psul's sandbox
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Charla Flores sat on the changing-room bench, slowly folding a spare uniform. It was a far cry from her old lab-coat with its familiar stains of iodine and bleach. The uniform was brand new and spotless. What stains would it acquire?

She shook off the reverie as Dr. Reynard walked in. The older woman dropped a handful of memetics VR headsets into her locker with a clatter, and gave an irritated sigh.

"Is everything okay?" ventured Charla.

"How can you ask such a thing?" Dr. Reynard looked genuinely shocked. "The situation is unworkable. Intolerable. It is a personal insult."

She sat down hard on the same bench as Charla, who realised that she had become a de facto confidant. Presumably through a shortage of other options; Charla had seen how prickly the memetics researcher had been in her interactions with other team members.

She tried a conciliatory approach. "They're a little different to other MTFs I've seen, I know, but -"

"Different?" Dr. Reynard's tone was scoffing. "They are entirely unprofessional. For a memetics consultant, Agent Anderson has no post-graduate qualifications in his subject, and that other woman seems to have no schooling whatsoever. One of their agents is an old, deaf man, and apart from Zhao, the rest are inexperienced children!"

Charla looked stung. Dr. Reynard waved her hand hurriedly.

"I do not include you in this, my dear. We are both in the same position, brought into this job on false conditions, unwillingly. If you wish, I would certainly be willing to include you in my application for reassignment."

"Reassignment?" Charla hadn't remotely considered it. "No. Leaving my last posting was hard enough. Besides, everyone here seems so, well, so normal. And nice. Would you go back to your last team?"

"No, sadly that would not be possible," said Reynard, stiffening. "I would certainly find something else. But you would prefer to stay? You are not concerned by the danger of this misguided excursion? This Dr. Narváez is surely a madman."

This sparked Charla to a more spirited response. "Dr. Narváez is one of the Foundation's most decorated experts in perception-altering anomalies and dimensional studies! He has seen things beyond any of our experience. There is no-one better placed to advise on this mission."

"How much of what Dr. Narváez has seen is real, and how much is inside his head?" Dr. Reynard retorted. "I doubt even he knows for sure. Trusting such a man is folly. I trust the facts. The last time anyone went to this place, eleven agents died."

"Of course this is dangerous," said Charla. "All MTFs face dangers, and however you and I got here, we knew that when we joined. And we have been training to face those dangers. I don't know the team very well, but I trust them to look out for me. And I trust the experts. No-one was hurt either time Dr. Narváez went to Alagadda."

Dr. Reynard gave a dark look. "But Dr. Narváez isn't going to Alagadda this time. It will just be the MTF, on its own." She stood, closing her locker door firmly, and left the room without saying more.

Charla watched her leave, then looked back down at her uniform. Just the MTF. Her MTF now.


In the Site cafeteria, Mike and Zhao found a quiet table. Mike had hardly looked at Zhao on the walk over, and she waited quietly while he busied himself with his food for a few minutes.

"It's not that I'm scared of going," he said finally. "I just don't know whether it makes sense, you know? Is it even really Emma's idea? She's been meeting so often with the Site Director."

"I think that the Commander knows her own mind," said Zhao. "She was the one who set up the training. She brought in Dr. Narváez."

"And she didn't even tell you what she was planning?" Mike looked up from over his mashed potato.

"No." Zhao sounded contemplative.

"Sorry Helen," said Mike. "I didn't mean - I think you would have made a great commander. Once Richards - well, you know."

That brought a smile back to Zhao's face. "No I wouldn't," she said. "I'm not cut out for it, and anyway, I've never wanted to. I talked about with Richards, back when he first appointed me. Some people are natural leaders, and some are better at being second in command. I make sure the plans get executed, keep an eye on the team. It's what I'm good at, and I don't need anything else."

"You are good at it."

"Suck up!" said Zhao, with a grin.

Mike grinned too, and they ate for a while before his thoughts brought him full circle.

"It's just, going to Alagadda, you know? You should have heard what 2992 said about it - he sounded really scared. It doesn't seem like something that the Commander - the ex-Commander, I mean - would do."

Zhao lowered her glass of water and raised an eyebrow. "I'm not so sure. You've only known Richards for a little while - I've worked with him since back when we were 'Hear No Evil'. Things were different then."

"I hope that he's okay," said Mike. "I know I shouldn't, but…"

"I know what you mean," Zhao replied. "Although I'm more worried about Emma. It's a huge responsibility, all those decisions, and she's still so young."

"Emma is pretty tough." Mike cocked his head. "And she has you to support her."

He was aiming for another grin, but Zhao just chewed absently, brows furrowed. They both ate on in silence.


The guard opened the door to the tiny visitors' room and Emma walked in, taking a seat on one side of the glass partition. The chair on the other side was empty.

Emma waited, thinking about what she wanted to ask, mind racing. She pulled at the collar of her uniform jacket. This was probably her last opportunity before the mission. She needed every edge she could get.

Finally, a buzzer sounded and the door on the other side opened. In walked ex-Commander Samuel Richards.

He looked older than she remembered, and thinner. He folded his tall frame down into the seat opposite. If he was surprised to see her there, he didn't show it. He said nothing.

Emma knew he wouldn't be interested in small-talk. "They have your Ethics Committee hearing scheduled for a month from now," she said. "I presume they told you?"

Richards nodded slowly.

"And have you remembered anything?" She knew that wasn't how amnestics worked, but it was worth trying.

The man behind the glass was impassive.

"You know what their decision will be, if you don't help them. Discharge, full amnesticisation and monitoring. Dishonor. You can't want that - not after your career."

"My career isn't important." Richards sounded hoarse.

"But to be labelled a traitor to the Foundation -"

"I was protecting the Foundation!" snapped Richards. His jaw quivered with coiled tension.

Emma could sense an opening. "I believe you," she said. "I don't know whether the Committee will, but I understand why you took 012. Tell me something, anything you can, and I can help you."

"You?" Richards stared hard at her.

"Yes. I know what Pherson is like. I worked with him."

"And that's exactly why I don't trust you," Richards replied, folding his arms. "You worked on 012, you could easily have been corrupted by it." His gaze darkened. "For all I know, you could be working with Pherson, trying to recover it for him. Or trying to take it for yourself."

"Says the man locked up for doing exactly that!" Emma's blood was up, her voice sharp.

"I'm the only one who could be trusted to keep it safe."

"The only one?" Now it was Emma's gaze that burned at the glass between them. "And yet you have an accomplice."

At that, Richards looked genuinely shocked. "What?"

"Maybe at the time you stole 012, but definitely since," continued Emma. "You walk in here to see me wearing the insignia of your MTF. Wearing the Commander's stripes you used to wear. And you don't react at all? You already knew. Someone has been feeding you information."

She knew that if Richards couldn't lie, he could stonewall. He said nothing. Emma berated herself for losing her temper. It had felt good to get a reaction from him, but it meant he wouldn't answer any more questions.

Emma stood up to leave, turning back from the door to add, "If you change your mind about helping me, let me know. Or I guess I could just ask your conspirator."

As she walked back along the hall, she wondered who it was. Probably Dee.


"I don't trust that bitch." The forend of the pump-action shotgun slid back into place with a pronounced clack.

Hennessy looked over mildly from where he had been checking the sub-sonic stun grenades. Careful, Dee. That's our Commander you're talking about, he signed.

"Not my Commander," Dee responded with a snort. She put the empty weapon back on the rack and picked up the next to check the mechanism. "It's what she did to the Commander that I don't trust her for."

What she did? Richards admitted that he stole 012.

"And she ratted him out for it." Dee wasn't brooking any argument.

Hennessy raised both white eyebrows. She worked it out, you mean. Mace was the rat. He looked down at the back of his right hand for a second, absently curling the fingers into a fist.

"Since when are you her number one fan?"

Hardly. Hennessy laughed. That's probably reserved for Mike. Anyway, you've only known one Commander for the Beasts. Stark won't be the worst we've had.

Wiping the dust from the noise-amplification rig, Dee leaned forward. "I don't know if you noticed, but she's a damn slave-driver."

Hennessy raised his hands to tease Dee for complaining about a little work, but thought the better of it. Not when she was in this mood. He made do with a shrug.

"You can't be that relaxed," she said. "Stark is taking us into a spatial anomaly full of hostiles. The task force isn't equipped for that."

We've done okay in the field so far.

"Jesus! On earth!" Dee slapped the side of the speaker she was cleaning. "Against an old man and some shitty robots! Have you read the files about Alagadda?"

It's just about knowing what to look out for. Where's your sense of adventure? he signed back.

Dee strode around the low shelf, standing right in Hennessy's face. "Bullshit! That's bullshit, H, and you know it. Twenty-five years and you never wanted adventure."

The old man didn't move, didn't reply.

"You're just a tired, worn-out - oh my god," said Dee, understanding taking away her breath. "You don't care any more. You don't care if you live, and you think you're going to … H?"

For a second she looked at Hennessy, imploring him for a response. He had none.

All Dee's anger returned at once. "Well fuck you then! You wanna die, do it on your own time. Don't put me at risk."

By the time he had started to reply, she had turned away and was storming out. Hennessy couldn't lipread her final retort: "I'm sure your precious new Commander would be happy to get you killed!". He picked up the dust-cloth from the floor and went back to work.


It was getting late. Roger Anderson strode the deserted corridors of the Site, barely paying attention to his surroundings. He had been taken off his Archives shifts, but was yet to move into the MTF quarters, and the walks were hell on his joints. But he knew he wouldn't sleep until he had shared what he'd learned.

Before he knew it he found himself outside the door to the Eta-11 Commander's office. He could see light seeping from the threshold; he wasn't surprised to see Emma was still working. He knocked hard twice, and came in.

"Commander, I need to talk to you about Dr. Reynard. I was looking at her history and -"

Roger cut off in shock. Emma was at her desk, crying.

He took a step backwards. "I'm so sorry for barging in, Em - Commander," he stuttered.

"No, no - it's okay, Roger. Don't leave." She wiped her eyes. "What did you want?"

"That's not important," said Roger, walking around the desk. "Are you all right?"

"I don't think I can do this." Emma sounded desperate. "Any of it."

Roger felt alarm, and pity, and a strange kind of relief. "Emma, you're doing fine."

"You don't understand," she replied, shaking her head. "I say these things, and make these plans, but all the time, everything feels out of control. I don't belong here. What am I doing?"

"The right thing. You have uncovered more about 012 in the past few weeks than in years of study. You've pulled this MTF into shape. Hell, I even did a sit-up yesterday." He laughed weakly, to match the joke.

"How do I know I'm making the right decisions?"

Roger gave a taut smile which he hoped was encouraging. "You can't. Not for sure. You just do your homework, take advice from the right people, and do your best."

"But I could be putting the squad in danger," said Emma, although her voice sounded more certain now.

"If danger is what the task requires, then that is what we've signed up to. I've been here a long time, and it never gets any easier to put people at risk. When you find it does, that's when I'll worry."

Emma straightened her hair, pulling herself together, becoming the Commander again. "So I take advice from the right people. What's your advice?"

Roger considered bringing up Dr. Reynard, and decided against it. Emma had enough on her plate. He contented himself with a final thought on his way out the door.

"My advice is, don't put too much trust in the Foundation. I've seen a lot, and it's taught me that when a place gets too used to keeping secrets, you can't ever know for sure what they're hiding."


The voice on the other end of the line was insistent.

"What are your concerns?"

"I'm not sure whether she represents a liability or an asset."

"Is she a risk to the mission?"

"No, I don't think so. But there are other risks."

"We can take care of them, Director Arora. You should concentrate on your role."

"I understand."

Site-Director Arora put down the phone and turned his stereo back on. The comforting voices of Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald filled his office.


Elsewhere, the opening strains of Ligeti's "Requiem" stole out from hidden speakers in the darkened warehouse. Stuart Pherson, once of the Foundation, bathed in the music and was borne upwards upon it. He knew it well, but hearing it again he felt new purpose in the twisting voices.

That purpose was part of him, too. And his fellow thieves, elsewhere in the building, preparing in their own ways. They were so different from him, yet alike too - drawn together like singers joining the song. Pherson closed his eyes, breathing deeply as the music swelled.

And then at once all sound fell into a chasm of silence.

Pherson opened his eyes, and saw the figure before him. It was robed and masked, towering in the dim light. When it spoke, Pherson felt he could hear the echoes of cawing crows.

"You have the baton." It was a demand.

Pherson gave an almost instinctive bow. "Yes." He pulled it from the bag at his feet, passing it to a black-gloved hand. Pherson shivered at the touch.

The baton disappeared within the flowing robes. "More is expected."

"Yes, my patron." Pherson's understanding was instinctive too. "We are ready. But the Foundation -"

"The Foundation has grown soft," said the figure, implacable. "It cannot prevent the tide of history now it has turned. Its actions are unimportant. We will bring the Saint's return. You must find the score."

Pherson looked pained. "The score is lost, stolen from us. The Foundation cannot find it and neither can we."

The black shape before him seemed to grow larger. "Not that score. The others. Only two are required, and you will find them."

"Where, my master?" Pherson asked hungrily.

"Tune your instruments. Assemble the orchestra. You will go to Alagadda."


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