All Skippers Are Bastards

NOTE: This is Part 8 of 9 of the series, The Phoenix, The Nightingale, & The Magpies.
You should not read this part first, as it contains major spoilers for the entire story.
It is recommended that you instead start at the beginning with Minneapolis Burns.


rating: +23+x

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February 1, 1990
Site 246

Florence's room had become the most recent casualty of her ongoing occult project, which she had relocated from the site's thaumatology lab after one too many interruptions by inquisitive researchers.

What little furniture there was had been pushed up against the walls. The center of the room was now occupied by an intricate pattern of concentric circles, interlocking triangles, and logarithmic spirals, all drawn with painstaking precision. Interspersed among this arcane geometry were various tallow candles, painted pebbles, crystal mirrors, and other, more esoteric items — a lead cup (filled with blood), a silver chalice (filled with water), a brass bell (clapper removed), and an eight-track cassette tape (a bootleg recording of the unreleased songs from the B-52s' collaboration with David Byrne). These had been placed at seemingly irregular but carefully calculated points throughout the room to serve as focus items, backlash sinks, and energy channels. It had taken her weeks to calculate the geometry, and several months to perfect it.

At the center of this perfect pattern sat Florence, eyes closed as she meditated. Resting in her lap was the necklace that Westbrook had given her last month as a birthday present. The silver chain was actually made of tungsten carbide — "It has a higher melting point," he had explained — but the pendant was real Oregon sunstone. The pale orange gemstone had been cut and polished to maximize its natural aventurescence, so that it almost seemed to burn when the light caught it. It was this gem that she focused on now.

She still had difficulty with subtle magic, and the enchantments she intended to place on the gem required a level of finesse she had never even attempted before, and likely would never attempt again. Even after months of preparation, she figured she still only had slightly better than even odds of pulling off the working successfully — but at least if it failed, the focusing geometry would contain the backlash.

The working itself was disappointingly anticlimactic. Keeping her eyes closed, but still seeing by Observing, she cut her thumb with the edge of a fingernail and held it over the silver chalice. A single drop of blood, crimson and thrumming with power, rolled across her skin and dripped into the water. The lines of the pattern glowed softly and briefly, the candle flames burned black for a moment, and the crippled bell chimed twice before playing a short snippet of "Adios Desconocida".

Florence opened her eyes to see Westbrook standing in the doorway, staring at her curiously.

"Hi." She coughed to clear her throat. "How long have you been standing there?"

He shrugged. "Not too long. Didn't seem like it would be a good idea to interrupt."

"Good call." She uncrossed her legs and stretched.

"Did it work?"

She held the necklace up and examined it. "I think so. Won't know for certain until I try charging it."

"Does that mean you can tell me what it is you've been doing now?"

Westbrook had known about the project for some time, but she had been reticent about telling him the details — in case verbalizing what it was she was trying to do would jeopardize the outcome. It was a fear born of superstition, but that didn't make it unfounded. After all, if she believed it, it could affect her magic.

"It's…" She hesitated, trying to find a way to explain it non-technically. "Crystals have an incredible capacity for storing occult energies, if you enchant them properly."

"So it's a battery?"

"Not quite. It's more of a recorder." She stood up and started picking her way across the room to him, stepping carefully over the lines on the floor. "You know how someone's aura can tell you a lot about their mood? Well, this is a similar principle. If I've done it right, this should be able to capture emotional states."

"That's it?" He almost seemed upset.

"Emotions have a lot of power." She was standing in front of him now. "On the bridge, when I was fighting the psychic, she tried to use them as a weapon. To overwhelm me with despair and loneliness until it destroyed me. She almost succeeded."

He frowned. "So this is…?"

"Armor. A shield. I'm going to charge this up with as many positive emotions as I can. Memories that remind me of who I am and what I'm fighting for. An emotional anchor, to give me something to hold onto." Another way to externalize my truth, she thought.

His eyes lit up with understanding. "I can see why that would be worth the time you've spent on this."

"It's not quite finished," she said.

"Oh?"

"Like I said, I still need to charge it." She leaned in and kissed him. When she pulled away, she whispered in his ear, "And I could use some help with that part."


February 16, 1990
Site 246

She was in the thaumaturgy gym when she noticed it.

It was subtle — so subtle that she would have missed it if she had been doing anything else. She had been meditating on the amulet, Observing the complex web of energy that flowed through and within it. Now that she had started charging it, the enchantments on the gem were readily apparent to her occult senses. She was pleased to see that they were flawless. Maybe she was getting the hang of subtle stuff after all.

The energy within the gem was very similar to her own aura — in a sense, it was her own aura, simply frozen at a particular moment in time. Normally, her own energies were subconsciously filtered out when she Observed, one of the countless bits of quiet meddling the human brain performs on its own sensory inputs. The similarity of the gem's charge had forced her to focus on these normally obscured energies, deliberately turning her occult senses towards what was usually a blind spot in her Observation. It felt a bit like crossing her eyes to look at the end of her nose.

It was a rare moment where she was directly aware of her own EVE signature, and that was why she was able to see it. In someone else's aura, she would have said it was indicative of an emotional swing or the start of an evocation, but she knew that she wasn't doing either of those things.

It was a sudden, abnormal spike of EVE, pitched strongly Sharp — a burst of creative energy.


March 3, 1990
Duluth, Minnesota

They were on the pier once again. It offered a convenient place to talk away from the closely monitored confines of Site 246 — isolated enough that they could speak without codes, and surrounded by enough background noise from the hubbub of the city that they could do so free from surveillance. As a result, it had become their favorite location for holding conversations of a personal nature.

Florence was looking south towards the Twin Ports. This early into March, winter hadn't yet relinquished its icy grip upon the lakes. Nevertheless, the lake freighters were stirring from hibernation — she could see the distant dots of crew swarming across the deck of a thousand-footer, preparing to break free from the cold confines of winter layup. Somewhere out on the open lake, she knew, the Coast Guard icebreaker Mackinaw was forcing its way west to clear the shipping lanes out of Duluth. Soon, the pier would be busy with activity as the shipping season began anew, and they would lose their pocket of isolation.

For the moment though — and for as long as it lasted — they could speak freely.

She had wanted to talk to him about what she had seen in her aura, but she had been waiting — waiting to be sure, waiting while she decided what to say, and waiting for the right time. In the end, it had been Westbrook who had asked to speak on the pier, although now that they were there he was also struggling to voice his thoughts.

After standing there together in silence for several minutes, she finally started to speak. "Cody—"

He held up a hand to cut her off. "Wait. Please."

"I need to tell you something."

"So do I," he replied. "Something that might make you reconsider."

She borrowed one of his favorite mannerisms and quirked an eyebrow at him.

He looked down, as if he would find the words he wanted carved into the ice below. "I haven't been honest with you."

"Is that supposed to be a surprise? I know you've been keeping secrets." She shrugged. "I figured that if it was important, you would tell me eventually."

He continued staring at the ice, expression inscrutable. "Do you remember the first time we spoke?"

"Of course. Kind of hard to forget being handcuffed to a chair." She smiled wryly, trying to inject a bit of levity into the moment, but stopped when she saw him wince.

"That was the fifteenth time we had that conversation."

She froze, all thoughts of levity gone from her mind. The color seemed to fade from the world as she stared at Westbrook. She felt a coldness in her chest that had nothing to do with the weather.

"What?" The word slipped out of its own volition.

"We had you in that room for almost two whole days, trying to figure out exactly what to say to win you over, amnesticizing you after every failed attempt." His voice was quiet and steady, which did nothing to reduce the weight of what he was saying. "You actually figured it out on the — I think it was the ninth session? Almost got Corwin before they could put you under again."

The coldness started spreading through her veins as she continued staring at him. "What about McKenna? He wouldn't—"

Westbrook cut her off with a single, mirthless laugh. "Agent 'Charles McKenna' received a commendation for his performance as a deep cover infiltrator embedded in the Lake Ghosts." He shook his head. "I told you, Flo, we had contingencies in place. The only way you were ever walking out of that room was as a Foundation agent."

The cold had filled her completely by now, leaving her numb. When she spoke, her voice was flat. "When else?" When else had they amnesticized her? How many times had they made her forget?

And hanging over that question, an unvoiced Sword of Damocles, was another, more troubling thought. She had no way of knowing what she had forgotten — did she trust him to tell her the truth?

"Twice." He didn't hesitate, but that meant nothing. "The first was just after you were recruited. They had to fuck around with the clocks a lot during the first few weeks to cover up the missing days. Someone slipped up and tipped you off to the time discrepancy."

"You lose track of time, not being able to see the sun." Her voice was almost a whisper as she recalled her words from four years earlier.

He nodded. "Exactly."

That was the real reason that Site 246 had been reactivated, she realized. More than any other site, it provided a controlled environment, entirely cut off from the outside world. Within it, the Foundation had absolute control. They could change the length of the day. They could listen to everything she said and watch everything she did. Hell, they could probably flood her room with gas and amnesticize her in her sleep.

And she would have never known if Westbrook hadn't told her.

She frowned. "You said it happened twice. What was the second?"

When he hesitated in giving her an answer, she knew it was going to be bad. When he finally spoke, the tone of his voice only served to confirm that. "A little under two years ago, you found out about the Nightingale Contingency by accident. I still have nightmares about that day."

"What happened?"

"You… you went nuclear. People died. I thought you were going to die too. They would have killed you rather than let you escape."

"Who?" Her voice was quiet. "Who did I kill?"

"You don't remember them." He laughed softly, almost hysterically. "That's why Devlin hates you, you know. He never liked you in the first place, but after that… he thought you should have been terminated then. He was going to do it too."

"What stopped him?"

"I got to you first." He shuddered at the memory. "I still don't know how I managed it, but I talked you down. Calmed you down enough to get close to you. And then, while you were distracted, I stabbed you with a tranquilizer." His voice started to crack. "When you woke up, you didn't remember any of it. Everything was back to normal — except it wasn't. Most of the task force opted for amnestics, so they could still work with you in the field. But I had to remember. I had to remember what you did, and what I had to do to stop you. To save your life. And I couldn't ever let you know about it, otherwise it might happen again."

Her stomach clenched. She had always known exactly how volatile she could be, and she knew, in an academic sense, what tended to happen when she got angry. It wasn't even the deaths that upset her. It was that she couldn't remember. These had been people she had worked with, people she might have even been friends with, and now they were gone. Erased from history. All to keep her on a leash.

Just how far was the Foundation willing to go to keep her under their thumb?

One question remained.

"Westbrook—" Not Cody now. Maybe not ever again. "—what is the Nightingale Contingency?" She already had a vague idea — there weren't many things that could make her that angry — but she needed to hear him say it.

He hesitated. "I… you won't—"

"I won't like it? Too bad. You're past the point of no return now."

He stared down at his hands. "They knew that the way you were recruited would leave you without any real loyalty to the Foundation. The Contingency was meant to correct that. To provide a means of control."

"How?"

He shook his head and looked away from her.

"Look at me." The force of her voice caused him to flinch, but he obeyed. "Tell me how."

"Me." He refused to meet her gaze. "I was the Contingency. I was supposed to get close to you, make you care about me. Create an emotional dependency that would ensure your loyalty."

There was absolute silence on the pier.

Florence clenched her fists. Now she was angry. "Tell me, all those times we had sex, did you ever care about me, or were you just fucking me as part of your job?"

His expression was pained. "Yes. I mean—"

She wasn't listening. "God, you were probably putting it in your reports to Corwin—"

"—not at first—"

"—did you have a fucking quota—"

"—actually do care about you—"

"—or was that just a perk of being a honeypot—"

"Flo!" His eyes were wide now, desperate. "Flo, I'm sorry. I cannot tell you how sorry I am. I've wanted to tell you the truth for so long, but… you were happy, and you were safe. I didn't want to upset you. I didn't want to give Devlin a reason to take a shot at you."

"Then why are you telling me now?" She wasn't angry anymore. She was beyond angry. It gave her a degree of mental clarity, a sense of singular purpose she had rarely experienced.

"I couldn't keep lying to you," he said, finally meeting her gaze. "I love you, Flo."

"And you think that makes it okay?" She shook her head. "No. You don't get off that easily. The power of love doesn't make it all better. You lied to me, you manipulated me, you used me for sex, and then you have the gall to think that saying 'I love you' will somehow fix all that."

"Flo—"

"My name. Is. Florence." She willed power into her tattoo, enough that he could just see it glowing between her glove and her sleeve. "I'm leaving now, Agent Westbrook. If you try to stop me, I will kill you."

Florence had already turned and started stalking away down the pier when he called out, "They'll never stop hunting you!"

She stopped and looked back towards him. "I'll kill them too."

He shook his head. "You know they'll get you eventually. All it takes is one bullet you don't see coming."

"So you're threatening me now, is that it? Declarations of love didn't work, so now it's on to the death threats?"

"Florence, I'm trying to save your life."

"By putting me back in a cage."

"No! Do you think I would tell you all of this and expect you to just walk back to the Foundation?" He shook his head again. "I have a way for us to get out."

She stared at him coldly. "Us?"

He winced. "I thought… I thought we could get away, start over."

"There is no we anymore, Westbrook."

He nodded slowly. "Just you then. I can get you out. I can make sure the Foundation never comes after you."

"How?"

"Kartal," he said. "With the UIU. You remember her?"

"I remember she punched you in the face, so I already trust her more than you."

He ignored the barb. "I've called in every favor I have with her to set this up. We'll fake your death, rendezvous with her on a Coast Guard icebreaker, and then she'll make sure you vanish. Get you somewhere the Foundation can't reach you."

"You've already planned this with her?"

He nodded.

She shook her head. "God, I can't believe you. You didn't even think to ask me about what I wanted."

"I couldn't—"

"Shut up. I need to think."

She looked down and shut her eyes. She wanted to scream. To run. To fight. She was good at fighting. It was what she had always done.

Through closed eyes, she stared at her aura and the anomaly that had been growing in it.

She had fought before, it was true. But that was when she had nothing to lose. Now…

She couldn't risk it.

She would have to trust Westbrook, one last time. How could she not?

She opened her eyes and looked up at him.

"How soon can Kartal be ready?"

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