Rubid clears his throat, addressing his small legion of followers. "Ladies and gentlemen, the final phases of our plan are approaching. You've all done an astonishing amount of excavation and underground construction work, to say nothing of the infiltration, logistics and hacking which went into setting all of this up. Of course, in addition to my personal gratitude, you are also being paid, which I know is the most important thing!
"Project Scaffold is completed and we are now moving into Project Rubidium." He pushes a button on his tiny controller, starting the highly swish, neatly animated presentation. He interrupts himself, to say, "Oh! I love this animation. Quick nod to the graphic designer for this presentation. On operations like this, folks like the graphic designer never get any recognition." He glances at the screen. "I've lost time. Let me back up and start this over.
"In phase one of the plan, we'll hijack control of the secret Pentagon orbital kinetic bombardment platform. It is impossible to do this without attracting massive amounts of attention. Most likely, a multinational combined team of espionage forces will descend upon this underground island lair, infiltrating the base. We'll put up a convincing-looking fight, but ultimately they will disable our transmitter array in the nick of time and take me into custody.
"This is, of course, part of the plan. Thus, phase two launches. In phase two, I will have a crucial character-developing confrontation with the head of British intelligence, Marlow, to whom I owe a great debt of revenge. The day after that meeting, those of you remaining free will organise a daring and elaborate operation to spring me from their maximum security prison, enabling me to hunt Marlow down in person and bring him to justice at my own hands."
The animation ends. There is a lengthy pause. After a while, it starts to repeat.
Someone in one of the back rows puts a hand up. "Sir, is there a phase three?"
Rubid squints. From his position on the stage it's not obvious who spoke. "What was that? Someone asked about a phase three? No, no phase three in Project Rubidium. Once Marlow's dead, that's it."
"Is there another Project, then? Project Scaffold is done, Project Rubidium, then what's after that?"
"No, Project Rubidium is the second and final of the two plans," Rubid says.
"So do we just go home at that point? Drop everything and walk away, like it didn't happen?"
Rubid chews his lip. "Yes, I suppose so. Most of you will be dead by then, naturally. Which! Which, everybody here was already on board with."
Someone else says, "Yeah, Dave."
"I'm just saying," Dave says, "we don't have any plans to actually use the Pentagon's secret orbital kinetic bombardment platform? At all? We're just going to let the Pentagon take control of it back? We're not going to use it on any particular target of our own? I could think of a few." He counts his fingers. "The Pentagon." He stops counting, after one finger. "Well, one target, but one is enough. Or, we could fire all the ordnance safely into space or at blank ocean. Or we could at least leak the existence of the platform to the general public. It does violate the Outer Space Treaty. I feel like a lot of us joined this project because we were against that."
Rubid stares blankly for a moment. "No, no. You can see that this plan ends once Marlow is dead."
"Could we not target Marlow directly? We must be able to figure out where he lives."
"I need to talk to him, man to man," Rubid states, patiently.
"His phone number, then."
"Face to face!"
Dave pulls an unconvinced face. "Do you have an escape plan?"
"Yes," Rubid says.
"Dave, you want to shut up so we can finish this meeting?" someone else says.
"I'd like to see the escape plan."
Rubid points at the cycling animation. "We already went over this. After I'm captured, you will spring me from their maximum security prison."
"That's phase two," Dave says. "What about after Marlow is dead? Are you going to let them capture you again?"
Rubid is just pointing at the animation. He says nothing for a moment. Everybody glares at Dave.
"Yeah, Dave," someone says.
"But then what happens?"
Rubid points urgently. On the screen, the animation has looped around, and he is being broken out again. "I don't know how much clearer I can make this."
The animation keeps looping through Phase Two.
To Dave's surprise, phase one goes almost exactly as Rubid outlined. Dave is among the splintered handful of mercenaries who escape as multinational forces descend on the base and take back control of the space weapons.
They escape on a speedboat.
"So, let me pitch something," Dave says, raising his voice to be heard from the back of the speedboat. "Rubid was extremely rich, yes? That's how he was bankrolling all of this. Instead of rescuing him, how about we just... take off? With his money? Wire it all to the Caymans and never work again."
"What about Marlow?"
"Marlow's having his face-to-face with Rubid right now, probably, right?" Dave says. "That's got to be halfway."
Nobody else in the boat is going for it. "We swore an oath, Dave."
"You did? I mean, we did?"
"And there's a bonus."
"Is the bonus all of Rubid's money, or less?"
Dave sits down again. "There's got to be a joke in this thing somewhere, right? There's got to be a novel angle. I'm so tired."
The jailbreak works exactly as planned. It's a sophisticated setpiece which involves taking control of a skyscraper construction crane not far from the prison complex, and intentionally misloading it so that it collapses into the prison itself, in a highly controlled way. The destruction causes chaos. A large number of prisoners flee, but Rubid is easily found. Dave is driving the vehicle which collects him, and takes Rubid to the location where they know Marlow is hiding, or waiting, or however you want to phrase it. It's a government building. Rubid takes a few men and heads into the building.
Dave sits in the car, drumming his fingers. When more police arrive, he moves the vehicle over to a different part of the street, and scooches down in the seat, to remain unnoticed.
Rubid is arrested and taken away.
Dave rendezvouses with everybody who's left.
"So, now, we just take the money and get out of the country, yes? We take a helicopter and just go."
"We stick to the plan," someone else says.
"There's no plan past this point!" Dave exclaims. "Come on!"
"Phase two. We spring Rubid. Just like he explained back on the island."
Dave has to stick around for this, just to see what happens. It's not the same prison and it's not an identical escape plan. This time Rubid is taken to a compound in a flat, inhospitable part of the countryside. Dave and the others observe that Marlow is in the vehicle following Rubid's prisoner transport.
"I thought Marlow received... you know, Rubid's idea of justice?"
"Indeed he did," someone else says. "And now, they'll talk again, for the final time."
Dave becomes perturbed. There is a pressure in the front of his head, just behind his eyes. "Did they not already have this final talk? I'm losing the thread of this."
They spring Rubid again. In an offroad vehicle, Rubid pursues Marlow across a blasted moors, around sundown. Dave is too far away to see exactly what happens, piloting the helicopter, but it looks like something violent and climactic occurs on the ground. Then, Dave is forced to flee to another rendezvous point, as more hostile forces collect Rubid and Marlow again.
The rendezvous point is on the coast, a disused lighthouse.
Dave asks: "Are we done?"
"Not at all," someone else says. "This is only the beginning. Now for phase two."
Dave hisses, a stabbing feeling in his brain. "We already had phase one. And phase two. And phase two. And phase two. What are you talking about? What is going on?"
He tears his eyes away from the blueprints on the table, the model cars, the board full of scrawled notes. He says, "Who said that? Who keeps pushing this?" He glances at the silent nobodies around the table, generic trooper types, with faces but basically faceless. He scans them in turn, and finds that there's a person standing beside him, immediately to his right, whom he cannot look directly at.
Someone else says, "This is what Rubid requested."
Dave grits his teeth, rubs his eyes. He looks at everybody at the table in turn... he looks at one person, and then he looks at someone else.
They are all wrong to look at. A basic human body and a head which is just a tunnel leading back in space, a streaming wormhole of colour.
"The animation," Dave manages. "It looped. It didn't end. It looped around on itself. It could still be going right now. Phase two. Phase two. Forever."
Someone else says, "An unending cycle of intentional capture followed by confrontation followed by escape followed by intentional capture." Their voice is manifold and sounds hollow, warped, rotten.
"Who are you?"
Someone else says, "The graphic designer."
"What have you done?"
"Created an eternal narrative engine," someone else says. "An inescapable, never-resolving plot. A relentless, infinite backward regression of plans within plans within plans. A trap!"
"For whom?" Dave asks.
"For you, Dave! Because of your excessive overanalysis of the plot of everything. You'll never pin this down, never be able to isolate the fabula and the syuzhet. You'll never understand your own role in any of this world."
Dave wails in dismay, theatrically. "No, no! You can't do this to me! ...Except..." Then he stands up and dusts himself off. "Well, it seems I am exposed. I injected myself into this ill-formed narrative intentionally because I intended to see it work from the inside. Of course, I exist on a higher level of reality than this, and cannot be harmed by any form of fiction at this level. This has been an exciting development—"
"We know what you are doing and we are coming for you," someone else says.
"—but I must take my leave now."
'Dave' exhales. He has returned to his point of origin. He glances over at Vade, his assistant in the dive. "Well. That one took a turn for the weird. I am pleased to have exited that narrative of eternal narrow escapes and recapturings."
Vade says nothing.
"Vade?" Dave frowns. He looks up. "Say, do you hear a helicopter?"