Aromantic Abatement
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rating: +27+x

Aromantic Abatement


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2003


Alscher-Adler-Gott had fallen on hard times.

The chemical plant on the outskirts of Vienna was a tangle of rust-lined stacks, rust-belted tanks and piers rusting away to nothing in the nitrogen soup of the Danube river. It was a sooty eyesore, a relic, a reminder of the fragility of that most grandiose of all societal fictions, 'the economy'. It was also an object lesson in how old dogs could sometimes learn new tricks; a significant proportion of its visible facilities had been converted to water treatment, giving that ancient black river a new lease on life.

Its invisible facilities, however, were much more interesting.

A few curious Viennese suspected the factory's owners had made inroads with an altogether different industry: film. For years, strange people in strange vehicles had regularly crossed the hurricane fencing — the only thing on the grounds that always, always looked brand-spanking new — and performed strange rituals or, more often, disappeared entirely. Sometimes they would hook up to the aging infrastructure and pantomime pumping their vehicles out; sometimes they would deliver colourful metal barrels full of god-knows-what, or truckloads of junkyard scrap, or even aggregates like sand or gravel. Only very rarely would this material leave the same way it had entered.

After a while, even that interest petered out. Today the plant was silent, the tanks empty, the tarmac cracked and pitted from the baking heat.

Those locals with the longest memories could recall when the stacks had been shiny and new, the smoke thick and the activity energetic. Before the Second World War. Before the takeover.

Before Shirazi-Chauvin Petrochem had moved in, and shuttered everything.


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Greetings from Area-21!

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With abated breath we note that Kant's birthday is fast approaching, and you know what that means! Recalibrate your Kant counters, give your Kant decouplers a checkup, and otherwise make sure your reality-stabilizing equipment is up to snuff!

It also means the annual Acroamatic Abatement Gala is being hosted by the Acroamatic Abatement Group here at the forever home of magic muck disposal. This year's theme is "BACKWASH: When Abatement Goes Bad," and we'll be featuring presentations by members of Site-43's staff on the topic of their materials handling accident from last September. Want to know precisely what happens when a whole factory full of esoteric sludge goes BOOM? You won't want to miss this year's AAG!

As always, Area-21 will provide lodging, food, drink, and any other supplies required to ensure that everyone has a grand time by the blue (?) Danube. Mark April 22 on your calendars!

"We are not rich by what we possess but by what we can do without."
— Immanuel Kant


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22 April

Treatment Area-21: Vienna, Austria


Alscher-Adler-Gott had never really existed; it had been a front for the Acroamatic Abatement Group, a think tank and tank farm dedicated to ridding the world of anomalous waste. For decades the AAG had operated as an adjunct to the Foundation, on the model of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and NASA, but a reorganization in 1942 set the dissolution of its ragged autonomy in motion. Its headquarters became Treatment Area-21, proving ground for all techniques too dangerous to attempt in the newer, more fragile facilities. In reality those facilities had long since obsolesced the AAG, now less on the model of JPL and more like the Hollywood Press Association. 21 was still the primary abatement facility on the continent, but the department which had once managed every accredited neutralization specialist was now reduced to producing internal academic publications, official reports, and social events. Unlike Sites, Areas were completely covert facilities — hence the 'bankruptcy' of the front company — but unlike many other specimens, such as the vast and hyperactive Area-150 in Wyoming, it was never very difficult to keep the nothing very much which happened at 21 on the down-low.

"They really don't do anything here, do they?"

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"Huh?" William Wettle startled awake; it was amazing, the way he could fall asleep standing up. Like a horse.

Like a fat, ugly, stupid…

"Never mind." Harold Blank checked his watch as the elevator shuddered down. It was mid-morning, and the presentations would start in just under two hours. Plenty of time to endure the tour then swaddle himself in his formal clothes, assuming they'd been sent on. Foundation air travel was, admittedly, not so prone to luggage loss.

They'd just left Director Imogen Tarrow to wait for the remainder of their motorcade. Harry had immediately noticed her long, slim neck, her long, slim torso, her wide, brown eyes and her long, blonde hair. She hadn't introduced herself with any honorific, and this meant for absolute certain that she possessed no doctorate in anything scientific. She'd been dressed in a blue blouse, which fit her well, and she wore a smile that didn't reach her nervous gaze by half. She'd had no security escort. In short, then, Area-21's Director was a diplomatic fiction: a friendly face who would under no circumstances be expected to preside over life-or-death situations. If the smokeless stacks and creaking piers hadn't already impressed on him the site's relative unimportance, Tarrow's easy manner would have done so in a heartbeat.

His heart was, in fact, beating rather—

"You need to get laid," Wettle drawled as the doors slid open. "You were staring at her."

The words spilled out into the hall beyond, where Udo Okorie and Lillian Lillihammer were already standing. They turned to stare at Harry, and four eyebrows raised in tandem.

Elevator rides lasted quite a bit longer at Site-43. Area-21's sublevels were just a scant few storeys underground.

"I will settle," Harry grumbled, avoiding their grins as he debarked, "for getting drunk."

At least this was obviously a safe place to do that.


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Wettle didn't like Lillian Lillihammer. He could always tell when someone didn't like him, and Lillihammer didn't like him profoundly. He didn't like that. Okorie didn't seem to dislike him, precisely, but there was a strange look of sympathy on her face whenever he was present that he also didn't like, so he didn't like her either. He didn't like Blank, didn't like him all the time, didn't like him every day in that peculiar way which some people interpreted as friendship.

He didn't like to think about it.

Three people he didn't like in one place was his absolute limit, so while they clustered together for protection against their alien environment, he walked out into it alone. Harry could have probably waxed architectural about Area-21, with its black girders and grey linoleum and long, backlit neon tubes running along the drop ceiling tiles, pointing the way to various destinations for those who could read the colour code, but Wettle wouldn't have cared to hear it, so he kept his eyes down and simply moved. The fact that he'd been meant to wait didn't matter; the fact that he didn't know where he was barely registered, since he hardly ever knew where he was back at 43.

"There you are!"

It was a woman. Women, as a rule, didn't rush over to him and throw their arms in the air in delight at his mere existence. This one was doing that, and it freaked him out right and proper. She was… was she attractive? It was difficult to gauge. She had long, cobalt blue hair, a very tight tube top under an AcroAbate labcoat, and a smile so wide it threatened the structural integrity of her head. He wasn't sure if he liked her or not, but she certainly seemed to already like him.

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"You must be one hell of a popular guy, Dr. Wettle," she gushed in some thick, unidentifiable working-class British accent.

Wettle was not equipped to answer that statement, so he repeated some of it instead. "Popular guy?"

"Well, someone must have been monopolizing your time!" She crinkled the corners of her eyes, as though his sheer majesty made him difficult to look at. "I'd almost given up, figured you either never arrived or I'd missed you somehow."

This wasn't getting any easier. "Missed me somehow."

"Luckily not!" She wrinkled her nose, further exposing the toothy grin. "I was hoping to pick your brain."

"My brain." This was the last straw; he came out of his tunnel of confusion back onto the straightaway of sense. "Oh. You must want one of the others. Okorie does abatement, Lillihammer does memetics, and Blank does pretty women. Somehow."

She snorted. "Are you not Dr. William W. Wettle, Reproduction Studies?"

"Yes," he said, and then he added "No. Replication Studies."

She flushed. "Oops! Haha." She actually said 'Haha', like a word. "Well, it's your replication expertise I'm after for now! I was hoping you could walk me through the finer points of the breach, before your presentation — I've got the dossier, but firsthand experience is always valuable. Don't you think?"

He rolled his eyes. "They didn't think my experience was so valuable when they wrote their stupid report."

She reached out to touch his arm. "Well, I do. I just really want to figure this thing out, you know? Because of my… personal stake."

He stared at her hand on his labcoat sleeve. Her fingertips were painted blue, too. "No," he said, slowly, "I don't know."

She dropped her arm again, looking mildly embarrassed. "Oh. Well, there's the matter of… my grandfather?"

"Your grandfather." They had devolved back to repetition.

She paused. "The… founder of the AAG?"

"The AAG?" It certainly rang a bell, if dully.

Her enthusiasm briefly flagged. "The AcroAbate Group? Oh, quit pulling my leg." She'd decided he was being funny, and affected a mask of mirth. "I might be new here, but I'm well past the hazing period. Everyone knows that grandpa created this whole field of study, designed most of the facilities at 43. I owe it to him to figure out who blew them up."

Wettle held up one hand. "Are you aware that I have no idea who you are?"

Her jaw dropped. "Oh, gosh, I'm so sorry!" She actually slapped her forehead. "I'm Alis Rydderech. My grandfather was Wynn Rydderech."

"Oh." He could tell this was meant to be meaningful. "Those are names, alright."

If she'd been any more taken aback at this point, she'd be lengthening the distance between them. "One of the founders of your Site? Balding old Welsh guy? Disappeared in the sixties?"

This was still news to him, even if he suspected it wasn't new news. He made little to no effort to retain information of this sort — information on people he was never likely to meet. "Well, if he disappeared in the sixties, I'm pretty sure he didn't build the stuff that blew up."

"Sure," she agreed, visibly recomposing her verve, "but until something he designed does, this'll be the next best thing." She gasped. "I didn't mean it that way!"

He decided that he did not necessarily dislike Alis Rydderech.


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After dropping off his travel bag at the dorms and taking a brief bathroom break, Harry joined Tarrow's tour. He soon found himself in one of the cylindrical, white-tiled tunnels connecting each of Area-21's sectors — they reminded him of subway stations minus the city grime, which was mildly humourous considering the filthy factory above — while Tarrow rattled off an endless stream of mostly meaningless facts. She was certainly a striking figure; taller than any of them save for Lillian, pumped full of agitated energy, prone to sudden full-body flourishes for brushing the hair out of her face. In some ways she reminded him of Karen Elstrom.

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He didn't really want to be reminded of Karen Elstrom.

He was still thinking about getting drunk, only half listening to the lecture, when the Director suddenly flashed a strained smile his way. "I have a question for our historian."

"People don't… generally have those." The other guests smiled: Okorie in what looked like genuine amusement, Lillian in agreement, McInnis politely and Ibanez impolitely, even impishly — the latter two had arrived just minutes after Harry and Wettle.

"Well, it'll be instructive." Tarrow clasped her hands together and made a symbolic gesture in his direction. "How, Dr. Blank, did the Canadian Corps take Vimy Ridge?"

He nearly groaned. "You specifically researched this ahead of time, right? There's no way someone not from Canada knows about Vimy."

She gave him a conspiratorial wink. "Audience participation is the soul of a good presentation."

He gave her a look, but did not disagree. "Alright, well, I'm already sick and tired of this story because Canadians won't shut the fuck up about it, and it's also about war, which is double plus boring to me, but…" His eyes glazed over and he recited, from unwilling memory. "Our units in the British army during the Great War all got together to take on a ridge in France that nobody else could manage, and they did it by constructing a scale geo-model back home to practice on." He frowned. "Oh." He nodded. "Ohhhh."

"Exactly!" She unclasped her hands and clapped him on both shoulders. They were still walking; she had to walk backwards to do it. It was, he had to admit, more than a little impressive. The awkward woman, paradoxically, had poise.

"What am I missing?" Okorie asked.

They had reached the round steel porthole to the next sector. There was a map mounted in a shiny metal frame beside it. Tarrow tapped the mess of vibrant lines. "What do you see?"

Okorie peered at it through her ponderous glasses, then made a little noise of surprise. "It's… is it AAF-D?"

Harry looked over her shoulder. He could nearly look over her head; she was half a head shorter than he was. "That's not F-D."

"Sure, not the blueprint, but look at the lines." Okorie traced them with her fingers. "The feeds are all configured the same. There's the platonic outflow, there's the RVAC, there's the orphic inflow… this is a replica of F-D."

Harry glanced at McInnis and Ibanez. The former looked intrigued, even though he had definitely already known this. The latter was pulling her right boot into the small of her back, balancing on her left.

"Why would you need something like that?" Lillian asked. "To practice on?"

"Right again!" Tarrow clapped. "But unlike the faux-Vimy earthworks, this structure precedes yours — it's the model, the test case. Area-21 contains functional, smaller-scale precursors of every major AcroAbate facility in the entire world." There was a note of pride in her voice.

"Functional how?" Okorie asked.

"They don't see the same intensive use, of course," and Tarrow momentarily looked cross, "but they're perfectly capable of doing the same work. We haven't used the chemical plant topside for years," which made sense; if 21 was an Area, that meant it possessed no cover story at all, "but we've got feeder lines from outposts in a hundred-mile radius, so the abatement continues below. And when things go wrong elsewhere — as they did in September — we're perfectly positioned to figure out why."


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"I still don't get why you flagged me down." They were heading deeper into the facility, and Wettle knew he was almost certainly moving away from his obligations… but then, nobody had felt the need to share the itinerary with him, so why should he feel beholden to it?

"Didn't I tell you? Replication studies!" Alis ended most of her sentences as though they were cheers. "You're the best man for the job, believe you me, and once we've mapped out the initial breach, you're going to help me reproduce." She gulped; she actually gulped. "Replicate. Sorry!"

He didn't know why she looked so mortified. If there'd been a double entendre, well, he didn't speak French. "You want to reproduce… a cascade containment breach?"

"No! Oh, god, no!" She waved her arms in the air again. "But also yes. On a much more limited scale! In a controlled environment. I want to understand what happened, what went wrong, and how to prevent it from recurring." She seemed, very suddenly, quite bashful. "If you're worried about working with a junior researcher, don't be; you can have you name on the paper. I'll be a silent partner."

He had his doubts about her silence, but he was already warming to the thought of a partnership.


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The symposium was held in the strangest auditorium McInnis had ever seen. As Director of the Foundation's premier AcroAbate facility he'd been to this gala before, of course, but Area-21's foregathering space never ceased to give him pause. It was located at the literal confluence of the nine mini-facilities which had served as templates for the more practical treatment sites, and it made absurd and, he had always felt, potentially disastrous use of that fact. Each tier of seats had a long, arced desk of clear glass in front of it, and within that desk ran an equally transparent pipe carrying esoteric effluent. From his seat in the front row he could look down on a bright orange backlit stream of slush; it looked like a snowcone flecked with salt. He knew that if the flecks turned to pepper, it would be long past time to run.

Tarrow took the stage, and the general hubbub died down. There were easily a hundred people in the room, the largest audience McInnis had ever addressed. He'd never been asked to speak at the AAG before, and this wasn't the circumstance he would have chosen for his first appearance.

"Friends," the Director began, "it is my pleasure to welcome you to the eightieth annual Acroamatic Abatement Gala. I know most of you came here for the free booze and dancing," and she was briefly interrupted by a smattering of polite applause, "but the requirements of our more sombre duties must first be fulfilled. To that end I will introduce the theme of this evening's symposium, and then you will hear from six speakers chosen from the staff of Site-43. I know some of you were looking forward to picking the brain of Noè Nascimbeni, designer of Acroamatic Abatement Facility AAF-D at Site-43, but its reconstruction has taken up all his time this year. I know his colleagues won't mind picking up the slack; we intellectuals owe the working man a little time off, now and again."

Polite laughter. McInnis doubted what Nascimbeni was doing at this very moment could be classified as 'time off'. He was likely welding something in a tight space, awash with sweat, fatigued but indefatigable. He'd been working like a demon since they'd deposed Falkirk back in January.

He'd also responded with "absolutely to hell with that" when asked if he wanted to attend the AAG. McInnis had harboured similar feelings, but unlike the head tech, he didn't have a choice.

"Now, to our theme: you may recall that on the mailers, it was termed 'Backwash: When Abatement Goes Wrong!' The levity is misleading, and I want you all to know that we received your complaints on the matter. The disaster that struck Site-43 on the eighth of September, 2002, is the least-funny thing that has ever happened in an AcroAbate facility. I've brought these men and women here today to tell you how it happened, and what it's meant to them; when we've heard all they have to say, I hope you'll take up these conversations in private, and at the gala this evening, then resume them at the seminars and workshops tomorrow. Even as we celebrate eight decades of largely successful neutralization, we need to take a moment to reflect on how we got here, and how we might move forward." She smiled at McInnis, extending both hands. "Now, please give a warm welcome to Dr. Allan James McInnis, Director of Site-43!"

The welcome wasn't precisely warm; he might have used the word 'restrained'. That was all well and good, as the speech he intended to deliver would have approximately the same effect. He strode up to shake Tarrow's hand, mask of friendly propriety carefully composed, and took her place at the lectern.

"It is my honour today," he began, "to tell you nothing very clever about things you already know everything about."

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It got much more laughter than Tarrow had. He didn't glance back at her to see if she'd noticed. She didn't seem the noticing type.


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Wettle had thought Rydderech was leading him towards her office, but instead he found himself walking through the corridors of what looked to be a dormitory. When she took a set of keys out of her labcoat and started fumbling with a door lock — nervously! — he suddenly wondered if this was the experience he'd missed by almost never leaving his dorm room at college.

"Feels like I'm sneaking into a seminary."

She smirked up at him. "Done that a lot, have you? And there's not much sneaky sex going on around here, sorry to say. They don't call it Aromantic Abatement for no reason."

He nodded. "I don't get it."

Rydderech's personal quarters were simple. Wettle recognized Foundation standard issue in every element: the bedsheets, the furniture, even the paintings on the wall were fully impersonal. If this woman had an internal life, it never bled into her surroundings.

She shrugged off the labcoat and tossed it onto her dining room table. He watched the tube top as the woman attached to it crossed the room and flopped onto the couch, undoing her elaborate bun of blue hair so that it fell messily in front of her face. "Come over here, and let's get busy."

This time he thought he did detect the double entendre, but Rydderech's expression never changed. He carefully removed his own labcoat, and draped it over a chair — she smiled encouragingly — and joined her at the couch. When he sat down, she hopped up a bit to bounce the cushions. "Attaboy. Alright, got any questions before we get started?"

He didn't have any work-related questions, so he shook his head. "Alright, well, I'll answer one you didn't ask. My main concern is this: making sure something like September eight never happens again."

"Seems like a problem for the calendar companies," he replied. She guffawed, front teeth sticking out, nose wrinkling, and he was startled to find that this was precisely the sort of graceless normalcy which appealed to him. He was glad he'd stolen that joke from Harry. "Okay, but how? How are you going to stop it?"

She picked up a tablet from the coffee table. "We're going to reconstruct the disaster timeline, using the incident report and the mock systems at Area-21, and we're going to run simulations."

He attempted to look intelligent. "What do you need me for?"

"I can't access the full report without credentials from someone who was involved in drafting it. You were the obvious choice, out of the available options!"

Did that make sense? "Well, of course. But… why?"

"Oh my god, stop being so modest!" She reached over and pushed him playfully on the chest. "Replication studies! You're the only one who really understands the importance of patterns. Everyone else sees anomalies as static things, investigated once and left alone when a suitable theory has been proposed. But you! You're the one who knows that learning is a process, not an event."

He smirked. "Is this just an excuse to get me alone?"

She suddenly leaned forward, making direct eye contact which he broke by staring straight down her shirt. "If it was, did it work?"


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Ibanez pushed the podium out of the way and hooked her thumbs beneath her belt. "If you knew my name before today, it's because you read the incident report. I'm the officer of record, and you might be forgiven for thinking that means I'm the one who knows what went on in there. You'd be wrong." She pointed at her colleagues in the front row. "Udo Okorie gave me the list of fifty dollar terms that describes some small part of what happened — words I can't even pronounce, let alone wrap my brain around. Objects coming alive. Reality taking on new dimensions. Things from out of this world… coming in. And right at the centre of it all, six ordinary human beings like me and three special cases like yourselves."

Polite laughter. They didn't quite know what to make of her. Nobody ever did.

"There were five members of my Section involved in this incident. One of them — Howard Yancy — manned a monitor. Three of them — Janet Gwilherm, Stuart Radcliffe, and Ana Mukami — charged into the breach. One of them did absolutely nothing beyond giving an order — me — and that order is the reason why the first responders are all dead. Yet I'm the one who wrote the report? I'm the one who knows the score? Well, bullshit."

She let it hang in the air before continuing.

"I wasn't there, I got off without a scratch, I didn't feel the fire, or see the smoke. I could tell you why I think we made it through this disaster, and it would have a great deal to do with the heroism of ordinary people, but you should ask yourselves: why believe me? What makes you think I have any special insight into how one should respond to an event of this nature? Just because I'm still here, and they're gone? That's survivorship bias. Must I have done something right, must they have done something wrong, to end up with our respective results?" She strolled across the stage, kicking at the recessed footlights. "What if things had gone differently? What if I'd gone myself? I could have easily outrun those big lugs. Could I have gotten to the control room, hit the switch, and run back out before it was too late? Probably. What if I'd locked down all the offices, preventing Wee Willie Wettle from running out into the night?" The laughter was a little more incredulous. "Would my agents have made it in time, for the low, low price of the Site's least-favourite egghead dying of smoke inhalation?" They were still laughing. "Of course, there was a tech in his office too. Really I'd just be shuffling the casualties around, to make myself feel better."

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The laughter died in the resultant pause.

"I could just save the ones I wanted to care about but never found the time for, and lose the ones I wouldn't give the time of day to. Pass the trauma on to someone else." She looked up at the crowd; she had their attention, which was good, because she'd hate to have blurted all this out for no good reason. "And that's what this is all about, really, this second-guessing and hand wringing. It's about wishing we could have made something better out of a bad situation, as if we could ever have known at the time what kind of scenario was playing out. If you could re-approach every day of your life knowing that tomorrow is the best time to tell someone… something, and the next day is the best time to put in that job application, and the day after that is when your best friend gets hit by a bus, if you could go into these scenarios prepared and ready, sure. Maybe you could possibly produce a better outcome than the one you originally got. But here's the thing about that knowledge: it's useless."

This was another natural stopping point when addressing a room full of academics. Ibanez preferred to let her implied insults linger.

"Every day is a collection of events connected by a meaningless haze, and we don't know what's happening 'til it's half over. We can learn from our mistakes, develop new protocols, drill to our hearts' content, but when it comes down to the wire we'll rely on snap decisions based on not nearly enough information. And someone might die because of that."

She sighed, and waited until she had another full lungful of air before finishing the preamble. "There's only two ways to mitigate this problem: one programmatic, one personal. On the programmatic level, spend every possible moment either planning for the worst, or training your mind and body to be able to handle it when it comes. But there's only so far you can take that; you can only do so much preparation before it stops preparing you for anything, turns into wheel-spinning. You can never be fully ready to meet the unexpected, and if all your life's a drill, you might not recognize reality when it comes knocking. So to a certain extent, you'll have to trust yourself, and that's where the personal element comes in." She reached into her holster with a quick draw — she'd informed the guards stationed at the doors she'd be doing this beforehand — and whipped out the sheet of protocols and statistics she'd be using for the more impersonal half of this speech. She intended to read from it directly. "Leave nothing unsaid, unthought, undone that you might regret not saying, not thinking, not doing, should you lose the ability to say, think, or do it forever. If you do that, if you prepare the best you can and cut down your list of potential regrets, you've not only made yourself ready to face a disaster, you've gotten a head start on living with yourself when it's over. And that, friends, is the hard part." She tapped her palm with the rolled-up pages. "Trust me. It's the only thing I know which Janet Gwilherm, Stuart Radcliffe, and Ana Mukami never got to learn, and I'll carry it to my grave at any age."


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1998

11 December

Site-43: Lambton County, Ontario, Canada


They'd stuck him with a kid.

Wettle had narrowly avoided being stuck with a kid once before, during his divorce, and he wasn't happy to see this problem resurface. Harold Blank was supposedly some sort of doctor, but with his baby face and stupid hair he couldn't have pulled off the look on General Hospital.

"How old are you?" Wettle asked him.

Blank had to think about that for a moment. "Uh… 1966… what year is it now? '99. I'm 33."

The kid is two years older than me. That felt wrong. "Oh," he said. He said that whenever something felt wrong.

Blank's office was full of junk. Paper architectural models, a whole bookshelf of lenses and prisms, a glass display case full of half-assembled plastic ships, and books discarded every which way. It was, he'd noted immediately, several square feet larger than his own — and he knew that if he mentioned this to anyone, they would first tell him this was because Blank was a Department Head, or whatever they called it here, and then that the correct term was 'square meters', and in their minds they'd spell that with the 'r' and 'e' reversed.

Oh, how he already hated Canadians.

"Says here you're from Chicago. That's the capital of Illinois, right?"

"Right," said Wettle. He did think that was right.

"And your degree is in…" Blank shuffled some sheets on his desk, which was already so plastered with paper that Wettle couldn't see the faux wood. "Uh, I guess chemistry sort of?"

Wettle was used to this reaction. He recited: "I went to college for chemistry, and I didn't like it, so I switched to history, and I didn't like it, but I graduated, so I took more courses and did my MA in chemistry, which I didn't like, so I did another in history, which I also didn't like, and I started my PhD in chemistry." He blinked. "Do I get to finish that if I work here?"

"Sure," said Blank, looking somewhat bedazzled. "If, you know, you'd like to."

Wettle blinked again.

"Alright." Blank dropped Wettle's CV, and looked him in the eye. "How did we end up with you?"

"I wanted a job in pharma, but I couldn't get a break. Nobody was hiring." This was not at all true; Chicago had a thriving pharmaceutical industry. However, most companies didn't want to hire somebody who couldn't get a reference from any of his former teachers or employers. "Applied all over, didn't work out, so I thought I'd try my luck in Canada. Wish I hadn't."

"Mm. Because you ended up in parapharma accidentally."

"Pair of what?"

It was Blank's turn to blink. "Para-pharma. Paranormal pharmaceuticals. You accidentally ended up employed by RxX."

"Oh. Sure, I guess. I just meant, now I'm in Canada. Fate worse than death."

Blank smiled very thinly.

"Anyway yeah, I guess they were into the bullshit. Smuggling flowers out of some third-world hellhole that make your dick stand on end or something. I dunno."

Blank was breathing funny by this point, each exhale louder than the last. He fished a report out of the pile. "Nigella cerritulus, Stranger-in-the-Mist. Bright blue flowers with a major Hume offset, used to treat derealization disorders caused by multiversal travel."

"Yeah, sure, it's always a sex thing with these people, am I right?"

Blank stared at him.

"Anyway yeah, MTF came down on us like a sack of bricks and knocked over the whole place, office, factory and all, and I got swept up. Somebody in hiring thought I'd be useful, and here I am."

Blank glanced over the CV again.

"Did they say what they thought you'd be useful for?"


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The following is a list of all major and minor incidents occurring to one William Wallace Wettle, recently-graduated Foundation PhD, over the course of completing his degree.

Injuries: animal bites (17), broken collarbone (1), concussion (4), electrocution (1), groin pull (3), infection (9), muscle strain (1), pool suction-drain injury (2), posterior cruciate ligament injury (3), shin splints (1), skier's thumb (9), sprained ankle (7), turf toe (1)

Equipment Damaged: cafeteria tray (4), carpet (2), ceiling tile (8), containment apparatus (1), door (117), elevator (1), floor tile (11), keycard reader (4), keycard (16), motor vehicle (3), personal computer terminal (8), personal telephone (17), window (9), work computer terminal (11), work tablet (4), work telephone (7)

The list of interpersonal problems and errors committed would take up more time than either you or I can spare, Allan. I don't know who foisted this idiot on us, but I do have a suggestion for where you should put him. Remember how you wanted a Replication Studies subSection?

— Harry


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2003

22 April

Treatment Area-21: Vienna, Austria


Udo slouched behind the lectern like it were a wooden shield. "I don't remember what I did," she began, and she considered for a moment simply leaving it at that. But then she noticed her parents in one of the middle rows, and decided to go through with it. "That's not false modesty. I'm entirely aware that the official report on the incident states, unequivocally, that my quick thinking in sealing off the containment cell in Applied Occultism saved lives, may in fact have prevented the destruction of the entire Section — a destruction which could have unleashed all the subjects in containment above, or rained down death on those below." Her parents were beaming, now. "This has been explained to me. I have seen the timeline. I understand how this version of events fits into the scattered memories I have of what actually happened."

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For a moment, just a moment, she thought about turning and running away. There had to be somewhere backstage she could hide.

The moment passed. "The thing is, though, those memories are really scattered. Leadup included, the incident covers about ten minutes of my life, and I can tell you pretty definitively what happened during about five minutes of that. Not in one solid block, but in chunks of various lengths. Sometimes I remember long stretches of time, sometimes I can only see a gesture or a snapshot of the space I was occupying. Where everything else ought to be is just a great big, solid, blank." She looked at Blank, and he grinned at her out of one side of his mouth. She gave him a small smile back. "And that terrifies me. I don't remember deciding to close the hood on the open conduit, and I don't remember actually closing it, either, and that suggests two thorny questions: why did I know what was happening, and what to do about it, and how did I manage to do it at all? So far as I can tell, I should have lost my entire arm trying to close that hood. How did I get out of the cell so fast? How did I reach the door? I distinctly, damnably distinctly remember thinking to myself that I did not have the time to escape, that I was going to die in there, but something happened, and I made it out. What? What happened? What's missing? What's wrong with me, that I can't get a hold on any of this?"

She suddenly recognized someone else in the audience, a slim girl with an overbite who had transferred away from 43 back in February, and momentarily lost her train of thought. She glanced down at her notes, and didn't glance back up.


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2003

18 January

Site-43: Lambton County, Ontario, Canada


Udo now knew AAF-D like the back of her hand. This wasn't just an idiom; she had come to know the abatement facility as an actual extension of her body, via micamancy. She had burned through nearly half of her supply of vim harenae by pumping it into the pipes and conduits, taking the full measure of every inch of containment apparatus, determining once and for all what had and had not happened on September 8, 2002.

What had happened was a cascade containment failure. What hadn't happened was anything which could trigger one.

It had taken months to insinuate herself into every nook and cranny, but the work was not a total loss. She now had more than enough raw data to finish her doctoral studies, if she cared enough to, and she had also provided a handy vector for carrying abatement solution into the pipes. It didn't take long at all, thanks to her, to remove all lingering traces of anachronic, orphic, platonic, rhetorical or recondite material from the machinery. To reset the systems back to something approaching normal.

To erase the evidence of this apparently insoluble mystery.

She was typing up the results, without a great deal of enthusiasm, when Falkirk's auditor for Applied Occultism arrived.

It was Falkirk himself.

"So," the Director jeered from the doorway of her shared office. "That's how far the apple falls."

She looked at him. She'd never met the man before, had only ever heard a few scattered rumours. He'd worked here for longer than she'd been alive, and almost nobody had anything to say about him — and what they did have to say was never nice. She put none of that knowledge to work with her response: "Good afternoon, Director."

Falkirk walked into the office, brushing the contents of Imrich's desk with his long white fingers. He tipped over an empty water bottle, and flicked it against the wall. "What a mess. Your grandfather would have wanted better for you."

She turned to face him. "I never knew my grandfather."

"Well, I did." Falkirk moved on to Rozálie's desk, picking up her papers and rifling through them randomly. "He was a security threat from start to finish. A megaphone to the wide unknown. If I'd had my way, we wouldn't have hired remote readers, we'd have shot them." He tossed the reports back down. "Still, the man had his uses. Unlike you; I was given to understand you were something of a prodigy, and yet here you are, wasting away in an inferior intellect detainment chamber."

She wasn't sure what effect he was trying to produce, but it wasn't working. He was massively overplaying the aggression, and it was falling very flat. "I'm just a researcher," she told him. "Would you like to hear about my research?"

He scoffed. "I know all about your research. You're becoming one with the Quebec cannibal." He pronounced it like 'Kwebec'.

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He'd finally found a button to push. She knew, of course, that 5281 was a child-consuming myth creature, and that the sleeping dust was ectoentropically generated by his body. She'd simply chosen, in fine alchemist's form, not to think about what the stuff had been before she'd turned it into what it was. She didn't respond, hoping he wouldn't keep pushing.

He kept pushing. "I hear you actually absorbed his residual energy. Took something of that monstrous thing inside of you. I always knew Izaak was into the bad voodoo, but literally consuming a cannibal? That's even more on the nose than I'd ever suspected. I wonder whether he'd be proud, or ashamed."

Her grandfather was not a particular soft spot for her. Falkirk's venomous insults to the memory of Izaak Okorie did nothing more for her than had Euler's declamations on his many talents. The memory wasn't hers. "I'm just trying to figure things out, sir. Nothing makes sense anymore."

His lack of effect was starting to have an effect on him. His too-pale skin was reddening. "It's your job to make it make sense, young woman. Are you telling me you sold out your humanity for nothing? You've spent all that time digging in the muck, and for what? For what?" He was almost snarling now.

She glanced at her laptop, and shrugged. "I don't know, sir. I have no idea what happened."

"Of course you don't. And it would be so easy to explain it to you, too, but I don't think I will." He turned his back on her.

She stood up. "Wait. Are you saying… you know something? About the breach?" He walked out of the office, and she jolted after him. "Sir? Please, if you know something, anything I need…"

She let the words die on her lips as he stalked on down his warpath. Rozálie Astrauskas was standing in the open doorway of the washrooms across the hall, watching her shaking impotently in the open.

"What?" Udo snapped. "I've had enough of this doe-eyed distant bullshit, would you just come talk to me already?"

Rozálie withdrew, closing the door between them again.


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2003

22 April

Treatment Area-21: Vienna, Austria


"Here's the thing." Udo shook herself out of her reverie; she had a monologue to get through. "I don't have an answer. I can't tell you why I don't know what I don't know. That it's somehow connected to the breach, well, that's obvious. Something turned a man's head two-dimensional. Something turned into a translucent orange snake… as usual. Something killed my boss," and her voice broke a little, "hours before we even knew anything was wrong, and something… made us not notice that had happened. There was a lot going on in AAF-D, and Applied Occultism, and I don't understand nearly enough of it." She looked up at her parents again. The look of pride had been replaced by looks of worry and confusion, mirroring how she herself felt. "It's been months, and we're no closer to a concrete set of conclusions. And if this rambling piece of self-therapy is going to teach us anything, I guess it has to be that: it's impossible to get more than a snapshot of any one element of this disaster, it's impossible to understand the overall event without a full accounting of every moment, and it's impossible to get that due to the nature of the overall event. We have to keep pushing, try to do better without the benefit of knowing what brought us down, what we did wrong." She'd written might have done wrong in her notes. "So I don't think it would be right to accept any sort of honour for the events of September 8, as whoever performed the actions that saved Applied Occultism, it certainly wasn't me. If it had been me, if the person I am today was the same as the person I was then, I would remember what I did." She thumped the podium in unaffected frustration. "Memory is what makes us ourselves, it's the strand of our continuity, and I lack that here. I won't take credit for things I don't remember doing, and I will try not to blame myself for any mistakes I might have made, since they're also just shadows on the cave wall to me now."

She was painfully aware of the auditorium full of eyes fixed on her position. "This might not be the sophisticated technical analysis some of you were waiting for, and it's certainly not an uplifting speech about overcoming adversity, but it's the truth. I was an actor in what may some day be considered an important historical moment, and my motivations and capabilities will be assessed for years to come when this becomes a landmark case in acroamatic abatement, and I will not recognize the version of myself depicted in those reports. On the ground, in the chaos, I understood nothing, and acted on instinct. The lesson to be learned is not that one woman on the ground can make all the difference, but that we all muddle through these things in the dark, and what happens, happens. It might not even mean anything at all, and we might never know why it happened." She sighed. "We have to live with that."

She met the distant eyes of Rozálie Astrauskas.

"I have to live with that."


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He'd been almost certain she was going to kiss him when she leaned in like that, but instead she pressed the tablet into his hands. "I've got the file prepped," she said in a sing-song brogue. "I just need you to give the access code."

He swallowed. "Oh. I can't do that."

She leaned back again. "Sure you can. I've got approval from Director Tarrow, if you want to see it!"

He shook his head. "I don't care about that. I mean I don't know my access code."

The enthusiasm which had characterized their interactions began to evaporate again. "You… don't…? It's your security code. The one with your name, and all the numbers and code-words."

"Yeah, that. I forget it. Every day."

She stared at him.

"Yeah, every day I do the thing where you reset the last word, so nobody can use an old code, and then by about an hour later I've forgotten the new word. And also the old ones. The whole thing, every day." He wasn't embarrassed; he'd long since lost the capacity. "Other than being locked out of one of my research stations, it doesn't really cause any problems because they don't trust me with anything sensitive anyway."

He thought, for a moment, she was going to smack him. Then she smiled that goofy smile again. "Where did you write it down?"

"Well," he began, and then immediately realized what he was going to say, and said instead "obviously nowhere."

She reached out to touch his shoulder. "Where, though?"

He swallowed again. "That would be a security violation."

She reached up with her other hand, and dropped one strap of the tank top.

"A sticky note on the back of my badge," he blurted out all in a rush. "With my overnight stuff."

She sprang from the couch, and picked up both of their labcoats. She did not return the strap to its original position. "I think it's time you showed me your bedroom, Dr. Wettle!"


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"I didn't learn anything new from the breach." Harry liked to start his lectures with a little mild subversion. "Every lesson I could've learned, I basically already knew. Training matters. Don't walk towards explosions. Someday never comes… yes, I heard that CCR song." One person laughed, and Harry pointed at him. "That guy gets it! But yeah, the only difference is that these reinforcements of obvious adages were extra explosive, and mean-spirited. So I thought I'd stand up here today and do something clever with my speech, talk about how I got nothing out of it and spin that into some thoughtful meditation on the impossibility of perfect knowledge, or some shit. But then Chief Ibanez and Researcher Okorie did precisely that, then gave their frankly mind-boggling inventories of insane nonsense, and now I'm stuck without a topic."

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The audience was already on his side.

"Even the stuff I thought would be historically unique has turned out to be de rigeur. My research assistant was murdered by a Fanta tentacle, so I looked that up and lo and behold, it shows up so often in AcroAbate breaches that it's got its own SCP number — 6643 — and you people even have a nickname for it."

"Verne!" someone shouted, to general applause.

He graced the interruption with a mock salute. "So what in the world can I say, beyond the overview of similar but smaller gunk explosions you know damn well is coming, that would be worth our time to contemplate? What can I force myself to learn, and force on you as some sort of moral?"

He spread his hands wide, then stuck them in his labcoat pockets.

"Maybe learning isn't the answer." He started to pace the stage. "You might be aware that the patron saint of muck reduction, Wynn Rydderech, personally experienced an AcroAbate accident at Site-43. The details are oddly spotty — there's references to him conducting an experiment with a partner, but the partner has been excised from the record — and it's not at all clear what happened, or what he was exposed to, but we do have his statement after the fact. He said, and I quote," and he put on his best overwrought quotation voice, which always had the effect of sucking the gravitas out of what he quoted, "'I never would have gone in there, and done that, if I'd been ignorant. If I didn't think I knew what I was doing, if the risks had been unknown and I had been properly afraid of them, I might have saved myself a faceful of horror. But I knew too much, I was too clever, and I nearly flexed myself to death. It's not such a strange thing for a scientist to say, that we must know what we do not know, must embrace the uncertainty of our great collaborative project of knowledge, but it's something else entirely to valourize superstitious timorousness — as I now believe we must. We need to remember that our subjects are not wholly responsive to empirical study. We must be pioneers of intellectual enquiry, but to some extent we must also be cave dwellers terrified that the setting sun may not rise again tomorrow, because we don't know for sure that it will. Be proud of the project, but not of your part in it. Be humble before God, or ye will be humbled'." Harry smiled. "Off by heart, you like that?"

They were still on his side. "So I don't know about that god stuff, but the general message is sound. That'll be my humanities message to you STEM superheroes: work a little mortal terror into your routine. Find a place in your project outline for inconsolable weeping over your insoluble uncertainties. Remember that we're not the ones who know everything, we're just the ones who can see the whole shape of our ignorance. It's when we lose sight of that, that disasters happen. Don't believe me?"

He returned to the lectern, and slapped it with a manila folder.

"I have data, to season the anecdote. Slide?"


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She was actually looking both ways at each junction, as though mortified of being spotted, leading him through the corridors by hand.

It was the closest he'd gotten to having sex in years.


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Lillian didn't even make it to the lectern, instead hopping up on the lip of the stage and kicking it with the backs of her shoes. "Hey. I'm smarter than you."

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Some of them laughed. Not all of them.

"And yet I still have no clue what you people do here. I have a vague sense of it back home at 43, if only because Okorie's a motormouth and I sat beside her on the plane."

That set off the remainder.

"But you guys? No clue. Then again, how many people in this room actually work at 21? Show of hands?" She counted. "Okay, like… a quarter, maybe. The rest of you are probably wondering the same shit I am. Who are these people? What's an Acroamatic Abatement Group? How do I stop my Site from exploding the way your Site exploded, and can the people who actually work here help me with that? Well, maybe they can! I certainly can't. I'm a goddamn memeticist. And Harry's an archivist, and Allan's a diplomat, and Udo still plays with Barbies," sustained laughter, "and Del can't see over her own dashboard — I know that's not relevant, but it's damn funny — and fucked if Willie even bothered showing up. Nascimbeni might've been able to tell you something useful, but instead he's in Canada being useful, unlike the rest of us. The rest of us are spewing platitudes, then rattling off statistics you can probably find in the symposium program anyway. So here's the gimmick of my speech: it ends right now, so fuck off and go talk to the people who actually know their shit."

She hopped back off the stage to a smattering of very bemused applause. McInnis was shaking his head, but smiling as he always did. Ibanez was clutching her chest, clearly holding herself back from rolling in the aisles. Harry looked like he wished he'd delivered that speech himself.


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Rydderech waited until he'd shown her the sticky note before tackling him into the bed.


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Prepared Remarks for the Acroamatic Abatement Gala, Dr. W.W. Wettle (unused)


Ladies and gentlemen of the [NAME], it is an honour to be chosen as your Guest of Honour this year. My respect for the [NAME] is as deep as yours is for me, and it's my pleasure to provide this unique reminiscence on the events of September [DAY] 2002.

Too often do we focus, when remembering a disaster, on the individuals directly affected by it or directly responsible for bringing it to a close. I would argue that it is possible to know too much about the victims, and the so-called heroes, when it obscures from our sight those individuals inconvenienced, or spurred to meaningful action, by extraordinary circumstances. It is further my opinion that causal relationships and chains of consequence are given far too much attention when breaches of this sort occur, at the expense of understanding the more complicated activities of those not immediately involved. It is that perspective I hope to provide to you today.

On the face of things, my only interaction with the tragic events of September [DAY] was an altercation with the [NUMBER] security agents sent to [WHAT?] in AAF-[?], where they would [ADJECTIVE] [FATE]. I represent an outside vector, given no consideration whatsoever by the so-called investigation into the breach conducted by Security and Containment, yet my contribution to the ultimate result could not have been more vital. I will attempt, over the next hour, to outline precisely why factors which appear at first to be merely peripheral can in fact be far and away the most important to truly understanding what happened, and why, and how, and where, and even when.

To fully explore this narrative, it will be necessary for me to outline the body of work I undertook in the months before September 2002. […]


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It was a pretty great body.

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