By Arjun’s estimations, the Coalition was surprisingly professional for an organization that was barely three years old. There was something in the methodical, cold way that they operated that reminded Arjun of the Foundation itself. But there was also a naiveté that Arjun had never seen in the Foundation. When they sent out retrieval teams, they had no insurance. There were no specifically expendable personnel to sacrifice in the case of disaster.
Arjun removed the binoculars from his eyes, wiped sand out of the lens, and then stowed the instrument back into his pack. Beside him, Zhi Xin was talking to Owen.
“So Owen, what do you think the GOC’s got its hands on this time?”
Owen adjusted his shoelaces.
“You know, they say—or at least their internal communications say—that they think this hole has information about the Ahnernerbe’s new toys. But who knows? They might find something more interesting.”
Owen turned to his side and quietly issued a command through the radio.
“If you find anything useful with those eagle eyes of yours, make sure to nab it, right? Make Michelle happy. Give her something to show off to the O5. I mean, they’re asking for more and God knows Michelle wants to give it.”
“You think it’s strange that the O5 wants more from us,” Arjun said.
Zhi Xin chuckled. “Not strange. Tedious. Look at these guys. Crawling around in the sand, trying to figure out what it is that they’ve dug up so that they can set the wheels of intergovernmental bureaucracy into motion. Is it a threat to consensus reality? Can we negotiate with it? If not, how easily can we blow it up? Wait, but first, can we use it and then blow it up later? And the O5 wants more in the event that we fight them.”
Without turning to face either of them, Owen said, “They’re here.”
Arjun stood up as a vehicle pulled beside them. Insurgency operatives began hauling heavy equipment out of the vehicle. Assembly of the instrument took the better part of an hour, while Arjun, Zhi Xin, and Owen looked on. Eventually, a large, crude metal gate stood before them. Arjun looked into the gate and saw the universe shatter into an infinitely replicating fractal pattern. He pitied the men who had built the machine. They could not appreciate its beauty.
“Remember,” Arjun said, “reconnaissance. Find what they’re looking for. Evaluate its threat potential. Take it if necessary. Zhi Xin, if anybody dies or if anything gets destroyed, I’ll hold you accountable.”
“Your leadership inspires me not to disappoint you,” Zhi Xin said. Immediately afterwards, she walked into the gate and disappeared.
Arjun and Owen made eye contact. “You haven’t learned how to shut her up,” Owen said.
“No. It’s regrettable.”
Owen shrugged. “Time to go.”
The two of them entered the gate together. When he exited, Arjun found himself stepping outside of a tent. Workers with the emblem of the United Nations on their vests moved about, covered in dirt, hauling pickaxes and barking orders. Nobody took any notice of Arjun. Part of their mind was too busy, and the other part that would have ordinarily noticed the three was too occupied appreciating the invisible memetic fireworks display taking place three yards to the left of the intruders to pay any attention to them.
“Well, I should say sorry to Michelle. Maybe memetics isn’t bullshit after all,” Zhi Xin said.
Without saying anything, Owen disappeared into the crowd of GOC workers. Arjun turned to Zhi Xin. “Come on, Xin,” he said.
“Why such a hurry?” Xin asked. “We already know exactly where we’re supposed to go.”
Arjun looked back at the chaotic throng of people swarming the dig site. Zhi Xin was right. He could see a pattern in their movement, in the way their voices melded together into one indiscernible mass, in the ways their eyes traveled and their feet shuffled. Their actions and their thoughts were all caught in the gravitational well of a certain object, and if Arjun only looked to find the center of their collective orbit, he could find what he was looking for.
“I see it,” Arjun said.
Zhi Xin snorted. “Then let’s go.”
As the two moved towards the target illuminated by the HALMAS, Arjun felt his mind stir uneasily. There was very little chance that anything would go wrong; even if they were noticed, it was almost impossible that they would be caught or killed, and no possibility either way that the Foundation would have to bear any consequences. Arjun imagined what it was like for the people who lived in consensus reality and were exposed to the anomalous. The universe itself was revealed to be a lie, a comfortable veneer draped over the true world by an unseen hand, and in truth, reality was an alien, terrifying place.
Arjun had known the unknowable for as long as he could remember, but now, walking through the Coalition dig site, he felt like the ignorant uninitiated about to be baptized in murky, dark water.
The two of them stopped in front of a non-descript tent. For a moment, neither of them moved or said anything.
“It’s here,” Zhi Xin said. “Whatever it is. We came here to find out, didn’t we?”
“Is something wrong?”
Zhi Xin was staring at the tent. “I think so. But I don’t know what. It’s an unpleasant sensation.”
“You’re being nonsensical again.”
“Am I? Whatever.”
Zhi Xin passed Arjun and entered the tent. Arjun followed close behind.
Inside, Arjun found himself completely incapable of noticing any details about the interior of the tent. His attention was captured entirely by a small book sitting on a table in the middle of the tent. Zhi Xin had already flipped to a page inside the book.
“What are you doing?”
“How long have you been on HALMAS, Arjun? Can’t you see? This is—this is—“
Zhi Xin looked up from the book. Her face was set in the rocky tones of determination; her eyes radiated the fragile gleam of fear. “You need to stand at the door and make sure nobody comes in,” she said. “You’ve served the O5 Council faithfully all your life. You’ve done it because you know that there is some greater purpose behind everything. If you still think that, then do this.”
“What’s going on?”
“If you can’t see, that just—it just means that something is definitely wrong. Watch the door, or else I know that things are going to get worse.”
“Give me thirty seconds, Arjun.”
Zhi Xin took a syringe of HALMAS out of her pocket and stuck it into her arm.
When Arjun turned around to stand at the door, he found himself staring Owen in the face.
“Let me in,” he said.
“Zhi Xin told you not to let me in.”
“You don’t know why.”
Owen’s cold blue eyes did not move. They were as dry and endless as the desert itself. “She’s found something.”
“You don’t know what it is. You don’t know what she’s doing. Let me in.”
Arjun stayed in place. There were things that he knew. He knew that it was against protocol for Zhi Xin to be taking HALMAS while in direct exposure to a possible cognitohazard; he knew that it was a betrayal for Michelle to fail to inform the O5 Council about the developments surrounding the engine. He knew all these things but he did not know them, like he knew but did not know of that greater purpose floating somewhere out there. For all anyone knew, it was in outer space, or buried a thousand miles underground, or maybe it didn’t even exist. He had realized by now that he knew but did not know so many things, and the only thing that he really knew was that he had always trusted Chen Zhi Xin.
She had asked for thirty seconds and now he had to give them.
“I can’t. She told me not to let anyone in. I don’t know why, but you sure as hell don’t know why you need to get in there. I can see it in your face, Owen, don’t lie to me.”
Owen reached into his pocket, pulled out a thin metal cylinder, and pressed a button at the top. When Arjun regained consciousness, Owen was behind him and inside the tent. A second later, he pulled out a lighter and tossed into onto the book. Zhi Xin swore and dropped it to the ground, where green flames consumed the book instantly.
Zhi Xin put a hand on her pistol. “Owen, what the hell?”
“It was cognitohazardous. If you suffered continued exposure while on HALMAS, your memory would store the cognitohazard and you would become unacceptably compromised. This is standard protocol.”
For a few moments, Zhi Xin only breathed heavily. Then, she said, “You’re right. I fucked up. So did you; you just destroyed that thing when it was obviously important. So how about we make a deal? If anybody—Michelle in particular—hears about this, we’re both fucked. Right, Owen?”
Nobody spoke as they left the tent.
Hours later, when Arjun was in his quarters and staring at the ceiling, he was struck by a sudden hatred for the O5 Council. He remembered the metal cylinder and the green fire. Neither of those things should have existed. And if now they existed, then what cause was he fighting for?
Nothing made sense anymore.