A Little Bit Of Help

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Michelle hadn't had this much fun on a date since college. Jessica was a friend of a friend, a security consultant for some biotech company Michelle had never heard of. She was also smoking hot, six-foot-one if she was an inch, and wore the tightest leather pants Michelle had ever seen outside a fetish club. And they had chemistry! They'd started the night at a French bistro in Seven Dials, and eventually made their way to a cute little cocktail bar on the strand, where they'd just been chatting for hours. It was past midnight, and Michelle was just about to ask Jess if she'd like to continue the conversation back at her flat, when her phone rang. The work phone. The one reserved for emergencies.

"Shit. Sorry." She glared at the offending device. "Work. I really gotta take this. I'll be right back, I promise."

Jess gave her a quick thumbs up. "No worries! I'm not going anywhere."

Michelle grinned at her, and ducked into the bathroom, activating her phone's privacy wards as soon as the door was locked.

"Dahl speaking."

"Goddamn, finally." It was her second in command, Nelson, a twitchy American with a thick Appalachian accent. "We've got a situation. You need to come into the wedge, ASAP. I know you're on a date, but it's serious, Skippers are involved, and the Undersecretary-General apparently requested you by name, at least that's what this email says, because of that thing in Jakarta—"

Michelle cut him off. "Yes, OK, no more details over the phone, I'm not in a secured location. I can get there in ten."

She hung up, and took a moment to wallow in self-pity. Her night had been going so well. Of course her fucking job was going to ruin it.


Time to face the music. She left the bathroom, and headed back to the table to tell Jess the bad news.

Jess, who wasn't there. She'd left enough money to pay for her half of the tab, plus tip, but that was it—no note, no message, nothing.

"Fuck. Fucking shit. Fucking shit hell goddamn."

Michelle continued her litany of curse words as she packed up her stuff and left. She lit up a cigarette as soon as she stepped outside. She'd been trying to quit for months, but if anything justified a relapse, it was this. Goddamn Al Fine. And the goddamn Foundation. Perfect fucking timing, too. She took another drag, and headed East toward the Square Mile.

Her route took her past Temple Church, that hideous proto-Masonic pustule lurking in the heart of London. Michelle couldn't actually enter the grounds—the sacred oaths of the Gormogons forbade setting foot in any such structure without intent to demolish it—but she could flick her butt over the fence, and pray that it would leave a tobacco-stain on the pavement. Another few blocks took her to the Grand Occident Wedge, tucked away down a side street between the Worshipful Company of Stationers and an organic vegan deconstructed kebab shop (currently going out of business, for obvious reasons). The door was unlocked, as it always would be for Gormogons in good standing. Nelson was waiting for her just inside. He followed just behind her as she walked to her office, chattering all the way.

"Hey, Michelle, I mean Oecumenicus Masonbane, I mean ma'am, uh, sorry I had to interrupt your date, but it really is serious, like DEFCON 3 serious, I think, they didn't really tell me anything because they need to tell it to you directly—"

Michelle slammed her office door in his face. She counted to ten, slowly, in Latin, and opened it again.

"—in fifteen minutes in London Central HQ, the old MI666 building, the Skipper will be waiting for you inside." Nelson finally stopped for breath, and Michelle cut in before he could start again.

"Alright, Nelson. Let them know I'll be there. I need to freshen up." She slammed the door again, and turned her gaze inwards. She was too buzzed for special ops. Time to sober up.

Purging someone's blood of anything is a delicate process - there are medical thaumaturges who spend years learning the delicate incantations and precise spellwork required to rid the body of all the various drugs and toxins that humans manage to put in themselves, when to remove a contaminant entirely and when to break it down into a form the body can deal with on its own, how to mitigate backlash and channel it away from the patient. Ethanol, fortunately, is an easy one. Humans have been poisoning ourselves with alcohol as long as we've been humans, and the standard formula for a sobriety spell is old enough that there are versions credited to Merlin, Moses, and Hermes Trismegistus.

Michelle's preferred version was much newer, and much flashier. She controlled her breathing, chanted a short phrase in Klingon - the preferred mystical language of the ICSUT professor who invented this variation in grad school - and belched out a cloud of ethanol vapor, which was ignited into an impressive but harmless fireball by the spell's backlash. A great party trick, and unlike other sobriety spells it wouldn't make her sweat vodka for the next hour. She threw her emergency blazer on, swapped her heels for loafers, and set off, stealing Nelson's coffee on the way out.

The Foundation liaison was waiting for her in a basement conference room. She was smoking hot, six-foot-one if she was an inch, and while she was no longer wearing the leather pants, the perfectly-tailored pantsuit she'd traded them out for was, if anything, even more flattering. It took a good five seconds of prolonged eye contact before either of them broke the silence.

"Hello. I'm Oecumenicus Volgi Iphegenia Masonbane." She held out a hand.

Jessica blinked, then shook the offered appendage gingerly. "Pleased to meet you. Foundation Special Liaison Susan Norcross."

There was another long silence. They managed to sit at the conference table without breaking their awkward eye contact. Michelle gave in first.

"Alright, screw it, you've seen my awful driver's license photo. Just call me Michelle."

"Oh, thank god. It actually is Jess." She sighed, and slumped in her hideously uncomfortable chair. "Sorry, this is weird."

"Yeah. Almost as weird as ditching a date without leaving a note." It was petty. Michelle didn't care.

"What?" Jess actually sounded surprised. Shit. "I texted you. Like, two minutes after you went to take your phone call."

"Super did not get a text." Michelle pulled out her personal phone. It was dead as a doornail. "Shit. Uh. Now I feel like an asshole. Sorry."

Jess shrugged. "Don't worry about it, it's fine, I probably should've waited for you to get out of the bathroom. So are you in?"

"It would help if I knew what I was in for."

"Can't tell you 'til we get there, sorry." She slid a contract and a pen across the table. Standard boilerplate NDA geas, the only real difference from the dozens Michelle had signed before was the logo at the top. "But I do need your answer soon. We're on a timetable."

Michelle sighed. She could go home. Watch some TV. Fall asleep in her nice, comfortable bed in her nice, heavily-warded flat. Or she could sign a magic contract made by the people who thought putting a monster in a box and feeding it souls was more ethical than just shooting it in the head. The choice should have been obvious. But Jess was like, really hot, and Michelle hadn't blown anything up in weeks.

"Yeah, fuck it, let's go." She signed her name with a flourish.

"Fantastic." Jess stood, leaving the contract on the table, and headed for the door. "Follow me."

She led Michelle down some stairs into the subbasement. As they got further down, Michelle's third ear started to pick something up; she opened her thaumaturgic senses fully, and caught the telltale aetheric hum of an Everhart resonator.

"Oh, goddammit."

"Hmm?" Jess looked back at Michelle with an eyebrow raised.

"I hate apportation."

Five minutes, a flash of light and a wave of nausea later, and Michelle was dry-heaving onto cracked asphalt. "God, I hate apportation. Where are we?"

Jess grinned. "Turn around."

"Oh, fuck off."

Three pyramids loomed behind her, massive edifices of limestone towering over the sands, and past them the lights of Cairo. They were in Giza. An ancient Masonic stronghold, just like all Egypt.

"You… I… Am I going to…." Michelle's words escaped her; she simply gestured vaguely at the pyramids.

"Yeah. Task force is waiting for us by the entrance, I'll brief you while we walk."

"Cool. Cool cool cool." Michelle took a few deep breaths, and followed Jess to the base of the Great Pyramid. "I, uh. Assume this isn't a demolition job?"

"Call that plan… Hmm. Maybe plan Q, or somewhere around there. We're really trying to not destroy the last wonder of the ancient world, that's why we brought you on."

"And as much as I would love to destroy the last wonder of the ancient world, I can see why that would piss everyone off and generally be a bad idea."

"Why would you - never mind." Jess shook her head. "Anyway. Cultists holed up in the pyramid, end of the world ritual, pyramid's original mystical defenses reactivated, and they're serious heavy-duty shit. Layers of physical, psychic, thaumaturgic and conceptual wards in some kind of positive feedback loop. The first thaumaturge that took a crack at it lost both legs and half his frontal lobe. It's pretty similar to that Chaos Insurgency working you broke through in Indonesia last year, so we figured you might have some insight."

"What kind of cultists?"

"Well, that's the other reason we got you specifically." She reached into her pocket and pulled out a photograph. "Take a look."

The photo was blurry, and the subject's face was turned away from the camera, but the regalia they wore, ornately crafted in purple and gold, was instantly recognizable: the gloves, medallion, and apron of a Master Mason.

The Foundation task force had set up a command post at the base of the Great Pyramid, just in front of the entrance. The commander, a tall man in an Egyptian army uniform, came out to greet them.

"Oecumenicus Masonbane. Ms. Norcross. I'm Commander Shalhoub, Eta-Nine."

Michelle shook his offered hand. "Eta-Nine? Mole Rats, right? My predecessor worked with you in the '80s during that outbreak of Escher Plague in Sao Paulo. Are you expecting it to be all non-Euclidean in there?"

He sighed. "That's Zeta-Nine. We're the Tomb Raiders. We do ancient traps, vengeful spectres, mummy curses, et cetera. And, you know…" He waved vaguely at the pyramids. "Sort of our home turf."

Michelle nodded. "So what am I blowing up?"

"Straight to the point!" Commander Shalhoub headed for a tent full of computer equipment, Jess and Michelle trailing behind. "The hostiles blocked the front door with a big slab of stone. Tried shaped charges, that didn't work, and when one of our own men went at it… Well, it wasn't pretty. We think they've reactivated the pyramid's original defenses. Got an aetheric imager set up, if you need it."

Michelle shook her head. "No, I'm a thaumaturge. Just point me at the door."

She didn't really need to be pointed. The new door over the entrance clashed horribly with its surroundings, a slab of black basalt standing out against the pale sandstone. Even with her third eye closed, she could see a faint glow from the sigils carved into its surface; when she closed her body's eyes and opened her soul's, it nearly blinded her. Hieroglyphs covered every inch of the stone, glowing in all colors of the rainbow and more besides. The door was at the center of a fractal light-web, threads of magic stretching around and over and through the pyramid, all meeting again at the pinnacle in a tangled knot of power. The ancient wards were active, yes, and on top of them new wards laid down over the millenia, layer upon layer of mystical protections all renewed and bound together by an unmistakably Masonic hand. It was one motherfucker of a spell; and Michelle knew exactly how to break it.

She reopened her mundane sight, blinking away the psychic afterimages. "Alright. I'm going to need… Hmm."

Michelle reached down her pockets, deeper than should've been possible, and came up with a block of plastic explosive, a few sticks of incense, and five cc's of mouse blood. Her emergency blazer was for all emergencies, great and small.

"A detonator, some chalk, and…" She opened her third eye again, briefly. "A dozen eggs. Oh, and a falafel wrap, if you see a place, it's been a minute since I ate dinner."

Conceptually, the working to break through the wards wasn't complicated. There was a weak point, deep within the overlapping shells of sorcery, a panic button that would allow the mages inside to collapse their own fortifications and escape; Michelle was going to press it from the outside.

To actually make that happen, however, she'd need to pull off a lot of extremely complicated spellwork. She was about fifteen minutes into drawing an obnoxiously intricate mandala on the ground in front of the door when Jess broke the silence.

"So what is the deal with the Gormogons and Freemasons?"

Michelle looked up from her sigils, and stretched. It was as good an excuse for a break as any. "I am about to divulge one of the deepest secrets of the Ancient and Most Noble Order of Gormogons. If you spread this to anyone—and I mean anyone—the vengeance will be swift and merciless. Do you accept these terms?"

Jess nodded; Michelle went on.

"The reason that I, and all loyal Gormogons, hate the Freemasons, is simple: Freemasonry is merely a front for the extraterrestrial infiltration of Earth by the Kav'ir, a race of silicon-based life-forms with telepathic abilities. All structures built by Masonic architects, from Temple Church to, well…"

She gave the wall beside her a pat.

"To the Great Pyramid use these aliens as architectural elements, so that they can mind-control unsuspecting earthlings and use us as slave labor."

Jess looked concerned. "Wh… Really? Are you serious?"

"Nope," Michelle said with a grin, "that's bullshit, I made that one up on the spot. Can't tell you the real reason unless you actually become a Gormogon, and I'm pretty sure your bosses would object to that one. Divided loyalties or whatever. Oh, good, here are the groceries. Did you guys get my falafel?"

They had. She set her dinner, or breakfast, or midnight snack or whatever aside for now, and turned her attention to the eggs.

"Unpasteurized? Fantastic. Would hate to have to unpasteurize them myself."

There was a spot for each egg in the diagram; Michelle set them down carefully. Any one of them cracking could set the whole thing off early. When the eggs were in place, she stuck the plastic explosive to the door and cracked her knuckles.

"Everyone ready? You don't need to step back unless I've seriously screwed this thing up, but you might want to look away."

Everyone stepped back anyway. Except Jess, actually, she'd stepped forwards. Michelle grinned at her.

"Fantastic. Three, two, one…"

She pressed the detonator. There was no explosion; or rather, there was an explosion, contained in a half-meter hemisphere. The shockwave bounced back and forth and back and forth in its cage, fed by the spell's energy. An egg hatched into a lizard, another into a slightly smaller egg, a third into a pile of lemon candies. The remaining nine levitated slightly and then burst, one after another. And somewhere inside the pyramid, beneath layers of stone and sorcery, the keystone of the ward-network — a signet ring worn by a Master Mason of the 333rd degree — simply cracked in half, and fell to the ground. And as it did, the wards unraveled, the great basalt slab turned to sand and poured away, and the Foundation task force rushed into the tomb to do horrible things to Freemasons.

"Fuck, that was a good one."

Michelle unwrapped her falafel and took a bite. It had cooled down a little; but magic was even better than a microwave. A few words and a shower of sparks had it fresh and hot again. She borrowed a folding chair from the command post and set it up facing east, where the first light of dawn was rising behind Cairo. Jess brought her own breakfast over and joined her.

They sat in silence for a while, exhausted and sleep-deprived; after a few minutes, Jess spoke. "Hey, so… Are you free next Friday?"

Michelle almost choked on her falafel. "Are you asking me on a second date? Because I can make some room if you are."

"Yeah, I figure, our first date is basically ruined at this point, we should probably try again."

Michelle shrugged. "I don't know, it's been pretty great so far. You took me sightseeing, I got to blow something up, we're having a picnic and watching the sunrise…"

"Still, it's a little weird. Business and pleasure."

"Vinny - uh, Oecumenicus Diomedes Masonbase, two Oecumenici before me - had a weirder first date. Six days in Antarctica, a volcanic eruption, couple hundred dead Nazis."

"Oh, wow. How'd that turn out?"

"They've been married for like, seventy years."

"Hmmm. Big shoes to fill, I don't know."

"Yeah, I think we should go on that second date before we worry about marriage." She thought for a moment. "How do you feel about Spanish food? I make a mean paella."

Jess grinned. "What's your ring size?"

NEXT: The Damocles Initiative

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