Chapter Eleven: "Breakers"
There was no reveille, but Keagan was woken early with the slightest pangs of a headache by the purposeful activity around him of the other men, who rose, dressed, made their beds to the most exacting standards, ate breakfast and filed out with barely a word exchanged. The other newcomers were not quite as regimented but still seemed to have a relatively good idea where they were expected and had similarly exchanged farewells and left before Keagan had entirely regained his wits. Keagan remembered he was supposed to be working in the garage and, swaddling himself up as best as he could, helped himself to some rapidly cooling but still appetising salted porridge from the tureen left at the kitchen end of the barracks and braved the elements again.
The sun was bright—dazzlingly so, reflecting from the pure white glacier that Keagan now saw dominated the landscape, hills and crests of snow-covered ice, like a great inland sea—but gave off very little warmth, and though the wind had died down Keagan still found himself rushing for the shelter of the garage. He caught a few glimpses of the inhabitants of the huts, filing into the back of trucks presumably being driven by Schaeffer's men.
Teitur turned out to be a grizzled-looking older man with one eye—the other was just a poorly healed fused hollow—and wild greying blond hair in a corona around his head, thinning on top. He grunted something in Danish when Keagan arrived then turned back to what he was doing. Keagan coughed to attract his attention and pantomimed putting the parts back in the Land-Rovers. Teitur shrugged, which Keagan took to mean go ahead, no-one else is going to do it. Teitur ignored a couple of attempts at conversation—the possibility didn't escape Keagan that he might not understand English—but seemed happy to give Keagan the task of reversing his aggressive disassembly of the faulty engines while he focused on less demanding tasks such as replacing the chains on the wheels of the huge trucks Keagan guessed were the Unimogs Kaali had mentioned.
Around 1030 Blaer dropped by to tell Keagan that Commodore Schaeffer was ready for him to take a trip up to the iceface. Keagan left immediately, but when they arrived back at the radio tower were met by a rather confused Kaali, who asked where the truck was. It emerged they had expected Keagan to bring around the necessary transport, requiring a second trip before all was in order to depart. Commodore Schaeffer, sealed against the elements in his vast parka, swung himself up into the passenger seat with two more of his men climbing up behind them, and indicated that Keagan should drive out of the base on the north road—one might call it a dirt track except the dirt was covered by a good inch of ice and snow—uphill to the glacier. Keagan had driven trucks on a semi-regular basis to deliver them back to clients but on icy roads only sparingly, and found the Unimog devastatingly difficult to control, slipping from side to side of the track. He glanced at Schaeffer, wondering what a fool he was making of himself.
"You're doing fine," he said. "How are you doing on the 88s?"
"Um," Keagan struggled to correct the course of the truck to guide it through the gate being held open by another of Schaeffer's men, "from what I can see the carburettor on one of them is busted. The cam's broken." He wasn't sure whether that was due to weakening from repeated exposure to freezing conditions or Teitur's violent maintenance. "It's a Weber, so it's not really designed for these conditions anyway. I can try and improvise something but it would be best if I were able to get spares in; I only saw a few bulbs and spark plugs in the garage."
Schaeffer waved a hand. "I can have Blaer pick some up when he flies to Kulusuk for supplies. Just tell him what you need."
The wind outside the cinderblock breakers was as ferocious as Kaali had claimed—buffeting the vehicle so badly that at times he could hear the suspension creaking as two wheels on one side came close to leaving the surface of the road. Commodore Schaeffer took to these conditions with practiced ease, leaning towards the side being lifted up by the wind to help keep the truck level.
"Up ahead," he said, pointing to a number of distant pinpricks on the side of the mountainous glacier. "Those are the boreholes. In the summer we spray black paint and let the sun do the work—in winter we have to rely on pneumatic drills and pickaxes."
As they got closer, the nearest site resolved itself into a number of trucks and a field tent, surrounded by a number of smaller windbreakers—sheet metal over wooden frames driven into the ground at an angle to slow the wind without taking the full brunt themselves. Schaeffer got out and bid Keagan to follow, ducking between the breakers. Even inside Keagan's hood the sound of the drills was deafening, and a sharp smell of burning plastic filled the air. The glacier loomed in front of them—a frozen tidal wave, pouring over the land in smooth undulations twenty feet high. A tunnel—perhaps six feet high, four or five feet wide, and angled sharply downwards had been cut into the ice and it was from here that the drills sounded.
Heavy cables had been laid from the tent into the borehole and as they ducked inside Keagan saw they powered a string of mining lights, receding down into the glacier. Keagan was shocked at the scale of the enterprise—upwards of twenty men were working in the tunnel, passing up buckets of ice from deeper down and reinforcing the roof of the tunnel with a wooden crib.
"Watch where you put your feet," Schaeffer shouted over the drills as he navigated the steep slope down into the glacier. Keagan followed, his soles losing their grip in places with the result that his descent was not so much a climb as a controlled slither. What was at the bottom—a patch a couple of feet square now but rapidly being expanded by workers chipping away at the ice—was a dull greyish-green substance, composed of several layers of large, roughly leaf-shaped chunks of material, each about the size of a fist.
"That's what we're here for," Schaeffer said. Keagan reached out to touch the material, noting the way it seemed to exude a dull heat of its own, but Schaeffer reached out and grabbed his hand.
"It's scales," Keagan said. "Gigantic scales. This is the monster Sir Malcolm was talking about. You're digging it up."
"Yes, or part of it. It's not actually a snake—it's a species of glass lizard, a limbless reptile with a lot in common with the Komodo dragon, and it's the largest terrestrial organism on the planet. The reactionaries have known about it since Greenpeace tried to do a documentary on the glacier in 2010, around the same time they sent the Esperanza to protest the oil platforms. The filmmakers found part of it coiled through a number of caverns deep in the glacier. The reactionaries covered it up and secured the crevasse that leads down into the caverns, but most of it is still buried in the glacier."
"How big is it?" Keagan wondered at the notion of a creature so big the Foundation could only secure part of it.
"Our best guess is somewhere between 8 and 12km long. We're near the head here, which is where we want to be."
"And Sir Malcolm says you plan to wake it up. What are you planning to use, napalm?" He had meant it to be a joke.
"Actually, napalm would be far too weak. Have you heard of the square-cube law?"
Keagan shook his head.
"It's the principle that the larger a structure is, the stronger the materials you need to make it out of." To Keagan it just seemed like common sense. "It's why you don't see insects the size of cars—their exoskeletons couldn't support a body that size. Whales can be much larger than elephants because gravity doesn't affect them the same way in water. To put it another way, think of the size of the steel girders needed to support a skyscraper." Keagan had seen the construction of The Shard in London and nodded. "Well, the tallest building in Europe is 340m high. Imagine how strong the bones and flesh of this thing has to be. Even the blood vessels must be harder than steel to withstand the pressures needed."
"So how will you even get it to feel anything you do to it?" Keagan yelled. He noticed the way the pneumatic drills pulverised the ice around the minehead but jarred away in a shower of sparks when they hit the edge of a scale.
"When all the boreholes have been completed," Commodore Schaeffer said, eyes shining, "we will lower a nuclear device into each one and detonate them simultaneously."
"You're kidding," Keagan said. "It can take a nuclear explosion?"
"Quite easily," responded Commodore Schaeffer. "Just the pressure of the glacier shifting on top of it is immense. We think given the current rate the glacier is melting that it would start to be exposed from 2050 anyway. But the Foundation can't wait that long. This is our chance to reverse the decline."
Suddenly, there was a distant explosion—a thudding, hissing sound like a gas tank going up in flames—and Commodore Schaeffer looked back up the small rectangle of daylight at the top of the tunnel.
"Damn it," he said. "There's been another blow. I need to handle this at the command tent. You should be safe down here—just don't touch the scales." With that he began to clamber up the rough-hewn steps leading back to the surface.
Keagan took a look around the semicircular chamber adjoining the great scaled wall of the beast's flank. One of Schaeffer's men stood on duty with what looked like a shock baton, face grim. The three workers wielding the drills were slumped over their tools, the judder when the drill tips struck the scales passing right their bodies with no resistance. Keagan looked at what he could see of the face of the nearest man under his hood—it looked terribly thin and tired-looking, lines of overwork scored into it.
"Hey," he said gently, not wishing to alarm the man with the stunstick. "Are you OK? You look like you need a rest."
The man turned to him, jaw slack. "Englænder," he concluded after a moment's reflection, then turned back to his work.
"Don't talk to them," advised the man with the stunstick in a thick accent. "They don't know English."
Keagan sat down on a rough chunk of ice and waited until the Commodore returned and gestured from the surface for Keagan to climb back out.
"Sorry to keep you waiting," he said. "This thing exhales and perspires a potent neurotoxin, which is why I didn't want you touching it, even with gloves. Over time the venom has become impregnated into the ice around the creature—when it's heated the impregnated ice sublimates explosively. Three men are dead in the next borehole."
"I'm sorry," Keagan said. Nothing about this makes sense, he thought. Not only is this thing far too tough to kill by any reasonable means, it breathes fucking sarin or VX or whatever? What the hell are they trying to do waking it up? But there was a more pressing question on his mind, and he asked it: "Commodore, are these men here voluntarily?"
Schaeffer breathed out heavily, his breath a sharp plume of white. "The reactionaries would probably lie to you and tell you, yes, these are volunteers who believe in our cause. But I am an honourable man. No, they are not here voluntarily. They were taken from the village of Kangertitivatsiaq some 5km south of here and compelled to serve. I promise you, it is a just cause and the greater good is being served."
Keagan felt something black move within him. "They're D-Class then," he said bitterly.
What he could see of Schaeffer's expression behind his goggles and beard looked disappointed, frustrated. "The real Foundation doesn't use D-Class. Only the reactionaries still do that sort of thing."
They were out in the sun again now, and Keagan could see a distant plume of smoke from a far ridge.
"So when the Project's over," he said quietly, "what will you do with them?"
Schaeffer remained silent for a moment, then turned away. "Drive me back to the camp."
"What are you going to do?" Keagan repeated, louder.
Schaeffer looked back at him. "Drive me back to the camp," he said, "or I will drive myself and leave you here. It's my fault, I should have trusted you to do your duties without knowing the final end. I thought it would inspire you. It was my mistake."
The parts for the 88s arrived two days later and Keagan was finally able to get to work on the Land-Rovers. As expected, the replacement carburettors were also Webers—notoriously prone to freezing—and not very well-machined ones either. Keagan spent a good half-hour filing away the flash in the drillings and enlarging the choke. One of the Land-Rovers turned over straight away, but the second resisted all attempts to diagnose the problem, which seemed to give Teitur endless amusement. In desperation, Keagan stripped down and cleaned the head gasket with petrol, and after putting it back together again he was finally able to tickle it into operation. Keagan sat back and took a celebratory swig from his water bottle, grinning widely with the simple pleasure of a problem solved. He looked around and saw Teitur leaning over the bonnet of one of the Unimogs, watching him.
"Du tror du er noget godt, hva' neger?"
Keagan didn't understand the words, though he had a pretty good idea what the last was supposed to be, and the sour tone was ample confirmation of the sentiment behind it.
"What did you say?" Keagan got up. "Come on, you one-eyed piece of shit, what was that?"
"Intet, men skide neger," Teitur continued bitterly. "du kommer her, uden at vide noget…"
"You know what, I'm sick of this. Shut up and let me do my job or else—” he pantomimed knocking Teitur's brains out with the carjack in his hand. Teitur seemed to take this as a serious threat and grabbed a long-handled screwdriver, leaving Keagan unsure how to proceed without escalating matters further. Fortunately, at that moment Kaali entered the garage and Teitur spat and turned away.
"Hum," he said, observing the obvious tension between the men, "I was really hoping to report that some progress had been made on the immobilised vehicles."
"They're done," Keagan said. "All three 88s are ready to go, and I fixed the suspension on the GMC. Really, we should be using Zenith carburettors in these sorts of conditions, though."
"That's good to hear," Kaali said, "it means the men won't have to ride in the trucks with the workers. Fortunately there have been no incidents, but I'm glad security can get back to normal."
I bet, thought Keagan gloomily. Kaali left and Keagan eyed the other mechanic, but Teitur had retreated to a corner and was occupying himself with an old copy of DV. There seemed to be nothing else for Keagan to do but to get back to work.
Later, he finds himself sitting in the shade of a pagoda in a fragrant garden, surrounded by spiralling plots of yellow flowers. The air is warm and a honeybee buzzes into the shade of the pagoda and out the other side. He tries to remember how he got here—the last thing he remembers is being somewhere cold, freezing in fact, clawing at something with his hands. Did he hit someone? Everything since then—which feels like a very long time—has been an odd blur. There is a jug of cool water on the table and he pours some out into the glass he finds by his hands.
He realises there is someone sitting on the other side of the table—he's sure they weren't there before, though that's been happening to him recently. They're wearing orange, but he can't make out their face; it's out of focus, the eyes just two pinpricks of white.
"You escaped too?" he hears himself say, and wonders what that even means. He looks down and sees he's wearing a t-shirt with a bulldog on it. It snuffles at him and he remembers he's not supposed to make eye contact with it.
He looks up at the garden and takes a sip of the water. "This doesn't look like a cell to me."
Everyone is in a cell. You are in trillions of them, right now.
"I know you," he says. "You're the man in the box."
I am. I am also here. The person shrugs, and he notices its fingers are sharp.
"You saved me," he says, though he isn't sure why, or even, come to think of it, who is speaking. "Why me?"
I told you, I recognised a fellow prisoner. I need your help.
You've seen him. The madman. Can't you feel what he's doing?
He realises the buzzing isn't coming from the bees; it's emanating from everything around him. He closes his eyes for a moment before answering and catches the edge of the chant: gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi svaha…
"The man with the spiral eyes."
He's changing everything. It took a long time for me to sense him and exclude myself from his changes. He's killed me dozens, hundreds of times without me ever knowing it. And everyone else.
A sudden sense of vertigo passes through him. "Me too?"
In your case 'killed' is the wrong word, but, yes. I need you to be my eyes and ears. An assassin for reality.
"You want me to kill him?"
No. I just need you to get me close enough. I can't follow the others because they aren't thoughtforms. But you're carrying one around with you.
"I don't know if I can even remember this once I wake up," he says. He's already sinking back, melting into the icy marble floor of the pagoda, but he's done this enough times now not to worry about it.
That's what Zhuangzi said.
Keagan was awoken by shouting and motion. He squinted against the electric lights at the digital clock on the pod's central table. 02:30.
"Keagan," Bones said urgently from somewhere behind his head.
"What is it? What's happening?" He became aware of a howling, rushing sound, the small rectangular window panes rattling in their frames.
"One of the breakers came down during the night. There's a gale building. I gather Schaeffer has a dozen or so workers out there trying to get it upright again but they're not having much success. If you've got any ideas this is probably a good time."
Keagan dragged himself out of bed and threw on what thermal clothing he could find—Schaeffer's men had grabbed whatever was to hand without particularly worrying about whose it was.
"Is this a major problem?" he asked wearily.
"Last time it happened Schaeffer had to rebuild from scratch, so yeah, I'd say so. Right now the wind's being channelled straight into the camp through the breach."
Outside a number of mobile search lights had been trained on the fallen section of windbreaker—the wind was howling over it and had already half-buried it in snow. The lights turned the figures swarming around the wall into phantasms, shimmering in and out of existence as the light caught them. The wind plucked at Keagan and Bones as they staggered over the base towards the breach, making them sway from side to side like stop-motion puppets. Keagan slid and almost lost his footing on the path, where the snow was becoming hard and slippery, but the stumble proved to his advantage—with a clatter a tile slid off the roof of the other barracks and shattered on the spot where he had been standing.
As they got closer he recognised Commodore Schaeffer, striding between the various small groups trying to raise the wall, bellowing commands over the gale. A small tunnel had already been dug underneath the breaker block to facilitate ropes being tied around it—two of these had been tied to the back bumpers of a pair of 88s while a further two were being pulled taught by groups of workers. But the Land-Rovers' wheels were spinning ineffectually on the snow-blasted earth and the ropes were simply being pulled down over the block, biting into the ice at the side of the tunnel and getting stuck there.
This is all wrong, Keagan thought. There's no lever action, no actual force being applied to the block.
"Keagan," Colonel Schaeffer hailed him, "we can't get the traction to pull it upright. We considered using a Unimog but Teitur thinks a single rope would risk it overbalancing in the other direction."
"It's not going to work anyway," Keagan shouted, "the angle's all wrong. Do you have a crane, or something with the height to actually haul one end of the block up rather than just dragging it?"
Schaeffer shook his head. "The teams had to leave it at Site B when the wind got up—which means it's probably been smashed to pieces by now."
"Let me think," Keagan said. Use a snowplough's scoop as a pivot? It probably wouldn't fare that much better than the 88s—it would slide on the ice before the block actually pivoted around it. Besides, just getting it upright won't work—these things are sunk into the ground so if it's come loose there's nothing to hold it firm against the wind. You would need to compact the snow again, pack it in and—wait.
"Forget the block," Keagan said. "There's no way you're getting it up again in this weather. We need to make a berm out of compacted snow to divert the wind up and over the base—braced against the breakers that are still standing."
Schaeffer frowned. "What do you mean?" he bellowed.
Keagan tried to draw as best he could in the air with his mitten-like gloves. "Right-angled triangle," he said. "Slope facing the wind; back to the base."
"Okay," Schaeffer said, "For want of anything better, let's do it. Keagan, it's your idea—you tell them what to do."
This proved more difficult thanks to the deafening wind and the language barrier than might have otherwise been expected but eventually with Kaali as translator Keagan was able to get the workers to understand what he needed them to do. The maniac Teitur volunteered, seemingly without pause, to drive the snowplough out into the gale and shunt a vast quantity of snow into the space between the remaining windbreakers, and the workers were quickly equipped with shovels, with which they began to press it into a solid mass. The wind was intensifying, but the berm already seemed to be having an effect, the only issue now being whether they could reinforce it faster than it was being blown away.
Keagan surveyed the berm as it took shape and saw a problem—although the sloped face of the berm was channelling the gale adequately over the top, the sides were being rapidly eroded by wind rushing around the sides of the adjoining breakers. He ran as fast as he dared over to the team nearest to the growing breach.
"We need to curve the berm in at the edges," he shouted to Blaer, the nearest person he was sure spoke English. Not that it helped, as Blaer immediately started making alarming hand gestures to the workers to indicate that the edges should be curved out in front of the other blocks, which would only accelerate the erosion.
"No, no, that's wrong," Keagan said, trying and failing to make a lasting diagram in the shifting snow with his boot. "look, does anyone have anything to write on, a pen and paper?"
Blaer did—an aviator's pad and a biro—but when at length he was able to extricate it from his garments, Keagan found it impossible to write on, several times dropping the pen between the fingers of the thick gloves and having to quickly retrieve it before it blew away. In desperation he shrugged off his gloves into the show and with the temperature of his digits dropping rapidly sketched out the remaining breaker blocks and the curving shape the berm needed to take between them to avoid taking the wind head-on.
"The way the blocks are currently set up, the wind can escape on both sides. The berm needs to work the same way. See?" He held it out to Blaer but he seemed to be looking at something behind them. There was a slow, shifting sound, and Keagan turned around to see a large chunk of material, probably more than half a ton, begin to slide from the top of the berm under the force of the gale.
"Get of the way!" Keagan screamed at the man working beneath it, but he either didn't hear or understand the command. Keagan rushed forward to pull him out of the way, but was too late—the area of berm sagged and collapsed in a sudden tidal wave, burying the area in chunks of compacted snow, each the size of a man's head. Keagan fell onto his knees from the force of the collapse and when the initial burst of snow subsided he could see no trace of the man who had been working there.
"Someone's been buried," Keagan called out, "get over here!" No-one responded. "Blaer!" he shouted. "Bring a shovel, or something. Don't just—” Blaer just looked at him blankly. Keagan staggered forward into the path of the blizzard, clawing at the snow and ice with his bare hands, throwing aside boulders in search of the engulfed worker. His hands almost immediately burst into such extreme pain that he thought the skin was about to split open, but he continued to dig into the snow, and soon the pain was replaced by a numbness, the hands no longer opening and closing but simply flippers of unfeeling flesh, shovelling at the snow. He felt a hand on his collar, someone pulling him away.
"Stop it, Keagan. Let him be," Schaeffer said roughly.
"He's under there," Keagan said, breathlessly. "He could still be alive."
"No, he couldn't. The impact would have killed him instantly. They're here to take the risks—all the workers' lives aren't worth one of our own," Schaeffer said through cracked lips and snow-rimed beard. "It worked, Keagan. Your plan worked. The embankment is going to hold."
Keagan looked up. It was true. The rest of the berm was holding steady despite the collapse, and the breach seemed to have provided enough of an outlet that the erosion at the edges of the barrier had slowed to the point where the snow the blizzard brought in was building the berm up faster than the wind scoured it away.
Schaeffer looked down at Keagan's bare hands, which were swollen and criss-crossed with red scratches where the edges of the compacted ice had sliced into them. "You bloody idiot. What use are you to us as a mechanic if you cripple yourself? Blaer, get Keagan into the barracks and warm him slowly."
Over the next few days the men in the barracks didn't seem to know whether to treat Keagan like the gifted engineer who had saved the camp and probably the Project, or the moron who had managed to give himself second-degree frostbite taking off his gloves in a minus sixty gale and subsequently plunging his hands into snow and ice. Teitur came by with a smirk on his face but Blaer told him that the other mechanic had offered his congratulations on the success of the berm. The numbness in Keagan's hands had given way to pain once more—a deep-seated, persistent pain that he took to be his body's way of saying 'actually, you've really screwed up this time'. They were covered in large blisters which Keagan could feel bursting every so often underneath the dressing that the camp medic had applied, and they had regained only the vaguest degree of mobility. There was not, he realised, an awful lot you could do around the base with hands that didn't work—he suggested several times he could continue to service the Project's vehicles if someone else acted as his hands, but only Teitur was available and Keagan didn't think it was likely to work, given neither spoke the other's language and they had come close to bludgeoning and stabbing each other before.
Eventually his right hand improved to the point where he was able to hold a ladle and he immediately became Stirrer-in-Chief of A-Barracks. Kaali would stop by every so often to update him on the technical situation—a Unimog with a broken axle, what sounded like a clogged air filter on the snow plough—and Keagan would pass on his suggestions for Teitur to ignore as he saw fit. It was simple, untaxing work, and Keagan realised that he was coming to think of the camp as his home. They've given you a place, he thought, somewhere to belong. Will you become like Edward Gradley, overlooking what's going on out there, in the fenced area, because you're grateful?
It was around 1500 hours when Keagan heard the hissing, popping sound and thought it was one of the tureens in the kitchen boiling over. He was still careful around hot things larger than a ladle of stew—firstly because he didn't have enough feeling back to tell when something was burning him and secondly because his hands were still clumsy enough that he was likely to drop it—not good when 'it' is a pan of boiling water. Accordingly he called for his co-chef but found everything seemed to be in order. He thought little more of the sound until he heard the sound of the Unimogs and Land-Rovers returning from the drill sites. There seemed to be more activity than usual, shouts and screams, and then gunshots. The offshift men in the barracks responded immediately, arming up and rushing to the muster points. Kaali entered, out of breath and carrying a carbine—the first time Keagan had seen the man armed.
"There's been another venom blow," Kaali explained to the barracks in general. "A whole boulder of impregnated ice exploded in Site C—four men dead, another dozen seriously injured. When the workers got back to the camp they started rioting and refused to get back in the secure area. Ragnar shot one of them and they jumped him; we don't know if he'll survive. We need absolutely everyone outside to get this under control. Keagan, that's you too." He opened a locker and grabbed another rifle, holding it by the barrel and thrusting the stock in Keagan's direction.
"Erm, I'm not sure I'm going to be any good at firing this thing," he said carefully, waving his bandaged hands.
"You don't need to be—just hold it up and look mean. Say 'Grrr'."
"Grrr," Keagan said, nonplussed.
"That's right. Make sure you wear gloves this time."
Outside the camp was utter pandemonium, people running backwards and forwards, some with guns, some without. The gate to the fenced shanty-town where the workers ate and slept was unlocked and the area seemed deserted. Commodore Schaeffer was trying to reimpose order, a slowly growing group of people on the floor with their hands behind their backs at the centre of the camp, but Keagan could see it was proving a nightmare to separate friend and foe. If only they had given the workers some sort of distinguishing clothing, Keagan thought, like orange jumpsuits…
After surveying the situation for a moment Keagan saw a pattern emerging; the workers would try to group together in an area, 4-5 strong at a time, then one of Schaeffer's men would approach with gun raised and instead of surrendering they would scatter again when they saw the guards were unwilling to fire. Bones and another man had cornered one worker near a Land-Rover; when he found the key had been taken he started ripping at the interior of the vehicle, screaming and crying, until Bones stepped forward, grabbed him, and flung him to the ground before dragging him forcibly back to Schaeffer's group.
Near the trucks, Keagan noticed a number of men lying out in the open on blankets—their clothing looked burned as though by acid, and what he could see of their faces was a fused lump of flesh. The medic tending to them stepped back and shook his head, and one of Schaeffer's men stepped forward with a rifle, drawing fresh howls of outrage from the other workers…
Keagan felt the pressure in his head growing and walked behind the barracks, leaning against the insulated exterior and exhaling deeply, watching the crystals fall out of the air onto the ground. A flash of movement to his left and he turned, raising the rifle. Two workers, one of them with burned patches across the front of his coat but not completely incapacitated, being supported by the other. They were making their way towards the ring of breaker blocks. They stopped, stared at him, eyes too tired to be afraid. Keagan raised his weapon, the index finger of his right hand curled uselessly around the trigger guard.
Is this what you are now?, the little voice asked, and he realised he hadn't heard it since London. A guard, you mean, he thought. Seeing things from the other side. You're an idiot, said the little voice. You honestly think you're a guard? Why not ask Schaeffer if you can leave? Ask him to drop you off at the nearest village. Prisoners guarding prisoners. Thus it is and ever shall be.
Keagan looked down the barrel of the rifle for a second more, then lowered the weapon, abandoned even the pretence that he could stop them. The two workers hurried on and disappeared beyond the breakers. He wondered how far they would get, then decided it didn't matter. At least they would die where they chose to die. He loped back around the barracks and joined the other men training weapons on the group at the centre while the final few rioters were dragged out of vehicles or beaten down with stunsticks. The workers were herded back into the fenced area, a detail assigned to bury the shot and venom-melted bodies, and then it was time for dinner, which that night was a lamb stew with onions.
Time passed, and Keagan regained enough mobility in at least his right hand to return to his mechanical duties, where he was kept busy repairing the damage done by the workers during the riot. Teitur once again seemed to be keeping to himself, though whether out of respect for Keagan's solution with the berm or not he couldn't tell. A new crane arrived at the camp after a few days, and Keagan was charged with getting it set up and masterminding the elevation of the fallen breaker block.
About a week after the riot, all base staff were summoned to Site F, the furthest from the camp. Kaali wouldn't say anything more than that a critical stage in the Project had been reached and Schaeffer wanted everyone there to see it. Keagan along with Teitur, Blaer, the medic and cooks, and the radio operator all clambered onto a Unimog, leaving the base oddly deserted. The wind had died down considerably, but Keagan could still hear it buffeting at the sides of the truck, the driver battling the headwinds throughout the journey along the base of the glacier.
Site F was the largest drill site he'd seen thus far. The crane towered over a small complex of field tents, sheltered from the wind by a network of compacted snow berms—nice to see I've made an impact, Keagan thought. A couple of the tractors were busily engaged transferring vast piles of ice from the entrance of the shaft onto the berms, building them up as the shaft sank deeper into the glacier. As they got closer Keagan saw some of Schaeffer's men mixed in with the workers, operating power tools and swinging pickaxes. Probably filling in for Greenlanders who died during the blow, or who still refused to work after the riots, Keagan reasoned. Schaeffer was there, face full of anticipation as he looked down at the rapidly receding iceface. The other base staff gathered around him expectantly.
"There!" Schaeffer said suddenly. "Can you see it?" The onlookers craned their necks around the workers at the iceface. There didn't seem to be much to look at—a generally convex front of ice with what seemed a long horizontal crack along the bottom edge, the whole face about twice the height of a man.
"We've almost reached the head," Schaeffer said confidently. Then Keagan saw it—dull glimpses of green behind the sharp splinters of remaining ice, and suddenly his mind made sense of the shape.
"Its eye," he said in amazement. "That's its eye."
"Its upper eyelid, to be exact." Schaeffer responded. "It gives you some sense of scale, doesn't it? How powerful, how primordial it is."
"How did it even get down there in the first place?" Keagan asked.
"I would be lying if I said we had a workable theory. Something that big simply shouldn't be able to survive based on conventional materials science and thermodynamic theory. Its location suggests it's been there since the formation of the glacier two and a half million years ago. Some of the workers call it jörmangandr, the World Serpent from the old Norse religion. I sometimes wonder whether the myth was based on this thing—seeing it in the caverns and making up stories about it."
"It seems impossible that there would be just one," Keagan thought.
"If you believe the legends, it was the child of a shapeshifting god. But maybe it was not the only one of its kind. There are legends of World Serpents throughout the old religions—not only did the Norse believe in jörmangandr, they also thought a dragon, niddhogg, lay underneath the earth, gnawing the roots of the World Tree. The serpent and the tree. It forms a pattern. In the Bible, early man falls from favour with God because he eats the fruit of a forbidden tree, guarded by a great serpent. The serpent and the tree. The Maya, like the Norse, believed in a World Tree, in whose branches coils the Vision Serpent. Sir Malcolm thinks of it as Mucalinda, the serpent king who sheltered Buddha from a storm while he meditated underneath the Bodhi tree."
With himself as Buddha, no doubt, Keagan thought. "So where's the tree?" he asked, half-jokingly.
"Maybe it's beneath the ice too," Schaeffer responded.
The assembly watched as workers switched from drills to hand-tools, chipping away at the remaining ice that covered the creature's eye.
"Are the weapons here?" asked Bones.
Schaeffer nodded. "Six uranium gun-type bombs, spirited out of South Africa at the end of apartheid. The powers that be couldn't stand the idea of a black-run country having nuclear weapons, so they turned a blind eye. Said they had dismantled them and voluntarily disarmed."
How wonderful, Keagan thought sarcastically. But it's the other side that's supposed to work with repressive regimes, isn't it?
"Each has a load of 150 kilotons, which on something this tough is like flicking it with your finger. But our best hopes are for this site—no matter how big you are, how far you are asleep, you wake up when someone flicks your eyeball."
Keagan decided now was as good a time as any to ask the question that had occured to him the first time he had seen the scale of the creature.
"And then what happens? After you wake it up, I mean. I know it's supposed to be an embarassment to the reactionaries, and be a wakeup call to governments that they can't rely on the Foundation keep all this quiet. But how are you going to stop it once it's awake? How can you cover up something this big?"
Schaeffer chuckled. "Is that what you've been told? No, there will be no coverup. The world is going to change. Everyone will know what has happened here."
"But—something this big, this powerful, if it wanted to attack, say, a city, there's nothing that could be done to stop it."
"Yes. We're counting on that. There will be a state of emergency declared across the Nordic countries and in Britain. Sir Malcolm will assume control of a government of national unity…"
"No, listen to me," said Keagan sharply, drawing a frown from the Commodore and askance looks from those around him, "even if a Minister without Portfolio who personally I had never heard of before all this is able to become PM somehow, how are you going to stop the giant fucking monster you're planning to wake up?"
Schaeffer looked baffled for a moment, then a look of understanding came over his face. "You mean you don't know?"
"Don't know what?"
"Sir Malcolm will stop it. He possesses the power to re-organise reality, reshape it according to his will. No matter how large that thing is, it will cease to exist if he wills it to do so. That's his power. It's weak now, but growing stronger all the time. I'm surprised he didn't explain all this to you."
Keagan remained silent for a minute or so. It was, of course, pure lunacy, but then, what hadn't been since he had signed Fredericka Mendelbrot's piece of paper? Let's assume this is all true, he thought. Sir Malcolm plans to wake up a monster than use some kind of reality-altering power to make it disappear, in front of an audience of billions of people. But why go to all the trouble of finding and awakening a real monster if you have all that power yourself? Unless—unless you intend for it to provide a demonstration first of what you're saving everyone from. A demonstration you're not willing to provide, because you really do think of yourself as the good guy.
"How many people," he said falteringly. "How many people does Sir Malcolm intend for it to kill before he comes in and 'rescues' us?"
Commodore Schaeffer shrugged. "Perhaps millions. But life and death won't mean very much once he has reached his full potential."
Keagan thought of Renton and the cell in London. Nothing they had done had given any indication they expected this to happen. The Foundation lies, he remembered Edward saying, to everyone. "Does the—” he tried to remember the term “—O5 Council know what Sir Malcolm intends? Aren't they supposed to be the highest authority?"
Commodore Schaeffer didn't answer, instead moving away to another group of onlookers.
Kaali had been present to hear the conversation and answered on his behalf: "At the present time Commodore Schaeffer answers only to Sir Malcolm."
What a long and strange road, Keagan thought. One more question, then: "Kaali, this is probably going to sound strange, but do you know Sir Malcolm's wife's name? Is it Francesca?"
"No," Kaali said. "Francesca Urquhart is his daughter. Sir Malcolm is estranged from his wife. I don't know her name. Why do you ask? Did someone say something about her?"
Keagan looked down at the massive eyelid—it shuddered slightly, a slow ripple that passed from the top to the bottom. Keagan thought, what dreams do you dream?
Later that night, Blaer awakens with a crimp in his ankle and finds after stretching himself into various incongruous but no less uncomfortable positions on the bed that he cannot get back to sleep. He gets up without turning on the light to avoid waking the other men in the pod. There is a pack of cigarettes in his bag and he withdraws them guiltily—the Commodore cannot abide the habit and forbids the possession of them in the base. He puts on just his coat and gloves—his intention is to remain in the shelter of the barracks where the wind will blow away the smell of the tobacco but not chill him too quickly.
When he walks outside he sees a faint glimmer of light in the direction of the garage—not enough for the whole building, just someone moving around inside with a torch. Happy to find someone else up he might be able to talk to, he pulls up his hood and walks out over the camp grounds, frozen snow crinkling under his feet. The door of the garage swings open at a touch and he enters. Keagan is there, and at first he has the bizarre idea that the British man is drinking petrol from a Land-Rover—he is sucking on the end of a piece of plastic tubing, the other end of which goes into the fuel tank of the vehicle.
Then he takes his mouth off the end and releases the crimp he has been holding in the tubing with his good hand. Dark liquid rises into the tubing and down the other side—Keagan puts the end of the tubing in a shallow bowl and lets it puddle out. Blaer looks around and sees other bowls underneath the other vehicles. Most of them have their engine hood up and a number of anonymous pieces have been removed and carefully placed in a line in front of them.
"Keagan," Blaer says carefully. "Keagan, what are you doing?"
Keagan stands, picking up something from beside him. He doesn't look at Blaer, instead addressing a point somewhere on the opposite wall of the garage.
"Blaer? Is that you?"
"Yes. What is all this?" Blaer edges closer. Keagan still doesn't look at him.
"You know, I'm actually quite sorry it was you. I almost wouldn't have minded if it had been Bones, or Teitur, or one of the others. I don't have any real problem with you. I want you to know that."
"What are you talking about?" Blaer gets close enough to reach out and touch Keagan's shoulder.
"I need you to tell me where the bombs are." Keagan turns around. There is a wrench in his hand.
It was the practice of Commodore Schaeffer to be woken at 0630 hours, having slept for exactly 6 hours and 30 minutes. Those who ventured to wake him for matters he considered insufficiently vital tended to find themselves assigned to the earliest details and there was thus an impassionated debate between the relevant parties on whether the crisis that now engulfed them was one on which the Commodore needed to be consulted, particular since as far as they could see there was nothing further that could be done to alleviate matters. It was thus 0615 before Kiartan Hallers, the responsible officer for B-Barracks, entered his quarters and woke him.
"What time do you call this," Schaeffer complained groggily as Kiartan took him by the shoulder and shook him gently.
"Apologies, Commodore," Kiartan said, "but a situation has arisen and although steps have already been taken to handle matters I thought it best to ensure you were notified."
Such circuitous language from Kiartan, a man Schaeffer knew for directness, to the point of being blunt, was alarming enough to the Commodore that he sat bolt upright.
"What is it? What's happened?"
"There's been a fire, sir. In the supply hut, which is why there was no general alarm. The chef discovered it at 0515 and tried the extinguisher, but it had already taken hold."
"That's it? Have Blaer fly over to Kulusuk and get some bare essentials, porridge oats, beans, et cetera until we can spare one of the trucks."
"There is more, unfortunately. I ordered that the hose be fetched from the garage, where it was discovered that the vehicles appear to have been sabotaged."
"We haven't done a full inventory, but most of them seem to have parts missing. Teitur says it's the components we don't have replacements for. And one of the 88s is gone."
"What about the Cessna?"
"Working, as far as we know. But, sir, we found Blaer in the garage. He's dead."
"Take a head-count. Now."
"We've already done it, sir. Blaer Gunarsson and Keagan O'Neill were the only two unaccounted for."
"Well, that's fairly conclusive, isn't it?" Schaeffer struggled into his clothes, hair and beard in disarray, and strode out into the main area of the tower. "Now we have to find a way of dealing with this mess."
Kaali was standing over the controls for the radio transmitter, face grim. "It might not be connected, but the radio's down. Looks like there's no power going to the array."
"It just keeps getting better," Schaeffer muttered as he donned his outer garments and walked outside. "He'll have cut the cables. Get Teitur to look at that as his first priority. We need to let other cells in the region know what's happened. We still have the bombs—the Project is not impeded. But Sir Malcolm needs to be informed that this will put us back some weeks."
There was an awkward silence from his companion. "The bombs," Schaeffer repeated. "We still have the bombs, yes?"
"No-one has yet been able to get into the munitions shed to verify that, sir," Kaali said quietly. "Everything has been drenched with petrol. We think O'Neill intended to start a fire there too. We've left it to air before we take an inventory."
There was a sudden yelping from somewhere in the darkness and the sound of something heavy and metallic falling to the ground, then the sounds of people running, scattering. Schaeffer froze, listening, then turned.
Shapes began to approach in the darkness, some walking, some limping. Most of them carried a spade or pick.
"He's taken the bolts out of the gate to the workers' camp. Get everyone into the radio tower with any dry ammunition you can find."
At 0624, the large block of ice Keagan had placed on top of the bar heater in the munitions shed melted sufficiently to create a spark. At 0624 and twenty seconds, approximately 250 STANAG magazines and 150 individual 9mm sidearm rounds cooked off, turning the six large lead-lined boxes stacked at the centre of the reinforced metal shed into so much confetti.
Schaeffer and his men held the dead radio tower for four days—after the lights went out, after the last bullet was spent, after the last icicle had been cracked from the window and melted with body heat. At the last, he lost his faith. He climbed the ladder up to the roof and shouted at the sky. But his God was in Westminster—at that moment in fact in a meeting of the Royal Aeronautical Society—and did not hear this final repudiation.
Sam Deloitte had finished brushing her teeth and grabbed her court reporter's bag. Despite no particular effort on her part to delay proceedings she was already running late—she knew the early morning traffic meant an 8.30am start from her apartment on New Park Road in Brixton meant an arrival at Tower Bridge Magi Court of around 9.07am, with her first scheduled hearing at nine. Somehow over time the same routine—rise, charge phone, wash, eat breakfast (bowl of muesli, half English muffin with Marmite), brush teeth, get bag, leave, seemed to result in an increasingly late departure time.
The first case of the day was to be a simple traffic violation—a white van driver accused of violating a temporary parking suspension sign on Pall Mall. Hardly the sort of thing that ordinarily attracted attention from the local press—a relatively minor offence and one that the defendant's solicitor had indicated he would seek have dismissed on the basis that the sign was out of date and had been reported as such to Transport for London by at least one other road user. However, it now appeared that the defendant had dismissed his counsel and would instead be contesting the charge on the basis that he was not travelling on 'the State's roads' but 'the King's roads' and this verbal distinction (no doubt derived from a conspiracy theory website) allegedly conferred ancient freeman's rights protecting his freedom of movement. Such self-representation was always entertaining, though it rarely ended well for the defendant.
As she was slipping her shoes on, her mobile started vibrating in her handbag, and, sighing, she bent down and rummaged through the stationery and other bric-a-brac within. She didn't recognise the number. Please be the Lambeth Times, she thought, 'Ms Deloitte, after reviewing the CV you sent through we would be happy to offer you an interview…'
Instead of the melodious tones of the Times' Legal Editor offering her a ticket out of Brixton, a crackly, poor-quality voice said "Sam D-itte, this is K-ag O-ll".
"Who?" She closed the apartment door again and put a finger in the other ear to drown out the traffic.
"Oh for—sake, n-t this again."
"You're on a very bad line, I can't hear you at all."
"It's Kea-n O'Neill. I c-tacted you a couple of w- ago about the Foun-tion."
"Keagan? You stood me up, as I recall. At Urbanicity."
"Oh y-s. I se-m to recall you br-t along a couple of friends. You r- need to learn -w to treat informants."
"They were just for protection. I didn't mean to scare you off. You were really there?" Sam put down her handbag and moved back inside, pulling out a notepad.
"Yes, but I got pulled away. -k, this is probably going to seem cheeky, but I n-d another favour."
"I get the distinct feeling I'm being strung along. How much is it this time?"
"W-l, I've bribed a fisherman to g- me as far as Iceland, but I d- actually have -y money to pay him. He tak-s Paypal, if that's any use. Forty-six thous-nd kr-na, which I gather is around two hundred and fifty quid. Then I'll need a t-k-t for the Smyril Line—that's from G-nland to Denm-—then some kind of tr-n ticket from there to London. I don't—know how much that comes to, s-ry. I'll be tr-lling under the name 'Martin Ball'."
Sam burst out laughing, drawing a strange look from the man who lived opposite her as he shouldered past out of the door. "You're kidding. You get about a lot, don't you? Look, even if I believed you and felt inclined to pay for you to travel across Europe at my personal expense—'cos there's no way the Brixton Herald is covering this—what could you possibly have to say about the Foundation or anything else that would warrant me going to all that trouble?"
Silence for a moment. "Look. For-t the Foundation. There's no way the people invol-d would let you publish that story. I've got somet-g else. Something that'll get you i- the national newspapers, easy. How does a Cab-et Minister organising a pris-n m-r sound?"
"Wow, this line is incredibly bad. That almost sounded like you saying you had a story about a Cabinet Minister involved in a prison murder." She clicked her pen open.
Chapter Twelve: "Foundations"
The Cabinet Minister in question sighed deeply as he transferred another pile of papers over to the right hand side of his desk. Gone, he reflected, were the days when Minister Without Portfolio was a sinecure position; these days it was solid, nose-to-the-grindstone work, assisting the Ministry of Defence and the Home Secretary by taking on the worst of the mind-numbing paperwork. He had been offered the role alongside Kenneth Clarke as a compromise candidate—the Lib Dems didn't want (as they saw it) another thrusting, ambitious Tory in the role but the Conservatives were loath to give up another Cabinet place to their junior partners in Coalition. Who better to fill the gap than Sir Malcolm Urquhart, a man who had retained his seat with an increased majority in 2010 against a dismal Labour showing but who was widely known as a harmless eccentric, someone without the will to go onto higher things?
More fool them, of course. It was a mistake to dismiss the Chief Whip of the Conservative Party as a dead-end position—he was responsible for cajoling, bullying, threatening MPs to toe the party line, and was always the first port of call whenever a Member of the House had done something stupid and needed disaster management. A drunken racist remark, a dalliance with a prostitute, a few hundred thousand in fiddled expenses… In short, one became a knower of secrets—one was, of course, trusted to be discreet, which in the world of politics is a very shaky and fragile word.
How he longed for word from the Project! In that moment, when everything his fellow parliamentarians thought they knew crumbled around them, he would strike. He would use them all up at once, the hoarded blackmail, the incriminating conversations in his office—all taped, of course, on the little recorder the Chief Whip kept in a little Japanese ceramic on his window. Even Cameron, at the last. He would enter his office, quietly, discreetly, and remind him about the little things. His personal interest in the downgrading of Ecstacy, as he had advised so passionately in the Select Committee Report in 2002. Then, the real reason he failed to make the shortlist for the Kensington and Chelsea seat in 1999 and the true extent to which he had supported Carlton's bid for the DTT franchise. The summer of '88, when a freshfaced David Cameron had graduated from Oxford. Then, finally, he would talk about Heatherdown and the class of '76. Such precocity, there, such delightful promise.
One by one they would drop away. To the outside world it would look like cowardice—the born and bred politicos the red-tops so maligned falling back in the face of the unknown, the supernatural, when in fact it was the known that would terrify them most of all. Twenty-nine men stood between him and absolute power, and he had dirt on every one of them. Then the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom would stand on the shores of Scapa Flow and stare down a monster. Nothing like it seen since the days of Siddhartha Gautama, Jesus, Mohammad, divine right shown not merely asserted. And then… Tomorrow belongs to me, he thought, scratching his signature through some dismal wiretap order against a bunch of Occupy protesters who couldn't even spell that right, unless they thought poor literacy was 'cool'. Tomorrow belongs to me. He paused for a moment, unlocked his drawer, and removed a few sheaves of paper. On top, the latest letter from the Commodore, and he re-read it to strengthen his spirits. It said:
Dear Sir Malcolm
(So formal, dear Ronald?)
I write to report that the Project is proceeding as planned, and we are ready to take receipt of the Verwoerd Contingency. There has been some setback to our timetable.
(Though he had read it before the words fluttered in his chest with trepidation.)
There has been a riot at the camp during which the workers have done us a great deal of damage, and we have buried a good man. Nevertheless I anticipate we will be back on schedule within the week and ready to complete the final boreholes. You will have your Mucalinda.
He lifted the paper, breathing it in, imagining he could smell that cold, crisp air and behind it, the acrid venom of the marvellous beast. His eyes strayed for a moment back to the more mundane papers on his desk and his spirits immediately sank again. It seemed an eternity since his last infusion of green tea—he longed to call Matthew, to beg for an advance on the afternoon's sachet… No, he thought, there must be discipline, there must be sharpness of mind. He closed his eyes, muttered the words of the Heart Sutra, but the buzzing of the intercom distracted him. So much for serenity.
"Sir Malcolm, there's someone to see you at reception. A Mr Keagan O'Neill. He says it's about your subsidence problem. There's someone else with him. Shall I have them arrange an appointment?"
Subsidence? Sir Malcolm had received no trouble from his lovely little domicile on Eaton Square and didn't recall calling any workmen. No, no, he realised, there was more to it than that, it was a crude attempt at wordplay. Subsidence was what, a weakness in the bedrock underneath a house? A disturbance in the Foundations. Now he came to think about it he vaguely recalled meeting the man. Hadn't Schaeffer said something about him recently? He flicked back through the letters from the Commodore and found the line he recalled reading:
The engineer you sent, Keagan O'Neill, has been a most excellent addition to the team after some earlier unease with the Project, and can be credited with bringing our vehicle fleet up to full efficiency and contributing a most novel and effective solution after a failure of the windbreaks which averted major damage to Foundation property with minimal expenditure of workers.
Maybe this was communication from the Project, then! Although, he thought, he had failed to use any of the known codewords. A meeting about the Foundation should have been arranged with reference to 'fundamental matters', the Project with reference to 'greenfield projects'. And who was the second person? Perhaps the Linton boy… Had it been Linton? Bedford, Rendon… He thumbed the intercomm greedily.
"That's no trouble, Samantha. Please send them up."
He put the letters back inside his drawer and waited for the security staff to show the visitors up.
Keagan entered first, and Sir Malcolm recognised him—a dark-complexioned chap with a slightly disagreeable way of not exactly meeting your eyes. His companion was, he realised with disappointment, not the delightful young man who had accompanied him last but a somewhat androgynous female, short blonde hair cropped around a freckled face and a brown pant suit. Her nametag made her out to be 'Samantha Deloitte'. He resolved to differentiate her from his receptionist by the use of the masculine diminutive.
"Keagan," he said warmly, "and Sam. Please do come in, sit down. Can I offer you anything?"
"No thanks," Keagan said, and there was something in his tone that made Sir Malcolm hesitate.
"Do you bring word from the Commodore?" he asked, seeing no reason not to get right to business in the face of such brusqueness.
"Not really. I think Schaeffer is going to have his hands busy for a while. You're a piece of work, you know that?"
"I'm amazed you managed to find people to go along with your lunacy. Well, it's not going to happen. I made sure of that. Now it's your turn. I don't think I introduced you to Sam here."
Sir Malcolm bridled at this piece of affrontery but still shifted a wary gaze onto the woman, who smiled quite prettily and said:
"Pleased to meet you, Sir Malcolm. I'm Sam Deloitte, from the Brixton Herald. I've been told quite a story about you and I'd love to get a quote."
Sir Malcolm fell silent for a moment. Every politician, of course, had to carefully choose his words in the presence of the press at least once during his career. That this particular situation involved someone with presumably extensive knowledge of the Project and the Foundation more generally, and of Sir Malcolm's part in it, with no way of knowing exactly how much he had communicated to this local hack, further complicated the situation.
"I see," he said slowly. "Exactly what story—no, wait, first I'd like to hear more from Keagan about what exactly he's done to inconvenience my good friend Commodore Schaeffer."
"I ended the Project," Keagan said. "What you were doing in Greenland was insane. The Commodore was a sociopathic bastard and he got exactly what he deserved. Anyway, it's over. No more Project. The camp is gone, the mineshafts collapsed."
The words stabbed Sir Malcolm to the heart though he knew from the Commodore's last letter they were a grotesque exaggeration, his only consolation that Sam Deloitte seemed utterly baffled by this exchange. If not the Project, what exactly does she think she's uncovered, he thought? Some petty scandal, perhaps, some tax return with the i's left undotted and t's left uncrossed…
Sir Malcolm allowed himself a low chuckle. "Oh, that was you, was it?" His lips cracked open, teeth gleaming. "You have a very high estimation of yourself. Last I heard, the Commodore estimated he had been set back a week, at most. One death—was that by your hand? The Project is far too large to be defeated by one man."
He watched with glee as Keagan visibly crumpled in his seat, face going grey with the shock of defeat.
"The poisonous snake becomes still before it can strike against the designs of the Buddha. Don't feel bad. You're on the wrong side of history. Now, you've deserted your post, forsaken the Foundation, and come to me with the intent of doing me harm. What exactly do you imagine you can do to me?"
"Keagan, what's all this he's talking about?" Sam asked. The reporter, Sir Malcolm noted, had become particularly agitated at the mention of the death in the Commodore's camp. This Keagan fellow had been with the reactionaries, hadn't he—ah, Sir Malcolm, you've been a poor judge of character, you should have known that those rats never jump ship, not even the ones due for extermination. He had been D-Class, D for Dalit, untouchable, untrustworthy. That was a secret, which meant it was a weapon. He would use it now, shake this silly little female's confidence in what she no doubt considered her informant. He's a convicted killer, perhaps a rapist! What do you know about him, what…
"It doesn't matter," Keagan said, cutting off Sir Malcolm's train of thought quite adeptly. "What matters is a correspondence between yourself and someone called Jacky, who you believed to be a 15 year old boy in Medway STC. A quite intimate correspondence."
Sir Malcolm stopped moving. A block of ice had appeared in his brain, freezing his thoughts to sluggishness as surely as if he had been transported in that moment to the glacier, buried in it like Mucalinda. How… how… This wasn't possible. It simply wasn't possible. He had forgotten all about it, that piece of final stupidity he had allowed himself before, as he saw it, the world ended and he ruled over a new age. He had seen the classified ad, the beautiful face, the cheekily knowing words. No-one would find out, he had thought. He had used aliases, printed everything rather than risk his handwriting giving him away, travelled miles out of his way to post the letters from letterboxes in Kingston upon Thames. Then the letter from 'Jan', Jan Crucnik, the supposed conman who had turned out to be another phantom, the front for some seedy old ex-judge who had killed his wife and now thought to prey on his betters from behind bars. The blackmail. But hadn't it been taken care of? Hadn't absolutely everyone—everyone—who could have known been tidied away?
"Who are you?" Sir Malcolm snarled. "How is—this?!" He saw to his dismay the woman's manner had changed again, leaning forward intently, pen resting on the accursed journalist's pad that had ruined so many Members of Parliament.
"I think I might just be the man who wasn't there," Keagan said. "You might know me as—Mr Greengoss. QC."
Sir Malcolm's eyes widened. Mr Greengoss. After the messy part had been taken care of, Sir Malcolm had been forced to look into the mechanism of the scam—Wesley Kellogg had worked in partnership with a solicitor, who had operated under the alias of Mr Sackshaw. But there had been another party—£7,500 a month of Kellogg's ill-gotten gains were posted off in envelopes bearing the name of the distinguished Mr Greengoss QC. Except he didn't exist either and the trail went nowhere. The money, as far as Sir Malcolm's agent had determined, had been taken into a bank every week and deposited—nowhere. No name. No account. Nothing. He had some vague notion that a cashier might have been involved, but that had gone nowhere. At last he had dismissed the matter—with the principal actors dead, there seemed no way his letters could be traced back to him. How clear it now seemed. Keagan O'Neill—Mr Greengoss—had been the judge's confidant in prison. He had disappeared when he had entered the reactionaries' accursed D-Class programme then, somehow, miraculously, re-emerged without even the courtesy of getting himself gassed, to haunt him. If not for his incompetence and Schaeffer's unquestioned loyalty and efficiency, who knew how much damage he could have done?
"You cheap little thug," Sir Malcolm whispered. "You've walked into the Ministry of Defence of the United Kingdom to threaten a government minister. I could have you arrested right now." His finger hovered over the intercom.
"For what, exactly?" Keagan asked brightly. "Because I'm reasonably certain you can't admit to carrying out what looks a lot like covert military operations on foreign soil. Or, for that matter, being blackmailed by a guy who subsequently got stabbed to death in prison."
Calm, calm. Why is he here? Why bring this low-level, trash-publication reporter—probably the only one who would believe you—to watch your reaction, get a quote? Because he has nothing. Change, change your face, your manner. You're not threatened. This is local colour, the lighter side of the job. Something to tell your daughter about in the evenings. Well, some of it.
"Ha. Ha ha ha. No, Mr O'Neil, I won't have you arrested. You're too much fun. You're a conspiracy theorist, a loon. Ms Deloitte, there will be no 'quote'. You have no story, only the ramblings of a convicted murderer—” he watched for the impact of that nuclear blast but disappointingly it seemed to fall flat. Oh, so you're only concerned about murders he commits after incarceration. Who says the Fourth Estate is in decline? “—and no reputable paper will print it. I have a little something for you, though, if you want." he leaned over the table towards the reporter, "Owen Paterson, the Minister for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, took a trip to Turkmenistan before the end of the Cold War. What passed between him and later President for Life Saparmurat Niyazov—I can say no more. Look into it. Could be your ticket to the big world of journalism."
Sam shifted position in her seat, making shorthand scratches on her pad. "Actually, Sir Malcolm, I'm much more interested in you. Why, exactly, did you start up the correspondence with Wesley Kellogg to begin with? Is it standard practice for Cabinet Ministers to exchange letters with people who represent themselves as teenage convicts?"
Ah, the bull-terrier type. You wouldn't think it to look at her. Well, thought Sir Malcolm, that's fine.
"Ms Deloitte, if you leave the building in the next five minutes, you may find you receive a pay rise or promotion before you quality for retirement. No more than one, mind you," he spat the words, "you've already offended me, and that comes at a cost. You may find you can publish stories. You may find you can find accommodation anywhere in Greater London, drive unharassed by traffic police, live out your life without fear or pain…" his voice rose to a peak. "You see, I can play hardball too."
"Don't be stupid," Keagan said bluntly. Then, in a strange, dreamy tone, "You play hardball with a baseball bat. Om mani…"
Sir Malcolm's baffled expression was equalled by that of his companion. Keagan seemed to be looking a long way into the distance, then he snapped back into focus, and for the first time his brown eyes met Sir Malcolm's directly.
"What's your connection to 1447, Sir Malcolm? The man in the metal box."
Another strange, icy moment. Who was this man, this extraordinary pest?
"How do you know anything about that?"
Keagan's gaze was beginning to become disquietening.
"Because I think he's right here, looking at you. I think he can hear you."
"I find that unlikely. What you're talking about is in 'containment' by the reactionaries, in Sheffield. A fascinating experiment, but ultimately flawed."
"I don't think it's contained. I think it chooses to stay where it is. It makes a show of trying to get out, but when it really wants to, I don't think anything in the world can stop it."
Sam Deloitte had resumed her look of utter confusion. Very well, then, thought Sir Malcolm, let's let that be her last memory of this conversation. Two men talking about things that she doesn't understand and which sound utterly nonsensical. The little recorder in the vase in his window wasn't on—a shame. It would be wonderful to have this on tape, so the whole 'confrontation' about Wesley Kellogg could be set in its proper context—a bizarre exchange about secret bases in Greenland and monsters manifested through thought.
"That's very interesting, but ultimately irrelevant," he sneered. "1447 is just a tulpa. Anyone can make them, with the right mental training. The only thing special about it is that it can meditate on its own existence, allowing it to sustain itself. My own tulpa can't, just yet. It can say the words, but it still needs to come back to me for a top-up. When it can do what 1447 does, it will outlive me. I will never die—some version of me will always exist. And yet it's the simplest, most basic thing I can do. I'm not afraid of you or 1447, Mr O'Neill." To hell with it, he thought. Soon none of this will matter! Wouldn't it be better if this stupid little woman and her treacherous informant went away with something that showed them exactly what they were dealing with? He jabbed his finger on the telecom.
"Samantha, have Matthew bring in drinks. Wine, red for prefere—no, white. White wine." A crackle that signified acknowledgement. He put his elbows on the table, templing his fingers, and his smile over his fingers was a blizzard, sweeping over the works of man.
"Ms Deloitte, you can leave now, and as I said, nothing—further—will befall you. Or, you can stay, and witness something that will show you that everything you believe is false. But, here's the thing—you will never be able to publish it. No-one will believe you. You will become a crank, a nut. Is that what you want?"
The golden lure. Of course she would stay. No-one with the journalist's inquisitive mind would resist such a challenge. Matthew walked in, and Sir Malcolm pleased himself for a moment by observing the set of the young man's thick hair, the button left undone above his tie. Three glasses. The intern placed them deftly on the desk, poured the clear golden liquid into them, and Sir Malcolm watched it slosh voluptuously around the bottom of each glass before settling as the level rose.
"Thank you, Matthew, that will be all."
The door shut behind Matthew as he left. Sir Malcolm turned his attention back to the mulatto and his pet journalist.
"Go on," he said, "pick them up. I'm hardly likely to poison visitors to my MoD office, am I? Just—don't drink them quite yet."
They clutched at the stems of the glasses—rubes both—and lifted them. Sir Malcolm wrapped his fingers around the bulb of his own glass, stem fitting between his second and third finger, and raised it before his face as though giving a toast, then paused.
"Oh, now why did I ask for white wine?", he said in mock-anguish, smiling beatifically. "I don't even like white wine."
Then he looked for the green seat, the throne in the deepest part of his soul he had found during his time in Tibet, the jade chair from where he made universes. Now, peace and serenity, he thought. And effort. Sheer fucking bloody-minded, coronary-inducing effort. Wasn't that how it was supposed to be?
Keagan watched as Sir Malcolm's grip on the glass became rigid, clutching at the bulb with such force he thought it might shatter. The Minister's grin had become rigid, strained, his stare fixed and venomous. A vein on his forehead had become prominent. The chanting in Keagan's head had subsided and he found that for a moment he was able to look to his side. Sam was just watching the bizarre spectacle of the Minister Without Portfolio wordlessly glaring at his glass with such strained fury. Keagan looked back, and then he saw it.
A tiny pinprick of red, in the middle of the glass. Sir Malcolm was sweating now, chest rising and falling with some superhuman internal effort. The pinprick grew, and the odd little yelp of surprise from beside him told Keagan that Sam had seen it too. There was now a perfect sphere of translucent red liquid in the middle of the glass, suspended in the middle of the wine. Keagan found himself petrified, though he was unable to remember why, as though he had seen it before in a nightmare. The red substance now filled two-thirds of the glass, still refusing to mix with the four quasi-pyramidal pockets of gold at the edges—the sphere had been truncated where it met the edges of the vessel but retained its shape. The gold shrank, and vanished. Sir Malcolm giggled, a heaving, breathless sound.
"Just wait," he said. "Just wait."
And suddenly, Keagan realised the sphere had not vanished—it remained, a ghostly shape in the air around the glass. The light inside the sphere had a slightly different quality to the light outside—darker? no, flatter? no, just somehow indefinably altered. And it continued to expand, accelerating as it engulfed Sir Malcolm's hand, arm, desk, body, reached out towards then. Keagan felt somehow he must not let the bubble touch him, but remained frozen in his seat as it creaked outwards from Sir Malcolm, centred on the glass in front of his face and haloing him in that subtly altered light. The front reached their glasses, and where it passed it left red where there had been gold. Sam watched in horrified fascination as a crisp, distinct wall of red marched through the glass. She barely had time to tilt the vessel and observe the red did not move with it—what had been red briefly reverted to gold as it sloshed out of the sphere—before it had advanced up her arm and hit her face. Then the bubble met Keagan. There was no overt sensation as it passed—merely the sudden and marked notion that something had changed, that the carpet had been pulled out from under you and left you standing somewhere else.
Sir Malcolm exhaled sharply, and Keagan turned to see the edge of the bubble accelerate off into the distance, expanding across the horizon, and after a second the light no longer seemed so strange, and one wondered why one had imagined there was any difference.
"There," Sir Malcolm breathed. "Red wine, and of a good vintage." He took a long sip. "It's good. Hic est enim calix sánguinis mei. Ah, but you probably never learned Latin at school, so the allusion is lost. Tragic."
The expression on Sam's face was lost, the face of someone whose foundations have just collapsed. Join the club, Keagan thought.
"What just happened?" she asked, of the room in general. "That was white wine. This is—this is some kind of trick, right? With food colouring tablets. Your party piece for visitors."
Sir Malcolm massaged his temples, the colour of his face returning to normal. "Not at all. That was a relatively simple shift; I didn't like the universe where Matthew brought us white wine, so I changed it. It didn't affect anything outside this room, other than the number of bottles of each type left in the hospitality rack."
"Erm," Sam said. "That's not…"
"Possible? Of course it isn't, my dear girl. That's rather the point." Sir Malcolm's grin faded. "You've seen the supernatural, face-to-face. Now, what will you do? Some people opt to go stark raving insane. That's always fun."
"What happened to the universe where you ordered white wine?" Keagan asked, feeling the blowtorch of Sir Malcolm's triumphant fury swinging back to him.
"Fucked if I know," said Sir Malcolm, and the expletive sounded strange in his public school accent. "Probably destroyed; I'm not a scientist. If I had let the wavefront touch you, you would have been replaced with versions of yourselves who would have seen nothing supernatural in what I just did; for whom I ordered red wine and got it. Amusing for me, but pointless. The fact is, I might have killed you—the you that walked into this room—dozens of times without your ever knowing it. And I'm not going to tell you if I did. You're insects, trying to bite a dragon. Now, get out."
There seemed nothing else to be done. Sam was shell-shocked, glass trembling in her hands so the red wine threatened to slop out the top. Keagan carefully took it from her and put it down on the desk with his own, helped her to her feet. As they walked out of the office, Sir Malcolm spoke again, a tone of gleeful devastation in his voice:
"I have a Zen koan for you—at least, that's what they say it is. Linji Yixuan said—'if you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him'. I hate to see what modern so-called Buddhists do with that. It's such straightforward advice, but they twist it and contort it until they say it means you must only recognise the Buddha in your own soul and other such claptrap. No, it wasn't a koan. If you meet the Buddha, kill him, because the Buddha is the most dangerous man in the world. But you're too late, you see? You can't kill me because you're too late!"
Sam hobbled out of the building, walking with the gait of a woman sixty years older than her age. Keagan opened the door of her car, a yellow Volkswagen Polo, and guided her into the back. She made no protest as he took the wheel. London accelerated around them, people going about their lives.
"What now," Sam said, dully. There was no inflection.
"Now?" Keagan scratched the thick growth of stubble on his chin thoughtfully. He looked at the world around them—Horse Guards and chippies and Ministries and ferris wheels and Parliament and garages. "Now, we go get some evidence and write a story."
Such freedom! Such blinding, searing, liberating freedom! Sir Malcolm had never done that before—never let someone walk away with full knowledge of what he was and what he could do. It had been reckless, insane—empowering, exhilarating. The only witness he had ever exempted from his bubble of altered reality during a shift before had been Commodore Schaeffer, to demonstrate to him the reality of what he served. That had been the shift after he had thrown away the previous universe and replaced it with one where Ronald Schaeffer had inexplicably developed an irrationally deep and abiding loyalty to Sir Malcolm himself five minutes before meeting him—there had been no risk involved whatsoever. Sir Malcolm had just had the merest taste what it would be like excluding millions from a shift, when he erased Mucalinda, his sacrificial serpent, and it felt like jet fuel in his blood.
He looked down at the papers on his desk, the budgets and projections and project checklists. Why, why, why had he given his precious time, his very life-force, to these irrelevancies, when he possessed the power to make them go away with almost literally a flick of his fingers? Somehow he had imagined it dishonourable, an affront to fair play—like cheating at cricket—but of course it wasn't, it wasn't at all. He focused on the hateful documents with searing intensity, the feeling of mad, impulsive freedom bubbling up inside him. The bubble manifested in the middle of the stack, and the letters writhed and changed as it expanded over them.
Of course, trying to create a universe where he had already done the work would be suicide—it would mean not excluding himself from his own bubble. He wasn't even sure he could override that self-preservation instinct that by default made him the sole survivor of any shift, as far as he was concerned. Moreover, he would have to visualise each element of the change—just as much work as doing it himself. Instead, he imagined a universe where, a few hours ago, he had called dear sweet Matthew in and sat him at the desk, delicately placed his fine fountain pen in his hand. And this would be a universe where, just by chance, Matthew spontaneously decided to perfectly forge Sir Malcolm's signature on each document and managed to tot up every sum perfectly.
The bubble expanded, and he struggled to maintain it against the pressure of the minutes-old universe where he had ordered red wine. It pushed back at him, begging to stay alive. He smothered it, mercilessly, breathing into the bubble until it covered the desk, the papers rearranging themselves into neat stacks. Then, having engulfed the area immediately affected by the changes, it achieved critical pressure, expanding suddenly and explosively until the new universe was one where all the paperwork was done and Sir Malcolm could spend the rest of the day reading the Mahayana sutras. Perhaps there would be time for golf this afternoon.
Wait. Something on the desk caught his eye. No. No, no no. What was now the top paper on the stack wasn't a budget. It wasn't a projection. It was a letter. He focused on it.
I'm sorry to hear you've been having trouble from 'Brock'. A brock, of course, is a male badger, and I do so hope you aren't badgered. Tell me, what soap do you use? I should like to purchase the brand and keep a little rubbed into my wrists so it reminds me of you. I look forward so much to our meeting. To being able to see your face.
Ryokan was a wise man who was once robbed. Having given the robber even the clothes on his back, he looked up at the moon and said 'I only wish I could have given him this beautiful moon'. Soon, I will have surpassed Ryokan, for I will be able to give you the moon in the sky, if you adore me. Do you adore me?
Buddy fucking Sattva. It had struck him at the time as a piece of wild genius at the time, but now it stared out at him like an accusation. Because that letter did not exist. Because he had never posted it, because he had been called on a stupid fucking junket to Jakarta and by the time he returned he had thought better of rising to the obvious bait of the clearly fictitious prison bully, even in the playful manner he had written it. Because he had personally fed that letter, envelope and all, into a cross-cut strimmer and put the remains in the priority tray to be incinerated. Yet here it was, called back into existence from his subconscious, the paper crisp and white, unfolded, unmolested. He hadn't even realised he had thought about it during the shift.
He sat down, hands trembling, staring at the stack beneath the letter with dead eyes. It was probably the only one. Just a gentle reminder from the Buddha to himself that he wasn't god yet. No! That's death. That's absolutely death. He could not dare leave until he had read through every word, every line, and ensure that he hadn't sabotaged the numbers for the entire fucking nuclear defence programme or replaced parts of the briefing to the Cabinet with the lewdest passages from the Satyricon or left a detailed confession of everything he had done or was about to do on page fucking 57 of the cruise missile contractor agreement with Boeing.
He thumbed through the Favourites on his mobile with quivering fingers.
"Fran. Fran, I'm sorry, I'm going to be late tonight. Very late. It's important, sorry. Order … order yourself a pizza. You know my card's PIN number."
"I'm so sorry."
His daughter hung up without another word. Sir Malcolm hammered on the intercom with his entire fist, sinking down in his seat and shuddering convulsively. Samantha's tinny voice asked him if he was OK.
"Tea," he said, voice faintly cracked. "Green tea. Now."
Chapter Thirteen: "Breakdown"
The ex-prisoner—especially one who is no longer confined through a series of unlikely events of which exactly none have had the public seal of approval of the criminal justice system—always faintly fears the prison visit. He suspects the doors may be closed behind him and he may not be allowed out again. This certainly formed a great part of Keagan's anxiety when he and Sam entered the gates of HMP Wormwood Scrubs. Another part, of course, was that he was asked to show some form of identification, which meant trusting again in the ever-helpful Martin Ball, the prolific European traveller and holidaymaker who didn't actually exist. Fortunately, just like the customs officials on his only intermittently stomach-churning return trip from Denmark, the prison guards squinted at the photo of the slightly blurry brown-skinned young man—a stock photograph for all Keagan knew—on the passport, compared it for a few seconds to the older, distinctly less clean-cut gentleman in front of them and presumably figured it had been a rough few years.
Actually making a request to visit Creepy Bastard had been a tougher task that it needed to be, mostly because that was the only name for the lifer Keagan knew or could remember. Fortunately, the brief but unsettling mention of his crimes he had offered Keagan and his descriptions of the man were adequate to permit Sam to find him—he was still in C block, still serving his discretionary sentence. Keagan and Sam were ushered into the same visiting room that Lauren had used to visit him, five months previously.
"Is that him?" Sam asked as a prisoner was escorted in. Keagan didn't immediately focus on the man, having been too stunned by the sight of Taggart, looking just as scruffy as he remembered, if somewhat happier-looking and heavier around the gut. When he shifted his gaze to the young man he was escorting he almost didn't recognise his former cellmate—his blond hair was short, almost neat, and although his eyes were still watery they no longer shone with disturbing intensity. He was still long-limbed and skinny, but wore it better. He no longer seemed uncomfortable to be out of his cell, though an occasional nervous glance betrayed what Keagan remembered—though that might be because he had been called up by someone he didn't recall sharing a cell with to smuggle out a package he didn't remember hiding in his cell.
"Good to see you again," Keagan said, extending a hand Creepy Bastard stared at without responding. "You look good, man."
"Thank you," Creepy Bastard said with a surprised tone. "I guess I've been feeling good. Better. I'm sorry, I figured when I saw you I'd remember you. I have a good memory for faces, de- I mean, we must have shared a cell at some time for you to know about the letters." Keagan nodded. "That's not a very exclusive club, though. I went through cellmates pretty fast."
"Don't worry," Keagan said. "A lot of people tell me I'm not very memorable."
Creepy Bastard sighed. "We don't really have much to talk about, do we? Except the letters. I couldn't make a lot of sense of them, but they're something to do with the Kellogg murder, aren't they? The papers the police were looking for early on. I found them after everything had quietened down, when I started looking at my old drawings again. The real ones, I mean."
"You've been getting the pictures out?" Keagan felt an odd sense of pride. "That's really great. I still say you should publish them."
This effusiveness drew a quizzical blink from the man on the other side of the table. "I'm missing something."
"Nothing important, really. Yeah, this is Sam, she's a reporter. The letters could help solve the case."
"That's good. It wasn't right the way they just all stopped talking about it. No-one was arrested. You know, I saw his body. I just… can't remember what I did afterwards. I think I went outside. Why, I don't know, I didn't go outside my cell if I could help it back then. I thought I might have done it for a while. Killed him. I didn't, did I?" He suddenly looked terrified.
"No. You're not in the frame," Keagan said.
"Thank—thank—well. I'd almost forgotten about it after McGage got killed. Wyncroft came back in with riot police, completely tore the place apart. But they missed my drawings. And the letters."
"Tim McGage? The guard?" And Keagan suddenly remembered—two mattresses, thrown exactly the same way. The Judge's cell, tossed like a dawn raid. The tomahawk. A look in the man's eyes, that final inch of integrity bleeding out. Another piece of the puzzle, he thought. Maybe the last. "Was he killed in the Scrubs?"
Creepy Bastard shook his head. "At home. Really gruesome stuff. They said it looked like a revenge killing." He watched Sam scribbling frantically. "What?"
"That's actually really useful. Do you have the letters?"
Creepy Bastard nodded.
It was easy, almost balletic. The old Pakistani lifer who had shared a cell with Cameron Moat was there with what looked like his granddaughter, and at a nod from Creepy Bastard he rose, announced in broken English that he wanted to use the bathroom and shuffled between Creepy Bastard's table and the camera. Taggart turned his back and suddenly become obsessively interested in a crack running across the ceiling—"Look at this. This is really dangerous," he said, in a tone that implied he'd pointed it out hundreds if not thousands of times before. "Could collapse at any moment. Take us all with it."
Creepy Bastard pulled the already slightly yellowed papers—tightly creased where they had been folded up small and stuffed into the cracks in the walls—from the waistband of his trousers and passed it to Keagan, who passed it to Sam, who in about a quarter of a second had clipped them into her journalist's pad, nothing to say they hadn't been there the whole time. The old man turned and gave them an amiable if gap-toothed grin before shambling on towards the bathroom, and Taggart abruptly decided the crack in the ceiling plaster wasn't such a menace to the safety of the 1,200 prisoners of HMP Wormwood Scrubs as he had first thought, and resumed standing on duty. Keagan and Sam offered the former Creepy Bastard a few final pleasantries before indicating they were ready to leave. The doors of the visitors' centre opened, and Keagan walked out into the afternoon air.
Sam had, with some reservations, agreed that they should go back to her flat in Brixton to write up the story.
"You should let me drive," she said. "I'm feeling much better now. I hate giving directions from the back seat." She was in fact now sat in the passenger seat, her spirits somewhat higher after the acquisitions of the letters, which she had spent the last twenty minutes reading through in the car.
"Don't worry," said Keagan, slipping the car off the Embankment and onto the A203, "I reckon I remember where you live."
"Well," Sam replied faintly, "that's not creepy at all, is it?"
"I keep telling you, you gave me all your contact details when you came to visit me in the Scrubs. Told me to memorise them."
"Only I have no memory of that at all. Why, exactly, does no-one remember you again?"
"The Foundation used me in some kind of experiment. With something the Insurgency called a history-erasing machine. I don't think it worked the way they intended. 1447 did something, too."
"The 'man in the metal box'? I'm afraid your conversation with Urquhart left me completely in the dark. Are we talking something like the Man in the Iron Mask here?"
"It's probably best you don't know too much about that side of things. I get the impression both the Foundation and the Insurgency don't like people publicising what they're getting up to. Your best bet is to keep the story simple and understandable. Blackmail gone wrong, the coverup of a prison death at the hands of a guard and Sir Malcolm at the centre of it all. Don't for the love of God say anything about what he did back there in his office."
"How can I leave it out? The man literally changed reality in front of my eyes. I've never seen anything like it."
"Because, as Sir Malcolm said, any hint of it will make the whole story trash. Daily Star-grade, if that. Sir Malcolm once told me the Government doesn't want to believe in this stuff, even though they know it happens. By all means, include that you interviewed Sir Malcolm and he believes in all this stuff himself. That makes him the nut, not you."
Sam scowled and looked away, clearly angry to be missing out on possibly the most important angle of the story. Keagan continued:
"Besides, after you do an exposé on anything to do with the supernatural or whatever, how long do you think you've got before the Foundation knock down your door and take you away to be interrogated about how much you really know?"
Sam looked out of the window. "One day, someone's going to blow the whistle on all this. The conspiracy's too big to keep silent forever. You can't tell people reality works one way then keep it secret that all the rules you've drawn up are just … suggestions."
"I used to think that," Keagan said. "Now, I'm not so sure. I think, at some point, the conspiracy becomes too powerful to expose; it becomes too unbelievable to expose, too big to fully understand, so anything you say about it is always partially wrong, too deeply embedded to get out through the established media."
Silence, for a moment. "I'll stick to bringing down a Cabinet Minister in a sex and murder scandal, then."
"Sounds about right. This it?" He slowed outside the apartment, signalling into the resident's carpark.
Sam led the way up through the modest apartments until she stopped outside 16a. She fished out her key, which she kept on a cord around her neck in a little plastic wallet with her organ donor and NUJ cards. As she pushed the key into the lock, the door swung open, a slight wobble betraying that the lower hinge was loose. "That's … not good," she said.
Keagan went in first, noting that the screws looked to have been partially torn from the wall. "No-one's here. I think we're alright," he said after a minute. "Which is more than I can say for your place, unless you have a particularly unique taste in decor." Sam edged in after him and looked around in horror.
To say the apartment had been trashed is to say the Titanic had taken on a little water. If it had been merely aggressively ransacked—furniture and bookcases tipped over, TV smashed, drawers torn out and strewn on the floor—it would have been comprehensible. Instead:
There was not a piece of surviving furniture in the living room. It had all been smashed apart, splinters embedded in the carpet. Swathes of the wallpaper had been ripped off, the skirtingboard snapped away in chunks and hurled across the room. The light fixtures had all been ripped from their fitments and dashed to the ground. Sam took a cautious glance into the bedroom to see tatters of sheets wound tightly around bits of bed, the wardrobe shivered into matchsticks. The kitchen: the entire countertop torn away and cracked in half, the taps ripped out and crushed. She picked up one of the pipes, hands trembling. Something had flattened it then twisted it into a helix. "Could a bomb have done this?" she asked out loud.
Keagan shook his head. "I've seen something like this before. Whatever was in this room was looking for something; probably the letters. I've changed my mind—I don't think we should be here if it decides to come back. See if you can find any clothes that are still good—pack an overnight bag."
Sam sorted through the shredded garments. "'Whatever'. You mean, you don't think it was human."
"No," Keagan said. "Unless you know any humans who can bend metal into that curly pasta shape."
"Rotini," Sam said. "It's rotini. Okay. Let me see if I can find the toothpaste then let's go."
Keagan drove with no particular direction—his first instinct was simply to get out of London. Sam had gathered a few possessions in a carryall and sat with her hands on top of it in the passenger seat; Keagan stole a glance at her from time to time to see how she was holding up. She didn't seem sad, or depressed, or defeated—just angry. After a little while the city broke up into smaller towns and as they got out into the country the sound of traffic died back to the point where Keagan was able to hear the engine.
"How long's your car been making that noise?" he asked while they idled at a set of traffic lights. A spitting, popping sound interrupted the sound of the motor every few seconds.
"It's fine," Sam said, "it's been like that for ages. It's not a problem."
Keagan dragged the car up to speed as the light turned green. "It really shouldn't be making that noise. It's accelerating unevenly as well. When was the last time you serviced it?"
"God help us. Checked the tyre pressure, oil level, topped up the wiper reservoirs…?"
"Oh, I think Dad did that the last time he visited," Sam seemed thoroughly uninterested.
"About a year ago, maybe?"
Keagan pulled in on the side of the road, squinting at the grimy dashboard and dragging his finger across it. The white van driver behind them put his horn on and swerved around them without even slowing down.
"Hey," she said. "Why are you stopping?"
"Because I don't much fancy the idea of breaking down on the motorway. You do know your dashboard lights are out, right? As in, I've got the handbrake on now and there's still nothing coming on. You might have a serious engine failure and you'd have no way of knowing."
Sam yawned. "So are you going to look at it, or not?"
Keagan opened the door halfway and began squeezing out so as not to step into the path of the traffic. "Hey, I should be charging you for this. My usual labour fee for a checkup is sixty-five quid."
"Really? And there was me thinking my dropping a good half-grand of my own cash so far on your travel expenses meant something." She stuck her tongue out.
"Okay, okay. Do you have any tools in the boot? Spanner, tyre pump?"
"I think there's a bag with some things in. Dad put it there; I've never looked at it."
Keagan sighed. "Great."
The problem turned out to be relatively simple—a clogged air filter. By chance one of the items in the boot was a small hand vacuum, which did a reasonable job of dislodging the worst of the grime. He grinned as he waved through the windscreen at Sam and pointed to the offending item, but Sam wasn't looking at him. She was looking at the dark Audi A4 sedan with aftermarket tint parked thirty feet or so behind them.
"What is it?" Keagan said. Sam said something, too quietly to be heard over the traffic, so Keagan wandered around to her side of the car and gestured for her to put the window down. She did so with quick, hurried movements and her voice was panicky.
"That car was outside my apartment."
"You sure?" Keagan asked. "No offence, but you don't really seem like the car type."
"I'm not imagining it. R159 EWD. It's the same number plate."
"Okay," said Keagan, trying not to appear rushed as he replaced the filter. He was getting the same eerie sensation he had felt back in Bembridge.
"Keagan, someone's getting out."
He immediately amended his previous strategy, roughly shoving the cover back on before he jumped into the car—provoking another angry burst of horn from a Mini driver who nearly took the door off.
He prayed fervently to the god of all mechanics (the most popular petition to whom is 'let it fucking work this time') and turned the ignition key. The Polo's engine turned over with no pops or hops, and he careened out into the traffic, hoping the BMW driver behind him had enough sense to slam on their brakes as the Polo sailed in front of it.
"Well, the acceleration seems to be fixed, at least."
Sam was still looking over her shoulder. "He must have been waiting for us to leave the apartment. Do you think it's someone from the Foundation?"
"The Foundation, the Insurgency, or the MoD. Did you get a look at who was driving?"
"No, he was too far away."
"He was ten yards, tops."
"Well, I must need new contacts then. He was blurry."
"The good news is that he didn't make a move while we were in the apartment. That means he wants to see where we're going." Keagan took a long breath. "Okay, here's the plan. The Insurgency is planning something big. I don't want to go into it, but you can think of it like a terrorist attack. Sir Malcolm is going to use it to seize power in a coup. I thought I'd well and truly fucked things up for them but Sir Malcolm seemed to think it hadn't done them that much damage. Maybe Schaeffer's lying to him, I don't know. We need to handle this on two fronts. You need to break the story about the Judge—Wesley Kellogg, I mean. Maybe if they've got no-one to step into the top job the Insurgency will put the plan on hold. I need to get to the Foundation and tell them about this."
"You mean split up?" Sam sounded skeptical. "Can't we just go to the police? Or the army?"
"A good idea, under normal conditions. Unfortunately the most powerful man at the MoD after the Defence Secretary is part of the plan. And I don't think the police would consider secret camps in Greenland part of their jurisdiction. Even if they were inclined to believe it they'd just refer us to Amnesty International. Unfortunately, the one group of people I can think of who would take this seriously and who have the resources to shut this whole thing down for good are the Foundation. And I don't want you getting mixed up with them."
Sam sat for a moment, considering. "Right," she said. "Drop me off somewhere with an internet café. I can type the story up and send it in by webmail."
"Are you sure you hadn't better take the car? I'm pretty sure you won't be getting it back where I'm going."
"No, I figure my chances are better NOT driving the car being tracked by some kind of shadowy cabal with access to supernatural WMDs. If this gets printed, I figure I might be able to afford a better car anyway."
"Just remember to check the oil levels once in a while, okay?"
Sam chuckled. "Once the story gets to my editor I'll ring around everyone from my Journalism MA. I know people who got jobs at the Mirror, the Metro, the London Evening Standard… then we'll show Malcolm Urquhart what a press pack looks like."
"You're going to ambush him? Are you sure that's a good idea?"
"I honestly don't know. But he can't do what he did in front of half the local newspapers in London and still hope to keep it secret, can he?"
They made good time along the M3, the engine purring along with no trace of the former unevenness. "You're pretty good," Sam said sleepily, presumably in reference to his tune-up, before falling silent.
He pulled off at Exit 4 and rolled through Blackwater until he found an internet café and pulled up outside. He looked over at Sam, head turned towards him, eyes closed. She was breathing softly as she slept and her small breasts rose and fell beneath her shirt. Without knowing what prompted it he leaned in, pressed his lips to hers. Her eyes opened, suddenly, wide, terrified. She shoved him away wildly, scrabbling for her handbag.
"What the hell are you—doing? What was that? What the hell was that?!"
Keagan found himself at a loss. "I don't know. I can't—” he felt a familiar prickling in his eyes and looked away, fixing his gaze on the Halifax branch across the street. "I don't know why I just did that."
Sam looked around, clutching her bag to her. "An internet café. Great. I'll get to work. You just get on, go wherever the hell it is you're going."
"Sam, I'm really sorry."
"I don't know you. At all. I know you say we met before, but according to you that was like, once when you were convicted of murder, then once again in prison, when I was looking for information on the Foundation. Did I ever give you even the slightest suggestion—oh, forget it. Just forget it." She opened the door.
"I'm—not sure I want you to contact me again. Thanks for the information. Keep the car." Sam closed the door and walked quickly over the pavement into the café, leaving Keagan slumped over the wheel. How do you manage it?, the little voice said. How do you manage to fuck things up so thoroughly, so quickly? Were you always like this, or is this just how I imagin- Shut up, he thought. No, said the voice. You're going to have to deal with me sooner rather than later. But not now, he thought firmly, and started the car.
Keagan left the yellow Polo in a lay-by on the B3098. He left the keys in the dashboard, then, on further reflection, locked the door before swinging it shut. With any luck it would be discovered in a few days and returned to Sam. He set off along the hiking trail past Tottenham Wood, and quickly emerged onto the vast, supernaturally empty steppe of Salisbury Plain, a void at the heart of England. Just hundreds of square miles of rolling, uncultivated wilderness and the occasional grey copse clinging to the chalky hillsides. As he continued to walk, the track wore away to a mere suggestion of boot-worn soil, hemmed in by nettles and wild poppies. This vestige of a public pathway veered off around a chest-high fence of horizontally-strung wire; a sign on the gate read 'Military Firing Range—Keep Out'. I'm going the right way then, Keagan thought, tentatively prodding the fence with the toe of his boot in case it was electrified.
Having satisfied himself it was not, he put his boot on the lowest wire and stepped up to the next. He got as far as standing on the second highest wire before he overbalanced, caught his boot on the top wire, snatched at it with his frostbitten left hand, which refused to close on it, and fell heavily down the other side. He arose quickly, spitting dirt and brushing away little stones which had become affixed to his flesh. He looked around but could see no-one who might have witnessed his trespass, other than a few distant cars back up on the road, and set off again. He had driven through the night, and now the autumn sun shone on foliage not yet orange and yellow, and he reflected that had he not been trying to turn himself in to the forces of a vast and occult conspiracy, and were his knee and shoulder not painfully bruised from his botched entry into a military-restricted area, he might enjoy the stroll.
He had made an effort at reconstructing the journey in his head and had a pretty good idea that the abandoned town he had seen around the Sector-25 facility was somewhere near Imber, the town he remembered had been handed over to the Americans during World War Two. Possibly it was even Par Hinton, a hamlet which he had seen mentioned several times in connection with Imber but which appeared on no maps of the area. He would be coming at it from a different direction—over, he recognised with some chagrin, a British Army training area -but felt confident he could at the very least show up at the front door and ask to be let in. If, as seemed likely, he was told to get lost he could rattle off a list of personnel he remembered working at the facility, which should at the least earn him an interrogation.
A couple of shadows cast from behind him merged with his own. He turned, caught a glimpse of camo clothing, and prepared his story about his dirt bike having broken down, hence the grime and scraped-up hands and face. In the event, he didn't have time—a pair of pistols were produced and pressed into his shoulderblades. Keagan's knowledge of military procurement was shaky at best, but was fairly sure the Makarov PM was not the preferred sidearm of the British military establishment.
"Told you it was him," one of the men said. Then to Keagan. "We're with the Foundation. You need to come with us."
"That's fine," Keagan said. "Look, I need to talk to someone like Dr Skinner. For the last three months I've been working with the Chaos Insurgency. They're going to wake up a giant snake under Greenland and launch a coup in Britain. You guys are the people whose job it is to stop this stuff, right?"
The subsequent baffled silence from behind him told him something was wrong—as if he shouldn't have already been tipped off by the fact that what they were aiming at his back looked to be Russian or Estonian military surplus.
"What the heck are you going on about, traitor?" one of them said. "We were told you'd try and get back to the reactionaries and give them classified information. We got emailed a photo of you by the SE Corps yesterday. You'll have to accompany us back to the listening post."
Wrong Foundation, Keagan thought. Just my luck.
The two men pivoted around him, forced him to turn around and began marching him back up the road.
"Right here," said the other man, pushing him with the muzzle of the gun towards what looked for all the world like a cluster of large gorse bushes. "Go in."
"Erm, is it too late to tell you about my dirt bike?" Keagan asked before he was forcibly shoved through a narrow gap between the prickly bushes. To his surprise, as he nursed his scratches he realised the interior of the copse had been cleared out and replaced by a large tent with tables, chairs, and two sleeping bags. There was a dull olive radio set on the table together with a number of disposable mobiles and a large telescope stood on a tripod at the far corner, facing the direction from which they had returned. A hole in the tent wall had been made for it and the edges subsequently sealed with duct tape, presumably so the telescope could be slid through the wall of the tent and out through the gorse bushes. The two men who had abducted him entered slightly more gingerly, pushing away the thorns.
"We'll have to trim the fucking things back, I'm getting scratched to buggery every time I come in," one of the men complained. He looked around. "And the thorns are coming in through the walls."
The other nodded to a pair of hand-shears at the side. "Be my guest. I'm certainly not gonna be the one who blows our cover by having neatly cut branches lying around or lugging a load of garden waste over the Training Estate."
"It's a hunting blind," Keagan realised. "You're spying on the Foundation. Can you really see the facility through that thing?" He moved towards the telescope but stopped when the men gestured at him with the Makarovs.
"Well enough," the first man said, grabbing a bottle of 7-Up from the floor and gulping at it. "Now, the question is, what do we do with you? You must have epically pissed off someone for the SEC to send out a general alert like this." He covered Keagan with his pistol while the other man fished out a pair of plastic garden ties and bound Keagan's hands behind his back before sitting him down in one of the chairs. Keagan wasn't sure, but he thought it hadn't quite clicked over the last notch, which meant he might have a little more freedom than they intended, but didn't want to try it out just yet in case they heard it clicking back onto the previous notch.
"Do we think it would be such a big deal if we just killed him here?"
"Oh yes," said the other one sarcastically. "By all means let's just shoot him inside our supposedly undetectable listening post on a day when there aren't any army exercises scheduled. I'm sure absolutely no-one will hear or think it odd that a gunshot came from inside a fucking gorse bush."
"I didn't mean shoot him. We could just strangle him…"
"And then what? Keep him here for the next few months as he putrefies?"
"I was more thinking we smuggle him out at night, dump him on the roadside."
Keagan decided it was probably best to forestall this conversation before it got to the implementation stage. "Do you know what Sir Malcolm's doing? He's not going to just get the UK government to recognise the Insurgency, he's going to seize power himself. Commodore Schaeffer is in Greenland right now, trying to wake up some gigantic fucking monster to cause massive chaos and justify a 'government of national unity', whatever that is. They're not going to cover it up. What use do you think Sir Malcolm's going to have for you once he's Prime Minister?"
"Yeah, we're completely inclined to trust what you say. You're a reactionary mole. I'm amazed you managed to take anybody in."
"Did they tell you I was D-Class?" He watched their reactions—a hit there, he felt. "I'm not going back to the Foundation for the hell of it. Why don't you ask your Overseers when Commodore Schaeffer last reported in? He's taking orders only from Sir Malcolm."
The two men retreated to the other side of the tent and conferred quietly. When the first man spoke it was in a shakier tone. "Sir Malcolm's just Schaeffer's puppet. He's no-one important, just a useful tool in government. You really expect us to believe he's really pulling the strings?"
Keagan grinned and shook his head. "You don't know, do you?" They seemed nonplussed by this, so he went on. "What Sir Malcolm is. He can alter reality, just by thinking about it. I've seen it myself. Now, one of your lot told me that your—faction, whatever you want to call it—is for using supernatural things for the greater good. But I'm pretty sure you aren't supposed to be helping them stage a coup."
More whispering. Keagan caught snippets as their voices rose. "just kill him now, it's treason to go against…", "no, it's treason not to look into…", "first fucking time we get any kind of support from government…", "Sir Malcolm doesn't have a title in the Foundation. If he's a Bixby…". Eventually they seemed to arrive at a compromise.
"Okay," the second man said. "We need to contact the chain of command, figure out what's going on here. In the meantime, this guy is gonna make absolutely sure you're not lying to us." He grinned. The other man twisted a tea-towel into a rope and forced it between Keagan's teeth, then removed the magazine from his Makarov and reversed his grip on it before swinging it sharply down on Keagan's kneecap.
Sir Malcolm had negotiated a couple of days' leave from his duties at the MoD at very short notice, citing a need to make up to his daughter for some very late nights he'd been putting in. Right now he didn't think he could bring himself to look at another materiel procurement graph. It meant cutting himself off, for a short time at least, from progress reports from the Project—currently being delivered through his office under the guise of ISA interest reports on some of his considerable investments—but he trusted that the Commodore would stand ready until he received the final order. This morning he had risen, pulled on a burgundy satin dressing-gown and donned bunny-ear slippers, and gone down to find his daughter wolfing down Honey Nut Crispies, five minutes late for school.
"I do wish you would try to be more punctual, sweetie," he said, pulling her head to him and kissing her hair. "It reflects badly on me."
"It could be worse," she said, coldly but not pulling away. "You could be the Secretary for Education."
"That's true." Sir Malcolm thought he might have a crumpet, but clearly the housekeeper hadn't got the memo, or else the bakery had been out of stock, as instead he found a packet of pre-made drop-scones. He tutted but opened them anyway, taking two out and spreading them with set honey and peanut butter.
There was an odd clamour outside, cars pulling up and excited shouting—something you didn't hear very much on Eaton Square normally. Sir Malcolm sighed. Was he to have no peace and calm, even on holiday? He wandered back through into the parlour and sat down, picking up yesterday's copy of the The Telegraph. 'Cameron moves to water down EU job laws'. Of course he does, and good on him for it. Beastly things.
He hears the door open and all of a sudden the clamour becomes louder, much louder than one would simply expect from merely opening the UPVC door. Instead of leaving, Francesca runs back inside and upstairs. I'm going to have to ring the school, Sir Malcolm decides. She could be such trouble sometimes.
It occurs to him that she has left the door open. "Honey," he calls upstairs. "Are you OK?"
"There's some people at the door for you." she calls down. "I can't get out."
We'll see about that, Sir Malcolm thinks, and struck by sudden irritation he sweeps through the kitchen and hall and out into the glaring light of the morning, low Autumn sun in his eyes. There are upwards of 20 people in a semi-circle around his front door, carrying cameras and mics. The street beyond them has been completely blocked off with cars. The flashes begin just as his eyes begin to adjust to the outdoors, and he raises his hands in front of his face instinctively. It occurs to him he has just stormed out of his house and into a press conference clad in his pyjamas and bunny rabbit shoes. Is this a dream?, he thought vaguely, then decided that on the basis it might not be he had better get his act together.
"Look here," he said sternly, doing his best impression of a Victorian master, "what's all this stomping up and down outside my house? My daughter can't go to school."
"Sir Malcolm," one of them called, "can you verify that you were in contact with Wesley Kellogg, a high court judge, in the weeks leading up to his death?"
"Sir Malcolm! Is it true that you believed you were initiating contact with a 15-year-old boy? Have you undertaken any similar correspondences in the past, sir?"
It was an ambush. Dismayed, he scanned the faces across from him until he found who he was looking for—the mousy blonde with the ridiculous brown pant suit. Wrath rose in him like a Spitfire, roaring, tearing into the sky.
"This is all a disgusting vendetta," he said, trying and failing to capture the spirit of grand Churchillian rhetoric with a pair of floppy ears poking out of both his feet, "levied against me by a convict; a murderer, in fact. There is no evidentiary basis to all this. It is, in fact, a bluff, a distraction intended to draw attention away to the very real scandal of the Rt Hon Michael Moore MP's behaviour and his comments on 13th July—another reason why the Liberal Democrats are simply a liability in Coalition and why Mister Cameron should give serious consideration to the makeup of a minority government should the Coalition not survive until the next General Election…" He trailed off in dismay, realising the usual distractions weren't working; they were out for his blood. He took a couple of steps back; put his hand on the iron railing. Of all the miserable, pathetic…
The female reporter spoke up now, her voice as harsh and grating as he remembered. "But that's not true is it, Sir Malcolm? We have letters that appear to refer to people in your life. They include laser serial dots which correspond to an official MoD printer we were able to confirm just this morning was assigned for your personal use. You know, I've been digging into your history, and this isn't the first time you've been caught corresponding with someone you believed to be a young man."
"Lies!" he screamed. "Are you sleeping with him? The murderer? This is the sort of sordid conspiracy you work up against me. And you drag in all your small-time, London publication friends and ambush me on my own doorstep? You're a libeller, Ms Dullot—”
"Deloitte," she said, before continuing. "In 2006 your wife left you because she found out you were exchanging letters and emails with a 17-year-old boy. His name was Arnoldo Figueres. You paid your wife over two million as part of the separation to keep it out of the media. You should have paid off Arnoldo as well. He's giving a quote at the Brixton Herald offices right now."
"No law," he said thickly, the wind knocked out of him as he realised how far gone the situation was—that for anyone other than him this would be unrecoverable. What he would have to do. "No law broken. You can't prove any law was broken."
"No," the accursed reporter said. "At least, until we find out who contacted Timothy McGage and paid him £400,000 shortly before he was himself killed. My editor spoke to the Coroner for Hammersmith & Fulham last night, by the way. He says he'll be re-opening the Kellogg case. As good as the sleaze is, I think attempted murder sounds even better, don't you?"
"Are you going to resign, Sir Malcolm?" someone called from the back. "Do you think the PM will ask you to step down?"
There was a sudden, dangerous quiet. Sir Malcolm stepped away from the railing, back into the street, and he saw with some gratification that the movement still made these lice move back. He shivered, convulsively, the autumn air whiskering the hairs of his legs above the slippers.
Slowly, carefully, he raised his hand up before his face, then stretched it out, fingers tensing around empty air. He had never reached for the green chair in desperation before; hadn't even known before that it was possible. But here it was, shimmering before him, his throne.
"Erm," Sam said.
The flash photography began again in earnest, the bizarre pose and expression of furious concentration on the Minister's face a must-have for tomorrow's edition. Go on, he thought, waste your last moments alive.
"Run," Sam said suddenly, drawing an odd look from the representative of the Fulham & Hammersmith Chronicle. "We need to get out of here, right now. Please!"
"I'll let you see," Sir Malcolm said to her, the corners of his lips tugging upwards until he was smiling a death's head smile. "You stupid bitch! I'll let you see!"
Sam stumbled back, pushing against the other reporters who crowded closer, trying to get a clear recording of a Cabinet minister unleashing an astonishing rant on the street in his dressing-gown and slippers. She looked back and saw it, between his fingers, forming—the bubble of dark light, inflating until it had engulfed his hand and haloed his head in its altered radiance. St Malcolm, rebuking the skeptics. The others had seen it too, and a backwards step as they sought to get a good picture of the phenomenon became a rout as they realised it was continuing to expand. Sam was knocked to her knees as the reporters tried to escape—she watched it overtake them—passing over their bodies and erasing them, brain, skeleton, intestines for a moment exposed as it cross-sectioned them away. She sat mutely, watching as people she had known and worked with for three years were wiped from the earth. The bubble's expansion had slowed, grinding over the pavement. It had filled the street; a dome of infinitesimally paler, dimmer light rose into the sky, birds flying into it disappearing and re-appearing on the other side.
It took her a moment to realise the sounds of the cameras hadn't stopped. Someone was talking behind her, and she turned to see that the press pack had somehow, miraculously, reassembled, stronger than before, though her university classmates were further back, watching with reverent expressions. At the front, representatives from the national dailies and their entourages jostled for position with TV crews, live reporters chattering in the background. At the centre of this impossible gathering stood Sir Malcolm restored, dressed in an immaculately fitted Huntsman suit, forelock tinted darker and teeth veneered, one arm around his daughter. Sam had felt sorry for her when she had opened the door, face pale above school uniform. Now her hair was immaculately coiffed and she was wearing a miniature version of a ball gown. She reached up and adjusted her father's collar, and he chuckled.
"What will your first act be as PM?" the Daily Mail reporter shouted hoarsely. "Is there any truth to the rumour you plan to hold a referendum on UK membership of the EU?"
Sir Malcolm's eyes twinkled, lunatic spirals of blue. "I couldn't possibly comment," he said, "but the people must have their say! That is the principle I stand for!"
"You're for abolition of the monarchy—will you be asking the Queen to step down?" someone else called.
"Give it time!" Sir Malcolm shouted, to a peal of polite laughter.
But behind it all, she saw a strange duality—two Sir Malcolms, one looking happy and healthy and taking questions from a reverent press party, the other still in his pyjamas, hand still outreached, clutching at something she couldn't see, a Sir Malcolm still at bay, sweating, with face deathly drawn. She looked around—no-one else seemed to see anything other than the impossible coup. It's not over, she thought, he hasn't won yet.
Sir Malcolm sat on his jade chair at the centre of a whirlwind, desperately weaving the new universe. For every inch of ground the shift gained, another complex chain of consequences crashed through his mind, demanding resolution. Some part of him not wholly consumed in creating a new reality thought—to abandon and circumvent everything! The Foundation, the Project, Mucalinda, the great game of scandal and blackmail against his fellow Ministers—how easily he had been played at that—to discard all that and proceed straight to the result, the Rt Hon Sir Malcolm Urquhart MP, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, First Lord of the Treasury, Minister for the Civil Service and Leader of the Conservative Party. Now, this was cheating at cricket, or put another way, not so much eliminating the excess pageantry of the tea ceremony so much as just snorting maccha straight from the packet. And he found he was surprisingly OK with that.
He felt a pang of remorse for Francesca—he always did when he killed her—but lessened now by repetition and simple exhaustion. Let this be a universe where she never has to be disappointed in me, he thought. A universe without guilt! No Chaos Insurgency, no Foundation at all, unfounded—unfounded accusations against me Mister Speaker—no! No accusations at all! Erase even the memory of Wesley Kellogg, Timothy McGage, Keagan O'Neill! He felt himself rally at this vision, the bubble sliding outwards, engulfing Belgravia, central London. Then, the pressure again. Why? Why is it so hard? I'm only trying to make a universe where hundreds of millions of people love me, he thought, is that so impossible? The long looping end of a causal chain hit him like an express train and he saw the story, 'Cabinet Minister in jail murder scandal' spreading outwards at the speed of light. Blogs, Twitter, the first national newspaper websites. No, no, no, he screamed from his throne, stop it, stop it. Greater London. The South East. The Home Counties. The old universe fighting him every step of the way, pushing back with hyperlinks, retweets, word of mouth. Southern England and the Midlands; the bubble engulfing Cornwall and making landfall at Calais. Something in Sir Malcolm's chest was making a horrible, uneven thumping sound; his eyes rolled back as he felt his real body sink to its knees. Die, he screamed at the universe, why won't you die? He felt the bubble slide through the Midlands and reach the outskirts of Sheffield.
The first syllable slammed through the dark throneroom of Sir Malcolm's mind like an icy gale.
I'm being watched, Sir Malcolm realised. In here, I'm being watched. Something vaster than he could perceive, some rumbling shifting of the landscape as the vast chant hammered into him.
The darkness shifted and blinked, and Sir Malcolm realised it was a pupil—a gigantic eye larger than London, dwarfing him in his own mind. The jade throne crumbled beneath his fingers, pieces of it coming away like cheap styrofoam left out in the rain too long.
And in the great rumbling chant—an impossible sea of sound washing over him, breaking up the order of his mind, sending causal threads flying in all directions, ends fraying and tearing open as he lost control—
He heard a voice
And this is what it said
I will not allow another
And it reached out and took hold of his universe, 240 miles across, in its talons, and he felt the terrible pressure as the tips pressed into the interface between worlds. Please, don't do that, Sir Malcolm pleaded, and he realised he was now kneeling in his pyjamas, the rest of his throne blown away by that terrible hurricane. I want it, I need it
The talons sliced through the skin of his stillborn universe, and it popped like a soap bubble in the wind. He staggered, back hitting the railings. He looked up and saw them all—the Herald, the Chronicle, the Evening Standard, gathered back around him with hungry eyes. The old universe was back—no, recreated, as it was before the shift. Only the female reporter, Sam Deloitte, had remained constant—she was kneeling on the pavement a dozen yards or so behind the others, watching him as he reeled, disheveled and sweat tousling his hair. He thought he saw a look of triumph on her features.
"Sir Malcolm," one of the reporters called, "just to clarify, you want that on the record as your response to the allegations? I'll just read that back: 'I'll let you see, you stupid bitch, I'll let you see, I want it, I need it'?" The laughter again, this time with a note of unease—the sort of unease you feel laughing at someone who is clearly mentally unwell.
"I, I—” Sir Malcolm tried to swallow but something had gone wrong with his body. He wondered if he had suffered a stroke—nothing seemed to be responding to his brain's orders. He used the railings to pull himself along, away from the house. He looked back and saw Fran standing in the doorway, watching, listening, and it crushed whatever part of him the thing in the box had not already broken. He began moving faster, and the reporters followed him along the railings, taking pictures, video on their smartphones. The breakdown of the century, he thought. "Stay away from me!" he shrieked, and began to run.
Chapter Fourteen: "Keagan and the Bomb"
It was a very, very long time before the Chaos Insurgency agents were able to raise their superiors—or it seemed that way to Keagan, who in the meantime had suffered through a fairly amateurish interrogation by the agent who had advocated strangling him and throwing his corpse onto the B3098. What, exactly, he hoped the result would be of his clumsy attempt to pistol-whip Keagan around the cheeks and neck, followed by punches to the gut and finally a technique whereby he wedged Keagan's hand between two chairs and leaned on one—probably excruciating if he hadn't picked the hand in which Keagan still hadn't entirely recovered his sensation—was unclear, as he never bothered to remove the gag. Come on, Keagan thought after the thirtieth attempt to make him regurgitate the light lunch he'd had on the way to Sir Malcolm's office the previous day, I'd tell you the fucking sky's green right now if you only let me. Finally, the other Insurgency agent made a connection on one of the cell phones and gestured for his colleague to lay off on the unnecessary brutality. He spoke quickly and his frown deepened with every response. At length he put the phone down and, commandeering the other chair, sat straddling it facing Keagan.
"Frankly, the people I spoke to found your story as fucking unbelievable as I did. Unfortunately, it syncs with red flags which have been raised recently about Foundation activity in this Sector, in particular some unauthorised centralisation of the London cell structure. The upshot of all that, for you, is that we don't kill you just yet." He reached over and tugged Keagan's gag off. "Say thank you."
Outside, Keagan heard an engine, the sound of wheels displacing small stones on the dirt path. And that, if I know anything at all about cars, is an Audi, Keagan thought. It slowed, stopped. Close.
"Someone's coming," he said, words slightly slurred by the pain.
Footsteps now—the agent closest to the entrance stepped back in line with the tent wall while his colleague retrieved the magazine and reunited it with his Makarov (good luck firing that now, Keagan thought, I'm pretty sure you cracked the handle on my jaw). And although there was only the faintest whisper of disturbance from the bushes outside, somebody stepped through.
"It looks like congratulations are in order," Sir Malcolm said, wearing a look of amusement as he saw Keagan in the chair. The agent closest to the door had trained his Makarov on the newcomer but put it down immediately.
How was this possible, Keagan thought? Last time he had seen the man he had been busy behind his desk in London, and it hardly seemed plausible that a Cabinet Minister had been following them up the M3, or even for that matter being seen dead in an Audi A4. Keagan blinked a couple of times, but it failed to revise the impression he had that the man was slightly blurry. Just very slightly out of focus. Ah, Keagan thought.
"Sir Malcolm," the agent who had drawn the gun on him stuttered. "To—ah—what do we owe the honour?"
"A little bird told me you'd captured O'Neill. I thought I'd drop by to confirm you had him in custody. You're both due a special reward."
The agents kept exchanging small, shaky looks. The one who'd spent the last half hour or so on the phone verifying Keagan's story swallowed, slowly.
"We'll look forward to that, Sir. Why don't you take a seat, just for a few minutes?" Sir Malcolm turned towards him, a beneficent smile on his face.
"No, I think I'll be leaving just as soon as I see Mr O'Neill dead. To be honest, I'm surprised you haven't taken the initiative and done it already. I do hope you haven't been listening to him spouting reactionary propaganda?"
"Sir, I really think you should take a seat. I need to raise some people who want to speak to you." The agent was sweating now, and his eyes strayed from the out-of-focus blue eyes to the radio and mobiles on the table.
"I see." Sir Malcolm looked from him to Keagan, at the other agent, then back again. "So that's how it is."
The sudden ice in the voice made the nearest agent's eyes widen, and he spun around, raising the Makarov. Half-way through the agent's turn, the man with Sir Malcolm's face tensed his arm and raised it above his head like a guillotine, so fast it seemed the arm simply stopped being here and started being there. Something substantial and wet flew past Keagan's ear, splattering him in blood. There was a clattering on the table behind Keagan, something bouncing off the wall. Then the howling began, the agent closest to the door dropping to his knees, staring in disbelief at the void where his arm used to be. His compatriot failed for a split second to make sense of what he was seeing; when he realised that the Malcolm-thing had cleaved the other agent's arm from its socket he screamed himself, lifted the Makarov and—
With the same blinding speed, the Malcolm-thing stepped forward and casually, with a whip-like fluidity that seemed impossible in anything with bones, poked his arm through the chest of the other agent. He died quickly and quietly, his face turning purple. The Malcolm-thing absent-mindedly licked blood off his fingers before turning to the first man who had by now fallen silent, face bone white, but still trying to stem the flow of blood with his other hand. "Still alive," the Malcolm-thing said, mournfully. He took the man's head in his hands and twisted it, casually. The man lost any remaining rigidity and slumped to the floor.
Keagan sat in the chair, facing the creature.
"You must be the tulpa," he said.
"What a dazzling piece of deduction. Very adroit," spat the tulpa, looking around at the scene. "What a mess you've made. Do you know what a trouble this is going to be for me to clean up?" As he spoke, Keagan heard the faint buzzing beneath the words—if he had the means to record it and the means to play it back, he had no doubt he could slow it down and increase the volume and hear a fly's rendition of the heart sutra, knitting the tulpa together. Now he was standing still, Keavan realised he wasn't such a good likeness of Sir Malcolm as might first have been imagined. He was far less polished, like a rough sketch of the man, the eyes blurring whirlpools of blue, no pupils discernable.
"Were you the one who killed Wesley Kellogg?" Keagan asked.
"What?" The tulpa looked irritated by the question, as though Keagan should have figured it all out earlier. "No, that was the guard. I forget his name. I had to kill him afterwards."
"Because you always look out for Sir Malcolm, right?"
The tulpa's shoulders sagged. "I try. Sometimes he can be very stupid. Which doesn't make sense, because I'm him." He didn't even sound like Sir Malcolm, Keagan thought. He tensed his wrists and heard a tiny click as the restraints gave up exactly one notch. He held his breath, but the tulpa didn't seem to have noticed.
"No, you're wrong." Keagan said. "You're what Sir Malcolm thinks he is. I guess that makes you the responsible one."
The tulpa stood for a moment. "I never looked at it like that. No-one's ever taught me anything before." He laughed, a look of childish joy on his features. Then it faded, slowly. "You know, I don't think you're worth it." He walked over to the table, picked up one of the mobiles, tapped on it. "Last number redial. There it is. Hello? Hello? Of course not. Answerphone." He crushed it between his thumb and forefinger, threw the ruined phone to the ground. "Thanks to you I may have to kill the entire Insurgency. I told him they weren't toys, that he couldn't play around with them." He pursed his lips.
Keagan slowly braced one elbow against the back of the chair and applied pressure to his left wrist, feeling it strain at the point of dislocation.
The tulpa turned and began to stalk towards him. "To be so dependent on him. To live or die at his whim. But I'm always the one who has to pull his arse out of the fire. It makes me sick."
Keagan felt his lips move, heard his own voice say:
"Tell me about it."
Without conscious thought, he wrenched his left hand out of the restraint, feeling a faint burning but not much more in the cold-crippled hand, reaching with the other for the thing he had heard clatter behind him, whose position he had apparently pinpointed with uncanny accuracy, as the surviving nerve endings in his intermediate phalanges reported that they had closed around it. I'm apparently going to fire a gun, Keagan thought. He hoped his right index finger was up to the task.
The tulpa's face barely changed as Keagan brought the Makarov to bear and depressed the trigger. The recoil sent shuddering waves of pain through his arm but he kept the gun levelled on the tulpa as he rose from the chair. Two shots. Three. The bullets hit the tulpa in its face and neck, tearing great gouges from its substance. It went down, only now deigning to register a vague sense of surprise. Four, five. Keagan continued firing into the tulpa until the Makarov magazine was empty. The tulpa lay on its side in the middle of the tent floor. Its head and upper torso was a ruin—nothing above the bridge of the nose left. But it continued to shudder, and Keagan realised with a horrible jolt that it was laughing.
"Oh, what a world," it chuckled, jaw hanging loose on one side. "What a world." The half-liquid half-smoke that had leaked from its wounds reversed its flow, seeping back over the floor towards the tulpa, the moonscape of its chest beginning to knit back together. "Why don't I give you a head start?"
Keagan felt his abused knees protesting as he half-ran, half-stumbled around the creature, throwing the empty Makarov into the corner of the tent, and into the glare of the morning light. He orientated himself back the way he had gone first time around. On the horizon he could just pick out the shape of buildings. It's too far, he thought. It's miles away.
He had got about two hundred metres before the tulpa emerged. At this distance, as Keagan glanced back over his shoulder, he was little more than a vague suggestion of a humanoid, a blurry shape moving over the ground. He pursued with an even, tireless lope, not much faster than Keagan's own pace, but fast enough that he would close the distance long before Keagan reached the abandoned village. He wants me to die scared, Keagan thought. It wasn't long before his muscles began to burn, his beaten joints screaming for rest. You can still choose where it happens, Keagan thought. You could stop here, turn and face him, spit in his face. Don't give him the satisfaction of chasing you until you fall. But his limbs kept moving, even as the burning turned to a searing, intolerable pain, imminent cramp.
Instead, he thought about what Sir Malcolm had said. Anyone can do it, he had said. How do you first realise you can control reality? Maybe it's just a case that things seem to go right for you, just a little more often than probability should dictate. You visualise it, and it happens. You tell a story, and it comes true. It's denial of reality, he objected, that's the basic principle of it. Like lying—and how could you ever tell if you had really changed reality or simply deluded yourself into imagining you had done so?
You've assumed you have principles, Keagan thought. You don't lie because you would rather kill a man than breach your code of personal morality. What if you were wrong? He looked at the ground beneath his feet, his shadow before him flickering and uncertain. There's a man running over a field, he thought, somewhere in Wiltshire. I thought that was me. Okay then, he thought, tell a story. It's not lying, because it could be true, like everything you've told yourself has happened to you.
Somewhere, under the ground, there was a piece of metal. A piece of iron ore. It lay buried for millions of years, until a great machine tore away what was lying on top of it and exposed what was really there all along. Men took it and refined it and made it into a shell, and inside it they packed explosives, and propellant, and a fuse and a primer. This was during the War, the war when they harnessed the power of the sun and the Foundation had to sit back and watch as it became part of the world everyone thought they lived in. This wasn't a nuclear bomb, of course, it was just an artillery shell. They had loaded it into a truck and driven it to Salisbury Plain, where thousands of men prepared for the invasion of Normandy. Hundreds of shells used in target practice. But this shell, it didn't detonate, did it? It lodged in the ground, and every time the rain fell it sank deeper and deeper, until no-one knew it existed at all. But it wasn't a dud—it just didn't go off, a faulty connection in the proximity fuse. It's lain here all these years, the charge in its electrolytes seeping away but never quite running dry, waiting for the direct pressure that will connect its battery plates one last time. And it's—here! It's under that tiny raised patch of ground twenty metres, fifteen metres away, rushing towards you, longing for this moment, when it gets to fulfil its purpose at long last.
Ten metres. His breath scorched his lungs, aerobic respiration a dimly-remembered legend. Five metres. He forced strength into his legs, and jumped over the clump that might have been an ant hill, or might have been the ensign of something buried there—like a child jumps over the patch of floor they imagine is a crocodile, like an obsessive-compulsive jumps over the cracked slabs on the pavement because they remember the old rhyme. His right leg landed first, and his knee gave out under him, and his run went three-quarters horizontal, a sprawling scrabbling crawl on all fours, desperately, trying to get away, get away, get away from the blast…
Behind him, as he stumbled, he heard the tulpa accelerate, feet hitting the ground impossibly fast. Keagan dropped, hands clutched over his ears.
The detonation pressed him into the ground, tore at him with sharp metal fragments, took his senses, filled his mouth with blood and grit. He hovered in the space between waking and unconsciousness, unsure for a moment if he had really experienced what had just happened, doubting everything. He looked back, expecting to see something thin and wraithlike taking shape in the air, but he saw nothing except the sunlight shining on the muddy crater that had replaced the little grassy dome. Thank you, he said to the bomb. Thank you for waiting for me. Everything was growing watery and hard to see. He could hear someone talking to him, and he thought, he'll pop out of thin air any moment, he's been here this whole time and I haven't been able to focus, and then he realised it was the little voice, talking to him now in quite a conversational tone as the world around him disappeared. This is what it said:
OK, I'm going to make this as easy for you as I can. This is something you need to face up to, and frankly there doesn't seem a better time, since right now I have a captive audience and there might not be a later. I'm going to tell you a story of my own.
Before I try and break the news to you, I should stress it was a pretty desperate situation. You, and by you I mean me and you, us, but mostly me, had spent every last pence and cadged and stole more off friends and family and spent that too, and borrowed more—lots more—from a guy and spent that too. Mostly poker—some horses—and I'd tell you there were no Class As involved (and I don't mean amnesiacs, though the effect was much the same) but that would be a lie too. The guy—you probably wouldn't remember his name—started getting pretty lousy when he realised that any extra money you had coming in was going right back onto the tables and into the bookies. I mean, you tried to explain that you were due a big win, right, but he wasn't impressed by that. Incidentally, one thing you never really got into was darts, which is ironic really, considering how this all turned out.
This is how it went. You got picked up outside a pretty seedy poker club and taken back to his place. Over the Thames. That was pretty much its standout feature. He says, pay up. You mention you just got cleaned out, for—what?—the twelfth, thirteenth time? Christ, he says, I've never known anyone have worse luck. Then he gets a look in his eye. He calls over these two goons, fresh meat, probably trying to get their start in the sharking business. One of them has this straight, black, slicked back hair and picks his fingernails with a pocketknife he keeps in his jacket and the other smokes rollups and has shit tattooed on his knuckles, as in, just the word 'SHIT' (say, here's one—what's brown and steaming and comes out of cows? Shit! … Nothing?). He says to you, here's what I'm gonna do. I'm gonna give you a fighting chance just in case you pull yourself together and manage to pay me back in the future. A short sharp shock. I see you again after this and you don't have my cash, I'm gonna have Theo here open your throat. He tells them, throw this brown shit out of the window.
Well, it was about two o'clock in the morning and the Thames is fucking cold at that time of night. Even you must remember that. The shock nearly kills you, and the stench almost finishes you off. You get swept along until you find somewhere to claw your way out—the bricks come away when you grab at them and by the time you've dragged yourself onto dry land it feels like you've torn down half the Thames barrier. You get out, shivering like a kicked dog—that wasn't your classiest moment, by the way—and shamble along the towpath for a while. Then you come face to face with—well, you. He's walking in the opposite direction, probably couldn't sleep, off for a walk along the riverside. It's like looking in a fucking mirror. I mean, spooky alike. He's just as shocked as you are, probably more so—you're the one soaking wet, staggering along like the walking dead.
He (you) calms down a bit, and says 'nice night for it', which was a really fucking stupid thing to say. It's informed my impression of you (strange how the word has two meanings like that) ever since. Well, you (we) don't say anything back—we're looking at him and his nice coat and his nice shoes and we think—he has a life, doesn't he, he hasn't screwed everything up like you (we) have. And you realise you have a half-brick in your hand from the side of the Thames, you've literally been carrying the thing along with you for the past half-mile without realising. You don't even question the amazing coincidence, the way that you just won the National Lottery after years of losing, the way he just pops up the second it finally matters in some ultimate, real way. And you (we, I) hit him (you) over the head with the brick. Again, and again. He doesn't say anything, he just goes down to his knees, trying to put his hands in the way, then when those get beaten to a pulp the fight goes out of him and he falls over, and you continue hitting him until there's nothing there anymore.
You take his wallet and you see his name. I think you've probably worked it out by now. I'm sorry, I'm really sorry. I'm your god and I'm a fucking loser. I stripped your clothes off and put them on, and I put my clothes on you and kicked you into the Thames. They found me (you) a mile or so downriver the next day and I was declared dead. I knew I couldn't just go on the way I had been, of course, so I made you. My tulpa, my simulacrum of how a stranger might act, based on the fleeting moment before I smashed his brains in and took his life. I put you in the driving seat, except when it really mattered. You didn't have much family, as far as I could see, not many friends. I cut myself off from them and made a few new ones, like Lauren. You wrote your damn passwords and PIN numbers down on a piece of paper and put them in your sock drawer. It was really easy. It was really, really fucking easy. I'm sorry.
What are you sorry for?
Jesus Christ, you stupid son of a bitch. I killed you. You're not real. You're dead. You've been dead for about four and a half years. You're a simulation I created. You don't believe me? When did you start suffering from the violent moods, the change blindness? And the lying. You can't lie because you are a lie. It would be just too many levels of metafiction.
I'm pretty sure I'm not dead. For starters, I can feel the soil I'm currently plumped face-down on. That feels pretty real, and not very comfortable, actually.
No, you idiot, you're not getting me.
I reckon I get you just fine. Who, exactly, did they find in the river again? Whose name was on the death certificate?
It doesn't matter.
Really? Now, here's a poser. Whose past did 554 erase? That's an interesting one, isn't it? Let Professor Reeds chew that one over.
You don't know. It might have erased me too. Personal identification. Hypothesis-A. The experiment was inconclusive.
We could find out. Look you up. What's your name?
Your name, you piece of shit. If you're alive, and I'm dead, you must have a name. I'm Keagan O'Neill. Who the hell are you?
Now fuck off.
He wakes up briefly to see three armoured trucks idling around him, upwards of twenty black-helmets disembarking and aiming sub-machineguns. Ah, he thinks, with a sort of dreamy certainty, so that's where you keep popping out from.
They keep shouting 'Clear!' as they get closer, which he decides doesn't sound very helpful, like someone who insists something is perfectly self-evident without bothering to explain themselves. They swell in his vision until the blackness of their visors overwhelms him and he falls into unconsciousness.
Chapter Fifteen: "Gunning for the Buddha"
Edward rose, made his bed, and wandered through into the staff living quarters. There were a few other 'boarders' at the Sector-25 facility, mostly through choice; people who couldn't give any more of their lives to the Foundation without actually living and sleeping there, so they did; others stayed at secure residential sites in the surrounding area, carefully shielded from the outside world. Edward was the only one effectively in protective custody; it had taken them a while to actually agree that he held a formal title within the Foundation (strictly speaking, he was a Junior Researcher) and his status still seemed fairly fluid, hopping from department to department, part-time psychiatrist (he had just about completed an undergraduate degree in Philosophy, which sector management apparently considered close enough), part-time computer troubleshooter, part-time consultant on the Group of Interest that called itself Marshall, Carter & Dark.
Edward wandered over to the coffee machine and fiddled with the dials, frowning. then felt around behind the back. The LED display resolutely refused to come on.
"I've tried all that," said a ferret-faced young researcher called Mames. "It's completely busted."
Edward turned and blinked. "This is literally the earliest I have ever seen you up."
"I'm surprised you slept through it," Mames said. "There's been some excitement."
'Some excitement,' in Sector-25, could mean anything between 'new tub of Ovaltine' to 'microscopic Germans from an alternate timeline have just nuked the break room'.
"Oh. What's happened, exactly?" Edward gave up on the espresso machine and fished around in the cupboard for the French press.
"There was an explosion out on the SPTA, a quarter mile out."
Edward raised an eyebrow to suggest this was hardly an unusual occurrence on a live-fire training ground.
"No, no, listen, they found a guy near the crater, covered in blood, most of it someone else's."
"And we got involved why? Sounds like a case for the British Army."
"It was the underpants. Apparently we get them off the books from a domestic supplier in South Korea; officially they've failed quality control and been incinerated. Very peculiar stitching up the centre, not very comfortable for, er, bigger people. Anyway, they don't sell them over here. But we do issue them to D-Class. Also, his hands were frostbitten, which all just seemed a bit too weird to leave to the squaddies."
"I see. So, we took him in?"
"Put him up in the medical wing until he regained consciousness. He's claiming to have been D-Class in this facility a couple of months back, only he doesn't have the tattoos, we don't have any record of him under the name he's given and, well, a couple of months, right?"
Edward nodded, slowly. Mames continued:
"So they take him to Conference Room 2, which is when I get up to see what all the fuss is about. At first he wants to speak to 554-2, but of course she's never heard of him either, and it turns out he means the last 554-2, which was kinda sad. Then he starts on about talking to Skinner, which really raises everyone's blood pressure."
"I can imagine," Edward said. He had left the coffee and the packet of bagels he'd been fiddling with on the side, and walked over to the chair. "And let me guess, he mentioned Dr Barker, only Dr Barker can't remember him, though that's pretty convenient if he says he was here while Skinner was in charge?"
"Yeah. How did you know?"
Edward sighed. "I have a horrible idea my quiet half-morning has just gone up in smoke. What was his name?"
"Erm, oh damn, it's on the tip of my tongue. Er, ah, something Irish, which you wouldn't think to look at him, since he's a—hey, wait up?"
"Keagan," Edward shouted back as he strode along the corridors, following the orange lines towards the Conference Rooms. "Keagan O' sodding Neil."
He pushed open the door to Conference Room 1 a second or two before he remembered he wasn't dressed yet. Too late now, of course.
"I know who he is."
The man at the far end of the table from a cluster of Sector-25's most distinguished professionals and interrogators looked up, and beamed widely.
"Edward—Gardley? Gradley, that was it! I should have asked for you. Immune to memory wiping! Give that man a fucking promotion."
Professor Gelding adjusted his spectacles and stared at Edward. "Edward, you can confirm this man's story about being D-Class?"
Edward stood still for a moment, Keagan looking on expectantly. Come on, Edward, think on your feet, you used to do this for a living in the City. You've just walked into an interrogation of a man who, the last time you saw him, was about to be irrevocably disappeared by a Euclid-class skip after confessing to cross-contamination with a Keter-class reality-warper who lives in a hermetically-sealed steel cube. Assuming, of course, this is the actual Keagan O'Neill and not something that looks and sounds a lot like him and has all his memories—which, let's face it, happens more often than it should, in this line of work—you sort of have an obligation to try and ensure he doesn't get vivisected, at least before he actually tells us what led up to his being covered in someone else's blood, staggering towards the facility over a field full of unexploded ordnance. So, please maestro, let's have your best quality not-quite-lie here:
"I can verify," he said, "that this man was in this facility as late as mid-August. I remember seeing and talking to him. I can't remember his clearance level, and I certainly don't recall him being D-Class. Agent Howard," he addressed the Head of Security, "I remember you talked to him. You too, Professor Reeds. Bear that in mind when you start considering who he might have had contact with. Dr Skinner was … everywhere for a while. It's not unreasonable that he might have spoken to him or Agent Moon. Lots of us did."
"Finally someone talking sense," Keagan said. "What happened to Dr Skinner? Everyone went nuts when I mentioned his name."
"He—ah—wasn't quite his own man," Professor Gelding muttered. "It's a long story."
"Well anyway, now how's about you stop trying to figure out who I am—” he paused for a moment, a pause which seemed significant “—and start listening to me, eh?"
"We're listening," Edward said.
Renton shivered in the night air as he waited to be let into the MoD. The guards maintained their impassive glare, just a notch short of pretending he didn't exist, but he was getting odd looks from people on the street—odder than he normally received in his beret and socialista garb. 'Tonight, the fashionable urban revolutionary is modelling a soft, blow-dried 'do, honey-brown hair falling naturally around his face and neck, and wearing a sleeveless little number that comes just short of his belly button.'
He had, after much protest, shaved his upper lip, but remained staunchly protective of his steel-toed bovver boots which had got him through many an anti-fascist counter demo, and their presence reassured him. Not that they look particularly intimidating below the ridiculous shorts they had made him wear. In all, he felt like a piece of meat, and it didn't reassure him particularly that the intent was veal. But he was a good soldier, and when the orders came though the correct channels he obeyed with only a little protest.
He would be frisked (first) by the guards at the door. According, he carried no weapons. He wished he still had a certain key fob he had acquired in his Art Violence period—innocuous enough to get in, leave it on the oak desk, no more problem. No more Ministry of Defence either, though, which he understood might be a problem. In any case, the keychain had been his price of admission into the Foundation—the true Foundation—and the salvation of his soul (and look where it's got you, a little voice of his own murmured, but he quashed it furiously).
No, he didn't need it. Sir Malcolm was fragile now, emotionally weakened—if he had not been, the op would never have been sanctioned—and in desperate need of comfort, of many kinds. There would be green tea, which Renton despised with every particle in his being. It would come on a silver tray, in packets, with a pair of scissors.
"Alright gentlemen," Agent Brass announced, "we're officially in briefing, which means if any of you talk between now and me saying 'any questions?'—no, you fucking smart alec, that didn't count—I get to rip your head off and spit down the hole. There's a couple of you here, this'll be your first operation with the unit, so a general point. This is Mobile Task Force Rho-6, but we don't call it that, because frankly whoever came up with that American-college-fraternity naming system ought to be shot. We prefer to call ourselves the Deifecators, because we shit on gods on a daily basis. That's day-yi. Two syllables. It'll grow on you.
"This—” he clicks the slide changer in his hand “—is the target. Caucasian male, 48 years old, based in London. He's also a Government minister." He paused for a moment to let that sink in. "And, of course, he's a Bixby. That's what we call reality-warpers, probies. From Jerome Bixby. 'It's a Good Life'. Look it up in your own time. Active for at least twenty years, apparently, which makes you wonder what, exactly, the retards in Kappa-6 actually do all day. Has a daughter, which is going to suck for her, especially since she's now going to be under Foundation surveillance for the rest of her natural just in case she's inherited it from her daddy."
Next slide. "To make things harder, the target has recently holed himself up in his offices in Main Building and is refusing to speak to visitors. He sent for clothes and toiletries from his house in Belgravia, unfortunately before we were read into the op, otherwise I would have suggested making like Deianeira and putting ricin on the inside of his shirt collar. So he's in there for the long haul. And to top it all off, he's the centre of a growing scandal about a quashed investigation into the murder of an ex-judge in prison. The Director has applied pressure to the PM to take the position that it's a private matter until the police actually charge our guy. That hopefully means we don't have to deal with a pissed-off reality-warper rampaging through the largest city in Western Europe, and just leaves us with the problem of infiltrating the UK Ministry of Defence, killing a top-level official and making it look like a suicide."
"We have a couple of advantages going in. Our boy has just, as far as we can tell, experienced a major failure to launch. Happens to the best of us. Shut up. Anyway, he tried to initiate a reality shift in front of a bunch of journalists and flubbed it, ended up running through Green Park in his jim-jams, screaming his head off. I would NOT want to be in Gamma-5 and in charge of taking down all those Youtube videos. Maybe he's weakened, maybe he just believes he is, which for Bixbies is much the same thing. Also, what makes our boy so dangerous—and the real reason he's evaded detection for so long—is because he evidently views the whole universe as an all-or-nothing proposition. No matter the change he makes to reality, no matter how minor, he's apparently been pulling off a universal-scale restructuring event, which means he doesn't register on any of the usual space-time seismometers. Leave the implications of that to the philosophers, gentlemen, the fact is that he's done this God knows how many times since the fall of the Berlin Wall and I personally don't feel like a different person. More importantly, it means he should have slower reactions than your average Bixby. If he starts looking like he's trying to pass a log the size of your mother, aim for his head. I've never yet known a Bixby who can keep going after having his concentration disrupted by a 9mm."
"Of course, it goes without saying, that when dealing with a Bixby there are no rules. Our boy could decide just before we get in the door that he would prefer the sun to be made of ice-cream, or for gravity to be exempt from inverse square law. It becomes a lot less scary when you realise that in the vast majority of worst case scenarios that still gives you about eight minutes to blow his mind. It might not actually help, but it would sure feel good." Next slide.
"This is the plan of attack. Four insertion teams of three operatives; Team A breaches and deals with unforeseen elements; Team B secures the top floor where our boy is currently hiding out; Team C secures the floor below and prepares for extraction. Team D will be contacting the target and staging the scene. Each of you has a briefing pack identifying the teams and various contingencies. For those new to ops with the Deifecators, for Christ's sake call your family first. It makes a massive difference, it really does. Any questions?" He pauses, not long enough for anyone to think too deeply. "No? Then get your damn boots. Three words, gentlemen," he said to the assembled agents. "You know what they are."
"Secure!", they said. "Contain! Protect!"
The security of the United Kingdom's military nerve centre was penetrated with textbook perfect timing. Cleaner passes had been obtained ahead of time and six men entered via the side entrance on Horse Guards after submitting to search by armed police. They then opened a small door in the adjoining apartments and let in another group of six workmen, carrying large and bulky aluminum-lined bags containing, to their absolute shock and surprise, not paint rollers, electric screwdrivers and step-ladders, but rather twelve FN P90s, gas grenades, assault vests, and a considerable quantity of specialised equipment, including electromagnetic spectrometers, UV and infrared filtered goggles, laser and sonic antipersonnel devices and as a final resort a cannister of VFDF with a time release. If at least one member of the Mobile Task Force did not survive to flip the switch—or if time or entropy were accelerated or if the half-life of the pellet of caesium in the cannister's internal clock were tampered with—it would release enough cyanotoxin to destroy every neurotransmitter in the building.
It was Sunday, and even the hub of global British force projection was quieter than normal. A few dedicated souls were quietly taken and tranquilised. They would be administered a Class C amnesiac and told they had stayed home that day with a fever. The guards waiting outside Sir Malcolm's office with expressions of long-suffering patience were met with the strange sight of a little ball rolling over the plush carpet of the top floor hallway. A second later, they saw no more—it emitted a flash of light in a spectrum not recognised by science that ionised the rhodopsin in their eyes, overloading the visual cortex and taking with it all perception of time. They twitched slightly as they leaned back against the wall and sank slowly to a half-sitting position; they would recover their senses later, together with a slight headache and the vague sense that they had been sleeping on duty.
The Deifecators breached the inner sanctum of the Minister Without Portfolio with flawless small unit tactics, spreading out from the door to cover all angles, sweeping a visual-spectrum laser through the room to blind or disorient their adversary. Agent Brass took point—you didn't survive long, career-wise, as head of a MTF unit if you made a habit of avoiding that responsibility—and, being a veteran of more such ops than both of his comrades combined, he was the first to shake off the adrenaline rush of the breach and realise what he was seeing.
Sir Malcolm hung by his belt from the fake-crystal lampshade, rotating a little in the breeze from the sudden entrance, toes just barely touching the ground. His chair was overturned a couple of feet away and his face was grey. There was a bloom of blood from his neck, staining his rumpled shirt, but after a couple of seconds one noticed the little silver scissors, dangling from the loosely curled fingers of Sir Malcolm's left hand, and one realised the desk was just within reach from his position. The scenario readily presented itself: he had decided to do the deed, climbed the chair to fasten a fairly shoddy noose around the light fixture, and then submitted to gravity, only realising too late that his weight was enough to pull the mock-chandelier from its socket, leaving him slowly asphyxiating at the end of the electric wires, feet not contacting the floor sufficiently to spare his life, nor far enough away that he could stop himself from kicking them out to prolong the process, leaving him dancing on tiptoes between life and death. In desperation, he had grabbed the scissors from the tea tray on his desk and made several attempts at plunging it into his neck before finally finding the carotid artery and losing consciousness. It was a good narrative, and one Agent Brass might have used himself. Except, of course, that as far as they knew Sir Malcolm wasn't left-handed.
The team did due diligence, of course—one could never assume a body was conclusive proof of death when dealing with Bixbies, when it could just as easily be an illusion, or someone else's body moulded into the shape of the Bixby, or just a piece of meat that had never been alive, conjured out of thin air at the whim of an insane god. But after scanning the room for electromagnetic anomalies, examining the corpse through a series of different filters, sweeping for subsound and infrared presences and manually intersecting every part of the room in co-ordinated movements to make sure their quarry had not simply rendered himself invisible and inaudible, they concluded that the scene was probably exactly what it looked like, or at least, exactly what someone had wanted it to look like.
Sir Malcolm's eyes were open in death, but seemed dull, faded, beaten. His trousers had fallen to mid-thigh, exposing Union Jack boxer shorts. Agent Brass took a long, final look at the body.
"Job well done, gentlemen," he concluded. "I won't tell if you don't."
The MTF exfiltrated with the greatest of ease, the cannister of deadly nerve agent deactivated, the weapons folded and stashed away in the bag, which was placed in an outgoing parcel in the mailroom addressed to a military base in Wiltshire. They left a terse note at the front desk that they had found the room they were supposed to refurbish on the fourth floor locked and that there had been no-one around to ask about it, and that in future they would prefer a weekday appointment, as this had been an expensive but ultimately unnecessary piece of overtime for twelve men.
The process of debriefing was much the same in the Foundation as it had been in the Insurgency; you sat in a room for hours on end while serious-faced men asked questions and made little scribbles in notepads or tapped away on laptops. From time to time they would go off into a huddle and one of them would be dispatched to initiate some action based on what you had said. Then you would be taken into a bigger room and introduced to an even more senior officer of the Foundation and asked to repeat some or all of your story to him. Eventually the men got so senior Keagan wasn't even allowed to see their faces—just voices behind stylised silhouette icons on teleconference screens.
The food was healthier, if somewhat blander, than the rapidly cooling takeaways which had been his staple while at the Insurgency's London safehouse, which Keagan was reasonably sure was about to be stormed by a dozen or so men with MP7s. He wondered if Walrus and Jitters were still there, or whether they had heeded Sir Malcolm's orders and closed up shop. There had been some impassioned debate over where Keagan should be housed—in D-Class accommodation? with staff?—and ultimately Keagan found himself led to a moderate-sized concrete room lit by neon tube lighting, which some effort was subsequently put into making habitable, with a flat-pack bed, chair and table assembled by a pair of blue hats in record time. However, Keagan couldn't help noticing the small drain on the floor and the plastered-over rectangle on the wall. No change there then, he thought, I'm in the dog house again.
One thing Keagan remembered fondly about his time in HMP Wormwood Scrubs—or even his time as D-8671—had been the routine. These days, he would be woken at all times of the day and night to be quizzed about some barely-remembered aspect of his experiences by some anonymous visage on a monitor somewhere in the world for whom it was seemingly always mid-afternoon. Edward, as the sole attestor to Keagan's account of his time in the facility in August, sat nearby throughout these interviews, occasionally intervening to 'clarify' some remark Keagan made, always careful to play down any suggestion of Keagan's being D-Class or having breached security regulations. You're doing your best to keep me alive, Keagan thought. That's nice. Problem is, I didn't ask you to do that.
"When did you decide to turn against the Chaos Insurgency?" a voice asked Keagan, booming over continents and oceans. He stared straight ahead.
"I'd tell you it was when they told me what they wanted to do—to wake up that thing, to let it destroy whole cities to create a crisis only Malcolm Urquhart could fix. But it wasn't. I didn't care about the world at all. Millions of people—I can't visualise it. It's just numbers. I'd already decided what I was going to do when I saw what the Insurgency did to those people in Greenland. They didn't do anything, far as I can tell. At least you screw over people who deserve it." It was almost the truth.
After the red light that indicated the open connection blinked out and the representatives of the Foundation went into their huddle again, Keagan looked around the teleconference room and for the first time noticed the laminated map on the wall; the world, in Robinson projection, divided into the familiar elongated rectangles, though he saw some of the numbers were different. The greatest difference, however, took him a moment to fully grasp—this was a blue world, a world of cool azure shades. And here and there—the Baltic, West Africa, Central America—pinpricks of red, trouble spots, nothing more. Brush fires in the middle of the ocean.
On the fifth day, the peace of the glacier is disturbed by the sound of three helicopters landing in the camp. The men who get out see the fire-gutted buildings, the Cessna, already half-covered by snow, the mausoleum of the radar tower. In the pitiful shacks at the centre of the camp they find five survivors, Greenlanders, who shrink from the sun when they are dragged out like something that knows it already belongs in the grave.
"Hvor er Kommodore Schaeffer?" ask the agents of the Foundation. Where is Commodore Schaeffer?
Her, they say, pointing to their bellies. And their smiles in the white light at the end of the world are bare and bloody.
For the first time in a very long time, the agents of the Foundation wish they still had a Dr Glüt to take these broken people away to a dark room; to do the things in secrecy that should have been done in the light, to make them whole again, to make them tell themselves what they had experienced was a coma dream or a show on TV. To play God and do what God does—giving people another chance.
Instead, they do what mere humans can do—cut off what cannot be fixed, say 'it's over, because it ends here'. They take the surviving workers out onto the ice field. They make them kneel there, hands in their laps. And then they release them from their labours.
Somewhere in Los Angeles, at a cheap hotel, three men check in, separately. No-one could possibly think they were there on shared business, because there is precisely one hour and forty-five minutes between each of their arrival times. The hotel has been chosen because it has no video surveillance, because the proprietor's grandfather fought for the men's cause in the 20s, because it serves prawns and coronation chicken. After each man has settled into his room, he wanders downstairs to the darkened billiard room and takes his seat around the small table in the corner, which is graced by three tumblers, a bottle, the supper menu and a small bell. When all three men are seated, the first picks up the bell and taps it against the side of the table.
The 256th Extraordinary Session of the Overseer Council of the Foundation is in session, which these days means whisky, the smokier the better. The three men—who claim to hold the titles of O5-1, O5-9 and O5-11—take a stiff drink before they get down to business.
The Sir Malcolm business, says the man who claimed to be O5-11, was truly regrettable. Although losses in Britain itself were minimal, the waste of Foundation personnel and resources in the senseless and perverse endeavour that Urquhart had termed the 'Project' had been criminal. Especially deplorable in all this was the destruction of the Verwoerd Contingency, ending a capability which had been maintained by the Foundation for almost thirty years and which had now been lost, perhaps permanently. What was worse, however, was the fact that he understood the unwarranted requisitions made by Commodore Schaeffer, formerly a loyal officer of the Foundation, had almost completely stripped the military assets of Sector-53—a sector which until recently had maintained a large and indeed growing Foundation presence and a broadly friendly national government in Estonia, leaving the Foundation's position there parlous if not actually untenable. In these uncertain times, we can ill afford such setbacks in the ongoing struggle to extinguish the remaining reactionary elements, he said, trying not to notice that neither of his colleagues was quite able to meet his eye.
That simple truth is, said the man who had been elected O5-1 in a unanimous vote of three persons in 1987 and had been first amongst equals ever since, Malcolm Urquhart's unique attributes need not have precluded his working for the Foundation, had he made full and honest disclosure of them through the chain of command. Unlike the reactionaries, the true Foundation was not in the habit of locking away people with supernatural talents or keeping them in artificially-induced comas. Unfortunately, the nature of his abilities, combined with the fact that he chose to keep them largely secret from the Foundation, meant it was impossible to determine how much of the Foundation's operations in Sector-25 had been compromised. The substantial or total subversion of personnel affiliated with Commodore Schaeffer meant serious and immediate action had to be taken.
Yes, said the man whose letterhead purported himself to hold the title of O5-9 on the Overseer Council of the Foundation—surely all three men could agree that the young man who had been charged with the neutralisation of the newly-designated SCP-1859 had done a sterling job and had prevented any further damage done by this whole debacle in the most efficient and elegant way possible.
The three men agreed, though they had considerable effort recalling just what exactly the useful young man's name had been. Ripkind, or Rifton, or something of that sort. Either way, they unanimously agreed, just as soon as they remembered, they would see to it that he was rewarded to the utmost of their abilities. The man who preferred to be known as O5-11 announced that he was 'famished', and in light of their long and arduous flights it was quickly decided that any remaining business could be discussed in the morning—there was steak and Caesar salad—and of course, prawns and coronation chicken—to be enjoyed and the rest of the whisky to savour, and then, the sleep of the blessed. Each of the men recited one of the words of the Foundation's sacred mission, and then the meeting was over.
The Overseer Council, as they saw it, decamped to the restaurant, where the three most powerful men in the world had some trouble getting service at this late hour. O5-9 managed to make such a nuisance of himself after finishing the bottle of whisky that the staff told him in no uncertain terms to retire to his room. The remaining two men shrugged and sweet-talked the night manager into finding them something for dessert, and while they waited for it to arrive they talked about old times, of children now grown and grandchildren on the way, of the wife's kidney stones and how everyone they knew had suddenly turned into grey, wrinkled old men, and that couldn't be right, could it? But never once in the rest of the night did they mention the name of the SCP Foundation.
Eventually, you come to a point where words fail, where there is nothing more to say, where in pouring yourself out you have poured yourself out and are now empty. When, in this case, you have said the same thing to as many men with letters and numbers for names as you can stand and realise—as you recite the whole thing once again to, without exaggeration, a man whose name is represented to you as an A minor chord on a ukelele—that you no longer need to think, that you have become a tape recorder and that over time the tape is becoming tarnished, that details are receding into the fog of the past and what you are recalling is not the original event but simply the act of sitting in the same room and reciting the same tale. Copies of copies of copies.
Yet it seemed he was winning the struggle, for even the prodigious demand of the Foundation to hear his account, to receive and process his information again and again, was waning. He was left for longer periods in his cell—which is what you call any room which is locked from the outside—and the remaining questions asked him by the shriveled little man, who alluded often to the will of the Director of the facility but seemed to run everything with a tireless energy himself, became more and more specific, probing into the most minor elements of his journey until the magnetic tape of Keagan's memory wore thin and he repeated, again and again, 'I don't remember.'
One day Agent Howard woke him at 0700, and just from that he knew the end had arrived. He was led through the facility, watching the white coats and orange jumpsuits going about their business, all playing their part. They took a new route through the orange lines until they reached a small brightly-lit office with plain walls, and three men behind a desk. The little bald man—Professor Gelding, Edward Gradley and Professor Reeds. Agent Howard gestured for Keagan to sit opposite them and took a seat himself.
"For the past three months," Professor Gelding began, "you have recounted what has happened to you." Three months, Keagan thought, compressed tight into a ball. It's rolled away, and I didn't see it go.
"The information you have provided has led to the seizure of numerous Insurgency assets and capture of operatives whom we have been tracking for years. The Foundation owes you a debt of gratitude. The—unique nature of your experiences, however, leaves us with one final piece of business."
Keagan looked at Edward. The young researcher's face was still, his lips tight.
"It may be instructive to consider the case of Junior Researcher Edward Gradley, himself an unusual acquisition by the Foundation. He spent some time in the employ of a Group of Interest, accepting their assistance in his professional life in exchange for providing certain services. Ultimately he decided to reach out to us, and the information he brought with him led to substantial success in combating the actions of that group. In return, we offered him a place with us. We would be prepared to offer you a similar place. Please, do not speak yet."
The little man's spectacles shone opaquely in the bright light. "Mr Gradley has throughout these proceedings been able to recall and verify with some clarity the details of events that occured in this facility during your—time with us. However, there has been one point he has been insistent he is unable to remember, which is the matter of your clearance level during the month of August. When you first arrived here—I mean, from our perspective, on the twenty-second of October—with, I should add, a severe case of concussion, blown-out eardrums, numerous lacerations and other injuries, you initially indicated that you were a prisoner at Wormwood Scrubs who was transferred into the Foundation D-Class programme. You have since revealed that you were a participant in an experiment by Dr Barker, which would be consistent with D-Class status. However, there is a reason I have not asked Dr Barker to join us today."
"Before you respond to me I would like you to think very clearly and precisely about the consequences of what you say. The Foundation, as I say, is grateful to you. However, it also has rules, which exist for good reasons. We sometimes joke that they keep the sun on its course and the rains in their seasons. We should not joke—perhaps it is closer to the truth than perhaps we can bear. You have indicated during the interviews you have undertaken since October that you believe that the Foundation does not enter D-Class subjects into a graduated programme of release at the end of their shift but rather executes them. I would ask you to act in accordance with that belief. If what you believe is true, then a D-Class subject who reappears five months after the end of their shift and having been exposed by their own admission to numerous special containment procedure objects would surely be terminated—” there is something in Professor Gelding's wizened expression, a minute twitch; but the glare on his spectacles allows him to maintain the necessary illusion that he is making eye contact “—regardless of the Foundation's debt to him."
He fell silent for a moment, and Keagan was about to speak before the little man continued:
"On the other hand, you are aware that the nature of your experience means we have no documentation of your status. If you were to think very carefully now and remember that, in fact, you had been a field agent or researcher for the Foundation, we would have no means of contradicting you. The only person who, it seems, possesses the capability to contradict your version of events is unwilling to do so." He turned his head slightly, and Edward closed his eyes. "Dr Barker has already been implicated in the events which led to Dr Skinner's removal from this organisation. Given the extreme accuracy and usefulness of the information you have provided thus far, your testimony that you as an employee of the Foundation were subject to unsanctioned experimentation by Dr Barker would be believed and upheld, with immediate force."
Everywhere the same, Keagan thought, office block or cell block, front yard, prison yard, sightseeing or visitor's centre. Lie for us, snitch on this man—it doesn't matter if it's true. We sanction it, we make reality, no less powerfully than a Sir Malcolm, when it comes down to it. Thus it is and ever shall be.
"And then I join you," Keagan said, throat dry.
"And then you would be rebriefed and if necessary retrained as an employee of the Foundation. We are aware your experience was traumatic; leeway will be provided if you require duties which do not immediately bring you in close contact with the preternatural."
A smile spread slowly over Keagan's face. "Just look at yourselves." He drew some gratification from the way Agent Howard's brow furrowed and Edward's eyes widened at his tone. "You rule the whole world, but you sit in here, making shitty little deals like mob bosses. You can't help it, can you? Even now, you want to use me, to elbow out Dr Barker."
Professor Gelding's shrivelled little face showed no emotion, but his voice had a placatory tone. "No, Keagan, that's not my intent. That's not our—”
"I won't work for you. Maybe I understand, a little. That everyone's lives out there rest on your scheming and lying and murder. That the world is a crust on top of a—a swarming mass of maggots, ready to break out into madness at any moment. What I don't get, what I just don't get, is why you people think that's worth saving."
Agent Howard's lips curled up over his teeth. "It's the same damn world it always was. Don't you have anything you want to protect?"
Keagan thought about sunlit fields and the Lake District and Lauren. He shuddered. "You're wrong. It's different, everything's different, when you know what it costs. But you've made it easy for me, haven't you? You've offered me the world, and I can take it or leave it. No. I'm done. My name is—” he stopped for a moment, forcing the pretence, one last time “—Keagan O'Neill. I was convicted of murder on the 21st April, 2011, at Southwark Crown Court. An agent of the Foundation who used the name Fredericka Mendelbrot offered me a place in a work-release programme, and I accepted. I arrived—”
"Why?" Edward shouted. "Why? Why are you doing this?" He sounded hurt, personally affronted.
Keagan turned to face the young researcher. "You don't think of yourself as a prisoner, even though you are a prisoner here, in this place, but you identify with prisoners, don't you? You think you can mitigate your guilt, your complicity in what happens here, by making little gestures, never smuggling people to the fence but trying to make them more comfortable in the camp. And that shows you don't believe what you said to me, about everything being a stage play for your own benefit. I won't let you evade it—but you also shouldn't think I'm doing this for your benefit, or anyone's."
Edward breathed out, as though the words were painful to him. Professor Gelding showed for the first time some sign of expression, leathery lips pursing and the skin under his glasses darkening. Keagan thought he was about to yell, but instead he sighed.
"Very well. The fact is, Mr O'Neill, I could very easily make you recant your statement, which seems to me so self-denyingly perverse I can scarcely believe you persist in it. I could apply both force and a number of preternatural items, if necessary, to make you persuade yourself that you were a loyal employee of the Foundation. I will not. I will respect your gesture. I ask you to remember that. Agent Howard."
Keagan stood, and shrugged away Agent Howard's hand. "I'm not going to run away," he said. "You just gave me a way out, and I turned you down. Try to keep up."
After the two men walked out, Professor Gelding turned to face Edward, whose gaze had an accusatory intensity to it.
"I thought we were the good guys," Edward said, voice cracking slightly.
"Edward," Professor Gelding took his glasses off, and his eyes beneath were surprisingly small, with deep bags. "In this world—in this world, do you understand?—we are positively and absolutely the final arbiters of right, which is not the same thing as goodness. We determine the scope good can occupy—we are the people who decide the parameters of the world-within-a-world in which people act out their dramas of good and evil—compelling dramas, meaningful dramas, I don't belittle them in any way. We buy them that freedom, to live, or to die—inevitably, just to die—rationally, in the belief that what they do matters—with sweat, with blood."
"In many parts of the world we make use only of people whom the State has sentenced to death—for whom whatever time they survive as D-Class is a gain, not a loss. Here, we make do with what we can get from the rest of the English-speaking world, and with those who have committed equivalent crimes and received a sentence loathsome to them, not to death, but to life. Keagan O'Neill falls into the latter category."
"I have warned you before. You become attached to the people whom we must use, and eventually use up. You become—invested in their stories, and you take it personally when those stories come to an end. As if there was anything else that could be done. As if there was such a thing as choice. Like blaming God for running out of ink."
Edward continued to stare at him. "God?" he said, quietly. "We keep the God you're talking about in a secure containment facility in Kansas. Don't talk about God or fate like there was some—some—some higher power." He got up, hands shaking, and left the room.
Professor Gelding sat alone. After a while, he too rose and left, closing the door behind him.
This, then, is how it ends:
The man allows himself to be led through the metal corridors of the facility for one last time, following the black lines until they reach a series of small rooms to their right, the doors open. He is shown into the nearest, and he realises that although he has never seen the room before, he knows every inch of it. The floor is dark, a grill of metal bars pressed close together. The light is not turned on—there is no need for that subterfuge. And there is a screen that can be pulled across, with a slit in it, wide enough for the barrel of a gun. He looks at the guard who has brought him here to see if he will require this sop to squeamishness. He will not.
The man is not told what to do—he is allowed, perhaps uniquely, the luxury to decide the manner in which that which needs to be carried out will be carried out. He walks over to the centre of the room, where there is a small square of smooth, hard tiles, and kneels down on them. It's time, he says. He hears the other man approach behind him. He closes his eyes, and in the blackness wonders whether he will feel any regret. There is silence in that room for a long time. You never hear the bullet that kills you, the man thinks; all he hears is a little sound, something like a pen making a tick beside a name on a clipboard.
After a very long time, the man opens his eyes and realises he is alone in the room. He feels something like relief, something like expiation. Some weight, some horrible, pressing weight upon his body that he has worn for as long as he could remember has fallen away. What seems to be the end might not be, someone had told him once. He could not remember who. The memory was already dying. He gets up—being very, very careful not to look at the thing at his feet—and turns. The brilliant rectangle of the doorway almost blinds him—it shimmers and blurs and it seems impossible, after so long in the dark, that it leads back out to the world by which he entered. He hopes it is somewhere better. Then, at last, at long last, he moves towards the light.