Hermes sat with a rifle clutched between his hands, shaking against the cold. The door behind them had locked days ago, and though their provisions were enough to last through another week, their uniforms were not designed for the desolate chill that hung around them now. Their world was a flat world, an endless world, one that lazily hung out in all directions as if it had little else to do. He had remembered it being briefly tepid just before the door had shut, but the last warm thing to exist within this plane had been a bullet.
The man's naked corpse was clearly visible to them from where they sat against the door. They had stripped him of his thin clothing during the first night night? There wasn't a night, not here. The men had attempted sleep nonetheless when the cold began to bite them, but it did little to help. They had thought to move the dead man further away from them, someplace that they could not see, but it didn't matter. Every place this side of the door was visible from this side of the door. Clearly. They had spent an entire day dragging that corpse what felt like a thousand miles, but it didn't matter. It might as well have been ten feet from where they sat.
Raphael toyed with the radio in his hands. It had gone silent when the door had shut, regardless of how they tuned it. Hermes had smashed his pretty early on, after realizing that the door was just a door in a frame, and the hospital they had chased the dead man through was no longer on the other side. The sound of idle clicking as the older man toyed with the knobs on the top of the radio were echoed on top of their breath, returning to them like fickle laughter. They hated it, but there was little else to do.
"Do you think we're going to die in here?" Hermes said.
Raphael shrugged. "Might. Might not."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
The radio clicked again and again. "Means I'm just as much expecting to die here as not. I've been in worse situations than this and made it out alive. Known others who haven't, though."
Hermes furrowed his brow. "That's no comfort."
"It isn't." Raphael turned the radio over and took the battery out a few times. Seven times. It was 7PM.
"Do you think they'll come looking for us?"
"Do you think it would matter?"
"No," Hermes said through a shiver, "but it's a nice thought. Knowing that they're looking."
Raphael snorted. "So your last thought can be how close they might've been to getting to us? I'd rather think that they've given up. Easier to hate them that way."
"Hate them? For what?"
"For this assignment. For assigning us to it. For not letting us know what that bloke could do ahead of time." Raphael sighed. "Any number of things. Pick one. It's easy to do."
"I don't think that's their fault though, is it? I mean, nothing in the file said anything about spacial anomalies."
"No, it sure didn't. Funny, though, how we're the ones who ended up in here, isn't it?"
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"The oldest and youngest Mole Rat. A geriatric and a greenhorn. Sound like anything to you?"
Hermes shook his head.
Raphael shrugged again. "It doesn't matter. All I'm saying is, find a reason to hate them now and hold on to that. It'll make things easier."
They sat in silence for a while longer after that. Hermes fidgeted a few times to get comfortable, but something about him no longer felt right. There was an unanswered question there, something that, for the moment, bothered him more than the cold.
"Do you hate the Foundation?"
"Yeah." Raphael didn't look up.
The dial on the radio kept clicking. "The Foundation has this funny way of turning good people into monsters," Raphael said, slowly. "You don't notice it when it's happening. Nobody does. It's not until you wake up in cold sweats that you start to piece it together. Even after amnestics, it doesn't matter. Your body starts to reject it."
Hermes rubbed his hands together. "There are plenty of good people in the Foundation."
"Name one good person in the Foundation."
Hermes scoffed. "Dr. Light is good. She's worked on all sorts of projects that protect people."
Raphael nodded. "And Dr. Light also oversaw a handful of tests in the late 90s that resulted in the deaths of a hundred people."
"That's not true."
"Yes it is. That's one of the reasons she's involved with that Alpha-9 project. You won't hear about that, but it's true. I was assigned to it. They were tests to determine combat usefulness of a handful of artifacts. One of the larger mass-cullings of D-Class in the last decade. You don't hear about those much anymore, not since we started pretending we have a conscience."
"Fine. What about Dr. Bright? He's crass, but he's done a lot of good for personnel in the last few years."
"I'm sure the hundred souls he's personally displaced feel just as good as you do about his travel budget reimbursement program."
"The Site-23 E-Wing staff, then. They've done everything they can to prepare us as well as possible for these assignments, and I know they work pretty hard at it—"
"Yet here we are, the two most expendable members of our Task Force, sitting in limbo after contact with an anomalous entity with poorly understood capabilities. A confrontation that didn't have to happen now. We started tracking this guy about a month ago, you don't think it couldn't have waited another month to see if he could turn doors into one-way entryways to nowhere?"
"He was dangerous."
"He was living in the woods. He hadn't approached a population center in a year. We were the ones who ran him into town. He was scared and confused and disoriented, but E-Wing wanted us to chase him into a trap."
"The Overseer Council?"
"They don't exist."
Hermes bristled. "Yes they do."
"You'd better hope they don't. If you think that, after everything I've already told you, there are thirteen mysterious boogeymen who sit at the tippy-top of the Foundation and approve of this, and that these people are good, I think the better discussion would be one about definitions."
"But it's all for the greater good, isn't it? Everything we do, it's to protect people. The Foundation is good, as a whole."
Raphael looked up and stared off into the twilight nothingness that surrounded them. He removed the battery a few times. Nine.
"I was on another assignment once, in Egypt. We were trying to collect some piece of an artifact, or something. We were there for three months, combing through bazaars and digging in the sand. Seventy-five total personnel. Enough munitions and supplies to last for a year, or more. It didn't matter, the Foundation was footing the bill. We could've lived there forever.
"After the first month, we got word that there had been a conflict down south. Some dictator had got it in his head that some ethnic minority within his country was impeding his ability to subjugate his population properly, and had started using his soldiers to drive them out. Thousands of people, suddenly without homes. The soldiers marched them to the border, left them there, and shot anyone who resisted.
"We were told not to interact with them. To not get distracted from our primary objective. That the recovery of this artifact was paramount to the safety of humankind in the region. So we kept working, all while watching an entire population of starving, dying people pass by us like an army of specters. For all the good we did them, we might as well have been ghosts too. The local authorities weren't prepared to handle them, feed them, give them somewhere to live. Those who tried to make a new life for themselves and their families failed. Those who tried to steal a life were killed. The bodies were piled and burned, and we kept digging in the sand."
He looked over to Hermes, his eyes dark against the low light of the void above them. "We found that artifact. I don't even remember what it did. It doesn't matter. It was put in a box and stored underground somewhere and it'll never see the light of day again." He paused. "I can't help but wonder, though, what it was that was worth so many human lives. Human lives that were lost because of the cruelty of one man, the apathy of a country, and the eyes of seventy-five somewhere in between that were focused on a rock in the desert and passed over the suffering of their fellow man around them."
Raphael leaned back against the door and sighed. He set the radio on the ground next to him, and their world was silent.
"The Foundation is good. The Foundation protects people. But the Foundation is filled with those who see an objective as more important than a goal. We are the protectors of mankind, but what are we protecting them against? Disease kills millions every year. War savages entire regions. Hate and bigotry destroys untold lives. The Foundation protects them, but the Foundation ignores them. They die all the same. So what does it matter? Is it humanity we're protecting, or the Masquerade? Whether a child dies because he hasn't eaten anything more than water and some grass in a month, or because some pagan idol makes him drop dead from a failed ritual, what does it matter?"
The cold began to creep over them again, more aggressively than before. Hermes shivered violently, his teeth chattered so much they could have crumbled in his head. Raphael took off his jacket and wrapped it around the young man, and they sat huddled together in the infinite silence for an eternity.
"What about you," Hermes said, his voice weak and failing. "You're a good man. You've been good to me, you've helped people."
Raphael didn't answer. His eyes passed over his comrade to the body of a dead man laying near them. A bullet was lodged in the man's skull, and Raphael's magazine was empty.
After Hermes had gone cold and quiet, Raphael pulled the young man's sidearm from its holster on his belt. The magazine was full. He emptied it into the sky.
He curled up next to the body and picked up the radio. He took the battery out and put it back in again, and again, and again. Eleven.