Since Marvel Comics has S.H.I.E.L.D., S.W.O.R.D., S.P.E.A.R., A.R.M.O.R., and briefly H.A.M.M.E.R., I decided to come up with my own secret agency with a melee combat acronym.
The origins of the Applied Xenoscience Executive are, to put it mildly, murky. In World War II, a memo from the S.O.E. with Winston Churchill’s signature proposed an Allied Xenoscience Executive. No copy of this memo appears in Churchill’s papers, and no other documents from World War II mention such an agency. The memo itself is a master class in doubletalk and obfuscation. Depending on the reader’s background and beliefs, one could believe A.X.E. was a cryptography group that discovered occult-sounding nonsense was a clever code for practical weapons projects, a disinformation campaign to encourage Nazi pseudoscience over science, or a weapons project involving newly discovered physical principles1.
Reading between the lines, the wartime A.X.E. task force investigated Nazi occult and fringe science projects; if a project had concrete results, A.X.E. had authority to sabotage the Nazi effort and weaponize project results for the Allies. The neologism xenoscience sounds much better than “magic”.
Whether A.X.E. had the ability to investigate and hobble said projects was another matter. Even classified archives lack any documentation one might expect from an active organization: no budgets or requisitions, no personnel records, no action reports. Rumors persist, however, that this group did meddle in occult-related Axis projects:
Recent research demonstrates that the Spear of Longinus, or at least what remains of it, is a clever fake. Research prior to WWII used identical methods, including carbon dating of the wooden shaft, to confirm its authenticity. One can only conclude someone replaced the original to keep Hitler from acquiring it. The whereabouts of the original are unknown.
Vague and contradictory reports of Die Glocke (“The Bell”) indicate that it may have once opened a doorway between realities. Later experiments apparently made subjects ill, possibly mentally unstable. An apocryphal account suggests that an American naval vessel transported an apparatus similar to Die Glocke from an unspecified liberated French town to Bethesda, Maryland.
The U.S. Government may have taken possession of the Ark of the Covenant, under undisclosed circumstances. Its current location is also unknown.
After the war, A.X.E. retitled itself the Applied Xenoscience Executive. Under the leadership of the mysterious N., it investigated Soviet psychics, the Haitian zombie legend, and surreal events in a small South American village. Preliminary reports suggest A.X.E. failed to find a basis for these phenomena, but the agency never submitted final reports and no one asked for them.
In fact, A.X.E. has verified many paranormal and magical phenomena. Its also amassed warehouses full of religious, occult, and sorcerous artifacts.
Turning these discoveries into weapons or even peacetime applications has proved unbelievably difficult, due to the nature of what we call “magic”:
It’s extremely difficult to measure most paranormal effects. Skeptics might (rightly) attribute results to coincidence, statistical error, or flaws in the experiment.
Even when isolated, it’s hard to replicate paranormal effects. Psychics and sorcerers with reliable powers are extraordinarily rare, perhaps one in ten million. Mystical and divine artifacts tend to activate only under specific conditions, many of which have yet to be fully identified.
Unlike technology, paranormal abilities don’t transfer from one person to another. The lucky few with inherent paranormal power require extensive practice and research to control them. Specifics vary wildly from individual to individual, and many don’t survive the experience. Even mystical artifacts effectively select which individuals can wield them, using criteria as yet unknown.
Xenoscience, a.k.a. magic, suffers from its own Observer Effect. Reality resists overt defiance of natural laws, and the more potential witnesses to an event the more reality resists. Unlike the alleged effects of skeptics on paranormal experiments, this effect is real and measurable. In addition, even when a paranormal effect occurs many potential witnesses will miss it; as lawyers and police already know, accounts of mundane events may have irreconcilable inconsistencies. Some research suggests that paranormal powers manifest more readily if observers can attribute the effect to known causes, e.g. a pseudo-technological device, a widely believed myth, or simple coincidence. Other paranormal researchers dispute the “Consensus Reality” hypothesis, although so far no one has suggested an alternative mechanism.
Even with these restricitions carefully selected and highly trained agents of A.X.E. can and have used paranormal effects on covert missions. The covert nature of said missions makes paranormal techniques easier.
A.X.E. has no central headquarters. Its current leader is still called simply “N.”; whether it’s the same individual from the 1940s is unclear. Their base of operations is likewise unknown.
A.X.E. is distributed among dozens, perhaps hundreds of cells, shell companies, and hidden facilities. All units operate independently with little (overt) oversight; field units frequently plan and execute their own missions using mostly their own intel. Each unit knows perhaps one or two contacts that represent the larger organization, to be used only in exceptional circumstances. Most communication relies on Cold War techniques: dead drops, anonymous handoffs, coded messages in newspaper personal ads, etc. In the Information Age agents, handlers, and higher-ups make full use of industrial-grade cryptography, darknet sites, and Internet anonymity.
Cells typically operate out of innocent storefronts, ordinary looking houses with distant neighbors, and seemingly abandoned farms and factories. While the cell headquarters may appear low budget, each cell requires a fairly large budget. Expenses include salaries for core personnel, payments to informants and assorted external assets, advanced information technology, advance sorcerous components, and bribes to local authorities who look the other way.
The euphemism xenoscience masks A.X.E.’s actual operational remit, but it does cause confusion in those sister agencies cleared to know A.X.E. exists. The most common misconception is that A.X.E. handles extraterrestrial “aliens” or their technology. (That’s a completely different organization.) Consequently an operative chanting in a pre-human language and waving a chicken foot confuses them.
Slightly more informed agencies believe A.X.E. hunts werewolves, slays vampires, or busts ghosts. A.X.E. agents may occasionally do those things when they further mission objectives. Agents most commonly deal with forces and entities far beyond the ghoulies and ghosties and long-leggedy beasties of folklore (despite some rough similarities). Agents of REDACTED handle human and human-like ultraterrestrials; agents of A.X.E. battles the mind-bending and horrific ones. Even more than most covert operatives, A.X.E. agents must complete missions with unreliable intel and unknown (and possibly unknowable) resistance.
Some outsiders call A.X.E. “The Ministry of Magic”, but not for long. The joke veteran A.X.E. agents hate most involves body spray.
Primarily Marvel’s S.H.I.E.L.D. from comics, movies and TV, but also:
- The Laundry Files novels by Charles Stross
- John LeCarre’s novels, particularly the Smiley books
- just about anything by Thomas Ligotti, mainly for post-Lovecraftian threats
- Declare, Last Call, On Stranger Tides, and The Stress of Her Regard by Tim Powers, mainly for subtle magic with its own strange rules
For eclectic teams of the paranormally gifted/cursed:
- Agents of Atlas and sequels (Marvel)
- Doom Patrol, any series (DC)
- Hellboy (Dark Horse)
- The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (DC)
- New Avengers 2015-2016 and U.S. Avengers (Marvel)
- Ultimates 2016 and Ultimates 2 (Marvel)
For trippy magical realities:
- Books of Magic miniseries by Neil Gaiman (DC/Vertigo)
- Doctor Strange, pretty much every series (Marvel)
- Sandman by Neil Gaiman (DC/Vertigo)
For troublesome artifacts:
- Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb (1973)
- Cronos (1993)
- The Evil Dead (1981) and Evil Dead II (1987)
- Five Million Miles To Earth, a.k.a. Quatermass and the Pit (1967)
- Hellraiser (1987)
- Hellbound: Hellraiser II (1988)
- Raiders of the Lost Ark
For shifting realities:
- The Descent (2005)
- Event Horizon (1997); wrong genre, but closer to a A.X.E.-style extradimensional incursion than the traditional angry sushi
- Lord of Illusions (1995)
- Paprika (2006)
- Silent Hill (2006), although I expect the video games are better
For covert organizations defending against paranormal threats:
- Hellboy (2004)
- Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2006)
- Men in Black (1997)
For occult black ops and spy inspiration:
- Delta Green (Arc Dream)
- Esoterrorists (Pelgrane Press)
- “Moon Dust Men” and “MAJESTIC Overwatch” in the Ken Writes Stuff series (Pelgrane Press)
- Night’s Black Agents (Pelgrane Press)
For atypical magic and occult inspiration:
- Enlightened Magic supplement for BRP (Chaosium)2
- “Die Glock” and “The Spear of Destiny” in the Ken Writes Stuff series (Pelgrane Press)
- GURPS Voodoo (Steve Jackson Games)
- The King in Yellow RPG, (Pelgrane Press)
- Mage: the Ascension (White Wolf/Onyx Path)
- Numenera (Monte Cook Games), mainly for introducing me to the term “ultraterrestrial”
- Unknown Armies (Atlas Games)
- The Blacklist
- Buffy the Vampire Slayer
- Kolchak: the Night Stalker
- Paranoia Agent
- Sapphire and Steel
- Stranger Things
- X-Files (back when it was good)