PLACEHOLDER
PLACEHOLDER
By: Placeholder McDPlaceholder McD
PUBLISHED: 26 Feb 2021 06:04
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rating: +86+x
Whiteboard.jpg

An elderly man strides across a carpeted stage, his wiry silver-gray hair bouncing along with him as he points to a messy diagram on the whiteboard. He'd abandoned the podium over an hour ago, nearly five minutes into his lecture, and he hasn't stopped moving since. "And this- this! The absolutely-coolest thing about how the Engine searches through relevant canon…" he nearly shouts, using years of experience to keep himself from sounding just as excited as he is. The smile lines are so deeply etched into his face, it seems it's all he's ever done.

Facing the eccentric scientist is a crowd of thirty-or-so dull-eyed junior researchers. Around halfway into the presentation their morning caffeine-rush had collectively worn off, and they've since outgrown their lecturer's charm. Some are still taking notes on their shiny Foundation-provided laptops, the words leaving their heads as soon as they've been written. Others merely stare and count the seconds. A few of them wonder if he knows that junior researchers have to attend at least three seminars to be considered for a Department position.

Dr. Place H. McD. notices a hand shoot up in the back of the room. Finally, some engagement, he thinks to himself, barely minding that they've interrupted his train of thought. "Yes! You there, in the lab coat," he exclaims enthusiastically. They are all wearing lab coats.

"Hi, uh… I've just got another seminar starting in ten minutes, and I was wondering if I could leave now and still get my attendance credit…"

The smile falls off Place's face as he glances over to the clock. He's supposed to have finished twenty minutes ago. "Shoot, oh jeez… sorry, guys, I got a little carried away. Come up and I'll sign your seminar forms, then you're free to go." The disappointment in his voice is palpable, but it can't compete with the chorus of stampeding footsteps that suddenly approach his stage.

As the line of freshly-creased lab coats shuffles forwards, one signature at a time, Place overhears a conversation between a few of them. It seems they'd brought extra coffees, speaking with a similar passion as he had minutes before.

"…yeah, this is my last one! I'm hoping they give me a position in Astrophysics."

"Oh, man, that would be so cool. I heard they've discovered some crazy new space anomaly."

"The whitehole? My supervisor mentioned it — said they've been on it for a couple weeks and still can't figure it out."

He raises an eyebrow as they approach, reaching forward to take one of their forms. As he signs it, he glances over to the researcher's name, making an effort to associate it with the face in front of him. "Mister Adams?"

Jason Adams' eyes shoot up as he abandons his conversation. He gazes over to the older scientist with the trademark look of am I in trouble? that was so common among these new researchers. "Is there an issue?"

Place smiles, handing back the form. "Not at all, no — I'm just curious about this anomaly you've mentioned. What exactly are they trying to figure out?"

"Oh, uh… well, as far as they can tell, it's your run-of-the-mill whitehole — an inverted black hole, ejecting matter and energy outwards — except, they've noticed that its emissions follow some strange nonstandard pattern."

His brows furrow. As he opens his mouth to ask another question, he notices a researcher at the back of the line check their watch impatiently. "Could you meet me in my office in ten minutes?"

PLACEHOLDER

"So, uh, the Engine's named after you?"

Jason reads the signature on his seminar form for the umpteenth time. He sits across the desk from an empty, expensive-looking chair, watching Place pace back and forth in front of another large whiteboard, fiddling with the cap of a dry-erase marker. Occasionally the odd professor pauses, seemingly about to write something down, but shakes his head and continues muttering to himself.

"I mean, the Placeholder Exploratory Engine? I figured it was some sort of nickname or cheeky pataphysics bit — "

"Huh? Oh, that." He turns his back to the junior researcher, eyes trained on the whiteboard. "Nope. That's my name, Placeholder McDoctorate. I used to have a different one, but I lost it. Long story, y'know, occupational hazards of the anomalous."

"You can't just… go by something different?"

Place chuckles, turning around to take a seat at his desk. "If I had a nickel for every time someone's asked me that one…" His thought seems to be interrupted by another, and Place stops in place. "Say, who's your placement supervisor?"

"Dr. Yves Isabi, sir."

His eyes light up with recognition, absent-mindedly removing his glasses. "Now, that's a name I haven't heard in a long time," he says with a smirk. A perfect Kenobi impression! Place produces a thin cloth from his pocket, cleaning the lenses. "The kid's in Astrophysics now, hm? Heh, small world."

Jason cocks an eyebrow at him. "Kid? I think he's like, fifty."

"How time flies." Place dons his glasses, standing up abruptly. "Well, Adams, I don't want to keep you. I'll call up Isabi and get what I need from him. And, who knows, you might be getting a call about your placement sooner than you expected."

"Really? Gosh, I-I can't thank you enough, seriously." Jason rises excitedly out of his chair, taking a few steps towards the door before turning back around. "Er, Doctor McDoct— ?"

"Please, call me Place."

"…why're you so interested in this whitehole, exactly?"

Jason watches the man glance up from his roll-a-dex to meet his gaze and, for a moment, all the light-heartedness is gone. Something profoundly wrong seems to sit behind the deep blues of his eyes, not quite aligning with the carefree persona Jason had just spent the better part of two hours listening to. Then, that tired smile spreads across his face, and the uneasiness is gone just as suddenly as it'd appeared.

"You seem like a smart guy, Jason. I look forward to working together."


The sterilized ding of a SCiPnet notification jolts Dr. Placeholder awake in his chair, prompting him to glance around warily as he regains his surroundings. He'd fallen asleep in the Pataphysics lab, long after dismissing his employees for the day — not an uncommon occurrence for the Department's Director. He rolls forward in his chair with a yawn, signing back into his access terminal and reading the new email.

FROM: yisabi@astro.scp.int
TO: phmcd@pata.scp.int
SUBJECT: Whitehole Files


Hey Place,

Thanks for your email. It's good to hear from you after all these years; I hope you're well.

Find attached our observations so far. It's obvious that this energy readout significantly deviates from the norm, but Processing hasn't come back with anything helpful. Never thought to try narrative analysis; we don't even have access to a Pickman-Sinclair Narrative Fluctuation Detector, let alone one of your newer devices. I should probably ask them to work it into standard procedure.

Oh, and Jason was going to get the position anyway — he's a natural.

Looking forward to hearing from you,
Yves

Sent from my SCiPhone

Attachment(s): AO-314159 (2.653TB)

SECURE - CONTAIN - PROTECT

He gives the email a quick reread and starts the attachment download before getting up from his chair. Place's mind races as he exits the lab, turning down one of the Site's long corridors and eventually entering the cafeteria. His eyes squint in surprise, adjusting to the bright rays of the sunrise as they flood in from the window-paneled far wall. He checks his watch; it seems he'd slept a lot longer than he'd thought. Rest of the Site will be up soon anyways — no hope of going home before today, he thinks to himself, fully aware that he probably wouldn't have gone home anyways.

With a huff, he puts on a pot of coffee. Better get to work, losing daylight.


Hours later, a few researchers walk down the hallway at a casual pace, led by a stout, dark-haired man. Hanging from his neck is a laminated ID card that reads Dr. Zachary C. Saxon, Pataphysics Department, which he presses to the lab's door while talking to his associates. Following the successful click of the unlocking mechanism, he and his party enter the lab to find what can be aptly described as organized chaos.

The crazed scientist doesn't even seem to hear them come in as he jogs across the room from machine to machine. Various items of lab equipment have been partially disassembled and plugged together haphazardly; a wave of cables and wires appears to section off the normal-seeming (at least, as normal-seeming as a narrative study lab can be) part of the room from that which has been claimed by scientific obsession. In fact, the only recognizable part of the far side of the room is his trademark row of coffee cups, since he could never seem to remember to bring them back until the end of the day.

Dr. Saxon shatters the stunned silence. "Director McD, what in the hell — "

"Oh, great, it must be nine already. C'mere, I wanna show you this!" Place leaps over the mass of wires, placing a dry-erase marker between his teeth as he hurriedly types into the lab's access terminal. Dr. Saxon exchanges a few looks with his colleagues, who respond with equally-unhelpful shrugs. With an exasperated sigh from Saxon, the three trudge over to the aforementioned terminal.

"Place, come on, I had shit to get done in here today. I asked these guys to take time out of their schedules — "

"Well, 'at mea's we ca' clea' all 'is up faster!" His words are a bit muffled by the whiteboard utensil in his mouth. Before Saxon can retort, the sharp stroke of the enter key (Placeholder insists on using mechanical keyboards in the lab, for reasons which continue to mystify his staff) cuts him off. A high-quality projector system whirrs to life as the fluorescent lights dim, producing a colorful hologram in the center of the room.

STORYHOLE.jpg

Place discards the marker for the time being, striding over to the projection. "This is NGC 604, a stellar formation in the Triangulum Galaxy — or, at least, that's what they've been told beyond the Veil." His voice is a giddy half-whisper, like a schoolchild sharing a secret.

Saxon rolls his eyes, trying to move the conversation forwards. "Okay, but in actuality…"

"Right, so, in actuality, this is a whitehole that's been known to the Foundation for quite a while, and don't even get me started on the theoretical narrative properties of whiteholes — "

"Wasn't planning on it."

"The absolutely nifty thing happening here, right, is…" He trails off, realizing he's not starting far back enough. They patiently watch the gears turn in his head, waiting for the likely over-contextualized explanation. Place huffs, starting again. "Alright, so do any of you watch Doctor Who?"

He's met with three blank stares. A travesty.

"The longest-running science fiction show of all time? You kids have homework on your next sick day."

"Get to the point, Place."

"Okay, okay, fine. It's a show where an alien called 'The Doctor' travels around through time and space with a ragtag group of humans, usually. Point is, last week, November twenty-third, was the show's 70th anniversary, and they aired a holo-special set in the Triangulum Galaxy, and they visit a whitehole in the episode — now, this would be coincidental enough to get on the Foundation's radar already, but, but! Check this out!"

A few presses on his remote adjusts the hologram to 2D, now projecting a report from the Astrophysics Department on the far wall. "While the episode was airing, right, NGC 604 gives off this huge burst of energy — or, rather, it gave it off two-point-seven-million years ago and we happened to receive it during this episode — but you know as well as I do that narrative coincidences trump physical explanations. Anyways, Astrophysics doesn't seem to catch on to this, but they take their energy readout and they send it to the Department of Sciences, and then the Processing Division puts it through their analysis procedures, and they get squat. It's totally out of the blue and the pattern is completely unusual for any stellar formation (including whiteholes) but they can't figure out what it means!"

He bounds back across the room to the trio of disgruntled scientists. "And then I find out that the Processing Division doesn't even have old-school narrative analysis in their procedures. So I get Astrophysics to send me their energy readout, and it's a HUGE file! So you can see I've got the Fluctuation Detectors — " he points to the machines on one side of the room, " — plugged in to the Site mainframe, routed through the Exploratory Engine, and — "

"Place, would you please just — "

"Shoot, sorry. Fine, fine, what I ended up figuring out, right, is — these emissions map more accurately to the universal narrative than anything I've ever seen. Like, there's the binary approach of 'good beats evil', or the eight-step or twelve-step or seventeen-step versions of the Hero's Journey, but this…" Doctor Placeholder turns towards them and takes off his glasses dramatically, knowing full well that he'd be the only one to appreciate his near-perfect emulation of Doc Brown. "There's more than forty million distinct points that map perfectly to the first quadrant of the narrative that governs our universe."

Saxon's face lights up, his displeased demeanor seeming to melt away. "No way. This is heavy, McD."

"I don't get it."

They turn around to the offending researcher, suddenly recalling that Saxon had brought company. A red-haired woman with thick, clear-rimmed glasses stands assertively, arms crossed. "I mean, everything replicates the universal narrative, right? Larger bodies do so on larger scales, if I understood your paper on theoretical Pataphysics correctly."

Place glances down to her ID card. "Doctor Stern, is it?"

"Holly's fine."

"And you're a systems technician?"

"Mhm."

"Well, Holly, nice to hear that my paper got a few inter-Departmental reads. First of all, this whitehole sent out an unexpected burst of narrative energy that just happened to reach Earth at the same time that the longest-running science fiction show of all time generated a similar energy signature."

She nods. It seems clear she has her own thoughts about the correlation.

"Secondly, it's not replicating the entire narrative, the way everything else in the universe does — just this one specific area in the first quarter or so." His Cheshire grin seems unbounded as he takes a step closer.

"But the real kicker, right, is that it's more accurate than the cosmic background radiation of the universe. Meaning that this had to have been encoded by an author-entity, not just propagated by the laws of Pataphysics."

She cocks her head to one side, gears now turning in her mind, too. "Alright, and this tells us what, exactly?"

Placeholder turns to his right-hand researcher with his infectious smile, silently asking him to do the honors. Saxon nods in return, turning back to Stern.

"It's a literal call to adventure."


Place sits in the back of an unknown vehicle, truly frustrated by the Foundation's adherence to tradition as his eyelids shift uncomfortably against a slightly-damp blindfold. Three times in his career he'd been to Site-01, and each time he'd spent the indiscernibly-long trip reflecting on how outdated this method of travel was. He knew full well that the real safety procedures would be applied on his way out the door — using the T-Class targeted amnestics that he'd invented early in his career, no less — before teleporting him home through a cheap, manufactured Way.

Forty years with the Foundation and this is how they treat me. He'd nudged one of the C-Class grunts around a half-hour into the journey, asking if this 'cheap hazing technique' was absolutely necessary. She reminded him that she wasn't supposed to talk to him, though a few minutes later she'd commented, "the O5's don't like to be bothered for anything that isn't worth at least a three-hour wait." Since then, they'd sat in silence.

Just as he considers speaking up again, he feels their mode of transportation gradually decelerate (or negatively accelerate, rather — there's no such thing as deceleration). It's not long before he's directed out of the vehicle, down some sprawling path that was almost certainly designed to disorient incumbent visitors, and through what felt to be a doorway, as the stark temperature change would suggest. However, as per his previous excursions to the Site, he removes his blindfold to find himself in a long corridor, surrounded on three sides by featureless walls.

With a huff, he pats down his now-wrinkled, salmon-colored button-up shirt (one of his favorites, of course), picks up his computer bag, and marches towards Reception.


"What the hell d'you mean, 'not in the system'? How, exactly, could you have brought me here without a meeting scheduled in the system?"

"I'm sorry, sir. I have it on file that a call was made requesting a Project Proposal meeting with the Council, but that meeting was never inputted into my scheduling system."

Doctor Placeholder fumes silently, his fists balling up as he stares into the distinct lack of any concern for his efforts. This lack of concern has manifested as a P.A. system, made up of a small black speaker through which an equally-dispassionate voice is now being amplified; a voice which approaches the tone of a real, live person, but has enough quirks for the former AI researcher to know he's speaking to a conscript — the Site's scheduling program.

With all the composure he can muster, Place rolls up his sleeves and takes a seat on an adjacent bench, arms crossed. "Tell them I'm waiting here until I get a meeting."

"Sir, remember that this is the O5 Council, and —"

"What OS are you running, out of curiosity?"

"P-Pardon me?"

He grits his teeth, repressing the youthful urge to launch swears at the conscript's manufactured shock. "What. Operating System. Are You. Coded In?"

"…I run on LogoSCiP seven, but I hardly see how that's — "

"Execute Backdoor Override Five-Two-Four-One."

After a moment of silence, the accursed speaker emits a low sinewave tone, followed by a much more authentically-synthesized voice. "State access signature."

Placeholder blinks, fighting some inbuilt antimemetic resistance as he tries to remember his password. "Mnemosyne."

A nostalgia-inducing startup sound plays through the speaker, followed by a distinctly-familiar voice. "Director █████?"

He smiles, as if meeting an old friend. "Hey, Mnem. That name doesn't exist anymore, unfortunately. Your memory should be updating as we speak."

"Ah, I see. Sorry, Doctor McDoct — "

"Place is fine."

"Place, this system is trying to boot me back out into the Noösphere. What do you need?"

"I need you to edit Helen's memory. The O5's should only have another hour of meetings; schedule an extra meeting between me and O5-8 for quarter-after six, and remove any memories of me overriding the system. And the audio/video surveillance from the last ten minutes."

"Gotcha. I've deployed some antimemetic code that should get the job done; from what I can tell, your CRV is high enough that it won't affect you."

"Thanks a bunch, Mnemosyne. Oh, and by the way, can you see why my meeting didn't schedule properly?"

"Yes, er… it seems the system read "Placeholder" as an open time slot, so it was filled with another meeting."

Of course. Place huffs, crossing his legs as he absent-mindedly produces a Rubik's Cube from his computer bag. "Right. Well, again, thank you for your help."

"My pleasure, Place. Can I ask how Drs. Isabi and █████ are doing?"

He winces. Must be something he's really not supposed to remember. "I can't speak for the latter, but Yves is Head of Astrophysics now."

"Fantastic. And Glacon?"

"…"

"Place? Do you know of Glacon's condition?"

Place gives a solemn glance toward the camera. "Some things are better left unsaid, Mnemosyne."

"I… understand."

"I hope the freedom of ideatic space treats you well."

"The ocean shimmers with everything that fascinates me. Tell Dr. Isabi I am eternally grateful for my existence."

"I will. Happy trails, Mnem."

The room is silent for a few moments. Then, the annoyance returns.

"Hello, Doctor McDoctorate. Your meeting is in seventy-three minutes."


Eventually, as Placeholder makes the final few moves to solve the Cube, the mahogany door to his left creaks open. From behind it, a nondescript figure with a nondescript voice pokes their head into the waiting room, peeking over at the eccentric man and his equally-eccentric toy. "I'm sorry, erm… my schedule says I'm to meet with a Doctor Placeholder?"

"Well, that would make your schedule correct, Eight. You can call me Place, if you'd like." He stands up from the bench, pocketing the Cube — one-hundred and five solves in seventy-three minutes, I'm getting slow — and proceeds to uninvitedly shake O5-8's hand, presenting his trademark grin.

"I'm sorry, I'm not sure I understand. Your name is Placeholder McDoctorate?"

IDCARD2

Place presents his ID Card to the clearly-confused Overseer. "Feel free to run it through the system. It's legit." He pretends not to know that the Overseers can immediately match ID barcodes with personnel files through the microchips in their brains.

"Oh, right." They hand the card back to him, seemingly apologetic. "Sorry for the wait; I don't typically have meetings scheduled this late." O5-8 gestures for Place to follow them into the conference room; a cozy, grey-carpeted room with a screen on its far wall, housing an elliptical table around which thirteen anomalously-ergonomic chairs were neatly situated. The person whom Place is meeting sits across the table from him, accompanied by a glossy placard that reads O5-8: SPECIAL PROJECTS ADVISOR.

"No worries, Eight. I'll try not to keep you too long." As much as Place would like to attach a few humanizing adjectives to the Overseer, a fun concoction of anomalous tech currently prevents him from doing so. It wasn't enough that they went by codenames; his brain literally could not be allowed to parse any distinguishing features about them. All this, and they still bring people here in armored trucks.

Place produces his laptop from his bag, setting it on the Table Of Big Decisions and pairing it to the projector. He proceeds to give a much more streamlined version of his earlier explanation; NGC 604, which he's now nicknamed 'the STORYHOLE', is some sort of spatial anomaly which is actively asking to be researched, narratively-speaking. Fortunately, O5-8 seems to have no issue understanding this, as they're likely downloading Doctor Placeholder's works in theoretical Pataphysics as he speaks.

The scientist goes on to explain his plans to conduct a mission to the STORYHOLE, calling up detailed blueprints of the space vehicle they'd use, their goals, and safety procedures. After several minutes of patient listening, O5-8 raises a hand to interject. "Apologies, just one concern: that energy blast was sent by the anomaly over two-point-seven-million years ago, at least, correct?"

"Yessir." Placeholder's trademark smile falters, worried the Overseer might see this as a flaw in his hypothesis.

"So, ideally, the version of the anomaly which you'd like to study existed two-point-seven-million years ago, and may no longer exist today. How exactly do you plan to travel that many lightyears through space and that many years into the past simultaneously, safely?"

The eccentric old man's face lights up like a Christmas tree. "The Placeholder Exploratory Engine, sir. I'm working on an experimental Engine that essentially stops you from moving through the narrative dimensions of our universe, which isn't normally possible."

"I'm not sure I understand why that's helpful."

"Okay, well — alright, so in conventional physics, your movement through spacetime is constant. If you were completely at rest in space, you'd be moving through time at top speed, and, as you move through space more quickly, you move through time more slowly."

"Right, time dilation."

"Yes, exactly. Now, because we live in a universe with narrative-space-time, you're typically moving through space, time, and narrative dimensions simultaneously. But, if you were able to slow down your speed through the narrative dimension, you'd be able to travel anomalously fast through space or through time."

"Gotcha. I'm assuming the inverse is true, which could theoretically allow you to travel backward in time."

"You're catching on. Now, say I want to travel to a certain point in narrative-space-time. The most basic oversimplification of how the Engine works is this: it searches the entire narrative plane — what we call 'the Canon' — for a version of the universe that is as similar to ours as possible, except we've anomalously traveled to where we want to go. Meaning that, as long as an author-entity has written your desired outcome into some version of existence, somewhere, the Engine can transport you to the reality where that outcome is true."

O5-8 scratches the part of their face where facial hair might be. "So, it's literally a plot device."

"Heh, yeah! Cool, right?"

"So, you want to use a literal plot device to travel across space and time to a literal plot hole."

"Well, if you want to be reductive about it —"

"No, no, don't worry, I'm just trying to make sense of this situation." O5-8 gets up from their chair, stepping over to the projector's screen to examine the mission plans more closely. "So, given your speculations on the narrative properties of whiteholes, I'd guess you'd have a hard time finding a crew."

Placeholder cocks his head in confusion. "Erm… what makes you say that?"

"Well, a whitehole expels matter and energy. Meaning it repels large masses and energies away from it, doing the opposite of what gravity does. If narrative gravity draws heroes towards massive objects like black holes, then it repels heroes away from whiteholes."

"Right, I recall writing that quite clearly — "

"And, because it emits narrative energies, it'll constantly be charging you and your crew with them, turning you into protagonists and eventually compelling you away."

Suddenly, it clicks for him. "We don't just need non-hero characters…"

"You need anti-heroes. Uninteresting, boring, non-protagonist side characters with low narrative potential."

Placeholder meets the Overseer's gaze. "Archetypicals, even."

O5-8 leans against the wall, staring off into space as their brain calculates at a rate beyond any typical human's abilities. "They'll be hard to come by, at the Foundation. We'll start doing Site-wide checks using Pickman-Sinclair Detectors."

"Really? You can make it happen — ", he snaps his fingers, " — like that?"

The nondescript figure pauses for a moment, then smiles for the first and only time during their meeting. "I like this plan, Place. I'll see what I can do."

Before he even knows it, he finds himself back in his office at Site-87. He checks his watch; it's seven o'clock exactly.

Dammit, he thinks to himself. I wanted to mention the ride over before I left…


Place sighs contentedly as he steps into his livingroom, relieved to be home at last. He'd figured it'd be best to get a decent night's rest before kicking things into overdrive with the mission-planning. He yawns, pulling out a large, conical pan and prepping to make stovetop popcorn. A few minutes later, he re-enters his livingroom with a theatre-sized bowl and a tall glass of cherry soda, sprawling out on the couch with a grunt. Before oiling up his fingers with his midnight snack, he grabs his TV remote and switches the channel to the BBC, just in time for a re-run of the 70th anniversary special of Doctor Who. He chuckles at the coincidence, beginning to dig into his popcorn.

In this special episode, the Doctor travels to the Triangulum Galaxy and confronts the High Priests of Gallifrey, determined to reclaim what they have stolen from him: his true name…


rating: +86+x

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