When Parallel Lines Diverge

Those Twisted Pines Hub » When Parallel Lines Diverge

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July 25th, 2003

Somewhere in Northeastern Portland, Oregon, two FBI agents knocked on a secluded apartment door. The sun's rays poured in through the windows, making the hallway stuffy with summer heat. After several moments of silence, the agents knocked again.

The oldest wore her long auburn hair in a ponytail. A silver colloid tattoo, mostly covered by her jacket, peeked out just above her left wrist. She frowned as rustling came from behind the door. No one answered.

Her partner was a decade or two younger. Her brown hair was similarly tied back and contrasted with her pale skin. Her expression lacked the confidence of her more experienced peer. As the rustling behind the door continued, she whispered: "Should we knock again, or-"


The door opened a crack. An olive-skinned woman with thick glasses peered out at them. The door was secured by no less than five chains to prevent forced entry. The woman's eyes narrowed as she noticed the lettering on the agent's jackets.

"Anna Becker?" the older agent asked.

The woman hesitated. "That would be me. What do you want?"

"I'm Special Agent Florence Thorne." The older agent gestured to herself, and then to her partner. She reached into her jacket pocket to pull out an envelope. "This is Special Agent Sasha Grimmer. We have a warrant to search the premises following its implication in an ongoing weapons trafficking investigation. May we come in?"

Becker blinked then cocked her head to the side, a confused smile coming to her face.

"Hang on, what do you think is in here?" Becker chuckled. "Do you think I'm running guns out of a one-bedroom apartment? In Portland?"

"We'd hope not, ma'am," Agent Grimmer replied. "And we never said it was guns."

Becker paused. A corner of her lip twitched as she nodded and sighed.

"Right." she shrugged. "Hang on, let me get the chains off. It's going to take me a moment."

Becker closed the door softly. The hallway filled with the sounds of half a dozen chains slowly being removed from their tracks.

"Well, that was easy." Agent Grimmer turned to Thorne with an amused smile.

The latter likewise grinned, only for her expression to quickly change to a frown as the colloid tattoo on her arm briefly glowed with a bright blue light.

"Get down!" Thorne shouted, and tackled Grimmer to the ground. The apartment door flew off its hinges like a shot from a cannon. It slammed into the opposite wall with a resounding crack. Several bolts of lightning followed, turning the cheap softwood into a pile of splinters. The interior of the apartment crackled with a small burst of electricity and was silent.

Drawing her sidearm as she got to her feet, Agent Thorne peered inside. Within the living room, a small portal slowly dissipated. A railyard was visible on the other side.

"Shit!" Thorne shouted. She dashed over to Grimmer, helping her partner to her feet. "We got to go Grimmer, now!"

"Thorne, hang on, we-"

Agent Grimmer was not able to finish her sentence. Thorne had already dashed through the closing portal and into the industrial space beyond.

"God damn it," the young agent mumbled to herself, then quickly spoke into her earpiece. "Suspect's a can-man and is attempting an escape through the Brooklyn Railyard. Grimmer and Thorne in pursuit."

"Just run through an unknown portal," Grimmer said under her breath as she likewise sprinted through the gateway. The small ripple in spacetime vanished a few seconds after she touched down in the gravel of the railyard beyond. "I'm sure absolutely nothing bad has ever happened from that. Ever!"

The young agent then ran off to find her partner.

March 8th, 1993

"Three Ports is pretty low on violent crime, and the golems handle the petty stuff," Special Agent Virginia Kartal explained. "Most of what we end up dealing with is smuggling."

Florence Thorne nodded. "Makes sense. This place is riddled with Ways. Gives me a headache."

"You'll get used to it," Kartal said. "In the meantime, if your wizard eyes spot a Way we haven't catalogued, make a note of it. Keeping track of them all is like playing whack-a-mole, but having another Observer here will help a lot."

They took a detour down a side alley to avoid a section of Emerald Mile that had been closed due to local gravity failure. Kartal nodded politely to the police golem who had taken charge of directing traffic, and Florence dutifully copied the gesture. The golem fired off a crisp salute in response.

"How many wizards do you guys have here anyways?"

Kartal paused to let an auto-rickshaw pass. "Not as many as I'd like. We've got a lot of irregulars here, but not a lot of wizards."

"Why not? There's two whole occult colleges here, there's got to be more wizards in this city than… I don't know, what's a place that has a lot of wizards?"

Kartal laughed. "Deer's full of anarchists and ICSUT's part of the Coalition. Not the best for recruitment."

"I guess not."

Stopping suddenly, Kartal grabbed Florence's shoulder and pulled her over to the side of the road. "Look, Florence, are you sure this is what you want to do? I know what the skippers did to you, and I'd understand if you don't want to be part of a normalcy org again. Plus, you've got a kid to look after now."

Florence offered her a wry smile. "No wonder you guys are short on wizards, if this how you do your recruiting."

Kartal frowned. "I'm serious. Don't feel like you have to do this because you owe me something. I don't want to manipulate you like they did."

Florence threw her arms around the agent and pulled her into a hug. "V, you saved my life, and I'm never going to be able to repay you for that. But I'm not doing this for you. I'm doing this for me." She pulled away after a few seconds, and when she looked up at Kartal, there was fire in her eyes. "I need to prove that I can be more than just the Foundation's attack dog."

Kartal studied her for a moment, then nodded. "Alright. As long as you're sure." She reached into her jacket and pulled out a leather case, which she handed to Florence.

Knowing what was inside, Florence opened it carefully, revealing a newly minted FBI badge. Next to it, tucked into a transparent card holder, was a plastic ID card with her name and picture on it. Special Agent Florence Thorne, Unusual Incidents Unit.

Florence looked up to see the senior agent smiling at her. "Welcome to the Unit, Agent Thorne."

July 25th, 2003

Agents Thorne and Grimmer peered from behind the doors of a boxcar. A few dozen yards away, Becker was holed up inside a small maintenance shack. During her exodus from her apartment she had grabbed a bolt-action rifle. Instead of bullets, it shot bolts of lightning.

"She knows she can't wait there forever," Grimmer whispered. "So why is she-"

A series of deafening cracks filled the air as bolt after bolt of lightning fired from the shack's window, striking three different railcars across the yard.

"Oh," Grimmer said. That answered her question. "Yeah, we gotta go, Flo. Before she gets lucky and zaps us. Don't suppose you have a rabbit to pull out of a hat here or something?"

"I hate it when you call it that," Agent Thorne replied and rolled up her left sleeve, fully exposing the tattoo beneath. The arcane markings glowed with a faint blue light once more. "But yeah, I've got an idea. When I say go, I'm going to slam a rock into one of the other cars. That should distract her. I'm going to keep that up for a bit and make her think she's hit us. When she moves to escape, grab her."

Thorne then smiled at her young peer.

"Crazy enough to work, right?"

"I mean it’s crazy, that's for sure," Grimmer replied.

"Hey, if you have a better plan, I'm all ears, but you better come up with it quick."

"I think-" Grimmer began.

The railyard filled with the sounds of lightning striking the boxcars once more. One of the containers adjacent to them shook as it was struck.

"I love it," Grimmer continued. "Let's go!"

Thorne smiled and clenched her fist, her tattoo letting off a vibrant glow. A dull thud could be heard as a rock slammed into a distant container. Just as Thorne had predicted, Becker took the bait. Another round of lightning shot forth from the maintenance shack as her attention was drawn away.

Grimmer lost no time and immediately ducked out of their hiding place. She did her best to keep out of sight as she circumnavigated the yard, quickly positioning herself between the maintenance shack and the nearest railyard exit. Within moments Thorne's distraction, as well as the lightning, had stopped. It was quickly replaced by the sound of someone sprinting through the gravel. Grimmer took in a deep breath. She readied her weapon, then stepped out from cover.

"FBI! Free-" Grimmer shouted. Her words caught in her throat as she found Becker waiting, rifle trained at her head. The two fell silent. Seconds lasting hours ticked by.

"It's over, Ms. Becker." Grimmer eventually broke the silence. "You have nowhere to run. Our units have this place surrounded by now."

"Can you imagine what this would do to someone at close range?" Becker replied. "Stand down, and let me pass. You have to the count of three."

"You won't be able to pull the trigger fast enough."

"Try me." Becker snickered. "One."

Sweat rolled down Grimmer's brow.


The agent's finger twitched.


Becker's rifle flew skyward. An unseen force sent her crashing into the nearby wall with a dull thud. Out of the corner of her eye, Grimmer could see Thorne emerging from between two boxcars. The light emanating from the tattoo on her left arm slowly faded as she unclenched her hand.

September 30th, 1993

"It weren't me what done it," Jordan Raybon protested. The man they called "Submarine" was currently handcuffed to the arm of a police golem.

Florence rolled her eyes. "Sure, Jordan, sure. I'm sure there's a perfectly legitimate reason why you popped out of an unregistered Way carrying—" She turned to look at Kartal. "What was it again?"

"Fifteen charged superconducting coils designed to power a handheld Soviet plasma projector, two liters of raw ectoplasm, three forged passports, and a Betamax tape containing some of the most obscene pornography anyone has ever seen."

Florence turned back to Raybon. "I'm sure there's a perfectly legitimate reason why you were carrying all of that in your impossibly spacious pockets when we grabbed you."

Raybon nodded. "Yes, yes, there is! I borrowed that coat from my mate, see. How was I supposed to know what was in the bloody pockets?"

"The coat has his damn name on the tag," Kartal muttered.

Raybon turned to look at her. "What was that, love? You've got to speak up, I've got tinnitus, you know."

Florence snapped her fingers in front of his face to get his attention back. "So you borrowed the coat from your friend who has the same name as you, and it just so happened to be full of contraband."

He nodded. "That's the bunny."

"And when Agent Kartal attempted to apprehend you, you weren't resisting arrest. You must have tripped and accidentally punched her in the eye."

He nodded again. "Exactly!"

Florence sighed. "My god, you are incorrigible." She waved a hand at the police golem. "Take him down to the federal building. We'll be along to deal with him shortly."

The golem snapped a salute and lumbered off, dragging the hapless smuggler along despite his continued protests.

"I don't know why you toy with him like that," Kartal said.

"It's funny," Florence replied. "Besides, Submarine's harmless."

"He gave me a black eye!"

"Mostly harmless," Florence corrected. "I'm pretty sure that him punching you really was an accident. I flash froze the puddles on the street to try and trip him up, and he lost his balance right as you stepped out to cut him off." She shrugged. "My bad."

Kartal shook her head. "Nah, don't worry about it. That was a smart move. Not what I would have expected from you though."

Florence raised an eyebrow at her partner. "Now what's that supposed to mean?"

"Well, things do have a tendency to catch fire when you're around. Ice is a new thing for you."

"It's not my fault if buildings are flammable," Florence said. "Anyways, don't go celebrating yet—I think I might have caught a water main in the spell."

Sure enough, a trickle of water had started to seep up through the paving stones beneath their feet. Even as they watched, the flow was already increasing in volume.

"I take it back," Kartal said. "This is your bad."

Florence sighed. "Come on, we need to go tell the Mayor's office before the whole district floods."

July 28th, 2003

Florence Thorne and Sasha Grimmer looked out the second story window of the Portland FBI field office. The former sighed, her expression that of someone arriving at work to see another parked in their designated spot. The latter scowled, a hot rage bubbling below the surface. From their perch, they could see a white van pull out of the parking lot. The logo of one "Spicy Crust Pizza" was printed on the side.

"Four months," Grimmer hissed. "Four fucking months working on that case. The Skippers call dibs and grab her in two days!"

Florence didn't respond. Her eyes tracked the van until it disappeared from sight. At which point she turned and walked away.

"Thorne?" Grimmer followed behind. "Hey, Thorne! Why aren't you more pissed off about this? You worked on this case longer than I did!"

Thorne shrugged.

"Oh, I'm livid," she said. "But I've been around the block enough to know that if we straight up handed Becker off to the Foundation, something big has happened. That or the Skippers had a very tempting carrot. Either way, I'm sure the reason is beyond our pay grade."

"Did you know?" Grimmer asked.

Thorne remained silent. Grimmer's brows crinkled with anger.

"Thorne," Grimmer repeated. "Did you know?"

"I had a vague suspicion." Thorne sighed. "Especially after we saw that rifle in the train yard."

Grimmer frowned, closing her eyes before she gave a curt nod.

"That's that then." The young agent turned to walk away. Before going too far she looked back over her shoulder. "Are you returning to the office in Three Ports?"

"I've already got a new case lined up there, yeah." Thorne nodded "Probably for the best."

A small grin then crept on Thorne's face.

"It was fun working with you again, Grimmer," she added. "Let me know the next time you're in town."

October 4th, 1994

Florence watched the alley behind the library patiently. They knew that Raybon was supplying a militant faction of the Serpent's Hand, but the Unit had been watching all of the known Ways between Three Portlands and the Wanderer's Library. That meant he had to be going through one of the baseline Portlands. They had arranged for Raybon to be released on bail, knowing that he would break it. He had to know that they knew that, and so he had almost certainly found and disposed of the tracker they had put in his jacket.

Which is why he wouldn't be expecting them to stake out every library in all three Portlands.

She spotted a flash of movement across the street, but further examination revealed nothing. Probably just a stray cat.

After another few minutes, the garbage bin behind the library popped open and Jordan Raybon clambered out.

She blinked. That was a new one, even for her. Only Submarine would have found, much less used, a Way inside a dumpster. He was a terrible liar, but an expert Wayfinder. It was one of the reasons why they hadn't tossed him in Paramax yet—he kept leading them to new Ways.

Raybon looked around carefully as he brushed off his coat. Once he was sure he was alone, he whistled twice. At his signal, the back door of the library swung open and a member of the Serpent's Hand stepped out.

Gotcha. She swung herself over the edge of the library roof and dropped to the ground, slowing her descent with an evocation that was well-practiced by now. As the two paracriminals turned towards her in surprise, she raised her left arm and conjured up a flame in her hand.

"FBI! Don't move!" She shouted.

At exactly the same time this was happening, the Mobile Task Force that had been lying in wait across the street attempted to spring their ambush.

"Foundation! Don't move!" The task force leader shouted, raising his rifle and pointing it, not at Raybon or the Hand member, but at Florence. Unaware that she was a UIU agent, he had correctly identified her as the most dangerous person there, and had thus made the drastic mistake of threatening her with a gun.

Things would have gone much better for him if he had just shot her immediately.

The lance of flame that Florence directed at him was barely a millimeter in diameter, a precise beam of infernal hellfire that sliced his rifle in half right down the middle, taking two of his fingers with it. He barely had time to register his loss of digits before a wall of raw force slammed into him with all the inertia of a speeding locomotive, launching him into the air and backwards into his men. Caught completely and utterly off guard, the task force members toppled like bowling pins.

Taking advantage of the momentary confusion, Raybon grabbed the Hand member and tossed them into the dumpster, then dived in after them. The burst of aspect radiation that followed was all Florence needed to know that they had escaped.

Florence whirled on the stunned task force. "Goddamn you, you skip bastards, you fucked up our sting!" She spotted one of them trying to go for a gun that had been knocked to the ground. Waving her hand casually, she conjured up another fireball and reduced the weapon to slag. "I swear to god, if you morons keep trying to shoot me, I'll toss you all in Paramax and deconcept the key."

"Shit, you're a fed?" one of them asked.

She reached into her jacket and pulled out her badge. "Special Agent Florence Thorne, Unusual Incidents Unit. Once again, you have ruined a federal investigation with your conspiracy bullshit. I hope you're happy, skippers, because I most certainly am not."

She strode past them towards the end of the alley, where there was another Way back to Three Portlands. "Make it snappy," she said to the air, clicking her fingers as she did so. The Way slid open in response. Without another word, she stepped through it and was gone.

The bruised and battered members of Mobile Task Force Beta-8 ("Beta Eight Than Never") stared at the spot where she had vanished.

"Did we just get thrashed by a fed?"

March 4th, 2004

Agent Grimmer sat alone with a paperback novel in a small coffee shop in Northwest Portland. She had taken the afternoon to catch up on some light reading. As she paused to take a sip of coffee from an oversized mug, she noticed a tan-skinned woman with short dark hair approach, and gesture to the seat next to her at the table.

"Is that seat taken?" the woman asked.

Grimmer raised an eyebrow and looked around. Aside from the barista and an elderly gentleman reading a newspaper across the room, all the other chairs were available.

"Do I know you?" Grimmer asked.

"I doubt it," the woman replied and slid Grimmer a white business card. "But I know you, Agent Grimmer. I'm Agent Marin. Let's just say we're in a similar line of work."

The familiar symbol of a circle with three inward pointing arrows dominated the card. Grimmer sighed and put her book down. Reaching for her bag, she pulled out a notepad and paper.

"Alright," Grimmer said. "What doodad can you guys not be bothered to pick up yourselves?"

Marin chuckled and shook her head.

"This isn't that kind of meeting," she replied and took a seat. "A mutual acquaintance of ours informed me how torn up you were about the Becker case. I, and a superior of mine, looked into the records the UIU provided on the investigation. We felt you had at least earned the privilege of knowing why we needed her so badly."

Grimmer gestured for Marin to continue.

"As you probably figured out when you grabbed her, Becker was quite skilled at combining magic and weapons into fairly simple packages. Let's just say that she had quite a few of her previous products make it into the hands of, well, I'll call them a terrorist group. I think you can imagine the kind of damage such people could do with the ability to shoot lightning, or liquefy bones, or remove all the oxygen from concrete. We needed her so we could design countermeasures."

"I'd say you guys made off like bandits in that exchange," Grimmer replied.

"Appreciating the attitude." Marin rolled her eyes. "Before you consider this a loss, just know that in return, we handed off a half dozen persons of interest your unit had been looking for."

"How generous." Grimmer then shrugged. "Why are you telling me all this, assuming it's even true."

"Flip the card over."

Grimmer did as she was told and frowned. Where there had once been blank cardstock, now a phone number had appeared.

"You do good work, Grimmer." Marin gave a small smile as she spoke. "And if you stick with the UIU I have no doubt that you will continue to do good work. But I know you. Hell, at one point in time I was you. You want to make a difference. Instead of putting out fires with a water pistol you want to grab the hose. That's why you felt so burned after we took Becker. You felt you really made a difference this time."

"Who the hell do you think you are?" Grimmer snapped. "You don't know a damn thing about me, or how I think."

"I'm not so sure about that." Marin shrugged. "Listen, just think about it. If you're interested, call the number. You'll still have several points of return beyond that, so it's not like its binding or anything. Otherwise, ignore the card for three days. You'll forget this entire exchange happened."

Marin stood, and gave Grimmer a friendly nod.

"I hope to see you around in the future."

"You know soliciting a federal agent is a crime, right?" Grimmer asked, her finger tapping on the card.

"Is it?" Marin chuckled. "What can I say? Sometimes, you have to break a couple of eggs when you're making your illegal international conspiracy omelet."

Grimmer watched Marin exit the coffee shop and sunk back into her chair. She tapped on the business card a few times more, then sighed, and placed it in her pocket.

November 4th, 1994

"You sliced his fingers off?"

"He was pointing a gun at me!" Florence said. "I didn't have time for subt—sub—for not slicing off his fingers."

It was Friday night and they were sitting in Kartal's living room. Florence had been in a foul mood ever since the failed sting operation, and Kartal—after arranging for a baby sitter for Robin and aided by some spirits that would have been illegal anywhere that wasn't Three Portlands—had finally managed to get her to vent about it. Florence talked more when she was drunk, drank more as she got angry, and got angrier the more she talked about the Foundation. She was now on her third glass of the Spirit Liquor, and it was starting to show.

Kartal snorted. "Since when have you ever been subtle?"

"Do I look like Gandalf to you?"

Kartal took a careful sip of her drink and winced as she heard the screaming of the fermented souls that had been used to make it. She was still on her first glass. "You look like somebody who should be trying to avoid attracting the Foundation's attention."

Florence waved a hand dismissively. "They're not lookin for me. They think I'm dead. Drowned inna lake."

"And we want to keep it that way. If you start incinerating their task forces, they're gonna figure out who you are pretty quick. It's not like there are that many wizards of your caliber running around."

Florence downed the rest of her glass like an overly large shot. "So what? What are they gonna do, assist—assassinate me? This is Portsland. Portlands. Three of them." A ghost drifted out of her mouth as she hiccuped.

Kartal frowned and gently pried the glass out of Florence's hand. "I think that's enough for you."

"Fine. Is haunted anyways." Florence frowned, then muttered something in Latin. It took her a few tries to get the words right. Once she did, she started sneezing repeatedly. More ghosts drifted away. "Dammit V, did you spike my drink with ghosts?"

"No, it came like that. Did you just magic yourself sober?"

Florence shook her head. "Exorcism. Although I guess it's the same thing for ghost alcohol. Where the hell did you get this stuff?"

"Confiscated it from Raybon. I didn't tell him that it was legal here."

That got a laugh from her. "Knowing him, it was probably stolen or something."


Florence sighed. "You're right, by the way."


"About the Foundation," she clarified. "I should be more careful. For Robin's sake, if not my own. I just—they piss me off so bad. I thought I could get away from them, but it turns out they're still finding ways to fuck things up for me."

Kartal nodded sympathetically. "Just be glad the skippers can't do anything here."

Florence shuddered. "God, can you imagine skippers loose in Three Ports?"

"They'd make a real mess of things, I can tell you that."

Kartal's pager chimed. She glanced at it, then sighed. "It's the office." She picked up her phone and hit 0, connecting her directly to the federal building over a secure line. "Kartal here." She listened as someone on the other end spoke. "No, sir, she's here with me."

Florence frowned, then remembered that her own pager had been turned into a pile of worms by a bit of unfortunate backlash earlier in the week.

"I don't think that's a good idea, sir." Kartal paused. "Both." Another pause. "Alright, I'll tell her." And another. "You too, sir. Good night."

She hung up the phone and looked at Florence. "I hate to say 'I told you so', especially since you were just agreeing with me, but there's some Foundation agent who's been trying to contact you. Somebody named Edgar Holman? Says he needs to meet with you about some important intel related to the Raybon sting."

"Shit." Florence shook her head. "Do you think they know?"

Kartal frowned. "Maybe. I don't know. If it's a trap though, it's not a very good one. If they try anything, it'll be obvious it was them, and even the Foundation isn't stupid enough to piss off Uncle Sam."

"Think I should meet with him?"

Kartal chewed her lip. "I'll admit I'm more than a little curious."

"So am I." She sighed. "What the hell, it's not like they can ambush me if I'm expecting it. Maybe they know where Raybon scuttled off to and want to offer that as an apology."

September 14th, 2005

"What a mess…" Agent Grimmer mumbled to herself as she looked around the blown-out remains of a southeast Portland apartment. Several of her fellow UIU agents were present, going through the motions of gathering and processing evidence. Though given all the suspects were currently dead, it was likely to be a rather open and close case. Grimmer's attention was brought back to a pair of SCP Foundation agents at the center of the room.

"So let me get this straight," the first Skipper said. "You guys tracked a narcotics ring to their base in Three Portlands and raided the place. In the firefight, one of your wizards lost control of an evocation, and the thaumatological backlash collapsed a Way. The other end of that Way was here, and as a result of that collapse, which you all caused, you've given an entire apartment complex of civilians each the equivalent dose of 100 CT scans worth of ionizing radiation. Does that sum things up, more or less?"

"More or less," Grimmer replied. "Do you think your team will be able to help us keep this quiet?"

"Not like we have much of a choice, now do we? What with the good chance this entire building is going to be an epidemiological case study someday." The second Skipper shook her head. "But, yes. Gamma-5 and Pi-1 should be able to get a lid on this. I don't suppose we could have a word with the thaumatologist that caused all this?"

"I'm afraid not," Grimmer said.

"Fantastic." The first Skipper sighed. "We'll be in touch."

Grimmer watched as the Skippers took their leave. Once they had passed into the outside hallway, she whispered to one of her fellow agents.

"Please tell me that this wasn't Thorne," she said.

"I wish I could, Grimmer," her colleague replied. "But then I'd be a liar."

"Goddamn it." Grimmer deflated. "What the hell were they even trafficking?"


Grimmer paused. She raised an eyebrow as she waited for the agent to elaborate, but was met with only silence.

"Like, magic heroin, or…?" she asked.

"No. Just heroin."

Grimmer sighed and looked around the room. Her colleagues were just about to leave.

"At least it will be an open and close case," her colleague chimed in. "There's a silver lining."

Grimmer slowly nodded.

"Go team," she mumbled and headed towards the door.

In the hallway, she noticed the Skippers were still around. The two agents were talking to one another by the apartment's elevator. They briefly locked eyes with Grimmer and gave her a friendly nod.

January 2nd, 1995

The Foundation agent was waiting for her on a bench near the shoreline.

He cleared his throat as she sat down at the far end of the bench. "Agent Thorne, thank you for coming."

"Agent Holman," Florence said, keeping her gaze fixed on the river. "What's this intel that's so damn sensitive you couldn't share it over the phone?"

"One of our analysts came across something that I believe is of personal interest to you." As he spoke, he withdrew a plain manila folder from his jacket and handed it to her.

She flipped it open to find a pair of photos tucked inside. From the familiar layout of the metadata superimposed on them, she recognized them as being from an MTF HUD recorder. More than that, she recognized the scenes the photos depicted.

The first one was stamped with the date 1987-12-18. It had been taken at night, but even through the green hues of a night vision filter, it clearly showed a view of the exterior of Nine Mile Point Nuclear Generating Station. Several task force members could be seen running through the scene, but the image was focused on a single woman crouched near the center of the compound. Her face was turned away from the camera, looking towards something out of frame. Her left arm was covered by an elaborate tattoo, which glowed brightly.

The second photo was timestamped with 1994-10-04. It had been taken just after the Hand member had escaped, and very clearly showed Florence as she berated the task force. An identical tattoo covered her left arm. It had been circled in red ink.

"So," Holman said. "Was I right, Agent Elsinger?"

Florence stiffened. "You should know that you aren't going to take me without a fight."

"Relax, it's just us. I came here to talk."

"Talk, or threaten?"

"Talk," he repeated. "Corwin wanted to do it, but I convinced him that you might react negatively if you saw him."

"Does burning him to a crisp count as negative?" She shook her head. "Should have known the old bastard wouldn't have gone down with Delta-3."

Holman smiled grimly. "He got himself a lateral promotion to 64. Left Westbrook out to—"

"Don't." One of the corners of the folder had started to smoke, and her tattoo was giving off a very faint glow. "Don't talk about him."

"Alright." He waited for the folder to stop smoking before speaking again. "Corwin wanted me to tell you that it's over. As far as the Foundation is concerned, Florence Elsinger died in Lake Superior."

"Let me guess, did he also say something like, 'It would be really unfortunate if that turned out to not be true.' I don't mess with you and you won't mess with me?"

He nodded. "Something like that."

"Too little too late." She snapped the folder shut and tossed it towards the river like a frisbee. It burst into flame in mid-flight, and by the time it hit the water it was already ashes. "The Foundation spent most of my adult life messing with me in the most fucked up ways imaginable. You don't get to offer a truce now."

"You're right, of course," he said slowly. "What was done to you was unacceptable. It was an appalling lapse in our institutional ethics and it went against everything the Foundation stands for."

Florence stood up and turned to face him. "Don't you even dare try to apologize. Not if you value your life, Edgar Holman. Delta-3 is exactly what the Foundation stands for, and it represents everything wrong with your entire fascist conspiracy."

"Agent Elsinger—"

"Florence Elsinger is dead. You said it yourself." She took a step closer and lowered her voice. "You want a truce, skipper? Stay the hell away from me, and we won't have any problems. Get in my way, and you won't have any more problems, ever. Those are my terms, take 'em or leave 'em."

She turned and stalked off. Holman watched her go until she disappeared into a Way behind a nearby tree.

He turned back to look at the Willamette River.

"We really did a number on her, didn't we?"

The river didn't respond. It wasn't one of the guilty parties.

October 20th, 2005

"What are you thinking, Sasha?" Agent Grimmer sighed.

She sat by herself within her small studio apartment. On the kitchen table was the card Agent Marin had given her. Grimmer imagined the table leg's bowing under its weight. At least that's how it felt in her pocket for the last few years. Maybe it was supposed to do that. Maybe it was memetic or something. Grimmer rubbed her temples.

"You want to make a difference. Instead of putting out fires with a water pistol you want to grab the hose."

Grimmer closed her eyes and shook her head.

"Get out of my thoughts, Skipper," Grimmer mumbled. She looked at the card again, her fingers tapping rapidly on the table top. Eventually, she grabbed her cell phone. "Fuck it."

After three rings passed, a man's voice came from the other end.

"Glad you decided to give us a call, Agent Grimmer," he said.

"You knew my number already?" Grimmer asked. "That's not foreboding at all."

"Let's just say that there aren't many people we give this number out to," he chuckled. "My name is Edgar Holman. Are you ready to take the next step?"

"Do I have a choice?" she asked.

"Of course, you do," he replied. "You always have a choice. Feel free to hang up on me at any time. But I should warn you, you'll forget this conversation."

"Super." Grimmer sighed. "Alright then. Let's see where this goes."

June 5th, 1997

"I'm gonna miss you, V."

Kartal smiled at her. "I'm retiring, Flo, not going into witness protection. I'll still be around to babysit for you."

Florence shook her head. "You know what I mean. It's not gonna be the same without you."

Kartal shrugged. "You'll get used to it."

She nodded and took another sip of the cheap champagne the government had provided for Kartal's retirement party. "They're giving me your job, you know."

"Really?" Kartal didn't seem that surprised. "What about MOOT?"

"They'd have to pry it out of my cold, dead, hands," Florence said. "No, I'll still be running MOOT, but they'll be basing everyone out of Three Ports now. More recruiting opportunities here, and more Ways to use. I want to try and get the team to a strength where they can take on one of those walking tanks the Coalition has."

Kartal whistled. "That's not a fight I'd like to be anywhere near."

"Yeah, well, it's not a fight I expect we'll ever have. But there are other things just as nasty as a UHEC and not nearly as friendly."

Kartal was silent for a minute. "You can't fight a war against the Foundation."

"I know that." She drained the rest of the champagne from the glass. "But I want them to think we can. Make them think twice when they consider messing with us."

"I'd tell you to be careful, but I know you wouldn't listen," Kartal said. "Just remember that being perceived as weak can have its own advantages. If you start using MOOT for saber rattling, that might just bring more attention from the Foundation."

Florence shrugged. "I'm not afraid of them. Not any more. I just hate them."

Kartal laughed and shook her head. "You know you're gonna have to deal with them a lot more once you have my job."

"Yeah." She sucked in a breath. "Not looking forward to that."

Kartal put a hand on her shoulder. "Don't let the skippers get you down. They're not worth it."

January 18th, 2006

Sasha Grimmer hummed to herself as she cleaned out her desk at the Portland Field Office. Her resignation had been tendered, and now it was time to close one chapter and head into the next. She wiped down the dust that remained, then placed the lid on top of a box of her personal effects and turned to leave.

Standing in the doorway was Agent Florence Thorne.

"They got to you, huh?" Thorne asked.

"You're going to need to be more specific," Grimmer replied. "Also, nice to see you too. How's the other side?"

"The Skippers," Thorne clarified. "They scooped you. Why else would a new agent tender her resignation? Especially after the Becker case."

"Is this the part where you say you're disappointed in me, mom?" Grimmer chided. "My reasons for leaving are my own. This just wasn't working out for me. Time to move on to something better."

"You won't," Thorne replied flatly. "You haven't been assigned to anything in Three Ports yet, but if you had, you'd know what a horrible mistake you're making. I promise you they'll burn you out."

"Is that what happened to you?" Grimmer asked.

Thorne remained silent. Her and Grimmer locked eyes for several moments.

"It's your funeral," Thorne said and stepped to the side.

Grimmer continued to take her exit. As she crossed the threshold she looked back over her shoulder.

"See you around, Thorne."

"You too, Skipper. I'd wish you luck, but you're going to need a lot more than luck where you're going."

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