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From the Hugo Award-winning author of The Rhesus Chart comes another supernatural case from 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 labyrinthine 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.
Unfortunately, one of those supernatural threats has come between Mo and Bob. An antique violin, an Erich Zahn original, made of white human 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...
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Charles Stross, born in 1964, is a full-time science fiction writer and resident of Edinburgh, Scotland. He is the author of seven Hugo-nominated novels, including Accelerando, Neptune’s Brood, Saturn’s Children and The Laundry Files series, and winner of three Hugo Awards for best novella. Stross has had his work translated into more than twelve languages. He has worked as a pharmacist, software developer, and tech-industry journalist.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
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 p...
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