6 2/2
rating: +45+x

The lights down here were too bright, too artificial and too real all at once, forcing Shiloh to perceive everything in perfect clarity. They closed their eyes for a moment, letting Maisy guide them forward. It helped.

"Where's JR Isle again?"

"Probably on the       in the breakroom."

Shiloh blinked at her, slowly. "…The what?"

"The      ," Laraskë repeated, patiently.

Shit. They pointed upwards, then made a fist parted with their thumb, then pointed loosely to the side. American Sign Language, D-N-P. "Did Not Parse".

Her face softened, and she clicked her tongue in sympathy. "Another one, huh? I guess you can make an appointment with the memeticist after we're done today."

This sort of thing hadn’t happened in a while, but Shiloh supposed it was only a matter of time until something else was swallowed up by the slow-healing memetic sludge occupying part of their brain. At first, it had been broad, sweeping concepts, unreachable in their entirety; one week they’d lost the ability to read, another they’d had to manually breathe until the ability was coaxed back via something they’d called “conceptual association therapy”. Lately, they’d been getting lucky and only losing words. It was livable, and they’d be able to retrieve whatever had been lost after an hour or so of drawing connections between things that seemed entirely unrelated, until everything clicked back together.

Still, though, it was a bit scary. A hole in the world where a word should fit always robbed them of speech, leaving them to old habits, if only just for a moment.

"Let me go check," Shiloh mumbled, not acknowledging it. They'd bring it up in therapy or something.

Junior Researcher Isle was, in fact, in the breakroom, sitting on something that Shiloh couldn't quite conceptually grasp. Isle was primarily seen as an annoyance; they were perpetually eating some sort of snack food out of the package, they never seemed to leave the breakroom or actually do any work, no one seemed to be certain who they worked under, and no one ever actually saw them go home. Still, though, Shiloh felt a strange sort of allyship with them, a shared experience of a weird relationship with gender and also apparently having something very wrong with their brains. They tried to make a point of saying hello to Isle every morning, as some sort of confirmation of that connection.

Shiloh nodded in greeting. Isle nodded back behind a long veil of dyed hair, looking up from the tub of cheese snacks between their knees.

They were still a goddamn weirdo, though.

Back to their workstation; Shiloh wasn’t important enough to get their own office like Laraskë had. The space around their terminal was sparsely decorated, with a colorful cushion on the office chair, a single flowering cactus, and a sticky note reading PW MODEL YEAR MOM’S CAR and REMEMBER: SEND SCP DOCS TO RAISA GUY FIRST stuck to the monitor as the only real distinguishing details.

They had resented the job at first, restless and pent-up and tired all at once, frustrated that they’d somehow let themself sink to menial transcription, observation, and documentation work. The more time passed, though, the more they’d sunk into the role like a worn, familiar mattress. The tasks given were repetitive, easy to lose yourself to, and hard to screw up, and the light jazz they were allowed to play through the tinny speakers of the terminal—another “accommodation”—made the time pass faster.

It was something, Shiloh reminded themself, sitting at the terminal. They were lucky they were still considered an asset.

SCiPNET - WELCOME
Checking filesystem:

[ OK ]


Init audit/keylogger.ADMIN:

[ OK ]


Init auth:

[ OK ]


Please enter credentials:
USER: shoffman2@@foundation.scip
PASS: maisy1983justincaseiloveyou_

Their finger hovered over the Enter key.

They closed their eyes, took a deep breath in.

Credentials confirmed.

In their head, they started counting thirty seconds.

LEVEL 2 RESEARCHER SHILOH A HOFFMAN

Maisy laid her head on their lap, trying to comfort them like she’d been trained.

Please stand by for deployment of visual targeted Berryman-Langford sleep meme to confirm identity.

An extra six and a half seconds. Just in case.

If you have entered these credentials in error, press the X key now.

Six and a half seconds.

Failure to do so will result in security dispatch to your location after confirmation of your unconsciousness.

Someone who’d been there at the time said their eyes had rolled back in their head like a cartoon. That they’d vomited, but their gag reflex hadn’t kicked in, and they’d choked on it, drowned in it.

that which should not be known will not be known forever and ever until the end of time

It was a little stupid, looking back on it. Befitting of their cowardice, though. Done in by a goddamn image.

SECURE
CONTAIN
PROTECT


They remembered walking into the lecture hall for the Mu-4 orientation, and nearly tripping over a desk, not quite used to the new prosthetic.

No one had stared—they weren't goddamn high schoolers—but the silence was sudden, heavy, and tangible. Shiloh had spent the next twenty minutes or so of the lecture sunken into their seat, watching but not comprehending, trying to forget and remember simultaneously.

They looked up again when someone started handing out blindfolds.

"—clearance isn't high enough, which goes for those of you for whom this is your first assignment—subunit Tau, that means you. For those of you with clearance, I'm about to show you something that you may find difficult to view directly. I'm going to ask that you view it directly. It'll be clear why in a moment."

Shiloh blinked dumbly. They hadn't been given a blindfold. The guards at the doors were armed to the teeth. What the hell?

After everyone who'd been issued a blindfold had it on securely, the slide clicked and displayed—oh, wow, ouch. Shiloh managed to bite their tongue, but there were a few gasps and groans from their fellow audience members; looking at it had sent a stab of pain directly between their eyes, straight through to the back of their head. Somehow, though, they were disinclined to look away.

"Don't panic, everyone." The man at the podium had an irritatingly superior air about him. "That pain you're feeling right now is natural, as long as it subsides with time like it's meant to. You're currently being inoculated against Level 3 Berryman-Langford kill agents, which we use to keep our intranet secure. It's just like getting a shot, only with your brain. Please keep your focus on that image up there."

It was a little mesmerizing, actually. Swirls upon swirls upon swirls of color, wrapping around their optical nerves. Their mouth tasted tinny and artificial.

"Everyone get a good look? We're moving on to the next stage of the inoculation now. There are three phases." Before they could blink, the next slide was there, and with it a similar sharp ache behind their eyes. "Those of you blindfolded can remove your blindfolds now, if you want to have a seizure, of course." He barked out a sharp laugh. Shiloh wasn't sure how that was meant to be funny.

"All three of these images will be necessary. If you're curious about the exact workings of it, ask someone from Memetics, but currently the subtleties in your psyche that say 'cortisol overdose' when you see a Berryman-Langford are being reprogrammed to associate those same triggers with a completely separate stimulus. Specifically, the taste of vanilla."

Shiloh licked their lips. There it was, faintly sweet and alcoholic. All of this was getting to be overwhelming.

"We've chosen that trigger to make it obvious to you that the inoculation is working. All of your inoculations won't be that obvious, though. Just try to keep it all straight." It sounded like some sort of magic, too blasé for something that was supposed to be deadly, but they supposed they should have been used to it by now. They sat up, reminded themself to focus.

The slide clicked again, and the pain spiked, then settled into something approaching a tolerable migraine. "Give that an eyeful for a minute or so, and you should be fully inoculated." Vanilla, rich but artificial, sticky in their mouth. Pain, dull and overbearing. Was that it? Were they safe now?

Their gaze flicked away, then back. Another sting behind their eyes, piercing their skull. Had he said it was normal for the pain to stay intense? They couldn't remember. The space where their leg used to be was aching again.

At the time, Shiloh had decided just not to bother anyone about it.

They tripped over their desk again on the way out.

Four weeks later, Agent Hoffman of Mu-4 (“Debuggers”), subunit λ, was given their first high-clearance assignment. Actually, the whole subunit was, but they hadn’t been meshing well; despite working with electronics, Mu-4 still did field exercises. Shiloh physically and contractually couldn’t participate in them, placing them at an awkward, pitiable distance from everyone else.

Still, the transition hadn't been all bad. Site-15 was where they’d met Laraskë, and even though they didn’t work together directly, Shiloh remembered watching her scratch Josie behind the ears as she rubbed her face all over her monitor. She’d looked up at them and smiled, real and warm and not pitying, and they thought then that maybe it was possible for the higher-ups to be nice.

The whole affair had been almost theatrically secretive. They weren’t even cleared to know the number of the skip, just that they had to try and crack a particularly hardy system that was also volatile and prone to self-wipe. Shiloh had come to enjoy coding by then, to find comfort in the way computers always worked according to simple rules and never said anything they didn’t mean.

Credentials confirmed.

They had been happy that morning, all lined up in front of the secured Site-15 terminals. Excited, even.

Welcome, AGENT HOFFMAN.

It had all been so normal.

Please enter a command.

Just a routine fucking image that kills you if you look at it.

[shoffman2@@foundation.scip]$ cd /scipnet/mtf/mu4/lambda

Maybe it was some sort of karmic punishment, their cowardice that had been buried under a brash exterior forced out into the open.

[shoffman2@@foundation.scip]$ ls -l
-rw-r----- 1 jroger6 mu4 5067 Jan 11 1998 19980111_MU4.scit

Maybe it was this fucked up job's fault.

[shoffman2@@foundation.scip]$ xdg-open 19980111_MU4.scit
Info on SCP-████ is strictly classified LEVEL 3: SECRET.

But did anyone deserve this?

By continuing, you consent to exposure to a lethal memetic agent.

Did they deserve—

THE BLACK MOON HOWLS TO SACRIFICE HERSELF FOR THE PACK

  si x

 a n     d

 a   h  a  l f

  s     e  co   n  d    s

  r   ip pin  g   an d te arin g fronta l parietal occipital temporal cerebrum cerebellum

the ir consciousn e ss vivisected injected with a  hundred thousand hostile concepts studied like a lab rat twitching foaming at the mouth

ideas buried in id eas buried in ideas buried in ideas buried in ideas buried in absolutely nothing at all in a hole in the ground in their skull in the       in their teeth in V. planifolia in

neurons suffocating on conceptions misconceptions coughing up viscera in the prefrontal cortex seizing nonexistent limbs dissolving tibia and fibia

tongues forced down their throat cracking open the base of their neck and siphoning out comprehension in drip drip drips of spinal fluid

a sickeningly slow dance with reality spiraling to mutual annihilation like a dogfight like a solvent a solute like a scalpel to the leg to the brain

why the fuck am i not dead?

Why the fuck am I not dead?

It was the only thing they could grasp when they came to again. Nothing felt solid, not their environment or their body or their own mind. I should be dead. Why didn't I die? They couldn’t remember what had happened—come to think of it, they couldn’t remember anything at all, couldn’t even reach for their own name. It didn’t matter, though, because a single thought was there, persistent, clear as day. They grappled for it desperately, a firm foothold on reality. I should have died. I should be dead. What the fuck happened?

Breathing was strenuous suddenly, something they had to remind themself to keep doing. Everything felt too heavy, fuzzy around the edges, hard to grasp. There was metal in their arm and the room was too bright and nothing made sense.

They tried to sit up, to say something. Neither worked. A dull panic set in, and they tried to move again; a sensation consistent with a full-body spasm coursed through their nerves, but all that happened was a lazy twitch of their right hand, six and a half seconds later. Their eyelids felt like leaden curtains, too heavy to keep open, and for a moment they were certain they'd been too hasty, that they were dying, that they were dead already and this was what came after.

Someone they didn’t recognize approached them, and at first they’d thought they had gone deaf. After another moment—six and a half seconds, to be precise—they realized that they could hear the woman in scrubs speaking to them perfectly clearly, but the words were getting lost somewhere in their brain, not quite reaching the language parser. It was like a foreign language that they recognized by sound but couldn’t translate, and yet they knew it was plain English but they couldn’t understand, none of it made sense, nothing was working. In a last-ditch attempt at communication, they tried forming a sentence on their own, but couldn’t even get as far as putting the words in order until it all fell apart in their head, and then their nerves finally woke up and they started panicking.

They ended up on the floor somehow in their frenzied state. Something—they weren’t sure what—felt bruised, and for the first time they registered blood around their ears, dried and flaky. They knew that was bad, but not why. The person approached them, an unsettling amalgam of incomprehensible humanity, continuing to speak and make facial expressions they couldn’t connect to a meaning.

She held them still by the neck, then plunged a syringe into the crook of their elbow. With the action, something clicked in their mind, a scrap of familiarity—they were in the medical ward, they now recognized. Somehow, they’d screwed up again.

The drug-haze rolled in like a fog, and their body went limp again, muscles ceasing to respond. Their mouth wouldn’t cooperate with the instinctive signals their brain was sending, but as their vision clouded, they made three last futile attempts to produce speech.

Oliveira?

Mom?

I’m sorry.

When they woke up again, who knew how many hours or days later, their nose was bleeding. They felt lightheaded, but a little more like they could keep the world in order; their vision was clearer and the names of objects were coming to mind more easily. The environment was sterile and cold, but more familiar than they would have liked it to be.

They still weren't sure who they were. There was a familiar weight in their back pocket that they grasped at for the answer, more innately than anything.

Their dogtags clinked together pleasingly in their hands.

NAME: HOFFMAN, SHILOH ANDREW
DOB: 1973/09/23
SEX: N/A
DESIG: MU-4-λ-6
BLOOD: A POS

Shiloh smiled faintly, rolling the name around in their head, reacclimating. Shiloh, Shiloh, Shiloh. Their name was a comfort at this point, a blanket of familiarity they could wrap themself in.

Reading over the tags again, they felt another memory bubble to the surface.

SEX: N/A

They’d fought for those two letters, spending hours on paperwork and negotiations, back when they’d had more of a backbone. Weeks of asserting their identity, just for two little letters of acknowledgement. Still, it felt good to have a tangible reminder of it, something they could hold in their hands. They were a fighter, weren’t they? They’d always been a fighter.

Bits and pieces were starting to come back. Under an ill-fitting hospital gown, Shiloh was still wearing the same outfit they’d had on before, splattered with bits of dried vomit. Before… they closed their eyes and tried to order their thoughts. Recall was a demanding task now, but they painstakingly wound back the clock to before they’d woken up, the orientation, the inoculation, the assignment, the terminal—

Six and a half seconds later, they straightened up and doubled over, covering their mouth, suddenly feeling like they were about to throw up again. Blood smeared across their face with the action, metallic on their tongue. Was that it? The kill agent? But the inoculation—

Apparently, they’d looked as panicky as they felt. A nurse hurried over, and they shook their head strongly, refusing to let themself get drugged up again. They’d lost enough consciousness.

How did I— but the words didn’t come. Shiloh’s mouth still wasn’t cooperating with their brain. Their grip tightened on the dog tags as they grit their teeth, asserting with their gaze that they were lucid and aware enough to deserve an explanation.

Six and a half seconds.

Six and a half seconds of exposure to a Berryman-Langford had caused a type of brain damage that was seldom seen, rarely survived, and poorly understood. Shiloh wasn't going to die from it—they’d apparently gotten past that stage, at least. The inoculation hadn't completely failed. That was the only concrete thing anyone seemed to know about it, though; the responses to the unspoken questions of is it permanent? and can you fix it? were tight-lipped smiles and diplomatic, carefully worded, empty answers.

Somehow, after enough anxious gesturing, Shiloh managed to convey their inability to remember how to speak, and was given pity in the form of a laminated sheet with the ASL alphabet on it. They recalled it vaguely from Epsilon-11 training, and considered themself lucky they hadn't forgotten how to read, too. There was no Oliveira now—no one to hold their hand through this.

Shiloh quickly grew dependent on that sheet; it was another week and a half before they started remembering how to form words, and during that time a disconcertingly familiar march of people with lab coats and clipboards asked them ceaseless questions. What are your symptoms? Do you recall anything before or during the incident? Were you fully mentally engaged with the inoculation procedure? They had painstakingly spelled the answers out letter by letter. Usually, it took hours. The questions sometimes had words missing from them, bits that their brain hadn't healed enough to comprehend, and to those Shiloh just shook their head and watched them mark "DNP" for "Did Not Parse" on the assessment forms. Eventually, they picked up the acronym themself to save them the trouble.

Stunted reaction time, limited spacial awareness, aphasia, reduced gross motor skills, cognitive delay, loss of memory, confusion, lightheadedness, and "conceptual dissociation", whatever that meant, was the official list of symptoms. They were a case study—a miracle, technically. Shiloh wasn't sure they particularly appreciated it. Bits and pieces of the image still flashed behind their eyelids whenever they blinked, seared into their retinas, carrying a pulsing headache and a vague feeling of loss with it.

During that first week, Laraskë had come to visit them in the medical ward a few times. It was strange—they were barely acquaintances—but it came to be the highlight of their recovery. She was the only one who seemed to understand that under all the beeping monitors and slurred attempts at speech, Shiloh was whole, lucid, human. They had lengthy, mostly one-sided conversations, about family, work, Laraskë's six cats. Once, Josie followed her in despite the protests of the medical attendants, and the odd little half-cat had curled up on their chest and fallen asleep.

A few minutes later, Shiloh had managed their first sentence since waking up, halting and slow. Exactly what it was they couldn't remember, but it hadn't been all that important, anyway.

Consciousness became easier and easier to grapple with as time went on, and by the time two weeks had passed, Shiloh almost felt normal. The visits from strangers with clipboards kicked back up then; every form felt like a diplomatic way of asking we can’t get rid of them, what are we supposed to do with them?

Most of them received listless nods and mindless signatures. The mental fogginess Shiloh was mired in, they suspected, was something they were going to have to learn to live with.

One form, though, gave them pause. They hadn’t actually been paying attention to the legalese until the word ‘liability’ broke through the haze in their head, and something Laraskë had said came to mind: They’re gonna try to make it your fault, kid. She’d leaned back against one of the sturdier-looking machines, took a long drag on a short cigarette, and looked Shiloh in the eye. I’ve seen it happen. They get you when you’re not paying attention. Don’t let them, you hear me? You didn’t do shit.

“…Excuse me?” Shiloh’s voice came out halting, uncertain.

The man at their bedside looked taken aback, tugging on his tie. They recognized him vaguely, knew the face but nothing else. “I just—need you to sign this acknowledgment of misconduct during the inoculation, very standard, all it does is waive your—“

“No, thank you.”

The man’s strained, polite expression withered in a way that was oddly satisfying, like pulling a single thread and watching the whole sweater unravel. “Sir—“

Agent,“ Shiloh corrected, gently.

He pressed his lips together into a thin line, adjusted his glasses. “I hope you understand the inconvenient position you’re putting me in here.”

Shiloh considered their response. They could feel the man’s growing impatience, and mentally acknowledged it, but made no effort to appeal to it. “I need to approach this with a clear head.” A pause; six and a half seconds to assess his reaction. “I’d like some more time to recover before I make a decision.” Their tone was polite, almost meek, but their voice didn’t shake.

Another silence, spent carefully arranging words in their head until they were certain of their order and meaning. Unintentionally, they interrupted him. Intentionally, they continued to speak.

“I want to put in a request for compensation. If it’s possible, I want to look into getting a service animal.” Shiloh spoke slowly and deliberately, with a core of certainty under the polite phrasing.

The man had given a tight smile that poorly concealed a wide range of strong emotions, tucked the form back into his folder, nodded curtly, and left.

Shiloh allowed themself to breathe.


Consciousness confirmed.

They exhaled, sudden and forceful, and ratcheted forward, nearly slammed their head on the screen. Fuck. Holy shit. Get over it.

Welcome, RESEARCHER HOFFMAN.

Maisy whimpered, pawed nervously at their intact leg. How long had they not been breathing?

Please enter a command._

"I—I'm okay, Mae." She was a smart dog. Shiloh didn't remember her being trained to tell when they were having flashbacks. "I'm okay. Good girl."

This was getting a little tiring, if they were being honest with themself. They’d sorted out all the bureaucratic blame being pushed on them a few months back, but it still weighed heavy on them; all those pitiful gazes, all those invasive questions under the pretense of sympathy. It felt like that scrutiny hadn’t ever really stopped sometimes. Somewhere deep and innate, they knew there was extra weight on their shoulders, the metaphorical Sword of Damocles poised above their neck and ready to sever their throat the moment they no longer proved useful.

It wasn’t all that dramatic, though. Really, Shiloh just wanted to be left alone nowadays. They’d had enough of being studied, and more than their fill of having to assert themself as human.

Six and a half seconds after she’d spoken, Shiloh registered Dr. Laraskë behind them, addressing them directly.

“…Sorry, what was that?”

“We’ve got a new assignment.” Laraskë ran a hand through her hair. It did absolutely nothing to tame the utter rat’s nest of a bun she sported. “Stationary task force, actually. It’s some sorta new Web-based surveillance skip, and you and I are supposed to figure it out.” A pause. She fished out a cigarette from her pocket. “Well, us and like six other people.”

Shiloh blinked at her. “What’s the number?”

Smoke hung in the air, thick and stagnant. “Fifty four oh-three.”

They sighed, and for a moment leaned back in their chair. This was the first real assignment they'd had in months, and on the one hand they were grateful for the change in pace, but on the other—this was the Foundation. Who knew what Shiloh was about to get themself into?

Then, they braced themself on the desk and closed their eyes, waiting for six and a half seconds for their head to catch up with their body. They rose to their feet, slow and steady, Maisy standing at attention at their side. Laraskë smiled, and they smiled back.

Whatever it was, they could work with it. Shiloh was a fighter. They'd always been a fighter.


half two of two
thank you very much for reading
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