Conflict Resolution, Hold the Conflict

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"That was the Site. They said it would take a little bit for the tow truck to get out here." Robert rubbed his bare face and sighed, phone returning to his pocket. "God dammit."

Alison sat in the car, frowning as she tried turning the key over and over. "It worked just a little bit ago. There was gas in the tank and everything." She hit the steering wheel. "Mother fuckit. I guess we're walking."

The Goatman hobbled to the car, leaning on a cane that had been produced from somewhere. He beckoned Alison out of the vehicle and shook his head. "Least I can do for you is show you a quicker way back to town from here. Shortcut through the forest, if you will."

The two agents looked at each other, and sighed. Alison locked the door to the car, and strode alongside the Goatman. Robert followed them both, with Sinning Jessie by his side. They walked through the woods, and as they went, the two of them felt a sense of uneasiness.

There was birdsong, the leaves on the ground made pleasing crunch sounds as they walked through them, and October sunshine was filtering down through the trees. But everything about it felt off-kilter. It took them a moment to recognize why. Alison held up her hand, and stomped on one leaf with force hard enough to hurt her foot; it made a crunch sound. She walked on, and the exact same crunch sound was made, as if it were pre-recorded. Robert realized the same was happening with the birdsong. And… the sunlight. He swore that it felt… regulated. Curated, even.

"Something's askew." The Goatman frowned as they came into sight of the town, far sooner than they should have. He looked back at the two agents and tilted his head. "…shouldn't you be wearing face masks?"

"We are—" Alison touched her face, realizing the paper covering she'd had on her face was gone. She turned out her pockets, the tactical pouch on her vest, even looked on top of her head.

Robert did much of the same, eyes widening. "Where's our PPE? We're gonna get sanctioned if we're seen without it."

"Weird fear for it to latch onto. Unless…" Alison frowned, stepping out of the woods and onto Clark Avenue, which was completely vacant of housing for reasons too complex to explain in a paragraph. While the Goatman stayed behind, Alison, Jessie, and Robert walked further into the town.

Clark Avenue connected to Benedict, which connected to Main Street. Up until they reached the light to cross it, the town was abandoned; they all stared with eyes wide in horror as they saw the sight around them. Civilians were going about their business, talking with each other, sitting inside of Rudy's Cafe to drink coffee, going in and out of stores. The Jackson Sloth High track team— which hadn't been a thing since April— crossed the street in front of them, sounding off a chant.

And not a single person on the street was wearing a face mask.

As they walked eastward down Main Street, Alison inspected her phone, going through dozens of websites and search engines. "The only thing that shows up for 'Coronavirus' is a few Wikipedia pages describing them, and… something about the SARs thing in '02." She looked around. "Did… did the phobic entity somehow un-make COVID?"

"Can't have." Robert frowned. "What reason would it have to? People are afraid of the disease, and it really, really likes fear. I don't know what the hell's happening—"


The two agents turned, with Sinning Jessie slinking under a nearby awning to hide. Raymond February, who had been in a wheelchair not twenty-four hours earlier, was running towards them in a pastel-colored tracksuit like he was in a goddamn cartoon. "There you are. Site's been looking for you, you weren't where your car was."

Alison looked him up and down, and decided to play it cool. "We walked back to town. Robert wanted to—"

"To check up on something regarding a costume I ordered." Robert finished the thought. "But the Witch's Hut looked busy, so we decided to just head back to the Site." He tilted his head. "You good, Ray?"

"Why wouldn't I be?" He stretched, cracking his knuckles. "You aren't still concerned about the traffic stop earlier this month?"

Both of the agents simultaneously thought, Traffic stop?! "Well, we just…" Alison kept the disbelief out of her voice, barely, "…thought you seemed a little rattled from it."

"Good book says: let bygones be bygones." He shrugged. "Anyway, I gotta get to the site. Need to help decorate so that the poultrygeist doesn't come back. Later!"

February dashed between them, and both the agents and the thoughtform traded incredulous looks. "'As the good book says'?" Alison frowned. "February's religious, but he's not fucking preachy."

Robert frowned, and looked at Alison, and then around them. "It looks… sterilized. Boring." The same looping birdsong played, and a radio in a car played a song that was only ever played in one of two contexts; that song being Mr. Sandman by The Chordettes, and the context being either dreamworlds, or altered reality. "Well. That's a sign, I guess."

Sinning Jessie frowned, inclining her head to the music. Then she pulled aside her fringe haircut, looking into the window of an Lessler's Antiques, which had closed back in March— but was now very much open— to check her reflection. The normally cyclopean thoughtform's eyes, plural, widened. "While I appreciate having depth perception, this is very much cause for…" She frowned, any amount of alarm draining from her voice. "…concern…"

Robert looked at Alison. "Say something snide about my sense of humor."

She always had a comment ready about Robert's puns. But nothing came to her mouth. "Uhm. Tell me how much I stabbed you in the back with the whole Nobody thing?"

Robert should have felt fury rise in his chest again, but nothing happened. "Religious opinions?"

"Nothing. Political views?"

"…jack all. What's your view of the Houston Astros?"

Alison had launched into an Astros-based polemic while she was very, very drunk. But now… "I don't really have any strong feelings about them."

Sinning Jessie looked between them both, rubbing at her own head. "I don't suppose either of you have ever read Finnegan's Wake?"

"It's actually part of the basic training when you're assigned here— you have to read it, and then write a response to it in one page or less." Robert looked sheepish. "Mine was just the words 'fuck you James Joyce' repeated until the page filled up."

"Finnegan's Wake is an example of a… work of fiction that doesn't have a plot. And that's in part because it's indecipherable to the point where we can't even determine what the central conflict is— and I think that's what's happened here." To demonstrate, Sinning Jessie picked up a piece of concrete that had been torn loose from the curb by wear and tear over time, and tried smashing it against the window of the antique shop.

Instead, the concrete harmlessly shattered in her hand. "This… you called it a 'phobic entity'? I think it ate the conflict in the town."

"Why the hell would it do that?" Robert frowned. "It's been trying to make our lives hell for the whole month, now it gives us paradise? It doesn't make any sense."

Alison rubbed her head. "We need to regroup. Get into the Site and see what's up in there." She looked at Sinning Jessie. "Probably not a good idea if you come with."

"…and why not?"

"Because…" Alison paused. This was entirely uncharted territory. For all she knew, Robert and herself were the only ones to be unaffected by this particular manifestation. Sinning Jessie and the Goatman could both be valuable confidants, but they would have to actually get into the site. "…I remember Pryce told me that you managed to make yourself look like a Foundation agent at one point. Think you can do that again?"

"If you can spin a yarn about me being an agent, I can make it happen."

In all clandestine institutions, the best place to gather intelligence is not in the server rooms or the research labs; rather, it is the cafeteria. Site-87's cafeteria was like most at Foundation Sites— monitors displayed the menu above the actual serving area, while televisions dotted about the room showed news shows from around the globe, sports games, and the occasional snippet of a talk show.

It was here that Tofflemire, Alison, and Sinning Jessie— Agent Vallaincourt to the rest of the Foundation— sat, inspecting the room. Nobody questioned the third member of the posse, why would they? They were all too busy living their best lives.

Tofflemire frowned in the direction of Dr. Sinclair, who was both out of the hospital, and possessing both eyes. "It's erased conflict and consequences. What kind of logic is that?"

Alison looked uneasily in the direction of Drs. Pike and Mattings. The latter was far more relaxed than he should have been; she had always considered Claude Mattings to be an uptight bastard, but he looked like he was actually in love with his wife.

"Gotta admit I'm not familiar with the dynamics here." Sinning Jessie looked around the room. "But… I expected it to be less saccharine? And have worse food?"

Alison looked down at the meal that had been served today, which seemed to have been prepared specifically for her. The entree was breadsticks filled with cheese— something which she had searched for in vain since high school— with a fresh apple, tater tots that weren't soggy, and pudding that… was remarkably unchanged. Most of her favorite foods in one place.

"You're right on the food part." Alison picked up one of the breadsticks, inspecting it. "…I know, Grimm Countenance protocols means we can't eat anything in an altered reality, but… gah." She threw it back down on the plate. "It's taunting me, is what it's doing."

The thoughtform frowned as she looked around the cafeteria. "You said that Jasper was in the Site earlier this month? What did he do?"

"Uh…" Robert frowned. "Something that looked like him dragged Director Weiss out of a manifestation that looked like the Pit."

"It's just Weiss now, remember?" Alison raised a brow. "Bailey's acting director."

Sinning Jessie looked over Alison's shoulder. "This Bailey guy… ambiguous age, stubble, kinda messy black hair?"

"…he's sitting at the table behind us, isn't he?" Robert turned.

"Directors aren't meant to eat with ordinary members of personnel." Alison turned with him, and found Bailey conversing with other members of his little D&D group, one that had split off from Mattings's after constant scheduling conflicts. "Hold on, how'd you know what he looks like?"

"There's a Christmas tree farm that opens up to the Yggdrasil that has a board of people who they no longer serve. His mug is on there."

Alison's eyebrow vanished into her bangs. "…is that really the least ludicrous lie you could come up with? You know what, nevermind. If Bailey's not the Director, then who—"

In response, the intercom crackled on. Nina Weiss's voice came over it, sounding far too young. "Attention all personnel. Despite the objections of Site-19's memetics department, we are extending approvals for Halloween costumes until the 29th. Turn your forms in by then, or you will not be allowed on the rooftop for the main event."

The three of them turned to each other. "Since when the hell is the party held on the roof?"

"The only reason people go onto the roof anymore is to smoke or access the helipad." Alison frowned. "It doesn't make a lick of sense. What's going on here?"

"…full moon on Halloween this year," Robert ventured. "Maybe whatever this is needs people to be on the roof during it for some reason?"

Sinning Jessie's eyes went wide. "The first road ever built in Sloth's Pit. If you walk it on a full moon, you can get to anywhere in the city."

"…even into the Site?" Robert frowned. "Then… hold on, why did it need to beat up February to get access codes to the Site? He was attacked on the first, and that was a full moon, too."

"The codes are changed every week, though." Alison puzzled it out. "This thing needed to get into the Site in the first place so it could access the new codes every week. But to do that, it would need biometrics, like a a blood sample, or a retinal scan, or a—" Alison's heart skipped. "Fingerprint." She slapped her forehead. "Weiss gave it her credit card, and it said it was going to buy a burger. That has to be covered in fingerprints, I am a damn idiot."

"But you said she had her clearance rescinded." Jessie's eyebrow raised. "Wouldn't that mean she was out of the system?"

"It took over six months for Dr. Matterson to have his biometrics wiped after he got his clearance rescinded. God knows we haven't gotten better about it since." Robert pinched the bridge of his nose. "Okay, so it has the Director's biometrics, and therefore directorial access, on top of the fact that it can access anywhere in the Site on a full moon, and has access codes. What does it do with that?"

"…what the hell are we missing?" Alison frowned, looking at the cafeteria around them. "Hey, Sloth's Pit, Narrative, whatever. I know you don't like us, and we get sick of you a lot. But if you can drop any hint as to what's going on, it would be appreciated. Just… please?"

Across the cafeteria, a song played as part of a ringtone. Johnny Cash's cover of Hurt played as an agent excused themselves to take a call.

"You're in pain?" Robert frowned. "Is that what you're saying?"

Roundabout by Yes played from another phone, and a researcher complained about her ex calling her.

"This is freaky. We're talking to the town." Alison frowned. "Can you tell us what's going on? In as simple terms as possible."

There was several seconds of silence, barring the clattering of silverwear, the chatter of researchers, and the chewing of food. Then, Blake Williams's phone played the most ironic song a stealth operative could have as its ringtone:


Blake Williams cursed and got up, apologizing and retreating to a corner of the cafeteria to take the call.

Sinning Jessie looked between them, confused. "What the hell was that?"

"Narrative Manipulation Technique Omega-3. 'Direct Question, Musical Cue Answer'." Alison frowned. "What the hell does Pirates of Penzance have to do with anything?"

Deep below Site-87, I am forced to look through a cage that nothing 'anomalous' can penetrate. It is a cage of blessed beryl-bronze, with charms from every single bar, with a reality anchor at each of the cardinal directions around it, all encased in a field of electricity that is responsible for the deaths of exactly 23,028 flies this last year.



Every Foundation site in a Nexus has one of these chambers, and each chamber has the same type of munition within. A nuclear weapon was deemed too inhumane and impractical for nexuses; once researchers start interacting with people outside of the Foundation, they tend to get sentimental about things such as their favorite coffee shop, or their children's school, or the value of human life. So, the Ethics Committee commissioned the design of Penumbral Zone Anomaly Canceller and Eradicator— or, for short, a PenZAnCE Device.

One flick of the switch, and the whole Nexus is erased— and with it, its barrier. And when that happens, I will be in two places at once: here, guiding the hand of Nina Weiss, and at the edge of the barrier, ready to escape this damnable locale.

I am no mere number. I have thrown off my mask, and clad myself in fear. And what better day for me to show my new costume than on Halloween?

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