The window was unlocked! Even better, Mitch didn’t recognize this part of the complex at all. It might be the right place.
He had to reach over his head to slide the window open. He grabbed the sill and started to pull himself up. His feet kicked ineffectually against the wall while his gut pushed him away from it, making the angle awkward.
Someone inside opened the window the rest of the way. Strong hands, younger than his by a good decade or two, reached out to help pull him in. Mitch grit his teeth and kicked against the wall harder. He got one armpit over the top, then another, and then all of a sudden he was toppling over into the room.
He sprawled onto his stomach, slapping his hands into the ground like he’d learned back when he did fieldwork. His arm felt like it had been wrenched out of its socket. His glasses were fogged from heavy breathing in the cold air. All he could see was two pairs of feet, one in a large pair of nice dockers, the other in a pair of maroon heels.
“Mitch?” asked an older woman’s voice above him. “Or Bob?”
Mitch rolled his shoulder. It was fine. He pushed himself to his feet, wincing a little, and took off his glasses to polish them. “Mitch,” he said, rubbing his lenses on the corner of his sweater. “Mitch Mandel.”
He put his glasses back on, and the room snapped into focus. It was a mess. Not an “untidy” sort of mess, although it was untidy, but a “something is wrong here” sort of mess.
The drywall was a wreck, missing in some places, scraped or scratched or filled with holes in others. A chair was wedged under the door handle of the only exit. One corner looked to be a makeshift sleeping area. There was a pile of junk in another, covered in dust. Nothing in the complex should be covered in dust. The carpet was filled with hair and detritus, like it hadn’t been vacuumed in forever.
There was a square table, with four chairs around it. It was covered in messy piles of paper. Behind it was a whiteboard that was getting on in years, streaks and smears of color left behind after erasing it too many times.
The woman coughed. It was like a librarian’s cough. Mitch stood a little straighter, turning to look at her. She was holding out a slightly-wrinkly hand covered in rings. “Barb Streiss,” she said. Mitch shook her hand, looking her over. She was in her 60s, maybe, well-dressed but a little overenthusiastic with the jewelry. She had horn-rim glasses and a pinched face, but her eyes were bright.
“You’re late,” she said, turning and walking back to the table.
“Erm,” Mitch responded cleverly. He wasn’t sure how he could be late when she didn’t even know who he was. Instead he turned to the other person in the room, a tall 20-something in a suit, with hands in his pockets.
The man inclined his chin. “Bernie Stein,” he said. His voice was deep, and he was built more like a linebacker than a desk jockey. Mitch returned the raised chin.
Barb had settled back into a seat, in front of the largest pile of papers. “So,” she said, clicking open a pen, “what do you remember?”
“I remember a lot,” Mitch said. Barb wrote while he spoke, not looking up. “Well, I guess it feels like a lot. I remember that I work here, in the visual memetics department–”
“Not for three years,” Barb interrupted. She kept writing while Mitch gaped. “You were re-assigned to antimemetics three years ago. You worked under Bob.”
Mitch snorted. “Antimemetics? That’s dead-end nonsense. Nobody’s ever…found…an antimeme…” Mitch trailed off.
Bernie coughed. “Why don’t you start from the beginning,” he said. “Where did you wake up?”
“In a motel room.”
“Why did you come here?”
“Well, because I work here. I overslept, so I ran right out the door. I knew something had happened when my ID didn’t work. The security guard didn’t recognize me, either. Nobody did.”
Mitch took out his ID. The lamination on it was failing, and it had expired over a year go. “What the hell is going on?” he asked.
“Later,” Barb responded. “I need to debrief you first. It’s in the document.”
Barb stopped writing, peering at Mitch over the top of her glasses. He rolled his eyes. “Fine. After security threw me out, I tried calling my sister, but she didn’t pick up. Then I tried calling my old officemate, but he didn’t know who I was. I realized something was affecting people’s memories. Then I realized something was affecting my memory. I couldn’t remember what I’d done yesterday, or the day before. So naturally I hopped the fence and started trying to find a part of the complex I didn’t remember…”
The debrief took about half an hour. By the end, Mitch was starting to piece together what had happened.
“So,” he said, in a conversational tone of voice. “We’re infected?” A normal person might have been freaking out. But Mitch had worked at the complex his entire career. He’d been in worse scrapes.
“Everyone is infected,” Barb corrected him. “We’re just the loci. That’s why nobody can remember us.”
“A real-life antimeme,” Mitch mused. “Just my luck. I change departments just in time for antimemetics to finally find something.”
Barb looked at him like he was the stupidest man in the world. Mitch scratched his chin.
Bernie’s watch beeped. He glanced at it, then looked up at Barb. “2:00 PM.”
Barb began shuffling papers. “Good. We’re only a little behind schedule. I’ll start–”
“Wait a second,” Mitch interrupted. “I still have some questions.”
Barb shoved a three-ring binder across the table to him. The cover was labeled with heavy block lettering: Answers to Mitch’s Questions.
Mitch shrugged and flipped it open. It did, in fact, contain the answers to the questions he was about to ask, in roughly the order he’d been planning to ask them.
> What is this binder? You ask the same questions every day, so you wrote down these answers for yourself. > What's the document Barb was talking about? The antimemetic event occurs every 23-25 hours at midnight pacific. The event erases all memories related to the four of us. The document is a written set of facts and instructions that allows us to act across the event boundary. > Every 23-25 hours at midnight? The event respects > daylight savings time? Yes. We believe it is somehow entangled with human cognition. > You said the four of us? *Bob hasn't shown up in a long time. The document is vague on him. > If written records of the four of us persist through the > event... That's not a question. But, yes. Records of us exist. The complex currently believes that the four of us are mythomemetic in nature. Like slender man on steroids. > They think that there's a mythomeme presenting as four > members of the antimemetics division that nobody > remembers? Yes. The complex finds new mythomemes every day, and antimemes are entirely theoretical to everyone outside this room. > Why can I remember working here, but not what happened > yesterday? The event affects information related to the four of us, in proportion to the degree of that relation. You spent all yesterday with 2-3 event loci, but for most of your career you didn't even know them. > Why did I wake up in a motel? Why am I the last one > here? Being awake during the antimemetic event is traumatic. We sleep through it. You react poorly to waking up in a room full of strangers, so you sleep in a motel. You also react poorly to waking up with a set of instructions you don't remember writing. It's better to let you find your own way here. Barb sleeps in this room, and Bernie writes himself a note every night that takes him straight here.
Mitch paused. That answer seemed a little suspicious. Surely waking up alone in a motel room wasn’t the optimal way to get him here. He flipped the page, chewing on that thought.
> This is all very suspicious. Also not a question. But yes. You're a paranoid bastard Mitch. Your colleagues find it very frustrating, but it's kept you alive so far. I say hold onto it.
He paused again to consider that. The shoe fit, he couldn’t deny it. He imagined waking up with a note explaining all of this. He would’ve smelled a rat and hopped on a plane to Tahiti.
He started flipping through the binder. After the first three pages, every other page was a big drawing of an angry face. He stopped on one of the angry faces and read the text below it.
>:( Stop flipping through the damn binder! I put these in order for a reason.
He ignored the text, of course, and turned the page again. He was close to the end.
> What if it *isn't* an antimeme? Maybe everyone "forgot" > me because I never worked at the complex at all. Maybe > everyone in this room is infected with a delusional > psychomeme. Your memories are patchy. Any meme that can edit your memories might as well be an antimeme. > Maybe it's normal for humans to have patchy memories. > Maybe the psychomeme is convincing me that I *should* > have a consistent set of memories as a cover for--
Almost an hour later, Mitch looked up from his binder. Bernie shifted a little in his chair, eyeing him. “2:40,” he said, checking his watch again. Barb made a noise of acknowledgment.
“The document says you should now be suspicious that we are working against you,” she said, not taking her eyes off the papers in front of her.
Mitch coughed. “Well,” he said. “Are you?”
Bernie took a little cue card from his pocket and read from it. “If we were, I would have just shot you.” He lifted the hem of his sport coat to show the black polymer handle of a gun.
Mitch nodded. “So even if you are working against me, you at least need something from me,” he offered easily. “Is there any food around here? Or wait, coffee. I could kill for a cup of coffee.”
Barb stopped reading to dig around in her purse. She tossed him an energy bar and a warm coldbrew. “Bernie steals those from the vending machine after people go home for the night,” she said. “It’s not a good idea to wander around the compound when nobody remembers you. Eat fast; we’re behind schedule.”
Mitch shoved half the energy bar in his mouth. “What’s the schedule?” he asked, in-between chews. It was chocolate peanut butter. His favorite.
“I wake up at 6. One hour to orient myself and address concerns. I review the document from 7-11, Bernie arrives around 8:30 and assists. Lunch until 11:30, then we work on whatever the document has assigned us until you arrive between 11:30 and 13:00. We try to have you oriented by 13:30. We work on our assigned tasks until 19:00. You continue working while I update the document and Bernie goes out to steal us supplies. When Bernie gets back, usually around 21:00, you two go off to sleep in motels, and I sleep here.”
Mitch took a swig of the warm coldbrew. He winced at the taste. “That’s a lot of time spent on the document.”
“It’s a complicated document. We’ve tried a lot of things.”
“Have you considered that the document may be a trap?”
“It’s my writing.”
“Maybe the first version of the document was a trap, written by this Bob character, and you’ve updated it enough that–”
“Mitch,” Bernie interrupted. “We’ve thought it through. Eat your damn energy bar.”
Mitch held up his hands. He didn’t stop thinking about it, though. The question was one of motivation. Maybe someone was very invested in all three of them being asleep at midnight, but needed them alive. He took another bite of his energy bar.
Working on the document was surprisingly boring. Mitch smiled and helped out as much as he could, while his mind began to pick the problem apart from other angles.
The document’s current angle of attack was to try and draw more people into the antimemetic effect, to increase their manpower. The document’s working theory was that the four of them were loci of the antimeme because they knew there was an antimeme. So if they could convince someone else, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the antimeme was real, then that person might get drawn in too.
What tended to happen instead was that people listened to their story, promised to help, then woke up the next morning remembering nothing. Sometimes these people left themselves clues, hints that “The Antimemetic Four” were real, in which case they checked themselves into infohazard observation, and that was that.
But they were only a few dozen loops into the current plan. There were a lot more approaches to try. They started brainstorming, while Mitch worked on his pet theory.
“Hey, Barb,” he said. “Could I see my binder for a second?”
She didn’t even look up. “Not while you’re holding a pen.”
“Why not? I thought I wrote it.”
“You did. But the document says that you try to leave yourself cryptic clues in it, so any edits have to be carefully checked and rewritten by myself. We aren’t scheduled for that until later this week.”
“Couldn’t I just write myself notes at home, though?”
“You do sometimes. You usually hop on a plane to Russia when you wake up, and we don’t see you for a few days. You find your way back eventually, but we lose a lot of time, so I would prefer you not do this.”
Mitch frowned. Why Russia? He’d hated Russia since he’d been stationed there in 1990. Maybe that made sense, though; it was the last place he would expect himself to go. Was he really so ironically predictable?
He felt through his pockets for papers. Nothing. That was very strange. He felt like he would’ve at least tried to leave himself cryptic clues that wouldn’t spook him when he woke up, but would be easy to find once he knew what was going on. Maybe if he went back to the motel room he’d find something.
By the time things were wrapping up, Mitch had narrowed the situation down to 2.5 likely possibilities. None of those possibilities benefited from being shared. When the time came, he shook hands firmly with Barb and Bernie, promised not to write himself any messages that sent him off to Russia, and made his ungainly escape out the window.
The walk back to the motel was dark and cold. He should’ve thought to bring a jacket this morning. The motel clerk was unsurprised to see him back, since he’d abandoned all his things, and happily booked him another night. Mitch paid for his room in wrinkled 20s that Bernie stole from the canteen cash register every night.
He spent ten minutes searching his room for secret messages. There was nothing. Eventually he shrugged and sat down on the bed, pulling the blankets over his head.
Alone under the blanket with only the light of his phone, he dug around in his pocket until he came up with a quarter. He couldn’t leave himself notes for whatever reason. It wasn’t so much that Barb had told him not to, it was the fact that he hadn’t found any today. That meant it wasn’t a stable strategy. With notes he couldn’t try things in serial, but there was always random chance.
He only had a few plausible plans. It didn’t take many coin flips to pick one. When the last flip fell tails he grimaced. His binder had gone to extensive lengths to convey to him just how unpleasant it was to be awake at midnight. Unpleasant, but not lethal, or he would certainly be dead by now. What sort of self-respecting agent wouldn’t wait up to see what happened? He must have done it dozens of times.
So he pulled the blankets down, changed out of his suit, and sat up in bed to wait.
At the stroke of midnight, he heard a sound from his door. A key turned in the lock. He tensed, involuntarily, but tried to make himself relax. This was by far the best of the possible outcomes.
The door opened, and a man stepped through. He was tall and dressed in a nice suit with a distinctive bowler hat. Mitch didn’t recognize him at all. Mitch smiled, folding his arms and trying not to show that his heart was racing. “Hello, Bob,” he said.
The man tipped his hat. “Mitch,” he said. “My men told me you didn’t try to buy a weapon. Is this the cooperative, I’ve-figured-it-out sort of waiting up for me, then?”
Mitch shrugged. “The random sort of waiting up for you.”
The man cursed under his breath. “Well,” he said, stepping fully into the room. “Let’s get on with it. It’s a lot easier when you’re asleep, you know.”
A stream of men filed into the room behind him, all of them dressed in suits and wearing ski masks. Some of them carried fancy-looking equipment. Mitch quirked an eyebrow.
“I know I’m going to forget everything in a moment,” he said, “but I have to ask. The curiosity is killing me.”
Bob sighed. He dragged out motel room’s single chair and sat on it backward, crossing his arms over the top. “We have ten minutes while my men set up. I’ll trade you. What gave it away?”
Mitch thought back on events. How easily he’d broken in to the complex. The dust-covered warroom that had never been repurposed. The fact that he’d supposedly flown off to Russia multiple times, but never gotten caught in a stable loop that kept him away. The fact that he’d booked a second night at this motel, but that it was only the second night, rather than the hundredth. The fact that whatever stable loop he was in didn’t include any kind of message to himself. “Everything,” he finally said. “You really bit off a lot for yourself.”
Bob shrugged. “When the program fails, it fails safe. We just have to start up again. What have you figured out? I’ll explain the rest if you walk me through your thought process.”
“Well,” Mitch said. “I didn’t think it was an antimeme. I wasn’t sure until you walked in, but I didn’t think so. Too many things didn’t add up. Even so, something was affecting my memory, and the memory of everyone around me. I started to think about who or what could have the disposition of force to mess with everyone in the complex like that. But then I realized I was making assumptions. I knew that something was affecting my memory. But what if everyone else was just lying?”
Mitch readjusted on the bed. The men around him were assembling their gear into a rather menacing machine. “Anyway, after that, a bunch of stuff fell into place. The complex would be at the top of my list for people with access to technology that could modify my memory. It would be significantly easier to modify 1-3 people’s memories than to modify everyone’s memories. Everything pointed to the complex being behind it. It also explained that asinine ‘records of you persist but are mistaken for a mythomemetic hazard’ story. I don’t know you, but I assume that’s not your best work.”
Bob nodded along. “Five minutes,” he said, checking his watch.
“I’ll ask my questions then. Are Barb and Bernie in on it?”
“No. We wipe them every night. They’re a lot less trouble than you are, though.”
“You all volunteered. Standard team. A disposable field agent, a paranoid asshole who’s survived too much, and an adult to do the actual work.”
Bob checked his watch again. “The antimemetics department has never found an antimeme. Not once. They’re theoretically possible, so–”
“Have you actually never found one?” Mitch interjected. “Or do you just not remember?”
“Exactly. We’ve been working for years on a set of procedures that would allow an individual or a small team that encountered an antimeme to study it. But we ran into a problem: how could we make sure these procedures worked without an antimeme to test on?”
Mitch almost smacked his forehead. Of course. If you find yourself in a strange situation, and you suspect an adversary arranged it, but you don’t know what they want, how do you start to reason about it? A hell of a good first guess is that they want whatever is going on. If you find yourself sitting in an office working on a document after hundreds of amnesia loops – well, they probably wanted you to work on that document.
The men around Mitch were done with the machine. It had a helmet that looked suspiciously like an upside-down colander, and too many blinking lights.
“One last question,” Mitch said. “How do you wipe my memory?”
Bob motioned with his hand, and the men around Mitch lowered the col-lander onto his head. Bob reached into his sport coat and produced a stack of glossy photos.
“Neuronal hyperactivity. Same mechanism as Alzheimer’s, but we use electricity. We visually stimulate the connections we want to disrupt, then use this machine here to produce a microtargeted seizure.”
Bob fanned out the photos. There was a picture of Barb, and Bernie, alongside a few others Mitch didn’t recognize. Two of the pictures were children.
“Don’t worry,” Bob said, “you’re divorced. But these are the memories you’ll be forgetting. The human brain is a social organ. It likes to index memories by the people who were there, with a recency bias. Please stare very intently at these photos, as well as my face. We’re going to–”
Mitch heard a beep from the machine, and then the world went white.