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A Laundry Novella
By Charles Stross, David Palumbo
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2013 Charles Stross
All rights reserved.
"Bob! Are you busy right now? I'd like a moment of your time."
Those thirteen words never bode well—although coming from my new manager, Iris, they're less doom-laden than if they were falling from the lips of some others I could name. In the two months I've been working for her Iris has turned out to be the sanest and most sensible manager I've had in the past five years. Which is saying quite a lot, really, and I'm eager to keep her happy while I've got her.
"Be with you in ten minutes," I call through the open door of my office; "got a query from HR to answer first." Human Resources have teeth, here in the secretive branch of the British government known to its inmates as the Laundry; so when HR ask you to do their homework—ahem, provide one's opinion of an applicant's suitability for a job opening—you give them priority over your regular work load. Even when it's pretty obvious that they're taking the piss.
I am certain that Mr. Lee would make an extremely able addition to the Office Equipment Procurement Team, I type, if he was not already—according to your own goddamn database, if you'd bothered to check it—a lieutenant in the Chinese Peoples Liberation Army Jiangshi Brigade. Who presumably filled out the shouldn't-have-been-published-on-the-internet job application on a drunken dare, or to test our vetting procedures, or something. Consequently I suspect that he would fail our mandatory security background check at the first hurdle. (As long as the vetting officer isn't also a PLA mole.)
I hit "send" and wander out into the neon tube overcast where Iris is tapping her toes. "Your place or mine?"
"Mine," says Iris, beckoning me into her cramped corner office. "Have a chair, Bob. Something's come up, and I think it's right up your street." She plants herself behind her desk, leans back in her chair, and preps her pitch. "It'll get you out of the office for a bit, and if HR are using you to stomp all over the dreams of upwardly-mobile Chinese intelligence operatives it means you're—"
"Underutilized. Yeah, whatever." I wave it off. But it's true: since I sorted out the funny stuff in the basement at St. Hilda's I've been bored. The day-to-day occupation of the average secret agent mostly consists of hurry up and wait. In my case, that means filling in on annoying bits of administrative scutwork and handling upgrades to the departmental network—when I'm not being called upon to slay multi-tentacled horrors from beyond spacetime. (Which doesn't happen very often, actually, for which I am profoundly grateful.) "You said it's out of the office?"
"Yes." She smiles; she knows she's planted the hook. "A bit of fresh country air, Bob—you're too pallid. But tell me—" she leans forward—"what do you know about horses?"
The equine excursion takes me by surprise. "Uh?" I shake my head. "Four legs, hooves, and a bad attitude?" Iris shakes her head, so I try again: "Go with a carriage like, er, love and marriage?"
"No, Bob, I was wondering—did you ever learn to ride?"
"What, you mean—wait, we're not talking about bicycles here, right?" From her reaction I don't think that's the answer she was looking for. "I'm a city boy. As the photographer said, you should never work with animals or small children if you can avoid it. What's come up, a dressage emergency?"
"Not exactly." Her smile fades. "It's a shame, it would have made this easier."
"Made what easier?"
"I could have sworn HR said you could ride." She stares at me pensively. "Never mind. Too late to worry about has-beens now. Hmm. Anyway, it probably doesn't matter—you're married, so I don't suppose you're a virgin, either. Are you?"
"Get away!" Virgins? That particular myth is associated with unicorns, which don't exist, any more than vampires, dragons, or mummies—although I suppose if you wrapped a zombie in bandages you'd get a—stop that. In my head, confused stories about Lady Godiva battle with media images of tweed-suited shotgun-wielding farmers. "Do you need someone who can ride? Because I don't think I can learn in—"
"No, Bob, I need you. Or rather, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs needs a liaison officer who just happens to have your background and proven track record in—" she waves her left hand—"putting down infestations."
"Do they?" I do a double-take at putting down infestations. "Are they sure that's what they need?"
"Yes, they are. Or rather, they know that when they spot certain signs, they call us." She pulls open a desk drawer and removes a slim folder, its cover bearing the Crowned Portcullis emblem beneath an elder sign. "Take this back to your office and read it," she tells me. "Return it to the stacks when you're done. Then you can spend the rest of the afternoon thinking of ways to politely tell HR to piss up a rope, because tomorrow morning you're getting on a train to Hove in order to lend a DEFRA inspector a helping hand."
"You're serious?" I boggle at her. "You're sending me to do what? Inspect a farm?"
"I don't want to prejudice your investigation. There's a livery stable. Just hook up with the man from The Archers, take a look around, and phone home if anything catches your attention."
She slides the file across my desk and I open the flyleaf. It starts with TOP SECRET and a date round about the battle of the Somme, crossed out and replaced with successively lower classifications until fifteen years ago it was marked down to MILDLY EMBARRASSING NO TABLOIDS. Then I flip the page and spot the title. "Hang on—"
"Shoo," she says, a wicked glint in her eyes. "Have fun!"
I shoo, smarting. I know a set-up when I see one—and I've been conned.
* * *
To understand why I knew I'd been tricked, you need to know who I am and what I do. Assuming you've read this far without your eyeballs boiling in your skull, it's probably safe to tell you that my name's Bob Howard—at least, for operational purposes; true names have power, and we don't like to give extradimensional identity thieves the keys to our souls—and I work for a secret government agency known to its inmates as the Laundry. It morphed into its present form during the Second World War, ran the occult side of the conflict with the Thousand Year Reich, and survives to this day as an annoying blob somewhere off to the left on the org chart of the British intelligence services, funded out of the House of Lords black budget.
Magic is a branch of applied mathematics, and I started out studying computer science (which is no more about computers than astronomy is about building really big telescopes). These days I specialize in applied computational demonology and general dogsbody work around my department. The secret service has never really worked out to how to deal with people like me, who aren't admin personnel but didn't come up through the Oxbridge civil service fast-track route. In fact, I got into this line of work entirely by accident: if your dissertation topic leads you in the wrong direction you'd better hope that the Laundry finds you and makes you a job offer you can't refuse before the things you've unintentionally summoned up get bored talking to you and terminate your viva voce with prejudice.
After a couple of years of death by bureaucratic snu-snu (too many committee meetings, too many tedious IT admin jobs) I volunteered for active duty, without any clear understanding that it would mean more years of death by boredom (too many committee meetings, too many tedious IT jobs) along with a side-order of mortal terror courtesy of tentacle monsters from beyond spacetime.
As I am now older and wiser, not to mention married and still in possession of my sanity, I prefer my work life to be boringly predictable these days. Which it is, as a rule, but then along come the nuisance jobs—the Laundry equivalent of the way the US Secret Service always has to drop round for coffee, a cake, and a brisk interrogation with idiots who boast about shooting the president on Yahoo! Chat.
In my experience, your typical scenario is that some trespassing teenagers get stoned on 'shrooms, hallucinate flying saucers piloted by alien colorectal surgeons looking to field-test their new alien endoscope technology, and shit themselves copiously all over Farmer Giles' back paddock. A report is generated by the police, and as happens with reports of unknown origin, it accretes additional bureaucratic investigatory mojo until by various pathways it lands on the desk of one of our overworked analysts. They then bump it up the management chain and/or play cubicle ping-pong with it, because they're too busy working to keep tabs on the Bloody Skull Cult or cases of bovine demonic possession in Norfolk or something equally important. Finally, in an attempt to make the blessed thing go away, a manager finds a spare human resource and details the poor bastard to wade through the reports, interview the culprits, and then tread in cow shit while probing the farm cesspool for the spoor of alien pre-endoscopy laxatives. Nineteen times out of twenty it's an annoying paper chase followed by a day spent typing up a report that nobody will read. One time in twenty the affair is enlivened by you falling head-first into the cesspit. And the worst part of it is knowing that while you're off on a wild goose chase so you can close the books on the report, your everyday workload is quietly piling up in your in-tray and overflowing onto your desk ...
Which is why, as I get back to my office, close the door, light up the DO NOT DISTURB sign, and open the folder Iris gave me, I start to swear quietly.
What the hell do the love letters of that old fraud H. P. Lovecraft have to do with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs?
I received your letter with, I must confess, some trepidation, not to mention mixed feelings of hope & despair tempered by the forlorn hope that the uncanny and unpleasant history of my own investigations & their regrettable outcome will serve to dampen the ardor with which you pursue your studies. I know full well to my great & abiding dismay the compulsive fascination that the eldritch & uncanny may exert upon the imagination of an introspective & sensitive scholar. I cannot help but be aware that you are already cognizant of the horrible risks to which your sanity will be exposed. What you may not be aware of is the physical damage that may fall upon you pursuant to these studies. It took my grandfather's life; it drove my father to seek redress by means of such vile & unmentionable acts that I cannot bring myself to record their nature for posterity—but suffice to say that his life was shortened thereby—and it has been grievously injurious to my own health & fitness for marriage. There, I say it baldly; but for the blessed Sonia I might have been a mortal wreck for my entire life. It was only by her grace & infinite patience that I regained some modicum of that which is the birthright of all the sons of Adam, and though we are parted she bears my guilty secret discreetly.
I confess that I was not always thus. My childhood was far from unhappy. I grew up an accident-prone but happy youth, living with my mother & my aunts in reduced but nevertheless genteel circumstances in Providence town. At first I studied the classics: Greek & Roman & Egyptian were my mother tongues, & all the rhapsodies of the poetic calling were mine! My grandfather's library was the orchid whose nectar I sipped, sweeter by far than any wine. He had amassed a considerable archive over the course of many years of travel inflicted on him by the base necessity of trade—I must interject at this juncture that I cannot stress too highly the need to shun such distractions as commerce if one is to reach one's full potential as a scholar by traversal of the path you propose to embark upon—and the fruits of his sorrows fermented into a heady vintage in time for my youthful excursions into his cellar to broach the casks of wisdom. However, I came to recognize a bitter truth as I assayed the dregs of his collection: my kindred souls are as the dust of the church-yard. As with Poe so am I one with the dead, for we persons of rarefied spirit & talent tread but seldom upon the boards of earth & are summoned all too soon to the exit eternal.
Now, as to the qualities of the MS submitted with your latest missive for my opinion, I must thank you most kindly for granting me the opportunity to review the work at this early stage—
I go home nursing a headache and a not inconsiderable sense of resentment at, variously: Iris for tricking me into this job; DEFRA for asking for back-up in the first place; and Howard Phillips Lovecraft of Providence, Rhode Island, for cultivating a florid and overblown prose style that covered the entire spectrum from purple to ultraviolet and took sixteen volumes of interminable epistles to get to the point—whatever point it was that constituted the meat of the EQUESTRIAN RED SIRLOIN dossier, which point I had not yet ascertained despite asymptotically approaching it in the course of reading what felt like reams & volumes of the aforementioned purple prose—which is infectious.
To cap it all, my fragrant wife Mo is away on some sort of assignment she can't talk about. All I know is that something's come up in Blackpool that requires her particular cross-section of very expensive talents, so I'm on my own tonight. (Combat epistemologists and violin soloists both are underpaid, but take many years and no little innate talent to train. Consequently, the demands on her time are many.) So I kick back with a bottle of passable cabernet sauvignon and a DVD—in this case, plucked at random from the watch-this-later shelf. It turns out to be a Channel Four production of Equus, by Peter Shaffer. Which I am hitherto unfamiliar with (don't laugh: my background veers towards the distaff side of the Two Cultures) and which really doesn't mix well with a bottle of red wine and H. P. Lovecraft's ghastly prose. So I spend half the night tossing and turning to visions of melting spindly-legged Dali horses with gouged eye sockets—I've got to stop the eyeballs rolling away, for some reason—with the skin-crawling sense that something unspeakable is watching me from the back of the stables. This is bad enough that I then spend the second half of the night sitting at the kitchen table in my pajamas, brute-forcing my way through my half of my annual ideological self-criticism session—that is, the self-assessed goals and objectives portion of my performance appraisal—because the crawling horrors of human resources are far less scary than the gory movie playing out behind my eyeballs.
(This is why many of my co-workers eventually start taking work home—at least, the non-classified bits. Bureaucracy is a bulwark of comforting routine in the face of the things you really don't want to think about too hard by dead of night. Not to mention being a safer tranquilizer than drink or drugs.)
In my experience it's best to go on-site and nail these bullshit jobs immediately, rather than wasting too much time on over-planning. This one is, when all is said and done, what our trans-Atlantic cousins call "a snipe hunt." I'm hoping to nail it shut—probably a little girl with a strap-on plastic horn for her pony—and be home in time for tea. So the next morning I leave home and head straight for London Bridge station rather than going in to the office. I fight my way upstream through the onrushing stream of suits and catch the commuter train that carried them into London on its return journey, rattling and mostly empty on its run out to the dormitory towns of East Sussex. It's just me and the early birds taking the cheapskate stopping service to Crapwick to avoid the hordes of holiday-makers (and pickpockets) at Thiefrow. And that's the way I like it.
I have a name and destination in the Request for Support memo Iris gave me: we're to investigate one G. Edgebaston, of Edgebaston Farm Livery Stables, near Hove. But first I'm supposed to meet a Mr. Scullery at a local DEFRA office in East Grinstead. Which is on the London to Brighton line, but it'll take me a good hour of start-stop commuter rail and then a taxi ride of indeterminate length to get there. So I take a deep breath and dive back into the regrettably deathless prose of the Prophet of Providence.
Excerpted from Equoid by Charles Stross, David Palumbo. Copyright © 2013 Charles Stross. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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