theesherm

“Ignorance is Bliss”

I woke up to the taste of ink.

There was a numb pain in my left arm; I looked through my swimming vision to see my left sleeve rolled up and a small amount of blood on the outside of my forearm.

While my head throbbed, the spinning of the room started to slow down. I checked my wound; it was a bleeding gouge mark of some kind, and ten similar gouges were healed alongside it. I was on the floor of a bedroom, but the house looked to be condemned; windows broken, furniture tossed, the ceiling has a hole knocked through it. Using the bed for leverage, I got to my feet and noticed that I was wearing an MTF uniform. Agents aren’t typically issued tac-gear unless… shit.

I found a cracked mirror on the floor and propped it up against the wall. No head injuries. Black substance on tongue and teeth. I’ve been amnesticized. Shit, okay, remember what you can.

My name is Alan Williams. I’m 37 years old, ginger, and handsome. I’ve worked for the Foundation for 8 years. I’m an agent specializing in Euclid, non-sentient, object anomalies. The year, as I know it, is 2078. I wonder how hard I got inked this time…

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the reflection of somebody lying on the ground on the other side of the bed. I whipped around to help, but nobody was there. Turning back to the mirror, the body is still reflected.

I picked up the mirror and carried it over to the non-person. The reflection was fuzzy, as if they were being shown in a low resolution video. She’s also wearing tac-gear, and she was frozen reaching for her belt pouch. Front left. I checked my front left belt pouch; empty.

Leaping is the only word that describes how I maneuvered over the bed, and underneath the bed was, as expected, a small white canister. The spray lid had been torn off; the inside coated with a thin layer of the same inky substance that coated my mouth. I did this to myself, and saved myself from what happened to my former compatriot.

What the hell is going on?

One soldier down, one soldier dumb; I really hoped that someone in command knew what the hell was going on. I pulled back my shirt sleeve and activated my halo-bracelet, the light-interface blazed to life and I selected the comm-link; hopefully someone was listening on the Foundation Emergency Frequency.

“This is agent, I mean, I guess, Sergeant Williams if you ask my tac gear; serial number alpha - whiskey - one - two - one - five - eight - six - golf. Does anyone have ears on this channel?”

“We copy, Sergeant. What’s your status?”

“As far as I can tell, I self-amnesticized. There’s another member of what I’m guessing was my team here, sort of-”

“Sergeant Williams, this is extremely important. Do not follow that train of thought any further. Due to the current situation, the Foundation is operating under an ‘Ignorance is Bliss’ protocol. Any additional knowledge of the situation is a danger to your well-being. Are you injured?”

“No, I’m fine.”

“What year do you think it is?”

“2078.”

“And is it accurate to say that you remember nothing past your time as a Foundation Agent?”

“Yes.”

“Alright. We’ve got your position from your halo; there is a Foundation Motorcade passing through your area in approximately four hours. To meet them, you need to head five miles north to the interstate; I’ve marked the rendezvous point on your map. I’ll radio ahead and let them know to be looking for you.”

I rotated my halo-interface and pulled up the area map. I was in a housing district, and there would be what looked like some commercial space in between me and my target marker.

“What can I know on my way there?”

“ANY information is dangerous, so much so that we’ve locked the Public Internet and Foundation Intranet functions of your halo. Any civilian, anomaly, newspaper, television, anything should be avoided by any means necessary; get to the motorcade as unmolested as possible.”

“Son of a bitch, that’s just wacky fun, isn’t it?”

“Yep. Good luck, agent.”

Sergeant…”

“Do you remember how to be a Sergeant?”

“… shit.”

Before leaving, I took stock of the room; nothing that can be considered a supply to be found. My gear had a Foundation-issue Glock 42 in its holster, two stun grenades, and a set of motion/heat sensored goggles. Other utilities like a flashlight and a multi-tool were in various pouches. There was also a handgun I didn’t recognize; it looked like Foundation reverse-engineered extra-terrestrial tech, all sorts of curves and bronze inlays. You never use REET weapons unless you know what they are; alien shit can tickle someone to death or stun them with the burning of a thousand suns for a fraction of a second. I considered examining my fallen squadmate one more time, but the dispatcher said not to and fuck me if I’ve decided not to trust the company line on shit I needed to know or not to know.

I pushed through the dilapidated living room and out onto the street…

The afternoon daylight was blinding for a moment. After shading my eyes, I surveyed the area. It wasn’t just this house; the whole block was a warzone. I wish I had asked what level of worldwide apocalypse I was walking into, but I’m sure dispatch wouldn’t have told me either way.

I started making my way north, staying close to the houses for cover. All of the houses in the neighborhood had the same bombed-out look; kind of a “Suburbs of World War Four” chic. I could see into most of them through the plentiful holes; besides the random flock of pigeons or squirrels, most of them were deserted. The street ended in a cul de sac and beyond the last house, I could see a treeline.

As I approached, I could see the tall, laser-grid fence meant to keep the suburb separated from the plaza on the other side. Well, the good news was that the apocalypse hadn’t knocked out the power supply. Checking my map and assuming that this fence wraps around the suburb, I’d have to go a mile south to get around and come back up; I could make it, but it’s pretty out of the way and I’d rather save the time if I can.

Maybe I’d get lucky and this was an upper-class neighborhood with a hard-light fence. I picked up a nearby branch and tossed it at the grid. I swear I could hear the sizzle of the burning wood and leaves say “Your bad luck sure is coming to a middle.” I headed over to one of the pylons to see if I could remove a panel and shut it down somehow. Before I could touch anything, the whole fence went out. Holy shit, dive or think?

I chose dive. I leapt full-force across the fence line before it had the chance to reactivate. Successfully, I might add. Well, unless you count leaping before looking causing me to tumble down a hereto unnoticed ditch full of wonderfully aromatic standing water as a point against me. My tac-gear protected me from the bulk of the bumps, thankfully.

The fence had turned back on, so at least I felt good about that decision. I found a nice, hefty rock and tossed it up at the fence to add injury to its insult. The rock ricocheted off of the fence in a decidedly not-being-burned-into-nothingness fashion. That’s… that’s not how fences work. You can’t be standard laser one second and flip a switch to hard-light, the pylon technology is different. Or, at least, it was when I can remember, which is I-don’t know-how-long ago.

Just to be safe, I pulled out my halo and scanned the area for Hume fluctuations. The Kant Counter gave a perfectly normal reading of the reality of the area. I guess time and technology just keep marching on. I switched to the Suit menu and activated the autodry. My suit buzzed as its interior created a warm air flow that quickly dried out my gear, and also felt nice if I’m being honest. I dusted off the dirt that used to be mud and started walking.

As I rounded to the front, I saw that this plaza is anchored with a large grocery store. I don’t know how long I was unconscious, but I did know that I was suddenly very hungry now that I’ve remembered that food is a thing that exists. Weighing the distance I have to travel versus the time, I should be able to get in and out and make it to the pickup. Just had to stay on the lookout; I hadn’t seen any people yet, but supermarkets are the kind of place people head to in an apocalypse and Dispatch seemed very serious about that “Do Not Engage” order.

I prepared to take out my flashlight, but the interior of the store was lit by daylight streaming through multiple holes in the ceiling. What struck me first was how much food was still on the shelves. There wasn’t a run on the store? No raiders after the fact?

I didn’t remember how long it had been since the event, so I made a beeline to the canned food aisle. As I passed by a frozen food case, I spotted someone out of the corner of my eye. I wheeled around and pulled my pistol on the empty air. Scanning around, I found them again; it was a reflection in the cold case door. A man, civilian, blurry like my squadmate back at the house, face contorted in horror staring back at me blended with my own reflection. Holstering my gun, I opened the cold case door and slowly tracked the reflection across the store; there were more civilians here. All of them invisible except for their blurred reflections. What sort of anomalous shit was this?

I jumped as a woman’s voice shouted from behind me, “Oh god! Are you a soldier? Thank God you’re here!”

I looked where the voice had come from. Stumbling towards me from a few aisles down was a woman, a little shorter than me, blonde hair, stringy, wearing ratty civilian clothes.

“Please, I need your help!”

I had to make a decision fast. My orders were not to engage anyone. What were my options?

“Please!”

I could run. I could shoot her.

She was sobbing, hysterical.

I took a deep breath and stood my ground as she rammed into me and hugged me. It was honestly nice to see someone alive after all of these mirror ghost things and-

Did she just sweep the leg?

With a loud thwack, I was flat on my back. Thank God for helmets or I’d be concussed as well. She went straight for my Glock, but I got a hand on her left wrist. Her right hand boxed my elbow and she followed through with her right elbow straight into my nose. My vision exploded and I choked as I snorted blood. She was good, and that wasn’t good news for me.

I could feel her pull my Glock out of its holster; I took a risk on a blind flop with hope that my weight advantage might be able to knock her off balance. I managed to slam both of us into the potato chip display, but I didn’t have any bullets in me yet so I considered the risk a success. We wrestled for the gun, trading body blows and arm locks. I had the advantages of size and body armor, but she could take me apart seven ways from Sunday with her technical skill, and I didn’t have body armor on my face which she kept hitting.

She knocked me down to my knees and pointed my gun at my head. Gasping for air, head swimming, bleeding out of my nose, lip, and cheek, I didn’t see a way out of this. Then I didn’t see something else.

A hole appeared in the potato chip rack behind her. Almost as if the shelves just melted out of existence. Something, or nothing, something I couldn’t see grabbed my assailant by her wrist. She dropped the gun to the ground as she was lifted into the air by the unseen force. Her arms and legs splayed wide and her back arched as if she was being pulled apart. She started hyperventilating as her face turned beet red. She managed to choke out two words:

“Kill… me…”

As I stared slackjawed at whatever was happening, her fingers and shoes started to dematerialize; it looked like she was pixelating and dissolving. This is what happened to my squadmate, to all these civilians, and it looked like it fucking sucked.

I reached to grab my gun off of the ground, but stopped. The REET. I had no idea what it did, but maybe I have it because it has some use in this situation. I pulled it out of its holster, aimed, and pulled the trigger.

The gun short circuited in my hand. No kickback, no projectile or energy beam, nothing happened when I pulled the trigger…

but she fell down anyways.

I slid down next to her and saw her extremities snap back to existence. Her breathing slowed and she passed out. I holstered my intact Glock and my burnt out REET, picked her up over my shoulder, and didn’t stop running until I made it to the rendezvous point.


I woke up to the taste of ink.

While my head throbbed, the spinning of the room started to slow down. I was on a bed — well, a cot — and the cramped room had that familiar, rumbling shake of an RV. Using the bed for leverage, I got to my feet and noticed that I was wearing Foundation-issue sweats. Agents aren’t typically issued military style clothes unless… shit.

I staggered over to the mirror hanging on the wall. Broken nose with matching raccoon eyes, split lip, stitches in the cheek, black substance on tongue and teeth. There were stitches on the outside of my left forearm, a small gouge mark and eleven similar ones alongside it. I got my ass kicked, and I’ve been amnesticized. Shit, okay, remember what you can.

My name is Alan Williams. I’m 37 years old, ginger, and handsome, well, underneath these bruises anyway. I’ve worked for The Foundation for 8 years. I’m an Agent specializing in Euclid, non-sentient, object anomalies. The year as I know it is 2078. I wonder how hard I got inked this time…

There was a callbox next to the door to the room, and I jammed the button a little too hard for the bruises on my fingers that I didn’t know were there.

“Am I being contained?”

The door opened.

“No sir. Glad to see you awake,” says the smiling man in Foundation BDUs.

“Good. That bedroom/bathroom combo was a little cramped.”

“Glad to see the amnestics didn’t cost you your sense of humor.”

“… have we met?”

“No, I’m Michael. We didn’t meet until after. I saved your life once, you saved mine three or four times depending on who’s counting.”

“After what?”

“We don’t talk about that; ‘Ignorance is Bliss’ protocol is in effect. Don’t worry, I’ve forgotten you once as well.”

“Ah… were we friends?”

“Not my first two times, I’m told, but third time’s a charm, eh?”

“Yeah, who knows?”

Michael beamed. “Get cleaned up and head down the hall, they’ll give you your ‘Wake Up’ briefing.”

I grabbed my towel and headed to the back of the hall where the shower was; occupied. While I waited, I went over what memories I could recollect. The most vibrant thing I remembered is saying goodbye to my wife on my way to work: I could remember she was drinking coffee, I could remember she was reading the paper, but I couldn’t remember what she looked like… I looked down at my left hand; no ring. Something could have happened in my missing time. Maybe she died, maybe I left… hell, I don’t even remember if she in the job or if she was a civ. Those amnestics were hell. They liked to tell you that they targeted specific memories or certain timeframes, but it’s times like these that I knew they were full of shit.

My attempts at memory were interrupted by the door to the shower opening; a woman, brunette, a little shorter than me, in a towel stepped out. She stopped in shock when she saw my face.

“Wow, I’m sorry for what happened to the other guy.”

“Yeah, he never stood a chance. Not that I can remember…”

“Oh, me too.” She bared her teeth to me, covered in black ink the same as mine.

“Party on. Who are you now?”

“Brianna Tackson, Staff Sergeant, U.S. Army Special Forces. You?”

“Alan Williams, Foundation Agent.”

“Ah, so you have more of a clue than me. What’s next?”

“I don’t have a damn clue; I’m just supposed to shower and get down to the briefing.”

“Well, see you there. Al?”

“Alan. Bre?”

“Well I was going to say Bre’s fine, but if you’re being all stuffy then Brianna it is.”

As she turned to walked away, the hallway shook from what must have been one hell of a bump in the road. As I smacked against the wall, Tackson braced herself with both hands, and as for the towel…

I successfully grasped for it, and as I ardently attempted not to perv out on this woman I just met, I noticed the bruises on her abdomen.

“Looks like I’m not the only one who got in a fight,” I said, averting my eyes.

“Yeah, she never stood a chance. Not that I can remember…” She extended her hand, which I filled with her missing towel.

“See you at briefing?

“Yeah.”

My shower was, honestly, just me thanking God repeatedly for the motorcade’s hot water heater. I’ve changed my mind; I don’t care what any technophobes say about humanity’s need for “the will to survive,” the ability to use a miniature cold fusion reactor to have a portable, hot shower at will was more than enough to justify mankind’s march into The Future.

I finished up, threw on my BDUs, and made my way to the briefing room. The cadet at the door waved me in, not looking up from his halo. The room was cramped, but the familiar, black walls with orange lights gridding them told me it was about to get much bigger. Brianna was standing at attention in the center of the room, and I stood a pace back so I wouldn’t hit her elbows and the wall. The cadet in the back closed the door behind me, and the I could see the gridded walls unfold away from us as a large holoscreen appeared in front of us. A scientist’s face filled the screen, his face awkwardly close to the camera.

“Tackson, Williams; welcome to today’s briefing. I’m Doctor Stewart. As you probably don’t remember, the specific cocktail of compound Y-909 we give to Agents working in the field has-”

I had to say something. “Doc, you could move a foot or so back? I’m getting distracted counting your nose hairs.”

Brianna snickered, and the Doc gave a bit of a chuckle as well.

“Sure, man. Glad to see you made it back in one piece again, and that we can’t ink out your sass threshold no matter how many times we try.”

I chuckled and nodded politely; I didn’t remember the Doc, and he probably knew it as well. No need to remind him. As he moved away from the camera, I could see expensive looking bookshelves behind him; apparently, he was not bumming around the country in a motorcade.

“Anyways, long story short, the specific type of amnestic we give you doesn’t affect motor neurons. All of your advanced physical training that we worked into your muscle memory before is still there, you just don’t remember what it is so you don’t know how to access it. Today, we’re going to crash course you back up to your previous rank. Tomorrow morning, we’re going to give you your assigned intel in accordance with the ‘Ignorance is Bliss’ protocol, and we’ll have you ready to launch for your next mission after that. Please link your halos now.”

Brianna and I both activated our halos and linked them to the room. The room lit up into an endless sea of white, and two large gun racks with benches appeared on either side of us. Down range, we could see a target apparatus swinging around.

“Please start by assembling, loading, firing at the target successfully, cleaning, and disassembling each weapon on the rack. Your halo has been linked to the Foundation Weapons Archive if you have any questions. Proceed.”

We got down to the long process of cycling through every weapon we had. I had no issue with the standard pistols and a couple of the rifles, but as the guns got more esoteric, I found myself checking the archive more and more to get an idea of where to start. Brianna made it farther than I did, even into the first few REET weapons, before breaking out the FWA as well.

“Hey, Al?”

I grumbled. “Yeah?”

“Why do you Foundation guys do this?” she asked, pointing at her halo-screen. The archive page she was looking at was about 90% blackboxed.

“The only information available is basically: Point. Shoot. One time use.” she muttered. “They even redacted the ‘Effective Against’ section, so we don’t even know why this gun is worth having.”

I looked down at the weapon she held in her hand. It was one of the REETs, a curvy handgun inlaid with bronze. My vision began to blur, and a screaming migraine kicked me in the teeth and took me to my knees. As I squinted my eyes shut, visions of that gun in my hands danced across the inside of my eyelids. I saw potato chip bags on the ground, and I heard someone screaming. I looked in that direction and saw a woman hovering in the air; I could see she was in pain by the way her body was spasming, but her features were blurry like a bad photo. I took aim and fired the REET…

And immediately vomited onto the floor of the sim-room. The migraine started to subside, and Bre was there with one hand on my shoulder and the other up to her mouth, she was yelling into her halo to get some help as I was propped up against the bench. As the Cadet stormed into the door and the simulation powered down, I waved my hand at them.

“No, no, don’t worry. It’s just an intrusive thought. It’s already gone.”

“That’s an intrusive thought?” Bre asked, concerned. “Like when a memory tries to break through the amnestics?”

“Yeah, usually triggered by something or other. What, this hasn’t happened to you?”

“Nope, I’m not a little bitch though.”

She smirked as she said it and I laughed which hurt my head. Bre helped me up to sit on the bench and the Cadet released us to lunch while we were stalled out anyways.

What counted for a kitchen on this heap was up in the front. It was unnerving that I didn’t see any other soldiers or agents present. I wondered just how fucked we and the world were. We drank down the protein shakes scavenged from nutrition stores and filled up the rest of the way with gourmet canned meat and beans, then made our way back to the sim-room.

The second shift started with strategy in the field. Bre was already trained in this sort of exercise, so this section was a lot of me playing catch-up. It was my turn to be head of the class when we got to the Foundation standard protocols regarding anomalies and containment. We ended the day with physical fitness. After several mile runs, wall climbing, and long jumps, we were supposed to wrap up with sparring.

“Of course they put this at the end of the day,” I opined.

“You ready?” Bre replied, all business.

Hoo boy, I thought. Here goes. Bre and I took our stances. I circled cautiously, and Bre was having none of it. She moved in fast with a right hook and had a straight kick for my leg going seemingly before I blocked the initial blow. I backpedaled and she responded by throwing another kick toward my midsection that I managed to fall away from. She was intent to keep the pressure on me, that’s for sure. She jabbed forward and I managed to get ahold of her wrist; I pivoted my weight and threw her past me; the old Irish Whip never failed. While she regained her balance, I lunged at her. She flipped around like lightning and ended my tackle with a knee to my abdomen, knocking the wind out of me. She got her leg behind mine and THWACK, I was lying on my back on the ground. Bre held her fists at the ready in case I got back up.

She whispered, “Finish Him.”

“Are you serious? You fucking nerd.”

She offered her hand and helped me up. As I stood, she noticed the line of cuts on my forearm.

“What is that, a kill count?”

“Nah, a forgetting count. If I can manage it before blanking out, I leave a mark for each time I’ve been amnesticized.”

“Ah,” she nodded. “I can see why that would be useful in your line of work.”

“Before the fall, I only had two. Waking up and seeing so many extra ones that I don’t remember is a trip every time, so I’m glad I keep these mementos to know where I’ve been.” Bre put her hand on my shoulder and I breathed a sigh of relief and put my hand on her hand; comfort was in short supply these days.

The sim-room powered down as the Cadet entered and told us to clean up and head to our bunks for the night. After my shower, I laid in my bunk. My head was swimming with everything I’d taken in today. Going from Agent to Sergeant in one day is rough to be sure, but I was also thinking about Bre. She was smart, funny… I sat up on the edge of my bed debating whether or not to go visit her and decided that yes, I would, because curfews are for assholes anyways. I opened my door, and almost collided with Bre.

“Oh, hi…” I mustered.

“Hi.”

“Can I, uh, help you?”

She took a deep breath. “Well, it’s the end of the world, and I don’t know how many people are alive out there, and curfews are for assholes. Can I come in?”

I smiled, stepped aside, and she walked in. I closed the door.

We laid there all night, her in my arms, my face in her hair. She smelled like cheap soap and something I couldn’t place. It was nice.

In the morning, she kissed me on the cheek as she went back to her bunk. I suited up in my tac gear and headed to the sim-room for the mission briefing. Bre was already there; she smiled at me as I stepped in beside and slightly back from her. The room didn’t expand today, but the holoscreen appeared in front of us and Doc Stewart appeared on it, facing down and frantically scribbling on some papers while talking on his halo.

“What do you mean Iota-77 is MIA?! That means-“ He looked up at us in surprise. “Oh! You’re here, finally. We’ve had some difficulties with the, um, no, the, memetic hazard. Yeah, okay, so here’s what you need to know to succeed in your mission.”

“Two years ago, a memetic hazard traveled through social media and annihilated most of the human race within hours. If you are affected, you have precious little time to self-amnesticize before succumbing. If your squadmate is in the midst of succumbing, you can utilize your one use high density particle firearm to give your partner slightly more time to self-amnesticize.”

“Wait, Doc,” I piped up, “why would high density particles have any effect on a person suffering from a memetic hazard?”

“They, uh… hey! It’s part of the protocol, you don’t need to know that. Continuing on, the motorcade is approaching your mission site. Your job is to breach the facility, find the terminal marked on your halo, and use it to manually upload the, uh, inoculation meme into the satellites. Once they broadcast worldwide, we can start the rebuilding process and 2000 and all that without having to worry about infection spreading again.

“Why can’t you do this remotely?” Bre asked.

“The-” Dr. Stewart took a sharp breath and exhaled, “The facility you’re headed into is a highly secured government facility, and their network intrusion protection is top-notch. If we had our full resources, we’d easily be able to break in, but it’s useless with our current capabilities.”

“What kind of resistance will we be facing?” Bre asked before I could. Damn, she was on the ball.

“There’s an automaton-based security system. We’ve uploaded the proper security credentials onto your halos. Wave yourself in as an employee and you’ll be fine.”

“Anything else you can tell-”

“No. You have everything you need to know to succeed in your mission. Humanity as a whole is relying on you right now, so no matter what, you have to upload that meme. Got it?”

“Yes, sir,” we both replied.

“Good, dismissed.” Dr. Stewart spat at us, and thrust his hand into his coat pocket. He pulled out a familiar white canister and brought it to his mouth as the feed cut out.

“Damn, Ignorance protocol is serious business,” I muttered out loud.

“About how much of the intel he told us do you think is accurate?”

“Probably the stuff pertinent to the mission like the security measures and the job, but everything about the memetic hazard is crap. If knowing things is that dangerous, they aren’t going to tell us anything factual about it.”

“Ready to roll?” she smirked and extended her arm.

“Let’s do it,” I said, clasping her hand in mine.

We were unceremoniously dropped off by the side of the road and the motorcade rolled away. Despite training us on every simulated weapon known to man, we only had our sidearms and our REETs for this mission. I only hoped the automated security was as easy to shut down as they said.

Across the overgrown grass of the campus landscape and past the fountain was our target: Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The sun was shining, and there was a cool breeze as we walked across the field. As we walked around the fountain, I could make out that the front wall of the facility was collapsing. I cursed and took off running towards the door, Bre kept stride beside me despite our height difference. I didn’t hear any explosion, but if there’s activity in the facility then this mission has already started in the shitter.

As we crossed the front parking lot, it became apparent the collapse wasn’t slowing down. The wall in front of us was cascading, I guess is the best word. Rocks fell slower than gravity, and there seemed to be a never ending supply of debris cycling repeatedly. I pulled up my sleeve and activated my halo.

“Dispatch, this is Sergeant Williams, are you there?”

“We hear you, Sergeant, what is your status?”

“I’m sending you a video; we’ve encountered an apparent spatial anomaly at the front door of our mission site. Please advise on how to proceed.”

After a moment and some muffled whispers, Dispatch came back.

“Find an alternative entry to the facility and continue the mission.”

“This isn’t a coincidence, is it? This is involved with whatever the hell we’re dealing with? Is there more of this inside?”

“There shouldn’t be. Get into the facility and complete your mission, Sergeant.” They hung up.

“Fuck. Okay, we need to find another way in.”

“It’s the apocalypse,” Bre said, “there must be a hole in a wall somewhere.”

I chuckled. “Really?”

“Hey, humor is my coping mechanism, and as far as I remember, I’ve only been in the end of the world for 36 hours.”

That was an interesting way to think about it. I guess working for The Foundation for years conditioned me to think that the world could end any day, so I got used to the idea as if it was already happening.

We walked around the north side of the building and easily found a knocked out wall to let ourselves in. We made our way through the conference room and into the hallway slowly, and determining the coast to be clear, we made our way back to the front lobby area. It wasn’t as grand as I expected; you could almost mistake it for any business if it weren’t for the large model of the space shuttle hanging from the ceiling above it. We found the entry terminal and keyed our halos for safe access. Bre lingered at the terminal for a second.

“What do you see?”

“I’m just checking what level security access we have; making sure we’re not going to trip any doors outside of our access range and what sort of capabilities these automated units have. They’re Galvatron units; heavily armored, rolling tank bots. I’m very happy to see that we aren’t going to have to mess with these today.”

“Good call. Let’s roll.”

We made our way up the stairs and past the tourist area of the building, virtual screens and mock-ups of classic aerospace designs sitting relatively untouched. As we reached an “Employees Only” door, we badged in with our halos and entered the more utilitarian hallways; this was a place of work and science, and although it wasn’t as cold as a Foundation facility, it was still a research center.

Suddenly, every door around us opened at the same time. A swarm of people poured out of the doors and mobbed us to the ground. I could feel them grabbing my Glock and REET and emptying my pockets; I’m sure they were doing the same to Bre’s gear as well. They dragged us down the hallway and around the corner where they seemed to have a base of operations. Tables on end reinforced by desks for defenses, various melee weapons and a few guns here and there. We were brought before a man; unassuming, office worker type, civilian clothes in disarray. He had a clipboard, and seemed to be counting supplies. Before I could speak, my mouth was covered by a thick strip of black tape; Bre’s was as well.

“What should we do with them, Glen?” asked the guy holding my wrists.

“Judging by their uniforms, I’ll bet they know spoilers; toss them in the boardroom. Toss their stuff over there and I’ll add it to the inventory roster.”

The guy with our gear walked into one of the hallway doors while Bre and I were dragged back in the direction we came. They turned the opposite direction at the corner and brought us to a pair of large glass doors. We couldn’t hear anything from inside, but we could see holograms standing around the board table having a discussion. They were hard to make out through the streams of daylight that fell through holes in the ceiling above them.

Two of them moved forward to open the doors.

“Check their ears.”

“Clear.”

They opened the doors and shoved us inside.

We hit the ground and they shoved the doors shut behind us. I twisted around and saw that all of them were leaning against the door to pin us in. I turned my head back to the table and saw what I can now see were scientists speaking in a very heated fashion.

“What are the capabilities of a creature made out of the fabric or reality itself? I’m sorry, Brian, what did you call these things?”

My face drained of color instantly.

“They’re called Pat-“

I ripped the tape off of my mouth and put my hands over my ears and started yelling at Bre like a crazy person.

“COVER YOUR EARS AND START YELLING NONSTOP! YOU CAN’T LISTEN TO THOSE SCIENTISTS OR YOU’LL FIND OUT WHATEVER WE’RE NOT SUPPOSED TO KNOW!”

Bre followed my lead and yelled back, “WHAT ARE WE SUPPOSED TO DO TO GET OUT OF HERE?”

I started to yell my response, but choked when I looked at the glass door again. From the light’s reflection, I could see dozens of people’s reflections all over the room. On the tables, under the tables, floating in mid-air, their faces contorted in pain, trapped as nothing.

Bre saw what I was looking at, and I saw an idea flash over her face. She dropped her hands and started pulling at her wrist, discovering that they didn’t confiscate her halo.

“COVER YOUR DAMN EARS!”

She kept working on her halo, and whether she was paying attention or not, all of that information is going in her ears. I had to try something. I started a long yell and turned around and grabbed a chair and flung it at the door. One of the guys flinched back, but the others held strong. I rammed against the door to no success.

“-about the Screamers from a distress signal from the Europa Synchotron.”

I covered my ears again. I eyed the hologram projector; there must be some way to shut it down. I started examining it and figured I’d found the console. I took a deep breath and let out another roar as I tried to pry the lid off it. I grabbed for a nearby pen to pry it open, and almost stabbed myself in the ear as I tried to cover my ears between breaths. I screamed again as I tried to pry open the lid, but I was starting to get lightheaded and couldn’t keep yelling at top volume.

“Values don’t just max out and roll over to the bottom again in real life, Steve! That shit only happens in-“

I turned around, ears covered, and kicked feebly against the door, but perked up when I saw a seven foot mountain of chrome shaped like a man — or, vaguely manlike if you ignore the tank treads and six arms — roll around the corner. As the Galvatron unit turned to face the crowd, blaze-blue sparks lit up at the ends of its arms. As it started accelerating towards the group at the door, I turned to Bre, who shot me a cocky look.

One of the guys in the back heard it coming, and whirred his head around only to be met by a taser to the face. His body shook as he crumpled to the ground, and the whole crew turned around. The charging mess of swirling taser arms cut the crowd in half, causing the Galvatron to slam into the door. It righted itself and started whirring after one half of the goons while the other half fled, only to be confronted at the corner by a second unit.

The path clear, Bre and I leapt through the freshly unblocked doors and slammed them shut behind us. I quickly turned to Bre.

“How much did you hear?”

“Enough. The Earth is pretty fucked. I don’t know how the Foundation has held the end at bay for this long; around 95% of the population were wiped out at the end of day-”

“Stop. I’m not sharing what I heard, you’re not sharing what you heard. The more you know, the more dead you are. Let’s just finish the mission and forget about this for the…” I trailer off and thought of my arm, “-thirteenth time. Ha, lucky number, huh?”

I patted my pockets; the amnestic slot was empty along with the others.

“We have to get our gear and finish the mission. We’re not getting out of this alive without that amnestic.”

Bre nodded, and we turned toward the direction of our would-be executioners. We jogged down to the corner and I peeked around. A Galvatron unit and two hovering drones were inside the makeshift hallway village wreaking havoc, giving us clearance to creep up to the outer “walls” of their fortifications. I could hear fighting in the adjacent rooms of the hall. Bre and I breached, or really, slid around their tables and desks and sat with our backs to wall beside the first set of doors on either side.

Peering into the room, I spotted our pile on the table in the center. I could see someone’s feet lying on the ground on the other side of the table; those autos are really efficient at tasing. I signaled over to Bre and ducked into the room. I just needed to grab the essentials; the guns, the REETs, and the amnestics. Or I would have, had they all been there.

“Shit!”

Bre followed into the room. “What?”

“We’re down one set of gear. Missing gun, missing REET, missing amnestic? Who would take the amnestics, that stuff isn’t known to the public…” I looked around the table to see if it had maybe fallen, and locked eyes with the face of our knocked out friend; black ink on his hands and face. Idiot.

“Found our missing bottle; we’re down to one. The finish and get back fast plan is one step more serious than it was before. Do you want the REET or the Glock?”

“Shit. Okay. I’ll take the REET. I heard more, so I’m more likely to see the Patter- I mean, them, coming.”

I pocketed the amnestic canister and handed Bre the REET, and-

“NO SPOILERS!!”

We both turned our heads to see Glen burst into the room, gun raised. He aimed at Bre and pulled the trigger.

Nothing happened.

He pulled the trigger repeatedly, his face changing from twisted rage to quizzical frustration as he stared at the REET he held in his hand. I took this opportunity to use my perfectly functional Glock to put two holes in him. He slumped against the door of the office.

I sighed. “Well, we know where the other REET got to.”

“Good. No need to waste time looking. We have one amnestic, one REET…” Bre ducked down and checked Glen’s belt, “and two Glocks.”

“Let’s go.”

I poked my head out of the office and saw the rest of the hallway in quiet disarray. Bre and I bolted over tranqued and tased bodies and made our way to our final destination: the Satellite Control Room.

The room was like a warehouse of giant computer terminals; the first floor was a sea of different holodisplays and the second was a ring of catwalk with more terminals lining it; it was almost disorienting. Our halos led us left to the terminal we needed and Bre got to work on uploading whatever the Doc wanted us to onto it. I paced nervously around the terminal floor.

I thought I saw something move out of the corner of my eye; something that shimmered. I whipped my head and raised my Glock, and it was gone.

I projected to the other side of the floor, “How long we got? I’m getting nervous about some visitors.”

“Almost done!” I got in reply.

I started making my way back towards Bre, mapping out our fastest way out on my halo. I lifted my eyes to see Bre, and something else grabbed my attention. I snapped my head up just in time to see a terminal tipping off of the second level directly above Bre.

I chose dive.

I knocked Bre out of the way and cleared the fall path of the terminal. Mostly. My brain sent every signal at once to go along with the crunch of my left ankle. I heard gunshots going off from nearby, then Bre was by my side with her hands under the terminal. She bent her legs and the terminal started to budge upward. I crawled out and rolled over, gasping for air.

“I didn’t get him; I’m going up there. I don’t think he’s armed, stay here.”

As Bre ran off to shoot the bastard, I activated my halo and scrolled to the Suit menu. I activated my left boot’s interior splint, and I felt the material of the boot form around my ankle and harden. It wasn’t a fix, but it would make limping out of here easier.

Two more gunshots. I craned my neck up towards the second level and saw Bre holding her gun out in front of her. She lowered it, turned to me, and nodded. She turned to start heading towards the stairs when her arm was wrenched behind her by… nothing. Her arm was just being held behind her in the open air.

“NO!” My scream echoed across the room.

She reached for the REET on her belt, but her other wrist was wrenched outward.

“BRIANNA!” I clambered to my foot and a half and started limp-running toward the stairs. I lifted myself up the stairs using my hands on the rails more than my feet. Clearing the second floor, I used the railing to steady myself as I lurched toward the other side of the room. My eyes locked on her; her hands are gone. My breathing started to get labored as I was twenty feet away; at ten feet, I collapsed to my knees. My mind was shattering, I couldn’t open my eyes, it wasn’t just the ankle…

I forced my eyes open and saw myself in my old house. A woman I don’t know was drinking coffee.

I blinked and I was in a grocery store, potato chip bags were strewn about the floor. My wife was hovering in front of my feet, dying. I can’t see her face, but I know it’s her. Wait. That wasn’t right; that memory didn’t make sense.

I coughed and pulled myself up to my knees; I could see Brianna hanging there in the air, dissolving above the knee. I lunged forward and almost fell to the ground before grabbing her belt for support. With my other hand, I grabbed the REET from her belt, fell onto my back, and fired upwards.

Brianna crumpled to the ground beside me.

She was gasping for air, I was gasping for air. She looked me in the eyes and started breathing deeply, purposefully, and I did the same. We had to get it together; there’s no telling how long the REET held the Screamers back for. After a minute, we were able to start picking ourselves up off of the ground. She looked at my ankle.

“Can you walk?”

“I got up here, didn’t I? Did you finish the upload?”

“Yeah, it says the satellites will take about an hour to calibrate for whatever Dr. Stewart wants them to do. I was about to tell you that before you dive tackled me.”

“I didn’t think about yelling. Would you rather be in my braced shoe right now?

“No, and thank you for saving my life twice in a span of three minutes.”

“Anytime. Thank you for activating the robot army so we didn’t die earlier.”

“You’re very welcome.”

She grabbed my arm over her shoulder and we started making our way out of the facility at a hobbling pace. Past the unconscious survivors of the hallway village, past the tourist mockups, and into the lobby. Across the way, we could see the infinite cascade debris of the front door. There was a Galvatron whirring around in the rain of rubble. We walked down the stairs across the JPL logo on the floor when we heard a sound above our heads.

We both looked up, and dove forward just in time to avoid the falling mock space shuttle. We rolled over to see mostly blue sky; several holes had opened up in the ceiling, and floating toward us was what had to be the Screamers. It was like a trick of your eyes; there was clearly nothing there but you could see every detail of the writhing mass of nothingness perfectly. Tendrils that I could both see and not see reached out towards us.

Brianna yanked on my tac-vest, and I snapped out of thinking and back into action. We scrambled to our feet and ran. We dove through the debris wall, and as I struggled to keep going on my ankle, I could see the Screamers come through; the debris stopped infinitely cascading when they passed. What didn’t disappear just fell to the ground. We ran across the parking lot, past the fountain, and into the grass of the business park. I tripped on some weeds and brought us both to the ground with a thud. I looked behind us and saw their wraith-like forms gaining on us. We couldn’t outrun them. I couldn’t outrun them.

I pulled the amnestic canister out of my pocket and thrust it into Brianna’s hand.

“Get out of here and amnesticize.”

NO! I’m not leaving you!”

“Yes, you are. We’ve got one bottle of amnestic and two people who know enough about these things to see them. They’re going to get both of us or one of us.”

Brianna was fighting back tears; I could see her checking off strategies in her head trying to find one that gets us both out of here, but she and I both came up with nothing.

Brianna grabbed me by the head and kissed me; I wrapped my arms around her for a sighing moment and then pushed her away.

“Go.”

Brianna took off running. I watched her for a moment, then I turned around and watched the oncoming Screamers.

They didn’t scream, I thought. That’s weird.

I thought about the world.

I thought about what the Screamers did to almost all of humanity.

I brought my Glock to my head.

I thought about Brianna.

I thought about my wife.

I thought about


Brianna woke up to the taste of ink.

There was a pain in her left arm; she looked through her blurred vision to see her left sleeve rolled up and a small amount of blood on the outside of her forearm.

While her head throbbed, the spinning of the world started to slow down. She checked her wound; two bleeding gouge marks. She was outdoors, night time, in the grass of a park on a business campus of some kind. Struggling to get to her feet, she noticed she was wearing tac gear, but it wasn’t Army issue. Her head ached and she couldn’t seem to get a clear idea of how she got here; had she been drugged? She focused on what she could remember.

My name is Brianna Tackson. I’m 39 years old. I’m a Staff Sergeant in the U.S. Army, Special Forces. The year, as I know it, is 2078.

An alarm on her halo started ringing; it’d been set to go off every 15 minutes starting an hour ago. It read “The marks are to remember, with love from Alan. Radio this frequency for pickup.” Alan? Her head started to hurt.

She took a deep breath to bury the oncoming headache and radioed in.

“This is Staff Sergeant Brianna Tackson, requesting a pickup?”

“We copy. What’s your status?”

“I don’t, remember? I’m not injured.”

“Roger that. Are you alone?”

“Yes.”

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