Numbers Lie
rating: +164+x

Numbers don't lie

"I don't know what to do." The numbers are wrong.

The air was warm. Sticky. Stale. Elanor licked her lips. They were dry. The numbers are wrong.

Marion Wheeler, Chief of the Foundation's Antimemetics Division at Site-41, was nodding very slowly. Staring. It wasn't a look of concern. Not pity, either. The wheels in Elanor's head were clogged, and she couldn't parse Wheeler's expression. Not that it would have much helped had her brain been firing on all four cylinders—Wheeler was particularly disciplined, stoic, and focused constantly… it was kind of unnerving.

Elanor let out a breath. Why did it feel like it was being held in for such a long time? Her lungs burned. She could feel sweat dripping down her face. She reached up to wipe it with the back of her hand, but her face was dry. The numbers are wrong. The numbers are wrong.

The radio was on: it sounded vaguely like Lose Yourself was playing beneath what seemed to be mostly static. Outside, a car horn beeped somewhere. The numbers are wrong.

Wheeler finally spoke. "I understand the transition is difficult. But we both know it makes a lot of sense to have you here." The numbers are wrong.

Elanor's focus seemed to snap into place, and she felt herself relaxing. "I keep having these..episodes." She looked down at her lap, trying to avoid the indecipherable gaze of the Chief. "Things slow down, I feel cold, I feel hot, I realize hours have passed, or basically no time at all. And then something else keeps nagging at me that…" She trailed off. The numbers are wrong.

Wheeler nodded, taking out a small notebook and scribbling something in it. "Your experience in this department is a little unusual, Miss Jacob. But it's why you're here. We expected to have unexpected side-effects. You're in unexplored territory. At least, as far as we know." Wheeler ventured a tiny wry smile. "And not just because you're the first agent I know of who transferred in from Accounting."

Elanor couldn't help but smile. "So these feelings I've been having, are they related to that medication? The mnestics?"

"That depends. Let's see…You've been here six weeks." Wheeler leaned back a little in her chair. "Are you enjoying your job?"

"Actually, yeah, I am. I love handling financial records. I love financial databases." She gave the Chief a knowing look. "See, unlike people, numbers don't lie."

Wheeler nodded, noting something else in her notebook. "Well, the good news is that the episodes of dissociation are normal when you're first adapting to Class W mnestics. The feelings don't really go away, but you get used to them as you realize they're symptoms of experiencing things you literally haven't before."

A wave of relief spread over Elanor, and she instantly felt lighter about the whole matter. It was just, as most antimemetic things tend to be, all in her head.

"However." Any trace of Wheeler's smile was gone.The numbers are wrong.

The wave turned to ice instantly. The young accountant stiffened. The numbers are wrong.

"During your orientation, it was explained that you would be required to carry a pen and notebook on you at all times. Have you?"

Elanor nodded. The numbers are wrong.

"What was the purpose of that notebook?" The numbers are wrong.

"So that if I believe I've been exposed to an antimemetic agent, I can quickly copy down my thoughts and observations before suffering information loss or corruption."

Wheeler nodded, jotting something into her own notebook. "Miss Jacob, this is important. When is the last time you saw that notebook? Have you put anything in it yet?"

Elanor shook her head. "I don't think so. I think it's back at my d—"

"If that's the case," Wheeler said, making another small note in her own book, "your experiences with missing and dissociated episodes might not be as simple as adjusting to mnestics." Her movements were very deliberate now as she set her pen down, not removing her gaze from the young agent across the desk. "I feel I should inform you that during the conversation we have been having, you have stopped mid-sentence to write something in your notebook several times. I have a feeling you might have not realized it."

Elanor chuckled in half-disbelief. "How? My notebook's back at my—" She stopped. It was in her hand. She opened her mouth wordlessly and closed it again. The numbers are wrong.

Wheeler rose from her chair, her face stern and composed. "Elanor, listen to me. I need you to set the notebook down, and slowly open it, but don't look at it until I've cleared it's safe, okay?"

"Oh. Ohhhhkay." Elanor was trembling as she set the book down. Her mind was racing. "Chief, I'm sorry, I—" The numbers are wrong.

"No need to be sorry," was Wheeler's response. "The fact that you're writing in the notebook means you have strong instincts. You're doing just fine." She inhaled deeply through her nose. "Go."

Elanor pulled the cover open and looked up at the ceiling. She stared, transfixed on the plaster, for what seemed like an eternity but might have only been seconds. She could hear Wheeler scribbling. "Okay," Wheeler said gently, "Try and look now."

Slowly, so slowly, she pulled her gaze from the ceiling to look down at the notebook that—up until now—she had thought was empty.

But it was not.

Every page was covered. Elanor's own handwriting was staring back, pristine and perfectionist and immediately recognizable. Every line was filled with the same four words: "The Numbers are wrong."

"Do you know what it means?" Wheeler asked, her voice just above a whisper.

Elanor shook her head. Then turned the pages again and again. The same phrase, over and over.

Wheeler put her own notebook away and gestured to the door. "Then let's go find out."

Elanor drummed her fingers absently on the table. It was nice to be back at her own desk again, but now, with Wheeler there to oversee, it felt incredibly uncomfortable.

"Okay," Wheeler said, sitting down on the other side of Elanor's desk, "Let's do some baseline questions, alright? What's your name?"

"Elanor Jones." The numbers are wrong.

"What's your position, personnel class, and clearance at the Foundation?"

"Accounts specialist, Antimemetics Division, Personnel class C, Security Clearance 2, with elevated clearance for financial documents related to…" She stopped. The notebook was open again and the pen was in her hand. The numbers are wrong.

Wheeler was smiling. "You caught yourself that time. Now focus. There's something there. What were you about to say?"

Elanor shakily put the cap back on her pen. She spoke slowly, and deliberately. "I have. Elevated clearance for. Documents—financial documents. Related to. Department expenditures. And."

The cap was off. Elanor put it back on. The numbers are wrong.

"That's it," Wheeler said encouragingly. "Find what's triggering it. Department expenditures and what?"

The cap was off. Elanor put it back on. The numbers are wrong.

"Department expenditures and what, Elanor?"

"Um." The cap was off. Elanor put it back on. "Department. Expenditures. And." The cap was off. The cap was off. Off. The numbers are wrong.

Wheeler was leaning forward, resting her hands on the desk. "Breathe. Focus."

"And." The cap was off. Elanor's fingers trembled. And then—she hurled the pen across the room. "Payroll!" THE. NUMBERS. ARE. WRONG.

There was a stillness to the room as the plastic utensil clattered to the ground. Elanor was breathing hard. Her heart was pounding.

"OK," Wheeler said, nodding. "Tell me."

Somehow, Elanor had caught hold of the metaphorical thing clawing in the back of her mind, desperately trying again to escape behind the curtain. She had a hold of it now. Why couldn't she stop shaking? "You asked for me to transfer to this department to see if there were any attempts by Foundation employees, departments, or potential insurgents to mismanage funds and cover their tracks with antimemes." Her breathing was getting faster. "The Foundation allots a certain amount of money for payroll based on the salary of Foundation agents. So, per your instructions, I have been auditing individual department budgets. But there's something here, in the numbers. Something that makes my eyes just pass over it. We're…We're…" She tried to formulate the idea in her head now. The information trying to crawl away inside her mind was now being molded like putty in the accountant's frontal lobe.

"You've almost got it," Wheeler said, reaching over to take Elanor's hand. Elanor paid her no mind—not to be rude, but the runaway idea was still trying to make its escape. She had secured her hold on it now, though. She melded it, kneaded it between a perception and a process and an ingrained mathematical mind, and then, like the bursting of a dam, the idea gave way.

She straightened up. "Departments are paying on average 70% less for salaries than they should be." On Elanor's left, a stack of 11x17 spreadsheets leered up at her. Why hadn't she noticed them before? She picked it up. "But it's not that people are having pay cuts. But it's something else. They…" She tried to find the words. "It's that they…there's something wrong with the people. With the names. They're…They're not names. They're…"

Wheeler was now looking over her shoulder at the spreadsheets. "Oh my god. It's mipsum."

Elanor shrugged. "I don't understand."

The chief ran a finger over the text in one of the rows on the sheet. "It's a cognitive defense mechanism that makes you not realize data is missing. In graphic design, placeholder text is called 'lipsum'. When it's anti-memetic, we call it 'mipsum'. Memetic placeholder text. Glyphs that are so much like real text that your whole perception just passes over it. Except," She added with an approving side glance, "Yours didn't." She flipped through a few pages. "Wow. Over half the names. maybe 3 out of 4. What department is this?"

"This one's waste disposal. Let's see, I also have…" She pulled out several more stacks of 11x17. "Fire Services, Ops-A, Ops-B, and…oh." The text on the next one read "Antimemetics Division."

Wheeler took it and began flipping through it. "I don't understand. Antimemetics has a staff of eight thousand people. Two thirds of them can't just be—" She stopped, her face going blank as her gaze rested on an opposite wall.

Elanor waited, and then gently tapped her. "Chief?"

Wheeler looked mildly startled. She dropped the spreadsheet on the floor and dashed to the office door. Just outside, department staffers were hard at work in offices and cubicles. Shuffling papers, transcribing notes, rewriting lost communications for the 10th or 20th time.

Elanor was at her side. "What is it?"

"Look," Wheeler said.

Elanor looked around. "I don't…I don't see what you're—"

"Count," Wheeler said, her voice barely a breath. "Count the number of people you can see from this doorway."

Elanor mentally tallied them up. "Uh. Twenty-two." The numbers are wrong.

Wheeler shook her head. "Again. Count again."

She did. "Twenty-two."

"Again. Focus. Count in your head."

Elanor gritted her teeth. One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Seven. E— No. Not eight. Just seven. Only seven people were actually in the room. She sucked in a breath. "Oh my god."

Wheeler was glowering. Elanor could almost see the wheels spinning behind her glasses, and it was a moment before the Chief returned to reality. "Ok. I think I know our next step."

Elanor felt suddenly ready for anything. "Ok. Who are we going to talk to?"

"No one." Wheeler gestured for the accountant to follow. "I think we already did."

The computer screen was facing the other direction, but whatever was on it cast Wheeler into sharp relief. She looked somehow older now—tired, stretched to her limits.

"My god," Wheeler said, leaning back from the monitor. "Box F. Box F." She rose, went to a cabinet, and removed a small green box about the size of a coffee mug. She returned to her desk and sat, placing the box in front of her. "Alright Elanor, the information you're about to receive is highly confidential and may distress you. But if it's any consolation, the access logs in here lead me to believe that you and I have discussed this before."

Elanor nodded and said nothing.

"This," Wheeler said, turning her computer monitor, "Is SCP-2000. It's alright, apparently you already have clearance to read this file. I wonder how that happened."

Elanor took the mouse and started to scroll through its contents section by section. Her face went from curiosity to horror and back again in the short span of a few minutes. When she'd reached the bottom of the page, she had become pale in the fading afternoon light. Sinking back in her chair, the young agent sat quietly for a long time, simply contemplating what she had just read. Wheeler rose and walked to the break room to make two cups of tea, one of which was placed in front of her colleague, who had still not moved.

Elanor's eyes went suddenly wide and she grabbed the mouse to scroll up. "Wait—"

To fulfill its primary mission, SCP-2000 includes 500,000 Bright/Zartion Hominid Replicators (BZHR). At peak capacity, SCP-2000 is capable of producing 100,000 viable, non-anomalous humans per day (with a warm-up period of 5 days).

She pointed at the screen and looked over at Wheeler without saying a word. Wheeler nodded, taking a sip of her tea. Elanor scrolled back down to the bottom of the description.

It is estimated that the world population, manufacturing capability, agricultural production, and culture can be reset to 2000 CE levels 25 to 50 yrs after the procedure is implemented.

Elanor pointed again, still unable to make any words. She grabbed for a pen and notebook.

The Chief stopped her. "No, I understand. It doesn't add up. The population of the world in 2000 was 6.2 billion people. At 100,000 people a day, for even 50 years…accounting for birth rates and death rates, you come up short. Far too short." She took another sip of tea. "About two in three short. A population loss of about 70%."

Elanor had not yet found her voice, but she tried. "Where are they?" she whispered.

Wheeler tapped a phrase on the screen with the back of her pen.

the BZHR also has the ability to implant memories by administration of Class-G hallucinogenics and developmental hypnotherapy.

"Class-G hallucinogenics. I'm familiar with these," she explained. "They're not in your standard amnestics and mnestics guide. This isn't just a memory-eraser. It's a memory-replacer. It's made of anomalous material that makes it as permanent as possible. The memories bind to your brain and don't let go." She let out a hiss between her teeth. "They should have told me about this."

"So what does that mean?" Elanor whispered. She was trembling again.

The chief didn't meet Elanor's gaze. "It means that the last time the Lazarus Protocol was used, they only made 2 billion people out of 6. Everyone else is just implanted in our conscious." She took in a deep breath. "On the streets. In restaurants. On the train. In your office. Two out of three just aren't real…they're in our heads, to make our planet feel a little less empty."

"But why?"

Wheeler had no answer.

A long silence descended between them. "And in there?" She gestured to the green cube labeled "Box F", already suspecting the answer.

Wheeler removed the lid. Inside were two medical inhalers, each with a bright green label. One read WHEELER, M and the other JONES, E.

"Class-G," Wheeler mumbled. Drugs strong enough to make you forget. Drugs strong enough to overpower Mnestics. Drugs strong enough to override a living being permanently. Well, not permanently, Wheeler reminded herself. Elanor had beaten it. Elanor and the numbers.

Elanor picked the one with her own name. "I've done this before, haven't I?"

Wheeler pulled the other one from the box. "I think we both have."

The accountant paused again. "And…I have to?"

The chief met Elanor's gaze. It was an expression of regret, hopelessness, and a profound sense of duty, broiled together with a suppressed instinct—that innate fear of not knowing. "I won't make you," Wheeler said, and there was a depth of calm to her voice. "I can't stop someone higher than me from giving it to you later against your will. Maybe that's what happened last time. No way to know. But…" She finally broke her gaze, looking out the office window at the setting sun and the massive stone monument in the forest behind Site-41. "I also wouldn't judge you for choosing to live a different, less unsettling, truth."

Elanor rattled the inhaler. "It's not a truth. Numbers don't lie."

The tea had gone cold by the time they had both made their decision.

The numbers are wrong.

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