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Florence continued stalking through the back alleys of Detroit, hunting for demons. Just like old times. Albeit, Minneapolis had never been quite as decrepit as Detroit was now.
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|From||Julian Corwin (Director, Site-246)|
|Subject||RE: The Nightingale Contingency|
|To||Cody Westbrook (Commander, MTF Delta-3 'Solomon's Hand')|
The Ethics Committee and the Overseer Council are aware of your concerns. They have been dismissed. Your orders still stand.
By your own admission, Agent Elsinger's abilities have matured to such a point that it would now be difficult or impossible for the remaining members of Delta-3 to enact containment contingency measures against her. This makes her exceptionally dangerous to the Foundation and our mission; she is a useful tool and a potent weapon, but if we lose our hold on her, we will never get her back. You know what will happen if that occurs.
I am aware of your fondness for Agent Elsinger, so I will remind you that the Nightingale Contingency exists for her own protection. You know her better than anyone, so you know how tenuous her allegiance is. The Contingency ensures her loyalty, and her loyalty guarantees her life. More than that, it has made her happy. If you truly care about her, you will not rob her of that.
I find it just as distasteful as you do, but it is a necessary evil — as you yourself assured me when the Contingency was first implemented.
May 1, 1988
'Firestarter, do you have eyes on target?'
Florence stopped and sighed. She reached up and keyed on her earpiece. 'Solomon Two, stay off the channel. I need to focus and you're not helping. Unless you want to try sniffing out demons.'
'Devlin!' Westbrook's voice cut in. 'Lay off her for one goddamn mission.'
Devlin started to argue, but was cut off by a burst of static. Westbrook had jammed his transmitter, then.
The radio fell silent after a moment. Florence continued stalking through the back alleys of Detroit, hunting for demons. Just like old times. Albeit, Minneapolis had never been quite as decrepit as Detroit was now.
Focused as she was on her Observer's senses, she smelled the demonarcotics before she saw the dealer. The energy of the pharmacological demon was thick and pungent, full of inhuman malice and unnatural rage. It filled the local aura, overwhelming the occult senses with the smell of gunpowder and the taste of acid.
It was intoxicating.
Florence shuddered as she stopped Observing, blocking out the demonic energies. She had left herself far too open, if the demon's aura had been able to affect her at this range. That, or it was an unimaginably strong demon. That didn't bear thinking about. If it was that powerful, and if it was consumed as a demonarcotic, it would destroy everything in the vicinity, including its hapless user.
She picked up her pace, rounding the next corner to find the drug deal.
The dealer was instantly recognizable as such. If the vial in his hand hadn't been a giveaway, then his grimy clothes, sunken eyes, and unshaven face would have done it. He was scrawny, white, and wearing a coat that was two sizes too big for him. He had a wild, haggard look that suggested he was stupid enough to use his own product.
The woman who must have been the buyer looked out of place. Her Middle Eastern features were smudged with dirt, but her eyes were clear and bright and her posture was steady. She didn't look like a druggie, much less a druggie hooked on demonarcotics — most of them ended up not looking like anything at all, except a pile of wet ashes. Maybe she was a college punk looking for an unusual high.
The dealer glared at Florence. 'Scram. This is private business.'
She held out her hands in a gesture of peace. 'Easy, man, I'm just passing through.' She tipped her head towards the vial he was holding. 'But if you're selling, I might be buying.'
His eyes narrowed and he shook his head. 'No. I don't know you, and I've already got a buyer.'
She nodded slowly. 'I was afraid you'd say that.'
Before he could respond, she swept her arm up and pointed a finger at him, unleashing a burst of force that hit him dead in the chest and knocked him off his feet.
The buyer jumped back and looked at her in surprise.
'Get out of here,' Florence snarled.
The woman's gaze hardened and she reached into her coat.
'Your mistake,' Florence said. With two fingers extended, she swung her hand towards the woman, redirecting her will. The lance of force glanced off the buyer, sending her spinning to the ground.
There was a sound of tinkling glass, and Florence spun around to see the dealer had shattered the vial on the ground. A cloud of thick black smoke billowed into the air. It hung there for a moment, poised over the dealer, before descending upon and into him. It shot into his mouth and nostrils, forcing its way into his lungs.
He screamed. And as he screamed, he began to change. His muscles bulged, and soon he filled the coat that had been too large for him. His skin turned blue, and his eyes began to glow. His teeth sharpened into fangs, and his tongue lengthened, becoming almost serpentine. As the last of the smoke vanished down his throat, his scream became a laugh, maniacal and malevolent.
'Fuck.' She keyed on her earpiece again. 'Solomon One, I could really use some big guns here. Right now.'
The sound of the demon's laugh drowned out Westbrook's response.
Florence willed flames into her fists, using a little bit of extra power to make her tattoo glow more than it normally would have. Demons were big and scary, and the trick to fighting them lay in being bigger and scarier.
'You gonna sit there giggling all day, or are you gonna dance, joker?' It definitely wasn't smart to antagonize a demon, but she could probably survive its attack. The same could not be said for the surrounding neighborhood of Detroit.
The demon turned to face her, a leering grin plastered on its face. As it opened its mouth to speak, there was a pop, then a crackling sound, and the demon began to convulse. It fell to the ground, unconscious, to reveal the woman standing behind it with a taser.
Definitely not a druggie then.
With its host body unconscious, the demon began to evacuate from the possessed dealer. The black smoke wafted out of his orifices, but it lacked the malignant motive it had before. Whatever energy had bound the demon to baseline had been expended, and its smoke form quickly evaporated as it returned to whatever dark pit it had crawled from.
Florence released the flame she had conjured and sighed. 'Thanks for the save, lady.'
The woman dropped her taser and drew a gun. A real gun, not a stun gun, large caliber and semi-automatic. She pointed it directly at Florence. 'On the ground, wizard.'
Westbrook's voice sounded from the alley behind her. 'Hooverite, please don't point a gun at my mage. It won't end well for you, and I don't need the headache that comes from that kind of paperwork.'
The UIU agent slowly lowered the weapon. She turned around to face Westbrook, a scowl on her face.
He smiled sardonically as he approached. 'Agent Kartal. What an unexpected pleasure.' He stopped in front of her, hands held out at his sides in a non-confrontational gesture.
Kartal continued scowling at him. Then she punched him in the face. Clearly, she knew him well.
'You stupid son of a bitch,' she said. 'Do you have any idea how long I spent setting up this bust? Tell me why I shouldn't arrest you right now.'
He rubbed his jaw, wincing slightly. 'I'm sorry?'
'Sorry doesn't get indictments, skipper.'
'Then how about this: a gift.' He reached into his pocket and extracted a vial of clear liquid. A small needle extended from one end, shielded by a plastic cap.
'I've got my own amnestics, thanks.'
He shook his head. 'Not amnestics.' He walked over to the fallen dealer and knelt down beside him. He uncapped the syringe and plunged it into the dealer's arm. In seconds, the vial was empty.
'What the hell are you doing?'
'Relax.' He withdrew the spent syringe and recapped it. 'When he wakes up, you'll find him a bit less forgetful and a little more talkative than he'd otherwise be. He might even tell you who his supplier is, which is what you were after, I'm sure.'
She frowned. 'That's illegal.'
'The FBI, concerned about illegally obtained evidence? That must be a first.' He stood up and placed the empty vial back in his pocket. 'Besides, I didn't see you do anything.'
She shook her head. 'This doesn't make us even, Westbrook.'
'I'm sure.' He gestured towards Florence. 'Come on, Firestarter, let's get out of Agent Kartal's hair before she decides to punch me again.'
He stalked off back down the alley, towards the extraction point. Florence hesitated before following him.
'Sorry,' she said to Kartal. 'Didn't know you were a fed.'
Kartal waved a hand dismissively. 'Not your fault.' She nodded in the direction of Westbrook. 'Be careful with him. He's a tricky one.'
Florence smiled. 'That's what I like about him.'
October 28, 1988
The young pyromancer launched another fireball at her. Florence flicked it aside carelessly. The counterspell had barely required an exertion of will.
'Come on, kid!' she shouted. 'You're not gonna get me with that. I just want to talk!'
'Fuck off, American witch!' His English was clear, if heavily accented and increasingly profane.
She sighed, then waved her hand in a circle, conjuring up a ring of flames around the teen. It was a classic trick, the same one that the Foundation had used on her, years ago. The classics were classic for a reason, and it was one of the more effective tactics for dealing with pyromancers.
She saw the burst of ARad that meant someone had just pulled a major working, but no flash of fire was forthcoming. Clearly, he knew the trick too, and was taking a different approach.
The ground shifted slightly beneath her feet. The ground which was above an active volcano.
Oh, that was bad.
'Solomon One!' she shouted into her radio. 'You need to get everyone off the island. I think he's trying to trigger an eruption.'
'Firestarter, can you counter it?'
Maybe. 'Yes, but I won't be able to keep him contained. You'll have to cover me.'
'Understood.' Westbrook's voice was calm, despite the urgency of the situation. 'Disengage from Target Surtr and do what you can to keep that volcano quiet.'
She released her hold on the flames and dropped into a crouch. Quickly, she spun around, using her index finger to draw a circle in the dirt. As focusing geometry went, it was depressingly shoddy, but it would have to be enough. She placed her left hand on the ground and shut her eyes, closing off as many of her senses as she could. This was subtle magic, and she would need to Observe with as much precision as possible.
She sent power coursing out through her splayed fingers, invisible tendrils of will that raced to intercept the rising magma and redirect it. She could see the pyromancer's will guiding the molten rock — that meant he wasn't trying to kill her while she was distracted, at least.
A cry of pain and surprise sounded from nearby, and the pyromancer's power vanished. Florence didn't react, but kept her will completely focused on the agitated volcano.
Only once she was sure that she had stopped the eruption did she open her eyes and look over to where the boy had been standing.
His body lay on the ground, already cooling. The back of his head was missing, destroyed by a sniper's bullet.
Her radio crackled to life with Devlin's voice. 'Firestarter, can you verify target status?'
Unable to look away, she closed her eyes again. 'Solomon Two, Target Surtr is down.'
'Firestarter, please confirm termination.'
'Confirmed.' She should have been shocked. Upset. She should have shouted at Devlin. But she was too drained to feel anything.
Florence. You can't save everyone.
She hadn't even tried.
Their crimes are not yours to answer for.
Devlin might have pulled the trigger, but she had been the one who had given him the opening.
'Firestarter?' Westbrook's voice on the radio now. 'Did you stop the volcano?
'Yes.' She had saved the island, and the lives of everyone on it. It had only required killing a teenager barely old enough to realize the consequences of his actions.
One life for five thousand. The Benthamic calculus was as simple as it was cold. It had been a necessary evil. It had been the greater good.
It didn't seem that great.
May 25, 1989
Florence stared at the werewolf.
She had expected a monster; a ravenous, slavering beast driven only by the instinct to kill. Instead, the creature cowered in the corner of its cage, staring at her cautiously with eyes full of fear and intelligence. It had been a person once — and as she studied its aura, she realized that, in a sense, it still was. Its body had been warped and its mind had been broken, but there was still enough humanity left for it to know the person it had been. To know what had happened to her.
Her stomach churned, and she turned away so she wouldn't have to feel the pain in the creature's aura.
'Alright, Mister Drummond, that will be all,' Westbrook was saying. 'We appreciate your cooperation.'
The MC&D broker nodded fervently. 'It is simple business, sir. My employers have instructed me to cooperate with you fully in this matter. As I understand it, the loss of a single lot of merchandise is negligible compared to the damage your people could do.'
Florence wheeled on the little man, anger flashing in her eyes. 'Merchandise? Is that all they are to you?'
Westbrook held up a hand, interposing himself between Florence and the hapless capitalist. 'Stand down, Firestarter.'
Florence clenched her fists, then leaned over to whisper to Westbrook, 'You're just letting him go? After what he's done?'
'He's a mundane, we can't stick him in lockup,' he whispered back. 'And Mickey D has gotten really smart about amnestics. At best, he's got a memory backup somewhere on a dead man's timer, and then we're right back where we started. At worst, he's got an induced allergy that will kill him if we try to amnesticize him.'
Her eyes narrowed. 'That sounds like his problem, not ours.'
Westbrook shook his head. 'He's been nothing but cooperative, we can't just kill him.'
'Did you see the script he had prepped?' Her voice changed to imitate his accent. 'As intelligent as they are deadly. Challenging and dangerous game, if you prefer sporting pursuits.' She shook her head in disgust, then continued speaking normally, loud enough for the broker to hear. 'These aren't animals, they're people. People who are terrified and in pain. And he was going to auction them off to be hunted for sport.'
The broker cleared his throat. 'What our clients do with the items they purchase is their own concern. I have no ability nor responsbility to control what they do with their own property.'
'Yeah, you're just a pawn,' she snarled. 'Just like everyone else. We're all just pawns, committing tiny fractions of an atrocity and telling ourselves we have no choice.'
Westbrook stepped in front of her to block her view of the man. 'Mister Drummond, get out of here. If we need to contact you, we can find you.'
The little twerp scurried out of the room, barely registering the implied threat.
Westbrook gazed at her quietly for a moment. 'I have some contacts in the UIU, I'll pass them a tip. Maybe Kartal can do something about it. But we can't. We're not cops, you know that.'
She sighed and looked away. She took a few breaths, unclenched her fists, and looked back at him. There was no trace of emotion on her face.
'When we're done here, I'm going to burn this place to the ground.'
Westbrook nodded slowly. 'Like I said, we're not cops.'
June 12, 1989
Devlin dropped a copy of the Detroit Free Press onto her cafeteria table. It had been opened and folded over to showcase one of the midpage articles.
HISTORIC MARQUETTE AUCTION HOUSE BURNS IN MYSTERIOUS FIRE proclaimed the headline. The article below it was only two or three column-inches long. There was a small photograph of the MC&D auction house inset next to the text.
'Your handiwork, I assume,' Devlin said.
Florence continued chewing, slowly and deliberately. Maybe he would get bored.
No such luck. He kept standing there, arms crossed and expression stony, waiting for her to respond.
She swallowed. 'What of it?'
'You don't think maybe someone might find that a little unusual? A little abnormal.'
'Buildings mysteriously burn down all the time,' she said. 'Nobody's gonna suspect, much less believe, that this one was actually wizard arson.'
'We're supposed to be stopping wizard arson, not perpetrating it.' He shook his head. 'But I should have known you wouldn't understand that.'
She set down her fork and stared at him. 'Nathan Devlin' — he flinched slightly as she said his name, much to her satisfaction — 'what is your goddamn problem? You hate me, clearly, so why are you even on this task force?'
'Someone has to be there when you finally slip.'
She raised an eyebrow. 'Gosh, how chivalrous of you.'
'You know what I mean, witch.' He leaned in, setting his hands on the table for support. 'I know your ilk. You have a little bit of power, and you think it makes you better than us mere mortals. That it gives you the right to do whatever you want, with no consequences.'
She rolled her eyes. 'I am better than you, Nathan.'
'You don't even try to hide your arrogance. You might have the rest of them fooled, but I know better. Sooner or later, you'll go bad. Just like the one in Iceland.' He smiled viciously. 'And when you do, I'll do what needs to be done. Just like in Iceland.'
She continued staring at him, refusing to react. 'You should be more careful about putting your hands on hot surfaces.'
He blinked, confused, then screamed in pain as the surface of the table suddenly burned red hot. He recoiled instinctively, saving his palms from second-degree burns.
Clutching his injured hands at his sides, he stared at her with furious malice. 'You—'
'Agent Devlin!' Westbrook's voice boomed from across the cafeteria as he approached. Someone had summoned the cavalry. 'Stand down.'
'Sir,' Devlin protested. 'I was merely responding to an unprovoked attack on my person by Agent Elsinger.'
Westbrook stopped in front of them. 'I see.' His gaze scanned across the scene, then he nodded. 'I'm going to give you exactly one chance to recant the bullshit you just told me and apologize to Agent Elsinger for your unprofessional behavior.'
'Of course you take her side,' Devlin said. 'You want to talk about unprofessional behavior, let's talk about you fuckin—'
Westbrook punched him in the face before he could finish.
'Nathan Devlin,' he snarled, shoving the other man against a wall. 'Per the Foundation Personnel Disciplinary Code, you are under arrest for harassment of a fellow agent, making false statements about a matter of personnel discipline, contempt towards a superior, and malingering.'
'Sir, I believe you are emotionally compromised in this matter.' To his credit, Devlin had managed to maintain his composure, and his voice was steady. 'So I won't bring your current conduct to a disciplinary board.' His eyes narrowed. 'If you back off.'
'Bold of you to assume that the board would take your side.' He leaned closer, so that Florence couldn't hear what he whispered next. Other members of the task force had started to gather around to watch the confrontation, but she was by far the closest to the two men. If he was speaking that quietly, it was because he didn't want her to overhear.
She might not have been able to hear what Westbrook said, but she saw the effect it had on Devlin. He shook his head and started whispering back. Apparently he didn't want her to overhear either.
As they continued their hushed exchange, Florence closed her eyes to Observe, trying to get a sense of the conversation from their auras. Whatever they were discussing, it had both men agitated — Westbrook's aura, in particular, was full of nervous energy. No, scratch that, it was full of fear.
She shivered involuntarily and opened her eyes, cutting off her Observation — just in time to see Westbrook release Devlin and push the other agent towards the nearest door. She couldn't even begin to guess what he was afraid of, but it had clearly dissuaded him from taking further action against Devlin.
'Get the fuck out of my sight,' Westbrook said. 'You're on reserve status until further notice.'
Devlin hesitated. 'So I'm not under arrest then?'
'No, and you won't be.' Westbrook stepped closer to him and hissed, just loud enough for Florence to hear, 'If I see you provoking her again, I'll shove you out an airlock and see how long you can hold your breath. Go ahead and tell that to the disciplinary board.'
Devlin saw the look in his eyes and decided against trying to get the last word. He hurried out of the cafeteria with as much dignity as he could muster, which wasn't much.
Westbrook turned to face the task force members who had gathered around to watch. 'Show's over folks, go back to lunch. That's an order.'
As the other agents slowly dispersed, Florence continued to stare at Westbrook. He was keeping secrets, and she was pretty sure he was keeping them from her — maybe not her specifically, but definitely in general. More than that, he was keeping them with Devlin of all people.
She shook her head. Westbrook had been the first person in the Foundation to show her any kindness, and he had always looked out for her. More than that, she was pretty sure that he loved her. If he was keeping something from her, it wasn't for his sake.
She trusted him. How could she not?
September 29, 1989
Sault Ste. Marie International Bridge, Michigan/Ontario
Bridges are liminal spaces. Thresholds, borderlines, margins. Places in-between places. That kind of conceptual self-contradiction has a huge weight on the human psyche — it draws one's attention and dominates one's thoughts. As a result, bridges are conduits for vast amounts of psionic energy, generated by the disproportionate place they occupy among oneiric space.
Few bridges are quite as liminal as the one between Sault Ste. Marie and Sault Ste. Marie. As the only border crossing between the United States and Canada for over 700 miles, its oneiric footprint is an order of magnitude greater than it would otherwise be, making it one of the largest psionic capacitors in North America.
The Chaos Insurgency was going to use it to tear open a rift to infospace, which would either project knowledge of the Veil into the minds of 33 million people or kill every human being within a three state radius. Nobody was really sure which.
The easiest solution would have been to just bomb the bridge, but they didn't want to destroy the Soo Locks except as an absolute last resort. So Delta-3 had been sent in. Nobody was really sure if that was any better.
Florence stepped onto the bridge, hair trailing behind her in the nighttime breeze. The Soo Locks stretched across the St. Mary's River beneath her, silent and empty at this time of night. The rest of Solomon's Hand had shut down traffic in the area, giving her a clear shot at her counterpart. Of course, the Insurgency psyker would know she was coming now, but that just made things interesting.
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She stalked across the deck for minutes, listening to the sound of the rapids further downriver. When she spotted a figure in the distance, she didn't even hesitate before flinging a fireball at them. It arced wide, but she was already conjuring up her next missile.
She broke into a sprint, casting furiously as she went. The blasts continued to miss, and as she got closer, they actually got less accurate. She kept casting regardless, keeping up the barrage of fire and force. When she was twenty feet away, she stopped and thrust both hands forward, unleashing a pillar of flame that barreled straight towards the figure. Her aim was dead-on.
It didn't matter. Right before they would have incinerated the psychic, the flames curved away, streaking around them like water flowing around a rock.
The psychic turned to look at Florence. She smiled sweetly.
You don't really want to hit her, do you? It sounded like her own internal voice, but there was something wrong with it. Something alien.
Florence gritted her teeth and tried to call up a meditative exercise meant to clear her thoughts. The telekill headband she was wearing should have kept the psychic out, but clearly something—
Telekill? How quaint. This time she didn't even bother trying to disguise the thought as one of Florence's. Do me a favor, honey, and get rid of that.
Florence reached up and pulled the band off her head, then chucked it over the side of the bridge. She hadn't even had a chance to think about it.
Her face contorted into a silent snarl. Get out of my head, bitch.
The psychic laughed out loud. And leave you all alone? I don't think so.
A wave of despair washed over her as she realized she was alone. Her friends among the Lake Ghosts had long since forgotten her, her fellow task force members hated her, and Cody — where was he? He should have been there. He was always there. Had he abandoned her?
Unthinking, she stepped closer to the edge of the bridge.
No one is coming to save you.
And just like that, she was 15 again, orphaned and freezing on the streets. She remembered the pain — not from the cold, that had stopped hurting hours ago, but from the hunger. She couldn't remember the last time she had had a proper meal. With a violent shudder, she collapsed to the ground. She had just enough energy left to curl up into a ball and shiver.
No one was coming to save her.
You don't need them. Her voice, but not her voice. It was older, more confident. You can save yourself.
She looked up. This wasn't right. This wasn't how this had happened. She had saved herself. She had set a building on fire to keep herself warm. It had been the first time she had ever used magic. She recalled that moment now, remembering the feeling of power she had experienced.
She pulled herself to her feet, ignoring the illusory hunger and cold.
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Alone alone alone all alone, the psychic whispered.
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'So what,' she said. 'I'm used to being alone.'
She opened her eyes and she was back on the bridge. The psychic stared at her in astonishment. Florence could feel the invader trying to reassert control over her mind, but her will was ironclad now. The psychic couldn't touch her.
Hey bitch, she thought. Do you know what the Law of Contagion is?
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The part affects the whole… she wasn't sure if the thought came from her mind or the psychic's. It didn't matter.
Did you ever stop to think that when you invaded my mind, you put a piece of yourself in me?
The psychic had just enough time to widen her eyes in horror before Florence sent a surge of power down the link she had inadvertently created.
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Then her head exploded.
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