The Ninth
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THEN

— - —

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Aaron Seigel sat in the back room of a bustling Somali warehouse. Through the cracks in the blinds he could see people moving to and fro; the first faint breaths of their new Insurgency. He thought the name was ridiculous — most of them did — but ridiculous was part of the equation. Make them believe you’re incompetent. Make them think it’s not an act. Their footprint was small, but growing steadily. Already they had raided three Foundation storehouses in Africa, with another team preparing for a third. Make them think it’s not an act.

But Aaron Seigel sat uncomfortably. The week before, they got word that work had begun on a new facility in Italy. There wasn’t a sign on the door identifying it as a Foundation site, but all the signs were there. At the same time, three new unmarked ships were seen patrolling the waters near their Somali headquarters. Reports of task forces being deployed in the United States. Dark planes over the Antarctic.

He sat uncomfortably because these were not the choked final breaths of a dying organization. Frederick Williams was dead, annihilated by the finger of God Himself. Most of the O5 research team, the senior leadership of the fledgling Foundation, had either been killed in the ensuing chaos or defected along with Aaron and Arians. Many others had left their posts to join them too, for any number of ideological reasons. The Chaos Insurgency. Yet even in the midst of their greatest defeat, the Foundation continued on. Their operations seemed untouched.

And Aaron Seigel sat uncomfortably.

The telephone on his desk rang out its piercing notice, and Aaron moved to answer it. He hesitated; the phone had only ever seemed to want to bring him bad news. Another shipment lost. Foundation sites increasing security. More sites under construction. Everything they had sacrificed, everything he had given up, would be for nothing if the Foundation and its efforts were not ground to a halt. The fear of failure, of the reckoning of his sins, stayed his hand for a moment.

But Aaron Seigel answered the phone.

“Can you hear the black wolf howl at the moon?,” said Arians, his rough tenor barely audible across their meager connection.

“Vincent,” Aaron sighed in relief. His friend’s voice was a welcome reprieve, even in spite of its tone. “You’re well?”

“I’ve told you a thousand times,” Arians growled over the receiver, “finish the phrase. It’s a security measure. We cannot be compromised, especially not now.”

Aaron’s heart dropped slightly. “What news?”

Arians paused. “They’re moving to South America. The Broken God fanatics are involved in some activity there. The Foundation is shipping out en masse.”

“How many?” Aaron felt himself ask.

“Two hundred, maybe three hundred men,” Arians said, “and that’s not including some other staff members they’re moving in from other sites in the region. It’s a full on escalation, Aaron.”

Aaron sunk into his chair. The receiver of the phone felt heavy in his hand, and he heard a distance cackling that swept over him in waves. How could this be happening? They should be in ruins.

“Aaron?” Arians’ voice shocked him and brought him back to reality with a start.

“Yes, yes, sorry, I just… Vince, how is this happening? What did we do wrong?”

Arians was quiet for a moment. “Maybe Sophia was just more resourceful than we anticipated. Look, Aaron,” he took a deep breath, “all I know is what we’re being told, and what we’re being told is that the Foundation is mobilizing to Mexico. We need to have boots on the ground there to try and disrupt their supply lines.”

Aaron nodded slowly to nobody but himself. “Yes… yes, you’re right. Of course. We’ll arrange transports for our agents in the region as soon as possible. Vince,” he began to say, hesitating.

“Yes?”

“I… I think I want to go with you on this one. I want to go to San Marco.”

“You… why?”

Aaron’s eyes descended to his desk. Sitting on the middle of it, tied up with red thread, was a small roll of paper. “I want to see them. I just need to see them again.”

“They’re not there. We’ve already had our agents in the area confirm that—”

“I just… just humor me, Vince. I’ll leave Felix in charge, he can handle things here while we’re away. I won’t be gone more than two weeks.”

Aaron could hear Arians’ discontentedness across a continent. “Fine. But you stay with me and my detachment, and you don’t get too close to whatever is happening in La Paz.”

Aaron agreed, and then hung up the phone.

— - —

That night, Aaron Seigel dreamed many dreams.

He is standing next to Frederick Williams as they opened the doors to a building labeled “Site-17” on its door. He can see Arians beside him, beaming.

He receives a report of and categorizes a strange statue discovered in an ancient South American ruin. He is there when the truck containing it rolls past the gate. He can faintly see red and green paint.

He speaks to Sophia Light, who has taken to calling herself Sophia Nazarene, at a seminar hosted by Williams. She exudes confidence, and when she touches him on the arm he feels his hair standing up. That night, they fuck like animals. He asks about the scars on her wrists and the one on her side. She doesn’t answer.

He is standing with Frederick Williams and the rest of the Omega-5 research team. They pass around a glass of water, each taking a drink. Arians laughs. Aaron says, I bet you could live forever if you drank this stuff everyday. He notices Sophia stuffing a vial of the water into a bag. The next morning he wakes up without aches for the first time in a decade.

He is standing in a dark room. Twenty paces away he can see the stark, affixed face of Frederick Williams, illuminated by a thin, glowing, purple line in front of him. He is pulling on it with one finger. Every time he touches the line, the moon in the sky outside the window vanishes in a wink. Aaron Seigel calls to him, but he doesn’t look away. His eyes are black.

He is bleeding. He staggers against the wall, his hand clutching his side. He looks behind him and sees a man laying dead on the ground, his hand clasped around a bloodied, shattered golden sword. In the distance, a phone is ringing. He descends down an elevator. It feels like it goes on forever. A phone is ringing.


NOW

— - —

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A gentle drizzle created an ambiance of soft pits and pats on the roof of the estate. The long, empty halls echoed the sound like constant, quiet thunder. One wing of the manor, long since burned and fallen into disarray, was naked to the elements, its furnishings ruined by looters or exposure. Standing in the doorway was a woman with lightly tanned skin and black hair that ran down behind her. She stared out across the wreckage, unmoving.

Her hand lingered for a moment over a picture frame, shattered on a long scorched end table. The glass had bubbled and cracked and the frame was blackened with soot, but the smiling faces of the image’s subjects still beamed through. She brushed away the ashes and picked away the errant pieces of glass, and pulled the photo out. Her tears mixed with the rain that soaked her skin.

“I know you’re there,” she said quietly, to nobody in particular. “You can come out now.”

Calvin emerged slowly from the shadows behind her, and Anthony from another corner. She didn’t turn to see them.

“I’m probably not who you’re looking for, huh?” she said, wiping her cheek with the back of her sleeve.

“No, you’re not,” Calvin said.

She nodded. “Whoever held my,” she gestured up and down on herself, “position, before it was given to me, ran afoul of the consensus.” She turned towards him, the picture in her hand clutched to her chest. “So I became the Ninth Overseer.”

“Who are you?” Anthony said.

She smiled. “At one point, my name was Donna Taylor. I was a-” she sniffled, “-sorry, I was a geologist. I took over for, uh… well, I don’t know who, to be honest. But needless to say the Foundation offered me something I needed very much at the time, and I didn’t know better.” She looked down at the picture. “Quite the coincidence, don’t you think?”

They didn’t respond.

She continued. “I didn’t seem to notice. I was glad to be employed, and the things they told me… work beyond my wildest dreams. I didn’t realize… it doesn’t matter. I’m sorry, I’ve been thinking about this a lot these past few weeks. I knew my day would come here before too long.”

“You know why I’m here.” Calvin said. It wasn’t a question.

She nodded again, wiping more tears from her eyes. “Yes, I… I do. I understand, I think. I don’t agree with you, you know, but I think I would see it different from your point of view.” She panned her eyes around behind him. “I thought there would be more of you.”

“They’re following a lead,” Anthony said, slowly drawing his sidearm. “Looking for the Eighth.”

She winced slightly. “They aren’t going to have much trouble.”

He nodded.

She looked at the gun in his hand. “You don’t have to do that. I don’t- I don’t want it to go that way.” She reached into her pocket and with a flick of her wrist produced a switchblade. She held it out in front of her, her eyes fixed on the blade’s edge.

“You know, at one point I used to think that serving a higher cause would immortalize you,” she said. “I thought that- that maybe a life given in service to something greater than yourself would make your death somehow more meaningful.” She laughed, tears freely streaming down her face. “It doesn’t really matter where you end up, though. Any death can be meaningless. Any life can be wasted.”

Suddenly she locked eyes with Calvin, and he felt an intensity surge through his body like nothing he’d ever felt before. The gun in his hand trembled, and the hairs on the back of his arms stood up. In his mind’s eye, he saw the manor around him restored, its halls filled with magnificence and its rooms full of laughter. He saw a father and his daughters fishing at the lake behind the house, and two boys wrestling over a toy nearby. He saw Christmases, and happy faces, and long night hours of studying over immense textbooks. He saw Donna Taylor and her loving parents, beaming towards a photographer after earning her doctorate. Then he saw fire, and heard screaming, and then he saw her standing in front of him again.

She was older now, he noticed. Her posture was slanted and her hair was thinner. With every breath she drew he could see the years weighing on her. But her eyes scorched the air around them with their intensity, and he could see the last desperate clarion call of a life unlived. He felt anger and hate building inside of him, so much that he might suffocate in it- his entirety overcome by unbridled emotion. He gasped and stumbled as his vision grew blurry, as the pain in his chest split his skin and collapsed his veins. His heart groaned against the strain until it too caught fire and burst, and he was enveloped in flames.

And then she was standing in front of him again, her eyes dark. Calvin looked himself over, trembling in relief that he was unharmed. Anthony was grimacing from across the room. When Calvin looked up, he saw that the Overseer had collapsed into a burnt chair, and long streams of red were cascading down her wrists. She smiled weakly, her breath ragged and airy.

He holstered his gun and walked slowly towards her, careful to avoid the blood-stained knife on the ground. As he approached, she raised one pale arm towards him, and handed him the picture in her hand. He took it, and she relaxed.

“Why?” Calvin asked.

She shrugged. “It doesn’t matter.” She coughed, and blood pulsed out of her veins. Her eyes, hazy now and struggling to focus, caught his. “Are you afraid of death?”

He paused. “No.”

She grinned at him, her eyes closing as her consciousness began to drift away. She put one hand on his face, droplets of blood smearing across his cheek.

“You’re lying,” she said. And then she died.




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