The Archival Division 1

It starts — as these sorts of things so often do — at 3 AM in a Waffle House.

Adam Saxon sits alone in a booth; his complimentary glass of fluoridated tap-water remains untouched. He pretends to read the laminated menu while observing the restaurant's six other patrons: an elderly couple snuggling in the corner. A trucker at the counter, devouring a steaming pile of eggs, bacon, and naked waffles. A trio of exhausted teens in ratty clothes. None spare Adam so much as a glance.

For this occasion, the retired intelligence officer wears his least conspicuous head: a blind man with sunglasses and a face wrapped in linen. Adam is particularly proud of the nose. He sets the menu down to quickly adjust it right as the door jingles.

Jeremiah August is a short, slender black man in a dark suit. His head is shaved down to a thin, dense layer of peach-fuzz; his face is full of piercings. Once he reaches Adam's booth, he removes his jacket and neatly folds it over an arm. He then gracefully slips into the seat across from the ex-agent who has called him here. "Mr. Saxon, I presume." August speaks like a fencer. Each syllable is a jab; each pause, a feint.

Adam finishes tweaking his nose. "Yeah."

"Why did you call me?"

"You're going to make me say it?"

"Humor me."

Adam leans back in his seat. The cushioning's plastic sleeve squeaks under him. "I worked in the Foundation's counter-intelligence division for over twenty years, son. I know when I'm being tailed."

August lifts a pierced eyebrow.

"Really?" Adam fakes a sigh. "Fine." He gestures. "Elderly couple in the back. They're good. Too good. Nobody's that sweet on each other at this hour in a goddamn Waffle House. The trucker? Hasn't touched a thing besides his plate. No salt, no pepper. No butter, no syrup. Not even ketchup. I've yet to meet a night-hauler who doesn't drown his eggs in ketchup. And the teens? I look like I'm on my way to a casting call for The Invisible Man, and they haven't so much as snickered."

The eyebrow creeps higher.

Adam continues: "Not to mention that, for the past fifteen minutes, I've been pretending to read this menu — despite being blind. Waitress didn't even ask if I wanted one in braille. As for this water…" He nudges the glass toward August. "I'm guessing, what — some new experimental amnestic? Nano-tech, maybe. Something you think will work on me."

August looks at the glass, then back at Adam. He tilts his head.

"There's no ice," Adam explains. "They always add ice." He folds his arms across his chest. "So, yeah. That's why I called: to ask you straight to your face. What does the Foundation want with a retired field agent?"

August taps his lip-piercing against the front-row of his teeth, pondering. With a feline grace, he takes the glass, brings it up to his lips, tilts it back — and gulps it down. Once finished, he returns it to the table with a sharp clunk. Then, he plucks a paper napkin out of the nearby receptacle and dabs his mouth.

Adam fidgets. "Okay, so maybe I was reaching with the water, but —"

"Mr. Saxon." August folds the napkin and sets it down. Despite being the man's senior, Adam's chest constricts beneath the weight of that flat, merciless tone. "Are you familiar with the phrase, 'wilderness of mirrors'?"

The fidgeting intensifies.

"Counter-intelligence officers are trained to recognize patterns and identify threats. Every shadow can hide a dagger; every smile, a plot — every cup, a dram of poison. In the world of espionage, perceiving agency behind seemingly random events is what keeps you alive. But out here, in the wilderness? It's just paranoia."

"This isn't —"

"The elderly couple is just affectionate. The trucker just has terrible taste. The teenagers are just polite. And I doubt the waitress even cared enough to notice that you are blind."

Adam leans back farther. His shoulders slump. "You mean that no one's —"

"Tailing you? No."

"So I just —"

"Called a senior Foundation official to a Waffle House in the middle of the night for no good reason? Yes."

"I — fuck. Jesus. Fuck." Adam wishes he could rub his temples, but the paper-mache is far too brittle to risk it. "Fuck."

Something that might resemble sympathy flickers over August's face. "I've reviewed your file, Mr. Saxon. Your performance was exemplary. Prior to your, ah, disorder, you were one of our top field agents. But now you're retired. This is a time for you to enjoy the fruits of —"

"I need to work."

That shred of sympathy gives way to an ocean of cold conviction. "Not an option."

"You said you reviewed my file. That means you know what I did — what I gave up — to keep working. To keep serving the Foundation."

August's lips pull into a thin, dark line. "On behalf of the Foundation, I commend you for your sacrifice. That being said, we cannot —"

Adam lunges over the table and seizes him by the collar. This motion is sufficient to dislodge the ring of glue around Adam's throat; the paper-mache bust wobbles over his neck like a life-sized bobblehead. "Fuck your medals! Fuck your commendations! I gave you fucks everything — and all I'm asking is a chance to go back to work!"

The elderly couple draw AK-47 assault rifles. The trucker? A Benelli M4 semi-automatic shotgun. The three teens? Beretta M9 service pistols. The waitress emerges from the kitchen, her M40A5 sniper rifle cocked and ready.

Seven fingers curl around seven triggers. Seven barrels aim for Aaron Saxon's heart.

No one speaks. No one moves. No one even breathes.

Adam's prosthetic head keeps wobbling. Eventually, it bobs too far to one side, peeling free from the metal pedestal at his neck. It hits the floor with a whump, then bounces away.

Site-Director Jeremiah August regards the space where the ex-agent's head used to be. Adam's neck ends with a flat metal cap; a 6-inch steel rod extends out from its center, with a small metal sphere at the top.

"Release me, Mr. Saxon."

The headless ex-agent lets go. He slumps back into his seat. "No tail, huh?"

August stands, straightens his collar, and gestures to the other patrons. They lower their weapons. August then follows the path of the linen-wrapped bust, halting its roll with the tip of a well-polished shoe. "As I said: no one has been tailing you. But when a retired Foundation field operative calls and demands a late-night meeting at a Waffle House, one is inclined to take precautions." He retrieves the prosthetic head, then returns it to Adam.

Adam reluctantly accepts it. He slides it back down on the rod, making some rough adjustments. The head no longer fits right. On top of that, he's pretty sure the nose is ruined. "Okay. I'm sorry. That was —"

"Perhaps we can find something for you to do," August interrupts him. "Nothing like your previous work, I'm afraid — we can't have you doing anything sensitive. But if you just want something to keep your mind occupied —"

"Anything." Adam's voice quakes. "I'll take anything."

"Given your comprehensive knowledge of the Foundation's history, I think I know just the place for you, then. Tell me, Mr. Saxon — what do you know about the Archival Division?"


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