Overtime by Charles Stross Read Free Book Online Page B

Book: Overtime by Charles Stross Read Free Book Online
Authors: Charles Stross
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
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

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