The Fifth

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BEFORE

— - —

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They were crammed into the small, dingy motel room - Adam sitting in a corner idly perusing an anarchoblog on his laptop, Olivia sitting on the bed drying her hair, Calvin sitting in the window watching cars pass on the dark street below them and Anthony relaxing on the other bed, eating a sandwich. They had the television on, but none of them were watching. Every so often they would hear footsteps in the hallway and all stop what they were doing until the sound disappeared around the corner. It was after one of these pauses that Adam broke the silence.

“Anthony,” he asked, closing his laptop and kicking up his feet, “you said you were alive during the Schism, right?”

Anthony grunted.

“First of all, that’s still crazy. Second, why did the Schism happen in the first place?”

The older man stopped chewing and swallowed. “Ideological quibbles.”

Calvin rolled his eyes and Adam pouted. “No, seriously,” Adam said. “It didn’t seem like the Foundation had been around that long. What could’ve happened in such a short amount of time to cause a rift like that?”

Anthony set his sandwich down on the bedside table. “There was a profound disagreement from the beginning about what the Foundation had to offer. Back then we had this enemy, see - we called them Abbadon. We were led to believe the Abbadon was this group of desperate, hostile reality benders that were attacking our storehouses to loot our artifacts. The threat of Abbadon showing up on our doorstep everyday led us away from just researching and containing anomalies - suddenly we were concerned with protecting ourselves. Reaching outside our bounds.”

He took a drink from a can on the table. “We began a project to build this thing, this eigenweapon, that we could use to end Abbadon once and for all. Felix Carter, the Thirteenth Overseer, he was in charge of the occult research that went into developing the rituals we used to bind unparalleled power to a word, a word that could be used to annihilate anything in the universe in an instant with nothing more than a thought. We-”

He paused as another set of footsteps proceeded past the door with little incident.

“We did something,” he continued, “during the development of that weapon, that was truly heinous. I am convinced there is no greater sin than the one we committed to create that perfect gun, and I am half convinced the Overseers only signed that deal with Death to avoid the fires of Hell we’re all now destined for.”

He paused again and took another drink. “Anyway, we were fooled. Abbadon was an excuse, one perpetrated by the Administrator to, for the first time, create an anomaly. Give form to something that had not existed before we started. We succeeded, but at a terrible cost. The Schism was a result of the two lingering factions after that event - those who believed that creating that weapon was a net good, and those who believed it was a net evil. The ones who stayed thought that the ends justified what we had done, and that creating that weapon had created a safer world. Myself and several others rightly believed that we had done something unspeakable, and that the Foundation couldn’t continue to exist. That it was rotten to its core.”

Adam pondered this for a moment. “What happened to that weapon?”

“They buried it,” he said without hesitation. “It could only be activated with the word, and the only person who knew what that word was defected with us. Aaron Siegel, The Engineer, the man who is currently the First Overseer. When they realized they couldn’t use it anymore, they split up its component parts to keep them from being activated, and he could never use it again - word or otherwise.”

“What caused the defection, then?” Olivia asked, scrubbing at her face with a washcloth. “What made Aaron Siegel go back?”

“Arrogance and lust,” he spat. “They called with a better offer and he picked up the phone.”

He leaned back against the thin, dingy pillows. “When we defected, Aaron Siegel killed the Administrator, thinking that would be the end of the Foundation. But the Administrator was just one man, and the Foundation was much more decentralized than it is today. The difference between then and now is a matter of scale. The Foundation of today has fully realized itself, and its core is less a connection of a few veins and more its bleeding, beating heart. There is power in the directors and everything, but true authority rests with the Overseers. When they’re gone, the Foundation will be a snake without its head.”

He pulled out a cigarette and lit it. Calvin slid the window open slightly more in response and shot him a look.

“And more than that,” he continued, “you’ve probably heard that all of the Foundation’s sites and storehouses sit on top of nuclear devices - a last chance option if something terrible happens. They’re not under every site, but they are under most. At Site-01, there is a system in place that will activate when there is only one Overseer left, a command that goes out to arm all of those bombs. If we get there and kill Aaron Siegel, we can use that system to destroy everything - the sites, the anomalies, all of it. We’ll still have work to do, but we’ll have trumped them.”

Calvin was looking at him from the corner of his eye. “How do you know this exists?”

“I designed it,” Anthony said. “We didn’t have nuclear weapons when I designed it, but the concept is the same. You could even do it from his desk. One button, and poof - it’s all gone.” He picked his sandwich back up and nodded. “That’s our play. That’s how we do it.”


NOW

— - —

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Calvin was two steps out of the humvee with his gun drawn. Olivia was close behind him, but the man in the middle of the road didn’t move. He held up both hands, palms out, and waved them slightly.

“Look, see?” he showed them the backs of his hands. “No guns. I’m not here for violence.”

“Who are you?” Calvin asked.

The man made a large, sweeping bow. He was slightly hunchbacked, and when he bent over they could see the deviation in his spine.

“I am Mortimer J. Denning Von Kronecker,” he said, standing back up. “I’m your next Overseer. Number Five, you see.” He gave them a knowing elbow. “I noticed you were going down numerically. Not maybe the most unique approach, but I’ll admit it’s narratively consistent.”

Olivia raised an eyebrow. “You’re the Blackbird?”

The man made a dismissive gesture. “Please, Blackbird is my work name. I’m not here on work, obviously, though-” he gave them both a look, “-it seems that you two are.”

Calvin raised his gun as if to fire, and then hesitated. “What are you doing here?”

“Me?” Mortimer raised a hand to his mouth. “Why, I came to meet you! I have seen some incredible things - many incredible things, if you believe half the stories they tell about me, but I’ve never met someone who has, in one way or another, killed eight Overseers.” He crossed his arms and nodded. “That is impressive. That’s never been done before, not even by the Overseers themselves!”

“If you know why we’re here, then why did you seek us out? Olivia asked. “You know we’re trying to kill you.”

The man laughed. “Yes, well, I did know that. But see, unfortunately for both of us, killing me is sort of a non-starter, even after your little whoopsie with Felix back at the Spire.” He gestured at Calvin. “Here, I’ll show you. This will help establish some rules. Shoot me.” He tapped on his forehead. “Right here, square between the eyes if you can.”

Calvin raised his gun again but paused. He looked at Olivia, who looked back at him with uncertainty. Mortimer rolled his eyes and produced a knife from inside his sleeve.

“Fine, fine,” he said, “we can do it this way too.”

Holding the knife in his left hand and bracing the bottom of it with his right, Mortimer drove the blade of the knife into his head through his neck. Blood splashed out onto the ground and he immediately went cross-eyed as a gargling gasp escaped his lips. He pushed one more time with his right hand and the end of the knife lodged perfectly into his skull. He stumbled backwards and collapsed.

The three of them sat staring at the man on the ground in shock.

“What the hell was that?” Adam said from behind them.

Then, suddenly, the road in front of them was illuminated by a dark purple light. It pulsed twice, and then with a snapping sound and the distinct smell of ozone, the Blackbird appeared before them again, unscathed. He held out his arms as if performing a magic trick, and then gestured to the corpse on the ground.

“See?” he said. “Voila. Good as new.”

“You’re anomalous,” Olivia stated.

Mortimer nodded. “But really, who isn’t anymore?” He held a finger to his chin. “You know, now that I’m thinking about it I believe that Green wasn’t. I think that always got to her, you know? She had all these machinations-” he gestured wildly, “-that would’ve been so much easier to achieve if she could do the things I can do.”

“What can you do?” Calvin said, lowering his gun.

The Overseer held up a finger. “Ah, that’s a good question! Let’s start with a better one - where I’m from.” He turned as if to walk away, and then stopped midstep to turn back and motion them to follow. “Come on, let’s go. You can leave your belongings here, nobody is going to come after them for a while.”

The three of them hesitantly started walking behind him. As they fell in step, they noticed the sky changing. It had been night, but now it was a deep, rich purple that was occasionally disturbed by ripples emanating from somewhere in the distance. The landscape around them began to change as well - gone were the hills leading up into the mountains, now they walked on a cobblestone street through a city they did not recognize. The sky above them began to change again, fading out from purple and into a sullen grey. A light rain was falling and a chill hit them from behind.

“This,” Mortimer said, turning back to look at them, “is my home - where I am from, anyway. I was born here, in the city of London. London, population two-point-five million, is the last city on Earth. Isn’t that something?”

They stared around in muted amazement. Something dark and massive passed overhead, and they were momentarily drenched in shadow.

“What happened here?” Adam asked.

The Overseer shrugged. “You remember the Black Death? You no doubt read about it in a history book or something - a very tragic event in your world’s history. Well, as it turns out the Black Death hit this world very hard. There was this fellow in the Out There who woke up just in time to catch it at its worst, and told everyone he had a cure. As you can imagine, people were eager to take him up on the proposition. Only problem was, the Plague wasn’t exactly what he was curing.” He waggled his eyebrows. “If you know what I mean.”

He turned back to look down the dull street. At the far end, a horse drawn carriage passed by - the horse looking little more than a skeleton.

“In your world - the one you were born in, this entity exists. We have him contained, in fact - stuffed in a cell somewhere. He’s much different there than he is here, I doubt there would be much we could do to inhibit this fellow.” He paused. “Anyway, city after city began to fall, all around the world. But not London. The Forefathers built her walls strong and her defenses stalwart. For a time we had allies - Paris, Munich, Rome. Even some much further away. Slowly, over time, they all went silent. London is all that’s left.”

He started walking again, and they followed. He led them down the street and then out into a large, open thoroughfare that was empty except for them.

“Now, as for what I can ‘do’. You’ve no doubt picked up on part of it - walking hither and yon between realities is both useful and obvious. But before you can go somewhere, you need to see where it is you’re going.”

He pointed up into the sky and closed his eyes. “You’ve met my good ex-friend The Accountant already. He was very good with numbers, and there were some who thought he could see the future. He couldn’t really, just like I can’t really. But I can do him one better. See, they’ll tell you there are infinitely many universes, and for the layman that might as well be true. But it’s not actually true. There is a functional end to all creation - a hard limit, if you will. There are only so many atoms and so many interactions. It might seem like infinity to your average guy on the street, but I can see those variations - each and every one of them. If there are more of some than there are of others, I know that in any one universe that event would be more likely.”

He stopped again. “Now imagine you’re a young Mortimer J. Denning Von Kronecker, and you live in a shit city on a shit island at the end of the world. The skies are always grey, the air is always toxic, and on the other side of the channel outside of these walls is a nightmare that could kill you in a heartbeat. You have dreams - dreams of a place like yours, but different. Brighter. Happier. A smaller chance of imminent death. You can see it, clear as day. Then one day you hear a voice calling out to you from this place - and it’s your own voice. They’re not you, but they are you.”

He turned back. “I heard that voice, and took those first steps into a place that wasn’t my own. This place, this London, is part of a dying world. If it makes it another six months it’ll be a miracle. I had no family, no friends. Nobody wanted a lame orphan who was hearing voices.” He shrugged. “So I left.”

“Hang on,” Olivia said, rubbing her temple. “You can see other realities?”

Mortimer looked up curiously, as if forming a thought. “See… no. It’s not like I can open my eyes and look at them, not really. It’s more like I can… hear them.”

He started walking again. They passed an empty butcher shop, an empty bank, an empty apartment building.

“You remember when I said I heard my own voice?” he asked. “That was true. When I came through there I found another me, and together we found another. We kept running into each other until there were no more of me left undiscovered, and then we all just sort of… came together. Unified, if you will. There are still a lot of me in here,” he tapped his head, “but we all more or less speak the same language now. This works out well, because if one of me ever dies, the others can just break that one off and stay intact. Does that make sense? Sort of like an onion. You peel one layer back, and there’s more onion underneath.” He rubbed his chin. “I think that’s a reference to something.”

“I still don’t understand,” Olivia said, “if you’re all in the same place now, how do you hear these other dimensions?”

“Realities,” he said, holding up a finger. “Dimensions are different and I don’t dabble in those. That was the tricky bit, but sometimes things just have a way of working out. In my travels I found someone else like me, someone else who was maybe not quite so organized as I was, but could still hear herself wherever she is out there. Her name was Alison, the daughter of one of the Foundation senior staff members. She and her… sisters? That’s not right. She and the other versions of herself struck a deal with me. I show up whenever she needs a little ‘muscle’ and she keeps me informed of everything happening… everywhere. Do you understand?”

Calvin stopped walking. “So why did you bring us here? What do you want?”

Mortimer paused and then turned around. He was still smiling, but it was more somber somehow.

“I know what you’re trying to do,” he said, “and I’m sympathetic, trust me. I know you’re adamant about what you want to accomplish and I know that nothing that I can say personally can change that - and that’s fair. Thing is, I don’t know if you’re right or not, or if your crusade will make any sort of difference in the grand scheme. I have some ideas, but I’m not sure. Just in case, I want to try and keep it from happening, because if for some reason you succeed and I lose touch with all of the me that’s in here, well…” he paused. “I don’t really know what would happen, to be honest. I don’t think it would be good.”

“So I’m going to give you something!” His smile diminished slightly when he saw their faces turn. “Oh, no, this isn’t like other deals I’m sure the others gave you. Especially since they were, what, Valerie and Rufus? Those two are nasty.” He shook his head. “I’m sure they resorted to horrible things in order to dissuade you, and look where that got them! Me, though, I can do better than that.”

They stopped in front of another empty shop with three doors. Somewhere in the distance a flare when up, and they were briefly bathed in red light. When they looked back, there were three men standing in front of the doors, each identical to the others.

“I’m going to offer you an out,” Mortimer said, the voices speaking in perfect unison. “Not an out that’s just in your head like The Liar might’ve offered, or an out that’s not really an out at all and mostly just results in your death like Rufus would’ve preferred. No, this is a bonafide, 100% guaranteed out. If you take it, it’s yours. I can arrange all the paperwork and make it happen, but it’s there if you want it.”

Each of the three men stepped aside, exposing the now open doors behind them. One for each of them.

“We go through these,” Calvin said slowly, “and what, we’re killed immediately? Is this a joke?”

Mortimer’s face softened. For the first time he no longer appeared unceasingly genial - instead, he looked tired.

“No, it’s not a joke - and there’s no funny business here. I’m just looking for a way we can both benefit from this.”

They each looked at each other, and after a minute Olivia shrugged.

“I mean, what else are we going to do?” she said. “Shoot him?”

Calvin and Adam nodded in agreement, and the three of them each entered separate doors.

— - —

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Adam found himself standing in a warmly lit room on a shaggy carpet. Somewhere on the street below, a man was playing something on a saxophone. There was a small fireplace, and a fire burning within it. Something was cooking in the next room, and it smelled heavenly. Adam scanned the room for something familiar, but found nothing.

“It’s over there, if you’re looking for it,” the Blackbird said, suddenly appearing next to him. “Over there in the corner, I mean. Your laptop, right? That’s what you’re looking for? I notice you don’t really ever part with it.”

“What is this?” Adam said, confused. “Where am I?”

“This is Portland, Oregon, in the United States. Can’t remember the address exactly. You’ve actually been here once before, when you were younger. Your parents briefly sought asylum here.”

Adam looked back around the room. “That’s right,” he said, nodding. “We lived in the town in the mountains after this.”

The Blackbird walked over to the window and looked out at the street. Adam continued scanning the room. “Why here?”

“Because in this world, your asylum was granted,” the Blackbird said without looking up. “You grew up here, with both of your parents and your siblings. They’re all still alive, too. Your parents moved to Los Angeles, but you liked it here most of all. This felt like home to you.”

Adam didn’t respond. It did feel like home. He remembered the thick carpet and the drapes that were just a little musty. Even the stupid little fireplace had made him so happy as a child. It was perfect, exactly as he remembered it but better, except-

“Adam,” a voice called from the kitchen. It was dark and rough - and familiar. Adam felt his heartbeat quicken slightly as he took a few steps around the edge of the sofa in the middle of the room. A moment later, Calvin’s head poked around the corner.

“Dinner,” he said. He raised an eyebrow and looked around. “Who are you talking to?”

Adam hesitated, his voice catching in his throat. He turned to look at the Blackbird for some response, but the man was staring straight ahead, unblinking.

“Are you surprised?” the Overseer said. “You can’t hide from me, Adam Ivanov.” He tapped a finger on the side of his head. “There was a time once when I too desired certain comforts. Pleasures of the flesh, as you know. The girl Alison has had her usefulness there, but I will admit I find your tastes far more fulfilling than my own.”

Adam turned back to Calvin, who was no longer moving. The world had grown very still. From his position in the living room, quietly shaking and unable to control his heart, Adam saw a silver band on one of Calvin’s fingers. He felt blood rush into his face.

“There are struggles here,” the Blackbird said, walking back over towards a shimmering purple door in the back of the room. “You will experience hardships, just like everyone does. But it is an opportunity, and it is normal. It is a life that you can live free of fear. A life that is your own, not somebody else’s.”

Then Calvin was walking over towards him, and he was unable to move. Calvin’s face was stoic, but his eyes betrayed his concern. He reached out and put a hand on the back of Adam’s head. It was warm.

— - —

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Olivia stepped through the door and was abruptly hit in the face with a blast of salty water. She stumbled sideways and opened her eyes, and realized she’d very nearly walked into the sea off the edge of the ship she was now standing on. Ship was perhaps not the right term - the vessel she had appeared on was a yacht. Overhead the skies were blue and cloudless, and the seas around her were generally calm.

She walked towards the center of the deck, where an easel was set up and a rack of different art supplies sat next to it. She moved to stand in front of it and saw it was a painting, half completed, of the horizon in front of her. In the painting the sun was hanging low in the sky. She leaned in and saw the sun in the painting was moving, slowly sinking below the horizon. As it did, the completed half of the image grew dark, and its sky filled with purples and blues.

She stepped back, and noticed the Blackbird standing nearby, casually gazing off the side of the ship towards a beach nearby.

“Where is this?” she asked.

“Wherever you want it to be, I believe,” he said, idly drumming his fingers on the rail of the ship. “In this world, this ship is yours. That easel and those paints are yours. You have nothing to worry about except the easel, and the sea. All the time you need.”

Olivia snorted. “You think I’d be convinced with a nice boat and some new paints?”

The Blackbird looked back at her and smiled. “No, I really didn’t.”

She heard another sound from behind her - somebody climbing steps. She turned around to find a man emerging from below deck. He had dark, rich skin and long hair in thick braids. He was wearing white shorts and little else, and the definition in his musculature could have cut diamond. When she saw him, Olivia gasped.

“Tevin,” she said, her voice catching. “I don’t- I don’t understand, how?”

The world froze. The Blackbird walked up behind her and beheld the man for a moment.

“I had wondered about you, Olivia. For all your passion you never seemed to show any kind of true emotion. Nothing raw or real.” She looked at him and he grinned. “Yes, I’ve been watching you for a long time. I saw this coming, more or less, and long ago decided to keep tabs on those of you who might be involved.”

He gestured at the man coming up the stairs. “This, though, surprised me. I was really amazed at how well you kept it hidden, even from the people who knew you best. But what would the Incredible Ivory be without her Excellent Ebony, eh?” He laughed. “I get now why the name wouldn’t stick. That’s ok, I’ve had my fair share as well.”

The Blackbird turned back towards the sea. “In this world, the boat and the paints are yours, and so is Tevin Laredo. There is no Foundation raid on your anartist community, and you don’t accidentally turn him into glass while drawing up that wave of fire to dissuade your pursuers.” He glanced at her as her face turned white. “Yes, even that. The All-Seeing Eye of the Foundation doesn’t miss much, and it certainly didn’t miss that. I imagine it must have been horrible, really. I understand your pain - I too have made terrible choices with unintended outcomes that I have had to live with.”

He sat down in a deck chair and produced a glass from inside his coat, filling it with a flask also from inside his coat. He took a drink and sighed, leaning back in the chair.

“In this world, Olivia, you don’t have to make that terrible choice. There is no accident. You and he get to stay on this ship and go where you want to go, and see everything you want to see. There is no limit to your horizons here.”

Olivia tried to turn away, but tears were already streaming down her face. The Blackbird took another drink.

“Wouldn’t that be nicer?”

— - —

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Calvin stepped out into a grassy field in the middle of the woods. The air was crisp and a thin layer of dew sparkled across the grass in the light of a rising sun. He took a few steps and gauged his surroundings, then sighed. He knew where he was.

The Blackbird appeared beside him, looking down the small slow of a hill they stood on towards a small lake set on the edge of the woods. For a moment, they didn’t speak.

“This is a strange choice,” Calvin finally said.

The Blackbird looked sideways at him. “What makes you say that?”

Calvin shrugged. “I’ve been here before. I know how it goes.”

The Blackbird tutted. “Now, that’s not true. You know how it goes from a single perspective, the one you had that day in the woods-”

Calvin raised an eyebrow.

“-but this world, this is the one you always wanted. The one where you have a chance to save your mother.”

They watched as a young Calvin and his mother came into view through the trees. As they came across the side of the lake, a body appeared in the water, floating up from some dark depth below. Then another, and another, and suddenly there were hundred of bodies coating the surface of the water like a slime. As they appeared, Calvin’s mother stopped and turned, and she began walking towards the lake. Young Calvin stood unmoving behind her.

“You had all this time,” the Blackbird continued, “all this time to run down and stop her. But you didn’t, because you were a boy and you were scared. Now, though, you have all the time in the-”

He stopped. Staring back at the two of them, right into Calvin’s eyes, was young Calvin. There was a look of knowing there that he recognized as his own, a look of understanding about what had come before and what would happen next. The young man looked back at his mother, and then back at the treeline. Standing there, amidst the brush and the limbs, was a cloaked figure holding a silver canister. Calvin began walking towards them.

The Blackbird recoiled at the sight. “You!?” his voice cracked and Calvin could hear something unnatural beneath his tone. “You did this?”

Calvin reached the figure and took the canister. The figure held a single finger up to their lips.

“This is not what you think it is,” the figure said. “Take it and see.”

Calvin opened the canister and dumped the contents out into his hand. It was a pair of wire-framed glasses, with thin golden runes marked along its edges. Near the back of one of the earpieces was a name, inlaid in black. A. Bright. Calvin held them up and they glittered in the light of the rising sun.

“What are you doing?!” the Blackbird cried from across the meadow. “All of our endeavours laid to waste, and nothing but panic and uselessness from all of you. At least I was trying to fix the problem. I was trying to help. I wanted to make them happy, even if this one can’t be satisfied.”

Calvin paused. “You showed me this place, didn’t you? I imagine you showed the other two something similar. What - their ideal world, or something?” He considered this. “If this is my ideal world, then why wouldn’t it make me happy?”

The Blackbird sank his thumb into the bridge of his nose. “Because those two want things that can be achieved reasonably. You, on the other hand, are a violent demagogue appealing to their baser instincts. They’ve both experienced hardships - because all people experience hardships. You and your ilk just pointed the finger at the Foundation and gave them an outlet for their hate. I was trying to offer them something better. But all you want is to kill, and all because of this moment, right here.”

He gestured towards the water. “Do you see that? Your own mother, walking off to meet a terrible fate. Your entire life would change, made infinitely better by your non-involvement in these affairs. You have the choice, and you’re still choosing violence. What does that make you?”

Calvin looked back down at the glasses, and after a moment he put them on.

“I don’t know,” he said. “Let’s see about you.”

When he looked back up through the slightly blue-tinted lenses, the meadow and the lake and the woods were still there. However, instead of the Blackbird there now stood a towering monstrosity, some horrific psuedo-avian creature with dead eyes and fetid, rotting flesh. He could see through its thin, matted feathers to within, where a swirling mass of faces howled and cursed, each pressed up against the sides of their container as if it was near to burst. When the creature opened its foul beak to speak, he could hear the Blackbird’s voice echoed over infinitely many incarnations of itself, a sinister cacophony of misery and pain.

“I offered you a life,” the creature said. “I offered you freedom. I offered you your mother.”

Calvin shook his head. “No. That’s not my mother.” He looked down at young Calvin, who was watching him closely. “She’s his. My mother died a long time ago, because of abominations just like you.”

“You’re a fool,” the Blackbird cawed. “It doesn’t matter. I don’t have to make you happy - you’re already here, and I don’t have to stay.”

The sky began to turn purple again, and Calvin smelled ozone. From behind him, the figure lay a hand on his shoulder.

“Turn the canister over again,” it said. “Quickly.”

Calvin did, and sliding out from within it was a long fiberglass fishing rod. It was bright pink, with the words “Dr. Wondertainment’s Interdimensional Line and Lure” emblazoned on the side. Behind it was something else, and at the sight of it Calvin grinned. It was plain white wiffle-ball bat with a taped handle and the words “bird-b-gone by dado” written on it in black marker.

He took the rod in one hand and, rearing back, cast it out towards the Blackbird. Out from its end came a brilliant white shimmering line that arced across the meadow and sank into the Blackbird’s flesh. The line went taught, and Calvin gave one last look to the boy standing by the lake before the world turned purple and they disappeared.

When he opened his eyes, Calvin was standing on the deck of a wrecked and ruined ship. A cavernous hole had opened in the middle of it, and peering below he could see no visible bottom. A moment later, the Blackbird fell from the sky behind him and crashed onto the ship with a wet crunching sound.

“Wha-” the creature said, fumbling up onto its wings and talons, “what is this? Where are we? This isn’t where we were supposed to-”

It was stopped suddenly by the sound of a cash register as Calvin swung the wiffle-ball bat sideway and struck the Blackbird in its mottled face. The impact point erupted in feathers and the creature howled and roared. It turned to bite at the fishing line that was now stuck in its back, but before it could reach it Calvin had come around again with the bat, each time causing the Blackbird to burst with feathers and gore and the sound of cash registers.

The Blackbird spread its wings and took off, and Calvin held tightly to the end of the line as he was pulled up into a purple sky. When the haze cleared they were in a building - a Foundation site, it seemed - surrounded by chaos. Klaxons were blaring and the red lights of breach alarms pulsed rapidly in the giant antechamber they were standing in. A great many white-coated persons were scrambling out of a hallway where, behind them, there came a roaring sound. The Blackbird stared in the direction of the sound, and then its eyes grew suddenly very wide.

“Oh fuck me,” it said.

Bursting out of the hallway came the reptilian monstrosity they had seen in Adam’s village, only smaller and covered in razor sharp blades. It was different, Calvin noticed, but the eyes gave it away. The creatures roared and hissed, and when it turned he could see a man standing on its back, screaming and laughing.

As the Blackbird hesitated, Calvin crossed the room and struck it again with the bat, and then again, and then several times in quick succession. Each time, more and more feathers burst from its hide and the swirling mass of souls within it shouted and recoiled. As the reptilian creature came towards them, rows of teeth clashing together, the Blackbird beat its wings backwards pulling both of them away into the ether.

Calvin crashed into the dirt, and not far away he heard the Blackbird do the same. When he stood up he saw that they were standing in what might have once been a field of grass, but the vegetation had long since died off. In fact, he realized with some morbid amazement, it didn’t seem like there was anything alive at all except for the two of them. The sky was overcast and there was a storm rolling by a distance away, but they heard no birds, no insects, and nothing man-made.

He was distracted momentarily when a drone buzzed by overhead, its motor the only sound to pierce the silence except for a light wind. When he turned back the Blackbird was upon him, beak pecking feverishly down at where he had been standing. He scrambled sideways and pulled himself steady on the fishing line, then brought the bat around with him and beat the Blackbird in the side of the beak with it. The beak cracked and splintered and the monster howled, but it pressed on - each time growing closer and closer to Calvin.

Then there was a flash of light on the horizon. They both stopped to look, and in the far north a towering mushroom cloud was forming, a fireball that stretched into the heavens. They watched it rise and rise, and then saw with horror an approaching wall of heat and death. The Blackbird took two steps and then leapt into the sky, and they were gone again.

They did not land immediately. As Calvin clung to the rod for dear life, he saw images of places as they passed. He saw a dark facility where three girls watched them with blind eyes as he came in and out of their existence. He saw a sky with seven moons and an arched golden gateway. He saw a Foundation site covered in snow - not one he was familiar with - with a multitude of doctors pouring out of it. He heard a piercing screech, then a blast of blue light, and then the site was gone.

Each vision he passed, he began to notice faces. They were faint at first, growing more clear every time he came by another world. They were closer to him, more in focus. They were a girl - always slightly different, but the same girl each time. They watched him intently, each one looking as if they were about to speak. Then, one of them was holding up a hand with five fingers. The next had four. Then three. Two. One.

The last girl held out her hand, and Calvin reached for it. They touched, and then immediately the swirling purple haze subsided and they crashed into a hard concrete floor.

The first thing Calvin noticed was pressure. Something nearby was exerting a lot of it, and he felt a considerable effort to even breathe. As he stood up and looked around, he noticed the source: a massive, immensely complicated machine comprised of several concentric rings, within which was a dark, swirling mass of dust and debris. He looked up and saw that they were in the bottom of shaft he could not see the top of. The walls were lined with machines and panels, hoses and brackets, banks of lights that extended upwards to those dizzying heights.

And then he saw the Blackbird, rising up from a heap in front of the machine in the middle of the chamber, stretching its wings and screaming furiously. Its eyes came back down and settled on the only other person in the room, a thin girl with dark hair wearing a silver circlet etched with a small black crown around her head. She took one nervous step back as the creature hissed at her.

“Alison?” it asked, rage burning in its sockets. “What are you doing? Why are you here?”

“I’ve had enough, Mort,” she yelled, barely audible over the din of the machine in front of them. “This isn’t right. None of this is right.”

The Blackbird growled and roared. “What do you mean, ‘isn’t right’? How do you all not understand this? I can offer you anything you want. A life worth living, a death worth dying, and anything in between. You could be a god, Alison.”

She shook her head. “No. No, it’s not natural. I can’t keep doing this.”

The Blackbird reared up in front of her. “Natural? Death is natural. Misery is natural. What I offer is an escape - an existence that isn’t a horror. What else could you possibly want?”

She didn’t respond. The massive creature cawed loudly and beat its wings down at her.

“I’m sorry Alison,” it said, its tone now cold and flat, “but I’m afraid you no longer have a choice. I am the Black King. You can do nothing to stop me.”

“No,” she said, her hand falling back to a panel near her. “But he can.”

She turned a key and pulled a thick black handle and the lights around the room turned red and began to strobe in unison. Behind the Blackbird the massive machine began to unfold, the rings pulling backwards and exposing the room to the massive pressure within. The Blackbird steadied itself and laughed.

“Really, Alison? Have you not learned anything? There are infinitely many of me in here - killing any one of me will do nothing.”

Calvin came up beside her, bat in hand. He tapped it twice against his shoe.

“Not infinite,” he said. “Not quite.”

With a running start, Calvin crossed the room and took aim at the Blackbird’s center, striking it dead even with a solid, resounding crack. The creature heaved and creaked, and stumbled backwards into the swirling cloud of dust. It grabbed the edges of the machine with its talons and gripped, causing the metal to bend and twist. The ground beneath them began to shake and buckle, and the steel walls of the shaft began to groan.

Then, with a soft rush of air, the cloud of dust vanished. In its place was a humanoid figure, solid black and unmoving. The air around it distorted heavily, and in the place of the cloud of dust was a red glow. The sound of creaking metal and groaning earth faded, and the figure inside the machine looked up. Alison grabbed Calvin’s arm and pulled him behind a raised platform.

The room began to vibrate, and through the sound Calvin could hear something like a voice, tinny and metallic, echoing through the air around them.

Overseer…” the voice said, “you are… an Overseer?

“Yes!” the Blackbird screeched. “Release me!”

The figure unfolded itself and was now hanging in the air, standing straight up.

Crimes… immeasurable crimes.

“What crime?” the Blackbird cried. “The only thing I’ve done is offer an escape! A way out!”

The figure extended an open hand.

No,” it said, “this is the only way out.

It closed its hand, and the Blackbird seized. There was another rush of air, and Calvin could feel the breath being pulled from his chest. He leaned around the platform just in time to see the Blackbird pulled into a single superheated point and sizzle out of existence. The room began to shake violently, and Alison reached up and hit the handle on the platform. The lights began to flash again, and the machine started spooling up. A few moments later, as they sat huddled behind the platform, the air settled and the roar subsided.

Calvin took a deep breath and coughed. “What… what was that?”

The girl called Alison stood up gingerly. She held out a hand to Calvin and he did the same.

“That being is one of near unparalleled power,” she said, he hand rubbing a spot on her neck. “It took me a long time to find it, but I had been searching for it for years. This is the only reality where this being exists, so you had to come here.” She cracked her neck. “We’re sorry for the inconvenience.”

Calvin nodded slowly. “Who are you?”

She smiled. “My name is Alison. The Foundation has a different name for me, for all of us, but that’s neither here nor there. We caught wind of what you were doing and realized this was our chance to undo the damage he had done.”

Calvin cocked his head to the side. “Damage?”

She rubbed her wrist. “When the Blackbird found us we thought we had a sort of kinship with him. He-” she hesitated. “I don’t think he was evil, but there were so many Mortimers in there that it’s hard to say who you’d be talking to at any given time. He could see injustice, I think, but aside from his own power to escape it he didn’t ever seem to care enough to do anything about it. I think he enjoyed his own existence too much.”

Calvin nodded and then looked back to the humming machine. “I don’t know how to get back.”

Alison gestured at the fishing rod laying on the ground. “If you cast that out, another Black Queen will catch it and pull you in.”

He frowned. “You mentioned the Foundation. Does it exist in this world? Do you know anything about the Overseers?”

She laughed. “It did. They did too, a long time ago. But this-” she gestured towards the machine, “-this killed everybody a long time ago. There’s nobody left here, now. Just me, and just to make sure this machine keeps running.”

Calvin nodded and picked up the rod. He turned away from her and then stopped.

“Do you know what he showed them?” he asked. “The two other people I was with?”

Alison grimaced. “I do.”

“What was it?”

She shook her head. “I can’t tell you that - just that taking them from where they are right now would be a cruelty you’d be doing to them.”

Calvin didn’t respond. Instead, he pulled the rod back and cast it into the sky. It caught somewhere up above him, and the world went purple.

— - —

They stood on the tarmac of a small airport as a plane taxied up to them. When it stopped and the stairs descended, Sylvester Sloan emerged from within.

He eyed them over carefully. Finishing his assessment, he loudly harrumphed.

“You three look like shit,” he said.

He was right. Adam stood uncomfortably apart from the other two, his eyes glassy and downcast and his shoulders hunched slightly. He shivered even despite the warm winds blowing out of the badlands behind them. Olivia was white as a sheet - the skin around her eyes tight and her breathing shallow. Calvin stood in front of them, his hands bandaged and several large bruises forming over his neck and face. The broken fishing rod was clutched in his hand; Olivia’s eyes would occasionally flash over towards it, and her breathing would become shallow again.

Calvin nodded curtly. Sloan frowned, and without another word ushered the three of them onto the plane. Moments later, they were away.


ELSEWHERE

— - —

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Aaron Siegel stood in an elevator, quickly and quietly descending down a long shaft towards a complex aperture suspended over a shallow pool of red fluid. The elevator came to a halt, and he stepped out onto the platform in front of him. He glanced down at the figures lying in the pool, and then crossed over to a control panel.

He entered a command into the panel, and below him the red liquid began to drain away. The four figures, still obscured by darkness, were lifted up from the pool by long metal arms that whirred quietly as they worked. They carried metallic plates, long lengths of wire and tubing, and racks of ammunition over to the figures, across whom glowing lines of superheated metal appeared as they squirmed silently. Aaron watched the entire process until it was finished, and the four figures were lifted up to the platform and deposited.

“Can you hear me?” Aaron said.

The foremost figure, a bald humanoid male in flexible armor, nodded. “We do.”

“There are three agents of the Insurgency who had gotten their hands on powerful and valuable artifacts,” Aaron said quickly. “They have already killed seven of the other Overseers. Myself, the Nazarene, and the Kid are protected. The Ambassador has gone missing, and will likely be their next target.” He typed something into the control panel. “These are his last known coordinates.”

“What is the mission?” another figure asked. This one was short and lean - clearly feminine, with cropped hair.

“Find these three,” Aaron said, “if you can, bring them to me. If they resist, kill them. They are carrying two very valuable artifacts - a journal and a spear. Bring me the artifacts.”

He turned over his shoulder. Behind him was a screen - black, with a dark grey circle and three arrows spinning slowly around a single red, glowing point. When Aaron acknowledged it, the red spot began glowing brighter.

“Show them,” he said, his voice hoarse. “Show them where he’s at. Find him.”

The red spot blinked twice and disappeared. He turned back to the humanoids in front of him.

“Go now Irantu, Munru, Nanku, Onru,” he said. “Find the Insurgents. Bring me the artifacts. Be my Red Right Hand.”




- BACK -


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