September 23, 1949: United States President Harry S. Truman announces to the world that the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics has successfully detonated an atomic weapon, ending the United States' distinction as sole possessor of nuclear weaponry.
October 19, 1949: United States Secretary of Defense Louis A. Johnson, in his capacity as the American liaison to the Foundation, delivers an ultimatum from the Truman Administration.
The Alps loomed through the filigreed windows, the panes of glass gently warped with age. The snow was piling up in the mountains in earnest now, promising a long, cold winter. The war had required the Foundation to establish a neutral gathering place for its top level meetings, and The Overseers had grown accustomed to meeting in Zurich. The Hotel Schweizerhof thus became a haunt in these years for the gentlemen of the "Samarkand Club", an informal group of thirteen international trade brokers that periodically required the entirety of the lodgings for a few days at a time.
For the others, the dark, wood paneled room lit partially by the clear, cold light of the Swiss afternoon was no doubt familiar territory. But all O5-8 could think of when he looked at the exposed wooden beams of the ceiling was his predecessor's shockingly public demise. Between the circumstances of his recent accession to the ranks of the Overseers, and this business now, the newest member of the Council found himself wishing for the simpler days of the war, despite some of the more unpleasant aspects of its aftermath. He took his seat at the polished mahogany table as O5-1 impatiently cleared his throat.
The thirteen men gathered in the room were a dour lot at the best of times. But even the black jests and gallows-humor that passed for camaraderie among them was nowhere in evidence now. What they had to come to discuss today, if the hints in the meeting request were what O5-8 thought, was something altogether new in his time at the Foundation. Anything new, he was beginning to find out, was rarely good. He brushed a tuft of rapidly-graying hair from his forehead, flicked open his lighter and started a fresh cigarette.
At the head of the table, a lean man in a bespoke suit narrowed his eyes, the dark brown skin of his face furrowed with ritual scars. He calmly called for attention in a low, deep voice. O5-1 wasted no time. "O5-3, you are our North American subdirector. Please inform the Council."
A rotund, gray-bearded man slowly stood up to address the room as he straightened his vest and gold watch chain. O5-3 adjusted his glasses and hesitated a moment, taking stock of his twelve colleagues around the table before speaking. O5-8 thought that he saw a single bead of sweat at the old man's temple.
"Gentlemen, as you are aware, forty-eight hours ago, my office received a secure telegram from the Pentagon. The nature of this telegram was such that I could not divulge its contents, even through our normal channels. Thus, the emergency meeting. Here is what I have received."
O5-3 opened the envelope, removed a thin, yellow sheet of paper, and cleared his throat as he adjusted the letter to the proper distance from his eyes. He began to read the contents aloud.
"Russians have acquired atomic armaments. Balance of power disrupted."
From the opposite end of the table, O5-13 snorted derisively.
"International community now faced with a hostile power equipped with weapons of unbridled potential for destruction. Russians must be checked for good of the world. The United States requires Foundation cooperation to ensure continued survival of mankind."
The portly Overseer paused for a moment to adjust his glasses again and to clear his throat. O5-8 saw the typically unflappable man before him hesitate, and knew then that his suspicions were confirmed.
"Foundation is to turn over following assets to the Department of Defense within two weeks."
Murmurs began around the room as the situation facing them all started to become apparent. O5-8 had watched the tensions continually mount in Berlin, and had idly wondered how long it would be before this day came. Faced with the moment now, however, he felt as though he had come to the edge of a cliff, his cynical speculation now replaced with a growing sense of dread. In his other capacities, his other life, he had observed in some men an ability to joke and philosophize while awaiting their fate, only to quail before the gallows, terrified by the enormity of what they had thought they could accept. O5-8 now felt an unwelcome kinship.
O5-3 began reading the list of anomalous objects that the Americans were demanding be turned over. The murmuring grew louder as the list lengthened, punctuated by shouts of disbelief as a Keter object was mentioned or the custody of an entire Site was demanded. By the end, O5-3 had enumerated 53 objects, 4 Sites, and 348 personnel. The room was now silent, save for O5-13, muttering to no one in particular.
"Yóbanny v rot."
Subdirector Lafourche adjusted his cufflinks once more. He never had gotten used to wearing a suit since being appointed United States Liaison, not really. No matter which tailor he went to, he always felt constricted when he dressed for work, from the shoes his wife was always telling him not to scuff up to the tie that perpetually needed straightening. He had too much responsibility now to ever go back to being Agent Lafourche. His duties were elsewhere now. But as he shot his cuffs and buttoned his coat, the possibility of once again putting on a field uniform every day made him smile, despite himself.
His security attaché stood behind him, surveying the lonely rest stop and the highway, intently peering into the night.
"Ain't nothin' gonna come out of them corn fields, Stillwell. We've confirmed that everyone's cleared out?"
The younger man faced his superior. "Well, I mean, yeah, but the civ-"
"Our people, Stillwell. They're out and at the meeting points?"
The younger man turned his view back out to the night. "Yes sir."
Lafourche heaved a slow, measured sigh, put his hands in his pockets, and leaned against the car.
"Ain't nothing for it."
Several minutes passed with no words between the two men, the sound of crickets and an occasional rustling of a passing critter in the fields around them the only sounds. Headlights appeared on the highway, and Stillwell stiffened as he reached for his radio handset.
Lafourche stood up once more. "Prince Charming approaches."
Stillwell intoned a series of code words into his handset confirming the meet as a black Chrysler rolled into the driveway, coming to a stop alongside the Foundation-issue shoebox Ford. Two men in black suits stepped out of the driver and passenger seats, one moving to open a rear door for a bespectacled, balding gentleman. The third man quickly pulled on a long, rumpled brown coat as he left the car in response to the deepening autumn chill. The assembled group made their way to Lafourche and Stillwell.
Lafourche smiled as he extended a hand. "Evening, Secretary. Pentagon holdin' up all right?"
The American Defense Secretary looked blankly at Lafourche's outstretched hand, then looked over at Stillwell to Lafourche's left. "You've always been too familiar," Secretary Johnson said as Lafourche withdrew the hand. "Well? Your people called us out here to the middle of nowhere for your answer. I'd like it now."
The smile faded slowly from Lafourche's face. "This is serious stuff, Secretary. Don't rush it. You've asked us for quite a lot."
"You've taken a lot over the years from the United States Treasury," Johnson stated plainly, "one could say we just want what's ours."
"Well now," Lafourche countered in his slowest drawl, "we count up the rubles right next to the dollars. Secretary."
Silence fell among the five men. The gazes of the Secretary's two bodyguards never left Lafourche and Stillwell. For a moment, there was only the sound of the crickets and the mist of the mens' breath, faintly visible in the moonlight.
"Route clear, proceed, over," crackled Stillwell's radio.
The mist of Stillwell's breath pulsed a little quicker than the others. Maintaining eye contact with the bodyguard in front of him, he raised the handset. "Roger that. Proceeding, over."
"You'll have our answer shortly, Secretary," said Lafourche. "But we'll have to give it to you about five miles from here. Let's go."
Johnson stepped closer to Lafourche. "If you've got it in your mind to try something-"
Lafourche raised his hands up in mock defense. "There's what, three more cars within five miles of here? And a fighter squadron mobilized to come strafe us to hell, if I don't miss my guess?"
Johnson said nothing.
"C'mon Secretary. We ain't stupid. But we got a lot to discuss, and it's too damn cold in this cornfield. Just follow our car, it ain't more than ten minutes out."
Johnson waited several seconds, then motioned to his men to start the car. The Secretary looked over Lafourche and Stillwell one more time before turning to join them.
The Foundation operatives headed to their car. Lafourche called out to the American delegation as he got into the Ford.
"Y'all make sure to keep up. Stillwell here drives real fast."
Two hours in the meeting room, and the shouting just kept increasing. The Council had split into two more or less opposing camps; those who wished to move immediately to dispatch the Truman Administration, led mostly by O5-2 and his plan to "erase a select group of seventeen individuals from history," and those who wanted to placate the Americans with a counteroffer granting them a varying degree (based on which Overseer was speaking) of their list. The latter camp was led by a rare concordance between O5-3 and O5-13.
"Our very mission is to secure these phenomenon for the benefit of all mankind," thundered O5-2, pounding the table for emphasis, "and you would turn them over for the purposes of warfare? You must be mad!"
The perpetual bags under O5-13's eyes had deepened further in the course of the discussion, but O5-8 knew that this was a far deeper fatigue that gripped 13 now, one beyond what a mere heated argument could produce. The old man lazily waved a hand in the air at the bellicose O5-2.
"And what is our alternative? If you believe that you can successfully attack a sitting President of the United States, you are an even bigger fool than I thought. I can only hope that with our woeful understanding of causality anomalies at present, that you will be the first one through the portal with your precious strike team."
The veins were out now in O5-2's forehead. "Roll over and die, the Great Master has spoken! Wonderful strategy!" A sheaf of papers fell in a waterfall off the side of the table, dislodged by the violence of O5-2's fist crashing down nearby. He worked to restrain his fury, and spoke slowly and deliberately now.
"Make no mistake. If we hand over so much as a single item to the Americans, the first thing they will do, in their boundless arrogance, is strike Moscow. We will see World War III started by children, convinced that they have mastered the atom, deploying weapons far more terrible than those conceived by science."
O5-2 surveyed the room, quiet now for the first time in hours. He continued.
"If we bow to this demand, we may as well dig our own graves. There will be no consensus reality to protect. If we agree to this, there is no point to the Foundation. The radioactive wasteland that they're so scared of will be the Elysian Fields compared to what the United States will unleash, emboldened by using the unknowable."
The room stayed silent for what felt like O5-8 to be minutes. Finally, O5-3, brow sopping with sweat, responded.
"We do not know what will happen between the Soviet Union and the United States. We do know what will happen between the Foundation and the United States in an open conflict."
At this, the room erupted again, curses and shouts flying in all directions, papers strewn everywhere, details forgotten in the face of existential crisis. O5-8 leaned back and observed the ongoing scene, noticing that no one seemed to notice he was there. No one, save O5-1, who had been silently watching the debate unfold, and now looked O5-8 in the eye from across the room. O5-8 had considered the predicament they all faced while the other Overseers raged, and at the silent prompting from O5-1, turned the various pieces of a solution over in his mind. Things suddenly began to click into place in his mind. O5-8 nodded to O5-1. O5-1 returned the gesture, and leaned forward expectantly.
No one noticed as O5-8 took his glass of water in hand and rose. He finished the last of the water to help clear his throat, then promptly heaved the glass with all his strength into the stone fireplace directly behind his seat. The fine crystal exploded, showering the stonework with tiny droplets of glass and deafening all in the room with the cacophony that can only come from the destruction of fine craftsmanship. All shouting ceased. All discussion stopped. The twelve other Overseers turned now to O5-8, his slight figure now at the center of the room's attention.
"Gentlemen," he said in his lightly Berliner-inflected English, "I have a plan."
The two cars stopped at the top of a low, windswept hill. The five men stepped out of their respective vehicles, and congregated at a lone oak tree. Below them, to the north, were the illuminated windows and bright little streetlight dots of a small town.
Lafourche drew his coat closer against the cold. "Down below there, that's the town of Woodvale, population 837. Y'all knew that already from your advance scouting of the meeting location and environs."
"Get to the point," muttered Johnson.
"What you don't know, I reckon, is that Woodvale is also what we refer to as Site-63A."
The Secretary scowled. "Nonsense, we have a complete listing-"
"No. Y'all don't," interjected Lafourche. "When you made the demands you did, you did so with imperfect knowledge. Something that we mean to help rectify here tonight. See, we've set up something of a demonstration here. Stillwell, if you please."
Stillwell popped open the trunk of the Foundation-issue Ford, and took out a black briefcase. As he approached the Secretary, he noticed the bodyguards' hands slowly inch towards the bulges under their jackets. Slowly, he clicked open the briefcase, and showed the Secretary and his men the contents.
"Binoculars," said Stillwell. "You'll find a pair for each of you in there."
Hesitantly, the American delegation took the binoculars. "What are you playing at, Lafourche?" said the Secretary.
"Your answer. You're going to get it here now. Train them binoculars out towards the town down there. You'll find out just how complete your listing is. Stillwell?"
The security attaché had been dreading this moment. But Lafourche was right; there was nothing for it. No choice at all.
Stillwell switched on his radio. "Perimeter control, do you read me, over?"
"Roger that, over," responded an anonymous voice somewhere else in the night.
A brief pause. Then it had to happen.
"Disengage Systems Alpha through Foxtrot. Cut power to the main drivers. Evacuate all remaining personnel."
Stillwell looked at Lafourche. Lafourche nodded slowly.
"Site-63A, stand down. Over."
"Preposterous," grumbled O5-5, "completely out of the question. The Americans will strike at us within hours if we do such a thing!"
Scattered assent from several of the other Overseers met O5-5's pronouncement. O5-8 persisted.
"Not if we sell it correctly. All we need do is convince them that there are enough hidden assets, that they will need to postpone any action against us until they're gathered more intelligence."
O5-2 turned his back as he continued to pace the opposite side of the table. "So they come and kill us next week instead of tomorrow."
"No," continued O5-8. "We buy ourselves the time to relocate everything we can out of their reach. We won't be able to get everything, but we shall keep the most dangerous items from falling into their hands."
"And what of the Soviets? Surely they have anticipated this, and are making their own plans," interjected O5-3.
"No doubt," answered O5-8. "But we've yet to receive their ultimatum, though it won't be long coming when they find out about what the Americans are up to. We evacuate from Russia and Eastern Europe as well."
O5-13 looked off through one of the high windows, entranced in thought. "The Americans will expect a ruse," he said into the distance, idly chewing a finger as he contemplated the plan.
"The strength of the plan depends on the site we choose to sacrifice."
The entire room looked toward the end of the table. O5-1 was now speaking.
"There are not enough assets we've been able to keep secret from the intelligence services to mount any sustained resistance," the Head Overseer intoned. "But there are several sites within the US which may supply the necessary psychological impact to keep the more skeptical planners in the Pentagon at bay."
O5-3 furrowed his brow, running through mental checklists. "Site-101 is a candidate, as is Site-13. But those would take weeks to adequately prepare. No, I don't-"
"I have a site in mind for this purpose," O5-8 interrupted. "Minimal preparation would be necessary, and the phenomenon is self-limited enough to prove distracting while not seriously threatening a large area once it burns itself out."
The room was quiet again. O5-9, silent for most of the day except to occasionally agree with O5-2, ventured forth. "That is completely monstrous. We cannot allow it. Of all the sites to abandon, you would have us leave civilians at the mercy of those-"
"You were not there for the war, were you, 9?" O5-8 leveled the words slowly and cruelly.
"If you're implying that participation in senseless acts of butchery is necessary for discussion, I've-"
"I maintained cover the entire time. My predecessor and I both. You all know the things we did. The things I did. In the name of secrecy, to serve mankind. Not a single one of you raised objections then." O5-8 felt the first traces of anger begin to leak out as he spoke now. "No, others bore that burden. Now that it comes to you, this duty to the world, yours to bear in the darkness, you shrink."
O5-8 turned to the rest of the room. "There is only one course of action now. The question is whether you all have the strength to see it through. I'll have that vote now." O5-8 sat down, hands trembling under the table, out of sight.
O5-1 addressed the Overseer Council. "The motion is as follows."
The sounds had started in the town below about five minutes after Stillwell had given the order. Indistinct, murmuring voices, what had to be the voices of thousands of things that sounded vaguely like people, muttering unintelligibly. Faster and faster. Louder and louder. The voices in the distance were accompanied by random bursts of what sounded to Johnson like the twisting of metal, unnaturally echoing across the flat prairie below.
Lights blinked on in every house down below. Not long after, he could make out the shapes of people fleeing their homes against the flickering points of light, alone in the vast prairie night. Bursting through doors and windows, scrambling as fast as they could towards cars, running down streets.
The Secretary thought briefly of demanding an explanation. Before he could, the flickering lights started to dim. Tendrils of shadow stretched from lighted windows and open doorways, individual threads of darkness seeming to solidify and join together in thick, ropy masses. The twisting metal shrieks came more frequently, the unworldly voices speaking quicker, reaching a fever pitch. The lights of the town below began to change, soft yellows and whites giving way to a uniform, sickly hue of green.
He struggled for words. "What…what in God's name did you do?"
Lafourche's eyes had never left the Secretary. "You just keep watching that."
Through the binoculars, he saw the the thick ropes of shadow had stretched down streets and alleys, seeking the fleeing residents. Some had already been caught, held fast in what looked to be impenetrable webs of darkness. The ones who had been caught were being dragged back to their homes now. It became apparent to the three observers of the American delegation that no one was going to escape; the darkness was enveloping cars now, snaking under bridges and benches, inexorably seeking and finding all who tried to escape.
Stillwell knew exactly what was happening, and wanted nothing more than to heave the contents of his stomach behind the tree nearby and cover his ears with his hands. He knew, though, that this moment must go according to plan. So many were being sacrificed. He stood his ground and waited.
As each resident was dragged back into their houses, a light would blink out. At first, the Secretary thought the lights were being extinguished, but he soon noticed that instead, they were disappearing. Structures began to apparently blink out of existence, houses suddenly vanishing once the darkness had reeled in all former occupants. The lights of the town were quickly receding from its outskirts, pulling back towards the center as the reality of Woodvale convulsed into an approaching singularity.
The last light, a single outbuilding in the center of town, vanished as what looked to be a man was pulled back in through his doorway, thrashing and screaming. The door closed, the light went out, the building disappeared, and all was suddenly silent.
The three observers lowered their binoculars, now looking at an empty patch of darkness where a town of 837 people had stood not a half hour prior.
The crickets were the first to break the silence that had fallen on the five men on the hilltop. Then Lafourche took his cue.
"The Foundation rejects your demands. Whatever forces are out there that are responsible for what you just witnessed are not for any nation to turn against humanity. Our mission is bigger than you, bigger than the Soviets. It's for all mankind."
Lafourche stepped close to Secretary Johnson and leaned in, almost nose-to-nose now.
"If the United States of America intrudes on, or interferes with, any Foundation assets, we will empty the cupboards. All of the stuff that ain't on your lists. And what you saw is not the worst of it."
Lafourche turned to the side and spat. "That's our fuckin' answer. Secretary."
A mixture of grave offense and horror played across the face of the speechless Secretary of Defense. Without another word, the three men of the American delegation returned to their car, and sped back into the night.
Stillwell let his instincts take over now. Doubled over in front of the oak tree, he heaved bile and acid, retching and coughing, the enormity of what he had just ordered matched only by an increasing feeling of self-loathing. He remained on his knees in front of the tree as Lafourche approached from behind.
"Did they buy it," managed Stillwell weakly.
Lafourche waited several moments. "For now, probably. You can expect the spooks to be out in force in a few days, crawling over every abandoned mine shaft and desert valley in the whole goddamn country, checkin' to see if we're bullshitting. Command says that we need two weeks. I hope to God we get that out of this atrocity."
The young security attaché dragged a sleeve across his mouth. "Sir. What's…what's next?"
A pause. "Kid, how's your Russian?"
O5-8 watched the Alps go by through the window of the private railcar. Darkness was falling early in the days now. It would be pitch dark by the time he arrived in Vienna.
"I have communicated the orders to the North American sub-command," said O5-1 from his leather chair. "You're ready to proceed?"
The younger Overseer pondered again his contacts in Cairo. In Jakarta, Johannesburg, and Bangalore. The logistics alone were horrifying to contemplate. The last thing in the world that he felt at the moment was a sense of readiness. "We move at your order," he replied.
The Head Overseer nodded. "You may not believe this, Hans, but I have an idea of what's going through your mind at this moment." O5-1 stood up, and took a place by the window next to O5-8. "The only things I can say to you that matter right now, are these. The vote was in favor, do not dwell upon the margin. That decision has been made. And I placed you in charge of this operation because I believe you are best suited to this task."
The younger man placed his hand on the window. The chill of the mountain air on the other side penetrated immediately into his fingertips. "Tell me, in your honest opinion. Do you think we make it out of this?"
O5-1 looked out the window, into the darkness, the mountains all but gone from view now. "I do not know."
O5-8 chuckled, not entirely without humor. "Nor do I, Herr Overseer."