Foundation Assets
rating: +13+x

…leading to the injury of Ms. Patel and her sister. Foundation assets embedded in the Rapid City Daily Journal intercepted the response call that evening and alerted Site-11 personnel, who dispatched…

Claire was never late.

You couldn’t be, as a journalist. Interviews were already a giant pain for everyone involved, and they were already likely to hate you, so why make things any worse? She either annoyed or exhausted or misquoted her living sources; the least she could do was always be punctual for them.

Not that she was interviewing the Comcast lady, but still.

Claire took the last corner a little too sharply and saw the shiny white Comcast truck, already parked in her usual spot. Dammit. She pulled up behind it and jumped out, bag clutched to her hip, face flushed in the late afternoon haze.

The woman in the driver’s seat was scrolling Twitter with a bored expression as Claire approached the van. She thought about knocking but decided to wave.

“Hi, are you Jasmine?” Claire half-shouted through the glass, and the woman put the phone away. “I’m so sorry about the wait…” she said, swallowing the words as the woman opened her door. She wore a corporate polo shirt and jeans, dear god, in this weather? Claire already felt her dress sticking to her right hip, damp where her heavy canvas bag sandwiched the fabric against her skin.

The woman glanced at her bookbag - photocopies stuffed inside, peeking out the top flap - and Claire fought the urge to clutch it tighter.

Claire lingered in her doorway for a second, letting the cool air chill the sheen of sweat on her skin.

“Can you point me to the router please.” Jasmine said, only half engaged. Claire stepped aside, and the woman followed her gesture to a desk in the corner. She ran through her mental checklist again - everything important was tucked away in the hamper, under her sweaters, or in the canvas bag at her hip. Not that this woman was investigating her, but still.

Claire hovered in the room, fiddled with her phone. This was the room with the window unit, but was it rude to stay and watch the woman work? Would it draw suspicion? Outside, someone walked past her apartment door, lingered in the sweltering hallway, then turned a key and vanished into their own A/C. Claire sat down on her recliner and tried not to watch the other woman too closely.

“When did you say the problem started.”

“Oh, um. I think two weeks ago. My speeds are usually good, but it’ll all just stop without warning for a minute, maybe ninety seconds. And then it picks right back up.”

“mmhmm.” The woman plugged in a device Claire didn’t recognize. Did Comcast employees carry ID badges?

“…I did some reading about it online, just poking around…you don’t think something like…like a keylogger, or spyware could be causing it? Just a crazy thought.”

“My job’s just to check the hardware, ma’am.”

“Sure, sure, nevermind.”

“I’m not authorized to give advice about cybersecurity.”

“Of course. Sorry I asked. Forget it.” Claire’s nerves were all firing now. She tried to relax, sink into the folds of her childhood armchair, but the details of today’s trip were crowding out everything else. She reviewed the facts:

  1. Ball Corporation was absolutely hiding something.
  2. Gloria and her colleagues didn’t die where Ball said they did.
  3. An aerospace lab lost power around the time of the gas leak – at the opposite end of the complex.
  4. Someone very skilled had fabricated the incident report.
  5. ITAR compliance sucked.

Which made sense. Can’t have journalists poking around where they’re not supposed to, after all.

Claire tried to parse it all out. Gloria had worked in sales, for aluminum cups at sporting events. She'd traveled for work. What was she doing in the aerospace buildings? What kind of industrial gas caused burns that looked like an animal attack? And why was Ball trying to hush it all up? After the code violations, OSHA lawsuit, the individual settlement — it didn’t seem like Ball had anything else to lose. But if this was the hit they were willing to take to keep their deeper secret…well, Claire didn’t like the implications.

She pressed her forehead against the cool pleather of the headrest. Today had answered one question with five more, and she’d have to wait for answers; she’d spent the last of her PTO on this trip and wouldn’t have more for weeks. She was still catching up after the funeral and court cases, and the settlement had been massive but she couldn’t live off it forever.

Nor should she. If ITAR was involved, there was a nonzero chance this went deeper than Ball Corporation. Claire had never felt like a paranoid person necessarily, but people who quit their jobs to sleuth government secrets full-time rarely found happiness. Best to keep a low profile.

The door slammed, and Claire jerked out of her half-doze: Jasmine must have gone for something from the truck. Stupid to be afraid, really. If suits were after her, they wouldn’t send a checked-out network maintenance tech. Or were they just gathering info for now?

The Comcast woman fiddled with the router for another 10 minutes. Claire tried to tune it out, sorting some recent photos on her phone to pass the time. Ever since her sister’s death - and the obituary picture snafu - Claire had tried to keep her photos organized. She didn’t know why, but it helped her talk about Gloria. Helped to organize her thoughts.

“Can I have your phone to finish the reset.” Claire looked up from a photo of the Ball Corporation campus to see Jasmine’s blank expression and outstretched hand. Fighting the knee-jerk urge to hide the photo immediately, she closed all apps as calmly as she could.

“…Do you need my phone?”

“Yeah it’s still connecting and causing problems. I can’t reset until I’ve cleared the wi-fi settings.”

“Oh, well, I can do that—”

“It’s faster if I just do it,” said Jasmine, now clearly impatient. That did it. Yelling or intimidation, Claire could handle. She was an interviewer: she’d faced down tyrants before. But inconveniencing someone else at their job? No thanks. She handed it over and fought to calm her overactive imagination.

Half a minute later there was a knock at the door, of all things. Claire tore her eyes away from Jasmine’s hands to check the peephole - no suits, no S.W.A.T. team, just a short middle-aged woman in a Daily Journal polo. Claire didn’t recognize her, but then she hadn’t really been spending much time at the office lately.

“Hello, Claire? This is Natalie, from the office…we know you haven’t been feeling well recently. Just wanted to drop a little something off.” Her heart was beating so quickly. Why would someone impersonate a coworker? If they’d gotten this far, she was already a goner, right?

She opened the door.

“Hi there! Claire? Nice to meet you – Natalie Burman, from HR.” The woman was sunny, right at the edge of cloying. She held a tupperware full of brownies, maybe poisoned Claire what the hell is wrong with you, snap out of it

Claire stared at her for another moment in the stale hallway air. She tried to summon the energy to turn this woman away quickly and politely, but it just wasn't there, so she invited Natalie inside. The HR woman set the brownies on her coffee table and sat down, barely covering half a couch cushion. She turned her kind face back towards Claire, then focused it on her full-force.

“I just wanted to say how sorry I am, truly.” Oh. Oh no. She’d thought she finished this dance months ago. Now even the new hires knew her as the Dead Sister Lady? Was it going to follow her like this forever?

“Thanks, I really appreciate it…Natalie, right? I don’t know if I’ve even seen you around recently.”

“Oh, no, I’m usually out in the field. Recruiter. Can’t remember the last time I made the trip out to South Dakota! I’m in the area to scout a candidate.”

Claire let out a sigh she’d been holding without realizing it. “When you said HR, I…I don’t know, I guess I’ve just been gone so often…”

“We know Gloria meant a lot to you, and that can take a long time to heal. We don't want to punish good people for feeling human. Whatever way you need to work through your experience, we want to help if we can.”

Right now she wanted to work through it in silence, thanks, but she’d never say that. At least this woman skipped the boilerplate cliches.

Your turn, Claire, move your mouth “Thanks. Yeah, it’s been tough…We were close. I think about her a lot.”

“I’ve been where you’ve been – it can feel so isolating. But a lot of people go through this very same experience, all over the world.” Claire thought about her canvas bag of research and had to suppress a laugh. Maybe Natalie noticed? “Not saying your grief isn’t important! More like…just remember you’re not alone.”

Well, she felt alone. No answers, no closure, no family left to mourn with. Coworkers she’d abandoned to chase conspiracy theories. It had been awhile since she’d just talked.

“You said you’ve been here…can I ask when?”

Natalie’s smile was melancholy now, but she kept it up. “Yes, my husband. Almost…27 years ago now, actually.” Claire couldn’t imagine stretching her grief that far, but she also couldn’t picture ever letting go.

“I’m sorry.”

“Thank you. You still feel it all the same, sometimes as fresh as the early days. But you’ve also developed some…’muscles’ for it, I guess? It’s like I’ve carried it around with me everywhere after so long, and I’ve found the best ways to keep carrying. We can get used to anything, I think.”

Claire sat in the silence, letting the cool air settle over her flushed skin, savoring the comfort of someone else’s story for a brief moment. “Do you mind? If I ask how he died?”

Natalie laughed - a bubbly, inviting, church-basement-lady laugh. “It’s actually a little silly - maybe ironic. He was a thrill seeker with a terribly boring desk job, so he had to get his kicks somewhere. He took all sorts of adrenaline junkie hobbies, even though I begged him not to. Skydiving, swimming with sharks, base jumping, rock climbing - you name it.”

“And there was…an accident?”

“No, no! Far from it…he had a blast every time. I fretted every weekend, but he’d always come back, elated, on top of the world. I’d breathe a sigh of relief and then we’d head into our work weeks, feeling safe again. Then one day, his lab just…burned down.”

“That’s horrible! I’m so sorry!”

“I know.” She seemed lost in a memory. “What makes it so much harder is how low-profile the site was. Everyone was shocked – of everywhere to go up, it would’ve been the last on our lists. It made a little more sense for Gloria’s site—”

Claire shivered for the first time in two months.

“—though I’m just realizing that’s a terribly insensitive thing to say! Oh, I’m so sorry, Claire! Caught up in my own little world I guess, though that’s no excuse.” Natalie finished, then caught the look on Claire’s face and froze.

They stared at each other for an agonizing moment. Claire straightened slowly in her chair, tensing as her heart kicked into thundering overdrive. She could hear her damp skin peel off the pleather, hoped this woman wouldn’t jump her before she was ready.

“Oh, shoot,” said Natalie. “That wasn’t terribly professional of me. It really seemed like my story was helping, goodness knows I like to talk and we were just chatting, I got carried away, forgot we haven’t been over all the details yet!”

“What. Do you know. About Gloria.” Claire’s voice came out like brainfreeze, like she was hissing past a mouthful of ice: she couldn’t tell if it sounded threatening or pleading.

“Claire, dear, I really am here to help, I swear–” Natalie leaned forward to touch Claire’s hand, and she burst from the armchair.

“Don’t touch me!” She swung wildly at the woman, turned towards the corner. She could call someone, text the most incriminating details…if she had time. Why hadn’t she set up a failsafe email already? Idiot, you never should’ve started digging! Were the police involved? How about 911? She could call and—

Jasmine was gone - and so was her phone.

“I’m very sorry, Claire.” Natalie, still sitting on half a cushion, kept talking. Her tiny frame completely filled Claire’s field of vision, and Claire couldn't look away. She smiles like mom. “I won’t touch you again, I promise. And I won’t tell you to calm down. I just need to explain a few more things before you do anything rash.”

Claire stood in the room, weighing her options. It was a 4th floor apartment: she’d break a leg jumping. The fire escape was loose after two years of maintenance requests. That left the front door, and the footsteps outside it right now. Two pairs of shoes, maybe more. The suits had finally come.

“My colleagues won’t let you leave the apartment, but I’ve asked them not to come inside.” Natalie was still talking. Why was she still talking? Did she hope to talk Claire into submission? “I want to tell you about Gloria, is that okay? I think I can fill in some details for you. It might not help, but sometimes it does.”

Who was this woman? How could she smile like this, how could she be so calm, so casual? Claire had been researching this conspiracy for months, knew more than maybe anybody else…yet Natalie didn't seem even the slightest bit concerned about anything she might do. Was she really that blasé? Or was this an act?

Keep her talking. Claire needed more time to think. “Yes,” she said, “tell me everything.”

That melancholy smile again. “As much as I can. Some of it will have to stay secret.” Natalie had reached up and peeled the Daily Journal sticker off her blazer, carefully folding and putting it away as she spoke.

“Your sister worked for the same group as I do, same as my husband did, too. We work to keep things…normal, for the rest of the world. That means finding, catching, and studying anything that can break that normalcy.”

“You mean, extraterrestrials?”

“And ghosts, magic, monsters, demons…not all of them, of course, but the stories have to come from somewhere, you know. And we make sure they stay stories.”

The room felt warm, oppressively warm. She'd expected some shady military stuff, but…aliens? Magic? This was too much. It was smothering. She’d wanted answers, and here they were – more than she'd asked for, dumped at her feet.

Might as well scratch the itch before they carted her away. “My sister. What was she working on?”

“There was…there was this bird. A big one. They’d just discovered and contained it, but…it was a messy job. The MTF didn't have good intel, and they caused some damage. Gloria volunteered to lead the first tests. They didn’t know enough, and were scrambling to do cleanup at the same time, so when the poor thing got upset…”

Claire sat down again and, finally, began to cry.

Natalie stopped talking. A few minutes passed in silence. Claire was grateful for the rattle of the window unit - something, at least, to cover her sniffling as she fought for composure. Someone coughed, then shifted out in the hallway…she couldn’t imagine wearing a suit in this heat.

“…maybe this isn’t helping. I’m sorry, dear, but I honestly don’t know if you’ll ever know enough to get closure. I’ve seen it happen a lot: we don’t like mysteries, they eat away at us. You can’t really know half of a terrible truth, y'know?”

Natalie reached into her purse and pulled out a single pastel yellow pill. She set it down on top of the brownies, then looked up at Claire. In spite of herself, of the chill in her bones, Claire clung to those warm brown eyes.

“This is a pill we use quite often, it’s something called an ‘amnestic.’ When you take it, you’ll forget a few memories: our conversation, some of your deeper investigations. Other memories, the ones related to Gloria's accident, will just sort of…deprioritize. You won’t forget anything about your sister, or her death. You just won’t feel the burning need for answers you can’t have.”

Claire would rather die. “And if I refuse?”

“I think we both know this is your best chance at happiness, dear.” It was a naked threat, they both knew it. The woman was still smiling, just as kindly – was she that good of an actor, or did she really genuinely care?

Claire didn’t want to die. But forgetting Gloria, even the smallest detail… “All due respect, ma’am, but if that’s happiness, then it can fuck off. If my choice is this versus some…deep state prison or…or something else, well…so be it.”

Natalie was all business, for the first time. She stared straight into Claire. “Are you absolutely certain, dear?”

“…yes. Yes, I’m certain.”

Claire couldn’t hold her gaze. She supposed this was a brave thing to do, but it didn’t feel brave. Mostly stupid. Executed alone in her muggy apartment, by a 4’11” spy in a polo shirt. She felt very feverish all of a sudden. When they found her body, would the pit stains be visible?

“Well, I’m glad to hear it.”


Natalie laughed. “I’ve seen some of your work, you know. You’re good – quietly good. Consistent. We prefer it that way. The genius researchers and hotshot task force captains, they’re necessary of course. But you should never hire for talent alone. My husband used to say, ‘You can win battles with brilliance, but nations are built on consistency.’ It’s helped me decide quite a lot, over the years.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Claire, dear. I wasn’t lying earlier. I really am a recruiter. And I’m offering you a job.”

“You were threatening me thirty seconds ago.”

“I wasn’t lying then, either. I don’t think you’ll be happier, working for us. Heavens, I think we’d all be happier doing something else. But it’s got to be done by somebody, right, and…well, I guess you and I are the kind who can’t help ourselves.”

“No way. This is some sort of trick, or sting operation, or something else. You think I’m just going to take your word for it, join some CIA cult, sign on with the people who killed my sister and covered it up–”

“Gloria died because we didn’t have advance warning. Because someone like you wasn’t watching civilian channels, couldn’t catch it right away and get our teams as much info as possible. But you’d be surprised how much a single investigative journalist can uncover, with the right connections. You’d also be surprised by how long we’ve been trying to get someone reliable to cover the Great Plains.”

Natalie’s smile was bitter for a second. “But you didn’t ask to hear me whine about my job. We liked your work at Ball, and we’d rather hire you than wipe you. You’ll like the pay, and the benefits. Best therapists on the planet. I promise, sometimes it truly is that simple, even in the world I come from.”

Claire really didn’t know what to say to that. “Why?” was all she could muster.

Natalie stood, picked up the yellow pill and left a business card in its place. “It wasn’t just platitudes earlier, by the way. You truly aren’t alone. People out there go through what you’re going through – exactly what you’re going through – every day. They have been for a lot longer than 27 years. Maybe, thanks to you, someone else won’t have to.” She really did smile like their mother. “Like I said. You find a way to keep carrying.”

Claire watched her walk to the door and pull it open. Jasmine was standing outside, plus a short man in jeans and a soccer jersey. They didn’t look terribly scary. They didn’t look like much of anything. So much for the suits, she thought, thoroughly dumbfounded, as Natalie passed back Claire's phone. If it wasn't bugged before, it certainly was now. She wondered why that didn't bother her more.

“Call me whenever you’re ready to talk. Let me know how you liked the brownies! Oh, and one more thing.” Natalie said, stepping into the sweltering hallway and giving Claire a heavy wink. “Until we get you set up…do me a favor and keep all of this stuff on the ‘D.L.’, okay?”

Claire could hear the air quotes.

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