Those Twisted Pines Hub » Circumstances

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June 14, 2016
Anderson Robotics World Headquarters, Three Portlands

Robots are extremely gullible.

This is a problem endemic to automatons of all constructions, one Thorne had first observed in the city's police golems. Machines simply lacked the imagination to be skeptical. You could program heuristic algorithms or inscribe fractal emets to allow your machine to react to unpredictable circumstances, but it would never stop being a machine — and the defining characteristic of a machine is that it follows orders.

PSHUD #578 had been ordered to escort the two agents through the facility, and so that was what it was going to do. It didn't try to make small talk, it didn't think to ask questions, and it didn't spend time idly wondering whether gas golems actually existed. Such things were beyond the scope of its current task.

For their part, Renee and Thorne were thankful for the Peregrine unit's lack of curiosity, as it made keeping up their bluff that much easier. While both made a show of poking their gas detectors into corners and pretending to check oxygen monitors, it was only a token performance — one which local theatre critics would have panned — but it was sufficient for fooling their escort.

The UIU's analysts had long suspected that Anderson's supposed headquarters was largely deserted, and believed, like Merlo, that the bulk of his operations actually took place outside of Three Portlands. As they proceeded through vacant rooms full of storage bins, filing cabinets, and server racks, it became clear that this was indeed the case. If there was any work being conducted within the building, it wasn't happening on the ground floor. Thorne could see a few dozen faint aura signatures clustered throughout the upper floors, and guessed that these belonged to members of the research team or the administrative staff.

After agonizing minutes of this fruitless charade, they came to the end of a narrow hallway that terminated in a pair of black double doors. A plaque on the wall nearby simply said "Logistics". #578 pushed through the doors without hesitation, leaving the two agents hurrying to keep up.

The Logistics room was cavernous, two to three stories tall with a floor the size of a football field. It was also impossible. There was no way it could fit within the floor plan of the building. Its very existence was a defiance of regular spatial topology, and, even worse, municipal building codes. Far more interesting, however, were the dozens — possibly even hundreds — of transport containers and storage crates that filled the room in lengthy rows stacked from floor to ceiling.

The label affixed prominently to the side of the nearest crate read:

Contents Gyrfalcon Micro Servomotors — Wrist Joints
Source Southwest Manufacturing Campus (Phoenix, AZ)
Received On 06/03/16
Destination Pacific Workshop 4 (Vancouver, WA)
Deliver By 06/17/16

That certainly looked promising.

Thorne glanced around the room to check that it was deserted, then nodded to Renee. The catgirl didn't say anything, but flicked an ear in confirmation of the signal. It was go time.

"I think I've got something here." She waved the gas detector around experimentally, then took a few steps down one of the aisles. "Hey Tinman, you've got monoxide sensors, right? Come here and tell me if you can get a reading."

The Peregrine unit turned to face Renee. "Your request is compatible with my current orders. I shall attempt to assist." It trailed after her down the aisle.

Momentarily forgotten in the wake of Renee's distraction, Thorne ducked behind the closest shipping container. Taking a deep breath to steel themself, they grasped the slide of their bolo tie, whispered a few words of Celtic, and vanished.

For Thorne, the whole world went dark. That was the fatal flaw of most invisibility cloaks. If the world couldn't see you, then you couldn't see it. A true one-way cloak was theoretically possible, but was well beyond Thorne's capabilities. Their expertise lay in enchantments, and a glamour charm that diverted all incoming light was simple, even if it needed a clever mage to find its uses.

Thamatology's Observer Effect hadn't been named on a whim. As a thaumaturge, Thorne possessed the innate ability to see the underlying flow of Elan Vital Energy through the world, a type of vision that didn't involve sight. Usually, this was a barely noticeable underglow beneath their normal vision. But with the glamour suppressing their optic senses, they could easily see the ghostly outlines of the room and its contents, a monochromatic mirage created by interactions with the background aspect radiation.

The invisibility charm bought them some time, but they still needed a way to keep the Peregrine unit from noticing their absence and raising an alarm. Another glamour would have been the obvious answer, but a lifelike holograph capable of moving and reacting in-real time to unknown and unseen stimuli was something only a handful of wizards could do, and even they would need time to plan and execute a ritual working.

That was why, in the truest spirit of the American federal government, Thorne had outsourced the problem to an external contractor. Very external.

Still clutching their tie slide, Thorne gently rubbed the chunk of polished obsidian set at its center. They felt the daemonic presence contained within stir.

Despite what they had told Professor Holcomb, they hadn't performed the binding in the Wanderer's Library. While the Library provided the resources they needed to contact a suitable Outsider and work out the terms of a familiar contract, the binding itself had required a great deal of preparation and far more EVE than they would have been able to source on the spot. Luckily, Nemo had been more than willing to assist with the latter, and hadn't asked too many questions about why they were summoning a daemon. It was just one of those things you came to expect if you dated a wizard.

Is it time? The words were foreign, pressed upon their thoughts like runes etched in ice — formed with force and violence, in lines stark and clear, but as impermanent as the medium into which they were cut.

Thorne had known what to expect, but still flinched as the daemon brushed against their mind. It was an Outsider, a conceptual intelligence summoned from beyond time and space, and bound by power and bargain. Its mind was comprehensible — it would have been impossible to call and contract with it otherwise — but it was still fundamentally alien. Prolonged direct mental contact would be like having sex with a cactus. But this mental link was necessary for their plan, and it would only last a very short time.

Yes, it's time, Thorne thought back.

The daemon began to move more vigorously, uncoiling from within its obsidian house like a tongue of smoke. Its aura, tinged with blue like that of all Observers, took shape in front of them, condensing into a humanoid form. The form had been defined by Thorne during the binding ritual, and although they couldn't see it through the glamour, they knew that the familiar's appearance would be identical to their own.

Alright, the charm I gave to Kit is linked to this one by Contagion and Similarity, so it should extend the binding radius around her. Just stay close to her and follow her lead. I'll meet-up with you in the lobby when I'm done here.

Understood. The familiar hesitated, its alien presence grating against their mind, then added, Good luck, Robin Thorne. This is by far the most unusual plan a wizard has ever asked me to participate in.

Thorne watched as their doppelganger wandered off to join Renee and the Peregrine droid, an evocation already half-formed upon their lips in case the android detected some minute error in the familiar's appearance. But with no alarm forthcoming, they allowed the conjured power to subside and turned to the task at hand.

In theory, this would be the easy part. Thorne would use the same basic cantrip they had used to navigate the Library to create contagion links to the shipping crates, then simply wait for them to be moved to Anderson's Earthside facilities. Of course, they hadn't expected there to be so many shipping containers, but that was just a slight complication.

To an observer, the air near the container would have appeared to briefly shimmer as the edges of the glamour contoured around Thorne's outstretched hand. There was a brief glint of Aspect Radiation, invisible to anyone but an Observer, and then the mirage vanished as Thorne removed their hand.

One down. Too many left to go.

They repeated this process more times than they could count, working for a straight fifteen minutes while Renee continued to lead PSHUD #578 on a snipe hunt through the facility. They tried to pick crates that would be going to different destinations, but without being able to see the labels they were left only a little better than random guessing. Once, they felt the familiar's mind brush against theirs, leaving them awash in a flood of its own alien perceptions, which were as beautiful as they were bizarre, and agonizing to behold. But its interest wasn't malicious, and when it realized the pain it was causing, its attentions became far more subdued.

Thorne decided to call it quits once Renee and the familiar were close to returning to the lobby. They turned towards the exit, wondering if the sight of the door opening by itself would trigger an alarm, when a blinding flash of Aspect Radiation burst forth from the center of the room.

Thorne froze, watching the telltale ontic bleed flowing into the widening vortex of an open Way directly between them and the exit. The hole in the universe grew until it was almost three meters in diameter. It lasted for only a moment before closing again to reveal the brightest aura Thorne had seen in almost a decade. They had never had a chance to see it this close before, but the sheer radiance of the aura made it easy to guess who it was. Only a handful of wizards put off that much raw occult power.


They stopped breathing. The other Observer had come through the Way facing away from Thorne, but all he had to do was turn around and they would be spotted immediately.

"Peregrines, with me." The voice had the tinny quality of a speech synthesizer, but with a much deeper, brassier sound. There was no mistaking who it belonged to. He marched towards the door, trailed by two sets of robotic footsteps, completely oblivious to the wizard standing thirty feet behind him.

Anderson's here! Thorne tried to think loudly. Get Kit and get out!

They felt an acknowledging thought from the familiar, and then an impression of directions, accompanied by the smell of ozone and the sound of breaking ice. Renee Kit Morin and I passed a staircase not far from your location. It may provide a means of escape.

Thorne didn't bother to offer a coherent reply, trusting that it would sense their gratitude. All concerns about alarms abandoned, they slipped through the door Anderson hadn't taken, heading deeper into the building. An instinctive sense of guidance that was not their own led them to the stairwell, and from there their own controlled panic led the ascent. Anderson was below, blocking the only entrance on the ground floor, but they could access the fire escape from the building's roof. All they had to do was get to the roof unnoticed.

They could feel the familiar's attention on them as they climbed. It was concerned, yes, but only in a detached way, more driven by curiosity about what they would do, rather than any worry about their safety. It was barely touching their mind, careful not to do any damage, but even that light touch was enough that Thorne couldn't separate its thoughts from theirs.

The behatted half-cat is lying to the machine, using words of intelligence to satisfy its ignorance. Multiphasic amorphous construct. Aetheric gas chromatography. Federal extraterritorial jurisdiction. Meaningless language used without meaning.

Thorne passed the third floor landing. The building was supposed to be nine stories tall. Did that include the roof? They couldn't remember.

The lies do not matter. They are too late to leave. The metal-faced mage enters the room. The smiling visage of his comedy mask cannot hide the anger in his aura.

"Excuse me!" Another lie. He does not seek to be excused. "Excuse me. What, uh, what is the meaning of this?"

"Mister Anderson." She smiles. More lies. "I'm Special Agent Morin and—"

They stumbled past the fifth floor, tripping on some unseen obstacle. They couldn't afford to drop the invisibility glamour, not yet. The stairs were only visible as faint rungs of light on an unseen ladder, lit only by the reflected glow of their own aura.

"I, um, know who you are." The truth, for once, although it's still masked in a lie. The random pauses in his speech are neither random nor natural, an affectation meant to garner sympathy for the frightful cyborg. "What do you, uh, think you're doing? Where's your warrant?"

"As I explained to your secretary, we are attempting to locate a gas golem that escaped in this district." The lie is blatant, and all the more believable for it. "We had reason to believe it might be in your building. Given the potential threat to life, a warrant isn't called for. I'm sure you'd agree that delaying in order to obtain one would have been an inexcusable danger to your employees."

They counted seven, and wondered why. It didn't matter. The only thing that mattered was to keep climbing. To keep counting.

"Oh, uh, of course, Miss Morin." The improper honorific is a deliberate insult. "But, uh, seeing how you haven't found it, I hope you won't, uh, mind me asking what's your evidence? I don't think either of us want you wasting your time on, um, a wild goose chase."

"We don't know that it's not still in the building. We weren't able to search above the ground floor before you arrived."

They saw the shadow of a door above them.

"Well let's, uh, do that now." The techno-sorcerer holds his arms out and turns theatrically, looking up through the ceiling with occult sight that has outlasted his organic eyes. "I understand your mage wouldn't know which auras are supposed to be here, but, um, I know everyone in this building personally. It shouldn't be hard to spot—" He stops. "Well, um, I do believe I owe you agents an, uh, apology. Looks like your fugitive cloud is on the roof."


The thought was too loud. Thorne wrenched away from the familiar, and they felt it recoil from their mind. Their pain, echoing back down the mental link, hurt it as much as it hurt them. It would not make such a mistake again.

The pain was at least a useful reminder of their own identity. They were Robin Thorne, wizard and UIU agent. They had come to the Anderson Robotics headquarters to do an illegal search as a favor to someone who wasn't quite a friend. Now they were on the roof of the building, trying to find a way back down. Vincent Anderson was probably on his way to kill them. And it was raining.

They couldn't use the fire escape now. Anderson or one of his robots would intercept them well before they got to the bottom.

From ninety feet down, the bell rang on a trolley departing the Plaza's streetcar station.

Thorne looked at their hands and saw nothing, because the invisibility glamour was still active. But they could feel, on each wrist, the bracelets that they always wore, which were enchanted with a warding charm for deflecting projectiles.

They had a very bad idea.

It was possible. Their mother had done it plenty of times. But Florence was an evocation specialist, and she had been in an entirely different weight-class when it came to occult power. Thorne was a lightweight by comparison, and they had already used some energy on the glamour and marking the crates. But they already had the working right there, stored in the charms, waiting to be activated. They just needed to take the next step.

Robin Thorne took two steps forwards and dropped off the side of the building.

They immediately regretted their decision, but it was too late to change their mind. They closed their eyes, for all the difference it made, and willed as much power as they could into their ward charms.

It was basic Newtonian physics. The wards were designed to deflect an incoming projectile by transferring its velocity along a perpendicular vector. And when the incoming projectile was something small, like a bullet, that was what they did. But the process exerted an equal and opposite force on Thorne, which was usually small enough to be insignificant.

When the incoming projectile was the ground, however, matters changed somewhat.

For a terrifying few seconds, Thorne plummeted down towards splattery death. Then their wards intercepted the ground, and they suddenly shot forwards away from the building, accelerating laterally under the deflected force of gravity. They were still falling, since the force was deflected at an acute angle, but the vertical velocity was no longer fatal. Hopefully.

"There it goes!" He rushes outside, followed by her and it. "Agent Thorne, do you see it?"

"I do," it says.

"Let's, uh, end this here." He points at Robin Thorne's aura streaking over the Plaza, sparks crackling along the length of an ivory fingertip.

"Are you crazy?" The cat grabs his arm, interrupting his casting. "What if it's an explosive gas?"

"I've got it," it says. "You two stay here."

The fake Robin Thorne turns and sprints after the real Robin Thorne before they get too far away for it to manifest.

The horizontal velocity, on the other hand, was a problem. That was where the trolley came in.

Most of the city's streetcars moved at a pace barely above a bicycle, but the line connecting Prometheus Plaza and Cambium Circle was an exception. It was an express line, or the closest thing to it, and it had a top speed just over forty miles per hour.

When Thorne landed on the roof of the trolley in a baseball slide, they were falling forwards at a speed just shy of fifty miles per hour.

Their suit didn't tear. It was UIU issue, woven from parafibers that could stop a bullet and go through a washing machine. It was also, unfortunately, very low friction. Thorne slipped across the rain-slicked roof of the trolley and off the other edge, only barely managing to grab onto the signpost at the front to keep themself from falling onto the tracks below.

Still invisible, Thorne dangled from one hand directly in front of the ticket golem, which stared forwards impassively. Finally dispelling the glamour, they waved at it with their free hand.

"Do you have room for one more?"

June 14, 2016
Intersection of Tim Street & Lighthouse Avenue, Three Portlands

The ticket golem threw them off the trolley. Not for fare dodging — although, as an FBI agent, Thorne was one of the very few people in the city required to pay for a transit pass — but for turnstile jumping. They had to admit that it had a point.

So they waited for Renee and the familiar a few blocks from Prometheus Plaza, just at the edge of the binding charm's radius so that it wouldn't demanifest in sight of Anderson's headquarters. The familiar got there first, and Thorne finally got to experience the oddity of seeing their doppelganger walking towards them.

Was the mission successful, Robin Thorne? They were getting used to the feeling of the Outsider's thoughts in their head, or maybe it was getting better at adapting its thoughts to a human mind, because that time the only ill effect was a lingering taste of lemon on their tongue.

I think so, they thought back. I won't know for certain for a while, but I'd say we accomplished the objectives.

I am glad. It tried to smile, but it didn't quite have it right, and anyways, even if it had been executed well, it was very weird to see their own face smiling at them. Working with you has been interesting, Robin Thorne. I would be amenable to an extension of our contract, if you so wish.

I think that could be very rewarding for both of us. They rubbed their thumb against the obsidian of their bolo tie before speaking aloud. "But we will have to negotiate that later. For now, I dismiss you."

The familiar dipped its head in acknowledgement, and then their doppelganger faded from view, dissipating into nothing as the power behind the illusion retreated back into its housing within the black volcanic glass.

Renee caught up a few minutes later.

"What took you so long?" Thorne asked.

"Stalling Electric Jesus to give you time to meet yourself." She smirked at her own joke. "Gave him a hard time about getting his permits in order for that hyperspace he has in there."

"Do you think we could use that to wrangle up a warrant?"

She shook her head. "Nah. Building code issues are strictly municipal jurisdiction, and you know we can't explain the grounds for the initial search. Probably better to just leave things to your Foundation friend."

"I know she'll appreciate that." Thorne yawned. Now that the adrenaline was fading, thaumic exhaustion from all the spellcasting was starting to set in. "Thanks for the help with this, Kit. I wouldn't have been able to do it without you."

"It was fun." She gave a relieved chuckle. "We should do it again sometime."

"Sure," they said. "You can be the one to jump off the roof then."

"Let's do it again in a single-story building," she said.

Thorne laughed. "That's the first good idea either of us have had all day."

June 17, 2016
Moses Howard Federal Building, Three Portlands

Thorne waited a few days to give the shipping crates time to disperse. Then they commandeered an empty conference room inside the Federal Building, pinned the largest map they could find against the blackboard using five refrigerator magnets arranged in a lopsided pentagon, and chalked what was supposed to be a circle around it. Professor Holcomb would have lectured them about the sloppy ritual geometry, but it was mostly a formality for a working this trivial.

They uncapped the leaky ballpoint pen they had stolen from Landen's desk and licked it. Focusing on the taste of ink on their tongue, they closed their eyes and reached out for the contagion links, feeling for the tiny pieces of their power they had left within the crates.

"Seek. Find. Reveal."

As they spoke, they flicked the pen at the map, letting their words guide the stream of ink that spilled forth. When they opened their eyes again, the chalk circle around the map had vanished. The map itself was now marked with a number of ink dots, each one indicating the location of a shipping crate. Written next to each dot, in Thorne's own handwriting, was a set of coordinates. Most of the dots were clustered around the Pacific Northwest, but they stretched up and down both coasts of North America, and there were even a few in England.

Someone cleared his throat behind them. They turned to see Kenneth Spencer standing in the doorway.

He tipped his head towards the map. "What are you working on?"

"Personal project." They unstuck the magnets from the board and started folding up the map. "Hope you don't mind me using the office for it."

"I guess that depends on what it is." He walked over and grabbed the loose edge of the map so that Thorne could fold it more easily. "I hear you and Renee had an incident with a gas golem over in Prometheus Plaza."

Thorne kept their gaze fixed on the map. "Yeah. Pretty minor thing, we dealt with it before anybody got hurt, and the person responsible learned their lesson. Nothing worth filing paperwork for."

"Great excuse to poke around Anderson's headquarters though. Anything worth making paperwork there?" He took the closed half of the map from Thorne and continued the accordion fold by himself.

"Nothing that concerns us." They watched as he finished the last fold.

"That's a shame. Would have been nice to find some hard evidence on him. Something nice and simple, like a signed confession note, or a map of his evil plans." He held up the folded map and stared at them. "Robin?"

Thorne stared back blankly. "Kenneth?"

"We can't use this as evidence, you know that."

"I know someone who can. And if she finds proof of a crime, well, we don't need to know the source of the tip."

Spencer narrowed his eyes. "What would your mom think about you helping the Foundation?"

That was enough to get them to look away. They chewed their lip for a moment, then said, "I think my mom would understand that Anderson needs to be stopped. And I think she would help a friend, even if they had joined the Foundation."

Speaking in a gentler tone, he said, "Sasha Merlo is not your friend."

They nodded, just barely. "No, but my mother trusted her."

He frowned. "You aren't your mom."

"I know." They closed their eyes, inhaled, then opened them again on the next breath and met his gaze. They held out a hand for the map.

He hesitated, a look of worry on his face, then handed them the map. "Just… be careful, Robin. You're playing a very dangerous game. I don't want to see you destroy your career for the Foundation."

They smirked. "Don't worry. Anderson is Merlo's white whale, not mine."

September 20, 2016
Portland, Oregon

It was a different coffee shop in a different part of the city, but the players and the scene were the same.

"Any luck?" Thorne asked. It had been several months since they had delivered the map to Merlo via a dead drop, but only now had she finally called another meeting to discuss her progress.

Merlo shook her head, her expression grim. "Plenty, but not the right kind. We've been hitting his baseline facilities as fast and as hard as we can, but nothing seems to make a dent."

"We've noticed increases in activity at his Three Ports headquarters, and he just announced another expansion in the city." They slid an envelope across the table, which contained relevant clippings from a few Three Portlands newspapers. "It looks like he's centralizing his operations there. He's probably been planning this for a while — he has to know that he can't hide from you guys forever — and your raids have just moved up his timetable."

She pulled out one of the newspaper clippings, glanced at it briefly, then replaced it and stuffed the whole envelope into her jacket pocket. "That explains how they've been able to evacuate so quickly. Most of these places are already half-empty by the time we get there, and they wipe everything and run at the first sign of trouble. We've got a bunch of broken robots, a few pointless office memos rescued from garbage cans, and almost no tangible evidence."

Thorne sighed. "Dammit. I was hoping you'd be able to get something that we could use as probable cause."

"So was I. But there wasn't even enough to get the higher-ups to let us put Gamma-13 on a more proactive footing, much less convince a Domestic Security Court to authorize a warrant. We're still stuck raiding known targets, when we should be pursuing new leads, finding ways to put more pressure on the bastard." She looked down and clenched her fists. "I really thought I had him this time. We were so close. But it turns out he wasn't two steps ahead of me, he had already finished the race. I finally know where he is and I can't touch him."

"You'll get him." They tried to offer a reassuring smile. "There's only so long he can dance on the cutting edge before he slips."

She sighed. "It all just feels so Sisyphean. How many more times am I going to watch the boulder roll back down the hill before I leave it there?"

"That's garbage!" The harshness of their tone startled Merlo into looking up. Once they had eye contact, Thorne continued in a more moderate tone. "Sisyphus was punished by Zeus for his hubris by giving him a task that he couldn't outwit. His failure to accomplish it, and his refusal to stop trying, was entirely the fault of his own character flaws. But Anderson isn't any smarter than you are, and it's not hubris to try and stop him. If anything, you're more like Ulysses."

Merlo raised an eyebrow. "Do they teach you how to make allusions to mythology at ICSUT?"

Thorne frowned in annoyance. "Yes, actually, it's called comparative mythography, but that's not the point. Do you want the motivational speech or not?"

She thought about it for a bit, then nodded. "Sure, what the hell."

Thorne cleared their throat, then started speaking in a more formal tone. "Ulysses was the cleverest of the heroes of the Trojan War, a great king of men, and favored by Athena. But despite all his skill and fortune, he was fated to not return home for twenty years. His journey was doomed, not by his own mistakes — although he made a few — or even by the actions of those around him, but by the random whims of hostile destiny. And despite all that, he managed to return home and defeat his enemies." They looked meaningfully at Merlo, then dropped back into their usual conversational voice. "Ulysses earned his happy ending, and you can too. You don't even have to contend with an angry ocean god, just one stuttering wizard in a theatre mask."

"It's not really a stutter," Merlo pointed out, but the objection was lighthearted and some of the fire had returned to her eyes.

Thorne laughed. "You know what I mean. It's an annoying verbal tic, and it's just further proof that he's mortal. A badass wizard cyborg with an army of robots at his command, sure, but he'll still die if you shoot him enough times."

"I could do that right now if you guys weren't in the way." Her tone was reasonable, but there was a faint trace of bitterness there as well.

They lifted their hands in half-serious surrender. "I can't change Presidential policy. But I'll keep feeding you what intel I can. And if we ever get him indicted, I'll make sure you get a crack at him. Assuming you don't get him first."

She nodded, then shook her head again. "This is exactly why I left the Unit in the first place. It's ridiculous, being forced to use a water pistol to fight a serial arsonist. The law shouldn't protect him."

Thorne shrugged. "Maybe. But it is what it is, and if we ignored it for our own ends, we'd be no better than him. You can't serve the greater good by committing necessary evils."

"Are they evil if they're necessary? Or just distasteful?"

There was a long stretch of silence as they both thought about that. Neither of them had an answer.

Finally, Merlo roused herself from thought and stood up to leave. "Thank you, Agent Thorne. I'll be in touch."

Thorne watched her start to walk away, then stood up and called after her. "Merlo!"

The Foundation agent stopped and looked back.

"Good luck."

She smiled wryly. "I'll need more than that where I'm going." Remembering the last time a Thorne had wished her luck, her expression darkened. She started to say something, stopped as she considered the wisdom of it, then decided to say it anyways. "I didn't know your mother for very long, but I know she would have been proud of you. I hope you know that."

Thorne nodded, but remained silent.

When it became clear that they weren't going to say anything else, Agent Sasha Merlo turned and left the coffee shop, venturing out into the soft rains of the Pacific Northwest to resume the neverending pursuit of her archnemesis.

Special Agent Robin Thorne stood alone in an empty coffee shop, and wondered.

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