Forgetting the Number of Dead Stars

She tried not to worry about the empty space too much, lest she accidentally remember, and there was no use in worrying over spilled milk or forgotten piano lessons anyway.

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Name: Elizabeth Cooper-Hughes
FID#: 715316
Security Clearance: L–3/TSQ/MDI

DOB: January 8, 2031
LOB: Hell, Michigan, United States
Biographical Summary: [REDACTED]

Pay Grade: E-4
Current Assignment: MTF Alpha-1
Current Station: Site-01

Certifications: A-1 Marksmanship, A-1 Physical Fitness, Exotic Biohazard Safety, French Language Fluency, Heavy Machinery Repair, Nonstandard Reality Acclimation and Preparedness (Expired,) Operational Infohazard Safety, Advanced IED Construction.

Employment Status: Under Review

Forgetting was a skill Wren took to quickly during her training. Alpha-1 field agents were all acclimated to it through hypnosis and medication, standard amnestic procedures, but mental exercises had been enough for her. It was difficult to erase something from her mind entirely, but certainly not impossible. Her health was proof of that. Years of work and her mind still remained free of whispering nightmares and festering secrets. With how bad some of the things she could remember were, the missing weeks and months must have been terrible indeed. The forgotten nightmares and secrets worse still. She tried not to think about the empty space too much, lest she accidentally remember something. No use in fretting over spilled milk or forgotten piano lessons.

Similarly, there was little point in worrying when Wren found herself strapped to a chair in a dim room with a humming machine wrapped around her forearm and a superior officer seated across the table. Something disastrous had obviously happened. She hadn't done a precise job forgetting what exactly it was though. The last two weeks were completely gone from her mind, and the month before was little more than a smear of crummy hotel rooms and frantic gunfire. Two pieces of her custom dentistry were gone (the explosive ones) and her back felt like a swamp of dark bruises. Well, maybe there was a small reason to worry after all.

"Wren, are you– No, excuse me, this is on record. Ms. Cooper-Hughes, do you need further medical attention?"

"No, no. I'm okay," said Wren, trying to detect some hint of what they had just been talking about.

"You've been staring at nothing for nearly five minutes."

"This is a weird situation to be in, sir."

"I'm sure it is. We'll have it resolved soon enough."

'Resolved' was not necessarily a positive outcome, especially out of his mouth. Wren's superior twice-removed, Coxswain was a portly man with a kind face and a fearsome reputation. Even without knowing his real name, Wren had heard much of his involvement in the last great battle against the Insurgency and his systematic elimination of the Sarkic cults crawling up along the West Coast. While he silently fiddled with dials on a blocky terminal, Wren began to resent her past self for whatever she had done to end up in this interrogation.

"As I was saying, I'm going to ask a series of questions. Please give the first answer that comes to mind, even if it's not knowing any answer. I'll know if you try to lie. Do you understand?"

"Yeah. I mean, yes, sir."

Coxswain cleared his throat noisily and straightened a thin stack of paper in between his thick hands. "Ms. Cooper-Hughes, does the Black Moon howl?"

"I don't know."

"Where were you on the 23rd of December?"

"I don't remember."

"Who did you meet with on the 23rd of December?"

"I don't remember."

"Where does the last road lead?"

"I don't know."

"What did you sell to the individuals you met with on that date?"

"I don't remember."

"Do you admit to making a transaction of some type on that date?" Wren could see Coxswain’s grip on the papers tightening, sending tiny crinkles throughout them. It was hard to avoid thinking about those fingers closing around her throat.

"I really don't remember."

"Have you ever consciously mishandled classified information?"


"What came last from inside the Garden?"

"I don't know."

"Are you a faithful servant of the Foundation?"

"I am."

"Who knows the best course for the Foundation?"

"The Overseer Council."

"Are you a faithful servant of the Council?"

"I am."

"How many stars have already died?"

Some half-formed thought snagged in her mind, tugging when she opened her mouth to dispute this line of questioning. It was just one of those insubstantial phrases people repeated over and over. They all were. "I don't know," she said just a heartbeat later than she meant to. The machine wrapped around her wrist began beeping furiously. "I really don't know." It beeped faster and louder, feverish pitch closer to a scream than anything a machine should be making. "I said I don't fucking know!" she shouted, struggling against her restraints to smash the damned thing.

"That's enough," said Coxswain, pressing a button on the terminal. The noise ceased immediately.

"I wasn't lying, I swear," said Wren, feeling her lips spread back in a nervous smile. It felt disingenuous, even to herself. It felt curdled and rotten no matter how much she believed what she was saying.

"I'm inclined to believe you." Coxswain sighed mightily and laid his papers down on the table. "That's even worse. We have irrefutable evidence of… well, it's not good, Wren. If things are as they seem, a hostile force has been in control of you for nearly a month."


"Something that's still in there, or at least the traces it left. I'm sure you don't need more of an explanation than that after your time here."

"It's just a stupid koan," whined Wren, gently testing her bindings again. The thick straps of the chair didn’t budge. "It doesn't mean anything."

"That's all it should be, yes, but some part of you has an answer. They'll look into that during outprocessing. Hopefully the doctors will be able to help you, but – "

"Wait, wait, outprocessing? I can still work! You can't kick me out just for this!"

"Just for this?" asked Coxswain, deadly calm.

"Yeah, you know…" said Wren. The phantom sensation of a pulled trigger ached in her finger as she spoke, and ghostly warmth from a vast fire rushed against her. She could feel herself prying out one of her teeth, feel herself walking through a field of bleeding soldiers, feel herself smiling in the face of a hundred more hale ones. "For forgetting."

"Your loss will be felt, I promise. You were always a good agent, but sometimes retirement is what's best for everyone. We'll get you some happy memories and–"

"No, no way! I refuse. I'm good at this. This is the only thing I'm good at! You can't do this to me!"

"Please don't make this any harder than it needs to be. Think of what's best for the Foundation."

"Right, right, I am." Wren smiled again, and it spoiled before she could finish. "I want to make an appeal. To the higher powers."

"Granted," said a voice pitched higher than either of their own. What little color was in the room drained through the floor as Wren looked for the voice's source, and the walls peeled away one by one in turn. The chair she sat on vanished, as did the table in front of her and the floor below. Wren was momentarily engulfed by a terrifying nothingness that resembled nothing quite as the empty half of the night sky.

A moment later, Wren found herself in a blindingly bright room. The light was cold, sterile, and harsh enough to obscure everything but the ornate desk in front of her and the woman sitting behind it. Dark-haired, dark-skinned, severe in expression, her hands were clasped in front of her, one bare and the other heavy with rings.

"I've been listening," she said, each word heavy with enough authority to erase any doubt about what position she held. "State your case. Quickly. Clearly."

"Of course, Overseer. Like Coxswain said, I wasn't in control of my actions, so I shouldn't be blamed for them. I know I can't go into the field like that, but there has to be something else I can do. Right?"

"But you were in control, weren't you?" said the woman, pausing to shift her hands so that the ringed one lay atop the other. "Forgetting does not excuse treason, no matter how completely you managed to do it."

"I would never!"

"Wouldn't you though? Didn't you? Tell me honestly that you think you're innocent."

Wren bit back a quick denial. She was walking through a minefield, no doubt about that, but she wasn't dead yet. "I may not be innocent, but I'm not guilty either. Some version of me might have done whatever it did, but that version isn't me anymore."

"What you did was kill twenty-six of your fellow agents, destroy a great deal of valuable equipment, and sell some very important secrets to the Autumn Firm."

The mines felt awfully close to the surface here, but Wren pushed on regardless. "Those are useful skills though, right? Aren't they? The Foundation's going to need people like me once all the weirdness is taken care of and other people are the problem. Turning me into a… a farmer would be wasteful!"

"The 'weirdness' is already more under control than you could imagine, and our enemies are different from who you think. That said…"

Wren sat silently as the Overseer considered her. She felt a bit like the room she had just been sitting in, with each and every bit of her peeled away and discarded just to expose something deep inside. More than just being exposed, she was analyzed. Broken down into her component parts and weighed. Poked, prodded, probed. Judged.

"I may have use for you. That is, if you truly want to keep doing this sort of work."

"I do!"

"Serve me well then. Hurt who I say to. Kill those I need you to. I'll pay you, give you new teeth, and new allies too. Betray me and I'll make you remember everything you think you've buried. Swear it."

Wren was about to grumble about how ridiculous the statement sounded, but thought better of it under her sharp glare. "Yes, Overseer. I will. I swear."

Any fate was better than the alternative, better than forgetting all the things she had preserved by cutting away at the rest of her memories. Any existence was better than being forced into a shape other than herself too. And if nothing else, this was what Wren excelled at.

Wren sat on a bench in northern Florida two days later, chewing gum and wishing it wasn't quite so humid. She kept running her tongue over her new teeth and worrying over how sharp they felt. It was only a matter of time before she managed to hurt herself with them, biting off a chunk of cheek or tongue. Well, she had other people to hurt first.

Two men and a woman passed in front of her seat, speaking quietly and reeking like a chemical plant. Each matched a description she received early in the morning and each walked with calm intention. Wren waited a minute after they passed before rising, languidly stretching, and giving slow chase.

The small group moved as predicted, heading toward the location of some important meeting the Overseer was embroiled in. Knowing that, tracking them was as easy as it would have been with the drone arrays and subverted cameras she had enjoyed in Alpha-1. She stalked them past closed bookstores and open bars, through a tiny park, and around the glass facade of a skyscraper. She hunted across concrete, gravel, and grass. Easy.

Nine blocks from where she began, Wren came to the entrance to a long alleyway just a few steps behind the group. She reached through her sweatshirt's open zipper, drew her pistol, and fired. Twice into the back of the closest. Once into the head of the next. Three times into the chest of the last. Not a good showing from the Ethics Committee, but who could expect any better? They had bite, but their teeth were fresh and soft. A few more years and they might become real fangs.

She shot each of them once more before walking off into the wet night. It seemed like an excessive solution to the Overseer's problem, but Wren wasn't going to complain. Not when she was being put to good work again. She looked up at the night sky as she went. Even if half the stars above were already dead and gone, the rest were radiant.

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