Crossroads

« Release | Idea - Ideal - Ideology | Embarkation »


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Eight boulevards converge at the base of the tower. Mountain winds race along them, fanning the bonfire. Close to, the heat dries his eyes. Flames snap and billow. The smoke tastes strange.

James looks up. Firelit shadows cavort on the hulking concrete shell. Above the tower, the sky is drenched in stars.

It has been 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 hears footsteps. A man walks into the fire's glow, and James stands.

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 - neat greying beard and dark eyes - is small beneath a wide sky.

Varela reads his 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, 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 two more in Neuquén."

James starts to deny it, but Varela interrupts him. "I don't care about these things. 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 his comfortable Boston life sours in his mind. Flickering claws gouge at the darkness. He is still mulling while Varela calls the others over.

They are around fifteen people. Students, site workers, a disheveled chemist. Aurelio grins, and introduces the young woman on his arm: Jacinta. There is an ex-professor from Comahue, an ex-Jesuit from the capital, a couple of indigenous Tehuelche. James loses track of names. Why are they here? He needs to speak with Varela alone.

Varela is dismissive. "These are the people I trust. The Veil is not for them."

The fire-lit faces are expectant. They are looking at him.

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. Almost no-one is left who knows about us."

"Good. At least, I think that's a good thing. It means that SIDE don't know your past. They want to kill you for who you are now."

James hears the force of this hit the group. Aurelio spits, and says, "Those sons of whores. Twenty thousand disappeared."

Varela waves for calm.

James continues. "And now they have something worse. Something I studied, before the Foundation was disbanded. Something the CIA took and turned into a weapon. The Foundation sent me to recover it."

His gaze is drawn ever upward. A cloud speeds past; the tower leans precipitously down. Towards him. Listening.

"It looks like a press camera. A Graflex Speed Graphic. Folding body, large flash. When the camera is focused on an object, and the flash goes off, that object stops being real. Well, it's more like- the object loses its reality and becomes an ideal."

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

"Yes, or something similar," replies James, grateful for the show of understanding. "And because ideal forms are imperceptible by definition, the object essentially ceases to exist."

Jacinta 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 the camera 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! SIDE is using this on people?"

Shock races through them. James reads their faces. How many people erased from existence? How many had they known? Friends? Family? Faces and names and lives, scrubbed blank.

He forces himself to interrupt. "We don't know how many people they've used it on – either the CIA or SIDE. The CIA's original plan was for targeted assassinations. Removing the most dangerous individuals. That stopped after what happened with Guevara."

Varela paces away 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.

"After that, they lowered their sights. Some religious leaders, some 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. James stares at his back. The older man is still, then laughs. Aurelio and the others fall silent.

"If your path is ordained, you cannot run from it," says Varela. The laugh is genuine, but his voice is weary. "Wherever your foot falls, that has always been the path."

James stares at Varela, framed against the dark. Varela turns.

"My friend, when I left the Foundation I tried to forget. I threw off my old life . But my new life led me here, 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 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 gather here," replies Varela. "The reason we light the fires and breathe this smoke. The reason that work on the tower is delayed, why it must never be finished." He starts back towards James. "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, from the shadows of a building, outside the firelight. Then, louder, "Shut up and keep still! We will shoot!"

Two men emerge into the light. The shorter one, wiry and greying, shouts, "Don't move!". An American accent.

The taller man looks down his pistol-sight. James sees the camera hanging from his neck.

The Tehuelche woman shrieks. More men appear from the other side of the fire. More guns. The knot of scared people draws tighter. The men surround them, but not too close. Establishing a perimeter. They say nothing.

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 that there was a man named Varela."

He prowls back and forth, 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.

"Oh believe me, son, I know. You're the cause of this whole shitshow."

James breathes deeply, trying to slow the pounding in his chest. He needs to keep talking, try to de-escalate. "I want to help you. These people - you don't need to hurt them."

The American leans close, intimidatory. "You're the big hero now? You started to believe the shit they say about you? You and me both know you ain't that man. Ever since you got here, all you've done is run. Every time you ran, you led me closer to what I want. And you'll run again, given a chance."

"All I want is to keep the camera safe," says James, stomach roiling. "I don't -"

"You think we're different?" The man's lips curl in irony. "How many times did you use it? How many men did you -" He flicks his fingers outwards, into nothing. "You think you're here to help these people? What would they think of you, if they knew?"

All the air comes out of James. "Please," he says, "I will come with you and explain everything. You don't need them." It is all he has left.

"Bullshit," the American spits back. "Varela was just going to tell you what this place is. You're about the only one here doesn't know. You just run along, son."

He barges past. James feels discarded.

Switching to Spanish, the American raises his voice, "This man knows nothing, so one of you is going to tell me. Something in the tower, yes?"

Aurelio blazes forward. "Your mother!"

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

The American's face is red. He shouts, "Maybe I'm not being clear. Tonight is already a fuck-up, thanks to this poor excuse for an agent." He snatches the camera from his companion. "And I've had enough of this shithole country. So I will happily wipe you all off the face of the earth if you don't fucking tell me what I want to know!"

The American grabs Jacinta by the hair, yanking her up. Jacinta yelps. Aurelio tries to rise, but falls back. The group is magnetised, eyes following the American as he half-drags Jacinta and throws her to the ground. The camera is on his neck. His right hand clutches his gun.

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

James tries to move. The crackling fire twists the silence taut. The tower looms, mute.

An engine roars.

Echoes from 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. Without the engine it remains a ghost.

An agent leans forward, squinting. He raises his weapon, assumes a shooting stance.

Headlights blaze, and the engine thunders to life. The jeep is 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, slamming into 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 scrambles 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 him.

The American runs toward the tower. He still has the camera.

James looks across the burning courtyard. To the frantic flight of Varela's friends. Belén, pinned down by gunfire from three agents still standing. Aurelio and Jacinta, wrestling with the other. The American, disappearing into the shadowed doorway.

James hesitates.


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