When I blacked out, I dreamed. I dreamed I was back in the home I never had, back with my brother and my mother and father and everything was alright, everything was fine. Hec and I chased each other through the house while mom and dad watched over and made sure we didn't hurt ourselves. There was a darkness though - in the middle of the house, there was a darkness, like a crack in the wall. "Don't touch it," my mother warned, but we weren't listening, we were too busy having fun and so we ventured too close. And the crack widened and a man made of dark stepped out, arms longs like the branches of a tree and needles for eyes. And he caught us and we screamed and our mother said, "I warned you. You should have run. You should have run away."
I woke up in Canto's liar, on the lonely mattress. I tried to sit up, but pain shot up my leg and made me scream out.
"Hey, hey!" Canto entered the room. He looked more bedraggled than normal. "Don't move, Stray. I just injected the liquid splint an hour ago."
"What," I said and then laid back, trying to ignore the pain. "What happened?"
"Your AI bossman called me," Canto said. "Told me where to pick you up. You had a nasty fall from grace, Stray. Took a look at your harness - someone emped the bastard. Wiped it clean and cut all your strings."
I gritted by teeth. "Golconda," I said.
Canto took a look at me and for a moment I was afraid he was going to kick me out, but he didn't. He sighed. "That's what your AI was afraid of telling me. He seemed wormy. Don't worry, Stray. You can stay here while the splint kicks in and then I'll help you get to your safehouse." Every thief has a safehouse, whether your a grifter, conner, or lifter. You never know when you might steal from the wrong folks and end up without a safe place to stay.
"Thanks, Canto," I said.
"Not a blem," he said. "This have to do with the kernel job I helped you with?"
"Yes," I said, unsure whether I should tell him the entire truth.
"Must've been some bad info," Canto said. "Worth rolling the die with the 'conda. They are not a light bunch."
"It was..." I hesitated. Should I tell me? "It was an archive of stories." Canto laughed and then I added, "Stories about the Slender Man."
He stopped laughing. He looked at me and I could tell from his face he knew that name, knew something about the Slender Man. "Stray..." he started to say and then stopped. "Stray, what do you know about the...the Slender Man?" It was almost as if he was afraid to say those words.
"Not much," I said. "Some storybook monster. The place I hit was the Holy Church of the Thin Man."
Canto sat down on a stool next to the mattress. I tried to ignore the stabbing pain of my leg and waited for the splint to kick in. I could have asked for a painkiller, but I knew Canto often mixed up his drugs, so I could get a hallucinigen instead, which wouldn't have been good. I do not trip well.
Canto, on the other hand, didn't do sober well. He looked like all the drugs had been flushed from his system and maybe they had. Maybe I had caught him at one of those times when he was periodically purging himself of drugs, so he could take a whole new batch clean from the start. But then he started to talk and I realized it was something more than that.
"He's not a storybook monster, Stray," he said. "He's a memetic monster. We learned about him in the pharm." The pharm - the establishment where all pharmacologists and pseudopharmacologists and therapharmacoligists and whatever else learned their trade - was notoriously hard-edged. That Canto went there didn't surprise me; even under a heavy drugload, he knew his stuff so well that he had to have learned it at the pharm. But what did surprise me is that Canto visably flinched when he said the name, as if he didn't want to remember his time there at all.
"A story?" I asked. "Why teach a story at the pharm?"
"It's not just a story," Canto said. "I told you, he's a memetic monster. You know what a meme is? An idea-gene. Where genes spread genetic information, memes spread cultural information. It's a thought contagion. Someone next to you hums a song and suddenly you start humming it, too. That's a meme." He took a deep breath. "The ultimate idea was to make a memetic weapon. Insert an idea into an enemy territory and suddenly all your enemies have the same idea to kill themselves. Meme warfare. Never really took place, though, because no one could figure out a way to make it work. You could make a song get stuck in someone's head, but not the idea that they should commit suicide. That would take generations and generations of instilled cultural ideas and no one was willing to do that."
I noticed that he was looking at his hands, moving each finger around, trying to distract himself. But he went on talking. "There was this story, though. Of a successful meme weapon. They called it the Slender Man. A person would read a story about the Slender Man and then days, maybe weeks later, that person would become convinced they were being stalked by it. By him. It would...consume them. They were compelled to spread the meme, too, writing everything down into a story and passing it on, so others could be infected."
I swallowed. "So, someone made the Slender Man meme?"
"Yes," Canto said. "Well, no. Someone made him, but it was never meant to be a meme. It spread on its own. It...took on a life of its own. Or it was older than anyone else knew, older than we even thought. The pharm-professors wanted to make another one, but I learned. In the secret black classrooms, I learned that it wasn't a meme weapon at all. Weapons do what you tell them to do. Pull a trigger, shoot a bullet. Press a button, send a bomb. The Slender Man wasn't a weapon. It was a monster. It was uncontrollable. Everyone that tried to control it ended up infected or dead or both."
"How would it kill you?" I asked. "If it's just an idea?"
"Ideas are worse than bombs," Canto said. "Bombs kill you quick. Ideas can kill you slow. It starts off seeing him out of the corner of your eye, in windows, next to trees. You hallucinate that other people look like him. Some people can't take it and off themselves then. Others stick it out and experience it fully. Go right through the madness and come out the other end."
"But the church," I said. "Those people knew about it and they didn't look bad."
"It's been gone," he said, looking down. "Dormant, I think. An idea sleeping furiously, you might say."
I took a deep breath. "I saw it. Before I blacked out. I saw it." I didn't tell him that I saw it kill one of the Golconda, because how could an idea do that?
Canto closed his eyes. "Guess it woke up then." He started to cry quietly.
[this part appears to be written later]
Canto. Canto Canto Canto. I wished I had hugged you then. I wish I had never told you I had seen it. I wish so many things. You were a good friend in a bad world. I'm sorry, Canto. I'm so sorry.