An Unexpected Interview
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November 12, 1985
Site 246

She woke up. That surprised her.

She noticed several things in the first few moments of consciousness, each more alarming than the last.

First, she was in a jail of some kind. She had spent enough of her life on the streets to learn the ins and outs of the justice system, or what passed for it, and instantly recognized the layout of an interrogation room. Single door in the corner, with no handle on the inside? Check. Pane of glass occupying the far wall, lit in such a way as to only show her reflection? Check. Bright light overhead, angled just shy of her eyes? Check.

This was further supported by the second thing she had noticed, which was that she was handcuffed to a chair. She was slouched over with her wrists behind her back, supported only by her arms, and the ache in her shoulders suggested that she'd been like that for a while. Whoever had captured her wasn't taking any chances on her waking early and trying to escape, which was smart. As it was, while she could probably melt the handcuffs to slag and blast her way through the door, it would take her a bit of time.

Time that she didn't have because of the third thing, the man sitting across from her holding a gun. He was tall, with a lean, muscled physique that could only be described as powerful, although it had the wiry quality of an aged athlete. His black hair was thoroughly peppered with grey, but it was neatly trimmed in a military cut that suggested a rigid professionalism. He stared at her with steely eyes, not speaking a word. He didn't have to. The weapon in his hand spoke clearly enough. If she tried to blow her way out of the room, he would blow her away. The cold intensity of his gaze suggested that he wouldn't even hesitate.

(She also noticed, as a fourth thing, that someone had taken the time to strip-off whatever tattered remains had been left of her clothes and dress her in a loose-fitting black jumpsuit. But since this wasn't directly relevant to her immediate survival or potential escape, she didn't dwell on it.)

"You aren't MPD," she said.

Something like mirth flickered through his eyes. "Really? What gave it away?"

"Cops don't have flamethrowers. Even if they did, they wouldn't know to use them like that."

He raised his chin slightly, but didn't speak.

"You knew about me. What I can do. You were prepared."

"Being prepared is what this organization does best," he said.

"Yeah? And what is this organization, cause I'm betting it ain't the Boy Scouts."

"Surely you can hazard a guess."

Florence looked down and gritted her teeth. That was almost answer enough in and of itself, and she didn't like to think where it was leading.

"One of the Suits, right? Not the Feds, they're still basically cops, and you definitely aren't a cop. Don't have the right attitude." She chewed her lip. "Everyone says that the gawkers don't take prisoners, so you're probably not with them."

He waved a hand — the one not holding the gun — encouragingly. "Keep going."

"Foundation."

He grinned viciously. "I knew you were a smart one."

She sucked in a breath. She had hoped she had been wrong about that one. That maybe she had been misremembering the symbol worn by the strike team, or that she'd been misinformed about what it meant.

But she hadn't been wrong.

She'd been captured by the Foundation. She might as well be dead. Either way, her life was over now.

She was tempted to try a break for it anyways. If she was fast, and lucky, she might be able to beat the gun. She was already considering attack angles when the door opened to admit another man.

His appearance was a stark contrast to that of her interrogator. Whereas the older man exuded an air of quiet, reserved power, the newcomer projected the wild confidence of youth. He wasn't tall so much as he was lanky, and his short blond hair looked like it had fought a successful battle against the efforts of a comb. He looked to be in his early 20s, and wouldn't have been out of place on a college campus.

"Commander Corwin," he said, tilting his head in a respectful nod.

"Westbrook," the older man said by way of greeting. "You're interrupting."

"I know, sir. I've been sent to relieve you. The Gorgon's here, and needs to speak to you. She says it's urgent."

Corwin blinked, then sighed. "It always is, with those people." He stood up and passed the gun to the younger man — Westbrook, presumably. "Be careful with her, she could flash bake you if you let her."

"I'm sure that we won't have any issues, sir." Westbrook flashed her a wry smile as the old man left. "Isn't that right, kiddo?"

Florence stared at him warily. She recognized him, somehow. It wasn't his face — she was fairly certain that this was the first time she had seen it. It was something deeper than that, something that only a wizard would have been able to see, and then only if they focused. There was a familiarity to his aura that she couldn't quite place.

But she knew she had heard his voice before.

"You were there," she said quietly. "In the alley."

"Wasn't sure if you'd still remember." He paused, as if considering that statement, then added, "Hypoxia tends to leave people a little loopy."

"You got lucky. I had it figured out at the end. Was about to punt you into Lake Superior."

"Maybe," he said. "Or maybe you're lucky you didn't try. We had contingencies in place, and most of them would have ended with you sitting in that chair with a lot more bruises."

"I don't feel particularly lucky. Must be something about being handcuffed to a chair and having a gun shoved in my face."

He chuckled. "I like you, kid. Here—" He set the gun down on the table, pointed away from her. "Better?"

She blinked.

Of course. Why had she thought the gun was meant to stop her? Nobody sane would bring a loaded gun into an interrogation. It was a distraction, a way to keep her from focusing on the real countermeasures. If she went for the gun, or tried to burn her way out of the room, there would be something else waiting to stop her. Maybe gas.

Or maybe Westbrook was really that stupid.

She rattled the chain of the cuffs against the chair. "There's still the handcuffs."

He smiled and shook his head. "I like you, but not that much. The cuffs stay on until I know you won't try anything."

Not that stupid, then.

"Worth a shot." She shrugged as much as the cuffs would allow, trying to appear nonchalant

He studied her expression, and she could tell that he knew it was a mask.

"I figure you're probably pretty angry with me," he finally said. "Scared too, if you're smart."

"Yeah? How do you figure?"

"You tried to incinerate me earlier," he said. "Not something you normally do to people you like."

The image of Westbrook, clad in black tactical gear and standing over McKenna's body, flashed through her mind, and she felt the anger in her gut begin to boil.

She had never had much love for the rest of the Lake Ghosts — oh, sure, she was grateful to them for rescuing her off the street, but she had long since realized their ulterior motives. They were gangsters and thugs, and while they had some semblance of camaraderie, she had no illusions as to what they would do to her if she stopped being useful to them. She had seen it happen to the pushers, movers, and bookmakers who had tried to cross the Ghosts. Often, she had been what happened to them.

Still, their deaths hurt. There was a quality of Stockholm Syndrome to it, but it was difficult to spend years with a group of people without growing to care for — or at least about — them in some manner. The Lake Ghosts might not have been her friends, but they had been hers.

"You killed them." Her voice was quiet, but her anger was clear.

"As a point of fact, I did not." He pressed something underneath the edge of the table, causing part of the surface to slide away and reveal a TV monitor. After a moment, it flickered to life, revealing an image of a nearly identical room.

Charles McKenna was sitting in it. Alive.

She looked back and forth between Westbrook and the image of McKenna.

"This is a trick."

Westbrook rolled his eyes, then leaned over and pressed a button next to the TV. "Mister McKenna, please say something to let Miss Elsinger know you're alive."

On the screen, McKenna started turning his head to locate the source of the noise. "Blow off, skipper!"

At the sound of his voice, the anger burning inside her winked out. Its sudden absence left an emptiness that made her feel cold and tired. She choked out a quiet gasp.

"Chuck? Is that really you?

He froze at the sound of her voice. "Flo?"

"Yeah. They got me too." She chewed her lip, thinking about what to say next. "Where has Chicago's spirit gone?"

"Oh, the sentry challenge. Checking to see if it's really me. Smart."

"Well?"

"To join the ghosts beneath the lake." He found the camera in the corner and fixed his gaze on it, so that he was staring right at her. "Flo, the Ghosts are finished. You understand that, right? If the skippers haven't hit the other safehouses yet, they will soon."

"What are you saying?"

"I'm saying that it's every man for himself now. If you see an opportunity to save yourself, take it, and don't look—"

Westbrook hit the intercom button again, silencing the other man. "Thank you, Mister McKenna, but I think we've heard enough from you now. One of my colleagues will be along shortly to address you." He pressed another button, and the surface of the table slid back into place to hide the TV once more.

Florence sat there in stunned silence. Westbrook leaned back in his chair and waited for her to speak.

"How?" she finally asked.

"We took down the real sentries minutes before you noticed anything. There's a lot of really noisy things you can do with impunity thanks to a silence field. Stuff like tasing your sentries and swapping them with dummies."

"You staged the killings."

"With style," he said, a pleased grin on his face.

"Why?"

"Isn't it obvious?" He didn't give her a chance to respond before answering the question anyways. "We did it to get you. To lure you out into the open and make you mad enough to conjure up that firestorm. It was our best shot at catching you."

The fear she had been feeling expanded to fill the void left behind by the anger, and she shuddered. The Foundation had been hunting her, specifically. The Lake Ghosts had just been in the way.

She looked away from him so he wouldn't see the flash of panic in her eyes. "What are you going to do to me?" she whispered.

"Well, I was going to start by offering you a job."

There was absolute silence for a solid five seconds.

She laughed. It was the kind of mad, hysterical laughter that only comes from the sudden relief brought by the vanishing of ten tons of terror.

Westbrook waited for her to finish.

She managed to choke down the laughter, then shook her head to clear her thoughts. "Do you always handcuff people to a chair when you do job interviews?"

"You really like to harp on that, huh?"

"You would too, if you were handcuffed to a chair."

"Fair point." He pursed his lips thoughtfully, then withdrew a key from his pocket. "I think we're past the point where you'll try to incinerate me on sight, wouldn't you agree?"

She stared at the key, the ache in her wrists suddenly coming into sharp focus. "You'd just fill the room with gas or something if I tried. Wouldn't do me any good."

He frowned as he stood up. "I don't know what would possibly give you that thought." He strode over behind her and unlocked the cuffs.

She stretched, groaning as she did so from the stiffness in her arms, then started rubbing her wrists. "Alright, let's hear this job offer then."

Westbrook sat back down across from her. "You need to understand the entirety of the situation you're in. So you can make an informed decision."

"Gosh, how considerate of you," she said.

He ignored her sarcasm. "First thing, your pal McKenna was correct. The Lake Ghosts are done. We've already amnesticized most of them, and handed the real bastards over to the UIU. There won't be anything for you to go back to if you decide you'd rather walk."

She shook her head. "You think I want to go back to that? Living in a slum with a bunch of gangsters who only see me as their attack dog?"

He shrugged. "You seemed pretty upset when you thought I had killed them."

"The Ghosts saved my life once. I've lived with them for years. They're the closest thing to a family I've ever known. But I'm sick of being on their leash." She grimaced. "Sick of burning for them. Sick of killing for them."

He nodded thoughtfully. "I understand."

She snorted. "Do you? Something tells me you're not offering a job in accounting."

He sighed. "Will you let me finish?"

She waved a hand. "Fine. You said that's the first thing. What's the second?"

He stared at her intently. "Every time you do an evocation, you threaten normalcy."

She blinked. "What? You mean, because someone could see me?"

He shook his head. "No. I'm talking about backlash. When you use magic to do improbable things, more improbable things happen as a consequence. Like when you pluck a taut string and it keeps vibrating for a while afterwards."

"If it's so bad, why haven't I seen it doing anything when I cast?"

"You've got a natural affinity for evocation that we think has been letting you subconsciously redirect backlash away from yourself. That's good news for you, but bad news for everyone else." His expression turned grim. "That light show you put on last night? We think it's what sank the Edmund Fitzgerald."

"Jesus." The blasphemy slipped out on a soft exhale. "But that was ten years ago."

He waved a hand. "Time's fluid, especially where magic's involved."

She looked down at her hands. "I didn't know."

"You do now," he said. "There are ways to control backlash. Redirect it into less damaging manifestations. Our thaumatology chops aren't as good as the Coalition's, but we can help you learn how to do it."

She looked back up at him. "Why would you do that? I mean, surely there's other wizards — better wizards — who you could recruit. Why me?"

"The long answer is political and classified. But the short answer is that there aren't better wizards. Not that we can recruit, anyways."

"That can't possibly be true."

"It is," he insisted. "I know you don't realize this, but you might be one of the strongest wizards on the planet. Easily within what would have been considered battlemage caliber during the war. What's more, you've got a natural talent for combat magic. That firestorm you called up is something that most wizards twice your age couldn't pull off. You're the occult equivalent of a nuclear powerhouse."

There it was. It always came down to power. Who had it and who didn't. Who wanted it and who wielded it. The Lake Ghosts had taken her in because they'd wanted her power. Now the Foundation was trying to do the same.

"You want to use me as a weapon."

He frowned. "Do you know what SCP stands for?"

She shook her head.

"A lot of things, actually, but the relevant one here is our motto: Secure, Contain, Protect." He paused a moment to let that sink in. "We don't want to use you as a weapon — we want to use you as a shield. You have power, and lots of it, and I think here you could do some genuine good with it. Hell, you could save the world. It's kind of what we do when we aren't handcuffing wizards to chairs."

She thought about that for a while. "And if I say no?"

"Like I said, you can walk. We don't like throwing wizards into lockup — there's just not enough space for it, and there are people who would get real upset if we made it a habit. And amnesticizing you wouldn't do any good. You'd still be able to do thaumaturgy, and without what you know now, you might actually burn down the Twin Cities next time. So, if you don't want the job, we'll drop you off wherever you'd like with a change of clothes and some pocket change."

"That simple?"

"Just like that." He snapped his fingers to punctuate his point. "Of course, once you're out in the world, there's no guarantee that someone else won't come looking for you. Coalition might decide to put you down for the massive backlash you've been causing, or the Feds might toss you in Paramax for your many paracrimes. Hell, those are probably some of the nicer options for a lone, untrained battlemage."

She shivered at the thought of a GOC sniper angling for her. It didn't matter how powerful you were, a bullet through the chest would still kill you dead if you didn't see it coming.

Maybe it wasn't a bad thing that the Foundation wanted her. She was always going to have power, and that meant she was always going to be hunted. The Foundation, at least, might be able to shield her from other hunters with less friendly motives. And if what Westbrook said was true, they could help her control her power, and learn to use it for more than just burning down buildings.

That might be nice.

She met his gaze. For a long minute, neither of them said anything. Then she nodded.

"Alright."

"Excellent." He leaned back a bit before offering her a hand to shake. "My apologies, in all this fuss, I forgot to properly introduce myself. Cody Westbrook, wizard catcher and professional hoarder."

That got a laugh out of her. "You already know everything about me," she said, shaking his hand.

"Not everything," he replied. "Welcome to the Foundation, Agent Elsinger."

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