The Beginning Of All Things To End

What does a Foundation agent even do? Especially once they've been assigned to a contained object with nothing else needed other than protection? A certain skill set was preferable, but most of all the greatest desire was the mental conditioning needed to avoid panic; problem solve under heavy pressure; and either find a way out of harm or make a way out.

Other times they just had to suit up in air-tight hazardous suits and walk around in a raging blizzard for half an hour.

Aurianne Sharpe was yelling at her through the suit's radio. It was completely indecipherable and Locke wasn't even sure she was using the radio.

"Turn on your radio!" She yelled back at her.

Aurianne continued to yell, gesticulating wildly. Locke still couldn't hear so Aurianne ambled up to her and nearly smashed their helmets together to yell through the glass visors.

"I like the snow in South Florida. Let's pick out this spot and camp out!"

"Absolutely not. We need environmental conditions to be near-identical or else the ecosystems will die off."

She sighed and leaned back, looking up at the cloudy sky, "Who cares? We don't need palm trees and alligators here. Besides, they might have them someplace else."

Locke had to keep moving forward; the snow built up deceptively fast and seemed much denser than normal snow once it started to pack down around their boots. Aurianne had less trouble, being nearly a foot taller. They could barely see past several meters, but the ground sloped downward around them, indicating there wasn't a school around them and the ground level was much lower. Nothing could be heard over the harsh wind and there was no sense of anything around or underneath other than more ice and more snow.

Aurianne kept twisting the knobs on her scanners, balancing one over her wrist and the other in her hand. One was for ionizing radiation, the other for any potentially hazardous gases. Their suits were equipped with dosimeters as well, though they couldn't actually read them while wearing the suits. Locke drifted closer to her, reaching out to steady her arm before one of the scanners could tilt and fall off.

"I can't read anything, there's too much flying bullshit around." Aurianne complained and gave up, mashing one of the scanners against its slot on her belt until it slid in place.

"It doesn't matter; they'll read it when we get out." She looked up again. Nothing had changed. If there was anything out there the snowstorm was masking it. It didn't even matter; the climate was incompatible.

They made their way back to where they'd started, where a metal pole was leaning crookedly to one side, having loosened the densely packed snow it was speared through. They stood and waited in silence for several minutes, letting the storm cake them in snow. It wouldn't matter if they couldn't get out of the snow; if they missed their cue or Anabasis malfunctioned and left them stranded there, they'd be dead anyway.

The blinding light appeared, creating a polygonal shape around them. They squeezed their eyes shut and within a moment the snowstorm ended and the snow piled around their feet started to loosen. They were back in the basement of the school, Anabasis set on a metal rack like a film projector, facing them. Two of its handlers immediately started dousing it in warm water as it siphoned heat from the room around it and threatened to ice over from use.

Aurianne was already pulling off the helmet and the gloves and shuffling out of the pile of snow, "Is this our home?" She waved her hands out to them, "4-1-22-XA-1856-QQ-QA-AQA-KZ17."

Edgars nodded and gave a thumbs up, "Confirmed."

"It's got air. It's snowing really bad but no way of knowing if that's permanent or just the weather down here that time of year over there, up there, out there." Aurianne went on, stripping off the suit and straightening up her jumpsuit underneath, "Not radioactive, I think."

"Putting it on the list of hopefuls." Edgars muttered and typed in a laptop.

"Wait, no. We can't use that place. The climate is all wrong." Locke jumped in, "Aside from all the plant and animal life that'll die out, the city, or even the whole state isn't prepared. This is hot, wet swampland, and almost all the buildings have been built for hot, wet weather. People will freeze and buildings will freeze up."

"Doesn't matter. It's habitable." Edgars muttered again, not slowing down in his typing.

"Is that all that matters?"

"Yes." He didn't even look up at her, his face tensing every time she spoke.

She gnawed on her lower lip. She could already hear the words she wanted to spit out at him echoing in the basement around them. It would've been so easy to unload on him again, get into a shouting match that saw her getting written up again. Marlowe, for what ever reason, wanted to keep her, so instead of suspension or re-assignment now she'd just get write-ups and disciplinary actions scheduled for some date in the future that might never come. And in an instant that fire and emotion was gone. She knew Edgars was a transphobe; hated her for what she was and what she wasn't. No matter his professionalism, she knew just beneath the surface was a perpetual ugliness that tinged every encounter they had together. It was always the impetus for her to leap into action against him, raging and shouting and arguing.

But today she felt nothing. She wasn't tired or fed up or resigned. She just felt nothing.

"Okay." She murmured and shed the rest of her suit, heading for the steps with Aurianne going after her. The area they were testing in was specifically dug out from the original school basement by the Foundation, and partially closed off with thick walls and ceiling. The only way in or out was covered by a makeshift sanitary cordon where they'd be scanned, then disinfected in their jumpsuits. Then they'd take those off and get scanned again before being given their work clothes. For about six or seven minutes the guards by the door and the researchers roaming in and out of the basement would see them naked. Locke could easily imagine herself meeting everyone's glance, staring back at anyone who stared at her, perhaps in her peak moment of irrational rage grabbing at her genitals and holding them firmly for everyone to see.

Today she felt nothing. Even people who looked her way didn't seem to really look at her. She was just something momentarily in their line of sight, as they were just things in her line of sight. No one seemed to feel anything anymore.

The only person unaffected seemed to be Aurianne Sharpe, who fidgeted uncontrollably until they were let out and allowed to dress. They passed the little storage room where Anabasis had been found and went up the stairs to the office that had been set up out of a classroom and was now pouring out into the hall with people. Any pretense of Foundation operations hiding out in the midst of a middle school was gone. Anabasis-related documents were filed in boxes left out in the open. A student could have come by, grabbed a few pages, and slipped out into the courtyard and no one would've noticed. No one cared anymore.

"How long has it been with all this? It's been like two weeks and everyone's just given up. Don't they even know what we're doing down there? We're gonna save everyone." Aurianne remarked as they drifted out to the back courtyard.

"It's been a month."

"A whole month? Fuck no. Why has it felt so short?"

"I don't know." Locke muttered, focused only on walking in a straight line along the concrete path that bent to the left towards a basketball court.

"It's these people, with their faces. They're acting like we're all dead already. Why'd they even bother joining the Foundation if they weren't prepared to throw themselves into saving the world? It's insulting, and fucking stupid. We're rich, bitch, we can afford all the wackiest technologies or, or anomalous vacuum cleaners to wipe out an anomalous red plague thing. And even if we don't, we have Anabasis. We can evacuate the entire country to a whole new world without anyone needing to do anything."

Having gone a full month feeling listless and lethargic, Locke was shocked to feel a pang of anxiety strike as Aurianne talked. She glanced sidelong at her cautiously, "Have you been reading the test logs? I mean, in their entirety?"

She shrugged, but was starting to catch on to Locke's tension, "Everyone skips past the technical stuff at the beginning."

Locke grunted and thought back to her last contact with Rhiannon, if it had actually been her.

killo-meters, you said. Killo-meters, you believed. Am I wrong?

"Yeah, I'm not stupid, I know what you mean. The test ranges were tiny but that was chalked up to energy problems. Anabasis siphons heat from the air around it and if it gets too cold it shuts down. We just need to feed it fucktons of energy while it's drawing open its portal or whatever. It'll cause blackouts but we'd be saving humanity. The human race! Plus they're working on getting us a direct feed from Turkey Point. That's a nuclear power plant down in Homestead."

"I know what Turkey Point is!" Locke bit out with a sudden burst of anger. She began to shake, and her throat tightened. She stopped walking and grabbed Aurianne, "Do you seriously believe that's all it will take? Just more heat, more energy? The fucking car isn't starting, just twist the key harder and put more gas in?"

Aurianne looked down at her, startled by Locke's concern, not seeming to share in it, "Why would the Foundation lie to its own people?"

Locke let go of her and put her hands to her face, taking deep breaths and trying not to break down and cry in frustration.

test 1 encompassed a third of the room. test 2 encompassed the whole room. I kno Killy-meeders ain't as big as imperial Miles, but that's not even fuckin close, do u see?

"Priss… Locke…" Aurianne came up beside her and put a hand on her shoulder, gently nudging her, "It's the Foundation. Six months ago, Anabasis was just another object. Just another number in a database of thousands. They gave us some money and some people to play with it a bit. Things have changed. They're going to go all out on this thing. They've got researchers and doctors a whole lot smarter than Marlowe working on it now. The Foundation knows what to do. Plus, Anabasis is actually starting up."

Locke felt that her closest friend deserved the truth, but she just couldn't mount the same level of energy and fire she used to have to pound the truth into her head. No one else cared about the truth, so why should she? It would cost less, emotionally and psychologically, to say nothing, and continue the usual routine.

She sighed and leaned her head back, watching the empty, unmoving sky. "Sure. It's not like I could do any better on my own."

The last of Fats' leads ended when the results finally came back for the wad of dried out gore she'd pried off the floor of that house.

"It's not human and the hair was cut, so there's no follicles to test."

She sighed and dropped into her seat, looking over the brief report one more time. The meat had been from a pig, left to rot and melt into an unrecognizeable wad that someone had stuck some locks of orange hair into. It felt deliberate, to throw off someone like her. There was no way it would fool her but it took time to analyze the sample, especially when the labs were backlogged and took what should've been at most a few days worth of work and made it last over a month. It wasted time. And that might've been all they needed, whoever "they" were. The "biggest ongoing case in Dade County". She felt like a sucker for having believed it.

She pulled herself up to her feet and left the building, making her way to the Metro Rail station. The security footage from that night had amounted to nothing; whoever had run up to the metro station hadn't actually gone up to the platform and gotten on a train.

Trudging up the steps to the platform she realized she hadn't actually used the Metro Rail itself. She drove to the Brickell area, parked, then took the Metro Mover, a much smaller train route that serviced the Downtown and Brickell area. It went around and through some of the buildings at a reasonable speed, and it was free. The Metro Rail was elevated on much higher tracks, and sped down its tracks like a real train, screeching as it came to a stop and hissing loudly when the doors opened.

The voices from the speaker system were different, too. The Metro Mover was newer and had a stilted, digitized voice announcing the arrivals and departures. A text-to-speech program of a feminine voice that could just barely pass for human. The Metro Rail had recorded voices.

"The Northbound train is approaching the station. Stand back from the platform edge."

A lively woman's voice announced, droning on brief safety measures. She glanced around and caught sight of a map of the rail service. She had to look it over again before realizing someone had made a serious mistake.

Northbound. Bound for north. Going north.

"The Southbound train is approaching the station. Stand back from the platform edge."

A much deeper, masculine voice announced for the Southbound train in an uncomfortable monotonous tone.

She looked back and forth at the tracks on either side of the train platform. She'd read the investigative report enough time to see the words in her head.

At 12:10 a.m., she is picked up by security cameras at the Vizcaya metrorail station emerging from a northbound train. Note there is no metrorail stop between Vizcaya and Key Biscayne, and the metrorail does not service the Key Biscayne area.

Therefore it is believed Rhiannon Locke departed from the Rickenbacker Causeway north, either to Brickell or the Downtown area.

She got up and went over to the other row of seats where the metro map was printed on a half wall between them. They were at the Government Center station in Downtown. South from there and across the river was Brickell. Wending to the west and further south was Vizcaya.

If Rhiannon Locke had taken the southbound train after Key Biscayne, and gotten off at Vizcaya, she would've gotten on at Brickell or Downtown. But the report said she'd gotten off the northbound train.

She sighed in frustration and scooped up her bag, heading down the escalator and back to the office.

* * *

Back in her seat, sweaty again from the walk, she pulled up a map of Miami and looked over the video clip from the previous August showing Rhiannon Locke getting off the Metro Rail at Vizcaya. The platform was symmetrical and the camera was facing inward, making it impossible for her to tell which train route was which. She realized then the video had sound, but the sound picked up was very low, almost muted.

call don't fall

She leaned in close to her speakers and turned them up, little by little, angling the computer screen for her to make out the familiar shapes following the same loop.

The noise of the wind, the city, and approaching trains was surprisingly loud. She thought about the speakers at Government Center station. They were all over the platform, clearly audible when the voices came on. Vizcaya station didn't look anywhere near as big. Was it possible it had only one, or maybe no speakers?

She was contemplating going back to the Vizcaya station for more footage and was interrupted by her answer.

A loud, tinny, lively woman's voice was caught by the camera. She sat back to watch and saw the familiar loop play out, Rhiannon Locke twirling out of the train, stumbling and falling onto a seat, then skipping towards the escalators down.

The lively woman's voice played only for the Northbound train. Fats looked over the map of Miami again, pulling back and scrolling west to follow the lines on the map, looking for the next skull-like train icon.

Almost two miles away she found it. Coconut Grove. She bunched up her fingers and placed them against the legend marking out every 2000 feet. She pressed them again on the screen, then moved them again, and again. Six miles from the part of the Rickenbacker Causeway the firefight had happened to Coconut Grove station. The Vizcaya station was almost directly between the Coconut Grove station and the Rickenbacker Causeway. If she meant to go straight home after Key Biscayne she wouldn't have even needed to use the Metro Rail.

She sat back in her seat and grunted softly to herself in glee. Suddenly she had a whole new avenue to explore to pick up Rhiannon Locke's trail. She got up again and left to pay a visit to Coconut Grove.

Coconut Grove was intimidating for her, having only been around the blight of Overtown and the claustrophobia of Brickell in the early stages of gentrification. Coconut Grove was utterly massive by comparison. The map she looked at on the Metro train showed it was some five times larger than Brickell, spreading between the coast and South Dixie Highway. It was a largely white, upper-class neighborhood, green everywhere. It intimidated her; she stayed on the train as it swept past the Coconut Grove stop and continued on further south.

She was overwhelmed by the task ahead, she realized. The Metro ran south for five more stops, but the distance between each stop was huge. The more she studied the map and compared with what she saw out the windows, the more she realized just how much city spread in every direction. There were no sparsely populated stops or mid-range points where there was nothing but trees or industry for a mile in each direction; every stop opened up into another densely packed piece of city. Nowhere near as packed as Downtown or Brickell but all too much for her alone to canvass for any leads on someone who might've drifted by for a few minutes one night seven months ago.

She got off at the last stop and waited for the Northbound train to begin its route, only to see the train she'd just gotten off slither carefully around a narrow bend and present itself to her on the other side of the station. Quickly it started to fill again as she rode it back up the line.

She tried again the next day, starting from the Downtown station. An old man stood uncomfortably close to her in her seat, facing away and hanging on to the overhead railing, sniffling and clearing his throat every other second, it seemed. She finally got up and scooted around him when she noticed he had a brightly colored bunch of papers clasped in his free hand. She recognized the coloring and the font. It was the propaganda papers put up by the cult. Rhiannon's cult.

"Excuse me." She muttered to him. He barely looked her way, towering over her in both height and girth and sniffling harder.

"Perdón," She tried again in Spanish, "Que es eso?" She indicated the paper, "Tu sabes algo del 'Anabasis', señor?"

"Eh?" He blurted out with astonishing volume, "Que quieres?"

"Sabes…. Sabes algo de qualquier persona puso eso papel?" She was trembling now, and felt her Spanish getting flimsier.

"No puede oír. Que esta diciendo?"

A man nearby rose up and approached them, "Papa, cálmese. Ella quiere saber de esto." He took the paper from the old man's hand with an almost casual roughness, holding it to his face like he was blind.

The old man got flustered and started ranting too rapidly for Fats to pick up. Her own Spanish had embarassingly atrophied to elementary levels. The old man started to walk away, leaving her with the other man. He was young like her, taller, hair combed over and a thick beard and mustache. He was dressed like a fascist, the only way she could explain the style, yet nothing about him screamed "WestCiv" aside from the hair.

"He couldn't understand your accent. Where are you from, originally?"

She furrowed her brow, eyes darting between him and the departing older man, "Accent? I didn't think I had an accent."

"It's definitely not the mealy-mouthed mess you hear from the lower class Cubans around here. Where are you from?"

She heard a sickly sweet menace in his tone. Combined with the casual racism, she treaded lightly, "I was born New York, but my parents were from Spain. Valencia, originally."

He nodded and smiled, "That must be it. Valencian accent. Crisp, clean, pure Spanish. Nothing you'd hear in the streets of Miami," He picked up right away on her discomfort, "Are you afraid of me?"

"Should I be?"

He smiled again, leaning against the metal bar and gazing down at her and saying nothing as the Metro speakers announced the next stop, Vizcaya.

"You're a WestCivvie." She said out loud to fill the awkward silence.

"So are you, aren't you? Spain is part of the West. A bastion of Western Civilization, too. The art, the locales, the churches… Something of a Muslim problem but what can you expect being that close to the Maghreb?"

"I've never been to Spain."

He shrugged, "Doesn't matter. It's in your blood, even if it's not exactly in your features." He smiled again, tilting his head slightly as he looked over her shamelessly, "I'd have put you for Greek, myself. Maybe southern Italian. But I guess, with the right makeup and lighting, you could be from anywhere in Europe."

Thoroughly repulsed, she gripped the opposing metal bar and moved away from him, following the path of the older man who had left at the Vizcaya stop.

"What do you want to know about Anabasis?" The man said sharply to draw her attention.

She kept moving, "Nothing at all."

"How about Rhiannon Locke?"

She glanced over her shoulder at him, eyebrows drawn close and her expression firm, "Who?"

"Listen… I'm going to be honest with you, Detective Cortes. Is it Detective or Agent, or Officer?"

Her face remained impassive while every nerve and muscle in her body screamed for her to run away.

"I've been conducting a bit of a parallel investigation. Not exactly following you, more so going along with you. See, I'm interested in finding Rhiannon Locke, too. Mercifully, I happen to have started a bit further south than you. Maybe we can compare notes? I'm sure I could fill a whole lot of empty holes in your case file."

She sniffed and turned to face him, raising a hand to her belt even though she didn't have a gun, "Look, I don't need to put up with your whatever you're even trying to do here. If you've got information on Rhiannon Locke, either give it to me or leave me alone."

A loud cracking sound erupted near the front of the Metro cart as she was talking. The train's brakes squeaked noisily and within seconds it began to tilt dangerously. A dull boom followed and suddenly the man slid off from the metal bar and slammed into Fats, knocking the wind out of her. Then he continued further down until he caught himself on the overhead railing. The train was falling, being dragged down by the other cars chained in front and behind it. Something had happened to the elevated track and they were lurching downward as the connection to the car in front was severed, leaving their car hanging off the track. She gripped the metal bar firmly and held her breath as their train car dragged the one behind it down, the brakes shrieking relentlessly, until the face of the car was pressing into the ground and starting to creak.

The WestCiv man dropped down quickly, forced open the doors and made a run for it. She couldn't follow after him as the train began to lean over to one side, crushing the doors he'd just escaped through into the dirt, the train cars slowly sliding off the track and piling down on the ground like a massive coiling pile of shit. She kept a vice grip on the metal bar and pulled herself in close as the windows started to crack apart, spitting glass as the momentum of the rear train cars pushed hers along the dirt until it was resting on its side and no longer moving. She cautiously let herself down and stood up on the wall.

The metal squealing and shrieking wasn't as loud now and she could hear people in the other cars screaming and shouting. Some had already managed to escape. She hoisted herself up onto the metal bar to reach the opened window and peer outside, scratching her exposed wrists on the broken glass. More cracking sounds like the one before the boom, then scattered pops. She realized they were gunshots. She peered out from the window and saw people moving to the train cars, helping people out. More gunshots went off further away. Another boom further down the Metro line. She pulled herself out from the window and crawled over to the roof of the train, sliding down to the grass below. Pain jolted through her arms as she braced herself on impact, feeling her wrists either sprained or broken. Despite that, she ran.

The bacteria latched on to some people. Some People had other bacteria in them. The Other Bacteria was different from the bacteria in most people. The Other Bacteria welcomed the bacteria in, and the bacteria felt comfortable. Then the Other Bacteria began to panic. A fight broke out inside the Some People, as the Red and the Other Bacteria began to strike one another in a frenzy.

The Red didn't want to fight. The Other Bacteria wanted to fight. The Other Bacteria lost the fight and the Red won. The Red soon found themselves alone and trapped inside the Some People. They ate the Other Bacteria and began to take their place. The Red set to work doing the work the Other Bacteria had done all their lives. Sometimes they did the work better than the Other Bacteria. Sometimes they didn't. All the while, they carried out their work with a guilt and anxiety uncharacteristic of normal people bacteria. We don't belong here, said the Red.

This world was habitable but hot. Locke's hazard suit protected her from it but just looking at the heat shimmer made her feel weathered and weary. They emerged from the school basement and found that the top half of the building had been blown away with no trace of debris save for sand and dust. The only trace of wall higher than their knees was the double-door frame at the front of the building with no doors. The vegetation outside was dried out, but tropical. What ever this blaze of heat was, it didn't belong here.

"Is it nuclear?" Aurianne asked, not expecting an answer. Their suits would detect elevated levels of radiation for them. They didn't detect it here.

The heat was overpowering. She thought she could hear a flat, wailing klaxon in the distance, like several thousand wooden horns all blasting the same discordant note endlessly in the distance. It was faint enough that she couldn't tell if it was real or in her head.

"You hear that?" She pointed outward, not knowing exactly where she meant to point.

"No? I mean, yes? What am I supposed to be hearing, the wind?"

"The wind?"

Aurianne nodded in her suit and pointed out to the plants lilting in the heat near where the back exit of the school would've been, leading out into what would be the courtyard in their own universe. There was still a concrete path leading out into a field but no sign of any ball courts or fences in the distance. The trees at the end of the block were much taller, but skinnier. She could see signs of a city in the distance behind them, but much further away than Downtown Miami would've been.

Locke pursed her lips and looked again at the trees, then at the floor around her caked in a thin layer of sandy dust.

"There is no wind." She uttered, tracing a circle in the dust with her foot.

"Then… I don't know. A car horn? Crashed in the distance, someone dead over the wheel from the nuke?"

Locke sighed and stepped out into the courtyard, looking off into the distance. There were roads, but no cars. The houses were different than in their universe, but were intact. Nothing looked devastated or abandoned. There were no signs of life and no sound except the distant klaxon.

"I think there might be people here. The air's breathable, at least. I'll take a sample to see if it's clean." Aurianne chirped as she came up beside Locke.

Locke sighed and clenched her jaw. She felt a burst of anger manifesting in a childish impulse to throw a fit. She was just tired of this. There wasn't going to be any perfect alternate world for them to flee to. Even if they found a picturesque version of Miami rich in life, land, and water, she could easily imagine them finding out too late that the water was laced with some unknowable, unforeseeable substance that would turn them all blind and deaf, or aliens would just happen to be a year away from invading, or the Earth wouldn't move and they'd all slowly burn to death under perpetual daylight.

"Whatever, this is… this is fucked. I'm not even going to bother." Locke sighed and stepped back over to the stairwell.

"Not going to bother with what?"

"With anything, with… Walking around, getting kidnapped by the natives, running soil tests, water tests, air tests, trying to figure out what in the fuck that noise is and whether it's coming from a mile away or eighty thousand miles away. I'm tired of…" She stopped short of the stairwell and slumped against the handrail, "I'm just tired."

Aurianne didn't say anything after that. They silently agreed to go back into the basement and wait until they were brought back. The process of travelling between different universes had always been a scientific joy for Aurianne, always something wild and weird waiting just above or below them in time and space or however the process worked. Somewhere around the last three expeditions she began to feel the strain of it. Now with Locke giving voice to it she too simply lost it. They went through the motions of confirming they were in the right universe, decontaminating their suits and their bodies, filling out debriefing forms and jotting down notes before their next two or three debriefings on just that one thirty minute venture.

Locke sat back on the bench in the quarantined room with Aurianne. Aurianne was gazing blankly into space. Then she glanced over at Locke and stared for a long time. Locke furrowed her brow and looked back at her.

"You're bleeding." Aurianne said after a long moment, staring down at Locke's genitals.

Locke looked down at herself and sprang up to her feet. Her whole body felt hot. She was bleeding. She felt blood run from her nose the moment she got up. Moving felt good. She started to move towards the door. It hurt to stand still. The more she stood still, the hotter she got, to the point of burning pain.

"Breach!" Someone on the outside shouted. "Breach!" People started shouting and rushing towards the quarantine. Locke smiled and tasted blood. Then the lights went out and people started to scream.

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