18 February 2007

Of Books and Bacilli

I've been struck down by the cold-with-a-side-order-of-nervous- exhaustion which seems to have been circulating the country this winter, so have spent the last day or so doing very little. Which is restful, though it doesn't seem to be making me any less tired. B. is similarly afflicted, but has been having to go into work anyway, poor love.

This means that very little's happened to me recently. The novella's going O.K., although I've had to revise my schedule to fit in my recent indolence. I need to write this month's Surefish column by Friday.

I've been reading Pashazade, which is... well, as I've said on a mailing list, it's clever, and the prose is pretty slick, but it all seems strangely soulless. The ideas are interesting, the setting is interesting, even the story could be interesting if I cared about the characters, but it's all so attenuated and substanceless, like certain very wrong people accuse William Gibson of being.

Kate Orman's Return of the Living Dad, on the other hand, is great. I'll try to give it a proper writeup once I'm back on form.

Meanwhile, the best I can do is to leave you with some more of the opening chapter of my pulp steampunk novel that would have been, The Curse of Odin-Hotep:
The Archives of Her Britannic Majesty’s Government were a labyrinth. Located underneath the capital for reasons of supreme security, their tunnels spread for miles beneath the city, connecting Downing Street with the Bank of England and Great Scotland Yard with the Tower of London. Reputedly one divergent branch stretched out as far as Lord’s cricket ground, to which, at the demand of certain of the Whitehall mandarins who frequented the tunnels, it also provided access.

All of these corridors were lined with paper files, boxes and ledgers, most of them filthy with accreted cobwebbed grime. Every step taken was muffled, all its resonance absorbed by dusty stacks of paperwork.

Each shelf bore a brass rail along which, very rarely, automatic filing devices would skitter, search-and-retrieval schedules mapped out for them by the great governmental engine-houses in Vauxhall and Battersea, whose tenders had named them, in a fit of uncharacteristic whimsy, after the city’s legendary protectors Gog and Magog.

Ingress to this vast archival root-network was through strong metal doors: dozens of them across the capital, to be sure, but each stoutly defended against unauthorised admission. A battery of craniometers and phrenological comparators ensured that the only persons admitted were those whose facial features and cranial contours were in perfect correspondence with one of the thousands of punch-cards held by Gog at Vauxhall. In case of differences of opinion, these devices were backed up by Royal Archivists armed with electric rifles.

There was, or should have been, no possibility of an intruder gaining access to the secrets, tedious though many of them may have been, which the Archives held.

Nowhere was this truer than the Vault.

The Vault was where Her Majesty’s Government put all the things for which it would have preferred not to be responsible, but which it certainly would not have wanted anybody else to get their hands on. Vials of highly virulent experimental bacilli; ancient relics of reputed occult power; blueprints and prototypes for devices too infernal ever to be built; scandalous information relating to half the crowned heads of Europe (the half, some of the Archivists suggested ribaldly, for whom the scandals in question were not already public knowledge): all of them ended up, sooner or later, inside the Vault.

It lay deep beneath Bloomsbury, deep below the British Museum’s own enormous vaults and cellars: a great echoing space which could have easily contained a concert hall or ballroom (such cultured metaphors came naturally to the men who had commissioned and designed the Vault). It was laid out in a dozen aisles stacked with wooden crates, thousands in all, identical in size but of visibly varying ages. They reached halfway to the ceiling, each neatly stencilled with a legend identifying its donor (willing or unwilling) and the year of its acquisition.

These names and dates gave little indication of the boxes’ contents, and deliberately so. The filing system applied to the crates by Magog was also assiduously obscurantist. The Royal Archivists’ Battalion were one of the few units who still refused to use steam-driven military drudges: the enlisted men’s duties were too delicate, their officers insisted, to be performed by anything other than a human. Yet humans brought special problems of their own, and it was undeniable that the men worked and slept easier for not knowing when they were patrolling within feet of the crated remnants of a captured Chinese military satellite and its midget operators, or leaning for a quiet cigarette against a box containing the inurned ashes of a Romanian vampire-prince of bloody reputation.

The Vault was the holy of holies, the secret of secrets. It had levels of security all of its own: a second, even more stringent array of physiognometric devices was supplemented by graphological and electrolytic tests, and the single door was guarded at all times, inside and out, by six heavily-armed Archivists.

For all these reasons, if there had happened to be an all-seeing observer watching the Vault at half past ten o’clock on the night of the third of March, 199–, the said observer would not have been expecting there to be a figure, clearly not an Archivist, creeping surreptitiously between the aisles of crates and peering at their stencilled designations. A slight and furtive figure muffled in bulky black coveralls would have been, so our hypothetical spectator might have thought, a precise example of the kind of thing that there most certainly should not, on this occasion or any other, have been.

There was such a figure, however; although there was not any such spectator, apart perhaps from that ubiquitous, omniscient Observer who oversees us all.

[Pax Britannia series elements © Abaddon Press 2005.]

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