Many years ago, when she was a young Cyber Operations Specialist, the site where she stood had been alive, humming with the energy of a hundred servers, buzzing with activity as researchers hurried back and forth through the halls to their classified projects. The faint background noises of generators and servos gave the entire facility the feeling of a machine, no less efficient in its operation for its strangeness. As a nexus between the Foundation and the United States military, it had been invaluable. The electricity of the place seemed to infuse her. When Holman had approached her, had showed her the hidden madness of the real world and offered her a place in the true, secret struggle of their time, anything had been possible. Of course she had accepted the new life that beckoned her.
In the present day, the cold rangeland wind blew the tufts of grass that dotted the cracking concrete of what had once been the primary robotics facility. Changes in leadership and the budget cuts that had followed stripped away any hints of the former nature of this place. Within one hundred miles, there were vast stretches of bentgrass, a few white-tail deer, and herself. The lack of graffiti and trash at the abandoned site added a sense of eeriness to the desolation. She may have been the only person to visit since Fort Charles had been decommissioned. That this was the meeting place was an unmistakeable signal. Proof of knowledge, more convincing than any argument. And, she noted, more unnerving.
She stuffed the fear back down. Four years should have been enough time to move on from the breach at Site-64. She threw herself into other assignments, done her duty, earned recognition. But these things could not erase the wasted years of planning, the ruined careers around her, the humiliation and shame of being at the mercy of what she hunted. The lives ended. All of what she had, all of the successes in preserving the crumbling edifice of mankind's sanity, was tainted. The combined effort of the most sophisticated organization humanity had ever known, and she had been hopelessly outmatched. It was only a matter of time, really, before it happened again. Before something else shattered the thin veneer of control they lived with.
Anderson still haunted her. Every day.
She stepped into the abandoned concrete structure, as the encrypted e-mail had instructed. Unauthorized intervention in a matter deemed officially closed by Site Command could end her. The possibility that she would suddenly wake up in a new town, false memories of a plain, low-profile existence forcibly inserted through a tender spot in the back of her neck, was very real. The only communication she dared was one response to the initial e-mail, delivered from a public library while she wore a hooded sweatshirt and sunglasses, any devices that could possibly be used to track her location three hundred miles away, left on her bedside table. If she did not walk away from this meeting, no one would know what became of her. And no one would be able to finish her work. All possibilities awaited in the darkness of the ruined laboratory.
I know how you get him. The words froze her as they appeared on her phone. They urged her forward. The words appeared in her mind periodically to drive off the thousand scenarios unfolding before her in which this went terribly wrong. She stepped completely into the darkness, the path before her lit with her small, head-mounted flashlight.
"I'm here," she called into the now empty chamber. She waited. A low, empty howl as the wind gusted past the entrance to the laboratory. The damp chill and the smell of musty concrete were the only reply to her call.
Suddenly an ear-splitting crack filled the room, the reverberating sound of metal hitting concrete as a vent grating fell from the ceiling. She looked up to see a mass of wires slowly trailing down from the ceiling vent, seeming to twist and move of their own accord as the larger mass lowered itself into the room. She drew her pistol in a quick motion, looking quickly for anything in the mass that looked like it might be vital.
The wires touched the floor. They seemed to stiffen and tense, anchoring into two points in the ground. A larger, central mass now lowered from the ceiling vent. It was shaped like a person. She aimed at where she thought the heart would be.
"Please put the gun down. There's no need for that." An older man's voice wafted down from the ceiling, as the mass of wires began to coalesce around where they had affixed on the floor. In seconds, they took the shape of legs as the rest of the man descended to stand in front of her. The pale skin, the white beard. Her pulse quickened. She raised the gun again.
"Albert Frostman. PoI number 45543. Also known as Phineas."
"Agent Merlo. Please put the gun down."
There were more lines in the old man's face this time around. More veins and capillaries showing through where her light shone on his skin. His hardware, however, looked much the same. If not upgraded. The faint sound of clicking metal came from where he stood as whatever it was that was inside him reset and reconfigured after his descent from the air vent. Beads of sweat started to run down her spine.
"You killed two Agents. Your group has killed a lot more."
Phineas sighed. It sounded like air rushing through a heating duct. "Your people spent years flaying one of ours alive. These grievances are pointless. I didn't come here to kill you, and you're familiar enough to know that if I had, you wouldn't have stood a chance."
Merlo knew this to be true. Of course it was true. None of that changed how dangerous this man was. She held the gun steady. "How can I be certain?"
The old man slowly raised his hands, his palms facing outward towards Agent Merlo. The woven fabric that took the place of skin appeared to ripple with the subtle movement of his fingers. She noticed now that his eyes were red and puffy. Hers likely were too. She had not slept in two days.
"You can't of course. But I think you'll want to hear what I have to say. Now please, put the gun down, it's making me nervous. Neither of us want to get hurt."
Agent Merlo stood her ground as she thought it over. Theoretically, she could bury a slug in his brainpan. Even Anderson's tech was unlikely to work with a good chunk of the nervous system taken out by a hollow point. But it had been four years. A lifetime in the world of mainstream robotics technology. Who knew what the hell that was to Anderson.
Her finger remained on the trigger. The adrenaline ebbed just a bit as Phineas remained where he was. What reason could he possibly have to meet with the Foundation? There had been rumors that things had changed within the structure of Anderson's outfit. The number of questions she had finally tipped the balance of her thinking. She slowly lowered her weapon.
Phineas exhaled, the ductwork inside him creaking again. "I'm going to reach in my coat pocket now to retrieve something. Please don't shoot me. Does Congressman Raymond Caldwell mean anything to you?"
Agent Merlo considered the question. "He's been a giant pain in our ass since he got control of the House Subcommittee on Research and Technology. Funding from the US has been a lot harder to come by lately."
She watched carefully as Phineas pulled a phone out of his jacket pocket. He held it out to her view. "That's not an accident, as you can imagine. Even the Foundation has budgets, it seems."
A video feed of some sort was visible on the phone. A crowd, gathered in what looked like a hotel lobby. Lots of suits, lots of flunkies rushing around. Whoever was holding the camera was moving among the members of the crowd, heading for a dais of some kind.
"This is a live video stream," said Phineas. "Taken from the viewpoint of one of my people. One of the few left."
The camera continued to weave into the crowd. Eventually, the view was of a stage, political banners and flags festooning a podium. A fundraiser. At the podium was Congressman Caldwell.
"What is this? Why are you showing me this?" Merlo's fear was beginning to creep back.
"I am about to do something distasteful in the extreme. I'm about to help the Foundation." Phineas raised his wrist close to his lips. He grimaced, then spoke into his sleeve.
A hand holding a gun suddenly came into view of the camera. Out of the shot, a woman had time to scream briefly before a single shot was fired. Blood splattered on a campaign poster behind the Congressman as the left side of his head seemed to be pulverized. He fell to the ground, likely dead before he landed. The room scattered amid screams and commotion. The camera remained fixed in place.
Merlo's stomach dropped as she watched the scene on Phineas' phone. She stammered.
"What…the fuck? What are you doing? Just…why? Do you have any idea…"
Phineas remained still. "Keep watching, Agent Merlo."
The camera moved up onto the stage, focusing in on the Congressman's shattered head. Blood was everywhere. The first sirens were audible in the distant background. A woman's voice from behind the camera spoke.
"Go on then. There's no purpose in pretending."
The Congressman's body shifted. A few quick spasms, and it began to push itself up. As the camera caught the gaping hole in the man's skull, Merlo saw not the bloody pulp of exposed brain tissue underneath the bits of scalp and flaps of loose skin, but instead a gleaming, white shell. Too smooth and too polished to be bone.
"Holy shit. He's a Saker."
Phineas nodded. He spoke once more into his sleeve. "Go ahead and get out of there. We'll meet up like we discussed. Good work."
The camera feed cut out abruptly. Phineas put the phone back in his coat pocket.
Merlo was reeling. The consequences of what she had just seen were only beginning to take shape. "That…that was a sitting member of the United States Congress. When this hits the news-"
"It won't. By all accounts, that was an embarrassing lapse of security, and an exposure of a clandestine product. Anderson and his backers will see to it that the Congressman is said to have died of a heart attack, or in a car accident. They've likely already rounded up the witnesses. Watch the newspapers. You'll see."
"Take it as a token of good faith. Congressman Caldwell was quite well-informed for a freshman member, wasn't he? Caused a lot of problems for your North American Command, I'm sure. The House Subcommittee will cease to be a problem for you for oh, about four years or so. Six if the latest polling holds up."
Despite the facility being empty, Merlo instinctively lowered her voice. "Don't you think we've considered the same thing? The kind of shit that would start, even if we could cover up something like that?"
"Had you known that a Saker unit was sitting in Congress, your hand would have been forced."
She had to concede that point. "Still, I don't see how this leads to Anderson. He'll be looking out for us for sure now."
Phineas frowned. "Yes, this is far from ideal. There is no element of surprise anymore, so you'll be running into a buzzsaw. Anderson also knows that I'm the only person who had the means and the knowledge to take out Saker-13. This was an open declaration of war."
Merlo thought of herself as quick to read a situation, but this wasn't making any sense. "What do you gain from this?"
"Now you know I'm acting in good faith. I also have insurance." Phineas cleared his throat. "There are others you know. If something happens to me, you'll never know where else Anderson has his hooks."
"Jesus." Merlo put a hand to her forehead as she contemplated what that meant. "Then that meeting with MC&D. It's true. It's not a small business anymore."
"Anderson's operation is something else now. Something that I can no longer abide. And it threatens us both."
"Now wait a second." Merlo was beginning to feel things clicking into place. "If you think the Foundation is going to cooperate with you on something like this…we don't even have a full-time MTF assigned to Anderson anymore. I can't imagine how I'm going to take this up the chain."
"You're going to have to find a way to convince them. Our continued survival depends on it."
The sound of a shotgun racking behind Phineas punctuated the end of his sentence.
"You'll have to start by convincing me."
Stepping out from the shadows just behind Phineas, a lanky, unshaven man in a dark suit appeared. Agent Daniel Navarro trained his shotgun directly at his head.