Shiny Gold Foil
rating: +30+x

Humanity has yet to kick its god-building habit.

Everybody loves a legend. Everybody loves a story about someone unbelievable and extraordinary, a body and mind behind an impossible event or a terrible tragedy. Worship is an intrinsic symptom of being human; not one of us reaches the end without exalting something.

Dr. Xi Chen knew this well. Not consciously, but his bones were made of the same ancient stuff most humans were made of, and his bones knew. He was not different from other people. Like the strong majority of his peers, he was smart and articulate and quick to pull up a chair at a break room table when he caught someone beginning a story about one of the Foundation’s more notorious staff. It reminded him of a time when he was a kid and he brought his Egyptology book to school, the other children crowding around him to get a look at the thick, shiny pages as he flipped through them with the reverence and carefulness of an archaeologist leafing through an actual ancient relic and not just a children’s imitation of one.

The excitement was the same when a colleague burst through a door, breathlessly announcing “Guess who I just saw?!” Beyond the clearance levels, a tiered system always existed within the Foundation. A handful of staff always rose to a certain godhood, their status as legendary figures cemented by the astonishingly brave or staggeringly brilliant or shockingly insane things they had done.

One such legend was Dr. Rose Hatcher.

Dr. Hatcher always kept a grip on Chen’s imagination; she was easily one of his favorites. Everyone he knew had heard an iteration of the story that made her famous, the time she saved a few dozen lives during a breach by crafting a bomb out of a toaster oven and a Konica copy machine. As it jumped from one teller to the next the story warped and changed, sometimes a printer, sometimes a mini fridge, sometimes a blender instead of a toaster oven, but despite the thousand different tellings everyone agreed on one thing: Dr. Hatcher could MacGyver her way out of any situation.

Sharp instincts, nimble fingers, and an incredible knowledge of physics endowed Hatcher with abilities to craft solutions to any problem. The Foundation found her work invaluable. Frequently she received calls from panicked field agents, seeking answers from the master of quick thinking and functional un-fixedness, and she would listen to them describe their surroundings and map them in her brain before calmly describing a way out or around or through. She was unshakable. Unflappable. No impossible case could stump her. Some thought her ability uncanny, some thought it anomalous. Most thought she was just very, very smart.

Chen heard all this secondhand, naturally. Almost everything he knew about her he learned from the wide-eyed accounts relayed by his fellow lower-level researchers. But once, when he was carrying a pile of printer toner boxes from one location to a different location, he had seen her with his own eyes. He peered around his tower of cardboard and watched her yell at an intern, some poor bastard who had clearly fucked up something, although he wasn’t close enough to hear what it was. But she was there, down the hall, seeming to shine with some sort of electric energy that sparked off her movements and expressions. The encounter still lit a childish giddiness in him and he wasted no time rushing to finish his duties and tell his friends so they could argue and hypothesize about what the intern had done to set her off. It was fun. Harmless gossip about someone they all both feared and admired. She didn’t seem real.

Not then, at least. She certainly felt real now.

He wasn't paying attention when he rounded the corner. His earbuds sang some 3-year-old radio song into his head and he couldn't hear over the familiar tune. He bumped into someone. The impact and the suddenness forced a strange, cutoff grunt of surprise from his chest, followed by the chaotic clattering of office supplies against a hard linoleum floor and the hollow resonant shatter of a terracotta pot.

There wasn’t much spilled onto the floor, but Not Much mixed with a decent amount of potting soil is still a bitch to clean. Chen immediately began scooping the dirt from the aloe plant’s broken pot into his hands, unsure of what else to do with it but very sure that he didn’t want to make the janitors’ jobs any harder. A flush of embarrassment bled into his ears.

“God, I’m so sorry-”

Hands full of dirt and terracotta shards, Chen looked up to meet the eyes of Dr. Hatcher, who was staring with casual disinterest at the mess on the floor through the hole in the bottom of the copy box she was holding in both arms.

The nervous heat in his face turned to a sickening burn.

Chen rocketed to his feet, both hands still cupping soil and terracotta like he was planning on relocating the plant there. Something firing in his brain told him to do something to make the whole situation less completely mortifying, and something else in his brain told him that the first something of his brain was an idiot, and the way to fix the problem was by standing slack-jawed and rigid as a post in the middle of the hallway. His body agreed with the second something.

It felt like a hundred years before Dr. Hatcher took a deep breath and then heaved a long sigh. But as soon as she did, the dam was broken.

“Jesus, shit, I’m so sorry, don’t worry about it let me get it it’s myfaultanywayjustletmecleanitupI’msosorryI’manidiotletme-”

“Kid.”

He stopped. Her voice had smoke damage.

“It’s fine.”

She did genuinely seem to think it was fine. Or perhaps she simply didn’t care enough to do anything to him about it. Or to do anything about it at all, really. She just stood there, staring down at the mess on the floor. Chen stood there as well, staring at her.

She was old. Not old old, but older than he thought she would be. Or maybe she just looked older than he thought she would look. Her hair brushed with wires of silver sneaking into the coily black curls. A deep crease between her eyebrows, two more on either side of her pursed lips. Her eyes were deep and dark, but they lacked the fierce spark of intelligence he’d always expected he’d see there, if he ever got as close as he was now. And she stared at the ground past the broken bottom of the cardboard copy box, the look on her face something quiet and weary.

Chen stumbled over words once more, tongue thick and clumsy. “Um, Dr. Hatcher-”

At the sound of her name Dr. Hatcher looked up, meeting his eyes. He looked for the spark. He did not find it.

“My name’s, uh, my name’s Dr. Chen. I work up on the fourth floor.”

She blinked.

"It's an honor to meet you," he said.

I’m a big fan, he did not say.

“Mm.” Dr. Hatcher said.

Dr. Chen bent to his knees again, this time making a much more earnest effort to clean up the floor. He began scooping potting soil into the corner of his lab coat. It didn’t matter, he had extras. This one wasn’t even his favorite. Dr. Hatcher resigned herself to the social convention that dictated she shouldn’t leave him to clean it all up by himself. The smell of the dirt was a short respite from the usual pungence of the bleach cleaner. Something a little less sterile and a little more real.

Chen picked up a piece of the broken pot and turned it over in his palm. It was painted on the outside, by hand. He could see the raised line where the gold spray-paint had bunched up against the edge of the tape. A few strokes of teal and white, but those were brush-painted instead of sprayed. He felt a smile crawl nervously onto his face.

“Hey, did you make-”

His sentence was cut off by the clanking rattle of Hatcher picking up the dislodged aloe plant off the ground and tossing it unceremoniously into a nearby trash can, the soil hissing as it shook through the plastic liner.

Chen’s mouth popped open, like maybe he might protest throwing out a perfectly good aloe plant, but as soon as it opened, it shut again. Hatcher picked up a crumpled lab coat from its position balled up on the floor, shook out the loose bits of soil and began gathering the other unbroken items into it. She looked a bit like a parent cleaning up after a difficult toddler, but at the same time she looked a little like a teenager packing sentimental items into a backpack before a half-hearted and ill-conceived shot at running away. Framed photographs and multi-tools and sandwich bags full of differently-sized screws, all of these she gathered into her white lab coat bindle. The sight of her crouched on the floor made Chen’s stomach feel strange. Like there was a hole in it.

He shook off the feeling. He was standing in the presence of his hero, for God’s sake. He was going to milk that for all it was worth, as long as they were still connected by the thread of the mess on the floor. That included dumping the dirt in his hands into the trash can after the aloe plant, but pocketing one of the painted fragments of the pot.

“So, what’s all this for?” He wasn’t expecting a real answer, not really, merely something he could grab onto. A little hint at an adventure he wasn’t allowed to know about, a few words he could use to spin into some sort of narrative he could regale his friends with. It didn’t have to be much.

And it wasn’t.

“I’m quitting.”

The hole became a pit.

The instinct not to pry dissolved with his shame. “What? Why?! You can’t quit! We need you, the Foundation needs you. You’ve done incredible work here.”

Hatcher gave a shrug, standing up with her bundle of belongings and the shell of her copy box. She didn’t radiate any sort of energy. She mostly looked tired. “Don’t like the way things are run. Don’t want to be a part of it anymore.” She threw the words away. They landed heavy and cold in Chen’s chest. “It’s not worth it for me. And I’m not important enough for them to really have a shot in fighting to keep me around. Going down to Amnestics to get some new memories, and then I’m out of here forever.”

The deepening void in Chen’s belly became a writhing monster .

“But- you can’t do that! You can’t- you can't just leave. What about everything you’ve done? What about all the people you’ve helped?”

“Hopefully you’ll help them now.”

It wasn’t a call to action. It wasn’t a handing-off of any sort of noble mantle, from a weathered veteran to a bright-eyed rookie. It was a dry acknowledgement of the fact that, after Dr. Hatcher, there were other people. Replacements.

Chen asked the only question he could. “What will you do?”

Dr. Hatcher’s hard face softened for a split second, her eyes momentarily distant as she saw something he couldn’t.

“Live on the beach.”

And with that, she walked past him, her figure (not as imposing as it ought to be) shrinking as she left down the hall. And then she opened a door, and then she was gone.

Chen's feet rooted him to the linoleum. His left hand was wet and warm, and bloody, he would learn upon looking at it. He had gripped the piece of pottery so hard that the edge had bit into his palm. Wiping the red off with his thumb, Chen studied the paint. Fake gold, a thin film of it. Like his Egyptology book.

There was hydrogen peroxide in his dormitory. He would go wash the blood out of his coat and pants. That’s what he would do now.

It was fresh, which means it came out easily, but Chen kept scrubbing anyway. He worked the hard cotton of his lab coat against itself, squeezing out a stain that wasn’t there anymore. His knuckles whitened as he gripped the fabric with both hands, his fingers growing raw from the friction. But the negligible sting in his hands felt less terrible than the way his insides were wringing themselves into knots.

He felt angry. He felt a lot of things. Anger, confusion, shock. Heartbreak, maybe.

But the one that hurt the most, and took the longest to identify, was disappointment.

Part of him wanted to march down to Amnestics himself and get the last couple hours erased from his mind, but he knew his reasoning was childish and a little pathetic and the people down there would not be impressed. The image stood out on the insides of his eyelids. When he blinked he could see her, shoveling office supplies into the dirty lab coat in her arms. He wanted to see her in action. He wanted to see her at her peak, talking quickly and clearly through a radio, flicking out a pocket screwdriver, pulling back her wild hair before getting to work. Not wincing and rubbing her lower back after standing up from kneeling on the floor. Not carrying a cardboard paper box full of the last dregs of her shamefully erasable career. Not exhausted and resigned and aging.

She wasn’t supposed to be like that. She was supposed to be indestructible. She was supposed to be legendary.

He knew she was a human, he just didn’t want to be confronted with the fact that she was human.

Because the higher-ups, the 4’s and 5’s, they had to be different. They couldn’t just be people. They couldn’t just be humans, who got wrinkles and head-colds, who forgot their keys and their siblings’ birthdays, who were once children with favorite books, maybe even the kind with shiny gold foil on the cover. Because if they were just humans, that would mean the Foundation wasn’t run by gods, or legends, or exceptionally special people, just regular, ordinary people. It meant the fate of humanity was in the hands of people who were not different from him, not really. People whose bones were made of the same stuff his were.

And Dr. Xi Chen, clutching a wet lab coat and a piece of broken pottery, felt very small and very large at the same time.

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