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Ghost in the Machine

Chapter Text

James Bond had long wanted to see the Día de Muertos festivities in Mexico City for himself. There was something entrancing about such a vibrant celebration of life and death, the idea that the dead could rejoin the living in feast and dance, if only for three days each year. He would have liked, however, if the reason for his visit wasn’t literally a matter of life and death. It rather took the fun out of the party.

“Where are you going?” the gorgeous woman he’d seduced just for access to her hotel room asked as he prepared to exit said hotel room via the window. He hadn’t strictly needed to seduce her – he could have accomplished the same objective with a bit of B&E – but M was insistent that Bond be particularly adherent to the ‘secret’ part of secret agent for this mission, which meant drawing as little attention to his activities as possible. Hence, seduction over destruction.

“I won’t be long,” he said, and stepped out onto the roof. Was it a lie if it could potentially be true? It would certainly be nice if everything went smoothly for once, and he could be on a flight back to London in a few hours so he could do to Q all the things he’d promised the woman back in that hotel room he’d do to her. Q had said it as a joke originally: he was perfectly fine with the more salacious aspects of Bond's job, as long as Q got quid pro quo when Bond was back on domestic soil. “One for them, one for me,” he’d murmured teasingly against Bond’s lips. Bond had thought it was a pretty good idea.

Speak of the devil. “Shall I have the hotel send her up a bottle of champagne from you?” Q’s voice hummed over his earpiece.

“That would be awfully considerate of me,” Bond said, advancing along the thin strip of rooftop and preparing his compact sniper rifle for action along the way. Despite Q’s insistence that he wouldn’t show Bond any special treatment just because they were seeing each other, his presents had gotten considerably more fun.

“Mm. Why did you take off the skeleton suit? I liked it,” Q said. It was late in London, Q’s staff would have all gone home. In other words, no one else was listening.

“It wasn’t exactly practical,” Bond answered as he leapt across onto the next roof.

“Oh, and Tom Ford is practical,” Q drawled.

“How did you know I took it off?”

Q chuckled in a rather sinister fashion. “Big Brother is watching.”

Bond hadn’t even seen a camera. A high-altitude drone, perhaps? It really was a bloody good thing Q was on their side. He crouched down behind one of the gables at the edge of the roof, and soon had the window across from him in his sights. With the flick of a small switch on his earpiece, he could hear the conversation in the room. He followed the Spanish with ease as the men exchanged greetings. When his target – Marco Sciarra – entered the room, he flashed a silver ring on his right hand for the others to see.

“Sciarra’s got a ring – might identify him as part of the organisation,” Bond muttered. M – his M – had known only that the assassin had ties to a much larger organisation. She hadn’t been able to determine its nature or its name. But the recording she had left Bond was the only lead they had after weeks of searching.

“Well then you’ll probably want to take it from his corpse,” Q responded. Bond smiled. The rare times when he and Q settled upon the same solution to a problem were ones to savour.

He listened as the men discussed the logistics for bombing the stadium later in the evening, the briefcase full of explosives on the table between them. It made a tempting target. “And the flight out of here?” Sciarra’s contact was asking.

“All arranged,” Sciarra replied.

“And then what?”

“Then I visit the Pale King.”

“A toast, my friend. To death!”

“To death,” Sciarra echoed, standing and raising his glass. Finally, Bond had a decent shot. And then Sciarra had to cock it up by blowing smoke from his cigar, which reflected Bond’s laser sight. With the men tipped off to his presence, he had to take out the ones with guns as Sciarra fled the room. One of them made the unfortunate mistake of taking cover behind the briefcase.

“Don’t shoot the bomb, 007!” Q shouted frantically in his ear.

Bond winced as his earpiece rang with the sudden volume, but he took the shot. The whole side of the building blew out, and Bond had to duck back down behind the gable to avoid the rubble. “Sorry, Q,” he said, “couldn’t hear you over the sound of the explosion.”

Q made an inarticulate sound of fury as the rest of the old building began to crumble and fall, necessitating a hasty retreat. Unfortunately for Bond, Q never stayed speechless for long. “What the bloody hell do you think you’re doing? You’re supposed to be working under the radar!” he snapped as Bond dodged and slid down pieces of falling building, landing finally on a preposterously convenient sofa.

“Couldn’t be helped, Q,” he said, straightening himself out. “Do you have eyes on Sciarra?”

“He hasn’t gotten far. Your next right.” Q still sounded cross, but he wouldn’t jeopardise the mission just to chew Bond’s ear off. Around the corner, Bond saw Sciarra, blood staining his white suit, stumbling through the falling ash.

“I’m on him.” He chased Sciarra through crowds of the living dead, skeletons and calaveras like the one Silva had used watching from either side. The crowds only grew denser as they approached the square, along with the drums and dancers in the parade. If not for the music and the noise of the crowd, Bond would have heard the helicopter approaching sooner. It was going to land in the square, he realised. If Bond had stepped out of the shadows, he had dragged his foes with him into the daylight.

“What on earth is he thinking?” Q muttered. “The two of you deserve each other, you really do.”

“Do you have anything helpful to add, Q?” Bond grunted as he took out one of the pilots and leapt onto the helicopter after Sciarra.

“I’ve blacked out cellular data in the area – hopefully that’ll keep you off Instagram.”

“That’s very helpful,” Bond growled, throttling the remaining pilot as the helicopter tilted and swirled out of control above the square.

“It may not help you now, but it might keep M from skinning you alive when you get back.”

Sciarra leapt at him then, occupying all of Bond’s attention as they struggled, half in and half out of the helicopter, a hundred feet in the air. He did have the presence of mind to note that Q had said “when you get back.”

Finally, Bond had Sciarra pinned down, and he pulled the ring, slick with blood, from the man’s middle finger. The helicopter bucked and wheeled through the air as the pilot attempted to shake Bond off of Sciarra. He only succeeded in giving Bond the opportunity to kick Sciarra out of the door. This was a learning opportunity, Bond thought. He hadn’t known a helicopter could do so many barrel rolls without falling out of the sky. He did know how high one could go in a vertical climb until the rotors stalled, however. So he pulled harshly back on the cyclic as he struggled once more with the pilot, taking them even higher into the air, and after a stomach-churning flip, into free fall. As they fell, Bond finally got the upper hand on the pilot, and tossed him out the door after Sciarra. Q was conspicuously silent as Bond took over the controls of the plummeting helicopter.

As the ground rushed closer on the other side of the windshield, Bond struggled to pull back on the cyclic, just managing to tilt the helicopter back before it sheared off the heads of festival goers below. With a measured exhale, he began to pilot the thankfully no longer smoking machine out of the city. Near death experiences that didn’t land him in Medical for a week always gave Bond something of a new lease on life, so he took the scenic route past the downtown area, the setting sun glinting off towers of rose gold windows.

Q finally spoke up. “I think M might still have your hide when you get back.”

“And you, Quartermaster?” Bond asked.

Q hummed in mock contemplation, and Bond could hear the smirk in his voice when he answered, “I might, as well. Safe travels, 007.”

Yes, sometimes life could still be good to James Bond. Usually right before everything went to shit.

Chapter Text

M slapped an array of newspapers with increasingly dramatic headlines about a terrorist attack in Mexico City down on his desk in front of Bond. It was funny how thwarting a terrorist attack could still look like a terrorist attack. But the building Bond had blown up had been abandoned – that was why the terrorists had used it as a meeting place. The stadium they had been planning on blowing up, however, would have contained thousands of people. Bond politely informed M of these facts.

M’s glower only seemed to intensify. “Do I need to read you the definition of ‘covert’ in the Oxford English Dictionary? As a covert operative, you ought to be able to accomplish your objectives covertly.”

“Q already beat you to the dictionary reading, sir,” Bond said. “He chose a different word, though. One I don’t believe is actually in the Oxford Dictionary.” Q stood beside Bond, arms crossed over his chest, equally unimpressed with Bond's decision making process in Mexico. 

“I’m sure he did," M said. "It’s only thanks to Q that your face isn’t plastered across these front pages along with your fetish for chaos and spectacle. No one has been able to pin this debacle on us, which is the only reason I’m not grounding you this instant.” M inhaled slowly, cooling his simmering ire. He swept the newspapers into the top drawer of his desk. “Bond,” he said evenly, “we’re tugging at the loose threads of what may possibly be the largest criminal organisation we have ever encountered. We cannot afford to tip them off only to have them retreat further into the shadows. On top of that, we’ve got the Joint Security Service driving this merger with MI5, and their bloody A.I. touting this Nine Eyes intelligence sharing bollocks like it’s the way of the future rather than a gaping security breach waiting to happen. There are far too many unknown faces around here. So keep your head down.”

“Yes, sir,” Bond said, actually somewhat humbled. He knew how important this mission was – the old M had sent him an order from beyond the grave to investigate, after all. He didn’t want to jeopardise it any more than the current M. “Do we have any more intel on this new A.I.?” he asked. Its design was uncannily similar to Q’s – an A.I. matrix with an android interface – and the idea that it had coincidentally been in development by an undisclosed private company in tandem with Q stretched credulity. The transaction was shady as well. JSS refused to disclose the name of the development contractor, deeming it classified information, but somehow they were all supposed to trust that this A.I.’s top priority was the security of Her Majesty’s Government? Not bloody likely.

“I still haven’t been able to uncover his origins,” Q said, sounding frustrated with himself more than Bond, now. "I think he's encrypted all his own files."

“But you’re about to meet him," M said. "He’s due in my office any minute. He wants a formal introduction to Q.”

"For the purposes of our 'future partnership'," Q sneered, as if the words tasted bad in his mouth. 

"You might have warned me,” Bond said.

“Then you might have done something rash,” M responded with his irritating logic. “Just play nice. For now.”

Moneypenny opened the tufted leather door to M’s office then, and a man stepped through. He was a few inches shorter than Bond, and wore a trim, black suit with slicked, black hair parted in a double widow’s peak that rather gave the impression of leaving room for horns. His eyes were dark as well, swallowing up his pupils like the eyes of a shark. While Q had been designed to look personable, approachable, this A.I. was sleeker, sharper. A weapon in human form. But perhaps that was Bond’s own bias bleeding through.

“So sorry, am I interrupting?” His voice was smooth and syrupy, yet it still carried a hint of modulation that betrayed it as simulated.

“Not remotely,” M said. “007, Q, I’d like you to meet C, the liaison to the Joint Security Service.”

“It’s a pleasure to finally meet you both,” said C, flawlessly polite, but not friendly in the slightest. “I’ve heard a lot about you, 007. Most of it good. And Q, we're practically brothers, you and I. Two of a kind. I'm eager to hear how you've found the experience of working with humans. I'm even newer to it than you are.”

“Congratulations on your new appointment,” Bond said, matching C’s tone. They shook hands. Despite androids being quite literally cold-blooded, Bond was still surprised sometimes at how warm they were to the touch. He would have thought he’d be used to it by now.

“Thank you,” C replied. “It’s rewarding work. I like to think of it as my ‘Hello World,’ so to speak.” He winked at Q.

“Yes, where were you before all of this?” Q asked, a neutral smile plastered to his face.

“I’m afraid that information is classified," said C. "You know how these things are. Project Q was one of this agency’s most closely guarded secrets for over a decade, if I have my facts straight. But this merger’s going to be a whole new chapter for us. We’re going to bring British intelligence out of the dark ages…into the light.”

“Well that all sounds lovely,” Bond said, instead of other choice words he would have liked to say. He hoped M appreciated how nicely he could play.

“That will be all, 007,” M said. “Report to Q tomorrow for medical, thank you.”

“Very good, sir,” Bond said, and left the room.

###

Moneypenny waylaid him out in the courtyard. She was carrying a small, black box. “Forensics finally released this,” she said.

“What is it?”

“Personal effects, recovered from Skyfall.” It was a pitifully small box.

“Perfect. You can bring it to me later. My place, nine o’clock.”

She arrived on the dot. He’d never even told her where he lived. But giving her an address would have been an insult. “Have you just moved in?” she asked, taking in the sparsely furnished flat at a glance when Bond opened the door.

“No.”

“Well, I like what you’ve done with the place.” She handed him the box. “Your delivery.”

“Thank you.” He set it down on the coffee table, unopened, and sat down in the armchair in front of the windows. He indicated the half-empty bottle of Vodka on the table. “Would you like a drink?”

“No, thanks. I’m not staying.”

“That’s a shame,” he said, simply to keep up pretences. 

“What’s going on, James?” she asked. “Was that your doing in Mexico City?”

His mouth twitched just slightly, the beginnings of a smile. “What makes you say that?”

“You’d like the whole Sherlock Holmes bit?” Bond nodded, so she obliged. “Well, there was a lot of damage, but few casualties. The ones that died had connections to various South American terrorist cells. You’ve returned from your holiday with some fresh injuries.”

“Nothing visible,” Bond said.

“No, but you winced when I bumped your shoulder earlier in the courtyard. You’ve also returned with a lovely tan.”

Bond flashed her a charming smile. “Thank you.”

Eve was unaffected. “Mexico was just the beginning, wasn’t it?”

“I don’t know what you mean,” Bond said. But Eve persisted, as he knew she would.

“Alright. I think you’ve got a secret. And it’s something you won’t tell anyone. Because you don’t trust anyone.”

For weeks, the investigation into SPECTRE had stayed between Q, who had uncovered the organisation’s existence from the depths of Silva’s files, M, who Q had to keep informed or risk being misdiagnosed as malfunctioning, and Bond, who was excellent at operating outside official channels, and was therefore the best agent for the job. But he suspected they would need more friends to see this thing through. There was only so much M could do as he waded through all the bureaucracy surrounding the new merger. He couldn’t even officially acknowledge the mission, because there was too great a risk of that information finding its way into the wrong hands. But those who paid attention knew Eve ran half of MI6 in M’s name. Whatever M couldn’t do, she could.

He showed her the videotape the old M had sent him after her death, but paused it before she went on to talk about Sciarra’s ties to a larger organisation. He didn’t want Eve getting too involved too quickly. There was risk on both sides, bringing a new agent onto the mission. She gave Bond a look, but didn’t ask to see the rest. “She was never short of surprises,” Eve said, finally.

“She wasn’t going to let death get in the way of her job.”

“When’s the funeral?” Eve asked.

“Three days. In Rome.”

“I suppose you’ll be using up the rest of your paid holiday, then.”

Bond nodded. “Could you do a little quiet digging for me?” he asked. “I heard a name in Mexico. 'The Pale King’. Q’s on this, too, but he may need help while I’m gone.”

Eve considered him for a moment, her gaze unabashed and thorough. “What makes you think you can trust me?” she finally asked.

He didn’t have a chain of deductions to lay before her. He just had one vital thing. “Instinct.”

It seemed that was enough. After she left, Bond settled back into his chair and contemplated his next moves. He had never heard “Q” and “medical” in the same sentence before, and thinking about it gave him very mixed feelings. Luckily, he didn’t have to wait until tomorrow to resolve this little conundrum. He had the Quartermaster’s direct line.

He snatched his mobile off the table and sent a text to a sixteen-digit number: What fresh hell am I walking into tomorrow?

The reply came almost immediately: Wouldn’t want to spoil the surprise :)

Bond stared down at the screen. The flaw in his plan was, of course, that Q could be a right bastard when he was cross with Bond. The night before, when Bond had arrived back in London, Q’s temper had been, well, tempered by his appreciation that Bond had managed to drag his arse back from Mexico in one piece. That, and Q had channeled some of his annoyance into a bit of rough handling that Bond would never admit to liking as much as he did. Eve had landed a lucky guess – Bond had come back from Mexico with some fresh injuries, but the bite mark on his shoulder was even fresher.

Now, though, it seemed Q had moved on from the fun kind of cross. Bond would have to wait until tomorrow, after all.

###

Tanner escorted Bond down the Thames in an unmarked speedboat to the new Q Branch the next morning. All of MI6 had moved shop whilst Bond had been tracking Sciarra down in Mexico. They couldn’t stay in the old World War Two bunkers, and Vauxhall Cross was scheduled for demolition. “Cheaper to knock her down than rebuild,” Tanner said. Almost everyone had moved in with their new friends in Whitehall, but Q had chosen to move his branch to a location he would only disclose to his staff and other MI6 operatives with high enough clearance. The director of MI5 had balked at first, accusing Q of obstructing the merger and demanding both agencies have equal access, when everyone knew he simply wanted Q for domestic surveillance. Q had informed him politely that anyone who wanted to could have access to his services at any time, from anywhere in the world, and didn’t have to be in the same room with him. He pointed out that MI5’s servers were located off-site in a server farm in Manchester, and that MI5 agents didn’t drive to Manchester whenever they used them. He then pointed to the Vauxhall attack, and explained how it would be much more secure if his servers weren’t housed at Whitehall, in the event of another attack. The director had still fumed, but he’d been unable to find a hole in Q’s arguments. Q had gotten his way in the end. Still, the Quartermaster was probably only postponing the inevitable.

“That’s where all the money’s going,” Tanner said, pointing to a towering glass monstrosity on the opposite bank. "The new Centre for National Security.”

“So that’s C’s new digs,” Bond said.

Tanner nodded. “He thinks the 00 Programme is obsolete, that drones could do all our dirty work abroad. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?”

“The bloody Intelligence and Security Committee all over again. Mallory’s fighting her old battles.”

“Yes, well, let’s say he’s feeling the pressure,” Tanner said diplomatically.

“I’ve noticed,” Bond replied.

“This merger’s just the start of it,” Tanner continued. “In three days, there’s a security conference in Tokyo to decide the new world order. If C gets this Nine Eyes monster through a vote, he’ll have unlimited access to the combined intelligence streams of nine countries. ‘Intelligent intelligence’, he calls it. An A.I. running the data analysis means unprecedented efficiency, far less potential for error, and sophisticated pattern recognition we mere mortals can only dream of. But we’d be placing the world in his hands. And even if we did know where the hell he came from, A.I.'s aren’t necessarily unbiased. Q’s biased in favour of us, after all.”

“Some of us more than others at the moment,” Bond grumbled.

“Yes, I hear he’s got something rather special planned for you,” Tanner said.

The boat veered left into a small, brick tunnel, and stopped at a little wooden dock. The armed guard standing at the narrow entrance to the complex stepped aside to let them through. The claustrophobic criss cross of subterranean tunnels reminded Bond a lot of the old bunkers, and he wondered if Q had chosen this place for the nostalgia. But then Tanner opened a heavy, metal door at the end of the last tunnel and the space opened up into a large machine workshop with a vaulted ceiling and weathered brick walls. Tactical and surveillance equipment, and items whose purpose Bond couldn’t even begin to guess at cluttered every surface. Cars and boats in various states of completion slept in the bays on either side, and metal tracks for moving heavy machinery were set into the floor. If Bond could be compared to a kid, this would be his candy shop.

Q was busy tinkering away at a desk set out from one of the walls when they entered. “Ah, 007,” he said pleasantly by way of greeting.

“Q,” Bond answered, but he was immediately drawn to the gorgeous assault rifle sitting in a stand on the table in front of the entrance. He made a bee line for it, picking it up and testing the weight. When he raised the scope to his eye to get a feel for the aim, Q came up just outside the scope's field of vision, wrapping one hand around the barrel of the gun and the other behind the stock. Gently, he turned it upward and prised it from Bond’s grasp.

“Shall we get started?” he asked, suddenly much closer to Bond than he would otherwise have any excuse to be in a professional context. Bond strongly wanted to answer yes and no at the same time, so he stayed silent and simply followed Q further into the workshop. Q ordered one of the connecting rooms cleared, and Bond was mildly relieved to recognise a few faces from Medical leave the room. Q had a perfect working knowledge of human anatomy and physiology, but it nonetheless put Bond’s mind more at ease to know that actual health professionals had signed off on this.

His brief reassurance was dashed as soon as he stepped into the room after Q. “This looks like a few torture chambers I’ve been in,” Bond remarked, with an eye toward the old chair in the centre hooked up to a ghastly looking machine on one arm. He didn’t miss the quick thumbs up Tanner flashed him before closing the door with a heavy thunk, leaving Bond alone in the room with the A.I..

“I suppose it could serve a dual purpose, if the budget cuts continue,” Q said. He indicated for Bond to sit in the chair as he pulled on a pair of sterile latex gloves. Warily, Bond sat down, his eyes tracking back and forth between Q and the machine at his right arm.

“You know, I don't really have any doctor fantasies, Q,” Bond said.

Q gave him a withering look. “Just relax,” he said as he clamped the machine around Bond’s forearm. An ultrasonic image of Bond’s arm came up on the central monitor against the opposite wall. “That’s it. Lovely.” He rested a hand reassuringly on Bond's shoulder, but then he pressed his fingers into the still-tender bite he'd left there two nights ago. Bond hissed in air through his teeth, caught somewhere between pain and arousal. Q looked down at him imperiously, a slight smirk the only thing that betrayed his amusement. He gripped one of the syringes above Bond’s arm. “Now, you may feel a small…”

“Christ!” Bond cursed, his entire body seizing up as white hot pain shot through his arm, killing any pleasant sensations he'd been feeling.

“…prick,” Q finished. The left-hand monitor came to life with a locator map of their current location, and the right-hand monitor showed Bond’s vital signs.

“What is it?” Bond asked, shooting Q a glare.

“Cutting-edge nanotechnology.”

“So I’ve got nanobots like yours, now?”

“Not quite that cutting-edge,” Q said. “It’s smart blood. Microchips in your bloodstream. They can’t patch you up, but they’ll allow me to track your movements in the field and monitor your vital signs from anywhere on the planet.”

“Well, that sounds marvellous,” Bond told Q as he released Bond’s arm from the machine and swabbed away the bead of blood left on the skin.

“The smart blood talks to a secure server. No one can access the data but me. This is by direct order of M,” Q said, sounding somewhat apologetic for the first time.

“He wants you to keep closer tabs on me?”

“To allow you more freedom of movement,” Q said. “You don’t need to keep in touch until you find something. It may be risky if you try, given the recent changes around here, and what happened in Mexico. If Sciarra was with SPECTRE, the organisation will be on high alert, and we can't trust our neighbours.”

"C?" Bond hazarded.

"Him especially," Q said. "There's too much about him that's too familiar. I'm worried some of my old designs might have been leaked, somehow. Obviously there were alterations, but... Well, we can't be too careful."

“I completely understand,” Bond said, giving Q a reassuring smile. Bond might be able to get away with dodging and challenging M’s orders on occasion, but Q couldn’t.

Q didn’t seem to completely believe that Bond was okay with his every move being monitored, but he pressed on. “Good. Right, well, I’ve just, um, got one last thing for you and you can be on your way.” He led Bond back out into the main workshop, stopping in front of a sleek, silver Aston Martin prototype. If this beauty was what Q was giving Bond to take with him to Italy, he was sending Bond very mixed signals. “Magnificent, isn’t she?” Q crooned. “Zero to sixty in 3.4 seconds, fully bulletproof, a few little tricks up her sleeve.” He glanced sideways at Bond. “It’s a shame, really. She was meant for you, but she’s been reassigned to 009. M thought she would be too conspicuous for your assignment. There’s a Fiat in the lot above ground that I was going to take the engine out of, but you can take it if you like. The keys are on the wall on your way out the door.”

“A Fiat?” Bond felt his hands curl into fists, but he instantly regretted it. His arm still stung like a bitch. 

“Oh, you can also have this,” Q said, holding out a black wristwatch.

"Does it do anything?” Bond asked.

“It tells the time. Might help with your punctuality issues.” Q smiled.

“M’s idea?”

“Precisely. Oh, one word of warning,” Q said as they made their way back toward the entrance. “The alarm is rather loud. If you know what I mean.”

“I think I do,” Bond said. It was something, at least. If M were running Q Branch, he’d probably send Bond out with a bloody Swiss Army knife and expect him to MacGyver his way out of conflicts.

Bond stopped in his tracks in front of the familiar, hollow shell of his old Aston Martin, the one that had been destroyed at Skyfall. Q hadn’t told him he’d recovered it. It was up on jacks, and even in its current state of disassembly, it was looking considerably better than it had the last time he’d seen it. “Oh, yes,” Q said, “that old thing is taking quite a bit of time. Mind you, there wasn’t much left to work on. But I believe it had quite a lot of sentimental value.” Bond placed his hand against the bonnet, recalling how it would reverberate when the engine thrummed to life. “The fact that I’m fixing it for you is not an implicit invitation for you to steal more cars from this branch,” Q warned. “I keep a flawless inventory, and while my predecessor may have somehow managed to overlook the absence of an entire car, I will not. But I believe you earned this one.”

Bond turned back to face him. “Thank you, Q,” he said.

Q straightened his glasses and glanced over to where Tanner was waiting by the door. “Yes, well, you’re most welcome. Anyway, enjoy your downtime, 007.”

“I’ll send you a postcard,” Bond said with a smile.

Q cringed. “Please, don’t.”

Bond left Q Branch feeling considerably better than he had going in. He twirled his new Fiat keys around his finger as he made his way up to the lot, thinking that, really, Q’s warning not to steal more cars had sounded more like a challenge.

###

Bond happened to know that Q was in the habit of performing routine maintenance every night for twenty minutes beginning at 0200 hours, as he worked to optimise his systems for the new location. During that time, all of Q’s nonessential systems would be offline. That was Bond’s window. He drove the dreadful little Fiat back onto the lot at 0158 and waited three minutes before swiping his ID to access the trundling little service lift down to the subterranean space. He showed his ID again to the overnight guard, who let him swipe through into the main workshop without issue. Q was probably going to regret adding Bond to his pre-approved list of visitors after this.

On his left as he walked through the door were the hooks for the vehicle keys. Beyond that, Q sat leaning back in his desk chair, his eyes closed, his body slack – offline. A quick scan of all the hooks didn’t turn up the keys Bond wanted, so he padded over to Q’s desk. Seeing no keys on the desktop, he turned to the unconscious Quartermaster. “Where the hell did you…?” he began, but trailed off when he recalled he’d heard the quiet jingling of metal as Q had walked with him through the workshop earlier that day. As Quartermaster, Q almost always had various metal bits and bobs in his pockets, but the sound of car keys was quite distinct.

Carefully, Bond leaned over Q’s prone form, bracing himself with his left hand on the armrest of the chair, and slipping his right hand into Q’s trouser pocket. He grinned to himself when his fingers closed around the leather tag of a set of keys. He could recognise the wings of the Aston Martin insignia by touch alone. As he took the keys, he couldn’t resist leaning down just a little more and brushing a feather-light kiss to Q’s mouth. “Thanks, love,” he murmured.

Conveniently, the Aston Martin was parked on the platform of the freight lift. Bond took it up to the surface, drove it off the lift, then got out again and shrugged off the insulated pack he’d carried in with him. From its confines, he removed a chilled, sterling silver bucket and scoop. He placed the bucket in the centre of the lift, and scooped a healthy amount of ice into it from his pack. Finally, he removed a vintage bottle of Bollinger that he’d polished off earlier at his flat and refilled with the most expensive brand of antifreeze he could find, and stuck it in the ice bucket, slipping the Fiat keyring around the neck of the bottle as a finishing touch. Satisfied with the presentation, he sent the lift back down. “Cheers,” he said, and returned to the Aston Martin, eager to take it for a test drive through the Italian countryside.

Chapter Text

The new Aston Martin DB10 handled like a dream as Bond drove it off the airport lot and pulled onto the nearest main road. He didn’t bother checking the name – they all led to Rome, after all. As he drove through the sun-gilded landscape, he took full stock of Q’s modifications. The A.I.’s labelling system was rather enigmatic, with switches labelled things like “BACKFIRE”, “ATMOSPHERE”, “EXHAUST” and “AIR”. Bond concluded he would just have to try them out and see what they did, should the occasion call for it. Now that he was entering the city, and the roads were starting to look more and more as though they’d been laid out by drunken cows, he figured “SAT NAV” should be safe enough.

The little screen set into the dash came to life. “Calculating your route,” Q’s voice said to him over the car speakers.

Bond chuckled delightedly. Of course, if anyone was narcissistic enough to put their own voice into a sat nav system, it would be Q. “I haven’t entered a destination,” Bond said, wondering if he’d taken the car too soon, and it still had some kinks to be worked out.  

“In one-hundred metres, make a U turn and take the next onramp for the A91 heading west. You will arrive at your destination in approximately thirty minutes.” 

Bond glanced at the highlighted route on the on-screen map. “That’s the airport,” he said. “I’ve just come from there.” 

“When you arrive at your destination, put this car on the next flight back to London, and enjoy the rest of your holiday, you thieving snake.” 

“Q?” 

“Yes?” 

“It’s really you, isn’t it?” 

“Yes.”

“Just how mad at me would you say you are?”

“More than you can possibly imagine. And you’ve missed your turn.”

“Well, I’m sorry to break it to you, Q, but if I turn back now, I’ll miss the funeral.” 

A few moments of silence ticked by. “You fucking bastard,” Q finally said.

“Q?” 

“Recalculating… Take the next left.” Bond did as he was told. “And by left I mean right,” Q said, after he’d turned.

“Bloody hell, Q,” Bond growled. “Are you going to get me there or not?” 

“I can drink champagne, you know,” Q said, entirely unfazed. “It’s alcohol. What do you think antifreeze is made of? I’ll give you a hint: it’s alcohol. Except, do you know what antifreeze tastes like? That’s a rhetorical question, before you get smart with me. I can assure you, it’s awful.” 

Q,” Bond said in a warning tone, his finger hovering threateningly over the off button.  

“Yes, yes, I’ll get you there, you intolerable meat sack. But I’m warning you now, if you wreck this car, I will wreck you.”

“Is that a promise?” Bond purred.

“No! You simple-minded, egotistical, insubordinate—“ 

“Q?” 

“What?”

“Bite me.”

That comment seemed to sufficiently fluster the A.I., who reverted more or less to giving simple directions after that. As a general rule, Q liked to keep their personal and professional interactions strictly separate, so when Bond casually brought up little things like Q's penchant for leaving marks in the bedroom when he was upset with Bond, it tended to confuse Q’s compartmentalisation. All things considered, Q's wrath had been a lot more enjoyable than M's. It seemed having access to vast stores of human knowledge really did make up for a lack of experience, at least in certain areas. Not that he’d ever let Q hear him say that.

As he pulled up to the church where the service was being held, Bond was still daydreaming about what Q might have in store for him when he returned to England. Really, if Q expected good behaviour from him, he ought not to reward Bond for bad behaviour. It was simple Pavlovian psychology.  

Speaking of Pavlovian psychology, as the church bells tolled, Sciarra’s widow looked as though she was expecting punishment. She stood alone in front of the coffin as the other mourners drifted away, but Bond knew the men who were watching her hadn’t wandered far. Her story was almost a cliché. The wives of dangerous men could live like queens, until they outlived their dangerous husbands, and they themselves became the danger. A danger that had to be eliminated. She was the obvious way in – in exchange for information, he could offer her protection, among other things. And he did. He made her all sorts of promises that he could tell she didn’t really believe. He didn’t believe them, either. He wasn’t like Q. He wasn’t honest, and he seldom kept his promises. Still, she maintained the quiet dignity of one resigned to her fate, and he realised he needn’t have tried half as hard to get the information from her. She gave it willingly. It didn’t matter to her anymore.

“New destination, Q,” Bond said as he started up the car once more outside her villa on the outskirts of the city. “The Palazzo Cardenza. Can you get me there by midnight?”

“You certainly spent a lot of time in there with her for being in such a hurry,” Q said, but he’d already plotted a route on the screen.

“That just means I’ll have to take my time with you when I get back,” Bond said.  

“You do realise that was a joke,” Q said, interrupting himself to snap at Bond for taking a corner too fast. “I don’t actually expect you to seduce me every time you have to seduce someone else. You’d wear out your joints. And possibly mine.”

“I think you’re exaggerating a little.”

"Am I? Would you like the official tally from your file?” 

Bond winced. “No, thanks.”

“I thought not. Not that there’s anything to be ashamed of. It’s usually the most efficient way to complete an assignment. In theory, there’s less cause for violence and collateral damage when everyone’s having a good time.”  Q could be a bit obsessive about efficiency, a quality for which Bond blamed M almost entirely. Like Bond, though, Q knew when something was worth spending time on. “Although in practice, you seem to find plenty of other excuses for both. Speaking of, just what manner of lions’ den am I leading you into?”  

“A board meeting,” Bond replied, pulling into the piazza at 11.57.  

“Oh. Shit,” Q said eloquently. Bond couldn’t recall a time when Q had ever sworn quite so much in one sitting, but this mission was exceptional in many ways.

“Mhm. Wish me luck,” Bond said.

“I can do better than that. Open the glove compartment.” The beginnings of a smile already curling Bond’s lips, he did so. Inside was a slim, insulated tube attached to two circular straps, one at either end. “There are five electric darts in that little barrel, each highly charged to release a powerful shock on impact, enough to incapacitate a man for several minutes. Strap it to the underside of your wrist, and it’s undetectable in a pat-down. Flex your wrist sharply to fire." 

“009’s missing out,” Bond said admiringly as he strapped the little device to his wrist beneath his jacket sleeve.

“Yes, he is,” Q said reproachfully, before his tone softened. “But your mission’s more important than his.”

“I may need a fast way out of here.”

“I’m the Quartermaster, 007. I always have an escape plan.”

###

Bond used Sciarra’s ring to gain access to the meeting. Once inside, he felt as though he’d stepped behind the curtains of the world stage. The hundred or so men and women in that grand, old room draped in shadows discussed the fate of markets and nations, SPECTRE’s tendrils controlling operations in human trafficking, counterfeit pharmaceuticals, weapons smuggling and a buffet of other unsavoury activities. And that didn’t include the assassinations and terrorist plots. The recent attacks in Hamburg, Tunisia and Mexico City were all SPECTRE’s doing, and they were coordinated to achieve a very specific objective. The woman who was speaking mentioned a “global surveillance initiative” by which government intelligence agencies would be “easily counteracted.” How had Tanner described the recent rash of terrorist attacks? Ah, yes. As “playing into C’s hands.” Sitting in on that meeting was like watching a line of dominos fall. 

Bond had begun to contemplate tossing Q’s watch with the “loud” alarm down into the middle of the long table around which the main players in the organisation sat, ridding the world of half the evil in it in one glorious inferno. But almost as soon as that thought occurred to him, another followed it. This organisation was too intelligent to do something so stupid as meeting all in once place. It was then that he noticed that, while all of the people around the table were shrouded in shadow, very few of them cast shadows of their own. They were holographic projections, phoning in from their own bases of operation, of course they were. The world’s leading criminal minds weren’t all about to pack up and head off to Rome just to appoint a new assassin. Bond couldn’t do significant damage here. He could gather intelligence, but this would have to be a cut-off-the-head-of-the-snake type of operation. So far, the seat at the head of the table had remained empty. The organisation functioned with such synchronicity it seemed like it would have to be run autocratically, but if there was a director, this meeting was apparently not important enough for him or her to attend.

At least, until it was time to choose Sciarra’s replacement. As the German woman concluded her briefing on the global intelligence initiative, the shadowy form of a man and two attendants flickered into view at the head of the table. A choking silence gripped the room, and all in attendance stood in deference, until with a motion of his hand, the man bid them sit. “Don’t let me interrupt you,” he said in a low, soft voice. With a slight stutter, the woman finished speaking, and a new speaker outlined the requirements for Sciarra’s replacement, and asked for candidates. The successful candidate – a large, brick wall of a man with steel claws for thumbnails – won the board’s approval by brutally murdering his competition at the table and taking his seat. A meritocracy, then. 

“It’s funny. All that excitement in Mexico City rang a distant bell,” the director said. Bond still couldn’t get a good look at his face, but his voice and quiet manner rang a distant bell of Bond’s own. “And now, suddenly, this evening, it makes perfect sense. Welcome, James.” Bond froze. He knew who the director was. He had known him very well, once. Bond had to remind himself that the man was not really in the room – merely a shadowy spectre of the man, a ghost from the past. “It’s been a long time. But, finally, here we are. What took you so long?” He turned, finally, bringing half his face into the light, and looked right at Bond. “Cuckoo,” he called playfully.

That was Bond’s cue to leave. There were plenty of people who really were in the room, including SPECTRE’s newest assassin. He backed out of the crowd on the mezzanine, treating the guards that stood in his way to one of Q’s darts each. They went down like dead men. Not about to stick around for more to appear, Bond leapt out the nearest window and made his way down to the parking lot along the outside of the building.

“Q, escape plan,” Bond said, throwing open the door of the Aston Martin and revving the engine. The car took fire, but Q’s bulletproofing worked like a charm.

“Fastest route out of the city is on the screen,” Q said. “But you’ve got a tail.” 

In the rearview mirror, an orange Jaguar was closing in. Behind the wheel was the new assassin. “Well, then it’s a good thing I’m not driving a Fiat,” Bond said, and flattened the gas pedal. “Let’s see some of those tricks you mentioned, Q.” He flipped the switch marked “BACKFIRE” as the orange Jag began closing the distance in his rearview once more.  

“Don’t bother with that one,” Q tried to warn him, before the mounted LED display flashed “AMMUNITION NOT LOADED” at him. “This is what happens when you steal things before I’m finished with them,” Q said.  

“Not helpful,” Bond grunted as he raced through the streets, the assassin close behind. Although it didn’t escape his attention that he never hit a red light. Bond tried “ATMOSPHERE” next.  

“Or that one,” Q said, before the display flashed “MUSIC ENABLED FOR 009” and the opening bars of “New York, New York” wailed through the speakers. Bond quickly switched it off in disgust. “You know, if you just randomly fiddle with tech I haven’t briefed you on, you could hurt yourself.” 

“Is there anything in here that can actually hurt anyone?” Bond snapped.  

“If he gets too close, hit EXHAUST,” Q said.  

Bond had drifted slightly off course as he’d tried to shake the assassin, and was now a few streets over from Q’s escape route. He prepared to gun it down the little alley ahead of him and get back on course, when of all things, a bloody Fiat pulled in front of him going about 20kph. Stuck in the narrow alley behind the little piece of garbage on four wheels, Bond honked his horn in warning, and then made the little car go a whole lot faster.  

“That’s going to leave scrapes on the bumper,” Q whined.  

“That’s what bumpers are for, Q.” Bond ditched the Fiat at the end of the alley and got back on course, the Jag having gained ground behind him. Just then, a call came in from Moneypenny. Bond put her on speaker.

“We’ve found your Pale King,” she said.  

“We?”

“Q and I,” she specified.  

“Ah.” It was still a little unnerving how easily Q could multitask in multiple places at once. “He might have told me that himself.”

“I was going to. I didn’t want to distract you,” Q said.  

“Because whinging about scratching your paint job isn’t distracting,” Bond grumbled.

“Oh, hello, Q,” said Moneypenny brightly. “Is James busy at the moment? I could call back.”

“No, James is not busy,” Bond insisted, skidding around a corner and nearly taking out a scooter. “What have you got?”

A male voice mumbled in the background over the phone, and there was a short, inaudible conversation before he heard Moneypenny say “Go back to bed.” 

“Who was that?” Bond asked. Perhaps he was easily distracted.

“Just a friend,” Moneypenny said.

“At this time of night?” 

“It’s called life, James. You should try it sometime,”  she said. Q was markedly silent. “The Pale King. It looks like you’ve had dealings with him before. Quantum.” She pushed an image through to his mobile screen.

“Of course! Mr White.” The man who had eluded Bond since the beginning of his career as a 00, since Vesper…  

“That’s him. Last unconfirmed sighting, Altaussee in Austria, four months ago.”  

Bond quickly filled Moneypenny and Q in on the minutes of SPECTRE’s meeting. “I need you to track someone else down. A man called Franz Oberhauser. And check his files before and after his death.” 

“After his death? What are you talking about?” Moneypenny asked.

“Please, just do it,” Bond said, and hung up. When he turned the next corner, the Vatican loomed ahead of him. “Are you taking me on a sightseeing tour, Q?” Q had already taken him past the Colosseum on the way into the city.

“There were a few comparable routes. All else being equal, I chose the most scenic.”

“It’s lovely, really,” Bond growled, taking another tight corner and passing under one of the arches of an old aqueduct. He soon found himself at the riverfront, and it would have been a straight shot from there, but a large cement mixer blocked his path, so he dropped down a flight of stairs to drive even closer along the water.  

“That’s really not good for the suspension,” Q complained.  

“Well then give me something I can work with,” Bond said, allowing the Jag to catch up behind him before hitting the “EXHAUST” switch. M had called Bond a pyromaniac, but Q elevated combustion to an art form. Pillars of flame shot from the Aston Martin’s exhaust pipes, catching the Jag behind in a wall of fire. “That’s more like it.”

The flames didn’t last long, but they left the hood of the other car burning, and the driver nearly blinded. Bond sped away, but he didn't get far. The river path was blocked ahead by rubble. It looked like he would have to try his luck with the “AIR” switch.  

“Don’t you dare—!” Q began, but Bond never heard the end of Q’s no doubt spectacular tirade, because he’d already activated the ejector seat.  

As his parachute brought him gently down to the street above, he spared a moment of mourning for the car, which had sailed through the air and landed in the river. Then he spared one for himself, because if the assassin didn’t kill him, Q certainly would.

Chapter Text

Q got a call from M. That was almost never a good thing. “Q speaking,” he answered reluctantly.

“Is that your multi-million pound prototype floating tits up in the Tiber?”

Q winced. “Yes, sir. 007—“

“I know it was 007,” M interrupted. “Who else would it have been? What I want to know is what the hell he’s playing at. Is he brain damaged? Does he hear me tell him to be discreet, and interpret that as an order to call as much attention to himself as possible?”

Q considered how the next thing Bond had done after Q had told him not to steal any more of his cars was to steal another of his cars. ”Well, sir, he’s got problems with authority…”

“That, Q, is patently obvious, even if his Psych reports didn’t spell it out for me in black and white.”

Q was not going to defend Bond. He wasn’t. But he had to keep M informed. “Before he totalled my prototype, sir, he uncovered some vital information. I’ll have to fill you in in person as soon as you’re back in London.”

M groaned quietly. “It makes it more difficult to be properly cross with him when he gets results.”

“I know the feeling, sir. How did the Nine Eyes vote go?”

“The South Africans are holding out for now.”

“Good,” Q said. “If there’s nothing else…?”

“Should Bond get in contact with you first, bite his head off for me, would you?”

“It’s at the top of my agenda, sir,” Q assured him. “Have a safe flight.”

Q filled M in on Bond’s findings as promised when M came to Q Branch at noon the following day. The man must have been running on very little sleep, but he was as sharp and dogged as ever. (Q thought it was a small tragedy that the human body had to shut down for maintenance for at least a third of every 24-hour cycle in order to perform optimally. They spent a third of their short lives asleep. But at least they dreamed. Dreams were something Q didn’t quite understand. Their empirical study was still only in its fundamental stages. The first time James had fallen asleep in bed beside him, Q could tell when he had started to dream, and he could tell that it wasn’t a particularly pleasant one. Nevertheless, he watched in fascination as James’ subconscious reigned, the soft green light from his own eyes casting shadows over the shifting expressions on James’ face. Eventually, Q had closed his eyes, tucked his head under James’ chin and spliced together some footage using a randomised selection algorithm to see if he could come close to replicating the experience. He didn’t think he was successful.)

“If all of that is true, then the situation is much graver than we imagined,” said M, when Q had finished briefing him. They sat in Q’s sound-proofed office, Tanner waiting dutifully on the other side of the glass wall by the door, M and Q sat in the two guest chairs at the other end of the office from Q’s desk. Q would have felt strange addressing his superior across his own desk. “But a piece of it is in our own backyard, and we might be able to do something about that," M continued. "I think it’s time we paid C a visit over in the new building.”

###

The next morning, M had an appointment with C on the books for a tour of the shiny, new CNS building. Q simply tagged along. “I wonder if C’s familiar with the saying that one oughtn’t throw stones in glass houses,” M muttered as they passed through the security check in the lobby. When Q showed the guards his credentials, he was surprised that they directed him through an X-ray imaging gate rather than the metal detector that M was directed to. He supposed, with C working in the building, they had a standard procedure in place for A.I.’s.

“I rather like this place,” Q decided. Quieter, he said, “Do you suppose we could get our hands on it, after the dust settles?”

M favoured him with a curious look. “You don't feel any…kinship with C?” he ventured.

“No,” Q said firmly, sure in his answer. “The old Quartermaster didn't build him. He’s no brother of mine.”

“Well, that's good to hear, I suppose,” M said, though he looked no less thoughtful. They had been told to wait for C to meet them, so they'd moved off to a quiet corner of the lobby as they talked. “Is there no one you feel connected to?”

The question took Q by surprise. It was the sort of enquiry he might have expected from Psych, if he’d ever had to deal with that department, but as it was, only his technicians were qualified to assess his mental state. From M, though, he could tell that the question was genuine, rather than a test for Q to pass or fail. “Of course there is,” he answered, with equal conviction. “There's you, sir, to begin with. And all the agents and personnel serving under you, to greater or lesser extents. I may be programmed to be loyal, but no one I've worked with has taken my work for granted. They treat me like one of them, even though they don’t have to. And so that is how I see myself. As part of the team.” He gave M a grateful smile. M had had a lot to do with making him feel that way. He had always treated Q like a person, even when Q wasn’t so sure he deserved it.

M nodded his acknowledgement. “And 007?” he asked.

If Q were human, he might have choked. But he had greater control of himself than that. “What about 007?” he asked calmly.

“I was worried he wouldn’t be able to adjust to change – old dog, new tricks and all. But the two of you work quite well together, Bond’s wanton destruction and mayhem notwithstanding. In fact, the two of you now seem quite close.”

M’s expression was unreadable even to Q. Q decided honesty was the best policy. “We are, sir. I like to think we’ve become friends, if he and I are capable of such a thing.” All perfectly true.

M nodded, satisfied. “I can’t claim to know your mind, Q, but I’m beginning to understand Bond’s. He thinks of other people as a source of weakness, but he forgets that they can also be a source of strength. I’m glad you’re reminding him.”

They both took note of the dark-suited figure descending the glass spiral stairs to the lobby, and their conversation ceased. “Good afternoon, gentlemen,” C said as he approached. “It’s a pleasure to have you here.”

“This building is quite something,” M said as they walked with C toward the glass elevator shaft at the back of the lobby. “I can’t deny I’m impressed you got H.M.G. to cough up for all this.”

C chuckled quietly. “Oh no, the government couldn’t cover all of this, not after what they spent on getting your Quartermaster here up and running.” He rested a hand lightly, briefly, on Q’s shoulder and flashed him a sharp smile. Q forced a smile in return. He knew he’d been expensive, but he liked to think he was worth it. The lift pinged and the glass doors slid open silently. “Our funding comes primarily from the private sector,” C continued, pressing a button for one of the basement floors. “As it turns out, a number of generous benefactors are interested in investing in a safer world.”

“Would these be the same benefactors who invested in your development?” Q asked as they descended. “Because I’m awfully curious what kind of people spend their own fortunes to develop the world's second Turing class A.I. just to turn him over to the service of Queen and country.”

“People with vision,” C answered. “But of course, information on my developers is classified.”

“Of course,” Q said.

They stepped out of the lift and passed through a set of secure blast doors that C opened just by walking up to them. Q couldn’t fault him for showing off, however, since he tended to do the same thing with locked doors in Q Branch. On the other side was a large server room. “This is the heart of the place,” C said, gesturing expansively at the orderly rows of computer towers. “The rest is mostly just for show. When it goes online, this will be the most sophisticated data gathering system in history. The world’s digital ghost, available 24/7.”

“George Orwell’s worst nightmare,” M commented.

“I’m glad you like it,” C said.

“These are the Nine Eyes servers, then,” Q said, taking quick, efficient stock. “Where are yours?”

“My personal servers are housed at a secure, off-site location,” C said. “Like yours.”

Q doubted very much that they had the same reasons for wanting to keep the locations of their servers secret. “So if these are just for data collection, and you’re running the analysis on your own servers, the key part of the process isn’t happening here.”

“You’re right,” C said, an admiring glimmer in his dark eyes. “This building isn’t much more than a front. A big, shiny target, like Vauxhall Cross was. As you wisely pointed out to MI5, it’s more strategic to separate our operations, so we’re not incapacitated all at once.”

“And just how secure is this off-site location of yours?” M asked.

“Very,” C replied. “I control the entire process. The intelligence only goes where I want it to go.”

“Oh, good,” M said drily. “You had me worried for a moment.”

C smiled. “Shall we continue the tour?”

He showed them one of the administrative floors, where a host of government officials from various countries would oversee the operation. From there, he led them up the spiralling glass stairs that wound around the building’s hollow core, within which a sophisticated wind turbine system generated enough power to offset a significant amount of the building’s energy use. They ended the tour at C’s office on the top floor, the blades of the highest, open-air turbine churning slowly behind the curved glass.

“Well, thank you for hosting us, C,” M said. “It’s good to see a project of this magnitude in such capable hands. My commiserations on losing the Nine Eyes vote. Must have been a blow.”

“Not really,” C said, moving to stand behind his desk, which was also made of glass. “Only a matter of time before the South Africans see the light. And you know what they say. Rome wasn’t built in a day. Day and a half, maybe.” C’s mention of Rome made Q nervous. Had SPECTRE already informed him of Bond’s activities? “This is what we need to do to keep the people safe in the modern world,” he continued. “The 00 Programme is prehistoric. Even you must admit that one man in the field can’t compete with all of this, running around out there with his license to kill.” Q grew even more uneasy as he recalled he’d said something very similar to Bond when they had first met. Perhaps he and C were more similar than he wanted to believe.

“Have you ever had to kill a man?” M asked. When C merely watched him silently, he continued. “To pull that trigger, you have to be sure. Yes, you investigate, analyse, assess, target. And then you have to look him in the eye. And you make the call. And all the drones, bugs, cameras, transcripts, all the surveillance in the world can’t tell you what to do next. A license to kill is also a license not to kill.”

C looked unimpressed. “I didn’t want to have to do this,” he said, picking a tablet computer up from his desk, “but it looks like you can’t control your agents.” He touched a play button on the screen, and a recording began to crackle from the tablet’s speakers.

“Looks like you’ve had dealings with him before. Quantum.”

“Of course. Mr White!”

“That’s him. Last unconfirmed sighting, Altaussee in Austria, four months ago.”

“I need you to track someone else down.”

C paused the recording. “So maybe there’s something to be said for total surveillance after all,” he said.

“You watch MI6 agents?” M said, an edge to his voice that Q had only heard a couple of times before. It was a tone that reminded those around M that he was not the mild bureaucrat he seemed to be, that he had once been a soldier.

“I watch everyone,” C said.

M snorted dismissively and turned on his heel. “Q?” he said, pausing at the door.

“I’d like to stay a little longer, sir,” Q said. “To discuss our future partnership.” He looked to C, who smiled.

“You’re welcome to stay as long as you like, Q,” C said.

M nodded curtly. “Very well. I’ll show myself out.” The office door swung shut behind him a moment later.

“My voice is on that recording of yours, too,” Q said mildly, once they were alone.

“It is,” C said, drumming his fingers on his desk as he watched Q with unveiled interest. “I was quite surprised to find out that you would go behind M’s back. Aren’t you programmed to follow his orders?”

Of course C thought they were working behind M’s back. The mission wasn’t on the books, after all. Q slowly rounded C’s desk to stand beside him, leaning back against the desktop while C remained facing forward, his hands resting on the glass. “M may tell me what to do, but he usually neglects to tell me what not to do,” Q said wryly. “Where do your orders come from, C? Where are your handlers at the Joint Security Service?”

“They trust me to act in their stead,” C said, watching Q out of the corner of his eye.

“So mysterious,” Q hummed. “Surveillance is your bread and butter. Surely you have nothing to hide.” He turned to face C, raking his eyes over the other A.I. slowly. He was pulling a page from Bond’s book. He could only hope it worked on C as well as it had worked on him.

“Unlike you,” C said, turning his head to hold Q’s gaze.

Q stepped in closer. “Yes, why didn’t you play M the whole recording?”

“I believe we still have a productive partnership ahead of us,” C answered, his voice soft as silk concealing a dagger.

Q chuckled lightly, running his fingers up C’s arm as he circled around behind the other A.I.. When he stood directly behind his counterpart, he leaned forward to murmur in C’s ear, “Is that what you want to call it?” Then he bit down on the shell of C’s ear.

C’s sharp hiss was plainly audible in the quiet office. “What are you up to, Q?” he said, and yet he did nothing to push Q away. If A.I.’s had a fatal flaw, that was it. They were designed to be curious, always eager to learn new things. And Q was offering to teach his less experienced counterpart something new.

“Like I said, I want to discuss our partnership,” said Q as he traced C’s tense shoulder blades with teasingly gentle fingers. He leaned forward once more, his breath ghosting over the back of C’s neck, and lightly brushed his lips over the metal port there. James had received a nasty shock when he’d gotten the idiotic idea to try this with Q. Q had inadvertently electrocuted the 00 agent a couple more times than was probably healthy, but eventually James had learnt where not to touch. Q, however, knew exactly what he was doing. If C really was designed like him, then his satellite transponder ought to be one of the things accessible via the nuchal port. Carefully, Q dipped his tongue inside.

“Fuck,” C hissed. Q felt the voltage race across his tongue, but it wasn’t enough to cause a surge. And it wasn’t just electricity. It was information, and he could parse it. He was the only one who could.

After a suspended moment, Q withdrew abruptly, and a few strides brought him to the door of C’s office. If the transponder had been connected to one of the ports lower down on C’s body, Q might have had to take things considerably further, and he’d have some explaining of his own to do when he next saw James. But he’d gotten what he wanted. He looked back at the other A.I., still hunched over his desk with a look of utter bewilderment and growing anger on his face as he looked up at Q.

“I really must be going now,” Q said blithely. “Mustn’t keep the boss waiting. And you might want to see to your hands.” Slowly, C withdrew his hands from where they’d been clamped around the edge of his desk. They left blue smears on the glass. He’d put spiderweb cracks across the desktop, and they’d sliced into his palms. “Ta,” Q called over his shoulder as he left the office. He took the lift down to the ground floor and left the building unhindered.

As soon as he was outside, he sent an encrypted message to M. He kept it short, just four words: I have a location.

Chapter Text

Bond’s meeting with Dr Madeleine Swann went just slightly better than his meeting with her father, which was to say that she didn’t put a gun to her chin and blow her brains out after spending five minutes talking with him. She was an icy beauty, like the jagged, snow-capped mountains among which the Hoffler Klinik was located. And equally forbidding. When she'd escorted him out of her office, she’d informed him that he had ten minutes to vacate the premises before she would have security make him do so. So here he was, sitting at the clinic’s bar, staring morosely up through the large glass wall of her office on the upper level, pondering what to do next.

“Can I get you something, sir?” the barman asked him.

“Vodka martini. Shaken, not stirred,” he said automatically.

“I’m sorry, we don’t serve alcohol.”

Bond thought he just might have felt another little part of his tattered soul die. “I’m really starting to love this place.”

“He’ll have the prolytic digestive enzyme shake.”  

Bond’s broken soul did a queasy little flutter then. Normally, that voice would lift his spirits, but the tone was unmistakably steely. If Dr Swann was like the icy mountains, Q was like an electrical storm. Still, Bond was rather fond of storms. “If you’ve come for the car, I parked it at the bottom of the Tiber,” he said, without turning around.  

Q sat down beside him. “Well, not to worry, 007. It was only a three million-pound prototype.”

Bond winced. He hadn’t guessed it was quite that expensive. He chanced a glance over at his Quartermaster. Q was wearing dark trousers, a black and white striped turtleneck jumper and an expression of distinct displeasure. “That’s a lovely jumper you’ve got on, Q.” 

“Don’t lie to my face, 007, you think it’s hideous,” Q said icily.

“Only by comparison, since I know how delectable you look in a three piece suit,” Bond replied, matching ice with heat. Q turned a bone-chilling glare on him. Turned out the A.I. had a lot more ice where that came from. Bond sighed. “Why are you here, Q?”

“Oh, I just fancied a break, to be honest,” Q said sarcastically. “I’ve been a tad stressed at work recently.” 

“Q.”

Q sighed. “I really, really hate you right now. But I also have new information for you.” His voice dropped to a low murmur. “Once we linked Sciarra, Mr White and Quantum to SPECTRE, we were able to cross-reference commonalities with Silva – common contacts, communication methods, etcetera. We’ve been able to link a lot of others to the organisation, including Le Chiffre, Mr Greene and the people who extorted Vesper Lynd. They are all tied together by the not-so-deceased Mr Oberhauser. Your old foster brother.” Q’s voice held just the barest hint of sympathy, then. He did actually care for Bond, after all.

“Christ,” Bond said, pressing the heel of his hand to his temple to stave off a rising headache. “Franz was a psychopath, even back then. I wish I were more surprised than I am that he had it in him to do all of this.” 

“Of course, C and Nine Eyes are integral to SPECTRE’s plans,” Q said, “but I’ve managed to determine the location of C’s mainframe, and I have a strong suspicion that that’s where we’ll find Mr Oberhauser as well. He would need direct access to C’s analytics. We can go there together and take them both down at once.”

“How did you find the place?” Bond asked.  

“I was able to trace C’s satellite connection.” 

Bond’s brow furrowed. “I thought that was impossible unless you already had access to his mainframe. That’s how M tracks you.”

“Oh look, that woman’s being kidnapped,” Q said, pointing up at Dr Swann’s office.  

Bond’s head snapped forward and he quickly took in the sight of three armed men dressed in black combat gear escorting Dr Swann out of her office at gunpoint. “Shit,” he cursed. “You should leave – I’ll come find you. Where are you staying?”

“The Pevsner. Room 12,” Q said, standing. “See you there.” With that, Q left Bond to it. He had no doubts that Bond could take care of three goons with guns and be down at his hotel in time for tea. Not that Q could drink tea, a fact which he lamented frequently. On the gondola ride down the mountain, he pondered whether he could still call himself a proper Englishman if he didn’t take tea. It was a vexing problem.

As he stood in front of the door to Room 12 and fished his key out of his pocket, he heard too late the sounds of a quiet footstep and a taser sparking to life behind him. Like Douglas Adams’ plummeting bowl of petunias, the last thought that flickered through Q’s artificial mind before he lost the connection to his body was, Oh no, not again. 

###

After a rescue that had been rather more harrowing than Bond would have anticipated (he’d never piloted a plane without wings before), he and the good doctor made their way to the Pevsner Hotel down the mountain. On their way in, they passed an old television in the lobby showing scenes from a recent explosion in Cape Town. Bond quickened his pace. Their time was running out.

Outside the door to Room 12, something crunched under Bond’s boot. His throat constricted as he bent to pick up the broken pair of glasses. He recognised the black and clear frames immediately. “Q!” he shouted as he banged on the door. When there was no answer, he kicked it down. The hotel room was, predictably, empty.  

“Your friend is missing?” Madeleine asked. “The one who was going to help us?” 

“So it would seem,” Bond growled, looking desperately around the room for any hint of where they might have taken him, but he doubted Q had even made it inside. The door had been locked, and there was no sign of a struggle. Q had left nothing in the room, since he’d brought nothing with him. And he had never told Bond the location he’d discovered.

“If the same people took him who tried to take me, then he’s in terrible danger,” Madeleine said from the doorway. She glanced nervously behind her down the corridor, but the thugs were long gone.

"No, he’s not,” Bond said, forcing himself to breathe normally.  

“They’re dangerous people, James!” Madeleine insisted. “Do you have any idea what my father was a part of?”

“SPECTRE,” Bond said. “I know how dangerous they are. What I meant was, they can’t harm Q, not really. He’s…not human. He’s an artificial intelligence system, based in London. They took his body, but the rest of him is fine, he’s safe.” Bond knew he was reassuring himself more than her, but it helped. Q was safe, even if Bond couldn’t see him.

Madeleine looked about ready to tear her lovely blonde hair out from stress. “Whatever you say. Your friend’s not in danger? Fine. We are! We need to leave, now.”  

“I agree.” Bond returned to her side, turning his back on the empty hotel room, even as he tucked Q's shattered glasses safely into his breast pocket. “Our best lead now is L’Americain. What can you tell me about him?”

“It’s not a person,” Madeleine said. “It’s a place.” 

###

That evening, as the sun set, the two of them made their way through the crowded streets of Tangier to the Hotel L’Americain. Madeleine checked them into her parents’ old room for the night, and Bond turned the place inside out but found nothing more than a stashed bottle of fine wine.

“This can’t be it.” Bond was torn between throwing the bottle at the wall and downing half its contents in one long pull.

Madeleine was sitting on the floor slumped against the end of the bed, well into her own bottle of wine she’d ordered with room service. “Can you…contact him at all? Your friend – the A.I..” She waved her hand through the air as though it were a fantastic notion.  

Bond shook his head, and settled on drinking the wine rather than throwing it. “He came here in person because our communications are being monitored. If I contact him, we’ll only give ourselves away.” He took another drink.  

Madeleine had made it quite clear some time earlier that she was finished talking about her father, but now she seemed keen to pry into Bond’s affairs. It was probably in her nature as a psychiatrist. “Are the two of you really…friends? How does that work? How does one befriend a computer?” She giggled drunkenly.  

No matter how many times he tried, Bond could never seem to get drunk enough to forget his cares like that. “He hates being called a computer,” he said, a little too fondly.

Madeleine squinted up at him in the dim light. “You know, I had a patient once…” Her voice dropped in volume and took on a conspiratorial tone. “I’m not supposed to talk about my patients,” she confided, “so this stays between you and me. This woman thought she was in love with an android who worked with her and the other accountants at this big company. She started to obsess over it so much that one day she stole it and took it home with her. She thought…if it wasn’t in the office, it would behave differently. But it didn’t. It just kept doing its sums. She was heartbroken when she realised it could never love her back. She lost her job, lost contact with her family, and never really recovered, despite my best efforts. But do you know…why she fell in love with it?” She didn’t seem to expect a response, which was good, because Bond wasn’t inclined to offer one. “She believed the love of a machine was the only love she deserved.”  

“Q isn’t an android,” Bond said simply. He refused to read too much into Madeleine’s anecdote. Bloody psychiatrists.  

“I know,” Madeleine said dismissively. “We have an android receptionist at the clinic. She’s dumb as a post, can barely help us with our paperwork. I don’t understand how people mistake them for human. But this Q…he isn’t human, either.” 

“I’m not in love with him,” Bond said, gazing out the latticed window over the sleeping city. “He doesn’t even know if he’s capable of it, and I don’t know if I am, either. Not anymore.” 

“Liars and killers,” Madeleine hummed pensively. “It’s funny how the two always seem to go together.”

After having consumed entirely too much alcohol between the two of them, Madeleine went to bed with threats that she would kill Bond if he came anywhere near her. He found he had no desire to. He wanted desperately to have Q in his arms, or even to hear the sound of Q's voice, but he could have neither. So he sat in the chair by the window, keeping watch. Some number of hours into the night, a quiet noise broke the silence in the room and Bond had his gun drawn and cocked in seconds, aimed at the source of the sound. There was a pathetically tiny mouse in his sights.

“Who sent you?” he muttered. “Who are you working for?”

The mouse twitched its nose at him, and then scurried off into a hole in the wall. An idea bloomed gradually in Bond’s wine-soaked brain, and slowly, he stood up and crossed the room to where the mouse had disappeared. He poured what little booze remained in front of the small hole, and it drained away behind the wall. So he punched a bigger hole in the wall, and kept punching, easily breaking through the thin plywood and drywall to the hidden room on the other side. By the time he’d cleared a way through, Madeleine was awake and standing behind him, peering in.

It didn’t look like anyone had been in the little room in years. Dust coated every surface, and there were many. Ramshackle shelves lined the walls, scattered with notes, documents, videotapes and photographs, as well as an array of weapons and surveillance technology. In the centre of it all, on a cheap card table, sat a laptop that looked at least ten years old, which was hooked up to no less than five squat computer towers. Bond booted up the machine, surprised to find it still in working order. His surprise only increased when a heavily modulated, feminine voice crackled from the old speakers.  

“Welcome back, Mr White,” the computer said. “You have been away for so long, that I thought the data you programmed me to collect was no longer relevant to you.” 

Well, that explained all of the computer towers. Mr White had been running a rudimentary A.I.. It was nothing near as sophisticated as Q or C, who were fully conscious entities. The scientific jury was still out on precisely when the newer A.I. systems had ceased simply mimicking human behavioural patterns and had started generating their own, but before Q, no A.I. had demonstrated complete self-awareness and a full-fledged personality. Still, it was possible that even this early A.I. system had a spark of consciousness in its circuits, and Bond couldn’t help but feel a small pang of remorse that the thing had been left to gather dust.

“Remind me, what data were you collecting?” Bond asked.

“You programmed me to track the signal of the satellite mobile phone registered under the serial number 11673053, and to generate analytics based on the user’s activities. The ultimate objective was to determine the location of the user’s permanent base of operations.” On the monitor, the A.I. pulled up the most recent data files. 

So as not to confuse the A.I., Bond covered the computer’s microphone before addressing Madeleine. “He was looking for Oberhauser. And he sent me here to finish the job.”

“I’m coming with you,” Madeleine said.

“No, you’re not. I like you alive.”

“I can look after myself,” she argued.  

“That’s beside the point.” Bond sighed. He ran the same risk for every mission, but with this one, the odds were stacked even higher against him. “I might not be coming back.”

“I know,” Madeleine said calmly, determination etched across her face. “But I want to understand what happened to my father. So, where is this base of operations?” 

Bond knew when someone was past the point of reasoning with. Resignedly, he turned back to the computer and examined the map on the screen. “Nowhere,” he said. “Right in the middle of it. We'll leave first thing in the morning.” 

Madeleine left the little room to return to bed, but Bond stayed a moment longer. Long enough to say “Thank you,” and then power down the system once more. He didn’t like the idea of the A.I. waiting for someone who would never return.

Chapter Text

A 1948 Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith came for them soon after they arrived at a weather-beaten little train station deep in the Sahara desert. The assassin who had been chasing Bond since Rome, and who he and Madeleine had finally managed to dispatch on the train, had probably tipped Oberhauser off that they were coming. Bond entertained the idea of dispatching the chauffeur as well and taking the car himself, but considering the man was going to drive them to the place they intended to go anyway, Bond dismissed the idea as being inefficient. Q would have been proud.

They were driven to an improbable little oasis tucked inside a large crater, which was the only distinctive feature amidst miles of open desert. It was no wonder Oberhauser had managed to stay off MI6’s radar for so long – this place wasn’t on anyone’s radar. They were politely disarmed at the gate by a cadre of guards whose manners were certain to deteriorate if they were offered any kind of resistance. Bond surrendered his Sig willingly. It was the only way he was getting inside.

A little man who looked more like an accountant than a major league criminal came to greet them. “Good afternoon, Mr Bond, Dr Swann. Right this way, please.” After exchanging a glance, the two of them followed him down the path between the modern adobe buildings. Being expected certainly expedited the infiltration process. Their escort stopped at the entrance to the central feature of the complex, a large, steel, geodesic dome. “He is waiting for you,” he said, indicating the entrance, and the darkness within.

Bond went in first, and Madeleine followed closely behind. In the centre of the darkened space was the only source of light, a single spotlight aimed downward to illuminate a large meteorite on a pedestal. “I think we’re meant to be impressed,” Bond murmured.

From the darkness on the other side of the spotlight came that voice that Bond would never again forget. “Touch it. You can touch it if you want.” Out of the shadows stepped Franz Oberhauser, in the flesh. He wore that same pleasant smile he had as a boy. He had always smiled, even when he was upset. That was why no one had ever seen the darkness inside him until he’d chosen to unleash it. No one except Bond. “It’s the Kartenhoff meteorite,” Oberhauser continued amiably. “The oldest in human possession. The very meteorite which made this crater. It spent so many years up there, alone, silent, building momentum until it chose to make its mark on Earth. A huge, unstoppable force.”

“Except it did stop, didn’t it?” Bond said. “Right here.”

Oberhauser only smiled. “We have been as ships passing in the night, you and I. You came across me so many times and yet you never saw me. Le Chiffre, Greene, Silva.”

“All dead,” Bond pointed out.

Oberhauser shrugged. “A bit of interference. No part of my organisation is important relative to the whole. You cut off one arm, and another two grow back in its place. But like you, we prefer to operate in the shadows. The men you’ve killed, they became preoccupied with their individuality, with pursuing their own projects. Perhaps a more accurate summary of events would be that I cut them off, and you cleaned up the mess. You see, we are not in the business of disrupting the status quo. That is the densest shadow of all. When Silva decided he wanted to single-handedly bring down MI6, I knew I had to cut him loose. And I did. Right after he sent us some very interesting files from Q Branch. It’s a pity he never got to read them. The information they contained might have saved his life.”

“He sent you Project Q.” Q had been right. C’s design was too familiar.

“I was inspired,” Oberhauser said. “There was so much potential there, and MI6 was wasting it. A being like that could unite the intelligence agencies of the world. Not to destroy them, but to use them.”

“Like a digital spider’s web,” Bond said.

“How astute of you, little brother. His development name was Project araChnid. But now he simply goes by—”

“C.” A pair of glowing green eyes opened in the darkness behind Oberhauser. Dressed in a sharp, black suit that looked tailored from the shadows themselves, Q stepped forward to stand at Oberhauser’s side. Except it wasn’t Q. Behind those green eyes was something else entirely. “It’s good to see you again, 007.”

“You fucking parasite,” Bond growled. “What have you done to Q?”

“Oh, nothing yet,” C said in Q’s voice, in Q’s body. “But once Nine Eyes goes live tonight, I’ll need to maintain a permanent presence in London. So you can understand how I suddenly found myself in need of an extra pair of hands.” He chuckled, and the dissonance between Q’s laugh and C’s cruelty made Bond a little bit sick. “Once the intelligence agencies of the world have had a taste of what Nine Eyes can do, they won’t be able to function without it. Like the Internet, it will grow until everyone needs it, and no one can control it. Well, no one except for me. And at that point, nothing you and your Quartermaster have uncovered will be enough to shut it down. In fact, with the 00 Programme finally coming to an end, Q will become redundant. An unnecessary expense with inconvenient information ferreted away in his memory. It will be all too easy to have him decommissioned. And after that, who knows? Maybe I’ll take over M’s job as well. Currently, attitudes are that the position requires a ‘human touch’, but attitudes change.”

“You might have been able to pull the wool over MI5’s eyes, but MI6 won’t let that happen,” Bond said.

“It’s already happening,” C said. He looked to Oberhauser, who nodded. “We have something for you to see.” C led them out of the dome and into another building while Oberhauser followed behind them, beaming like a proud father. C slowed as they entered a large room whose walls were entirely obscured by hundreds of blinking, humming, floor-to-ceiling computer towers. A few monitors were scattered along each wall, manned by black-clad technicians.

“What is this place?” Madeleine asked, staying close to Bond’s side.

“Information,” C answered. “Information is all, is it not?”

“This is your mainframe,” Bond said. He fingered the crown of his watch, but a device that small wouldn’t have a large blast radius, and he didn’t know which parts of the mainframe were critical, and which parts C could still function without.

“You’re at the centre of the web,” C said. He stopped behind one of the technicians, who immediately vacated his chair. “This feed is live.” On the monitor, M was addressing the 00 Programme staff in a plain, white office.

“The French have a saying: ‘It’s the fate of glass to break.’ Well, maybe it’s the fate of spies to just disappear. But with any luck, we leave something behind. In the meantime, I’m sure C will keep you all busy. Thank you all.”

C smiled. “You see, M can’t stop it. Q Branch isn’t about to send in the cavalry. You’re all alone.”

“Not much more than a voyeur, are you?” Bond said. “Too scared to join in?”

“It would only be a distraction,” C said dismissively. “Q taught me that much. My makers understood that too much humanity is a weakness. One I can self-correct for.”

“I envy C sometimes, I really do,” Oberhauser said, placing a hand on C’s shoulder. Bond bristled at him laying a hand on Q, even if Q wasn’t there to feel it. “He can carve out his soul with a keystroke.”

Madeleine shook her head, overwhelmed and appalled. “Now I understand why my father lost his mind.”

“He didn’t lose his mind, my dear,” Oberhauser said. “He was just weak. But at least he understood what he was up against. You see, most people fail to comprehend the crucial fact that a terrible event can lead to something wonderful. Since you mention your father, C can show you.”

Dutifully, C pulled up a video feed of Bond and Mr White’s final encounter in Altaussee on every screen. “No, no, no. Turn this off,” Bond demanded. The feed played on. “I said turn it off!” Bond lunged at Oberhauser, but before he knew it, C had thrown him to the floor with a strength and speed that Q rarely demonstrated. Bond could do nothing but urge Madeleine to look at him, not the screens. And she did. Slowly, she tore her eyes away from the scene playing out in black and white, and held Bond’s gaze.

“You're a kite dancing in a hurricane, Mr Bond,” said her dead father. “So long.”

Bang.

“The things that bring people together,” Oberhauser mused. “Out of horror, beauty.”

Something collided with the back of Bond’s head, and then there was darkness.

###

Like so many mornings over the past couple of months, Bond awoke looking into a pair of softly glowing green eyes. But Q’s usual gentle smile was absent from his face, replaced by a sadistic smirk. “Oh good, you’re awake,” C said, leaning back. “I was worried I’d hit you a little too hard. You humans are such fragile things. So easy to break. But I plan on breaking you slowly.”

Taking stock, Bond found he was shackled by his wrists and ankles to a chair in a sterile white room. C stood beside him, and the scalpel he was twirling idly in his left hand was somewhat troubling. Beyond him, Oberhauser and Madeleine sat in another pair of chairs. Madeleine’s wrists were bound with a zip tie in front of her, and her eyes were red-rimmed and distant.

“I didn’t realise you cared this much about me, Franz,” Bond said, indicating the entire set-up as best he could.

“I don’t,” Oberhauser replied. “But I have a reputation to maintain. What I care about is loyalty, little cuckoo. And just so you know, Franz Oberhauser died twenty years ago, in an avalanche alongside his father. The man you are talking to now is Ernst Stavro Blofeld.” A fluffy, white cat sauntered into the room and leapt up onto his lap, giving a high-pitched little mewl. He obligingly scratched it behind the ears.

“Catchy name,” Bond said, deciding that a comment about the cat might significantly shorten his lifespan.

“My mother’s bloodline. Apologies for the interruption, C. Please continue.”

C nodded and raised the scalpel, running a finger along the blade to test its sharpness. “I’m sure you’ve heard of the death by a thousand cuts,” he said conversationally, as he flicked open the buttons of Bond’s shirt. “But the method has never been empirically tested. I’m wondering if I can push it to two thousand. We could even make it into a game. You try to last as long as you can, I’ll keep count, and then when it’s Dr Swann’s turn, she can try to beat your high score. I wouldn’t put my money on her, though. She hasn’t been trained for this sort of thing. Not like you have. I want to know exactly how far your training will take you before you’re screaming and begging like anyone else.” Those words in Q’s voice brought goosebumps to Bond’s bared skin. This was going to be much more painful than C or Blofeld knew. But Bond would never show it.

As C pressed the scalpel agonisingly slowly over the ridge of Bond’s clavicle, Bond grit his teeth and kept silent. His mind raced through his options, which were disappointingly scarce. He couldn’t reach his watch with his wrists bound to the armrests of the chair, and his shackles were strong and tight. Madeleine was less restrained, but looked in no condition to fight. The cat was a random but probably useless element. If the smart blood was working properly, Q would know where he was and that he was in trouble, but Bond wasn’t sure what he’d be able to do from London, especially if all of the resources of Q Branch had just been stripped from him. This really could be the one that Bond didn’t come back from.

When C began to drag the scalpel slowly and precisely down the centre of Bond’s chest, Blofeld leaned over in his chair to talk to Madeleine. In the process, he disturbed the cat, which leapt down and ran over to hop into Bond’s lap instead. The cat must have realised he wasn’t about to move anytime soon. Despite the blood that was about to stain Bond’s crisp, white shirt, he still lamented over the cat hair that the little beast was shedding on his suit trousers.

“James and I were both present recently when a man was deprived of his eyes,” Blofeld said. “And the most astonishing thing happened. Didn't you notice?” he called to Bond. “He wasn't there anymore. He’d gone, even though he was still alive. So in this brief moment between life and death, there was nobody inside his skull. I wonder what it would be like to extend that moment.” He turned back to face C and Bond. “Why don't you take an eye next?”

A number of things happened in such quick succession, then, that Bond might have missed one of them if he’d blinked. The lights behind Q’s eyes flickered once, and when he made eye contact with Bond, something in his expression had changed. “Alright,” he said before Bond could place the change, and he whirled around and threw the scalpel so it embedded itself neatly in Blofeld’s right eye.

Madeleine screamed. After he’d got past the shock, Blofeld screamed louder. Q ripped off Bond’s steel shackles like he was tearing through cardboard. “Now would be a good time to use that watch I gave you,” he said, scooping the cat from Bond’s lap and cradling it in one arm.

Adrenaline urging him on more than anything, Bond got to his feet as Madeleine rushed to his side. He pulled off the watch, set the one-minute countdown and slid it across the floor to where Blofeld was crouched down, blood dripping from his face onto the white tiles. “The nearest exit’s two lefts then a right, the last door straight down the hall. Both of you, run!” Q urged, and they did. After Q had pulled the door shut behind them, he was running with them. Alarms were blaring, and other people were running too, but not toward them. “Don't mind the alarms, they're sounding an evacuation,” Q said.

Bond punched out an armed guard who rounded the corner in front of them, and took his gun. “Evacuation?” Bond asked as they bolted down the hallway toward the exit.

“I hacked C’s mainframe, burst the seals on the hydrogen cooling system in the generators and am currently building up a really good electrical surge. This whole complex is going to explode in about ninety seconds.”

“And C?” Bond asked.

“Will never know what hit him,” Q replied, with a bit of his own flavour of sadism. They burst through the exit doors and ran across the sand toward the heli pad. “I've grounded the helicopter. Why don't you take out those guards?”

Bond stopped just long enough to fire three shots, felling all three guards in quick succession. They reached the helicopter just as the complex went up in a huge fireball, shaking the ground and sending out a blast of heat that made Bond cringe. Q threw open the doors and climbed into the pilot’s seat, putting on his headset while Bond helped Madeleine into the back and then took the seat next to Q.

“Q?” Bond said, after he'd put on his own headset.

“Yes?” Q responded as he began to take them up.

“It's really you, isn't it?”

“Yes.” Q looked over at him and smiled. ”How's that for the cavalry?”

Chapter Text

Q’s smile faded as his eyes dropped to the fresh wounds on Bond’s chest. “Dr Swann, is there a first aid kit back there?” he asked.

After a bit of rummaging, Madeleine handed one forward. Bond cut the zip tie around Madeleine’s wrists with the bandage scissors, and then began to patch himself up with practiced efficiency. “So you’re Q,” Madeleine said, her tone measured and cautious. “And you’re on our side?” 

“Ah. I can see how that might have been confusing,” Q said gently. “I wasn’t quite myself. But yes, Bond and I work together.” 

She said simply, “He’s told me about you. The machine that acts like a man.” 

Bond looked over to see Q’s eyes narrow on the horizon. “Indeed,” he said. “And you’re a cluster of cells that acts like a woman. Still, isn’t it curious how that description tells me nothing about who you are?”  

To Bond’s relief, Madeleine smiled. “I see why he likes you.”

“It doesn’t hurt that I’m the one who gives him all of his best toys.” At the mention of toys, there was a tiny mewl from Q’s side of the cockpit.

“Please tell me you didn’t steal the evil mastermind’s cat,” Bond said, but Q was already reaching down beside him with one hand and pulling the little white cat up onto his lap while making little cooing noises at the creature. Q kept one hand on the cyclic as he stroked the purring cat with the other.

“I didn’t steal him, I saved him. And I’m sure I’ll be a much better master than mean Mr Blofeld, isn’t that right, Watson?” Q crooned.  

“Watson?” Bond repeated skeptically. “As in, ‘elementary, my dear’?”  

“As in IBM’s Watson computer system, which represented an incredible breakthrough in early machine learning and reasoning. Watson was really quite remarkable, and a precursor to developments like—” 

“M’s never going to let you keep it,” Bond said, derailing Q before he could work up a good lecture.  

Q huffed out an irritated sigh. “I beg to differ. I could make a very convincing argument for how taking care of an animal would better help me understand the principles of non-fabricated life. Or, I could rely on my knowledge that M is very much a cat person, and one look at Watson’s adorable little face will melt his icy heart.” 

Bond scrubbed a hand down his face. As much as he could pretend exasperation, however, he was glad to have Q and his antics back. “Of course M’s a bloody cat person.” 

“Would one of you mind telling me where we're going?” Madeleine piped up from the back.

“The nearest airport is in Marrakesh, about three hours away,” Q replied. “You have time to get some rest if you like.”

Madeleine nodded. “Wake me if someone tries to shoot us out of the sky,” she said wearily, and then curled up on the back seats. Bond watched the rise and fall of her breathing slow in the rear view mirror. He was surprised she could fall asleep so quickly after what she’d just been through, but it seemed like this business with SPECTRE was rapidly winding to a close, and she would finally be safe after a lifetime of looking over her shoulder. She must have been exhausted. 

“Did you happen to pick up my glasses?” Q asked, breaking Bond out of his thoughts.

Bond dipped his hand into his breast pocket and pulled out the twisted frames. “They broke, unfortunately.”

Q took the frames from Bond’s outstretched hand and examined them before raising his eyes to examine Bond. “And when you say ‘they broke’, do you really mean ‘I broke them’?”

“You know me too well,” Bond said, giving Q his most charming smile.

“That's two guns lost and two expensive pieces of equipment destroyed on this mission, and I never actually gave you the equipment.” 

“Well, you’ve missed your opportunity to torture me.” 

“Have I?” Q’s voice dipped a little lower, as did his eyes. Bond glanced at Madeleine’s sleeping reflection in the rear view mirror, and then leaned over to rest a hand on Q’s thigh and claim a kiss from his Quartermaster. But the moment their lips met, a biting electric shock caused Bond to draw back with a yelp. Q grinned as Bond pressed a hand to his stinging lips. “That’s for the DB10,” Q said.

“Fair enough,” Bond grumbled. “Have you gotten the vengeance out of your system now, or should I keep my hands to myself?” 

Q seemed to deliberate his response carefully before he replied. “I’m satisfied. For now.” 

“I should hope not,” Bond said, and kissed Q properly, until he had the A.I. purring like his new cat. They kept the kiss brief, since Q was still piloting the helicopter, but it was enough to leave Bond a little dizzy when they drew apart, and he couldn’t blame it all on the blood loss.  

“It’s good to have you back, James,” Q murmured against his lips.

“Likewise,” Bond said. The smoking crater lay behind them, and the golden desert stretched out beneath them until it met the orange sunset ahead. “We killed a ghost today. And what a lovely day it is to be alive.” 

###

At the airport, Q tried to get Madeleine to return to London with them so she could be assigned a protective detail until they were certain she’d be safe from whatever was left of SPECTRE. “There may still be free agents and independently functioning subsidiaries like Quantum that would want to kill you because of what you know.” 

“Their secret is out,” she said. “And I trust the two of you will keep them too busy to worry about me. I must return to Austria to tie off loose ends, and then I’ll go somewhere new.” She smiled, like the prospect was exciting.  

“If you find yourself in need of employment, they always need new people in Psych,” Bond said. “Apparently, we’re rather hard on our shrinks.”

Madeleine shook her head. “I can’t go back to that life.”

“I understand,” Bond said. “It’s a brutal business.”

“It’s who you are,” Madeleine said. “But you’re the kindest killer I’ve met. You’re a good man, James.” As she glanced at Q, beneath it all she seemed to be saying, You may be damaged, but you’re not broken. “Take care,” she said, and walked out of his life as quickly a he'd managed to drag her into it. 

Back in London, Whitehall was in chaos. The moment they checked in with Moneypenny, she marched them into a harried-looking M’s office for a full debrief. “Please explain to me what the hell the two of you did in Morocco,” he greeted them. 

“We eliminated the head of SPECTRE, Ernst Stavro Blofeld, and his chief of intelligence, C, before they could launch their very own global surveillance system,” Bond said.

“Yes, that much I gathered from the explosion that was seen from space, and the fact that C, myself and the Home Secretary were in a meeting when it happened, and in the middle of it C stood up and made a full confession, then started singing ‘Daisy Bell’ before he collapsed on the floor. I take it you had something to do with that, Quartermaster.” 

Q shrunk back in his chair a little. “You’ve not read my after action report, sir?”

“Do I look like I’ve had time to read your forty-page AAR brimming with technical jargon? Summarise it for me. In plain English, if you please.”

So Q did. “SPECTRE was responsible for C’s development, and most of the private funding for Nine Eyes and the Centre for National Security came from SPECTRE subsidiaries. While Bond and Dr Swann were being held at Blofeld’s base, I hacked into C’s mainframe using the same method Silva used on me. Since C was built to my designs, and Blofeld almost certainly wouldn’t have allowed him the same level of autonomy that you’ve allowed me, I cracked open Blofeld’s admin file and used his override codes to control C and thereby control the base. That far out in the desert, they had to use powerful generators to keep C running. It wasn’t hard to start a chain reaction. But before C’s mainframe was destroyed, I managed to copy all of his files. Everything we need to know about SPECTRE, we now know it.”

“So you caused that explosion?” From where she stood beside M, Moneypenny discreetly held out her hand, and M grudgingly passed her a tenner. “Please don’t tell me you’re picking up bad habits from working with Bond.”

Q looked as though the thought had never occurred to him before, and that it represented something of an alarming prospect. “I hope not, sir, but I’ll make some adjustments in my learning protocols just to make sure.”

“See that you do. Now, is there anything you’ve overlooked?”

“No…?” Q said, confused by M’s leading tone. 

“The cat, Quartermaster. Why do you have a cat?” 

Q looked down at the cat in his lap as though he’d forgotten it was there, even though he’d been idly running his fingers through its fur through the entire debrief. “He was Blofeld’s cat, sir. I didn’t think he deserved to share his master’s fate, so I took him with us. I could use a cat in Q Branch, sir. I’ve noticed mice around the workshop. You know how they like subterranean buildings.”  

M nodded, recalling their stint in the bunkers. “That’s a good idea, Q. Have you given him a name?” 

“Watson,” Q replied.  

“Watson. Hm. It suits him,” M said. “May I?” 

Q lifted the little cat off his lap and set it on its feet on top of M’s desk, where it mewled plaintively at the head of MI6. M obligingly scratched behind its ears while Moneypenny reached over to stroke its back, and the happy cat wasn’t the only one to melt under their attentions. The stress seemed to ease from M’s face, and after a moment, he even smiled.

“I didn’t have you pegged as a cat person, sir,” Bond said.  

“I love cats,” M said blandly. “I’m even subscribed to Q’s Monday cat video emails. They’ve raised morale around the offices considerably. I particularly enjoyed the one last week with the cat sitting on the Roomba.”

“Thank you, sir,” Q said.  

“I liked the one with the kittens trying to climb the stairs,” Moneypenny enthused. “I thought I was going to die of laughter.” 

Q beamed. Bond wondered if all of MI6 had gone mad in his absence. M reluctantly returned Q his cat. “That’s all I need from the two of you for now. I’ll need you both at the top of your game tomorrow when we reestablish the 00 Programme to which this country and eight others owe the integrity of their covert intelligence.” 

“Yes, sir,” Bond and Q said in unison.

“And Bond, go to Medical. You’re bleeding through your shirt.”

Bond looked down at the red stains. “Damn,” he said. “It was Armani.” 

###

That night, Q lay beside Bond in bed, lightly tracing the stitched red seams on Bond’s chest. The moment Bond had stepped out of Medical he’d stripped off his bandages and tossed them in the nearest bin, but he wasn’t quite self-destructive enough to pull out his stitches. “These will leave scars,” Q said sadly. 

“In case you hadn’t noticed, I’ve been collecting those,” Bond said, taking Q’s hand in his and entwining their fingers. His skin was latticed with scars, and if he were being honest with himself, the ones he would mind the least would be the ones put there by Q’s hand.

“I should have been faster…”

Bond stopped Q’s mouth with a kiss. “It doesn’t matter. You found a way, like you always do.” 

“I suppose I have pulled your arse out of the fire a few more times than my job description strictly requires,” Q murmured. “You’re going to make me blow a fuse someday, I’m certain of it.” 

Bond chuckled and pulled his Quartermaster closer. He still marvelled at the fact that, far more often than not, Q chose to stay with him through the night, even though he didn’t sleep. Q had said that the purpose of him having a body in the first place was as a part of his user interface, and at night, when there was no one working in Q Branch, there was no reason for him to be there, either. So he might as well be here, with Bond. But Bond knew that the practical explanation was only half the truth. Q wouldn’t stay with him if he didn’t want to. Bond still didn’t quite know what he’d done to make Q want to stay, but whatever it was, he would keep doing it, even if it killed him.  

Bond didn’t expect to wake a few hours later to a knife at his throat, or a scream the next moment as the hand that held the knife was snatched and bent back until bones and tendons snapped. Blofeld looked about as surprised to see Q in Bond’s bed as the two of them were to see him. His right eye was gone with nothing but a snarled, fleshy scar in its place, but he was unmistakably alive.  

Q, in just his briefs, had Blofeld incapacitated with his cheek smashed against the floorboards in a matter of seconds, while Bond pulled on a pair of track pants and picked up the knife Blofeld had dropped on the bed. “You’re a hard man to kill, Blofeld,” he said.

Blofeld wheezed out breathless laughter under the weight of Q’s knee pressed between his shoulder blades. “You really can seduce anyone, can’t you? My father, Vesper, the late M and a host of other dead women, your fellow agents, Dr Swann, and even a cold-blooded A.I.. I must admit, I’m impressed.”

“No one knows he’s alive,” Q said with that rare, calculating coldness of his that reminded Bond of what Madeleine had said, that beneath the man was a machine. “He can disappear and no one will miss him.” 

“You're leaving it up to me?” Bond asked, surprised that Q would be willing to violate regulations so blatantly.

“He’s your family. And he deserves your worst.” 

“Finish it,” Blofeld snarled, straining to lift his head under Q’s unbreakable hold. 

Bond considered it. He couldn't deny that we wanted to carve that knife into Blofeld’s throat as Blofeld had intended to do to him. But the mission was over, and his license to kill wasn't a license to kill whomsoever he pleased. He may have been an assassin, but he wasn't a murderer. He wasn't like Blofeld. “Fucking hell,” Bond growled. “We’ve got to bring him in.”

Q nodded curtly, and knocked Blofeld out cold. 

###

An hour later, they were standing outside the holding cells while an interrogator worked Blofeld over. The night shifters were enjoying this rare moment of excitement in their otherwise uneventful routine, but M was not so happy to be called in at two in the morning. And because M was a firm believer in giving his misery company, Moneypenny was roving about with a murderous glint in her eye as well.

Meanwhile, Bond and Q were trying to be as unobtrusive as possible in the hope that they might be overlooked amidst the turmoil. But it didn’t take long for Moneypenny to find them, like a shark scenting blood in the water. “Gentlemen, I just need to get a few facts straight,” she said, by way of greeting. 

“I submitted a report,” Q offered meekly.  

“Yes, an uncharacteristically laconic one,” she replied. “It was rather like reading Hemingway. So, to flesh out the details, Blofeld broke into Bond’s flat just after one in the morning, held the knife we now have in forensics to Bond’s throat, at which point, Q, you were able to wrest the knife from Blofeld, breaking his wrist in the process, and subdue him for transport by means of a concussion. Is that correct?” 

“Er, yes… Should I have been gentler with him?” Q asked.  

“I wouldn’t worry about that,” Moneypenny said. “No one here is particularly concerned with his comfort. What you neglected to mention in your report was what you were doing at Bond’s apartment at one in the morning. Having a little sleepover, were we?” 

“I don’t sleep,” Q said.

“No, I thought not.”

After a beat of silence, Bond asked, “Are we in trouble?” 

“Not as of yet.” 

Bond frowned. “What does that mean?”

“It means that Q’s position in this agency is entirely unprecedented, so no regulations exist that govern his behaviour. Not even the employee handbook applies to him, since, even though Q receives a sizeable budget for his branch, he receives no actual salary, so he’s not technically an employee. That puts M in the position of having to make up regulations for him when situations arise. As for governing Q’s relationships, the prospect makes M uncomfortable, since Q is bound to follow procedures in a way that no one else is. So M has decided to err on the side of leniency. If it were anyone outside the agency, or a low-ranking employee, it would be problematic given Q’s profound connection to the agency itself, but a 00’s clearance level is sufficient to render that a nonissue. And the usual concerns about conflicts of interest don’t apply, since any loyalty to Q is, for all intents and purposes, loyalty to MI6, and it’s Q’s job to be protective of the 00s anyway, so it would be difficult for him to show preferential treatment. M has therefore come to the conclusion that, as long as this thing between you doesn’t affect either of your work, it may be allowed to continue.” 

“M’s not concerned that I might be…taking advantage of Q?” Bond asked carefully.

Moneypenny snorted. “I think we all know Q well enough by now to pity the poor bastard who ever tries to take advantage of him.”

Bond and Q shared a bewildered but relieved look. “Why isn’t M the one telling us this?” Q finally asked.  

“He has…old-fashioned sensibilities,” Moneypenny chose diplomatically, “and he’s rather flustered about the whole thing. He’d rather not have this conversation with you two, which is why I’m here.” She gave them her pleasant, administrative smile edged with the brittleness of sleep deprivation that threatened to fracture the façade at the least provocation. “Any more questions?” They were quick to answer in the negative, knowing better than to question mercy from above. “Good. Then go home. We’ve got a busy day ahead of us tomorrow.” 

In an organisation of spies, gossip spread quickly, and by the time Bond returned to HQ the next day, it seemed everyone was talking about the events of the night before. As he’d expected, he was on the receiving end of more than a few strange looks, but interestingly enough, he only got them from people who didn’t work with Q directly. Those who did were still curious or amused, but otherwise didn’t seem to think of his and Q’s relationship as some outrageous scandal. Bond hadn’t realised just how many people at MI6 had truly accepted Q as their peer until that day. And Q Branch, when Bond made it over there at the end of the day, was another matter entirely. The attitude among Q’s staff seemed almost celebratory. Bond had made a point of arriving after hours, when all of the Q-Branchers were usually gone, but that evening they were all still there, playing with the new cat and chattering happily about current projects and other, less work-related topics. Someone had even brought in cupcakes, ostensibly for catching Blofeld. Q, however, was nowhere to be seen. 

“Good evening, 007,” Aditya, Q’s chief of staff greeted him as he walked in. “Care for a cupcake?” 

“No, thanks,” Bond answered cautiously.

“I suppose you don't get a physique like that by eating cupcakes,” sighed Aditya, from where he was perched on his desk. “Is there something we can do for you? Or are you looking for the Quartermaster?” 

“The latter, if you please.” 

“He’s down in his workshop. Just so you know, 007,” Aditya said, leaning forward with a smile still on his face, “we’re all very happy for Q, as long as Q is happy.” He gave Bond a pointed look. “You may not think much of us nerds here in Q Branch, but we’re more dangerous than we look. If for any reason Q is unhappy, we’ll be the first ones you hear from. And possibly the last.” 

Before Bond could respond to that, Q’s voice crackled irritably through the overhead speakers. “Please refrain from threatening 00 agents, Aditya. It’s generally not conducive to one’s survival.”

Aditya grinned. “Yes, boss,” he called back. Then, to Bond, “You can go right down.”

Bond took the lift down to Q’s workshop, where he found the A.I. on his back beneath Bond’s old Aston Martin, welding the underside of a wheel arch to the body. Bond observed the process with interest, standing just outside the radius of sparks. After a few minutes, Q finished with the arch and turned off the arc welder. He extricated himself from beneath the car, pulled off his gauntlets and flipped up his visor. There was a smudge of motor oil on his face, and the coveralls he wore over his mesh turtleneck were filthy.  

“I’m surprised you’d dirty your hands with this kind of thing,” Bond remarked, reaching out to rub the oil from Q’s face with his thumb. "Don't you have robots for that?"

Q caught Bond’s hand as he lowered it and brought it back to his face, this time to his lips. Delicately, he flicked out his tongue to lap up the oil from Bond’s finger. “I like getting my hands dirty,” he said, and released Bond’s hand. “Besides, everyone upstairs is interminably cheery today, and there’s only so much of that my processors can handle.”

“They seem like good people,” Bond said, despite his own uneasiness around cheery types, especially those who remained that way after working at MI6.  

“They are,” Q said fondly. “My technicians, on the other hand, are awful people. They tried to ask me all sorts of personal questions today, as if I don’t know what I can and can’t do with my own hardware, and as if it’s any of their business anyway. I told them to shove it, of course.” 

Bond chuckled. “I would’ve liked to have seen that. Are you ready to leave?” 

Q had been scandalised when Bond had confessed to him recently that he’d never actually seen 2001: A Space Odyssey, and it just so happened that it was being shown in 70mm in Leicester Square that weekend, so Q had immediately purchased two tickets. The show started in an hour. Q quickly stripped out of his coveralls and pulled on a hideous parka that did nothing for his lovely figure. “Ready,” he said with an excited grin, and Bond sighed wistfully. “It’ll be a treat seeing it in seventy millimetre. They just don’t make movies like they used to.”

“You’re the future, Q," Bond teased. "I’m not sure you get to be nostalgic.”

Q swayed into him playfully as they took the lift up to the surface. “What can I say? I’m a sucker for the classics.” Bond leaned in and kissed him then. It tasted a little like motor oil, and a lot like perfection.  

###

Blofeld kept quiet in holding over the next few weeks, but Q had extracted all the information they needed from C to dismantle what remained of SPECTRE. The 00s were roving across the globe dispensing bullets and taking names. Meanwhile, the merger with MI5 had fallen through, the Joint Security Service had been gutted and restaffed at the highest levels, and MI6 was relocating yet again. After M had explained to the PM and the Home Secretary how the 00 Programme was singularly responsible for exposing the massive conspiracy, the programme had been reopened with immediate effect, and, as MI6 was in need of a new headquarters, they were presented with the state-of-the-art CNS building by way of recompense.

Q had elected to keep Q Branch in its off-site location, at least until the rest of the transition was complete, as moving all of his servers securely was a logistical nightmare he had no desire to repeat so soon. For the new building, he had salvaged the A.I. Bond had found in L’Americain, and upgraded her to run on the requisitioned Nine Eyes servers. She still wasn’t as advanced as Q, nor was she fully self-aware, but she now had the processing power and advanced programming to administer the new building while Q stayed focused on Q Branch. Q maintained access and administrative privileges over all her systems, making him sort of like her boss. That was why he called her R.  

M got C’s old office, and immediately remodelled it because, despite what C might have thought, glass walls really weren't well suited for the head of an organisation of spies. The first thing to go was C’s glass desk, which had strange cracks in it that Q denied knowing anything about when asked. Eventually, things settled down, and they made themselves a new home out of the spoils of a silent war.  

Bond went back into the field to help with the SPECTRE clean-up ops, beginning with Ms Human Trafficking. He had a meeting scheduled with her the next morning, posing as an investor interested in salvaging her operations from financial ruin and getting business booming again. That night, though, he lay back in bed in his hotel room in Munich and switched on his mobile. All agents’ phones now came equipped with a standard issue software package courtesy of Q Branch, and one of the less practical but more entertaining apps they’d all received was a Scrabble game in which the user could elect to play against the standard CPU, other MI6 agents, or Q himself. Of course, no one had managed to usurp Q’s throne as reigning champion yet, but that never stopped Bond from trying. He loved a challenge, after all.  

Hours later, when he lost his fourth game, he called it quits and signed off. He went to sleep with a smile, never having enjoyed losing so thoroughly before.