A Thorne Is Born

NOTE: This is Part 9 of 9 of the series, The Phoenix, The Nightingale, & The Magpies.
If you want to avoid spoilers, it is recommended that you instead start at the beginning with Minneapolis Burns.


rating: +24+x

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March 31, 1990
Site-246

For the final time, Florence Elsinger sat in the thaumaturgy gym and meditated. And while she meditated, she gathered her power.

Among those who know such things, it is a widely held belief that the Foundation trails behind the other normalcy orgs in thaumatology — and this is true, although not to the extent that they want those people to think. The Foundation certainly doesn't field many thaumaturges, and for most of the post-war era they've lagged behind the Coalition in occult theory. But when it comes to anti-occult countermeasures, the Foundation has long been a pioneer.

Site-246 — the original, wartime installation — was an example of that expertise. Built to withstand an attack by a cadre of Thule battlemages, it had incorporated then-cutting-edge thaumic shielding, making use of experimental beryllium alloys and the largest freshwater lake in the Western Hemisphere to protect the site from external occult energies. While the second site hadn't been built with an attack by Nazi wizards in mind, it had retained or recycled most of the original site's thaumic defenses — which, while technically obsolete, were still formidable.

Westbrook's plan hinged on three details of the site's architecture which all stemmed from this history. First, that the thaumic shielding was designed to shed any spike of Aspect Radiation directly into the surrounding lake. Second, that only the pressure hull of the new site had been built with this shielding, in order to simplify construction and maintenance. And third, that the thaumaturgy gym was located directly above one of the access tunnels of the original site.

Florence opened her eyes and released the spell she had been crafting. And this time, she held nothing back.

So, what happens when you detonate a bomb inside a bomb shelter?


From MONITOR@NAGL-Site-246-B (Security Monitor, Site-246)
Subject ALERT: Major Damage To Site
To MONITOR@Overwatch (Security Monitor, Overwatch Command)
CC NAGL@Directors (Site Directors, Great Lakes Region)

AT 0947J (1547Z) ON 1990-03-31, EXTENSIVE STRUCTURAL DAMAGE WAS DETECTED IN THE PRESSURE HULL OF SITE-246, FOLLOWED BY LAKE-INTRUSION FLOODING ORIGINATING IN THE SPECIAL ASSET TRAINING ANNEX OF SAME.

THE ALERT LEVEL FOR NORTH AMERICA—GREAT LAKES REGION HAS BEEN RAISED TO ORANGE. ALL SITES IN THE REGION SHOULD STANDBY TO PROVIDE ASSISTANCE.

THE INCIDENT REPORT IDENTIFIER IS 246.90090.Argonaut. NO CODEWORD ASSIGNED. THIS INCIDENT IS STILL DEVELOPING.


The spell that Florence had just cast was not, in itself, particularly destructive. All it did was punch a hole in the floor of the gym — something so trivial that the amount of power she had pumped into it was overkill on the order of firebombing a mosquito. At least, it would have been, if collateral damage hadn't been her goal.

Most of thaumaturgy comes down to controlling the backlash that inevitably manifests from altering reality. Usually, this means channeling it into something harmless, but there's a certain class of spells that use backlash directly for productive ends. Thaumatologists call these kinds of workings rebounds, and they are mainly employed by ritual practitioners; evocators, with their reliance on internal EVE sourcing and on-the-fly spellcraft, rarely have the need or ability to perform them.

Unless they're trying to fake their own death by backlash, and have an hour of uninterrupted meditation to visualize the ritual geometry inside their own head.

This rebound was also not particularly destructive on its own. It captured the backlash of the initial spell and directed it towards heating the only target in visual range — the gym itself. In the absence of any other factors, this would have, at worst, caused a few small fires. But the walls of the gym were in direct contact with the pressure hull and its thaumic shielding — which immediately proceeded to dump the incoming energy into the nearby water.

Now, the resulting steam explosions and cavitation voids? Those were extremely destructive.


From MONITOR@NAGL-Site-246-B (Security Monitor, Site-246)
Subject NOTICE: Agent MIA
To MONITOR@Overwatch (Security Monitor, Overwatch Command)
CC NAGL@Directors (Site Directors, Great Lakes Region)

AT 1002J (1602Z) ON 1990-03-31, AGENT FIRESTARTER OF MOBILE TASK FORCE DELTA-3 WAS DECLARED MISSING-IN-ACTION PURSUANT TO INCIDENT 246.90090.Argonaut. DECLARATION MADE BY Julian Corwin, DIRECTOR OF SITE-246.

From OPS@Overwatch (Operations, Overwatch Command)
Subject ACTION: Priority Mobilization
To NAGL@Directors (Site Directors, Great Lakes Region)

SITE-87 AND SITE-151 ARE TO DEPLOY AVAILABLE TASK FORCES TO SITE-246 TO ASSIST IN THE RESCUE OR RECOVERY OF AGENT FIRESTARTER. OVERALL OPERATIONAL COMMAND IS ASSIGNED TO Cody Westbrook, COMMANDER OF MOBILE TASK FORCE DELTA-3.

THIS OPERATION HAS BEEN ASSIGNED CODEWORD LIGHTFOOT BALLAD WITH CLEARANCE LEVEL 3. ALL FURTHER DEVELOPMENTS PERTAINING TO INCIDENT 246.90090.Argonaut ARE TO BE HANDLED UNDER THIS CLASSIFICATION.


Lake Superior is approximately two-hundred-fifty meters deep in the vicinity of Site-246. At this depth, the ambient pressure is equivalent to twenty-four atmospheres and the water temperature never exceeds four degrees above freezing. There is no sunlight, no plantlife, and few animals.

Incidentally, the crush depth of the Type VII U-boat, the most common submarine of the German Kriegsmarine during the Second World War, is also two-hundred-fifty meters. This is not a coincidence.

Florence had just started to fall through the hole she had created when the pressure hull failed and the lake came rushing in, intent on finding her crush depth. The implosion of the thaumaturgy gym happened so fast as to be instantaneous. The entire sequence of events, as captured by the security camera inside the gym and starting from the moment Florence opened her eyes, spanned exactly three frames of film.

Evocation happens at the speed of thought.

As soon as she had loosed the spell that would destroy the gym, Florence had reflexively raised a ward around herself. That was why, instead of being crushed into a paste, she was now sprawled on the concrete floor of the abandoned maintenance tunnel and looking up at the hole she had just fallen through. The waters of Lake Superior hung suspended in the air eight feet above her, held back by the ward and her force of will.

Panting heavily — thaumic exhaustion was already starting to set in — she hauled herself to her feet, using the tunnel wall for support. The only light came from her tattoo, which was glowing furiously as she struggled to maintain the ward. She was working against a very literal deadline now. She could hold back the lake for perhaps two minutes, assuming her heart didn't give out first.

She turned and started down the corridor, trying to ignore the frantic pounding of her heart and the burning ache in her lungs. After twenty feet, she had to stop and draw the ward in closer, which left the hole she had fallen through exposed. In an instant, the lake crashed into the tunnel, flooding the entire space beyond the ward until the next bulkhead; when the inrush hit the distant obstruction, the violence of the collision produced a powerful hydraulic shock that reverberated back towards Florence and made her stagger. Once she had regained her balance, she risked a glance behind her. The sight of the wall of water a few feet away, hungrily pressing against the ward while waiting to consume her, spurred her back into motion with a renewed sense of urgency.

After fifty feet, she reached the bulkhead and the door to the next compartment. She heaved a sigh of relief upon seeing it, although the sound was indistinguishable from her exhausted breathing. Taking the wheel lock in both hands, she threw her full weight into it.

The wheel didn't budge.

"No!"

She slammed against the wheel again, but still it refused to turn. Decades of disuse had left the mechanism seized by rust, and she no longer had the strength to dislodge it.

"No no fuck! NO!"

Florence slumped against the wall. She was out of options. And she was running out of time.


From MONITOR@NAGL-Site-246-B (Security Monitor, Site-246)
Subject NOTICE: Agent KIA
To MONITOR@Overwatch (Security Monitor, Overwatch Command)
CC NAGL@Directors (Site Directors, Great Lakes Region)

AT 1808J (2408Z) ON 1990-04-02, AGENT FIRESTARTER OF MOBILE TASK FORCE DELTA-3 WAS DECLARED KILLED-IN-ACTION PURSUANT TO INCIDENT 246.90090.Argonaut. DECLARATION MADE BY Cody Westbrook, COMMANDER OF DELTA-3, AND CERTIFIED BY Julian Corwin, DIRECTOR OF SITE-246.

Certified Record of Death

Official RAISA Copy


CODEWORD CLEARANCES
L3/LIGHTFOOT BALLAD; L3/GRAND SLAM; L2/TRITON POINT


A Foundation death certificate filed with RAISA, declaring the death of Florence Elsinger

Florence was working out a final spell to flash boil Westbrook's kidneys in the moments before she died when the wheel lock started to turn.

As the door swung open, Florence knew she was already dead.

A figure of lightless flame stood in the doorway, an inverted silhouette formed from the fire of a brilliant, invisible aura. Where there should have been a face, there was only a blinding beam of light. An impossible shadow loomed behind them — huge, dark, and ominous — the wings of a vengeful psychopomp.

The figure reached up and turned-off her headlamp, revealing the face of Special Agent Virginia Kartal, still lit from within by an unseen glow but now clearly visible.

Kartal took one look at the wall of water barely two feet away from said face and swore. "That you?"

Florence nodded once. Speaking would take too much energy.

Kartal swore again. "Come on, we've got even less time than I thought."

She bent down and lifted Florence to her feet, using an arm wrapped under her shoulder for support. Together — although in truth it was mostly Kartal half-carrying-half-dragging Florence — they managed to make it through the door and into the next corridor, and not a moment too soon. Kartal had just closed the bulkhead door behind them when Florence finally passed out.

There was a sound somewhere between a gong and a crack as Lake Superior punched the bulkhead at an appreciable fraction of the speed of sound. Kartal would later swear that the door had actually bulged inwards for a moment. But in the inch thick steel of the bulkhead, the lake had finally met its match. They were safe.


Operational Record


File header for the UIU Operational Record report for Operation Fitzgerald Wake

1. Background

On ██/██/1990, during an unrelated meeting scheduled as part of the SKIPTRACE program, Foundation Agent ████ █████████ (hereafter referred to as "Peckinpaugh") made it known to this agent that he desired the assistance of the Unusual Incidents Unit in staging the defection of fellow Foundation Agent ████████ ████████ (hereafter referred to as "Fitzgerald"). Incidental to this request, Peckinpaugh disclosed the existence and location of a previously unknown Foundation facility within the United States, where he and Fitzgerald were stationed. The revelation of this information was taken as a sign that Peckinpaugh was acting in good faith, leading this agent to offer the Unit's assistance in extracting Fitzgerald. Authorization for the operation was subsequently granted by Assistant Director Mallory during a telephone call that evening.

Due to the location of the facility from which Fitzgerald was to be extracted, it was necessary to requisition outside assets to conduct the operation. The Mystic-class deep-submergence vehicle Merlin (DSRV-3) was loaned from the Pentagram, and the Coast Guard icebreaker Mackinaw (WAGB-83) was enlisted to serve as a staging platform. Merlin was originally used to recover Thule grimoires from the wreckage of U-666, and possesses a number of abnormal modifications that were considered essential to the success of the operation. Irregular Agent Fingal Floyd, who has Sidhe and Selkie heritage, was temporarily transferred from Three Portlands to perform deep water reconnaissance.

2. Objectives

The primary objective of the operation was to recover Fitzgerald alive. As a secondary objective, this was to be done without the knowledge or awareness of the Foundation, if at all possible. An additional objective of extracting Peckinpaugh was initially considered during preliminary planning, but was dismissed at the request of Peckinpaugh; it was instead decided that Peckinpaugh would remain in place to facilitate the secondary objective. The possibility of using Peckinpaugh as a defector-in-place was also discussed, but was discarded due to the risk presented.

3. Outcome

Using Merlin to descend to the target area, the operation team successfully rendezvoused with Fitzgerald. On-site Foundation forces were occupied by an emergency incident initiated by Fitzgerald, allowing Fitzgerald to be extracted covertly. There is no evidence that Merlin or the operation team were detected at any point during the extraction; the Foundation was apparently aware of the presence of Mackinaw in the area, but have shown no signs of knowing its true purpose. Approximately two hours after the extraction of Fitzgerald, the field office in Chicago received a message from the Foundation through SKIPTRACE, requesting the Unit's assistance in requisitioning Mackinaw for a search and rescue operation; the Chicago field office denied this request on the basis of lack of specificity.


Florence watches as her jumpsuit sinks into the lake

March 31, 1990
USCGS Mackinaw

The jumpsuit barely made a splash when it hit the water. Florence watched as it drifted away on the icebreaker's wake, already starting to sink slowly into the black of the lake. In less than a minute, it was gone.

She was still there when Kartal came out onto the rear deck a few minutes later. The sunstone necklace Westbrook had given her was cradled in one hand. She stared intently at it without a trace of emotion on her face, deliberating over whether to throw it into the lake after the jumpsuit. Without a word, Kartal came over to lean against the railing next to her.

When Florence finally spoke, her voice was rough. "What am I going to do?"

"About what?"

"Life, I guess." Florence shook her head without taking her eyes off the gem. "I've never had a real job, I've never lived in a house, I've never paid taxes, I've never—"

Kartal held up a hand to cut her off. "We'll be setting you up in something like witness protection, so you don't need to worry about housing or money—Uncle Sam will take care of it. The stipend you'll be getting isn't much, but it's tax exempt. Should be enough to support you."

Florence closed her eyes, before saying, in a voice barely above a whisper, "Would it be enough to support two?"

Kartal stared at the other woman curiously, until her eyes lit up in sudden understanding. "Is it Westbrook's?"

Florence nodded almost imperceptibly.

"Bastard," she swore. "Does he know? Is that why—"

"No." Florence curled her fingers around the necklace, concealing the sunstone from view. "I was going to tell him, but…" She trailed off.

"But?" Kartal prompted.

Florence shook her head. "It was a lie. All of it. He never loved me. He was just a honeypot to keep me compliant. He told me so himself."

"God, that's…" Kartal couldn't find an appropriate English curse, so she did it in Turkish. "Are you sure you want—"

"Yes." Her fingers whitened as she clenched her fist around the gem. "I already decided that it was what I wanted, before he told me the truth. And I refuse, I refuse, to let him ruin this for me too. I've lost everything—my parents are dead, anyone I've ever been friends with has been amnesticized, and the man I loved was a fraud. I won't lose my daughter too. She's mine, he can't have her."

She took a breath to steady herself, and when she spoke again, her voice was as cold as the depths of the lake. "He won't even get to know what he's lost. He can't know, because if he did, he could use the contagion link to find us. So he'll be alone, haunted by the ghost of his own crimes, until he dies. And he'll deserve it."

Kartal whistled softly. "Well, I suppose revenge isn't the worst reason to become a parent."

Florence laughed once, mirthlessly. "I'm doing this for me. The revenge is just a perk."

Kartal nodded. "I'll see what I can do to get that stipend increased."

"Thank you."

The deck vibrated gently under their feet as Mackinaw continued on its eastward course towards its home port of Cheboygan, Michigan. Once there, they would continue by Way to their final destination, which Kartal had so far only spoken of obliquely. Florence had gathered that it was an extradimensional city of some sort, beyond the reach of the Foundation, a place offering safe haven for wizards and parahumans. It almost sounded too good to be true.

Florence considered the future, terrifying and exhilarating in its boundless possibilities. The last decade of her life — ever since she had discovered her magic — had been filled with nothing but fire and blood, as she had fought countless monsters at the behest of other monsters. Now, here at last, was a chance for something different. A chance for peace. A chance for life.

She wasn't sure she knew what to do with it. But she knew she wasn't going to let it pass her by.

"You'll need a new name," Kartal said, finally breaking the silence. "Or at least a new surname. Florence is common enough that you can probably get away with keeping it."

"That's fine. Nothing good ever happened to Florence Elsinger anyways." She thought quietly for a moment. "What about Thorne?"

"Florence Thorne?"

She nodded.

"I like it. It suits you."

They stood there in silence for a few more minutes, listening to the rhythm of the engine. In the distance, a V-formation of Canadian geese honked and hollered across the sky, apparently getting an early start on the journey north.

Eventually, Florence slipped the necklace into a pocket and turned to look at Kartal.

"So, what more can you tell me about where we're going? Someplace nicer than Duluth, I hope."

"That depends." Kartal smiled wryly. "Miss Thorne, how do you feel about rain?"

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