Work Header

Violins at Work

Work Text:

I was terrified by my first trip to Amsterdam. Not because I might have died. That was scary, but I could have dealt with it. Not because of Bob. He didn't come across as the most likely rescuer, and I was already falling for him hard enough that I'd have been devastated if he did something as stupid as getting himself killed unnecessarily. No, this is going to sound terribly egotistical, but I was scared of being so blatantly outclassed. It's not really an experience I was familiar with. Sure, I've been a junior academic. I had the same feelings of existential worthlessness that any scholar does as they know more and more about less and less. I knew my PhD thesis was bound to fail and that I'd wasted four years. But I always knew that I ought to be able to deal, even if I couldn't. Finding out that I am to the horrors we deal with on a daily basis as the sheep that died for last night's curry is to me was horrible. Finding out that half the Laundry regarded me as a helpless victim, plain and simple, was nigh unbearable.

To backtrack a bit, after the Laundry, in the person of Bob Howard, lost IT specialist and wrangler of gibbering horrors from beyond spacetime, got me out of California, they offered me a job. They do that a lot. Basically, back to my research at Miskatonic, working out to slightly beyond the current limits of pure mathematics what was, might be, probably wasn't out there waiting to ruin next week. A research job. Infuriatingly classified, limited to a double-handful of colleagues I'd ever meet, unable to publish, but still basically an academic job. I didn't exactly leap at the offer, but I accepted within days of getting home from Amsterdam. As soon as I could sleep more than an hour at a time, I was catching up on the 60 years of progress in my field that security hadn't allowed me to know about until I signed the Official Secrets Act in blood. 40 years of treating 'What ate the USS Thresher?' as a theoretical exercise and these bastards knew all along exactly what done it and why. All those wasted man-years – it would be utterly infuriating if I didn't know exactly how bad an idea it would be to turn the average epistemologist loose with a manual for contacting BLUE HADES and sundry other alien intelligences. My former colleagues make spooks look polite, amiable and well-adjusted.

And it was good. Or at least, I was good at it. But the sense of being a fly on an extra-dimensional windscreen, not even an annoyance to humanity's enemies, didn't go away. And then I found out about CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN. It was because of one of those odd technically-hypothetical personal questions that you can't exactly call planning for the future, because that would mean proposing to the person you're talking to and you're not quite ready for that yet. This would be about four years after we met, and started with 'hypothetically, if we were to get married, would I keep my surname, or take his, or double-barrel them'. Strictly hypothetically, I would keep mine, and Bob was fine with that. And then I said I would want my children to bear my name as well.

 “No.” Bob's voice was oddly flat, but in a brief flash of feminist outrage I put it down to him trying to put down his manly foot, which he's (as a rule) quite creditably bad at doing.

 “Bob, what do you mean 'no'? You don't get to make decisions like that on your own.”

 “I mean we're not having children. Not soon, not ever. Not even hypothetical ones.” His weak grin at the last couple of words fell off his face, he sagged in his chair and began to cry, silently and steadily.

 Bob doesn't cry often. He's not some granite-jawed hero with a stiff upper lip, but he does sulks and screaming nightmares and periods of twitchy insomnia. Not weeping into his sleeve at the dining table. He's a computer scientist at heart; he likes to finish what he's started, and to imagine he's being ruthlessly practical, so once I'd made calming noises and spiked his tea with that Godawful rum he drinks, I brought the topic up again.

 “I know work's horrific, love. Worse than that. I know our child would be in danger, but there are ways to deal with that. Andy Newstrom's got kids, hasn't he?” I know perfectly well he has – two teenage girls. “You're not telling me Andy and Dot wouldn't make sure they were satisfied with the possible precautions.”

 And so Bob explained. Andy would've been young when Victoria and Jackie were born. Already in the Laundry – that's how he met his wife, and Bob once mentioned that Angleton was best man at their wedding – but too junior to know about the coming end of all things. Bob can't tell me the details of CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN, but its existence can't be kept truly secret; after all, it's less than a decade away and it's kind of the main reason for the Laundry's existence. I'd have known about it myself within a few more months, even if I'd still been working on pure theory.

 Bob thinks 'serenity' is a spaceship. If he gets a gravestone, they'll put 'rage against the dying of the light' on it. It's inexpressibly terrifying that he doesn't think humanity (let alone him personally) is going to make it through the apocalypse, and even scarier that he's planning as if we won't – after all, if we make it through the first, say, 20 years, we'll need a next generation to carry the torch, and whose kids would have a better chance than ours? I ask him how long he's known, how long he's been carrying this terrible certainty around in his head. Six weeks since he was briefed on the specifics. How could I not have noticed for six weeks? I'd been busy, and he can keep secrets as well as the most paranoid security goon could ever want, but it's still no excuse.

 The next morning, I marched into Andy Newstrom's office to volunteer for active service training.

 “Mo! What brings you to my humble abode? Sit down, have some coffee, it's bloody awful.”

 “I want to go on the next training course for line duty. Whatever you can use me for.” I hadn't arrived without some idea what I could do. I'm tall, fit and I know the theories of interdimensional incursion backwards. 'Staff philosopher', which is the Laundry's term for the walking encyclopaedia of occult knowledge (and more to the point, understanding) provided to troubleshooting teams, sounded like my ideal fit, if I could pass the physical trials necessary to keep up with, say, a platoon of the Artists' Rifles.

 Andy was happy to put my name forward. Suspiciously happy, in hindsight. Apparently it took Bob months to have the same application approved. At the time, I just thought it was because I was convincing in answering questions about my motivations, background, security status and so on and so forth.

 Great plan. Unfortunately, in my extremely sensibly-spent youth I played the violin quite a lot. In fact, I met my first husband in the Miskatonic U String Ensemble – I was lead violin, he conducted and played the 'cello, it was a match made in Hell.

 So, when I rocked up at Dunwich with a bag full of books and running kit, I was slightly surprised to be ushered into one of the disintegrating Nissen huts and provided with a battered fiddle. The only person in the room looked rather alarmingly like the better class of elderly witch from a Victorian novel. Shapeless black dress, check. Flyaway grey hair, check. Wrinkles deep as ditches, check. Impressively hooked nose, check (though take off points for lack of wart). Chin as sharp as her glittering grey eyes, check. What Baba Yaga's little sister was doing in Dunwich, well, you can guess it wasn't knitting woolly hats.

 When she spoke, I was amazed to hear a deep New England accent. Americans don't work for foreign occult intelligence services. If they try, the Black Chamber or its 57 varieties of competing alphabet soup agencies have them hunted down and shot. Still, there she was. I found out much later that she'd worked out the musical/mathematical equivalent of Bob's attempt to landscape Wolverhampton with gibbering horrors whilst on a college exchange, and in the immediate aftermath of the Suez Crisis and the attendant loss of colonial pride, not to mention the site of the lost cities of Sakharion and Carcosa in the high Halayeb, the Laundry had been disinclined to let her go home and be conscripted as a Nazgul.

 “Professor O'Brien, my name is Shari Arkell, and I hope you won't take it amiss if I say I never, ever want to see you again.” Not the most conventional way to introduce oneself, to say the least. “If we meet again, it will be because you have been found suitable for a job I devoutly believe nobody should ever have again. Would you please play me something? Anything will do.” Taking her at her word, I played 'Drink To Me Only' instead of my (and probably her) preferred classics. I suspected I was being buggered about, and Bob has probably been a bad influence on me in that respect; dearly though I love him, I'm totally resigned to the fact that he's far more likely to die of making sarcastic remarks to the wrong person than in any kind of sorcerous disaster.

 “Ah. Something more... technically demanding, now, Professor? If the task in hand could be done by any bar-room fiddler we would hardly be interested in you. Do you know Tartini?” For any non-violinists reading (and I hope you're all non-violinists, or I'm dead and the Laundry still needs my instrument), Tartini wrote the 'Devil's Trill' which is the most difficult piece of violin music ever written. I could, on a good day, not totally murder it, and said so. She then produced the sheet music to 'The Lark Ascending' (which is not a lot easier) from somewhere inside the folds of her dress, and a particularly high-pitched cat was duly strangled. Anyway, I apparently satisfied her, because she released me to complete my in-processing and attend my first field-training seminars.

 By the end of the day, I was physically and mentally exhausted. My feet were blistered to hell and my head awhirl with security protocols. Everything in between just hurt. So when I was summoned after dinner by a knock on the door of my room in the Monkfish Motel, I was not in the very best of moods. Particularly not when it was a security officer dragging me to that same Nissen hut, which had sprouted an unhealthy crop of large, fit men with guns, led by a cadaverous, bald figure I just about recognised (by mentally removing 20 years and adding a thinning mop of dirty blond hair) as Alan Barnes, Captain Barnes of 21 SAS Regiment and the man who blew himself up with a dirty bomb to save my life. If Alan was there, they were probably not planning to have me shot for unspecified security violations.

 “Why if it isn't the fragrant Dominique! Don't tell us you're our new backup. Well, it's better than them sending us Bob, anyway. How is the silly bugger?”

 “New backup, Alan? I'm here for-” my tongue clove to the roof of my mouth with a sharp tug; apparently my oath of office didn't want me to say whatever flippant thing I'd been going to say. “For an unspecified reason about which I hope you are very shortly going to enlighten me.” I've been bitten on the arse by excessively vague security geases before. It ceased to amuse me very, very quickly.

 “Sorry, Mo. Forget I said anything. I think maybe you'd better just go inside. Good luck.” Alan, like my own dear Bob and about two-thirds of the Laundy hierarchy, has always believed in letting people see things for themselves. I blame Angleton. For a security service, the concept of an 'intelligence briefing' seems to have bypassed many our senior officers.

The scene inside was much like when I left. Instead of a battered fiddle there was a violin case. Arkell was still sitting in the same battered chair behind the same ancient desk.

“Professor O'Brien – Mo, isn't it? I'm sorry for all the secrecy. We've been looking for someone like you for some time. I have what might be described as a present for you. You are, I guarantee, going to hate it. Open the case.”

 I opened it. It took me a while to notice that the content wasn't just a white electric violin. Then I noticed what I thought was bone-effect detailing. I was disturbed, but only for a second – I once knew a Russian weirdo who played an electric quinton (it's a five-string violin/viola, before you ask) which looked like it shouldn't play at all, and its designer had been on either really impressive drugs or the Thirteenth Directorate payroll. I'd even seen skeleton-looking violins before. Then I noticed the strings weren't quite there, and that the pickups were of no design I'd ever seen before, with strange silver designs on the ends I couldn't focus on.

 “Go on. Pick it up. It's yours.” As a slightly goth-y teenager, I would have died of excitement at hearing those words, about that instrument. As a 30-ahem epistemologist of things that go bump in the night, I was just confused but hey, what harm could a musical instrument do? Oh, poor naïve young Mo.

It liked me. Arkell told me so – she could tell, because my soul hadn't been sucked out. This was the last and hardest test of my suitability; I later found it had eaten the souls of at least two owners before the Laundry acquired it. I didn't need telling; as soon as I touched it I could feel the not-intelligence inside it. Is there a word for an appetite and some kind of understanding without a mind to do the planning? Kind of like a cat deciding that this human will just about do as a servant, because it smells of food, but without the sensitivity and consideration for which all felines are well known. The violin isn't nearly as smart as a cat, but it feels more than blind hunger; pain, and possessiveness, and there are some people it either hates or finds particularly tasty, and others it, well, likes.

 “This, Professor O'Brien, is OSSUARY AURORA. It's made from the bones of several dozen concentration-camp victims, it should be dismantled then buried, it kills things when you play it, as well as sometimes when you don't, I've been responsible for it since 1962 and now I don't have to be any more, once I've finished training you. Any questions?”

 Any number of questions. I started with a classic. “Why me?”

 “Mo, would you care to take a flying guess how many concert-quality violinists the Laundry has got? Who are also capable of combat ops? Well, now it has one. It's easier to make you into a soldier than make Captain Barnes out there half the musician you are.” Arkell was looking younger by the second. What had that thing done to her, if the act of passing it on could take a decade off her apparent age?

 “And what's it going to do to me? And to anyone around me?” Look, I'd already volunteered for combat. I knew I could die. I knew 'things so much worse than death' weren't just Jafar's catchphrase but a daily possibility. This felt totally unlike what I'd been expecting.

 Also, I'm afraid the details of the next conversation are a) really technical and b) really classified. You do not need to know how precisely the wrong musical notes can act like the rituals conducted by old-school sorcerors, including the tendency to summon tiny parasitic nightmares to eat bits of your brain from the inside out – Krantzberg Syndrome. Suffice it to say that there's no record of anyone who never tried to play OSSUARY AURORA suffering any ill effects, so at least I hadn't Bob to worry about.

 “In practice, Mo, the 'easiest' thing to do – not easy as in musicianship, easy as in it's what AURORA wants to do most – is maximise entropy. Make stuff fall apart. Almost any tune you get out of her will do that in some way or other, and I'll tell you now for the only time before I become the drill sergeant from the Mountains of Madness, the tune matters a lot less than the intent, once you're used to each other. And you aren't yet, so for now you better be perfect or the next thing you un-make might be your aorta. Erich Zahn theorised you could close an interdimensional portal with one of these things – or open one. I'm not at that level, and I don't think in forty years it ever began to get on with me, but I can mess with your head rather than disintegrate it, and various other goodies. Most of which boil down to 'make stuff fall apart', in the end.”

My training – almost all of it – was to be replaced by violin practice, until I could control OSSUARY AURORA well enough to use it in Alan's exercises. Without wanting to blow my own horn too hard, that wasn't as long as you might think. Arkell drove me hard, endless hours of practice, at first on the old fiddle from the first morning, playing things that were as far from Vaughan Williams as the Book of Dead Names is from Jane Austen, then playing AURORA and watching Arkell's failed knitting experiments unravel before my eyes. She'd forgotten to mention the bleeding from under the fingernails; the strings exist in more than three dimensions and they exact a price in blood for doing anything so mundane as vibrating in air. More demanding tasks mean more blood. Or something.

 I didn't even notice when I started sleeping with the violin case next to my bed, despite the Book saying it ought to be in secure storage. When it was pointed out to me, I replied that the safest place for it was as near as possible to my hand. It took Bob to compare AURORA to the One Ring. The role of the Nazgul being taken, we then had a tension-defusing row about whether I was Gollum or Frodo, and in the latter case did he have to be Sam Gamgee. Adorable though Sam is, I've never been able to fancy him. The row was resolved as such arguments ought to be - with a night of enjoyably nerdy debauchery, and a movie marathon the next day, and somehow AURORA has stayed in our bedroom ever since and Bob hasn't mentioned it again. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

After the first weeks of training, I was on day-release, allowed one day a week in the office in London to keep up with essential work, including AZORIAN BLUE HADES. When I got mousetrapped into that, I'd been in training a little under three weeks. I was fitter than I'd been in my life, deadly (if still slightly imprecise) with AURORA, and otherwise totally incapable of surviving in a fight. The sticker that still adorns my violin case, 'This Machine Kills Demons', was a good-luck gift from Alan's squaddies, and it wasn't entirely a compliment – the machine worked, and they weren't sure I did. If I hadn't had the Bond geas behind me, I'm not sure I'd have got through it. My triumphant return got me my very own codename; apparently I'd been the first SSO(L) in several years to tell Angleton where to shove his machinations and survive the experience.

The next time, I was more confident. Some clowns calling themselves the Black Priesthood of Ancient Mu had managed to introduce several Feeders in the Night into TfL's brand spanking new Operations Centre, causing gridlock on the M25 and attempts to call out the Army to deal with a major terrorist incident. Also, by the by, interrupted my honeymoon. The last three Black Priests were pretty pleased to be arrested before their not-zombies managed to eat them, and that time I didn't even have to kill anything that wasn't already dead. By the time I pulled Bob out of Brookwood Cemetery, I was far beyond the level of Shari Arkell, or anyone else we know of since 1945. Around that time I hunted obsessively through the stacks to find out more about the magic of music - even returned to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and looked in the Atrocity Archive, and planned a trip to Israel that Security could never quite allow. The Russians, I heard, had at least one OSSUARY instrument, maybe more. We had two, one unusable violin, retrieved from the wreckage of Mabuse's factory in Dresden, one hulking double bass that as far as the research guys can tell ought to work perfectly, and doesn't. There were, we think, eleven made, and we're hoping the rest are gone forever. The only record of more than one appearing in the same place is May 24, 1941, and we know both of those are at the bottom of the Atlantic.

When I have company, I dream normal dreams. The normal dreams of a war veteran, to be sure. Screaming nightmares and panic attacks and flashbacks to places that shouldn't exist, but Alan and Bob and Boris tell me that's normal, or at least that they have the same experiences.

Before my wedding, and for some time after, I'd assumed the other, stranger dreams were caused by the geas. Why else would I dream of blood and fire and nakedness, if not the combined weight of thirty-odd title sequences? It took me a while before I realised that the common theme wasn't bad thrillers, it was the music underscoring it all. If I really, really try, with all my considerable skill and my decade of experience, AURORA almost sounds like a normal electric violin. If, as the rankest amateur, I was unmaking something, it sounded like the end of the universe crossed with a violin class for tone-deaf nine-year-olds. Now I've had some more practice, I can weave the black notes into almost any composition I like, and until I knew how to do that I didn't realise that I'd been hearing that twisted music in my dreams for weeks. Sometimes, when I'm alone in a silent room, I can almost imagine OSSUARY AURORA is talking to me. And it's saying, I don't want seconds of your old age. I want your children. All the potential of your bloodline down all the time to come is mine. I will eat it. They will never even be born - or they will die to the music of Erich Zahn.

 But if I can use it right. Perfect, every time, then just maybe someone else's children might make it.