The Lovecraftian Singularity has descended upon the world in The Labyrinth Index, beginning an exciting new story arc in Charles Stross' Hugo Award-winning Laundry Files series!
Since she was promoted to the head of the Lords Select Committee on Sanguinary Affairs, every workday for Mhari Murphy has been a nightmare. It doesn’t help that her boss, the new Prime Minister of Britain, is a manipulative and deceptive pain in the butt. But what else can she expect when working under the thumb of none other than the elder god N’yar Lat-Hotep a.k.a the Creeping Chaos?
Mhari's most recent assignment takes her and a ragtag team of former Laundry agents across the pond into the depths of North America. The United States president has gone missing. Not that Americans are alarmed. For some mysterious reason, most of the country has forgotten the executive branch even exists. Perhaps it has to do with the Nazgûl currently occupying the government and attempting to summon Cthulhu.
It's now up to Mhari and her team to race against the Nazgûl's vampire-manned dragnet to find and, for his own protection, kidnap the president.
Who knew an egomaniacal, malevolent deity would have a soft spot for international relations?
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GOD SAVE THE KING
As I cross the courtyard to the execution shed I pass a tangle of bloody feathers. They appear to be the remains of one of the resident corvids, which surprises me because I thought they were already dead. Ravens are powerful and frighteningly astute birds, but they're no match for the tentacled dragonspawn that the New Management has brought to the Tower of London.
These are strange days and I can't say I'm happy about all the regime's decisions — but one does what one must to survive. And rule number one of life under the new regime is, don't piss Him off.
So I do my best to ignore the pavement pizza, and steel myself for what's coming next as I enter the shed, where the client is waiting with the witnesses, a couple of prison officers, and the superintendent.
Executions are formal occasions. I'm here as a participant, acting on behalf of my department. So I'm dressed in my funerals-and-court-appearances suit, special briefcase in hand. As I approach the police checkpoint, a constable makes a point of examining my warrant card. Then she matches me against the list of participants and peeks under my veil before letting me inside. Her partner watches the courtyard, helmet visor down and assault rifle at the ready.
The shed has been redecorated several times since they used to shoot spies in it during the Second World War. It's no longer an indoor shooting range, for one thing. For another, they've installed soundproof partitions and walls, so that the entrance opens onto a reception area before the airlock arrangement leading to a long corridor. They sign me in and I proceed past open doors that reveal spotless cells — the unit is very new, and my client today is the first condemned to be processed — then continue on to the doorway to the execution chamber at the end.
The chamber resembles a small operating theater. The table has straps to hold the client down. There's a one-way window on one wall, behind which I assume the witnesses are already waiting. I pause in the entrance and see, reflected in the mirror, the client staring at the odd whorl of blankness in the doorway.
"Ah, Ms. Murphy." The superintendent nods at me, mildly aggrieved. "You're late." She stands on the far side of the prisoner. She's in her dress uniform: a formal occasion, as already noted.
"Delays on the Circle Line." I shrug. "Sorry to hold you up."
"Yes, well, the prisoner doesn't get to eat breakfast until we're finished here."
I stifle a sigh. "Are we ready to start?" I ask as I place the special briefcase on the side table, then dial in the combination and unlock it.
"Yes." The superintendent turns to one of the prison officers. "Nigel, if you'd be so good as to talk us through the checklist?"
Nigel clears his throat. "Certainly, ma'am. First, a roll-call for the party. Superintendent: present. Security detail of four: present. Executioner: present —"
The condemned, who has been silent since I arrived, rolls his head sideways to glare at me. It's all he can move: he's trussed up like a Christmas turkey. His eyes are brown and liquid, and he has a straggly beard that somehow evades his cheekbones but engulfs his neck, as if he grew it for insulation from the cold. I smile at him as I say, "This won't hurt." Then I remember the veil. I flip it back from my face and he flinches.
"Superintendent, please confirm the identity of the subject."
The superintendent licks her lips. "I hereby confirm that the subject before us today is Mohammed Kadir, as delivered into the custody of this unit on January 12th, 2015."
"Confirmed. Superintendent, please read the execution warrant."
She reaches for a large manila envelope on the counter beside the stainless-steel sink, and opens it. There's a slim document inside, secured with Treasury tags.
"By authority vested in me by order of Her Majesty, Elizabeth II, I hereby uphold and confirm the sentence of death passed on Mohammed Kadir by the High Court on November 25th, 2014, for the crime of High Treason, and upheld on appeal by the Supreme Court on December 5th. Signed and witnessed, Home Secretary ..."
When the New Management reintroduced the death penalty, they also reintroduced the British tradition of greasing the skids under the condemned — letting people rot on death row being seen as more cruel than the fate we're about to inflict on the unfortunate Mr. Kadir. Who, to be fair, probably shouldn't have babbled fantasies about assassinating the new Prime Minister in front of a directional microphone after Friday prayers during a national state of emergency. Sucks to be him.
"Phlebotomist, please prepare the subject."
Mr. Kadir is strapped down with his right arm outstretched and the sleeve of his prison sweatshirt rolled up. Now one of the prison officers steps between us and bends over him, carefully probing the crook of his elbow for a vein. Mr. Kadir is not, thankfully, a junkie. He winces once, then the phlebotomist tapes the needle in place and steps back. He side-eyes me on his way. Is he looking slightly green?
This is my cue. I reach into the foam-padded interior of the briefcase for the first sample tube. They're needle-less syringes, just like the ones your doctor uses for blood tests. I pull ten cubic centimeters of blood into it and cap it. Venous blood isn't really blue. In lipstick terms it's dark plum, not crimson gloss. I place the full tube in its recess and take the next one, then repeat the process eighteen times. It's not demanding work, but it requires a steady hand. In the end it takes me just over ten minutes. During the entire process Mr. Kadir lies still, not fighting the restraints. After the third sample, he closes his eyes and relaxes slightly.
Finally, I'm done. I close and latch the briefcase. The phlebotomist slides out the cannula and holds a ball of cotton wool against the pinprick while he applies a sticking plaster. "There, that didn't hurt at all, did it?" I smile at Mr. Kadir. "Thank you for your cooperation."
Mr. Kadir opens his eyes, gives me a deathly stare, and recites the Shahada at me: "la'ilaha 'illa llah muhammadun rasulu llah." That's me told.
I smile wider, giving him a flash of my fangs before I tug my veil forward again. He gives no sign of being reassured by my resuming the veil, possibly because he knows I only wear it in lieu of factor-500 sunblock.
I sign the warrant on Nigel's clipboard. "Executioner, participation concluded," he intones. And that's me, done here.
"You can go now," the superintendent tells me. She looks as if she's aged a decade in the last quarter of an hour, but is also obscurely relieved: the matter is now out of her hands. "We'll get Mr. Kadir settled back in his cell and feed him his breakfast once you've gone." I glance at the mirror, at the blind spot reflected mockingly back at me. "The witnesses have a separate exit," she adds.
"Right." I nod and take a deep breath. "I'll just be off, then." Taking another deep breath, I spin the dials on the briefcase lock and pick it up. "Ta-ta, see you next time."
I'm a little bit jittery as I leave the execution chamber behind, but there's a spring in my step and I have to force myself not to click my heels. It all went a lot more smoothly than I expected. The briefcase feels heavier, even though it's weighed down by less than half an old-school pint. Chateau Kadir, vintage January 2015, shelf life two weeks. I make my way out, head for Tower Bridge Road, and expense an Addison Lee minicab back to headquarters. I can't wait to get there — I'm absolutely starving, for some reason.
Behind me, the witnesses will have already left. Mr. Kadir is being booked into the cell he will occupy for the next two weeks or so, under suicide watch. I expect the superintendent to look after her dead man with compassion and restraint. He'll get final meals and visits with his family, an imam who will pray with him, all the solicitous nursing support and at-home palliative care that can be delivered to his cell door for as long as his body keeps breathing. But that's not my department.
All I know is that in two weeks, give or take, Mr. Kadir, Daesh sympathizer and indiscreet blabbermouth, still walking and talking even though he was executed an hour ago, will be dead of V-syndrome-induced cerebral atrophy. And, as a side effect of the manner of his death, my people, the PHANGs who submitted to the rule of the New Management, will keep on going.
Because the blood is the life.
* * *
Hello, diary. I am Mhari Murphy, and if you are reading this I really hope I'm dead.
I used to work for the Laundry, a government agency that has been in the news for all the wrong reasons lately. I wanted to study biology, but ended up with a BSc in library science, for reasons too long and tedious to explain. Then I ended up with a job in Human Resources at the agency in question. I was a laughably bad fit, so it wasn't hard to get them to let me transfer out to the private sector. I acquired management experience and studied for my MBA while working for one of our largest investment banks, and was busily climbing the career ladder there when an unfortunate encounter with a contagious meme turned me into a vampire.
As a result of my new status as one of the PHANGs — Persons of Hemphagia-Assisted Neurodegenerative Geheime Staatspolizei (or something like that, the acronym wanders but the blood-drinking remains the same) — I ended up drafted back into the Human Resources Department of Q-Division, Special Operations Executive, aka the Laundry: the secret agency that protects the UK from alien nightmares and magical horrors. But things were different this time round. I was rapidly reassigned to a policing agency called the Transhuman Police Coordination Force, as director of operations and assistant to the chief executive, Dr. O'Brien. Our beat was dealing with superpowered idiots in masks. (The less said about my time as White Mask — a member of the official Home Office superhero team — the better.) When all's said and done, TPCF was mostly a public relations exercise, but it was a blessing in disguise for me because it broke me out of a career rut. When TPCF was gobbled up by the London Metropolitan Police I was re-acquired by Q-Division, moved onto the management fast-track, and assigned responsibility for the PHANGs. All the surviving ones, that is.
A big chunk of my job is to organize and requisition their blood meals, because the way PHANGs derive sustenance from human blood is extremely ugly. The V-parasites that give us our capabilities rely on us to draw blood from donors. They then chew microscopic holes in the victims' gray matter, so that they die horribly, sooner rather than later. But if we don't drink donor blood, eventually our parasites eat us. Consequently, it fell to someone to arrange to procure a steady supply of blood from dying terminal patients and distribute it to the PHANGs. That someone being me.
Anyway, that was the status quo ante, with me responsible for keeping all PHANGs on a very short leash and available for operational duties — they tend to be really good sorcerers, as long as they don't go insane from hunger and start murdering people — until the horrifying mess in Yorkshire last year resulted in the outing and subsequent dismemberment of the agency.
PHANGs being high-capability assets, I was pulled into Continuity Operations by the Senior Auditor and assigned to Active Ops, a specialty I've evaded for the past fifteen years because I do not approve of playing James Bond games when there are documents to be processed and meetings to be chaired. To be honest, I joined Continuity Operations mainly in the expectation that it would keep my team of PHANGs fed. I think most of us would choose to walk into the sunlight if the hunger pangs got too bad, but I'm not exactly keen to test their limits. Neither do I want to murder my own people. So it fell to me to keep them alive by any means necessary.
Continuity Operations — working against an enemy organization that had infiltrated and captured the government behind our back — were entirely necessary. And when the dust settled, we had a new government — the New Management, led by the very shiny new Prime Minister, who was unanimously voted into Westminster by the grateful citizens of a constituency whose former MP (a member of the cabinet) was catatonic in a hospital bed at the time. The Home Secretary invoked the Civil Contingencies Act and served as transitional PM in the wake of the emergency at Nether Stowe House, but she stepped down without a struggle1 right after the new Prime Minister took the oath. Personally I suspect the PM had something to do with her resignation, but I have no proof, and as you have probably realized by now, it is very unwise to ask certain questions about the New Management, lest they ask questions about you.
We are now six months on from the tumultuous scene at the Palace of Westminster, when the Prime Minister took his seat and the New Management presented its program in the Queen's Speech. Six months into rule by decree under the imprimatur of the Civil Contingencies Act, as Parliament obediently processes a gigantic laundry-list of legislative changes. Six months into an ongoing state of emergency, as the nation finds itself under attack from without and within.
Which brings me to my current job.
Five months ago I was notified that it was Her Majesty's pleasure — or rather, that of her government — to bestow upon me the rank of Dame Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire. That rank came with the title of Baroness Karnstein (the PM's little joke), a life peerage, and a seat in the House of Lords.
The British government gives good titles, but don't get too excited: it just means the New Management considers PHANGs to be a useful instrument of state, and wanted a tame expert on board. Consequently I chair the Lords Select Committee on Sanguinary Affairs and have the distasteful duty to conduct executions, newly recommenced after fifty years in abeyance. Although I did get to be the first vampire — as far as I know — ever to wear an ermine-trimmed robe to the state opening of Parliament, so I suppose there's a silver lining ...
Anyway, that's my CV. A slow start followed by a dizzying stratospheric ascent into government, you might think. But the New Management doesn't hand out honors and benefices without getting something in return. And I've been waiting for the other Jimmy Choo to drop ever since I was sworn in.
* * *
An unwelcome consequence of my new position is that I have come to the attention of very important people. This is a mixed blessing, especially when one of them is the Prime Minister himself, Fabian Everyman, also known as the Mandate — or the People's Mandate, if you're a tabloid journalist.
A couple of days after I officiated at the execution of Mr. Kadir — his soul is now feeding the V-parasites of some seven PHANGs, so he's probably good for another week — I'm alert and not particularly hungry as I perch on the edge of a fussy Victorian sofa in the White Drawing Room at 10 Downing Street.
I'm here because the PM invited me for afternoon tea and cakes along with a handful of colleagues from Mahogany Row, the formerly secretive upper tier of the Laundry. The PM is wearing his usual immaculate three-piece suit, and everyone is on high alert. This session is only informal insofar as it has no agenda. In truth, it's a platform for the PM, who is mercurial at best, to rant at us about his personal hobby horses. (Which are many and alarming, and he tends to switch between them in mid-sentence.) It's as exhausting as dealing with an early-stage dementia sufferer — one with a trillion-pound budget and nuclear-weapons-release authority.
"We need to deal with the Jews, you know," Fabian confides, then pauses dramatically.
This is new and unwelcome, and more than somewhat worrying. (I knew the PM held some rather extreme views, but this level of forthright anti-Semitism is unexpected.) "May I ask why?" I ask hesitantly.
"I'd have thought it was obvious!" He sniffs. "All that charitable work. Loaves and fishes, good Samaritans, y'know. Sermon on the Mount stuff. Can't be doing with it —"
Beside me, Chris Womack risks interrupting His flow: "Don't you mean Christians, sir?"
"— And all those suicide bombers. Blowing people up in the name of their god, but can't choke down a bacon roll. Can't be doing with them: you mark my words, they'll have to be dealt with!"(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Labyrinth Index"
Copyright © 2018 Charles Stross.
Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
One: God Save the King,
Two: Morning in America,
Three: We're only making plans for Jar-Jar,
Five: On Death Ground,
Six: Leviathan's Representative,
Seven: Critical-Path Dependencies,
Eight: A game of vampires,
Nine: Mhari's big day,
Ten: Flight Plan,
Eleven: A dead god did it and ran away,
Also by Charles Stross,
About the Author,