Charles Stross


“Bob! Are you busy right now? I’d like a moment of your time.”

Those thirteen words never bode well—although coming from my new manager, Iris, they’re less doom- laden than if they were falling from the lips of some others I could name. In the two months I’ve been working for her Iris has turned out to be the sanest and most sensible manager I’ve had in the past five years. Which is saying quite a lot, really, and I’m eager to keep her happy while I’ve got her.

“Be with you in ten minutes,” I call through the open door of my office; “got a query from HR to answer first.” Human Resources have teeth, here in the secretive branch of the British government known to its inmates as the Laundry; so when HR ask you to do their homework—ahem, provide one’s opinion of an applicant’s suitability for a job opening—you give them priority over your regular work load. Even when it’s pretty obvious that they’re taking the piss.

I am certain that Mr. Lee would make an extremely able addition to the Office Equipment Procurement Team, I type, if he was not already—according to your own goddamn database, if you’d bothered to check it—a lieutenant in the Chinese Peoples Liberation Army Jiangshi Brigade. Who presumably filled out the shouldn’t-have-been-published-on-the-internet job application on a drunken dare, or to test our vetting procedures, or something. Consequently I suspect that he would fail our mandatory security background check at the first hurdle. (As long as the vetting officer isn’t also a PLA mole.)

I hit “send” and wander out into the neon tube overcast where Iris is tapping her toes. “Your place or mine?”

“Mine,” says Iris, beckoning me into her cramped corner office. “Have a chair, Bob. Something’s come up, and I think it’s right up your street.” She plants herself behind her desk, leans back in her chair, and preps her pitch. “It’ll get you out of the office for a bit, and if HR are using you to stomp all over the dreams of upwardly- mobile Chinese intelligence operatives it means you’re—”

“Underutilized. Yeah, whatever.” I wave it off. But it’s true: since I sorted out the funny stuff in the basement at St. Hilda’s I’ve been bored. The day-to-day occupation of the average secret agent mostly consists of hurry up and wait. In my case, that means filling in on annoying bits of administrative scutwork and handling upgrades to the departmental network—when I’m not being called upon to slay multi-tentacled horrors from beyond spacetime. (Which doesn’t happen very often, actually, for which I am profoundly grateful.) “You said it’s out of the office?”

“Yes.” She smiles; she knows she’s planted the hook. “A bit of fresh country air, Bob—you’re too pallid. But tell me—” she leans forward—“what do you know about horses?”

The equine excursion takes me by surprise. “Uh?” I shake my head. “Four legs, hooves, and a bad attitude?” Iris shakes her head, so I try again: “Go with a carriage like, er, love and marriage?”

“No, Bob, I was wondering—did you ever learn to ride?”

“What, you mean—wait, we’re not talking about bicycles here, right?” From her reaction I don’t think that’s the answer she was looking for. “I’m a city boy. As the photographer said, you should never work with animals or small children if you can avoid it. What’s come up, a dressage emergency?”

“Not exactly.” Her smile fades. “It’s a shame, it would have made this easier.”

“Made what easier?”

“I could have sworn HR said you could ride.” She stares at me pensively. “Never mind. Too late to worry about has-beens now. Hmm. Anyway, it probably doesn’t matter—you’re married, so I don’t suppose you’re a virgin, either. Are you?”

“Get away!” Virgins? That particular myth is associated with unicorns, which don’t exist, any more than vampires, dragons, or mummies—although I suppose if you wrapped a zombie in bandages you’d get a—stop that. In my head, confused stories about Lady Godiva battle with media images of tweed-suited shotgun-wielding farmers. “Do you need someone who can ride? Because I don’t think I can learn in—”

“No, Bob, I need you. Or rather, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs needs a liaison officer who just happens to have your background and proven track record in—” she waves her left hand—“putting down infestations.”

“Do they?” I do a double-take at putting down infestations. “Are they sure that’s what they need?”

“Yes, they are. Or rather, they know that when they spot certain signs, they call us.” She pulls open a desk drawer and removes a slim folder, its cover bearing the Crowned Portcullis emblem beneath an elder sign. “Take this back to your office and read it,” she tells me. “Return it to the stacks when you’re done. Then you can spend the rest of the afternoon thinking of ways to politely tell HR to piss up a rope, because tomorrow morning you’re getting on a train to Hove in order to lend a DEFRA inspector a helping hand.”

“You’re serious?” I boggle at her. “You’re sending me to do what? Inspect a farm?”

“I don’t want to prejudice your investigation. There’s a livery stable. Just hook up with the man from The Archers, take a look around, and phone home if anything catches your attention.”

She slides the file across my desk and I open the flyleaf. It starts with TOP SECRET and a date round about the battle of the Somme, crossed out and replaced with successively lower classifications until fifteen years ago it was marked down to MILDLY EMBARRASSING NO TABLOIDS. Then I flip the page and spot the title. “Hang on —”

“Shoo,” she says, a wicked glint in her eyes. “Have fun!”

I shoo, smarting. I know a set-up when I see one—and I’ve been conned.

To understand why I knew I’d been tricked, you need to know who I am and what I do. Assuming you’ve read this far without your eyeballs boiling in your skull, it’s probably safe to tell you that my name’s Bob Howard— at least, for operational purposes; true names have power, and we don’t like to give extradimensional identity thieves the keys to our souls—and I work for a secret government agency known to its inmates as the Laundry. It morphed into its present form during the Second World War, ran the occult side of the conflict with the Thousand Year Reich, and survives to this day as an annoying blob somewhere off to the left on the org chart of the British intelligence services, funded out of the House of Lords black budget.

Magic is a branch of applied mathematics, and I started out studying computer science (which is no more about computers than astronomy is about building really big telescopes). These days I specialize in applied computational demonology and general dogsbody work around my department. The secret service has never really worked out how to deal with people like me, who aren’t admin personnel but didn’t come up through the Oxbridge civil service fast-track route. In fact, I got into this line of work entirely by accident: if your dissertation topic leads you in the wrong direction you’d better hope that the Laundry finds you and makes you a job offer you can’t refuse before the things you’ve unintentionally summoned up get bored talking to you and terminate your viva voce with prejudice.

After a couple of years of death by bureaucratic snu-snu (too many committee meetings, too many tedious IT admin jobs) I volunteered for active duty, without any clear understanding that it would mean more years of death by boredom (too many committee meetings, too many tedious IT jobs) along with a side-order of mortal terror courtesy of tentacle monsters from beyond spacetime.

As I am now older and wiser, not to mention married and still in possession of my sanity, I prefer my work life to be boringly predictable these days. Which it is, as a rule, but then along come the nuisance jobs—the Laundry equivalent of the way the US Secret Service always has to drop round for coffee, a cake, and a brisk interrogation with idiots who boast about shooting the president on Yahoo! Chat.

In my experience, your typical scenario is that some trespassing teenagers get stoned on ’shrooms, hallucinate flying saucers piloted by alien colorectal surgeons looking to field-test their new alien endoscope technology, and shit themselves copiously all over Farmer Giles’ back paddock. A report is generated by the police,

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