Ombres Malvants: 3) Green Recruit

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Tomàs felt sick. The afternoon sun stretched the air thin, and his throat was stale and constricted. He lurched along the beachfront promenade, vision and hearing blurring and clearing erratically. Rollerbladers flashed past, cursing him for a drunk. Tourist families pulled their children to the other side of the path. He needed to stop, needed some shade and quiet.

Staggering to the shelter of a newsstand canopy, Tomàs slumped over, glad to be out of the sharp light. A few euros for a bottle of water kept the vendor at bay. He drank slowly, trying to slow his breathing and focus on the news in the local paper. A riot at a funeral, a review of an underground band, a report linking teen depression to social media use, malfunctions at Catalonian wind farms. Tomàs couldn't concentrate on the details. Something was wrong.

How had he got here? He squeezed his temples. Flashes of memory came back. A young man crushed down into the form of a squirrel. Pieces of Raf's body, hanging from lampposts. A short man with spiked hair, in a dingy apartment full of boxes. Strange texts from an anomalous drug-maker. A handful of blue pills. The thing behind the door. Freezing cold. Cacophony. Walking down into the dark.

After that: nothing. Why couldn't he remember?

It struck Tomàs like a falling weight. Had he been amnesticised?

[Site-74 - Illinois - 3 weeks ago]

"Field-use of amnestics is a Foundation agent's most important skill."

The agent's eyes flicked up from the briefing paper. Tomàs still couldn't quite tell their colour. If the agent mentioned his name, Tomàs had already forgotten it. Too many introductions in the past few weeks. He had started using mental labels for new people, based on their function. This man - square jaw, athletic build, nondescript face - was just another Agent Johnson.

The agent laid the folder down, leaned back in his chair, and continued, "Of course, you know that's standard Foundation bullshit. The skill is not to need amnestics in the first place. They should make all field agents do acquisitions training as a matter of course. Failing that, you have to get lucky with your supervisor."

The accompanying grin seemed warm, genuine. Tomàs smiled back, a little warily. This Agent Johnson was difficult to read.

"And just to add to my excitement," said Johnson, "on your field exercise today we'll have an extra passenger. Tomàs Rey, let me introduce Dr. Madison Craggs."

He indicated over Tomàs' shoulder. In the back of the conference room sat a woman of about sixty; Tomàs had not heard her enter. Short grey hair, eyes a chilly shade of light blue.

"Hola, Diego - como esta?" she asked, an eyebrow half-cocked in wry amusement.

Tomàs bit back a retort. "In Catalonia, we say 'com estàs', doctor. And my name is Tomàs."

"No mas, no fuss, Diego," was Craggs' reply. She held his gaze with a look of playful challenge.

As Agent Johnson summarised Cragg's background, Tomàs realised something: she didn't seem tired. Unlike other Foundation researchers he had met, she wasn't worn down by work and responsibility. Whatever she did here, this woman took pleasure in it.

"Pay attention, Diego," said Craggs, bringing him back into the moment. "We're about to get to the good part."

Agent Johnson gave them both a level stare. "Are you done? Rey, our task today will be to locate and acquire a particular subject that is important for Dr. Craggs' research."

"I'm after a very special type of brain," came the drawling voice from behind Tomàs.

"And for reasons best known to herself, Dr. Craggs has declined to tell us what we're looking for, so she will be accompanying us."

"I'll know it when I see it, Agent. And the kid here will get to see real science being done. He might even learn something."

Ignoring her, Johnson spoke to Tomàs. "You will be required to ensure that our actions are not observed or recognised, and if not possible, to exercise appropriate judgement in the use of amnestics on civilians. We need to see if you can handle memory-wiping."

Tomàs' eyes widened. "We'll actually be in the field? Not just a test run?"

"I don't run a creche." Johnson stood up. "I have things need doing, you learn by doing those things. Anything else wastes all our time."

Dr. Craggs stepped past Tomàs on the way out of the room. "Time to take off the training wheels, Diego," she called over her shoulder.

Even through his distaste, Tomàs felt excited. Finally, after weeks of practice, tests, assessment, he would actually be doing something meaningful. The sort of thing that was his reason to join.

As he reached the doorway, Agent Johnson pulled him up. With a glance down the corridor, the agent spoke low and quickly. "Something else you should know. Craggs is valuable, but she's a loose cannon. The CI has already tried to kill her, and yet she is forcing us to let her go out in public. This could be an escape attempt."

Tomàs nodded. "Understood. Where do I go for equipment?"

"Equipment? You mean a weapon?" asked Johnson, grinning. "You're a foreign national, and Illinois is permit-only. Anyway, you need to learn how to handle matters without the attention that a gun brings. You're not police any more."

"You're not police any more, Tomàs," said an exasperated Xavi. "I can't just tell you where the investigation is up to."

Head still pulsing, Tomàs had stumbled back to his apartment, only to find his ex-colleague waiting outside. They now sat in Tomàs' living room, under a sluggish ceiling fan.

"I'm not asking you for anything sensitive. Shit, Xavi - Raf was our friend. We found him - we were the last to see him alive." Even sitting down, Tomàs felt like the world had slipped off its normal axis. This whole conversation felt like playacting.

"Not quite the last. That girl who left the club with him." Xavi's eyes were fixed on the wall. Not telling Tomàs anything, just talking.

"Have you identified her yet?"

"No. The club was dark. Would you know her if you saw her again?"

"Maybe." Right now, Tomàs didn't know how his memory would respond to anything. He sat silently, weighing up how hard to press. Perhaps if he stuck to things a friend might ask. "Does Anna know about the girl?"

Xavi started. "Why are you asking about Anna?"

"What? I don't know. I mean, Raf was hooking up with some chick at the club. Don't you think his girlfriend would want to know?"

There was a long pause. Finally, Xavi slowly exhaled, almost like a sigh.

"You remember the feathers, Tomàs? The ones we found, in Raf's eyes."

Tomàs swallowed.

"They were from the European cuckoo. Carefully plucked. Deliberately left. As a message. And Anna? She's missing."

Later, as the dusk gathered, Tomàs lay back on his bed and tried to set his thoughts in order. Why had Xavi come to see him? Surely not just to check up. And why tell him about the investigation, after he said he couldn't? Everything was too convenient - like breadcrumbs, laid out in a trail. And the amnestics…

Jesus, what if all of this was part of the Foundation exercise? They said he would be field-tested with anomalies. He thought he was investigating, but what if he was just playing along?

Tomàs sat up. If this was a Foundation game, then he needed to win it. That meant tracking down Anna.

But halfway to the door, he jolted to a stop. Rafael. His butchered body had been real. Was that just part of the test? Did Raf's life have so little value?

"Of course some lives are more valuable than others."

Fork halfway to his mouth, Tomàs froze in disbelief. In the booth furthest from the diner's counter, they were unlikely to be overheard, but Johnson's statement felt jarringly incongruous against the comfortable food, and the sunlit main street outside the window.

"You can't possibly mean that," he said. "How could the Foundation operate on that basis?"

Dr. Craggs was facing the window, scanning the faces of the people walking past. She held a coffee mug in both hands and smiled to herself.

Agent Johnson gestured with a knife as he clarified. "This isn't strictly Foundation policy, but in my line of work it's the only thing that makes sense. So it's important you learn it now: some lives matter more."

Tomàs couldn't tell whether Johnson was being serious. "But how can you calculate whose life is more important?"

She was facing away, but Tomàs could hear the sardonic edge to Dr. Craggs' voice, as if lecturing a particularly slow student. "He calculates, Diego, based on usefulness. If a gunman walked into this diner right now, which of the three of us should survive? A raw novice, still in training? A dime-a-dozen field agent? Or the woman leading ground-breaking research which could revolutionize our understanding of the human brain? Whose survival is worth more to the future?"

"You put a high value on your skills," said Johnson, quietly.

"The Foundation does," returned Craggs. "Higher than yours."

Johnson scratched his chin. "I'll take that bet."

Thoughts spinning, Tomàs tried to swallow his home fries. This was not the Foundation that had been sold to him, high-minded and pure, but it felt truer. Of course there would be hard choices, casualties, compromises. If someone had to die so that others could be saved, wasn't that right?

But there had to be limits. He tried Agent Johnson again. "You can't be as mechanical as you make out. There must be some rule to weigh up your choices, some greater purpose."

"If there's one thing you learn today," said Agent Johnson, "it's that there is no greater purpose. The universe doesn't give a fuck about your lines in the sand. Every time you say 'this, but not that', it will find a way to make your choice the wrong one. Every time." He was leaning forward, arms on the table, voice hard. "Your principles? They are traitors. Context is everything."

Craggs' laugh cut the silence. "Listen to you! Like your decisions come from an ethical vacuum." She looked back from the window and set down her mug. "You talk about the relative value of people like it's ever possible to determine. Ridiculous!"

She paused to dismiss an approaching waitress with a wave, then resumed her diatribe. "No one in the Foundation has studied the human brain more than I have, and do you know what I see? Nothing. Most people are basically automatons even before their brains get remote-controlled. Hell, they're probably grateful when the CI turns them into 'mikes' and start making decisions for them.

"And that's if they even have the capacity for gratitude. After forty years, I still haven't seen hard evidence that any other person has an inner life at all. So if I'm the only thinking being in a world full of mindless zombies, that makes me the goddamn hero - the most valuable person there is. Everyone else is just waiting for me to wire them up and make them dance. Present company well and truly included."

Her bright, cold eyes locked with Johnson's and Tomàs' in turn. "Nothing to add? Finished with 'Introduction to Philosophy'? Then perhaps we can go and get what we came for."

She pointed out the window at a bus-stop across the street, where a young blonde woman was sitting and reading. "That girl, agents, has the brain I need."

Anna's apartment was on a leafy boulevard in upmarket Eixample. Tomàs sat in a tapas bar at the end of the block, sipping a beer and watching the street. No one so far.

His head had cleared, at least, though there was still an abscess in his memory that it hurt to poke at. He reminded himself again that his uncertainty didn't matter. Whether this was real or just a Foundation game, he had the same path to follow.

Amid the faces passing in the early evening, something caught his eye. Tomàs watched a young woman turn onto Anna's street. Not Anna, but something about her was familiar. He struggled to find the connection, and it came to him. The woman from the club; the one dancing with Raf. He was sure of it. What the hell was she doing here? Tomàs kept his eyes on the retreating figure, threw some notes on the table, and followed her towards Anna's apartment.

He wasn't sure what to expect, but Tomàs was still surprised when the woman pulled out a key and let herself into Anna's building. She must have got it from Raf, but why would she come here? Tomàs walked past as the door shut behind her, and continued along the street, crossing the road and turning back. He leaned casually against a tree, pulled out a cigarette, and waited.

Ten minutes later, the woman emerged. She was carrying a small box. Tomàs was sure she hadn't had it earlier. Something of Anna's.

The woman walked back the way she had come, heading for the heart of Barcelona. Tomàs followed.

Tomàs sat on the bus, watching the blonde three rows ahead. Johnson and Craggs were following in the rental car.

Tomàs wondered who this woman was, what she was thinking. He didn't believe she was an empty drone, as Dr. Craggs claimed, but it was hard for him to imagine her life. What did people do in these small towns in America? What did they feel? What were her plans for tomorrow?

What were the Foundation's plans for her? Tomàs realised he hadn't even asked.

The woman stood up, hair swaying as she moved to the door. Tomàs pressed his phone to alert the others, then rose casually and followed her out of the bus. Lost in her own world, she didn't notice him.

They were at the edge of the local college campus. The blonde strode across the playing fields, empty but for a few joggers and a couple of students kicking a soccer ball. Tomàs glanced ahead and saw Agent Johnson's car pull up on the other side. He hesitated: tailing her across the exposed space was risky.

"She'll be heading for the library," Craggs' voice crackled in his earpiece.

"I'll intercept her," said Johnson. "You keep following in case she doubles back. Craggs, stay in the car."

"Fine. I don't need to meet her until she's on the operating table, anyway."

Tomàs set off across the field, deliberately slowing his gait to disguise his purpose. The blonde was getting further away, but was still in sight. Beyond her, in the trees, was Agent Johnson, and beyond him -

"Johnson, on your nine!"

A group of five students, but their movements were all wrong. Their arms hung limp, or were doubled tight at their sides. They walked with stiff, unnatural steps. Their eyes were trained on Agent Johnson. Tomàs sped up.

Johnson turned, seeing the students and instantly switching his focus. For a second his hand hovered near his holster, and Tomàs could see him decide against using the gun. He took two steps, and then they were on him.

Now running full tilt, Tomàs watched Agent Johnson fight the pack surrounding him. He was precise and brutal, thumping into jaws, bellies and knees. But nothing seemed to slow the attackers. They kept coming, ignoring crippling strikes. They must be mikes!

An Insurgency attack? There was no time to think. Blows rained on Johnson's head.
He fell to the grass, limp. Two of the students began jerkily dragging him away. Sprinting, Tomàs barrelled into the other three.

The fight was short and brutal. Only the injuries Johnson had already inflicted gave Tomàs a chance. The mikes kept coming at him, pummeling with fists and feet. But it was all brute force, no thought or technique. Tomàs stamped again on a damaged knee, and heard a snap as one attacker went down. Spinning away from the lunge of another, he slammed his elbow full force into the head of the third. It fell too, and Tomàs kicked hard into the head of the first as it crawled towards him. With two seconds of leeway, he ran for the two hauling at Johnson.

Something changed. The two mikes dropped Agent Johnson's arms and ran. The other three were limping away in the other direction, their frenzy forgotten.

Tomàs turned quickly, looking for some sign, some new threat. The joggers and others were running towards the scene of the fight. The traffic on the road seemed unchanged.

The car! Tomàs looked up towards the treeline. Their rental car was empty.

Craggs had escaped.

He froze for a second, mind racing. The attack had been a diversion. He looked from the injured Johnson to the retreating mikes. The approaching witnesses. The path where the blonde had disappeared. What was the priority?

Tomàs set off after Craggs.

The woman from the club walked deeper into Barcelona, carrying the stolen box. At this hour, the streets were busy with tourists and locals heading out for dinner or to drink, but Tomàs could have tailed her without any cover. The woman walked with single-minded purpose, barely acknowledging her surroundings.

She emerged onto the wide pedestrian promenade of La Rambla. Here the crowds were thicker, eddying and whirling around flower stalls and bag-sellers, pausing for street performers, stopping for a glass of sangria. Tomàs pushed through, narrowing the distance so as not to lose his quarry. The noise and bustle brought back an echo of his earlier sickness and disorientation.

For a second, he lost sight of her. Then a gap in the milling pedestrians revealed her, turning off the main thoroughfare, behind a picture stall. She seemed to be talking with someone back there. Tomàs kept his back to them, facing a busker, and reversed the camera on his phone to watch them.

The woman leaned into the shadows, presenting the box to her hidden contact. Tomàs zoomed in. The figure was short, with dark hair. Looking at the woman, he realised that her eyes were glassy and blank. An addict? She rolled up her sleeve, and Tomàs saw a green square on her upper arm, like a nicotine patch. The woman peeled it off and handed it into the darkness.

A burst of applause from in front of him distracted Tomàs for a second, as the busker took their bows. When he looked back to his phone, the shadowed figure had emerged, reaching towards the woman's arm with a second green patch. The man with the spiked hair! The man he had fought at the apartment! Tomàs ran towards them.

He was five metres away when they saw him. The woman ran into the crowds, the man towards the darker side streets. Tomàs saw the recognition in the man's eyes, and then saw him blow hard into a clenched fist. There was a scream from behind, and gasps from the masses.

Tomàs swung around. The crush of people had fallen back, opening a gap in the centre of La Rambla. The woman from the club had fallen to the pavement, bleeding from her shoulder. Above her a formless shadow billowed and rippled, giving a screeching hiss as it plunged in attack.

No time. The man, his lead, was getting away. What was the priority?

Looking for a way to combat the writhing shadow, Tomàs ran towards the woman.

Back on the campus fields, things were calming down. Tomàs had locked the recaptured Craggs in the rental car. Agent Johnson had recovered consciousness, and was leaning on the trunk, keeping a watchful eye on her. Feeling dizzy and parched from the fight and the chase, Tomàs squinted in the afternoon sunshine.

He had gathered the students, campus security and other witnesses into a huddle on the grass. Through a mist of Class B amnestics, he explained that they were the first to witness a live rehearsal of a scene from the college theatre's upcoming production of "300", and apologised for the realistic effects they might have misinterpreted. He marvelled as they nodded obligingly along - people really would believe anything that made them more comfortable. Johnson had even said he thought amnestics weren't necessary. Were these people as empty and thoughtless as Craggs believed?

The thought of Dr. Craggs hardened in his mind as he finished the explanation and walked back to the car. He moved to open the door for Agent Johnson, who accepted with a genial smirk. Tomàs put the car in drive and left the campus, heading back on the highway towards Site-74.

From the back seat, Dr. Craggs broke the silence. "I'll give you this, Diego: you found me quicker than I expected. Although telling students you were looking for your senile mother-in-law was low. Clever, but low."

Tomàs ignored this, speaking to Agent Johnson instead. "What happens to her?"

"What do you mean?" For a man who had been violently beaten, Johnson sounded oddly amused.

"What's her punishment? Either she took advantage of a CI attack to escape, or she engineered the attack herself in order to distract us. You could have been killed, she could have blown the Veil. At the very least, the mission was a failure. She has to pay for that."

"Who said the mission was a failure?" asked Johnson. Craggs cackled.

"But the mikes got away, and -"

Tomàs yanked the wheel right, pulling onto the hard shoulder and slamming the brakes. The car skidded to a jolting stop, and he was thrown forward into his seat-belt.

"A cagar a la via! Are you fucking kidding me?" He thumped his hands on the steering wheel. "You set me up!"

Agent Johnson stared calmly at him. Craggs' laugh had turned into a hacking cough.

"You never tried to track down the mikes. Because you knew in advance they would get picked up. You arranged for them to be there, both of you. This was all a fucking game."

"A test," corrected Craggs, "and you passed. Barely." She sniffed.

"Competent tailing," Agent Johnson said. "Early threat identification. Good combat skills. Reasonable cover story - better if you had done it without amnestics, but reasonable. What did I miss? Oh, excellent decision-making in a crisis."

"Yeah," came the hoarse voice from the back of the car. "You decided I was the most important person. Just like I said this morning. So predictable, Diego. We just wound you up and made you dance, as surely as those puppet people you crippled."

Tomàs couldn't believe his ears. "How am I meant to trust you now? If I don't know what's real, how can I trust the Foundation?"

"Don't trust us," was Johnson's flat reply. "Don't trust the Foundation. Don't trust yourself. You can't second-guess everything, or you'll go mad. Plenty do. But that doesn't mean you have to believe everything either. Context, Agent Rey."

Agent Rey. That sounded almost good enough to forget the rest.

A can of cooking spray, snatched from a street vendor, rolled on the pavers of La Rambla. The night sky yawned black overhead. Burning shreds of that predatory shadow fell from the air, evaporating into smoke. A hand, bloody and blackened, slid a cigarette lighter back into a pocket.

Breathless and bleeding, Agent Tomàs Rey stood in a circle of onlookers. No amnestics this time. Just faces, stunned and aghast. A good Samaritan started forward to help the injured woman next to him. He only had one shot.

Quickly, Tomàs grabbed the woman's hand, pulling her to her feet. With broad smile and a loud "thank you!", he bowed.

The crowd exclaimed in surprise. Before they could react further, Tomàs turned and bowed again. He risked a look to his right, and was relieved to see the woman smiling and bowing with him. Sporadic applause broke out, then swelled.

"We're here every night," shouted Tomàs, in English. "Tell your friends."

The gathered pedestrians came forward to offer praise and coins. Many walked away shaking their heads, off to the next amusement. Would they ever have second thoughts about what they had seen? Would they even remember?

The press thinned. Of the spike-haired man, there was no sign. Tomàs led the woman to a side street, still holding tight to her hand. He was about to question her, when she cut him off.

"Once again, when you had to choose the most important person, you chose me. I'm flattered, Diego."

Tomàs stopped dead. What had she called him?

"I'd say that I owe you one." Craggs' words from the young woman's mouth. "But actually it's only this body that does."

"Craggs," said Tomàs, like it was a curse. He felt the adrenalin draining out of him. Just another Foundation trick. "You mean she's been a mike, since the first time I saw her at the club?"

"Well, that wasn't the very first time, and the very first time she wasn't a mike," said Craggs. "Perhaps you don't recognise her with the brown hair dye I made her put in."

Tomàs looked closer at the woman's face. His stomach dropped. It was the blonde woman from the bus. The target in Illinois. Part of the training exercise - but not a mike back then?

"That's impossible," he said. "She got away after - after you two staged that diversion for me."

"Did she just?" The woman's voice, but Craggs' smugness shone through. "Tell me, Diego, what do you remember between the moment you caught me on campus, and giving the cover story to the witnesses. How did I get back to the car? How long was Agent Johnson 'unconscious'? Think hard."

Searching his memory, Tomàs knew what he would find. Another hole, dark and deep like the stairway beneath the apartment. Another piece of stolen time where anything could have happened.

Shying from that void, his mind instead flew to memories of Agent Johnson:

"I don't run a creche."

Agent Johnson leaning on the rental car's trunk.

"We need to see if you can handle memory-wiping."

Feeling dizzy and parched "from the fight".

"Who said the mission was a failure?"

"I was the diversion, wasn't I?" he growled. "Johnson used that whole set up to get his target."

"And a fine little diversion you were too," was Craggs' mocking reply.

Furious, barely aware, he slapped her.

Instantly he felt sick. He hadn't slapped Craggs at all, just this empty shell.

"Careful," said Craggs through the mike's body. "I told you, she has a very special brain. Look at the degree of control I have - motor functions, speech. This is not a body I want to lose."

"So this whole thing was a charade." A bitter taste filled Tomàs' mouth. "Another set up. And you were just here to watch the monkey dance."

The mike's demeanour changed; she leaned forward, speaking more quickly. "No. We sent this mike here to check on your field exercise, but something went wrong. She has been out of my control for days - no visual, no tracking, nothing."

"So you weren't spying on me in the club? You didn't kidnap Raf and murder him?"

"What? I have no records of any of that. What are you talking about?" The mike's body gave a twitch.

"Oh bullshit," said Tomàs. "More lies? I could never trust you."

"Listen to me, Tomàs." His real name, from Craggs, pulled him up short. She looked straight into his eyes. "Trust my self-interest. After the amount of trouble it took to get this brain, why would I risk it for some cheap kicks? Why make it kill someone, then wander around in public? Why get attacked by whatever that thing was? It doesn't mauuh - sorry, it doesn't make any sense. I think she may have been drugged."

Tomàs didn't know what to believe. "Do you mean the green arm-patch?"

"What green patch?" asked Craggs, wrenching the body clumsily to look at its arms. "Did you keep it?"

Her surprise was convincing, at least. "No, the spike-haired guy took it from you, just before -"

"Just before I got control back, and ran! Tomàs, I think that patch was designed for a different type of control. Whoever is behind that murder, I think they made this shell a recruit." The woman's body was nodding repetitively. She lifted a hand to her head, as if to stop it.

"And you - she - neither of you remember anything? Like my blank spot from earlier?"

"You were memory-wiped? This is tlei na slon -" She trailed off, her hand falling awkwardly to her side.

"What's going -"

"No time, agent. I don't - plr stor - full control. Perhaps withdrawal symptorrrr -" The mike's face spasmed, and she fell forward into his arms. She looked up, and Craggs said, "Tomàs, don't let them -" and then collapsed.

He stood, in a dark street, holding the comatose body of a murder suspect he had helped kidnap. He didn't even know her name.

(To be continued)

I have liked Dr. Madison Craggs as a character ever since I read the first draft of Lazar Lyusternik's SCP-3033. She was quite easy and enjoyable to write, which is a sign of a strong character (at least, it is if I got her right!). Please go read Lazar's entry to this round of the tournament, which I will post here as soon as I see it.

Shout-out also to fieldstone's Agent Johnson, who gets a role in this tale. I just loved the additional ethical perspective that he provided, so couldn't resist including him.

Once again, thanks to PeppersGhost for running the Original Character Tournament. It has been an absolute blast so far. Go read and vote on as many entries as you can!

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