Assured Loss of Life
rating: +9+x

Agent Wilder had been thinking about his death.

He had known for a long time that, in some bizarre way, he was dead already many times over.

There had been bodies produced.

-

Agent Wilder had been on edge his team's briefing. Said briefing had come in as an early-morning emergency call on each of their smartphones, which had been modified to Site standard. Agent Jacob Wilder caught the noise in his sleep, and had to unconsciously rise and collect his cell.

He managed to ask "hello" before he had the chance to think once, which he immediately did, facing an earful of the Foundation's automated voice.

"This is an emergency communication. Your Mobile Task force will be engaged in Active Response in 24 hours." He was almost used to Foundation communiques, but his blood ran cold hearing "Agent Henderson will not be informed of your mission. Do not contact your commanding officer." All he understood was the need to follow orders.

-

Wilder was fully equipped hours before launch. Henderson had already been at Site-45 for review, but his team wasn't sure anymore if he'd be returning.

It had been difficult for any of them to chat since their individual briefings. Still, they had an entire hour's drive to settle their worries. Morale is a security issue, Henderson said.

Melissa King, driving, was the first to try and break the ice in their veins. "I can't remember the last time we were assigned on a response like this. How many Task Forces are gonna be represented, like six?"

"If you count former members, I think it might be more than ten." Agent Rybkin had been reading to occupy his nerves. "Agent Fonte, the Mission Commander, has been all over. Like, Omega-12 'all over'."

"Joe, you're the best read man on the team." Agent Parata felt the need to once again skim his digital mission manifest. "I wish your references meant something to me, for my sake."

Agent Chaudry had three years of experience in Lambda-5, but would always be the rookie. "Have you guys ever had a 'Mission Commander' before? This thing has got to be big."

Wilder remembered his last Mission Commander. "When I was with the Bird Watchers. It was… Crazy."

The van had an impromptu moment of silence. Being in a Mobile Task Force was a little like being in a family. If you'd been through more than one, that meant you had to compartmentalize loss.

Melissa had to try the ice again. "You know, Jacob, as the senior agent here, you're kind of a horrible bummer."

Jacob Wilder laughed. He was surprised. "Oh geez, I'm sorry. I haven't had to be senior agent in a while. Everyone?" He sighed. "This mission is going to be something else, know that for sure. I've been thinking about this one for a long time, and it's hard to even believe we're facing it. With that said, nothing gives me more pleasure than knowing that we're on the offensive now."

The members of Lambda-5 turned to Agent Wilder. Everyone had enjoyed pre-fight speeches before.

"Like this whole team I've had no choice but to sit back and wait, just to worry. I've known that something out there has had the interest and ability to see me dead, and not knowing what has tortured my soul."

"Very uplifting, sir." King joked.

"My point being that that time is over." Wilder pulled on a roof handle, for his team to look up at him. "The mystery of what wants us dead… We're about to kill. We've already seen enough anomalies to put us in our graves a dozen times, but by one… Way, we've crushed it every single time! We knew what we were doing! We knew what we were going into! When we had the upper hand, nothing could stand in our way, and that's what we've got now!"

The team threw up their fists and cheered, as they each desired. On balance, they'd never held 2446 to be so manageable. "Well God damn, sir, good job. So do you know what we're really dealing with?"

Agent Wilder looked down at his mission manifest. "We'll all find out when we get there."

-

More than 30 Mobile Task Force members were gathered at a site two blocks from their set incursion zone. Photos and design prints on their screens showed it to be a former hotel that had been stripped and condemned. Agent Fonte, formerly of Achilles' Heels, had taken his charge.

"So this building was sitting there, and they moved in?" Agent Huerta, City Slickers, mentally marked the windows something could jump from to another building.

"And you're sure that the building isn't anomalous? This three-anchor setup couldn't help that." Agent Durand of Home Improvement checked the anchor points on the schematics. This was his field of expertise.

Agent Fonte considered the unconventional makeup of his group, most members of which he'd never met. "We've been monitoring all entrances, and the only anomalous readings were the two times that this man entered." Agent Fonte prompted his PA, who produced one of a couple physical photographs. "He's the only one we've seen, but thermal imaging shows something else…"

"More than one, appearing, disappearing." Agent Ortiz, a Ghostbuster, scanned through observation records. "All the same height. I can see why you thought they were duplicates."

Making up most of the combined forces, Hammer Down infantrymen shared whispered plans between themselves. Their leading agent spoke up: "So this 'man' has more manpower than it seems. How do you know our tech will actually contain him?" He leaned forward, looking Fonte in the eye. "And how do you know he has a limit?"

"Good question, Agent Richard. We know that our tech will work based on simple humic mechanics. Based on the only disappearance we were able to chart, we're looking at localized intra-spatial adjustments due to forced hume flux; low-levels in a high-level field. The maximum hume rating we can compel with the machines set up now-"

Agent Richard held his hand up. "Thank you, sir. That's enough."

"I understand. Anyways, I know I've told you already, but our mission objectives have to be clear. We'll be going in hot. This is a decommissioning operation, with an assured loss of life, on one end or the other."

-

The equipment was nearly ready. Every agent was in place. Techs and engineers stood by their reality anchors, ready to pump their little hotel full of reality. Agent Wilder and the White Rabbits were ready to come in behind Hammer Down. The other agents had been slightly perturbed by the Rabbits' inclusion, but like so many other encounters, they lent towards courtesy for their teammates. Wilder felt his miniature reality anchor, next to his knife.

Two special technicians had slipped through the front door with the last reality anchor. Other techs watched their body-cams, fingers hovering over their controls. The last cables connected, and an affirmative hand motion threw the agents into motion. Mission control ran the reality machines, and watched the first-hand footage of men going into danger.

Energy flew into the reality anchors, engaging mechanisms built around abnormal matter. Circuits and cables conducted perfectly, running power into extreme magnetrons, exhausting low levels of radiation. Agents in the growing reality field saw colors starting to saturate themselves.

Snipers perched around the hotel watched radiation signatures in the building getting excited. The shapes of four men jumped up and ran to meet one-another. Cover was blown. They informed Fonte, who radioed his squads.

"We didn't get much free time. Get to the third floor as soon as possible. What? Well how many?"

Chatter from the monitoring agents was all coming in at the same time. "The anchors must be doing something, we're getting a whole lot of faint signatures in there!" Agent Fonte patched his monitor to see what his agents were seeing in the low infrared. He wished he'd had more time for contingencies.

Hammer Down was the first team into the building, and in under a minute they were already one door away from their enemy. Their rifles were loaded and their safeties were off. The reality field hadn't yet taken over, but it was starting to play tricks with their vision.

Surrounding the doorway, Hammer Down waited a moment. They listened intently for any message, and were nearly ready to ram in the door. Then, Agent Richard pulled away from the wall, and leveled her rifle sights down the hallway. "Stop!"

A glistening, incorporeal echo of a man stood at the end of the hall, trying to open one of the doors. These were the moments when Richard worried her training would never be enough.

As if on cue, the entire building felt its reality shift. Agents had to catch themselves, or be knocked over. The whole world seemed to be jittery and loose. The shape of a man clutched its head and it collapsed on its knees. As colors saturated and bled in everyones' vision, agents began to notice double-images.

The task force watched as the huddled figure of a person started to rise, and its body shifted into view. The vision shifted and cleared, coming to form the image of a pained and distraught man. Agent Richard remembered his face from the briefing, and shot.

Bullets flew through the transparent body of Charles Hull. In a certain way he was somewhere else, but enough of him was present to catch a few rounds. He collapsed in shock and bled to death.

"That's all we needed men!" Agent Richard shouted to her squad. "Take 'em out!" They rammed the door open and unleashed a three-fold hail of automatic fire. The sound of gunshots and pained shouting echoed to the technicians all around the building. One of the reality engines choked for a moment, prompting a signal to the tech head.

"Sir, I'm seeing some really weird hume readings, and something's happening to the anchors. I hope we can do all this quickly."

"Thanks Tom. Hammers, there's more figures appearing on the other floors, don't let up." Agent Fonte spun around at the sound of the hotel's front doors slammed open. What looked like the after-image of a man stood in the door frame, catching the eye of a dozen Foundation agents and technicians, stationed to watch out for him. Fonte reached for his gun, but was beaten to the kick by a sniper. He gave a thumb up, and got back on watching his agents' video feeds. "Pick it up, guys! We'll drop this building with you in it if we have to!"

"That would be a laugh." Agent Durand said to himself as he worked with a technician on the ground-floor reality anchor. His team had never lost a man in a demolition. He was just recalling when a sound caught his attention. By the time he'd spun around, he'd already caught a partially incorporeal .32 caliber bullet to the gut.

Charles Hull leveled his handgun at the reality anchor and started unloading against the clear bulletproof casing. At the same time, Durand and his injured technician both extracted their pistols, and each landed one in the chest. Agent Durand grabbed at his comm and started shouting. "I'm hit! I- We're hit! One just showed up here! He damaged the anchor, but it's intact. I don't want-"

Agent Durand tilted his head, watching a shimmer of light dance around his vision. He almost had a shot, but the shape jumped on him. Durand grappled with the invisible figure, holding his gun firm. They both twisted and yelped on the ground as the technician tried to read a target he couldn't see.

Durand felt the force of a palm against his face, and kept pulling against his attacker. Against the heat of the moment, his blood ran cold then he felt the invisible hand press into his face.

The anchor technician had an eyeful when the man materialized instantly on top of Agent Durand. He only had a moment's sight of the arm coming off in what used to be Durand's head, which he used to unload into the aggressor. Durand collapsed, and the forearm of one Charles Hull seeped out of his head, along with his face.

When he'd finished firing, the tech had one moment to breath, which he spent trying to ignore his teammate's injury. At the end of the moment, he turned around to a knife in the throat.

He'd only been a couple feet away from the front door, behind which was his Foundation. He could see the door, masked and shimmering behind a growing number of transparent figures. They moved past him, to his reality anchor. The technician thought the circumstance of his death was unfair.

-

There were only a couple moments where Charles Hull, in his number, was alone with the Scranton Reality Anchor. None of his present selves had seen one before, but they understood what the Foundation used it for. They understood what it was doing to them. Charles, all of him, could feel realities being compressed together. He looked side to side and himself, across several worlds, and could make out his shapes clear as day. He considered it a crime against nature, and a crime against his being.

Charles, first among his present selves, knew that Foundation agents were coming through the door on his left in several seconds. He was more than aware of his other selves being slaughtered upstairs. In an sympathetic sense, he felt them die. He thought about his history. He thought about the dozens, maybe hundreds of Charles he'd met since his initial mindfuck. He heard unrelenting gunfire on every level of the building. He didn't want to lose himself.

Charles looked at the reality anchor, and tried to shift. If he couldn't get out of this reality, he didn't know what pain the Foundation would unleash on him all. The strain of hyper-reality drained the man, but he knew the cost if he were stuck.

-

Fonte and his agents burst through the door, into the hotel. They were met by a crowd of figures which held various levels of distance to their world. As the anchors continued to run, more and more realities were being folded onto theirs', and more figures were appearing to flee the active gunfire. Fleeing that foreign danger, they'd walked in front of their own danger.

If someone there could have watched in slow motion they might have found it funny, if they weren't invested in the lives lost. Charles, the fastest thinker among himself, had escaped his reality in time, only to return. In slow motion one could have seen his face appear inside of the reality anchor, turn from concentration to horror in a moment, and then disintegrate.

At the pace a viewer could have watched that, they would have seen the shape of a reality-field push through the entire building, and through every person within it, on every conjoined reality. The men and agents there were stuck hard by the wave, most of them lifted into the air. On the first floor, Charles, Agent Fonte, and the stray agents, were captured in an explosion of abnormal matter from the horribly compromised reality anchor. After that point, they were conventionally exploded.

-

Agent Jacob Wilder experienced the explosion from fifth floor. Like every other body in there, he'd been thrown off his feet. The first thing he had to make sense of after was that the building was beginning to collapse.

He tried to stumble to a window, tripping over the same body again and again. He fell face-first to the ground, and felt the echo of a thousand pieces of lumber shifting without support. He managed to get up to the window, and look out. He caught sight of Santa Fe in the far distance, and let mortal danger slip from his mind for a split second.

The second was long enough for supports to give way, and Jacob felt the building around him enter free fall.

When Jacob Wilder hit the floor, the hotel came down around him. There were a few moments of excruciating pain, and he felt a chill as the blood left his body. Those only lasted a moment, in any case. Soon, any sensation at all passed away.

In his final moments, Jacob thought about the time he'd spent thinking about a violent death. What had happened to him was violent. It was confusing too, but nothing seemed like a greater waste than thinking about it in his last thoughts.

When Jacob opened his eyes, he only saw darkness. He wasn't sure what state he was in, or for that matter how the world was. He decided that he had to accept that he didn't know much of anything.

With his last thoughts, Jacob Wilder decided that he'd accepted his mixed up death, and told himself that it was peacefully. So he went.

-

Two men, one and the same, would later look on the rubble of their former home.

"I can't believe it."

"…"

"I guess there was no other way, right?"

"…"

"The Foundation… I mean, did people hear anything? Is their cover blown?"

"They've got tech for that."

"They're fucking monsters.

"Aren't we all?"

Both men stood in silence, absorbing what they took to be the fallout of the situation.

"Are we going to get back at them?"

"No. We have enough troubles at home. I don't want to think about this anymore."

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