Redact Your Life
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Something was following Foster. He was certain of it.

It was no foul beast, it did not prey on him in bloodlust nor in hunger. An unseen presence hung from him like a heavy chain on his form, a miasma. It plagued from the background, and although he wasn't sure what it was exactly, the man was certain that there was something inherently wrong about it.

He did not know why it chose him, nor how long it had been following before he had caught on. It faded in on a slow gradient, leaking into him and fraying the few strings left that held him together as a human. Driving back to a filthy hotel from his nightly food run, a paper bag of hard liquor and empty carbs beside him and the rolling hills of the Carrizo Plain in the distance, Foster felt the sudden and cool hand of paranoia laid out on the back of his neck. Innate fear, the universal motivator, crawling and itching with restlessness and ants, imaginary ants, just under the skin. He knew the feeling well.

Ignoring the usual cloud that followed his head on any given day, Foster took a slow breath, growing hyperaware of the space around him, vision sharpening enough to pierce through the inky darkness surrounding the vehicle- although nothing was there. The silence increased in volume to deafening levels, and to mitigate the oppressive hum, Foster switched on the radio and tuned it to a random station, a talk show. He was still alone, yet oddly comforted by the company of the disembodied voice, listening to it mumble on about some conflict or other in whatever impoverished, war-torn nation it was nowadays. The presence was still there, lingering in the folds, and it exhaled misery out into the aether with each invisible breath.

That thing had taken everything from him. It tore him from his family, his friends. His children. His home. Now, slowly, it fed the man's sanity and sense of self, just outside of view, of knowing, and of form. Somehow, it was still everywhere; he saw the tracks it left behind as it consumed the world. The gaps and the blank pages, things between things, gone but for the space they left behind and nobody blinks an eye. He was not better for it. Ignorance is bliss.

Yet this ghost of an idea would not be ignored. After a moment, as the host droned onward about military spending, Foster was taken off guard by sudden changes in the quality of the broadcast, like artifacts in an image, distorting and decreasing in pitch, warping into discordant ugliness, then to nothing. He changed the station, but static grew on that one as well, and the next, the music detuning and fading as chaos overcame the sound.

It would not be ignored.

Foster switched wildly through the stations until there was nothing left. Just emptiness and a harsh white noise. He turned it off with a sigh. This is how it goes. Everything and everyone he ever had ties with, it would cut them loose and he would never see them again. Nobody would remember except for him, and life seemed to find a way to adjust history to fit that definition. Yeah, they didn't believe it either, presumably until they too vanished from the world.

The man checked the clock. ██:██. Nevermind. His watch read 02:30. He should be tired, but that was not the case. Foster was wired. And confused.

So confused.

In fact, it took a minute to realize that he didn't actually know where he was going, aside from that it was a hotel, the name and location of which now escaping his mind. Pulling off to the side of the road, Foster checked his tattered wallet for the room key. After a minute, he succeeded, although it appeared strangely foreign to the man as he studied the plastic card closer.

████████ Hotel. Okay.

Foster pulled out his phone and searched the name, hands trembling, mind forgetting and relearning on the fly as information slipped away like sand through his fingertips. After a bit of effort, the hotel's address was found, at the cost of it's name. Luckily, the location still existed and wasn't far from here. Relief was a strong word for how he felt; existing is a bare minimum for many things, but it was a nice change. Glancing around for identifying street signs, he was reminded of his urgency, finding that they were unreadable; Someone stuck tape or something over the words, leaving a single white rectangle on a now useless landmark-

It would not be ignored.

Ah, right.

Punching the fading street address into his GPS, the Unraveling Man was again reminded of his pursuer, then once again of the fact that his destination was close. Foster breathed another sigh of half-relief, growing unaware of his own increasingly scattered mind. He pulled out onto the now unmarked road and sped down the freeway, ignoring speed limit signs he was pretty sure he couldn't read anyway.

The ride, although uneventful, was thick with unease. He couldn't help but feel the weight of it on his back. Looming. He couldn't believe how unrecognizable the area was. It was near the home he lost, or where it had been in another life, surely he had gone through this area before?

And how did Foster even end up at the hotel in the first place? How long had he been there? He tried not to think too hard about these things, pushing the rising concern down in favor of the gray cotton that filled the spaces between his thoughts. Approaching the address, Foster reached to shut off his GPS, only to find his phone with a black screen. It wouldn't turn on. How long had it been off? How long had he been driving?

Glancing outside, he realized quite quickly that this was not the right place at all; between vast stretches of desert was an abandoned strip mall, some empty lots and a restaurant or two, but no hotel. He couldn't remember the name, nor the address for that matter. The man reached into his pocket for the room key once more but this time around it emerged completely blank. The universe was full of holes, and they were only getting larger.

Panic gripping him, sense of direction waning, Foster decided to attempt to calm himself by walking off the restlessness and finding something to occupy the time while he gathered his bearings- if it was even possible. Heading down the street, the man with no past moved towards a neon-clad diner that was situated diagonally across from the empty lot he had parked in. It existed like a bright beacon of pinks and reds in the otherwise all-consuming darkness. He wasn't even hungry, but it was a distraction and something real- that was all he needed.

While walking away from the lot, the car Foster had owned since his mid-twenties and loved for many years was lost from his mind, keys still in the ignition. These final memories were burnt to gray ashes, and from those ashes a faceless thing derived black ink that soaked through the margins, the in-betweens and beyond- staining the Real with an ocean of nothing. Behind Foster, his cherished vehicle lost form, then color, and eventually all meaning whatsoever. He wouldn't look back, he couldn't. There was only forward, and right now that forward led to a greasy and unkempt eating establishment.

The inside of the diner was about as run-of-the-mill as you can get, arguably how most diners exist naturally. It was themed in half-hearted, 50's-adjacent fashion, and their newest patron was nonplussed by the furnishings, opting to sit at a booth regardless, knee knocking against the underside in uncomfortable agitation. A waitress came over to him shortly afterwards, a young woman, sporting bushy hair and a stained, white apron. She gave a look that implied the woman had already made judgements of Foster's character based on his disheveled look and anxious, jumpy demeanor. He didn't mind and stared straight ahead, away from her nametag; if he never learned her name, it couldn't be taken away from him, perceived rudeness be damned. She wordlessly handed off a menu and gestured with a pot of coffee in an apparent attempt to keep vocal interaction with the strange, distressed man who refused to look at her to a minimum. It took a minute for him to realize what she was doing and what she had meant by it. He mumbled a small apology and declined the caffeine- it probably wouldn't help his paranoia.

It wasn't so much paranoia as it was warranted caution though, wasn't it? He knew the Formlessness was in the diner now, sitting beside him, eating the words off the menu. Good thing it had pictures, not that Foster planned on ordering anything. He didn't know what would be left of the place or the people around him by the time his food arrived, anyway.

Glancing at the low-resolution images of platters and overpriced sandwiches, the man was reminded of the many times he must have eaten at an establishment like this with his family. A wife, and his kids? He had kids, right? He tried to picture them, to envision just one feature he remembered, but nothing was there. He wasn't even sure if there was a wife, he wasn't sure of anything. Not anymore.

It was all too much. There was a lump in Foster's throat, twisting knots in his abdomen, and soon after, a rising nausea that began deep within him. It steeped in the knots and grew towards the mouth, that awful feeling. The man swallowed the saliva that filled his lower jaw, and it filled again. The smells that wafted from the kitchen were wretched to him, as perfectly mediocre as they may have been in reality.

Standing up, head spinning, Foster swiftly moved across the building to the bathroom, following signage that annihilated itself just as his eyes connected with it. Anxiety returned to him in waves, accompanied by a profound feeling of dread and churning insides as he entered the blue-tiled restroom and discovered it was more of a closet with a mirror; the toilet and sink were completely absent, along with whatever plumbing there should have been- the things that make a restroom a restroom. Still, he quickly locked the door behind him, buckling in front of a small trash can and vomiting acid. It burned his throat and nose, eyes watering as he continued to gag and cough up hot bile. It persisted for some time, and when it finally relented, he laid on the disgusting, cold tiles and tried to wish himself out of existence. It didn't work.

He didn't have the energy to right his pale, shaking form. Why would he try? Where would he go? The man had nothing and was nothing, continuing to reduce ever further with each passing moment, ad nauseum. Foster tried remembering who he was supposed to be, back before his mind was unwound by the Great Eraser. These lines cast caught little, but he did remember something- the small, black wallet in his back pocket, currently pressing uncomfortably into the soft flesh of his upper thigh. The man fished out his license and stared for a while. An unfamiliar face stared back at him, laminated and real. There was a light in those eyes, a light he was sure had vanished eons ago. Even though he couldn't recognize the picture, a Foster █████ was indeed there. No address was present anymore, just a few dark lines that obscured the existence of his once-home.

Touching his face, dragging dirty hands down the skin, Fos█er felt for the features on the photo and tried desperately to connect them. His mind was fully untethered, without a frame of reference or focal point to ground himself and orient whatever crumbs of sanity were left. The man tried to reassure himself of who he was, despite not really knowing what it meant to be that person anymore.

F█s██r █████ glanced over at the empty space where a sink would be, adjacent to him, and then to the mirror above; he could always look at himself. Would that help him remember the life that was lost, who he was, this man on the card? He sat up with some effort, eyes trained on the mirror, contemplating. ██████ peered back down to find the picture black, no trace of his visage was seen.

Now, he needed to know.

The man pushed with the last bit energy he had and stood. He moved towards the reflective surface, looking into it to reveal ████████████████ ████████████████████ ██████████ █████████████████████████ ███████████████ ███████████████ ██████████████████████████████████████████ ██████████ █████████████████████████ ████████████████████████████████████████ ████████████████████████████████████████████ ████████████████████
██████████ █████████████████████████ ██████████████ ████████████ ████████

And then he was no more.


THE NEXT DAY

Foundation Field Agent Markus Mcclanahan stepped cautiously over the shards of broken glass and upturned chairs that littered the tiled floor of the once-diner. His boots squelched against the ground as they waded through a shallow puddle that filled the area- a consequence of the fire sprinklers having triggered at some point in the hours before and continuing, without cessation, up until a few minutes ago. The smell of ash and burnt plastic permeated what was now the scene of an aftermath. Of what, he couldn't be sure, but it was likely nothing the man was unprepared for.

The stranger business was that of all the secrecy surrounding the event; there was no scheduled briefing or coghaz programming upon his routine arrival into the Site-19 Dispatch that morning, suggesting the answers escaped even Site Management. He had simply been instructed to "go to this address" and "report for damage assessment of anomalous event of unknown magnitude". The terminology used had made him snort audibly, giving the woman behind the glass a moment to shoot him a dirty look in response. He had reasoned at that point that he had possibly deserved it for making light of what was likely to be one of many fates worse than death.

Secrets weren't anything new to Markus, who had spent his last few years learning just how many things he didn't know. There was quite a bit, and there were forces on all sides of him working tirelessly to make sure he would never know. He had learned to live with it (and die with it, but that's another story), like many of his peers had done. You learn by what they can't tell you, using the process of deduction, and you meander through the field and try your best to use that information to not get annihilated in one of a million horrifying, unbelievable ways.

There's this common misconception that floats around the new hire pools for Foundation agents. It's said that if nonhazardous, classified knowledge of an anomaly's nature can help lower-clearance personnel in their investigative efforts that administration will always reveal that knowledge. Safety is the name of the game, after all.

Unfortunately, this is not always the reality of the situation. In fact, this is hardly ever the case.

The Administration has their hands in the politics of a billion worlds. Parallel, distant, macro-and-microcosmic, future and past. They would sooner nuke the planet and grow a new one in a petri dish than personally declassify every document that needs declassification to prevent disaster. The Foundation employees underneath them, however, can't help but flex their reach internally. Markus had even heard rumors of in-house spacio-temporal gateways somewhere in the labyrinthine hallways of Nineteen that would allow for unified diplomacy across dimensions. If they accidentally let even one piece of vital information slip through all those layers of black ink and red tape, if it gets down into that metaphorical multiversal ooze, the results would be… unforeseen. And that's the Foundation's greatest fear- the unknown. Their second greatest fear? Loss of control. Too bad for them that every facility is full of loose lips, but it sure beats going through the official channels.

Markus' train of thought derailed without warning as he became aware of a stout woman staring at him with a look of moderate displeasure, arms crossed against her chest to match her demeanor. She stood in the center of the ruined eating establishment, holding a stack of papers under her arm with significant tension. Her eyes looked at him but through him, equal parts vacant and occupied, suggesting she believed her problems were more important than her immediate surroundings. They were, but her surroundings included Markus, who didn't like the idea she knew something he did not and was continuing to waste his time ruminating on it. He wouldn't reveal his disdain for the obvious disrespect, settling for a tone that was both cordial and dry.

"Director", he uttered, and followed it with a curt nod that hid his opinions well.

Seeing a Site Director in the field is not a common occurrence. They are typically vital to the day-to-day operations of their assigned facility, and therefore are rarely risked out in the real world. Usually, the only time a Site Director oversees field affairs is when it pertains to a containment breach. Markus had answered his next question preemptively, but it didn't stop him from prying her to see just how far he was out of the loop. That's the process of deduction at work.

"What are we looking at here?"

Site-01 Director Audrey Phillips clicked her tongue, exhaling her words in sharp, impatient bursts.

"Fire erupted early this morning, no emergency response. No one was in the building when it happened, so luckily no cleanup detail for you guys today." He stared at her for an extra moment too long and she added, "That's it."

"So why are you here, then? Why are any of us here?", Markus wiped his brow and tried to piece it together from what she was allowed to say, ignoring the unintended existential implications of the question.

"Extranormal event. One time thing. No need to designate", she spoke with decreasing effort. Her mind was apparently too preoccupied to come up with a Level Two-approved excuse for him. Mcclanahan chuckled and glanced around. There was no way this was just a fire, anomalous or not, it looked like the place had been completely robbed of any traces of its own identity. Conceptually gutted would be a more apt comparison.

If it weren't for the layout, he probably wouldn't have known this place was one that served food. The address provided by Dispatch was not valid, and instead provided the neighboring street addresses as a range. The property has no listed owner or records, no identifying characteristics or words or any kind, from the labels to the signage, from the decor to the sign adhered to a tip jar on the counter, The furniture was strewn about and without design nor color. The entire building was painted in shades of gray and black, and not just the charred bits either.

Audrey piped up again, "If you're done admiring the decor, I need the surrounding blocks canvassed for individuals who may have witnessed the fire."

Markus twinged inside at the idea of what was essentially cold-copping for suspects and then Amnesticizing the lot when they turn out to be innocent civilians. Not one had seen the fire because everyone that was present was gone. Dead, or dead, adjacent. It was just an assumption, but from the way Audrey tightened her form around the papers when he questioned her about the situation, it seemed to him like it was a safe assumption to make. The fire was quite possibly caused by neglect of the kitchen, maybe after some sudden and unexplained happenstance tore through this unlucky business and scrubbed everything to a degree of redactive completeness that would make a RAISA director shudder with delight.

A single, uniformed Mobile Task Force member walked briskly between them with inherent purpose, paying little mind to the others as he did so. He held a stack of laminated menus in his arms, and when he passed by, one slid from top and fell, settling at Markus' feet. As he reached to grab the glossy paper, the Task Force operative snatched it from him, spun on his heel and, in one motion, skulked off, leaving the two to themselves and the sounds of water dripping off ruined, colorless upholstery.

It didn't stop the agent from briefly glimpsing at the menu, and, in that same moment, to the rest, which revealed that the words and pictures were simply redacted off the pages. All of them. The black blocks burned an image into his brain, which he saw again, inverted and superimposed over his vision when he closed his eyes. The image faded with Markus' curiosity about the subject.

Sure, a fire. He decided it wasn't his problem. Not this time. Ignorance is bliss.

"Canvassing. You got it, Director Phillips."

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