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Foundations' Resolve

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The building that housed the office of the Mayor of Terminus was modest by galactic standards.

Scifi / Adventure
Stephen Collings
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The building that housed the office of the Mayor of Terminus was modest by galactic standards. Terminus had only been settled 500 years ago, and despite being the capital of the Foundation itself, its remoteness and geography put limits on expansion. The vast oceans meant it would never have the continent-spanning cities hundreds of stories deep found on older settled worlds. Still, the vista offered by the shatterproof window that served as one wall of Mayor Branno’s office was impressive, showing the whole of the city laid out before her.

Sometimes, in a rare moment of peace, she would take a moment and pick out some detail of the city below that she hadn’t noticed before. Terminus City, and indeed all of Terminus, was a minuscule fraction of the seven million worlds that made up the Foundation Federation. But in the minds of many, Terminus was the Foundation. That city, that world represented the light of civilization in what would otherwise be a dark age for all humanity.

Mayor Branno sat in the chair behind her desk, turned so that she faced the window. But she didn’t see the city. Half an hour ago, she had felt vibrant, more alive than she had in years. The Council had overwhelmingly approved her trade agreement with the Sayshell Union. The influence of the Foundation Federation had expanded in an unexpected direction, thanks entirely to her diplomatic efforts. That, on top of her other recent political victories, now guaranteed her a place in history. Branno the Bronze, they called her, the greatest Mayor the Foundation had had in over a century.

That had been half an hour ago. Less, she realized. Now, she felt every moment of her 63 years. All because of what the man across the desk had told her. She knew it could not be true, knew it could not, could barely even tolerate the thought. And yet the evidence was beyond doubt. Even those feelings on the subject, flying in the face of all the evidence, were in themselves proof that what he said was true. Branno felt as if she was having to fight for control of her mind, fight against herself. She was forcing herself to hold two contradictory thoughts at once, and the effort was exhausting.

The gray, mustached man across the desk from her looked no better. If anything, he looked worse. Branno wondered if that was because he had dealt with it longer, and if so, what that meant for her in the future. One side of her silently cursed him for having brought this upon her, but even that part knew that it was her own doing. She once more tried to summon up her resolve, once more failed.

She had looked over his report twice after he had explained it, looking for some inconsistency, sure there must be one. She had difficulty believing that her old friend had become so suddenly senile, but she could think of no other explanation. Only on starting her second review had doubt begin to creep in. After that, there was no cause for a third. Through it all, he sat, waiting.

“How long have you known?” she finally asked as she turned from the window, her voice cracking slightly.

Liono Kodell may have looked weary, but his answer came quick and crisp. Maybe it did get better with time, despite how he looked. “Since shortly after our return from Sayshell,” he answered. “I received a communique from our mentalics research and development division, asking whether they could retrieve the mentalic shielding device from the ship we took to Sayshell. I approved the removal and thought further of it. It was a simple systems integration test, of no significance to our mission.” Here he grimaced. “At least, our mission as we remember it.”

Branno grimaced as well. That secret R&D branch had been in existence for over a century, building and refining weapons to be used against an enemy that might never come. The Mule was dead, and the Second Foundation had been defeated centuries ago. Or so Branno had believed. Thought she had believed. This is madness, she thought.

Kodell continued. “The next day, I received another communique from the same division. They said that the shield had recorded levels of activity vastly above normal during our mission. Our mission on which, by all our other records, nothing remotely unusual happened.”

Here Branno broke in. “I’d never heard that the shield kept such a record. I’d wager you hadn’t either?” It was still hard, but the more evidence presented itself, the easier it was becoming to think clearly.

Kodell nodded. “Otherwise, Madam Mayor, we would almost certainly not be having this conversation.” Branno suppressed a shudder. What had been done to them? Kodell continued. “I told them that there had been some sort of mistake, and again thought nothing else of it. But that night, the division head came to visit me at my home. I was still skeptical, but she convinced me to submit to a brainwave analysis.”

Kodell paused for a moment. Branno glanced down at the report lying on her desk. It was relatively short, and the ultimate results were simple. Three different tests performed since their return, compared against results from the last five years’ physicals. A person’s EEG patterns were as unique as their retinas, if one knew what elements to look for in the neural noise, and just as persistent. And looking at those results from before and after their mission to Sayshell, there were differences. The Liono Kodell in front of her was a subtly different man than he had been two months ago.

“I refused to believe it at first.” He sighed slightly, looking at the report himself. “Part of me still doesn’t. I imagine you’re feeling the... the dissonance, right now.” His eyes returned to her. All Branno could do was nod tightly. “I could barely function. It took me days to make myself come to you. Even now, I feel as if I’m trying to convince you of something utterly absurd.” He clenched his fist, then tried to relax it, only partly succeeding. “As if I’m saying we could jump off this building and fly.”

Branno nodded again. Dissonance, he had called it, and he was right. She could easily imagine a feeling like this driving a man mad, if it was much stronger.

There was only one possible explanation: somewhere on their mission through Sayshell space, they had encountered a powerful mentalic force. That force had penetrated their shield, modified their minds, and wiped all record of the encounter from both the memories of the crew and from the ship’s data stores. But no one on the ship had known of the shield’s recordings, and so that force had missed a single piece of evidence. The Second Foundation had been found. Or something worse.

The doubt was still there, still strong, but Branno was now finding it possible to act. And she knew what had to be done. She stood, and Kodell stood in response.

“Contact General Albian,” she said, with every bit of firmness she could muster. Kodell had been expecting this, she knew. There was only one possible course of action. This is madness! part of her screamed, and for a moment she wasn’t sure whether it was directed at her actions or the situation that was forcing her hand. She shoved it aside, knowing it didn’t matter. “Relay the following orders: assemble the fleet; all ships within three days travel are to return to Terminus immediately for redeployment. Also, contact your new friend in research and development. Tell them we’ll need as many mentalic shields as we have ships incoming, and to have them by the end of the week.”

Branno knew the demand was unreasonable. The shield was in the prototyping stage. The production facilities for that many shields simply didn’t exist. She also knew it was of little consequence, as the shield had obviously not been able to prevent what had happened to them on their previous mission. But it would be better than nothing.

As her Director of Security quickly left to carry out her orders, Harla Branno just as quickly activated her computer terminal. She wanted to move before her resolve wavered. There would be no mistakes this time. Branno didn’t know what she would find when her ships reached Sayshell, be it the Second Foundation, another Mule, or something entirely unimaginable. But whatever was waiting for them, and whatever it did to them, its days of hiding were over.

The Mayor of Terminus forced these thoughts aside as she began to write again.

* * *

To a man of Terminus or any other world in the galaxy, the mood in the room on Trantor would have seemed subdued. There were few words to be heard, and even less movement to be seen. But to the occupants of that small chamber deep beneath the former capital of all the galaxy, the confusion was insufferable.

The twelve humans in the room were mentalics, as they had been named by Hari Seldon five centuries prior. Out of some ten quadrillion souls in the galaxy, only two hundred thousand were born with the proper genetic mutation, and a full fifth of those were part of the Second Foundation. It was their training that set the mentalics of the Second Foundation apart from the others. These men and women, culled from worlds across the galaxy, were trained to make use of their mental abilities to their fullest extent. They learned to channel the forces of their minds to manipulate the minds of others, as the farmers on the surface of their world would manipulate a loom. They could reach into someone’s psyche and, with a thought, alter any aspect of it they wished. With sufficient effort, even an entire personality could be rewritten.

Such a drastic change in human faculty had changed the face of society. Second Foundationers learned the secrets of communication-- that meaning was conveyed not only by words, but by every gesture, every muscle contraction, every facial expression. Thus when Second Foundationers spoke to each other, they very rarely spoke aloud. Instead, the mentalics communicated by the movement of a finger, the transmission of a thought, impossible to understand by any but another of their kind. When discourse among members of the Second Foundation is recorded it must be understood that the account given is inevitably an inexact translation.

The mood in the room on Trantor was anything but subdued. Indeed, it was filled with the noise of ten people all speaking at once. Never in five centuries had a meeting of the Table degenerated into such chaos. The ten were Speakers, members of the ruling body of the Second Foundation and ultimate guardians of the Seldon Plan. No one of them had anything particularly important to say, but they spoke anyway, in sheer disbelief of what had just occurred. Only two of them were left in silence.

At the head of the table sat Quindor Shandess, First Speaker of the Second Foundation. At first the title had meant nothing more than it said: that at gatherings of the Table, he was the first to speak. But over the centuries the position had evolved into one of real leadership. Shandess had never sought his duties; he was simply the most capable at carrying them out, and so he was appointed to do so. After many years in his position, Shandess had thought he had finally found a worthy successor. He had been looking forward to his coming retirement. Until today.

Shandess looked across the table, ignoring the seeming chaos to either side in favor of the figure at the other end. At the foot of the table sat Speaker Gendibal, the youngest member of the Table, and until this moment, heir-apparent to the First Speakership. Gendibal was silent, but a glance told he was no less distressed than the other speakers. He was breathing hard, sweat beading his forehead. He looked as though he had awakened from a nightmare he couldn’t remember. Which, Shandess thought, was not far from the reality of the situation.He’s awakened into a worse nightmare.

As part of their training, Second Foundationers developed barriers to defend themselves against mentalic intrusions. Speaker Gendibal had entered a form of meditative trance, explicitly that he might lower those defenses and let the other members of the Table deep into his mind, deeper than they would ever consider going under normal circumstances. Their explorations ended, he was awakening to find out what his fellows had discovered.

The First Speaker watched as Gendibal, now fully recovered from the trance, looked around the room, taking in the reactions around him. He had not been conscious of their explorations, but what he saw told him what they must have found in his mind just as clearly. These were some of the most disciplined people who had ever lived, and if they had lost order like this...

Shandess saw how Gendibal struggled to retain control of himself for a few moments, then gave up. The younger man placed his elbows on the table and buried his head in his hands. In truth, only Shandess’s prior expectations kept him from reacting much the same. He felt no sense of triumph, though he had just been vindicated in the eyes of all present. Vindication was worth nothing in the face of this.

Shandess had been the only Speaker to notice a change in Gendibal upon his return to Trantor. Indeed, he was the only one who could possibly have noticed. Months prior, Gendibal had come to the First Speaker privately and presented the results of his recent analysis of the Seldon Plan: he had concluded that the Plan was precisely on track, as perfect as could possibly be. This was common knowledge among the Second Foundation, and to most it was a cause to rejoice! The Second Empire would come about exactly as psychohistory predicted, and the future of the galaxy seemed secure.

But Gendibal had been the first to realize the true implications of the situation. Never in the history of the Plan had such perfection been achieved. Any significant deviations were adjusted for by the Second Foundation’s agents throughout the galaxy. But those actions were minimal, and merely kept humanity moving in the overall direction they desired it to go. Small deviations, statistical static, could not be anticipated, much less corrected. Utter perfection of the Plan would require vastly more power and information than the Second Foundation possessed, and was thus practically impossible.

Shortly thereafter, Gendibal had found a Hamishwoman called Novi, a native of the surface of their world, whose mind showed evidence of an extraordinarily subtle tampering, again beyond the capabilities of the Second Foundation. Only one explanation remained: some unknown force, besides the Second Foundation, was manipulating minds throughout the galaxy, acting to perfect the Plan. But even though this force, whatever it was, presently shared the goals of the Second Foundation, it might not remain so. Its actions and intent had to be accounted for.

So Gendibal had gone in search of this force, taking Novi with him. When he returned, he claimed absolute success. While gone he had neutralized the mission of a Foundationer named Trevize, the Foundation Mayor’s attempt to locate the Second Foundation. But no mysterious force had been found at all. Gendibal reported that there likely was none, and that perhaps some subtle flaw in his analysis had resulted in the mistake.

The other speakers had been ready to believe this, willing to spend months recreating his analysis. But they had not examined Gendibal’s work as closely as Shandess had. There was no flaw; there absolutely could not be. Gendibal had to know this, or he would never have brought it to Shandess’s attention in the first place. And yet he was now claiming there was a mistake where he once knew that none could possibly exist. There was only one explanation: someone had altered Gendibal’s memories. And if that was the case, they might not have months. They might not even have days.

During his journey, Gendibal had contacted the Second Foundation and requested that its entire strength be lent to him, shortly before being cut off from all contact. He claimed that this was due to a Foundation mentalic shield, a threat he had neutralized without needing the help he had requested. Due to his actions, he claimed, the Foundation’s Mayor no longer had any interest in either the mentalic shield or in the Second Foundation, and Trevize was no longer a threat. If any element of those claims was untrue, there might be no time for debate; the Foundation could already be coming in irresistible force. And even if the Second Foundation was not itself threatened, who was perfecting the Seldon Plan?

Such had Shandess made his argument before the Table. All had listened respectfully, and just as respectfully had responded with their doubts. Gendibal himself had instinctively recoiled at the idea. But Shandess had not yet resigned; he was still the First Speaker, and his words carried weight. So Gendibal had acquiesced, and entered his trance. The room became silent, even by Second Foundation standards, and eleven Speakers had probed Gendibal’s mind for unending hours, searching, examining every facet of his psyche.

Towards the end, exhausted, Shandess had almost been ready to concede defeat, to admit that, somehow, he had been wrong. He had known that finding nothing would mean certain humiliation, no matter how respectfully the other Speakers reacted. Such a failure would result in his being disgraced for all time. But his place in history mattered little to him. If they found nothing in Gendibal’s mind, he would resign exactly as planned. Let the histories say what they will, he thought, the Plan will continue. As always, Shandess found himself almost joyful at the prospect of stepping down, casting off the burden of the galaxy’s fate, making way for Gendibal as the next First Speaker…

Then one of them saw it.

A single thread of Gendibal’s mind was out of place. None of them could have done it accidentally. For a mind to be modified, it required the active will of another mind. There could be no accidents. After that they found other signs, small, almost unnoticeable even to their combined observations. But the conclusion was obvious and inescapable, and it had reduced their gathering to near chaos.

To accomplish such an intrusion in the mind of Gendibal would require a mind with power beyond imagining. Even the legendary and long-dead Mule could not have done such a thing. And all the disturbed threads had surrounded Gendibal’s memories of his mission to intercept Golan Trevize. His report was a lie.

The Table had lived so long without fear, secure in the knowledge that whatever the threat their tools could defeat it. But this was beyond anything they were prepared to deal with. None of them knew how to react, and their discipline shattered. All but Shandess.

Shandess only sat and looked around the Table at the other Speakers. Seeing the chaos, his control wavered again for a moment, but only for a moment; then he looked across the table once more at Gendibal. His head was no longer buried in his hands. He was looking directly at Shandess, and now he shared the First Speaker’s look of determination. Shandess had chosen his successor well. Even in their language, no words were communicated. None needed to be. He knew Gendibal understood, and it renewed his own hope.

They wouldsurvive this. The Second Foundation had faced down every threat that had come their way. This would be no different. The Second Empire would form, the interregnum would end, and humanity’s great future could begin, exactly as Seldon had planned. Nodding at Gendibal, he one by one began calling the other Speakers by name, slowly bringing order to the assembly.

There was work to be done.

The Solarian looked out over its estate, and appreciated the beauty of its power. Hundreds of thousands of square kilometers, under its complete and total control. Nothing, not even the landscape itself, would exist anywhere in the Solarian’s territory without its permission. It could sense every one of the thousands of robots under its power, all performing their appointed tasks, with no other purpose in existence but to protect and serve their Solarian master. The Solarian walked alone in perfect solitude. None could approach, and none would try.

Yet something was wrong.

There were natural fluctuations in the power throughput of any Solarian. One could only harness as much energy as was available on their land. The whole of Solaria was divided among them, and a thousandth of the planet was enough energy for any individual’s needs. Still, the available power varied somewhat with weather and time of day. Biological factors like blood sugar and hormonal levels also caused minor changes. So at first upon noticing the power drop, the Solarian had not been concerned.

Now it was. Over the last several days, the Solarian had experienced a slight, but perceptible, decrease in its ability to take advantage of temperature differences on its land. Each day the condition was getting worse.

The swarmers. It could be no coincidence that they had come, mere weeks before. They had landed on the adjacent estate, formerly Bander’s. The Solarian would never understand why Bander had let them even touch the surface; the immediate destruction of any visitor was one of the few global rules.

Swarmers. Disgusting creatures, each only male or female, not whole as Solarians were. Perhaps they shared ancestry, but so long ago that it no longer mattered. The swarmers had bred quickly, filling the entire galaxy with their kind in mere thousands of years. For millennia they had forgotten Solaria.

Now they had come back, to destroy their betters. They had killed Bander, stolen its heir, and escaped. This change must be their work as well. They had found some way to interfere with the Solarian’s transducer lobes. And the change was accelerating.

The decision made, the Solarian turned back to go indoors. If the swarmers could interfere with one Solarian, they could do the same to all. If this degeneration continued, death was inevitable. Cooperative effort might improve each affected individual’s chances for survival. The Solarian would have to take an action it had never taken in its lifetime.

It would have to communicate with another Solarian. Possibly even more than one.

This would take much preparation. To break hundreds of years of utter isolation would take a toll on anyone, and the Solarian could not predict how it would handle the strain. And it had to be prepared for the possibility that none other was affected. No assistance might come. It would have to find a solution on its own.

The Solarian called robots to it as it walked, instructing them in their new, unfamiliar tasks.

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