James Bond meets H. P. Lovecraft in the latest occult thriller from Hugo Award-winner Charles Stross, in a series where British spies take on the supernatural.
1: The Prodigal’s Return
It’s twenty past ten at night and I’m being escorted through the glass- fronted atrium of a certain office building in central London. I’m surrounded by a knot of soberly dressed civil servants who are marching shoulder-to-shoulder in lockstep to keep me from being recognized, or maybe to prevent me making a run for it if I lose my nerve. We are waved past nodding receptionists and security guards who hold the turnstiles open for me as if I am expected – because I am indeed expected. Unfortunately.
This afternoon my minders took me to a barber. They said I was overdue for a trim; protests about my male pattern baldness fell on deaf but determined ears. (I still think closing the shop, kicking everyone else out, and stationing guards inside the door was a bit excessive, though: who ever heard of a top secret haircut?) I’m wearing my funeral suit and tie, and my shoes are dazzlingly polished. (Just pretend you’re acting a role, she said, straightening my collar; concentrate and remember your talking points.) I look twenty years older than I feel, and I feel ten years older than usual – mostly due to jet lag. They emailed me a set of notes just before I caught my flight home, and I did my best to memorize them on the plane from Kansai. But right now I feel like it’s seven in the morning, and I’m yawning because I’m waking up, not going to sleep.
Minder number three – Boris, a tech- side middle management guy I used to do the odd job for: until today I hadn’t seen him in years – hits the button for the sixth floor. The glass-walled lift slides silently up into the lofty heights of Broadcasting House, rising past open plan offices full of serious-faced journalists and program managers peering into computer screens. As we pass a coat of arms saying ‘Nation shall speak Peace unto Nation,’ I go over points seventeen to twenty-two again, mumbling under my breath. Then I rub my sweaty palms on my woolen suit jacket.
I have got the Fear. Why the fuck couldn’t they find somebody else to do this?
I imagine Lockhart or the SA or some other drop-in authority figure explaining it to me calmly. ‘You know why it’s got to be you, Bob: it’s because of the scaling laws.’ The threats the agency exists to deal with grow exponentially, doubling in scale on an eighteen- month cycle, like a nightmarish version of Moore’s Law. But our cohort of qualified senior staff only grows linearly. The clusterfuck at the New Annex a year ago killed a bunch of senior officers, and the disaster in Leeds has put so many others on paid leave pending hearings that everyone in the field is currently operating above their pay grade. We’re all taking on tasks we’re not trained for, often without backup or oversight.
As for this job, we’re a secret government agency: we don’t even have a public relations department. Which is why we’re scrambling to improvise tonight. When the order came down from on high that someone was to come here and do this thing, it ended up on my desk simply because I was senior enough, and available. (At least that’s the official explanation. Part of me can’t help thinking that a more rational explanation is that God or Management hates me and wants me to suffer.)
My handler clears her throat just behind my left shoulder, and I jump. ‘Try not to sweat so much, Bob, the makeup guy will want to redo everything.’ I hate it when Mhari sneaks up on me like that. She makes me really uncomfortable: about ten percent of it is knowing that she’s actually a vampire, and the rest of it is down to our uncomfortable personal history. The only consolation is knowing that having to work with me makes her even more uncomfortable, and only about ten percent of it is because I’m a necromancer. At least we’re both trying to be professional about it, and we’re mostly succeeding. She reaches out briskly and brushes lint from my lapel, and I try not to flinch again.
When they went looking for someone to represent the agency in public and picked me, they weren’t just scraping the bottom of the barrel: they were fracking for oil in the basement. My biggest qualification for this job is that I haven’t stepped in any operational dog turds lately. I’m Mr. Clean: nobody’s going to blame me for the disaster in Leeds, I was out of the country at the time. So they briefed me and gave me talking points to memorize, and sent me videos of the Great Man toying with his prey, to watch as in-flight entertainment on the way home. Which, in hindsight, was probably a bad idea: I’m so keyed up I need the toilet again and I’m due on- air in about ten minutes.
‘Remember, he only really takes the gloves off when he’s interviewing policy makers,’ Mhari reassures me. ‘You’re a line manager, not an executive, so by sending you out like a sacrificial goat with a sign taped to your arse saying KICK ME we’re calling his bluff. He can’t crucify you on-air for setting policy without looking like a bully, so he’ll have to settle for asking you lots of hard questions to which you are expected to plead ignorance or pass the buck. He can’t even badger you until you change your story – remember the Iraqi WMD scandal and the way Dr. Kelly committed suicide when the press turned on him? So you’ll be fine. Just remember it’s not personal: he’s not interviewing you, he’s interviewing the organization.’ She bares one delicately curved canine, ivory outlined against crimson lip-gloss while I boggle at her appalling mixed metaphor. ‘I’m buying the drinks afterwards. Everyone okay? Boris?’
Boris nods lugubriously. ‘Am understanding there are good club late license around corner,’ he slurs. (Boris has permanent damage to his speech center from one too many run-ins with the brain parasites that cause K syndrome.)
A couple of harried technicians glare at us for blocking the lift doors until Mhari smiles at them and sharply knuckles my spine to get me moving again. ‘Where are we going?’ I ask. The level we’re on features lots of floor-to-ceiling beech and invisible recessed handles on doors that curve to match the walls. The carpet is eerily sound-deadening, but I can sense the murmur of many minds all around us, whispering and intensely focused.
‘Studio A. Which is right . . . here . . . ’
Boris and the other guy (a blue- suiter in civvies, fooling no one: he stinks of cop) wait outside while Mhari pushes me through the door into the production suite and follows me inside to stop me escaping. I turn and frown at her. She’s far better at looking professional than I am. With her mercilessly coiffured blonde hair, tailored black suit, watered silk blouse, and sky- high heels, she looks like Taylor Swift in boardroom drag – a version of TayTay that runs on type O negative and has a severe sunlight allergy. ‘Can’t you do this?’ I ask plaintively, one last time: ‘Take one for the team?’
She spares me a brazenly unapologetic grin as she points a finger at the ceiling: ‘See the bright lights, sweetie? I’d go up in flames.’
I’m about to tell her that they use LED spotlights these days and they’re not powerful enough to set fire to her PHANGsensitive skin when I spot the producer. He’s half- risen from his seat, clearly fascinated by this exchange. He leans forward and peers at our ID badges. ‘Ah, you must be Mr. Howard and Ms. Murphy from the, er, Ministry of Magic?’
That makes even Mhari twitch. ‘Special Operations Executive, Ministry of Defense,’ she says sharply. ‘There is no “Ministry of Magic.”’ She holds out her hand for him to shake. Her nails are the same color as her lips: they look dipped in fresh blood.
‘Can we take any questions arising from this interview to the Defense Secretary?’ he asks hopefully.
Mhari looks at me. I look at her: ‘No comment,’ we chorus in unison. Then I add, ‘We’re just the performing monkeys: if you want a policy statement you’ll need to send the organ grinder a memo.’ Mhari manages to keep a straight face. Drinks on me indeed.
‘Well then, assuming you’re not going to offer me a last minute substitution I’ve got you down to go live six minutes into the program, off at twenty – the Big Man’s in the studio already, running through the warmup highlights.’ Just the biggest news interviewer in the country, the chief presenter on Newsnight, waiting for me. ‘You haven’t done this before, have you?’ He shows me all the kindly concern of a hangman sizing up a client. ‘Really, it’ll all be over before you know it and it won’t hurt at all. Let’s get you hooked up . . . ’
There’s a glass door fronting a surprisingly cramped office with a plain gray backdrop, brilliantly illuminated by camera fill-in LEDs. Through the door I see a famous silhouette: the barely tamed hair and fiercely hooked nose. He was scheduled to retire last month but I gather he decided to stay in the saddle a bit longer just for us. I may be the Eater of Souls, but this guy is the Consumer of Cabinet Ministers. And now he’s beckoning to me! ‘Go on in and take the chair to his left,’ says the producer; ‘when it’s time to go live the camera will give you a red light, and when the red light goes off I’ll cue you to slide the chair back and leave. Just try not to run the next guest over.’
The green light over the door begins blinking. The producer starts making urgent shooing motions at me, and Mhari mouths break a leg. So I go through the door and I sit down in the hot seat, wishing it was electrified so I could get this over with faster. I wipe my fingers carefully along the underside of the seat frame, then peel back a tab of adhesive film, leaving a coin-sized self-adhesive disc behind. My pulse spikes. The chair is wheeled, rolling on a track: ‘Move eighty centimeters to your left – perfect!’ The producer’s voice comes in through the bud in my right ear. It’s not the only wire I’m wearing: there’s a lapel mike too, and I half-suspect it doubles as a polygraph so they can tell when I’m lying. ‘You’re going to be on camera three. Jeremy will lead in to your item in about ten seconds. Okay, I’m shutting up now.’
Then the red light comes on above the camera, and I’m live on a Monday evening special crisis edition of Newsnight.
* * *
Hi. My name is Bob Howard, and I do secret work for the government.
This is my workplace diary. People in my line – anyone with ‘active duty’ flagged on their personnel file – are required to keep one. It’s a precaution against loss of institutional knowledge. If you’re reading this, either you’re in an Oversight position (probably an Auditor or a magistrate of the Black Assizes tasked with investigating my activities) or, more likely, I’m dead and the powers that be want you up to speed on my job toot sweet.
Side-splitting stuff, eh?
Let me tell you a bit about myself. As I said, I’m Bob Howard, age 39, position: DSS Grade 1, that’s short for Detached Senior Scientist or Deeply Scary Sorcerer or something, nobody really cares (in the Laundry they’re more or less the same thing), and my life sucks right now.
I got into this gig because when I was working on my master’s thesis in image processing in the late nineties I almost summoned up a manifestation of outer chaos by accident. This led to the Laundry making me a job offer I wasn’t allowed to refuse. (Apparently you’re only allowed to demolish Wolverhampton if you’re a property developer like Donald Trump. Crawling eldritch horrors don’t get planning permission unless they’re Trump’s hairpiece.)
That was about fifteen years ago, in more innocent, less embattled days. So I spent a couple of years in tech support hell before getting bored, stupidly volunteering for operational duties, and ending up as Dr. Angleton’s understudy. Dr. Angleton really was a Deeply Scary Sorcerer, and when he got himself lethally entangled with a monstrously powerful vampire elder I inherited all of his duties, some of his powers (I’m still learning how much), and very little of his seventy-plus years of wisdom and experience . . .
Although I’ve been learning. Boy, have I been learning! I’ve spent most of the past year scurrying around clearing up the messes he left behind. He clearly wasn’t planning on dying any time soon, so not only did I have to pick up the slack on his more recondite duties, I also had to check the padlocks he’d left on a lot of metaphorical closets with skeletons in them. Angleton did not keep one of these diaries, oh no: he kept his notes on a magically warded electromechanical data store built during the late 1940s, and a lot of those notes said things like, demon bound under rear quadrant of supermarket car park with level six ward, half-life eighteen years, check back early next century. So I’ve spent the past nine months trotting around the globe, pacifying the unquiet dead with extreme prejudice, and inadvertently being out of the country when all hell cut loose in Yorkshire.
But I digress. Nearly a decade ago I married a fellow employee, Dr. Dominique O’Brien.* You might have heard of her. Mo used to be a troubleshooter: whenever the organization had a spot of trouble she shot it until it stopped twitching. When that got too much for her they reassigned her to the Home Office for a while. Now she’s back in-house as a freshly minted Auditor, which means she holds people like me accountable for our work with the power of life or death. For many years Mo carried an occult instrument, the White Violin, as her main operational tool. The trouble with occult instruments is that they sometimes have their own agendas; it wasn’t too keen on sharing her, so eventually it tried to eat me. She managed to get rid of it somehow, but now she’s afraid that as Angleton’s heir I might absentmindedly eat her in my sleep. As we keep undergoing the kind of personal growth experiences that involve new and exciting magical abilities – like an interesting tendency to absent-mindedly mumble death spells while waking up – I have to concede that she’s got a point. This has been a time of changes for both of us and we have about a decade of unexamined marital baggage to rethink, and consequently we’re currently living apart.
Did I mention that my life sucks?
Speaking of which: let’s have a round of applause for management responsibility! Because, after years of dodging it at every opportunity, I have had management responsibility forced upon me, whether I want it or not. And if I find the joker who nominated me for the role of Departmental Public Relations Officer I will –
No, I won’t eat them. That would be unprofessional.
(I won’t even put the frighteners on them. I might remonstrate with them politely. I could explain the errors of their ways and suggest, more in sorrow than in anger, that although I have been promoted into a very senior dead man’s shoes I don’t look good in a suit, I don’t suffer fools gladly, and if they really want a spokesman they ought to hire someone who’s trained for it, rather than being better qualified for fighting off a zombie invasion or fixing a broken firewall.)
Because I’m management now, I have to face facts. Hiring a real PR person would involve approving a budget, going through the HR recruitment and candidate selection cycle, managing the new employee’s enhanced security background check and in- processing, then bringing them up to speed on what exactly we do in the agency. (Which involves working around people with titles like Senior Staff Necromancer, Applied Computational Demonologist, or Combat Poet. Lots of newbies flee screaming at that point: our first month attrition rate is sky-high.)
So let me sum up the ways in which my life sucks right now: I’ve had a bunch of extra responsibilities dumped on me for no extra pay, I’ve had to move out of my home because my wife’s violin tried to murder me, morale is in the shitter because of the disaster in Leeds, and for the pièce de résistance, they made me wear a suit and sent me out to be grilled live on TV, because we don’t have the budget for a public relations fixer!
Yeah, it all sucks, but I suppose it could be worse. At least this time my line manager isn’t trying to sacrifice me to an elder god. But it’s still only May, so I suppose there’s time for that to change . . .
* Her being a fellow employee is arguably my fault, but as there were tentacle monsters and terrorists involved she chose not to hold it against me.