Hugo Award-winning author Charles Stross presents the next case in The Laundry Files. Dominique O'Brien - her friends call her Mo - lives a curious double life with her husband, Bob Howard. To the average civilian, they're boring middle-aged civil servants. But within the labyrinthian secret circles of Her Majesty's government, they're operatives working for the nation's occult security service known as the Laundry, charged with defending Britain against dark supernatural forces threatening humanity.
Mo's latest assignment is assisting the police in containing an unusual outbreak: ordinary citizens suddenly imbued with extraordinary abilities of the superpowered kind. Unfortunately these people prefer playing superpranks instead of superheroics. The mayor of London being levitated by a dumpy man in Trafalgar Square would normally be a source of shared amusement for Mo and Bob, but they're currently separated because something's come between them - something evil. An antique violin, an Erich Zann original, made of human white bone, was designed to produce music capable of slaughtering demons. Mo is the custodian of this unholy instrument. It invades her dreams and yearns for the blood of her colleagues - and her husband. And despite Mo's proficiency as a world-class violinist, it cannot be controlled....
Release date: July 7, 2015
Print pages: 416
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The Annihilation Score
PROLOGUE: THE INCORRIGIBLES
Please allow me to introduce myself . . .
No. Strike that. Period stop backspace backspace bloody computer no stop that stop listening stop dictating end end oh I give up.
Will you stop doing that?
Starting all over again (typing this time: it’s slower, but dam speech recognition and auto-defect to Heckmondwike):
* * *
My husband is sometimes a bit slow on the uptake; you’d think that after ten years together he’d have realized that our relationship consisted of him, me, and a bone-white violin made for a Mad Scientist by a luthier-turned-necromancer. But no: the third party in our ménage à trois turns out to be a surprise to him after all these years, and he needs more time to think about it.
Bending over backwards to give him the benefit of the doubt, this has only become an issue since my husband acquired the ability to see Lecter—that’s what I call my violin when I argue with him*—for what he is. (He. She. It. Whatever.) Bob is very unusual in having lately developed this ability: it marks him as a member of a privileged elite, the select club of occult practitioners who can recognize what they’re in the presence of and stand fast against it rather than fleeing screaming into the night. Like the Vampire Bitch from Human Resources, and what was she doing in the living room at five o’clock in the morning—?
Issues. Vampires, violins, and marital miscommunications. I’m going off-topic again, aren’t I? Time out for tea!
* * *
My name is Mo; that’s short for Dominique O’Brien. I’m forty-three years old, married to a man who calls himself Bob Howard, aged thirty-eight and a quarter. We are currently separated while we try to sort things out—things including, but not limited to: my relationship with my violin, his relationship with the Vampire Bitch from Human Resources, and the End Of The World As We Know It (which is an ongoing work-related headache).
This is my introduction to my work journal during OPERATION INCORRIGIBLE, and the period immediately before and after it. We’re supposed to keep these journals in order to facilitate institutional knowledge retention in event of our death in the line of duty. And if you are reading it, you are probably a new Laundry recruit and I am probably not on hand to brief you in person because I’m dead.
Now, you might be wondering why this journal is so large. I could soft-soap you and claim that I just wanted to leave you with a full and balanced perspective on the events surrounding OPERATION INCORRIGIBLE—it’s certainly a valid half-truth—but the real reason is that I’ve been under a lot of stress lately. Nervous breakdowns are a luxury item that we don’t have time for right now, and anyway, all our security-cleared therapists are booked up eight months in advance: so the only psychotherapy I’m getting is the DIY kind, and pouring it all out into a private diary that’s going to be classified up to its armpits and buried in a TOP SECRET vault guarded by security zombies until I’m too dead to be embarrassed by it seemed like a good compromise. So I wrote it this way, and I don’t have the time (or inclination, frankly) to go back and take all the personal stuff out: duty calls, etcetera, and you’ll just have to suck it up.
If I were Bob, this journal would probably claim to be written by “Sabine Braveheart” or some such nonsense, but after OPERATION INCORRIGIBLE my patience with silly pseudonyms is at an all-time low. So I’ll use pseudonyms where necessary to protect high-clearance covert assets, and for people who insist on hiding under rocks—yes, Bob, if you’re reading this I’m talking about you—but the rest of the time I’ll call a spade a bloody shovel, not EARTHMOVER CRIMSON VORTEX.
Anyway, you got this far so let me finish the prelude to the intro by adding that if you can get past all the Bridget Jones meets The Apocalypse stuff you might pick up some useful workplace tips. (To say nothing of the juicy office gossip.)
* * *
Now, to the subject matter at hand (feel free to skip the rest of this foreword if you already know it all):*
Bob and I are operatives working for an obscure department of the British civil service, known to its inmates—of whom you are now one—as the Laundry. We’re based in London. To family and friends, we’re civil servants; Bob works in IT, while I have a part-time consultancy post and also teach theory and philosophy of music at Birkbeck College. In actual fact, Bob is a computational demonologist turned necromancer, and I am a combat epistemologist. (It’s my job to study hostile philosophies, and disrupt them. Don’t ask; it’ll all become clear later.)
I also play the violin.
A brief recap: magic is the name given to the practice of manipulating the ultrastructure of reality by carrying out mathematical operations. We live in a multiverse, and certain operators trigger echoes in the Platonic realm of mathematical truth, echoes which can be amplified and fed back into our (and other) realities. Computers, being machines for executing mathematical operations at very high speed, are useful to us as occult engines. Likewise, some of us have the ability to carry out magical operations in our own heads, albeit at terrible cost.
Magic used to be rare and difficult and unsystematized. It became rather more common and easy and formal after Alan Turing put it on a sound theoretical footing at Bletchley Park during the war: for which sin, our predecessors had him bumped off during the 1950s. It was an act of epic stupidity; these days people who rediscover the core theorems are recruited and put to use by the organization.
Unfortunately, computers are everywhere these days—and so are hackers, to such an extent that we have a serious human resources problem, as in: too many people to keep track of. Worse: there are not only too many computers, but too many brains. The effect of all this thinking on the structure of spacetime is damaging—the more magic there is, the easier magic becomes, and the risk we run is that the increasing rate of thaum flux over time tends to infinity and we hit the magical singularity and ordinary people acquire godlike powers as spacetime breaks down, and then the ancient nightmares known as the Elder Gods come out to play. We in the Laundry refer to this apocalyptic situation as CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN, and it is the most immediate of the CASE NIGHTMARE RAINBOW scenarios—existential threats to the future survival of the human species. The bad news is, due to the population crisis we’ve been in the early stages of CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN for the past few years, and we are unlikely to be safe again before the middle of the 22nd century.
And so it is that Bob and I live a curious double life—as boring middle-aged civil servants on the one hand, and as the nation’s occult security service on the other.
Which brings me to the subject of OPERATION INCORRIGIBLE.
I’m supposed to give you a full and frank account of OPERATION INCORRIGIBLE. The trouble is, my experience of it was colored by certain events of a personal nature, and although I recognize that it’s highly unprofessional to bring one’s private life into the office, not to mention potentially offensive and a violation of HR guidelines on respect for diversity and sexual misconduct, I can’t let it pass.
Bluntly: Bob started it, and I really can’t see any way to explain what went wrong with OPERATION INCORRIGIBLE without reference to the Vampire Bitch from HR, not to mention Her With The Gills. Or the Mayor, the nude sculpture on the Fourth Plinth, and how I blew my cover. Also: the plague of superheroes, what it’s like to have to set up a government agency from scratch during a crisis, and the truth about what it was like to be a member of the official Home Office superhero team. And finally, the truth about my relationship with Officer Friendly.
So, Bob—Bob? I know you’re reading this—you’d better tell HR to get on the phone to RELATE and find us a marriage guidance counselor with a security clearance.
Because this is what happened, really and truly.
Business trips: I hate them.
Actually, hatred is too mild an emotion to encapsulate how I feel about my usual run-of-the-mill off-site work-related travel. Fear and loathing comes closer; I only ever get sent places when things have gotten so out of control that they need a troubleshooter. Or trouble-violinist. My typical business trips are traumatic and horrible, and leave me with nightmares and a tendency to startle at loud noises for weeks afterwards, not to mention an aversion to newspapers and TV reports on horrible incidents in far-off places. Bob is used to this. He does a wonderful job of keeping the home fires burning, providing warm cocoa and iced Scotch on demand, and over the years he’s even learned to pretend to listen. (He’s not very good at it, mind, but the gesture counts. And, to be fair, he has his own demons to wrestle with.)
But anyway: not long ago, for the first time in at least two years, I got sent on a job that didn’t require me to confront oh God, please make them stop eating the babies’ faces but instead required me to attend committee meetings in nice offices, and even a couple of diplomatic receptions. So I went shopping for a little black dress and matching shoes and accessories. Then I splashed out on a new suit I could also use for work after I got back. And then I got to do the whole cocktail-hour-at-the-embassy thing for real.
Cocktail hour at the embassy consisted of lots of charming men and women in suits and LBDs drinking Buck’s Fizz and being friendly to one another, and so what if half of them had gill slits and dorsal fins under the tailoring, and the embassy smelled of seaweed because it was on an officially derelict oil rig in the middle of the North Sea, and the Other Side has the technical capability to exterminate every human being within two hundred kilometers of a coastline if they think we’ve violated the Benthic Treaty? It was fun. It was an officially sanctioned party. I was not there because my employers thought someone or something vile might need killing: I was there to add a discreet hint of muscle under the satin frock at a diplomatic reception in honor of the renewal of the non-aggression treaty between Her Majesty’s Government and Our Friends The Deep Ones (also known as BLUE HADES).
The accommodation deck was a little utilitarian of course, even though they’d refitted it to make the Foreign Office Xenobiology staffers feel a bit more at home. And there was a baby grand piano in the hospitality suite, although nobody was playing it (which was a good thing because it meant nobody asked me if I’d like to accompany the pianist on violin, so I didn’t have to explain that Lecter was indisposed because he was sleeping off a heavy blood meal in the locker under my bed).
In fact, now that I think about it, the entire week on the rig was almost entirely news-free and music-free.
And I didn’t have any nightmares.
I’m still a bit worried about just why I got this plum of a job at such short notice, mind you. Gerry said he needed me to stand in for Julie Warren, who has somehow contracted pneumonia and is hors de combat thereby. But with 20/20 hindsight, my nasty suspicious mind suggests that maybe Strings Were Pulled. The charitable interpretation is that someone in HR noticed that I was a little overwrought—Bob left them in no doubt about that after the Iranian business, bless his little drama-bunny socks—but the uncharitable interpretation . . . well, I’ll get to that in a bit. Let’s just say that if I’d known I was going to run into Ramona, I might have had second thoughts about coming.
So, let’s zoom in on the action, shall we?
It was Wednesday evening. We flew out to the embassy on Tuesday, and spent the following day sitting around tables in breakout groups discussing fisheries quotas, responsibility for mitigating leaks from deep-sea oil drilling sites, leasing terms for right-of-way for suboceanic cables, and liaison protocols for resolving disputes over inadvertent territorial incursions by ignorant TV production crews in midget submarines—I’m not making that bit up, you wouldn’t believe how close James Cameron came to provoking World War Three. We were due to spend Thursday in more sessions and present our consensus reports on ongoing future negotiations to the ambassadors on Friday morning, before the ministers flew in to shake flippers and sign steles on the current renewal round. But on Wednesday we wrapped up at five. Our schedule gave us a couple hours to decompress and freshen up, and then there was to be a cocktail reception hosted by His Scaliness, the Ambassador to the United Kingdom from BLUE HADES.*
These negotiations weren’t just a UK/BH affair; the UK was leading an EU delegation, so we had a sprinkling of diplomats from just about everywhere west of the Urals. (Except Switzerland, of course.) It was really a professional mixer, a meet-and-greet for the two sides. And that’s what I was there for.
I’m not really a diplomat, except in the sense of the term understood by General von Clausewitz. I don’t really know anything about fisheries quotas or liaison protocols. What I was there to do was show off my pretty face in a nice frock under the nose of the BLUE HADES cultural attaché, who would then recognize me and understand the significance of External Assets detaching me from my regular circuit of fuck I didn’t know they exploded like water balloons is that green stuff blood to attend a polite soirée.
But drinking dilute bubbly and partying, for middle-aged values of partying (as Bob would put it), is a pleasant change of pace: I could get used to it. So picture me standing by the piano with a tall drink, listening to a really rather charming Chief Superintendent (on detached duty with the fisheries folks, out of uniform) spin sardonic stories about the problems he’s having telling honest trawlermen from Russian smugglers and Portuguese fisheries pirates, when I suddenly realize I’m enjoying myself, if you ignore the spot on the back of my right ankle where my shoe is rubbing—picture me totally relaxed, in the moment right before reality sandbags me.
“Mo?” I hear, in a musical, almost liquid mezzo-soprano, rising on a note of excitement: “Is that really you?”
I begin to turn because something about the voice is tantalizingly familiar if unwelcome, and I manage to fix my face in a welcoming smile just in time because the speaker is familiar. “Ramona?” It’s been seven years. I keep smiling. “Long time no see!” At this moment I’d be happier if it was fourteen years. Or twenty-one.
“Mo, it is you! You look wonderful,” she enthuses.
“Hey, you’re looking good yourself,” I respond on autopilot while I try to get my pulse back under control. And it’s true, because she is looking splendid. She’s wearing a backless, gold lamé fishtail number that clings in all the right places to emphasize her supermodel-grade bone structure and make me feel underdressed and dowdy. That she’s got ten years on me doesn’t hurt either. Eyes of blue, lips with just the right amount of femme fatale gloss, hair in an elaborate chignon: she’s trying for the mermaid look, I see. How appropriate. There’s just a hint of gray to her skin, and—of course—the sharklike gill slits betwixt collar bones and throat, to give away the fact that it’s not just a fashion statement. That, and the sky-high thaum field she’s giving off: she’s working a class four glamour, or I’ll eat my corsage.* “I heard you were transitioning?”
She waves it off with a swish of a white kidskin opera glove. “We have ways of arresting or delaying the change. I can still function up here for a while. But within another two years I’ll need a walker or a wheelchair all the time, and I can’t pass in public anymore.” Her eyebrows furrow minutely, telegraphing irritation. I peer at her. (Are those tiny translucent scales?) “So I decided to take this opportunity for a last visit.” She takes a tiny step, swaying side-to-side as if she’s wearing seven-inch stilettos: but of course she isn’t, and where the train of her dress pools on the floor it conceals something other than feet. “How have you been? I haven’t heard anything from you or Bob for ages.”
For a brief moment she looks wistful, fey, and just very slightly vulnerable. I remind myself that I’ve got nothing against her: really, my instinctive aversion is just a side effect of the overwhelming intimidatory power of her glamour, which in turn is a cosmetic rendered necessary by her unfortunate medical condition. To find yourself trapped in a body with the wrong gender must be hard to bear: How much harsher to discover, at age thirty, that you’re the wrong species?
“Life goes on,” I say, with a light shrug. I glance at Mr. Fisheries Policeman to invite him to stick around, but he nods affably and slithers away in search of canapés and a refill for his glass of bubbly. “In the past month Bob has acquired a cat, a promotion, and a committee.” (A committee where he’s being run ragged by the Vampire Bitch from Human Resources, a long-ago girlfriend-from-hell who has returned from the dead seemingly for the sole purpose of making his life miserable.) “As for me, I’m enjoying myself here. Slumming it among the upper classes.” I catch myself babbling and throw on the brakes. “Taking life easy.”
“I hear things,” Ramona says sympathetically. “The joint defense coordination committee passes stuff on. I have a—what passes for a—desk. It’d all be very familiar to you, I think, once you got used to my people. They’re very—” She pauses. “I was going to say human, but that’s not exactly the right word, is it? They’re very personable. Cold-blooded and benthic, but they metabolize oxygen and generate memoranda all the same, just like any other bureaucratic life form. After a while you stop noticing the scales and tentacles and just relate to them as folks. But anyway: we hear things. About the Sleeper in the Pyramid and the Ancient of Days and the game of nightmares in Highgate Cemetery. And you have my deepest sympathy, for what it’s worth. Prosit.” She raises her champagne flute in salute.
“Cheers.” I take a sip of Buck’s Fizz and focus on not displaying my ignorance. I am aware of the Sleeper and the Ancient, but . . . “Highgate Cemetery?”
“Oops.” Fingers pressed to lips, her perfectly penciled eyebrows describe an arch: “Pretend you didn’t hear that? Your people have it in hand, I’m sure you’ll be briefed on it in due course.” Well, perhaps I will be: but my skin is crawling. Ramona knows too much for my peace of mind, and she’s too professional for this to be an accidental disclosure: she’s letting it all hang out on purpose. Why? “Listen, you really ought to come and visit some time. My ma—people—are open to proposals for collaboration, you know. ‘The time is right,’ so to speak. For collaboration. With humans, or at least their agencies.”
The thing about Ramona is, she’s a professional in the same line of work as me and thee. She’s an old hand: formerly an OCCINT asset enchained by the Black Chamber, now cut loose and reunited with the distaff side of her family tree—the inhuman one. She is proven by her presence here this evening to be a player in the game of spies, squishy-versus-scaly subplot, sufficiently trusted by BLUE HADES that they’re willing to parade her around in public. She must have given them extraordinarily good reasons to trust her, such excellent reasons that I am now beginning to think that uninviting her to my wedding all those years ago was a strategic mistake. Time to rebuild damaged bridges, I think.
“Yes, we really ought to do lunch some time soon,” I say. “We could talk about, oh, joint fisheries policy or something.”
“Yes, that. Or maybe cabbages and kings, and why there are so many superheroes in the news this week?”
“Movies?” My turn to raise an eyebrow: “I know they were all the rage in Hollywood—”
She frowns, and I suddenly realize I’ve missed an important cue. “Don’t be obtuse, Mo.” She takes another carefully measured sip of champagne: I have to admire her control, even if I don’t much like being around her because of what her presence reminds me of. “Three new outbreaks last week: one in London, one in Manchester, and one in Merthyr Tydfil. That last one would be Cap’n Coal, who, let me see, ‘wears a hard hat and tunnels underground to pop up under the feet of dog-walkers who let their pooches foul the pavement.’” She smacks her lips with fishy amusement. “And then there was the bonded warehouse robbery at Heathrow that was stopped by Officer Friendly.” I blink, taken aback.
“I haven’t been following the news,” I admit. “I spent the past few weeks getting over jet lag.” Jet lag is a euphemism, like an actor’s resting between theatrical engagements.
“Was that your business trip to Vakilabad?”
Her eyes widen as I grab her wrist. “Stop. Right now.” Her pupils are not circular; they’re vertical figure eights, an infinity symbol stood on end. I feel as if I’m falling into them, and the ward on my discreet silver necklace flares hot. My grip tightens.
“I’m sorry, Mo,” she says, quite sincerely, the ward cooling. She looks shaken. Maybe she got a bit of a soul-gaze in before my firewall kicked her out of my head.
“Where did you hear about Vakilabad?” I need to know: there’s talking shop at a reception, and then there’s this, this brazen—
“Weekly briefing report from Callista Soames in External Liaison,” she says quietly. “I’m the equivalent, um, desk officer, for Downstairs. We share, too.”
“Sharing.” I lick my suddenly dry lips and raise my glass: “Here’s to sharing.” I do not, you will note, propose a toast to over-sharing. Or choose to share with her the details of the Vakilabad job, requested by the Iranian occult intelligence people, or the week-long sleeping-pills-and-whisky aftermath it hit me with because bodies floating in the air, nooses dangling limply between their necks and the beam of the gallows, glowing eyes casting emerald shadows as dead throats chanted paeans of praise to an unborn nightmare—I shudder and accidentally knock back half my glass in a single gulp.
“Are you all right?” she asks, allowing her perfect forehead to wrinkle very slightly in a show of concern.
“Of course I’m not all right,” I grump. There’s no point denying what she can see for herself. “Having a bit of a low-grade crisis, actually, hence someone penciling me in for the cocktail circuit by way of a change of pace.”
“Trouble at home?” She gives me her best sympathetic look, and I stifle the urge to swear and dump the dregs of my glass over her perfect décolletage.
“None. Of. Your. Business,” I say through gritted teeth.
“I’m sorry.” She looks genuinely chastened. Worse, my ward tells me that she is genuinely sorry. It can detect intentional lies as well as actual threats, and it’s been inert throughout our conversation. I feel as if I’ve just kicked a puppy. All right: an extremely fishy benthic puppy who did not have sex with my husband seven years ago when they were destiny-entangled and sent on an insane mission to the Caribbean to smoke out a mad billionaire who was trying to take over the world on behalf of his fluffy white cat. “It’s just, he was so happy to be with you, you know?”
“We are so not going to fail the Bechdel test in public at a diplomatic reception, dear,” I tell her. “That would be embarrassing.” I take her elbow: “I think both our glasses are defective. Must be leaking, or their contents are evaporating or something.” She lets me steer her towards one of the ubiquitous silent waiters, who tops us off. Her gait is unsteady, mincing. Almost as if she’s hobbled or her legs are partially fused all the way down to her ankles. She’s transitioning, slowly, into the obligate aquatic stage of her kind’s life cycle. I feel a pang of misplaced pity for her: needing an ever-increasingly powerful glamour to pass for human, losing the ability to walk, internal organs rearranging themselves into new and unfamiliar structures. Why did I feel threatened by her? Oh yes, that. Spending a week destiny-entangled with someone—in and out of their head telepathically, among other things—is supposed to be like spending a year married to them. And Ramona was thoroughly entangled with Bob for a while. But that was most of a decade ago, and people change, and it’s all water that flowed under the bridge before I married him, and I don’t like to think of myself as an obsessive/intransigent bitch, and Mermaid Ramona probably isn’t even anatomically stop thinking about that compatible anymore. “Let’s go and find a tub you can curl up in while we swap war stories.”
“Yes, let’s,” she agrees, and leans on my arm for balance. “You can tell me all about the bright lights in the big city—I haven’t been further inland than Aberdeen harbor in years—and I can fill you in on what the fishwraps have been pushing. The vigilantes would be funny if they weren’t so sad . . .”
* * *
The accommodation on this former oil rig has, as I’ve mentioned, been heavily tailored towards its new function. Ramona and I make our way out through a couple of utilitarian-looking steel bulkhead doors, onto the walkway that surrounds the upper level of the reception area like a horseshoe-shaped verandah. The ubiquitous “they” have drilled holes in the deck and installed generously proportioned whirlpool spa tubs, with adjacent dry seating and poolside tables for those of us with an aversion to horrifying dry cleaning bills. And there’s a transparent perspex screen to protect us from the worst of the wind.
I help Ramona into one of the tubs—her dress is, unsurprisingly, water-resistant—then collapse upon a strategically positioned chaise alongside. It’s a near-cloudless spring evening on the North Sea and we’re fifty meters above the wave crests: the view of the sunset is amazing, astonishing, adjectivally exhausting. I run out of superlatives halfway through my second glass. Ramona, it turns out, is a well-informed meteorology nerd. She points out cloud structures to me and explains about the North Atlantic thermohaline circulation and frontal weather systems. We get quietly, pleasantly drunk together, and by the end of the third drink a number of hatchets have been picked up, collaboratively discussed, and permanently re-interred in lead-lined coffins. It’s easy to forget that I’ve harbored an unacknowledged grudge against her for years: hard to remember how long it’s been since I last had any kind of heart-to-heart with a girlfriend who understands what it is that I do.
Unfortunately I now need to curtail this account of our discussion because, drunk or not, diplomatic or not, some of the subjects we touched on are so far above your pay grade that it isn’t funny. However, I think it is safe to say that BLUE HADES are concerned about CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN and are positioning their human-compatible assets—including Ramona—to keep a closer eye on our activities. They are (whisper this) actively cooperating, and you may see more joint liaison committees meeting in the next year tha
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