The Fuller Memorandum (Laundry Files #3) by Charles Stross

Prologue

LOSING MY RELIGION

THERE CAN BE ONLY ONE TRUE RELIGION. ARE YOU FEELING lucky, believer?

Like the majority of ordinary British citizens, I used to be a good old-fashioned atheist, secure in my conviction that folks who believed--in angels and demons, supernatural manifestations and demiurges, snake-fondling and babbling in tongues and the world being only a few thousand years old--were all superstitious idiots. It was a conviction encouraged by every crazy news item from the Middle East, every ludicrous White House prayer breakfast on the TV. But then I was recruited by the Laundry, and learned better.

I wish I could go back to the comforting certainties of atheism; it's so much less unpleasant than the One True Religion.

The truth won't make your Baby Jesus cry because, sad to say, there ain't no such Son of God. Moses may have taken two tablets before breakfast, but there was nobody home to listen to the prayers of the victims of the Shoah. The guardians of the Kaaba have got the world's best tourism racket running, the Dalai Lama isn't anybody's reincarnation, Zeus is out to lunch, and you really don't want me to start on the neo-pagans.

However, there is a God out there--vast and ancient and infinitely powerful--and I know the name of this God. I know the path you have to walk down to be one with this God. I know his secret rituals and the correct form of prayer and his portents and signs. I have studied the ancient writings of his prophets and followers in person, not simply relying on the classified digests in the CODICIL BLACK SKULL files and the background briefings for CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN.

I'm a believer. And like I said, I wish I was still an atheist. Believing I was born into a harsh, uncaring cosmos--in which my existence was a random roll of the dice and I was destined to die and rot and then be gone forever--was infinitely more comforting than the truth.

Because the truth is that my God is coming back.

When he arrives I'll be waiting for him with a shotgun.

And I'm keeping the last shell for myself.

A COUPLE OF YEARS AGO, ANGLETON SUGGESTED I START WRITING my memoirs. It seemed a pretty weird idea at the time--a thirty-year-old occult intelligence officer should take time off on the job to work on his autobiography?--but he had a point. "Bob," he said, in his usual frighteningly avuncular tones, with a voice like dry sheets of parchment rubbing, "like it or not, that thick little skull of yours contains valuable institutional knowledge that has been acquired over years of service for H. M. Government. If you don't start now, you may never catch up with the job. And if you don't catch up with the job, part of the Laundry's institutional memory might vanish for good." He gave a curious little chuckle, as if he regretted having had to admit that there was any value to my meager contribution. "You might die on your next field assignment, or be turned by the enemy. And that'd be nearly ten years of work down the drain."

Then he pointed me at the rule book that explained how all officers above OC2 rank are required to either keep a classified journal or to periodically update their memoirs, which would be stored under lock and key--automatically classified under the various keywords they'd been cleared for during the time period covered--the books to be opened only in event of their author's death, retirement, or permanent disablement in the line of duty.

You know something? I hate writing. I keep having to distract myself, hence all the little jokes. It's actually not as if the job is all that funny, when you get down to it. Especially as I have to write everything either in longhand or on a 1962 Triumph Adler 66 manual typewriter, and burn the ribbons and carbon papers afterwards in the Security Office incinerator in front of two witnesses with high security clearances. I'm not allowed to use rubber bands or paper clips to hold the papers together (although string and, ye horrors, traditional red sealing wax--and don't get me started on how difficult it is to melt the stuff in a smoke-free building with fire detectors in every office--is permitted). My fingers are hardwired for the Emacs programmers' editor and a laptop; this historic office reenactment stuff gets old real fast. But I digress.

This is the story of how I lost my atheism, and why I wish I could regain it. This is the story of the people who lost their lives in an alien desert bathed by the hideous radiance of a dead sun, and the love that was lost and the terror that wakes me up in a cold sweat about once a week, clawing at the sheets with cramping fingers and drool on my chin. It's why Mo and I aren't living together right now, why my right arm doesn't work properly, and I'm toiling late into the night, trying to bury the smoking wreckage of my life beneath a heap of work.

It's the story of what happened to the Fuller Memorandum, and the beginning of the end of the world.

Are you sure you want to carry on?

1.

GOING TO SEE THE ELEPHANT

Summer in England

THOSE WORDS ARE SUPPOSED TO CONJURE UP HALCYON SUNNY afternoons; the smell of new-mown hay, little old ladies on bicycles pedaling past the village green on their way to the church jumble sale, the vicar's tea party, the crunching sound of a fast-bowled cricket ball fracturing the batsman's skull, and so on.

The reality is, of course, utterly different.

It's an early summer afternoon in June, and I'm sharing an overcrowded train carriage with an assortment of tired commuters heading back to their dormitory suburbs, and a couple of angry wasps trying to drill their way out through the toughened glass. The hamster-powered air conditioning is wheezing on the edge of a nervous breakdown, it's twenty-eight degrees and ninety percent relative humidity out there, and the as**ole behind me is playing something very loud on a pair of tinny headphones.

I'm having second thoughts about having paid fifty pounds to sit on this train, expenses or no expenses. But I don't see what alternatives there are. I need to get from London to RAF Cosford, just outside Wolverhampton, and I don't have a car and the Laundry certainly isn't going to hire me a helicopter for a job that isn't time-critical. They won't even pay for me to take a taxi the whole way. So I'm stuck with a choice: train or coach. At least this way I get to avoid the M6 motorway . . .

And at least I've got a seat with a table. I reread my instructions as the train shudders and lurches through the parched countryside. It's a low-priority field job: to investigate reports of eerie manifestations of a disturbing nature from one of the airframes stored in the hangar annex to the Royal Air Force Museum. The museum houses a lot of historic war-birds. Violent death tends to go with the territory, and a few ghosts--echoes in the informational substrate of reality--wouldn't be anything out of the ordinary. My job is to dispel any annoying manifestations, reassure the locals, close out the case, etcetera. It's sufficiently routine and predictable that I'd normally send the office junior, but for some reason, Angleton pulled me into his office this morning. "Bob, I'd like you to deal with this one yourself," he said, handing me the brief. "It'll get you out of the office for a day."

"But I'm busy!" I protested, a tad limply--the lack of aircon was getting to me, and I'm not good at standing up to Angleton at the best of times. "I've got to respond to the RFP on structured cabling requirements for the new subbasement extension in D Block"--don't call it a crypt, the government doesn't do crypts, the Spanish Inquisition does crypts--"and go over Claire's training budget. Can't Peter-Fred do it? He's finished Exorcism 101, it's about time he had a field trip . . ."

"Nonsense!" Angleton said crisply. "You can take the paperwork with you, but I specifically want you to go and look at this one."

There's a warning gleam in his eyes: I've seen it before. "Oh no you don't," I replied. "Not so fast!" I raised an eyebrow and waited for the explosion.

Angleton is old school--so old school that I'm pretty sure I've seen his face in a departmental photo taken during the war, back when the Laundry was an obscure department of SOE, the Special Operations Executive, tasked with occult intelligence gathering and counter-demonology. He doesn't look a day older today than he did back then, sixty-five years ago--dress him in a bandage and he could star in a remake of The Mummy. Ice-blue eyes with slightly yellowish scleras, skin like parchment left out for too long in a desert sandstorm, dry as bone and twice as chilly as ice. And I never want to hear his laugh again. But I digress. The thing about Angleton is that, despite (or in addition to) being the honorary departmental monster, he has a sense of humor. It bears about the same relationship to mirth that his cadaverous exterior does to Paris Hilton's--but it's there. (He has the heart of a young boy: keeps it in a reliquary under the coffin he sleeps in.) And right then, I figured he was winding me up for the punch line.

But: no. He shook his head slowly. "Not this time, Bob." The gleam in his eye guttered out, replaced by dead-cold sobriety: "While you're up there to do the business, I want you to take a look at one of the other museum exhibits--one that's not on public display. I'll explain it later, when you get back. Take your warrant card. When you're through with the job on the worksheet, tell Warrant Officer Hastings that I sent you to take a look at the white elephant in Hangar 12B."

Huh? I blinked a couple of times, then sneezed. "You're setting me up for another working group, aren't you?"

"You know better than to ask that, boy," he grated, and I jumped back: Angleton is nobody you want to stand too close to when he's even mildly irritated. "I'll give you the background when you're ready for it. Meanwhile, get moving!"

"Whatever." I sketched a sarcastic salute and marched off back to my office, lost in thought. It was a setup, obviously: Angleton was softening me up for something new. Probably a new game of bureaucratic pass-the-parcel, seeing if some poor schmuck--I was already in charge of departmental IT services, for my sins--could be mugged into taking on responsibility for exorcising hovercraft or something.

Back to the here-and-now. The carriage is slowing. A minute later I realize it's pulling into a main line station--Wolverhampton, where I get to change trains. I shove my reading matter back into my messenger bag (it's a novel about a private magician for hire in Chicago--your taxpayer pounds at work) and go to stand in the doorway.

The air in the station hits me like a hot flannel, damp and clingy and smelling slightly of diesel fumes. I take a breath, step down onto the concrete, and try to minimize my movements as I go looking for the Cosford service. I find the platform it stops at: a crumbling concrete strip opposite a peeling wooden fence. The rails are rusty and overgrown, and a couple of young trees are trying to colonize the tracks; but the TV screen overhead is lit up and predicting a train will be along in ten minutes. I take a shallow breath and sit down, hunching instinctively towards the nearest shade. Fifteen minutes later, the TV screen is still predicting a train will be along in ten minutes; then my mobile rings. It's Mo.

"Bob!" She sounds so cheerful when she says my name: I don't know how she does it, but it cheers me up.

"Mo!" Pause. "Where are you?"

"I'm back in the office! I spent most of the morning in the stacks, I only just got your text . . ." The one telling her I was off on a day trip to Cosford. The Laundry's deep archives are in a former underground tunnel, way down where the sun doesn't shine, and neither do the cellular networks.

"Right. I'm on a railway platform waiting for an overdue train. It's about two hundred degrees in the shade, the pigeons are falling out of the sky from heatstroke, and nobody will sell me a beer." (Well, they might if I'd asked for one, but . . .)

"Oh, good! When are you going to be back?"

"Sometime late this evening," I say doubtfully. "I'm due to arrive in Cosford at"--I check the lying timetable--"two thirty, and I don't think I'll get away before six. Then it'll take me about three hours--"

"Angleton did this? He did, didn't he!" Suddenly Mo switches from warm and cuddly to spiky as a porcupine: "Didn't you tell him you couldn't? We're supposed to be having dinner with Pete and Sandy tonight!"

I do a mental backflip, re-engage my short-term memory, and realize she's right. Dinner for four, booked at a new Kurdish restaurant in Fulham. Pete was at university with Mo years ago, and is a priest or a witch doctor or something; Sandy is blonde and teaches comparative religion to secondary school kids. Mo insists we stay in touch with them: having friends with ordinary jobs who don't know anything about the Laundry provides a normative dose of sanity for the two of us, to keep us from drifting too far out of the mainstream. "Shit." I'm more mortified for having landed Mo in it than anything else . . . "You're right. Listen, do you want to go on your own, tell them I'll turn up later--I'll come straight from the station--or do you want to cancel?"

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