Bob Howard is a low-level techie working for a super-secret government agency. While his colleagues are out saving the world, Bob's under a desk restoring lost data. None of them receive any thanks for the jobs they do, but at least a techie doesn't risk getting shot or eaten in the line of duty. Bob's world is dull but safe, and that's the way it should have stayed; but then he went and got Noticed.
Now, Bob Howard is up to his neck in spycraft, alternative universes, dimension-hopping Nazis, Middle Eastern terrorists, damsels in distress, ancient Lovecraftian horror and the end of the world.
Only one thing is certain: it will take more than control+alt+delete to sort this mess out . . .
Release date: January 3, 2006
Print pages: 368
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The Atrocity Archives
Authors write, but not in a vacuum. Firstly, I owe a debt of gratitude to the usual suspects—members of my local writers workshop all—who suffered through first-draft reading hell and pointed out numerous headaches that needed fixing. Paul Fraser of Spectrum SF applied far more editorial muscle than I had any right to expect, in preparation for the original magazine serialization; likewise Marty Halpern of Golden Gryphon Press, who made this longer edition possible. Finally, I stand on the shoulders of giants. Three authors in particular made it possible for me to imagine this book and I salute you, H. P. Lovecraft, Neal Stephenson, and Len Deighton.
“THE ATROCITY ARCHIVE” IS A SCIENCE FICTION novel. Its form is that of a horror thriller with lots of laughs, some of them uneasy. Its basic premise is that mathematics can be magic. Its lesser premise is that if the world contains things that (as Pratchett puts it somewhere) even the dark is afraid of, then you can bet that there’ll be a secret government agency covering them up for our own good. That last phrase isn’t ironic; if people suspected for a moment that the only thing Lovecraft got wrong was to underestimate the power and malignity of cosmic evil, life would become unbearable. If the secret got out and (consequently) other things got in, life would become impossible. Whatever then walked the Earth would not be life, let alone human. The horror of this prospect is, in the story, linked to the horrors of real history. As in any good horror story, there are moments when you cannot believe that anyone would dare put on paper the words you are reading. Not, in this case, because the words are gory, but because the history is all too real. To summarise would spoil, and might make the writing appear to make light of the worst of human accomplishments. It does not. Read it and see.
Charlie has written wisely and well in the Afterword about the uncanny parallels between the Cold War thriller and the horror story. (Think, for a moment, what the following phrase would call to mind if you’d never heard it before: “Secret intelligence.”) There is, however, a third side to the story. Imagine a world where speaking or writing words can literally and directly make things happen, where getting one of those words wrong can wreak unbelievable havoc, but where with the right spell you can summon immensely powerful agencies to work your will. Imagine further that this world is administered: there is an extensive division of labour, among the magicians themselves and between the magicians and those who coordinate their activity. It’s bureaucratic, and also (therefore) chaotic, and it’s full of people at desks muttering curses and writing invocations, all beavering away at a small part of the big picture. The coordinators, because they don’t understand what’s going on, are easy prey for smooth-talking preachers of bizarre cults that demand arbitrary sacrifices and vanish with large amounts of money. Welcome to the IT department.
It is Charlie’s experience in working in and writing about the Information Technology industry that gives him the necessary hands-on insight into the workings of the Laundry. For programming is a job where Lovecraft meets tradecraft, all the time. The analyst or programmer has to examine documents with an eye at once skeptical and alert, snatching and collating tiny fragments of truth along the way. His or her sources of information all have their own agendas, overtly or covertly pursued. He or she has handlers and superiors, many of whom don’t know what really goes on at the sharp end. And the IT worker has to know in their bones that if they make a mistake, things can go horribly wrong. Tension and cynicism are constant companions, along with camaraderie and competitiveness. It’s a lot like being a spy, or necromancer. You don’t get out much, and when you do it’s usually at night.
Charlie gets out and about a lot, often in daylight. He has no demons. Like most people who write about eldritch horrors, he has a cheerful disposition. Whatever years he has spent in the cellars haven’t dimmed his enthusiasm, his empathy, or his ability to talk and write with a speed, range of reference, and facility that makes you want to buy the bastard a pint just to keep him quiet and slow him down in the morning, before he gets too far ahead. I know: I’ve tried. It doesn’t work.
I first encountered Charles Stross when I worked in IT myself. It was 1996 or thereabouts, when you more or less had to work in IT to have heard about the Internet. (Yes, there was a time not long ago when news about the existence of the Internet spread by word of mouth.) It dawned on me that the guy who was writing sensible-but-radical posts to various newsgroups I hung out in was the same Charles Stross who’d written two or three short stories I’d enjoyed in the British SF magazine Interzone: “Yellow Snow,” “Ship of Fools,” and “Dechlorinating the Moderator” (all now available in his collection TOAST, Cosmos Books, 2002).
“Dechlorinating the Moderator” is a science fiction story about a convention that has all the trappings of a science fiction convention, but is (because this is the future) a science fact convention, of desktop and basement high-energy fundamental physics geeks and geekettes. Apart from its intrinsic fun, the story conveys the peculiar melancholy of looking back on a con and realising that no matter how much of a good time you had, there was even more that you missed. (All right: as subtle shadings of emotion go this one is a bit low on universality, but it was becoming familiar to me, having just started going to cons.) “Ship of Fools” was about the Y2K problem (which as we all know turned out not to be a problem, but BEGIN_RANT that was entirely thanks to programmers who did their jobs properly in the first place back when only geeks and astronomers believed the twenty-first century would actually arrive END_RANT) and it was also full of the funniest and most authentic-sounding insider yarns about IT I’d ever read. This Stross guy sounded like someone I wanted to meet, maybe at a con. It turned out he lived in Edinburgh. We were practically neighbours. I think I emailed him, and before too long he materialised out of cyberspace and we had a beer and began an intermittent conversation that hasn’t stopped.
He had this great idea for a novel: “It’s a techno-thriller! The premise is that Turing cracked the NP-Completeness theorem back in the forties! The whole Cold War was really about preventing the Singularity! The ICBMs were there in case godlike AIs ran amok!” (He doesn’t really talk like this. But that’s how I remember it.) He had it all in his head. Lots of people do, but he (and here’s a tip for aspiring authors out there) actually wrote it. That one, Burn Time, the first of his novels I read, remains unpublished—great concept, shaky execution—but the raw talent was there and so was the energy and application and the astonishing range of reference. Since then he has written a lot more novels and short stories. The short stories kept getting better and kept getting published. He had another great idea: “A family saga about living through the Singularity! From the point of view of the cat!” That mutated into the astonishing series that began with “Lobsters,” published in Asimov’s SF, June 2001. That story was short-listed for three major SF awards: the Hugo, the Nebula, and the Sturgeon. Another, “Router,” was short-listed for the British Science Fiction Association (BSFA) Award. The fourth, “Halo,” has been short-listed for the Hugo.
Looking back over some of these short stories, what strikes me is the emergence of what might be called the Stross sentence. Every writer who contributes to, or defines, a stage in the development of SF has sentences that only they could write, or at least only they could write first. Heinlein’s dilating door opened up a new way to bypass explication by showing what is taken for granted; Zelazny’s dune buggies beneath the racing moons of Mars introduced an abrupt gear-change in the degrees of freedom allowed in handling the classic material; Gibson’s television sky and Ono-Sendai decks displayed the mapping of virtual onto real spaces that has become the default metaphor of much of our daily lives. The signature Stross sentence (and you’ll come to recognise them as you read) represents just such an upward jump in compression and comprehension, and one that we need to make sense not only of the stories, but of the world we inhabit: a world sentenced to Singularity.
The novels kept getting better too, but not getting published, until quite recently and quite suddenly three or four got accepted more or less at once. The only effect this has had on Charlie is that he has written another two or three while these were in press. He just keeps getting faster and better, like computers. But the first of his novels to be published is this one, and it’s very good.
We’ll be hearing, and reading, a lot more from him.
Read this now.
West Lothian, UK
THE ATROCITY ARCHIVE
GREEN SKY AT NIGHT; HACKER’S DELIGHT.
I’m lurking in the shrubbery behind an industrial unit, armed with a clipboard, a pager, and a pair of bulbous night-vision goggles that drench the scenery in ghastly emerald tones. The bloody things make me look like a train-spotter with a gas-mask fetish, and wearing them is giving me a headache. It’s humid and drizzling slightly, the kind of penetrating dampness that cuts right through waterproofs and gloves. I’ve been waiting out here in the bushes for three hours so far, waiting for the last workaholic to turn the lights out and go home so that I can climb in through a rear window. Why the hell did I ever say “yes” to Andy? State-sanctioned burglary is a lot less romantic than it sounds—especially on standard time-and-a-half pay.
(You bastard, Andy. “About that application for active service you filed last year. As it happens, we’ve got a little job on tonight and we’re short-staffed; could you lend a hand?”)
I stamp my feet and blow on my hands. There’s no sign of life in the squat concrete-and-glass block in front of me. It’s eleven at night and there are still lights burning in the cubicle hive: Don’t these people have a bed to go home to? I push my goggles up and everything goes dark, except the glow from those bloody windows, like fireflies nesting in the empty eye sockets of a skull.
There’s a sudden sensation like a swarm of bees throbbing around my bladder. I swear quietly and hike up my waterproof to get at the pager. It’s not backlit, so I have to risk a precious flash of torchlight to read it. The text message says, MGR LVNG 5 MINS. I don’t ask how they know that, I’m just grateful that there’s only five more minutes of standing here among the waterlogged trees, trying not to stamp my feet too loudly, wondering what I’m going to say if the local snouts come calling. Five more minutes of hiding round the back of the QA department of Memetix (UK) Ltd.—subsidiary of a multinational based in Menlo Park, California—then I can do the job and go home. Five more minutes spent hiding in the bushes down on an industrial estate where the white heat of technology keeps the lights burning far into the night, in a place where the nameless horrors don’t suck your brains out and throw you to the Human Resources department—unless you show a deficit in the third quarter, or forget to make a blood sacrifice before the altar of Total Quality Management.
Somewhere in that building the last late-working executive is yawning and reaching for the door remote of his BMW. The cleaners have all gone home; the big servers hum blandly in their air-conditioned womb, nestled close to the service core of the office block. All I have to do is avoid the security guard and I’m home free.
A distant motor coughs into life, revs, and pulls out of the landscaped car park in a squeal of wet tires. As it fades into the night my pager vibrates again: GO GO GO. I edge forward.
No motion-triggered security lights flash on. There are no Rottweiler attack dogs, no guards in coal-scuttle helmets: this ain’t that kind of movie, and I’m no Arnold Schwarzenegger. (Andy told me: “If anyone challenges you, smile, stand up straight, and show them your warrant card—then phone me. I’ll handle it. Getting the old man out of bed to answer a clean-up call will earn you a black mark, but a black mark’s better than a cracked skull. Just try to remember that Croxley Industrial Estate isn’t Novaya Zemlya, and getting your head kicked in isn’t going to save the world from the forces of evil.”)
I squish through the damp grass and find the designated window. Like the briefing said, it’s shut but not locked. A good tug and the window hinges out toward me. It’s inconveniently high up, a good four feet above the concrete gutter. I pull myself up and over the sill, sending a tiny avalanche of disks scuttering across the floor. The room is ghostly green except for the bright hot spots of powered-down monitors and fans blowing air from hot CPU cases. I stumble forward over a desk covered in piles of kipple, wondering how in hell the owner is going to fail to notice my great muddy boot-print between the obviously confidential documents scattered next to a keyboard and a stone-cold coffee mug. Then I’m on the floor in the QA department, and the clock is ticking.
The pager vibrates again. SITREP. I pull my mobile out of my breast pocket and dial a three-digit number, then put it back again. Just letting them know I’ve arrived and everything’s running smoothly. Typical Laundry—they’ll actually include the phone bill in the event log to prove I called in on schedule before they file it somewhere secret. Gone are the days of the impromptu black-bag job . . .
The offices of Memetix (UK) Ltd. are a typical cubicle hell: anonymous beige fabric partitions dividing up little slices of corporate life. The photocopier hulks like an altar beneath a wall covered with devotional scriptures—the company’s code of conduct, lists of compulsory employee self-actualization training courses, that sort of thing. I glance around, hunting cubicle D14. There’s a mass of Dilbert cartoons pinned to the side of his partition, spoor of a mildly rebellious mind-set; doubtless middle managers prowl round the warren before any visit from the upper echelons, tearing down such images that signal dissent. I feel a minor shiver of sympathy coming on: Poor bastard, what must it be like to be stuck here in the warren of cells at the heart of the new industrial revolution, never knowing where the lightning’s going to strike next?
There’s a desk with three monitors on it: two large but otherwise ordinary ones, and a weird-ass piece of machinery that looks at least a decade old, dredged out of the depths of the computer revolution. It’s probably an old Symbolics Lisp machine or something. It tweaks my antique gland, but I don’t have time to rubberneck; the security guard’s due to make another round in just sixteen minutes. There are books leaning in crazy piles and drifts on either side: Knuth, Dijkstra, Al-Hazred, other less familiar names. I pull his chair back and sit down, wrinkling my nose. In one of the desk drawers something’s died and gone to meet its maker.
Keyboard: check. Root account: I pull out the filched S/Key smartcard the Laundry sourced from one of Memetix’s suppliers and type the response code to the system’s challenge. (One-time passwords are a bitch to crack; once again, give thanks to the Laundry’s little helpers.) Then I’m logged in and trusted and it’s time to figure out just what the hell I’m logged in to.
Malcolm—whose desk I sit at, and whose keyboard I pollute—is running an ant farm: there are dead computers under the desk, scavenged for parts, and a dubious Frankenstein server—guts open to the elements—humming like a generator beside it. For a moment I hunt around in panic, searching for silver pentacles and glowing runes under the desktop—but it’s clean. Logged in, I find myself in a maze of twisty little automounted filesystems, all of them alike. Fuck shit curse dammit, I recite under my breath; it was never like this in Cast a Deadly Spell. I pull out the phone and dial.
“Capital Laundry Services, how may we help you?”
“Give me a hostname and target directory, I’m in but I’m lost.”
“One sec . . . try ‘auto slash share slash fs slash scooby slash netapp slash user slash home slash malcolm slash uppercase-R slash catbert slash world-underscore-domination slash manifesto.’ ”
I type so fast my fingers trip over each other. There’s a faint clicking as the server by the desk mounts scooby’s gigantic drive array and scratches its read/write heads, looking for what has got to be one of the most stupidly named files anywhere on the company’s intranet.
“Hold on . . . yup, got it.” I view the sucker and it’s there in plaintext: Some Notes Toward a Proof of Polynomial Completeness in Hamiltonian Networks. I page through the text rapidly, just skimming; there’s no time to give it my full in-depth attention, but it looks genuine. “Bingo.” I can feel an unpleasant slimy layer of sweat in the small of my back. “I’ve got it. Bye for now.”
“Bye yourself.” I shut the phone and stare at the paper. Just for a moment, I hesitate . . . What I’m here to do isn’t fair, is it? The imp of perversity takes over: I bang out a quick command, mailing the incriminating file to a not-so-dead personal account. (Figure I’ll read it later.) Then it’s time to nuke the server. I unmount the netapp drive and set fire to it with a bitstorm of low-level reformatting. If Malcolm wants his paper back he’ll have to enlist GCHQ and a scanning tunneling microscope to find it under all the 0xDEADBEEF spammed across the hard disk platters.
My pager buzzes again. SITREP. I hit three more digits on the phone. Then I edge out of the cubicle and scramble back across the messy desk and out into the cool spring night, where I peel off those damned latex gloves and waggle my fingers at the moon.
I’m so elated that I don’t even remember the stack of disks I sent flying until I’m getting off the night bus at home. And by then, the imp of perversity is chuckling up his sleeve.
I’M FAST ASLEEP IN BED WHEN THE CELLPHONE rings.
It’s in my jacket pocket, where I left it last night, and I thrash around on the floor for a bit while it chirps merrily. “Hello?”
It’s Andy. I try not to groan. “What time is it?”
“It’s nine-thirty. Where are you?”
“In bed. What’s—”
“Thought you were going to be in at the debrief? When can you come in?”
“I’m not feeling too wonderful. Got home at about two-thirty. Let me think . . . eleven good enough?”
“It’ll have to be.” He sounds burned. Well, Andy wasn’t the one freezing his butt off in the woods last night, was he? “See you there.” The implicit or else doesn’t need enunciating. Her Majesty’s Extra-Secret Service has never really been clear on the concept of flexitime and sensible working hours.
I shamble into the bathroom and stare at the thin rind of black mold growing around the window as I piss. I’m alone in the house; everyone else is either out—working—or out—gone for good. (That’s out, as in working, for Pinky and the Brain; out, as in fucked off, for Mhari.) I pick up my senescent toothbrush and perform the usual morning ritual. At least the heating’s on. Downstairs in the kitchen I fill a percolator with nuclear-caffeinated grounds and nudge it onto the gas ring. I figure I can make it into the Laundry by eleven and still have time to wake up first. I’ll need to be alert for that meeting. Did last night go off properly, or not? Now that I can’t do anything about them I remember the disks.
Nameless dread is all very well when you’re slumped in front of the TV watching a slasher movie, but it plays havoc with your stomach when you drop half a pint of incredibly strong black coffee on it in the space of fifteen minutes. Brief nightmarish scenarios flit through my head, in order of severity: written reprimands, unemployment, criminal prosecution for participating in a black-bag job for which authorisation is unaccountably retroactively withdrawn; worst of all, coming home to find Mhari curled up on the living room sofa again. Scratch that latter vision; the short-lived sadness gives way to a deeper sense of relief, tempered by a little loneliness. The loneliness of the long-distance spook? Damn, I need to get my head in order. I’m no James Bond, with a sexy KGB minx trying to seduce me in every hotel room. That’s about the first thing they drum into you at Capital Laundry Services (“Washes cleaner than clean!”): life is not a spy movie, work is not romantic, and there’s nothing particularly exciting about the job. Especially when it involves freezing your balls off in a corporate shrubbery at eleven o’clock on a rainy night.
Sometimes I regret not having taken the opportunity to study accountancy. Life could be so much more fun if I’d listened to the right recruiting spiel at the university milk round . . . but I need the money, and maybe one of these days they’ll let me do something interesting. Meanwhile I’m here in this job because all the alternatives are worse.
So I go to work.
THE LONDON UNDERGROUND IS FAMOUS FOR APPARENTLY believing that human beings go about this world owning neither kidney nor colon. Not many people know that there’s precisely one public toilet in Mornington Crescent station. It isn’t signposted, and if you ask for it the staff will shake their heads; but it’s there all the same, because we asked for it.
I catch the Metropolitan line to Euston Square—sharing a squalid rattle-banging cattle car with a herd of bored commuters—then switch to the Northern line. At the next stop I get out, shuffle up the staircase, go into the gents, and step into the right-hand rear stall. I yank up on the toilet handle instead of down, and the back wall opens like a big thick door (plumbing and all), ushering me into the vestibule. It’s all a bit like a badly funded B-movie remake of some sixties Hollywood spy thriller. A couple of months ago I asked Boris why we bothered with it, but he just chuckled and told me to ask Angleton—meaning, “Bugger off.”
The wall closes behind me and a hidden solenoid bolt unlocks the stall door: the toilet monster consumes another victim. I put my hand in the ID scanner, collect my badge from the slot next to it, and step across the red line on the threshold. It’s another working day at Capital Laundry Services, discreet cleaning agents to the government.
And guess who’s in hot water?
First stop: my office. If you can call it an office—it’s a sort of niche between a row of lockers and a herd of senile filing cabinets, into which the Facilities gnomes have jammed a plywood desk and a swivel chair with a damaged gas strut. I drop my coat and jacket on the chair and my computer terminal whistles at me: YOU HAVE MAIL. No shit, Sherlock, I always have mail. It’s an existential thing: if I don’t have mail it would mean that something is very wrong with the world, or maybe I’ve died and gone to bureaucratic hell. (I’m a child of the wired generation, unlike some of the suits hereabouts who have their secretaries print everything out and dictate their replies for an audio-typist to send.) There is also a cold, scummy cup of over-milked coffee on my desk; Marcia’s been over-efficient again. A yellow Post-it note curls reproachfully atop one of my keyboards: MEETING 9:30AM CT ROOM B4. Hell and damnation, why didn’t I remember?
I go to meeting room B4.
There’s a red light showing so I knock and wave my badge before entering, just in case Security is paying attention. Inside, the air is blue; it looks like Andy’s been chain-smoking his foul French fags for the past couple of hours. “Yo,” I say. “Everyone here?”
Boris the Mole looks at me stonily. “You’re late.”
Harriet shakes her head. “Never mind.” She taps her papers into a neat stack. “Had a good sleep, did we?”
I pull out a chair and slump into it. “I spent six hours being one with a shrubbery last night. There were three cloudbursts and a rain of small and very confused frogs.”
Andy stubs out his cigarette and sits up. “Well, now we’re here . . .” He looks at Boris enquiringly. Boris nods. I try to keep a straight face: I hate it when the old guard start playing stiff upper lip.
“Jackpot.” Andy grins at me. I nearly have a heart attack on the spot. “You’re coming to the pub tonight, Bob. Drinks on me. That was a straight A for results, C-plus for fieldwork, overall grade B for execution.”
“Uh, I thought I made a mess going in—”
“No. If it hadn’t been a semicovert you’d have had to burn your shoes, but apart from that—well. Zero witnesses, you found the target, there’s nothing left, and Dr. Denver is about to find himself downsized and in search of a job somewhere less sensitive.” He shakes his head. “Not a lot more to say, really.”
“But the security guard could have—”
“The security guard was fully aware there was going to be a burglary, Bob. He wasn’t going to move an inch, much less see anything untoward or sound the alarm, lest spooks come out of the woodwork and find him crunchy and good with ketchup.”
“It was a set-up?” I say disbelievingly.
Boris nods at me. “Is a good set-up.”
“Was it worth it?” I ask. “I mean, I just wiped out some poor bastard’s last six months of work—”
Boris sighs mournfully and shoves an official memo at me. It’s got a red-and-yellow chevron-striped border and the phrase MOST SECRET DESTROY BEFORE READING stamped across its cover. I open it and look at the title page: Some Notes Toward a Proof of Polynomial Completeness in Hamiltonian Networks. And a subtitle: Formal Correctness Report. One of the departmental theorem-proving oracles has been busy overnight. “He duplicated the Turing result?”
“Most regrettably,” says Boris.
Harriet nods. “You want to know if last night was worth it. It was. If you hadn’t succeeded, we might have had to take more serious measures. That’s always an option, you know, but in general we try to handle such affairs at the lowest possible level.”
I nod and close the folder, shove it back across the table toward Boris. “What next?”
“Timekeeping,” says Harriet. “I’m a bit concerned that you weren’t available for debriefing on schedule this morning. You really need to do a bit better,” she adds. (Andy, who I think understands how I tick, keeps quiet.)
I glare at her. “I’d just spent six hours standing in a wet bush, and breaking into someone else’s premises. After putting in a full day’s work in preparation.” I lean forward, getting steamed: “In case you’ve forgotten, I was in at eight in the morning yesterday, then Andy asked me to help with this thing at four in the afternoon. Have you ever tried getting a night bus from Croxley to the East End at two in the morning when you’re soaked to the bone, it’s pouring wet, and the only other people at the bus stop are a mugger and a drunk guy who wants to know if you can put him up for the night? I count that as a twenty hour working day with hardship. Want me to submit an overtime claim?”
“Well, you should have phoned in first,” she says waspishly.
I’m not going to win this one, but I don’t think I’ve lost on poin
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