Much Wisdom Is Much Grief
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December 21, 1985
Site 246

Saving the world came sooner than expected.

The scramble alarm went off while she was in the gym. Her gym, if she thought about it, since an entire annex on the lower levels had been set aside for her to practice thaumaturgy. She tried not to think about it in those terms; she was still getting used to the idea of having her own room, she didn't need a gym too.

The blaring of the klaxon broke her concentration and interrupted her evocation. She cursed quietly as she felt the sphere of force around her start to dissipate, then winced at the sound of something banging against the exterior hull. It was impossible to say for certain how the backlash had manifested, but something had definitely exploded in the water outside.

That didn't bode thinking about either. Site 246 had been built at the bottom of Lake Superior, sometime in the 60s. Technically, it had been rebuilt in the 60s — the original Site 246 had been dug out beneath the lake bed just before the start of the 7th Occult War to serve as a high-security storage facility and emergency bunker. However, building an undersea base with 1930s technology — even paratechnology — had turned out to be too ambitious, and it had been closed almost as soon as the war ended. Its submarine, subterranean vaults had been allowed to flood, although enough access tunnels had remained airtight to help construct the new Site 246 on the lake bed above the old one.

The new 246 was no less ambitious, but technological advances had made it easier to realize. It had been intended to serve as a regional command center for the Great Lakes region, and it had performed in that capacity for almost a decade — until shifting population centers, the lack of an on-site airstrip, and the discovery of a major nexus in the region led to that role being reassigned to Site 87 in Sloth's Pit, Wisconsin. As a result, Site 246 had been mothballed, leaving only a skeleton maintenance crew to keep the lights on and the water out.

And now it had been reactivated because of her. When Kappa-1 had been formed to capture her, they had used 246 as a staging ground. Then, when Sherman's March had been dissolved and reorganized around her to create Delta-3, it had remained at 246. The tens of millions of gallons of cold lake water in which the site was submerged provided an ample sink for the wild backlash off her evocations, giving her an environment where she could refine her skills in relative safety. If a particularly nasty spell rebounded and turned a cubic kilometer of the lake into lemon pudding, no one would ever know.

"Looks like that's our number, kid," Westbrook said. He shoved off from the wall he'd been leaning against while watching her train. "I've got to suit up. I'll catch up to you at the briefing room."

She nodded to him as he trotted off, then started making her way towards the briefing room. She already had everything she would need: she hadn't qualified with a sidearm yet, and she was already in her mission clothes — a snug, grey jumpsuit covered in straps and pockets. She'd taken to wearing it during training sessions, since the material was fireproof and bulletproof — that last property hadn't been needed yet, but it never hurt to be prepared. The pockets were stuffed full of extra energy bars, assorted magical doodads, and some basic survival gear that was useful to keep on hand.

She pulled one of the energy bars out and unwrapped it to eat while she walked. She'd burned off a lot of energy in that last session, and probably wouldn't have a lot of time to rest before they deployed. If she'd had her choice, she would have eaten a five course meal and maybe napped for a couple hours before setting out, but the power bar would have to do.

Florence was one of the first to arrive, so she slipped into a seat near the back of the room and waited for the rest of the task force. As she watched them file in, all kitted out in their mission gear, she was acutely aware of the fact that she was the only one wearing grey — the coloring for a special asset agent. She had known that Delta-3 had been formed around her and her abilities, but the unique coloring of her jumpsuit served as a stark visual reminder that she was, in many respects, alone.

Westbrook slid into the neighboring seat and held something out to her. "Command finally approved the name and heraldry. Came in while we were in the gym."

She took the object and examined it. It was a circular shoulder patch for her jumpsuit, the kind used to signal MTF affiliation. The outer ring bore the alphanumeric Δ3 at the top; at the bottom was the task force motto, "Much Wisdom Is Much Grief". Inside the ring was a stylized left hand, clenched into a fist and bearing the Seal of Solomon upon its back.

"Solomon's Hand, huh?" She flipped over the patch. The backside was blank. "I don't think I'll have time to put this on before we leave."

"Here." Westbrook took the patch back, then pressed it against her right shoulder. It stuck when he removed his hand. "There's a magnetic backing on it that matches up with your jumpsuit. Won't come off unless you give it a good tug, and it makes it easy to swap insignia in a hurry."

"I can see how that would be useful."

The room fell silent as Julian Corwin entered, flanked by a woman in non-standard tactical gear. He gestured for her to continue on up to the front while he turned and retreated towards the projector. He fiddled with it for a few seconds until it whirred to life. Someone dimmed the lights, and the now familiar logo of the Foundation appeared on the wall.

Corwin clicked over to the next slide, and the containment badge was replaced with the United Nations emblem, overlaid with a pentagram. The woman who had entered with Corwin stepped in front of the projection screen and turned to face the room. As she did so, Florence saw that she had an identical emblem on her left shoulder.

"I hope I have your attention, skippers, because I don't have time to repeat myself," she said. "My name is Katrine Andersen, which I tell you only as a courtesy — while we are operating together, I expect you to address me by my callsign, which is Gorgon. Note the lack of definite article." She glanced around the room, gaze settling knowingly on Westbrook for a moment. "As you may have noticed, I am from the Global Occult Coalition. Specifically, I am a PHYSICS operative assigned to Strike Team 8808. You might also know us as the Rat Catchers."

That elicited a soft murmur from the assembled task force members. Clearly, Andersen's strike team had a reputation.

Florence leaned closer to Westbrook and whispered, "Who are the Rat Catchers?"

"Nazi hunters," he whispered back. "They're the Coalition's main combat force against OBSKURA these days. Other than the Golem, that is."

Andersen waited patiently for a few seconds to let the room quiet down before she continued speaking.

"I am here today because the Coalition has activated Article 13 of the Köln Agreement."

That silenced any and all of the remaining whispers. For a moment, at least.

Florence tried to recall what she knew about the Köln Agreement. It had been covered, briefly, in the crash course on normalcy and parahistory that she had been given, but that already brief summary had been further abridged from what a normal Foundation recruit would have received. What she had been told — or at least what she could remember of that — was that the Köln Agreement had been signed in the aftermath of the last occult war to provide a framework for mutual cooperation between the GOC and the Foundation. Judging by the reactions from the rest of the task force, Article 13 was a significant part of that — and a part that was rarely used.

"What happened?" Westbrook asked, before the room could erupt into chatter.

Andersen nodded to Corwin, who advanced the projector to the next slide. It was a black-and-white headshot of a man in uniform. Despite the seemingly official nature of the photograph, he was laughing. A pair of stylized lightning bolts on his collar marked him as a member of the SS.

"Maximilian Bauer, Obskuracorps commando leader and fugitive war criminal. He's a Type Blue with a lot of muscle and a talent for shock spells. Picked up the sobriquet 'Thunder's Fist' during the war, and it just seemed to encourage him. An AOI team managed to corner him in '45. All we know is that everything within a hundred meters wound up electrocuted, and he got away. He's allegedly been behind over a dozen OBSKURA attacks since then, but he's been good about staying under the radar." She paused. "Until now."

The projector cycled through to a new slide. This one displayed an image of a man walking through a crowded interior. Judging from the angle and the quality, it was a still from a security camera. Although the picture was blurry, it was clearly the same man from the headshot, plus a few decades.

"Five weeks ago, he showed up in Thunder Bay, and he made sure to be caught on camera. We scrambled an assessment team to shadow him, but he dropped below radar again before they could get there. We assumed that he had been attempting to draw the attention of Agent Corwin, possibly with the intention of luring him into a trap, and that the Coalition response had forced him to abort."

"Why would he be after Commander Corwin?" Florence asked, then immediately regretted doing so when Andersen fixed her with an irritated look.

From the back of the room, Corwin cleared his throat. "Bauer and I have a mutual vendetta that dates back to the war. I've been expecting him to try and settle the score for a while now."

Andersen nodded slightly. "Somewhat understated, but a sufficient summary. The Coalition has long been aware of Bauer's enmity towards your commanding officer, which is why I took the step of personally alerting Agent Corwin of his presence in the region." She paused to regain her prior train of thought. "However, it now seems likely that Bauer exploited our knowledge of his vendetta as a part of a carefully calculated ploy."

Corwin took that as his cue to switch to the next slide. This one showed a fortified military installation. Judging by the snow on the ground, it was somewhere cold. Judging by the fire, it had been attacked.

"Late last night, four separate OBSKURA cells staged simultaneous attacks on Coalition facilities in Jordan, Norway, Zaire, and Brazil. Shortly after Coalition operators had mobilized in response, a fifth attack was launched on a facility in Quebec. This facility housed an object which your own organization has designated as SCP-3457-B6, one of the seven Keys of Solomon necessary to complete the Rite of Solomon. It is one of three Keys that were never captured by the Obskuracorps during the war, which makes their knowledge of it and its location all the more alarming."

Click. Another slide, another image. This one was a catalogue photo of a simple musical horn, carved from bone and smoothed to a polish by centuries of wear. A label inserted into the frame had been carefully blackboxed and replaced with the text 'SCP-3457-B6'.

"Acquiring this object was the true motivation for OBSKURA's attacks. I regret to inform you that they succeeded."

She said it as if she were reading the death toll from a major disaster, and the rest of the task force reacted with a collective hiss of unease. Florence shifted in her seat nervously — she would have been more alarmed by her teammates' reactions if she wasn't so frustrated by her own lack of knowledge.

Andersen continued. "The majority of Coalition combat resources are presently occupied, either with the OBSKURA assault which is still underway in Zaire and Norway, or with pre-existing Second Mission objectives from which they cannot disengage. That is why the Council of 108 has invoked Article 13, and why we are now calling upon the Foundation to honor its commitments and help us prevent another occult war."

At this, the room erupted into a chorus of shouted questions.

There was a piercing whistle from the back of the room that cut through the noise. "Quiet, all of you," Corwin ordered. "The Overseers have already agreed to the GOC's request. This task force will be deploying in support of Strike Team 8808 within the hour. If you have any questions about the mission at hand, I suggest you ask them now. Sequentially."

There was a subdued murmur of assent from the assembled agents. One of them in the middle row on the other end of the room raised a hand.

"What's the actual mission objective?"

"Coalition codebreakers managed to crack active OBSKURA communications channels a few hours ago. Based on what we've been able to intercept, the forces in possession of the Key are attempting to rendezvous with Bauer near Timmins, in Ontario. Our mission is to locate Bauer — preferably before he receives the Key — terminate him, neutralize any OBSKURA elements in the area, and recover the Key."

"What kind of resistance can we expect?"

"Hard to say. Reports from Quebec indicate that the attacking force was at least twenty strong, and equipped with advanced paraweaponry which the Coalition would classify as at least Gen Plus Two," Andersen said. "However, given the extensive level of coordination shown in this attack, it's possible that they may have received reinforcements from other OBSKURA cells. Be ready for anything."

"What about Bauer?" Florence asked. "From what you said earlier, it sounds like he's their heavyweight. How should we handle him?"

"With extreme prejudice," Andersen replied. She paused a moment to study Florence further. "You're the special asset, I take it?"

Florence nodded.

"God, you're just a kid," Andersen muttered, just loud enough to be heard. "If you see Bauer, don't hesitate for even a second. Hit him with everything you've got, and don't stop. He's out of your league, I guarantee it. Your only chance to take him out will be to get him by surprise."

Westbrook leaned forwards slightly to place himself in Andersen's line of sight. "If he's so dangerous, why aren't you bringing your own heavyweights? I haven't heard of anyone who could go face to face with the Golem, and this seems like exactly his kind of dance."

"Operative Josef is… unavailable at the moment," she said.

"Fine, but he's not your only heavyweight. What are the rest of your battlemages doing that they can't help?"

"Defending the other Keys."

"Awfully convenient for you then that this task force was just formed around our own newest special asset, who just so happens to have enough muscle to take on Bauer."

Andersen narrowed her eyes. "What are you implying, Agent Westbrook?"

Westbrook raised his hands innocently. "Just wondering what you'd be doing now if we hadn't picked up Firestarter."

"A strategic bombardment of Timmins, most likely."

That drew another murmur from the room.

"Seriously?" Florence said. "That seems a bit like overkill."

"Possibly. But First Mission concerns obviate any potential Second Mission or Third Mission risks raised by such a course of action. Bauer cannot be allowed to gain possession of this Key."

"Why not?" Westbrook asked. "Like, I get it, Nazi wizards stole the magic widget, but you've gotta collect them all to do the Rite, and you've still got the other six. What makes this one so important?"

Andersen hesitated. "I am limited in how much I am allowed to tell you by the terms of the Köln Agreement."

"This is an active containment effort, which means normal data compartmentalization doesn't apply."

"Those restrictions are meant to be relaxed on a discretionary basis only."

"Then use your discretion. OBSKURA clearly already knows, so there's no point keeping us in the dark if you want our help."

She sighed. "Very well. You know that the Keys, when used as part of Solomon's Rite, can be used to bind and command the demiurge?"

"Yeah, I gathered that from the file."

"Well, what your file doesn't say is that each of the Keys is a powerful binding talisman in their own right. The Sixth Key, specifically, allows for domination and control over the minds of most humanoids."

Westbrook swore. He wasn't the only one.

"Indeed," Andersen said. "With such an artifact in his possession, Bauer could raise an army of brainwashed fanatics and use them to reignite the occult war in earnest."

"Which is why your other heavyweights are defending the remaining Keys."

"Precisely. If our mission fails, we have to be prepared for open warfare with a resurgent Obskuracorps."

Florence stared at the GOC operative in stunned silence. The last occult war had been fought under the cover of the largest conventional conflict ever waged, against an enemy that had a vested interest in keeping the Veil intact. A new war would have neither of these things. OBSKURA kept the Veil only to hide from the Coalition's ongoing manhunts. With an army behind them, they would blow it apart without a second thought.

Regardless of who won, a new war would mean the end of normalcy. The end of the world.

And her job was to kill the man who would try to start it. No pressure.

Corwin stood up to speak. "I've already fought one war against these Nazis bastards, and I don't intend to fight another one. We won't fail."

This proclamation was met by a chorus of agreement from around the room.

Corwin looked at them all in turn, then nodded. "Let's remind them why we won the war. Delta-3, dismissed."

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