Embarkation

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The gunshots are fewer, oddly distant. Inside the tower he is underwater.

The American, with the camera, has a head-start. The elevator lights stop at the fourth floor. James runs for the stairs.

By the third flight his head is swimming. Something in the bonfire smoke, the man said. What man? James can't focus.

The fourth floor is open, partition walls not yet installed. Wires and tubing dangle from the ceiling. A silhouette pushes at the window. Holding a gun.

James yelps. The American turns the gun on James, growling. He crouches, and starts to run, when it happens.

Sensation drops away, subsumed in an overwhelming vision. A monumental work of art, sequential canvases, larger and larger, arranged as a tunnel. Lurid pinks, cut with black ribbons. He can hear the screeching of violins, part of the installation.

Then he is back in the tower. James blinks, trying to regain equilibrium. The American is slumped against a wall, breathing heavily.

For a moment, they lock eyes. Between them, an abandoned radio spits a volley of jazz drumming. The American flinches, then raises the pistol again. James ducks back into the stairwell.

Upwards makes no sense, yet up he goes. His pulse pounds in his ears. James hears the agent crash through the door below.

"Why are you running?" calls the American. "You came for the camera, so come get it. You'll get a bullet either which way."

James is cold sweat and searing lungs. The floors he passes barely register.

He tries to concentrate, to think logically. The steps echoing from below are deliberate, but a composed hunter does not shout threats. In any case, James is not a salient target. The American is off-kilter, thrown by Belen's arrival, by the tower itself. James needs to take advantage.

The next time, when knowledge hits him, it is less overpowering. With sudden comprehension, he receives an entire religious faith all at once. James understands the path of the chosen people, drawn from banality into a paradise of perfect pain. An eternity of suffering as an escape from life without meaning. The hope that agony will provoke a greater consciousness, or a communion with such a consciousness. As the feeling passes, James wonders. This is not a creed he has ever heard of.

At the fifteenth floor he slows, breathing heavily. Far below, he sees a shape he recognises - the camera! At the last second he jerks back. The stairwell flashes white.

"You idiot!" yells James. "You'll bring down the building." The idea of concrete cannot be load-bearing.

Below, the agent yells something back. He is too far to hear clearly. James pauses, then the gun booms. A bullet fizzes up the stairwell.

James has a revelation of eternity, the circle of reincarnation and the debt owed by predator to prey. He ignores it, urging himself to run again. His mouth is parched, and his legs burn. Upwards still, with no more reason than to keep the American here. The thought comes of its own accord: keep him on Foundation turf. He can't stop this man by thinking like a soldier or a spy.

On the eighteenth floor, James stops in shock. There is another man here. Or almost here: at the edges, in peripheral vision, he seems insubstantial. He is familiar, but James can't place him. Looking up at his tanned face, James sees wisdom and kindness. The man smiles warmly, and recognition hits.

"Varela?" James gapes, blinking.

The smile grows. "Mister Bradshaw, good to see you."

"But how can - ?" And then James understands: about this place, about the camera, and Varela connecting them.

"Yes," replies Varela to James' reaction. "I had not expected it. This place is important - that is why we built the tower here. But it is more than I realised; it holds pure ideas of many kinds. We guessed that were capturing the ideas lost before they were thought. I see now that this place also contains some ideas that once were real."

James is about to ask one of his hundreds of questions, but Varela looks up sharply. "We have no time to discuss. The American is coming."

James' stomach twists in familiar panic. There is another feeling too, as if something in the tower watches him.

"How do you know?" he asks.

"When it happened, and I became up here, I could feel everything in the tower, all at once. You, him, are easier to feel. Heavier." The older man glances anxiously over James' shoulder. "You must not let him reveal this place."

"I can't fight him," says James. "But with you - perhaps we can think like the Foundation."

The sense of being observed is palpable. It bristles. James shivers.

"He is on the floor below," urges Varela. "We must be quick."

James' idea does not come from the tower. It is his own.

"You said you can feel everything here, yes? All the ideas? Can you find something for me?"

Varela looks defeated. "There are dangerous ideas, certainly, but to find one thought in all of this? It would take too long. I have only been here minutes, and there is so much."

Undaunted, James speaks louder, to an unseen audience. "Who could do it, if not you? The stories cannot be wrong. You are Agustin Varela. A leader of the people. A man SIDE wants dead. You can find the idea that will stop this man from killing more people."

The air around them buzzes. James feels hesitation. Suspicion.

He presses on. "Do you know how I got here? On a motorcycle - a Harley-Davidson UL 1947. It was given to me by a man named Miguel Lopez. He gave me his son's prize possession because of you. Because he believed in you, and he knew I wanted to help you."

The tension pulls drum-tight, then abruptly slackens. Varela is about to speak, but stops. James turns.

The American strides up the stairs towards them, gun trained. Seeing Varela, he stops, confused.

"I thought I killed you already."

With a crack, a bullet passes through Varela, ricocheting from the wall. James ducks.

The American laughs. "Well of all the … that's what this place is! That's why I keep having brainwaves that aren't mine."

James rises slowly. The American stares.

"You didn't know before, did you, son? You were just running, and once again you led me somewhere wonderful. All these unformed thoughts. Think of the possibilities." His eyes are lost in reverie, but the gun is fixed on James.

Varela says, "This place is where possibilities die. It is a graveyard for ideas."

The agent looks at the researcher like he has forgotten he was there. "That's where you're wrong. This is a place full of perfect things. It's a garden of ideas. And we can harvest them, and put them to use."

James needs two things. More time, and distraction. The American must not reach the logical conclusion.

"You heard - you heard the teacher. This is Foundation property. It is not for you." James sounds bolder than he feels.

"Maybe you didn't notice, but we took all your goddamn property." The American waves the camera at James. "The agency will see the potential of this building, of the ideas here, just like the Foundation. They're the same damn outfit, at the end of the day."

"They are nothing the same," says Varela.

"Why don't you ask your colleague about that? You and me, son, we both seen what this camera does. We both used it."

The air thickens once more. James can hear his blood in his ears. "I only used it so we could contain the anomaly. So it need never be used again. You used it to kill innocent men."

"And women and children - and will again, if necessary." The American is almost shouting.

Varela says nothing. James must do this alone. He takes a step forward. The stairwell light flickers.

"How can you look at this building, this impossible power, and see only a weapon?"

"What's the point in having power if you just lock it up?" yells the American, red-faced.

"Better locked up than used irrationally," James says.

"You think this is irrational?" The American's gun arm drops with his exasperation. "I mean, shit, maybe we ain't the same. All my actions serve a greater purpose. I believe in the righteousness of my cause, in its purity. You don't believe in anything. You don't even believe in yourself!"

Before James can do anything, the black hole of the gun muzzle aims at his chest again. The American's hand tenses. The air sizzles.

James gazes into the American's eyes. He speaks slowly. "I don't believe that the world is the dominion of any one ideology. I don't believe that power is the only thing worth seeking."

Heat seeps slowly into James' voice, ringing in the heart of the tower. "I don't believe in purity, or perfection. The search for understanding is flawed, doomed to fail, but I believe in it. And I believe in my fellow searchers; I believe in us working together to keep the world safe. I believe in protection!"

"Who will protect you, then?" the American snarls.

"From you? I think they might."

The American follows James' gaze. A swirling shadow has risen behind him: multitudes are contained in it. Faces coalesce, arms stretch out and dissipate. Hundreds of men, women, young and old, emerge and fade in its roiling surface. A thousand ideas in a single form. Unmade things, remembering their former reality. Remembering who unmade them. All of the eyes staring, all of the hands reaching, toward the American.

He screams. Lunging, the shadow wraps the American in arms of smoke. The gun barks. Neither hands nor bullet touch their targets. An idea cannot wound or be wounded.

The American is unharmed. His shout turns to growling laughter. Then a figure appears, taking form at the edge of the flowing shape. A young man. Perhaps a student? He looks James in the eye. The American is about to speak. The young man leans forward, and whispers in the American's ear.

The American's head tips backward. His knees buckle. James can see blood leak from his nose. His body crashes to the floor, the camera beneath it.

Shadow subsumes the idea of a young man. The last coiling remnants of the disappeared ones watch, and then evaporate.

All is still.

Finally, James pulls his eyes from the body. There is a man here with him. A man he knows - yes, a researcher from the Foundation. He observes James with kindness.

"There is not much time," the researcher says. "But there is only a little more to discuss. What will you do with the camera?"

James considers. "I was sent to recover it."

"Were you?" The researcher's smile is wry.

"Yes, I was told - " Suddenly it is clear. "I was told to recover it, but that's not why the Foundation sent me. They sent me to help one of their own. A fellow searcher."

Something feels misplaced. He can see the outline of the stairwell through the man's torso. James remembers a fire, and a flash. He feels a rush of shame.

"I'm sorry. I failed."

The grin never wavers. "No. You have only failed if your journey ends now. Not if you begin another."

"But what will happen to you?" asks James.

"Who I am - who I was - may be lost. But the stories will survive. In the end, our stories are all we leave behind." The man still smiles. James can no longer tell the colour of his eyes. "Stay here. Write your own story."

Taken aback, James sputters, "How? I can't lead these people."

"They already have a leader. What they need is a navigator. Someone to help them chart the unknown waters of this tower. Join their voyage, James. Set them the right course." This man knows him; James is not sure how.

"But - "

"What is there for you, back in America? The Foundation is needed here, now. Where do you belong?" The man is familiar, but only faintly.

Silent for a long time, finally, slowly, James nods. The figure with him nods back. James can't see its face.

There is the shape of a person. There is a silhouette. A shadow. A blur.

James is alone.

Later, James descends. He holds a broken camera. It is dawn, the sky lightening to straw yellow above the trees. The crossroads is quiet. Belén sits with Aurelio, Jacinta, some of the others. James watches from the base of the tower, at the threshold.

And then, he sets out.


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