Read the second instalment from award-winning author China Miéville’s new paperback Kraken
An impossible theft, A legendary beast, A holy war
Deep in the research wing of the Natural History Museum is a prize specimen, something that comes along much less often than once in a lifetime: a perfect, and perfectly preserved, giant squid. But what does it mean when the creature suddenly and impossibly disappears?
For curator Billy Harrow it's the start of a headlong pitch into a London of warring cults, surreal magic, apostates and assassins. It might just be that the creature he's been preserving is more than a biological rarity: there are those who are sure it's a god.
A god that someone is hoping will end the world.
“It’s like late summer brings out the weirdos,” Billy had said to his friend Leon, a few nights back, as they drank at a Thames pub. “Someone came in all Starfleet badges today. Not on my shift, sadly.”
“Fascist,” Leon had said. “Why are you so prejudiced against nerds?”
“Please,” Billy said. “That would be a bit self-hating, wouldn’t it?”
“Yeah, but you pass. You’re like, you’re in deep cover,” Leon said. “You can sneak out of the nerd ghetto and hide the badge and bring back food and clothes and word of the outside world.”
“Alright,” Billy said as colleagues passed him. “Kath,” he said to an ichthyologist; “Brendan,” to another curator, who answered him, “Alright Tubular?”
“Onward please,” said Billy. “And don’t worry, we’re getting to the good stuff.”
Tubular? Billy could see one or two of his escortees wondering if they had misheard.
The nickname resulted from a drinking session in Liverpool with colleagues, back in his first year at the centre. It was the annual conference of the professional curatorial society. After a day of talks on methodologies and histories of preservation, on museum schemes and the politics of display, the evening’s wind-down had started with polite how-did-you-get-into-this?, turned into everyone at the bar one-by-one talking about their childhoods, those meanderings, in boozy turn, becoming a session of what someone had christened Biography Bluff. Everyone had to cite some supposedly extravagant fact about themselves—they once ate a slug, they’d been part of a foursome, they tried to burn their school down, and so on—the truth of which the others would then brayingly debate.
Billy had straight-faced claimed that he had been the result of the world’s first-ever successful in vitro fertilisation, but that he had been disavowed by the laboratory because of internal politics and a question mark over issues of consent, which was why the official laurel had gone to someone else a few months after his birth. Interrogated about details, he had with drunken effortlessness named doctors, the location, a minor complication of the procedure. But before bets were made and his reveal made, the conversation had taken a sudden turn and the game had been abandoned. It was two days later, back in London, before a lab-mate asked him if it was true.
“Absolutely,” Billy had said, in an expressionless teasing way that meant either “of course,” or “of course not.” He had stuck by that response since. Though he doubted anyone believed him, the nickname “Test-tube” and variants were still used.
THEY PASSED ANOTHER GUARD: a big, truculent man, all shaved head and muscular fatness. He was some years older than Billy, named Dane Something, from what Billy had overheard. Billy nodded and tried to meet his eye, as he always did. Dane Whatever, as he always did, ignored the little greeting, to Billy’s disproportionate resentment.
As the door swung shut, though, Billy saw Dane acknowledge someone else. The guard nodded momentarily at the intense young man with the lapel pin, the obsessive, whose eyes flickered in the briefest response. Billy saw that, in surprise, and just before the door closed between them, Billy saw Dane see him looking.
DANE’S ACQUAINTANCE DID NOT meet his eyes. “You feel it get cool?” Billy said, shaking his head. He sped them through timerelease doors. “To stop evaporation. We have to be careful about fire. Because, you know, there’s a fair old bit of alcohol in here, so . . .” With his hands he made a soft explosion.
The visitors stopped still. They were in a specimen maze. Ranked intricacies. Kilometres of shelves and jars. In each was a motionless floating animal. Even sound sounded bottled suddenly, as if something had put a lid on it all.
The specimens mindlessly concentrated, some posing with their own colourless guts. Flatfish in browning tanks. Jars of huddled mice gone sepia, grotesque mouthfuls like pickled onions. There were sports with excess limbs, foetuses in arcane shapes. They were as carefully shelved as books. “See?” Billy said.
One more door and they would be with what they were there to see. Billy knew from repeated experience how this would go.
When they entered the tank room, the chamber at the heart of the Darwin Centre, he would give the visitors a moment without prattle. The big room was walled with more shelves. There were hundreds more bottles, from those chest-high down to those the size of a glass of water. All of them contained lugubrious animal faces. It was a Linnaean décor; species clined into each other. There were steel bins, pulleys that hung like vines. No one would notice. Everyone would be staring at the great tank in the centre of the room.
This was what they came for, that pinkly enormous thing. For all its immobility; the wounds of its slow-motion decay, the scabbing that clouded its solution; despite its eyes being shrivelled and lost; its sick colour; despite the twist in its skein of limbs, as if it were being wrung out. For all that, it was what they were there for.
It would hang, an absurdly massive tentacled sepia event. Architeuthis dux . The giant squid.
“IT’S 8.62 METRES LONG,” Billy would say at last. “Not the largest we’ve ever seen, but no tiddler either.” The visitors would circle the glass. “They found it in 2004, off the Falkland Islands.
“It’s in a saline-Formalin mix. That tank was made by the same people that do the ones for Damian Hirst. You know, the one he put the shark in?” Any children would be leaning in to the squid, as close as they could get.
“Its eyes would have been twenty-three or twenty-four centimetres across,” Billy would say. People would measure with their fingers, and children opened their own eyes mimicry-wide. “Yeah, like plates. Like dinner plates.” He said it every time, every time thinking of Hans Christian Andersen’s dog. “But it’s very hard to keep eyes fresh, so they’re gone. We injected it with the same stuff that’s in the tank to stop it rotting from the inside.
“It was alive when it was caught.”
That would mean gasps all over again. Visions of an army of coils, twenty thousand leagues, an axe-fight against a blasphemy from the deep below. A predatory meat cylinder, rope limbs unrolling, finding a ship’s rail with ghastly prehensility.
It had been nothing like that. A giant squid at the surface was a weak, disoriented, moribund thing. Horrified by air, crushed by its own self, it had probably just wheezed through its siphon and palsied, a gel mass of dying. That did not matter. Its breach was hardly reducible to however it had actually been.
The squid would stare with its handspan empty sockets and Billy would answer familiar questions—“It’s name is Archie.” “Because of Architeuthis . Get it?” “Yes, even though we think it’s a girl.”
When it had come, wrapped in ice and preservative cloth, Billy had helped unswaddle it. It was he who had massaged its dead flesh, kneading the tissue to feel where preservatives had spread. He had been so busy on it it was as if he had not noticed it, quite, somehow. It was only when they were done and finished, and it was tanked, that it had hit him, had really got him. He had watched refraction make it shift as he approached or moved away, a magic motionless motion.
It wasn’t a type-specimen, one of those bottled Platonic essences that define everything like them. Still, the squid was complete, and it would never be cut.
Other specimens in the room would eventually snare a bit of visitor attention. A ribbon-folded oarfish, an echidna, bottles of monkeys. And there at the end of the room was a glass-fronted cabinet containing thirteen small jars.
“Anyone know what these are?” Billy would say. “Let me show you.”
They were distinguished by the browning ink and antique angularity of the hand that had labelled them. “These were collected by someone quite special,” Billy would say to any children. “Can you read that word? Anyone know what that means? ‘The Beagle ’?”
Some people got it. If they did they would gape at the subcollection that sat there unbelievably on an everyday shelf. Little animals collected, euthanised, preserved and catalogued on a journey to the South American seas, two centuries before, by the young naturalist Charles Darwin.
“That’s his writing,” Billy would say. “He was young, he hadn’t sorted out his really big notions when he found these. These are part of what gave him the whole idea. They’re not finches but these are what got the whole thing started. It’s the anniversary of his trip soon.”
Very rarely, someone would try to argue with him over Darwin’s insight. Billy would not have that debate.
Even those thirteen glass eggs of evolutionary theory, and all the centuries’-worth of tea-coloured crocodiles and deep-sea absurdities, evinced only a little interest next to the squid. Billy knew the importance of that Darwin stuff, whether visitors did or not. No matter. Enter that room and you breached a Schwarzschild radius of something not canny, and that cephalopod corpse was the singularity.
THAT, BILLY KNEW, WAS how it would go. But this time when he opened the door he stopped, and stared for several seconds. The visitors came in behind him, stumbling past his immobility. They waited, unsure of what they were being shown.
The centre of the room was empty. All the jars looked over the scene of a crime. The nine-metre tank, the thousands of gallons of brine-Formalin, the dead giant squid itself were gone.
AS SOON AS BILLY started clamouring he was surrounded by colleagues, all gaping and demanding to know what was going on and what the hell, where was, where was the goddamn squid?
They hurried the visitors out of the building. Afterwards, all Billy recalled of that rushed dismissal was the little boy sobbing, desolate that he had not been shown what he had come to see. Biologists, guards, curators came and stared with stupid faces at the enormous lack in the tank room. “What . . .?” they said, just like Billy had, and “Where did . . .?”
Word spread. People ran from place to place as if they were looking for something, as if they had misplaced something, and might find it under a cupboard.
“It can’t have, it can’t have,” a biophysicist called Josie said, and yes, no, it couldn’t have, not disappeared, so many metres of abyss meat could not have gone. There were no suspicious cranes. There were no giant tank- nor squid-shaped holes cartoon-style in the wall. It could not have gone, but there it was, not.
There was no protocol for this. What to do in the event of a chemical spill—that was planned. If a specimen jar broke, if results did not tally, even if a tour member became violent, you run a particular algorithm. This though, Billy thought. What the hell ?
THE POLICE ARRIVED AT last, coming in a stampy gang. The staff stood waiting, huddled exactly as if cold, as if drenched in benthic water. Officers tried to take statements.
“I don’t understand, I’m afraid . . .” one might say.
“It’s gone .”
The crime scene was off-limits, but since Billy was the discoverer he was allowed to stay. He gave his statement, standing by the lack. When he was done and his questioner distracted, he stepped aside. He watched the police work. Officers looked at the antique once-animals that eyed them back, at the no giant tank, at the nowhere anything so big and missing as Architeuthis could be.
They measured the room as if maybe the dimensions were hiding things. Billy had no better ideas. The room looked huge. All the other tanks looked forlorn and far away, the specimens apologetic.
Billy stared at the stands on which the Architeuthis tank should be. He was still adrenalised. He listened to the officers.
“Search me for a fucking clue, mate . . .”
“Shit, you know what this means, don’t you?”
“Don’t even get me started. Hand me that tape measure.”
“Seriously, I’m telling you, this is a handover, no question . . .”
“What are you waiting for, mate? Mate?” That was to Billy, at last. An officer was telling him just-courteously to fuck off. He joined the rest of the staff outside. They milled and muttered, congregating roughly by jobs. Billy saw a debate among directors.
“What’s that about?” he said.
“Whether or not to close the museum,” Josie said. She was biting her nails.
“What?” Billy said. He took off his glasses and blinked at them aggressively. “What’s the sodding debate? How big does something have to be before its nickage closes us down?”
“Ladies and Gents.” A senior policeman clapped his hands for attention. His officers surrounded him. They were muttering to and listening to their shoulders. “I’m Chief Inspector Mulholland. Thanks for your patience, I’m sorry to’ve kept you all waiting.” The staff huffed, shifted, bit their nails.
“I’m going to ask you to please not talk about this, ladies and gents,” Mulholland said. A young female officer slipped into the room. Her uniform was unkempt. She was speaking on some phone hands-free, muttering at nothing visible. Billy watched her. “Please don’t talk about this,” Mulholland said again. The whispering in the room mostly ceased.
“Now,” Mulholland said, after a pause. “Who was it found it gone?” Billy put up his hand. “You, then, would be Mr. Harrow,” Mulholland said. “Can I ask the rest of you to wait, even if you’ve already told us what you know? My officers’ll speak to you all.”
“Mr. Harrow.” Mulholland approached him as the staff obeyed. “I’ve read your statement. I’d be grateful if you’d show me around. Could you take me on exactly the route you did with your tour?” Billy saw that the young female officer had gone.
“What is it you’re looking for?” he said. “You think you’re going to find it . . .?”
Mulholland looked at him kindly, as if Billy were slow. “Evidence.”
Evidence. Billy ran his hand through his hair. He imagined marks on the floor where some huge perfidious pulley system might have been. Drying puddles of preserver in a trail as telltale as crumbs. Right.
Mulholland summoned colleagues, and had Billy walk them through the centre. Billy pointed out what they passed in a terse parody of his usual performance. The officers poked at bits and pieces and asked what they were. “An enzyme solution,” Billy said, or, “That’s a time sheet.”
Mulholland said: “Are you alright, Mr. Harrow?”
“It’s kind of a big thing, you know?”
That wasn’t the only reason Billy glanced repeatedly behind him. He thought he heard a noise. A very faint clattering, a clanking like a dropped and rolling beaker. It was not the first time he had heard that. He had been catching little snips of such misplaced sound at random moments since a year after he had started at the centre. More than once he had, trying to find the cause, opened a door onto an empty room, or heard a faint grind of glass in a hallway no one could have entered.
He had concluded a long time ago that it was his mind inventing these just-heard noises. They correlated with moments of anxiety. He had mentioned the phenomenon to people, and though some had reacted with alarm, many told some anecdote about horripilation or twitches when they were under pressure, and Billy remained fairly sanguine.
In the tank room the forensic team was still dusting, photographing, measuring tabletops. Billy folded his arms and shook his head.
“It’s those Californian sods.” When he returned to where most of the staff were waiting he joked quietly about rival institutes to a workmate outside the tank room. About disputes over preservation methodology that had taken a dramatic turn. “It’s the Kiwis,” Billy said. “O’Shea finally gave in to temptation.”
* * *
HE DID NOT GO straight back to his flat. He had a long-standing arrangement to meet a friend.
Billy had known Leon since they had been undergraduates at the same institute, though in different departments. Leon was enrolled in a PhD course in a literature department in London, though he never talked about it. He had since forever been working on a book called Uncanny Blossom . When Leon had told him, Billy had said, “I had no idea you were entering the Shit Title Olympics.”
“If you didn’t swim in your sump of ignorance you’d know that title’s designed to fuck with the French. Neither word’s translatable into their ridiculous language.”
Leon lived in a just-plausible rim of Hoxton. He camped up his role as Virgil to Billy’s Dante, taking Billy to art happenings or telling him about those he could not attend, exaggerating and lying about what they entailed. Their game was that Billy was in permanent anecdote overdraft, always owed Leon stories. Leon, skinny and shaven-headed and in a foolish jacket, sat in the cold outside the pizzeria with his long legs stretched out.
“Where’ve you been all my life, Richmal?” he shouted. He had long ago decided that blue-eyed Billy was named for another naughty boy, the William of Just William , and had illogically rechristened him for the book’s author.
“Chipping Norton,” said Billy, patting Leon’s head. “Theydon Bois. How’s the life of the mind?”
Marge, Leon’s partner, inclined her face for a kiss. The crucifix she always wore glinted.
He had only met her a few times. “She a god-botherer?” Billy had asked Leon after he first met her.
“Hardly. Convent girl. Hence tiny Jesus-shaped guilt trip between her tits.” She was, as Leon’s girlfriends were more often than not, attractive and a little heavy, somewhat older than Leon, too old for the dilute emo-goth look she maintained. “Say Rubenesque or zaftig at your peril,” Leon had said.
“What’s zaftig?” Billy said.
“And fuck you ‘too old,’ Pauley Perrette’s way older.”
Marge worked part-time at Southwark Housing Department and made video art. She had met Leon at a gig, some drone band playing in a gallery. Leon had deflected Billy’s Simpsons joke and told him that she was one of those people who had renamed herself, that Marge was short for Marginalia.
“Oh what ? What’s her real name?”
“Billy,” Leon had said. “Don’t be such a wet blanket.”
“We’ve been watching a weird bunch of pigeons outside a bank is what we’ve been up to,” Leon said as Billy sat.
“We’ve been arguing about books,” said Marge.
“Best sort of argument,” said Billy. “What was the substance?”
“Don’t sidetrack him,” said Leon, but Marge was already answering: “Virginia Woolf versus Edward Lear.”
“Christ Alive,” said Billy. “Are those my only choices?”
“I went for Lear,” said Leon. “Partly out of fidelity to the letter L.
Partly because given the choice between nonsense and boojy wittering you blatantly have to choose nonsense.”
“You obviously haven’t read the glossary to Three Guineas ,” said Marge. “You want nonsense? She calls ‘soldiers’ ‘gutsgruzzlers,’ ‘heroism’ equals ‘botulism,’ ‘hero’ equals ‘bottle.’”
“Lear?” Billy said. “Really? In the Land of the Fiddly-Faddly, the BinkerlyBonkerly roams.” He took off his glasses and pinched the top of his nose. “Alright, let me tell you something. Here’s the thing,” he said at last and then whatever, it stalled. Leon and Marge stared at him.
Billy tried again. He shook his head. He clucked as if something were stuck in his mouth. He had at last almost to shove the information past his own teeth. “One of . . . Our giant squid is missing.” Saying it felt like puncturing a lid.
“What?” Leon said.
“I don’t . . .,” Marge said.
“No, it doesn’t make any more sense to me.” He told them, step by impossible step.
“Gone? What do you mean ‘gone’? Why haven’t I heard anything about it?” Leon said at last.
“I don’t know. I’d have thought it would have . . . I mean, the police asked us to keep it secret—oops, look what I did—but I didn’t expect that to actually work. I’d thought it would be all over the Standard by now.”
“Maybe it’s a what-d’you-call-it, a D-Notice?” Leon said. “You know, one of those things where they stop journalists talking about stuff?”
Billy shrugged. “They’re not going to be able to . . . Half that tour group have probably blogged the shit out of it by now.”
“Someone’s probably registered bigsquidgone dot com,” Marge said.
Billy shrugged. “Maybe. You know, when I was on my way, I was thinking about maybe I shouldn’t . . . I almost didn’t tell you myself. Obviously put the fear of God in me. But the big issue for me’s not that the cops didn’t want us to tell: it’s the whole ‘totally impossible’ thing.”
THERE WAS A STORM that night as he headed home, a horrible one that fi lled the air with bad electricity. Clouds turned the sky dark brown. The roofs streamed like urinals.
As he entered his Haringay flat, precisely at the second he crossed the threshold, Billy’s phone rang. He stared through the window at the sodden trees and roofs. Across the street, a twirl of rubbishy wind was gusting around some klaggy-looking squirrel on a rooftop. The squirrel shook its head and watched him.
“Hello?” he said. “Yeah, this is Billy Harrow.”
“. . . somethingsomething, ’bout damn time you got back. So you’re coming in, yeah?” a woman on the line said.
“Wait, what?” The squirrel was still staring at him. Billy gave it the finger and mouthed Sod off . He turned from the window and tried to pay attention. “Who is this, sorry?” he said.
“Will you bloody listen? Better at shooting your mouth than listening, ain’t you? Police, mate. Tomorrow. Got it?”
“Police?” he said. “You want me back to the museum? You want—”
“ No . The station. Fuck’s sake clean your ears.” Silence. “You there?”
“. . . Look, I don’t appreciate the way you’re—”
“Yeah, I don’t appreciate you gabbing away when you was told not to.” She gave him an address. He frowned as he scribbled it on some takeout menu.
“Where? That’s Cricklewood . That’s nowhere near the museum. What’s . . .? Why did they send someone from up there down to the museum . . .?”
“We’re done, mate. Just get there. Tomorrow.” She rang off and left him staring at the mouthpiece in his chilly room. The windows made sounds in the wind, as if they were bowing. Billy stared at the phone. He was annoyed that he felt obliged to acquiesce to that last order.
The paperback edition of Kraken is available now from Amazon, here . You can read the opening of the book in the current issue of SFX, on sale now. Sign up to hear more about China's new releases and other great books from Tor UK here .
China Miéville lives and works in London. He is the three-time winner of the Arthur C Clarke Award, twice winner of the British Fantasy Award and this year’s winner of the Hugo and World Fantasy Award.
He's the author of Perdido Street Station and acclaimed Young Adult novel Un Lun Dun . As well as writing fantastic fiction, China’s PhD thesis has been turned into a book, Between Equal Rights: A Marxist Theory of International Law , published in 2005. China's new hardback Embassytown is published in May 2011.