Authors: Charles Stross
All bureaucracies obey certain iron laws, and one of the oldest is this: get your seasonal leave booked early, lest you be trampled in the rush.
I broke the rule this year, and now I’m paying the price. It’s not my fault I failed to book my Christmas leave in time—I was in hospital and heavily sedated. But the ruthless cut and thrust of office politics makes no allowance for those who fall in the line of battle: “You should have foreseen your hospitalization and planned around it” said the memo from HR when I complained. They’re quite right, and I’ve made a note to book in advance next time I’m about to be abducted by murderous cultists or enemy spies.
I briefly considered pulling an extended sickie, but Brenda from Admin has a heart of gold; she pointed out that if I volunteered as Night Duty Officer over the seasonal period I could not only claim triple pay and time off in lieu, I’d also be working three grades above my assigned role. For purposes of gaining experience points in the fast-track promotion game they’re steering me onto, that’s hard to beat. So here I am, in the office on Christmas Eve, playing bureaucratic Pokémon as the chilly rain drums on the roof.
(Oh, you wondered what Mo thinks of this? She’s off visiting her ditz of a mum down in Glastonbury. After last time we agreed it would be a good idea if I kept a low profile. Christmas: the one time of year when you can’t avoid the nuts in your family muesli. But I digress.)
* * *
Christmas: the season of goodwill towards all men—except for bank managers, credit scoring agencies, everyone who works in the greeting card business, and dodgy men in red suits who hang out in toy shops and scare small children by shouting
“ho ho HO!”
By the time I got out of hospital in September the Christmas seasonal displays were already going up in the shops: mistletoe and holly and metallized tinsel pushing out the last of summer’s tanning lotion and Hawaiian shirts.
I can’t say I’ve ever been big on the English Suburban Christmas. First you play join-the-dots with bank holidays and what’s left of your annual leave, to get as many consecutive days off work as possible. Then instead of doing something useful and constructive with it you gorge yourself into a turkey-addled stomach-bloating haze, drink too much cheap plonk, pick fights with the in-laws, and fall asleep on the sofa in front of the traditional family-friendly crap the BBC pumps out every December 25th in case the wee ones are watching. These days the little ’uns are all up in their rooms, playing
Chicks v. Zombies 8.0
with the gore dialled to splashy-giblets-halfway-up-the-walls (only adults bother watching TV as a social activity these days) but has Auntie Beeb noticed? Oh no they haven’t! So it’s crap pantomimes and Mary Poppins and re-runs of
The Two Ronnies
for you, sonny, whether you like it or not. It’s like being trapped in 1974 forever—and you can forget about escaping onto the internet: everybody else has had the same idea, and the tubes are clogged.
Alternatively you can spend Christmas alone in the office, where at least it’s quiet once everyone else has gone home. You can get some work done, or read a book, or surreptitiously play
Chicks v. Zombies 8.0
with the gore dialled down to suitable-for-adults. At least, that’s the way it’s supposed to work . . . except when it doesn’t, like now.
Let’s rewind a week:
I’m pecking away at a quality assessment form on my office PC when there’s a knock at the door. I glance up. It’s Bill from Security. “Are you busy right now?” he asks.
“Um.” My heart just about skips a beat. “Not really . . . ?”
Bill is one of our regular security officers: a former blue-suiter, salt-and-pepper moustache, silver comb-over, but keeps trim and marches everywhere like he’s still in the military. “It’s about your Christmas shift,” he says, smiling vaguely and hefting a bunch of keys the size of a hand grenade. “I’m supposed to show you the ropes, y’know? Seeing as how you’re on overnight duty next week.” He jangles the key ring. “If you can spare half an hour?”
My heartbeat returns to normal. I glance at the email on my computer screen: “Yeah, sure.” It’s taken me about five seconds to cycle from mild terror to abject relief; he’s not here to chew me out over the state of my trainers.
“Very good, sir. If you’d care to step this way?”
From Bill, even a polite request sounds a little like an order.
“You haven’t done the graveyard shift before, have you sir? There’s not a lot to it—usually. You’re required to remain in the building and on call at all times. Ahem, that’s within reason, of course: toilet breaks permitted—there’s an extension—and there’s a bunk bed. You probably won’t have to do anything, but in the unlikely event, well, you’re the
night duty officer
We climb a staircase, pass through a pair of singularly battered fire doors, and proceed at a quick march along a puce-painted corridor with high wired-glass windows, their hinges painted shut. Bill produces his keyring with a jangling flourish. “Behold! The duty officer’s watch room.”
We are in the New Annexe, a depressing New Brutalist slab of concrete that sits atop a dilapidated department store somewhere south of the Thames: electrically heated, poorly insulated, and none of the window frames fit properly. My department was moved here nearly a year ago, while they rebuild Dansey House (which will probably take a decade, because they handed it over to a public-private partnership). Nevertheless, the fittings and fixtures of the NDO’s office make the rest of the New Annexe look like a futuristic marvel. The khaki-painted steel frame of the bunk, topped with green wool blankets, looks like something out of a wartime movie—there’s even a fading poster on the wall that says CARELESS LIPS SINK SHIPS.
“This is a joke. Right?” I’m pointing at the green-screen terminal on the desk, and the huge dial-infested rotary phone beside it.
“No sir.” Bill clears his throat. “Unfortunately the NDO’s office budget was misfiled years ago and nobody knows the correct code to requisition new supplies. At least it’s warm in winter: you’re right on top of the classified document incinerator room, and it’s got the only chimney in the building.”
He points out aspects of the room’s dubious architectural heritage while I’m scoping out the accessories. I poke at the rusty electric kettle: “Will anyone say anything if I bring my own espresso maker?”
“I think they’ll say ‘that’s a good idea,’ sir. Now, if you’d care to pay attention, let me talk you through the call management procedures and what to do in event of an emergency.”
* * *
The Laundry, like any other government bureaucracy, operates on a 9-to-5 basis—except for those inconvenient bits that don’t. The latter tend to be field operations of the kind where, if something goes wrong, they really
want to find themselves listening to the voicemail system saying, “Invasions of supernatural brain-eating monsters can only be dealt with during core business hours. Please leave a message after the beep.” (Supernatural? Why, yes: we’re that part of Her Majesty’s government that deals with occult technologies and threats. Certain abstruse branches of pure mathematics can have drastic consequences in the real world—we call them “magic”—by calling up the gibbering horrors with which we unfortunately share a multiverse [and the platonic realm of mathematical truth]. Given that computers are tools that can be used for performing certain classes of calculation
, it should come as no surprise that Applied Computational Demonology has been a growth area in recent years.)
My job, as Night Duty Officer, is to sit tight and answer the phone. In the unlikely event that it rings, I have a list of numbers I can call. Most of them ring through to duty officers in other departments, but one of them calls through to a special Army barracks in Hereford, another goes straight to SHAPE in Brussels—that’s NATO’s European theatre command HQ—and a third dials direct to the COBRA briefing room in Downing Street. Nobody in the Laundry has ever had to get the Prime Minister out of bed in the small hours, but there’s always a first time: more importantly, it’s the NDO’s job to make that call if a sufficiency of shit hits the fan on his watch.
I’ve also got a slim folder (labelled TOP SECRET and protected by disturbing wards that flicker across the cover like electrified floaters in the corners of my vision) that contains a typed list of codewords relating to secret operations. It doesn’t say what the operations
, but it lists the supervisors associated with them—the people to call if one of the agents hits the panic button.
I’ve got an office to hang out in. An office with a bunk bed like something out of a fifties
film about conscript life in the army, a chimney for the wind to whistle down (the better to keep me awake), a desk with an ancient computer terminal (shoved onto the floor to make room for my laptop), and a kettle (there’s a bathroom next door with a sink, a toilet, and a shower that delivers an anemic trickle of tepid water). There’s even a portable black-and-white TV with a cheap Freeview receiver (this is the first year since they discontinued analog broadcasting) in case I feel compelled to watch reruns of
The Two Ronnies
All the modern conveniences, in other words. . . .
* * *
The Office Party is scheduled to take place on Wednesday afternoon, from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. sharp.
As civil servants, however irregular, we’re not paid enough to compete with the bankers and corporate Tarquins and Jocastas who fill most of the office blocks in this part of the city; even in these straitened times they can afford to drop a couple of hundred notes per head on bubbly. So we don’t get a posh restaurant outing: instead we have to tart up the staff canteen with some added tinsel, fake snow spray on the windows, and a molting pine tree in a pot by the fire exit.
Pinky and Brains kindly installed their home stereo—homemade, not homesized—in the number two lecture theatre, for the obligatory dance; Elinor and Beth (with a nod and a wink from Oversight) hit on an outside caterer for the sort of comestibles essential to a party and unheard-of in a civil service canteen (which could manage cupcakes and sherry trifle if push came to shove, but whose idea of pizza or curry is ghastly beyond belief).
There’s a Dunkirk spirit to the whole affair: with the new government in the driving seat, wielding the chainsaw of budget cuts, there’s not a lot of luxury to go round. But we’re good at make-do-and-mend in this department—it’s bred in our bureaucratic bones—and with the aid of a five hundred quid ents budget (to cover the hundred odd folks who work here), we make it work.
There is a humdrum ritual for an office Christmas party anywhere in England. The morning beforehand, work takes on a lackadaisical feel. Meetings are truncated by 11 a.m.; agendas updated, email filters set to vacation. Some folks—the few, the lucky—begin to clear their desk drawers, for they know they shall not be coming back to work until the new year. A wilted air of festivity wafts through the corridors of power, like a slightly moist crêpe banner.
“Bob?” I look up from my Minesweeper session: it’s Andy, my sometime manager, leaning in the doorway. “You coming to lunch?”
I stretch, then mouse over to the screen lock. “Is it that time already?” I don’t work for Andy these days, but he seems to take a proprietorial interest in how I’m doing.
“Yes.” His head bounces up and down. He looks slightly guilty, like a schoolboy whose been caught with his hands in the sweets jar once too often. “Is Mo . . . ?”
“She’s off-site today.” I stand up. Actually she’s over in Research and Development, quaffing port with the double-domes, dammit—an altogether more civilized session than this one. “We were planning on meeting up later.”
“Well, come on then. Wouldn’t want to miss the decent seats for the floor show, would we?”
“Floor show?” I close the door behind us.
“Yes, we have a visitor from Forecasting Ops. I got the email a couple of days ago. One Dr. Kringle has condescended to descend and give us some sort of pep talk about the year ahead.”
“Kringle?” My cheek twitches. The name’s unfamiliar. “From Forecasting Ops? Who are they . . .” I’ve heard rumors about them, but nothing concrete: it’s probably one of those vague backwaters beavering away in isolation. Why on earth would they want to send someone to talk to us now?