The Crow Gets the Last Laugh


rating: +25+x


Beep… Beep… Beep…


Life was dull for Lieutenant Qiang, a sonar engineer aboard Deep Sea Site-72, the Foundation’s abyssal coffin haphazardly sticking off the walls of the Marianas Trench, a mere mile above the deepest point Earth has to offer (or the hydrosphere, if you wanted to be exact). Going from a nuclear submarine to the Art Deco answer to a shark cage for things much bigger and dangerous than sharks wasn’t exactly what he expected to do five years ago, but the pay was decent, and honestly? It was a pretty safe position. As claustrophobic as the submechanic facility felt, with its narrow corridors and the constant whirring of the generators and the constant clanking of the metal against the merciless nothingness, there was nothing dangerous to fear, the leviathans rarely inching closer to the site. Why would they? Steel, tungsten and brass wasn’t in their diet, and even then, the little people inside were hardly a snack.

Still, the safety didn’t stop him from wondering if it wouldn’t be better to be anywhere else. Spending 12 hours in front of blinkings beeps and boops that signaled whenever the Bloop or the Meganomalocaris passed by was slowly eating away at his psyche. What difference was between this and solitary confinement?

Beep… Beep… Beep…

Beeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeep



Qiang sighed, flipping a switch that muted the sonar, flipping a second switch that automatically registered an anomalous sighting, and a third switch that turned on the bathymetric visualizer. Let’s see the kind of fish the council’s dealing with this-

As the persimmon tree dries
As the monk collects his alms
As the crow laughs, ignorant

A massive steel humanoid gently descended down towards the void, its heels sliding through rock and sediment, keeping the giant upright despite the sharp angle of the walls of the trench. A hydrophone was catching something, Qiang quickly pressing the ‘record’ button so they could be analyzed later. It felt like mumbling, but there was a certain song to it that felt familiar. Mantras, maybe? It was definitely in some other language, something that he would recognize if it weren’t for the depth distortion. Vietnamese? Japanese? It at least sounded non-anomalous.

One’s life flickers
Despite reason, have I
Left regretless?

The automaton turned towards the sonar, and Qiang felt like whatever this was was looking straight at him, its mechanical eyes piercing through steel beams and kinetic barriers, straight into his soul. For a second or two he was afraid, the first time in years; despite having seen creatures a thousand times bigger than the machine, there was something to it that didn’t feel right. A sadness, or perhaps a tinge of pity that didn’t belong to anything that was meant to be in the depths.

It extended its arm towards the Site, and Qiang snapped out of it, flipping three switches that allowed him to press the emergency button, activating an alarm that rang through the site’s quarters. The automaton let go, its heels moving away from the rock, a leap of faith that slowly sent the leviathan bait down, away from the site.

Soon enough, the Director arrives. “What’s the sitch?” He asks, moving into position, followed by several other key members.

“Unknown anomaly, mechanical in nature. We need to contact headquarters.” Qiang announces, sending all information to the crew’s PDA. The director opens it, and their eyes grow as big as plates. He quickly makes his way to the direct line to the complex floating a Mount Everest and a half above them, ready to make the call.

The complex’s telecommunications crew took seven minutes to answer. An unacceptable time, the director thought. He couldn’t know he wasn’t the only one making an emergency call.


Sternenhimmel_an_der_%C3%84g%C3%A4is.jpg

Three thousand kilometers from the trench, a team of engineers and specialists was silently looking at a big screen depicting nothing but dark, with the occasional flicker of life, a dot that represented a fish, a bigger dot that represented a bigger fish, all while the cameraman moved forwards, towards a well-known location.

This was the Umibōzu, a massive biomechanical wonder built in the 40s to fight the Empire of Japan. Later it became known as Project Corregidor, an impossibly complicated puzzle ready to be cracked. Right now it was known as the biggest failure the Anomalous Weapons Development Department had ever faced.

Four tele-lines rung constantly, expecting to be answered, but the personnel ready to do so were making their own calls on the remaining four, towards the nearest Site, towards the Marianas Trench’s, towards the radio team that was supposed to stop this from happening, towards the team atop the fleet pursuing the Corregidor.

James continued to ignore them, instead making a call of his own.

“… Come on, pick up, pick up, you-”

“James what the fuck is going on!”

On the other side of the call, on the other side of the world, Director Ezra Everest yelled into the phone. He had just been told of the mission’s success, followed up by the mission’s failure, followed up by even more failure. An unopened bottle of champagne rested by his side, taunting him.

“You already heard?” James asked, taken aback by the response.

“Of course I fucking did. Now answer, what’s going on?”

“We lost it. The machine is walking again and we can’t control it. There’s a- There’s a fire at the stations and- We don’t really know what’s happening, except that we lost control of the operation.”

An awkward silence let itself be present as James waited for a reaction that in all honesty took too long to come.

“… Fuck.”

Yup.

“Lemme- What about the other teams? I haven’t heard from any of them.”

“No one has any idea what’s happening with the others, and we can’t contact Ricci. Hokkyōbō might have perished during the operation as well.”

“Oh, fuck off…” A groan of desperation followed. Ezra wasn’t taking this well. “How are we gonna reduce the damage?” There it was, the hundred million dollars question. Or, well, the thirty five billion dollars question, to be precise.

“Everest, worry about the issue at hand. We can worry about damage minimization after we recover the Corregidor.” James raised his voice, quick to be ticked off by the man’s antics. This wasn’t the first time he had overestimated the anomalous. He wondered if this would be the last.

“Right, right, just… God, this is so fucked up. How did this happen?”

“The stations caught on fire, I just told-” “Sir! We established contact with Ricci! He needs the coordinates of the fleet for the orbital strike.” “Ok, Everest, I’ll- I’ll call you later. Contact Damage Control, because we can’t, and tell them the situation. Think you can do it?”

“What kinda fucking question’s that? Of course I can.”

Ezra realized James had hung up as soon as he asked. Ugh, the bastard. He put his phone down, and thought about the situation, and what it meant for the department. After the Cegua bullshit, he’d been put on probation. Supposedly, he was clean now, but the warning was still there. Was this the last straw?

Two minutes passed. Then three, then five. Ezra grabbed the champagne bottle, and opened it, the cork flying out of view, out of reach.

“We’re fucked.” And he took one long swig. “Utterly fucked.” A second one.

Damage Control wouldn’t be contacted for another twenty three minutes.


“So it was an inside job?”

“By one of our own, yes. Hokkyōbō was his name, no?”

“… Yes.” Ezra replied timidly, confronted by two of the scariest people he’d confronted so far.

“I see… What else could you extract from the detained?” The O5 asked, turning to the older woman, Dr. Adler.

“As far as we understood, Hokkyōbō used the technology discovered by the JAGPATO organization to tinker with the control system to be installed into 6946, which may… May have removed his mind and inserted it into the machine’s biomechanical brain to autonomously control it. The persuaded individuals don’t know how this is performed, nor if it works as specified, so Hokkyōbō might have known of Atypical Persuasion beforehand. That, or he was familiar with interrogation mechanisms. Given his background, the latter is more likely.” Adler put down the papers she hadn’t been reading, before ceding the word back to the O5. Something about her way of acting gave Ezra goosebumps.

“So we don’t know how to reverse this issue?” The O5 asked, this time looking at Ezra. More goosebumps.

“I, well, it’s-” Breathe. “It’s difficult to say. We can rebuild the radio relay system, but we can’t effectively act when the machine is in the deepest point of the sea. We cannot control the machine either, as Hokkyōbō destroyed all data about the IJAMEA tech we used for it, so our only choice then would be total destruction of the automaton.”

“Hm. Well, as far as I understand, we don’t want the automaton destroyed.” The O5 closed their eyes, deep in thought. “Do you have any contingency plan for removing 6946 from the Challenger Deep area?”

“… No, no we do not.”

“I see. In such case, all operations regarding 6946 will be forwarded to the Department of Logistics.”

“Wait-”

“We are done here. You two are free to go.” The O5 finished. They had many, better things to do, Ezra assumed. He got up, and part of him wanted to get the O5’s attention, but by the time he had decided to do so, they were long gone.

“Things aren’t looking good for your department. Might not even survive the next fiscal year.” Adler spoke up. By the time Ezra had turned around, she was nowhere to be seen? Ugh, was his mind playing tricks with him now? Knowing himself, and also knowing DAP existed, that was most likely not the case. Still, she was right. The O5’s voice sounded disappointed, like when your pet puppy pees on the rug you’d just sent for cleaning. He had yet to see how he’d feel chastised, but he was already feeling the elizabethan collar around his neck, slowly taking his breath away.

Ezra looked at his watch. Two hours until his next meeting. Now, this one he wasn’t scared of, but would hurt him all the same.

Time to face the Coalition.


“You know how this is gonna go.”

“I know, and I’m not happy about it.”

“Of course you aren’t. I’m not either, but it’s too late for regret. What’s done is done and… Well, we have to deal with the consequences. You know you have to too.”

Ezra sighed, wishing he could just dismiss Ricci, the GOC liaison’s words and be done with it. He couldn’t, of course. He couldn’t say anything that wasn't the following question: “How much?”

“Ten billion, at least.”

Fuck. “You’re kidding.”

“I’m not. That’s how much we had to pay for your little blunder. We’re not made of money, and we had to spend a lot of money last year on another project.”

“The space rocket?”

“The second space rocket. Now, will you cede or will we have to resolve this through the O5?”

Ricci was ruthless, he had to admit, but he had a point. The O5 had already dismantled a fifth of the department to cover up costs. This would be his third strike. He had to cede here. Losing a third of the budget was better than half or worse. They would recover. His father had managed so before; he could too.

“Sure, deal. Do you accept possession concessions?” Ezra asked, thinking of damage control.

“Depends. What possessions are we talking about here?”

“I’ll prepare a list.”

“Have it by the end of the month.” Ricci told Ezra, and the meeting was over.


For but a moment, Ezra understood the logic behind Prometheus, the desire of MC&D’s: Selling anomalous projects was surprisingly lucrative. Everything they had hidden in warehouses, awaiting the heat death of the Sun or death at the hands of an Archival mismanagement was, by technicality, a product of the AWD department; not of the Foundation at large. Which meant that, as long as it was registered and kept track of, it could change hands.

They trusted the Coalition, they trusted JAGPATO, they trusted other departments of the Foundation, and in turn they had gained their trust. Right now, this mattered a lot, as by itself, the Weapons department was falling apart at the seams.

“What’s this?” Ezra asked as James put a letter in front of his desk, to then sit on the opposite chair.

“My letter of resignation. I’m leaving.” James told his boss. Ezra remained silent, unsure of how to react. James had essentially been a right-hand man of sorts, one of the oldest members of the department. He put his hands together, searching for an excuse, anything to convince him otherwise.

“You can’t leave. That’s not how the Foundation works.” Ezra replied, trying his best to remain calm. Breathe in, breathe out.

Applied Thaumatology suffered complications last year, and they need personnel. I’m moving departments.” James replied in turn, shutting down the director.

“… Why?”

“You know why.”

Ugh. This shit again. “You know I had to do it to keep us afloat. There wouldn’t be a department if not for me.”

“You’ll have one less employee to pay. I don’t see how this is a problem for you.”

“That is hardly the point, the point is-”

“The point is that you’re ruining all that your father worked tirelessly to build. The point is that, despite everything, you’re ignoring the tengu’s passing words, and continue on your path of self-destruction, because nothing matters but yourself, no?”

“What kind of response is that to-”

“Open the letter.” James interrupted Ezra, pointing at the paper over the desk. Ezra stared at it for a second.

“What does-”

“Open it.”

“… Fuck, what did you-” Ezra grabbed the letter, wondering what bull he would encounter inside. He pulled the papers and… Ah fuck.

SH674/PQ292/QN743
Status Selling
Demand Medium
Value 380,000 GBP/ 500,000 USD each
Availability 100 (Original inventory)
Identifier The Freeshooter’s Ammunition
Description Acquired from the Foundation, item consists of a set of 100 lead balls, meant to be used as ammunition. When fired from the appropriate weapon, a model 1777 musket, the round will always pierce through the heart of the shooter’s desired target. Following the act, the shooter will have their own heart pierced by the same round.
Marshall, Carter and Dark, LLP
Initial Report
Author Jordan Marriott Date November 11, 2023
Interest Medium Identifier The Freeshooter’s Ammunition
We got these from the Foundation’s Weapons Development dept as part of a bulk of unused equipment and cancelled projects. They were dirt cheap, which usually spells doom, but dealing with the Foundation always does. Biggest swindlers around. That being said, the rounds are in really good quality for their age, and work just as intended. They lose their magic after one use, which is even better. The only problem with them is that ‘killing the user’ part. Most hitmen and contract killers already kill without the need of tracking rounds, which leave the less good mercenaries, and they tend to value their lives much more, and have less dough to spend. There’s also the whole musket part. It’s not gonna be easy to find a target audience.

I propose a half a million price; we’re not gonna get to sell anything over that, but we aren’t in a hurry either. Pricing can be changed if the need arises. They don't take a lot of space so if they end up rotting in storage somewhere, it wouldn't inconvenience us that much.
File Opened Under: SH674/PQ292/QN743
Marshall, Carter and Dark, LLP


“… Look-”

“You’re actively endangering the Foundation. You’ve betrayed it, as much as Hokkyōbō did, maybe even more. I want no part in your plans.” James exclaimed.

“All I’ve done is for the Foundation’s sake!” Finally, Ezra snapped, crumpling the papers in his hands before throwing it to the side. “What have you done besides complaining at every turn about my actions? Did you do anything when the plague razed through the jungles of San José? When the Umibōzu sank beyond our reach? When our own administration turned against us? No, the answer’s no. You sat there, and when I needed you the most, you turned your back on me. And now you’re leaving for good? Give me a fucking break.”

“I’m leaving because you refuse to listen to me, or anyone, really, unless it benefits you in some way. If you wish to drive this little boat that took generations to build, go ahead, but I will not sink alongside you.” James sighed. Once again, Ezra proved to him that speaking of this was like talking to a brick wall. “Now, you have two options, Everest: Either you let me go, or you don’t, and all proof of your transactions are sent straight to the Ethics Committee. Your choice.”

Ezra bit his lip. He wanted to yell at James, slap him into sense, beat the crap outta him. He even visualized pulling the small revolver under his desk, firing straight at his chest. Hiding a body, if it meant it would save his father’s work, would be not but child’s play. And yet, he couldn’t do it, because Felipe Everest was many things, but he wasn’t a murderer. And Ezra had worked all his life to become all that his father was and more. Would shooting at James, at one of his closest allies be something his father would do, even in such a critical moment?

A picture of his father appeared in his mind: They were fishing somewhere, maybe Playa Hermosa? His father loved that place, and he couldn’t tell why: He wasn’t a fan of crowds, and Playa Hermosa would be full of swimmers most of the season. Felipe was talking about something… Something about taking a shot. He would know when to take it. And when not to, and the hardest was… Not taking the shot, perhaps?

He couldn’t remember the full talk, to be honest. He could barely remember the face of his father. Did he ever stop to look at him? He knew the answer, of course. It didn’t satisfy him.

God, when was the last time he thought about his father, and not about what he had accomplished; about what he’d done that Ezra hadn’t yet.

Fuck, what was he even trying to accomplish here?


“… Get out. Leave before I regret it.” Were Ezra’s words. Unknowingly, he had put his hand on the firearm. But James would live to tell the tale; leave as to not tell it, really.

“Thank you.” James bowed before getting up, ready to leave. “And please, do what’s right.”

Do what’s right… Ezra pondered those last words. He had been doing what was right all this time. He had, and it had fucked him over time and time again. Sure, his actions might have been rash at times, but an iron grip was necessary: He had control over most paraweaponry at the Foundation; single handedly controlled a big portion of the Foundation’s assets. Of course he did the right thing, else he wouldn’t be allowed to keep this going.

A call rang an hour after James had left, Ezra’s secretary redirecting it straight into the director’s office. He turned to the phone, and cautiously picked up the phone. He was mentally exhausted; he really didn’t want to deal with anyone else right now.

“Hello?”


“What happened next?” Asked Agent Lowe.

“Everest died!” Replied Agent Kroemer, moving his hands to each side, in an attempt at awe, finishing the great story he’d been retelling while the two traveled through the many halls of the emptiest manor at the end of all universes, typical stuff for Extraversal Affairs.

“… Ok, but for real, what happened.”

“You’d have to ask Thereven, from Anomalous Comms. That’s where I got most of the info. Not the most reliable guy ever, but he worked with them.

“Great, a cliffhanger. Why do you do this all the goddamn time?”

“Heh.” Was Agent Kroemer’s response, enjoying messing with the former. “For real real though, it was probably the O5 or the Ethics Committee. I mean, who else would make the director ‘disappear’ after discovering he was into some shady shit?”

“You got a point.” Agent Lowe. “What happened with the AWD, anyway?”

“Oh, they’re all dead.”

“Kroemer.”

“Most people lost their jobs following Everest’s disappearance. I don’t even know who the director is anymore, but the department’s a fraction of what it used to be. I’ve no idea what they’re up to these days. With the budget they must have, they probably do small arms cleaning for MTFs. ”

“Sounds harsh, not gonna lie.”

“Harsh, yeah, but they had it coming. I mean, how many coffee tables do you gotta trip over before someone catches up on how bad at the job you are?”

“Like twenty, if your story is as true as you say it is.” Agent Lowe smiled.

“Once we’re out of here, I’ll ask Thereven, see what he has to say.”

“Fair enough.”

Finishing that story, the two picked up the pace, leaving behind dust and the memories of the department that once was, retained fragments inside their heads with as much care as the previous hundred stories; the previous thousand.

‘Cause at the end of the day, it didn’t matter that much. A department goes under. So what? Another shall take its place. The Foundation will adapt, as it always does.

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