Individual Efficacy
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From Julian Corwin (Commander, MTF Delta-3 "Solomon's Hand")
Subject AAR Analysis, Operation MINNESOTA NICE
To Gabriel Sands (Operations Director, Overwatch Command)
CC O5-03 (Overseer, O5 Council); Simon Pietrykau (Director, Department of Analytics)

Directors & Overseer,

As requested, I am writing to notify you that my full after action report on Delta-3's first combat deployment has been completed and is now on file. I understand the reason for your interest in this matter, and so I have taken the liberty of including excerpts of what I believe are the most germane portions of my analysis.

11. Commander's Analysis


Agent Westbrook showed commendable initiative in his role as Acting Commander, rapidly organizing a defense against OBSKURA's surprise attack that allowed Solomon's Hand to launch a counter-assault. While there remains some question about his effectiveness as Agent Elsinger's handler, I have full confidence in his ability to perform this assignment. Based on his performance as Acting Commander of Kappa-1 and Delta-3, I strongly recommend his promotion to permanently replace me as Commander of Delta-3.

Agent Elsinger's abilities far exceed expectations; if Operative Gorgon is to be believed, she nearly triumphed over Maximilian Bauer in an individual occult duel, with minimal prior preparation. While her talents are still largely unrefined, the sheer amount of thaumaturgical power she possesses leaves me tempted to recommend SCP classification. Although she cannot singly bridge our capability gap with the Coalition, her recruitment as a special asset agent has done more to bring parity to our parastrike capabilities than any other individual effort. I am recommending a commendation to Agent McKenna for his role in identifying and recruiting her.

However, I remain concerned about her long-term fitness as a field agent. She displays a resistance to command authority that could make her a liability to the rest of Solomon's Hand, and potentially for the Foundation at large. Her abilities, while significant, are dangerously unstable — the site of her duel with Bauer is still experiencing significant backlash effects at the time of this writing, and will likely remain unsafe for higher lifeforms for several weeks. Moreover, the civilian casualties incurred during Operation MINNESOTA NICE have caused her noticeable distress; if this becomes a recurring problem, it will hamper her operational effectiveness, possibly to an unacceptable degree.

While the individual efficacy of Agent Elsinger remains in doubt, the success of Operation MINNESOTA NICE can be taken as proof of the utility of Delta-3, and the value of the Special Asset Task Force Program as a whole. If the Foundation is to remain a significant force for the preservation of normalcy, expansion of the SATF Program would seem to be a necessity.

Respectfully,

Julian Corwin
Commander (Administrative), MTF Delta-3 "Solomon's Hand"


December 25, 1985
Site 246

Tap tap tap.

Florence looked over to see Westbrook standing in the doorway to her room. He was holding a wrapped package under one arm.

"Hey, Firestarter," he said. "Mind if I come in?"

She shrugged, not a simple maneuver while lying in bed.

He came over and sat down at the end of the bed. "How are you doing?"

"Tired," she said.

"You did jump off a building," he pointed out. "Most people would be a bit more than tired after that."

She barked out a single, sharp laugh, which quickly became a sigh. "I keep thinking about what I could have done differently."

"What else could you have done? The Gorgon said Bauer had you on the ropes when she took the shot."

She shook her head. "No, I had him. Right before the end, I had him beat. His shield was failing. All I had to do was push."

"But you didn't."

"I didn't. He threatened to kill them, and I hesitated. Gave him an opening. It was a mistake."

"Perhaps." He hummed softly as he chose his next words. "Or maybe you could have pressed the attack and he still would have had time to give the order. You don't know. You can't know."

"I could have beaten him clean. I know I could. If I'd just been a little bit stronger, a little bit smarter. A little bit better."

"You did your best."

"It wasn't enough."

"Because a couple dozen people died through no real fault of your own? If you hadn't been there, the Coalition would have leveled the entire city and then bombed the ashes just to be safe. Your best saved the lives of forty-five thousand people."

"But if I'd been rested, more prepared, I might—"

"Florence." His voice was soft but his tone was firm. "You can't save everyone."

"You think I don't know that?"

"I think you're not used to playing the part of the hero. You've never had to face collateral damage as a consequence rather than a bonus. I don't know, I'm not a shrink. What I do know is that it's not healthy to dwell on what-ifs and might-have-beens."

She snorted. "Eyes on the future?"

"Eyes on the now. Let Analytics worry about the future."

She frowned. "You still haven't told me what their deal is."

"Let you know when I find out." That got another laugh out of her. "Here," he said, holding out the package. "I got you something."

She sat up to take it from him. "What for?"

He blinked. "Florence… it's Christmas."

She stared at him for a moment, then laughed. "God, I lost track… living at the bottom of a lake — you can't see the sun."

"I get it," he said. "Unfortunately, you never really get used to that."

She unwrapped the package to reveal a stack of books. "Fundamentals of Thaumaturgy by R. Holcomb," she read. "Aura Typology by N. Belmonte. And Postmodern Parahistory by L. Rowe."

"I know our thaumatology primers are crap, so I leaned on the Gorgon to get you some of ICSUT's reading list. Same books they use to teach Coalition battlemages."

"Whoa." She picked up the last book, then looked at him quizzically. "Does that include The Once And Future King?"

"Nah, that one's just for leisure. Thought you might enjoy it."

She smiled at him. "This is the nicest Christmas present anyone has ever given me."

He raised an eyebrow.

"Okay, it's the only Christmas present anyone has ever given me," she admitted. "But it still counts."

"Let me see if I can beat it then," he said. "I've got some surface leave coming up soon, what do you say we go over to Duluth to get some sun?" He paused. "Well, clouds."

"I'd like that," she said, then frowned. "God, now I feel terrible that I didn't get you anything."

"You can make it up to me next year," he said.

She hesitated, then leaned over and kissed him on the cheek. "Thank you, Cody."

He grinned. "Merry Christmas, Flo."


January 6, 1986
Duluth, Minnesota

"I've been thinking about the Timmins op." Westbrook took a sip from his coffee, hands clutched tightly around the cup for warmth.

They were standing at the end of the south pier, looking out at the iced-over lake and the lighthouse on the north pier. No one else was there to bother them — it was too cold. That was the point — no one could overhear their conversation.

Florence leaned against the concrete sidewall of the pier as she half-turned to look at him. She studied his expression silently, trying to gauge his mood.

Florence and Westbrook stand on the Duluth pier and look out at Lake Superior as they talk.

"Didn't you tell me not to dwell on what-ifs?"

"This isn't a what-if so much as it's a how-did. As in, how did OBSKURA know?"

"It wouldn't take a genius to guess that we'd come after them. Depending on how fast they made the rendezvous with Bauer, setting up that ambush would have been trivial. I did similar stuff plenty of times for the Ghosts." She winced slightly at the memory.

He shook his head. "The ambush is only part of it. You heard the Gorgon, OBSKURA shouldn't have even known that Key existed."

Comprehension dawned on her face. "There's a mole."

"It would explain why the Coalition really came to us. They couldn't trust their own people."

"So what do we do?"

"Us? Nothing." He shrugged. "Let the gawkers clean their own house."

"But what about OBSKURA? Won't they make another move on the Keys?"

"Doubt it. They lost one of their last heavyweights, plus five combat cells. And all evidence suggests that this was a desperation move."

She tilted her head slightly. "How do you figure?"

"Sacrificing four units as a distraction is the kind of thing you only do when your back's against a wall. Plus there's the choice of target. The Sixth Key would be really useful for filling manpower shortages."

"I don't know, seems like there'd never be a bad time to brainwash an army of fanatics." She paused, then quickly added, "If that were the kind of thing you were going to do, at least."

"Oh, sure, but why now? They've been content to play terrorists for the last forty years. Why not make a move for the Key in the 50s?"

"Maybe they know something we don't. You know, since they have a mole."

"I'm thinking they know something even the Coalition doesn't." He let her mull over that in silence as he took a long sip of coffee. "Something like, say, where the Golem actually is."

"You think they took him out?"

"Are you kidding?" He chuckled and shook his head. "The Golem is God's perfect Nazi fighting machine, they'd be crazy to even try it. No, I think they know he's AWOL and saw an opportunity to grab the Key without his interference. I think they let the Coalition crack their comms to lure the Rat Catchers into a trap. And I think the only reason they didn't succeed is because you were there."

"You're just saying that to make me feel better about letting Bauer kill those civilians."

"Maybe." He glanced at her conspiratorially. "Is it working?"

She punched him lightly on the shoulder. "Just a little bit."

"Good." He shivered underneath his coat. "Christ, it's colder than Stalin's grave out here."

"Really? I hadn't noticed." She had a cup of coffee cradled in one hand, its contents untouched so far, and her jacket was unzipped. She should have been freezing.

"You're cheating."

She smiled. "Just a little."

He frowned. "Is that wise?"

"It's fine." She waved her free hand dismissively. "It's only a tiny spell. I've done it a thousand times, and I only burned down a building the one time."

The ice beside the pier gave off a sharp crack, drawing their attention. As they watched, a small circle, maybe a foot in diameter, began to melt. The water beneath it was boiling.

Westbrook narrowed his eyes and glanced at Florence.

"That normally doesn't happen, I swear."

"Uh huh."

She sighed, then released the trickle of power she had been holding onto, ending the spell. The backlash that had been driving the water to a boil dissipated, leaving it to freeze over again.

Florence shuddered violently as she suddenly felt the relentless grasp of winter that the spell had been holding back. She quickly zipped up her jacket and took a long sip of coffee.

She shivered again, then felt Westbrook put an arm around her. Acting on subconscious reflex, she leaned into him for warmth.

"Come on," he said. "Let's get inside before you freeze to death."


February 11, 1986
Site 246

She sat cross-legged on the floor of the thaumaturgy gym, surrounded by a complex array of candles. She had been like that for almost an hour now, occasionally glancing down at the copy of Fundamentals of Thaumaturgy which lay open on her lap.

The flame of a tallow candle is naturally sensitive to turbulence in the background aura, and can thus serve as a basic indicator for backlash. In this role, several such candles can be used in a simple exercise for the novice evocator seeking finer control of the forces at his disposal, which I will now outline below…

Florence had followed the instructions the book had provided, laying out the candles in the prescribed pattern. Then, she had meditated.

Once she felt confident that she had cleared her mind of all distractions, she slowly raised her left hand before her and willed forth a flame. As she did so, she tried to focus on the candle directly in front of her.

Fire sprang forth from the air above her fingers and gently licked at her palm. She ignored it, staring intently at her chosen candle. If she had done everything right, it would flare up briefly. More to the point, it would be the only one to do so.

Instead, every candle in the room flickered wildly. Some of them began to burn in different colors. A few others were extinguished.

She closed her eyes and released her hold on the spell.

"Dammit."


June 15, 1986
Minot, North Dakota

"Well?"

Florence gritted her teeth in frustration. "Yes, there's a Way here. I think."

She hadn't ever seen a Way before — not that she knew at least — but the hole it formed in the fabric of reality was unmistakable now that she knew what to look for. If she focused on Observing, she could actually see it leeching EVE from the area; it looked rather like the color fading from a photograph. Curious, she drew up a bit of her power and focused it towards the hole. The Way sucked it up greedily, swallowing the raw magic like water down a drain.

So. That was what ontic bleed looked like.

Of course, no one else could see it, which made her assertion rather hard to judge.

"You think?" Nathan Devlin repeated, a mocking note in his voice. She ignored him — reacting would just let him know that he had found something that aggravated her, and then he would keep returning to the topic.

"Shutup, Devlin," Westbrook said. "Let her work."

Devlin fell silent, stepping back to rejoin the rest of the task force. Florence nodded appreciatively towards Westbrook.

"Think you can open it?" He asked.

She licked her lips nervously. "Let's find out."

She thrust her hands forward, willing power into her fingertips, and grabbed the edges of the metaphysical hole in the universe. It sucked hungrily at her aura, trying to use her to fuel the world beyond. It felt like diving into a freezing lake, and it was all she could do not to scream at the shock.

"Open," she snarled. She willed more power down her arms, trying to force the Way, even as it greedily stole her energy.

A rift appeared in the air before them, a portal between worlds. Florence could feel it pushing back, resisting her will and her command. Her muscles burned with phantom exhaustion, and the ontic bleed had stolen the color from her sight. She pushed harder.

For a brief moment, she could see the world beyond the Way, the place their target had fled to. She let out a cry of triumph.

Then she lost her grip. She had pushed too hard, put too much power into the working. The Way slammed shut with a thundercrack, releasing a wave of backlash that manifested as a burst of physical force. Everyone in the room was knocked backwards off their feet.

"What happened?" Westbrook asked.

"I lost it." Florence picked herself up and scanned the air where the Way had been. "It's gone. Collapsed."

"Dammit," he muttered.

"Nice work, Firestarter," Devlin said. Westbrook glared at him.

"Not your fault, Flo," he said. "He's gotta pop back down to baseline eventually, we'll get him then."

She panted, too tired to argue. But in her heart, she knew Devlin was right.


July 5, 1986
Site 246

She was sitting in the thaumaturgy gym again, a row of small glass marbles placed before her. Shards of crystal were scattered across the floor all around the room.

She focused on the nearest marble, trying not to let the anger she felt bleed into her thoughts. Over the past few days, she had grown to hate the little crystal spheres.

She pointed at the marble, almost accusingly. "Up."

It wobbled for a moment, then flew across the floor of the gym as if shot from a cannon.

She sighed, gathered her will again, and pointed at the next one. "Up."

It did. At terminal velocity. It smashed into the ceiling and showered back down in pieces.

She gritted her teeth, took a breath, and tried not to smash the remaining marbles with her will. If she ever wanted to be able to open Ways, or do any other kind of subtle magic, she needed to be able to master the precise application of her power. Hence, the marbles.

She pointed at the next one in the line. "Up!"

It rose slowly into the air, wobbling like a drunkard, but it didn't go hurtling away. Florence smiled triumphantly.

That was a mistake. Her focus slipped, and the marble exploded into a thousand tiny shards.

With a frustrated shout, she summoned a blast of concussive force that crushed the surviving marbles into dust and dented the floor beneath. The wave of violent backlash reverberated through the water above her, with unfortunate consequences for any nearby fish.

"Sounds like you could use a break."

Florence glanced behind her to see Westbrook leaning against the door to the gym. She looked back at the pile of glass in front of her. Then back at Westbrook.

"What did you have in mind?"


November 28, 1986
Site 460

"Greenland kind of sucks," Florence said, ducking under a piece of burning debris. The containment breach alarm trilled uselessly in the background, blithefully informing everyone on-site of something they very well knew.

"Yeah, not how I wanted to spend my Thanksgiving weekend either," Westbrook replied. Something skittered past in the shadows, and he shot it reflexively. There was a pained squeak, then silence.

"What the hell are these things anyways? There's nothing about them in the skip file." Another one tried to scuttle beneath a nearby door, only to meet its end from the lance of fire she sent after it.

He stopped at the end of the hallway and craned his neck around the corner, checking the next corridor. "I think these are babies."

"So where's mom?"

He turned back to reply and his eyes widened in surprise. "Get down!"

He shoved Florence out of the way as a long, chitinous limb speared down the hallway. The tip of it caught the shoulder of his jumpsuit and threw him backwards. He hit the far wall and slumped to the ground.

Well, that answered that question.

Florence spun around to face the escaped skip. It was indescribably hideous, covered in black chitin and milky white eyes, with far too many legs and mouth-parts. And it was pissed.

It screeched when Florence made eye contact and started clawing its way towards her. It was too big to fit through the hallway, but it wasn't about to let little things like architecture stand in its way.

That was fine. It wasn't the only one who was pissed.

She should have tried to contain it, somehow. After all, that was what they had been deployed to do — perform recontainment. A hundred ways to do just that flashed through her mind — corral it with a cage of fire, blind it with a burst of light, stun it senseless with a single giant shock. She ignored them all.

Westbrook was hers, and this thing had hurt him. All she wanted now was to hurt it back.

"Big mistake, crabface," Florence said. She reached down into her well of power, gathered up her will, and then flicked her hand contemptuously at the creature.

A pillar of fire, twelve inches thick and solid as a steel beam, burst from her palm and barreled down the corridor. It hit the monster, and then kept going. It kept going as the thing screamed and thrashed in agony. It kept going after the thing had fallen into dead silence. It kept going until it had bored through the entirety of the thing and erupted out the other side of its disgusting corpse.

The breach alarm chirped once more, then sputtered out with a static shriek as a wave of backlash finally silenced it. Booms and pops echoed throughout the site as more backlash manifested, although the damage it could cause was marginal compared to what the skip had already inflicted. The noise — and the backlash — continued for almost a full minute. The universe was objecting strenuously to her violent assault on reality.

Florence let her hand drop to her side. It was quiet now, save for the occasional dripping of water and the crackle of fire from the skip's charred body.

So much for recontainment.

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