When the call came, she'd figured out enough that she'd been expecting it for a while. There had been an air of distance — rather than quiet interference — from her superiors. Like her actions were being watched. Radio silence.
Were they going to ask Dr. Sophia Light about Site 41, her pride and joy buried in the freezing wilderness? About one of her projects? About Erdenet, even?
The meeting was arranged in a small, well-lit antechamber in the depths of the Svalbard Site, with Light's assistant Vaux watching and taking notes. The Council member — Seven — was a tall woman with deep brown skin and a fishtail braid. She also wore a teal skirt suit that looked like it was bought at a Value Village in the 80’s. Light had to adjust her understanding of reality to account for this fact. If she can’t wear that, who else can?
"Thank you for meeting with me, Dr. Light."
"Likewise. I wouldn't refuse."
Seven smiled a lot, and it was nothing but teeth. "I've come on behalf of the Council to ask for your thoughts on some recent matters. You've had a storied career thus far. More objects under your care reclassified as 'Explained' than any other research director, if I recall."
"Not by me directly, but yes, I've heard I hold the record."
"Nobody else has really focused on that. Haven't you said something to the effect that the ultimate goal of the Foundation should be to explain everything?"
Light grimaced. "Not quite. Even I don't believe that every single anomaly has a reasonable explanation. I've just said that while the main priority of researchers is necessarily aiding containment, we also have a responsibility to the Foundation and the world to increase our overall ability to explain reality. Raise the scientific waterline, I suppose."
"Oh, yes. That's much less ambitious."
Light shrugged. "Anomalies are part of reality. Most research seems to ignore the fact that any effort to make them go away and conform to 'normal science' is fundamentally flawed — the anomalies are already here."
Several seconds ticked by. Light asked, "What did you want my thoughts on?"
“Well. You’ve seen the documentation. You were around for some of it. What did you think of Mobile Task Force Omega-7?”
This was not the tack she was expecting. Light considered. “Kind of a clusterfuck.”
“It was a bad idea.”
“They say hindsight is twenty-twenty.”
“Hindsight bias is a factor. I still wouldn’t have planned it that way.”
“What would you have done?”
“Gotten rid of Able.”
“What else?” Seven smiled.
“Um. Decentralize them — having to travel as a unit reduced response times. Reduce the burnout rate from training, and move leadership into a hierarchy within the unit. Flexibility is more important than strict order —”
She paused. She'd never been good at reading people, but saw Vaux’s service dog bark and jump into his lap, reacting to some sign of his anxiety. This alerted Light third-hand that something was wrong. Seven was really smiling.
“Vaux,” said Light, “If you need to leave, go ahead.”
“It’s fine,” said Vaux.
“Keep going,” said Seven. “Excellent points.”
“What do you want?” asked Light.
“Director, we’re re-opening Pandora’s Box. A similar task force: Alpha-9, 'Last Hope.' We'd like you to be the director."
Permission to get some of whatever Command was on when they made that decision. "…That doesn't sound at all controversial."
"It is. It will be. But it is proceeding. When possible leaders were discussed, your name came up."
Time seemed to slow down. Light's eyes went a little distant. She started thinking very, very quickly. "Who else?"
"We asked Lament first. Another senior operative with an impressive track record."
"What did he say?"
"He said it was the worst idea he'd ever heard and told Four to fuck off."
Light snorted. That's my boy! "Who else?"
"After you, we'd ask Dr. Gears. Past that, we're looking at options."
Gears? He would absolutely do it. He'd probably do it very well. He'd fulfill High Command's goals precisely. A person like that was dangerous.
On the other hand, if the Council didn't have a fourth lined up, they'd be looking at someone less competent. That was very dangerous. Still…
"I've never led a task force. My plate is full."
"We expect you to leave your post as Site Director in any meaningful capacity. We're confident you'll do fine."
"When you're in a car with no brakes, it doesn't matter how skilled of a driver you are. I don't want to be your figurehead when you crash."
"We don't intend to crash. We're changing things up. You'll have autonomy, resources, whatever you need. Traditional methods are failing to keep up with the influx of anomalies worldwide. Things are getting worse, Director, and we don't want to lose the progress we've made. The world needs Alpha-9."
"Excuse me," said Vaux. He stood up and unsteadily left the room, with Mango in tow.
Light looked at Seven. "You're serious."
"As the bodies in the wake of a containment breach."
"Are you my O5?"
Seven blinked. "What?"
"Well —" Light searched for the words. "I've learned that most senior staff were promoted because, well, because some overseer thought they had potential and followed them along the way. I never found out who mine was."
"Oh, no. I'm Clef's."
"Yours… is more hands-off. But they're also recommending you for this position."
Light considered the evidence. Weighed the options. "I'll take it."
"Good." Seven nodded. "I thought it would take more convincing than that."
"As you said. I don't want someone less competent than me in charge of this. Lives are at risk. I think this is a mistake, but I believe I have a track record at averting disaster."
"Not quite the attitude I was hoping for. But as they say, any port in a storm. We'll be in touch, Director."
Any port in a storm. Yeah. Huh.
Afterward, Light sat down next to Vaux in the atrium. Wordlessly, Vaux handed her a cup of coffee. She took a sip.
"Did that woman really look me in the eyes and say 'we're re-opening Pandora's Box'?"
Light groaned. "I don't know how they take themselves seriously."
Three days later, the most urgent administrative duties were reassigned. The suitcases were packed and the office cleared out. One of the more familiar-looking suited Council representatives had been hanging around the Svalbard Site and reviewing preliminary details about the task force. Seven herself flew off shortly after their meeting.
The fluorescent bulb in the meeting room flickered, barely perceptibly. Sophia Light tried to ignore it. Closed her eyes. She'd be out of here soon enough.
"Protection," she said. "I don't want my name attached anywhere to this. Don't want to be traceable, don't want anyone connecting my file to this. In the Foundation, or outside it."
"That's not going to work, Director."
"Every Group of Interest out there with a gun is going to be out for blood once this goes live. I need protection."
"You do," agreed the suited Council representative. "But Alpha-9 won't be seen as a hopeful act within the Foundation. People need to know that someone they've heard of and respect is in charge. They do actually have to see you doing it."
"Fuck. Can you at least keep my name out of it until it goes live?"
"That seems doable."
"Alright. Guards, then. Well-trained, diverse skillset, highly loyal. Maybe a popemobile? If I have to be a target, I'd prefer not to be an easy one. I find dying sub-optimal, personally."
The representative, to their credit, kept a straight face. "You will have access to our resources. Guards, absolutely."
"And anomaly-derived personal defenses. I know Command has their own. You're their representative, you probably have them. Well, I want some too. New designs."
"I assume you have ideas already."
"So did your predecessor. You'll find more in the file."
Light frowned, running her fingers over the yellowed folder and its peeling label. "GENERAL BOWE". "Is he my predecessor? Technically?"
The representative shrugged. "Matter of definitions. Symbolically, maybe. With naming the task force Alpha rather than Omega, he's not anyone's predecessor."
“Hm. Lastly…” She thought. She wasn't commonly sentimental, but power is just the ability to make uncommon things happen. “I want a layover."
They groaned. "Right now? Command doesn't like to be kept waiting."
"The task force has been shelved for nine years. They can wait another six hours."
"Site 14. Have a few last goodbyes before I drop off the radar indefinitely."
"Hrm. They won't be happy about this."
"If I had to be happy about everything I did, I'd never get anything done. Work with me here."
"I'll see what I can do. That all?"
"For now. Thanks, Jay. See you around."
She met Vaux on the surface, waiting with their bags by the runway. He was bundled in a parka and throwing tennis balls for Mango. She warned him the flight had an unexpected layover, told him that he could keep himself busy.
Then she fished out her cell phone and dialed an old contact. The other end picked up before the first ring finished.
Light drummed her feet on the ground. "Hey Troy, it's Sophie. Still kicking. You? Yeah. Listen, I know it's last-minute, but I have a flight that's stopping in 14 for a few hours. I wondered if you could free some time up —"
(Vaux mouthed to Mango, "Sophie"?)
"Yes, that sounds great. Yes. Plane's on the way, I can't talk for long. I'll call you once I'm there." Light smiled. "You too."
She hung up.
"It's a nice day," said Vaux.
It was, as far as days go in Svalbard. Chilly, but sun bright on the tundra meadows and rolling rock hills. She supposed she'd add the cold and quiet site to the list of places to miss.
Vaux was still watching her.
"What?" she asked.
"Why did you take it? The position. It's, um. It's strange that they offered it to you."
“They say that in the entire universe, not one unusual thing has ever happened.”
“Liiiight. That's bullshit.”
Light cracked a grin. "Arguably. In this instance, I know that High Command has had some kind of interest in me since very early in my career. Used to think I only got promotions because people thought I was either with the Olympia Project or related to Bright. But that's not true. There's something else.”
“Is this why you're not worried that they're going to shoot us if this plan fails?”
“They'd only shoot me.” She sighed. “Vaux — When she offered it, I wasn't sure. Imagine you believe in nuclear power. You can't support it outright, because it's politically taboo. For… inane bureaucratic reasons. But you've seen that it can supply humanity with cheap energy, pure water, food, health, opportunity."
"But it's dangerous," ventured Vaux.
"Of course it's dangerous. But you strongly suspect it's less dangerous than the alternative- not using it. You just can't convince anyone to try it."
"Then," she continued, "Imagine the government puts you in charge of its nuclear weapons program."
"What else could I do?" She leaned back, staring out at the tundra.
Vaux nodded. "You sure nobody's going to try to kill you?"
"Someone will, almost assuredly, but not Command. Like I said, they like me, although I have no idea why."
"Ah." Above them, a whining engine indicated that their ride was inbound. Vaux whistled Mango back to him, clipped on her leash.
"But," said Light, "I intend to find out. And then I intend to make use of it."