The office dipped briefly into darkness, as Orothein the Thousand-Limbed swarmed in front of the sun then returned to His nest on the moon.
‘Active today, aren’t they?’ Mark said, sipping coffee from a giant mug. ‘Reckon there’ll be some claims coming in soon.’ He ran a hand through his hair, leaning in close to the computer screen and squinting at the spreadsheet.
The return of the Old Ones had its impacts. Those hibernating under the earth or in the sea had caused earthquakes and tsunamis when they rose, with regions tainted and lost to madness, mutation, and decay. But humanity was permitted to exist, and the Red Box Insurance Company gained substantial market share by pioneering policies covering their influence.
Tom put his coat on the back of his chair, sitting next to Mark. ‘Ugh, chaos out there!’
‘Trouble on the Tube?’
‘Non-euclidean geometry at Bank. It’s like an Escher painting in there, bloody paradoxes.’
‘Hate when they’re antsy.’
‘Took ages to figure out. Had to go up the same escalator three times then run down it once to get to the exit.’ Tom sighed, switching on his computer. ‘Good weekend, Mark, Jill?’
‘Saw that new Tom Cruise one,’ Jill said, swiveling at the opposing desk. ‘He’s not been the same since he joined the Cult of Skartel.’
‘Yeah. Better off in Scientology, really.’
‘Something you’d never expect to say,’ Mark said. ‘I didn’t get up to much, just lazing about all weekend.’
‘Those are the best,’ Jill said. ‘Still no Sandra, by the way.’
‘Hope she’s okay,’ Tom said. ‘I knew she had financial worries, but… ah, shit. Forget I said that.’
‘What?’ Mark said.
‘Stumbled into her rat-arsed at a club a few weeks back and she said something about it. Forget it, I wasn’t supposed to say.’
‘She’s in accounts, and she can’t…’
‘Mark,’ Jill said.
Mark put his hands up. ‘Say no more.’ He put in his headphones and got to work.
Jill made eye contact with Tom, glanced at Mark, then rolled her eyes. Tom smiled and shrugged. ‘I need coffee,’ he announced, getting up.
‘Same,’ Jill said, following to the machine.
‘Don’t pay too much attention to Mark,’ Tom said, rooting through cupboards for mugs. He passed one to Jill, gesturing for her to go first.
‘Thanks. He’s a bit of a dick, isn’t he?’ she said, pressing buttons.
‘Yeah, that’s just his way, his sense of humour.’ Coffee poured into her mug. She leaned on the counter blowing to cool it down while Tom set up his mug.
‘Had enough edgy comedians at my last job. The woman’s got a problem and hasn’t showed up for a while, you ought to feel bad… I heard some people downstairs saying she’d joined the Old Ones.’
Tom snorted. ‘Office gossip.’ The machine whined, struggling to trickle out at half the usual speed. ‘Damn thing acting up again.’
Signs put up in and around Bank Tube Station by the Human Defence Force told commuters how to travel through the distortion to their destinations, while they waited for an HDF squad to restore normality.
Sandra ignored the signs, barging against the stream of the crowd. She walked with purpose up a set of stairs, arriving at the bottom of the same set of stairs but with a new door on the left, went through the door and appeared on a ceiling, took a set of stairs back to the top of the original staircase, and went down them again. She went to the right and knocked on the wall, appearing in a cavern inaccessible through the three dimensions.
Water lit green by bacteria dripped on her head, splashes and footsteps on rock echoing around the chamber as she walked to the lectern at its centre. Her breath steamed in the cold, the only heat coming from the book. As she got closer the water became warmer, and she felt like she was getting sunburn.
Sandra stood by the rough-hewn stone lectern, water steaming at her feet, staring at the book. An item so ancient, its mistress sleeping from before the dawn of man until recently, yet bound in a patchwork of human skin.
She touched it with her finger, expecting her skin to burn. A tentacle slithered into her mind, filling it with a language older than the tongue. She opened the book and began to read aloud.
Mark was on the phone with a client when darkness fell again. ‘I’m sorry, Mr McCarthy, but your policy doesn’t cover second-hand mutations caused by thralls of Solowen.’ Mark glanced out the window, listening, as Orothein floated in front of the sun longer than usual, the gaps between his tendrils backlit red as they swayed.
‘Because it’s an exponentially growing effect. We can’t realistically provide that sort of cover in your region unless the premiums are astronomical.’ People were starting to gather at the window. Mark watched them whispering to each other, while Mr McCarthy continued. Cars below turned their lights on.
‘I’m sorry you’ve got extra ears, but I don’t see what I can do for you. I’m looking at the emails here, and I can see it was clearly stated what you were and weren’t getting covered for. I can pass you on to another claims operator if you like, but they’ll tell you the same thing.’
Orothein roared, a roar that somehow passed through the vacuum of space to buffet the earth. Everyone flinched. It was starting to get cool from the impromptu eclipse. ‘Okay, Mr McCarthy. Thanks, have a nice day.’ Mark passed the call up to someone else. ‘Today’ll be a tough one, I can feel it.’ He went for another coffee.
‘Glad I got one of these,’ Jill said to Tom, flashing an HDF self-defense pamphlet.
‘Ah,’ Tom said. ‘What sort of stuff is it?’
‘Nothing too hardcore. Simple glyphs for holding thralls off, preventing them speaking, the basic cross-running-water stuff.’
‘I’ve got one stuck in the sofa somewhere.’ Orothein allowed daylight to return.
‘Well, you never know.’
The coffee machine made a whirring sound, pouring out warm water. Mark groaned. ‘Come on!’ He fiddled around with it, not noticing the reaction of the office as Sandra strode from the lift.
He yelped, thinking boiling water had splashed on his hand, and saw Sandra, hair lanky and eyes too focused, her shoes dripping with green muck, holding a book close to him. He backed away, knocking a glass from the counter, the heat reducing as he got away from her.
She opened it and read out barbarous words that made the coffee machine shiver and spark, her hair turn into snakes, and everyone in the office see a vision of the earth forming as Orothein nudged fragments together with a thousand limbs, a swarm of Old Ones assembling from beyond the stars to bear witness. The carpet became sodden in cold water, beginning to glow green.
‘Behold!’ Sandra said. ‘Emeris, Lady of Secrets, calls on you to know Her wisdom, the forbidden, the ancient, the unspeakable truths kept from the eyes of man, the-’
She stopped talking as Jill slashed her hand with a pocketknife and drew a symbol in blood on the wall, then was rooted to the spot as she drew another. Tom gave Jill some paper towel and rang 999, asked for the HDF, and said they had a thrall with a book.
Mark straightened, nudged the glass shards to a corner with his foot, and said, ‘Nice one, Jill.’ He tried the machine again – which worked perfectly – and took the steaming mug back to his desk, his hands shaking a little, shoes squelching on the wet carpet.
An HDF team swiftly arrived to cart Sandra away, gagging her and packing the book inside a lead-lined case. They scoured the taint of Emeris with a rite before they left, the carpet steaming dry. Gradually people returned to work.
After a while, Mark spotted something on a spreadsheet. ‘Holy crap.’
‘What?’ Tom said.
‘Sandra took out a policy, last month. Juicy payout too. Unless it’s dismissed for fraud.’
‘It’s right here.’
Jill inspected her cut hand. ‘You think she arranged-’
Mark sipped coffee. ‘Maybe. I said there’d be claims coming in, didn’t I?’