Save Our Souls - Part 1

The official term was "Class-L Saturation Amnestic," but everybody called the oily blue liquid "Lethe Juice." It clung to the inside of the vial when the medical tech shook it, just a hair too viscous for Ruth's comfort. The streaks it left as it settled to the bottom always reminded her of a dark wine, swirled in a glass, a portent of the nasty amnestic hangover to come.

"How are you feeling, Doctor Lowenthal?"

Ruth shrugged with one shoulder, taking care not to jostle the needle in her right arm. "Itchy," she said. "I'm definitely feeling it."

The first few cc's smarted like hell when they hit the bloodstream. They had to pump the stuff in pretty hard, and her veins never appreciate it.

The technician nodded, casting a critical eye over the monitors. "Your heart rate's a bit high," he declared. "Try to relax."

Ruth rolled her eyes. "Kid," she said, "you try relaxing while you shoot up half a bottle of maple syrup." The IV pump whirred and whined as it worked the syringe, pushing a steady stream of Juice into her blood. The burn deepened as it spread up her arm, and she clenched her fist.

The tech blinked at her, nonplussed. "Just, uh, take a few deep breaths. We're almost done."

He really was a kid. Trendy haircut, trendy beard, trendy glasses. Twenty-five years old, at the most, and still parroting the employee handbook with the reverence of a new convert doling out scripture. Working for the Foundation got to your head right away, and swelled it up like a balloon in a vacuum chamber — right before it popped. By day two, half the entry-level employees walked with the swagger of a tenured professor lording over a fresh crop of grad students. They didn't even have to do any nasty business with memetic indoctrination agents, anymore. Something about seeing your face on a badge above the circle and trefoil arrows was all it took.

"I've been doing saturation wipes since you were in middle school," said Ruth, suppressing a smile, "and this is nothing. You should've seen the old Lethe Juice. It was like cold honey mixed with acid. Back in the day, they used to strap us down first, so we wouldn't tear out the needle. The techs used to wear earplugs, because of the screaming. They'd give us a second round of amnestics so we'd forget the first, but it didn't always take."

"That— really?" The tech stared at her with a wide-eyed mix of fascination and horror. At Site-33, home of (literally) indescribable monsters and mayhem, there was no such thing as a tall tale too implausible. Rumors and whispers abounded about the Long-Term Memetic Blackout Facility behind the Site, and the unknowable cognitohazards contained within. Researchers who went in and out of the Facility — the Shed, in casual conversation — were regarded with equal parts reverence and fear. It took a specific kind of crazy to be willing to spend a month on the inside, and Ruth was happy to ham it up for the new hires.

The job had a pretty high attrition rate. Not because it was particularly lethal, as far as job opportunities in the Foundation go, but because the mandatory saturation wipe was just too unsettling. They'd shoot you up with a Class-L amnestic, send you to live in the Shed for a few weeks, and any new memories formed with Lethe Juice in your system would be zapped away in one fell swoop as soon as you were done. No muss, no fuss, no horrible memetic contagions escaping the most heavily-redacted informational dark zone the Foundation had to offer. You just had to walk blindly into a cognitohazard quarantine, live there for a few weeks, and then have the whole experience erased from your brain. Very few people were willing to take a shift in the Shed more than once.

This would be Ruth's twenty-sixth stint inside.

"I was the first person to test it," she said, taking care to keep her expression solemn as she met the credulous med tech's gaze. It took considerable effort not to laugh. "I don't remember, of course, but they say that I screamed so loudly that I ruptured my own eardrum. This was before we had Class-A short-term amnestics, so they had to use electroshock to erase that memory. They wouldn't let me try again for another six months."

The tech's jaw literally dropped. Ruth turned her head away, using the motion to cover the grin that cracked through her faux-grave expression. "It was a different time," she said, with a theatrical sigh. "Anyway, how are we doing on the infusion? I can feel it in my neck, it'll hit the brain in a couple of—"

Ruth woke up.

"—Minutsh," she said, her voice slurring to a halt as her tongue recoiled from a piece of chewy plastic between her teeth. Her vision slowly un-blurred, the shape of a recovery bay resolving itself as she got her bearings. Sensation followed, her nerves dulled and sluggish. Cotton sheets and a hospital gown. Cold, euphoric fluid dripping through a needle in her forearm. A medical lamp overhead. Nausea, somewhere far way. Everything else was all fentanyl and bright lights, a synesthetic combination of foggy rapture and shivering pain. Ruth tried to raise a hand to her head and fumbled, tugging half-heartedly against the four-point restraints holding her down.

"Blech," she croaked, spitting out the rubbery device. "Ow." Her muscles twanged hard enough to push through the painkillers for an instant, distant, full-body spike of hurt and wrong. The ache was persistent and insistent and existent and… what else rhymed? Eat your heart out, Lord Byron. Two could play at the poetry game, fucked out of their minds on poppies. The Fentanyl-sodden thought made Ruth giggle despite her discomfort, though it came out as more of a half-hiccup, half-sob.

"How are you feeling, Ruth?" The voice was familiar, tinged with concern behind the usual glossy, professional sheen. The fuzzy shape overhead resolved itself into a small woman in a white doctor's coat, jotting down a note on a medical chart.

Oh, right. Hospital bed. Tied down. Hurting. She'd forgotten about that, for a second. The giggles choked off into a whimper.

"Owww." Ruth drew out the word, pulling at her wrist restraint until the room's third occupant, a terrified-looking tech — the same guy from a few seconds ago, she realized, with a better haircut — undid the cuff and plucked the discarded mouthguard from where it dangled off her chin. Ruth had stood beside this bed as often as she'd woken up in it, and she knew the muscle spasms that wracked people when they turned on the Lethe Juice were an unpleasant sight to behold.

It couldn’t be avoided. People came out of a stay in the Blackout Facility dazed and more-or-less sleepwalking, but protocol said that to wait until they started to snap out of it on their own before activating the saturation amnestic. If there had been any brain damage or memetic contamination, it was best to know right away. That meant no anticonvulsants or muscle relaxants, either. Just good ol' fashioned leather cuffs, a shot of painkillers, and a chunk of plastic to stop you from biting your tongue off.

It was not fun.

"Hm, 'ow.'" Mina nodded, scribbling a few words on the chart. "Noted. On a scale of one to ten, can you rate the intensity of your pain? As well as the location."


Mina made a "yes, please continue" gesture with her pen.

Ruth groaned, groping blindly for the bedside remote. The motors hummed as she used it to lever herself into a sitting position. "I feel like I've been kicked by a horse, in… everywhere." She focused on breathing for a few minutes, waiting until she drifted back into what passed for lucidity before continuing. Mina waited patiently. "Five out of ten, four from the Russian judge."

"Good." Mina made a note on her clipboard. "Your EEG is within acceptable parameters, so we'll get you out of here in the morning for debrief."

"Beautiful," said Ruth, stretching her neck. She knew her muscles would be tight, even if she couldn't really feel it now. "Anything terrible happen? Catastrophic containment breach? Did the Shed explode?"

Mina shrugged, and gave her a level look. "You tell me, Doctor."

Ruth snorted out a laugh. "Right. We'll do this tomorrow," she said, rubbing at her temples and yawning. The opiates were making her sleepy, now that the adrenaline from the L-spasm had faded. "How long was I in there?"

"A bit longer than we expected." Mina stood back and let the med tech step forward to prod at Ruth's arm, checking to see if her IV had shifted. A needle dislodged by the spasm could get messy. "Forty-eight days. You returned to the antechamber at eight fifty-three this morning."

"Oof. I missed the Academy Awards."

"You didn't miss much." Mina flipped through her papers as she talked, focused on the task at hand. "Ramone won something, I think? I hear the host was rather uninspired."

"Lovely. You got the good stuff?"

Mina nodded absently, reaching back to pull the wheeled bedside table — and its deliciously laden tray — into Ruth's line of sight. "Of course. Two lime Jell-O cups and a bottle of Powerade, special order."

"Mountain Berry Blast, right?"

"Mountain Berry Blast. Get some sleep, Ruth"

Debrief was quick, in and out in three minutes. No matter how long a researcher stayed in the Shed, the end result was almost always the same: they came back alive, asleep on their feet, and hopefully with nothing contagious hitching a ride in their mind. The Lethe Juice was good at dealing with that. There was never much to talk about, unless something had gone very obviously wrong — any coherent information that left the Shed would be treated as a highly contagious cognitohazard, but it had been a couple dozen years since Site-33 had dealt with that sort of breach.

Until yesterday.

Ruth willed her hands to be steady. It took some pretty dedicated concentration.

"Alright," said Ben. The deputy Site director had walked into the debrief room ten minutes late, yawning into a cup of coffee, and had barely glanced in Ruth's direction before flicking on the video recorder. "To the best of your knowledge, do you retain any memories, data, physical or metaphysical objects, or unusual changes to your person, imaginary or otherwise, from your forty-eight day interval in the Long-Term Memetic Blackout Facility?" He rattled off the rote question quickly, bored and perhaps a bit impatient. It was impossible to guess exactly when somebody would stumble out of the Shed, so these meetings were always scheduled last-minute. Judging by the time, Ruth was cutting into his lunch break.

"Nope," said Ruth. Her fingers twitched, the movement imperceptible, and she just barely stopped herself before she could reach up to massage her painfully tense neck. The unique ache left behind by the L-spasm had faded, as usual, but a sleepless night and a stressful morning stiffened her shoulders and joints anyway. It wasn't quite banished by Tylenol, and she'd long since metabolized the last dregs of hospital painkillers.

"Should you become aware of any such information, please report to me immediately for emergency memetic decontamination. You are currently scheduled for your next shift in the Blackout Facility in, ah, four months, beginning the twenty-ninth of June, year two-thousand twenty-four, with an estimated duration of twenty-five days. Do you accept this proposal?"

"Sounds good to me." Her fake smile was starting to twinge.

"You may freely withdraw consent at any time up until seven days before your Class-L Saturation Amnestic infusion, with no administrative consequences. Do you have any questions or concerns to report at this time?"

"I'm all good here."

"Excellent," Ben mumbled, pushing back his chair and turning to leave. "That's all. You have the rest of the week off. Go home and take it easy."

Ruth stood, stretching. "Cool. Time to catch up on a month's worth of TV. See you Monday."

Ruth was out the front door of Site-33 and in her beaten-up Subaru twenty minutes later, but it wasn't until she was a dozen miles down the road, stopped in a gas station parking lot, before she let herself relax. She left the engine running.

Most of the long-time employees of Site-33 were used to the mind-warping effects of repeated amnestic exposure, but none were as familiar with that peculiar sort of cognitive meddling as Senior Researcher Ruth Lowenthal. She'd been there at the founding of the Site, though at that point she was a freshly-minted junior researcher, right out of a PhD. Even so, she was one of original the architects of the Long-Term Memetic Blackout Facility. She didn't know why she'd built it, of course — nobody did — but she distinctly remembered drawing up protocols and schematics, in the early days of saturation amnestic research. Ruth had learned a lot in the past few decades. She'd forgotten a lot, too. Slightly more than twenty percent of her life was lost in the Shed.

There was one lesson, however, that she'd never lose, the most important lesson any memetic researcher could learn. It was drilled into every new employee on day one, even if it took years to really sink in. Don't trust memories, don't trust notes, don't trust audio or video or the promises of a friend. The only thing a good scientist at Site-33 could count on, the one thing that not even the most bitter amnestics could touch, was instinct. Intuition.

The nine tiny pricks and cuts that marred the skin between the smallest toes on her left foot had just barely started to heal. If she had to guess, she'd say that they couldn't have been more than two or three days old. They'd been cut delicately, almost invisibly, with a very sharp blade. The marks formed six dots and three straight lines, millimeters long, arranged just like so:

• • •
— — —
• • •

S.O.S, in Morse code.

Ruth knew — deeply knew — that the marks must be kept hidden. And not just because she'd get shut into quarantine for months while her own team scrubbed the entire Site for memetic contamination if anybody found out.

Ruth's practiced intuition told her that the message graven into her skin was self-inflicted. The slight hesitation mark near the first dash, as though she'd needed to work up the nerve to pierce the skin, leant that feeling even more weight. There was a deeper knowledge there too, a gut feeling. Ruth knew that while she she had been the one to hold the blade, somebody else had composed the message. Somebody in the Shed was crying out for rescue. Somebody that mattered enough for Ruth to risk unleashing whatever cognitohazards might be stored in there. Normally, she’d have followed protocol on this one. But that instinct told her not to.

Perhaps it was stupid to stay quiet. No, not perhaps — it was definitely stupid. She had anyway.

Ruth strained her mind, pushing in vain against the blacked-out swath of memory that swallowed the past few weeks. She remembered nothing, as always. No sights or sounds or smells or sensation. But there was that feeling, a simple, warm, profound emotion. She'd felt it before, so many times, for so many years. It was there each time she woke from a stint in the Shed, lingering for just a few days before fading into the routine of everyday life. She'd never mentioned it out loud.

There was somebody, somewhere in the depths of Lethe, that Ruth loved. Somebody she loved enough to risk her sanity, and the sanity of everybody in Site-33 — if not the world. Somebody she loved with every synapse of her soul.

Somebody who needed her help.

Somebody she wouldn't help.

Hopefully the feeling would fade sooner rather than later, especially with a few hours of Netflix to distract her. Then she’d decide whether or not report the breach, once she'd figured out if her limbic system was playing tricks on her intuition. She’d just have to pretend she hadn’t noticed yet.

Ruth took a deep, shuddering breath as she shifted the car into drive and pulled back onto the road. It did nothing to calm her nerves.

It was time to go home.

To be continued.

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