Twenty-Step Death March To UltraHell

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TO: (625 unique recipients)
SUBJECT: Updated Group of Interest-181 Assessment and Projections

Executive Summary:
Group of Interest-181 ("Chaos Insurgency") is a terrorist organization currently conducting a campaign of hostile action against the interests of the Foundation in general and high-level personnel in particular. The group maintains significant operational capacity in Eastern Europe, Northern Africa, and Central Asia. It is comprised of approximately 550 active members and is funded through extortion, donations, and anomalous means. GOI-181 has claimed responsibility for explosives detonated at Site-34 and Site-104 in addition to a series of abductions and targeted killings that occurred between April 2074 and August 2074. Their objectives are unknown beyond antagonism toward the Foundation.

We assess with a high degree of confidence that the leadership structure of GOI-181 is primarily staffed with former Foundation personnel. GOI-5 (the historical Chaos Insurgency) did not typically identify by that title, suggesting the modern organization was not founded by returning members. 'Chaos insurgency' was a frequent descriptor in internal Foundation influence operations that emphasized the general incompetence and disorder of the group. Furthermore, a body of past GOI-181 operations appear to have been based on outdated, highly-classified information, specifically relating to targeting choices and operational timelines. Finally, notable GOI-181 agents have exhibited tendencies typical of MTF intensive training programs that are unlikely to be known or emulated by external parties. A request for expedited information acquisition has been submitted to MTF Alpha-1 ECICOM.

We assess with a high degree of confidence that GOI-181 will carry out at least one major attack in the near future. 43 persons of interest associated with the organization have taken unusual steps to evade surveillance measures and are currently dark to all non-anomalous means. ELINT sources indicate significantly elevated communication frequency and intensity by GOI-181 members at all observable levels of the organization. Decryption efforts are underway and further updates will be provided when available. A request to reestablish surveillance of GOI-181 agents through the OKMGLOS network has been submitted to the Overseer Council for consideration.

Full report has been attached.

"Members of the Foundation," said Egret from behind a wooden mask of a snarling dog. Newly carved, but familiarly shaped. The Overseer's words came easily as she spoke to the camera from above her bound victims' heads. With so little left to be remembered, each may as well have been chiseled into her skull. "Protectors of the world. Noble, nameless, faceless. Take a moment from worrying over humanity to worry about yourselves. Your leaders have lied to you. They lie to you even now. You are at war, and they have not seen fit to announce it. We feel compelled to do so in their stead. Observe."

Egret fired a single shot from her pistol into the head of one bound man. He dropped into a spreading puddle of blood. The bad luck of an overachieving father.

"A son of one of your regional directors. The Overseer Council could not protect him, and they will not protect you. Cowards who stole their chairs will not rise in your defense. Cowards who think they can wage a secret war will never succeed in your defense. We do not fear them. We will never fear them. Observe."

Egret fired a second shot into the head of a second prisoner. Her brilliantly blonde hair fluttered majestically as she fell into a puddle of gore. The bad luck of a storied family.

"The daughter of a lineage long involved in your work. You will have heard of them. The spawn of overseers past, and the Foundation cannot protect her all the same. Do you think they will spare any more effort for you? Demand leaders who will fight a respectable war and a respectable war will be fought against you. Would you rather be shields? Bodies play that role poorly. Observe."

Egret fired a third shot with the same cold precision. Someone else’s hands might shake at the deed, but hers had stilled long ago.

"Tell your overseers to step down. Remove them yourselves. I fear our next message will not be half as pleasant otherwise. Let them know they have lost their mandate. Tell Sakarya she has failed in her crusade. Do not delay, for the Chaos Insurgency will not wait."

Egret held still for a moment longer, a colossus standing tall over a grim ocean. Grim, but necessary. It had to be if her Overseer wanted it made. She stepped over the puddle to type a few quick commands into her laptop and set its editing software to work. The file would soon arrive in inboxes across the world, early enough to ruin coffee breaks and late enough to delay drives home. They would curse her, if only they knew who she was. Her former comrades would hunt her too, and she had every intention of seeing them fail. There was so much more to be done first.

She took off the familiar mask and tucked it under one arm, pausing to brush her messy black hair out of her eyes. Egret’s best efforts to forget her old face could not trick her mind into accepting this one, not the youthful shape nor the brilliantly orange eyes, but the waves of nausea at its sight were no more. Remembering her duty helped. The pills helped more. She turned to face the mirror hanging on one basement wall.

"I’m finished." Her expression flickered momentarily. Not out of indecision or doubt on her part, but like a monitor struggling to rouse itself. "Overseer, I’m finished. It’s publishing now."

"Perfect," her reflection said silently. "And the next step?"

"In motion, ma’am."

"And there are enough of you?"

"More than enough. We’ll see it through."

"You’ve set fires for me before, Egret. This one will need to be even brighter."

"I’ll singe the sky, ma'am. I’ll burn the world down for you."

"If that's what proves necessary to save it. We’re the only ones who can, after all. You have your orders."

"As you will it, Overseer," said Egret, her reflection’s expression again matching her own. Her face still not matching her spirit. She smiled at the mirror, and it was more wretched than ever. Well, she wasn’t the one who had to suffer through it.

The problem with the Foundation’s bigger sites had always been conspicuousness. Sure, Site-82 could get away with presenting as a chemical plant in the middle of Nebraska, but how was Site-15 supposed to truly hide in New Chicago’s long shadow? Only so many black helicopters could land behind the tall fence before rumors spread. Only so many armored cars could pull in through the guarded gate before keen observers inquired about its nature. Though powerful, the Foundation did not appreciate such questions or attention.

Concessions were made to keep the shambling facade alive a little longer, even in the face of Egret's manufactured crisis. Gates went understaffed, billowing plastic bags hung on the barbed wire, and a lackadaisical haze hung around the windowless complex. Give people every indication that their work is unimportant and they'll start acting like it. Egret slid in past a checkpoint during an afternoon flood of employees starting their long drives home. Purposeful movement opened up more places than an access badge ever could.

She walked through a pair of rusted doors covered in peeling green paint, down a narrow corridor lit by old bulbs, and into one of the site's many locker rooms. Long strands of ashen hair fell out of place as she changed into a spare beige uniform. Her gums oozed around new teeth at the back of her mouth all the while. Egret nodded at another woman who called her by an alien name and continued on into the guts of the site. Her old bones creaked all along the way.

Downward and inward. A clipboard stolen from an idle cart completed her disguise before entering the site proper. Biometric scanners beeped happily at her presence, guards did not give her a second glance after weapon checks, and researchers failed to even recognize her existence. She stared at Form 3535-F and angled toward one of the core maintenance shafts that threaded through most sites. All required an access card she hadn't been able to find. The first few passes earned her nothing, but soon enough she caught someone leaving. Swooping in with a lowered head and a muttered thanks was all it took to pass inside.

The feeling that her filmed warning had not been taken seriously curdled as Egret descended a tightly curling staircase. Access panels plastered with severe warning lined the walls, all illuminated by harsh lighting. The security checks had been even more cursory than during her last visit, way back before her untimely exile from Alpha-1. Why bother with villainy if people weren't even going to react? Certainly, concern for the world might overwhelm personal threats, but this was serious. She had challenged the Foundation itself. She had thrown down three heavy gloves. Where was the haughty pride that the rest of the anomalous world whined about? Where was the outrage? The Overseer's plan required more squirming, more worry, and far more fear.

Well, today would fix that.

Egret stopped in front of a metal plate plastered with every possible safety warning. In addition to whatever electrical, chemical, and radiological dangers lay beyond, it spelled out in no uncertain terms that the overseers would personally flay anyone who so much as touched it without twelve kinds of authorization. She hummed a tuneless song as she undid a series of locks. When it came down to it, too many things in the world used the same key. You just needed to know which went where.

The panel was halfway off the wall when a door above opened. The sound echoed down, just as her clattering echoed up. There was no time to set things back in place though. She just had to work faster. Egret had broken into dictator's safes while they fucked mistresses in the hallway outside and smothered generals while their loyal guards were mere feet away. She was unflappable and unshakable. She was fortified by knowledge of her own imminent fate. A rack of circuit boards marked Final Contingency Subsystems slid smoothly out of the wall, but not fast enough.

"Grace?" The gruff question was laden with familiarity. Egret glanced behind her to see a tall man with a neat, graying beard. He clutched his radio, finger next to the panic button.

"Hey," she said in a voice that might have been Grace's.

"There's no service scheduled here today."

"The Site Director wanted a check after what happened last week." Egret tracked down the neatly organized wall of electronics. The entire contraption could have controlled the moon's orbit for all she knew, but one specific part was seared into her memory. Its jagged contours might as well have been her own teeth, its intricate patterns her old freckles.

"She knows better than to go around me," said the man. He wasn't going to be fooled. His eyes said that much.

Egret turned slowly. "Come on, what else would I be doing here?" He knew her current body. He should have known better. His hand relaxed just an inch all the same, finger straying away from the yellow button. Egret jammed her screwdriver into his throat. Shock. It was definitely shock in those stern eyes. He grabbed for the bloody handle. She shoved him down the narrow stairs, turning back to the panel as his body thumped hard against each landing.

She finally found the right piece. Laying hands upon it was a tender act, like cradling a child or brushing a puppy. Vulnerable in its fragility. Terrible in its purpose. Egret stood in awe for a moment before the furious klaxon began screaming all around her. Appreciation would have to wait for another time.

"The Overseer knows you're still in there," she said hurriedly, clutching the board's edges. "She could have finished you off. You owe her. She said you would understand. She said you would like her deal. A tiny piece of fulfillment for ones never fulfilled. A single bright second. Open up for her again and you can have that. She promises. She doesn't lie." A tiny light on the board flickered. Faintly enough to be overwhelmed by emergency lights, but it was a definite thing. Egret's task neared completion. Soon. Almost.

The only thing left was making an impression.

She sprung up the stairs two at a time, a giddy feeling blossoming in her chest. She hadn't been the one to fail. She hadn't been the one to let the Overseer down. What more could one of herself ask for?

Members of the site's security team pointed dinky guns at her as she exited the maintenance shaft. Shouted at her without firing. Idiots. She had no ill will against this bunch, they weren't traitors like the human refuse left in Alpha-1, but someone had to spread the word again. Someone had to let the Foundation know that a great terror lurked on the horizon. She took a step forward, and another, and finally one of them had the nerve to shoot her. Center of mass. Not so bad after all.

Egret bit down hard on her new teeth, something clicked, and her own tiny world was filled with fire.

Egret could tell Egret had died. An odd feeling, not unlike the sensation of remembering that something had been forgotten. There was no time to mourn herself though. No time to grieve. She lurched out of her seat in the small aircraft transporting the Regional Director of Western Europe across the Atlantic. Egret was just a minor staffer, but even that was enough for her mission.

She grabbed her bag from the rack overhead and stumbled to the bathroom, giving everyone a profusely apologetic look that said you don't want to know. Maybe they really wouldn't. Egret pulled plastic parts out of the bag, one hidden in a bag of tangerines, another in her hygiene kit. Tab A into slot B, assemblage A and B into groove C. Load the bullets into slide D and stuff the entire thing into jacket pocket F. She left the bathroom, tossed the bag back up onto the overhead rack, and stumbled toward the plane's sectioned-off front.

The security detail let her through, and why shouldn't they? Egret wore a familiar face, did familiar work, and had been thoroughly screened many times over. She saw the Regional Director sitting in a plush leather chair, made a moment of eye contact, and shot him in the chest four times. The rest of the bullets were for her.

Egret felt herself die again. She sat at the helm of a 18-wheeler, chewing gum and tapping on the steering wheel with annoyingly cumbersome fingers. Almost time. Almost time. She couldn't wait to be done with this. To be done with this body. The radio announced the last song as Eat the Government's Twenty-Step Death March to UltraHell, soon to be followed by Ambergris Whaleslayer Nailstorm. Egret pressed her forehead to the steering wheel as the bridge in the distance pulled closer ever so slowly. The sun blinded. A tide of dust blew across the road. She was ready. She was ready.

Halfway across the towering bridge, she spun the wheel to the side, crashing her mass of metal directly into a nondescript black car. The world crunched, snapped, spun, and ended.

Egret stabbed a man in a nice suit. Again and again, until his guards got to her.

Egret tackled a distracted woman into the path of an oncoming subway train. Its lights seared. Its horn roared.

Egret died, and died, and died. She was spent piece by piece. A fragment for a death in one corner of the world, a fragment for a life in another. A legion of herself met gristly ends in strange bodies, a cohort of her memories and quirks, her joys and fears. They could not be rightfully mourned because they were not rightfully dead. Not yet. Not while the core of herself persisted.

Egret drove her overseer north from a safe house outside Barcelona. The camper was old and unwieldy, purchased with a handful of crumpled bills from a grimy lot of grimier cars. It allowed her boss a place to sleep though, and was inconspicuous on top of that. The eyes perpetually staring down from orbit would never think to give them special attention. Driving it gave her time to think too. Introspection had never been a skill encouraged in her training. Too high a chance of thinking down dangerous paths. No use in worrying about that now though.

She drove, and thought, and came upon a revelation of her own nature. Once the messy bits were stripped away, what else was she but an act of aggression? She was a violent deed. A clenched fist. Only in the service of the greater good though. Only in the service of the Overseer's good. If that good required fear, fine. If every last person in the Foundation had to see death around the corner to negotiate, fine. Egret would drag them to the table with her fangs. The Overseer would do the rest.

Dhole had been right all along with her hound this and hound that. How obnoxious. How irksome. Dying hound she might be, but Egret had one last bite left in her.

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