Wherein Shit Happens
It had started with the Yuletide Corporation (Don’t Worry, It’s Just A Name), and the Red-Nosed Differential Engine.
We’d never really been left with a choice once it got this far. Creepy loves a conspiracy, as well as a good heist-and-or-caper, and this one was a doozy in all these categories.
“Alright,” he said, hunkering down next to me in the ditch beside the fence. A searchlight beam played across the dry grass where he’d just been crouch-running a moment before. “I’ve got rope, grappling hooks, bolt cutters, a smoke grenade, a little portable tape player so we can play the Axel F … and of course the most important thing, perspex face masks. I grabbed two from that gardening shed we passed after we crossed the first perimeter,” he added, pleased with himself at both the initiative and the terminology use.
“Okay,” I whispered, taking out the smoke grenade and turning it over in my hands. The cling wrap peeled open and flour spilled onto the ground, so I wrapped it up a bit tighter and tucked it back into the bag. “Why do we need face masks, again?”
“Well I certainly don’t intend to blow the lid off this whole thing without adequate facial protective gear, Hatboy.”
“Safety first,” Creepy replied piously. I pulled out the bolt cutters. They seemed like overkill for a chain-link fence that already had a couple of pretty big holes in it, but I waited for the searchlight to sweep by again and then crawled forward to widen the hole we were crouched next to. “Careful,” Creepy added in a hiss. “Your pants are all glittery.”
I spared him a dirty look over my shoulder, then returned to the job at hand. A few swift snips and another sweep of the searchlight, and we were jogging into the Yuletide Corporation (Don’t Worry, It’s Just A Name) compound.
“The main building seems to be that one,” I said, pausing at a convenient site map that showed employee parking and a couple of different office blocks. I turned and pointed at the large grey block that the map identified as Research and Development. “We’ll start there.”
“Let’s find a pair of security guards and take their uniforms,” Creepy suggested eagerly.
I glanced down at my unabashedly portly frame, then at Creepy’s … well, just frame, really.
“Sure,” I said. “We run into two night watchmen with physical attributes this comically mismatched, we definitely need to take their uniforms.”
We managed to get into the R&D building without falling afoul of security guards of any shape – I even let Creepy tug the door open using the grappling hook even though it wasn’t strictly necessary – and spent the next half an hour or so sneaking around a series of uninteresting computer labs and a basement filled with boxes of paper while I tried to stop Creepy from switching on the tape player. Maybe ‘Yuletide Corporation’ really was just a name, I thought.
Then we entered the room with the engine.
The first thing I noticed, aside from the huge black metal machine squatting in the centre of the floor like a giant potbelly stove, was the concentric rings marked on the floor in different colours of tape. The outermost one, outside of which we were standing and most of the computers and control consoles were arranged, was made of yellow and black hazard tape. The second ring, outside of which sat a couple of heavily-shielded analysis stations, was red. The third ring, outlining an empty circle about three metres from the machine’s base, was white … except that wasn’t precisely true. It was in fact frozen, covered in a thick spiralling fuzz of frost, and the same patterns were visible on the floor between tape and machine.
The machine itself appeared inert, aside from a big red light on the front which was casting a ruddy glow across the freezing floor in front of it. On the top of the machine was a pair of enormous branching antenna-arrays in the same heavy black metal.
“Rudolph,” Creepy said, “the Red-Nosed Differential Engine.”
“Hey,” I congratulated him. “Nice one,” the machine did sort of look like an industrial-gothic artwork representing a certain famous reindeer.
Rudolph the brown-nosed sonofawhore, I remembered another, somewhat less-famous reindeer muttering.
“I can’t take all the credit,” Creepy said, and I looked over to see he was playing with a nearby computer. “Reality Ur Displacement and Overwriting Laser Projection Hardware, the Red-Nosed Differential Engine,” he said, pointing at the screen. “R.U.D.O.L.P.H.”
“You can’t take any of the credit,” I felt obligated to make absolutely clear. “Is this the thing that caused the whole…?” I waved my hands vaguely.
“Caused it,” Creepy confirmed, tapping and clicking away, “but is only doing it by taking advantage of some sort of natural phenomenon. Or semi-natural anyway. And this machine, and the stuff it’s doing, is nothing really to do with our client as far as I can tell-”
“Not client,” I reminded him.
“Right, not client. But she’s just sort of riding along with the signal, sort of thing.”
I frowned. If we stopped Rudolph the Red-Nosed Differential Engine from doing its thing, in other words, we might lose contact completely. On the other hand, if it was using an existing phenomenon to enable its functions, we could use it too.
I leaned over and read the screen over Creepy’s shoulder. Yes. It was as I suspected. “It’s drawing on some sort of higher-physics null-point as a power source,” I said.
“That’s what I said. This is the bomb launcher, but the raw materials-”
“That metaphor was pretty cumbersome a while ago already,” I told him, stepping back from the computer. “I might give you some of your credit back, though,” I suggested, “if you can switch off the bomb launcher…”
“I can do better than that,” Creepy said, and pulled out the tape player. He twiddled it at me, eyebrows raised.
I sighed. “Fine.”
Creepy beamed, turned on the music, and began to work.
I’ll say this about Creepy and computers. He’s very savvy, but it’s only the sort of expertise that looks good on paper or in a spreadsheet. Once you actually see it in action, you realise that what he actually possesses is a destructive vein of enthusiastic idiocy fuelled by an utter lack of anything resembling an attention span. He can tell you how to do just about anything with hardware or software, but if he tries to do it himself he will decide after three minutes that the whole thing is ‘stupid’ and erase everything and spend the rest of the day watching the computer slowly dismantling itself. Task him with figuring out why a certain program doesn’t work, and you’ll come back two hours later to find that none of the programs work – but that he knows exactly why now.
Give him a webcam, not to belabour the point, and he’ll leave it in a box for the better part of a decade because he’s waiting for cyclic technology to come back around to that one antique webcam-using program that he liked.
So I let him work his destructive magic on the Yuletide Corporation (Don’t Worry, It’s Just A Name) computers, while I did my best to figure out if the source phenomenon was here or somewhere else entirely. My instinct was that this whole compound had been built over the top of it like some sort of interdimensional faultline or something, like the apartment block in Ghostbusters … but it might also be somewhere else.
“Done,” Creepy announced, and I returned to the station he was working at to see that he’d started to download some kind of obscure new web browser – or possibly a whole new operating system. I winced in sympathy for the R&D employees who would come in tomorrow morning to find completely unusable computers, possibly running something that looked like DOS but was not DOS. Creepy held up the tape player triumphantly. “Axel never fails to-”
“Shh,” I said, grabbing the player and snapping it off. The sound of booted feet marching in near-unison could be heard, growing steadily louder. “Security. We need to go.”
Creepy and I hurried from the lab and down the corridor away from the sound of footsteps, but we wound up in a dead end. Before we could double back, I saw the swinging light of a flashlight on the wall ahead. Guards – two of them, I suspected – were approaching from a side-corridor.
I wondered for a moment whether they would have suitable uniforms for us.
Creepy and I stole forwards up the passageway towards the intersection, hoping to catch the guards unawares. The marching footsteps were suddenly overlaid by the squeak–squeak–squeak of swiftly-running sneakers, a brief scuffle, a couple of thumps, the sound of bodies falling to the concrete, and then a tense silence.
Before I could stop him, Creepy had jumped around the corner and thrown the smoke grenade.
“Akpth! What the Hell?”
I followed Creepy around the corner at the familiar voice. “Carla?” I exclaimed. “What are you doing here?”
“What are you two morons doing here?” she shot back.
“We haven’t got a face mask for you,” Creepy said, sounding disgruntled.
Carla, her already-sufficiently-pale face now rendered even more pallid by the addition of a handful of flour, glared at him. “Bit freaking late for a face mask, isn’t it?”
“Look,” I said, “as much as I’d love to say we came here to rescue you-”
“-I have to admit we were here for something else. But I’m glad you’re okay,” I added supportively, “we were worried about you. Obviously you can take care of yourself, of course. Um.”
Creepy nudged me. “I still think we should take the uniforms,” he said.
For the first time, we looked down at the security guards Carla had dispatched.
“I … don’t think those will fit us,” I said, after a long, PTSD-crowded silence. Then I shook myself back to my senses. “Come on,” I went on, “we need to find out the location of the spatial depression the Red-Nosed Differential Engine is using to generate the exchange pulse.”
“Not a single word of that made sense,” Carla declared.
“The Yuletide Corporation-” I began.
“-(Don’t Worry, It’s Just A Name)-” Creepy interjected.
“-has built a device that we think is the source of the … disturbances,” I said. “We disabled the machine so I think you’re going to be okay, but the machine itself was using a sort of a space/time differential sinkhole as a power source.”
“A saggy squishy thing in space,” Creepy added helpfully.
“We’re hoping that if we can find that-” I started.
“Yeah, look, this is all fascinating,” Carla said, “but there’s a quarter of a ton of high explosive I’ve planted throughout this building that’s going to go up in…” she looked at her watch. “Three minutes.”
I grabbed the back of a security guard’s shirt in each hand and carried them with me. I tried not to think about the very high likelihood that they weren’t the only two in the building. One of the first things you learn as a super-sidekick isn’t that you can’t save everyone – it’s that you can’t save anyone. You can, however, temporarily extend the lives of a few.
Also, when you get the chance to flee an exploding building with a Christmas Elf under each arm, take it.
– Posted from my Huawei mobile phone while dashing through the snow.