Yes, it's published today!
... And if you've already read the prologue and first chapter, here's the second chapter of "The Apocalypse Codex"! (Below the cut.)
Ms MacDougal squints at me disapprovingly over the top of her Gucci spectacles: "This year you're going to take at least three weeks of Professional Development training, Mr. Howard. No ifs, no buts. With great power comes great authority, and if you want to stay on track for SSO 5(L) you will need to acquire an intimate and sympathetic understanding of the way people work outside the narrow scope of your department."
I will say this for Emma MacDougal: she may be a fire–breathing HR dragon, but she doesn't short us on training opportunities. "What should I be looking at?" I ask her.
"The Fast Stream track: leadership and people management skills," she says without batting an eyelid. I nearly choke on my coffee. (It's a sign of how far I've come lately that when I'm summoned to the departmental HR manager's office I rate the comfy chair and the complimentary refreshments.) "This is foundation work for your PSG and Grade Seven/SCS induction." Which is HR–speak for promotion: Professional Skills for Government and Senior Civil Service. "Your divisional heads have endorsed you for SCS, and I gather you've shown up on the radar Upstairs—" she means Mahogany Row—"so they'll be taking a look at you in due course to decide whether you're suitable for further promotion. So it's my job to see you get the grounding you need in essential operational delivery and stakeholder management. You're going to have to go back to school—Sunningdale Park."
I grin uncertainly at her buzz–words. Where I come from, stakeholder management is all about making sure you've got your vampire where you want it. "Isn't Sunningdale Park for regular Civil Service?"
"Yes. So what?"
"But"—we don't exist is on the tip of my tongue—"this is the Laundry." Which really doesn't exist, as far as most of the civil service is concerned; we're so superblack that the COBRA Committee has never heard of us. (In actual fact we're a subdivision of SOE, an organization that was officially disbanded in 1945.) Our senior management, Mahogany Row, are so superblack that most of us don't ever see them; as far as I can tell, you hit a certain level in the Laundry and you vanish into such total obscurity that you might as well not be in the same organization. "Isn't Sunningdale Park big on teamwork and horizontal networking across departmental boundaries? Who am I supposed to tell them I work for?"
"Oh, all our fast track candidates are assigned a plausible cover story with backup documentation." Emma stares at me thoughtfully. "I think . . . Yes, wait a minute." She turns to her very expensive tablet PC and rattles off a memo. "You're going to be a network security manager from, ah, the Highways Agency. Securing our nation's vital arteries of commerce against the scum of the internet, road tax dodgers and drunk drivers, and so on." A carnivorous smile plays across her lips as she continues: "You're being promoted because they need someone who understands these machines—" her fingers linger on the keyboard "—to supervise the GPS and number–plate recognition side of the National Road–Pricing Scheme."
"But I'll be about as popular as herpes!" I protest. The NRPS is the nanny state poster–child project of the decade—monitoring vehicle number plate movements and billing the owners for road usage, automatically fining them if they move between two monitoring sites faster than the national speed limit permits. It's hugely overambitious, hated by everyone from Jeremy Clarkson to the Ambulance Service, supposedly due to be self–funded out of revenue raised from fines, and destined to overrun its budget faster than you can say "public–private prolapse."
"Exactly; nobody's going to want to get too close to you." Her wicked grin erupts. "Isn't that what you were worried about a moment ago?"
"But—but—" I surrender—"Okay." I've got to admit, it's the perfect cover. "But what about the networking and schmoozing side of things?"
"Your second–level story is that you're looking for an exit strategy from the Highways Agency; they'll talk to you out of pity." She shrugs. "You don't need me to draw you a diagram, Mr. Howard. I'll set up the training account and book you in as soon as possible; the rest is up to you."
That evening I break the bad news to Mo. "They're sending me to management school."
"That'll be an eye–opener, I'm sure." She peers at me over her rimless spectacles, then picks up the open bottle: "More wine?"
"Yes please. They're trying to turn me into one of them." I shudder slightly at the memory of managers past. Bridget and Harriet, banes of my life, who lost a game of king–of–the–castle to Angleton. Andy, who is a nice guy with a bad habit of dropping me in it occasionally. Iris, the best line manager I ever had, who turned out to have hidden depths of a most peculiar and unpleasant kind. I generally have terrible luck with managers—except for Angleton, who isn't a manager exactly (he just scares the crap out of everyone who tries to use him as a chess piece). Sitting uneasily somewhere outside the regular org chart, off to one side, doing special projects for Mahogany Row, he hardly counts.
"You're wrong," Mo says crisply, and pours a goodly dollop of pinot noir into my glass. "If they tried to turn you into another pointy–haired clone they'd destroy your utility to the organization—and beating swords into ploughshares is not in the game plan. They're gearing up to fight a shooting war." She tops up her own glass. "Here's to your imminent officer's commission, love."
"They'll make me wear a tie!" I protest.
"No they won't." She pauses to reconsider. "Well, if they're sending you on regular civil service training courses at the National School of Government you probably ought to dress the part, but there's no need to go over the top." She looks at me appraisingly, and there's something very professional about her gaze. Like me, my wife works for the Laundry; unlike me, she keeps one foot in the outside world, holding down a part–time lectureship in Philosophy of Mathematics at King's College. (Maintaining that much contact with everyday life is central to keeping Agent CANDID sane—I've seen what the other half of her job does to her, and it's heart breaking.) "You're going there as a student so you can probably get away with business casual, especially at your grade and given a technical specialty as a background."
"Huh." I finally raise my glass and take a sip of wine. "But I'm going to be stuck there for a whole week. Stranded in deepest Ruralshire without you. There's on–site accommodation, run by some god–awful outsourcing partnership; there probably isn't even a pub within a fifteen kilometer radius."
"Nonsense. It's suburbia; you can get into town of an evening, there's a bus service, and there are bars and restaurants on campus."
The kitchen timer goes off right then, yammering until she walks over and silences it, then opens the oven door. That's my cue to stand up and start hauling out plates and serving spoons. Dinner is a for–two curry set from Tesco, and we've been married long enough to have worked out the division of labor thing: you know the drill.
(It's funny how, despite the yawning abyss that has opened up beneath the foundations of reality, we cling desperately to the everyday rituals of domestic life. Denial isn't just a river in Egypt . . . )
Mo tugs at the frayed edges of my management–phobia over the wreckage of a passable saag gosht and a stack of parathas. "Sending you on a course on leadership and people skills sounds like a really good idea to me," she says. Tearing off a piece of the bread and wrapping it around a lump of lamb and spinach: "They're not saddling you with stuff like public administration, procurement policy, or PRINCE2. That's significant, Bob: you're getting a very odd take on management from this one." She chews thoughtfully. "Leadership and people skills. Next thing you know they'll be whisking you off to the Joint Services Command and Staff College."
"I am so not cut out for that."
"Oh. Really?" She raises an eyebrow.
"Marching around in uniform, spit and polish and exercise and healthy outdoor living, that kind of thing." I'm making excuses. We've both worked as civilian auxiliaries with the police and military on occasion. I chase a chunk of spinach around my plate with a fork, not meeting her eyes. "I don't get it. This particular training schedule, I mean. There's a lot of work I should be doing, and there are courses at the Village—" Dunwich, our very own not–on–the–map training and R&R facility—"that I could be auditing. Stuff that really will improve my survival prospects when the tentacles hit the pentacle."
Mo sighs and puts down her spoon. "Bob. Look at me. What's coming next?"
"What's—dessert?" I try to parse the precise nuanced meaning of her frown. "The big picture? DEEP SIX rising? Um, the Sleeper in the Pyramid's alarm clock going off? The Red Skull cult taking the sightseeing elevator up the Burj Khalifa with a black goat and a SCSI cable—oh, you mean CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN?" She nods: kindly encouragement for the cognitively challenged. "The end of the world as we know it? Lovecraft's singularity, when the monsters from beyond spacetime bleed through the walls of the universe, everyone simultaneously acquires the power of a god and the sanity of an eight–week–old kitten, and the Dead Minds finally awaken?" She nods vigorously: clearly I'm on the right track. "Oh, that. We fight until we go down. Fighting. Then we fight some more."
I look at my plate, at the smeary streaks of drying curry and the mortal remains of a dead sheep's slaughtered, butchered, and cooked haunch. "Hopefully we don't end up as someone else's dinner." For a moment I feel a stab of remorse for the lamb: born into an infinite, hostile universe and destined from birth to be nothing more than fodder for uncaring alien intelligences vaster by far than it can comprehend. "'Scuse me, I'm having a Heather Mills moment here."
Mo makes my plate disappear into the dishwasher. That's what my Agent CANDID does for the Laundry: she makes messes vanish. (And sometimes I have to hold her in the night until the terror passes.) "What you missed, love, is that it's not enough for you to be good at your job. When the shit hits the fan your job's going to get a lot bigger, so big that it takes more people to do the work. And you've got to show those other people how to do it; and you've got to be good at leading and motivating them. That's why they want you to go on this course. It's about getting you ready to lead from the front. Next thing you know Mahogany Row will be taking a look to see if you've got what it takes to be an executive."
I stare at my wine glass for a moment. That latter bit is so wildly out there that it'd be laughable, if the big picture wasn't so dire. What do executives do, anyway? It's not as if there's ever anyone in the posh offices when I'm called upstairs to deliver an eyes–only report. It's like they've transmigrated to another dimension, or moved outside the organization entirely. Maybe they're squatting in the House of Lords. But she's right about the job getting bigger and the need for rad management skillz, that's the hell of it. "I suppose so," I admit.
"So. When do you start?" she asks.
I blink. "I thought I told you? It's next Monday!"
"Oh, for—" Mo picks up the wine bottle. "That's a bit sudden." She drains it into our glasses, then adds it to the recycling bucket. "All next week?"
"Yes, I'm supposed to check in on Sunday evening. So we've got tomorrow and Saturday."
"Bugger." She looks at me hungrily. "Well I suppose we shall just have to make up for time apart in advance, won't we?"
My pulse speeds up. "If you want . . ."
By Monday afternoon the torture has not only begun, it is well underway.
"Hello, and welcome to this afternoon's workshop breakout session exploring leadership and ownership of challenging projects. I'm Dr. Tring and I'm part of the department of public administration at Nottingham Trent Business School. We like to keep these breakout sessions small so we can all get to know one another, and they're deliberately structured as safe space: you all work for different agencies and we've made sure there's no overlap in your roles or responsibilities. We're on Chatham House rules here—anything that's said here is non–attributable and any names or other, ah, incriminating evidence gets left behind when we leave. Are we all clear with that?"
I nod like a parcel–shelf puppy. Around me the three other students in this session are doing likewise. We're sitting knee–to–knee in a tight circle in the middle of a whitewashed seminar room. The powder–blue conference seats were clearly not designed by anyone familiar with human anatomy: we're fifteen minutes in and my bum is already numb. Dr. Tring is about my age and wears a suit that makes him look more like a department store sales clerk than an academic. As far as my fellow students go, I'm one of the two dangerous rebels who turned up in office casual; the rest are so desperately sober that if you could bottle them you could put the Betty Ford Clinic out of business.
This morning we started with a power breakfast and a PowerP oint–assisted presentation on the goals and deliverables of this week's course. Then we broke for an hour–long meet–and–greet get–to–know–you team building session, followed by a two–hour peptalk on the importance of common core values and respect for diversity among next–generation leadership. Then lunch (with more awkward small talk over the wilted lettuce–infested sandwiches), and now this.
"I'd like to start by asking you all to introduce yourselves by name and department, then give us a brief sketch of what you do there. Not in great detail: a minute or two is enough. If you'd like to begin, Ms . . . ?"
Ms . . . gives a quick giggle, rapidly suppressed. "I'm Debbie Williams, Department for International Development." Blonde and on the plump side, she's one of the suits, subtype: black with shoulder pads, very formal, the kind you see folks wearing when they want to convince their boss that they're serious about earning that promotion. (Or when they work for a particularly stuffy law firm.) "I'm in the strategy unit for Governance in Challenging Environments. We work with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to develop robust accounting standards for promoting better budgetary administration for NGOs working in questionable—"
I zone out. Her mouth is moving and emitting sounds, but my mind's a thousand kilometers away, deep in a flashback. I'm in the middle of a platoon of SAS territorials, all of us in full–body pressure suits with oxygen tanks on our backs, boots crunching across the frozen air of a nightmare plain beneath a moon carved in the likeness of Hitler's face as we march towards a dark castle . . . I pinch myself and try to force my attention back to the here and now, where Debbie Somebody is burbling enthusiastically about recovery of depreciated assets and retention of stakeholder engagement to ensure the delivery of best value to local allies—
"Thank you, that's very good, Debbie!" Dr. Tring has the baton again. "Next, if you'd like to fill us in on your background, Mr.—"
"Bevan, Andrew Bevan." Andrew has a Midlands accent, positively Mancunian, and although he's another suit–wearer, his is brown tweed. "Hi, everyone, I'm with the Department for Culture, Media, and Sport, and I'm really excited to be part of the Olympic Delivery Authority's Post–Event Assets Realization Team! As you know, the Olympics went swimmingly and were a big hit for Britain, but even though the games are over the administrative issues raised by hosting the Olympics are still with us—"
And I'm gone again (four thousand holes in Blackburn, Lancashire), held prisoner in a stateroom aboard a luxury yacht—a thinly disguised ex–Soviet guided missile destroyer—with a silver–plated keel and a crew of jump–suited, mirrorshade–wearing minions, cruising the Caribbean under the orders of a madman who is trying to raise a dead horror from the Abyss (and though the holes were rather small, they had to count them all)—
I pull myself back to the present just as Mr. Bevan explains the urgent necessity of documenting best practices for monetizing tangible assets including but not limited to new–build Crown estate properties in order to write down the balance sheet deficit left by the games.
"Thank you, Mr. Bevan, for that fascinating peek inside the invaluable work of the DCMS. Ah, and now you, Mr., ah, Howard, is it?"
I blink back to the here and now, open my mouth, and freeze.
What I was about to say was something like this: "Hi, I'm Bob Howard. I'm a computational demonologist and senior field agent working for an organization you don't know exists. My job involves a wide range of tasks, including: writing specifications for structured cabling runs in departmental offices; diving through holes in spacetime that lead to dead worlds and fighting off the things with too many tentacles and mouths that I find there; liaising with procurement officers to draft the functional requirements for our new classified document processing architecture; exorcising haunted jet fighters; ensuring departmental compliance with service backup policy; engaging in gunfights with the inbred cannibal worshippers of undead alien gods; and sitting in committee meetings."
All of which is entirely true, and utterly, impossibly inadmissible: if I actually said it smoke would come out of my ears and my hair would catch fire long before I died, thanks to the oath of office I have sworn and the geas under which Crown authority is vested in me.
"Mr. Howard?" I snap into focus. Dr. Tring is peering at me, an expression of faint concern on his face.
"Sorry, must be something I ate." Quick, pull yourself together, Bob! "The name's Howard, Bob Howard. I work in IT security for, uh, the Highways Agency, in Leeds. My job involves a wide range of tasks, including: writing specifications for structured cabling runs in departmental offices; liaising with procurement officers to draft the functional requirements for our new automatic numberplate recognition–based road pricing scheme's penalty ticket management system; ensuring departmental compliance with service backup policy; and sitting in committee meetings."
I blink. They're all staring at me as if I've grown a second head, or coughed to being a senior field agent in a highly classified security organization.
"That's the system for handing out automatic fines to people who exceed the speed limit between cameras anywhere on the road network, isn't it?" Debbie from DFID chirps, bright and menacing.
"Um, yes?" Living as we do in central London, inside the Congestion Charge Zone, Mo and I don't own a car.
"My mum got one of them," observes Andrew from the Olympics. "She was driving my dad to the A&E unit, he swore blind 'e'd just got indigestion, but 'e'd already 'ad one heart attack—" The dropped aitches are coming out; the mob of angry peasants with the pitchforks and torches will be along in a moment.
"I think they're stupid, too," I say, perhaps a trifle too desperately; Dr. Tring is focusing on me with the expressionless gaze of a zombie assassin—don't think about those things, you're in public—"but it's part of the integrated transport safety policy." I hunch my back and roll my eyes as disarmingly as any semi–professional Igor to the Transport Secretary's Frankenstein, but they're not buying it. "Speed kills," I squeak. From the way they stare at me, you'd think I'd confessed to eating babies.
"That's enough," says Dr. Tring, finally condescending to drag the seminar back on course. "Ah, Ms Steele, if you don't mind telling us a little about your specialty, which would be managing an audit team for HMRC . . . ?"
And Ms Steele—thin–faced and serious as sudden death—launches straight into a series of adventures in carousel duty evasion and international reverse double–taxation law, during which I retreat into vindictive fantasies about setting my classmates' cars on fire.
Four hours of soul–destroyingly banal tedium—vapid nostrums about leadership values, stupid role–playing games involving pretending to be circus performers organizing a fantasy big top night, sly digs from the Ministry of Sport—pass me by in a blur. I go upstairs to my bedroom, force myself to shower and unkink my clenched jaw muscles, then dress again, and go downstairs.
They've set up a buffet in one of the meeting rooms. It's piled high with tuna mayo sandwiches, cold chicken drumsticks, and greasy mini–samosas, evidently in a misplaced attempt to encourage us to mingle and network after working hours. Halfway across the campus there's a bar, although the beer's fizzy piss and the spirits are overpriced. I check the clock: it's only six thirty. If I do the mingling thing they'll start badgering me about their aunts' speeding tickets, but the prospect of drinking on my own does not appeal.
I make the best of a bad deal and strike out across the campus to the nearest bar, where I order a pint of lemonade to calm my nerves and contemplate the menu without much enthusiasm. The ghastly truth is beginning to sink in when one of my fellow victims walks in and approaches the bar. At least I think he's a victim; he might be staff. Three–piece suit, mid–fifties, distinguished gray hair and a salt–and–pepper mustache. Something about his bearing is familiar, then I realize where I've seen it before—ten to one he's ex–military. As he taps the brass bell–push he catches me watching him and nods. "Ah, Mr. Howard."
I stare at him. "That's me. Who are you?" It's rude, I know, but I'm not in a terribly good mood right now.
"I heard one of you young people would be here, and thought I ought to meet you." The barman, who looks younger than most of the single malts behind the bar, sticks his head up. "Ah, that'll be a Talisker, the sixteen–year–old, and—" He looks at me—"what's your poison, Mr. Howard?"
"I'll try the Glengoyne ten," I say automatically.
"Bill it to my tab," says my nameless benefactor. "No ice!" he adds, with an expression of mild horror as the barman reaches for the bucket. "That will be all." The barman, to my surprise, makes himself scarce, leaving two tumblers of amber water–of–life atop the bar. "Make yourself comfortable," he says, gesturing at a couple of armchairs beside the empty fireplace. He makes it sound like an order.
I sit down. He sits down opposite me. "You still haven't introduced yourself," I say.
"Indeed." He smiles faintly.
"Indeed." There's nothing I can say to that without being rude, and we in the Laundry have an old saying: Do not in haste be rude to whoever's buying the drinks. So I raise my tumbler, take a good sniff (just to make sure it isn't poison), and examine him over the rim.
"You surprised Dr. Tring, you know. Most of the students here are aiming to network and make connections; you might want to pick a slightly less objectionable cover story next time."
Cover story. I give him the hairy eyeball. "For the third time. Who's asking?"
He reaches into his jacket pocket with his right hand and withdraws a familiar–looking card. Which he then holds in front of me while I read the name on it and feel a prickling in the balls of my thumbs (and a vibration in the ward that hangs on a chain around my neck) that tells me it's the real thing.
"All right, Mr. Lockhart." I take a sip of his whisky and allow myself to relax—but only a little. "I'll take your helpful advice under consideration, although in my defense, I have to say, the story wasn't my idea. But what—if I may ask—are you doing here?"
"I'd have thought it was obvious; I'm enjoying an after–work drink and networking with a useful contact in the Highways Agency." Gerald Lockhart, who at SSO8(L) is a stratospheric four grades above me—that's four grades up in the same organization—replies without any noticeable inflection.
"Uh huh." I think for a moment. "We couldn't possibly be running an ongoing effort here to identify suitable candidates for recruitment from within other branches of the civil service—or to implant geases in up–and–coming players fast–tracked for promotion that will enable us to work more effectively with them in future. Could we?"
"Certainly not, Mr. Howard, and I'd thank you to stop speculating along such lines. You're not cleared for them."
Oops. "Okay, I'll stop." But I can't avoid a little jab: "But you're obviously cleared for me, aren't you?"
Lockhart fixes me with a reptilian stare: "James warned me about your sense of humor, young man. I think he indulges you too much."
Young man? I'm in my early thirties. On the other hand, I can take a hint that I'm in over my head: when your sparring partner turns out to be on a first–name basis with Angleton, it's time to back off.
I put my glass down, even though it's not empty. "Look, I don't need this. You obviously want to talk to me about something. But I've had a bad day, I'm not terribly happy to be here, and I'm not handling this very well. So I'd appreciate it if you'd just say your piece, all right?"
I can see his jaw working, behind the salt–and–pepper topiary on his upper lip. "If that's the way you want it." He takes a sip of his single malt. "I expect you've noticed that there are a lot of high–flyers here. Civil servants who are being groomed for upper management roles, where in ten years time they'll deal with members of the government and represent their departments in public. You should be making notes, Mr. Howard, because although you won't be dealing with the general public, you'll certainly be representing us in front of these people. You're going to need those people–handling skills. If we all live long enough for you to acquire them. Ha, ha."
"Ha—" I try not to look unsuitably unamused—"ha. So?"
"James is assigning you to my department for a little project—nothing you can't handle, I assure you. I'll see you in my office next Monday morning at eleven o'clock sharp. In the meantime, you have some background reading to catch up on." He slides a dog–eared paperback towards me across the table before I can respond. "Good night, Mr. Howard." He rises, and before I can open my mouth and insert any additional limbs he vanishes.
I pick up the book and turn it over in my hands. Spy–Catcher, it says, by Peter Wright. New York Times bestseller. I stare at it. Background reading? Wasn't he a rogue Security Service officer from the seventies or something? How bizarre. I pick up my whisky glass, and open the book.
Oh well, at least I've got something to pass the evenings with now . . .