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rating: +33+x

Transition


Asterisk43.png

2002

18 September

Site-43: Lambton County, Ontario, Canada


It was nearly midnight when Lillian finally surrendered. Ngo had been stalking her off and on since late afternoon, and that was too long for any one farce to stay fresh. The most moral place to face her Waterloo was Health and Pathology; she was never the best friend in the world, but she did have one, and an invisible timer was ticking.

She found Harry asleep, face down on the blue of Bradbury's bed. She was asleep as well, and the chart on the footboard suggested that though the cause might be medical, it wasn't medicinal — she hadn't been tranquilized, she just wasn't waking up. Hierarchy being what it was, Bradbury hadn't been consigned to a ward. She had a private little room all to herself, with an attached washroom, chairs for guests, and a couch for guests with staying power. That couch was going to get a lot of use in the next few weeks; falling asleep at someone's bedside was romantic and all, but it was also hell on the back, and Harry had a low tolerance for pain. He'd learned that about himself, at least partially, by being friends with Lillian for so very long.

She slid a duffel bag beneath his chair. She'd dodged into his quarters beforehand to find and fill it, taking the chance that the shrink would take the chance to corner her. She pulled a chair up beside his, sat down, and then did something she wouldn't have done had he been awake — or had anyone else been there to see it.

She put one hand on his back, and made a solid one-minute-long attempt to see if she could cry.

LillihammerBlank1.jpg

For science, of course.

It went nowhere, so she decided to go somewhere else herself. When she removed her hand, however, Harry made a sad little sound, and she was shocked to suddenly find herself near tears. She hadn't cried in years, had thought the capacity entirely gone out of her, but…

Irrationality is contagious. And there's only one way not to catch it.


Asterisk43.png

1978

12 October

Peterborough, Ontario, Canada


Lyle liked to think of it as a game.

The failure state, the game over, was acquiring a permanent human contact. The enemies were his teachers, his parents, his relatives, even his family doctor. All of them believed he needed an extra category of being in his life — friends — whereas he was absolutely certain that what he needed, at most, was a pet dog. For his eighth birthday, he got a pet dog, and so he wasn't playing the game willingly. He would've just as soon not progressed through the stages of pointless acquaintance and ultimate rejection.

But then, he didn't make the rules.

"This is Harry," his mother explained. They were in the kitchen; there was daylight outside, and an Atari 2600 inside, and what Lyle said next would determine in which world he would spend his afternoon.

So, he said: "Harry has stupid hair."

Harry did have stupid hair. It was long, way too long, and it looked exactly as good as a nine-year-old boy's hair would look if he'd had a say in it. This statement was calculated, therefore, for maximum offence.

"At least I have hair," the other kid droned. He had a really droney voice. "What's that you've got growing out your head? Licorice?" He pronounced it 'lickerish'.

Stage two. Lyle glanced at Harry's clothes: a Star Wars t-shirt, and track pants. "Track pants, huh. You look like you'd pee yourself if you tried to exercise."

"Lyle!" His mother very nearly swatted him.

"You look like you'd break in half," Harry countered.

Ooh, boss fight. "Big talk from a guy whose mom set him up for a play-date."

"Rich, from a guy plays Breakout with his mom."

Lyle shot his mother a pained look, then retorted: "I bet I could play Breakout with your mom."

"My mom's too cool for you."

"I'm too hot for your mom." He had only the faintest idea what this meant.

"How can you be hot if you never go outside?"

"You only go outside so your parents can stop hearing you whine."

"You only stay inside because your skin'll catch fire in the sun."

"You wanna play Breakout?"

They stared at each other for a moment.

"Yeah," said Harry. "Sure."


Asterisk43.png

Harry said he had an uncle who worked at Atari, which Lyle very much doubted. Harry also said you could get unlimited balls in Breakout if you hit SELECT at just the right moment. This, against all odds, turned out to be correct. Lyle said he wished people had cheat codes, and Harry did not disagree.

Lyle resigned himself to this particular game over. There were consolations; they both had the same birthday, and he felt certain he could goad Harry into asking for a 2600 game. He wouldn't have to choose between Adventure and Space Invaders after all.

And maybe, just maybe, he could do something about the other kid's abysmal sense of style.


Asterisk43.png

2002

19 September


As established, each Section has its own dress code. There's a clothing manufactory in Habitation and Sustenance which only makes labcoats, over a dozen different varieties, many of them quite outré. Archives and Revision has in-seam cotton gloves for handling documents. Health and Pathology medics wear double-breasted medical jackets with sky blue trim. EPAU agents have soothing, sea-green jumpsuits. But Memetics and Countermemetics…

Most people first assume there's something sinister going on. The guidelines for M&C's uniforms were defined before the Section even properly existed, by protomemeticist Normal Wilkinson in 1971. Wilkinson extrapolated from his indifferently-successful work with naval camouflage during the Great War, for which he had invented 'dazzle paint': a confusing jumble of geometric shapes with the supposed effect of eliding lines and disguising masses/proportions at a distance, baffling spotters and thwarting their ranging techniques. Wilkinson's uniforms, unlike his ship paint, continue to see active use years after their first deployment. Within the Section they're affectionately called the Razzle Dazzle, while outsiders have termed them 'Beetlejuicewear'. Everyone at first assumes that the jackets protect against memetic threats, or produce memetic effects of their own. This is not, precisely, the case. They certainly do have a disorienting aura, particularly against beings of otherworldly origin whose sense of the proper human form is often already only tenuous, but while this is certainly part of the design specs, it was not the main thrust.

Mem and Countermem have dazzle camo labcoats so that people won't forget them.

Being forgotten is the fate of most SCP Foundation employees, due only in part to the invisibility of their work. At Site-43, where the community is close-knit, the staffbase relatively humane, and a well-trafficked hallway is set aside for portraits of past local notables, the problem is somewhat attenuated. But memeticists, countermemeticists and antimemeticists face high, very high, and stratospherically high odds, respectively, of being forgotten while they're still around. Amnestic effects have a way of rubbing off on you over time, and there are enough identophagic, obfuscatory or predatorily erasive entities dwelling at the edge of perception that every bit of visual reinforcement helps to underline one's continued existence.

In short, then, M&C's surreal uniforms actually make them more real.

— Blank, Lines in a Muddle

The first thing Lillian thought about Arik Euler was forget this guy.

It was probably going to be easy. The new Chair of Memetics and Countermemetics wasn't wearing a dazzle coat; he was wearing, instead, a tweed jacket and bowtie, the universal symbols for 'I am neither threatening nor interesting'. Where Del Olmo had been wild-haired, wide-eyed and theatrical, Euler had a receding white Dracula cut, heavy lids, and the understated physical vocabulary of a septuagenarian. Over the course of his five-minute speech to the memeticists assembled in their spartan breakroom with its orange shag and cigarette smoke grey plaster walls, he made not one single enigmatic statement nor winking allusion to facts not in evidence. He was a thing Lillian hadn't realized could possibly exist: a plain-speaking cryptomancer.

Euler.jpg

"I realize any change in leadership is cause for concern." Euler spoke slowly, deliberately, because of course he did. He was wearing a bowtie, and his pants went up well past his waist — and they were beige. "You all have projects, you have your set methods, you are perhaps even set in your ways, and you're not looking for some outsider to disrupt your processes." He pronounced it 'praw-sess-ees', and Lillian judged him for it despite pronouncing it precisely the same way herself. "I am not entirely an outsider, though I haven't set foot in these hallowed halls since many of you were in short pants, and I am happily not looking to cause a ruckus in my old age." His face had twice as many lines as it did orifices. "Rest assured that I haven't returned to rock your boats, nor even to right them. It's my understanding that most of you are self-directed, which is no surprise; you'd been unofficially deprived of a Chief for months before the events of last Sunday… made it more official." The old man was momentarily at a loss, even though this was clearly a prepared speech. Lillian felt a twinge of respect. He'd obviously chosen the words with care, despite knowing they would have an effect beyond just his intended audience. "I've made my little mark on the world already," he continued after swallowing what looked to be a sizable lump in his throat. "If I'm to have any purpose here, it will be to help you make yours, not stand in your way." He graced them each with a grandfatherly smile, then slapped his jacket flanks and said "That's it, that's all." He headed for Del Olmo's office, which was of course now his.

"Seems alright," remarked Sokolsky from beside her in the back row. "No Bernie, but then, who is?"

"I hate him," she responded.


Asterisk43.png

2000

12 March


"I hate this." Lillihammer stacked the textbooks neatly on the desk. "Is it too late for a tuition refund?"

Del Olmo made a pouty face. "Rather past the point of no return, don't you think? We did just commit a kind of treason together."

"Yeah, well, we can keep in touch. Trade postcards. I'll be your pen gal." She winced. Something on your mind? She'd definitely meant to say 'pen pal', and now he was going to be confused. As far as he knew, he was still talking to Lyle-who-goes-by-Lillihammer.

The memeticist certainly didn't look confused. "But where would you go? I'm not sure you realize this, but none of the other Chairs or Chiefs want you. They don't trust you, and the majority don't even like you."

"Maybe I'll transfer to another Site." She nudged one of the books, adjusting its alignment. "Or maybe I'll say that's what I'm doing, but then jump the bus in some backass nowhere, live in a cabin in the woods for the rest of my natural."

He made a dismissive noise deep in his nose. "You're too lazy to chop wood, and too addicted to sarcasm for hermitage. You need mental stimulation, and an audience." He pushed the books back across the desk, fingers splayed so that the careful symmetry was simultaneously disrupted. "But if the textbooks are losing you, well, we can try having a chat instead."

She sat down. "When you say 'chat', do you mean 'monologue'? Because that's what it usually entails."

LiAnnoyed.jpg

"We don't do usual at M&C." Del Olmo considered his knuckles for a moment, then asked: "Where were you, in the textbooks?"

"I was on Okorie, around the part where he starts talking about how to write computer code for phonon selection, and I had Vietnam flashbacks to working at I&T."

"Mm. Can't say I blame you, the technical stuff was never my forté either."

"It's not just that. I didn't get into this to learn how to perform Enhanced Public Speaking on people, Bernie. Words aren't my thing. I want to do images."

He shook his head. "You have to do words first. That's the progression."

"Well, the progression sucks, and so does the theory of a well-rounded education." She pressed a stray lock of hair against her face, and regretted the loss of the clean, fresh smell. Her hygiene had suffered again, in the days since her trip down below. She brushed the hair back. "Learning linguamancy is a dead end for me, like taking Rocks for Jocks when I'm going to become a… philologist, instead of a geologist. I will never use this knowledge, you get me?"

He looked sympathetic, but only a little. "I get you, but you don't get it. What we know about linguanons is the foundation of what we know about everything else. You can't just build on sand."

She sighed, very loudly and very messily. "Then for the love of god, find me a better way to get through this slog."

Once again he closed his eyes, and recalibrated his approach for her benefit. She felt empathetic, if only a little.


Asterisk43.png

"Alright, let's do this." Del Olmo had pushed his desk to the wall, and they were both sitting on cushions on the floor. He wasn't the sort to lecture, and it was hard to workshop across a desk. "We'll start back at the basics. Why do memetics function?"

DelOlmo2.jpg

"Bullshit magic particles, and boy howdy did that explanation disappoint." She reached up to push the books back into alignment once more.

He shook his head. "Forget the particles. Why, in the simplest possible sense, can we do what we do?"

"Because people are stupid," she shrugged.

"No, because people are smart. Memetics weaponizes the human brain's peerless capacity for recognizing patterns."

"Exactly!" Lillihammer clapped. "Pattern recognition is how the stupid approximate intelligence." It was very satisfying, the way his heavy brow knotted up. "Discovering a pattern, recognizing a trend, that's the idiot's guide to misunderstanding universal functionalities."

By this point she could already write a field guide to all the noises his nose could make. "You're oversimplifying. Patterns are the beginning of knowledge."

"Patterns are the bypass of knowledge! Which is why memetics works: we bypass the consciousness, screw with the brain itself. Skip the software, nail the hardware."

Del Olmo rubbed his temples, briefly dislodging his glasses. "You're still not getting this."

"No, I'm not having this. I tell you I don't want to learn programming just to learn programming, that I don't want to learn coding just to learn coding, and what do you do? You decide to go full-on frou-frou. Is there no middle ground approach? Look, man, I get the point you're trying to make, but it's wrong." She knelt forward, picked up the cushion and Frisbeed it away from her. "The fact that our brains can be so easily railroaded, the fact that we want to be led by the nose, that's a design flaw. It gets us halfway to competence, but also prevents us from ever getting there. 'Sorry ma and pa, I'm too tired to figure out what causes the weather, so I'll just analyze the patterns and get a job on the local news as the guy who says 'well, the last few times the clouds done looked like this, it done rained in Boston y'all'."

"Fine." He took off his glasses, but made a show of polishing them with a cloth as though this had always been his intention. "See it as a failing if you like. The fact remains: that's how memetics works. The brain wants to see a pattern, so we give it one. And what makes our patterns special?"

Lillihammer reached up and pulled down the top volume, Practical Memetics: A Semiotic Sampler by one Izaak Okorie. It had plenty of full-colour illustrations, which you had to examine with 3D glasses or they'd each conk you out for a week — or worse. "Lots of fun stuff." She stared at the plain cover, white text on black. "We lace them with mental arsenic, or tryptophan, or go-juice. We use images as a backdoor into any part of the brain we could possibly want to mess with."

"Yes, but why does that work? What makes the difference between random fractals and a memetic kill agent?"

"That's the part I hate." She tossed the book onto the sandy shag between them, and it hit with a muted thump. "You stick magic bullshit in them, and hey presto. I thought it would be something interesting. Something scientific."

"The science of what you call magic is the most scientific of all. For something to be called magic, it needs to flagrantly disobey almost every natural law that would otherwise govern it." And here come the hand gestures. "Studying that sort of thing, learning why it ticks, is the closest thing to being a Newton or an Einstein that anyone alive today will ever experience."

She scoffed. "You're talking like linguanons weren't discovered by literal magicians, Bernie. They're directly derived from stuff we know almost nothing about."

"Everything is derived from stuff we know nothing about! Everything starts with magic, Lil." The casual nickname generated a brief spinal thrill. "From magic to art, from art to science. The great chain of knowledge: superstition begets imagination begets motivation begets mastery. A madman in a cave discovers that he can drive others just as mad with ochre on the bedrock; a monk learns how to instill genuine, long-lasting piety via the ink in an illuminated manuscript; a scientist in the SCP Foundation tweaks the semantions until an artifacted image of a man's face induces an immune reaction in French Canadians. It's progress. A progression. A pipeline—"

"—a pattern. Yeah, I can predict them too. I still don't see where this is going."

Del Olmo stood up, and picked up his cushion. "You know what? It's going to the AGO."

"The what? The ago?" She remained seated.

"The Art Gallery of Ontario. You want to work off-script? Fine, but we're not skipping to the end of the line. Even a genius like you will adapt much more effectively to this skill if you start at the start, progress through the stages."

Lillihammer winced. "No cheat codes?"

"No cheat codes."

The books were starting to look more appealing. At least she could sit down while she read; it took extra effort to flex her long legs into a standing position. "You're not seriously suggesting I learn about art to learn about science."

"No, I'm suggesting that the two are linked in a continuum, not separated in a binary. I'm suggesting that science — my science — is art. And if you want it to be your science too, you're going to need to brush up." He laughed at the scowl this produced. "Aha, see, see? The triggers even work on your over-evolved brain."


Asterisk43.png

2002

22 September


M&C's main sector contains no central block of offices. The man who oversaw the Section's construction scribbled out a floorplan, presumably on a napkin, consisting of random spaces of random size spread randomly across a random assemblage of hallways of random length, wherein new memeticists would not be randomly assigned workspaces but would instead deliberately annex them. One stretch of hall was a no-man's land: a narrow feeder passage to a broken-down broom closet which had lost its water access after minor restructuring on the second sublevel. M&C personnel used the tunnel as a sort of combination dartboard/corkboard/graffiti target; it was soon covered, plastered floor to ceiling with minor cognitohazards, semiohazards, infohazards and logohazards, a synaptic bridge underpass with nothing of note on the other side. Once the maddening memeplexes became too thick and threatening for further communal use, it became the de facto cognitive resistance testing chamber. After a few years of this, the interactions between the scribbled and dribbling semantics overloaded even the most fortified of observers, and the tunnel became Site-43's equivalent of a Superfund site.

This was the state in which Dr. Lillihammer found it in July of 2002: awaiting an amelioration, or even acroamatic abatement, which was at the top of nobody's to-do list.

She could have picked out a cubicle, if she'd wanted to make friends and listen to gossip and smile politely at bad jokes all day. She could have gone toe-to-toe with the older memeticists, if she'd wanted to claim dominance over one of the offices with dedicated labspace. But not for her, the water cooler life, and not for her skill level, prizing off the linguahazardous 'DO NOT ENTER' signs plastered on every door in the Section. To live the life she'd become accustomed to in the I&T server room — specifically, the hermitage Del Olmo had claimed was not for her — she'd needed to get creative.

She had been warned about the tunnel, of course. She'd brought 3D glasses and a camera for her first bout of sub-urban exploration, taking snapshots of discrete squares of space for later perusal. She'd tried not to look at what she was documenting until she was back in her dorm room, fortified with stimulants, and even then there'd been a headache and a half waiting for her.

When she'd told Del Olmo she hadn't made it through Okorie all those months ago, she had failed to mention that she'd totally devoured her mentor's own text: The True Fire. Del Olmo was a passionate writer, and she'd found much to admire in his approach to memetics as a problem-solving exercise. Constructing a meme was a problem; deconstructing a meme was a different sort of problem. A programmatic but creative approach could solve each type, or turn one into the other. She was a programmer, failed or not, and she was certainly creative — she'd once known that about herself, though she'd had to re-learn it by interpreting paintings at the AGO.

She'd known she was up to it. It was only a matter of magic math.

After a week of consulting her texts, she'd walked into the tunnel with a palette of paint and a brush and set to work resolving each cognitohazardous conundrum one by one. She'd dumped a sleeping bag and food and all her books and clothes and such at one end, and begun laboriously working her way toward the other. Solving the equations, neutralizing the glyphs, developing her own mental workarounds for the thornier logic bombs. By the halfway point she'd realized this would make a fantastic second dissertation topic, since she'd never actually picked one. It was only a matter of merely typing up her notes, plus a little academic legwork.

In the end it took more than a month, but she certainly earned her office. She put a linguahazardous 'DO NOT ENTER' sign on the broom closet door.

Lillihammer's brilliance was not content with simply transforming the tunnel from a sump of toxic thought-sludge into a passable space. As her mastery over memetics grew, she amended her overwrought corrections into more precise spot-treatments, so that they were no longer neutralized so much as they were active sources of neutralization. Within a few months she'd succeeded in transforming that tunnel from the most idea-rich space in the Site into a place where no original thought could under any circumstance be thunk; in the midst of the madding marketplace of viral ideas, it became a single shining shaft of perfect silence, the detox chamber of the mentally mighty — one long, architectural piece of safety equipment.

And she didn't stop there. The broom closet backed onto another broom closet facing a different hallway, attached to an old storeroom. Lillihammer engaged in a bit of bureaucracy as a break from her more magical mental interventions, and convinced J&M to decommission the feeder lines from both retired janitorial sinks. This necessitated pulling down the walls, and she arranged for them to not be re-erected.

The new office space wasn't spectacularly spotless, therefore, nor particularly attractive, but it was twice as big as anyone else's, and an attached storeroom made a better-than-decent lab once she blocked up its hallway door and shoved all the suggestive signage and phononic paint against the farthest wall.

"But don't put that in your damn book," she told me. "I don't want them noticing how I've metastasized 'til I'm too deep-rooted for the scalpel."

"Some day they're going to invent a meme that starts small, supplants your neural pathways one by one, and ends up replacing your entire brain," I replied. "And they're going to call it a Lillihazard."

She told me that already existed — it was called a 'Theseuplex' — and to stay in my lane.

In any case, no-one has yet attempted to dislodge her.

— Blank, Lines in a Muddle

It had taken several days, but Euler had finally tracked her down. Not showing up to the daily briefings had gained her a short reprieve, but probably lost the overall campaign; he'd been bound to notice the absence of a redheaded woman six foot three inches tall eventually.

"This was quite the project," the old man remarked. The door to the Cognitive Decontamination Tunnel was open and he was standing in the doorframe, marvelling at the sleek black surface. "Is that slate?"

"Yeah." She kicked her feet up on her desk, and kicked her flip-flops off. One of them rolled onto the floor. "Slate absorbs excess mental radiation. Read that in your book."

"Oh?" He walked back into the office, looking for somewhere to sit. He didn't find one; she didn't keep guest chairs, because those tended to attract — and retain — guests. "Well, that's interesting, because so far as I can tell you've fallen well behind in your text readings."

She nodded. "By design."

"By design?"

"I don't want to learn how to churn out Orthons, or bind them to Morphons, or cook S'morethons, or any of that shit. You ever see a hospital drama? I want to be one of those doctors who's out curing patients, not the ones stuck doing labwork."

LillihammerSad.jpg

"Nurses cure patients," Euler said flatly. "And technicians do labwork. Doctors, medical doctors, miss out on both practical ends of the final product. They only ever see the middle, not the beginning or the end. Is that what you want?"

"No," she agreed. "So I must need a better metaphor. Is there one for 'person who wants to make thought sandwiches, but doesn't need to know how the word sausage gets made'?"

"Yes." He leaned on the wall, arms crossed. She wasn't surprised to see his navy-blue blazer had beige elbow patches. "The term is 'washout'."

They locked eyes. His were steely grey.

"You need a new supervisor," he finally remarked. "I am recommending, authorizing, and appointing myself. We meet every day in my office at three PM."

"Like hell," she snarled.

"If that's your preference."

He started humming before he left the office, and was able to make it most of the way through the tunnel before he lost the tune.


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1979

12 October

Shallow Woods Elementary School: Peterborough, Ontario, Canada


It was the humming that betrayed him.

Lyle liked to sketch while his teachers were talking. He didn't like sitting perfectly still, doing nothing at all, and that was what he otherwise had to do when his teachers were talking. Nothing at all. Specifically not listening, because listening to his teachers, that he quite simply could not do. So, he sketched. Lyle's sketches weren't renditions of people, or places, or things he had witnessed, or figments of his imagination; they were hatch marks, grooves, serrations, furrows on the page. His art teacher had told him, dismissively, that he didn't so much create as he 'defaced'. She'd even had his parents take him to a headshrink, who had asked him all sorts of polite little questions dancing around the big, rude uber-question of 'so hey, kid, are you fucked in the head or something?' His mother dutifully put the sketches up on the kitchen fridge. His father encouraged him to keep sketching, but his motivation seemed less a fondness for what his son produced and more the inability to stand any one drawing for more than a few days. They got into your head, did Lyle Lillihammer's weird, angular doodles.

Harry was looking at him from the next desk over. Lyle could tell, even without looking, because a flash of pink appeared in his peripheral vision where once there had been only dark, dark brown. Harry's hair was now longer than a costume wig, and it covered his head from every angle except the one where he kept most of his sensory organs. Lyle glanced at him just in time to see his friend mouth STOP HUMMING before Mr. Abney stepped between them in three long strides from the chalkboard.

"What are you doing?" ask the tall, balding man.

"Watching Harry make faces," Lyle replied. "I don't think he was listening to you."

Mr. Abney didn't smile, but a few of the other kids laughed. They mostly didn't like Lyle, but nobody didn't like seeing the teacher get some talkback. "You, on the other hand, I'm sure you were listening."

"Oh, yeah." Lyle beamed at him. "You were doing a really great job, too."

Mr. Abney reached down and picked up the sketch Lyle had hidden from him via strategic placement of textbooks on the front of his desk — he didn't draw perspective, but that didn't mean he couldn't comprehend it. The teacher kept his glasses on a chain around his neck; he put them on and peered at the paper, mouth open in that way old people had of telegraphing that their prescriptions needed adjustment. "Hey, this one is quite good. I'd like to see it on a couch someday."

That produced less laughter from the other students, most of whom didn't quite get it, but it got a big laugh out of both Lyle and Harry. Mr. Abney stared at the drawing, apparently lost in thought for a moment.

"You alright?" Lyle asked. "Remember your name? Know where you are?"

Mr. Abney tucked the drawing into the folder he read his lectures from, and walked back to the board. "What were we talking about, Harry?"

Harry glanced down at his notes. "Futurism."

Mr. Abney picked a magnet off the chalk tray, and stuck Lyle's drawing to the slate. "Futurism. Well, since some of you apparently don't learn so well with words, let's see how you do with images."


Asterisk43.png

2002

3 October

Site-43: Lambton County, Ontario, Canada


"Are you familiar with the concept of dialectic learning?"

"No," said Euler. "Are you familiar with the twenty-five varieties of linguanon bond?"

They were sitting in Del Olmo's Euler's office, the only workspace in M&C permanently assigned to any one person. There was nothing on the shelves, nothing on the floor except the feet of the furniture, Euler's brown leather briefcase and her nylon backpack, and nothing on the desk except for a single framed portrait of three young people, smiling. One of them, a woman, was behind a window. It looked like—

"Hey." Euler snapped a finger in her face. "Linguanon bonds."

"Dialectic learning," she explained, "is a critical approach to education wherein teacher and student engage in a dialogue, to compass as many perspectives on the material being discussed as are presently possible, identifying gaps in knowledge and developing creative solutions to them!" She took Practical Memetics out of her backpack, and dropped it on the desk. "As opposed to didactic learning, wherein you spit boring shit at me and I fucking dodge it."

Euler sighed. "Lillian, how do you expect to do memetics without knowing how they work?"

"I don't. I don't expect to do memetics at all! I expect to understand the conceptual and artistic principles undergirding why they affect people the way they do, and pass that on to the people who bombard magic paper with magic particles to make it scramble people's brains or whatever the fuck." She pointed to her dazzle coat. She had a dozen of them, one for every occasion; today she was wearing the one with the most spirals, in the vain hope of making him dizzy. "I got out of I&T to get away from technical details, Euler."

The old man wrinkled his nose. "So you want to give the power entirely over to other people, do you? You want to spend the rest of your life philosophizing, as opposed to actually making a difference."

She blinked. "Armchair scientist says what?"

"Armchair scientist." Euler clicked his tongue, then turned the photograph to face her. "Do you see the woman behind the glass?"

"Yeah. It's Ilse Reynders."

"It certainly is Ilse Reynders." His tone softened. "Do you know how long she's been trapped in that chamber?"

"Nope. I can ask Harry, if you're planning an anniver—"

"Sixty years, next December."

Lillian whistled. "Diamond Jubilee. What do you get for the Queen who has nothing?"

Euler hunched forward, bringing his wrinkled face closer to hers. "That's just it, Dr. Lillihammer. Ilse Reynders does not have nothing. She possesses more than you, or I, or anyone else in this Site, or even in the entire SCP Foundation. She has knowledge, and she has used it to change the world."

"Sure, from the incinerator? What did she do, record a hit single?"

Euler tugged his security badge off his suit lapel, and stuck it into her eyeline. "Look at the sigil."

She knew what he meant — the arrows-crossing-circles emblem of the Foundation — but she nearly took issue with his ridiculous choice of wording anyway. Sigil. Jesus Christ, it's a logo, not a magic glyph. She looked at it anyway. "Okay."

"What do you see?"


Asterisk43.png

2000

13 March

The Art Gallery of Ontario: Toronto, Ontario, Canada


Lillihammer stared at the canvas on the wall, then glanced down at the little placard. Lake and Mountains, 1928, Lawren Harris. Oil on canvas. "I see a lot of money gone to waste."

"Well, it wasn't yours. This was a gift from a private collection. Now focus on the art, and not how clever you are, and tell me what you see."

It was, indeed, a lake and some mountains. This somehow didn't seem likely to be what Del Olmo wanted to hear. The mountains actually rather looked like "A tooth. A few teeth, with a… tidal wave of toothpaste coming over them." The toothpaste wave was comprised of what the artist had likely meant to look like clouds.

Del Olmo nodded. "Yes, I see the tooth. What else?"

"The lake looks like sand, groomed sand. Like a beach. The mountains are coming up out of the middle of the lake… or is the perspective all… screwy?" She pointed at the lumps in the middle background. "Is that meant to be the far shore, and the mountains are in the distance? They don't look like they're in the distance. I can't get a grip on the proportions. Was this guy an amateur?"

"No." Del Olmo's golden eyes were shining in the gallery spotlights as he examined the painting fondly. "This guy was one of the most famous painters in Canada."

She scoffed. "Wow, that's like being one of the most famous caber tossers in Israel."

"Or one of the biggest smartasses in the SCP Foundation."

They both looked around the empty gallery, in case someone had heard that remark, smiled sheepishly at each other, then turned back to the painting once again.

A moment passed.

"It makes me feel like something's coming," she said.

Del Olmo nodded. "As it should. Something always is."


Asterisk43.png

2002

3 October

Site-43: Lambton County, Ontario, Canada


"I see…” She shook her head. “I feel… safe."

Euler nodded, and clipped the badge back on. "And do you know why that is?"

She shook her head again. She'd never felt so afraid to feel secure.

"It's because that woman, and that man," Euler pointed at the dark-skinned fellow on Reynders' left, "and that other man, who I think you realize is actually me, figured out how to take these lines and circles and turn them into a memeplex which functions across the entire web of human cognition, worldwide."

Frontispiece.jpg

She opened her mouth, as she always did whenever someone else closed theirs, but this time she didn't have anything to say. That was rare.

"To our people, it offers safety and security. To our enemies, confusion and doubt. This symbol simultaneously occludes and reveals our presence, depending on who's looking, and that's just the tip of the symbolic iceberg. What's the public-facing front of AAF-A?"

She hated rhetorical questions, almost as much as she hated being the one to supply the answers. She felt like a goddamn Speak & Spell. "A water plant, feeds the nearby reserves. Lake Huron Supply, Control and Purification." She'd noticed the SCP acronym in the name before, of course. She'd thought it was one of the most stupid, frivolous, dangerous things imaginable.

Euler did her the honour of skipping that part of the explanation. "I could name you dozens more just like that. The Szechuan Chinese Place. Sugar Cane Pastures. Samaritan Care Packages. Any number of lazy titles with 'South' in them. And they've all got the same effect as this." He fingered his badge again. "They were the test case for our first, best collective contribution to keeping the world relatively free from anomalous threats — we call it the Frontispiece, the shroud that keeps us, as you put it, safe. On that rock we built this church." He gestured at the walls, and she could sense he meant to include the space without them. "I laid down this floorplan, created Mimesis and Cryptomancy—"

"What and what?"

"Memetics and Countermemetics." He stabbed a finger at the portrait again. "The legacy of this partnership. And we didn't achieve what we did by passing on vague artistic vibrations to people who could actually get stuff done. We achieved it by doing it ourselves. And you can, too."

She stared at the photograph. She'd only met Reynders once or twice, and didn't precisely like the woman; she had the faintest phantom sense that the immortal researcher with thirteen doctorates might, just possibly, be as intelligent as she herself was. "I don't mean to tell you your pedagogical business," she said, slowly, "but maybe a field trip is in order."

"Why not." Euler stood up, and buttoned his jacket. "Meet me at Applied Occultism after lunch."

She frowned. He'd capitulated far, far too easily, and it didn't feel like a victory at all. "Applied…? Are we not going to AAF-A? To see Reynders?"

"Oh, no. Not yet. She's operating on a much higher level than you are." He grinned — actually grinned! — at her immediate squeal of rage. "No, I think this might work better if you had another fledgling prodigy to bounce ideas off. A little cross-disciplinary collaboration. Is that dialectical enough for you?" He pointed at the portrait once again. "Have you met Izaak Okorie's granddaughter? I think you two would get along famously."


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1983

4 May

Norman Bethune High School: Peterborough, Ontario, Canada


Their high school wasn't badly stocked with technical manuals, relatively speaking, but Lyle was hoping for something a little more recent, with spicier components. He quietly broke away from their law class trip to the Toronto courthouses to visit the local libraries, tracking down as many circuit diagrams, block diagrams and layout diagrams as he could get his hands on, transcribing the lines with care so that he could reproduce them later with flourish. He also engaged in some cash-free shopping at the local mall, for the components too proprietary to have public documentation The thing he ended up producing was the size of a wall poster — since he produced it on wall poster paper stolen from the high school printing room — and featured two dozen different colours, meticulously mapped to the purpose of each and every line. There were hundreds of them, the skeletons of CPUs and GPUs and transistor radios and CD players and television remote controls and CRTs. If you knew which one you were looking for, you needed only identify one sequence of lines, unfocus your eyes, and the entire schematic would emerge. Lyle thought it was beautiful.

Harry thought it was beautiful, too, but "Why the fuck did you do it?"

Lyle smiled. He smiled when his father and mother asked him the same question, in more polite language. He smiled when his homeroom teacher asked to see what was on the rolled-up poster he'd left with his gym bag, and smiled when the man utterly failed to comprehend what it was. But he smiled the most in communications technology class, when during what was supposed to be independent study he presented the poster to Eileen Veiksaar, she of bad skin and stocky build and very pointy incisors and a mind so incisive you could cut yourself on it, wished her a happy birthday, and immediately won from her all the dates he could ever possibly want.

At the time, he'd wanted quite a lot.


Asterisk43.png

2002

3 October

Site-43: Lambton County, Ontario, Canada


Udo Okorie turned out to be a slight, dark, vaguely sad-looking woman in an AO labcoat. She was waiting for them in the empty test chamber when they arrived; Euler immediately darted forward with a speed belying his age, and reached out to shake her hand. She allowed it, but narrowed her eyes in caution.

"Good evening, Ms. Okorie! Are your parents well?"

She blinked. "Yeah, they're fine. Do you know them?"

"I do! I'm your father's godfather."

Lillian watched her reassess. "You what?" Okorie laughed.

"I was there when your father was born, in Toronto. I was working on a project with your grandfather, rest his soul. A very important project. Lillian and I were wondering, in fact, if you might yourself help us with something of no small importance."

Okorie was clearly lost. "Uh… sure, I guess? What's the project?"

He jerked a thumb at Lillian. "Her. We're going to turn her into a memeticist."

"Hey." Lillian stepped between them. "I'm already a memeticist, thanks."

"Hardly." He didn't take his kindly gaze off Okorie. "You're a cryptographer; you decode, and you amend, but do you re-code? No. You're still halfway between one world and the other, and it's time you made a serious choice. This fine coat you're wearing?" He reached out and tugged on the lapel. "It defends against difficulties you will never encounter along your present path. If you do nothing more with your knowledge than pass it on to others, if you leave the act of creation and exploration to them, no risks or rewards will accrue to you. No, you are still a project. Bernabé's project. And I owe it to him to see you completed."

"Hold on." Okorie slid around Euler, interposing herself between them just as the old man had done. "People aren't projects, sir, respectfully. If she doesn't want to do… whatever this is…"

Euler smiled. "You are Izaak's grand-daughter. He never could stand to see an injustice unaddressed. And you're right, of course; I can't choose your roads for you. But I can certainly open your eyes to the possibilities. Would you help me with that? On those terms?"

On those terms, she could hardly refuse. She still very nearly did anyway — Lillian could see it in her blazing orange eyes, and loved the other woman for it just a little.


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2000

31 December

Camp Ipperwash: Lambton County, Ontario, Canada


"This is Harry," Lillihammer explained. "Harry has stupid hair."

The stupid hair was waving in the stupid wind. They were standing outside the old camp building which concealed the topside elevator; an old pink truck was idling on the tarmac beside them.

"It used to be stupider," said Harry.

"Stupid long? Because I relate to that." Del Olmo smiled at him. "Almost as much as I relate to stupid hair in general."

"What do you call that, anyway? It's like a pompadour with extra pompous."

Lillihammer let them laugh for a moment, before dropping the bomb.

"I'm leaving."

The bomb didn't quite land. "I didn't think the joke was all that bad," Del Olmo said.

She shook her head. "I'm leaving Site-43. Not forever, but for… a while. You're the only two people I care to tell about it."

Harry visibly snapped out of snark mode. "Where are you going?"

"Away. I have some things I need to take care of, and I can't take care of them here, with all of you."

"You definitely can, though." Del Olmo reached out to touch her shoulder, then stopped himself. "It's important to have support. This is not something you need to do alone."

"What isn't?" Harry looked back and forth between them, bewildered. "What's the thing?"

"I saw myself in the mirror. A few times, actually." She made contact with Del Olmo, and saw that he understood. "I saw what I could be, I saw an image of myself, and… I'm going to become it."

"You could become it here," the memeticist sighed.

"This is my rodeo, Bernie, and I don't think either of you have any practical advice to give on the topic."

"What topic? What's the topic?" Harry was clawing his hair out of his face, trying to stare an explanation out of her.

"I'm going away to find myself." In an impulsive moment, she lunged forward and pulled the baffled archivist into a hug. He returned the gesture easily; Harold Blank was the kind of person perpetually in need of a hug, even if he couldn't comprehend why he was suddenly getting one. "I don't want you to remember me," she whispered, "because I'm going to change. I'm going to be the change." She pulled back — he let her go reluctantly — and smiled at the two of them. "And I'll need you both to stay the same. So we can meet again, when I'm really… me."

Del Olmo looked very troubled. "I know it's your nature to work things out in private, Lil, but I really can tell you that it won't be for the best."

"For anyone else, that might be true. But this is a matter of personal choice, and I've made mine. I won't want you to see the in-between." Lillihammer smiled at them both with genuine affection. "I want you to forget what you're seeing now, when you see what comes next."


Asterisk43.png

2002

3 October

Site-43: Lambton County, Ontario, Canada


Euler took off his jacket, revealing to no-one's surprise that he was wearing suspenders underneath. "This will be a new experience for me," he said, neatly folding the tweed and tossing it onto a corner table.

"Wow." Lillian yawned. "How many provinces were there the last time you had one of those?"

"How many are there now?" Okorie countered.

"Dunno. I have people to keep track of that sort of thing."

"Silence, children." Euler picked up a strange black toolcase off the floor, and set it beside his discarded jacket. "I require your focus, not your fun."

"Wow." Lillian watched as he opened up the box; it had both key and keycard locks. "Did you get that joke from Teddy Roosevelt?"

"You could at least have made a Prime Minister joke," said Okorie as Euler removed a series of brightly-coloured cubes from the case's foam packing.

"I don't know any Prime Ministers. Okay, what is all that shit, anyway?"

Euler held out one of the cubes, an orange one, for her inspection. It was grainy and rough. "We are going to create a three-dimensional fractal memetic."

"How?"

"Magic. Hasn't that been your complaint all along?"

"Well, maybe I wouldn't complain about magic so much if they'd let me learn it. I asked Zlatá—"

Euler actually laughed. "Zlatá couldn't magic his way out of a roll of antithaumic cellophane."

"Is that not the point of antithaumic cellophane?" Lillian asked.

"I don't know what you think I know," Okorie interrupted, "but my understanding of memetic magic is nil."

"That's alright." Euler rolled up his dress shirt sleeves, and clenched the cube tightly. He shut his eyes, but only for a moment. "I know enough for the both of us."

He held out his hand again, and opened it. The cube was gone, converted into a small pile of fine-grained orange sand. He poured it on the floor, then dusted his hands off.

"How did you do that?" Lillian turned to Okorie. "How did he do that?"

"He's a thaumaturge." Okorie looked nonplussed. "Is that not in your textbooks? He's kinda famous."

"You were right, of course, Lillian. The foundation of linguistic memetics was magic, and I was one of its first magicians. My Talent is the breaking-down of things to their constituent elements, and re-constituting them to my own design. My partner…" His expression turned far-away. "He was a human microscope, a human telescope, and the finest remote-reader I ever knew." He smiled sadly at Okorie. "We could never have accomplished what we did without him, your grandfather. I know he'd be proud to see you helping me today."

"What's the point of this, anyway?" Lillian crossed her arms. "What's the purpose?"

"The only purpose that matters. Education." Euler squeezed another cube, this one sky-blue, into dust. This time Lillian noticed the flash in the gaps between his fingers. "However, I must first ask: miss Okorie, do I have your consent to expose you to a mild, harmless memetic effect?"

She looked unsure. "How mild, and how harmless?"

"It will allow you to see the fractal clearly in your mind, and reproduce it. Nothing more." This time he had one cube in each hand, red and green. They augmented the rainbow beach on the floor in seconds.

She nodded. "Well, alright. You're the expert."

"I am at that." He returned to the table and plucked a piece of paper out of his jacket pocket, then brandished it in front of her. Lillian couldn't see what was on it — it was good, thick stock — but she could see the effect it produced. Okorie's eyes actually rolled back in her skull, and Euler made a move to catch her… but she didn't fall. She shook in place, giggled girlishly, and whacked herself in the side of the head. "Oof," she said. "Whee."

"Fun experiment," said Lillian. "See you tomorrow?"

Euler ignored her, producing one final cube from the black case. It, too, was black, flat black, reflecting absolutely no light. It was also something like five times the size of the others, and so he had to carry it out with both hands. He walked to the centre of the chamber, and dematerialized it in a steady stream. The tips of his fingertips were glowing white until the last grain slid away.

"What's that?" Lillian asked. "Some sort of reagent?"

"Sand," he replied. "Dyed black. Nothing more. Miss Okorie?” He dropped a few final grains into her outstretched palm. “The shape, if you will."

Okorie's amber eyes narrowed, and she began to whisk the air with her right hand. Lillian noticed that her fingertips were a dull dark red, like a healing wound. A moment later she began to wiggle the fingers of her left hand — their tips undamaged — as though pressing buttons on a panel, or massaging pressure points. The sand danced in the air, forming a spiral pattern, resolving into whorls within whorls, and in a bare instant the room was dominated by a helix the size Lillian's truck. The detail was incredible, and she walked around it without bothering to disguise her awe. "Is this what a kill agent looks like, unflattened?"

Euler scoffed. "A kill agent? We're not making a kill agent. There's been more than enough of those already." He looked momentarily furious, then quickly composed himself. "This is a memetic memory agent. It will impart a few simple facts to anyone who witnesses it… once we have applied the appropriate particles." He gestured at the remaining sand on the floor.

She nodded. "Okay. So that dust is… particulated? You bombarded it with whatever the non-linguistic equivalent of linguanons is-slash-are?"

He nodded back. "Imagonons."

"Horrible name. What does each one do?"

"We don't precisely know! We know enough to get by; we know enough to produce a suite of useful effects, but our understanding of how each particle achieves what it does is not entirely solid. We did not come by this knowledge honestly, you understand."

"No." She shook her head. "I do not understand."

He looked at the bare tile walls, as if ashamed to explain. "We stole this fire — and not from gods, but men. I won't tell you more, not yet, but you should understand that it took years of concentrated study by some of the finest minds in the Foundation before we could manipulate language the way we do. Before we could create the Frontispiece. We have been attempting to resolve imagomancy the same way, but… the loss of Izaak, and the disinterest of Ilse, and my own old age…" He shook his head, and he was looking at her again when he was done.

"Hey, short stuff." Lillian was addressing Okorie. "You holding up?"

Okorie nodded. "Hardly any effort. See it in my brain."

"Cool! Creepy, but cool. Okay." Lillian turned back to Euler. "You're saying we know where to stick the particles, but not why that works. That's ridiculous."

"Do you know why airplanes fly, Dr. Lillihammer?" he responded.

She wrinkled her nose at him. "Because aerospace engineers know how to make them do it."

"Yes!" He clapped his hands excitedly, then shook off the black flecks he'd inadvertently caught. Okorie gently reoriented them into the pattern. "That's precisely correct. They know how to make planes fly. They don't know why."

"Uh," she said. "I think they do."

"They don't!" He was elated. "Our theory of flight is incomplete. It works, it's functional, but we know it to be wrong. It doesn't matter, though, because acting on this incorrect model still allows us to put heavy things up in the air, and keep them there for as long as the fuel lasts. Think of imagomancy in the same vein."

"Right," she said. "Think of it as something broken, which I have the chance to repair."

He smiled grimly. "Better minds than yours have tried. There are some things you just can't fix."


Asterisk43.png

1994

9 June

Falconer University: Toronto, Ontario, Canada


"I can't accept that," Lyle snapped. "I had it planned out immaculately."

"Sociopathically, more like." Harry pushed past his roommate, and threw open the refrigerator door with more force than was justified. "I can't believe you tried to Parent Trap me."

"I can't believe it didn't work!" Lyle leaned on the sink counter, then just for the hell of it, hopped up and sat in the sink itself. "Wait, what's a parent trap?"

"It's what you tried to pull with me and Catherine." Catherine Conroy was Harry's ex-girlfriend, and they had both been best pleased with this status before today. "Can you even begin to explain the chain of logic that started with me being angry that you drank all my Coke, and me having to assure my ex that I had definitely not spray-painted love poetry on her dorm room wall?"

"I could go get my notes," said Lyle. "I wrote a very detailed outline."

Harry rummaged in the fridge, as much to cool his head as to find something to drink. "Just tell me this: was the clown a part of the plan? Is the clown in your outline?"

"The clown was an emergent property," Lyle admitted. "But I think I adapted to it well."

"Yes, splendid job. I parted with her on the basis of mutual dislike, and now it's one-sided disrespect as well. Lyle, what the hell were you…" He straightened, and closed the door. "You drank it all again, didn't you?"

Lyle burped. "Want me to chat up your English prof for you? The one you think is cute?"

"I would like," said Harry, pulling a chair from the kitchen table and sitting down, "for you to stop engaging in transactional math every time you do something idiotic."

"Can't happen, good buddy." Lyle hopped off the counter and clapped Harry on the shoulder. "There's an equation for every relation, and I'm going to derive them if it kills us both."

"As long as it's both of us," said Harry. "As long as it kills you, too."


Asterisk43.png

2002

3 October

Site-43: Lambton County, Ontario, Canada


"The fractal was drawn in a fugue state, with the desired information memetically front-and-centre — not unlike the method we're using to keep it in Researcher Okorie's mind." Euler was lecturing. Unlike Del Olmo, he was a natural lecturer. "This ensures that the form will match the function. There is already a linguistic code burned into the pattern; there is only one correct artistic interpretation of this image, and it's the piece of information we desire to encode. But memetics goes beyond artistic interpretation. It needs to be instantly interpretable by anyone who sees it — or its intended target, if it is targeted — whether they want to put in any conscious effort or not. It needs to be effective if only glimpsed in fragment, if seen from an oblique angle, if the subject is colourblind, if the lighting is bad, if the reproduction quality is poor… endless variables. How do we solve this conundrum?"

"Reinforcement." Lillian examined the fractal carefully, ducking beneath its arms, feeling the crystalline edges with her fingers. Okorie kept it spinning slowly, very slowly, like a miniature black galaxy. "You ensure that the information permeates the shape so completely that it's impossible to look at the thing without getting the effect."

"Precisely." Euler scooped up a handful of blue sand, and packed it into a little ball. There was another actinic flash, and he was holding a series of tiny blue marbles. He held out his hand and passed them into her custody. They were cool to the touch, soft and smooth. "We call these fluctuons, and our working theory is that they behave like informational fronts. You use them to describe an arc. Stand here."

She'd long since moved past snarky remarks. She stood beside him, behind Okorie, at the head of the fractal. "Where would you put an arc, Dr. Lillihammer, such that it remains unbroken? Were this a two-dimensional image?"

She squinted. "You wouldn't. There's no natural surface here for an arc, it's all broken up by the edges."

"Right. Now go for a walk, and let me know when you see it."

She gave him a look, then gave it a chance. From the side profile, things weren't a lot better. From behind, well, an inversion of a bad situation was still a bad situation. From a more oblique angle…

"Oh, shit," she said.

"Place them in sequence," said Euler. "Describe the arc."

She walked up to the spiral, which briefly ceased its rotation — Okorie was focusing very carefully — and began peppering the black with blue until she had drawn three solid semicircles across its surface. Black grains surrounded, enveloped the blue, but she could still glimpse the shock of colour as they orbited. She stepped back, then returned to the front of the room.

LillihammerArc.jpg

"Very good." Euler knelt down before the red pile, with a grimace. "Let's see you do structurons; something a little more constructive."

"I know all about construction," she said.


Asterisk43.png

2001

5 January


H_Blank
Where'd you go?

L_Lillihammer
Away. Just for a while.

H_Blank
How long is a while?

L_Lillihammer
I don't know yet. Long enough.

H_Blank
Long enough for…?

L_Lillihammer
Just long enough. I'll keep in touch.

H_Blank
Li, if you're in trouble, let me help.

L_Lillihammer
I'm not in trouble. And you can't help.

L_Lillihammer
I'll talk to you tomorrow.

H_Blank
Stay safe


Asterisk43.png

6 January


H_Blank
Are you on some kind of mission?

L_Lillihammer
Listen to yourself. "Some kind of mission"? I'm a failed computer technician.

H_Blank
Did you go AWOL?

L_Lillihammer
Yes. I'm AWOL from the Foundation, and sending messages on my work tablet. Think they'll catch me?

H_Blank
Can't be in too much trouble if your sarcasm is still intact.

L_Lillihammer
I told you, I'm not in any trouble. I just need to be myself for a while.

H_Blank
*be by myself?

L_Lillihammer
Sure, that too.


Asterisk43.png

20 January


L_Lillihammer
I did it.

H_Blank
You did what?

L_Lillihammer
You'll see.

H_Blank
When? What did you do?

L_Lillihammer
Let's keep that anticipation high for a bit.


Asterisk43.png

25 January


L_Lillihammer
lol how do we walk like this

H_Blank
Pardon?

L_Lillihammer
Nothing bends the right way, joints are all crazy, it's ridiculous

H_Blank
Are you drunk or something?

L_Lillihammer
Or something.


Asterisk43.png

18 February


L_Lillihammer
Just like being a teenager again.

H_Blank
What is?

L_Lillihammer
And I HATED being a teenager.


Asterisk43.png

19 March


H_Blank
Happy Birthday!

L_Lillihammer
Happy Birthday!

H_Blank
Eileen got me a shirt and two pairs of pants that don't fit.

H_Blank
You get anything good?

L_Lillihammer
Hahaha so good

H_Blank
What


Asterisk43.png

11 April


H_Blank
Miss you, buddy.

L_Lillihammer
You have a girlfriend, but I'm flattered.

H_Blank
Always gotta, don't you

L_Lillihammer
Always


Asterisk43.png

27 May


H_Blank
Lutin broke out today.

L_Lillihammer
What the fuck is a lutin

H_Blank
Those little rabbits

H_Blank
From the Nexus

H_Blank
Shape-changers

L_Lillihammer
Oh shit lol

L_Lillihammer
Did they bite your little toes

H_Blank
You're giddy as fuck lately

H_Blank
No, they did not bite my little toes

L_Lillihammer
I'm high on life and also other things

H_Blank
Ibanez stepped on one

H_Blank
She said it was an accident

L_Lillihammer
But it wasn't

H_Blank
But it wasn't

H_Blank
lol

H_Blank
Scout got out, and they all changed to look like Scout

L_Lillihammer
Gonna be honest, for a moment there I forgot your cat was named Scout

L_Lillihammer
And I was picturing a ton of tiny Vivian Scout bunnies

H_Blank
rofl

H_Blank
Little hats on each one

L_Lillihammer
YES

L_Lillihammer
How did you figure out which one was your cat

H_Blank
I called them all, and only he ignored me

L_Lillihammer
LOL

L_Lillihammer
I miss you

L_Lillihammer
*your cat


Asterisk43.png

7 June


L_Lillihammer
Would you believe, there's fucking EXERCISE involved in this

H_Blank
In WHAT

L_Lillihammer
Exercise, for fuck's sake, what a fucking joke

L_Lillihammer
And I don't even hate it for some reason

L_Lillihammer
Feels good to move around

L_Lillihammer
You still there?

H_Blank
Of course

H_Blank
I just have no idea what you're talking about

L_Lillihammer
Do you not, though

L_Lillihammer
Do you actually not


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29 June


L_Lillihammer
Okay, science time asshole. Can't tell if I'm getting emotional, can you test me?

H_Blank
How?

L_Lillihammer
Say something upsetting.

H_Blank
I broke your laptop.

L_Lillihammer
No, you didn't. I keep a tracker on it. Don't make shit up, hit me with something real.

H_Blank
You asked for it. Remember that urban legend from when we were kids

H_Blank
About the little girl and the puppy?

L_Lillihammer
AW FUCK

L_Lillihammer
WHY WOULD YOU

L_Lillihammer
ASSHOLE

H_Blank
Hey, it cuts both ways :(


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5 July


L_Lillihammer
Think it's settling down now.

H_Blank
That's good.

L_Lillihammer
Oh, you've stopped with the whole "wuh buh huh?!?!" routine, huh

H_Blank
It wasn't a routine, but yeah

H_Blank
How long are you gonna stay away

L_Lillihammer
Until I'm ready.

H_Blank
When will you be ready?

L_Lillihammer
You'll be the first to know.

H_Blank
Not ominous at all.

L_Lillihammer
What's your sleep schedule? Asking for no reason.

H_Blank


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18 July


H_Blank
Del Olmo left.

L_Lillihammer
What? Why?

H_Blank
Dunno. Just poofed into thin air with no fanfare whatsoever. I think they might have sent him on some doubleplus hush-hush business.

L_Lillihammer
Why do you think that?

H_Blank
Because every time I ask someone who should know, instead of saying they DON'T know, they say some boilerplate like 'If I knew, I would not be allowed to tell you' which INSTANTLY tells me they DO know

L_Lillihammer
Well dang.

L_Lillihammer
Hope he comes back soon.

L_Lillihammer
Way too few fabulous outfits in yon underground bunker now.


Asterisk43.png

26 July


L_Lillihammer
Do you think I'm strange?

H_Blank
Of course.

L_Lillihammer
<3

H_Blank
<3


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1 August


L_Lillihammer
It's been months.

H_Blank
You're telling me?

L_Lillihammer
You know, Dr. Blank, every day I haven't sent a message, you've sent one.

L_Lillihammer
Is Eileen withholding sex?

H_Blank
Fuck you, Lillihammer.

L_Lillihammer
You wish.


Asterisk43.png

2 August


L_Lillihammer
Psst

L_Lillihammer
Hey asshole

L_Lillihammer
You snore


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2002

3 October


Structurons, Euler explained, probably provided a cognitive map to a memetic effect for the unconscious mind to follow. They were applied in a lattice, from the front. Conuons were somehow involved in the conscious visual parsing of data, and needed to be positioned as inverted fractals — beginning narrow at the wide end, and widening progressively to surround the starting point at a decent distance. Each particle, he explained, was imbued with memory. Some combination of deconstructed mnestics — mental fortificants — and molecules imparted with sympathetic hydrodynamic backflow allowed them to carry conceptual baggage, defined via thaumaturgy by the memeticists who created them. "The thaumaturgy is, however, automated."

Lillian stopped in the process of adding the final conuons. "I'm sorry, automated magic?"

He nodded. "With enough processing power, oriykalkos cores, and a supply of EVE, a computer can complete simple rituals." The precise meaning of the esoteric terms escaped her, but she knew he was describing the solid and liquid fuels of thaumaturgy. "Izaak and I knew that we couldn't very well ask every cryptomancer to also become a geomancer, a hydromancer and an electromancer. We planned ahead… although he would have been amazed to see what our machines are capable of today. If, that is, you know how to program them."

Lillian groaned, and placed the final pebble. She stepped back again. "So, what's left? You've still got that green dust."

"So I have." Euler ran his wizened fingers through it, doodling on the floor, and out boiled a final set of stones. These ones left vermilion smears on the tiles. "I'll let you pick them up yourself."

They left smears on her hand, too. "Runny sons of bitches, aren't they."

"Quite. Those are circulons; we think of them as linking particles, like orthons in linguamancy. They draw the concepts together, though admittedly we're not entirely sure how. The more we try to apply logic to their placement, the weaker the resultant effect." He shrugged. "I'll leave it up to your artistic interpretation."

She stared at the whirling sands and glinting marbles, remembering Lawren Harris' big white tooth on the toothpaste fringe, and asked: "How about re-interpretation?"

He frowned. "What?"

"What if you're wrong about what all those other particles do, and these are the clue?" She buried the first circulon in the sand, and dragged it along; it left a messy green smear across the fractal edge. "What if the blurring has nothing at all to do with linkage?"

"Go on."

"Okorie, can you spin the fractal faster?"

The other woman nodded, and increased her rate of churn. The particles took on a hazy, indistinct quality.

OkorieTest.jpg

"What if it's all about motion? What if the smears represent… kinetics? Motion blur? What if this is how whoever you stole the particles from intended them to be used — to trigger the part of the brain that learns kinetically?"

Euler was shaking his head. "I don't believe in your different types of learning."

"The brain works the way the brain works, your prejudices notwithstanding." His face fell as she pointed at the putative structurons. "That lattice. What if it's not meant to represent the structure of the meme at all? What if it's meant to simulate the concept of structure?" His expression was blankening by the second, in either depression or confusion, she couldn't tell which. Was it something I said? She kept saying anyway. "The thing you started out with, Euler. Language. Language is just structural symbolism. Slow it down, please." Okorie obliged. "And think about the conuons… hell, you already halfway figured them out! Cones. Eyes. Double-encoding of visual information, that's the reinforcement we were talking about."

"And the fluctuons?" His voice was very small, even accounting for the pounding of her blood in her ears.

His voice. The pounding of my blood.

"Sound," she said. "It's not arcs at all, Euler, it's waves." She ducked under the fractal again, catching the remaining circulons — soon, she was certain, to be renamed — on their jagged edges. Once she had finished her paint job, she walked back to the two of them.

The old man looked uncertain. "It's a theory, at any rate."

"It's a fact." Lillian's hands found her hips by force of habit. "It covers everything we know about how these things function."

"Then we should find that this piece of memetics carries its message with undiluted force. So take a look, and see if you're correct."

But the fractal, and the shining jewels within, crashed messily to the floor as Okorie turned around.

"Are you alright?" To his credit, Euler rushed to her side rather than leaping to admonishment.

"I'm fine," she said, though she didn't sound fine. Her voice was dreamy. "I'm just…" She shook her head, violently, then peered at him with obvious surprise. "I think I just memorized a pamphlet?"


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2001

2 August


Often, as a child, Harold Blank had woken up willingly. Occasionally, as a teenager, he had woken up begrudgingly instead of in an active state of despair. As an adult, he almost never woke up in a state which could fairly be termed neutral or better. Waking up was the worst thing that happened to him, most days, and this was saying something when one worked at the SCP Foundation.

At the tail-end of a nebulous dream he heard a sort of soft cooing from somewhere above. It was a woman's voice. He didn't… quite, recognize it.

He woke up suddenly — the absolute best way he ever woke up — at the realization that there was a woman in his room, and it wasn't his girlfriend, and oh my god Eileen is going to kill me.

The fact that he hadn't done anything he could possibly feel guilty about, had in fact fallen asleep reading the history journal which slid onto the floor when he turned over on the mattress, immediately gave way to the fact that there was what the fuck what the fuck?

There was a woman sitting on the edge of his bed. She had coral-orange hair, beryl-blue eyes, arched brows, freckles, a coy smile, a psychedelic labcoat and she was, he suddenly realized, his best friend of over twenty years.

The first thing he said on the 2nd of August, 2001, was "Holy fuck."

"Right?" She bounced the mattress a bit, as if trying to wake him up faster. He was already fully awake. "On a scale of one to ten—"

"Ten," he said. He wanted to sit up, but he didn't want to expose his chest. This had never been a concern between them before, but now… "Definitely ten, and that's really awkward, and holy shit, L—" He stopped. "Uh…"

"Lillian," she said. "Lillian S. Lillihammer. Pleased to meet you!" She didn't extend a hand; she knew he preferred to wash up after waking up.

"What's the 'S' stand for now?" He couldn't get over how much more… alive, she looked. Her eyes were shining and alert. Her hair and skin were clean; he could smell the soap. She wasn't wearing makeup, but she was fairly glowing anyway. The 'she' came instantly and easily.

"Same thing it always stood for. 'Shelby' is unisex." She hopped to the foot of the bed. "Who should I shock next?"

"Eileen." He said his girlfriend's name like a talisman against incurring her wrath. "Who has a key to this room."

Lillian laughed. Was her voice the same as before? It didn't sound the same. It was still her, but it didn't sound the same. Still husky, but lighter. Higher. More playful, if such a thing were possible. "She knows I have a key too. She just doesn't know how good I look now."

"You gonna do a little twirl on the catwalk?"

She did a curtsy instead, then flashed him the middle finger.

LillihammerFinger.jpg

Harry finally decided it was safe to slide up the headboard a little, now that she was at a distance. He wasn't sure what kind of antisocial behaviour a female Lillihammer might get up to, but pulling out his chest hair seemed a definite possibility.

"How did you do it?" She swayed back and forth, like a careless child, smiling cryptically. "Did you go to 19, and use the rock? Did you get surgery? Hormone therapy? Reality bending? Is this inappropriate? This is definitely inappropriate, I'm so sorry, I just woke up."

She grinned. She still grinned like she owned the world. "Yeah, anyone who wants to know those particular details can find out in the traditional manner."

"Getting a higher security clearance level?"

"Buying me dinner."

Their eyes met, and they both stopped talking for a moment. A second moment. Three.

"Congrats, kid. You done good." He meant it.

"Yeah." She did a little twirl, like Joseph on the stage. "And for my next trick, I'm gonna do better."


Asterisk43.png

2002

3 October


"I thought there were no cheat codes." Lillian tossed her bag at the foot of Euler's desk, and sat down. "Yet you were trying to teach me an entire meme pamphlet with one meme?"

"I was trying to teach you any one element of that pamphlet, with that meme." Euler walked to the back of the office where, aboveground, there would have been a window facing onto the outside world. There was still a window, but it only faced a recessed painting of a nighttime streetscape. "I read it for our lessons. I only wanted to impart… a lesson or two, at best."

She stared at him. "Are you saying…"

"Yes. I'm saying you were right. That shouldn't have even worked on Okorie, it was coded directly to you. What an astonishing…" He looked dazed. "Astonishing success, I suppose."

"You suppose," she repeated.

"We'll have to run replication studies, but you're right, you're right, you're right!" He suddenly darted past the desk, as though forcibly restarting the blood flow to his pallid face, and extended a hand. "This is the breakthrough we've been waiting for, and you cracked it in under an hour. I knew there was a reason Bernie selected you."

She stared at his hand. "Bernie? You call him Bernie?"

Euler's enthusiasm visibly flagged, and he lowered his hand.

"And what's this about selection? Selected for what? I'm just a memeticist, minus my good looks and better brain."

Euler shook his head, and leaned lightly on the desk. He again seemed very old, very frail. "I wasn't exaggerating when I said you were his project. He saw great potential in you. I've seen his notes."

She felt a sudden flare of anger. "You went through his things?!"

"Yes!" He turned a pleading look on her. "I'm the executor of his estate, such as it is. Because what you were to him… he was to me. In… in a sense. One sense." He shook his head. "Not every sense."

"Not making sense." She met him with steel. "He never mentioned you. Not ever. Not once."

He nodded, eyes misting over. "No, he wouldn't have."

"Why?"

Euler walked to the desk, paused for a moment — as if considering — then pulled a set of keys from his jacket pocket, and unlocked one of the drawers.

He drew out another framed photograph and laid it gently, very gently, in front of her.

EulerDelOlmo.jpg

"I don't understand," she said. "Is that…" Suddenly, she thought she did understand. "Is that his daughter?"


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1993

8 June

Site-87: Sloth's Pit, Wisconsin, United States of America


"What am I looking at?" Del Olmo rolled the lovely yellow stone over and over in one gloved hand.

Euler's filtered voice replied, via the overhead speaker: "According to inventory, that is the… olive opal. Have you been transformed?"

"What?"

The old man cleared his throat. "According to Reiki Rick's Crystal and Gemstone Catalogue, 'Olive opals are transformative. They channel and redirect energy, sparking change — always change for the better. The holder becomes more than they were; they become their best selves'. Have you found yourself elevated, Bernie?"

Del Olmo shrugged in the direction of the observation room. "I do feel sort of buoyant, but that's probably just the Pepsi I had at lunch."

"Alright, well, stare at it for a few more seconds, then pack it up again and we'll move on to the next one."

It was going to be a long day. Site-87's top memeticist and his star pupil had been tapped for their assignment because to all appearances, this mineral collection — acquired during an MTF raid on an English manor house — was physically inert, and yet its former owner had been rabidly insistent on its metamorphic potential. Lady Alexis Dedrick, 3rd Baroness, had squandered her entire family fortune to acquire an anomalous rockery from a wide variety of black and grey market sources, some of them charlatans, some of them known to the Foundation. The Staffordshire authorities had gotten involved when an exchange with middlemen for South African diamond smugglers went south, and on tracking the trade to Lady Dedrick's ancestral home of The Steeples they had discovered Lady Dedrick herself — who was entirely unknown to them. The only Alexis Dedrick in the county register was a man. A request put in to London was intercepted by embedded agents, and the bobbies had lost their case in a manner which ensured they wouldn't miss it.

MTF Rho-43 ("Home Invaders") had been dispatched to see what was what, and what they'd come out with was one terminally ill aristocrat and several hundred assorted aggregates. The working assumption was that there had to be something memetic about the collection to have convinced Lady Dedrick that it was worth wasting her considerable inheritance on; there was, as of yet, no working assumption to explain the existence of Lady Dedrick herself. The most recent records suggested that her namesake was the proper heir to the estate, but this worthy was nowhere to be found. The Dedricks were eccentric, as the gentry tended to be, and The Steeples was a sufficiently rambling castle that it was just possible a child had been born and raised there, with the same name as her brother, without her parents troubling to tell anyone outside the family circle about any of it. Her state of health certainly suggested the depravity of blue bloods behind closed oak doors: her body was riddled with cancerous growths, she was nearly blind, and she suffered from not only haemophilia but also a variety of substitution mutations. The staff physician at Site-91, Rho-43's staging point for the op, had said it looked for all the world like someone had set out to design a human body, started building it from the ground up, changed their mind two or three times about precisely what sort they were constructing, but never went back to make sure all the bits were properly matched. It was a miracle she was still alive, though that miracle wasn't projected to last long; she also appeared to suffer from a serious case of dysphoria, to the point where she couldn't bear to touch her own bare skin. It wasn't entirely clear whether the unhappy woman had suffered some sort of debilitating injury which had healed quite badly, or been exposed to some foreign element which had ruined her mind and body, and so every precaution had been taken with her collection. No skin-to-stone contact, thorough radiation screening and thaumaturgic decomposition, and only the briefest exposure to a cycling staff of trained professionals.

Bernarda Del Olmo was one such professional. She rarely had cause to regret it, but she certainly did at the moment.

She stripped off and disposed of her gloves, and stretched on a new pair before picking up the next stone. She admired its colour and sheen in the light.

DelOlmoRock.jpg

"Man, this one is gorgeous. What's it called?"

"Red jasper," said Euler.

"And what does it do?"


Asterisk43.png

2002

3 October

Site-43: Lambton County, Ontario, Canada


"You can't be serious," Lillian breathed. "You discovered SCP-113? The gender rock?"

"'The gender rock'," he spat. "I can see why they wouldn't want to call it 'the sex rock', sophomoric as they are at Site-19, but surely we make some sacrifices for specificity. It does nothing to your gender. It alters your biological sex."

"So the baroness…"

"…was the baron. Must have touched the rock several times, going back and forth through the change. We didn't know it then, but it carries two linked effects: if your gender and body are misaligned, it aligns your body. If they're both aligned, it merely swaps the biology. But you can't do it again, not without risking mutations." He shook his head. "I don't know whether he was curious about the effect, or if he was just trying to reverse it — because it certainly wasn't what he wanted — but it didn't go his way."

"Then why…" She stopped. "Wait. I'm still processing this. You're saying that Bernie was…"

"Yes."

"A rip in the glove?"

"Microscopic, but yes. Gave him nasty burns all over his hand when the rock bonded to the skin, through the latex."

She shook her head. "This is too big to process."

"One sympathizes." His face was all screwed up. "At first we were afraid what had happened to the baron would happen to Bernie. But their changes were different; Dedrick couldn't stand himself, ended up in a permanently dysphoric state, because he wasn't a woman."

"And Bernie?"

Euler visibly weighed his response. "I want to excuse myself for not understanding. I want to say it was a different time. But…" He hung his head, shamefaced. "I worked with Alfred Kinsey once, you know, back in the fifties. You'd think I would have known better."

She stared at the photograph. "Better than what?"


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1993

9 June

Site-87: Sloth's Pit, Wisconsin, United States of America


Euler stood outside the wardroom door, waiting for the doctor to emerge. When she finally did, she looked more than a little confused. "You can go right in, sir, if you like. The sedation won't wear off for a few more hours."

He shook his head. "Tell me how she's changed."

A raised eyebrow, a shrug, and then a recitation partially from memory but augmented by the contents of a clipboard. "Let's start with the skeleton. Subject has gained approximately five inches in height. Bone mass and density are both significantly increased. The skull has expanded and its density attenuated, the brow has pushed forward, the neck is thicker, the pelvis has narrowed and the ribcage and torso have shortened. The femurs have lost their inward slant, and overall arm and leg length is increased disproportionately to the height increase. Facial bones are slightly narrower, neck cartilage is increased — producing a visible Adam's Apple — and the chin is wider. Index and ring finger length ratio has inverted. Bust is dramatically reduced."

Euler opened his mouth, but the litany wasn't over.

"On the squishy side, brain mass has increased slightly, muscle mass has expanded from around thirty percent of body weight, according to subject's most recent physical examination, to just over forty percent, muscle balance has shifted from below to above the waist, female reproductive organs have been replaced with male—"

"I beg your pardon," Euler objected.

"—and relative organ size has also changed with a one-to-one correspondence with the male average." The doctor didn't miss a beat. "Occurrence of body hair has dramatically increased. Vocal register has dropped, based on unconscious utterings. Overall pigmentation is slightly darker. Hair length is decreased. There's more, but you get the picture."

He didn't, really. His head was swimming, lost in the details. There were simply too many. "In brief?"

"In brief, two things. One: every inch of this subject would be in exquisite pain right now, had sedation not been administered, as I'm given to understand that these changes took place in real time rather than of an instant. It would have taken exceptional strength to survive, as well as absurdly anomalous pliability to make these changes even remotely plausible. Two: this subject is biologically indistinguishable from a human male — right down to the chromosomes — and lacking their statement one way or the other on the matter, I would say he is one."

"But mentally? Is it still… her?"

"We won't know until he wakes up, sir, but considering even the brain itself has…"

He didn't want to hear it, so he walked away until he couldn't.


Asterisk43.png

12 June


It pained Euler to see the way Del Olmo moved, now, like she he no longer knew how her his limbs worked. She He walked bowlegged, clearly taking great care to keep her his legs apart in a way she he hadn't had to do before, and she he clearly didn't know the length of her his arms or legs or the precise way her his joints bent. Even the height difference was obviously throwing her him off; she'd he'd already hit her his head half a dozen times, and part of that shaky, uncertain walk was doubtless because of her his newly-elevated perspective. In short, she he was having a great deal of difficulty adjusting to the change.

So why did… he, look so pleased?

Euler would normally have placed a hand on his pupil's shoulder at this juncture. He was old, and he was empathetic, and most importantly of all, he was allowed — he had seen enough grabby-handed academics in his years that he'd made a personal rule never to initiate physical contact first in a relationship. Bernie, however, was a hugger, so it hadn't been a long wait.

He couldn't quite bring himself to touch that wider, bonier shoulder. Not yet.

"How did the meeting go?" he asked, forcing the quaver out of his voice as best he could. He needed to be strong, for… his friend.

Del Olmo shrugged, sitting down at Euler's desk with obvious effort. His legs now never seemed to go quite where he expected them to. "Barely went. They don't think there's anything they can do about it, and I pretty much told them not to try."

Euler blinked. "What? You… why?"

Del Olmo took a deep breath. "Because I don't think the stone did this at random, Arik. I think it took its cue from… me."

Euler shook his head. "I don't understand."

Del Olmo pulled a crumpled piece of paper out of his jeans pocket. The jeans were ill-fitting, as he'd had to borrow them from a friend. "'Red jasper'," he read, "'makes one hale and hearty, and fecund too — which is to say fructiferous.' Man, nice of them to clarify like that, right? Wouldn't have understood if they'd just left it at 'fecund'. Anyway, 'It grants life energy, fervour, even ardour; it enhances libido, and brings balance to the body. It transforms your passions into potential; it helps you to realize yourself'." He crumpled it up again, and tossed it in Euler's wastebasket. "In other words, it made the outside match the inside."

"I still don't understand. First of all, you're quoting that nonsense crystallography like it's actual science — even parascience has more empirical basis than that. But more importantly… what do you mean, it 'made the outside match the inside'? What does that even mean?"

"Arik, what clothes do I own?"

He was taken aback, and actually recoiled in confusion. "What?"

"What clothes do I own? What does my wardrobe consist of?"

Euler shook his head. "I don't know."

"Sure you do." Del Olmo leaned forward, smoothing out his dress shirt. It was the same dress shirt he'd been wearing when he first touched the stone. "Men notice women's clothing, even middle-aged men."

"I'm a bit past the median, you know," Euler stalled.

"Still, you noticed. What did I wear?"

He sighed. "Dress shirts, and dress pants."

"Right. Frills?"

"Not that I can recall."

"Tank tops? Tube tops?"

"This is a scientific workplace, not a nightclub!"

"People wear whatever they like under their labcoats, Arik, especially here in Sloth Spit where we'll only see an O5 if their motorcade gets hilariously lost — which'll happen now, since I said it out loud." Del Olmo didn't smile at his own joke; the humour was merely reflexive. "How about skirts? Do you think I own one?"

Euler shook his head again. "I don't think about that sort of thing at all."

"Earrings? Bracelets? Piercings of any kind? Perfume? Scrunchies? Purses? Anything pink? Flowers in my hair? Lipstick? Eyeliner? Eyeshadow? Blush? Makeup of any variety? High heels? Necklaces? Any single visual signifier of femininity within my active control? Any at all?"

"Being a woman has nothing to do with these superficial things!" Euler snapped. It was very nearly a shout; he had never shouted at Del Olmo before. He'd never even considered it.

"Exactly. Exactly!" Del Olmo clapped, once, and slapped his thighs — then winced. They were obviously still sore. "Gender isn't superficial, it's not skin-deep. But that's where we express it, minus our intimate relations. And I didn't. At all. Ever. And there's just two potential reasons for that, in my view: I couldn't be bothered, or the idea actively bothered me. You know how to find out which it is?"

Euler shook his head dumbly.

"You take my word for it, Arik. You hired me because you felt I knew who and what I was, and could come to understand others in the same way. I think I've proven you right. Why are you doubting yourself now? Why don't you trust me on the subject of myself?"

"Your brain changed size by—"

"Ten percent, yes, fine. You're aware that that ten percent has no bearing on human cognition, right? That it constitutes a physical difference only, with no functional component? A difference without a distinction, like the difference between a man who starts out looking like a man and a man who doesn't. Do you think if my brain hadn't blown up, I'd be freaking out right now? Because I wouldn't." He still looked pained, but in a different way now. "You're taking this much worse than I am, and your brain hasn't changed at all."

A moment passed in silence.

"But how can I believe you?" Euler asked, finally. "How can I be sure this really is you?"

Del Olmo's earlier cheer had entirely evaporated now. "I haven't changed, Arik. You're not asking me to restore a fact, you're asking me to live in a fiction. Your fiction. I've done that. I don't know if I would've found the courage to stop on my own, but it doesn't matter now. I did stop, and I don't intend ever to start again. I won't change for you… and if you expect me to, well… I guess you're not who I thought you were, either."


Asterisk43.png

2002

3 October

Site-43: Lambton County, Ontario, Canada


She carefully examined the sad old man who sat slumped in Del Olmo's comfortable patent leather chair. The elation from the test was fully gone, replaced with a morbid torpor.

"You're certainly not who I thought you were," she said.

He nodded. "Older and more foolish still."

"That's not what I meant."

He didn't look up, but he didn't say anything either.

"You didn't come here out of some sense of duty to the place. You're not here to see the old stomping grounds, or say 'hi' to your old friends."

"They're mostly gone, anyway," he muttered. "And after all the harm our work has done, I wonder if Ilse would even consent to see me. We gave them a ploughshare, and they made of it a sword."

"You came here for him." She gestured at the vibrant young woman in the photograph. "You wanted to make amends, by finishing what he started."

He nodded miserably. "Can you know," he asked, "what it's like to feel the pathways in your brain begin to ossify? To see fewer and fewer ways forward within your own mind, to see yourself becoming… less dynamic, less creative, less open to new ideas? To not recognize yourself, and to wonder if you ever did?"

She nodded. "Yes. Yes, I can imagine a lot of that."

He looked up at last, eyes rimmed with tears. "Don't ever allow yourself to grow old, Lillian. Not where it counts." He tapped his temple, once.

"You're not old."

She let it hang in the air for a moment.

"There are no old scientists, Euler. Old people don't want to learn new things. Old people don't leave themselves open to possibilities, to the thwarting of established orders. They retreat from complexity to comfort. They deny anything they don't recognize. And they don't ever, ever, second-guess any of that. They certainly don't wonder if they failed the strange new people they met in their twilight years. They see that strangeness itself as a failure — somebody else's."

He produced a handkerchief from his jacket, because of course he had one, and wiped his eyes. "I came around. Of course I came around. I…"

He reached for one of his jacket sleeves, very nearly pulled it down, then let go abruptly.

"That's not who I was, what I said. The things that made him leave, made him run all the way here, to… to get away from me. I knew better, and I came around. But it was too late."

"For him. Yes, it was too late."

Euler began to cry, softly, into the handkerchief.

"But not for me."

She stood up from the desk, and after a moment of very careful consideration, touched him very briefly on the shoulder before leaving him to his regrets.

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2000

5 March


"What is this place?" Lillihammer asked, and Rydderech responded:

"The prison of memory I built for myself."

They had moved past the techno-fortress exterior and into a stretch of tangerine corridor, dotted with the windows and doors of labs filled with ancient equipment. "Is it real?" The question was wholly insufficient, but nothing better suggested itself.

"Don't ever ask me what's real," the old man said. His face was careworn and sunken. "Your guess is much, much better than mine. I can tell you that I caused it to be the way that it is, probably, bit by bit, probably, both consciously and unconsciously, definitely, over the course of… well, that I honestly couldn't tell you." He shook his head. "Suffice to say that if it is real, I made it that way."

"You're a reality bender." This wasn't at all a question.

"That's right. God, have they not found a better term for that yet? It's been, ah… well, I don't know how long it's been, but it's been long enough." They turned the corner, and the landscape shifted. They were now in a comparatively modern setting, a wide factory floor full of massive, gleaming holding tanks. Sunlight streamed through the overhead windows, which was of course impossible — like everything else down here.

"Ontokinetic," said Lillihammer. "The word is ontokinetic."

The old man's face lit up with sudden delight, almost childlike. "Oh, yes, that's suitable. Ontokinesis. Very scientific. I note you avoided telling me what year it is."

She shrugged. "Do you want to know?"

"No, I do not. I can't be focusing on meaningless details like that, not right now." He quickened his pace across the echoing concrete.

"That's meaningless to you? The length of time you've been stuck underground?"

"Yes. Every moment has been without meaning to me since April the first, 1997." He suddenly stopped, and they were standing — just for an instant — in a lush Victorian drawing room. Then the moment passed, and they were back in the factory.

"April Fools' Day?" Lillihammer certainly felt like pranks were being played.

Rydderech looked pensive. "We were fools in love, until the end. I think about him every day. Sometimes I see him. Some days, I think he speaks to me from above…" His tone turned sour. "…but it's you people, of course, he's gone, and most of the time I don't even know it. Fate is indifferent to the loves of old men."

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"Vivian Scout." Of course. "Vivian Scout died on April first, '97."

"His one hundred and twelfth birthday. I felt it, you know. If I concentrate…" Rydderech concentrated, and once again they shifted through a new setting — the Lake Huron shoreline, three men sitting on a distant bench in the fading light — and then back into the depths again. "I can still feel it."

Lillihammer wondered if it might be better to weather these transitions with closed eyes, and focus on putting one foot in front of the other. "How did you come to be down here?"

"I told you, it was my own choice. I didn't trust myself, and I didn't trust myself to them, either. I would've been either a burden or a threat to Vivian, and so I left."

He pursed his lips.

"I shouldn't have done."

"Why not?"

"Because this is the only lucid day I've had in…" He waved vaguely; it was almost, but not quite, a request for help. He was a proud-looking old man.

"However long you've been down here."

"Yes. You're speaking to someone who hasn't spoken a truly sane word since the 1970s… assuming it's not still the 1970s."

"We just talked about an event which occurred in 1997," Lillihammer reminded him. Now their surroundings were more recognizable, a sort of pastiche of AAF-A as it presently existed and AAF-A as it might have looked at some point in the past, with the same obsolete equipment as before.

"My dear woman, on any other day I could converse with you about events occurring a quarter-century off with absolute authority. Send me a message tomorrow, and I'll tell you what you're up to in 2022 — if you've the stomach. And if you're still alive."

My dear woman. It took a moment to move past that. "Tomorrow, or in 2022?"

He bobbed his head agreeably. "Yes."

She had almost forgotten, in the wonder and horror of whatever the fuck was happening, to ask her questions. But being who she was, she couldn't forget anything for long. "Okay. Hey. Why did you disappear? In '66?"

He'd had a faraway look in his eyes the entire time so far, but it moved farther away by half as he considered. "I came here to lose myself, and I mean that quite literally. I came here to fall apart."

They were moving through a series of small, comfortable rooms. One of them was a bedroom; Vivian Scout's hat was sitting on the mattress.

"I don't understand," she said. It was a general, all-purpose statement.

"I made mistakes, and they cost me my humanity. Day by day, atom by atom, my work changed who I was." He glanced at her. "Don't ever let your work change you. Be the change yourself."

"How did it change you, though? How did you go from directing a Site to hiding under one?"

A look of disapproval swept across his plump features. "I should think you'd know by now. It happened to all of you; I heard the explosions, felt the breaks in space and time." He was looking at the ceiling, and it disappeared. There was a lightshow mushrooming in the sky, like the Northern Lights on steroids. "We've touched the gods, you and I and him and her and him and her and him and yes, even him… even him, God help him." He chuckled, without losing his pensive affect.

"You're saying… you were in an accident. Like ours." She'd never been much on literary interpretation, but she could interpret pretty well anything in a pinch.

He performed a sort of diagonal nod-slash-shake of the head. "Like and unlike, and more than just one. I made a career out of making mistakes, and one day I found that my mistakes had made me, and I could unmake the world with a thought… or an afterthought.. or even an oversight." Each clause saw them in a different space: a dormitory in sepia, an indoor swimming pool — the stench of chlorine was overwhelming — and a tiny apartment, two men sharing a drink at a kitchen table. She thought she recognized the men, but they disappeared when the factory reasserted itself. "I saw myself in the mirror, and I knew it wasn't me. The change had begun, and I couldn't stop it, and I didn't want them… I didn't want him to see what I would become. So I made my world this narrow cleft, with only the thinnest lifeline to the life I left behind. I saved them from myself. I came down into the realm of the under-lords, and set myself a task. I built this place with my own two…" He laughed. "Pride. No, I can't really take credit for what I've created here, but I did spend quite a lot of time on it all."

They were now clambering across the gantries, rippling sheets of steel on one side and cavernous nothing on the other. She didn't look down.

"And what do you intend to do with it?" she asked, quietly.

"Oh, you'll see. But not for a while. This isn't going to help or hinder your struggles today." Again his eyes unfocused. "No, this is for the finale."


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2002

3 October


Harry had a look of understanding on his stupid face, and she wanted to scratch his eyes out. At least wait for the explanation, before you pretend to understand it.

She began the explanation. "You ever hear of the Kessler effect?" She knew he hadn't. She continued the explanation. "The world's first satellite was launched in 1956. The first one the world actually knew about was launched in '57, and there were three more that year. In '58, there were 28. '67 was a banner year—"

"The centennial of Confederation!" he interrupted with a clap.

"—for satellites." She glared at him. "One hundred and forty-three. We've launched thousands of satellites as of today, Harry, and a fair number of them are still up there, circling the drain — sorry, circling the globe. And every new satellite stands an increased chance of being the last piece of man-made technology ever to breach the atmosphere."

"Why?"

"Because when you have that many hangers-on in your orbit, and they start interacting negatively, the cascade failure spreading through the system will surround you with an unnavigable mass of consequence. A wall of other people's shit you'll never be able to penetrate. Trapping you in one place. Forever. You'll never grow beyond it, you'll just have to sit static in the shitstorm for the rest of your natural life."

He grinned. "What a great metaphor! And what's the solution?"

"Expand the orbits, or lose the satellites."

They turned to look back at the Earth, ringed with a glittering kaleidoscope of colliding debris. In an instant there was a shell of shredded metal where their home had once been.

"Alternatively," he said, "you could stop being such a selfish b—"


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She woke up.


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2000

5 March


"You still haven't explained why you couldn't stay at the Site."

Rydderech ran a hand through his thin scrap of hair; it barely moved. "I wanted them to remember me. I wanted them to grieve my loss, not… to long for it. I went away, so that I could some day come back. Whole. Renewed. As I once was." He placed a hand on her shoulder, just for a moment. "You'll understand, when your moment comes."

She shook her head. "I'm not going where you're going."

He smiled. "Precisely."

She slid in front of him, and they both stopped walking. "Alright, I hate to be the one to rush the reveal along, and it's not like I don't appreciate the impenetrable atmosphere of what-the-fuck you've cultivated down here, but: if you're out of your gourd most days, why are you so coherent now?"

"Because I was told I had to be." He tapped his empty breast pocket. "I kept a syringe of sanity in reserve for this occasion, though it cost me a final reunion with… you don't care. It isn't your problem." He blinked very rapidly for a moment, then took a deep breath. "Suffice to say that we have this moment together, but we will not have another. Not for some time, at any rate, and I measure my time more liberally than you do yours."

She was torn between the need to know what he knew, and the need to put the mystery to bed. She carved out the fastest possible path to the latter, first; it was why she had come here, after all. "How are you communicating with the Site?"

He pointed, straight up, and they were standing in the chasm again while the iron flexed far above. "I weave my words into the tendrils, and you weave yours back to me. I really can't say it less poetically." He smiled. "I'm a creature of my time, and my time is long, long past."

She didn't need his explanation; she already understood. There was a bundle of fibre optic cables hanging down beneath the Site's thaumic sheath; she'd seen it on the diagrams, had always assumed it was some disconnected light fixture from an early caving expedition. The idea that Rydderech was reaching up to it, that she'd been reaching down to him all this time, their words twisted and corrupted into what someone else wanted them to be…

…right. That's the uplifting bit over, then. "What else do you need to tell me? What do I need to know?"

They were suddenly standing in a lightless abyss. There were gears grinding in the distance, and the sound of padding footsteps, and black-slit yellow eyes watching from every corner.

Rydderech hardly seemed to notice. "Seven things, for you are one of seven. One you already know, and you'll understand it better once you leave this place, but I will speak its truth to you nevertheless: you know who you are, miss Lillihammer, you always have known, and you mustn't let anyone tell you different. You can't lose yourself — you must not be lost. From the dark beneath our Veil, you are a distant star. You cannot be afraid to shine. Enlighten them all, the benighted many. Do them that kindness."

The eyes were getting closer, and the drone of machinery was getting louder. She had no idea what to make of what he'd just said, but she also knew she would never forget it, and so they could still move on. "The other six things?"

Rydderech's voice wasn't cut by the rising din. "I can't explain to your now-self, because it's your later-selves who will need to know. But you will need to know these things; a change is coming, and another, and another, and another, and another after that, and then one more. The worst will come to pass, then pass again, and again. Only you can see us through it. So remember: I am down here, today. Only today, but always today."

"I don't understand." She could barely focus on his words. "Today only comes once. Ever."

Rydderech laughed sadly. "Oh, wouldn't that make it all so much easier." He reached down and linked their hands, and pulled her up…

…into the cool fluorescent light of AAF-A, with the dark stairwell yawning just behind.


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2002

4 October


Harry was sitting on the couch in Bradbury's room when Lillian came in, microfilm visible on his laptop. He looked like shit, and he was asleep.

"You look like shit," she said, flopping down beside him and leaning into his barrel chest.

He blinked awake. "Thanks. Hi. What?" He blinked again. "How you holding up?"

He did look like shit. He was clean — probably showered in Bradbury's bathroom, since she wasn't using it — but there were even deeper bags under his eyes than the ones he wore permanently due to worry and a poorly-managed sleep schedule.

"The accolades for saving S&C have been pretty taxing, got to admit, but I owe it to my adoring fans to smile and wave." She crossed her legs and got comfortable. "And then I said to myself 'hey, don't forget the little people in your rise to fame'. So here I am."

"I see." He set the laptop aside. "You're not holding up."

He tried to look her in the eye, and she looked away.

"Come on, Lil. Join me on irony level zero for a second."

"Won't," she said, examining the ceiling tiles.

"You're not the only one who got fucked up by all this. Everybody took some kind of hit."

"And everyone can stand around whining about it if they want to. I'm going to keep moving."

He dropped an arm around her shoulders. "And yet here you are, sitting on a couch."

"It's more of a mental move."

He smiled. "Wasn't sure you were ever going to show up. What made you change your mind?"

She fixed those deep blue eyes on him suddenly. "I had a dream about you."

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"Hot."

She swatted the back of his head. "I tried to tell you why I needed to be alone, and you interrupted me to make a joke, and I knew it was a joke the real you would make, and I realized you were already living in my fucking head, so there was really no point. I'm not wasting brain space running a simulated Harry when the real one is toddling around out here anyhow, you know?"

He nodded. "What was the joke?"

"I mentioned 1967—"

"Expo '67. The Centennial."

She snorted. "Fucking nerd."

"What was the explanation?"

"Kessler syndrome." She yawned. "It—"

"Oh, I've heard of that. Space junk thing."

She stared at him.

"I'm surprised a veteran player of Breakout is afraid to knock a few bricks out of the black."

She continued to stare at him for a moment, then surrendered to the inevitable and rested her head on his shoulder. They squirmed a bit until they were both comfortable, in that odd little game of Tetris one can only play with human bodies, and he watched the love of his life breathing low on the bed while his very best friend snored loudly in his ear.

It wasn't perfect, but it was precisely good enough for now.


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5 October


Euler didn't come out of his office all afternoon, so she eventually swallowed her pride and knocked.

"It's unlocked."

She turned the knob, and walked in. The old man had furnished the room with a few more personal touches: more framed photographs, one of Okorie's grandfather, one of Reynders, one of Vivian Scout and Wynn Rydderech — she wondered if he could read her face as she recalled her trip to the abyss — and a shot of Del Olmo from the M&C orientation in 2001. Lillian pointed at this last. "What about the one you showed me?"

He shook his head. "He should be remembered as himself, don't you think?"

She nodded amiably, and sat down. "We should all be so lucky. How do you think they'll remember you?"

"I don't." He folded his hands on the desk. "I'll be just another name in a textbook, or on the cover — until my theories get too creaky to support the good work, at which point I'll be forgotten entirely. It's how things go in our line. You know that."

She couldn't disagree. "I'm resigned to it. What?"

He was smiling. "I don't think they'll forget you, Lillian. I've never met a memeticist with more promise."

She had the good grace not to snark on this theme. "I still don't get your fascination with me, or Bernie's for that matter. Have you not trained anyone else? That wouldn't be sustainable, so I'm sure you have."

"I have indeed. If I learned anything from losing Izaak, it's that the work can't have only one point of failure. It's too important to rest on one set of shoulders." He looked wistful, though still not unhappy. "I left good men and women back at 87, and they'll be your colleagues some day; perhaps I'll return to them, once things are settled here, and prepare them for the shock of meeting you." His smile widened.

"So if it's all about the group, then what's so special about Lillian Lillihammer?"

He grinned. He actually grinned, as he answered: "Never one point of failure, but perhaps one point of light. Some day, maybe, you'll outshine us all."

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