Staring Down the Barrel of a Sun

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2/2/2073 Emergency Brief Notes

FEB 1: A reliable source with access to GOI-181 leadership warned that hostile action on a large scale was imminent in the Balkans (specifically northern Greece and southern Bulgaria.) Intelligence was matched by other reliable sources. Preemptive action approved due to sensitive, hazardous anomalies in the region. 155 UAV strikes in low-population and medium-population areas (following Ethics Committee consultation), and 7 raids in high-population areas. Further Nu-7 action faced minimal resistance by remaining forces.

Note to self: Current casualty numbers are over projected strength. Serious underestimation by FS-16? Order investigation.

FEB 2: 89 attacks carried out against personnel over ~4 hours this morning. 85 caused at least one death or serious injury. 89 attackers dead between suicide attacks and dental explosives. Pattern analysis found no connection between attackers aside from methods. Pattern analysis found no connection between targets except involvement with the Ethics Committee and generally high rank.

Note to self: Downside to putting committee staff in chain of command? Order analysis.

A-1 Assessment: February 2 attacks were likely planned to match Balkan action. Standard responses would divert resources and murdered personnel played key roles. Supports earlier assessments that GOI-181 was founded by former employees. Severe ongoing threat until leaders are captured or confirmed KIA in Balkans.

Note to self: Reassess outprocessing procedures. Review policy re: executing traitors.

Erin Ahmadi, leader of a bloodied terrorist organization, felt uncharacteristically anxious as she prepared herself for the coming day at the camper's dining table. Allowing such unease was unbecoming, though perfectly comprehensible. A great shift loomed at the horizon after all. One that went against everything she sought in life. As a thaumaturgist, constraint was her watchword and lodestone. As the second oldest seat on the Overseer Council, she endorsed the conservative path. As a person, she could admit to despising change. All the same, she would never be rid of the awful thing engulfing her spirit without bringing about a great upheaval.

Wringing the starslug from the night sky like dishwater from a rag had been a mistake. A youthful indiscretion by one engorged with power and pride, not at all unlike writing that damned book. Holding it inside was a vile feeling, but nothing else could give her the power she needed. Without it, Ahmadi would have crumbled after Foundation's last reservoirs dried. She would be helpless against the world's worst disasters, things the new Overseer Council could never hope to best even if Sakarya's prowess exceeded expectations by leaps and bounds.

No, the Foundation needed Ahmadi back in her place. The world needed her back before it spun itself to pieces. Any sacrifice was worth it, just as they had always been. Nothing was more important. Not the misfits she brought together for one grand sacrifice. Not the particular misfit brushing her teeth in the camper's cramped bathroom. Not even herself, if someone better suited was available. There was no one suitable though. There never had been, and everyone would suffer for that absence. Herself. Her misfit. The loyal employees of the Foundation. So much suffering, and so few who truly deserved it.

Egret leaned out from inside the bathroom, toothbrush still inside her mouth. "Fursh ime ibe heen–"

"Spit it out."

"Ash ott ah–" Her thick eyebrows shot up, and she leaned back behind the door. Wet gargling and spitting followed. "I said it's the first time I've seen you dressed, you know, casual."

"Do you have something better?" Flannel did not suit her by any measure.

"Sorry, ma'am. I didn't think you were coming with me."

"Translocation has become troublesome." She was nearly spent, and her last vestiges of power could not be spent on something so frivolous.

"Well, you'll get your quarters back soon," chirped Egret as she started brushing her hair. "And everything else too."

"It's not about that, Egret."

"It's where you should be, Overseer. It's what's right."

Ahmadi sat in silence as the girl kept brushing. As her monster kept grooming. She was not ignorant of her own role in twisting Egret out of a normal shape, far beyond a blade's form. Beyond what could ever be beaten back into a plowshare. It weighed heavily on her, more than some atrocities, less than others. Most were more easily banished to distant corners of the mind. This one was too immediate, the hammered dents too apparent. How many of the pills swallowed daily were her fault? How many fresh, pink scars were for her sake? Too many. The answer was certainly too many, especially as Egret took the brush to her master's long hair. Ahmadi neither needed nor enjoyed being tended to, but it was a small burden in comparison.

"I won't ask if you're ready for today," she said.

"Of course I am!"

"I've asked too much of you."

"Nothing I wouldn't have offered, ma'am."

"And there's nothing I can do for you in return?"

Egret did not so much as pause in her slow, even strokes. "Remember me, if you can."

"At the very least."

"That's all, ma'am. Overseer. Remember that I did a good job."

"At the very least."

Birds called in the night outside, as if to show their agreement. Owls, nightjars, nightingales, they caused a fearsome racket compared to the silence that dominated the camper. Ahmadi could have asked hundreds of things in the hour left. Thousands. Questions she never bothered with before, mostly because she never expected Egret to live this long. Questions with answers long gone from her agent's mind. Maybe silence suited people like them better.

The time passed quickly. They took to the road again, moon hanging in the night sky's empty half. A few cars passed them, each full of bleary commuters. A few trucks did the same, each with a jittery driver slurping bad coffee. Ahmadi stared into the dark forest around them and could only wonder what lurked beyond. They eventually stopped on the main road of a tiny town with a single, flickering street light.

"We're here, Overseer."

"To work, then." Ahmadi put her hand on Egret's shoulder, breathed deeply, and rose from the driver's seat. There was nothing left to be said, only tasks to be accomplished. Sentiment could not bind her. Affection could never restrain her. She was unfeeling. Cold. Dust. The former overseer stumbled down the camper's narrow steps and watched from the curb as it lumbered down the road.

A payphone stood in the street light's orange puddle. The former was old, the latter older, and Ahmadi older still. All three would work. All had purposes to serve. She dialed a number, eleven digits, then three for an extension, six for a passcode, and three more after that. A garbled burst of sound came in response. Nearly anyone else would be vomiting for hours after hearing it.

"Identify yourself," said a high-pitched voice. The aged receiver did nothing to dull its edge.

"You may call me the Houndmaster," said Ahmadi in her haughtiest tone. "I serve at the behest of Delta Command, of the group you know and fear as the Chaos Insurgency." The phone screamed again, this time vicious enough to send blood running from her nostrils. Decades had passed since she last tasted its like. "You should fear me too. My hand struck down a hundred of your mutts. I could do far worse."

"And you've called to gloat?"

"To send a message to your leader. Chairwoman Sakarya. Overseer-1. We have done grievous harm to one another. I, at the behest of my new masters. You, in spite of their best efforts. For my part, for our history, you will surely hunt me to the ends of the Earth and beyond. I do not wish to die for the sake of incompetents and cowards, so consider this offer. Meet me above Site-06 in twelve hours. I will be alone and unarmed. You may bring whoever and whatever you please. Accept my surrender and that of my soldiers, and I will turn over Delta Command's identities and locations. You have a reputation for trustworthiness, prudence, and caution. I pray it will not disappoint."

Ahmadi slid the phone back into its cradle. The trail of bait was long and specially crafted for Sakarya. Hundreds of her comrades dead with no hints. Hundreds of her enemies slain with no satisfaction. It spoke to her grievances and frustrations. It offered her a chance for magnanimity and revenge. Yes, everything she could have hoped for, but wrapped in a bitter pill. Hopefully not too bitter to swallow. She could only hope now. Hope, and wait.

Elif Sakarya was not having a good day. No, she would rate it among the worst of her life. Worse than the day she buried her father. Worse than any of the days she read about the Foundation's crimes from her seat at the Committee's table. Worse than the first time the Administrator inflicted their miserable whims from beyond the grave. Colleagues she knew, trusted, and loved were dead in vast numbers. Not vast compared to the world's strangest disasters, or even some normal ones, but vast for human malice directed against the Foundation. Vast for malice directed against her.

What else could it be, when a hundred deaths would only anger the sprawling beast she oversaw? No, this was a dagger driven through her ribs no matter what her minders in Alpha-1 advised. Colleagues, dead. Friends, dead. Even relatives, dead. All captured perfectly on that accursed video. So many daggers, but the Foundation's retribution would still not be the furious, senseless one her foes expected. Instead, she would calmly wrench whatever information she needed out of this Houndmaster and carry out a series of rigorous interrogations, orderly trials, and thorough executions. That was her way. That was the best way.

Every bump of the armored truck sent a new ache spiraling up Sakarya's raw throat. Cold water did nothing to soothe, but she drank from a bottle anyway. The convoy made good progress from the secret airport toward the secret site, but it could not possibly go fast enough. Alpha-1 insisted on every precaution as she set out, and precautions were slow.

Things were moving at pace now though. Satellites peeked down from above at every opportunity. Aircraft swooped and drones lingered. Hundreds of soldiers swept out through the fields and forests. All agreed. One person with a familiar face waiting above Site-06. One person with a thousand kinds of death pointed at them, an arsenal beyond equal.

The armored truck finally stopped next to the entrance of a long, narrow road. Sakarya emerged, flanked by her most persistent protectors. Acorn and Squirrel, as if pseudonyms could conceal their nature. The two towering men were similarly armed and armored for all manner of death. They insisted fiercely on following her no matter how often she turned away their protection. Even if she were to perish on that very spot, her phylactery would yank her spirit back from the beyond, and it would only be noted that one more body double had served dutifully. One of the few privileges of a strange family.

Sakarya's floral dress billowed as she walked beneath the black power lines that marked out a grid against the polluted sunset. Gray concrete stretched out underneath the suspended maze, linking the fenced-off way station to the empty highway. A single figure leaned against a squat crate, hands clasped in what might have been prayer. Her form blurred against the violent light blooming in the distance, reducing black hair, dark skin, and a simple flannel shirt into colored smudges. The sigils of her spirit were clearer. The war criminal. The cluster bomb. The indiscriminate violence of a million-barreled gun. They were not the expected signs, but such things were wont to change in the face of calamity. Birds alighted on the lines above. Ten. Fifty. Hundreds. They bowed their heads in solemn reverence. The meeting had already begun.

"Erin Ahmadi," said Sakarya from a respectable distance. Her words were loud and clear over the wind.

"Elif Sakarya."

"I thought you were smarter than this. After you fled Site-262, I was sure you'd never show yourself again. Now you've only proved yourself a traitor. You proved it better than I ever could have! Not just to the spirit of the Foundation. Not just to its laws. To all of us!"

"I thought you were smarter too. I was so sure of it."

"You should have run, Overseer. You should've kept running. I would have found your new masters eventually, and now I've found you too. I'll wring everything out of you before I see you hang. My new guards are excellent interrogators, but you knew that, didn't you?"

The woman's glare at Acorn and Squirrel could have stopped hearts. Unabiding rage. Unbridled fury. Sakarya pulled back a half step from its intensity. Even the birds were set to flight. Even the sun retreated behind the skyline.

"You should have listened, Chairwoman." The last word oozed like poison into a village well. "Back at the pool, you should have listened. The Overseer was generous then. I won't be now."

The world realigned itself in Sakarya's mind with sudden clarity. The changed sigils. The willing surrender. Magic. Of course, magic. Question after question resolved with the same simple solution. Ahmadi had been the court magician all along. It was to be that sort of war, and this would not be its end.

"Kill her!" she demanded the terrible apparatus surrounding them all. A bullet punched through the former overseer's chest, bloodless in defiance of human form. A second drove through her head, scattering it to the wind in a cloud of dust. Somewhere below them all, deep within Site-06, a satisfied sigh shook the earth.

Nuclear fire clawed its way to the surface. Worse than physics could depict. Worse than history remembered. A screaming wall of countless fears. A crushing wave of indiscriminate dread. Humanity had never reviled anything with quite so much fervor, and it reviled them back. Sakarya's spirit squirmed out through the aether as it fled her incinerated husk, followed close behind by that overwhelming tide. The fire burned the place between places. Not hot, not even warm, but burning all the same. Burning contently. Burning with fulfillment. Burning so brightly as to erase the dark corners of the shadowlands and all the things dwelling there.

Her spirit fled toward her phylactery with single-minded purpose and haste. So much of each that no defenses were left against those that might trace its path.

Sakarya woke sweating and shackled. In her old home, handcuffed to her bed's frame, looking down the barrel of a sleek pistol. The girl holding it stared at her through brilliantly orange eyes that shined like looming stars. Like suns barely contained. Her sigils were right: The headless queen, the world spider, the goblet overfull with silver teeth. Ahmadi.

"No speeches, please," she said, gesturing casually with her pistol toward the laptop sitting on the bed. "Your abdication phrase. I'll guarantee your life and the rest of the Council's. You won't get better."

"I'll never–"

Ahmadi shot her.

Sakarya's phylactery sucked back her spirit in an instant. A new body squirmed out after a few minutes. She regained consciousness within ten more, right next to the corpse of herself.

"A useful thing," said Ahmadi, "but easily abused. Your abdication phrase."


Ahmadi shot her.

The pain of shattering skulls and splattering brains did not dwindle as the process repeated. It clung to her with cold, firm hands. It insisted itself even as she was forced into the next body. The easy path down was forbidden to her. Oh, how she started to envy those that simply slunk down into the underworld.

"Your abdication phrase," insisted Ahmadi. She looked pale and damp, but could not possibly feel worse than Sakarya. Not even a quarter as bad as the deathly sensation layered upon itself. An eighth. A sixteenth. It could not possibly be so bad. It could not exceed what Sakarya endured, and endured, and endured. She thought herself a wall, but even the grandest could only hold back so much. She thought herself a fortress, but all would fall eventually. She withstood more, and more, and more, until no more could be borne.

"Ajax melancholy blaspheme nine six nine five," she spat out, seated in committee with an open morgue.

"Thank you." Ahmadi pressed Sakarya's fingers to the laptop's touchscreen, typed slowly, then scanned her own fingers. Pinkie to thumb on her left hand. Thumb to pinkie on the right. The screen acknowledged her as a provisional overseer, and she sighed deeply.

She shot Sakarya once more. No phylactery pulled her back this time.

Erin Ahmadi, Overseer-6 once again, sat in her old office. Nothing had been moved, nothing changed. The smooth stone desk. The sterile white lights. One by one, she slid rings of silver and brass onto her fingers. Each digit was smaller than her old body's, but the rings clung tight all the same. She leaned back in her leather chair and felt the overflowing reservoir of the Foundation's power rush back into her. It drowned the starslug. Washed away every last bit of it. Cleaned her soul anew, as much as it could ever be cleaned.

Ahmadi set three snow globes onto her desk. Each encased a miniature forest with detail exceeding anything a master craftsman could ever hope to accomplish in a lifetime. She tapped each once with her ringed hand, and in each, an animal appeared amidst those tiny trees. Mongrel. Sheepdog. Bird hound.

"A life, as I promised," she said to the first.

"Your body, until I can return this one," she said to the second.

"A reminder, forever," she said to the third, though it was a ghostly thing.

Until the end of that eternity came, there was ever more sleepless work to be done.

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