Equoid

Equoid

illustration by dave palumbo

After we drain our mugs of tea, Georgina shepherds us out into the farmyard to show us Lovecraft’s Nightmares: Police Rapid Pursuit Edition.

I am actually quite apprehensive at this point, you understand. I’ve read enough of old purple-prose’s deathbed confessions to Robert Bloch to be aware that unicorns are very unpleasant indeed. Even making allowances for Hipster Lovecraft’s tendency towards grisly gynophobic ranting, Freudian fever-fantasies, and florid exaggeration, we’re clearly about to meet something deeply creepy. Greg, for his part, is suitably subdued: even his beard hangs heavy, as if it senses a thunderstorm-drenching in the offing.

Only Georgina carries on as if everything is normal, and she at least has had time to get accustomed to the idea that there might be something nasty in one of the outbuildings. (Or standing next to the woodshed in a blanket with police high-visibility markings and a baton slung from the saddle. Whatever.) Also, Georgina has an ace up her sleeve—or maybe a baronetcy. She’s clearly of such rarefied breeding that she feels no need to take shit from anyone. If you live in Ruralshire, England, you meet people like this from time to time. Their blood runs blue with self-confidence. Where ordinary folks enjoy messing around with flower beds, these folks open their garden to the Queen one weekend a year. The garden in question is probably one that their sixteen-times-great grandfather received as grace and favor after unhorsing an uppity duke during some battle everyone except mediaeval historians have forgotten about. If you catch them ranting about immigrants, chances are they’re talking about those nouveaux-arrivistes, the Windsors. They dress in patched jeans, cable-knit sweaters, and green wellington boots; drive muddy Subarus or Land Rovers; own entire counties; and reduce police superintendents and MPs to helpless displays of forelock-tugging obeisance via some kind of weird reality distortion field.

Which probably makes Georgina the ideal person to look after a couple of fractious, under-trained, EMOCUM Units: because she takes no shit from anyone or anything, parasitic alien horrors from beyond spacetime included.

“I say! You there! EMOCUM Unit One! Stop trying to eat the vet at once! It’s rude!”

A stable is a stable is a stable, except when, instead of regular horses, it contains carnivorous Furies with glowing blue eyes—in which case, the wooden partitions are reinforced with welded steel tubes, the brightwork on the bridles is made of machined titanium, and it stinks like the carnivore enclosure at a zoo where they’ve been feeding the lions and tigers rotten offal laced with laxatives. The stench when Georgina opens the side door makes my stomach heave, and I have to stand outside and take a few deep breaths before I can dive into the miasma. Suddenly the legend of the labors of Hercules—and the cleaning of the Augean stables—makes perfect sense to me.

When I manage to get my rebellious gastrointestinal tract under control, I step into a scene worthy of a Hieronymus Bosch triptych. It’s like a stable, only reinforced, and equipped with devices that might in any other context be taken as instruments of torture, or at least evidence for the prosecution in a really serious animal abuse case: heavy shackles chained to concrete pillars, buckets of bloody intestines surrounded by clouds of buzzing flies, the omnipresent stench, humming fans and fluorescent lights. There are two horses present, one of whom appears to be leaning over the side of his stall and nibbling on Greg’s beard with intent to be over-familiar, if Greg’s indignant whimpering is taken into account. But then they notice my arrival. Both heads turn to focus on me. And I freeze, because they’re not horses.

Being the object of attention of a pair of equoids—pardon me, Police EMOCUM Units—is a chilling experience. Have you ever been to a zoo or wildlife sanctuary and attracted the attention of a lion, tiger, or other big cat? You’ll know what I’m talking about. Except equoids are horse-sized: two or three times as heavy as a (thankfully extinct) saber-toothed Smilodon, four times the weight of a modern Bengal tiger. They aren’t quite in maximum-size Tyrannosaur territory, but they’re not far off, and they’re hot-blooded carnivores. When they focus on you, you simply know that they’re wondering how you’ll taste. It’s a shuddery sensation deep in your gut that makes your balls try to climb up into your belly and hide (if you’re male), and your ringpiece contract (regardless of sex). As they look at me I freeze and break out in a cold fear-sweat. They freeze too, heads pointing at me like gun muzzles.

Lots of details come into focus: they have no horns. Their eyes are slightly too close together, moved frontally to give them better binocular vision than any normal horse. Their nostrils and mouths look normal at first, but then one of them wrinkles its lips and I see fangs, and the edges of the lips retract much further than is natural for a grass-eater, revealing dentition more like something out of a nightmare concocted by H. R. Giger than anything a horse doctor might recognize. Oh, and the eyes? I mentioned that they’re blue, and they pulse, but did I remember to say that they glow?

Resting on a stand next to one of the stalls is what passes for a saddle—one with a steel roll cage with wire mesh front and sides, and a police light bar on the roof. Obviously, riding an EMOCUM Unit is not a happy-fun experience. In point of fact, they exude danger so strongly that I’m wondering why the police didn’t ask the saddlery to add machine gun mounts to the rider’s safety cage—it couldn’t be any less subtle.

“Who the fuck are they planning on deploying these things against?” I ask hoarsely; “An invading Panzer division?” Visions of the carnage after Dudley deploys his EMOCUMs for crowd control at a friendly away match overload even my normally-overactive sense of humor. These beasts are no laughing matter: you don’t mock a main battle tank, either.

Grrrrr ...” rumbles equoid number one, inquisitively sizing me up for elevenses.

“I can’t be sure,” Georgina says thoughtfully, “but if I had to guess, I’d say they’ll come in right handy when the illegal immigrants and bloody hippies in Brighton rise up to burn all us right-thinking people down. But in the meantime, they manufacture a hundred pounds of shit every day, and I can’t even compost it!”

“Bastards,” Greg mumbles indistinctly, clutching his chin.

Do pay attention, I told you not to stand too close!” Georgina shakes her head. “They were a lot smaller when Jack dropped them off,” she adds. She bends down, indicating knee height. “Still vicious as a bear-baiting dog, but at least they were manageable then.”

“How long ago was that?” I ask, getting an even worse sinking feeling.

“About three weeks ago. They grow fast.”

 

MINISTRY OF DEFENCE

SECRET

Procurement Specification: M/CW/20954

Date of Issue: July 1st, 1940

Requirement for:

Charger, Heavy Cavalry Mounted:

Must replace existing mounts for Horse Guards and other remaining Army Cavalry operational units.

Mounts should be between 13 and 17 hands high, weight 650–900 lbs, broken to saddle.

Desirable characteristics:

Mounts should exhibit three or more of the following traits:

• Endurance in excess of 6 hours at 30 miles/hour over rough terrain (when ridden with standard issue saddle, rider, and kit)

• Endurance in excess of 30 minutes at 50 miles/hour on metaled road surfaces (when ridden with standard issue saddle, rider, and kit)

• Ability to see in the dark

• Ability to recognize and obey a controlled vocabulary of at least 20 distinct commands

• Invisible

• Bulletproof

• Carnivorous

• Flight (when ridden with standard issue saddle, rider, and kit)

State of requirement:

Unfilled

CANCELLED April 2nd, 1945

Reasons for cancellation:

(1) Impending replacement of horse-mounted cavalry in all future operational roles,

(2) Procurement and initial delivery of AEC Centurion Mk 1 Universal Battle Tank supersedes requirement M/CW/20954.

 

Sitting back in the passenger seat of Greg’s Landy, I massage my head as if I can somehow squeeze the aching contents into a semblance of order. “That was not what I was expecting.”

“I’ve known Georgina since she was a wee thing, competing in dressage.” Greg huffs for a moment, then produces a pencil case from the pile of debris under the driver’s seat. He extracts what I initially mistake for a gigantic brown spliff. Then he produces a weird multitool, with which he amputates one end, and sets fire to the stump of the reeking roll-up.

“Careful with that spliff, Eugene,” I start before I realize that it’s actually a cigar, so old and foul that I cough up half a lung before I get the door open and scramble out. “Jesus, Greg!”

“Sorry, young feller.” He’s clearly unrepentant, but I notice that he’s sucking on it like it’s an asthma inhaler, and his other hand—the one grasping his walking stick—is shaking slightly. “I needs my weed after witnessing a scene like that.”

“I am going to report this,” I say heavily. “The EMOCUMs, I mean. This is way above my pay grade.”

“Oh, really? I have never in all my days seen one of you people back down from a red-eyed abomination with too many tentacles—”

“You’ve never seen us pick a fight with the police, either, have you?” I snap at him, then walk it back: “Sorry, but we work with the boys in blue, they’re not normally the subject of our investigations.” I cough, trying to clear my lungs. They’ve been taking a battering today, between the fetid aroma of carnivore shit in the stables and Greg’s diesel-smoked stogie. “Let me think. Okay, the EMOCUMs aren’t going anywhere right now. They can wait for backup.” (Assuming they’re not actually one of our projects—one that Iris and I don’t know about because we’re not cleared for it. Crazier things have happened. In which case double-checking everything discreetly is the order of the day.) “But, hmm. What do you know about Inspector Dudley? Because he’s the next link in the chain back to wherever they came from . . .”

The beard shakes like a bush in a hail-storm. “Sorry, lad, I can’t help you. I deal with the likes of Georgina, or Sergeant Irving who runs the station stables in East Grinstead, not the organ grinder hisself.”

“Who was conveniently present when we came to visit, and then slipped out. Oh shit.”

“What’s the matter?” Greg takes another epic lungful of vaporized bunker fuel, then his eyes wrinkle up. “You don’t think—”

“When you sent a memo requesting a liaison visit from Capital Laundry Services, how exactly did you go about it?” I ask. “Did you by any chance ask someone else to send us an email? Someone like—”

“Gosh, now that you mention it—” He jabs his fingers knuckle-deep into his beard and tugs—“I’d ha’ asked the fragrant Melissa to write to you! But I don’t see—”

I roll my eyes. “Does Melissa have a boyfriend, by any chance?” I ask. “Who might happen to be a member of the local constabulary? Or a father or mother or sister or best pal from her school days, or something? Someone who might know about the EMOCUM procurement program?”

“Ooh, I see where you’re going.” Greg sighs, then reaches down and stubs out his vile cigar on the underside of his boot. He bags up the remains: I shudder slightly and climb back into the Land Rover’s passenger seat. My stunned nasal passages can’t make any sense out of their environment, but my pupils dilate and my pulse slows thanks to all the nicotine hanging in the air. “You’re wondering where it all came from?”

“That’s the key question,” I agree, fastening my seat belt and pulling the door closed. “Where did Jack Dudley procure a handful of juvenile unfertilized female unicorns? And who put the idea into his head? Come to think of it, where are those bloody snails coming from? There’s got to be a fertilized female in the sessile spawning phase of its life cycle somewhere hereabouts. It’s one thing for some idiot mounted police officers to think that Baba Yaga’s herd will be good for crowd control duty, but if there’s any leakage—”

“I’ve got an inkling, but you’re not going to like it. This could be the start of a large-scale outbreak,” Greg says heavily. “A full infestation. Equoids are r-strategy spawners—” he catches my blank look and backs up. “Most organisms follow one of two types of reproductive strategy, young feller. K-selection—few offspring, lots of energy devoted to keeping them alive: that’d be us shaved apes, heh. And then there’s r-selection: spew out thousands or millions of tiny spawn and hope some of them survive. Equoids do that, they spawn like pollen, or flies, or frogs . . . but they’re also parasites that co-opt a host species and use it to nurture their brood. Anyway, the things in the barn, the adult sterile females, they’re unusual. And that’s a warning flag. If I had ter guess what’s going on I’d figure there’s a breeding queen out there who’s worked out a low-cost way to help her spawn make it to adulthood. Something new, not just a single hypnotized girlie. Not sure what, but if we don’t find the queen in time we’re going to be neck deep in unicorns in these parts.” He trails off into a grim and thoughtful silence.

“I’m going to phone home for support,” I say. “Then while they’re getting the circus loaded, I’ll go pay the inspector a visit. I want to establish the facts on the ground, find out where he’s getting the horses from.”

“And what then? If you can’t figure it out?”

“Whatever I find, I’m going to boot it upstairs then take a back seat. Like I said, this is well above my pay grade . . .”

 

I’m fairly sure that by this point in my report, you, gentle reader, will doubtless be raising a metaphorical hand, because the questions have been piling up thick and fast and you are reaching the end of your patience. So let me try to set your mind at ease with a quick run through the list of Frequently Asked Questions:

 

Q: Unicorns? Are they really this bad?

A: Yes. I wish I was making this up. Unfortunately old HPL’s experience in his childhood sweetheart’s back yard is about par for the course where those creatures are concerned. We are not in Unicorn School™: The Sparkling territory here. Or even My Little Pony. (Well, except for the Magic bit.)

Q: But what about the unfertilized ones?

A: It’s the parasitic life cycle in a nutshell. Parasites, especially those with complex gender dimorphism and hypercastrating behavior (that diverts a host species’ reproductive energies in service to their own goals) generally have some interesting failure modes. Among unicorns, if they don’t mate young they tend not to mate at all—it’s kind of hard for a foot-long cone snail to climb onto the forehead of something that resembles a carnivorous horse, isn’t it? Especially without getting eaten. So the female grows to adult stature but is infertile. What you get is an equoid: an obligate meat-eater the size and shape of a horse, with the appetite of three Bengal tigers and the table manners of a hungry great white shark.

Q: Why haven’t I heard about these already?

A: You probably have. There are plenty of legends about them—the mares of Diomedes, the Karkadann of Al-Biruni, the herd of Baba Yaga—but they don’t show up very often in the historic record. This is because people who try to domesticate mature equoids usually end up as equoid droppings.

Q: But what if you get them young?

A: Good thinking! If you get them young you can semi-domesticate them. But to get them young, one has to locate a fertile adult in the sessile, spawning phase. (And survive the experience.)

Q: What are we supposed to do about them?

A: The sterile adult equoids themselves aren’t necessarily a problem: they’re basically dangerous but dumb. Georgina Edgebaston has been training two of them as EMOCUM Units, but they’re under control. As long as she doesn’t do anything stupid, like hitting one on the forehead with a giant venomous land snail, she’s probably got them contained. I’m much more worried about where they’re coming from. Equoids don’t generally gambol freely on the Southern downs, because the trail of half-eaten children and screaming parents tends to attract attention. This means that there’s probably a nest not too far away. And it is absolutely essential that Greg and I locate the nest so that it can be dealt with appropriately.

Q: The nest—what does “appropriate” mean in this context?

A: Let me give you a clue: I start by making some phone calls which, by way of a liaison officer or two, induce the police to evacuate the surrounding area. Then what appears to be a Fire Brigade Major Incident Mobile Command HQ vehicle arrives, followed by a couple of pumps which are equipped to spray something rather more toxic and inflammable than water. Finally, the insurance loss adjusters turn up.

That’s what is supposed to happen, anyway. If it doesn’t, Plan B calls for the Army to loan us a couple of Apache Longbow helicopter gunships. But we try not to go there; it’s difficult and expensive to cover up an air strike, and embarrassing to have to admit that Plan A didn’t work properly.

Q: You said equoids aren’t intelligent. But what was all that Yog-Sothoth stuff HPL was gibbering about at the end? What about the mummy-thing—

A: Don’t you worry your little head about that, it’s above your security clearance. Just take it from me that everything is under control!

 

After I phone Iris, to deliver the unwelcome news that this smoke appears to be associated with an ignition source, I continue my investigation by going in search of the inspector.

There is an old Victorian police station in East Grinstead, complete with the antique blue gas lamp over the main entrance and a transom window (no longer used) just inside the lobby door. It also has a pair of tall gates that open into a courtyard. It currently does duty as a car park for the uniform cars and snatch vans, but one wall of the courtyard is still lined with stalls for the horses, and they’re in good repair.

I am a civilian, casually dressed. I do not enter the courtyard, but instead walk up to the public entrance, past the information posters (COPPER THEFT: ARE YOU TAKING YOUR LIFE IN YOUR HANDS?), and in to the reception area.

I stand in front of the desk for almost a minute as, sitting behind it, PC McGarry (number 452) explains the correct protocol for helping scallies fall downstairs in a single-story nick to Constable Savage, a high flyer who has been transferred from Birmingham to expand out his résumé and help bring policing in Ruralshire into the twentieth century. From his shifty, impatient posture it’s obvious that he’d much rather be out on the street monstering chavs. Finally I grow impatient and clear my throat. PC McGarry continues to drone on, obviously enjoying his pulpit far too much to stop, so I pull out my warrant card.

“’Ere, Fred, don’t you want to ask this gentleman what he’s—” Savage’s eyes are drawn to focus on my card wallet and his voice slows to a stop. “What?”

“Bob Howard, Capital Laundry Services. I’d like to speak to Inspector Dudley.” I smile assertively. Cops are trained to de-prioritize the unassertive. “If I can have a minute of your attention?”

PC McGarry glances at me, clearly irritated by the interruption. “We don’t need any dry-cleaning—”

I focus on him, borrowing the full weight of my ID card’s glamor: “Never said you did, mate. I need to see Inspector Dudley. As soon as possible, about a matter of some considerable importance. He won’t thank you for delaying me.”

McGarry doesn’t want to yield, but my warrant card isn’t going to let him ignore me. “What’s it about?” He demands.

“DEFRA want all the vaccination records for the new rides he’s commissioning for the mounted unit,” I deadpan. “I just missed him at Edgebaston Farm, but the long arm of the livestock law has a way of catching up.”

McGarry eyeballs me dubiously, then picks up the phone. “Inspector? There’s a Mr. Hobson from DEFRA down here in reception, says he needs to talk to you—something about Edgehill Farm? No sir, I don’t. Yes, sir.” He puts the phone down. “You. The inspector will be down in a minute.” He points at a chair. “Have a seat.”

“Don’t mind if I do.” I ignore the chair and walk over to the noticeboard, to read the public information posters while I wait. (STRANGER DANGER! and REMEMBER TO LOCK YOUR DOORS AND WINDOWS: RURALSHIRE REGULARLY GETS VISITED BY TOWNIE SCUM vie for pride of place with IS YOUR NEIGHBOR EMPLOYING ILLEGAL IMMIGRANTS? It’s like their public relations office moonlights from the BNP.)

I don’t have to wait long. I hear footsteps, and as I turn, I hear a familiar voice. “You. What do you want?” Inspector Dudley looks somewhat more intimidating in uniform, and he was plenty intimidating before. He stares down at me coldly from behind the crooked bridge of his nose. Luckily I don’t intimidate quite as easily as I used to.

“Perhaps we should talk in your office?” I suggest. “It’s about the EMOCUM Units you’ve requisitioned.” I’m still holding my warrant card, and I spot his eyes flickering towards it, then away, as if he’s deliberately pretending he hasn’t noticed it.

“Come with me,” he says. I follow the inspector past the reception area and into the administrative guts of the station: whitewashed partition walls, doors with numbers and frosted glass panels. The cells are presumably downstairs. He heads through a fire door and up a narrow staircase, then into an office with a single desk, a couple of reception chairs, and a window with a nice view of the Victorian railway station frontage. “Who are you, and what are you doing with that old fraud Scullery?” He demands.

“I’m from a department you probably haven’t heard of before and mustn’t speak about in public.” I shove my card right under his nose, where he can’t miss it. “The, ah, EMOCUM Units were not authorized by my department. As we have licensing and oversight responsibility for all such assets, I want to know where you heard about them, where you got them from, and how you’re planning on deploying them.” I smile to defuse the sting of my words. “All the paperwork and oversight reports you were making an end-run around have just caught up with you, I’m afraid.”

“But the—” He sits down behind the desk, and something in his expression changes. A moment of openness passes, like the shadow of a cloud drifting across a hillside. His expression is closed to me. “What are you doing here? Everything is under control. There’s no problem at all.”

“I’m afraid I disagree.” I keep my warrant card in plain sight. “Tell me: where did you source the EMOCUM Units? And who came up with the proposal in the first place?”

“It seemed like a goodoodood . . .” His eyes are drawn to the card, even as he stutters: “It was my idea! I’m sure it was. It seemed like such a good idea, so it must have been mine, mustn’t it?”

“Really?”

“I thought-ought—” he’s fighting the geas on the warrant card as hard as I’ve ever seen from anyone—“we-e should have a major capability upgrade! Yes, that’s it! The Air Support Unit get all the attention these days, them bleeding flyboys! Their choppers can’t manage more than four hours’ airborne patrol time in 24 hours, and you can’t use ’em to make arrests or for crowd control, but they suck the money out of my budget. It’s us or them! Do you have any idea how much it costs to operate a mounted patrol? To put eight officers on saddles at a match I need twelve mounts because horses aren’t like cars, oh no they’re not—cars don’t suffer from poll evil or grass sickness—and I need at least as many officers as rides. We need civilian auxiliaries because stables don’t muck themselves out, on-call vets, and six bales of hay a day. Not to mention the ongoing maintenance bill and depreciation on our motorized horse box and the two trailers, plus the two pickups to tow them.”

He begins to foam at the mouth as he winds up to a fine rant about the operational costs of maintaining a mounted unit: “In the last financial year my unit cost nearly six hundred thousand pounds, in order to provide three thousand six hundred mounted officer-shifts of six hours’ duration each! The fly-boys cost eight hundred and twenty in return for which we get eleven hundred airborne hours a year and they are weaseling to have my unit decommissioned and our entire budget diverted to running a second Twin Squirrel. I ask you, is that a good use of public funds? Or, I ask you this in all sincerity, would it be better spent on equipping our mounted officers with the best steeds for getting the job done?

The inspector slams his open palm down on his desk, making the wilting begonias jump. He glares at me, the whites of his eyes showing. His pupils are dilated and his cheeks are flushed. He gasps for breath before continuing. I watch, somewhere midway between concern and fascination. This is not business as usual. What I’m witnessing is symptomatic of an extremely powerful occult compulsion that has been applied to the inspector. His words are powerful: I feel my ward vibrating on its chain, warming up painfully where it lies close to the skin of my chest.

“It is our duty to protect the public and enforce the Law of the Land! Duty, honor, courage in the service of Queen and Country! The Queen! I swore an oath to uphold the Law and I will uphold it to the best of my ability! That means enhancing our capabilities wherever possible, striving for maximum efficiency in the delivery of mounted police capabilities! We’re barely keeping our heads above water in the face of a deluge of filth coming up from the big cities, darkies and gippos and yids and hippies and, and—Law and Order! We must maintain Law and Order! The Queen is coming! The Queen is coming! Equipping my division with EMOCUM Units will result in a great increase in our speed, mobility, and availability to enforce the Law of the Land in the coming strugg-ugg-uggle against-against the forces of darknesssss—”

His left cheek begins to twitch, and he starts to slur his words. I hastily flip my warrant card upside-down, then pull it back. The pressure from the ward pushing against my sternum subsides as inspector Dudley slumps sideways, gasping for breath. For a few horrified seconds I’m afraid he’s having a stroke: but the twitching subsides and he straightens slowly, leaning against the back of his chair.

“What was I saying?” He asks, looking around hesitantly, as if puzzled to find himself in his own office. “Who are you?”

I take a gamble and hold up my warrant card: “Bob Howard. Who I am is unimportant. You don’t need to know. But—” I lean forward—“where did you get the EMOCUM Units from?”

“I, I asked around.” He sounds vague and disoriented. “They were just there when I needed them.” His eyes roll back momentarily: “Sent by the Q-Queen,” he adds conversationally, in a tone that makes my skin crawl. He abruptly blinks back to full consciousness: “I don’t know where they came from. Why?”

I try again. “Where did the requirements document for the EMOCUM Units come from?”

“I, uh, I’ve got it somewhere. There.” He points a shaky finger at the grubby PC on one side of his desk. “It took ages to write—”

“Would you mind opening the file for me?” I ask. “In Word.” I tense up, then haul out my phone as he reaches for the keyboard. It’s a flashy new Palm Treo, and I’ve got some rather special software on it that can scan for certain types of occult hazard (in conjunction with the special-issue box of bluetooth-connected sensors in my jacket pocket). I punch up a utility (icon: this is your brain on drugs, superimposed over a red inverted pentacle) and aim my phone’s camera at his monitor as he pokes unsteadily at the keyboard.

The inspector is so oblivious to my presence that I might as well not be here—except when he’s forced to pay attention to me by my warrant card. This is, in itself, a serious warning sign: he’s meant to be one of ours, dammit, and a Laundry warrant card is enchanted with a geas that compels subjects to recognize the lawful bearer as a superior officer in their own department. (Except within the Laundry itself, obviously—otherwise we could get into horrifying recursive loops of incrementally ascending seniority: imagine the consequences if this affected Accounting and Payroll!) Anyway, if Jack Dudley’s mind is shying away from me, then someone has probably tried to install countermeasures against other adepts’ glamors. Which is really bad news, because unicorns don’t do subtle like that.

So I’m paying more attention to my phone—which is scanning for threat patterns—than to the screen the inspector is squinting at, when the familiar logo of Microsoft Office flashes up for a few seconds, followed in rapid succession by a window onto hell.

 

MINISTRY OF DEFENCE

SECRET

Procurement Specification: R/NBC/6401

Date of Issue: April 2nd, 1970

Requirement for:

Proposal for Strategic Deterrent (class: alternative, non-nuclear) Type: Anthropic Eschatological Weapons System, Air-Dropped

In view of the increase in popular support for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, it might at some future date be deemed politically expedient for the UK to decommission its strategic nuclear capability in the form of the Resolution-class submarines and their associated Polaris A3 SLBMs. However, the UK’s strategic deterrent posture must be maintained at all costs in the face of the Soviet threat.

Chemical weapons are not fit for purpose in this role due to difficulty in ensuring delivery in adequate quantity. Conventional biological weapons (weaponized smallpox, plague, etc.) are not fit for purpose in this role due to the impossibility of immunizing the entire UK population and also of guaranteeing efficacy in the face of an enemy biowar vaccination defense program.

This requirement is for proposals for unconventional macrobiological weapons that are suitable for delivery by manned bomber/stand-off bomb (e.g. Blue Steel), which must undergo post-delivery amplification and inflict strategic-level damage on the enemy, which are not susceptible to pharmaceutical or medical defense, and which are self-limiting (unlikely to give rise to pandemics).

Desirable characteristics:

AEWS-AD must be storable, long-term (temperature/humidity constraints: see schedule A) without maintenance for up to 5 years.

Must be containerized in suitable form for mounting and delivery via WE.177 bomb casing or alternative equivalent structural unit compatible with bomb bay and wing hardpoints on all current operational strike aircraft and the forthcoming Panavia Tornado IDS.

Must be sterile/non-self-replicating or must replicate once, giving rise to infertile spawn.

A strike delivering a single AEWS-AD must be capable of depopulating a first-rank capital city (population ablation coefficient: at least 25%) in less than 24 hours.

AEWS-AD should additionally have three or more of the following traits: carnivorous, venomous, mind-controlling, invisible, pyrogenic, flying, basilisk gaze, bullet-resistant, radiation-tolerant for up to 20,000 REM (single pulse) or 1000 rads/hr (fallout), invulnerable to class 6 or lower occult induction algorithms.

State of Requirement

Null and void.

CANCELLED April 3rd, 1970

by Order of Cabinet Office in accordance with recommendation of SOE (X Division) Operational Oversight Audit Committee

Reasons for cancellation order:

The risk of unintentional containment violation or accidental release during the life of such a weapons system is low but nevertheless unacceptably high.

Deployment of AEWS-AD, whether in accordance with legal national command authority or otherwise, would constitute a violation of Section IV.B of the Benthic Treaty. This would deliver a guaranteed casus belli to BLUE HADES.

The probability of BLUE HADES retaliation for a violation of S.IV.B leading to the total extinction of the population of the British Isles is 100%, within the limits of error. This applies to the Republic of Ireland, the Isle of Man, the Channel Isles, and Great Britain and Northern Ireland. But this is not the limit of the extent of casualties from such a strike.

The probability of a BLUE HADES strike resulting in the total extinction of the entire human species exceeds 50%.

It is considered that attempting to develop a weapons system in the same category as AEWS-AD is so inherently destabilizing that such activities may be seen as justifying a pre-emptive strike by other human governments. Far from securing the realm against the threat of Soviet nuclear aggression, this project might actually provoke it.

(Addendum: SOE (X Division) OOAC recommends that it would be in the nation’s best interests if all the members of the committee that drafted R/NBC/6401 could be induced to take early retirement; thereafter they should be denied access to sharp instruments. We are serious about this. Not since RARDE’s BLUE PEACOCK project of 1954 to 1958 has this oversight body been asked to evaluate such an unedifying, if not actually insane, proposal.)

 

While I’m glancing down at my smartphone’s two-inch screen, inspector Dudley is helping me with my enquiries by opening up the Microsoft Word file containing the requirements document he remembers drafting for replacing the Sussex constabulary’s remaining horses with unicorn spawn—sorry, EMOCUM Units. What could possibly go wrong with that?

Well, I find out as the file opens. Because Jack Dudley may remember writing it, but unless he’s a skilled battle magus as well as a police inspector, he sure as hell didn’t write the Visual BASIC macro that fires up the instant the text appears on screen.

It all gets very messy, very fast.

Because I’m staring at my Treo instead of the PC, I feel it vibrate in my hand as the screen flashes red: THAUM OVERFLOW. I hear a loud whining buzz from the desktop, like a mosquito the size of a Boeing 737, then the unmistakable screech and click of a hard disk shredding its platters: funny, I didn’t know you could do that in software any more, I just have time to register, as my ward heats up painfully. A second later, Inspector Dudley moans. It’s a familiar, extremely unwelcome kind of moan, and it sends shivers up my spine because I hear it late at night when I’ve been working overtime, on a regular basis. It’s the inhuman sound of a soul-sucked husk that hungers for brains, just like the Residual Human Resources on the Night Watch.

This isn’t the first time I’ve seen this happen. You wouldn’t believe the scope for mischief that the Beast of Redmond unintentionally builds into its Office software by letting it execute macros that have unlimited access to the hardware. I remember a particular post-prandial PowerPoint presentation where I was one of only two survivors (and the other wasn’t entirely human). However, this is the first time I’ve seen a Word document eat a man’s soul.

I straighten up and take two steps backwards. The doorknob grinds against my left buttock: dammit, why couldn’t the door open outwards? I raise my phone and hastily stroke the D-pad, tracking down the app I need . . . and the fucking thing crashes on me. Oh joy. PalmOS: always there right when you least need it.

The inspector is rising from his seat, clumsily pushing himself away from his desk. His movements are jerky if not tetanic. He moans softly, continuously, and as he turns his head towards me I register the faint greenish glow in his eyes. I grasp the doorknob and freeze, a train-wreck of thoughts piling into each other in my mind’s eye.

The CrossRail commuter train leaving Platform One is scared shitless because it’s trapped in an office with a genuine no-shit mind-eating zombie, and the law of skin-to-skin contagion means that if the thing touches me I stand to literally lose my mind. This is mitigated slightly by the Sprinter to Crewe on Platform Two, which reminds me that I’m wearing a ward, so I might actually survive, if the zombie doesn’t simply double down on my throat or drag me in front of the PC monitor, which is presumably still displaying the same summoning grid that ate Inspector Dudley’s mind. The Gatwick Express steaming along the track between Platforms Four and Five at a non-stop ninety miles per hour sounds its air-horn to remind me that if I cut and run I will be leaving the aforementioned zombie unrestrained in a target-rich environment, namely a Ruralshire cop shop where their policy on undead uprisings is to order out for beer and pizza while watching Shaun of the Dead in the station house lounge once a month. And the train speeding out of Trumpton with a cargo of cocaine (thank you, Half Man Half Biscuit) is merely there to remind me that I still don’t know where the spawn of the unicorn are coming from . . .

“Raaarrrrh.” Inspector Dudley clears his throat and takes an experimental lurch towards me. I dodge sideways behind his desk, pocketing my phone in order to free up a hand, and simultaneously yank the power cord out of the back of his PC. (Rule 1: preserve the evidence, even if the hard disk has self-destructed and the file you want is loaded with a lethally contagious mind-virus.) “Raaargh?” The inspector calls.

I pick up the heavy old tube monitor and heft it in both arms. “Catch,” I say, and throw it at the zombie.

I wince at the crunch as twenty kilos of lead-glass CRT impacts the already-broken nose. Dudley staggers and topples backwards: zombies, possessed as they are by a minimally-sentient and rather corporeally challenged Eater, tend not to be fast on their feet. Then the door opens.

“Inspector?” chirps Constable Savage. Then he spots me. I see the ten-watt bulb flicker fitfully to life above his head as he instantly jumps to the wrong conclusion. “Oi! You! Get on the floor! You’re nicked!”

He begins to draw his baton as I back away, around the desk, closer to the window. I reach for my warrant card: “You’re making a mist—”

“GRAAAAH!” Roars the inspector, rising from the floor, CRT clutched to his chest. Oh look, he appears to have a nose-bleed, gibbers the shunting engine in Siding Three. You’re in for it now.

“Inspector?” Asks Constable Savage, “are you all right?”

There’s a chime from my pocket, the beautiful sound of a Treo announcing that it has rebooted successfully. “He’s a zombie!” I yell. “Don’t let him touch you! His touch is death—”

Ignoring me, Savage reaches out towards the inspector: “’Ere, let me look at the no-o-o—”

Great. Now I’m facing two of them.

If my boss Angleton was here this wouldn’t be a problem: one glance from him is sufficient to quell zombie brain-eater and union convenor alike. But I’m not some kind of superpowered necromancer, I’m just a jobbing sysadmin and applied computational demonologist. About the only card I’m holding is—

Well, it’s worth a try.

I raise my warrant card and rehearse my rusty Old Enochian: “Guys! I am your lawful source of authority! Obey me! Obey me!” (Or words to that effect.) It’s a horrible language, sounds like gargling TCP around razor blades. But it gets their attention. Two heads turn to face me. Their eyes glow even in daylight, the luminous worms of light twirling inside them. “Proceed to the stable block! Enter the first empty stall! Await your queen! Await your queen! Your queen is coming and she must find you there!” Then in English I add, “Law and Order! Law and Order!”

The last bit comes out like “lawn order,” but repeating the catchphrase deeply embedded in what’s left of the inspector’s brain by the geas that had him in its grip seems to do the trick.

“Graah?” He says, with a curious rising interrogative note. Then he turns to face the door. “Ssss . . .” Clumsy fingers scrabble with the smooth surface of the old doorknob. The door inches open. I hope to hell nobody else is about to stumble into them on their way to the field-expedient cells. I really don’t want this spreading any further. The fear-sweat in the small of my back is cold and slimy, and I feel faint and nauseous.

Constable Savage lost interest in his baton the moment he touched the inspector: I pick it up and follow them as they lurch and stumble down the staircase and out past the vacant front desk. As we pass the gents’ toilet I hear a musical tinkling: Phew. Presumably that’s McGarry on his break, in which case there may be survivors. With the odd moan, hiss, and growl, the two zombies cross the courtyard, lurching off the side of a parked riot van, and head towards an empty horse stall. I nip in front of them to unbolt the gate and open it wide. There’s nothing inside but a scattering of hay, and the shamblers keep on going until they bounce off the crumbling brick wall at the back—by which time I have the gate shut and bolted behind them.

I pull out my Treo and speed-dial the Duty Officer’s desk back at the New Annexe. “Bob Howard speaking,” I say, “I’m in the Central Police Station in East Grinstead and I’m declaring a Code Amber, repeat, Code Amber. We have an outbreak, outbreak, outbreak. Code words are EQUESTRIAN RED SIRLOIN. I have two Romeo Hotel Romeo, outbreak contained, and a hot box on the second floor. I need plumbers, stat.”

Then I head back up the stairs to the ex-inspector’s office to secure the PC with the lethally corrupt file system, and await the arrival of the Seventh Cavalry, all the while sweating bullets.

Because I may have taken two pawns, but the queen is still lurking in the darkness at the edge of the chess-board . . .

 

MINISTRY OF DEFENCE

SECRET

Procurement Specification: N/SBS/007

Date of Issue: September 31st, 2002

Requirement for:

Proposal for system to support Special Boat Service underwater operations in the Arabian Gulf during Operation Telic.

S Squadron SBS, in accordance with orders from the Director Special Forces, is tasked with securing [REDACTED] on the coastline of Umm Quasr and Hajjam Island, and suppressing the operational capability of the Sixth Republican Guard Fast Motor Boat and Martyrdom Brigade to sortie through the Shatt Al-Basra and the Khawr az-Zubayr Waterway to threaten Coalition naval forces in Kuwaiti waters.

This requirement is for proposals for unconventional macrobiological weapons that operate analogously to the Ceffyl Dŵr, Capaill Uisce and Kelpie of mythology. These organisms are amphibious but preferentially aquatic, carnivorous, aggressive, intelligent, and reputed to drag sailors under water and drown them. It is believed that with suitable operant conditioning and control by S Squadron troopers such organisms can provide a useful stand-off capability to augment the capabilities of underwater special forces operating in a dangerous high-intensity littoral combat environment . . .

State of Requirement

Null and void.

CANCELLED October 13th, 2002

by Order of Cabinet Office in accordance with recommendation of SOE (X Division) Operational Oversight Audit Committee

Reasons for cancellation order:

1. Baby-eating aquatic faerie equines do not exist.

2. Even if they did exist, it is worth noting that Arab folklore and mythology does not emphasize fear of death by drowning; consequently the psywar potential of this proposal is approximately zero.

3. Operational requirement can be met through already-existing conventional means.

(Addendum: Going forward, SOE (X Division) OOAC recommends a blanket ban on all procurement specifications that involve supernatural equine entities (SEEs). For reference, see EQUESTRIAN RED SIRLOIN. This keeps coming up like a bad penny at least once every couple of decades, and it’s got to stop.)

 

Forty minutes pass. I while away the time by making panicky phone calls to our INFOSEC desk—how the hell did that macro virus get into the file on the inspector’s PC? I love the smell of an enquiry in the morning—while I wait in Inspector Dudley’s office, sweating bullets. Finally I hear the heart-warming song of two-tone sirens coming down the high street. It’s not the warbling war-cry of police blues and twos, but the regular rise and fall of a fire engine—which means my prayers have been answered, and the Plumbers are coming, in the shape of an OCULUS truck.

From the outside it looks like a bright red Fire Service Major Incident Command vehicle, but it’s not crewed by Pugh, Pugh, Barney McGrew, Cuthbert, Dibble, and Grub—this one’s occupants are the away team of 21 Territorial SAS, and they’re more likely to start fires than extinguish them. I watch as it drives nose-first into the police station car park and stops. Doors open and half a dozen wiry-looking guys dressed head to foot in black leap out. They’re armed to the teeth. One of them looks up at me and I wave. While I’ve been waiting I filled in the Duty Officer back at HQ with as much as I knew. Now Sergeant Howe and his men fan out and move through the nearly-empty police station. Two of them dash for the stall where I stashed the shamblers, carrying a field exorcism kit in a duffle bag. The others . . . I hear doors banging and much shouting as they go through the station like a tide of Ex-Lax.

I move to the desk and sit down behind it facing the door, making sure to keep my hands in view, and hold up my warrant card. I sit like this for approximately thirty seconds before it crashes open and I find myself staring up the business end of an MP5K. “Oops, sorry sir. Be right back.” The MP5K and its owner disappear as I try to get my heart rate back down to normal.

Finally, after another minute, the door opens again—this time more sedately. “Hello, Bob!” It’s Alan Barnes, chipper and skinny, with slightly hyperthyroidal eyes. He bounces into the room, head swiveling. “Nice pair of shamblers you’ve penned up down there. What do I need to know?”

Alan is a captain in that corner of the Army that we work with when this sort of situation comes up: namely one particular squadron of the Territorial SAS, a peculiar special forces unit composed of reservist veterans who have seen more and stranger things than most of their colleagues would credit with existing. His crew of merry pranksters are securing the premises as we speak. “There’s a file on this computer,” I say, patting the box on the desk. “You heard about the business in Darmstadt with the infected PowerPoint presentation?” He nods. “Well, there’s a Word document with an infected startup macro on this thing’s hard disk. Which it attempted to scribble on when the inspector—in the stables right now—tried to open it for me.” He nods again, looking thoughtful. “This needs Forensics to go over it. We’re looking for a requirements document which seems to have come out of nowhere, and which persuaded Inspector Dudley that it was all his own idea to replace the horses in his mounted unit with, ah, EMOCUM Units. Otherwise known as the subjects of EQUESTRIAN RED SIRLOIN.”

Alan has a notepad. “How do you spell that?” He murmurs politely.

I fill him in as fast as possible. “DEFRA spotted it, there’s an emergent cuckoo’s nest down on Edgebaston Farm but the farm owner doesn’t seem to be infected—” yet “—so I suggest once we’ve secured the station we rendezvous with Greg Scullery and proceed to the farm to conduct a full suppression. What remains after that is to—” my shoulders slump—“work out where the hell the brood-Queen’s spawning-nest is, and take her out.” I swallow, then continue: “Which is bound to be harder than it was in Lovecraft’s day, if only because the thing has concealed its tracks well, and appears to be pulling the puppet strings of local Renfields like the Inspector. If it figures out we’re coming it may be able to organize a defense. In the worst case scenario, East Grinstead is going up in flames. And that’s before we get to the thorny question of where that demon-haunted requirements document came from.”

Alan sits down on the wobbly swivel chair with no armrests. “I’m not familiar with, ah, EQUESTRIAN RED SIRLOIN,” he admits. “I’ll need to get clearance and then—”

We don’t have time. On the other hand, ERS is barely classified at all. I pull out my briefing papers: “On my cognizance, and in view of the severity of the situation, with a class two Eater outbreak in train, I take full responsibility for disclosing EQUESTRIAN RED SIRLOIN. Or, at least, what I know about it,” I add hastily. (Because if it is an inside job, (a.) I don’t know enough to blow its cover, and (b.) it’s just very publicly shat the bed, and whoever is running it is probably in for the high jump whatever I do. In other words, my and Alan’s attempts at mopping up are unlikely to make the mess any worse.)

Alan raises an eyebrow. “Are you sure?”

I shrug. “It’s classified MILDLY EMBARRASSING NO TABLOIDS. I’m sure they’ll offer me a cigarette and a blindfold at the firing squad.”

Alan nods and takes the papers. “Right,” he drawls. What I’m doing is technically unauthorized, but my Oath of Office lets me get away with it without even a warning tingle. I’m pretty sure Iris will sign off on it when I file my report. And if not, I can’t see the Auditors yelling at me for briefing my field support team. Then his eyes focus on the first page, and the list of decreasing classification levels, and the index of documents attached, and his eyebrows climb so high they nearly merge with his hairline. “Unicorns? Bob, what have you gotten us into this time?”

“I wish I knew, Alan. But they’re not sparkly . . .”

 

Ring-ring. “Yes, who is that?”

“Greg? It’s Bob here. Where are you?”

“I’m back at the office, sorting out some paperwork. Has something come up?”

“You could say that. Listen, can you meet me at the old police station? As soon as possible; it’s urgent. There are some gentlemen I’d like to introduce you to. We want your input on operational planning.”

“I—yes, I daresay I could do that, young feller. Is five o’clock too late?”

I glance at Alan. He nods, minutely controlled. “Five o’clock but no later,” I say. We exchange pleasantries: “See you. Bye.” I glance at my phone: it’s ten past four. Back at Alan: “In my opinion, we’re not ready to go public,” I explain. “No point frightening the bystanders.”

“Hmm.” Alan gives in to toe-tapping and thumb-twiddling, impatient tics that seem to vanish whenever an actual operation starts. “Let’s go over the map again, shall we?”

We’ve got an Ordnance Survey 1:12,500 spread out across the table in the antique briefing room. A couple of constables have shown up for shift change, and we’ve taken pains to explain the situation to them in words of one syllable: a chief inspector from a mega-city like Hove or Brighton is on her way in to take control of the policing side of the operation, but I gather she’s caught up in traffic, so for now we’re relying on Sergeant Colon to keep everything looking vaguely like business as usual. Alan’s driver finally un-wedged the OCULUS truck from the cobblestoned yard, and it’s parked outside. The contingency story for the reporter from the Bexhill Babble is that we’re conducting a joint major incident containment exercise simulating an outbreak of anthrax on a local farm. Which is close enough to the truth to make what we’re really doing look plausibly routine if not actually boring, so that when we get the officers of the law to cordon off Edgebaston Farm nobody will so much as blink.

The map is accurate enough to let Alan’s merry headbangers lay down a barrage of covering fire if that’s what it takes. I point out the various elements of the farm. “The barn: there are two or more EMOCUM Units stationed there. Carnivorous, fast, hopefully hobbled. The woodshed: has damp rot in the roof beams. Currently full of lumber, they’re planning on putting the cows in it when they get round to emptying it. South field: two horses, four cows (one of them with a wooden leg). Basically harmless. The EMOCUM Units are distinctive—the eyes are too close together and glow blue, and their fur is white—”

“Don’t you mean they’re cremelo? Or at least perlino?” Alan raises an eyebrow at me.

“Whatever.” I shrug. “They look like horses, walk like horses, have breath like a leopard. Oh, there’ll also be saddles with roll cages stashed in the barn—”

“Roll cages?” His eyebrows are really getting a workout today.

“With wire mesh reinforcement, yes, to stop the nice horsies eating their riders. Seriously, if any of your men see a horse-shaped object that can’t instantly be confirmed safe, they should shoot to kill. We’re dealing with the Hannibal Lecters of the riding world here.”

“Moving swiftly on—” Alan points at the farm house itself. “What can you tell me about this structure?”

“Oh, that. Farmhouse, repeatedly built, razed, re-built, extended, and re-razed ever since the twelfth century. AD, not BC, though you might be hard put to tell. Main entrance opens into a porch with boot racks, closet to the left, huge farm kitchen to the right, passage leading into house at the back, and no, before you ask, I didn’t get a good look inside. Why do you—”

“People,” Alan interrupts conversationally. “Who am I dealing with here?”

“Apart from Georgina Edgebaston herself, who is apparently as well-connected as a System X exchange, I have no idea. Farm hand called Adam, daughter called Octavia who’s at boarding school, I gather. We’ll really need to pick Greg’s brain. And the—no, police records’ll be no use.” I shrug. (The Edgebastons are the sort of people the police work for, not against. And you don’t keep files on your boss if you know what’s good for you.) “If we can get anything useful out of Inspector Dudley—”

Alan shakes his head. “Sandy confirms the exorcism worked, but both victims are in bad shape. The ambulance should be arriving at St. Hilda’s any time now.” He glances at his wristwatch. “Okay, so it’s a centuries-old farmhouse. Which means any floor plan on file with the County planning office will be years or decades out of date, if they even bothered filing one in the first place.”

“Why are you focusing on the farmhouse?” I ask, feigning casual interest.

He flashes me a smile. “Because if there’s one thing all the unicorn legends are clear about, it’s the little girl! The, ah, brood-queen’s primary host. Do you know what boarding school Mrs. Edgebaston’s daughter attends?”

I suddenly realize where he’s going with this line of enquiry. “Let’s find out, and confirm that she’s really there.” My phone’s really getting a workout. I call the Duty Officer back at head office and pass the buck. (Let someone else fight their way through social services and school phone switchboards this afternoon.) “And let’s hope there’s no brood-queen to mop up. Ahem. So where are we going with this?”

“Here.” Alan points at the various gates leading into the fields around Edgebaston farm. “First: I’m going to station police officers on all the B-roads leading past the fields. Cover Story Alpha applies and will justify the operation. The south field gate will also have two of my people, armed, in case of attempted equine excursions. I take your point about friend/foe discrimination. Secondly: OCULUS units one and two, accompanied by your tame veterinary inspector, will move in on the farmyard. Brick two will secure the exterior of the barn, brick three will take the other outbuildings, while the rest of us serve a search warrant on the farmhouse itself and conduct a room-to-room inspection.” The SAS doesn’t deal in fire teams and squads and platoons, it divvies up into bricks (more formally patrols) and troops and squadrons.

“Wait, you’re pulling in a second OCULUS?”

Alan’s cheek twitches. “After reading that file, I’d be happier to simply call in an air strike.”

The office door opens and a familiar face appears: “Scary” Spice, whom I have worked with before, and who has a penchant for blowing stuff up. “Sir? The XM-1060s have arrived. Sergeant Howe has detailed Norton and Simms to load and fuse them, he wanted you to know they’ll be safed but ready when you need them.” He spots me. “Hi, Bob!” Then he ducks out again.

“What are they?” I ask.

Alan twitches again: “Thermobaric grenade launchers. Just in case.”

Now my cheek twitches. It’s a sympathy thing, triggered by my involuntary ringpiece clenching. “Is that really necessary?”

“I hope not, Bob. I hope not . . .”

 

Which is why, at a whisker after six o’clock in the evening, I come to be sitting in the front passenger seat of Mr. Scullery’s Land Rover, which is bumping and jouncing across a pasture that clings precariously to the side of Mockuncle Hill. I am holding Greg’s rifle for him because he is gesticulating wildly with both hands while trying to steer with his beard. The steering wheel, unaccustomed to such treatment, squeals and tries to escape every time we bump across a post hole. “Never heard anything like it!” He expostulates wildly: “Young Barnes is overreacting wildly.”

“In case you hadn’t noticed, he’s running this show.”

“In my day he was a wet-behind-the-ears cornet, young feller—”

I roll my eyes as the beard describes Alan’s prehistoric sins, from back when dinosaurs roamed the earth and Greg was in the service. “Listen,” I interrupt between tooth-rattling jolts, “let’s just stick to business, okay?” I scan the field for alien life forms such as cows, three-legged or otherwise, and the retired police horses we’ve been told to expect here.

The sun is setting, behind the bulk of the hill. There’s still light in the sky, but the shadows have become indistinct and hazy, and a golden glow washes out all contrast as it slowly dims towards full dark. The lights will be flickering to life on the streets in town. This is a really stupid time of day for us to be doing this, but Alan wants to get it underway ASAP, and will be turning up at the farmhouse door in another five minutes. Behind us, a jam sandwich has parked up across the lane, light bar flickering as the constables tape off the entrance to the field. Our job is to round up the local legal livestock and neutralize them safely so that Alan’s merry men don’t mistake them for equoids. Hence the tranquilizer gun and the vet.

(I also half-suspect that Alan has sent Greg and me on this wild horse chase to keep us out of his hair during the somewhat more fraught process of storming a farmhouse without killing the human occupants.)

I’m just checking the near-side wing mirror when my Treo rings. I glance at it: it’s the Duty Officer back at HQ. My stomach flip-flops. “Howard here,” I say.

“We have the information you requested about Octavia Edgebaston, sir. Sorry it’s taken so long; we had to contact Social Services in East Grinstead out-of-hours to get the contact details for her school, then get the headmistress out of her dinner. Yes, we’ve confirmed that Octavia Edgebaston is boarding as St. Ninian’s School this week and is currently at prep in room 207—” I breathe a sigh of relief—“but her younger sister—”

What?” I yelp involuntarily. “Greg! You didn’t tell me Georgina had another daughter!”

“—Is truant, she didn’t show up for register this afternoon and they’re extremely worried—”

“What other daughter?” The beard sounds puzzled, almost dreamy. “There’s no other—”

“—Lucinda Edgebaston, class 2E at St. Ninian’s, aged twelve. She hasn’t signed out of the school, and they’re re-running the CCTV over the gate now just to check, but she missed all her afternoon classes—”

“How far away is St. Ninian’s from Edgebaston Farm?” I ask.

“Ten or eleven miles,” says the DO. “To continue: they’ve notified the police in Hove and they’re keeping an eye out for her. One-forty centimeters, long chestnut hair, about fifty kilos, probably wearing St. Ninian’s school uniform. She won’t have gotten far—”

My heart is pounding and the skin on the back of my neck is crawling. I have a very bad feeling about this. “Please hold,” I tell my phone. “Greg: stop. Stop.” I thump the middle of the dash. Greg slams on the anchors so suddenly I nearly go through the split windscreen. As it is, the barrel of the rifle bashes my forehead. I’m doubly glad I made sure it was unloaded and safe when he gave it to me to hold. (No, really; there’s a luminous pipecleaner going in through the barrel and out of the open breech, because self-inflicted head shots are so not one of my favorite things. Actually, I’m not sure how to load it in the first place—it can fire tranquilizer darts as well as bullets—but it’s the thought that counts.)

The Landy squeals and slithers to a muddy standstill in the middle of the south field. “What is it, young feller?” Greg asks me.

“Greg, does Georgina have a husband?” I ask. It’s an odd question, and as it slides around the back of my skull like a ping-pong ball I feel my ward warm against my collar-bone.

The beard looks puzzled. “I don’t rightly—” he pauses—“no, no, that’s not right.” Another pause. “That would be Jerry, Gerald, I forget his name. Haven’t seen him in ages; I suppose they divorced. And then there’s Octavia and the other and young Ada.”

“Ada? How old is Ada, Greg? Concentrate!”

“Ada’s just a toddler, Bob. I think she’s four—” The beard scrunches up in violent concentration—“What!

The explosion is so sudden I nearly jump out of my seat. “What?” I echo.

“How could I forget them! Georgina is married to Harry and they have three daughters, Octavia and Lucinda and Ada! Named after her great grand-nan,” he adds conversationally. “But, but—”

I’m on the phone to the DO. “Update: I’m seeing signs of a geas here. Localized amnesia, level four or higher. Locals have no or restricted memory of adult Harry Edgebaston and minor Ada Edgebaston. There may be other drop-outs.” I glance in the wing mirror again: “Lucinda is out of the picture, but—fuck me, Greg, drive!

OBJECTS IN MIRROR ARE CLOSER THAN THEY SEEM, and the pallid ghost of Death’s own horse is cantering behind us with sapphire-glowing eyes that pulse hypnotically in the twilight. On its back there sits a saddle with roll bars and steel mesh grilles, the rider a small but indistinct figure standing in the stirrups within. The Landy’s rear lights flicker red highlights off the point of the lowered lance that’s coming towards us as the horse-thing screams a heart-stopping wail of despair and rage.

I drop the phone in my front pocket as Greg floors the throttle and the Landy roars in response, belching a column of smoke that would do justice to a First World War dreadnought. We rock and roll uphill, and the point of the lance rips through the canvas cover over the load bed, then tears away into the night with a snort and huff of equoid heavy breathing.

For an instant, the dash of the Land Rover glows blue-green with a ghastly imitation of St. Elmo’s Fire. My skin crawls and the ward heats up painfully. Greg grunts with pain and the steering wheel spins. For a moment the Landy teeters on two wheels, nearly toppling, but then he grabs the wheel with both hands and brings us back down on all fours with a crash.

I fumble with the rifle, yanking the safety cord through the barrel and barking my fingers painfully on the breech. “Ammo, Greg,” I gasp.

“In the center cubby, young feller, between the seats. Don’t bother with darts.” I yank the lid of the compartment between our seats open and rummage around until I feel the oily-smooth metallic weight of an unboxed stripper clip—what kind of bloody idiot keeps loose rifle rounds rolling around his car?—and I somehow manage to reverse the gun over my right shoulder and get the open breech into a position where I can start feeding rounds in. They’re the real thing, I hope, but unfortunately there are only five of them. And I can just glimpse a grey-white blur in the twilight at the other end of the field, getting itself turned round to take another run at us—this time a full-tilt charge.

You might think that a mounted cavalry horse charging with lance is a wee bit dated, and less than a match for a bolt-action rifle and a Land Rover. However, you would be very wrong. The thing at the far end weighs over a ton, and it’s about to take a run at us at over fifty kilometers per hour. The field is small enough that it’s less than a minute away, and when it hits all that momentum is going to be focused behind a tempered steel point. That’s about as much energy as a shell from a Second World War tank gun carries: more than enough force to shatter the engine block of an unarmored Landy, and once we’re immobilized it can dance around until we’re out of bullets, then bite and trample us to death at its leisure.

I close the breech and work the bolt to chamber a round. “Park up and drop the windows. Gun’s loaded.”

“Easy, young feller.” We judder to a halt again. Greg yanks the hand brake, then slides a bolt and the entire windshield assembly flops forwards across the bonnet. “Give me that.”

I hand the rifle over. He takes it in both arms and leans forward, barrel pointing across the spare tire. The spectre in front of us turns to face us. The eyes flare, alternating hypnotically. I feel a wave of malevolent intent spill across us. Hocks contract and unwind like spring steel as the equoid launches itself towards us. The spearhead glitters in our headlights, seemingly aimed right in my face. “Think you can hit the rider?” I ask anxiously.

“Piece of piss—” Greg freezes. “Oh no,” he breathes.

It takes me another second or two to register what he’s seen—his eyesight is better than mine—and I do a double-take because the rider, hunched beneath that odd steel canopy, lance cradled under one elbow like a knight of old . . . the rider is too small. Dwarfed by her mount, in fact. Greg is paralyzed because he’s just realized he’s drawing a bead on Lucinda Edgebaston, age twelve and a half, who should be in the school dormitory doing her prep rather than galloping across a muddy field on top of a carnivorous horror that is using her as a human shield

A heartbeat passes.

“Give me that.” I grab the gun barrel. Greg lets it go without resistance, and that in itself is terribly wrong. I shoulder the thing, unaccustomed to its weight and heft. I’ve done a basic long-arms familiarization course out at the Village, but for the actual range time we used SA80s. It’s only by sheer chance that I once asked Harry the Horse to show me how to load one of these antiques. The equoid is expanding in front of me like an oncoming train wreck. I don’t have time to check the sights.

I let my breath out slowly and squeeze the trigger, hoping I’ll hit something. There’s a crash and a bang, and a fully laden freight train slams into my right shoulder. Through the ringing in my ears I hear a wavering inhuman scream, too long-drawn-out for human lungs. Then another freight train slams into the side of the Land Rover, and there’s a screaming of torn and twisted metal as the thrashing equoid crashes down on us and the Landy topples sideways onto the hillside.

What happens next is a confusing mess. I nearly lose the rifle. I find myself lying on the passenger door, still strapped in, with Greg lying across me. There’s blood, blood everywhere, and animal screaming from outside the Land Rover’s cabin. “Greg, move,” I say, and elbow him. More blood: he head-butts my shoulder, and I have a horrible feeling that a human neck shouldn’t, can’t, bend that way. He is, at the very least, unconscious, and possibly in spinal injury territory. Shit. More hoarse screaming. A clanging double-thud that sends a shock through the chassis of the vehicle. I find the seat belt button and try to worm my way forward, through the gap between the open windshield and the roofline, bashing myself in the face yet again with a rifle barrel.

Getting out of a toppled all-terrain vehicle in the dark while a pain-crazed monster bucks and runs around you, occasionally lashing out with its hooves at the felled Land Rover that hurt it, is easier said than done—especially when you’re covered in someone else’s blood, in need of a change of underwear, and trying to keep control of an unfamiliar weapon. It’s so much easier said than done, in fact, that I don’t succeed. Or rather, I get my head and shoulders out, along with the rifle, whose bolt I am frantically working when My Little Pony finally notices I’m still alive. It gives a larynx-shattering howl of pure rage, bares a mouthful of spikes that would give a megalodon pause, and closes in for the coup de grace.

I mentioned the rifle, didn’t I? And I mentioned that EMOCUM Units aren’t the sharpest knife in the toolbox, too? Well, what happens next is about what you’d expect: it’s messy, and extremely loud, and I nearly shoot my right ear off as Buttercup bends toward me and opens wide in an attempt to bite my skull in half. Then I have to duck backwards sharpish to avoid being crushed by a ton of falling burger meat.

(Moral of story: if you are a flesh-eating monster, do not let the chattering monkey insert a bang-stick in your mouth while you’re trying to snack down on its brains. Seriously, no good will come of this.)

 

More confused impressions:

I’m out of the Landy, standing in the field, frantically looking around. (Two rounds left in the magazine and one up the spout.)

The EMOCUM has collapsed in front of the toppled Land Rover. Brains and other matter show through the back of its shattered skull. I dodge fangs like daggers, and inhale a fecal smell so rich and intense I have to pause to control my stomach. I glance in the roll cage. There is moaning, audible through the ringing in my ears, and I feel dizzy. I look closer. Movement. “Lucinda?” I call. “Lucy?”

She looks up at me, one arm bent back unnaturally, still gripping the shaft of the shattered lance: I can see bone. The expression on her face is no more human than her mount’s: “Hssss . . .”

“Be right back,” I say hastily, stepping away. I fumble for my phone, then speed-dial the last number—the Duty Officer. “Howard here.” I briskly explain the situation. “Need medical support with exorcism kit, south field—minor with broken arm and possible demonic possession. Scratch that: probable. Oh, and it’ll take the jaws of life to get her out of the saddle.” I look around. “One probable adult fatality, cervical fracture, lots of blood.” As I feared, when Lucy hit the Landy with her pig-sticker, the impact had had the force of a light artillery shell. “One dead sterile adult Echo Romeo Sierra, one unaccounted for. I’m proceeding afoot and armed.”

I look around in the dusk. I see an indistinct hump in the field about thirty meters uphill. A buzz of flies surrounds it, but it’s no cow pat; it’s the whole damn animal, disemboweled and half-eaten. I bite back a hysterical giggle. This operation has officially fallen apart.

See, the whole idea was to discreetly secure the barn and then search the premises, on the assumption that the EMOCUM Units would be at home. But it now looks as if there’s a subtle and nasty amnesia glamor covering parts of the farm, nudging everybody to forget the existence of certain people who have softly and silently been stolen away, presumably because they have seen the boojum.

And now that I think about it, there weren’t anything like enough officers hanging around the police station, were there? Not for a mounted unit that needs eighteen riders and a bunch of civilian auxiliaries, never mind the everyday foot and car patrols. There weren’t enough folks around the farm, either, and come to think of it Greg’s veterinary practice looked half-empty . . .

My skin crawls. Somewhere out in the gathering twilight an EMOCUM Unit is stalking human prey. And somewhere else—if only I could work out where!—the Queen is brooding.

 

I’m halfway up the south field, working my way towards the farm itself, when the sky above me flashes orange, reflecting a dazzling glare from ground level. A second later there’s a hollow whump like a gas range igniting, and a hot blast of wind across my face. I go to my knees in a controlled fall, land on a cow pat, skid, swear, and faceplant. The explosion rolls up into an ascending fireball that lights up the grass in front of my nose before it dissipates.

I realize what’s happening: Alan’s men have made hard contact. There’s a rattle of small-arms fire, then another of those gas flares followed by a gut-liquefying explosion. They must be the XM-1060’s Scary was talking about, I figure. I stay down, but pull my phone up and speak: “Bob here. I’m still in the south field, and the balloon’s gone up about three hundred meters north of my current location. Can you let OCULUS Control know I’m out here?” I do not want to be a blue-on-blue casualty. I’m shivering as I speak, and feeling shaky and cold. I work my jaws and spit, trying to get the metallic taste of blood out of my mouth. I’m pretty sure it’s Greg’s blood. I feel awful about getting him into this, and about leaving him in the Landy.

“Patching you through right away,” says the DO, and there’s a click.

“Bob? Sitrep!” It’s Alan, sounding sharp as a button.

“I’m lying low in the south field about three hundred meters short of the yard. Greg’s down, the Landy is down, we nailed one target, there is an injured little girl in the wreckage.” I lick my lips, then spit: “Suspect EMOCUM Two is on the loose with a rider, either adult male or juvenile female. There’s a stealth glamor on the entire farm; you may not spot the Queen until you step on her.” A horrible thought hits me. “The woodshed.”

I put it together all at once. No sniggering now: Georgina was planning to clear the woodshed, but there’s damp rot in the roof beams. And it hasn’t been cleared. And the four-year-old is forgotten. And there’s “—Something narsty in the woodshed,” I hear myself saying aloud into the phone. “Wait for me before you go in!” I add hastily. Ada. Named for her great-great. Why should that resonate so—“Alan. Brick three. You sent them to search the outbuildings. Have you heard from them recently?”

“Yes, Bob,” he sounds almost bored. “They report all’s clear.”

“There’s a glamor!” I realize I’m shouting. “Are they in the woodshed?

“I’ll just . . . shit.”

“I’m on my way,” I hear myself saying. “Let your people know I’m coming from the south field on foot.” It takes all my willpower to force myself to push upright onto my knees, then to raise one leg, and then the other until I’m standing. I am deathly afraid of what I’m going to find in the farmyard. One foot goes in front of the other. Clump, clump, squish, clump. The small-arms fire has stopped, but something ahead is on fire and the flames are playing hell with my night vision. A smell of woodsmoke drifts on the evening breeze, making my nose itch but partly masking the uncanny stink of the field.

I stumble towards the skeletal outline of a gate. It takes me a while to cover the distance because I keep stopping to peer around in the murk, rifle raised. If EMOCUM Unit 2 was in the field with me I expect I’d know about it by now, but you can never be sure. How do feral unicorns stalk their prey, anyway? Do they run in packs, like wolves, or are they ambush hunters?

Beside the gate I stumble across the disemboweled corpse of another cow; Graceless, I think, going by the prosthetic leg. It’s upsetting. (You can tell I’m English by the way pointless cruelty to animals dismays me.) The gate itself is hanging open, the chain and padlock neatly fastened around its post. EMOCUM Units don’t have hands, so that tears it—we’re definitely dealing with ensorcelled human servitors here. And that implies a controlling intelligence, which in turn implies—

The upper story of the west wing of the farmhouse is on fire. The thatching on the roof is smoldering, and the bright light of active combustion is rippling out behind a row of windows. I see the silhouettes of men crouching in the shadows around the barn. A fire engine hulks in the entrance to the yard, around the side of the house. I stand up. My phone rings. “Yes?”

“Get down, idiot.” Alan is tense. I drop to my haunches, keeping the rifle barrel vertical. “It’s the shed.”

“Yeah.” There’s something narsty in the woodshed. “Brick three?”

“Not responding, presumed down.” His voice is flat. “I’m behind the barn. Get yourself over here but stay low.”

I scurry over to the barn, where I find Alan and Sergeant Howe and a couple of troopers. They’re all in body armor and face paint, armed to the incisors with big scary guns. And they look very, very, pissed-off.

“There’s probably a little girl in there, Alan. Four years old, and all alone in the nest of, of a spawning unicorn Queen.” I’m light-headed and feeling careless, otherwise I wouldn’t dare speak like that under the circumstances.

“Yes. Also Lance Davies and Troopers Chen, Irving, and Duckworth,” he adds. “Do you have anything useful to contribute?”

“Lovecraft’s monster implied that a spawning Queen becomes part of a group mind or a swarm intelligence, or somehow becomes conscious, shortly before its offspring eat it. We’re now seeing signs of ritual magic—possession, concealment glamor. Let’s put that down to the sidereal age—” CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN, when the stars are coming right and all things esoteric become dangerously accessible—“and speculate that the thing H. P. Lovecraft called Shub-Niggurath is using the thing in that woodshed as a vector.” I swallow. “And it’s in this farm. What I’m wondering is, what’s it going to do now? We’ve got it encircled, but unlike the sterile females, it’s not stupid. And it knows it’s going to die. Its whole raison d’etre is to maximize the number of its spawn who mate and survive . . .”

I trail off.

A little girl, a toddler really, who is under the power of the thing in the woodshed. Her elder sister should be at St. Ninian’s girl’s boarding school, but has instead gone AWOL and turned up on the family farm, riding an EMOCUM, in the middle of term-time, just as we began to investigate. I shudder. “Someone needs to go over—” I stop. “Shit!”

“Bob! Explain.”

“Lucinda is down on EMOCUM One in the South Field. Octavia was in prep an hour ago, but EMOCUM Two is missing. You know about schools and cross-infection? How if a kid goes to school with an infection, all their classmates and then everyone else catches it? If you wanted to massively amplify a unicorn infestation, about the best way to go about it would be to dump a ton of fertilized unicorn spawn on the doorstep of a girls’ boarding school. Especially with the TV series and movies and magazine spin-offs doing the rounds right now.” I spit again. “But the teachers and staff wouldn’t let a girl bring a live pet into a boarding school. She’d have to smuggle them in some time after the start of term, hide them in the saddle bags, or send for a magic steed and go collect them in person.”

Sergeant Howe stares at me like I’ve grown a second head, but Alan just nods. “You should double-check on that,” he says. “Be rather awkward if we had to firebomb a boarding school.” He taps his throat mike: “Alpha to all, flash, incoming hostile on horseback. Shoot the horse on contact, assume rider possessed. Over.”

I’m on my phone to the DO again. “Howard here. Please can you double-check that Octavia Edgebaston is still doing her prep in her dorm? This is an emergency. If she’s missing we need to know immediately. Also: any reports of white horses with glowing blue eyes riding cross-country—”

“Will do! Anything else I can help you with?”

I sigh. “That’s all for now.” I hang up, then look at Alan. “Why haven’t you burned the nest already?”

“Well, now.” Alan looks at Howe. “Sergeant, if you’d care to explain the little problem to Mr. Howard?”

Howe sucks his teeth and looks pained. “It’s like this, Bob me old mate: it’s a woodshed. Wood: made of cellulose, right? Burns if you ignite it?” I nod like a bobble-head. “Well, they also stored other things in there. Inadvisable things. This is a farm, and for fertilizer they use—”

“Oh no,” I say, as he continues—

“Ammonium nitrate. About a ton of it. Harry Edgebaston moved it into the woodshed a month ago, last thing anyone remembers seeing him do.” Howe bares his teeth. “It’ll make a bit of a mess if it brews up.”

Alan grins humorlessly. “Your theory that the thing in the woodshed is growing more intelligent and more powerful just got a boost, Bob. What do you propose to do about it?”

I’m about to swither and prevaricate for a bit when my phone rings again. It’s the DO. I listen to what he has to say, then thank him and look at Alan. “A riderless stray horse jumped the gates at St. Ninian’s about fifteen minutes ago. When it left, it had a bareback rider. So I reckon, let’s see, ten miles . . . you’ve got maybe five to ten minutes to get ready for Octavia and EMOCUM Unit Two. They’ll be trying to get to the barn.” I bare my teeth. “I want a sample retrieval kit, and some extras. Then I’m going to go and talk to the monster while you guys neutralize Octavia and her ride. If I stop transmitting, pull back to a safe distance and use the woodshed for target practice. Any questions?”

 

Five minutes later, I’m ready. At Alan’s sign, two of his troopers pull the woodshed door open in front of me. I step forward, into the stygian darkness within.

This is a pretty dumb thing to do, on the face of it; if you’ve read this report and the EQUESTRIAN RED SIRLOIN dossier you might well be asking, “What the fuck, Bob? Why not send in a bomb-disposal robot instead?” And I will happily agree that if we had a freaking bomb-disposal robot to hand we’d do exactly that. Alas, they’re all vacationing in Afghanistan this month—either that, or they’re in storage in a barracks in Hereford, which does us precisely no good whatsoever. And we’re clearly dealing with a many-tentacled occult incursion from the dungeon dimensions here, and those things eat electronics for breakfast. Much better to send in a warded-up human being: faster, more flexible, and I’ve got a couple of field-expedient surprises up my sleeves to boot.

For one thing, I’m wearing a borrowed helmet with a very expensive monocular bolted to it—an AN/PVS-14 night vision camera. Everything’s grainy and green and a bit washed-out, and I can only see through one eye, but: in the kingdom of the blind, and all that. For another thing, I’m wired up with a radio mike and carry a crush-proof olive drab box under my arm. We’re pretty sure there are no survivors in the building, which makes my mission all the more important.

For another thing—hey, don’t worry, I’ve nearly finished reading my laundry list—I may not be a hero, but I’m not the fourteen-year-old H. P. Lovecraft either. Dealing with eldritch horrors is part of my day job. It’s not even as bad as the paperwork, for the most part. True, the “moments of mortal terror” shtick really sucks, but on the other hand there’s the rush I get from knowing that I’m saving the world.

And finally?

I’m more than a little bit angry.

So I walk into the booby-trapped woodshed full of explosives. Two guys with guns are waiting behind the door as it scrapes shut behind me. All I have to do is yell and they’ll do a quick open-and-close, then cover my retreat. I plant the horrifyingly expensive mil-spec shockproof LED lantern on the floor. Right now, it’s a brilliant flare of light in my night vision field, quite bright even to my unaugmented eye. Showing me precisely where to jump if, if, if it’s necessary.

I take another step forward, stop, and call out: “Hey, Shub-face! I’m here to talk!”

The silence eats my words, but I can feel a presence waiting.

The air in the woodshed tastes damp and smells of mold. I take a deep breath, then sneeze as my sinuses swell closed. Oh great, I think: I’m mildly allergic to elder gods. (Only it’s not a god. It’s just an adult unicorn in the sessile, spawning phase of the life cycle. A very naughty unicorn indeed.)

“We’ve got you surrounded,” I add, in a more conversational tone. “Broke your glamor, rounded up all your Renfields. Took down most of your sterile female workers.”

(Because I have worked out this much: the thing I’m dealing with isn’t just a sexually dimorphic r-strategy hyperparasite; it’s a eusocial hive organism that can co-opt other species the way some types of ant domesticate aphids. And I’ve got another theory about the intelligence that Lovecraft called Shub-Niggurath—although I’m not sure he wasn’t pulling it out of his arse, as far as the name-calling is concerned—and where it comes from.)

I take another step forward and nearly trip over something hard that’s the size of a football. I catch myself and look down. It’s a human skull. Fragments of flesh and the twisted remains of a radio headset cling to it. Shit. Well, now I know for sure where Alan’s troopers ended up. I glance up.

The beams above my head support a layer of crude planks. It looks uneven and rough in my night scope. Odd trailing wisps of rotten straw dangle from it, as if a plant is growing on the floor above, pushing its roots between the cracks. Something moves. I stare, then look down as I hear a tiny clonk. A conical snail-shell as long as my little fingernail has fallen to the rough floor near the—ick, I glance rapidly away from the decapitated remains of the soldier. Then I force myself to look back. Wart-like, the snails rasp across the pitted and grooved body armor and fatigues, migrating towards the bloody darkness within.

Shub-Shub-Shub,” rumbles the huge and gloopy presence resting on the floorboards above my head. I jump halfway out of my skin, then step back smartly. There’s a high-pitched squeal of rage and pain as my foot lands on something that skitters out across the floor: a tiny, gracile horse-shaped thing as long as my outstretched hand.

“Talk to me in human, Shub,” I call, pointing my face at the darkness above. “I’m here to negotiate.” Here to hear your last confession, I hope. Actually, I’ve overrun my safety point by a couple of paces—I should be standing on, or within three meters of, the door. But I need to find out if any of the troopers—or the little girl, Ada—are still alive. And I urgently need to find out just how intelligent this particular spawning unicorn Queen has become, to be laying gnarly plans to plant hundreds of fertile daughters on the population of a girls’ boarding school, rather than allowing nature to take its course and seed a half-handful of survivors at random around East Grinstead.

Shub-Shub-Shub,” says the thing. Then, in a heartbreakingly high voice with just a trace of a toddler’s lisp: “Daddy, why is it dark in here?”

My stomach lurches. The voice is coming from the attic.

“Daddy? Turn on the lights, Daddy, please?

Lights?

I take a step back, closer to my safety zone, then swing my head round slowly. With the night vision monocular it’s like having a searchlight, able to pick out details only in a very small area. Close beside the door, there—I see a mains switch and a trail of wire tacked to the wall.

“Daddy? I’m afraid . . .”

I skid across the unspeakable slime on the floor and push the switch, screwing shut the eye behind the night vision glass as I do so. The blackness vanishes, replaced by a twilight nightmare out of Bosch, illuminated by a ten-watt bulb screwed to the underside of a beam.

Yes, there are logs in the woodshed. They’re piled neatly against the far wall, beyond the rickety stepladder leading up to a hole in the ceiling. There are also the partially skeletonized bodies of two—no, three—soldiers—

Daddy! Heeelp!

A little girl’s voice screams from the staircase opening, and I realize I’m much too late to help her. Even so, I almost take a step forward. I manage to stop in time. I know exactly why those three troopers died: they died trying to be heroes, trying to rescue the little girl. I close my eyes briefly, take a deep breath of the mold-laden sickly-sweet air. Take a step backwards, to stand in front of the exit from the charnel house.

(There are two skulls on the floor—one of the bodies still has a helmet. They’re on either side of the ladder. Part of me wonders how the thing in the attic decapitated them. Most of me wants to close my eyes, stick my fingers in my ears, and scream I can’t hear you.)

“Talk to me, Shub,” I call. “You want to talk, don’t you? It’s the only way you or any of your brood are going to get out of here alive.”

The roof beams creak, as if something vast is adjusting its weight distribution. “Shub. Shub. Glurp. Daddy, it wants me to talk to you. Daddy? Will you come up here?”

I swallow bile and tense my leg muscles to flee. “No,” I say.

Shub! Shub! Shub!” The thing with Ada in the attic, the thing working her vocal cords, booms at me, a menacing rumble. Obviously, it’s not happy about its latest self-propelled snack refusing to follow the lure upstairs. I use the rumbling as my cue to unhook the sample jars and look around. Her spawn crawls over the woodpile, near the dead and half-eaten troopers. Tiny horses and cone snails, swarming and chewing. I swallow again. Look sideways: near the door, a handful of snail shells crushed by boots. Survivors inch across the floor around them. I crouch down and use my forceps to take living samples, one per glass-walled tube. Snail, horse, snail, horse. They go back into the crush-resistant fiberglass box and I lock it and sling it over my shoulder.

That’s what I’m really here for, you know. It was pretty clear that this was a zero-survivor situation once Alan confirmed that brick three was missing. But anything I can learn from the Queen . . .

We have met before,” the Queen says through Ada’s childish larynx.

“Have we?” I ask.

You remember me. I was your Hetty. I said we would meet again. Isn’t that right?

My skin crawls. I begin to frame a reply, then stop. I was going to say something human, but: do not disclose operational intelligence to happy fun serial group mind horror. I try again: “You wake up each time: reincarnation, isn’t it? You find yourself fat and sleepy and spawning in a warm, food-rich place. And you remember who you were—who you are. Is that right?”

I knew you would understand! Come close and you can join me.

Bingo. “And you keep trying to do better each time, don’t you? What was the idea, this time?”

Will you join me if I tell you? I will make you immortal and we will thrive and feed and dance joyous through the aeons—

“Yes,” I lie.

It has been so long since I have mated with another mind . . . Yes, you must join me! My idiot offspring eat their mother’s flesh and then their siblings, before they mate and grow sleek and strong and seek out a nest and settle down, and I awaken behind their eyes. One or two in each brood prosper that way. But I have worked out a way for more to survive to maturity. Join me, help me, and we will be fruitful and amplify and become myriad.

“I don’t think so.” I can’t hold it back any more.

Why won’t you—”

“Your last worker is on its way home to visit, carrying your last Renfield. But it’s not going to be allowed to get here, Shubby. We’re not going to let you distribute your spawn via the girls at St. Ninian’s. The school’s on lock-down, and they know what to search for. Acid baths, Shubby. Anything that looks like My Little Pony is going to take a one-way trip through an acid bath and a furnace on sight. Snails, too.”

A snarling animal scream cuts through the air behind me, from beyond the closed doors. It’s cut short by a harsh chatter of automatic gunfire.

The thing above me roars in existential pain and heaves its bulk up, then brings it smashing down on the ceiling. Paint dust and splinters fall and the light bulb shakes, the shadows flickering across the room. “My children! My beautiful future flesh! My babies! Traitor! I would have loved and cherished your memories forever!” The snails and tiny horses swarm on the skeletonizing remains of the dead soldiers. Another voice cuts through the cacophony: “Dadd-ee! Help me!”

I step back towards the door. I tap my throat mike and speak quietly: “Got samples. No—” I glance at the ladder—“survivors. Over.”

“Roger,” Alan says calmly. “Target neutralized in yard behind you. Come on out. We’re falling back now. Over.”

I throw myself backwards at the woodshed doors. The ceiling creaks and screeches and then begins to buckle, giving way and drooping from the edges of the loft stairwell opening. Something huge is pushing through from above, something like the rasp of a slug the size of a bus, iridescent and putrefying and bubbling with feculent slime. It vents a warbling roar, “ShubShubShub.” The door gives way behind me as I topple, getting a vague impression of writhing tentacles, a huge nodding eyeless horse-head, something like a broken doll impaled on a wooden stick—

Someone catches me and then I’m sprawling across a back as they pick me up and run across a farmyard, dodging around the fallen bulk of another of the horses from hell. I can see stars and a high overcast of cirrus whirling overhead as my rescuer pounds across the packed earth. Wall to one side, reflecting the livid glare of a burning building. “Get down!” someone shouts in my ear as he drops me on the ground in the lee of a drystone wall.

“Got it—” I scramble for cover as the incendiary fireworks surge overhead and the woodshed lights off with a whump I can feel in my bladder.

And then I lie there until Sergeant Howe gives everyone the all clear and sends a medic to look me over for triage, clutching the sample box like grim death and telling myself that it was all over for Ada Doom Edgebaston long before I walked through the woodshed door.

Because reincarnation only works for alien group mind horrors, doesn’t it?

Keep telling yourself that, Bob. Take your sample tubes back to R&D in London, leave the burning wreckage of the farm behind. Take your cold comfort where you can, and keep telling yourself that the nasty thing old HPL saw behind the woodshed was lying or mistaken, and that you’ll never meet it again.

Who knows? You might even be right . . .

 

HOME OFFICE

CONFIDENTIAL

Procurement Specification: HO/MPMU/46701

Date of Issue: May 3rd, 2006

Requirement for:

Enhanced-Mobility Operational Capability Upgrade Mounts for Police Mounted Units

It is becoming increasingly clear that in the 21st century mounted police are seen as an anachronism by the public. Despite their clear advantages for crowd control and supervision of demonstrations and public sporting events, mounted operations are expensive to conduct, require extensive stabling and support infrastructure, and compete for resources with other specialist units (e.g. airborne, tactical firearms, scene of crime investigation).

This document contains the operational requirements for upgraded genetically engineered mounts that will enhance the capabilities and availability of our mounted officers . . .

Desirable characteristics:

Mounts should exhibit three or more of the following traits:

• Endurance in excess of 6 hours at 30 miles/hour over rough terrain (when ridden with standard issue saddle, rider, and kit)

• Endurance in excess of 30 minutes at 50 miles/hour on metaled road surfaces (when ridden with standard issue saddle, rider, and kit)

• Ability to see in the dark

• Ability to recognize and obey a controlled vocabulary of at least 20 distinct commands

• Invisible

• Bulletproof

• Carnivorous

• Flight (when ridden with standard issue saddle, rider, and kit)

State of Requirement

CANCELLED September 5th 2006

by Order of Cabinet Office in accordance with recommendation of SOE (X Division) Operational Oversight Audit Committee

Reason for cancellation order:

Sussex mounted constabulary has no conceivable operational requirement for sentient weapons of mass destruction.

This requirement document has no identifiable origin within the Home Office.

It echoes historic attempts to induce adoption of Equoid-friendly facilities within the armed services via requirements raised within the MoD. All of these have been successfully resisted.

It is speculated that someone is trying to pull a fast one on us: does Shub-Niggurath have a posse in Whitehall? This matter warrants further enquiry, and has therefore been referred to External Assets for investigation and permanent closure.

 

“Equoid” copyright © 2013 by Charles Stross

Art copyright © 2013 by Dave Palumbo

42 comments
philolexian
1. philolexian
There have always been Starkadders at Edgebaston Farm!
Steven Halter
2. stevenhalter
Great job! The Lovecraft letters and the procurement forms interleave to really ramp up the tension.

Something nasty in the woodshed indeed.
E M
3. herewiss13
Well, that was truly horrible (in the best possible way). I'm never looking at unicorns the same way again...or cone-shaped snail shells, for that matter.

::shudder::
Christopher Hatton
4. Xopher
Only Charlie Stross could weave unicorns, Lovecraft, bureaucracy, and (ROT13 for spoiler) Pbyq Pbzsbeg Snez together into a story that's alternately hilarious and terrifying...or sometimes both at once.

Bravo.
Colin Bell
5. SchuylerH
All the best Stross stories leave you with that ambigously sick feeling...
Christian Decomain
6. Khryss
I didn't know that Peter Watts was a contemporary of H.P. Lovecraft, but it explains some things about his writing...
philolexian
7. missallen
Wowie! Another heart-stopping story from Charlie. Loved the use of HPL's "letters" and the twisted view of unicorns. Seriously seriously good.
philolexian
8. JohnElliott
East Grinstead on the London to Brighton line? I suppose that in the Laundryverse something nasty could have taken out the main line south of Three Bridges, and so now everything goes via East Grinstead instead.
philolexian
9. Ghostwoods
Fantastic! Thanks, Charlie / Tor. Best. Unicorns. Ever!
philolexian
10. Megpie71
Loved this to bits, and would recommend more. Enjoyed the references to Stella Gibbons, H P Lovecraft, Peter Schaeffer and Terry Pratchett. My partner has once again expressed his opinion that I am a very strange person.
philolexian
11. Mep
As always, Stross makes a wonderful thing out of several other wonderful things. He remains one of the most enjoyable reads I have encountered, as well as one of the most chilling.
philolexian
12. Michdevilish
That was a lot of fun to read. I will search out some more Charlie Stross.
philolexian
14. Mag
I really enjoyed the other two, thanks for the links.
I am heartily sorry that I breezed past the mildly phrased trigger warning on this one. I get all the jokes, AND I wish I could unread parts of this.
I even understand that the particular horrors were part of the Real-People Sekrit History of How HPL Got That Way. I just... It wasn't a good trade for me, to appreciate that cleverness but have those images in my head now.
I would read the novels, if they're more like the other two stories and Not Like This. Does anybody know?
philolexian
15. Aaron Em
Mag @ 14: Having read all four thus far published, I wish to certify that the books are very much Not Like This, in the sense to which you refer; there is nothing even remotely similar to be found in any of them.

(Speaking of which, I really can't imagine Lovecraft being anything like that graphic, however informal or confidential the context. It doesn't really seem necessary to his aim of dissuading Bloch from whatever that worthy was considering doing with unicorns, and it certainly doesn't strike me as being an episode in his personal history which he'd have any desire to revisit at such length or explicitude -- all of which left the whole thing seeming very much gratuitous to me.)
Rick Grant
16. brevoort
This truly was a treasure read for me today.

I was expecting the usual highly competent and readable Laundry story. But to have Lovecraft and Cold Comfort Farm thrown in for good measure was terrific.

However, like someone else said, I have some images in my head now that I wish I could scrub out. Of course, being left mildly disturbed after reading a horror tale is a sign that the author has done a sterling job.

I await the next full length Laundry novel with high anticipation although that anticipation is now tempered with some trepidition.

Well done Mr Stross sir.


Rick Grant
Calgary
Colin Bell
18. SchuylerH
@14: I would say the novels are perhaps more of a spy thriller pastiche than out-and-out horror. The best starting place, really, is The Atrocity Archives, a Len Deighton tribute where a reluctant Bob gets recruited and finds himself fighting Nazi occultists. Most editions also include the Hugo-winning "The Concrete Jungle", which has a nasty, Orwellian, twist on the idea of the gorgon or basilisk. If you like this book, you'll probably enjoy the others.
Charlie Stross
19. cstross
PSA: If you're wondering why this story ever got written, the truth can now be told: it was essentially written on a dare, and it's mostly John Scalzi's fault.
Colin Bell
20. SchuylerH
@19: Thanks. If that's your take on unicorns, I'm very interested to see how you handle vampires...
Maiane Bakroeva
21. Isilel
So, has it really been suggested that Bob is a reincarnation of Lovecraft?!

And yes, this is one truly horrifying horror story... Great, but much, much darker than the rest of the Capital Laundry series, IMHO.

So, why virgin girls? In the Laundry universe, I mean.

And how is it that unicorns are still around in 21st century when it seems that they have a very short maturation cycle? I.e. become a fully fledged, immobile horror and consume their girl-host within months? Is somebody seeding them, as those periodic requisitions seem to suggest?
Soon Lee
22. SoonLee
SchuylerH @20: Patience is a virtue. "The Rhesus Chart" should be out next year.
Colin Bell
23. SchuylerH
@21: My theory is that (rot13) obo bpphcvrf n fvzvyne cbfvgvba gb uvf uvfgbevpny anzrfnxr: ur znl or n sevraq naq pbzcnavba gb gur frpbaq pbzvat bs U. C. ohg abg gur zna uvzfrys, va gur fnzr jnl gung ur ghearq bhg gb unir gur obaq tvey ebyr va gur wraavsre zbethr.

@22: But I want to read it now!
philolexian
26. Michael Chermside
It was a wonderful (and terrifying) tale. I read the free version For posted, but now I'm off to go find a place to purchase an e-book, because authors (and publishers) of such excellent stories deserve to get paid.
philolexian
27. Lillian13
LOL, does this mean Bronys are actually cone snails? It all makes so much more sense now...
philolexian
28. M257426
Fuck, Charles, this was the most amazing and equally disturbing shit I've read in a while.
And I was just giving ping plastic unicorn as birthday present to my goddaughter!
I ll never look at her playing with them the same way!!!
M
philolexian
29. T Hemminger
Somewhere I've seen a picture of this brown lump with the eys and stuff including a hoof sticking out of it. I have no idea when or where . I am 75. It does stick with you, I guess. Brrrrrr.
philolexian
30. Ariella
This story was awesome and it makes me want to seek out the Laundry novels.

On the other hand, because of my childhood immersion in sparkle-pony stories, I can't help noting that horses are measured at the withers, not the hock; 13 hh is more of a children's pony than a cavalry mount; sturdy horses over 15 hh are going to weigh more than 900 lbs; poll evil is very unlikely among police horses in the twenty-first century, and cremello is spelled with two l's. I'll attribute the slips to the fact that the characters who pronounce them are all somewhat deranged. ;-)
philolexian
31. RevSandy
I just love this story, great writer with excellent humour. And I appreciated the details. For example, I loved the various reports about the development of the 'unicorn' project. The one that especially drew my interest was the first report that the project should be cancelled because the British army was in the process of developing the Centurion tank in 1945, suggesting that the various British tank developments between 1940 and 1945 would not be as effective as the unicorn, interesting because British tank development during the Second World War was a bit of a ramshackle affair.
William Hartwell
33. yinepuhotep
Loved it. Especially got a giggle out of the Audit Committee's repeated attempts to kill the unicorn project, only to have the MoD try an end run around them by sending it through the Home Office. Only a bureaucracy could be so unremittingly stupid. But then again, you've done an exceptional job of showing that, again and again.
philolexian
34. Gerald Fnord
Does Bob _know_ that the letter was to Robert Bloch, as opposed to Robert Howard? And perhaps H.P.L. 's letter was unable to deter R.H., and the experience contributed to the latter's suicide the next year, and our Bob didn't get his use-name by accident, the abomination recognises him, and refers to 'your Hetty' because she has trouble keeping her Known Monkeys hashtable straight (equals() is badly defined for her msppnga of us).
philolexian
35. Gerald Fnord
Stupid of me:
'msppnga of'-->'mappings for'
philolexian
36. TaliaG
Whew. Wow. Disturbing and yet very funny.
Just finished reading. (Kept getting interrupted)

@Isisel: Maybe it also produces larvae that are dormant for a certain amount of time - 20 years or so. There are some kinds of cicadas that have 17 year cycle. (it was in the news a few months ago.)

Never thought of the horn from a symbiosis/anglerfish kind of thing. Would make some sense, though, I did think it was odd (from an evolutionary developement viewpoint) to have what is essentially a tusk protruding from the forehead of a horse-like animal, (if the horn is like a narwhal, it would be a migrated tusk) because the other animals with head horn(s) like deer or antelope, it's so different looking, and seems to have a different purpose (I think they whank at each other's antlers, not skewer people and animals, as the "ferocious unicorn" was said to do.) If it was natural tusk, it would be more like a rhino's.

I doubt I will be particularly haunted by the images, EWWWWWW-inducing and disturbing as they may be (then again, I grew up on a steady sci-fi diet and that included plenty of parisitical takeover stories. Demonic possesion, too, come to think of it. ) Even the the bit where HPL was confronted by "Hetty" and the thing putting a biting mouth...............um, where it shouldn't have been, was more of an "ew. Is this just to be shocking or what? It just sounds like a squid having it's beak in the middle of its body" BUT the back story, of how this story came to be........now that is something I wish I hadn't read!
Chat Rooms
37. chatrooms
Ariella said,
On the other hand, because of my childhood immersion in sparkle-pony stories, I can't help noting that horses are measured at the withers, not the hock; 13 hh is more of a children's pony than a cavalry mount; sturdy horses over 15 hh are going to weigh more than 900 lbs; poll evil is very unlikely among police horses in the twenty-first century, and cremello is spelled with two l's. I'll attribute the slips to the fact that the characters who pronounce them are all somewhat deranged. ;-)
I had NO idea horses actually weighed THAT much. I've never actually ridden one and that terrifies me. Thanks for the tidbit of information.
Talia T
38. TaliaG
@ Chatrooms. Yup. Horses are sometimes half a ton. The few times I have ridden, always amazes me that this big hulker moves for me, the pipsqueak.
philolexian
39. Squirt
Google image "EMOCUM", it has some truly graphic pictures of unicorns.
philolexian
40. Troll
Disturbing, horrifying, absolutely fantastic! (as per usual)
I just found these short stories a short while ago, and I must say I love them. Not only are they good stories in general, but it's a very good format to enjoy Laundry business.
The novels are a big bite, very tasty and a long chew, but far between. Nibbling on these short stories is a lifesaver when eagerly waiting for the Rhesus Chart.
Dear mr Stross, I'm going to need a steady supplies of these. Keep them coming!
Jonathan Zev
41. Sir_Read-a-Lot
Hilariously, this is only the second most horrifying unicorn short story I've read on this site. (the first, of course, being 'Ponies' by Kij Johnson).


Great work as usual!
philolexian
42. muda-kun
Thanks and Congratulations!
Love the classic spy tale takes in the stories.
Could there be a LeCarre inspired Laundry tale in the future?
philolexian
44. tcheph
excellent, but disturbing, work. i feel that it sits well within the laundry universe.

one thought bothers me, however, and that is what becomes of georgina. i can't decide if she should have been in on the plot or under an amnesia geas, neither of which seems quite right for her, as she's built up initially.

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