LONDON CAN DRAIN THE LIFE OUT OF YOU . . .
Bob Howard is an intelligence agent working his way through the ranks of the top secret government agency known as 'the Laundry'. When occult powers threaten the realm, they'll be there to clean up the mess - and deal with the witnesses.
There's one kind of threat that the Laundry has never come across in its many decades, and that's vampires. Mention them to a seasoned agent and you'll be laughed out of the room.
But when a small team of investment bankers at one of Canary Wharf's most distinguished financial institutions discovers an arcane algorithm that leaves them fearing daylight and craving O positive, someone doesn't want the Laundry to know. And Bob gets caught right in the middle.
Release date: July 1, 2014
Print pages: 368
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The Rhesus Chart
PROLOGUE: ONE MONTH AGO
“DON’T BE SILLY, BOB,” SAID MO. “EVERYBODY KNOWS vampires don’t exist.”
I froze with my chopsticks halfway to my mouth, the tiny corpse of a tempura-battered baby squid clutched precariously between them, while I flailed for a reply to her non sequitur. We were dining out at an uncomfortably pricey conveyor-belt sushi restaurant just off Leicester Square—it was my treat, although I had an ulterior motive. Unfortunately I was in the doghouse for some reason. I didn’t know why, and it might not even have been related to the deed I’d brought her here to apologize for, but dinner showed every sign of turning into one of those rare but depressingly unfocussed marital arguments we had every few months. And the most prominent warning sign was this: the replacement of reasoned discussion with peremptory denial.
“We can’t be sure of that. I mean, doesn’t that take us right into proving-a-negative territory? The ubiquity of the legends, the consistent elements, all suggest to me that maybe we’ve been looking in the wrong place—”
We were here because I thought it might help soften her up before I apologized for what I’d done to her friend Pete the month before. But instead of unwinding or letting me tell her about my latest office project, she’d switched into hypercritical mode as soon as we got to our booth. Apology shelved. Perhaps she’d just had a bad day at the office, but begging forgiveness for sins of necessity committed in the line of duty was clearly off the menu for the time being. Ten years together, seven of them married, have taught me to recognize the signs: right now if I reminded her that the sun rose in the east she’d start by stonewalling then escalate to a land war in Asia.
“Bob.” When she said my name like that, it gave me flashbacks to Miss Pearson in Primary Two (not my favorite teacher): “Vampires can’t exist. There’d be detailed records in the archives; they couldn’t possibly evade detection by the state for any significant period. Besides which”—she aimed an alarmingly sharp wooden chopstick at my nose—“there’d be corpses everywhere. Human blood is a poor nutrient source; it’s about 60 percent plasma by volume and only provides about 900 calories per liter, so your hypothetical blood-sucking fiend is going to have to drink about two and a half liters per a day. Those calories don’t come in the form of useful stuff like glucose and fat: it’s mostly protein from circulating red blood cells. Dracula would have to exsanguinate a victim every day just to stay alive, and would suffer from chronic ketoacidosis. The total number of intentional homicides for the whole country is around 700 a year; a single vampire would cause a 50 percent spike in the murder rate. Or they’d have to take transfusion-sized donations about two thousand times a year.” She capped the boss-level takedown with a tight-lipped, triumphant smile, the better to conceal her incisors: “If you think you, or I, or anyone in the office could mind-control hundreds of people well enough to prevent at least one of them going to their GP to complain about the lethargy and anemia . . .”
I gave in to the inevitable. “You’ve researched this already, haven’t you?”
“It came up in a brainstorming exercise about six years ago. We were investigating using ecosystem analysis to evaluate the probability of emergent new threat modalities. We also brainstormed golems, werewolves, and sasquatch.” She took a spoonful of miso soup. “If they existed we’d know about them, Bob.”
“But”—I paused to swallow my squid and pluck another one from the color-coded plate in front of me—“your model assumes they’re obligate hemophages, doesn’t it? And that they’re endothermic, or at least have an energy budget not entirely unlike every other vertebrate known to science. What if that’s not the whole story? What if they eat—”
“Bob.” She stopped short of rolling her eyes, but I could see she was bored, and growing more annoyed by the minute: “Eat your baby tentacle monsters before they go cold.”
Mo has an aversion to pseudopods. When we first met, some very unpleasant people were trying to sacrifice her in order to summon an alien horror from beyond spacetime. I’d distracted them long enough for the seventh cavalry to arrive, and sometime after that Mo and I had started dating—but she still couldn’t (and can’t) stomach calamari. I cleaned my plate and watched as she finished her soup.
“I’m done here,” she announced, picking up her violin case without asking whether I was still hungry. “I’m going home.”
Which is why I didn’t get a chance to apologize for dragging Pete into the business in Colorado Springs. Or to explain my hypothesis about what vampirism really was, and what I was doing about it. Or to save our marriage.
• • •
THE NAME’S HOWARD, BOB HOWARD. I’M A COMPUTER SCIENCE graduate and IT person, and I work for the British government in London, as does my wife Mo, Dominique O’Brien, who is a few years older than I am but still (in my opinion) a gorgeous redhead.
That’s the mundane version, cleared for public consumption. It is also deeply misleading, but it’s the version I’m allowed to give to friends and family without being required to kill them, so we’ll call that a net win. It’s also not entirely false.
The secret organization I work for is commonly called the Laundry because when it was established in its current form in 1940 it was based above a Chinese laundry in Soho. As Q Department, SOE, it was tasked with waging an occult war against the Ahnenerbe-SS. Today, the name may have changed several times but it’s the same organization—the one you have just been admitted to, if you’re reading this classified journal and your hair isn’t on fire due to the security wards on the cover.
I’m actually a specialist in a field called Applied Computational Demonology: the summoning and binding to service of unspeakable horrors from other dimensions, by means of mathematical tools. Magic is a branch of applied mathematics: we live in a multiverse, there is a platonic realm of pure numbers, and when we solve certain theorems, listeners in alien universes hear the echoes. By performing certain derivations and manipulating theorems, we can make extradimensional entities sit up and listen, and sometimes get them to do what we want them to. True names have power: you should assume that any names or locations I give you may have been changed in the interest of security.
Although ritual magic has been around since the dawn of time (and indeed the Laundry’s antecedents go back at least as far as Sir John Dee, in service to Queen Elizabeth the First under Sir Francis Walsingham), it was first systematized and placed on a concrete theoretical footing by Alan Turing in the 1940s. There are dark rumors that his “suicide” might have been a deeply misguided attempt to shut down a perceived security risk; if so, it was the organization’s biggest mistake ever. Later on they took to recruiting anyone who rediscovered the truth by accident—which led, via the mushrooming popularity of computing during the 1980s and 1990s, to an increasingly unwieldy and overstaffed org chart full of disgruntled CS postgrad researchers and mathematicians.
I ended up in this line of work because once upon a time, my perfectly innocent master’s thesis nearly summoned up an undead alien god in Wolverhampton. (We will step swiftly past the suggestion that this could only have resulted in urban regeneration.) Luckily the Laundry caught me in time and made me a job offer I wasn’t allowed to refuse: take a nice civil service job in an obscure department where we can keep an eye on you, or be found crunchy and good with ketchup by a nightmarish monster from beyond spacetime.
That was about eleven years ago. Unfortunately, after a while I got bored with my tedious make-work job and made the cardinal mistake of volunteering for active operational duty. As a result of that error of judgment, I’ve had more encounters with nightmarish monsters from beyond spacetime than I care to think about, not to mention their deranged cultist worshippers. This doubtless sounds very exciting to you, but the committee meetings and form-filling that go with the job are a bit of a downer. And that’s saying nothing about the hoops you have to jump through to satisfy the internal auditors that you did everything by the book. Adventures are something I try to avoid these days. Unfortunately I’m not very good at it.
Final wrap-up: on top of the ploddingly mathematical side of the job, I’ve stumbled into a specialized sideline as a trainee necromancer, which isn’t a talent you’d wish on your worst enemy; and I work for an obscure boutique department called External Assets that provides—well, that would be telling.
Mo also works for the Laundry. She’s not a computer geek. She’s an academic philosopher and combat epistemologist, not to mention a talented violinist. The instrument she plays was provided by the organization and has exotic, indeed horrifying, capabilities: it’s one of a kind. (If at this point you are thinking, “occult acoustic weapons,” then pat yourself on the back.)
When I lay it out like that we sound like some kind of superhero team, don’t we? But we’re actually just a couple of married civil servants with day jobs that involve far too much paperwork, and the occasional terrifying incursion from another dimension. And we’re probably doomed, but I’ll get to that later.
• • •
AN EARLY AUTUMN EVENING IN CENTRAL LONDON CAN BE A FINE experience, or a lousy one. It depends on a variety of factors: on the weather, on whether you’ve just been sucked into a bad-tempered and pointless argument with your wife, on how worried you are about next month’s credit card bill. Not to mention your uneasy anticipation of the meeting your new and somewhat unpredictable manager has scheduled for tomorrow afternoon.
That night I’d rolled ones on all of my dice: it was raining and gray, Mo was pissed off with me, the credit card bill was unpleasantly large, and Lockhart isn’t the world’s most forgiving boss. So I escorted Mo to the nearest tube station, then, rather than accompanying her home in prickly silence, I made a lame excuse and headed back to the office—not knowing that I was about to put myself in mortal danger.
• • •
I WORK IN A BUILDING CALLED THE NEW ANNEX. IT’S A LUMP OF mid-seventies concrete brutalism that squats above a closed discount store somewhere south of the Thames. The New Annex is one of the temporary offices we occupy while a public-private partnership rebuilds Dansey House, our headquarters building. Thanks to the current government’s budget cuts, the months have turned into years and the Dansey House rebuild appears to have stalled. Turns out there’s a nagging problem with long-forgotten and extremely powerful geases mucking up the foundations: we’ve run into the thaumaturgic equivalent of trying to rebuild a university campus and discovering that the walls are riddled with asbestos, the chemistry department used to pour mercury compounds and radioactive waste down the drains, and the admin block was built on top of a plague pit full of skeletons.
I’m resigned to working in the New Annex until I die. It wasn’t furnished for comfort or convenience, even by civil service standards—nobody expected to be there more than six months—and these days it’s just seedy, with peeling paint, cracked plaster, grubby uncleaned windows, and a persistent whiff of sewage in the basement levels.
• • •
THERE IS AN ENTRYPHONE BY THE SIDE DOOR TO A SHUTTERED discount shop in London. It looks abandoned, but works just fine: it’s our staff entrance. I stepped inside, pulling out my LED Lenser torch. “Hello?” I called.
Something hissed in the darkness nearby.
I raised my warrant card and pointed the torch in the direction of the sound. A withered face swung towards me: but then it recognized the warrant card and shuffled backwards, receding into the shadows again. (The lobby lights burned out six months ago and you can’t get replacements for the type of bulb they use anymore: hence the torch and the shadows.) I headed directly towards the stairwell at the end of the corridor, itching to reach the relative safety—and working lights—of my office.
The night watch are confined to the ground floor except during emergencies, and they’re only supposed to eat unauthorized intruders, and in any case I have special talents for dealing with their kind; but batteries have been known to fail, and anyway, who wants to be alone in the dark with a bunch of Residual Human Resources for company? Note: never use the Z-word to refer to them. Our Facilities Management people fastidiously describe them as Residual Human Resources, former employees who are still present in body if not in soul. When your mission involves binding and controlling mind-eating horrors, after a while it seems perfectly normal to use some of the leftover corpses to cut payroll costs on the late shift. Anyway, the Z-word is disrespectful, insulting, and considered politically incorrect around here. You might end up as one of them yourself: How would you feel about being called a zombie?
• • •
AS TO JUST WHY I WENT BACK TO THE OFFICE AFTER DINNER with Mo . . .
The Laundry marches to a different beat from the regular civil service, but we are not institutionally immune to outside influences. We do computery algorithmic stuff: this means we sometimes succumb to contagious management fads that are doing the rounds in the real world outside. In this case, the winds of change had blown in from Google (or, more likely, out of the arse of a senior management bod who had come down with a severe case of Chocolate Factory envy): management, bless their little cotton socks, decided that we needed to be Creative and Innovative and endowed with Silicon Valley start-up style va-va-voom. So they decreed that everyone above a certain grade was to spend four hours a week pursuing their own personal self-selected projects—which would have been great, if they hadn’t missed the point.
At Google employees spend 20 percent of their hours on their own personal projects; in the Laundry we didn’t get any extra time, or any extra budget. Also, we didn’t get to pursue arbitrary time-wasting enquiries on our own initiative: there was a stack of vetted proposals for Creative and Innovative research ideas, and we had to pick one from the pile and sign our names to it. Our assigned jobs still came first, and in any case usually kept us busy for up to 110 percent of our working hours. In other words, the beatings were to continue until morale (and our va-va-voom) improved.
To be fair, we could also contribute to the suggestions box from which a committee selected the suitable candidates for working time. If you really worked hard to engineer it, you could probably run your own project—just as long as you could sneak it past the committee without one of the jobsworths shooting it down. Anyway, the Creative and Innovative self-directed work inflicted upon us from above now needed to be done—and with no hours allocated to it during the working day, it had perforce to be done at night.
• • •
I WASN’T THE ONLY NIGHT OWL WORKING IN THE DEPARTMENT tonight; the Laundry is eccentric by civil service standards, and although the fax machines and telephone switchboards were all switched off at night to stop employees abusing the facilities (per some ancient directive issued in 1972), the coffee machine and the network remain accessible. Quite a few employees choose to work outside core business hours to minimize the risk of being disturbed.
Tonight, the red NO ENTRY light above Andy’s office was lit, suggesting that my years-ago former manager was burning the midnight oil; our current departmental admin asset—Trish: twenty-something, plump, amiably inquisitive in an utterly inappropriate way—was nose down in a book at her desk in the middle of the open-plan area.
“Bob? Oh, hi!” She deftly shuffled the book out of sight beneath a lever arch file full of forms, but not before I spotted the cover of The Hunger Games. “Can I sign you in?” I nodded, as she logged my badge and photographed me (duplicating a process that had certainly already happened before the front door closed behind me). “What brings you back to the office?”
“Couldn’t sleep,” I lied. “Also, got to finish writing up a report for the Auditors.” The document in question was my report on GOD GAME RAINBOW—the apocalyptic clusterfuck in Colorado Springs a couple of months ago—but Trish didn’t need to know that: mentioning the Auditors would put her off asking any more questions. (Our audits are not strictly confined to the realm of the financial, and the people who administer them are deeply scary.) “Is anyone else around?”
“Andy’s up to something: he said he wasn’t to be disturbed.” Trish’s expression of mildly affronted disapproval nailed it: she was bored. “But he requested night service because of some regulation or other about not working solo, and I’m top of the on-call rota, so it’s overtime for me . . .” She mimed covering her mouth for a theatrical yawn.
I got it, although I disapproved: regs meet reality. Andy needed to perform some sort of procedure that the Book said needed two bodies present, but he couldn’t be bothered waiting for a qualified pair of hands. Instead he ticked the checkbox by ordering up a receptionist, then did it solo. Once upon a time that kind of sloppiness had been my forté—I’d gotten over it, but Andy had always been a little too casual to leave in a hands-on role. (That, I theorized, was why he’d ended up dangling from the bottom rung of the management ladder—too high to do any damage, too low to make anyone else do any damage.) “I’ll go see if he needs a hand,” I promised her. “If you’d rather go home I’ll sort it out.” I walked over to Andy’s office door—diagonally across the open plan/cubicle area from my own—and knocked twice.
There was an unhuman presence on the other side of the door: it made the skin on my wrists tingle and brought an electric taste to my tongue. I listened with my ears and an inner sense I’d been uneasily practicing for the past year. Tuning in on the uncanny channel brought me a faint sizzling, chittering echo of chaotic un-minds jostling for proximity to the warm, pulsing, squishy meatsacks. The lightning-blue taste of a warded summoning grid—not a large one, just an electrified pentacle unrolled on a desk—was like fingernails on a blackboard: Andy was conducting midnight invocations by the light of a backlit monitor. Okay, so he wasn’t being totally stupid about this. But it still set my teeth on edge.
“It’s Bob. Am I safe to enter?”
“I’m running a level one. Make sure you don’t violate the containment and you should be fine.”
“Not good enough, Andy. Is it safe for me to enter?”
Andy sighed heavily. “Yes, Mother, I’m deactivating it now.”
“Good.” A muffled click came from the other side of the door, and I felt the inchoate gibbering subside. I put my hand on the doorknob and pushed.
“Come on in, Bob.”
I squeezed inside his office. Andy hovered over a home-brew lab, pale-faced and skinny, staring at me with bleary eyes. He was older than me, a member of a generation that had grown up wearing a shirt and tie to the office and who still tried to keep up appearances; he was the junior ops manager who approved my application and gave me my first ever field test. It was odd to see him in a polo shirt and chinos. “What’s the project? Couldn’t you wait for a health and safety check?”
He managed a self-deprecating shrug. “You know how it is; it’s my weekly ten-percenter.”
He’d built the summoning grid on a folding table that occupied about half his floorspace: by the look of it, it had started out as a NAAFI table tennis game sometime in the 1950s, before he repurposed it as an occult research workbench. I spotted peripherals: an Arduino controller, a laptop, a couple of wire-wrap circuit boards, a breakout box, and of course a summoning grid—which most people mistake for a pentacle.
“They roped you into the Google cargo-cult, too?” I asked.
“Yes.” He shrugged again. “On the bright side, it gives me an excuse to brush up on my practical skills: I’ve spent so long shuffling reports that I’m in danger of forgetting what it’s all about. If you’re willing to watch my back I’d be very grateful, Bob, but you really don’t need to; it’s perfectly safe.”
“Yes well, I can’t help thinking that you’ve been here since at least the BLOODY BARON meeting this morning.” He nodded instinctively. “Which means you’ve been in the office for at least twelve hours. If you were a pilot they wouldn’t let you anywhere near the controls of an airliner when you’re that tired: it’s how mistakes happen—”
“Don’t be silly, Bob! All it is is a ‘hello, spirit world’ demo. There’s nothing to go wrong: all it does is execute a contained summoning of a class one voice-responsive agent”—a demon, to you—“make it do a handstand, then send it away again. With maybe a couple of optimizations to the grid controller, which I’m trying to prove with cheap off-the-shelf components. There’s no agency outside the grid.” He pointed at the Arduino board. “See? It’s perfectly safe. Watch—”
My hair stood on end, I broke out in a cold sweat, and I was already in motion, halfway across the room towards him, when he began to utter the inevitable, fateful word—“this”—as his finger descended on the button wired to the breadboard beside the microcontroller, and power surged into the grid.
• • •
I SHOVED ANDY AWAY FROM THE TABLE, BUT I WAS TOO LATE: the circuit had been completed, and I could hear the chittering in the back of my head much more clearly, over a mumbling chewing sizzle like millions of mandibles on the move—
“Andy, get out!” I grabbed his arm and swung him towards the door. He resisted instinctively but ineffectually: I shoved him across the threshold. The alien gibbering was rising in pitch, and my skin crawled as we passed the side of the card table, where the grid was glowing with a rapidly brightening violet radiance. I felt a metallic taste on my tongue as we crossed below the lintel—
“Wait, what, I don’t even—” Finally Andy began to move under his own steam.
Only a couple of seconds had passed since he began to say “watch this,” but my Spidey sense and the frankly terrifying sense of wrongness in my guts told me that we might be too late: whatever the thing flooding into the powered-up summoning grid was, it certainly wasn’t just a harmless class one emanation. I felt it tracking me as I stepped across the threshold, like a terrier that has spotted and locked onto a juicy mouthful of rodent on the run: cold and dank and terrifyingly alien, like something from the abyssal depths of another world’s oceans. I turned and pulled the door shut, then leaned against it and reached instinctively for the ward I wear in a small leather bag on a thong around my neck. “Andy,” I gasped.
“What? What?” He blinked, confused as I stared at him. Eyes: clear. No sense of possession—if I was a god-botherer I’d have given thanks right then.
The door behind me rattled. I shivered: it was becoming cold to the touch. I took a deep breath. “Andy, I need you to go get—no. First, I want you to send Trish home. Then I want you to go get Angleton.” I took a step away from the door, and turned to face it.
“I don’t understand! It’s only meant to summon a class one—” I could barely hear his spoken words over the gibbering din in my head emanating from the other side of the warded portal.
“Andy.” I spoke through gritted teeth. “Get Trish out of the building and to a designated place of safety. Then go and get Angleton right now. We will resume this conversation at a later date.”
I glanced at him and he shut up. I’d never seen his face turn that color before: he nodded stiffly, then broke into a stumbling trot in the direction of the corridor leading to Angleton’s hole. Finally.
I drew another deep breath, heart pounding. The tense feeling between my shoulders was getting worse. Andy was old enough to know better.
A class one manifestation, in our charmingly indirect lexicon, is nothing you want to make physical contact with. Many years ago I’d been on a training course where a guy called Fred from Accounting—who’d been assigned to the course because of a typo on an HR form—ended up extremely dead indeed because he hadn’t understood that a voice responsive agent is a nasty little cognitive loop that can run on (and burn out) a human nervous system just as easily as a computing device.
Whatever was on the other side of that door was most certainly not a class one manifestation.
I could feel it from the other side of the door, like the hum of a national grid high-voltage bearer. Our offices are shielded by wards—we frequently handle occult materials—but whatever he’d invoked was flexing its magical muscles and coming dangerously close to overloading not only the summoning grid on that flimsy card table but the more substantial wards on the door frame. Which was very bad news. I pulled out my phone and pointed the camera at the door itself, then called up OFCUT—our occult monitoring app in a smartphone-sized can—to take a look. Sure enough, histograms shading from blue to violet were chewing around the edges of the elder sign in the middle of the elaborate tracery. It confirmed what I could feel in my tingling fingertips and roiling stomach: I wasn’t about to open my inner eye and have an eyeball-to-eyeball look at the void by way of a third opinion, but I was pretty sure that if I did I’d see something so wrong that it wouldn’t even be visible at all, except as a sucking blind-spot distortion in my visual field, dragging everything around it together at the edges like a detached retina.
The doorknob appeared to be smoking. It was air condensing on the metal surface as vapor, then boiling off again. Elapsed time: thirty seconds. And here I was, with just my regulation-issue class four ward, my OFCUT-equipped phone, and whatever native magical talent I happened to have, facing the oh-shit lurking on the other side of the threshold.
An equally chilly voice from behind me said, “Speak, boy. What are we facing?”
I glanced round. It was Angleton, with Andy trailing along wearing a hang-dog expression. If it wasn’t for the deafening hum and gibber I’d have felt Angelton’s presence as soon as he entered the corridor leading to this office space: as chilly and powerful as the thing beyond the door. Not to mention his speech patterns: he spoke to everybody as if they were naughty schoolchildren. Judging by Andy’s expression he was expecting a caning.
“Andy’s ten-percenter involves a non-standard grid designed to summon and contain a class one. He hooked something else. I reckon it’s class five or higher, minimally sentient or stronger, still inside the grid but working to get free. Leakage through the door wards is over six hundred milli-Parsons per minute right now, and rising; the grid is still powered up so I figure th
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