know?"

"She and I were married at one point. Right?"

Slowly, Hughes nods.

Wheeler says, "I got there eventually. It felt stupid and obsessive at first, to draw that conclusion. Self-absorbed. But there were all these facts, and they all fit. At the end of the day, I had to accept it."

Hughes asks, "And how do you feel about that?"

Wheeler interlocks his fingers, distractedly. He doesn't know. He doesn't know if he wants to know. He's afraid to know. "So what if we were married? What does that give me? It's over. It's all gone."

"…Could be," Hughes says.

"What was she like?"

Hughes holds something out to him. It is an autoinjector pen, a stubby, luminous orange cylinder with a pointed cap concealing a needle. There is a fat black Z printed on its side. Wheeler recognises it.

In fact, he recognises it as his own. But he finds himself not able to recall where he acquired it. Or for how long he has been carrying it.

This drug, he knows, will kill him. It will make him remember everything — everything. And this will kill him, as it does everybody.

But he will remember.

There is a kind of singing in his ears. The sunlight in the garden is blurring, smearing out. He catches Hughes' eye, and Hughes is smiling ruefully, and his eye has lit up, a scintillating gold-white point of light.

*

This needs to be the end.

There are long, long months of fearful migraine wandering. There is the face-to-face back in the school, mediated by the late Daisy Ulrich, so brief and extraordinarily painful that it registers like a gunshot. And then he is enmeshed within SCP-3125 again, complicit and actively engaged in a darkened, metallic hell. The drug makes it impossible to not think about what happened, to not stare directly at what he did. Time in there is dilated, stretched to subjective breaking point by the anomaly's mass. It seems to last tens of years. And then, the chisel.

And after that, for two years, he is vacant. He is a suit wrapped around a torn, ragged-edged hole. And then there is Marion, at last, placidly tearing herself out of his life and him out of hers. And then it's hours earlier than that, the very worst moment, his awful sinking realisation that she no longer knows who he is.

And then it's two days before that. It's six-fifteen in the morning, October, pre-dawn and freezing cold. Marion is at her car door, about to leave for work but distracted by something important on her work phone, and Adam is lingering on the porch, seeing her off. He has a work trip of his own, tonight and tomorrow night, so this is the last time they'll see each other until—

This is the last time they'll see each other. This is it.

He digs his heels in, dragging the regression to a straining halt. He calls out, "Marion!"

She puts her phone away. She turns around.

It's her, the whole of her. She is precisely the way he remembers her. She is the memory, iconic and brilliant. She smiles at him, for a long, ridiculous moment.

She says, "Do you get it, now?"

"Why you kept me away from all this? Yes." He goes to her, and they kiss, and it's a classic, it's perfect, it's everything either of them remembers. He holds her tightly, and she hugs him back, head heights as mismatched as ever. He sniffs.

"You've had a hell of a time," she states. It is a simple fact.

"I needed you," he says. "I didn't even know how badly. I didn't need you to help me, I just needed to stand aside and let you do the job instead. Marion, your job is lunacy. I one hundred percent understand why you tried to keep me out of this half of your life, for so long. And I will never ask about it again."

She looks up at him. It looks like she's about to say something, but the pain in Adam's brain makes itself known again, and he has to break off. The pain is forcing its way forward, into the back of his eyes. The rate of regression is increasing again. Different memories from all parts of his life are clamouring at him now, and their combined volume is increasing, and it is becoming difficult to think clearly. Marion, though, is part of most of the memories. Not a constant — she has evolved and grown, over years — but a common thread. He focuses on her.

"I don't have a lot of time to bring you up to speed," he manages. "This isn't real. We're both sharing Bart Hughes' mind right now. I don't know how much you know—"

"There's an (anti)memetic monster called SCP-3125," she says. "It killed me, and the Division, and the Foundation, and now it's occupying our whole reality. It ruins humans. It's the worst thing that's ever existed. There's no one left but you and you can't stop it. You can't even look at it. Hughes needs an idea to amplify, so you took a lethal dose of biochemical mnestic to reify me properly, because I was the best idea you had. Does that cover it?"

Adam grins weakly, with great relief. His wife has caught up characteristically quickly. "Just about. We live in ridiculous times."

She steps back from him. She looks at him, and at herself, and at their fictional little scene, steadily brightening as the Sun rises.

She looks "up", at the unimaginably gigantic memeplex which she has to kill. Inside its maw, human existence, all humans and all things humans have ever done, said, thought or been, are burning alive. SCP-3125 is, in large part, the lie that SCP-3125 is inevitable, and indestructible.

But it is a lie.

She feels it, now. She knows in her bones that she is irreal; an animate memory; an ideal, an abstract. When she started to exist a few moments ago she was mostly realistic, but she can feel flaws and complexity being stripped away from her. She can see the shape of the idea complex which Hughes is assembling around her. It looks familiar. It looks like a heavily reworked slice through the concept of the Foundation itself. The Foundation's noblest intentions and achievements, at least. The best purpose of its existence: to protect people. To swallow up all the horror, to manage it and understand it, to keep it under lock and key, so that people don't have to be afraid.

"Adam," she says, looking up again. "It's going to work. I can see all the way to the end from here."

"That's good," he manages. "It's been a long time since I had good news." He falls to his knees. His skull feels as if it's splitting open. She kneels with him, taking one of his hands.

He is seeing things, and the things he is being forced to see are hurting him. SCP-3125 has been hacking away at his and her lives for far longer than he knew. They'd lost so much by the end. He had no idea. And it's not just him, he realises. It's everybody. He needs to multiply this feeling by billions. "You've got to end this thing," he says, the pain rising to a flashpoint. "It has to be today. No more."

"Adam, listen. It's a different kind of existence up there. I've seen glimpses of it before, but I've never been there. I don't know what it's going to be like, but I know I won't be a human anymore. I'm already not real. I won't be able to come back. I love you."

There is a burning, corrosive sensation crawling across the surface of Adam's brain, a crackle like cellular automata. "I know," he says. "It's okay. There's going to be no one to come back to. It was good to see you. I love you."

STAND BACK

She stands back from him. She flexes what could be wings.

"You used to sing," Adam says. "All the time. It's the first thing it took away from us. But I remember."

The launch window opens. There is a kind of ignition. And Marion Wheeler's perspective shifts, and everything seems to shrink, and she is on the ascent.

*

The part of SCP-3125 which was capable of communication has had its brains blown out. There is no longer anything to reason with. There is no quip. There is a song, but it's a song she sings for herself.

The thing is titanic in its structure, brain-breaking in its topology. It comes from a space where ideas exist on a scale entirely beyond those of humans. Its wrongness and its self-consistent evil are so profound that it hurts to comprehend. At first, looking directly at it causes stinging actinic flashes in Marion's eyes, like ionising radiation.

But her perspective is still shifting, because she's still ascending. And as she ascends, ceasing to be human, she sees through the adversary, and comes to understand, instinctively, how it is structured, and how it is faulty, and how those faults can be attacked.

It turns to face her.

When they meet, what happens is less a fight than it is mathematics, an equation settling at the end of a long, painful stretch of working, a blizzard of cancelled terms. In the presence of WILD LIGHT, vast tracts of SCP-3125, thought to meaningfully exist, prove not to. It is, in the new context which WILD LIGHT provides, an ancient irrelevance. It folds up, limb after branching limb winking out of existence. It releases its grip on everything human. The mathematics is good. It happens in exactly the way Hughes modelled it, back in the bunker, using the memetic equivalent of fluid dynamics equations, taking thousands of processor-years to simulate.

After the finger limbs are gone, a livid red/green eyeball remains. The Foundation/Wheeler/protection abstract punctures it, lasering straight through it from front to back. A colourless shockwave spreads through the eyeball interior, another quiet cancelling-out, leaving bright vacuum behind it, not even particles.

And all that is left from the collision is the balance: a final wild photon, outbound to the deepest limit of ideatic space, never to return.

Epilogue: Champions Of Nothing

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