“This one’s the most promising,” Iris said, handing a stapled, printed CV across her boss’ desk. He was the senior IT manager for MI6, in charge of not only Iris’ Help Desk but a half dozen other departments. “The candidate’s name is Mike Taylor. Background check came up clean, so no problem with security clearance.”
“Hmm. Nothing extraordinary,” said Richard Parker as he skipped the CV itself and went right to Taylor’s transcripts.
Iris watched tensely, hoping she’d made the right choice out of the flood of CVs that had hit her inbox. Mike Taylor seemed to be the perfect combination of skilled and unambitious, just the type of steady, long-term worker Iris preferred. The background check supported that conclusion: middle-of-the-road student, the usual computer science sort, though with quite a few engineering subjects. There were quite a few notes that read ‘Student could excel, if he applied himself’ and ‘Excellent potential’.
“Help Desk isn’t exactly rocket science,” Iris said, a hint of desperation in her voice.
Richard sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose where his reading glasses had left little marks. “If we’d actually given the field agents mandatory computer training before issuing them all laptops, your department wouldn’t be overworked.”
“Look what he marked as a salary range,” Iris coaxed, pointing at the printout of the online application, where a lovely checkmark sat next to ‘negotiable’. “His address couldn’t be in a worse part of town. We’re not dealing with some posh bastard who wants to get rich off a cushy government job.”
“I’d defy anyone to find ‘cushy’ at MI6,” Richard said, lips quirking up in amusement. “All right. You can have him — but no one else. Not until I see the impact of a single hire on your numbers. With the costs of hiring and securing new employees, it’s cheaper to spread around a bit of overtime than to hire additional staff.”
With almost embarrassing gratitude, Iris said, “Thank you, Mr Parker. I’ll get in touch with him right away. Did you want to interview him?”
“I’m certain that won’t be necessary. I trust your judgement. Now, what about this new trouble ticket system you want to implement?”
Mike Taylor turned out to be even more unassuming in person than he’d been in his online application. He was utterly average, fitting comfortably into one of the most common stereotypes in the IT department: in his case, the thin, never-sees-sunlight, glasses-wearing one. It was a shame, really, Iris thought as she led him through the maze of cubicles to the one he’d share. If he did something about his hair and got Lasik, he could probably be lovely.
“The system is automated. You’ll want to stick with the scripts. If there’s anything the script doesn’t handle, escalate it to tier two,” she said, gesturing him to his seat. “Annie, this is Mike. Mike, Annie Hodges will help you settle in.”
He murmured a polite greeting to her as he set down his rucksack — with a temporary ‘cleared’ security tag hanging from the zip — and sat down. Even though the poor lad couldn’t have weighed more than nine or ten stone, the chair creaked and wobbled dangerously. Help Desk received the cast-off furniture that had already gone through most of the IT department, so the chair was probably the best of a bad lot.
Annie, who was taking a call, stabbed the mute button on her headset and grunted a greeting of her own. She toggled mute off again and went back to her script. She was diligent, hard-working, and utterly without ambition. She worked her shifts, refused overtime, and spent every waking minute of her free time playing video games.
Iris had Mike log onto the help ticket system. She was pleased to see he hadn’t cheated and put his temporary password on his mobile or a Post-it note — either of which had got more than one new hire sacked. Once she verified that he could access the training software, she pointed out her office, invited him to come to her with any questions, and got out of the bullpen before anyone noticed her presence. Whenever she ventured out of her office for too long, people tended to ask about pay rises and extra time off, and she didn’t have the time or patience to deal with that right now — not with their insane backlog of trouble tickets.
“Help Desk call centre, this is Taylor, operator 4191. This is not a secure line. How may I help you?”
“Bloody fucking thank god,” James Bond snapped in a furious whisper. “Bond, James, agent 007, and if you hang up on me, I swear to Christ that I’ll rip out your intestines if I don’t get my arse shot off. Where the hell’s Q Branch?”
“I’m... sorry, sir? There’s been a power glitch —”
Bond froze, hearing footsteps outside the office — if it could be properly termed an office. Damned shack was more like it, with paper-thin walls made that much worse by the fact that he’d removed one of the windows so he could climb in. The bitter wind was cutting right into his bones, because apparently someone hadn’t mentioned to Mongolia that September was still autumn, not the middle of fucking winter.
“Sir? Are you there?”
He hissed, and the man — boy, his mind supplied — obligingly shut the hell up.
A full minute passed before the footsteps returned, now going in the other direction. At least now he had the approximate rotation for the guards.
“All right,” he whispered. “You’re going to need to concentrate and help me out here. I’m in a room full of computers, I think, only they’re like none I’ve ever seen — no bloody monitors or keyboards for one. Which one’s most likely to control a bank of mobile missile platforms?”
There was a momentary pause. “Face the door, and while slowly looking from right to left, do a full circle, describing everything you see as clearly and succinctly as possible.”
Bond let out a relieved sigh, glad he hadn’t wound up with an idiot. He had a small torch with a red lens, which he aimed at the door, giving it another quick search.
“Hinges on the left, door’s not wired, handle’s a lever not a knob, no security — not that there’s any bloody need, in the middle of fucking nowhere. Blank wall beside the door, up to the corner. Shelves are wood, three of them. Bottom’s got old plastic tubs, those big blue ones, full of what looks like wires, only in this bloody hellhole for all I know they’ve got fucking scorpions and landmines. Next shelf up has either computers or, fuck if I know, video game consoles. Four of them, as black as anything can be under all this bloody dust, eight inches high, three across, round button in the centre front with a red light above. Shelf above that has five more and what looks like a bloody dot matrix printer, case so old it’s gone all yellow under the dust. Keep going?”
“Yes. As soon as I hear what I’m looking for, I’ll tell you.”
He turned the torch on the back wall, where he’d entered. “Back wall has what used to be a window and an American Sports Illustrated calendar from — Christ, 1988?” he said, shaking his head. Apparently being stationed here reduced people to new levels of desperation.
“You’ll probably need that. Take it down, but don’t bother looking through it until I tell you.”
Bond eyed the calendar suspiciously and started to speak, before he hissed a warning again. The footsteps didn’t approach, though, so after two minutes, he demanded quietly, “Are you taking the piss? What’s the bloody calendar got to do with anything?”
“The layers of dust indicate that there isn’t any permanent staff there. That means it’s not likely that one person holds relevant login information — it’s probably shared. If we need any such data, I’ll bet you a hundred quid that calendar is where you’ll find it written down.”
“Son of a bitch,” Bond muttered, pulling the calendar off the rusty nail. Sure enough, there were signs that it had been taken down and put back up multiple times. “There isn’t a bloody keyboard or mouse anywhere,” he complained, continuing his survey of the room. “The other wall’s exactly the same — shelves, boxes underneath. This time there’s nine of the computer things, four on top, five on the bottom.”
“Get down, eye-level with where the floor meets the wall. There will be ropes of cables running from each of the shelves, probably into a box about eight inches wide and one inch thick, with lights that flash. One of the cables will be running not towards the shelves, but away from it. Probably to a drawer of some sort. Find the cable and follow it to the drawer. When you pull it out, you’ll probably see a recessed screen. It may be touchscreen, but from what you’re describing, I’ll bet there will be an old clunky keyboard and mouse in the drawer, too.”
“On which side?” Bond asked, quietly lowering himself to all fours. Thankfully his mobile had a hands-free headset. “Oh, and is this going to be a problem? I used that search function on my mobile to lock onto their comms, since I’m in the middle of bloody nowhere.”
“Why didn’t you tell me that when I told you the line wasn’t secure?" the operator snapped. Then he took a breath. "The box will most likely be halfway between the shelves. And hold, please.” With that, the line clicked and went ominously silent.
“You said it wasn’t secure first,” Bond muttered petulantly, wondering if this wouldn’t be easier if he just shot all the guards — there were only eight or ten of them — and then disabled the missiles.
He went back to searching under the shelves for where all the cables came together, but saw nothing. Frustrated, he set down his torch, reached under the shelf, and picked up one of the blue tubs, muscles straining as he tried to back up with it. Movement made him freeze. In the shadowed red light of the torch, he saw dull tan, taupe, and white stripes.
Slowly, so slowly that his muscles trembled with the strain, he set the tub down.
“All right, lines are now secure,” came Taylor’s voice, sounding slightly irritated. “Let’s just hope that no one caught your piggyback before I had a chance to squash your signal. Did you find the terminal yet? Agent?”
Bond had only the fuzziest idea what Taylor was talking about. He’d been assured that the mobile’s search function was secure, but Q Branch had become... fuzzy in the last few years. “Found it,” he said, picking up the torch with slow, careful movements. He aimed it at the snake — a Halys viper, if his memory served — and said, “So did she. It’s warm, this box, isn’t it? Has fans to blow hot air?”
“Yes, actually. How did you...” The voice paused. “Oh. Oh, shit. You’ve found something’s nest, haven’t you? Be careful, agent.”
Only through a supreme act of willpower did Bond choke back his laughter. This puppy had no idea. “One moment,” he whispered casually, and started to inch forward.
It took two minutes, actually, before Bond spoke again. “Right. Found the box. All the wires come down into the box, except one that goes left, along the back wall, I suppose to the other shelves, and one that goes right, into another of these tubs. I take it that’s the one I want?”
“Who needs something as fancy as a drawer when you can have a plastic tub instead?” the tech said dryly. “Though I bet it’s waterproof. Yes, you’ll find your terminal in there. Though be cautious — whatever hole allows the cable to run through will also allow more creatures of the skittery variety. Watch for spiders and other unpleasant things.”
“The only ‘unpleasant’ thing here is me,” Bond muttered, taking the torch in his teeth to free up both hands. He rooted as quietly as possible through coils of dust-covered cables until he found not a keyboard but an entire bloody laptop — if something that weighed a good six pounds could be called a ‘laptop’ and not a fucking brick.
He picked it up, tugging enough slack in the connecting cable so he could lift it to perch on the corner of the tub. “Laptop. Doesn’t look wired to explode.”
“Plastic or metal?” came the quick reply. “And how many inches thick when closed?”
“Ten inches across, almost that deep, two inches high. It’s a metal case with bumpers on the corners.”
“Go ahead and turn it on. You’ll probably see a login screen. Flip through the calendar to see if it has the relevant information written down in it. If not, click the password hint button. It will probably give you a month name.”
“Right.” Bond stuck the torch in his teeth again, found the catch, and pushed open the lid. The screen opened with a grinding feel of trapped dust, making him wince. He held still, listening for the guards, but heard nothing. He pushed it open the rest of the way, noting that once it was fully open, the screen swivelled from side to side on a now-loose hinge.
He pressed the power button, and nothing happened. With a sinking feeling, he flipped the thing over enough to note that the power cable — presumably meant to go to the round hole in the back — wasn’t plugged in. He sat back on his heels, took the torch out of his mouth, and muttered, “Fuck. Right, then. Plan B.”
“Plan B? What’s plan B?” Taylor asked sharply.
“Kill everyone. Thanks, Taylor. Sorry, no time for one of those surveys.”
After a pause, Taylor dryly answered, “Thank you for calling the Help Desk. Enjoy the rest of your day.”
Bond grinned, tapped his earpiece to end the call, and unplugged the laptop. He’d take it with him. For now, though, he set it beside the dead snake, drew his gun, and went to deal with the guards.
“Mail for you.”
Mike Taylor looked up in surprise. He’d gone direct deposit and paperless with his pay, filled out all his personnel files online, and had never dared use his work identification to sign up for any professional journals, newsletters, or sales catalogues. (The fact that such things existed for Help Desk techs was vaguely terrifying to him.)
Still, he took the clipboard, inwardly wincing as he picked up the perfectly normal biro taped to a string, and signed for a package, delivered via interdepartmental mail. Didn’t anyone automate these days?
“Thank you,” he said, and took the box. It was a repurposed box from Amazon.co.uk, with the top flaps interlaced and covered with a phenomenal amount of tape. A Post-it had been stuck to the top, under more tape. The bold black scrawl across the Post-it read TAYLOR 4191 HELP DESK.
Assuming that the mail room had screenings for bombs and other hazardous things, he turned to Annie and asked, “Have you got scissors?”
She grunted an affirmation, slid open a drawer, and hooked a pair of scissors with one finger. Muting her current call, she asked, “Order something?” as she passed them back.
“Nothing that would be delivered here.” He opened the scissors and sliced through the thick layers of tape a bit apprehensively. Then he returned the scissors and unwove the top flaps.
He stood up so he could better open the box. A call rang through, but there were eight other Tier One techs on duty; one of them would pick it up. He started scooping out the styrofoam peanuts a bit warily until his fingers found something. It was hard, with an odd, slick texture.
Baffled, he pulled out more of the peanuts, until —
“Christ!” he all but yelped, jerking his hands back instinctively, because that was a perfectly reasonable reflexive action when confronted with a bloody snake.
Annie was behind him in a flash, looking over his shoulder as best her headset tether would allow. “Oh, wow,” she breathed.
Heart pounding, he swallowed, recognising belatedly that it was obviously a dead snake. A dead, taxidermied, posed snake. He took a couple of steadying breaths and started to get rid of the rest of the peanuts, refusing to allow his hands to tremble with the rush of adrenaline.
“I dunno that the department’s gonna let you have that in your cube,” Annie warned. MI6 had a somewhat strict decorating policy.
Mike snorted and finally removed enough peanuts to reveal the snake, which had been artfully mounted in a coil, jaws open, wedge-shaped head ready to strike. The base was a round disk of polished, dark wood almost the exact same shade as the snake’s dark bands.
It was, he thought a bit dazedly, actually somewhat pretty. For a bloody unexpected snake.
He set it down and dug through the peanuts for an explanation, only to come up with another Post-it, this one with tiny fragments of styrofoam stuck to the sticky edge.
Thank you. -007