psul's sandbox
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James feels the bonfire's heat drying his eyes. He sits as close as comfortable. The cold wind from the mountains is at his back. Flames snap and billow. The smoke tastes strange.

James looks up. Shadows from the firelight cavort on the hulking concrete shell. Above the tower, the sky is drenched in stars.

He has been waiting for almost an hour. Aurelio said that Varela would come. James wonders what the fire looks like from the workers' camp on the hillside. What it looks like to the hollow eyes of the half-built tower. He wonders who else can see it.

James is thinking about the nameless city around him when he hears footsteps approach. A man walks into the fire's glow, and James stands.

As the man greets him, as they shake hands, James thinks: I expected him to be taller. More handsome, perhaps, but just that there would be more of him. This man, with a neat, greying beard and dark eyes, is small beneath the wide sky.

Varela reads something in James' expression. "You look disappointed, mi amigo."

"No, sorry - " James says, embarrassed, and finishes lamely. "I had heard stories."

The laugh in response is hearty. "Stories? And you blame me for not living up to them?"

Involuntarily, James drops his eyes. His gaze is brought back by a warm hand on his shoulder.

"No mas. You cannot control what you hear, any more than I can control what they tell you." Varela looks James in the eye as he says it, and James starts to understand.

Varela continues, smiling. "Now you can hear what they tell me about you. Aurelio says that you are working with Belén. He says you escaped from the police at the workers camp, and sent two SIDE agents off the road on the way here. There is a rumour that you killed another two agents in Neuquén."

James starts to deny it, but Varela interrupts him. "I don't care about any of that. You told Aurelio that you work for a previous employer of mine. So you know I will have a question for you."

This time, James is ready for the challenge phrase. "Questions must be asked, even if there may be no answer."

"Does the black moon howl?" Varela is staring hard.

"Only in fear of the light of dawn," says James.

He does not expect the hard embrace that follows.

"It has been a long time, my friend," says Varela, "and many miles travelled. I am glad the Foundation survives. It is a dangerous world."

"It is," replies James, but the thought of his comfortable Boston life sours in his mind. He is still mulling while Varela calls the others over.

They are around fifteen people, a wild melange. Students, site workers, a disheveled chemist. There is an ex-professor from Comahue, an ex-Jesuit from the capital, a couple of indigenous Tehuelche looking at him suspiciously. Aurelio grins, and introduces the young woman on his arm. James loses track of names. He is lost in this collection of Varela's friends, wondering why they are here.

James starts to protest. He needs to speak with Varela alone.

Varela is dismissive. "These are the people I trust. They know my history, and a little about your employer. The Veil is not for them."

The group is sitting near to the bonfire. Their faces in the orange light are expectant. James realises they are looking at him. Where should he start?

He asks, "Does the government here know about - about your previous work?"

The watchers murmur, in tune with the vibrating flames.

"No," says Varela. "The Foundation was small in Argentina. There is almost no-one left now who knows about us."

"Good. At least, I think that's a good thing. It means that SIDE don't know your history. It is because of who you have become that they want to kill you."

The shock of this hits the group, and James hears it reflected back. Aurelio spits, and says, "Those sons of whores. Twenty thousand they have disappeared, and more every day."

Varela waves him calm. He must have expected this.

James continues. "And now the CIA has given them something that can do worse. Something I was studying, before the US disbanded the Foundation. Something the CIA took and turned into a weapon. The Foundation sent me here to recover it.

"It looks like a press camera. A Graflex Speed Graphic, to be precise. Folding body, large flash. It has something heavy in the film loader, but we couldn't get it open to see what.

"When the camera is focused on some object, and the flash goes off, that object stops being real. Well, it's more complicated than that - the object loses its reality and becomes an ideal."

To James' surprise, they accept this unblinkingly.

"Like a Platonic form?" asks the ex-professor.

"Yes, or something similar," replies James, grateful for the show of understanding. "And because those ideal forms are by definition imperceptible, the object ceases to exist, at least in a way that we would recognise."

Aurelio's girlfriend tilts her head. "So it vanishes?"

"Yes, although it's more than that. If I use the camera on an apple, it stops having any physical form, so we can't see, touch or taste it. But it also affects the way we think about it. It stops being a particular apple, and instead becomes … an archetype. Generic. What I used the camera on is not 'an apple', it is just 'apple'."

James watches as they process this. He waits for them to realise. One of the Tehuelche is first, giving a low cry of horror. Then the ex-professor, then Aurelio.

"Holy Mary! You say SIDE is using this on people?"

The shock races through them, palpable. James can read their faces. How many people have been erased from existence? How many that they had known themselves? Friends? Family? Faces and names and lives, scrubbed into illegibility.

He forces himself to interrupt their reveries. "We don't know how many people they've used it on – either the CIA or SIDE. We don't think the anomaly is replicable, so its use as a weapon is limited. The Foundation's intelligence suggests that the CIA's original plan was for targeted assassinations. Removing the most dangerous individuals from the resistance. That stopped after what happened with Ernesto Guevara."

Varela has been pacing to and from the fire. He turns to James. "When the man is too well known, even the idea he becomes is dangerous, yes?"

James nods; Varela still thinks like Foundation. Maybe he always has.

"After that, they seem to have lowered their sights. Some religious leaders, particularly troublesome students." James thinks of Miguel's son. He swallows. "And union officials. That's why they are coming here. For you."

Varela has reached the apogee of his walk. Ignoring agitated voices, James stares at his back. The older man is still, then laughs, loud and long. Aurelio and the others fall silent.

"If your path is ordained, you cannot run from it," says Varela. His voice is weary, although the laugh sounded genuine. "Wherever your foot falls, that has always been the path. My friend, when I left the Foundation I tried to forget it. I threw off my old life and found a new one. But my new life led me to this place, to the same mysteries. And now the Foundation's path leads back to mine? What is there to do but laugh."
Varela's brow clouds. "But if they are coming, we must plan. There are things here they must not learn."

"What do you mean?" James asks.

"I mean the reason we are gathered here," replies Varela. "The reason we light these fires and breathe this smoke each night. The reason that work on the tower is delayed, why it must never be finished." He starts back towards them. "Perhaps I should leave, lead them somewhe –"

A dazzling flash. When James can see again, Varela is gone.

"You stupid son of a bitch!" A new voice, American, from the shadows of a building, outside the firelight. Then, in Spanish, cutting off the escalating sounds of concern, "Shut up and keep still! We will shoot you!"

James backs towards the others. Two men emerge into the light. The shorter one, wiry and greying, shouts, "Don't move!". His Spanish has an American accent. He trains a handgun on James.

The American's companion is drawing his own gun. James sees the camera hanging from his neck.

The Tehuelche woman shrieks as more men appear from the other side of the fire. The knot of scared people draws tighter. The men surround them, but not too close. Establishing a perimeter. They say nothing, but they look like locals.

The American is in charge. He strides up to James, and speaks to the group. "Before my idiot colleague jumped the gun, this was going to be simple. In about twenty minutes, you won't even recall for certain that there was a man called Varela. Let alone what happened to him." He prowls back and forth as he talks, waving the gun for emphasis. Hemming them against the fire. "But now, we have a problem. Because now I know that there's something here, something Varela didn't want me to have."

James' mouth is dry. He holds up his hands. "Sir, I work for the Foundation," he says in English. "I will come with you and explain everything. You don't need to keep them here."

"Bullshit, son," the American spits back. "He was about to tell you. You're about the only one here doesn't know." Switching back to Spanish, he raises his voice, "So one of you is going to tell me. Something in the tower, yes?"

Aurelio starts forward, blazing. "Your mother!"

The pistol-butt cracks off Aurelio's temple, and he falls. Jacinta rushes to catch him. The professor makes a sound halfway between a gasp and a scream.

The American's face colours. He shouts, "Maybe I'm not being clear. Tonight is already a fuck-up, thanks to this poor excuse for an agent." Marching back to his companion, he snatches the camera and spins back. "And I've had enough of this shithole country already. So I have no compunction about wiping you all off the face of the earth if you don't fucking tell me what I want to know!"

The American barges in, shoving James hard. He grabs Jacinta by the hair, yanking her away from the fire. Jacinda yelps. Aurelio tries to rise, but falls back. The group seems magnetised, following the American as he half-drags Jacinda and throws her to the ground. He pulls the camera from his neck. The gun is in his other hand.

"I don't count to three. I don't bluff. Either you talk now, or I choose a bullet or the flash."

There is a moment of silence, other than the crackling fire. Then they hear an engine roar.

The echoes in the hollow concrete play games with the sound. The SIDE agents turn from street to street. There are no lights. They peer outwards, fire-blind.

The engine cuts out. They can still hear the car, moving fast, getting closer. But without the engine it remains a ghost.

A SIDE agent leans forward, squinting along a boulevard. He raises his weapon, assumes a shooting stance.

Headlights blaze, and the engine thunders to life. The jeep is a hundred and fifty feet away, travelling fast. The agent fires blind, three shots. The jeep keeps coming. He starts to move, but the jeep is too fast. It strikes him at full speed, then crashes through the bonfire.

Chaos. Burning logs fly, trailing sparks and smoke. Someone screams. The jeep swerves, hitting an agent on the other side of the fire. The chemist runs past James, trying to grab his arm. The jeep squeals to a halt. SIDE agents fire at the driver's door. The American releases Jacinta, who scrabbles away.

A flash from the rear of the jeep. An agent falls, shot in the head. James glimpses the shooter: Belén! Another agent goes down. Aurelio strikes a third with a burning branch, Jacinta rushing to his aid.

The American looks for cover, and runs to the base of the tower. He still has the camera.

James looks across the burning courtyard. To the frantic remains of Varela's cadre. Belén, pinned down by the three agents still standing. Aurelio, wrestling with the other. To the American, disappearing into the shadowed doorway.

James hesitates.


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