Georgian Gothic
rating: +35+x

2021


January

Site-91: Yorkshire, England, United Kingdom


Zavia Morse awoke with a jolt to a low buzzing in her skull. The daily litany of unwelcome thoughts, and a suddenly queasy stomach fought for her attention as she reached behind her left ear and dislodged the thin strip of bone bonded to it. She picked up her Foundation-issued PDA from the nightstand, stuck in the all-natural computer chip, and thumbed the power switch. As her eyes adjusted, she read the new message three times.

It was the end. The end she'd been waiting for, hoping and praying for, for fifteen years. That was a long time to wait, hope and pray. She'd gotten used to the routine, to the lies, to not getting what she'd once been sure she wanted.

It was time to get used to betrayal.


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Eckhart House was technically a castle. Its three storeys of age-blackened brick terminated in fortifications, bestowing an imposing imperial presence to the eighteenth-century manor. Only the bobbed hurricane fencing around the crenelated house, its snow-covered lawn and frozen ponds distinguished this from any number of surplus estates sans gentry dotting the English countryside.

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The sky was a uniform grey, and the air was freezing. Dr. Udo Okorie could sense the possibility of sleet in the air, and squirmed in her labcoat.

"Not used to the cold, huh?" her escort, a tall agent built like a football player, asked sympathetically. "I thought you were from Canada."

Okorie shook her head as he led her to the house. "I'm from here, I only live in Canada. But really I live underground, where it never gets cold unless I want it to."

The agent nodded as they walked past an ancient wooden door, painted blue. It was set into a rough plaster lath wall, crude against the Yorkshire vernacular architecture. She felt a compulsion, very faint, to look away from the door as they passed. That, and the worsening weather, dampened some of her enthusiasm for the secret lab in the palatial manor.

This isn't a fairy tale. A lot of people have died here, because they couldn't get that straight. Among them the house's namesake, who had called down fire from the heavens and been badly burned just beyond that mismatched portal.

She wasn't sorry when they walked under an engraved stone portico, through a set of thick wooden doors and into the castle proper. She almost expected a hidden passage behind a bookcase, or an ornate settee on a lowering platform; she was only slightly disappointed to instead be confronted with a grand Georgian staircase.

Thought they'd at least have an elevator. She grimaced. Lift. We call them lifts, here.

"No lift?" she asked, smiling up at the agent.

He frowned. "You want me to carry you?"

It was all she could do to avoid slapping her own forehead. The Foundation was the Foundation worldwide, and the English represented maybe one percent of the Earth's population; even at a facility in England, they were unlikely to form a majority.

And you're not in England. You're at Site-91. It might as well be in Belarus.

When they were halfway up the stairs, he laughed. "Oh, you meant a lift."

Well now I just don't know.

They reached the central landing, and she briefly inspected the tall painting hanging there. A man dressed in finery sneered down at her with obvious contempt; the artist had made a bold choice, capturing his air of genteel malice like that.

She wondered, just for a moment, why they'd left the portrait up.

He's an object lesson. Knowledge isn't free.


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Knowledge must be free. Morse stepped out of the shower and rubber her face vigorously with a towel. Knowledge is not property. All intellectual property is theft.

The pithy little phrases were exhausting, a dozen tiny whips with which to flagellate her reluctant mind. Ideas are not crimes to be punished. Ideas are not criminals to be incarcerated. Ideas are sparks, to be fanned into flames of change. Each of these proverbs was true, demonstrably, totally true, but she was tired of having to slot them in before and after her every original thought.

"Cognitive dissonance is a bitch," she muttered, as she pulled on her uniform.

Her colleagues would be saying something similar about her, by the end of the day.


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Dr. Iona Varga examined Okorie across the ornate desk, so she returned the favour. The Director of Site-91 was tall, pale, silver-haired and immaculate. Her every breath and blink seemed deliberately timed. Here was a woman who was always in control, and liked it that way.

How very English.

"Dr. Okorie," Varga remarked with just the barest hint of a Romanian accent. "The one who got away."

Okorie smiled, wanting the woman to like her, to stop being so intimidating. "Only for eighteen years, and you've got plenty of Okories already." Her own Midlands accent was already more pronounced after only an hour back in the mother country.

Varga inclined her head and the agent left the office, closing the door behind him. "You have the password?"

Okorie nodded. "I'm to deliver it to Zavia Morse. You've been briefed?"

"Yes. You suspect her of treason, and this is your plan to prove it. Morse is one of our security agents, formerly MTF. She's been with us almost fifteen years." There was no anger or regret in Varga's voice; she was keeping a remarkably even keel.

She's furious.

"What else can you tell me about her?"

Varga steepled her fingers on the desk, and Okorie made a mental note to mimic the gesture back at Site-43. "She was one of the non-Thaumics in her unit. There were disciplinary issues from the start; life on the moors isn't for everyone, and she always seemed depressed. Psych evaluations suggest jealousy towards her esoterically-gifted colleagues, and frustration that she was unable to develop similar abilities."

"She tried?"

"Oh, yes, she tried. The only thing unusual about her is her failure rate. We've never seen someone so extraordinarily mundane."

"That might have been the angle of attack," Okorie mused. "The Serpent's Hand could have offered her real magical training." She noticed Varga wincing at the use of the word 'magical', and resolved not to use it again. "With the Library at their disposal, I'm sure they could find some way of making her… special."

Varga collapsed her tented fingers and plucked a sheet of paper from the desktop. Okorie marveled at how quick and nimble the older woman's movements were. Please don't get a schoolgirl crush on the Site Director.

Varga handed her the paper. "This is Morse's proposal for the one-time password."

Okorie scanned it quickly. "Yeah, they showed me this on the jetliner. Wants to use it to lock up some ma—" She cleared her throat. "Some esoteric artifacts. We've done something similar before." She handed the sheet back. "Presumably it's bullshit."

Varga's eyes widened, and for a second Okorie thought the cursing had offended her. "Presumably," she said, "it is bullshit. Yes. So you and I will spend the next hour going through her personnel file, and then you will meet with her to hand over 5109, and then you will present me with your analysis and recommendations." She didn't smile, in a smiling kind of way. "I have every confidence in you, Dr. Okorie."

I feel like James Bond, she thought. I just hope nobody expects me to shoot anyone.


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There's a lock on their library, Morse told herself as she walked into the security office. There's a lock on their library. She willed herself to feel indignant.

"Ay up, Zavia." Another agent was manning the checkpoint counter, looking out on what had once been one of many servant passages criss-crossing the manor. The security office had been a kitchen, and the exterior hallway had led to the tradesman's entrance; the checkpoint counter had been used to deliver supplies to the kitchen staff, and cooked food to the wait staff. The sensibilities of eighteenth-century English manorial society, an orderly life lived by degrees of separation, was an easy fit for the Foundation.

And for traitors.

"Hi, Fahd. Anything to report?"

Fahd Naaji picked up his data pad and stood up, shaking his head. "Slow morning. Nobody wants to go out in the snow." He grinned. "A Canadian spy came in from the cold, though. Know anything about that?"

Morse shook her head, keeping her expression carefully neutral. "No. Should I?"

"Yes, since she's here to see you. We still on for supper at 5?"

"Absolutely." She smiled warmly at him, more warmly than she ever had in all the months he'd carefully tried to court her and she'd half-consciously encouraged it. "Maybe we'll watch The Professional afterward. Get you off my case."

The look on his face nearly broke her heart. "It's called Léon." He looked so hopeful.

"Still a shitty title." She poked him in the shoulder as he headed for the door. "Hope the movie's better."

She watched him leave the office, wondering why she'd done what she'd just done. She'd kept everyone at arm's length for years, ignoring her feelings, focusing on the job at hand. Distance was all too easy at Eckhart House; it was baked into the very bricks. Only knowledge connects us. Only books bind us. She wasn't a friend to these people, and she certainly wasn't anything more.

She signed in at the checkpoint terminal, frowning. I'm just throwing the poor guy a bone. Give him a bit of joy before it all comes crashing down.

She leaned against the counter and massaged her temples. Alternatively, you're trying to give yourself excuses to not go through with the plan.

"No," she said. "That's not an option."

"What's not an option?"

Morse nearly tripped as she spun, and saw the slim, dark woman with the Coke-bottle glasses on the other side of the plexiglass divider. "Just thinking aloud," she said. "Can I help you?'

The other woman smiled. "You can stop thinking aloud, for one thing. That's a great way to lose 5109."

Morse felt her colour rising. "You're my contact? Dr. Okorie?" The woman nodded. "I'll buzz you in, take the corner on the left and you'll see the door to the security office."

When Okorie was out of sight, Morse took a deep, shuddering breath and cleared her mind. Knowledge that isn't shared can be lost. Knowledge that isn't spread can be destroyed.

She already believed it; by the time the door opened, it almost felt like a justification.


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The hand-over took mere moments, and within ten minutes Okorie knew everything she needed to know about Zavia Morse. That left her plenty of time to confer with a pair of noted expert occultists before checking back with Varga.

She placed a hand on the clear containment cell wall and watched her parents hard at work. The reddish creature they were dissecting was no bigger than a child, but it had as many legs as a millipede, and all of them were dripping a steady stream of yellow ichor through the wire mesh floor.

"You're doing good work," her mother remarked, making a crosswise incision while her father held the corpse steady. "I read your last paper, should raise awareness nicely."

"Not that we need it," her father responded, peeling back the creature's exoskeleton. "I understand we're neutralizing all esoteric matter produced by every subject in containment, ounce for ounce, for the first time since the fifties." He glanced up at her, smiling through the mask of his hazmat suit. "Doesn't quite make up for losing our magic wunderkind to McInnis, but it helps."

"How is Allan?" her mother asked, reaching into the pus-filled cavity.

Okorie sighed, taking her hand off the glass. "I'd tell you he says 'hi', but he never says 'hi' to anybody."

Her father chuckled. "His upper lip always was rather stiff." There was a wet crack from inside the corpse, and he winced. "Site Directors are a different breed anyway. Even quieter and more secretive than researchers."

"You can't last long in this business without thinking two steps ahead of everyone else," her mother added, squeezing something Okorie couldn't see inside the creature's belly. After a moment, the flow of fluid stopped entirely.

"And keeping them guessing," her father agreed. "It's a lot like being a spy."


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Morse glanced over her quarters, looking for something, anything, to take with her. She looked down at the empty backpack. She looked up at the clock. She looked down at the wholly insufficient note she'd left on the bedspread. She sighed, and zipped the pack shut.

Probably a stupid movie anyway. Nothing like a good book.


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Okorie stared at the dead god on the stone slab. It looked like a gigantic gutted slug, except for the half-dozen arms with ten-fingered hands. "You've got the best occult library this side of the Library," she muttered. "That'll be Morse's target. If she can open a Way in there, the Librarians will get free access to Eckhart's collection."

Varga leaned on the wall, arms crossed. "Except she can't open a Way in there."

"Because she has no thaumic capability?"

Varga smirked. "That's one reason, yes."

Okorie shook her head, still staring at 4612. Investigating the giant slug corpse for Applied Occultism was a good cover for her presence at 91; more than one Group of Interest was surveilling the Site, and Sokolsky didn't want them getting suspicious. Okorie hadn't certainly objected, although now that she was standing in the dank basement chamber she suddenly wished she'd pressed for a library visit instead. This ambience is a bit too Horace Walpole for my tastes. She wasn't even sure this wasn't a detailed decoy, and Varga had declined to set her suspicions to rest. "There might be more than one mole. Is Morse close to anyone?"

Varga shook her head, too. "No. All her relationships are… instrumental. I'm starting to think she might have fabricated the conflict in her unit to get assigned to the security detail."

"That makes sense. From the checkpoint she can change keycard permissions so that nobody but her can get through the swipe lock on the library. We won't be able to get in without blowing a hole, as far as she knows, and according to the schematics you've strengthened the walls enough that it would still take too long. Lots of time to check out some books." She shivered, and glanced up the staircase longingly.

Varga sighed. "Call Sokolsky, get the second password iteration, and let's get this over with."

Okorie shook her head. "He left clear instructions: I can't get the second iteration until I absolutely need it."

Was she imagining things, or did the director flush slightly? "I don't like uncontrolled variables, Dr. Okorie."

"Neither do I." She adjusted her glasses. "I've got a very strict rulebook for dealing with my usual magic nonsense problems." She winced. Magic again.

Surprisingly, Varga smiled. "I'm going to need you to write up a new magic nonsense rulebook for this situation, and I'm going to need you to do it fast."


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The veil of ignorance obscures our universal fellowship. Morse crept down the passage, flashlight in hand, watching the wall-mounted cameras flicker off one by one as she passed beneath the dark fluorescents. There can be no common ground where understanding is uncommon.

Fahd won't understand.

She loped up the stairway to the second floor, where the library was located. He won't understand because they won't let him understand. Because they hoard understanding like a dragon, burning everything they can't control.

There were no guards in the halls, presumably because someone expected her treachery and thought she'd need an accessory to her crime. This was almost too easy; she wished she'd encountered some resistance. Anything to occupy her mind, to shake off the guilt and focus her anger. Locking away the truth leaves us all shivering in the dark.

"Bugger off," she muttered.

The keycard reader was waiting for her, blinking softly.

She completely ignored it. A bright, actinic flash lit up the hallway, and every electronic device in the room was extinguished in a hail of sparks.

The doors swung open, as if breeze-blown.


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Varga hung up the phone, and nodded. "All MTF personnel and security agents are sequestered and accounted for, except Morse. You were right about her."

Okorie's muscles tingled with nervous energy. "Okay, but… who's she working with? If it's not one of the agents, could it be a researcher? That doesn't make sense."

Varga walked out of the office, and Okorie followed her. The agent she'd met earlier fell into step behind them. "You're not going to make me regret this, are you?" Varga asked.

Okorie didn't know what to say about that. They crossed the second floor in silence, stalking through galleries converted into office blocks and past sitting rooms converted into dormitories. Every time they passed an arched window, and she glanced out at the darkened gardens, she expected a sudden bolt of lightning.

When they reached the thick oak doors of the library, Varga passed her a security tablet. "Time to make the call. You can re-set our keycards from here."

Okorie shook her head, staring at thin crack between the doors. "The keycards are fine. She didn't use 5109 for that."

In the dim light, they could just make out a faint glow emanating from the wood.

"She used it as a word of power," Okorie breathed. "On a spell of warding."

Varga stared at her.

"I guess she's not so mundane after all."

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