Shirley looked down over her newspaper. Ralph was standing there, with a fistful of wooden blocks, beaming up at her. "Can we play Director, grandma?"
She smiled down at him. "Sure. Where to, Director?"
Ralph's toothy grin widened. "Over here! The sewing room! We gotta contain it!" He yanked on her blouse, as she stood and followed him into the room. Inside, he'd placed toys and blocks all around the room.
"Okay, first you gotta see this, cuz there's a containment here… it's got a Krang in it!"
She looked down at the pink blob monster covered in tinker toys. "Oh, not a Krang? What are you going to do with it?"
"Uhhhhh… put it in the box!" Ralph looked up at her, seeking approval. She nodded. He squealed with delight, and ran to the other side of the room, grabbing a plastic jail cell and slapping it down over the doll.
Shirley sat down with him, and listened and smiled as he happily jabbered to her for the better part of the afternoon. Ralph talked about containment breaches and 'soldier-guys' with an alertness that always left her marveling. At least he had a relatively normal life, even if everything in it was abnormal.
Site-77, Director's Office.
I'm back in Toronto, waiting for my assignment to an Alpha-9 project. Please look into the attempt on the lives of Sophia and myself. You have the full authority to form an investigative task force to look into this affair. I'll send you a check to cover any expenses, and if you need more help, please call me.
Ralph stared at the letter as he sipped his coffee, then checked his watch. 4:22 was too early to still be up doing this… but it had to be done sometime, and he'd been putting it off long enough. He'd been looking forward to dreading this kind of work. Being a Site Director, even an interim one, was like doing the work of a city planner, policeman, general and maximum security prison all rolled into one.
He barely remembered what sleep felt like. He put on some headphones, and the soothing tones of Andy Samberg flowed into his ears as he pored over expense requests, waste logs, containment briefs, and much, much more.
Yo, I run New York!
It's a pain in the ass!
The city's crowded as fuck,
And it's covered in trash!
He tapped his finger on the mahogany desk as the tunes continued. God, how many papers could there be? For weeks, he'd been coming in, hoping that maybe some ink-stained bureaucrat, or an aide, or someone, might do some of the work before he got there. But every day, without fail, there was just so much to be done.
Ralph gulped coffee, and checked his schedule. At 8:30, meeting with Security Chief Anderson. 10:00, inspection of the renovations to Containment Wing-C. Then, 11:00, meeting with the investigation task force for the assassination thing. 2:00, budget review, 5:00 petition for clemency from…
He shook his head. Maybe he could clear a few things. That meeting was probably going to go on for awhile… or all day. How did Grandma do it? How did she juggle just… the everything? The title 'Site Director' sounded glamorous, but in reality it just boiled down to a lot of paper-pushing.
Sitting back in his chair, he stared at the ceiling. Maybe he could ask an intern… did they have interns? The Foundation equivalent of an intern, to do some of this for him. Under his supervision, of course… couldn't let this important work be done in his absence.
Of course, none of this even covered why the Site was here to begin with. Ralph twirled a pen between his thumb and finger as he looked at the slough of folders and logs strewn across his desk. The things kept under wraps, buried in the mountainside and protected by nuclear annihilation. That was part of his job too.
That's why I'm in the sewer dressed up like a shogun.
Because on the equinox, a Hell Gate springs,
Releasing hounds wreathed in the blood of kings.
Ralph paused, and listened to his song.
And no one even knows!
They just think I'm a dork.
But I still kill those fucking dogs, because
I RUN NEW YORK!
"Man." he said, hunching over his desk to finish the work on time. "The Lonely Island speaks to me."
“Go away! I hate you!” Ralph crossed his arms, his pouty expression focused like a lazer at Anderson. Pushing himself deeply into his plush leather chair, he stared at the tired, annoyed face before him. “You don’t even look like me.”
Anderson brandished a spoon menacingly. “Look, I don’t like this anymore than you kid. But your grandma…”
“You don’t know her! Shut up!”
“Your grandma told me I have to take care of you when she’s gone. There’s not a lot of people left in this world who care for you, little man.”
“I don’t know you!”
With a depressed chuckle, Anderson stuck the spoon in Ralph’s mouth. “I know. But this is the best you’ve got now, kid.”
Ralph protested through a mouthful of broccoli. “You’re not my real dad. I don’t know you. I don’t know anybody.”
Anderson grunted and withdrew the spoon, setting it aside. “You know, that’s the first thing you’ve said all day that we can agree on.”
Ralph fumed, but said nothing.
“Now” Anderson said, heaping another spoonful of vegetables towards Ralph, “here comes the subway car…”
Chief of Security Theodore Anderson arrived in the Director's office two minutes early. Ralph noted the armful of papers he carried in with him, and the ever-stern expression he wore on his face. Anderson slapped the papers down on the desk, and sat across from him. Ralph looked at him as he settled into the seat.
Anderson was starting to look his age. A once-proud moustache drooped over his lips, greying hairs curling at the edges. Crow's feet around his eyes had turned into full-blown rat's nests of wrinkles, curling around his eyes and up to his forehead. His battle with male pattern baldness was nearing his follicles' last stand.
Ralph scooped the papers into his arm, and began to examine them one by one. Most of these were standard security reports, typical of a Site this large. 'SCP blah blah was making this noise, but no other action, Junior Researcher Schmukatelli ended up in a restricted area and had to be escorted out." Almost none of it required action, but nonetheless he was expected to deal with it.
He sifted through the generic reports, until he was able to pull a blue piece of paper from amidst the grey. It was a security report, with a stamp reading >iteration 3<.
REPORT ON INCIDENT 1501-2377
INCIDENT DATE: ██/██/████
SUBJECTS INVOLVED: Site-77 Director Shirley Gillespie, Sophia Light, SCP-1501.
SUMMARY: At ██:██, the blast doors for the SCP-1501 containment chambers suffered a sudden structural existence failure, allowing one instance of SCP-1501 to breach containment. While meeting for logistical reasons related to [DATA EXPUNGED], Directors Gillespie and Light were assaulted by this entity, and forced to take refuge in SCP-2322. While the instance was ultimately neutralized, the nature of the containment breach was almost certainly not accidental, and a task force has been assembled to investigate this occurrence.
INVESTIGATIVE TASK FORCE PSI-7
TASK FORCE PERSONNEL:
Doctor Ralph Roget: Site-77 Interim Director, Researcher.
Technical Researcher David Rosen: Technological Liaison
Agent Lis Boyd: Site-77 Security Agent.
Doctor Steven Blast: Explosives Consultant, MTF Psi-7 operative.
Agent Logan G. Armstrong: Groups of Interest Specialist.
Dr. Bonjour: Psychological Researcher.
Mobile Task Force Psi-7: Explosive specializing task force headquartered within Site-77
Ralph frowned. "There's nothing here. Why is so much of this redacted?"
Anderson pursed his lips. "They have trusted the real director with that information."
Ralph raised a finger, then paused. "Fuck it, whatever." He looked down at the paper, studying the list of names. "Is this really the best they could spare for a suspected assassination attempt? I've never heard of any of these people."
"They'll probably assign more qualified personnel as they become available. Most of the free agents have been diverted to Alpha-9."
"Bah." Ralph flipped the paper over to the other side. "Let's see what we've found so far."
SUBJECTS OF INTEREST
Dr. Harry Loser, D-Class Requisitions
Status: Incarcerated, Site-77 Corrections
A known turncoat under investigation for corruption and misuse of resources for two months prior to Incident 2322-1501. Made frequent trips between Site-77 and the United States. D-Class personnel would have been useful in discreetly setting up a conspiracy without notice. Currently moved to Site-77 for questioning.
Dr. Ralph Roget, Interim Site-77 Director
Status: Alibi Cleared
Ralph would seem to be a likely suspect, standing to become indefinite interim Director of Site-77, along with numerous other assets held by his grandmother, Director Gillespie. However, the Site-77 total surveillance system shows no activity in the 2 months prior to the attack that would indicate any suspicion. Loyalty to the Foundation has been confirmed. [DATA EXPUNGED]y.
Dr. Vang, Dr. █████████, Researcher Claude Dr. Eberstrom, Dr. Albertson, Junior Researcher Atkinson.
Status: Under close observation, Site-63, Site-77
Believed to be the ringleaders in a cell of former Prometheus Labs employees responsible for acts of sabotage and obstruction Several other individuals belonging to this clique are currently under investigation for anti-Foundation activity at other facilities.
"This is it? These are the leads they have? This is nothing."
"It is a start… sir. As you observed, we've only gotten a shoestring budget and bottom-barrel tier of personnel to investigate this with. It's surprising we got anyone other than in-house security." Anderson scoffed. "At this point, just having it be an internal matter might be more effective, without any more interlopers getting in our way."
Ralph squinted his eyes at Anderson over the dossier. "I mean, you don't have to be so harsh. I'm sure they're perfectly capable of doing their jobs."
Anderson coughed. "Speaking frankly, Ralph, don't you think you should be leaving this to the professionals?"
Raising a finger, Ralph cut him off. "I don't care what you think, Anderson. This is outside the realm of your responsibilities."
Anderson's head snapped up to meet Ralph's gaze. "Are you kidding me? My security detail is the only thing holding this place together and you're going to give me attitude?"
"Maybe we can leave you twisting in the wind for awhile, Ted. You're the reason we have to do any of this in the first place. Your fail-safes were a safety-fail. The Director almost died because of you."
Anderson fumed, glowering at Ralph. "…"
"That's settled, then. We're going with the team. Security can help if they want to feel good about themselves." Leaning back in his chair, Ralph tossed the dossier onto his grandmother's desk. "Alright, I think that's everything. You can go, unless you want to bring up something else."
"I'm quite alright." Anderson grunted, stiffly saluting and departing with hat in hand.
As soon as the door shut, Ralph exhaled loudly, spinning in his chair. "Hoooly shit, that felt great. Fuuuuuck you, Anderson." As he spun, Ralph ran his hands through his hair, his heart pounding. "Right on, right on… still got work to do, but still, right fuckin' on…"
After a moment, his chair came to rest. Sighing, he sat back up and grabbed his itinerary for the day. The glory of his triumph faded behind him as he walked out of the office. As he weaved through the halls, he considered whether it was wise to antagonize his chief of security. Something boiled in the back of his head. His gaze fell on to the various staff flowing around him, focusing on them instead of this pounding headache…
"That's four, Ralph."
"Dangit! You always win!" Ralph crossed his arms, and sat back in his seat. "I hate connect four."
Shirley paused, and then tousled his hair. "You want to know the secret to winning?"
He looked up to her with wide eyes. "I do!"
Emptying the board, she lifted a red plastic token up to his face. "You have to be patient. Place your pieces in response to the other person, block them… until they mess up."
She dropped it into the game board, then another, then another. She held out the fourth one to Ralph, who eagerly dropped it in. "YAY!"
She scratched his head again. In time, he would learn the value of games.
SCP-1501 Containment Area.
A fat electrician almost knocked Ralph to the ground as they reached the SCP-1501 containment area simultaneously. They stumbled, and exchanged a few choice words before moving his attention towards the Wing-C restorations.
The reports hadn't done it justice. The console controlling the door looked burnt to a crisp. There was dust and a distinct melding of sulfur and butane wafting through the air. Several technicians crowded around the door, waving equipment that looked like forceps attached to a metal detector over the damaged section.
Ralph tried to imagine how, exactly, this might have happened. The power to this entire sector hadn't just been disabled, it looked deep fried. Maybe it was an EMP, he mused to himself. Ralph was fairly certain that was how EMP's functioned.
Someone tapped Ralph's shoulder, jolting him back to reality.
Turning, Ralph recognized the bristled face of Dr. Blast, the administrative liaison for Psi-7. A grizzled Foundation veteran, missing two fingers and half an ear, Dr. Blast was a go-to expert for explosives and explosive accessories. He stood at a slant, opposite to the angle his grin tilted across his pockmarked face.
Ralph observed that he wore socks with sandals. One of those, huh?
Blast shot him a toothy grin. "So, you checkin' out the damages, eh? What I'm supposin' right now is some shaped finangle detonation garblankbled up'n there, but the perfung'lar n'security system was compromiseds enough t'let the SCP reach the target. Took a helluva lot of preparation, let me tell you. Certainly an inside job."
Ralph paused, attempting to parse what he'd just heard. "… I'd guessed as much. Have you found anything new in the wreckage?"
"Nawp, nothin' yet. Sure they'll come up with somethin' soon. I've got the samples I need, I'll tell ya how it got managed once I get some time to analyze it 'n such."
"Okay. Okay. Cool. How long's it going to take to get that done?"
Blast shrugged. "Haven't even looked at 'em yet, I was just comin' back here cuz they told me I should talk to you, and your guys told my guys you'd be here, and-"
Ralph nodded. "Yeah, yeah. Okay. Hey, listen- do you have any kind of wild hypothesis, or ideas, or anything about this? Anything at all."
Blast scratched his head, and small chunks of something dropped to the floor. "Hard t'say. I figure maybe the last time somethin' on this scale, but, this was a lot higher, mind you, was maybe when cap'm Rex tried shootin' an O5."
"… It's that bad, huh?"
Blast frowned. "I just said it wasn't, didn't I? It's just, uh, the same kinda ballpark-type thing. Site hasn't been demolished but this assassin-type stuff always get taken seriously."
"Right, sure." Ralph paused as he watched the technicians work. They were wearing HAZMAT suits and jamming some kind of electrical apparatus into the damaged section of wall. "I just want to get a little bit of direction here, y'know?"
Blast flipped over a few pages on his clipboard. "I imagine the first thing ye do is talkin' to that Loser fellah."
"Is that some kind of euphemism, or are we thinking of the same guy here?" Ralph knew a Dr. Loser. He'd been a D-Class requisition officer when he was a kid, but that was years ago "Is he mixed up in this somehow?"
"That's what they're thinkin'. He's bein' held in the brig if you want to go talk to him. I've got a lot to do here, so…"
"I can take a hint." Ralph turned around, trying to walk off decisively while also searching his brain for where the brig was located.
"Take a left and the elevator'll throw ya all the way down!" Blast called after him, waving a gloved hand as Ralph went.
Ralph followed his advice. The elevator was a lonely one.
Researcher Office Complex.
Shirley could feel Ralph's clinging grasp tighten as the aptly named Dr. Loser entered her office. He'd never liked the doctor, and Loser had done himself no favors with his fixation on her grandson.
Loser sat down in the chair across from her, folding his hands in his lap. "Good afternoon, Director."
"Yes, hello." Shirley slid her dossier across the desk. "These are our personnel requirements for testing this quarter."
"Personnel requirements? That's what they're calling it now, huh?" Loser flipped through the dossier, pretending to read the requirements. "How many'a these am I going to be gettin' back? Any of 'em?"
Shirley knitted her eyebrows. "All of them. This is only non-invasive testing."
"Sure, sure, whatever helps you sleep at night. I'll get my people to look these over, sure we won't have any problems."
The grip on her pant-leg tightened as Ralph leveraged his grip to peek around the desk. Loser took notice, and waved to him. Ralph quickly ducked his head back underneath the protective mahogany fortress.
"Aw, poor kid's shy!" Loser smiled, watching to see if Ralph would pop his head back out.
"Is that going to be all? Shirley leaned forward in her seat. "I have other appointments today."
Loser rose, grabbing the dossier as he headed to the door. "Yeah, yeah, I hear you. We'll be in touch…"
Brig, Sub-Basement Sector V
The Site-77 brig hadn't moved on much from its World War II roots. Rows of small, metal cells punctuated by the occasional higher-security inmate. Ralph was escorted through the cramped stone halls until he found himself looking at Loser splashing water in his face.
Turning towards Ralph, Loser wiped his bald dome dry with a towel. "Hey, look who grew up. How've ya been, Ralphie?"
Sighing, Ralph put his hands in his coat pockets and approached the cell. "Fine. I heard you might've tried to kill my Grandma. What's up with that?"
Loser placed his hand over his heart. "No, I swear, I was far too busy with my own machinations to be bothered with your Gram. If it hadn't been her guys who were closing in on me, it woulda been someone else."
"Cut the Hannibal act, dude." Ralph leaned on the concrete next to the cell door. "You're mixed up in this somehow. You're too crooked not to have a piece of it."
"That's your logic, Ralphie? That because I was 'bad' I had to have a finger in every evil pie being baked in this place? You know, let me tell you something." Loser wiped his hands off in the towel. "I've not exactly been subtle in my doings here. I made a lot of mistakes. But for some reason, even though I was under heat for ages, I never got grabbed."
"What's your point?" Ralph inspected Loser. "You're terrible at being corrupt. We already knew that."
"My point, Ralphie, is that someone was makin' sure I didn't get fingered." Loser tossed the towel to the ground and walked up to the bars of his cell. "I think I made an excellent distraction so someone could do what they had to do."
Ralph looked Loser in his pockmarked face and watched as he wiped his nose. "Plausible enough, I guess. Anderson's men have done worse. Who would've been pulling the strings here, in your estimation?"
Loser snorted, and snot retreated into his nose. "Not sure. Someone powerful, definitely. Enough to do things without even the Director knowing. You know anyone in the Foundation like that?"
"I can think of a few."
"Cool. I'm glad I could help ya out, Ralphie. You're a good kid."
Ralph grunted, and rose from his seat, "Sure. Hopefully I don't need to hear it from you again."
"OOoooh! Fiesty! I like the man yer growing up into, Ralphie!"
Throwing open the doors and striding out, his voice called back, "Oh my god, shut up!"
Somewhere in the past
The mound in the earth resembled a pig's hind end sticking out towards the sky. Ralph scrambled to top it, as Lis pulled at his ankles.
"Stop it!" he squealed as she pulled him into the grass and began her ascent up the hill. Ralph scrambled up again after her, punching and kicking as he went.
They scrambled with each other, gleefully fighting as only children can. Dirt and bugs and the grass stained their clothing, as did their own sweat and blood.
Finally pulling himself up over her, Ralph grabbed fistfuls of dirt as he pulled his way to the top of the mound. He stood atop it, overlooking the entirety of the front yard and cheered."
Then Lis pulled him back down and the whole thing started over again.
Brig, Sub-Basement Sector IV
Ralph looked down through the two-way glass, where his half-sister was quietly sitting on a wooden stool. A man was interrogating her, politely. Her gaze was robotic, and fixed. For a few moments, she would regain lucidity, and the color came back to her face, before she plunged back under the surface and stoic sameness slid back across her face.
"What's wrong with her?"
Dr. Bonjour was standing behind him, looking over notes. Ralph had read over her file, she had been a teacher before she came to the Foundation. In years prior, she might have been scooped up to work with Alpha-9, but several years prior she'd been involved in a breach and rumored to be sympathetic towards the anomaly. Right now, she was flipping to a bureaucratic document detailing how ruinous his sister's condition was.
"Some sort of cognitohazard. Her results are all over the place. Sometimes she's hot, sometimes she's cold. We're still trying to work everything out."
"Can you do anything for her?"
Bonjour paused. "Maybe. The devil's in the details with mental faculties. We have to pick through piece by piece to make her right again."
"Just… try, okay?" Ralph blinked a few times, and stared back down at Lis. "I don't have a lot of family left. I've got enough pressure on me already without having wo torry- to worry about something like this."
She pitied him over her clipboard. "I'll do my best. We all will."
TeleConference Room, Research Wing
Ralph peered past steepled fingers at his assembled task force. Sitting at a sleek metallic table, each one had their own monochrome monitor to share input on.
David Rosen sat to his left, typing something up on his glowing green termial. To the right, Logan Armstrong was looking back expectantly and holding a thick stack of black documents. Behind both of them, at the other end of the table, Dr. Bonjour waited patiently for the meeting to begin.
"Alright, so… what do we got so far, people?" Ralph pushed back in his chair and crossed his arms. "I've… met with Anderson and Blast already."
Armstrong pushed the pack of black paper across the table. "This is a summary of our present understanding of Group of Interest activity. Not much new, I've also included information on defunct groups. Ash fist, Prometheus, and the rest."
Thumbing through the pages, Ralph squinted at the 11-point text bulletins. "This is what you call a summary? I'd hate to see the whole kit and kiboodle."
"I could show you that as well, if you like. Might take a week or two for the documents to be shipped, but…"
Ralph groaned. "Spare me. I'll try to parse this later."
Turning to Rosen, appearing grossly engaged in his work, Ralph waited for him to finish. After a moment, when it became apparent that wasn't happening, Rosen found his green screen contrasting and brightening before his very eyes.
"Yo. What've you got for me, Dave?"
"That's not my name." Rosen grumped "Site-77's communications network seems secure. I did a thorough check of the system and didn't find any unexpected instances of unauthorized access."
"Aaaaaand what does that mean?"
"It means this was probably an inside job. Or at least that our perpetrator's plan didn't require any insights into our communications network."
Ralph nodded. "Got any wild hypotheses or interesting guesses?"
Shrugging, Rosen pushed a few keys on his keyboard. The image of the Manna Charitable Foundation, along with a short description, appeared on Ralph's screen. "I'm thinking that maybe Manna had some way to remotely activate these puppies. But they don't have any kind of a motive to instigate the Foundation, they're barely holding themselves together as-is."
"Hurm. Okay. Thanks." Releasing Rosen's digits, Ralph relocated his attention to Dr. Bonjour. "Has Lis made any progress?"
Pursing her lips, she gave Ralph a sympathetic look. "We're making some headway, but she's still… unwell. Things like this are never easy to undo, without careful and contemplative work. But I am confident she will recover enough to return to duty."
"With new access restrictions, if I recall correctly."
"Uh, yes. She can't be working with cognitohazardous materials any longer. If she were to have another incident it would be extraordinarily bad for her."
"Right. I get you." Ralph swiveled in his chair, facing the whiteboard behind him. Uncapping a marker, he set to work, listing the suspects, and bullet points such as 'Prometheus?' 'Ash Fisting' and 'GOC???' among other things. "So, we got anything else?"
Collective silence began hanging out in the room.
"Right, then. Everyone but Armstrong, forward me your documentation and what-have-you. I'll look over it in more depth later on today."
Rosen began smiling. "Alright then, I'd say that's lunch?"
Florida State University, Florida
"So, why do you have a Buffalo pin in your hat?
Ralph turned around. There was a young woman there, wearing a Pittsburgh Penguins jersey and peering at his headgear. Her face was a mixture of pity and disgust.
"I mean, the blue offsets the red of the Lenin pin." Ralph pulled the hat from his head, giving her a close look. "Wouldn't you agree?"
"Still… blech." She wrinkled her nose. "I don't know if I can associate with a Buffalo fan."
"You're more concerned with the Buffalo pin than the Lenin one?" Ralph asked, grinning incredulously. "Seriously?"
She crossed her arms matter-of-factly "Yeah."
Sticking the hat back on his head, Ralph's grin widened. "I like you. You've got your priorities straight."
Site-77 Director's Office
It was another all-nighter. Ralph stared bleary-eyed at the black stack of papers filed before him. In all of it, one stood out. Prometheus. Some from their ranks had been under investigation already, and their research background was troubling him. A memeticist, an engineer, and a time distortion specialist(whatever that meant).
Gazing longingly at the clock, Ralph wiped the tired out of his eyes. Circumstantial. Everything was circumstantial. Somewhere, somehow, there had to be a smoking gun.
Ralph's gaze returned to the paper. "What does it mean?"
What does it mean?
He pondered it with his thinking machine.
There were other memeticists that have open files as possible traitors. None of them developed into leads. One scientist named Lee Byron has a listing marked as deceased. Of the group which came over from Prometheus Dr. Vang was really the only one left of any significance. His compatriots didn't have anything close to his experience. Those who had been better, Dr. Raven, Dr. Ersen, and Dr. Desai, were all far-flung with strong alibis. It had to be Vang. But why?
What was their prerogative? Why Lis? Why Gram? There was no rhyme or reason behind it. These people shouldn't even be aware of Alpha-9, let alone be in a position to obstruct it. Maybe there was some kind of psychological reason?
Ralph stood, stretching. Maybe… maybe it was time to bring them in for questioning. Might be a little too strong tipping his hand already, but it was either this or the case going cold. Picking up a phone, he dialed a familiar number and waited exactly six rings.
"Get me Dr. Blast. Psi-7 has a mission tonight."
Site-64, Mentalist Research Division
Dr. Vang was in his office when they came. He'd tried to do a "cool guy thing" and sit with a shotgun propped at the door to fire at agents when they came for him, but unfortunately for Vang, the recoil was a bit much for a man who'd never held a firearm. As it sent him flailing into a wall, Psi-7 agents rushed in to finish the job.
An agent slammed Vang's head into his desk as his limbs flailed like detached lizard tails. "Back off, man! You don't know what you're dealing with!"
They took him for a drag out of the office, Vang screaming out obscenities and threats. "Fuck you guys! Goddamn patronizing shit-heels! I've weaponized memes, you know! I've got weaponized memes! The house of inconsistent horses has a-"
At that moment, an agent slapped a gag into his gob, letting him keep screaming behind a gagged face. Dragged in silence, Dr. Vang became a prisoner of Mobile Task Force Psi-7.
Vang didn't show it, but he was filled with glee. Caught then and there, it was quite possibly the best thing that could've happened to him.
Somewhere over Canada
The first person to know that something was amiss was Agent Ekblad. His comrades, courageous as they were, had no inclination of their captive being more intrepid than they expected until they lay unconscious in a plane's belly.
Agent Ekblad had always prided himself on his piloting skills. Since that first time enlisting, with his mother and grandmother at his side, he had honed his skills and worked his way up the ladder. First the Air Force, now the Foundation. Smiling to himself, he didn't notice the scruffy man entering the cockpit until he sat down in the co-pilot's seat.
There was cold steel resting on Ekblad's temple before he could react. This was when he noticed.
"Now, you're probably wondering why I've brought you here today" said a sing-song voice, as a hand began beeping away at the flight terminal. "I'm not a fan of going to jail. Especially since the Foundation doesn't exactly have a great track record with incarcerated persons. No pension plan, no office, and best-case-scenario is catching a bullet to the brain."
Ekblad said nothing, his eyes darting behind his visor, looking for a moment of opportunity to take action against his captor.
"So…" Vang gesticulated vaguely with his free hand, "Long story short is you need to fly me to Pyongyang today."
"And if I refuse?"
Vang paused, a thoughtful expression crossing onto his face as he put a finger on his bottom lip. "Well, I hadn't really thought that far ahead. I could shoot you, and fly it myself. I could also autopilot this and hope for the best. I could crash it, assume the crash position, hope I live, wander the Canadian tundra until I find a Way or die or whatever, and then figure it out from there. So, I have options."
Deciding silence was the best plan in this scenario Ekblad clenched his eyes shut, ready for the moment of adrenaline when he finally pulled the trigger. It was at that moment that the cold piece of metal on his head began to be rubbed around, revealing itself not to be a firearm but a single, deadly bullet.
At that moment, Vang leaned in, and whispered "A bullet can be deadlier than you think, skink."
Vang's victim felt a dissociation slip into his mind. Gagging, he tried to utter his training, but before he could react a forceful futility funneled inside his gray matter. Sitting in the pilot's seat, a man who knew he was named Ekblad knew just as much that the bullet perched against his temple was the most dangerous thing in the world.
Then, a word entered his ear. Pyongyang.
The second people to realize something was amiss were the Foundation air traffic controllers, who saw some of their precious cargo drift out to the Pacific.
Site-77, Administrative Conference Room
"The fuck do you mean, he got away?"
Ralph's eyes were burning a hole through Blast's body. "How? What is your explanation, the reason a man suspected of assassination was able to overpower experienced, veteran Foundation agents and commandeer an airplane?"
Blast was nonplussed. "Well, fer starters, there was no plan for this mission. You just called me up, said that we needed to take the brother of a Site Director into custody immediately. We had to fly all night to get there, and when we did he was ready for us. Funny how operating without planning ahead does that to a person.
"Well we need to fix this, fast!"
"Whaddaya mean, we? What's all this we stuff? You're the one who screwed the pooch on this one, Ralphie boy. The rest of us, we're going to be continuing workin' on the shit that's gotta be done here. But if you want to save face, here, kid, you gotta go get that son of a bitch."
"Think about it. If he's runnin' that means he's got somethin' to hide. On account of you bein' the one who sparked his flight, he's probably got somethin' to do with this whole mess."
"So why should I personally go chase this asshole down?"
"The onus is on you now, kid. Grandma's gonna know you let a would-be killer get away and slip through our fingers. If you don't go while the trail is hot who knows when it'll get done?"
"… But I need to be here, Site-77 has a lot going on…"
"I can handle the investigation while yer away. I know the whole Task Force, they're all buddies'o mine and I can handle any power play Anderson'd make while yer gone. I know there's a bit of history between the two's of ya."
Ralph gazed intensely a the table top. If he left now, the investigation wouldn't be a holding pattern because… Blast says so. Looking up, Ralph saw in the wrinkled, oily face the look of someone who knew what they were doing. "Alright. I'll go tonight."
Blast grinned. "Atta'boy."
"But why can't I come with you?"
Shirley paused as she slid her coat over her shoulders. "Because it's not safe for you. It's not even safe for me."
"But whyyyyyyyyyyy?" Ralph whined, holding the 'y' over Shirley's head and rolling it around up there.
Shirley got on her knee, and put her hand on the boy's head. "There are a lot of bad and mad people in this world, Ralphie. You'll see it for yourself one day, and I promise you there isn't anything there for you now."
Sniffling, Ralph looked at the floor. "… Okay."
Smiling, she tousled his hair. "But that doesn't mean I won't bring you back a present."
Somewhere over the Pacific Ocean
Foundation flights tended to be rather sparse. No in-flight manuals, meals or movie. Just rows of seats lined up along two sides, and an open conference space in between. Ralph sat in the center of this space, poring over a map of Kyoto. Vang's flight had taken him there, and it was likely that he still hid out in the city.
Fuzzy footage from a bank's ATM showed a hoodie-wearing Vang trying to access his account, only to be locked out. Another photo from a shop depicted their fugitive attempting to shoplift some fruit juice, only to be thwarted by a broom-wielding shop owner. Whatever he was doing in Kyoto.
Ralph was jolted from his planning by a hand on the shoulder. He looked up to see the face of Jacob Conwell, a researcher had been selected to be a part of the investigation on account of his robotics knowledge.
Sitting down across from Ralph and clearing his throat, Conwell extended a hand. "Greetings. I suppose we are together by convenience, it is nice to get a free trip to Korea."
Grabbing and shaking the hand, Ralph pursed his lips slightly. "Don't forget, this isn't a pleasure trip. Vang somehow got a meeting with him, so something is definitely up."
Nodding, Conwell shot Ralph a small smile while stretching in his seat. "Of course. It is quite an honor, I guess. It's so odd, I remember reading about North Korea when I was a kid. I never imagined actually going there."
"I remember my Gram going there a few times when I was a kid. I never really knew it as anything other than a big containment country."
"Oh, so you grew up in the know, then? That's kind of interesting."
Ralph shrugged. "I guess, I don't know how much of it was different. The Foundation has… pretty extensive childcare stuff, so I got to go to school, have friends, be normal… at least I think I did."
"Did you ever have your parents in the picture?" Conwell stood, striding over to a nearby locker and retrieving a submarine sandwich. "I know I still can write to mine and see them at Christmas."
"None of your business."
Conwell frowned for a second, pausing as he prepared to bite. "Offensive line of questioning then, sorry for asking."
Shaking his head, Ralph crossed his arms and looked away. "No, I'm sorry. I'm just a little wound up about all this. y'know?"
"Understandable. If someone tried to assassinate one of my family members, I'd probably be a little upset too."
"Tried to assassinate one family member and muck up the mind of another."
Conwell nodded. "I heard about your sister. I hope she recovers."
A silence hung in the air for a moment. The plane ran through a patch of turbulence, and both men gripped the sides of the table as the interior rattled.
"You said your grandma came here before… have you been at all?" Conwell peered out a window, perusing the deep blue sea below. "I want to get some idea of what to expect."
Ralph shook his head. "I've got no idea. I've read lots about it, but it's really hard to get concrete facts unless you're directly involved in things. Which… even if we're asking something, we're not getting the full picture."
"I would like to have some kind of information, even just an outline. Dictators don't often appreciate when you bother them with pointless questions, so getting some knowledge might give us an edge."
Shrugging again, Ralph leaned his chair back, balancing it on two legs. "Well, this was kind of a last-minute trip so we didn't get all the arrangements you might get on a mission prepared by someone else."
Conwell's eye twitched. "So, wait, we're just walking in here completely blind?"
"We don't even have an appointment."
"So this is just going to go splendidly."
Just then, they began descending. Ralph toppled out backwards from his chair and fell flat upon his back. Staring at the top of the canopy, he closed his eyes. "If we waited any longer, the trail would've gone cold. Vang tried to kill the only family I've got. I can't let him get away."
"A personal vendetta is not an excuse for unpreparedness. If you're going to pursue him this hastily he's going to see you coming a mile away."
Standing and brushing himself off, Ralph sat back down in a seat by the side. "We'll see how it goes. I'm sure everything will be fine."
The plane touched down on a long empty plain of concrete. At the tarmac, there were dignitaries. Ralph frowned. Nobody had said anything about dignitaries.
Kumsusan Palace Of The Sun
Pyongyang, North Korea
Kim Jong-Un's inner chamber was a lavish affair. A long, marble floor stretched from end to end, with a dozen red columns in rows on each side. Above them was a massive mosaic, depicting courageous Korean soldiers steamrolling a row of capitalist American dogs. Behind that, a massive Korean tank was demolishing the U.S Senate, while Korean jet planes carpet-bombed the national mall. It was an impressive sight to behold.
"Thank you so much for taking the time to meet with us, your excellency." Ralph said, looking around the majestic splendor of the palace. "You must have a very busy schedule."
"Your kind comments are noted." The voice was light, with a faint Korean accent.
"I like your decor," said Ralph, sitting upon a cushion across from Kim "It's very… epic."
Conwell gave Ralph his best get-to-the-point face, then smiled at Kim.
Kim, however, appeared to be amused. Smiling in turn, he spoke. "Thank you. It was designed by my grandfather."
Conwell, seated beside Ralph, sipped on tea from the table between them and Kim. "Your English is very good, sir."
Kim's smile widened to a grin. "You are too kind. But I must ask for what purpose you come here? I was not expecting to see another representative of the Foundation so soon. Your last tribute mission only just departed."
Ralph slid Vang's dossier across the table. "This man may have come by your palace recently. We need to know what he wanted, and where he's going."
Kim opened the dossier and began browsing the contents, picking out a picture of Vang."Was he a rogue, then? I thought he might be. A very nervous character, left like the breeze almost as soon as he had arrived. But he was a very respectable guest."
"That man attempted to kill my grandmother. I need to know where he's going."
"An assassin? Not what I expected. If you think that you're in a position to be asking questions already, then you clearly don't know how proceedings go in our system."
Ralph frowned. "What?"
"Ah, my time is up, I'm afraid." Kim rose, gesturing for Conwell and Ralph to rise with him. "If you stayed overnight, or perhaps a week, we could discuss things more fully."
"Why not now?"
Kim's smile vanished in an instant. "Because a knave has come to my kingdom, bearing no tribute, expecting me to answer his questions like he is above me. You are lucky if you even get out of here in one piece?"
"What?" Conwell and Ralph looked at one another, then back to Kim.
"As I have demonstrated before, the presence of the Stele doesn't mean I defer to your organization's every whim." Kim began snapping his fingers. As he did so two men in Korean People's Army uniforms stepped into the room, pointing rifles at the pair. "Now, if you will excuse me, I have important business to attend to."
Ryugyong Hotel, 69th Floor
Pyongyang, North Korea
The Ryugyong hotel was a structure that dominates the skyline of Pyongyang. A huge wavy structure akin to a rollar coaster, it had once been intended as a hotel but was now used by the regime to house some sensitive prisoners. Ralph stood by the door to their cell.
It had some remnants of hotel room, rivet marks on the floor where furniture might once have stood and markings on the floor where walls had been knocked down. The far wall had been knocked out completely, and was open air, allowing full view of the city below.
Conwell was sitting on the ledge, staring out the gaping fourth wall of their prison cell. Below him was the outstretched silent maze of Pyongyang. The wind whipped through their makeshift cell. and the utter silence the city enveloped them like a blanket. Every few minutes, the sound of heavy-stepping boots would march by their door. "What do you think he intends to do with us?"
Ralph looked back from the door. "Probably extract some kind of concessions or money, maybe exchange of personnel. They get a lot from holding people hostage, actually."
Conwell peered over the edge of the cell, looking down. "What do you think about scaling down ourselves?"
"It's doubtful we'd make it. This thing is like a hundred million stories tall, and we're near the top."
"But if they're all rooms, we don't have to go all the way down. Just down to a room that's unlocked. We can figure it out from there."
"Let's skip the first part. This building is a hundred thousand billion trillion stories tall and I'd rather not eat pavement for my last supper."
Frowning, Conwell turned to look at Ralph. "Do you actually know how tall it is, or are you going to keep bullshitting me?"
"Shhh. I think they're switching up the guard." Ralph put his ear to the door. "Yep. Alright, hold on for a second." He began to fiddle with the lock, which clicked and clacked cooperatively.
Before he could be asked what exactly he was doing, Ralph had opened the door. "Come on. We don't have a lot of time."
Ralph looked out into the hall. It was a dusty, empty corridor, with sections of the floor and walls crumbling to reveal the massive concrete skeleton that comprised most of the building. As they crept down the hall, Ralph kept his eyes peeled for any sign of an exit.
Conwell leaned into Ralph's ear to whisper. "Where did you learn to pick locks?"
"It's easier than you'd think. I've taken classes on this kinds of stuff, it was part of my education growing up."
"What?" Conwell stopped in his tracks. "You learned how to pick locks in school?"
"When your education is taken care of by the Foundation, you learn some interesting stuff."
Suddenly, there was a commotion from a ways behind them. Turning, Ralph could see that the door to their cell was opened, and KPA soldiers were standing by. "We have to hurry!"
Quickly and quietly scurrying down the hall, they quickly reached a staircase. Hopping onto the handrail, Ralph began sliding down, followed by Conwell quickly making his way down the steps. It was a long way down.
Alarms were blaring by the time they got near the bottom. Also at the bottom was an emergency exit. Another klaxon joined the mass of alarms as they burst out of the building.
Ralph looked to Conwell. "You think they've noticed we're gone?"
Instead of responding, Conwell looked around. "We gotta find some way to get out of here. I didn't see a lot of cars…"
Just then, the sound of squealing rubber filled the air. Dark vans had pulled up at both sides of the alleyway in which they were standing. KPA soldiers emerged, wielding dark batons and handguns. Ralph looked around wildly. As the soldiers began to advance on them, a manhole cover came to his notice.
Quickly lifting the lid, Ralph began climbing down. Conwell took the hint and clambored down after him. The KPA soldiers, seeing this, began running and firing at them, yelling angrily about their ancestors in Korean. Behind them, as they proceeded through the sloppy sewage, they could hear the soldiers balking at jumping after them.
Ryugyong Hotel Parking Garage
Conwell was the first one to emerge from the sewers. They were surprisingly spacious, however they were also filled with some of the least trafficked sewage they had ever beheld. Making it even a few blocks from their breakout had been an ordeal. Ralph clamored out after him, gasping and flapping for fresh air.
Ralph stood first, wiping some of the raw sewage off of himself. "Alright, so… wheels. We need them."
Looking around, Conwell walked over to the nearest, largest van. It had the emblem of the Korean Workers Party emblazoned on the side, along with two Korean women with angry fists upraised. Plus, there was a sunroof. "This one might be good for punching past blockades between us and the airport."
Nodding, Ralph began walking towards the van. "Sounds like a plan, Stan."
As they climbed in, Conwell began looking around the cabin. "So you knew how to pick locks, any chance your schooling taught you to hotwire a car?"
"No, but check around. A lot of times, in places like this where the car's not likely to be stolen, keys end up getting left in the car for convenience's sake." Ralph clicked his seatbelt in place, and began searching through the glove compartment.
Flipping down the visor, a glittering prize fell into Conwell's lap. "Hey! I think I've found them."
"Terrific." Ralph slammed the compartment closed, and tried to wipe some more of the sludge from his face. "Let's blow this Popsicle stand."
The streets of Pyongyang were utterly devoid of traffic. As they surged out of the parking garage, there were a few vans pulled up outside but they were thrust aside by the force of their impact. Struggling to stay in control of his vehicle, Conwell gritted his teeth and gripped the steering wheel. The game was afoot.
Civilians and loitering soldiers alike dived out of the way as they raced down the street. As Conwell slammed on the brakes to slide around a corner, there came a groaning sound from the rear of the vehicle. Ralph pulled back a piece of opaque glass separating the cabin from the interior, and saw to his surprise a Foundation Agent lying in the backseat.
"Hey! They've got one of our guys here!"
Conwell glanced over incredulously. "What‽ How?"
"Could've been a parting gift from Vang."
"Well, we're almost there, try to see if you can get him up and moving!"
Squeezing through the small space, Ralph popped into the backseat. The agent had a bruise on his temple and a shaved head, but other than that didn't look much worse for wear given his abduction by the hermit kingdom. Checking his pockets, a Foundation-issued ID denoted the man as Agent Aaron Ekblad, a pilot for Psi-7.
Using all the medical knowledge he had, Ralph proceeded to begin slapping Ekblad's face to rouse him from sleep. "Hey! Wake up! We're gettin' outta here!"
Mumbling something about cabbages, the agent turned his head away from Ralph's striking hand. Repeating the process resulted in an opening of the man's eyes, blinking in the filtered sunlight. "Huh? What… is it still number one with a bullet?"
"What? Never mind. We're escaping North Korea and I need you to be ready for that."
Conwell shouted from up front. "We're here! Get ready!"
Ralph looked out the window. Amazingly, their plane was still there, along with about a half-dozen KPA keeps. The plane itself was busily taxiing out of there.
Turning back to the dazed agent, Ralph yelled to Conwell. "Throw the sunroof up!"
"What‽" Conwell threw the steering wheel left to right, trying to avoid the KPA vehicles as they rushed at their van.
"I'm gonna prop him up so that they can see him from the plane! They won't leave one of their own behind!"
There was a metallic pop-pop-pop as gunfire riddled the sides of the van. The windscreen shattered, showering Conwell in broken glass. Swearing, Conwell swerved, sending Ekblad and Ralph pinballing around the backseat. He was, through it all madly jamming at his console, able to push the button to get the sunroof down.
As Conwell drove them around the front of the plane, Ralph dragged Ekblad upwards against gravity and propped him out of the sunroof like a puppet. Almost as soon as he'd done so, the KPA began shooting a the van again. Quickly dropping to the floor, they could still see the inflatable ladder descending from the side.
Conwell slammed on the brakes, and they booked it out of the car to the plane. A few agents leaned out of the now-opened door to the plane and returned fire at the KPA cars, keeping them at bay.
Finally inside, the trio collapsed onto the ground. The agents detached the safety slide from the side of the plane, and slammed the door shut. "Hey, let's get out of here, it's way too hot!"
The plane, battered by gunfire, took off into the sky, leaving the troubled nation behind.
Sunrise Land Hotel
This Kyoto hotel room had an extremely pleasant view. Looking out over a bustling boulevard of people, it was a nice change of pace from the grim grubbiness of Pyongyang. Streetlights illuminated denizens of the city bustling about their business, many with briefcases or shopping bags in hand. The roads were loaded with vehicles, bumper to bumper almost all of the time.
Unfortunately, this was not their hotel room. It had been Vang's and now it belonged to nobody. Ralph and Conwell stepped over the strewn underpants, toiletries, papers, furniture and bedding. Water was leaking out of the bathroom, where every faucet had been left running. Every lightbulb had been smashed with the tiny pieces of glass resting in every light fixture.
Picking up the shattered remnants of a coffee mug from beneath the upturned television, Ralph began shining a blacklight around the room. "So, do you think he left it this way for us, or do you think he just likes to live his life on the free and easy?"
"I think this looks like a rush job." Conwell picked up one of the papers from the floor. "Seems like he left a lot of papers behind. This one's got…" squinting, Conwell read the small print paper, "some kind of low-budget recipes on it."
Ralph looked at a small table next to the television stand. There was a filthy coffee pot perched in an equally dirty brewer. Brown stains were soaked into the wood and carpet all around the setup, and at least two other mugs like the ones Ralph had found were lying in brown puddles on the bed. "Looks like he was pulling some kind of an all-nighter. Memorizing all this stuff, maybe?"
"Something like that. Or perhaps he's leaving us with a bunch of random papers to send us on a wild goose chase."
Walking into the bathroom, Ralph splished and splashed his way over to the faucets, shutting them off. The toilet was also overflowing but that was something to be solved another day. As the flow dried up, Ralph's flashlight found a piece of paper taped to the mirror. "Hey, Jacob! I found a suspicious piece of paper!"
When Conwell made his way into the bathroom, he had taken the time to wrap his feet in towels.
Raising an eyebrow, Ralph pointed to his footwear.
"I don't like getting my socks wet, okay? Not if I don't have to."
Chuckling, Ralph flicked his flashlight back on."Sure. Check this out," shining his light at the piece of paper, "Seems like it was left here for someone to find."
"Or maybe it's setting a place for negotiating his surrender. He can't have made anything too damaging in the time and space he had."
"I don't think a guy who's fled halfway across the world is going to give up the goat as soon as we're on the same land mass. If you're so sure about it, you check it out."
Grabbing the paper off of the glass, Conwell began shining his flashlight and reading whatever was printed on the paper.
After a few moments, Ralph looked over to see what he was reading.
It was then that everything went black. It was the morning light that woke Ralph next, blinking and opening his eyes. He was lying on his back in the bathroom, with his head poking into the small hallway where the door was. From the window, a thin line of light had crept up across the carpet and over to his face.
Ralph suddenly became aware of Conwell, lying face-down in the water. Quickly flipping him over, relief swept through Ralph when he saw Conwell was still breathing. Shaking him awake, Ralph tried to speak with urgency. "Hey, I don't know what happened, but we just wasted a day on our backs."
"Wha…" Conwell coughed, slapping his face and clutching his soaking clothing. "Ugh, I'm freezing… what the hell happened, Ralph?"
"I don't know. Last thing I remember is… looking at something you were looking at."
Nodding, Conwell rose to his feet. "Some kind of cognitohazard… It was green, that's all I can remember."
Ralph walked back into the main room, throwing open the curtains to look out upon Kyoto. "Get outta there. We can't waste another day wasting away in this room. I think I've got an idea of where he might be, anyways."
Toweling himself of, Conwell stepped out of the bathroom. "And where might that be?"
Ralph pointed out at the towering monuments of nature framing the horizon around the city. "If things are getting too hot in the city, where else do you go but the mountains?"
Mount Atago, Kyoto, Japan
The sun was setting in the sky when they reached Mount Atago.
"So how sure are you about this whole mountain thing?"
Ralph looked back, wiping his brow. It had turned out that going out and climbing up mountains was not as easy as it looked. As someone raised and accustomed to working in offices, with enclosed flat spaces plus air conditioning, mountain climbing was turning out to be tough. "I'm about sixty to fifty percent sure now."
"I think it is sensible, but… there's got to be a better way than checking out every cave in the area."
Looking down at his map, Ralph marked their progress and took a swig from his canteen. "It's not every cave. Just all the ones that meet the two criteria— off the beaten path, and close to a source of fresh water."
They continued climbing in silence for a few moments, until Conwell cleared his throat. "So, you've been chasing this guy around halfway across the globe. He's wronged your family, and you've got the backing of the most powerful organization in the world."
"What're you trying to get at?"
"What are you going to do when you finally catch him?"
Pausing as he attempted to scale a large rock, Ralph looked towards the sky. "I don't know. I think I might ask him why he did all of this, but that's still assuming a lot."
"What do you mean?"
"Well…" Ralph hoisted himself upon the boulder, sitting facing Conwell. "The only real evidence we have against Vang is circumstantial. The only reason we have suspicion is because he ran. So while I'm almost sure he's the one who hurt my sister, I have no idea if it was his idea or if he was on someone else's dime."
Conwell leaned against a tree. "It's the only thread you've got. If you pull on him, the whole… whatever went on's going to get unraveled."
Nodding, Ralph looked back down at his map. "That's what I'm hoping for too. Let's get going, the last cave is just over this bluff."
As they made their way past the steep rock, the pair quickly noticed that this cave was not like the others. There was a campfire smoldering in front of the mouth, with a dried half-skinned squirrel skewered in the center of it. Closer to the mouth, a clothsline hung between the craggy rock and a skinny tree, with black pants and a lab coat swaying in the breeze. Ralph walked into the clearing, and immediately began stamping out the campfire.
Walking ahead, Conwell ducked into the cave. The smell of ash and smoke burnt his face, causing him to quickly retreat. "Looks like he torched whatever he had in here before he left. I guess he didn't expect to come back."
Ralph began rummaging through the ashes. "He must have left something about where he's going next. If he's resorting to a scorched earth strategy, then he must be getting desperate."
A small scrap of burnt newsprint emerged from the black dust. Wiping it clean, the image of a large warehouse was revealed, with an identifier in Japanese. Flipping it over, the number six was written in red marker. "This could be something… could be nothing, but it could be something."
Walking over, Conwell peered down at the paper. "Maybe it's a meeting place, and a meeting time."
"Could be." Ralph paused. "If we… find out where this place is, can you get backup? I think this is something I need to do by myself."
Conwell nodded. "Sure, Ralph. Let's go."
Pulling his jacket close, Ralph pressed his face against a cold chain link fence. Past it lay the Nichero Gyogyo warehouse. It was the one they found photographed in the fire and it was, Ralph hoped, where Vang was.
It was an oddly shaped building, angular then circular like a lemon wedge with plain brick walls and a red zigzagging cube logo painted on the side. There was a red door with a big glass circle right in the center, with a doorknob dead-center within that.
Ralph threw his jacket over the barbed wire, and struggled over the fence. Catching his pant leg on a stray barb, he tore the hem and fell awkwardly on his leg. Swearing and struggling to his feet, Ralph walked to the door and let himself inside.
Most of the warehouse was dominated by large stacks of wooden and cardboard boxes, each one damp in its own way. An odious smell reeked from each of them, resembling something akin to boiled fish heads and carpeting. The floor was slick and oily, with every step requiring precise movements in order to avoid slipping into the millimeter-deep pool of biological oils that covered most of the floor.
Standing beneath one of the few rays of sunlight still shining from the high windows was another hooded figure. Looking towards Ralph, they hesitated for a moment. In that moment, Ralph involuntarily felt his fingers gripping the gun he had so neatly concealed beneath his hoodie. But then they waved Ralph over and, with some relief, he complied.
As Ralph began approaching, he realized that it was almost certainly Vang. The hair and chin peeking from beneath the pulled hood's shadow was all the evidence he needed. Pulling the vengeance weapon from its hiding place, Ralph opened his mouth to say something cool. The silence was stolen from him, however, when Vang hurled a blade at his blaster, sending it skidding across the floor.
"Nice try," said Vang "But it turns out that the old wisdom of guns to a knife fight… was wrong. I'm not coming with you, Ralph."
Vang began cautiously closing the distance between himself and Ralph, now brandishing a large, steel knife. Its blade glittered in the air, and looked as sharp to Ralph as any blade he'd ever seen. Glancing at the ground, Ralph quickly picked up the knife Vang had hurled at him.
"Ah! You've… picked up my other knife. This is all part of my plan to… keep you busy, while my friends come to my aid!"
Ralph grinned. "Funny, that's my plan too."
"Ah, fuck it!" Vang charged forwards, swinging his six-inch steel blade wildly in the air. Diving to the side, Ralph skidded on the slick oil floor and flew out of sight.
Vang was looking around wildly while struggling to on his feet. "Don't— I— … Where are you?"
Ralph pulled himself up with a crate. Taking a breath, he dropped the knife, stretching for a few moments. Taking a running step and sucking in his breath, Ralph dove across the floor, accelerating into Vang's legs and knocking him into a crate of squids.
Ralph had only a moment to celebrate his victory before plunging head-first into a cardboard box of fish heads. Shaking his head and coughing, he extricated himself and began looking over to Vang. He was stuck head first in a crate of squishy squids, with porous fish finding every opportunity to cover him with their floppy forms.
Ralph found himself yanking Vang out of his tentacle prison. "We're coming to take you away, haha."
Saying nothing, Vang instead kept digging himself deeper. Slipping out of Ralph's grasp, he'd soon disappeared from sight entirely. Ralph frantically dug through the pile, until a bright light blinded his eyes. Vang's voice cried out "Good-bye, Ralphie!"
"Wait—" The words had hardly escaped Ralph's lips when Vang hopped into the crate. If things had gone according to plan, it was at this point that Vang would have disappeared. Instead, his face bounced off the Way and broke his nose.
A voice whispered from the aura as it faded away. No Foundation face shall ever besmirch the Library again…
Grabbing Vang by the ear, like he meant it this time, Ralph pulled the star-seeing scientist out of the squidbox. It was time to wait for the cavalry. It wasn't long before the Psi-7 agents came a callin', Conwell and Ralph watched as Vang was led into custody. It was time to go home.
Site-77 Directors Office
Director Gillespie perused the two men seated before her. One of them was her grandson, his face filled with joy as he looked at her. The other was the sour security Director, seated with his arms crossed and his eyes firmly fixed on Ralph's smiling face. Lis hadn't been able to make it.
"Congratulations on solving the case, Ralph." Gillespie smiled warmly. "I just had a few questions about the handling of the case…"
"Sure, anything!" Ralph beamed at her. "What's on yer mind?"
"I can't believe you went all the way around the world for me. You could have sent someone, but you chose to take care of it personally. It exposed a major conspiracy in the Foundation aimed at disrupting one of our most important projects, and for that we are indebted to you. Justice can also be served because of you.
"I did my best, gram," said a beaming Ralph.
"So, to recap… in my absence, you alienated your chief of security, called a group I hand-picked for you 'dregs', then left them behind with no instructions or preparation and jetted off to Pyongyang instead of delegating so somone could continue to run the site?"
"Go to your room. We will discuss this further once I've begun the arduous task of cleaning up your mess. I have to say, it wasn't all bad but I am still disappointed in you, Ralph."
Stone-faced, Ralph walked dejectedly from the room. As soon as he was gone, Anderson turned to look at her. "So, what do you actually think?"
"The entire Site wasn't destroyed, despite his best efforts."
"He's got most of the ringleaders, but there were most likely more who slipped away unnamed."
"Oh, believe me, I know. But he stopped the immediate threat."
"That's good enough for you?"
Pausing, Shirley nodded. She looked at a picture frame on her desk, two figures cut out with Ralph standing in the middle. "It's a start."