SCP-5382
rating: +59+x

Item#: 5382
Level3
Containment Class:
esoteric
Secondary Class:
thaumiel
Disruption Class:
vlam
Risk Class:
caution

Bromide.jpg

SCP-5382-C host instance, c. 1895.

Special Containment Procedures: SCP-5382-A and SCP-5382-B are contained via SCP-5382-C, which is itself contained via an agreement between the Foundation and PoI-382 ("Thilo Zwist").

The following measures must be taken to reinforce the containment of SCP-5382-B and C, and protect against the effects of SCP-5382-A:

  • To identify instances of SCP-5382-A, heuristic and stochastic investigation of textual media to determine its precise grammatical properties is ongoing;
  • To identify instances of SCP-5382-B, webcrawler I/O-VENENA is collating data from social media and medical systems worldwide;
  • To identify instances of SCP-5382-C, webcrawler I/O-HOKUM is collating data from the internet;
  • The Chair of the Site-43 Archives and Revision Section must correspond with PoI-382 to keep an updated schedule of all forthcoming SCP-5382-C literature;
  • Mobile Task Force Beta-43 ("Con-Trollers") must seek out unresolved cases of SCP-5382-B and administer treatment with SCP-5382-C;
  • Foundation-employed lobbyists must promote proactive cash infusions into moribund text-based media forms, with particular focus on newspapers and magazines.

Description: SCP-5382 is a tripartite anomaly: a pair of anomalous, viral semantic effects inhabiting the Germanic branch of the Indo-European language family, and the medical condition they act upon.1 Over one century of Foundation research has been unable to determine why they function, but the functions themselves have been uniform over time.

SCP-5382-A is the cognitive trigger for a progressive medical condition, SCP-5382-B, and SCP-5382-C is the cognitive trigger for its remission. A low percentage of individuals consuming text infested with SCP-5382-A will be infected with SCP-5382-B. Should they then encounter SCP-5382-C, the disorder will be cured immediately.

The grammatical structures enabling SCP-5382-A and C are undetermined — it is impossible to "see" where they reside in the infested text, and the lack of a consistent profile suggests that their linguistic architectures are in constant flux — but their efficacy has been unaffected by the evolution of their host languages over the course of nearly four hundred years.

Eye.jpg

SCP-5382-B, Stage 1.

Addendum 5382-1, Pathological Profile: Approximately one third of the human race is potentially susceptible to SCP-5382-A, and therefore capable of contracting SCP-5382-B. (No such individual has ever proven immune to SCP-5382-C.) The disorder carries a variety of apparently random symptoms, but six remain constant between all cases:

  • Green discolouration of the sclera in the first stage
  • Blue discolouration of the fingernails in the second stage
  • Yellow discolouration of the lips in the third stage
  • Orange discolouration of the skin in the fourth stage
  • Red discolouration of the skeleton, and fatal internal temperature, in the fifth stage2

Medical professionals unaffiliated with the Foundation have been unable to recognize SCP-5382-B as anomalous, or to treat it, in 100% of recorded cases.

Addendum 5382-2, Semantic Profile: PoI-382, Thilo Zwist, has disseminated the textual cure for SCP-5382-B through a wide variety of disreputable literature since the late seventeenth century. Under thirty-four known pseudonyms he has created newspaper and magazine advertisements, billboards, pamphlets, flyers, signage, paperback novels, television commercials and websites all infested with the SCP-5382-C semantic trigger. Consuming a sufficient portion of this text immediately sends SCP-5382-B into remission.

Trick.jpg

SCP-5382-C host instance, 2020.

SCP-5382-C is primarily embedded in print advertisements mimicking contemporaneous examples of pseudoscience, health fraud, or "quackery." PoI-382 has advertised the sale of dozens of dubious products supposedly capable of curing dozens of spurious conditions; the products are real, and can be purchased, but they do not possess the advertised utility. Only reading the promotional literature containing SCP-5382-C cures SCP-5382-B.

SCP-5382-C has one secondary effect: it induces sufferers of SCP-5382-B to purchase the advertised product. The products themselves deploy a third, benign semantic trigger which motivates consumers to swear off further patronage of pseudoscience in the future. This fourth element, technically SCP-5382-D, has not been deemed so overt as to require containment; in fact, as it discourages magical thinking, it actually provides a minuscule but meaningful reinforcement to the Veil.

PoI-382's advertisements describe his products and the afflictions they supposedly cure in exceptionally vague language. Said afflictions are typically referred to using pre-existing terminology properly belonging to both real and debunked medical conditions, though a small percentage refer to entirely non-medical concepts. Terms employed have included, but are not limited to:

  • aerotoxic syndrome
  • ague
  • apoplexy
  • bone shave
  • Bronze John
  • chilblains
  • communism3
  • dropsy
  • electromagnetic hypersensitivity
  • grippe
  • hambumps
  • Herbsthausen syndrome
  • the Kaiser4
  • king's evil
  • Lou Dobbs disease5
  • lumbago
  • the Mondays6
  • morgellons
  • penumbral defenestration
  • reticulated splines
  • scrumpox
  • tension myositis syndrome
  • quinsy
  • vertebral subluxation

The product's brand changes with each new malady it is supposed to correct, and the prose employed is deliberately florid and imprecise. These characteristics cause most individuals encountering PoI-382's publications to quickly dismiss and forget them.

Nevertheless, due to the SCP-5382-C effect, individuals afflicted with SCP-5382-B will immediately recognize PoI-382's products as the solution to their medical difficulties, and will waste no time in attempting to secure samples — at which point they have already been cured.

Addendum 5382-3, Historical Profile: A report on SCP-5382 was commissioned in recognition of the one hundredth anniversary of Dr. V. Lesley Scout's employment by the SCP Foundation. As its contents provide valuable context for this Special Containment Procedures file, it has been appended here in abridged form by order of the All-Sections Chief of Site-43.

The Shadow of Herbsthausen:

V. Lesley Scout, Thilo Zwist and SCP-5382

Harold R. Blank, PhD
Chair, Archives and Revision Section
SCP Foundation Lake Huron Research and Containment Site-43

Clio.png

This document incorporates excerpts from the private correspondence and papers of Dr. V. Lesley Scout and his contemporaries, made possible by the diligent research of my colleagues at A&R and the cooperation of the Records and Information Security Administration.

Scout1.jpg

Dr. V. Lesley Scout, c. 1914.

The SCP Foundation hired Dr. Vivian Lesley Scout on the day of his second thesis defense, 1 April 1915. He had already achieved a PhD in toxicology at the University of Cardiff, Wales, but it was this second doctorate in history at the University of New Brunswick which brought him to Foundation attention.

Dr. Scout had traced the trajectory of a secretive sect of "linguistic poisoners" from the thirteenth century to their complete eradication during the Thirty Years War of 1618-1648. This order was only attested in sources from the Holy Roman Empire,7 where they were known as the Giftschreiber. Dr. Scout had initially assumed that the poison words in question were propagandistic, and his completed thesis reflected this assumption. In private correspondence with Dr. Wynn Rydderech in Cardiff, however, he admitted to certain alternative suspicions which he was uncomfortable positing in academia.

It sounds absurd, but I suspect that these Giftschreiber might have actually possessed some linguistic means of delivering a physical payload. When one considers their ultimate fate, at the hands of their own people, it is difficult to imagine they were mere agitators.

- V. Lesley Scout

Foundation operatives in the Canadian federal government's wartime censorship office intercepted this correspondence, and Dr. Scout was immediately offered a consultation position with the Foundation. He became an inaugural member of Historical Review Group CLIO-4 on 5 April 1915, a joint academic project between five Canadian universities and a covert Foundation think-tank. CLIO-4's purpose was to uncover discrepancies in the historical record which might represent heretofore-unidentified anomalous objects.

At the University of Toronto, under the auspices of CLIO-4-A, Dr. Scout immediately began investigating the Giftschreiber again. With access to SCPF resources he was able to confirm his belief that the word-poisoners had in fact used anomalous linguistics as a tool of open warfare against the French. They were subsequently suppressed in 1645 by Bavarian general Franz von Mercy during the Battle of Herbsthausen, ostensibly due to traitors in their ranks.

In late October 1916, while cross-referencing historical newspaper reports with contemporary journalism, Dr. Lys Reynders developed a series of unusual psychosomatic symptoms in addition to discolouration of her sclera. She, and all other members of CLIO-4-A, were placed into individual quarantine. As a safety precaution, the materials Dr. Reynders had been investigating were subjected to the early twentieth-century equivalent of memetic testing. She was denied further access to these materials, in hopes of stabilizing her condition.

Instead, on 1 January 1917, she was superheated by her own skeletal structure and expired.

Et in Canada ego. We each must serve, each in our own way. Still… such waste, such bloody stupid waste, on an ever-growing trans-continental heap of the same.

- V. Lesley Scout, diary entry, 01/01/1917

This setback resulted in the complete redirection of CLIO-4's investigations away from the Giftschreiber and towards suppressing public knowledge of the esoteric war technologies being fielded by Imperial Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. (Efforts were made simultaneously to sabotage the development of similar technologies in Canada and the United States.) Historical research unrelated to military applications did not resume until 11 November 1918: Armistice Day.

Lacking effective antimemetic countermeasures, and under the assumption that Dr. Reynders had contracted her illness from the eighteenth-century documents she'd been studying, CLIO-4 refocused its efforts on contemporary material. In 1920 Dr. Scout discovered a series of newspaper advertisements for a patent medicine called "SAL-U-TEM" which had experienced a meteoric rise from obscurity to celebrity over the course of the war.

Braun.jpg

SAL-U-TEM advertisement, Sloth's Pit Fabulist, 13 July 1919.8

Dr. Scout doubted that true sufferers of "catarrh," an inflammation of the mucous membranes, were the intended targets of these peculiar testimonials. Similarly suspicious were frontier newspaper records describing a traveling salesman by the name of "Doctor Bromide" who dispensed bottles of snake oil on both sides of the border until 1907. His "Asclepian Alcohol" was supposedly capable of curing "scrumpox" (herpes glatiatorum), and he sold it from a caravan profusely decorated with verbose textual testimonials.

Ads for SAL-U-TEM were still running in newspapers across the Anglosphere, so on 17 March 1920 Dr. Scout mailed the following letter to the provided address:

To whom it may concern,

It has come to my attention that persons operating under the auspices of one "Doctor Braun" or "Doctor Bromide" have been supplying dubious pharmaceutics for the treatment of even more dubious maladies. I represent an organization tasked with securing unusual threats to public health and protecting the body politic from them; I would very much like to meet with you and discuss your work.

- Dr. V. Lesley Scout

He received a response on 26 March:

Madam,

I regret to inform you that your missive of Wednesday last lacked the means to meet my fee, to wit, $5. As this endeavour is not possible without the kind support of sufferers such as yourself, I must reluctantly decline to assist you.

- Dr. Ira Braun, MD, PhD

Dr. Scout immediately re-drafted his letter and re-sent it, this time enclosing $5. He received the following in response on 3 April:

Sir,

When an envelope as light as yours arrives, I always reply with that form letter. My correspondents are many, my limited manpower is badly over-committed and my time is, in one sense at least, short.

As to the origins of my enterprise, I elect to keep mum. My purpose, however, I will elucidate: to bring peace to the sufferers of progressive hypercholeritic paroxysm wherever they might be found. This is a service I have provided since time immemorial; G_d willing, I shall continue to provide it for generations hence.

- Thilo Zwist

Dr. Scout followed up on 4 April with the following:

Mr. Zwist,

My staff have just discovered a medical publication from 1729 which gives every indication of having come from the hand of Doctor Bromide. If that is in fact the case, you yourself would appear to be one of the unusual threats I am sworn to investigate.

Please indicate immediately when and where we might meet.

- Dr. V. Lesley Scout

No reply was received, and subsequent letters were returned unopened.

Codex.jpg

The Chirurgeon's Codex, frontispiece.

Research into the Chirurgeon's Codex and its anomalous properties would reveal the depth of the Giftschreiber phenomenon to CLIO-4 in 1927. The Codex, to which Dr. Scout had obliquely referred in his correspondence with Zwist, was a volume of eighteenth-century medicinal remedies. It had been supplied to practicing physicians across the western world for a very high fee — five English pounds — between 1717 and 1741. Most of this fee was waived if the physician signed an affidavit agreeing to display the book's frontispiece to any patients displaying "verdant whites of the eye, cerulean fingernails, jaundiced lips, or an orange epidermis." This was flagged for its conformity with the symptoms experienced by Dr. Reynders and three further civilian patients, as was Zwist's mention of "progressive hypercholeritic paroxysm."

Imprudent cross-referencing resulted in a second CLIO-4-A researcher contracting SCP-5382 in June of 1927. Dr. Scout again enacted quarantine measures when Dr. Theo Dorion, suddenly suffering from acute appendicitis in addition to green sclera, arrived at the daily briefing. Dr. Dorion broke free of security personnel upon noticing a copy of the Codex in the briefing room, crying "That's it! That's it!" He seized the book, he opened the cover, and his symptoms began to subside.

Dr. Scout, by now the Director of CLIO-4, ordered the entire Historical Review Group to investigate the Codex and its putative author, a "Dr. Alexander Scoffield." Drawing on his doctoral research, he theorized that the products on offer in each case — the patent medicines and the medicinal knowledge in the Codex — were merely lures. The cure, like the disease, was textually-transmitted.

Brumley.jpg

Tolliver Brumley's Almanack, 1838.

Tentatively — as no containment procedures yet existed — the anomaly was classified SCP-382 in 1928; Thilo Zwist was simultaneously classified Person of Interest 382. (This paper will henceforth employ the anomaly's present-day classification, SCP-5382.) A lack of assets trained in espionage, tracking or combat in Canada hamstrung early efforts to locate and secure Zwist. While he often personally delivered his advertisements to the publications which printed them, he also consistently erased his presence using what were presumed to be memetic techniques. Mail sent to the addresses he provided invariably reached him if left unobserved, and languished unnoticed in the postal system if observed. Said addresses never corresponded to actual physical locations, raising the question of how the mail was delivered at all.

By the global stock market crash of 1929 which marked the beginning of the Great Depression, Dr. Scout and CLIO-4 had sketched a rough timeline of Giftschreiber activity. The only major gap, between the Battle of Herbsthausen and the advent of Doctor Bromide, was filled with the discovery of Tolliver Brumley's Calendar Almanac. Between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries, booklets dispensing folk wisdom, teaching agricultural techniques, propagating superstitions and advertising products — almanacs — were the most popular and widespread form of media in the western world. Producers of patent medicine (con artists like Doctor Bromide) made frequent use of this format. When PoI-382 created his own almanac in 1824, therefore, he was able to use it to introduce his alter ego's product as well.

In the interwar years SCP-5382-C (the cure) was typically transmitted through billboard advertising:

AngelaMercy.jpg

Angela Mercy's Guaranteed Genuine Restorative Linament advertisement, c. 1931.

With the decline of printed media during the Depression, this was again the most effective means of reaching sufferers of SCP-5382-B (the disease). The character of "Angela Mercy" played on maternal stereotypes best exemplified by the person of Florence Nightingale, which were already oversaturated to the point of cliché in western discourse.

Might that surname, its wordplay value notwithstanding, have been a form of posthumous vengeance by the Giftschreiber on Franz von Mercy for the massacre at Herbsthausen?

- V. Lesley Scout, diary entry, 06/21/1937

Scout2.jpg

Dr. Scout, c. 1943.

In 1940 the CLIO project expanded beyond North America, and it was discovered that Zwist's work could be found in German, Dutch, and Norwegian print. English examples far outnumbered those in other Germanic language media, however, for unknown reasons.

On the strength of his successes with CLIO-4, and emphasizing the importance of monitoring this and similar phenomena worldwide, Dr. Scout proposed the creation of a new dedicated research facility on the southeastern shore of Lake Huron in 1941. With the background noise of the Second World War making covert operations a simple matter, this proposal was successful.

Provisional Site-43 was constructed underground between 1942 and 1943, though not without incident (see SCP-5494 for further details). Dr. Scout and Dr. Rydderech, his colleague from Cardiff, served as co-Directors until the latter's disappearance in 1966. CLIO-4 was reorganized into the Archives and Revision Section of the new Site, and remained focused on identifying historical anomalies with present-day implications.

With access to the personnel and equipment of a Foundation Site, Dr. Scout was able to commission two mobile task forces: MTF Alpha-43 ("Witch Hunters") and Beta-43 ("Con-Trollers"). He personally led several raids with each unit, attempting to capture Zwist as he delivered the anti-war cartoons of "Mr. Gloss" to the printer. These raids were never successful; agents successfully approaching Zwist would soon lose interest and allow him to escape without later being able to explain why, and all subjects detained for questioning were universally unaware of his existence.

At the close of the Second World War, Dr. Scout reflected on the Foundation's role in maintaining the new world order:

It was once my favourite pub joke, that the German word for poison is gift. "What more do you need to know about them?" I would bellow. It drew big laughs at university… during the early months of the Great War, even bigger. Any joke at the Hun's expense was a surefire winner with the patriotic crowd, and the patriotic crowd was everyone.

It became much less amusing when we received the Kaiser's gifts at Ypres.9

Are we, though, any better for being late to the game? You should hear Banting, dreaming about all the Huns he could strangle if we'd prioritize his gas research.10 I keep that fixed in my mind, and the shame I feel at my little joke, whenever I doubt that the Foundation must remain neutral, focused, unprejudiced. These are the anchors of my conscience.

We have a singular purpose, and must not be swayed from it… we have little in common with imperial war machines and much in common, I believe, with the peculiar grammar of the Giftschreiber and its saving grace.

- V. Lesley Scout, diary entry, 05/01/1945

Washburn.jpg

Hammond Washburn, selected works.

"Mr. Gloss" gave way to Hammond Washburn, the acerbic author of "moral panic" paperback novels and magazine stories, in the 1940s and early 1950s. Washburn delivered scathing assessments of perceived moral and spiritual degeneracy in the post-war western world, and sold subscriptions to a newsletter containing his advice for living a clean, patriotic, upright life. The first of these broadsides, the article "Winning the War and Losing Our Children," was published in Verve! on 8 May — VE Day — 1945.11

As Washburn's canon grew his works became more and more nonsensical, attacking everything from single motherhood to planned economies to carpal tunnel syndrome. Interpreting this as the imminent breakdown of a creative mind, Dr. Scout wrote the following letter to Thilo Zwist on the first anniversary of V-P Day, 14 August 1946.12

Thilo,

What does peace mean to you?

One year ago we entered the age of mass murder by cold calculation. What fruit will grow from the seeds of atomic horror? I cannot be the only one seeking guidance at this terrible moment in history.

Do you ever wonder what else you might have done with your life, with all the lives you've apparently lived, and yet have not lived, since your chase began? Do you ever get tired of running?

I have seen you peddle pap for thirty years now, and from time to time it seems to me your determination flags. I don't know if you're bored, unfulfilled, or what… I do know that you've been lashing out, more and more, and I wonder if you're plagued (forgive me my little jokes) with the same doubts I'm plagued with.

Would you like to talk about it?

- Vivian

On the 9th of May, he received a response.

Vivian,

I've had trouble sleeping, these past two years. I have lost faith.

How obvious, how blunt, how pathetic can I make these appeals without triggering what I thought was a natural human impulse, the tendency to doubt? How far down can I dumb my rhetoric before it fails to function? Is there a treatment so imbecilic, so inane, so preposterously useless that my patients will not fall over themselves to purchase it?

Of course, there is not.

They buy my snake oil. They buy your disinformation. They bought Hitler's promises and Churchill's blandishments and Stalin's ideology and Roosevelt's… inability to deliver a good speech, if we're being honest. It's no great achievement to sell something to these people. It doesn't take a magician to spark their worst impulses, to press their buttons.

And it only takes the press of a button to end a war with nuclear fire. Had I ever been a scientist, the shame I would feel now would surely kill me. The pursuit of knowledge has made terrorists of us all.

Three months ago I placed the most transparent ad of my career, a veritable "come and get me" in Life magazine. For one terrific moment of weakness, I actually wanted you to catch me.

I changed my mind at the moment of crisis, when the issue hit the stands, when it was too late to change anything. But even then… I was disappointed that you didn't come.

I've doubted my resolve every day since then. I've been fighting my own mistakes since before your ancestors came to this continent, and for the first time in centuries I fear I might actually lose. I am not a warrior… I am not even a doctor. I am a writer, and my once-unassailable faith in the power of writing has been sorely tested by the march of days.

I will answer your letters, if you will resume your search. I cannot allow you to find me, but I must ask that you try.

- Thilo

Dr. Scout resumed his MTF operations in earnest, and Site-43 began using PoI-382 as a training subject for the Pursuit and Suppression Section. Though Zwist was never captured, the exercise of avoiding his pursuers appeared to energize him. He redoubled his efforts over the next two decades.

In a tongue-in-cheek attempt to shore up the popularity of newspapers, which had suffered serious circulation losses after the invention of television, Zwist created a comic strip in 1962. Unlike his contemporaries (or Mr. Gloss) with their detailed line work and impeccable draftsmanship, the imaginary cartoonist "Wil Deaver" was an opportunistic hack:

Polk.jpg

"Polk the Lazy Cat," The Grand Bend Scribe, 21 October 1984.

While the comic was overwhelmingly popular, and Zwist was able to fund all of his other projects with the proceeds from his merchandising efforts, he found it creatively unrewarding and would terminate it unceremoniously in 1987.13 He continued to complain to Dr. Scout about the drudgery of modern media production, waxing nostalgic about his days as Doctor Bromide. He nevertheless remained coy about his origins, and the nature of his longevity.


SECURITY CLEARANCE LEVEL 5 REQUIRED FOR FURTHER REVIEW


By the 1970s Zwist was making no effort at all to disguise the farcical, fraudulent nature of the products he was hawking. Consider, for example, this 1977 advertisement:

Reiki.jpg

Reiki Rick's advertisement, The Yorkshire Slug, 14 June 1977.

None of Reiki Rick's "healing crystals" were actually crystals. Most were instead semi-precious stones, which Zwist had purchased from the souvenir shop at a French wildlife refuge.14 The product was nevertheless soon in high demand, comparable to the pet rock craze of the same period — even among non-sufferers of SCP-5382-B. It soon became obvious to both correspondents that the public appetite for pseudoscientific cures and devices was ravenous:

I'm perpetually impressed at how well Thilo adapts himself to the times. I was watching a James Randi rerun on television last night, debunking a man who claimed he could bend spoons with his mind, and when the commercial break rolled along there was an ad for a psychic named Joseph Heino. He had this whole spiel about how people carry the psychic guilt of their ancestors with them from generation to generation, and he was capable of interceding on their behalf by severing the connection. Relief for the spirit, for one easy payment of five dollars.

Heino.jpg

Heino's Interspatial Interdiction Service, 1984.

Still five dollars.

All the viewer had to do was send away for a questionnaire, which would come in the mail within a week, fill the thing out and send it back. Presumably semantic trigger "C" is in the commercial, and "D" is in the questionnaire; we'll send away for a copy, of course, but I'm sure we won't learn a damn thing. Just like I'm sure this was him. Not going to bother asking.

He doesn't even have to try to make this stuff unappealing, at this point. He's advertising séances to people who've just watched the greatest skeptic alive skewer a parapsychological fraud in front of a live studio audience. Nobody in their right mind would send Mr. Heino a letter.

Of course, he and I have often differed re: how many people in their right minds our world presently contains.

But after all these years, after everything I've seen and done, even writing to him every other day… it's still comforting, every time, to be reminded that he's out there. Doing what he does.

The good work.

V. Lesley Scout, diary entry, 08/21/1984

The Archives and Revision Section of Site-43 had continually grown since the days of CLIO-4, at least partially thanks to the persistent research and training value of the SCP-5382 phenomenon. Dr. Scout supervised my own doctoral thesis between 1991 and 1995, and I joined A&R at Site-43 one year before his retirement in 1996. At that point, he surrendered the SCP-5382 dossier and its management to me.

When Dr. Scout died on 1 April 1997, at the age of one hundred and twelve, Thilo Zwist was in the process of replacing his myofacial trigger point dry needling advertisements with a new aromatherapy campaign. The Director of Site-43 was afforded a substantial funeral in the park above his underground facility; as an exclusion zone had been in place since 1995, secrecy was unnecessary. It was there that I encountered a wizened but spry old man, who agreed to answer a few questions on the condition that I meet with him alone on the shore of Lake Huron. The following is a partial transcript of our conversation.

Zwist.jpg

PoI-382, 3 April 1997.

Zwist: This is what peace means to me, Vivian.

Dr. Blank: I beg your pardon?

Zwist: Nothing. Ask your questions.

Dr. Blank: Could you state your name and place of birth, for the record?

Zwist: My name is Thilo Zwist. I was born in the village of Amstetten, Austria.

Dr. Blank: In what year?

Zwist: 1622.

Dr. Blank: You're a long way from home, doctor. In more ways than one.

Zwist: I go where my work takes me.

Dr. Blank: And what is your work, precisely?

Zwist: I am shadowboxing the dead hand of my past.

Dr. Blank: Precisely, please, not poetically.

Zwist smiles.

Zwist: I have kept my secrets for nearly four centuries. Why would I reveal them to you, if I wouldn't reveal them to…

Zwist stops smiling.

Dr. Blank: He spent his entire life chasing after you. You can give him this one last gift. Make our expanded understanding a part of his legacy.

Silence.

Zwist: Very well. I will tell you of the Giftschreiber.

Dr. Blank: You're going to tell me a story?

Zwist: No, I have told too many stories. I am going to tell you the truth.

In my youth, I was apprenticed to a man named Keil. The village signwriter. His signs were not things of beauty… they were simple, direct, and very busy. Many words. A merchant might order a sign for their grocery, and receive a placard with an endless list of sundry goods imprinted upon it. The burgomaster might ask Keil to inscribe words of wisdom on the pediment of a public building, and he would carve a piece of inscrutable poetry.

I never understood why his services were in such high demand, though I did, after a time, observe that the institutions which patronized him enjoyed unusual success, however they measured it.

When the army came to us in 1644, we made banners for them.

Dr. Blank: "We"?

Zwist: Keil explained to me, once satisfied with my loyalty and skill, that his signs and banners were magical. That he and others like him belonged to an ancient, secret society, the Schriftsteller. The Writers. They were magicians, men and women who could bend the very laws of language to achieve certain effects.

Dr. Blank: That is indeed what writers do.

Zwist: Not like this. The words of the Schriftsteller could make you think, make you feel, even make you fall to your knees, in a way you could never resist. Even a passing glance, and you were lost.

Dr. Blank: So, they could make you buy things. Do things.

Zwist: Yes, or they could make your eyes burst, your stomach boil, your teeth fall out. That was something they could do, but it was not something they would do. None except the Giftschreiber, the Poison-Writers, the outcasts. There were not many of them, and they did not last long… their fire burned both ways, as fire does. We stood on guard against them, and swore never to abuse our gifts.

Dr. Blank: Unless the local greengrocer asked you to.

Zwist: It was a service. I never claimed it was a noble undertaking.

Dr. Blank: That certainly explains Polk the Lazy Cat.

Zwist: Please, don't… don't say that name again.

Dr. Blank: So, you were inducted into Keil's order?

Zwist: Yes. When he realized that the Bavarian army was recruiting all of the Schriftsteller, conscripting us to fight against the French, he hurriedly revealed the mysteries to me and swore me to secrecy. He needed allies. He hoped that we might convince the army that our powers were of limited use to them. If we were careful, and clever, we could appear to do our duty without committing… atrocities.

Dr. Blank: Could you?

Mercy.jpg

Franz von Mercy.

Zwist: For a time, but it didn't matter. The generals, in particular Franz Freiherr von Mercy, were convinced that we could eradicate the French completely if we unleashed our full potential. We had crafted him banners which raised the morale of all who marched beneath them, ornate barding for his horses which gave the men courage, field manuals endowing his officers with tactical genius. None of this was enough. He wanted Keil, and the others, to make for him a banner which would strike the French stone dead when they beheld it.

Zwist pauses.

Zwist: He wanted us to become Giftschreiber, each and every one of us.

Dr. Blank: And that didn't happen.

Zwist: No, that didn't happen. We would not do it. But it didn't matter… his agents scoured the empire, recruiting the few Giftschreiber who had survived in the wilderness and escaped our censure. He pressed them into service… I am sorry to say, they were not sorry to serve. At Freiburg, in 1644, they burned over five thousand men alive in their own skins. And not just men. Not just soldiers.

Silence.

Zwist: von Mercy knew, at Freiburg, that the Giftschreiber were the key to Bavarian victory in the war. Only a few of them survived, however; the French fought well, in spite of their supernatural setback. The general harangued us for months, demanding that we escalate our contributions. We begged ignorance, incompetence. We could not do as he asked. We were not capable. It wasn't a lie, not really.

On the first of May, 1645, at Herbsthausen, von Mercy snapped. He confined us to our tent, withheld our rations, and called us traitors. Still, we would not help him. In desperation, Keil ordered me to escape. I had some skill with deception, with avoiding or deflecting notice. That much may already be in your files.

Dr. Blank: Very much so.

Zwist: We didn't possess enough materials to truly weaponize our words, to break free of our bondage, and in any event we were reluctant to act against our own people. I slipped away, and made for the French ranks. I would offer them my services, to secure the release of my comrades and the surrender of the Bavarian army.

I failed.

Dr. Blank: You tried to join the enemy?

Zwist: They were not my enemies, not anymore. What we could do, it was… it was beautiful. It had such potential. Not to sell dry goods, or prop up politicians, but to uplift all mankind through the power of words. With the right words, was there anything we could not accomplish? Could we not end this bloody, stupid war? One fifth of my countrymen were dead before it ended, you know.

Dr. Blank: Yes.

Zwist: And all but one of the Schriftsteller. Though he had become Giftschreiber, in the end.

Zwist pauses.

Zwist: I had no sooner crested the ridge behind the camp when they set fire to the tent.

He pauses again.

Zwist: The soldiers encircled the inferno, sabres at the ready. Those unlucky few who burst forth into the camp, they were run through. Every last one of them. Every last one of us. All except for me.

He removes his glasses and pinches the bridge of his nose.

Zwist: I was young. I had not been fully trained. There hadn't been… there was never enough time, do you understand? I knew only a little. Only enough to be dangerous. My family… I had just watched them die. I had just watched my dream die. I felt in that moment that the war would never end, that we would all die screaming, fire in our veins, our hatred consuming us from within.

I fell to my knees. I looked down upon the army, at the blaze, at the blades, and I poured my own hatred upon them.

I cursed them.

Dr. Blank: The army.

Zwist: No.

Dr. Blank: …the Germans.

Zwist: The German language. The banners and flags we had crafted for von Mercy, blowing in the same breeze that fanned the flames of Keil's funeral pyre. Every regimental insignia, every sign, every marked crate and barrel in the camp which I had seen over the past few months. I poured everything I had, everything I was in that terrible moment into my curse. I made myself a part of it. I… infected the grammar. I don't know if you can understand that.

Dr. Blank: I think I can. Your curse didn't stop there.

Zwist: No. As I said, I was young, inexperienced. A dangerous fool, more powerful than I could have imagined. More powerful in that moment, perhaps, than I ever have been since.

I cursed the German language, and all its children, unto the nth generation.

Dr. Blank: It spread like wildfire.

Zwist: Even now, I do not know how. My flawed, fractured curse crawled across the roads and trails from Herbsthausen to the edges of the empire, veins fed from a poisoned heart. It was days before I realized my mistake; it was months before I realized its extent.

I used my powers to kill only once more, in August, at Nördlingen. You are familiar with the outcome?

Dr. Blank: von Mercy died, the Habsburgs were defeated, and the war became a lost cause.

Zwist: Though it ground on for three more wasteful, pointless years. I still could not find the right words, you see.

Dr. Blank: I take it you killed Von Mercy yourself.

Zwist: I can still see him. What I did to him. I will not burden you with the image.

I had enough knowledge to comprehend the damage I had done. I could… I told you the curse was a part of me? I could feel it coursing through the words. I could trace it, if I tried. As it spread, I could sense the infections growing. I could even sense where they were. With the rest of the Schriftsteller dead, there was no-one to manage the disaster but myself.

It is a virus. It twists and turns, it evolves, it… strains, and I strain to keep up with it, if you'll forgive me my little jokes.

Dr. Blank: You sound like someone I know.

Zwist: As do you; someone we both know. But yes, I think it is alive, and well, my curse. I may have no degrees, and my training was certainly unorthodox, but I am the only physician who can treat this disease. I knew it for a fact, in 1645. And I had a friend to remind me of that fact, when I briefly lost sight of it.

Dr. Blank: And the rest is history.

Zwist: Yes, so much history.

Dr. Blank: Can you help us to identify the original semantic trigger? The "curse," as you term it?

Zwist: I cannot. As I have already implied, it is alive. It lives within the language, grows within the language. I am forever wrestling with myself, in every medium known to man; a part of me is in every word you write. If I said that was sometimes a comfort to me, would you judge me for it?

Dr. Blank: Maybe just a little. Ah… Why do you actually sell your products, if the… anti-curse, is written into the advertisements already?

Zwist: This is my only trade, doctor. It costs quite a lot of money, to advertise as I do.

Both men smile.

Dr. Blank: We've determined that these anomalous effects seem to propagate much faster, and evolve much more easily, in English text. Do you know why?

Zwist: I have no polite answer for that.

Dr. Blank: …fair enough. We've also noticed that your customers tend to swear off pseudoscience after purchasing from you. Is that a part of your magic?

Zwist: Yes. My skills remain simple, undeveloped; I will never be a true Schriftsteller, not without my mentors to guide me. But I can do these little things, cure these little poisons which plague human hearts. If we are to remain ignorant, we might just as well all perish in red flame.

Silence.

Dr. Blank: You've carried this burden alone, for a long time.

Zwist: Not quite alone. Do you know, Vivian even suggested a few of my more colourful ailments? My personal favourite was "bicycle face."

But it has been difficult… it will be difficult, now, going forward. Most troubling to me is the changing landscape of the written word. It may not be long before the infection is traveling through textual vectors with which I am unfamiliar. The beauty of journalism, yellow or not, was always its sheer reach… I could never match the curse medium-for-medium, but I had a means of transmission accessible to all.

The internet is too fractured. I am too small a fish, in too vast a pond. And within a few decades, there may very well be no newspapers left.

Dr. Blank: Deservedly so.

Zwist: Perhaps, but should we always get what we deserve?

Dr. Blank: Good question. You know… I represent an organization tasked with securing unusual threats to public health, and protecting the body politic from them.

Zwist smiles sadly.

Dr. Blank: I might be able to help you. Will you allow it?

Silence on recording.

Zwist: Wouldn't you rather put me in a box? Pick my brain, learn my secrets?

Dr. Blank: Of course. But you'd boil my guts out, if I tried.

Zwist pauses.

Zwist: (chuckling) You do remind me of Vivian. Perhaps we can work something out.


The advent of the modern internet in the 1990s triggered the most recent transformation of Zwist's business, coinciding with further increases in societal subscription to pseudoscientific beliefs and "quackery." He has sold jade eggs to cure adrenal fatigue, tinfoil hats to ameliorate electromagnetic hypersensitivity, and bottled hexagonal water to reduce the symptoms of wind turbine syndrome. The project continues apace.

I think Viv would've been perversely pleased with the latest iteration.

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