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Previously

Marion Wheeler used strong mnestic medication 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. She would become 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 which killed her did more than reinforce her memory; it destroyed her ability to do anything but remember. She ascended, arriving in the noösphere to a hero's welcome, but what arrived was an ideoform so severely brain-damaged that it was barely able to communicate.

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

Ulrich yelled at him for saying it, 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 in which 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 in the mission, it was difficult not to care for someone whom they had watched and guarded for years. They continued to take care of her in the same way they always had, in shifts. Wheeler, dimly aware of her condition, worked against the problem in the instinctive, fierce way she worked against every problem. She slowly became more coherent, but never became herself again. 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 pushing 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 more than anyone—"

"She mentored me. She drove me to be the best person I have ever been. 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 is continuing. There's a faint chance we'll find something of substance. Carry on as you were. No questions."

*

SCP-3125 incarnated the following winter.

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 of 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 or not, it took no special action against it, and 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 since its formation tore loose. More than 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. It was because Sanchez 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.

*

She fled, with Wheeler and the others in their little subteam, across the face of a noösphere which was rapidly becoming uninhabitable. The world was warping around SCP-3125's presence at the core of human thought, like real space around a black hole. It was building things, real physical artifacts, in the centre of cities. It was extruding them, as if from spores; monumental concrete structures, into which people were being fed in dizzying numbers. It was difficult to know what was happening inside of the structures. Some of the millions were dying in there. Some weren't. Ulrich didn't look. They found out the ugly way that it was dangerous to look closely.

The subteam was steadily running out of anchors. It could have been a systematic purge, but it could just as easily have been simple statistics. Roving physical and psychic anomalies, vast in their own right and slaved to SCP-3125, were combing the Earth, stripping it of objectors and feeding them into SCP-3125's maw. 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.

Ulrich wasn't looking. She didn't find out until it was too late. She felt the thread of memory come loose, and followed it, panicking, past its flapping end and down into physical reality, where there was nothing. A collapsed tent. A scuffed-out firepit where everything important had been piled up and burnt.

"Who was she?" another ω-0 operative asked her. Ulrich had never spoken about it.

"I only knew her for two days," Ulrich said. "When I was younger. She saved my life, that's all."

This was it, she realised. She was a career Foundationer. An experienced Mobile Task Force operative, for God's sake. She had gone through unimaginable horrors, and stacked them up as experience and kept going. But this, Julia's tent and silence and no Julia, was the worst thing she had ever seen.

Short of hope and resources, 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, but not forever.

*

They found shelter on a distant edge of the noösphere, in a clutch of arcane structures left there millennia earlier by a long-dead human culture. They were followed, though they didn't realise.

One night, Wheeler managed to talk. She said, "Adam." It was the first thing she had managed to say which wasn't a direct quote from her own expiring moments.

Ulrich was shocked by this. "You remember him?"

The sentence came out agonisingly slowly, as if each syllable was like climbing a mountain: "I remember everything."

Ulrich stared. She knew that Class-Z mnestics made it impossible for the subject to forget. She also knew that they could cause long-erased memories to reassert themselves — some of them, anyway, depending on the mechanism and intensity of the erasure process. She had hoped that Wheeler's memories of her husband were permanently gone, because she knew they ended in a terrible place.

"…I don't know where Adam is," she had to tell Wheeler. It was the truth. Nobody did. ω-0 operatives had, with some solemnity, observed the erasure of Adam Wheeler's mind. But, out of respect for Marion's decision and to preserve Adam's safety, they had intentionally diverted their attention during his relocation, destroying their records. "He might be alive. I don't know." She didn't know which alternative was worse.

"Daisy," Wheeler said. "Look." She was holding something in her hands, a pitiful glowing ideoform. A thought of someone.

It was him. A thread of memory which led right to him. It was some kind of miracle, it had to be, that Wheeler had picked him out from the livid, insensate mass of victims which now formed SCP-3125's core. He was nearly unrecognisable. 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. It wasn't growing. There was too much pressure. But it was trying to. He was pushing back.

Ulrich boggled. She had known that there was something weird and highly rare 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 them 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. It was possible that they were all dead. It was conceivable that Adam Wheeler was the only one of them left in the whole world.

But he was left. He was alive.

"I see him," Ulrich said.

Wheeler didn't respond.

"I'll get him out of there," Ulrich said. Her stomach was knotting up with the sheer thought of attempting it. "I'll bring him to you."

Wheeler didn't respond. Six original, coherent words had exhausted her. She was crazed with frustration at how incapable she had become. She felt as if she was pinned beneath a huge lead block of memory. It hurt to think. It hurt to exist.

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. If nothing else, the whole procedure took real-time weeks. The patience required to keep her hands off for days at a time was nearly inhuman.

Wheeler said nothing else in that time. She was conserving energy. 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. She had to wait.

"He'll be here," Ulrich said. "Soon."

*

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

Marion Wheeler is dead, finally, truly dead, and Adam Wheeler's 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. This 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, 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.

"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 burnt 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 her," Adam says. He's still face-down. "Don't take her. 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."

*

He recovers a second time. He's fine. Upbeat, game. Eager to get moving.

She explains everything she can. Tersely. Just the keywords. The Foundation, the Antimemetics Division, the situation, the objective. He absorbs it all surprisingly well. He asks cogent follow-up questions, which is always a positive sign.

"This 'thread of memory' which was sustaining you," he says. "Don't I count? I'll remember you."

"Your memory could be strong enough," she replies. "But you just don't know me well enough."

"Ah. That's regrettable."

Ulrich tells him, in detail, how to find Site 41. It's going to be an immense trek, made significantly longer by Wheeler's need to avoid urban areas. She describes the antimemetic shroud which obscures Site 41 and most other Foundation Sites, a shroud she and the rest of ω-0 found to be totally impenetrable — a shroud which Wheeler, if he prepares himself, may be able to walk straight through. She warns him about the psychotic hurricane-like anomalies, and the violent roaming agglomerations of SCP-3125-occupied non-humans. She describes a few techniques for avoiding their attention. She decides not to voice her private hope that, as a recent escapee from SCP-3125's interior, Wheeler will still "smell right" to them and be able to pass. She doesn't want him becoming overconfident and incautious.

She explains basic survival skills.

"I hike, I camp," Wheeler says. Still, he has never hiked or camped in an occupied foreign world. He has never gone months without electricity and plumbing. They find that they have plenty to talk about.

They are on the phone for long enough that Adam notices that the red Sun outside the office window isn't moving. It hasn't risen. It hasn't set. Either the world's stopped turning completely, or the thing hanging out there isn't the Sun.

"Unknown," Ulrich has to tell him. "There was a Foundation which could answer this question, once."

"It seems like this Foundation had the world's better interests at heart," Wheeler says.

In Heaven, Ulrich laughs, weakly. "The Foundation was never so simple," she says.

"…Ms. Ulrich, I sense we're coming to the end of our time together."

"Yes."

"The odds stacked against you were tremendous," Wheeler says. "But you saved my life. And the odds stacked against me are, well, still appalling. But significantly better, thanks to you. I'll do my level best. And I will remember you, even if it doesn't make a difference."

"Kill this thing, Mr. Wheeler," Ulrich says. "When you get the chance, don't hesitate."

"Aye," Wheeler says.

And at the same time, someone behind Ulrich laughs, sharply, once.

She turns. There's a man there, standing with her in the noösphere, a gaunt younger man with an awful, open-mouthed grin. He has been waiting, silently and excitedly, for an unknowable amount of time for Ulrich to notice him. And now that she does, he gets everything he could possibly want from her reaction, a rush of delectable horror and alarm. Then he cuts her off, killing her instantly, before she can get one syllable of warning to Wheeler.

Wheeler hears nothing. A faint click, and then a dial tone.

He hangs up.

To be continued

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