This is part 3 of a short story inspired by the intriguing BBC article – The mystery of screaming schoolgirls in Malaysia. Well worth a read. It’s a fascinating phenomenon that appears to bridge the gap between folklore and the modern world. Fertile ground for a good tale if ever I’ve heard one.
The first two parts are available here:
This was originally meant to be a trilogy. Like all good trilogies, I’m considering writing the fourth part ;-). It’s been an interesting exercise, specifically, avoiding going back and re-editing earlier parts, as I would normally to make the jigsaw pieces fit. Anyway, hopefully, this part is at least entertaining.
It was another fitful night, I’d given up trying to sleep, too many terrors lay behind closed eyelids. I was seated, from time to time I’d have to flail my arms around to keep the motion-activated lights on. My mind was still racing, trying to make sense of what I had seen. More of a distraction mechanism I realise now. It stopped me dwelling on that dark place. I’d have a few questions for Dr Price when she turned up. I didn’t have to wait long.
“How are you feeling this morning Doctor?” she said. The all too familiar tablet tucked under her arm. She looked as tired as I felt.
I shrugged, “I have a few questions.”
She slipped into the chair. “No doubt.” Placing the tablet down, she took off her glasses and rubbed the bridge of her nose, “Shoot.”
“Where is Siti?”
“We’ve been over this Doctor,” she said, letting out a long sigh.
It was clear she wasn’t going to give me the truth. We stared at each other across the table. “Ok, where’s the cure, the antidote, the fix?” I blurted. “There must be one, otherwise you’d have reacted as well.”
She smiled, “Better.”
“Better?” I repeated.
“I was right,” she beamed, staring up at one of the cameras. “It looks like you might be useful after all”. She picked up the tablet, tapped at it and slid it over. “Try that.”
I hesitated, I’d been burnt once. Sensing my fear she nodded again at the tablet. I took a deep breath and reluctantly hit the play button. It was a teaser trailer for some upcoming movie blockbuster, big names and a big budget. It finished after 30 seconds, “No popcorn?”
She smiled, “Swipe left.”
I looked down at the tablet, swiped and hit play. It was the classroom, alarm bells literally started ringing. I dropped the tablet like a scalded cat, I think I even hissed. This time the room stayed lit and I realised after a few moments that the deafening pounding was my own heart.
“That’s the cure?” I spluttered.
“The video contained a subliminal meme designed to interfere with the trigger signal. Essentially you’ve been deprogrammed, inoculated if you like.”
“What if I see the original video again?” I said, trying to shake off the lingering sense of terror.
“The original video, nothing. But like a virus, it’s possible to mutate or evolve the meme to circumvent our efforts,” she said, taking back the tablet. “Be in no doubt we are in an arms race.”
“How long has this been going on for?”
She must have anticipated my questions, she slid the tablet back. It showed a timeline, dozens of events going back to 2012. As I scrolled through, there was a worrying trend. “7 incidents in the last year?”
She nodded again, “Including the school, yes.”
“The events are getting larger?”
“Yes, larger test groups,” she said. She took back tablet.
“How bad could this get?” I asked.
The tablet came back. She had an uncanny knack of guessing what my questions were going to be. I pressed play. The simulation played out like a clichéd war game. By the end, the globe was covered in red. I ran it, again and again, watched as it spread and blossomed. “Really?”
She nodded wearily. Then it struck me, “How many times have you done this?”
She put her glasses back on, grabbed the tablet, stood up and headed for the door, this time she did not close it. “Let’s go!”
She had a knack for catching me off guard and a gift for drama. Following, I stepped into a corridor that stretched off into darkness in either direction. We passed several numbered rooms on either side, each with a card reader. She was a good few yards ahead, her footsteps echoing, I picked up my pace “Where are we going?”
She stopped abruptly at one of the doors and swiped her card “Here! To answer your question, I’ve done this quite a few times.”
We stepped into a large dimly lit control room, multiple rows of desks covered in display panels. Larger screens were arrayed on the far wall, showing various statistics and video feeds. In the centre a familiar ominous map of the globe. The room was busy, maybe forty people, their head’s down diligently working. Dr Price headed to a set of glass offices to one side. Lights flickered on as she entered her office. By the time I’d caught her up, she was sitting, staring at another tablet “Take a seat.”
I slumped into one of the chairs in front of her desk, “What is it that you do here Dr Price?”
“This,” she said waving her hand, “ is Unit 27. Originally it was a memetic research lab, now it’s the frontline of a war.”
She stood up and stared out at the glittering displays, “We currently operate as a covert unit of the government’s electronic intelligence division, ELINT for short. You’ve heard of black projects, well this one is the darkest of them all.”
She seemed to lose herself for a moment.
“Why are you telling me all this?” I said. An obvious question.
She turned, “You’ve been conscripted, Doctor.”
I laughed, “Preposterous, I haven’t even seen the package?”
She wasn’t amused. Rather, her eyes bore into me. I’d had enough of the theatric cloak and dagger nonsense.
“Tell you what, give me a couple of days to think about it,” I said, standing up.
In her ice-cold tone, she said: “Siti is dead Doctor!”
The words hit me like a slap, angrily I barked back, “How?”
“She took her own life!”
She tapped on the damn tablet once again. The screen behind her desk flicked on. It showed Siti sitting in a detention cell, it was near identical to the one I’d been in. Someone was asking her questions, I could only see their back. On the table a tray, an empty plate, knife and fork laid across it. There was no sound, but I could see Siti was upset, she was shaking her head, slowly at first, but then violently, spasmodically. Suddenly her hand seized the knife and without hesitation, she buried it in her neck, once, twice, three times, before collapsing. I fell back into the chair, in shock.
The display blinked off. Dr Price waited a moment. “Again Doctor, I’m sorry. If there was an easier way to do this …” her voice trailed off, before she rallied. “The fact is I don’t have time. We don’t have time.”
“It wasn’t suicide, they’d booby-trapped her. Implanted a self-destruct meme. Our interrogator inadvertently triggered her. It’s common practice, she probably didn’t even know. It’s why we’re struggling to get any solid intel on who’s behind this.“
I sat there stunned. Unable to get that horrific last sight of Siti out of my head, unable to process the horrifying scope of the terrifying memetic technology.
Dr Price, leaned forward, earnestly she stared at me. “I need you to understand Doctor. This war, it is very real and right now we are losing. Siti is not the first and she won’t be the last casualty. Unless we can find a defence, find a way to put the genie back in the bottle, this will be how our civilisation ends.”