Warm days and a busy work schedule had kept Rain from thinking about Christmas during most of December. It wasn’t until the chill north wind swept down through the The Estate campus and across the bay that thoughts of carols popped into his mind and with it the feeling that Christmas soon would be there. The first that anyone else knew about Christmas was the seven foot tall Douglas fir being delivered into the foyer of the Estate’s dormitory.
“Why do we need a tree?” Algernon frowned as the tree was finally pushed through the door and propped up in a small waiting area that the group used as a lounge. It’s lower branches lay across the two guest chairs and the coffee table.
“It’s a pagan ritual that the early Christians adopted. That, and it smells amazing.” Rain leaned into the heavy branches and breathed in. Christmas was there at last.
“But why do we need a tree?” Algernon asked again, sniffing the tree experimentally himself. It was nice, like the automatic air freshener in the men’s bathroom only requiring the killing a tree and taking up a huge amount of space.
“It’s a Christmas tradition, ” Bruce supplied when it was clear that Rain was trying to get high on the pine scent, “ though down home we use to go out to a farm and cut our own.”
“Is it better to murder your own tree than to have one killed for you?” Algernon thought he was getting an idea of this Christmas sacrifice.
“It’s not murder when its a tree, Algernon. As to your question, yes, it is better. Part of the tradition.”
“Rain, we should have cut down that big tree in front of the labs.” Algernon suggested.
Rain rolled over making pine needle angels amongst the boughs so he could see his friends.
“Thought of it, but they’d just blame me and I don’t need Keaton breathing down my neck, “ He rolled around again to hug the tree, “ beside that tree was far too big to bring inside and think of all that hard work of cutting it down and dragging it around to this side of the campus.”
Algernon nodded his head sagely, all good points.
“But if the killing is important to the ceremony….”
“Can we stop talking about killing.” Rain finally let go of the tree and joined the others, loose needles sticking to his hair and coat. “Christmas was never about killing a tree but celebrating life and joy and goodwill to everyone.”
“Except trees, of course. They probably think of Christmas as a genocide.”
Rain grew visibly ill at Algernon’s words but was soon distracted by a large sports bag Bruce was carrying.
“You don’t usually take your whole wardrobe down to the gym, what up?”
“It’s Christmas in a few days.” Bruce replied as if that explained everything.
“Yes! Hence the tree.” He pointed at the tree leaning limply to one side, “But Christmas doesn’t explain your sudden interest in luggage. Unless there are presents inside.”
A sudden bright-eyed excitement suffused Rain at the thought of Christmas presents and he ran his hands over the bumps and shapes of the sports bag to work out what it hid.
“Rain, there are presents, but they’re for my family. I’m going home for the holidays.” Bruce finally admitted. He hadn’t wanted to tell the group like this, but they’d been so busy recently that he’d forgotten until it was too late.
Rain stopped frozen, his hands hovering above the bag. With a sudden intake of breath he quickly dropped arms to his sides and smiled his most winning smile.
“Of course, Of course!” He chuckled and patted Bruce’s arm. “You have John and your mother and your uncle and grandfather Algernon to see.”
Bruce could see straight through the facade of his worrisome companion.
“Grandpaps has been dead for ten years.”
“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that.”
“I meant to tell you before…”
“No, about going home for Christmas.”
“What for, it’s only natural that you would…”
“…the time just snuck up…”
“…you don’t owe us any explanations…”
“…if I’d thought, I’d have invited you all…”
“No…no! No, we’ll be fine here, Algernon and I and Peggy….Peggy you’re not going home for Christmas are you?” Rain yelled in an unusually manic voice across the foyer to the Mess where Peggy was finishing lunch.
“No.” She replied loudly back, “Cultural rituals and festivals have no impact on the progress of science.” Still eating the last of her lunch she joined the group in front of the tree, “Besides, if I were to celebrate Christmas, it wouldn’t be until the new year. And Greeks don’t murder trees.”
Algernon was going to ask about the difference in Christmas practices when Rain exclaimed,
“No more talk of murder, genocide, massacres or killing of any sort during Christmas, that’s my tradition!” Rain pointed at the leaning douglas fir, “That tree gave it’s life to make our Christmas bright and cheery so show a little respect.”
They all looked at the tree. A few needles fell to the carpet.
“Rain, I don’t know how cheery your dead tree looks.”
“It just needs decorating, I haven’t been out to get decorations as yet.” Rain responded through gritted teeth.
“The Estate may have some in storage somewhere.” Bruce suggested, “Why don’t you ask your supervisor?”
At this comment Rain brightened considerably,
“Hey yeah. Keaton’s always trying to show me how important he is. Maybe he can actually come good and provide a little Christmas spirit.” He turned to his friend of the last six months now genuinely pleased.
“Merry Christmas, Professor!”
“That’s…Merry Christmas Rain.” Bruce quietly accepted the moniker feeling better he’d been able to provide happier ending to what was becoming an awkward farewell.
“Say hi to John for us, and kiss your mother from me.”
“To the first, I will. To the second, never from you to any of my female relations.”
“Does that mean you have other female relations?” Rain replied raising a knowing eyebrow.
Bruce shook his head and left the three to contemplate the tree.
“Well, this has been a waste of my time.” Peggy finally said, breaking away, “I’ll be in my lab if you need me. And I suggest, you don’t need me.” And with that she walked out leaving Algernon and Rain alone with the tree.
Lawrence Keaton, Chief of Investigations was tidying his office. After a taxing year, much of it coming from two junior agents under his authority, he was happy to put it all behind him and celebrate with his family. Outside, the administration staff and assistants were all wishing each other a Merry Christmas and slowly leaving. Occasionally one would pop their head in to wish him a happy holiday, but on the whole they just left until the whole office was quiet and still.
Keaton drank off the last of his bourbon and stood up to leave himself when he was aware he wasn’t alone. Standing in the door was Algernon looking nervously from Keaton to a point to his right. Keaton followed his glance to see, on a filing cabinet, Rain sitting cross-legged reading a report Keaton had only just put away.
“Algernon. Rain.” Keaton greeted the two curtly as he strode over to Rain and snatched the file from his hand before stuffing it back into the filing cabinet, “I hope we can make this quick, I was about to leave.”
“That wouldn’t do, not with two of your agents hot on the case.” Rain quipped in a passable bronx accent reminicinent to Mike Hammer.
“What are you two up to?” He looked to Algernon to help make sense of their visit. ”Why haven’t you left for the holidays?
“We’re decorating a dead tree.” The younger man supplied adamantly.
“Yes we are. And where would you expect us to go?” Rain added in a questioning tone.
Keaton hadn’t accounted for these two to be left unsupervised over Christmas and his shoulders visibly slumped as he realised his job for the year wasn’t quite over. He walked back to his desk and sat down.
“You’re staying on campus over Christmas and you’re wanting to decorate a tree?”
“A dead one.” Algernon insisted.
“You didn’t cut down that one outside the labs, did you?” Keaton turned to his window and looked out across the campus to see the balsam fir where it had ever been.
“Who do you take us for?” Rain replied in mock outrage, “We’ve had a beautiful tree delivered to the dormitory and we’re hoping the Estate have a supply of Christmas decorations that we can use.”
“And that’s it. A quiet few days, decorating a tree and NOTHING ELSE.”
“Just think of it as your contribution to your agent’s health and welfare.” Rain acknowledge with one of his self-satisfied smiles.
At this point Keaton would have been glad to hand over his own credit card, tell them to go shopping and be done with it. But then he recalled an Administration manager who had been very pro-Christmas. That year every department had been decorated for the season, with the resulting boxes of tinsel, fake mistletoe and baubles ending up in storage.
“In fact, there is a large supply of decorations in storage under the labs in what use to be the old fallout shelters.” Keaton replied happily, knowing he was going to get out and leave these two behind him after all.
“In Doctor Peggy’s lab?” Algernon asked nervously, “Is that safe, they could be trapped in a portal and send anywhere…everywhere!”
Keaton looked to Rain, hoping if one was talking nonsense at least the other could translate.
“We don’t tend to go down to Peggy’s lab if we can help it.” Rain supplied unhelpfully.
“I do believe that Dr Martin has a lab down in one section of the old shelters. The complex is extensive and virtually untouched since the Cold War.”
“Well if sacrifices have to be made in the name of Christmas…”
“…like a tree…”
With the key to the storage space in hand, the two men walked briskly across the campus to the labs as thick low clouds rolls lazily across the sky adding to the campus’s empty feeling.
“Do you mind if meet you in the store room? I want to ask Doctor Peggy about Christmas.” Algernon asked as they escaped the winter wind for the quiet of the lab block.
“Your funeral. If you’re not checking boxes with me in half an hour I’ll call security as backup and go in after you.” Rain joked as he two parted at the bottom of the stairs, Algernon to the right and Peggy’s lab, and Rain to the left.
The door to Peggy’s laboratory had a large imposing sign.
DANGER NO UNAUTHORISED PERSONNEL ALLOWED
The sign gave Algernon pause, but then he figured he was not an unauthorised person so the sign, and the dangers inherent in it, did not count for him. He knocked on the door.
“I swear if that’s you Rain I will open a portal now and push you in!” Peggy’s voice echoed dully through the metal door.
“Ur…no, it’s me.” Algernon replied wondering how good an idea this was.
“Oh, the other one.” The door lock clicked, “Come in, but stay behind the yellow lines.”
The laboratory was a long low ceilinged room lit by hanging fluorescent lights. Sets of laboratory benches and fume hoods surrounded a yellow demarcation zone where Peggy’s homemade portal device stood. Made of scrap and spare parts that she was able to buy, borrow or steal (though taking essential equipment from her previous place of employment was not considered stealing by Peggy) the device looked more like a junkyard than a revolution in portal technology.
Algernon stayed well back behind the yellow line, wary of Peggy and her contraption. Presently she was taking the opportunity of the holidays to look over Hertzfeld’s multi-phasing glove with the thought of eventually linking it to the energies of The Strange. Right now, that application only theoretical, she was becoming well versed in its workings.
“What do you want?” She asked mechanically not bothering to look up from her work.
“I want to understand Christmas, it seems like a very significant event. The Estate has closed down operations and nearly all staff including the senior officers have left their posts and traveled home. And then you said that you would commemorate at a different time and would not kill a tree as part of the ritual because of your Greek origins. How does your own matriarchal lineage affect how and when you commemorate Christmas?” Algernon recited his queries all at once distracting even the ever focused Peggy.
“Christmas was something that my Yaya took very seriously.” Peggy put down the glove and gave her attention to Algernon. “We would fast from the end of November to Christmas Eve, then go to midnight Mass.”
“You starved yourself for more than a month?”
“Not exactly. No meat, dairy, fish, wine or oil, but other foods were permissible, though in smaller portions.”
“And no tree?”
“I understand it is very popular in Greece, but my Yaya would have none of what she thought of as Pagan traditions.”
“And stopping work?”
“It is considered a time for family so many travel home.”
“But not you.”
Peggy did not like where Algernon’s line of questioning had brought them. She understood the importance of educating Algernon into the society and culture of the place she had inadvertently dragged him to and usually supported it. Still, the answer to that particular question was not something that was open to discussion.
She had just opened her mouth to tell him it was “…none of his business…” when a scream followed by the slamming of a heavy metal door echoed through from outside her lab door.
“What is all this disturbance,? No one should be down here.” She said getting up from her bench.
“Rain!” Algernon sprinted, flinging the heavy metal door aside and running down the hallway.
Curled up with his arms around his legs, Rain sat with his back to the door, his puzzle box flipping open and closed in his hands, his eyes staring into nothing in front of him.
“Rain?” Algernon searched the area for dangers but saw nothing. He stepped closer placing his hand on his friend’s shoulder. No response.
* * * * * * * * *
Rain had found the storeroom door easily enough, it was the only one at this end of the complex. The key fit the lock but lack of use had made the lock stiff and it had taken him a few moments before the door opened. Inside was black, with the only light spilling in from the doorway. He knew from experience of Peggy’s lab that a large main electrical switchboard would be located just in from the door, but inconveniently out of sight of where Rain now stood.
Flicking on his phone’s light he stepped in and worked his way along the wall, coming across nothing but boxes of files. As he turned the beam, it hit the white bone of a giant rodent skull leered back at him from a stack of magazines.
“That’s where you went.” He patted the mole rat skull affectionately and continued along the wall looking for the light switch. A gust of cold wind rolled through the space and the metal door groaned and swung shut. Rain cursed his bad luck but continued further into the room.
Boxes of broken oddments, crates of random detritus and the cast offs from decades of recursive travel seemed stored haphazardly along with broken furniture and out of date office technology. There was no logic to the collections and Rain started to despair that he would find anything of use.
Voices whispered among the rows of junk as he walked deeper. At first he just thought these were the voices of Algernon and Peggy echoing along the empty hallway outside until he stopped to listen to what they had to say and a chill went up his spine. They weren’t speaking in English.
“Hello?” He called only to find his voice muffled by the mouldering boxes and piles of paper around him. In the light of his phone, Rain’s breath was visible as short fast puffs and a feeling of being watched stole over him. It as time to leave.
But where was the exit? The door’s seal, meant for a nuclear holocaust, was intact and let neither light or a breeze through. With nothing to go on but memory and the beam from his phone he started back along the row he had come.
Instead of things become more familiar, the collections around him seemed to become older as if he was going back in time with each step. Simultaneously, the voices were now coming through clearer, joined with the very real feeling of being watched. A loud crack, followed by a volley of other loud snapping sounds had Rain diving for cover behind a moth eaten sofa, The air around him filled with the all too familiar smell of cordite. It alone usually sent his heart racing, but he had no attention to give as he was fixed solely on the whispered voices seemingly moving around him.
Where are we going?
No please, my son…
What do they want?
Where are they taking us?
But my wife, she…
God is great… God is great….
He couldn’t recognise the voices, nor explain how he could understand them, but he knew them well from his nightmares. He knew he had to get out of this room, fast. Shakily he stood and, with phone out in front like a shield, he ran.
More cracks of gun fire from the right and left, a sharp pain scored his scalp. He reached up and his hand came away slick and black in the half-light. In gaps between piles the shadows moved, unfolded and stepped into the aisle.
How big was this room? Had he really come this far?
He could now feel the shadows pushing in around him, faces white and staring at him and he could no longer hold back the cry of terror and despair he felt looking upon them.
“Please…please…” he cried a plea to the faces or for an unseen rescuer, he didn’t know.
Panicked he stopped, all around him now shadows gathered. The phone’s light cut through them to reflect off the boxes and white of a skull.
Skull! He quickly swung the beam around again and focused it on the giant mole rat skull!
Just as he realised the door couldn’t be far away, the shadows rushed in, crushing him. In panic he dropped his phone extinguishing the light. Suddenly Rain couldn’t fill his lungs. His heart beat madly against his chest and he felt that right there in the dark he was going to die.
Both hands free, he reached through the now complete darkness, through the faces of the familiar ghosts, and touched …a door handle.
* * * * * * * * *
Peggy walked up behind Algernon, also checking for dangers. Her mind, sensitive to the Strange, reached out into the local area but she could pick up nothing unusual.
“Let me try.” She said to Algernon who stepped aside to give her access to Rain. With a short sharp action she pulled her hand back and slapped Rain sharply across the face.
“Oooow!” Rain complained. The puzzle box disappearing and his now free left hand reached up to hold a reddening cheek.
“You were unresponsive, it seemed appropriate.” Peggy said by way of explanation.
“Okay, thank you. Don’t do that again.” He looked at his empty right hand, turning it over to check both sides, but there was nothing to see.
“I will, if I find it necessary.”
“What happened? Why did you scream?” Algernon crouched down in front of Rain.
“Scream?” Rain smile incredulous for a moment until his memory of the last few minutes reasserted itself. He stared back at the door behind him. “There’s something wrong with that room.”
“Ghosts from my past.” He mumbled standing up shakily, “I have to go…think, um..don’t go in there.”
“What..? Wait, you can’t just leave..explain yourself!” Peggy exclaimed as Rain stumbled up the stairs.
“Just don’t…go alone…I’ll be back.”
Peggy seethed at the lack of information. What had caused such a response for the nervous little conman? He hadn’t shown any claustropobia or scotophobia at other times, though his fears did seem to be varied and many.
“This is ridiculous!” She finally said out loud making Algernon jump. “How am I supposed to get any work done with something terrorising staff next door?”
She reached for the door.
“Is that safe?” Algernon piped up coming around to stand in front of Peggy, “Something attacked Rain, shouldn’t we wait for help…with big guns…and plastic explosives?”
“Did you see a mark on him? A scratch or even a bruise?” She asked and Algernon had to shake his head.
“But you do make a valid point.” She admitted, Algernon let out a huge silent sigh of relief. “Wait here.”
Muttering to herself she walked back to her lab and a few minutes later returned with an assortment of hand-made and high-end technology. On her head she wore a safety helmet with a torch strapped to the side with gaffer tape. In her left hand a small geiger counter, in her right her revolver. She went to hand the geiger counter to Alergnon who shook his head and stepped aside.
“Very well. Keep the door open and if anything happens go find security in the gatehouse and inform them of what’s going on.” Peggy instructed as she turned the handle to the door and stepped inside.
* * * * * * * * *
It didn’t take Peggy long to know that something was definitely wrong with the room. As soon as she entered the darkness between the aisles, her back molars buzzed in her head. There was a low level presence of The Strange everywhere. She too found the mole rat skull and not long later Rain’s phone, which she pocketed. As she walked deeper, everywhere she looked there were items touched by The Strange. A pristine clean white scarf, an egg made of an unknown steel, green tinted glasses, a necklace of teeth from a mysterious reptile. There were broken things as well, used ciphers, broken artifacts all things that had spent too long in contact with the Strange. Individually they were nothing, used batteries that held little spark. But together in a sealed room where neither fresh air or sunlight could reach they…worked on each other.
She was just about to head back to Algernon and tell him her theory when a moisture ladened breeze carrying the smell of green things drifted in her direction. It was such an unexpected yet wholly familiar sensation that she stopped in her tracks to breathe it in. Now she could make out the brown smell of damp earth, the bright yellow fragrance of aboral orchids. Here too she could now hear the sounds of the forest, the constant snap, shuffle, creak, screech and splash of life.
A movement caught her eye and she picked up an old dirt and water stained notebook. Her lost notebook, she was sure, the pages flicking back and forward in the breeze. Beside it, in a padded wooden crate for Inca Cola, were fossils of a bird-like creature that she’d seen only once before. Incredulous, she reached out a hand to touch the rock skeleton when she heard footsteps behind her and turned, her gun ready…
…pointing to the beaming face of Noel.
Noel. Tall and thin, he slipped through the aisle like he walked through the forest, as if born to it. Long fingered hands touched everything as he past as if his other senses weren’t enough to inform him about the world. And then his face, his stupid charming face that made everyone listen to what he had to say.
“Peggy, put that thing away before you have my head off with it.” He said in his rich baritone, a hint of humour as always. For a moment she didn’t understand what he was talking about until the muzzle of the gun wavered in view and she quickly put the safety back on and returned it to its holster.”Well, aren’t you going to say something?”
“You’re dead.” She stated in her most matter of fact tone while inside her thoughts swirled trying to make sense of what was happening.
Without a word he slowly reached out a hand and touched her cheek. She flinched, not use to any human contact. Glacially, she too raised her hand to cradle his hand against her face. She leaned in an breathed the warm male of him, so familiar and comforting. She relaxed and closed her eyes.
“They said you were dead. We couldn’t find your body after the avalanche, they said you were buried.” The words tumbled out like a breaking dam, “I didn’t want to believe it, but you never came back.”
“And I’m sorry for that, believe me it was not my intent.”
“I needed you!” Peggy exclaimed and shocked herself as tears sprung from here eyes and rolled down her hand. She dropped his hand and stepped back. “ I tried to continue our work, but without the fossil evidence or you to persuade them…”
“I know, it’s been hard on you…”
“Hard…” She stepped back again, “…I lost everything that day. No one would take me seriously, they thought I’d gone mad. I lost my tenure, my entire lab, but that wasn’t the worst. The worst was I was alone.”
* * * * * * * * *
Rain hadn’t been in a church for a while. He’d noted the church’s location on one of their trips out of campus, more for nostalgia than anything. Now, Rain stumbled in like a man being chased by a mob. A man looking for Sanctuary.
He followed a line of brick archways that lined either side of the nave where empty pews sat. Dappled in the multi coloured light from the stained glass window, he turned his gaze from the broken and bleeding figure hung over the altar and made a beeline to a small alcove. In its dark interior, a metal stand lay prepared with a few small tea-light candles, a box of matches and a donations box.
The image reminded him of his childhood visits to Sunday Mass with his foster family. Each child had been given 50p to either put in the box in front of the baby Jesus and Mary or to light a candle in remembrance of someone they would pray for. Lots of the kids gave to the baby Jesus thinking that’s what the Morris’s wanted. Others just kept the coin, only pretending to drop it in the donation box. The boy, Rain had once been, had a feeling that there were people who he should pray for…but he didn’t know who. Instead he gave his coin and lit a candle and hoped to know one day.
Adult Rain stuffed several banknotes into the donation slot and started lighting candles, one for every face he’s seen in that room. His usually sure hands shook so badly he needed to lean on the metal stand to keep the match over the wick of each new candle. When he’d filled a row with light he started on another.
“You’re either thinking to burn the church down one candle at a time or you you’re planning on doing a lot of praying.” Said a man’s voice from the altar. “How many prayers are you intending to make?”
“I don’t know.” Rain stopped his frantic lighting and turned to a priest, middle age and balding walking the few steps down from the altar. “Tell me, how many to appease 8372 souls?”
The priest’s steps faltered a moment, but to his credit he continued to walk towards Rain.
“That’s a highly specific and heavy burden to bear.” The priest said coming to stand beside Rain as he watched the candles flicker. “Are you sure you bear it alone, or at all?”
“I survived.” Rain had never expressed out loud the guilt and sense of loss he had carried. Two words were all he could offer in explanation, but they seemed to be enough.
“Ah.” The priest took Rain by the arm and led him like a lost child to one of the front pews, “ Let me tell you a story about a small church called St Paul’s Chapel. It is right in the heart of New York, overshadowed by some of the tallest buildings that humans have created. One day those buildings fell down, but by some miracle the little chapel stood untouched. Then rescue workers, police, firefighters and ambulances needed a place to rest and regroup. The little chapel became a place of peace in the middle of what seemed to all of us a living hell. At first it was just a place to rest for an hour or two, eventually volunteers brought food and other services and the chapel became a place of hope and support.”
“You’re talking about September 11.”
The priest nodded.
“I also have a few numbers I carry around with me. 2606 people died at the Twin Towers and that’s including those on the flights and those brave souls who went in to help. I also know that more than 3000 people made the Chapel a place of Sanctuary. See, I know. Right now you are a place of devastation, a living hell. Right now you need peace, but eventually you will also need hope and support if you are ever to heal. Christmas, a time of family and community. It can be a hard time for the lonely.”
Like Peggy’s slap, the priest’s comment was unexpectant and stung.
“I’m not lonely.” He smiled incredulous. “I make friends wherever I go.”
“I’m sure you have many acquaintances,” The priest acknowledged, “ But where are your friends when things get real? Where are those people right now?”
Rain thought of the three friends he had stumbled into one wet night outside New Orleans six months previous. They may bicker and gripe at each other, but they were always there. Then he remembered where he’d left them and cringed.
“Oh…I’ve left them in a bad situation. I need to get back.”
“Are you, and they, going to be alright?”
“We have so far, “Rain shrugged, “Can I ask you something personal?”
“You can try.”
“Those who died, do you see them…sometimes?”
“What do you do?”
The priest thought for a moment.
“Love them. That way I keep them alive and also give purpose to my own life.”
Rain shook his head at the simplicity of the statement.
“You know, guys get a bad rap.”
“Don’t I know it.” the priest acknowledged with a smile.
* * * * * * * * *
Algernon stood alone in the hallway wondering what to do next. He turned from the open door of the storeroom to the flight of stairs leading outside, and back again.
Peggy had been gone a long time. She had said to go to security, but security were authority and it was never a good idea to gain the attention of authority.
Rain had been gone a long time. He said not to go into the room alone, but Peggy had gone in alone and if he were to find her he’d have to go in alone too.
He looked to the door, he looked to the stairs and made up his mind.
Sprinting across campus to the dormitory he grabbed his crossbow. He rummaged around in Bruce’s things until he found the crowbar. Running back to Peggy’s lab he found her home made safety equipment and put that on. He would have liked some grenades or an automatic weapon but all those were locked up and out of reach. Finally, equipped as best he could, he stood in front of the doorway and looked into the storeroom.
It was dark. In the gloom off to one side he saw the mole rat skull glowing in the ambient light. Algernon brought his crossbow up and targeted the skull. Any false move from the long dead rodent and it would get a bolt between the eye sockets.
He stepped in and cautiously started down the first aisle of junk, a torch attached to his crossbow lighting the way. So focused was he on the light from his torch he almost failed to see the pale blue glow that was lighting everything around him, until the turned a corner in the piles. Ahead, spinning slowly was a portal, the event horizon flashed and flickered sickeningly. Inside Algernon could almost see the outline of two people, one with the distinct disheveled look of Peggy.
“Algernon…Peggy!” From behind Rain’s voice came through the open doorway. Relief swept through Algernon and he crept back to the door and Rain.
“Where did you go?” Algernon asked not really caring for the answer, only happy to see Rain.
“Sorry about that, I guess I don’t like storerooms.” Rain conceded.
“No, you were right. There’s a portal in that room, and I don’t think it’s stable.” Algernon replied.
“She’s…in the portal…it’s odd. She’s in the portal but I can still see her, standing with another person.”
“Another person…” Rain looked into the gloom around Algernon and paled. “First things, get her out of the portal.”
Algernon nodded and turned to go back in. Rain stayed in the doorway.
“Are you coming?” Algernon asked in a whisper.
Rain closed his eyes, took a deep shuddering breath and stepped forward into the room. When his eyes opened they were fixed on Algernon.
“Lead the way.”
Algernon did, his crossbow on his back, the flashlight searching ahead. He lead them both straight to the portal where it still swirled like a disturbed pool of blue light.
“She’s in there.” He pointed his flashlight at the portal. Rain’s eyes followed the beam for a moment. He cowered as something disturbed him and his gaze focused back on Algernon.
“I don’t see it.” He replied disappointment replacing the fear, “Can you see her?”
Algernon turned back to the portal. He was disturbed to see the two figures seemed less distinct, just movement in a fog of light. He nodded.
“When you’re ready, grab her and we’ll make for the door.” Rain pulled out his own trusty golf club and wrapped it around Algernon’s chest. “Ready, when you are.”
* * * * * * * * *
“Everythings finally ready for you. It’s taken so long but it’s time that you should see it.” Noel was gestured to Peggy, leading the way further into the bright green of the jungle ahead, but Peggy was having doubts.
For one, she couldn’t remember how she’d got to the jungle. That could just be just exhaustion, but if so, why was she so poorly equipped with only a gun, helmet and a geiger counter? It didn’t make any sense. She tried to think back. Wasn’t there a storeroom…?
“Come and see.” Noel beckoned again and a fog parted and they were both on a plateau overlooking a brown scar in the a green jungle. In the scar of raw earth, a large camp filled with dozens of tents and hundreds of workers. A stream of workers,like jungle ants, all moved with purpose to and from a large gridded dig site surrounded by thick walls made of the trunks of jungle trees to protect against another landslide. Peggy made to move a step closer.
“It’s everything we ever wanted. A fully funded expedition, the first fossil secure and others being revealed everyday. You’re not alone here Peggy. Everyone believes in the work, some have spent their life savings to get here and help It’s been a long time, Peggy, but I think you can see it was worth it.”
It has been a long time, She thought, returning her focus to Noel. He looked the same as she remembered him, exactly the same. Surely years in the jungle climate would have changed him a little.
And there! A tear in his shirt that he’d caught on a thorn the morning of the avalanche.
“How did you survive?” Peggy asked moving away from the view and closer to Noel.
“What does it matter. What matters is that you have a purpose.”
Peggy touched the tear in the shirt, if felt like material. She pulled it apart and saw a deep red line, a cut in the skin where the thorn had penetrated, still raw with a little congealed blood sealing the wound. It looked no more than a few hours old.
She lept back as Noel reach out to touch her hand, a look of bemusement on his face.
“What are you?” Peggy asked and instinctively reached for her gun once more.
“What am I?” Asked Noel all confidence gone, “Can’t I be Noel?”
A red leather clad arm shot out of nowhere and grabbed Peggy around the waist and Noel grabbed her arm. It was now a tug of war that Peggy was yet to take sides in.
“Don’t leave me Peggy, you give me purpose!” The now panic stricken Noel pleaded with Peggy.
“No, you can’t be Noel he’s gone. You have to be you.” Peggy planted her feet, not willing to be drawn back by the arm around her waist but equally as disinterested in following the creature pretending to be Noel.
“Please…please…” Noel cried
“Peggy! I’m sorry for leaving! Please come back!” A faint voice and a redoubling of effort to pull her back made up Peggy’s mind. With a twist of her arm she shook free of Noel’s grasp and allowed herself to be pulled backwards and away, keeping her eyes on him the whole time.
The jungle disappeared and Peggy fell backwards into Algernon who stepped back and fell into Rain. They all landed in a heap of bodies and limbs amongst the broken and forgotten of the room.
“Out, now!” Barked Rain as he sprung to his feet in time to help the other two.
“What was that?” Peggy asked as both Rain and Algernon grabbed a hand each and ran back for the open door at the far end of the room.
It wasn’t until the storeroom door was closed and they were all back in Peggy’s lab that Rain allowed himself to sink to the floor. Algernon took a stool at one of the lab benches and started removing Peggy’s protective equipment as Peggy stood dejectedly in the middle of her lab.
“I know it’s powered by the Strange, there’s a lot of Strange touched items in that room all in close proximity. But what…?”
“It was a portal, “ Algernon described the portal and the way its event horizon flickered weakly. “You made another one.”
“No, these rooms are lead lined with metres thick walls, my machine could not have made a portal in that room.” Peggy replied back logically, “Besides, I never saw a portal.”
“No, only Algernon could see it.” Rain added from the floor.
“Yeah, what did you see?” Algernon asked Rain, curious as to what had scared his friend so.
“Ghosts, people…lost.” Rain stared at the cold vinyl floor, unable to look Algernon in the face.
“Why did you go back in?”
“You were there and Peggy was inside…I didn’t want you to face it alone.”
“I heard you, from inside…” Peggy replied, realising it was Rain who she had heard. “I heard you and it help me work out what was real and what wasn’t.”
“What did you see, if not a portal?” Algernon asked Peggy. She looked for a moment like she would tell him to get lost. Instead her face softened and she replied in her most matter of fact manner.
“As I don’t believe in such ludicrous theories as ghosts, I would have to say the portal you described showed me… memories of what I thought I’d lost.”
“Why didn’t the portal affect you the same way?” Rain asked Algernon who just shrugged.
“I guess I never lost something I missed.”
“You’re whole planet, your culture, your people?”
Algernon just shrugged,
“Nothing as good as what I have here.”
A grim little smile crept over Rain’s face and he nodded picking himself off the floor.
“Well, I think it’s pretty clear what we have to do.”
Rain didn’t answer. He walked out of Peggy’s lab and climbed the stairs to Hetzfeld’s office door. A few locks picked later and the three of them were standing in front of a metal locker, its door open revealing a gun-like device with a wide barrel and a large battery where the ammunition usually sat.
“We don’t need to close it down straight away,” Peggy looked at the device remembering how effective it was at disrupting and dispersing the portal that had opened in her lab a few months earlier. “ It’s hardly a portal at all and that’s the point. It’s creating a connection with us powered only by a few odd and broken items linked to the Strange. How? What instigated the connections? Could we use the process to power our own devices like Hertzfeld’s glove?”
“You can do all the studies you want after the portal is gone.” Rain glared at the device and stepped aside for Algernon.
“There can be no study once the connections are disrupted. I won’t let you destroy this discovery like…” Peggy’s voice rose as she realised she was once more the brink of an incredible discovery that was about to be snatched away.
“Like what Peggy? The little day dream we interrupted? It wasn’t real…” Rain’s own emotions fizzed inside him, wanting a release
“Oh like your ghosts?” Peggy quipped back making it very clear what she thought of his imagined spirits.
Algernon quietly stepped between his two quarrelling family members and picked up the gun. It was heavier than he expected, heavier than most he’d practised with on the gun range. He’d seen Hertzfeld wield the gun against the aborted recursion and knew it was a simple point and shoot.
“Those ghosts were real for me, Peggy. In the past just as much as they were in that room.”
“Maybe if you thought less about your past and more about what your senses tell you in the here and now you wouldn’t be such a gibbering mess.”
“Says the woman who planted landmines at her front door against underground fish people!”
Algernon looked at Peggy and Rain. He knew that a gun may get their attention. He could grab Peggy’s gun from its holster and point it at them. It would shut them up for a moment, but then what? He couldn’t stop them from thinking the way they did with a gun, and neither did he really want to. But, he knew what to do with the gun he had. He left them to their bickering and started back down to the storeroom.
It was quiet in the storeroom after the yelling match upstairs. This time Algernon found the switchboard and turned on all the lights to the room. The fluorescents moaned and flashed before filling the space completely with white light. Under their glare the room looked smaller and more shabby than it had in the dark. The piles of broken and forgotten objects were smaller, more mundane.
Hefting the heavy gun across his body, Algernon started down the aisle marked with the giant mole rat skull knowing the portal was at the other end. At first he thought it had disappeared, finally blinked out of existence with too little energy to support it. As he stared at the spot where he knew it had been, his eyes picked up the shimmer of blue, like that off the surface of a pond. It was here, but like a torchlight in the sun it was washed out by the brighter light source. Algernon expertly adjusted the gun in his arms, flicked off the safety and raised it to his shoulder. His finger found the trigger and was about to squeeze it just as he practiced when he became aware of a buzzing coming from all around him.
Curious, he lowered the gun and listened trying to hone in on the sound. As he did the sound cleared and a voice soft at first, could be distinctly heard.
“Please what?” He asked, his response bouncing off the stained white walls.
“What… what…” The voice echoed and he wondered for a moment if he’d misheard the first plea at all. Then he realised whatever the intelligence was, it was using his words because it had none of its own.
“What I’ve lost? What I want?”
The response when it came was not words, more a feeling of warmth and approval. Agreement. Yes.
“I have what I want. Sometimes I wish they wouldn’t fight, sometimes I wish they were better, but they’re my family.”
Again a response, not as words but as a feeling of being directionless, lost and confused, not knowing what to do. For a while Algernon just thought. He knew that feeling very well. That first day hiding in the abandoned house after Peggy’s machine had dragged him into this world. With only what he wore on him he spent hours wandering around the empty ruin wondering what next? Where he was? What should he do now? Who could he turn to?
He realised, like his words, the intelligence was also using his own feelings to communicate. That’s what it had been doing all along, using memories and feelings from both Rain and Peggy to communicate. It had been born into the dark of a forgotten storeroom from the broken leftovers of The Strange. It was just unfortunate that the two minds it should first meet were so broken themselves.
“You want to know your purpose, you want to know where you belong and what you should be doing?” He said, the gun now forgotten, pointing at the ground. He was physically knocked off his feet when the response came back. Bright and loud like a shout, not of anger but absolute joy. The emotion was completely overpowering dulling all his other senses so he was only vaguely aware of his body falling backwards.
Hands cupped his head and held his shoulders as his world tilted until he found himself looking up at the concerned faces of both Peggy and Rain.
“Hey mate, stay with me.” Rain said moving around to take Algernon’s hand as Peggy checked his automatic responses with her light.
“I’m here.” Algernon blinked and Peggy lowered her torch.
“We stopped yelling when we noticed you were gone. What happened?” She asked, slowing lifting him up to sitting position against the nearest pile.
“I heard it, the intelligence powered by the Strange.” Algernon replied, “It was born here in the dark and was alone not knowing what it was or what it should do.” He sat up straighter feeling more himself, then remembered the gun and turned on the safety and it powered down. “The first person it met was Rain and it found memories and emotions that it understood in your mind. Rain, you’re pretty messed up.”
Rain’s look of concern turned into one of his knowing smiles. He let Algernon continue. “Those memories were too much for you and you ran. Then it met Peggy and found something in her too, but you were right Peggy, it was just memories of being lost, alone, not knowing what to do…”
“Yes, thank you Algernon well put.” She interrupted Algernon and gestured for him to continue. “But what about you? How did it finally communicate with you?”
“I think it had learnt from you two. It couldn’t confront me with my memory without making me scared like Rain. There was no one I wanted to talk to, so it had to use what it had learnt from us already. It used emotions from my mind to ask me what it’s purpose was. When I understood it was so pleased that it …it was very happy.”
“So, what’s a pile of junks purpose?” Peggy asked completely oblivious to the larger story laid out in front of her.
“The same as every intelligent creature ever.” Rain beamed now appreciating the wonder they had discovered. “You were right, Peggy. We can’t destroy it, but I don’t think you have the right to experiment on it either. We have a brand new life on our hands.”
“New life, made from remnants of the Strange?” Peggy mused, “It would probably be best in its own habitat.” She stood up and walked back down the aisle to the mole rat skull. She picked it up and returned the two men still sitting on the floor.
“If it were to travel out to Railsea but stop part way, it would find itself in the Strange. There it could find purpose, but I don’t know how to communicate all that to a being with no language.”
“I’d say if it can use our memories and feelings, we can use them too.” Rain pointed out and brought his legs around to sit cross legged. “Think of that journey we took to Railsea. We moved from world to world all swimming in the energies of the Strange. The feeling of acceleration through the stars.”
Algernon closed his eyes and listened for the intelligence. It seemed silent at the moment, but he knew it was still there, listening itself, waiting. He thought of that trip, the tug as they left Earth and travelled as stardust across the Strange to Railsea. He also thought of all the broken ciphers and oddments that powered the creature and made a connection between that power and the vast swirling energies of the Strange.
A bright sharp thought, like an intake of breath, a sudden realisation, a rush of knowing.
Algernon’s eyes flicked open in time to see the faint blue shimmer coalesce and form a tight ball of energy. The ball drift between Rain and himself and into the skull, filling it with the same pale energy until it was too intense to watch and Algernon had to look away. When the glow subsided he opened his eyes. The light had gone and the mole rat skull sat there in Peggy’s arms as before.
“Right. There’s obviously been an appalling lack of cipher safety in this room.” Peggy suddenly very brusk, started ordering the two men about. “I’ll stay here and find anything Strange-touched, you two move everything else out.”
Algernon wasn’t sure, but it seemed her eyes shimmered like the light from the portal.
“Everything?” He asked getting to his feet.
“I think chopping down the tree outside the lab would have been easier,” Rain joked also rising to pat Algernon on the shoulder, “Nevermind, I have an idea. Peggy, just let us know what we can take.”
For the rest of the afternoon they moved boxes from the storeroom on to the green lawn of the campus commons. When Peggy found an item that set her sense tingling she put it carefully aside ready for proper disposal or storage. Rain arranged the boxes and old furniture into a pyre lighting it just as the sun disappeared from the winter sky. The fire started slowly in the cold night air, stacks of paper and cardboard not being the best fuel. Eventually the wood and other combustible ignited and the warm glow lit the whole common.
The few security that remained at the Campus swarmed the commons, equipped for an emergency. A quick word from Rain and the mention of Peggy’s name and reputation soon had the security officer in charge noting that the fire was their responsibility and soon left them to their blaze.
“Where’s Peggy?” Rain basked in the glow of the fire. For the first time that day the little man looked at peace.
Algernon shook his head,
“I guess still down in the lab, she said she had something to do.”
“Her loss. You know, every Christmas they burn bonfires just like this one up and down the Mississippi River. Even if her Yaya didn’t approve, Peggy could not have helped but know about them.”
“Another Christmas tradition?”
“Yep. I guess it shows how important it really is.”
They stayed out watching the fire until it was little more than ill-shapen coals and the heat no longer kept out the cold. With a shrug they silently made their way back across the now darkened common to the dormitory building.
Before they had even entered, there was a noticeable difference to the quality of the light coming from inside. Gone was the fluro white shining through the windows. It was replaced by a softer warmer glow coming from one source. Rain stopped, his mouth agape in delighted surprise.
“No way, she didn’t!” He exclaimed, racing up the few steps and in through the front doors.
Puzzled, Algernon ran after him, stopped by the wondrous sight that now filled the lounge. Instead of the leaning dead fir tree of the morning, the tree had been propped up on a tripod made for the task. The branches were wreathed in red, green and gold bands of tinsel with every second or third holding a warm yellow light in the shape of a candle. On top of the tree a silver blue star perched, reflecting back the light from the tree below. The effect was balanced and aesthetically pleasing. Algernon wasn’t sure if it warranted the killing of a tree, but he could appreciate that it was beautiful.
“You crazy unbelievable woman!” Rain turned when Peggy appeared from out of the women’s dormitory room. He ran to embrace her but was held back by a stern look and a warning finger, “For someone who said they never killed a tree at Christmas, where did you learn to decorate like that?!”
“My Yaya would not have a tree.” She acknowledged walking back to the lounge to gaze upon her work, “But my parents, on the other hand, love their plastic spruce. It was a family ritual to decorate it altogether on December first. When I found the boxes of decorations, it seemed only appropriate that I put them to good use.”
“Your parents?” Algernon asked, noting this was the first time she’d ever spoken about family other than her grandmother or brother.
“Yes, I did have them.” She replied in her usual matter of fact tone that cease all further conversation. When Rain stepped up to the tree to tweak a light and move a piece of tinsel she stepped closer to Algernon and whispered,
“You asked before why I’m not going home for Christmas.”
“Y-es.” He stuttered very aware of how she’d responded to him the first time.
Instead she just looked up at the tree and Rain fussing at the decorations.
“I am where I belong. If that is not my home, than where is?”
* * * * * * * * *
The day after Boxing day the Estate started coming back to life again as staff returned to work from all over the world. No less at the dormitories where a large figure, carrying a noticeably lighter bag, pushed open the outside door.
“Brucie! Welcome back!” Rain called across the dormitory as Bruce walked back in. ”I never thought I’d say it, but don’t ever leave again. This place falls apart without you.”
“Oh does it.” He responded, putting his bag down to admire the tree, “Why? What did you do?”
“Attention all staff, “ The artificial voice of the announcement program broadcast through the Estate’s PA system, “Would Rain Bigby please report to Mr Keaton’s office immediately.”
Rain rolled his eyes, patted Bruce on shoulder by way of welcome and silently walked through the doors that Bruce had only just entered, Algernon in his wake.
“Why? What have you done, Rain?” Bruce repeated now concerned over what had happened during his absence. He started to follow Rain but was called back by Peggy.
“Sit down Bruce, “ She ordered, pointing to one of the lounge chairs that had been rescued from the embrace of the tree, “Let me tell you about our very Strange Christmas.”