Forgetting the Number of Dead Stars
rating: +22+x

Name: Elizabeth Cooper-Hughes
FID#: 715316
Security Clearance: L–3/TSQ/MDI

DOB: January 8, 2031
LOB: Hell, Michigan, United States
Biographical Summary: [REDACTED]

Pay Grade: E-4
Current Assignment: MTF Alpha-1
Current Location: Site-01

Certifications: A-1 Marksmanship, A-1 Physical Fitness, Exotic Biohazard Safety, French Language Fluency, Heavy Machinery Repair, Nonstandard Reality Acclimation and Preparedness (Expired,) Operational Infohazard Safety.

Additional Notes: Employment under review.


Forgetting was a skill Wren had taken to quickly during her training. Alpha-1 field agents were all acclimated to it through hypnosis and medication, standard amnestic procedures, but mental exercises had always been enough for her. It was difficult to completely wipe something from her mind, but certainly not impossible. After all, she was as hale as she could remember being, and her mind remained free of whispering nightmares and festering secrets. With how bad some of the things she still remembered were, the missing weeks and months of her life must have been terrible indeed. She tried not to worry about the empty space too much, lest she accidentally remember, and there was no use in worrying over spilled milk or forgotten piano lessons anyway.

Similarly, there was little point in worrying much when Wren found herself strapped to a chair in a dim room, a humming machine wrapped around her forearm and a superior officer sitting across the table. Obviously, something disastrous had happened, though she hadn't done a very precise job of forgetting what it was. Going back through her mind, the last two weeks were completely gone, and the month before was little more than a smear of crummy hotel rooms and frantic gunfire. Two pieces of her custom dentistry were gone, the explosive ones, and her back felt like it was covered in a swamp of dark bruises.

"Wren, are you– No, excuse me, this is on record. Ms. Cooper-Hughes, do you need further medical attention?"

"No, no. I'm okay," said Wren, trying to detect some hint of what they had just been talking about.

"You've been staring at nothing for nearly five minutes."

"This is just a weird situation to be in, sir."

"I'm sure it is. We'll have it resolved soon enough."

'Resolved' was not necessarily a positive outcome, especially out of his mouth. Wren's superior twice-removed, Coxswain was a portly man with a kind face and a fearsome reputation. Even without knowing his real name, Wren had heard much of his involvement in the last great battle against the Insurgency and his systematic elimination of the Sarkic cults engulfing the West Coast. While he silently fiddled with dials on a blocky terminal, Wren began to resent herself for whatever she had done to end up in interrogation.

"So, as I was saying: I'm going to ask you a series of questions. Please give the first answer that comes to mind, even if it's not knowing any answer. I'll know if you try to lie. Do you understand?"

"Yeah. I mean, yes, sir."

Coxswain cleared his throat noisily and straightened a thin stack of paper in between his thick hands. "Ms. Cooper-Hughes, does the Black Moon howl?"

"I don't know."

"Where were you on the 23rd of December?"

"I don't remember."

"Who did you meet with on the 23rd of December?"

"I don't remember."

"Where does the last road lead?"

"I don't know."

"What did you sell to the individuals you met with on that date?"

"I don't remember."

"Do you admit to making a transaction of some type on that date?" Wren could see Coxswain’s grip on the paper's tightening, sending tiny crinkles throughout them. It was hard not to think about those fingers closing around her throat.

"I really don't remember."

"Have you ever consciously mishandled classified information?"

"No."

"What came last from inside the Garden?"

"I don't know."

"Are you a faithful servant of the Foundation?"

"I am."

"Who knows the best course for the Foundation?"

"The Overseers."

"Are you a faithful servant of the Overseers?"

"I am."

"How many stars have already died?"

Wren felt a slight hitch in her mind, a tiny tug as she opened her mouth to say that she had no idea what he was talking about. There was no way of knowing, of course, it was just one of those koans that everyone was always repeating. "I don't know," she said just a heartbeat later than she meant to. The machine wrapped around her wrist began beeping furiously. "Wait, wait, I really don't know." It beeped faster and louder, feverish pitch closer to a scream than anything a machine should be making. "I said I don't fucking know!" she screamed, struggling against her restraints to smash the damned thing.

"That's enough," said Coxswain, pressing a button on the terminal. The noise ceased immediately.

"I wasn't lying, I swear," said Wren, feeling her lips spread back in a nervous smile. It felt disingenuous, even to herself. It felt curdled and rotten, no matter how much she believed what she was saying.

"I'm inclined to believe you." Coxswain sighed mightily and laid his papers down on the table. "That's even worse. We have irrefutable evidence of… well, it's not good. If things are as they seem, something else has been in control of you for nearly a month."

"What?"

"Something that's still in there, or at least left traces of itself behind. I'm sure you don't need more of an explanation than that after your time here."

"It's just a stupid koan," whined Wren, gently testing her bindings again. The thick straps of the chair didn’t budge. "It doesn't mean anything."

"That's all it should be, yes, but some part of you thinks you have an answer. They will figure out what that entity is during outprocessing. Hopefully something can be done to help you, but – "

"Wait, wait, outprocessing? I can still work! You can't kick me out just for this!"

"Just for this?" asked Coxswain, deadly calm.

"Yeah, you know…" said Wren. The phantom sensation of a pulled trigger ached in her finger as she spoke, and ghostly warmth from a vast fire rushed against her. She could feel herself prying out one of her teeth, feel herself walking through a field of bleeding soldiers, feel herself smiling in the face of a hundred more hale ones. "For forgetting."

"Your loss will be felt, I promise. You were always a good agent, but sometimes retirement is what's best for everyone. We'll get you some happy memories, and – "

"No, no way! I refuse. I'm good at this. This is the only thing I'm good at! You can't do this to me!"

"Please don't make this any harder than it needs to be. Think of what's best for the Foundation."

"Right, I am." Wren smiled again, and it spoiled before she could finish. "I want to make an appeal."

"Granted," said a voice pitched higher than either of their own. What little color was in the room drained out of it as Wren looked for the voice's source, and the walls peeled away one by one. The chair she sat on vanished, as did the table in front of her, and then the floor below. Wren was momentarily engulfed by a terrifying nothingness that resembled nothing quite as much as a sky in which every star was long dead.

A moment later, Wren found herself in a blindingly bright room. The light was cold, sterile, and harsh enough to obscure everything but the ornate desk in front of her and the woman sitting behind it. Dark-haired, dark-skinned, and severe in expression, her hands were clasped in front of her, one bare and the other heavy with rings.

"I've been listening," she said, each word heavy with enough authority to erase any doubt about what position she held. "State your case. Quickly. Clearly."

"Of course, Overseer. Like Coxswain said, I wasn't in control of my actions, so I shouldn't be blamed for them. I know I can't go into the field like that, but there has to be something else I can do. Right?"

"But you were in control, weren't you?" said the Overseer, pausing to shift her hands so that the ringed one lay atop the other. "Forgetting does not excuse treason, no matter how completely you managed to do it."

"I would never!"

"Wouldn't you though? Didn't you? Tell me honestly that you think you're innocent."

Wren bit back a quick denial. She was walking through a minefield, no doubt about that, but she wasn't dead yet. "I may not be innocent, but I'm not guilty either. Some version of me might have done whatever it did, but that version isn't me anymore."

"What you did was kill twenty-six of your fellow agents, destroy a great deal of valuable equipment, and sell some very important secrets to the Autumn Firm."

The mines felt awfully close to the surface here, but Wren pushed on regardless. "Those are useful skills though, right? Aren't they? The Foundation's going to need people like me once all the weirdness is taken care of and other people are the problem. Turning me into a… a farmer or something would be a waste!"

"The 'weirdness' is already more under control than you could imagine, and our enemies are different from what you think. That said…"

Wren sat silently as the Overseer considered her. She felt a bit like the room she had just been sitting in, with each and every bit of her peeled away and discarded just to expose something deep inside. More than just being exposed, she was analyzed. Broken down into her component parts and weighed. Poked, prodded, and probed. Judged.

"I may have a use for you," conceded the Overseer. "That is, if you truly want to keep doing this sort of work."

"I do!"

"Serve me well then. Hurt who I say to, and kill those I need you to. I'll pay you, give you new teeth, and new allies too. Betray me, and I'll make you remember everything you think you've buried. Swear it."

Wren was about to say something snide about how formal the other woman sounded, but thought better of it under her sharp glare. "Yes, Overseer. I will. I swear."

Anything was better than the alternative. Anything was better than forgetting all the things she had cut away at her memories to preserve. And if nothing else, this was what Wren was good at.


Wren sat on a bench in northern Florida two days later, chewing gum and wishing it wasn't quite so humid. She kept running her tongue over her new teeth and worrying over how sharp they felt. They had been safe so far, but it only felt like a matter of time before she managed to hurt herself. Well, she had other people to hurt first.

Two men and a woman passed in front of where she was sitting, speaking quietly to each other and reeking like they just walked out of a chemical plant. Importantly, each matched one of the descriptions she had been given. More importantly still, they moved with the kind of intent people only had when they were doing something serious and secretive. Wren waited a minute after they passed before rising, languidly stretching, and giving slow chase.

The small group moved as the Overseer had predicted, heading toward the location of some important meeting she was currently embroiled in. Knowing that, tracking them was as easy as it would have been with the drone arrays and subverted cameras Wren had enjoyed in Alpha-1. Five blocks from where they started, she walked into a long, narrow alleyway just a few steps behind them. Wren reached through her sweatshirt's open zipper, drew her pistol, and fired. Twice into the back of the closest, once into the head of the next, and three times into the chest of the last. Not a good showing from the Ethics Committee, but she hadn't expected much in the first place.

She shot each of them once more before walking off into the wet night. It seemed like an excessive solution to the Overseer's problem, but Wren wasn't going to complain. Not when she was being put to good work again. She looked up at the night sky as she went. Even if some of the stars above were already dead and gone, their light still shone all the same.



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