Introduced to readers in the novels The Atrocity Archive and The Jennifer Morgue, the Laundry is a secret British government agency charged with preventing dark interdimensional entities from destroying the human race. Now, in “Overtime,” the Laundry is on a skeleton staff for Christmas—leaving one bureaucrat to be all that stands between the world and annihilation by the Thing That Comes Down Chimneys. Written especially for the Tor.com holiday season, Charles Stross’s novelette is a finalist for the 2010 Hugo Award.
Charles Stross is the Hugo-winning author of some of the most acclaimed novels and stories of the last ten years, including Singularity Sky, Accelerando, Halting State, the “Merchant Princes” series beginning with The Family Trade, and the story collections Toast and Wireless.
About the Author
Charles Stross lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.
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By Charles Stross, Carl Wiens
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2009 Charles Stross
All rights reserved.
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 key ring 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 don't 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 really fast, 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 are, 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 Carry On 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?
"Yes, exactly." Andy spares me a sidelong glance. "Don't ask me, all I know is what I found in my inbox. Mail from HR, let him give a little motivational pep talk at the party. Don't worry," he adds quietly, "it'll all work out for the best in the end. You'll see. Just sit tight and bite your tongue." I get it. Andy is wearing his bearer-of-bad-news face while steering me towards the junior officer's bench. Something is about to come down the chute, and all the Christmas cheer in the world isn't going to cover up the stench of manure. As a management-grade employee — albeit a junior one — I'm required to show solidarity. Hence being tipped the nod and a wink.
I begin to wonder what it can possibly be.
* * *
The Duty Officer's room is upstairs, just under the gently pitched roof of the New Annexe. There's a wired-shut skylight, and the wind howls and gibbers overhead: occasionally there's a sound like gravel on concrete as an errant gust flings a cupful of freezing cold water at the glass, followed by a hollow booming noise from the chimney. The chimney is indeed warm, but it's cooling fast: I guess they've shut down the incinerator over the holiday period. It's just past eleven at night, and there's no way in hell I'm going to be able to sleep while the storm is blowing.
When the holiday falls on a weekend day (as Boxing Day does this year) everyone gets a day off in lieu at the beginning of the following week except the Night Duty Officer, who is in it for up to four days at triple pay — as long as he doesn't go mad with boredom first.
I've been on duty for six hours and I've already caught up on my work email — at least, I've replied to everything that needs replying to, and am well into ignoring all the Powerpoints that need ignoring — and gotten bored with gaming. The TV's on in the background, but it's the same-old family-friendly fare. I don't want to start on the two fat novels I've stockpiled for the weekend too early, so there's only one thing to do. I abandon my cup of tea, pick up my torch, iPhone and warrant card, and tip-toe forth to poke my nose where it doesn't belong.
'Twas the night before Christmas, the office was closed,
The transom was shut, the staff home in repose;
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
But St. Nicholas won't be coming because this is a Designated National Security Site
within the meaning of Para 4.12 of Section 3 of the Official Secrets Act (Amended) and
unauthorised intrusion on such a site is an arrestable offense ...
Had enough of my poetry yet? That's why they pay me to fight demons instead.
One of the perks of being Night Duty Officer is that I can poke my nose anywhere I like — after all, I'm responsible for the security of the building. In fact, I can go into places where I'd normally get my nasal appendage chopped right off if I had the temerity to sniff around without authorization. I can look inside Angleton's office, tip-toe between the dangerously active canopic jars and warded optical workbenches of Field Service, walk the thickly carpeted, dusty corridors of Mahogany Row, and pester the night-shift zombies (sorry: of course I meant to say, Residual Human Resources) in the basement. In fact, I'm pretty much encouraged to keep an eye on things, just as long as I stay within range of the Duty Officer's Phone.
You might think that's a catch, but the Duty Officer's Phone — once you unscrew the huge lump of Bakelite — is a remarkably simple piece of fifties-vintage electronics. It's not even scrambled: the encryption is handled at the exchange level. So after a brisk fifteen minutes programming a divert into the PBX so it'll ring through to my iPhone, I'm free to go exploring.
(Did you really think I was going to spend three days and nights nursing a land-line that hasn't rung in sixteen years?)
Excerpted from Overtime by Charles Stross, Carl Wiens. Copyright © 2009 Charles Stross. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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