The Machine had failed and Dr. Molly Jayawadena was fleeing.
In a filthy subway bathroom, Molly smeared cheap bronzer on her face. The dollar store powder left grimy, muddy streaks on Molly's golden-olive face, just as she knew it would. The rest of the powder was rubbed into the thick, musty smelling anorak bought in a yard sale. It had been unseasonably warm for March in New York state, not warm enough that one would remember selling a heavy coat, but just a touch too warm for that particular jacket. This anorak had been very deliberately chosen, and Molly was ready to test that choice. She gathered the black trash bag containing everything she now owned in the world and shuffled out of the bathroom. Head downcast, Molly ambled to the bus station.
Molly's choice of disguise was a good one. People's eyes slid off her as if she was coated with some unsavory perceptual grease. Dr. Jayawadena knew it was cynical to rely so strongly on people's callousness towards the homeless, but cynicism has a way of paying off. Pedestrians gave her a wide berth while refusing to acknowledge her presence, shiny young police officers merely gave off an air of annoyance, and the bus driver patently ignored her fumbling with handfuls of sweaty quarters. Molly took a seat at the bus. No one sat beside her. Molly settled in with satisfaction for a long ride.
She would be in New York in a few hours, and then…Molly was generally a meticulous planner. That's why she had been able to flee the second the Machine melted down. No one else would have several thousand dollars in small bills, fake IDs, enough stage makeup to render Hitler unrecognizable, and yet…
Something else was guiding Molly. This was The Machine speaking to her. She must be passive now and surrender to the rippling currents of destiny.
This was not her. Molly Jayawadena was not a passive participant in the Universe.
But then again, she didn't design the Machine.
How could she? She was a physicist, not an engineer. A theoretician, mind you. A tinkerer in ideas, not metal. Molly didn't know a resistor from a reading light and didn't care to. The Proof was her work and hers alone, but the Machine was a collaboration.
With whom? Pieces of memory swirled in Molly's addled head: dreams of schematics in smooth clean lines, notes left in her office or falling out of textbooks, whispers from her students. The students! The engineering majors, bringing her odd little components they'd built "for fun", "on a whim". Damned if they knew what it did, but maybe you'd like to have it as a desk piece, Dr. Jayawadena? In turn, she'd given them the blueprints formed in half-waking moments. Here's a tricky little circuit here. Let's see if you can build it. Winner gets drinks on me. Most of those students were male, and what a male thing it was to try and win a competition of skill, especially to impress a woman. So the Machine was fashioned, piecemeal, but undeniably real.
But who designed the Machine?
All of a sudden Molly realized that the seats beside and in front of her were taken.
The seats on the train were in groups of four, a pair of seats facing each other. Molly had slid into the window seat. This, she now realized, was a mistake on her part. A man in nondescript beige clothing sat next to her, blocking her access to the aisle. Another man and a woman sat across from her in the same forgettable attire. Their outfits and demeanor were so bland that Molly knew they were some sort of plainclothesmen.
"You can't stop me," said Molly in a stage whisper.
The woman across from Molly removed her headphones and smiled a toothy, foreboding smile at her. "Stop you, Doctor? I'm personally offended. We're here to protect you, ma'am."
"Protect me? From those people at the test site?"
The man across from her smiled. "Clever one. No wonder the Engineer picked her."
Molly's head snapped to the man. "Engineer?"
"I'd better let our scientific representative answer that. Doctor?"
The man next to Molly peered up for the first time. Steepling his fingers, he addressed her in a low, thick voice. "Dr. Jayawadena. I must say it's an absolute pleasure to finally meet you, circumstances notwithstanding. I am Dr. Mikhail Kronovich, head of my organization's Physical Sciences Research and Development Department. My organization has taken quite the interest in you and your work."
Molly cocked an eyebrow. "Me and my work?"
"Absolutely, Doctor. You see, our…organization is not only devoted to finding the proper science, but the proper minds. We want vision; we want those minds dedicated to unity and order…ah, I see you know exactly what I'm talking about."
Molly's head was pounding. "Pare it down. Pare it down. The anomalies…"
Dr. Kronovich chuckled. "Comrades, she's practically one of us already. Doctor, you know about the anomalies. They're written into the language of the universe. So why, my dear Doctor, do we not know about them?"
"Surely they disguise themselves?"
"Oh, yes, of course, a few of them do, that's the nature of the anomaly. But the others? No. They are being purposely hidden, locked away so as not to contaminate our precious grip on creation," Dr. Kronovich spat venomously.
"Yes, by our friends in black. The spooks."
"They're not government." It was a statement, not a question.
Dr. Kronovich roared with laughter. "If only! The leader of this government cannot trifle with an intern without the world finding out all the salacious details. Bumbling idiots. Government indeed."
"Who are they then?"
The woman leaned in. "They're a Foundation. The Foundation. They exist to keep the human race in the dark."
The man added, "You see, we're all far too stupid to handle reality as it is. We have to be protected. Watched over by our shepherds, the lords and masters of The Foundation." His face twisted bitterly. "Of course, they're perfectly good enough to use the anomalies themselves…"
"But we'll save that for later," said Dr. Kronovich firmly. "Let us attend to the matter at hand." He turned again to Molly. "This is an offer of employment. We want to bring order to the universe. My organization will bring harmony between the anomalies and consensus reality, and we want you to help achieve that vision."
"Let's not attend to the matter at hand. This Foundation of yours, how could they have possibly found my test site so quickly, and what could they possibly have to gain?"
"The Foundation is everywhere, Doctor. They are in every branch of every government on Earth, every industrial sector, every religious organization. Our records indicate that you enjoy movies. You have seen movies where some dark global organization overlooks a small resistance by virtue of their cleverness or insignificance?"
"Yes," said Molly, "One of my least favorite tropes, actually."
"Then you will be pleased to learn life does not imitate art. The Foundation is not that incompetent movie villain and no part of your life is beyond their reach. Within five minutes, they will know exactly which seat you have taken on this bus. If it wasn't for certain tricks of our own, they would have a transcript of our exact conversation. Do you know, Doctor, what they do with all this immense power?"
"I have no idea, seeing as how I'm only learning of them now."
Dr. Kronovich brought his fist down on his armrest with a dull thud. "Exactly. The Foundation uses that immense power to convince humanity that the world is flat and the sun revolves around it. You have seen evidence of wonders, Doctor. The Foundation is in the business of hiding them from sight. Does this not offend you?"
Molly slid back into her seat. "Everything I've learned and taught has been a lie," she said blankly. All of a sudden, a bright, childlike smile burst like a sunbeam onto her face. "Everything I know is a lie! I've got a PhD in alchemy! In astrology! In antiquated bullshit!" She fell back laughing rapturously.
"Wonderful, no?" asked Dr. Kronovich with a crooked grin.
"It's Christmas in March!" she laughed again. "And to what do I owe the honor? Isn't there some sort of application process or…"
"You've passed it. We've been supplying you with a bit of help these past few months and you've gotten farther than we have in years. Imagine what you could do if you had an entire fully staffed lab devoted to controlling your ouroboric anomalies."
"I presume I must go into hiding with you."
"You presume correctly. To the outside world you will be as good as dead. We will protect you completely from your pursuers. In return we want you to research for us what you've been studying already. It's certainly not a bad deal, is it not?"
"Definitely. You're not with the government either. You're some sort of cloak-and-dagger bullshit, right? Spanning the globe, men in black, hiding in plain sight? 'The Truth is Out There'?"
Dr. Kronovich smiled. "Sarcasm aside, you have the idea."
"Well, I'm in. When do I start?"
The man leaned forward. "What? Just like that? Aren't you going to ask what happens if you refuse? Aren't you going to ask who you're working for or how you can trust us?"
Molly turned to him, smiling wryly. "I'm a scientist. Have you ever had to explain to a politician why your work is worth funding if you can't pick off terrorists with it? I don't give a fuck who I'm working for as long as I can research what I want and you're paying me for it. I don't have to know what happens if I refuse because I'd be an idiot to refuse."
"And you are no idiot," said Dr. Kronovich with a smile. "I believe this is our stop."
"What are you talking about? We're not stopping for at least another hour."
"Working for us has certain perks. Take this," said the woman.
Molly took a large wristband with a big yellow button on it. Noticing that her new coworkers wore the same device, she strapped it on.
"Ready? On three, push the button. And Doctor? Welcome to the Insurgency."
Two hours later, the bus made an unscheduled stop. Armed men and women in intimidating uniforms swarmed the bus looking for a young postdoc who had undergone a mental breakdown and was missing. No one looked too closely at the uniforms.
A thousand miles away in an underground bunker, Dr. Molly Jayawadena reached for a pencil and began to write.