Ever since Zhi Xin had returned from leading the raid at Larissa, Arjun had watched her nibble on a stale piece of bread. Her face was scrunched in an expression that Arjun judged to be two parts frustration and one part contempt. The two of them were sitting in the cafeteria of the installation currently serving as the Insurgency’s headquarters in Greece. The O5 Council had not given them the resources to construct their facilities to ordinary Foundation standards. And why would they? The Insurgency was pretending to be a renegade faction anyway, and what renegade would enjoy superior living conditions to those in power?
“I miss the food at Overwatch,” Zhi Xin said. She tossed the bread onto her plate.
“We signed up for this, Xin.”
“Completely false! We never chose to become D-Class. Nor was the choice to join the Red Right Hand really a choice. That requires approximately equivalently appealing choices. Which were not available.”
Arjun sighed. “And if we did not sign up for this, we do it because it is right.”
“You do it because you believe it to be right.”
“Enough,” Arjun said. “What happened during the raid?”
“There were no SS Ahnernerbe to be found. The temple was empty.”
“Similarly absent, given that the Ahnernerbe weren’t there. We beat the Ahnernerbe to whatever they wanted and we beat the GOC to the Ahnernerbe.”
Xin started picking at her nails. She was constantly moving from position to position—slouching, leaning back, resting her head. Arjun thought of gas particles bouncing around in a pressurized chamber. After a while, she picked the bread back up, turned it over in her hands, and put it back down.
“We took what the Ahnernerbe was after. Waited for them to come, killed most of them. Left before the Coalition showed. Standard, routine stuff, Arjun. Why are you so interested?”
“You don’t usually act this bored, Xin. I was just wondering if something was wrong.”
“It was standard, routine stuff. Why wouldn’t I be bored?”
Xin’s words echoed in the emptiness of the cafeteria. Arjun let his attention drift away from Xin. He stared upon row after row of empty seats, and metal tables, and glowing lights that flickered every so often. There was a question nagging at the back of his mind, and as much as he tried he could not plug the leak in the dam blocking up all his doubt well enough to prevent it from escaping.
“I wonder what would’ve happened if the Ahnernerbe got its hands on the thing,” Xin said.
“I mean, don’t you ever just wonder, sometimes? What would happen if the ‘bad guys’ win. To be honest, we’re running out of unambiguous bad guys. They’re wizard Nazis, Arjun. Enjoy them while they last, because the GOC isn’t having any of this.”
Arjun shook his head. “You’re not making any sense.”
“Look, if you can’t imagine the world where the bad guys win, then what? What are the stakes? What’s at risk? This is why imagination is important, Arjun. Because it’ll teach you motive.”
Why am I here?
The question flooded Arjun’s mind. Arjun tried repeating to himself: the O5 Council stood to protect humanity, and if the O5 Council needed an organization that did the Foundation’s work while absolving it of responsibility, then so be it. But the flood washed that answer away. Ideology became faint and distant before Arjun’s eyes, and he realized with a surge of panic that without that there was nothing else to hold onto. And then as soon as it came, the question receded, leaving behind a mind that was not quite sure if the question had come at all.
“So what was the Ahnernerbe even after?”
“V8 automobile engine.”
Xin shrugged. “I didn’t touch the thing, didn’t look at it. You know. Standard protocol. We’re testing the thing now. Hell if I want to be in charge, though. Testing is terrible.”
“So we have no idea what the thing is.”
“The one exciting thing about this entire ordeal, yes.”
Exciting things. Arjun thought about Overwatch. Glory and prestige had a certain smell—incense and roses, maybe—when they burned and threw up smoky fumes into the air. That scent filled Arjun’s nose when he thought on his own position. He was one of the elect, the chosen few, those who would stand at the side of the O5 and turn back the tide of…
Exciting things. But there was nothing to do.
“I would avoid Michelle tomorrow if I were you,” Xin said. She yawned widely.
Xin laughed, before standing and turning to leave. “Her marvelous invention completely failed to work in the raid. Turns out memetics is bullshit after all. Night, Arjun.”
“Good night, Xin.”
At six foot seven, Michelle Richardson stood well above the other seven members of the Insurgency’s High Command. They all had sight, so they all knew that she was perpetually hungry. For years, Arjun had been vaguely aware of some enticing thing lurking just outside the boundaries drawn by the Foundation, something unprofessional and unsanitary and unscientific and quite possibly savage. He shunned it; Michelle craved it.
When Arjun found her on the roof of their research facility, staring at the lights of San Francisco’s skyline in the distance, she had a painting canvas before her. It was impossible to see what she was painting in the darkness. As Arjun approached, he noticed several glass vials littering the floor.
“How are you doing, Arjun?” she asked.
“Good. Thank you.”
“Anything I can do for you?”
“No. I only came up here for some fresh air. It gets stuffy in the barracks sometimes.”
Michelle turned back to her painting, while Arjun stood silently behind her. After a few seconds, she turned back around and locked eyes with Arjun. He knew that he could not observe Michelle without being observed back, and harder. If she had things her way, the universe would organize itself such that it would always be viewed through her eyes.
“Let’s talk, Arjun. I don’t like it when you only stand there. I want you to speak. Let’s have a conversation. I’ll start: what is your opinion on the engine?”
Arjun blinked. “I don’t believe that we should…be so confident that the engine is really…”
“Every single researcher who has ever been exposed to the engine, without exception, has achieved some miraculous breakthrough in a field of anomalous science. Do you believe that the universe is so chaotic that a probabilistically impossible outcome such as this simply happens without fanfare?”
“I don’t know, Michelle.”
The Insurgency was too far gone.
For years Arjun had seen the signs of the world, seen those signs that were straight and ordered, seen those signs that twisted and howled. He had known what was safe and what was dangerous. Then he had been ordered to dive into the jungle of the anomalous and in that heart of darkness somehow map a way through the tortuous land. The voice of guidance from on high had commanded him to eat the forbidden fruit, and so he did, and…
What did it mean to use the anomalous? Whatever goals were achieved, whatever victory was won, the anomalous was part of that result. Arjun knew that the anomalous was beginning to take root in his body. When the day came that he could no longer call the paranormal alien, when he looked at the sign of his own soul and saw it twisted, Arjun knew that he would be permanently lost.
“You’re afraid,” Michelle said.
“I am not afraid.”
“Don’t lie to me. I can see the fear in your eyes. You’re afraid of the engine. It’s understandable. But our job is to use the anomalous. It was our assignment.”
“Ultimately our job is to contain the anomalous because it is dangerous. Because it poses unacceptable risks to human society.”
Michelle laughed. “Human society? Of what value is human society anyway? For as long as either of us knows, human society has been built on a lie, and personally, I don’t like deception.”
Arjun didn’t know if Michelle grasped the irony of what she was saying.
“Imagine what we could do with the engine,” Michelle said. “It is a force for progress. If the Foundation were to use the engine, we would be able to achieve wondrous things. What does the Foundation understand now? Memetics. Amnestics. That’s why we have Hallucinogenic Memetoamnestic Substance. It lets us see the world beyond reality, giving us unparalleled insight into the present and future. What if we understood the concept of sapience? The human—or the non-human—soul? Reality-bending?”
“So what has the O5 Council said?”
“I have yet to submit a report to them.”
“As promising as the results are, I have no desire to give the O5 Council any false hope. It would be embarrassing. I need more testing and more time. And even when I’m ready, a report cannot be immediately sent, especially given how absolutely secure any communications between us and the O5 Council must be.”
“But at the very least preliminary findings—so that they know—“
“I am overseeing all research regarding the engine. All eight of us had previously decided that this would be the case. Are you questioning my authority?”
“No. No, I’m not, but—Michelle, we are indebted to the O5 Council. They have elected us to be their most trusted soldiers.”
Even in the darkness he could feel the intensity of Michelle’s stare. “I am doing nothing but honor the trust they have placed in us. I serve nothing but the better tomorrow that the O5 Council works towards. What do you serve?”
Over the course of the conversation, Michelle had advanced close enough that he would have had to kill her if he had any doubt about her intentions. He felt her eyes take hold of him, dissect him and subject him to the relentless force of her will. He said nothing because he knew that if he surrendered, she would release him.
Without saying anything, Michelle walked past Arjun and left the rooftop.
Arjun stood, watching the sky until the sun rose and light washed over him. Now, he could see the painting. In the middle of the night sky above the San Francisco skyline, one star shone brighter than all the rest. Eight rays of light emanated from the star. Each ray curved and then split into more and more lines of light which spread across the sky.