Enter The Spire

rating: +14+x

Rhodesia, 1973

Nothing could have possibly prepared him for this.

The hill on fire, the ambush, the Great Zimbabweans working alongside the Foundation, and the charred bodies merged together in one mass—everything was like a blur in Jai's mind now, and everything had blindsided him like a moving truck. Whatever operation the Foundation had crafted had been meticulously planned out and executed… as if they had been waiting for years for the moment to finally strike the Scouts where it hurt.

And it hurt like hell. Practically nothing remained of the base, save for the burnt-out husks of vehicles and the mound of burnt bodies in the center, which had since begun letting off a steady puff of white smoke as the flames cooled off.

Jai watched as Mira stared at the mound. She had done the most work in stopping the inferno and burying whoever she could, but he couldn't see her face since her back was to him. He watched as she kicked over a geometric symbol she traced into the dirt with her foot in front of the muttering a slurry of swears under her breath, before walking off.

Then, everything was silent. Even the wind stopped, and listened, to the crunching of gravel beneath Jai's feet as he aimlessly paced around, as if in a trance.

She was right, anyway. They had been made, and the longer they stayed here, the more time the Foundation had to find and kill them, or worse. They needed to leave.

But what would they do? Where would they go?

What about their leadership? What about the Rhodesians? For all he knew, Hudson was dead, gone, or something in between. The Scouts were like a headless chicken now: leaderless, directionless, and slowly bleeding out until their eventual death, and he wasn't even sure what they were supposed to do at this point. If Mira's interpretation of the Chaos Insurgency was to be believed, then the Insurgency likely wasn't even aware of their demise at all.

The Rhodesians, similarly, were probably uncaring as well. Even if there was the slightest chance that they would come to relieve and reinforce them, Jai doubted they'd even be able to do so, let alone if they even cared to bother helping two Insurgents. They were fighting a totally different war, and had their own plethora of problems to deal with.

And… Great Zimbabwe. They had failed their mission, and given the Rhodesians' apparent lack of experience with fighting the anomalous, there was practically nothing stopping their enemy from finishing their superweapon and activating it. The aura of uncertainty hung over Jai now as he contemplated, but he knew that if their ziggurat was operational, only terrible things were bound to follow.

As Jai watched the smoldering mound of bodies cool off and stepped out the firebase, he turned around and saw that Mira had moved. She sat now cross-legged atop the hill, her rifle resting on her lap. She blankly stared at something off in the distance, well past the firebase, and was mouthing something unintelligible as she practiced a couple esoteric hand gestures.

Whatever it was, Jai didn't bother asking—maybe practicing thaumaturgy was a coping method of hers.

He trudged up the hill and walked over to her. "Mind if I sit next to you?"

She sighed. "Go ahead."

Jai sat down next to her and looked past her. He then realized what she was looking at: a herd of wildebeest had appeared over the horizon, sauntering across the savanna like a slow-moving tidal wave of blackness. Occasionally, one would stop, looking out towards the firebase and the duo on the hill, before continuing along with the rest of the herd.

He envied being a wildebeest now. At least they didn't have to live under fear of the anomalous or Veils or anything of that nature.

"You think they care about all this shit?" He asked aloud, pointing off towards the animals in the distance. It was a rhetorical question anyways, so he didn't bother letting her respond. "I dunno. They see us, and they probably got no idea what the hell they lookin' at. And yet, they just keep movin' on, totally ignorant, yet just… fine. Uncaring about everything."

Jai paused again. "I've got a dog back home, a little mutt named Jojo. He always seems to know when something's goin' down, like he's got some sixth sense or somethin'. Maybe they know, too. Maybe they're scared."

Mira rolled her eyes at his uncharacteristically highfalutin monologue. "When did you become a philosopher, Jai?"

"Thinking ain't gonna hurt nobody," Jai replied, before correcting himself. "Actually, I take that back, but you get what I mean."

She smiled for a split second, before sighing, rubbing the bridge of her nose for a moment. "The difference between us and them, Jay, is that they don't have a choice in living the way they do. We were blessed—or cursed—with sapience—the gift of knowledge, and the ability to act on it. People like us know that things aren't the way they seem, that things can just fall apart at any moment, and that normalcy is but an illusion to everything. They don't."

She shook her head. "They just.. live, Jay. I don't know how else to put it, man. They aren't scared. They don't have the mental capacity to quantify things like the anomalous or—or even goddamn Great Zimbabwe, like we do. They don't have the free will to challenge any of it. They're just… animals."

"Free will." Jai repeated, lingering on the word for a bit. Maybe things were starting to make a little more sense.

She paused, reiterating her words again. "They're just animals, Jay. No matter what happens, they'll just keep on living and keep on moving, because their instinct keeps telling them 'Don't freeze.' Maybe it's best if we start thinking like them, Jay and just go with the flow."

She flicked at one of the sling mounts against her rifle's stock, then leaned back in the grass. "I dunno, man. It's a thought."

Jai raised an eyebrow. "'Start thinking like them,' huh?" He snorted. "What, livin' out in the open, not giving a damn that their whole world might just end with the *snap* of a finger 'cause of GZ's little superweapon? Totally unaware that their entire way of livin' is on the line, just like that?"

"You know, Jai, you're pinning a lot of this on GZ," Mira said dryly. "They aren't the only anomalous powerhouse we should be worried about."

"Who else should we be worried about, then, huh? The GOC? Foundation? The fuckin' Soviets?" Jai turned to her. "Hell, GZ's got a weapon that'll erase an entire country. I think I got damn a good reason to be concerned about 'em."

"And their civvies?" Mira challenged. "Didn't you learn from fighting in Vietnam that there's always a civilian cost to war? Whether you want to admit it or not, they've got just as many civilians as they do fighters. You can't just generalize them like that."

In some ways, she was right, but Jai had no other comeback. He conceded with a scoff, pivoting himself back to face the horizon. "In the short time I've known you, Mira, I've seen that you and I agree on a lot of things, but never did I think we'd be disagreeing over some fuckin' wildebeest."

"If you knew half of my beliefs, Jai, you'd probably strangle me to death right now and call me a heretic."

Her tone was flat, so Jai wasn't sure if she was joking or being serious about that remark.

He shut up and continued watching the mass of wildebeest creep from one side of his vision to the other. He listened to a few of them as they made an occasional grunting noise while moving along in their big herd, totally unchallenged by the terrain in front of them. After a while, the herd gradually began to disappear over the grassy horizon, once again leaving the two alone atop the hill overlooking their ruined base.

Once this happened, Jai sighed and stood up. "So, what now?"

"Well, the world is your oyster, my friend." She shrugged. "My mission is done, Jai. I'm going home."

"Your" mission?

Her words repeated in his head over and over as he narrowed his eyes. "The fuck? But GZ is—"

"Do you even know how to get to Great Zimbabwe, Jai?" Mira asked, standing up as she collected her rifle and kit off the ground. "Do you even know where GZ is? I don't fuckin' know, that's for sure, moreover, I don't care. I don't even need an answer from you, either, because I know you don't have one."

Before he could raise his voice, she stuck a finger up to his face. "Don't even get me started on the Steps of the Plan, either. If you think I know how to decipher that shit, you've got another thing comin'."

Jai paused for a moment. "We have a mission, Mira. We can't just abandon it, there's got to be something we can do to keep these people safe from Great Zimbabwe's weapons. We have to find a way to get back to Command, maybe regroup with some survivors. We just— we've gotta do something—sittin' around and waiting ain't the way."

She scoffed, mimicking his voice for a moment as she rolled her eyes. "Tch, 'keep people safe'—you know, the more you keep up this kind of talk, Jai, the more I'm starting to think you'd fit in just fine with the Foundation—or, worse, the Coalition."

"Isn't that what we do, though? Save the world, keep people safe? Weaponize anomalies against the very monsters that wanna kill us dead?" Jai paused, his mouth agape for a moment. "You know, for the past two goddamn years, Nobody's been giving me a clear answer on what the Insurgency is. Maybe this is it."

She was quiet for a moment, but then gestured to herself with a closed palm. "I'm just saying. My mission is complete. Has it ever occurred to you that the Plan is multi-faceted, Jay?"

Oh, you fuckin' bitch.

Jai glared at the woman, feeling his fist ball, but not on his own volition. "You're from another cell."

"Like I said, you're a quick learner, so I'll have to commend you for that." She stepped past him, patting him on the shoulder and looking up to his eyes with a smirk. Her gaze was deepened, almost relaxed, and it tore into him like a predator, filling him with a flurry of feelings. The gaze was something that Jai interpreted as part threatening, part inviting, and part deceptive, but he was likely misconstruing his own feelings. He wasn't even sure if his assumption was correct—the woman was a total enigma.

He stood still as she slipped past him, knowing he had no way of even standing a chance against the thaumaturge, let alone landing a finger on her. His fist relaxed as she turned to her, then stuck out both hands in a shrug. "So, you're just giving up and leaving, then? Fuck it. Fine by me. Where should I go, then?"

"Home, GZ, the wild, I don't care. You're the one with free will." Mira shrugged, slinging her rifle across her chest and resting her arms against either end of the weapon. "There's nothing stopping you from just leaving, you know."

So what was stopping him from leaving?

Was it a sense of duty? A loyalty to Hudson and the Insurgency? The Plan wasn't complete—it never was—and people like him needed to be there to help it come to fruition, to see the Insurgency's ultimate victory, whatever it may be. There was still work that needed to be done—Jai just didn't understand what it was… or maybe he couldn't understand it at all.

Mira's words were impaling, though—maybe he did have a choice, and one of them was going home. He'd be leaving the Insurgency behind, and would be returning to a life behind the Veil, where one didn't have to worry about unspeakable forces encroaching upon them every day.

However, those things simply couldn't be forgotten, much like his memories from his time in Vietnam. Maybe it was better for him to confront them, rather than forgetting about them and shoving them into the back of his mind. Maybe that was a better alternative than just sucking it up and living in some new, anomalous world.

tak tak tak tak tak tak tak

Mira perked up and turned to the sound coming from the firebase, just as Jai's pistol cleared its holster. Before he knew it, both of their weapons were aimed at what remained of the central command building… where something was turning and clicking.

"Looks like we're not out of this yet." Mira murmured.

"I'll take point." Jai bounded down the hill and jogged towards the complex. His pistol swung up in his dominant hand as he cleared the left hand side of the firebase, before floating over to the right—nothing was in sight, but the strange noise still could be heard coming from the ruined prefab building.

tak tak tak tak tak tak

He switched to a two-handed grip as he approached the rubble, aiming towards it and advancing slowly. "It's coming from here."

"Stand back."

He did as requested, and watched as Mira stepped forward, slinging her rifle behind her back as she traced another triangular symbol around her in the dirt with a foot. An otherworldly light and shifting spiral pattern gathered in her palms as she pointed her hands towards the debris, the color of the light shifting between what he assumed was pink, red, and white.

He didn't realize that she was slowly muttering something under her breath until she said something unintelligible at speaking level. A gust of warm wind washed over them, very nearly knocking Jai off his feet as an impressive cloud of dust was blasted off the remains of the command building… along with the entirety of the debris itself.

Rubble, shrapnel, and rocks alike had been tossed like a child's toy over to the other side of the firebase, leaving the source of the noise in plain sight.

"A teletype." Jai muttered aloud, lowering his weapon.

"Hudson's teletype." Mira corrected him, kicking over her rune with a foot. The pair then looked at each other, a silent exchange of words occurring as if they had understood what this discovery meant.

With a gulp, Jai raised his pistol, then approached the machine himself.

It didn't resemble any sort of computer or typewriter, which meant that it had to be a proprietary creation. It was big, bulky, and ugly; far too big to be considered a typical desk-bound typewriter. It also had a strange mechanism on its topside which printed each letter onto the page with a deliberate tak tak sound, much like a typewriter.

Jai could see that the machine was currently typing up a storm of random letters and words at the top of the page, perhaps a sort of cipher or encryption, but he wasn't a communications expert at all.

He just stared at the machine, slowly lowering his weapon. "What the f— …you know what this shit means by the 'height of moral folly,' Mira?"

She shook her head. "Give it a second."


He watched as the machine continued typing out nonsensical word soup. The fact that it was doing so much without being hooked up to some sort of power source already suggested that it was anomalous, but not too weird to draw Jai's attention away from what it was typing.

Jai squinted as he approached the teletype, as if to type something, then paused as the machine seemed to stop. He looked over his shoulder at Mira, who was similarly bewildered and confused at the move, then nearly shot the thing when it whirred back to life.

Its typing mechanism was working in overtime, the tak tak noise amplifying in speed and volume, almost resembling machine gun fire. Jai blinked, his jaw agape, as letters began forming phrases, and phrases began forming sentences.

At the upper right hand of the document, a logo had been printed, and Jai saw bolded red words appear on the page for the first time.





"That insignia," Jai murmured. "I've only seen that insignia once before. The card Hudson gave me when he first recruited me."

For a relatively impassive woman, he saw that Mira's eyes spelled confusion, curiosity… then widened, as she finally realized what this was. "Jai, that's the Insurgency's insignia."

"I thought ours was black with a—"

"No." She shook her head. "Different cells, same goal, remember." Her voice trailed off. "But this… this is The Chaos Insurgency. The one that split from the Foundation decades ago, the one our "Insurgency" is merely a shadow of, and they're giving us new orders."

Without delay, the machine began to type once again.

12. STEP EC-73/005:

Alpha-class operative Jai and Beta-class operative Mira are to eliminate rogue Gamma-class commander Hudson Croix at Great Zimbabwe.


The machine powered down at that point, its typing apparatus shifting to the left most side of the paper. Jai took the orders with one hand and perused the text, reading it over and over in his mind as things began to click.


Mira approached from the rear. "What's it say?"

"It says Hudson's gone rogue. It wants us to go to Great Zimbabwe," he murmured. "And it wants us to kill him." Another pause. "We have to kill Hudson."

She snatched the paper from him and read it over in half the time he had taken, before passing the document back to Jai. It was given to him more like a shove that hit him right smack in his chest, and he immediately knew why. Mira let off a quick, inappropriate giggle, as if she had heard a hilarious joke, and turned away from him.

"There's a typo," she added cynically. "It says you have to kill Hudson."

"Not funny." Jai muttered. "This shit is serious, Mira. These are new orders, from the goddamn Insurgency itself. We got a job to do."

She stuck a finger out at him. "You think I'm going to risk my life on some absurdist bullshit, Jai? After that ambush—where I very nearly fucking died—mind you, trying to save your ass? And now… and now we're going after a man who could probably kill us with his goddamn eyes closed? Are you even listening to yourself speak, Jay?"

Her voice faltered for a moment, before her vigor came back in full force. "And… and you aren't even questioning that you're being ordered to remove your mentor?" She scoffed sardonically. "What, did the Marines indoctrinate you into blindly following your orders a little too much?"

"My background with the Corps is irrelevant. Killing Hudson's possible," Jai spoke without thinking. "It just… it's just that it feels like it's what I should be doing. It's like it's natural, you know? I can't describe the feeling."

"Look, Killing Hudson isn't even the point, Jay." She sighed loudly. "This is meant to clean the slate—a tabula rasa. Just like how you signed all those NDAs with the Feds, we're getting decommissioned by the Insurgency via suicide mission against Hudson. I've been doing this shit longer than you, and I know damn well I'm not going to follow some cryptic orders from some Engineer that probably doesn't even exist, just so I can get tossed aside by Delta because I'm expendable. You're expendable."

Jai frowned. It was funny: she sounded exactly like how he was two years ago.

"The ambush broke you, didn't it." He croaked. It was phrased more like a statement than a question.

Mira rolled her eyes. "Of course it fuckin' broke me, because my mission to observe Hudson's Scouts—to observe you, to be Hudson's little thaumaturge… it's done. Everything's done. I have no point being here anymore. The Foundation's raid fucked everything up and ruined all my plans, and now I've realized how infinitesimal I am in the grand scheme of things. I want to live, to embrace the anomalous, to be myself, not bound by some misguided commanders who don't even know the nature of their orders."

She turned to Jai, a fire in her eyes that he had never seen before. "Don't you want to live?"

There was silence for another minute as he and Mira stood there, staring at each other and the document in their hands. They never realized how much time had actually passed until they heard the sound of tires against a gravel road, and turned towards the entrance of the base.

Mira's rifle swung up. "We have company."

A white Land Cruiser entered the base, its windows far too dark for Jai to see who or what was driving. As they pointed their weapons at the vehicle and waved it down to stop, Jai paused, hearing the sound of music thumping from inside of the vehicle as it slowed to a halt.

"You go back, Jack, do it again, wheel turnin' 'round and 'round.. You go back, Jack…"

Steely Dan? Jai thought to himself. Someone had good taste.

The engine—and the music—cut off, and then the driver side door opened. The barrel of a machine gun poked out alongside the head of a soldierly white man with combed blonde hair and a bushy handlebar mustache. He wore a solid red T-shirt and an open olive drab flak jacket, along with something Jai had definitely seen before—a Cambodian krama scarf wrapped around his neck.

He stepped out of the vehicle, and Jai and Mira stood down as they saw him rest his hands atop the menacing-looking RPK machine gun slung over his chest. He towered over Jai by probably a couple inches, and his gaze immediately snapped over to him. "Hey, you. Does the black moon howl?"

Jai stood still, his outstretched hand wavering as he sized up the man. If this was a running password, he wasn't sure what to answer, so he shrugged his shoulders. "Who's askin'?"

The passenger door opened, and out came a lanky brown-haired white man in civilian clothes, with a white labcoat worn over everything. He was around Jai's age, possibly way younger, sporting an Astros baseball cap, and some of his hair protruded from the underside of the cap.

He stumbled away from the vehicle, fumbling with the Uzi that he clutched in one hand. Jai thought the gun looked a bit too big in hands, or he seemed too skinny to even be holding one. The way his eyes seemed quickly to dart around beneath the lemon yellow lenses of his aviator sunglasses suggested that he was nervous.

Jai and Mira looked at each other. They were still outgunned, but at the very least, they weren't dead.

The scrawny man in glasses spoke up first. "Hey, Whiplash, a-are these the guys or…?"

"I don't know, Richards." The blonde man replied, teasingly. "Maybe you should ask them yourself."

Jai and Mira glanced at each other as the "Richards" person approached slowly, lowering his Uzi down to his side. "Hi. Um. Are you Jai and Mira?"

Jai repeated what he had said before, narrowing his eyes. "Who the fuck's askin'?"

"Delta is."

His view shot up to the muscular white man, the "Whiplash," according to Richards. He placed his hands in the pockets of his jeans as he walked up beside his associate, and his voice was low and slow, almost as if he was relaxed, in spite of everything.

"I'm Agent Whiplash—all caps on documents, by the way—on behalf of Delta Command. This is Rese-Doctor Richards, of the R&D cell Gun Club." He paused for a split second. "Delta Command is looking for you—rather, they're looking for your commander. Hudson. Where is he?"

“He looks awfully too young to be a doctor,” Mira quipped, much to Richards' chagrin.

“My question,” Whiplash shifted, speaking in a sterner tone. “It remains unanswered.”

"Well, if you’re looking for Hudson, you’re shit out of luck, pal." Mira replied. "He's gone, and we have no idea where the hell he is. If I was to wager, he's probably lost in the jungle trying to find GZ or something—he never gave us any intel about the place anyways, aside from the name."

"Then shit out of luck we are," Whiplash muttered. "And lost in the jungle doesn't sound too far-fetched either, knowing Hudson. You two haven't realized it yet, have you? What's been goin' on lately?"

"What's happened?" Jai asked. "Are we being relieved, is the fight still going on?"

"You've missed a lot, buddy." Whiplash began, shaking his head. "The Insurgency and the Rhodesians cut ties. I've already been hearing reports of a few skirmishes and raids against each other — nothing too big, but it's gonna get way worse."

He stuck a finger towards them. "All the while, your boss took the Bell of Entropy and fucked off to God knows where. Now, Delta's tasking you with taking the man down. Congratulations on your new assignment as assassins."

Jai's jaw was agape as Mira sighed, swearing to herself. He exhaled out his nostrils. "Unbelievable. Now what?"

"I'll tell you more on the way to the Gun Club," Whiplash continued. "For now, you're going to get in my car, and I'm gonna get you out of here, before the Foundation really wipes this place off the map."

As if to encourage them, he opened up the door and pushed his seat forwards to allow the two to enter the cramped back seats of the Land Cruiser. "Don't get too comfy. You've got a long day ahead of you."



Ahead of them was a large, cream-colored building with a thatched roof, nestled in a clearing around several patches of acacia trees. Rows of the trees lined the dirt road that led up to the remote lodge, ending in a circular driveway with another Land Cruiser parked in the front of the complex. At a nearby water hole behind the building, a group of antelope raised their heads up momentarily, spotting the vehicle and staring at it as it came to a halt.

For a so-called "Gun Club", Jai thought the place certainly fit the description of a "club," although the lack of any guns so far was somewhat disappointing to him. In spite of all this, he was still a little wary of tagging along with Whiplash and Richards—hell, at this point, he knew more about Mira than he knew of the others. It said a lot without saying anything at all that he trusted her more than them.

The fact that they were still alive, though, was enough for him to understand that Delta at least still needed them—if Mira was to be believed, of course. Ever since their argument, they had never directly spoken a word to each other, not even on the long ride to the Gun Club. Maybe she needed some time to cool down.

“We’re here.” Whiplash announced, parking the vehicle and clambering out, followed by Richards. Mira left soon after, leaving Jai as the last out of the vehicle.

“So, this is your safehouse? This is the nicest place I’ve been at in months, maybe even years.” Mira looked up at the front façade of the building, giving an impressed hmph. A sign up front in English indicated that it was owned by the “Conestoga Independent” company as a hunting lodge, a pretty on-the-nose pseudonym.

“Rent and upkeep aren't, uh, free, y’know…” Richards stepped up to the front door, bringing up a jingling lanyard of keys as he unlocked the door. "Oh, uh, also. W-while, uh, you're here, guys… you're, uhh, under the Gun Club's house rules."

Jai tilted his head. "What kind of house rules, exactly?"

"Everyone here follows his rules, including me," Whiplash replied. "Don't touch nothin' unless he says so."

The door unlocked, and as Richards pushed it open, Jai was met with a refreshing blast of cold air in his face. The front of the air-conditioned building was as standard and fancy as hunting lodges got, though the fully-stocked bar, taxidermied animal busts, and vintage firearms hanging on the walls were enough to pique his interest.

"You gotta nice place," Jai nodded his head, pacing around on the slate flooring as he gave a couple nods to some of the workers. "Got any guns for us, or what?"

Whiplash snorted. "Yeah, about that."

Jai stopped to look at Richards and Whiplash, who were descending down a flight of stairs into presumably a basement. The presence of a brick wall at the bottom of the stairwell, however, seemed to suggest that the stairs led to nowhere.

He exhaled out his nostrils, looking at the men taking slow, methodical steps towards the wall. "Man… what the fuck is this shit?"

"Right foot first," Richards explained, "And make sure you're visualizing a door ahead of you with every step. One step at a time."

He blinked—and then Richards and Whiplash were gone. He looked over his shoulder at Mira, who just flashed her hands, showing that her palms were empty. "I've got nothin', Jay. Go on."

"Should we trust 'em?"

"Your call, but I'd be careful around them. Personally, I've got trust issues."

Jai scoffed. "Yeah, I know."

With his right foot forward, he carefully descended the stairs, gripping tightly to the railing. One step turned into two, and then two turned into ten, but his eyes were laser-focused on the seemingly impenetrable barrier ahead of him.

He imagined a door ahead of himself as he reached the bottom steps, envisioning himself stepping towards it and moving his hand forward, as if to push it open. As he felt the air shift around him, Jai twisted the doorknob and pushed the door open, stepping through the doorway into the underground facility.

The seemingly underground facility they had entered was small, but advanced, as if made dozens of years ago with architecture that was considered modern today. Fluorescent lights buzzed above them, the retro-futuristic corridor ahead of them lined with various offices and storage spaces, some filled with humming computers that took up much of the room space.

Jai let out a whistle as he and Mira continued, catching up to Richards and Whiplash. "Woah."

The storage spaces, although mostly empty, had various trinkets and items inside, ranging from ham radio sets and innocuous-looking shotguns, to swords that probably looked like they would've fit in some pulp fantasy story. He already knew many of these Items, much like the microwave he had used to kill the monster the day before, likely had some sort of strange catch or caveat to their abilities—but their destructive and tactical potential was not to be underestimated.

"So, you guys gonna let him test run some of these things or what?" Mira sneered, watching Richards unlock the door to an armory ahead of them. "Y'know, Whiplash, Jai's begging to try out whatever you've got that'll let him kill Hudson efficiently."

Jai rolled his eyes and groaned, turning to the woman. "Oh, will you knock it off?"

"Just stating the obvious, Jay."

"Look—" He shook his head. "Just… you're right, damn it—I ain't got no damn clue where that man is right now," He paused, gesturing to an ordinary-looking machine gun lying on a rack in the armory. "And all this ordnance is nice 'n all, but you can't expect me to just just use a M60 like a compass or whatever. It's about as useful as a hammer in a jungle."

Richards sighed and stifled a chuckle, resting a hand atop the machine gun as he looked off towards nothing. "Dumb simile aside… I, uhh, think we'll just have to take some inventory for now, see what you all can work with. So!"

His gaze snapped over to Mira. "What do you do?"

"Combat thaumaturge." She said, folding her arms. "I really only need a rifle."

"Aaaand you." Whiplash's finger panned over to Jai "What're you good at in particular, Jai? Sniping? AT?"

"I qualified as an expert marksman in the Marines. Was gonna go Scout Sniper," Jai explained. "You got anything that I might like, lemme know."

His voice trailed off as he saw Whiplash mutter something, before turning to the young man in yellow aviators. "Expert marksman… Whaddya think, Richards? Give him the Asset?"

"No, I'm not giving him the damn Asset, Whiplash."

"What else is he gonna use, a knife? I'd say it's poetic justice."

"It's dangerous, and you know it."

"But it's a good shot at fulfilling the Plan. Literally. All we need is your approval…"

"No means no!"

Seeing as the two were too busy arguing to help, Jai threw his hands in the air and stepped out of the armory. "Alright, I'mma just look around, see if any of the Items you got is worth my time."

Stepping back into the hallway, Jai sighed, then began perusing the various storage spaces and gawking at their often nonsensical and silly-sounding codenames. "Fuckin' hell."

There were all sorts of strange tools and weapons behind the wired glass in the rooms; some looked as mundane as the pistol on his hip, while others looked like a drawing from a child's diary made physical, with fittingly flowery names. Some looked broken, others looked too advanced for 1973, but all of the synopses of their effects didn't seem to catch his attention.

There was one room, though, that contained only a metal table. Atop it, however, was a padlocked case for what he presumed was some sort of rifle. Beside it sat several metal boxes of ammunition with Russian text stenciled on it. The room itself was unmarked and unordinary, but the plaque by the door spelled out an ominous codename: "THE ASSET".

Below the plaque, a warning; a yellow triangle symbol with a black eye in the middle stared back at him.

Jai felt a presence behind him, and looked over his shoulder to see Mira beside him again. "You know, I didn't mean that last remark, Jay."

"I thought you weren't gonna talk to me no more," Jai cocked an eyebrow, fully facing the woman. "What happened to going home, too?"

"Well, truth be told…" She smiled. "I'm not gonna walk 500 miles just to get to Salisbury, wherever it is in relation to us. Might stick around here some, before you go off to kill Hudson."

"So, you changed your mind."

"You could say so."

"Hmm." He nodded slowly. "Well, that's good, I guess. I'm gonna keep movin', that thing's giving me bad energy."

As he turned the corner, though, his nostrils were suddenly bombarded with a flurry of scents that he recognized immediately. Jai's eyes widened as he jogged down the hallway, his nose leading him down the center of a T-shaped passage that led to another large room.

"The hell's that?" He ogled the door where the aroma seemed to be originating from. "You smell that, Mira? It's like… I can smell my home, my momma's cooking, the jungle, death…"

"You're smelling that?" Mira scrunched up her nose as she sniffed. "All I smell is wood, vanilla, and mowed grass."

The two looked at each other for a moment, then down the corridor they had come from. They saw Whiplash and Richards approaching, the latter shuffling forwards awkwardly.

With a dramatic pause, Richards gestured to the door. "That… would be HALMAS."

Jai tilted his head before asking, rather unceremoniously, "The fuck is HALMAS?"

"Hallucinogenic Memetoamnestic Substance," the scrawny man explained. "Essentially a reverse amnestic—a mnestic, if you will—uh, that the original members of Mobile Task Force Alpha-1 used for 'enhancing situational awareness,' you see. The reason you are recalling smells from the past is because mnestics directly target the user's memories, uhh, giving you near-total recall and perception far beyond human capability."

"Hallucino— English, please?" Jai asked. Admittedly, he was too daft to figure out what that meant.

"Back when the Insurgency split from the Foundation, a number of our founders stole the substance you're smelling right now," Whiplash explained. "They realized that HALMAS not only gives us the ability to clearly perceive the past, but also the present. In the right dosage, HALMAS enhanced subjects' information retention, induced clairvoyance, and even prescience."

"You're telling me I can see the future with this stuff?" Jai scoffed. "Why haven't we been using this, then?"

"Because it's been discontinued, and we don't exactly make it anymore. It's dangerous, and it's expensive." Whiplash added. "Getting exposed to a cognitohazard while on HALMAS will irreversibly alter your mental state, rendering you totally compromised. Not to mention, a gram of this stuff costs a fortune to develop. There's a reason this stuff was prime luxury for the oh-fives and their main lackeys."

Jai stopped to think for a moment as the doors sheathed open. Part of him wanted to believe that going into the room was going to be a waste of time with all of the supposed drawbacks of HALMAS, but there was something else trying to tug him in… and it smelled like home.

The room's interior looked like a cross between a laboratory and a greenhouse, with a myriad of hanging plants visible above the workstations. The smell in particular was coming from one of the workstations; a chemist's setup inside of a fume hood, where a titration flask filled with a bold, orange liquid sat beneath a collection of strange fruits and vines. The liquid was obviously being boiled, and the steam rose to cover the leaves of the plants and the skins of the fruits.

At a certain angle, Jai smelled his old church; a slightly musty and wooden odor, intermingled with his mother's perfume. He could hear the voice of a pastor several rows in front of him, harping on about temptation and sins and good and evil ad nauseam, connecting them to injustices they were facing in the present. The man spoke with pure emotion and vigor in his voice; he was not reading off a teleprompter—no, he was passionate for what he spoke about.

Turning to the right, Jai looked up at his Mother's black hair. "What's he talking about, momma?"

Mira immediately backed up a few paces. "What the fuck are you talking about, Jay?"

"Oh—" Jai stumbled backwards, catching himself on one of the workstations. "Oh shit. Sorry. I thought you were—" He paused, as if having a moment of clarity. "Maybe this is exactly what I need."

"Or… maybe we need to fix the vents and the sealant on the fume hood." Whiplash growled.

Rolling his eyes at his colleague's quip, Richards gave a long sigh. "If you're seriously considering taking HALMAS for this mission, Jai, I'm afraid I can't let you do that. You just had an adverse reaction to inhaling a small amount of it, did you not?"

Adverse? Jai grimaced. "I feel fine, man."

"But you didn't even know where you were, or when you were… in those… how long was it…" He paused to take a glance at his watch. "…Sixty seconds, right? If… if you're, uhh, to take higher doses of that, who knows what would become of you?"

Whiplash grimaced. "Richards, you're being irra—"

Again, Jai rolled his eyes, cutting the man off. "I told you. I'm fine."

Richards tapped his fingers together anxiously, ignoring both of them. "No. It's… well, this is something that still has yet to be understood fully, admittedly. I-It's a safety risk, too. Risks compromising you. If your mind is here… and your body is there… there's going to come a point where you can't control both things at the same time. You can see why that risks…"

Jai's attention was still fixated on the fume hood as he dampened voices of Richards, Mira, and Whiplash until they sounded like they were behind a layer of drywall. His eyes crept along the edges of the workstation built partially into the wall. It was faulty, he figured, judging by the wisps of steam escaping certain points in the hood that weren't enclosed properly, but that observation didn't really matter.

The more he observed the liquid in the flask, the more he could see it beginning to change hue, transforming from a tangerine color into a lime green. The reaction made no sense—even from someone who was not a chemist—but it didn't matter anyways. He pinpointed something more important.

The way the liquid bubbled inside the flask, violently lashing around the glass—it reminded him of the motions of fire.

He felt his hands holding onto a manila dossier, staring down at the contents of it as he opened it. Blurry words and symbols spelled out a name that he swore he could see for a faction of a second: Masvingo.

Jai slowly turned around to the others in the room, all of whom stared at him with mixed expressions on their faces. His demand was short, punctual, and straight to the point. "Get me some."

"Holy shit." Whiplash scoffed, folding his arms. "You even know how long you were out for?"

"I don't care. I need some of it."

The man seemed to chew the inside of his cheek as he dropped his hands, one of which fingered at a sidearm at his hip. Jai saw this and contemplated reaching for his own. "Even if I could give it to you, Jai, you'd need clearance from Delta—"

"Two years ago, I was on a raid on a GZ outpost with the Scouts in Zambia," Jai began. "I snatched a Foundation dossier regarding Great Zimbabwe that I handed off to Hudson. Antimemetic. He was able to read it, 'cause he was on mnestics. I wasn't."

He paused. "I need to remember what I saw on it. That's how I can find Great Zimbabwe. That's how I can find him and kill him."

The room went silent for another uncomfortable minute as Jai felt all sixty seconds pass. What if he was getting too ahead of himself? What if Richards was right about the adverse side effects? Everyone reacted to certain substances differently—this was the unimpeachable truth, and everyone knew it. This was like taking whatever drugs he had seen in his life before and giving it the "high-explosive, armor piercing" permutation. Regardless of the effect, it was going to hit him hard.

He nearly scoffed at his own horrible analogy. "Well? That high enough 'clearance' for you?"

Whiplash eyed Richards. "If it's his only shot, I say the Expert Marksman should take it."

Eventually, the young "doctor" conceded and sidestepped past Jai and Richards, digging through one of the desks for what looked like an army-issue gas mask, then made his way to the fume hood. The look on his face and the tone of his voice spelled out pure disappointment. "Fine. For the record, I am not responsible for what becomes of him."



The deep orange glow of the setting sun poured over the horizon, dousing everything on the Gun Club's back porch a similarly colored hue. All of the animals at the nearby water hole had since left, but Jai kept his eyes on the horizon, watching the way in which the reds and blues of the sunset seemed to blend together with the sparse white clouds.

The door opened behind him. Jai turned to see Mira stepping out onto the porch, making her way over to the steps. She took a glance down at the zippo lighter in Jai's hands, along with something cigarette-sized, rolled up in a cylindrical bundle of white paper.

She scoffed at the objects. "Of all the ways I thought you'd be taking this stuff, I wasn't expecting you to smoke it."

"I've seen Army guys smokin' weed out of shotguns before," He shrugged. "I reckon this is a lot smoother than just injecting myself. If it ain't," He paused, flicking the lighter open with his thumb. "It looks cool, I guess. I don't like needles anyways."

As she sat down beside him, Jai found another familiar object on his lap, looking down at the patrol cap's underside with a blank, confused stare. Tucked inside of a pouch beneath the hat's button was a small, clearish plastic bag with what looked like postage stamps inside of it. Upon further glance, they looked more like blotters than anything else.

"Fuck's this?" He raised an eyebrow. "I'm here to find Hudson, not fractals on the sun."

She smirked slightly. "No. It's for the field, Jay. Just in case you need more. I'm just here to trip sit."

"Huh. How thoughtful of you." His tone was half-sarcastic, but they both had calmed down somewhat. "I've got no idea how this shit works, but I started seein' that document in the corner of my vision the more I thought about it. I'll try to focus on that and anything else."

"Just be careful, and don't get lost." Her voice was low and reassuring, almost like a family member's. "I'll be with you every step. Try not to move your body—let your mind worry about that."

He tucked the hat in his back pocket and took a deep sigh. "Thanks."

Jai's thumb struck the flint wheel as a sunset-colored flame winked to life atop the lighter.

Placing the bundle into his mouth, he held the flame against the end of the tiny cylinder, watching the paper darken to a burnt black in seconds. He inhaled and exhaled like it was natural, watching the clouds of smoke escape from his mouth and nostrils, before bleeding off into the sky. It was working in seconds. Part of him felt present, while the other half was missing in action somewhere.

"Still here." Mira's voice was barely intelligible, but he understood, giving a slow nod.

The ashes on the end of the white cigarillo soon fell away to expose something golden and burning beneath the bundle, however, which blinked to an almost blinding white color to his eyes. As he looked up, he saw that there was only one red star visible in the sky as the rest emerged. It stuck out among the others like a bullseye on a target, demanding his attention.

The red star began as little more than a dot no bigger than a full stop, before expanding, pulsating, and dilating, consuming the sky in a rose tint.

Its many arms stretched outwards, formed from the clouds themselves. Eight of them in total curved through the sky, locking the red star in place as it began to beat.



The ground he stood atop was soft, like clay, his boots sinking slightly into the earth with each step he took. The grass was greener than any lawn he had seen back in the States, and the dirt was a rich, almost onyx hue. Everything around him, though abruptly made way to a small canal of water about a foot wide, separating one stretch of land from the next.

Jai knelt over the canal and muttered, spotting his dazed reflection in the water. He reached for the weight of a weapon that he felt slung on his back. "I'm too early, Mira. Gonna go a tiiiny bit forward… I know. I'm too far back. I know."

The rice paddy stopped where the savanna began, with the silhouettes of acacia trees and amber brush replacing the megalithic and verdant jungle canopy. Off in the distance, there was a bonfire, the stink of death intermingling with the smell of diesel and rust. "Getting closer. I can feel it. I'm outta the jungle."

The stock of his rifle felt wooden as he reached for it, though. Puzzled, he pulled the weapon in front of himself and looked it over, squinting in confusion at the Soviet firearm cradled in his palms. It had too long of a barrel to be considered an AK, but was unmistakably a Kalashnikov design. The sling was leather, possessing the texture of an old belt, but the stock itself was covered in blank spaces that his mind was struggling to fill. It looked like a swirling mass of TV static, and it hurt to look at.

"I'm holding an… AK…? Nah. Looks like a sniper rifle." He barely managed to mutter. "Nah, I'm almost there. I can see it."

An overturned Unimog blocked the path ahead, as did an old church bell partially embedded into the ground. Jai stepped offroad for a moment and maneuvered around the blockages, panning the weapon over the open clearing he had just entered. Around the corner, though, he heard voices, dropping to a knee as he prepared his weapon.

"I am a soldier without allegiance, fighting a fight no one is brave enough to lead, and I refuse to be cast aside by a commodity by those that have sheltered me. I am the living spirit of what we represent."

The voice sounded familiar, the cadence of the Afrikaner immediately pinpointing a name. "I see him. Hudson. Interrogating… someone."

"You represent entropy, killer," Another, more older voice with a distinctly Shona accent, spat back at Hudson. "Randomness and disorientation. You're the figurehead of nothing but calamity and disaster."

As Jai looked past the overturned Unimog, he saw who Hudson was interrogating. A tall African man covered in too many piercings to count and ancient-looking robes was on the ground, Hudson's knife halfway through his sternum. Jai rested the rifle against the truck and placed his finger over the trigger.

He anticipated Hudson scoffing arrogantly. "You don't know me at all."

"Then who are you?"

This caused Hudson to chuckle as he stood up from his kneeling posture. "I've been known by many names, your majesty: Kid. Agent. Insurgent. Madman. Commander…" In one fluid motion, Hudson then drew a remarkably pristine 1911 pistol from his side, leveling it in front of the man's head.

"Tonight, though, I shall be known as Executioner."

Hudson's finger moved before Jai could. Both men fired their weapons, not even hesitating to do so, as if killing was as natural as breathing. The larger rifle, however, took center stage at how powerful its call rang out, grasping Jai's attention as the recoil thrashed his body.

As the muzzle flash cleared, he saw that the campsite was empty, save for the glint of a manila folder sticking out of a discarded piece of kit. Jai reached his hand out for the folder, pulling it into his hands. "He's at GZ. Don't know where. I have the folder."

His eyes glossed over the fine print, past containment procedures, past whatever the hell an "object class" was, until he saw the description and read it aloud.

"..is an extradimensional space accessible through a portal located within ██████, Rhodesia. The location of the entry point itself is situated near the conical tower of the historical ruins of Great Zimbabwe, a medieval city…"

He paused, realizing the error he had read out loud to himself. "You gotta be shitting me."


Jai almost threw himself to the floor as he heard the microwave go off next to him, half-expecting a wave of heat to overwhelm him in those next few seconds. Were it not for a hand suddenly gasping his arm, he would have taken cover by now.

He slowly turned to his right, feeling as if he was moving on the moon or underwater, and tugged at the arm. "Hey, Mira, let-"

Mira wasn't grabbing him. Instead, a clean-shaven black man in a white dress shirt and black tie was urging him to sit down, while chewing on something. "Hey, hey. You're out of it, boy. Sit down, and get some pie. Don't let it go cold."


HALMAS had given him clarity to the point where he could passively note the number of notches on the scope of his rifle, or the position of the moon in relation to him. He knew what someone was about to say, what they could have said, and what they didn't have the chance to say. Every single thought, idea, and memory that was in his mind could have been accessed and stored at will—the feeling of omniscience was utterly enamoring to him.

Everything had come crashing back to normalcy in a single second, though. He feared for what the withdrawal was going to be like.

Jai unceremoniously sat down, eyeing the area he had arrived in. It was the interior of a surprisingly sterile diner, and he and the man in front of him were the only ones seated. They also seemed to be the only ones actually inside, but he couldn't see if there were any cars outside regardless.

The main reason was that the window was a black, featureless void that tapered off upon reaching the front door of the diner.

The man seated in front of him took his fork, a tik-tik noise of fork against plate complementing his soulful chewing as he picked at slices of apple pie. Jai looked over at the man and swallowed, opening his jaw at all the similar features to himself that he could pick out on the man's face. "Are—"

"There. Eat." The man put the fork in his mouth with a slice of the pie. "You back with me, boy, or do I gotta throw water on your face and mess up that uniform of yours?"

As he gulped down the surprisingly tasteless apple pie, Jai looked himself over, counting the admittedly small number of ribbons on his khaki service uniform. He brought his eyes back to the man's once more, only managing a mutter. "I've never had apple pie before."

The man raised both of his eyebrows. "Good observation. You had cherry?"

"Look— where am I?" He leaned forward. "I gotta get back to—"

"Completing your mission. I know." The man nodded as he brought up a napkin, cleaning off his lips. "That's also a good question, 'Where am I?' I'd be askin' myself the same thing." The way he spoke was authoritative, powerful, professional, yet oddly compassionate. He was older than Jai by about thirty or so years—the wrinkles and moles on his face and slightly graying hair were enough to prove it. All things aside, he had aged well.

"Everyone coming home asks themselves the same thing. I asked myself the same question after coming back from the Pacific in '45." The man nodded, setting down his fork. "I know you're not here to discuss war, though, no. I know you better."

What was he even talking about? The man felt alien in spite of all his familiar features and drawl. The way he dressed, spoke, and even the way he ate his pie was raising too many red flags for him to just ignore. If he knew about the Plan, that also wasn't good for him.

"You don't know me at all." Jai leaned back in his seat, moving to the defense. "You're Federal. I'm not answering your questions. Let me out of here."

"I'm Foundation, boy." The man gestured to himself. "You knew that, you just weren't looking hard enough."

His eyes traced along the man's shoulder, to the suit jacket folded up neatly beside him. A silver pin was on one of the collars; two concentric roundels were pierced by three arrows.

"Uh huh. I'll admit it, just like how you admit you're an Insurgent. I owe my allegiance to no flag. Neither do you, at the moment. We're alike. However,"

The Foundation man raised his fork up again, using it to loosely point at Jai. "You're a first-timer to what you're doing right now, this… heh… trip. I can smell the naivete on you like sweat."

"So what." Jai sank down further in his seat as he grunted. "I know you're on HALMAS too. You got me, but you can't stop me. I already know what I gotta do, and where I gotta go. I've got my Plan, and I intend to act on it."

"No you don't." The man stuck a finger out towards Jai, wiggling it up and down slightly. "Not even that, you're still conflicted. Once you kill Hudson, you'll have fulfilled your purpose. There's gonna be nothing left for you. Not only that, you're not sure you really want to tell everyone what's been going on here. It'd break your momma's heart—and her mind—to know what you're doing, wouldn't it?"

Jai opened his mouth to speak in protest, closing it as the man reached into his suit and slid a file over. Opening it revealed documents full of nondescript fine print, with a black and white photograph of him at Parris Island clipped to the top of it all.

"I know you like the back of my hand, Jai Perryman—just like how I know Hudson Croix, and a little bit about this Mira girl. I'm not here to boast, though, it's outta character for me. I'm here to ascertain motives and allegiances."

Jai knew the man was trying to toy with him, pulling on strings that were better off left untouched. Something about the way he sat and spoke, let alone the fact he had the pie, was telling him that this wasn't his conversation.

"I'm Insurgency, alright?" He spoke like he was a teenager being judged by his father. "I have a mission— OPSEC be damned. Since you already seem to know it, I'll say it. I'm going to Great Zimbabwe and I'm killing Hudson."

"You don't even know where Great Zimbabwe is!" The man replied almost immediately, a tinge of condescension in his tone. "You did, at least for a moment, but that memory is permanently gone. That's because we keep it a secret, only to those that need to know."

He tapped his finger against the table. "Your boss learned from us well, Jai, that's how he cheated past the antimeme."

"I know he was ex-Foundation," Jai began, "But why do—"

"I know so much about him, you, Great Zimbabwe, and the Insurgency?" The man started, fishing the words out of Jai's mouth. "That's because we made you. The Insurgency did not separate from the Foundation after a handful of operatives and agents decided to go rogue one day—absolutely not."

He shook his head. "We Overseers formed the Insurgency as a covert operations group, to collect high-risk anomalies and do what needed to be done with plausible deniability if you were caught. Sure, some elements went, well, 'rogue,' " He raised his fingers as he gave air quotes. "Insofar as they were still in the scheme at the end of the day."

Jai's eyebrows furrowed. "You're lying. I don't work for you. None of us do."

"In a way, you actually, do." The Overseer corrected him. "Eventually, that Casaba-Howitzer microwave you nearly broke and that HALMAS you consumed are going to come back to us, be it a package you drop off at the wrong location, a man that got killed at a Site on his smoke break… or an ambush timed perfectly right."

Jai went silent as he processed the words, simultaneously understanding who he was and what he had done. He saw the man get up and put the plate on the counter, before returning to the booth simultaneously.

Both men exchanged glances for a minute before Jai sat up. "Why me?"

The Overseer brought both hands onto the table, clasping them together as he leaned forward. "We're all like… parts, Jai, trying to force ourselves into the inner workings of a big engine—for a car, let's say. Some people fit perfectly fine. Other times, if we don't fit, we mess things up. One wrong gear or bolt screws up the entire engine—gets folk mad. We get folks who—mad that they can't fit in this machine—take spark plugs and springs from our engine to use on their own. Then we get the real mad folk, who will flip their shit and blow up the entire damn engine in bouts of rage."

He paused for a half-second, to let Jai digest the metaphor. "However, some gears and pistons can be forced in, if you hammer 'em hard enough or screw them in tight enough, but you run the risk of ruining the whole thing."

Jai watched as the Overseer's pointed at him once again, retaining in his posture. "You are trying to fit into something that doesn't concern you, nor cares for you. That's the Insurgency, Jai. Too small and too complex of a machine. You're not built for it."

The ex-marine deadpanned at the Overseer's face, then at the table. Whatever thoughts that were moving in his mind at the moment were utterly unable to be formulated, clouding his judgment in a fog of war. He sniffed, making out paltry whiffs of wood and gun oil amid the diner's rather sterile and polished scent.

"Then you're tryna put me in your machine, then, after I kill Hudson." He spoke up. "You think I fit in yours. That's what this is."

Jai saw the Overseer reach into his jacket's pocket, placing a card on the table and pushing it forward. He looked over the numbers on the blank card, etching the coordinates into his memory.

"We'll talk more in person." The Overseer swiped his card from the table, stood up, and made his way to the door. As he opened it—

—Jai sat up from the porch, startling Mira as she shuffled back from him a few steps. Her eyes looked panicked and wide, wider than he had ever seen. "Jay! You were out for… hours. You're good, right? What did you see?"

He didn't reply right away. Instead, he stuck a hand into his back pocket, unfolding Mira's patrol cap with a flick of his wrist.

He placed the cap over his head, but did not remove his hand from the brim. "The truth."

He removed his hand from the hat, turned away from her, then began marching out into the brush.

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