Three days later, Arjun found Zhi Xin on the rooftop of the San Francisco headquarters. There was a smile on her face as pale and insubstantial as the moon itself. Cigarette smoke formed a light cloud around her head. When she saw him, her smile grew wider. She said, “Hi, Arjun.”
“What are you doing up here?”
“I’ve been hard at work over the past three days, and I’ve decided that I want…a break. Yes. What have you been doing? With what endeavor have you been spending your life and time?”
“Trying to make sense of whatever you were doing with the book.”
“Were you? Wonderful. And what have you discovered?”
“Even better. You’re as ignorant as always. Come on, Arjun, sit down.”
Arjun approached slowly. Zhi Xin was slumped against the fence that encircled the perimeter of the rooftop. Beyond her, the darkness past the edge of the building loomed.
“I told nobody about what happened,” Arjun said.
“Good for you,” Zhi Xin said.
Zhi Xin took the cigarette out of her mouth and crushed it into the ground. “Why do you think the O5 created us?”
“I could say that they wanted us to do their dirty work for them, but I don’t think that’s the answer you want.”
When Arjun spoke to the O5, he did not use his sight to look too closely at what took place behind their closed doors. The reality of the situation was that they were reasonably competent bureaucrats in starched suits sipping water out of shiny glass cups during board meetings, but Arjun knew reality to be wildly inconsistent and often misleading. Reality was the cage. That which defied reason was hunched over in the damp cell behind reality.
“What do you think the engine is?”
Arjun shook his head. “I don’t know.”
“The O5 knows what it is,” Zhi Xin said. She laughed. “What did we expect? That we could hide from their all-seeing eye? They know…they’ve known, for God knows how long, exactly what this thing is. But they’re not telling us.”
“That—that can’t be true. They wouldn’t withhold that sort of information.”
“It’s containment, Arjun. They are pruning the tree.”
Maybe the O5 Council and the Insurgency had made the mistakes that mattered far before they had ever seen the engine.
Arjun wondered just how deeply the anomalous had been part of the Insurgency—not just a tool, but an organ, the beating heart. He wondered how long the O5 had known of their mistake, or how they would punish those responsible for the mistake. It was the intermittent vengeance of an inscrutable force from on high, a force that splintered and reconstructed itself at the same time.
The sound of Michelle opening the rooftop door startled Arjun out of his thoughts.
“Hey, Michelle,” Zhi Xin said. Arjun could only stare at her. His tongue was wrapped in too many questions to choose one.
“Arjun, Zhi Xin,” she said. “What are you two doing up here?”
Zhi Xin shrugged. “Shooting the shit.”
“Why don’t you two follow me? I have something I’d like to show both of you.”
“By all means,” Zhi Xin said. “Come on, Arjun.”
Arjun followed in complete silence. The hand of dread was gripping tight around his throat, preventing him from speaking. He was only now realizing that for some time he had been dependent on the security that the Foundation provided. The base was cracking now, and with each step Arjun felt the earth shake as the Foundation rattled itself apart.
Michelle led them down to the basement of headquarters, where they stopped at the room in Zhi Xin’s picture. The engine still sat quietly in the middle of the laboratory.
“Don’t be afraid, Arjun,” Michelle said.
Zhi Xin snorted. “Yeah, Arjun, don’t be scared. It’s too late for that.”
Arjun’s eyes were fixed on the engine. He felt his mind begin to run wild. He was being told something—the engine was telling him something. It whispered at the corners of his mind, speaking a language that Arjun couldn’t understand. The patterns of science and logic unraveled to reveal higher and higher forms of knowledge while the remains of discarded theories piled in the sewers of humanity and began to rot. The higher the human mind reached, the deeper the refuse grew.
He was asked—he was challenged—didn’t he see?
Arjun stumbled backwards, clutching at his head.
“Look into the future, Arjun,” Michelle said.
Arjun saw stagnation. The human race eked out a miserable history until inevitable annihilation. Nihilism’s gaping maw swallowed up the essence of existence itself. There was no meaning, no value—nothing. Nothing! No matter which way Arjun looked, humanity was headed towards a heat death of the soul.
“Let’s talk about chaos, Arjun,” Michelle said. “The primordial nothingness from which we came and the infinite void to which we go. It is the Alpha and Omega, and accordingly, chaos is in everything. It is our unavoidable destiny. There are forces which drives us inevitably towards that chaos.”
Arjun looked at the engine and understood exactly what it was.
Zhi Xin walked up to the engine and stared at it. “So O5 said, ‘Fuck it,’ and abandoned us to this thing.”
“Whatever is taking place inside the O5 Council is much more complicated than that. They are driven by blind vengeance and over-pragmatism both at once. More than anything they are compelled by the all-consuming drive to contain. It is their survival strategy. But all of us here know how effective that strategy is, right?”
“I can’t blame them,” Zhi Xin said. “There’s no way out. The endgame deal for all of us is some dusty, shitty end. Although, I suppose that now we’re stuck with this thing, that endgame deal is going to happen a lot sooner.”
Michelle turned on Zhi Xin. “Fatalism produces no results.”
“Look, I’m not really in the mood to talk about fatalism, how we’re saddled with that fucking thing, or our inevitable death. Let’s talk about why you ordered Owen to destroy the book. Because I know you did that.”
“It was a cognitohazard.”
“Bullshit. The only reason the GOC found it was because they were looking for information on what the Ahnenerbe was after, and the Ahnenerbe was after that thing. That book was information. It was knowledge. And you burned it. Why? You think there’s a way out, but the engine is already affecting your thinking.”
Michelle stepped closer to Zhi Xin. “Are you suggesting that I’m compromised?”
“Nothing personal. We’re all probably compromised.”
“The engine had nothing to do with my decision to destroy what I knew to be a cognitohazardous object!”
Zhi Xin smiled. “Whatever you say.”
“Michelle,” Arjun said, “we would know if she were compromised. We would be able to see.”
Slowly, Michelle drew back.
Arjun turned to Zhi Xin. “Regardless, that doesn’t explain why you exposed yourself to that book in the first place. You haven’t told any of us—not even me—what you saw inside that book.”
“Meaningless bullshit,” Zhi Xin said. “Nothing important.”
“Xin, for God’s sake, you have to tell us,” Arjun said.
Zhi Xin laughed.
“To be completely honest, I don’t care what she saw in that book,” Michelle said. “It’s irrelevant. We have enough information in front of us right now to proceed with a plan of action. The O5 Council is shaking itself apart. There are some who recognize that the entire project of the Insurgency was an enormous mistake. And then there were those responsible.”
“The ones who will join us,” Arjun said. “In our exile.”
Michelle shook her head. “They will aid us in the beginning. Open doors that we don’t have the key to. But we will be alone after that. I don’t know what will happen to them.”
“They disappear like fairies into the night,” Zhi Xin said. “What else?”
Arjun looked at the engine. It stood silently, content to only watch them. Why not? Arjun realized that it needed only to do very little—subvert a situation here, give a suggestion there—because it would win in the end anyway. But he wondered if even the engine could have infinite patience for the end of time to come.
Arjun said, “That thing is impatient. Sooner or later, it will act.”
“Very soon,” Michelle said. “But we can use it.”
Zhi Xin covered her mouth with her hands and started shaking.
“When the O5s wanted more out of this project, I used HALMAS to look deeper into the engine. It is knowledgeable. And it is willing to give up its knowledge if we fight against the Foundation. That is the way forwards. As we are now, humanity has no choice but to fall into unending chaos. But if we understand the anomalous, then we have a way out.”
“If we understand the anomalous?” Zhi Xin said. “Oh, God.”
Arjun shook his head. “If we fight the Foundation? That’s absurd. They have done everything for us.”
“Have they? Michelle said. “Have they? They abandoned us for their mistake. They are content to sit on their stockpile of anomalous objects, to contain and not to know, to do what they have done for eternity while the world crumbles into dust behind them. They think that they will be immortal if they do this, but they’re wrong. Look into the future again, Arjun.”
Didn’t he see?
There was one branch that led away from the inevitable nihilism. It was a branch of conflict and violence and betrayal, of isolation and exile, but—
“When the O5 expels some of their own, we will be given aid,” Michelle said. “And with that aid, we can spark hope.”
There was only one way out. Arjun began to shake.
“It can’t be,” he said. “This can’t be the only possibility.”
“Do you disbelieve your own sight?”
“For God’s sake, the Foundation’s all we have! There is nothing else for us! No birthplace, no home, no family, no history, no identity! We were made to serve and without service—“
Arjun flinched as Michelle drew up against him. “There will be no more service for us! In a day the Foundation will make the illusion a reality, and we will be true outcasts. God knows what happens after that. We are being cast out as we speak, Arjun.”
Slowly, the boundaries of Arjun’s being crumbled around him. The past was dying and the future glowed red and angry before his eyes. The present whispered omens of destruction into his ears. When the boundaries fell, he realized—he could do anything now.
“Fine,” he whispered.
“Fine?” Zhi Xin said. “Oh, goddammit. Neither of you get it. There is no way out. There is nothing to understand. You are just digging yourselves deeper and deeper into the den of that fucking thing.”
Michelle’s jaw twitched as she ground her teeth together. “I take it that means you don’t agree with my proposal, then.”
“Look, you moron. Imagine I get a toddler to scribble all over a floor. If you know a goddamn thing, you can see it’s all nonsense. But if you’re…an ant and if you see the tiniest, tiniest part of this four-year-old’s bullshit, it’s a straight line! It makes sense! There is order in all things! That is us. We are the ant.”
Arjun remembered the night of the day when they had received the assignment to create the Insurgency. The future was filled with uncertainty, and something dark swirled in Arjun’s heart. He had said to Zhi Xin that the Foundation was all he had—he didn’t even know why he knew his own name. He had stared into his hands and watched fear take hold of them.
Zhi Xin had smiled. She had said, “O5 can go fuck themselves,” and Arjun had felt a tiny bit of his fear dissolve.
He had always trusted her.
“Xin, please,” Arjun said. “This is our only way out.”
Zhi Xin laughed. “I’m not sending myself on an idiot’s quest. I’ve spent the last twenty years doing that already.”
“Then leave!” Michelle said. “Go out into the wilderness. Don’t you understand that neither we nor the Foundation will find your existence tolerable? The Foundation won’t take you and you won’t have us?”
Arjun took a half-step towards Zhi Xin. “Xin, aren’t we—aren’t we your friends?”
Without saying anything, Zhi Xin turned around and left. Arjun felt himself shiver as she went.
“None of the others know,” Michelle said. “What Zhi Xin just did shows that we can’t tell them. We’ll have to let the engine take them.”
Arjun nodded mutely.
Was this what it was like to be cast out? To be barred entry into the homes of the warm and comfortable? Somewhere, the O5 Council sat in its fortress of stone and continued orchestrating the mass alienation of the human race from reality. Arjun didn’t even know if he cared about the end anymore. Who cared if the human race lived a lie for the rest of time? Who cared if they died the whimpering death? At least he would have been warm.
But he still could not bring himself to follow Zhi Xin out that door.
In the center of the room, eight cylinders began to whir.