Yes, these stories are following a pattern and leading somewhere. Somewhere that isn’t all that nice. It’s a reflection of reality, when you sit back and consider it, but hey – this is just entertainment. It’s Christmas! (he says, smoothing his green fur and waiting for it to be over).
Without further ado, here’s this year’s instalment.
“The snow is stopping. We should go.” Betty turned her gaze back to her tablet. “They might not have traced us yet but if they have, they’ll be able to send the drones now.”
“Just a couple of minutes. The download is almost done.” Alan visually checked his connections into the breached cable they had dug up, under cover of an open-sided white tent. “Anyway, it’s still Earth Hour. They’ll mostly be standing out in the woods and hugging trees that don’t even know they’re there.” He let out a guffaw.
“It’s not funny.” Betty slapped his arm. “This is seriously dangerous. As long as we don’t bother them, they ignore us. We are taking a big risk here.”
Alan took a breath and blew out condensation into the cold air. “They don’t ignore us. They can’t find us. If they do, we’re dead. The only way to find out what’s happening in the cities is to take a risk. Besides, it’s Earth Day, and after Earth Hour most systems will be shut down.”
“The civilian ones.” Betty stared at her tablet. “You know full well the government never shuts down.”
“I know. We nearly got caught last time. Still, we need to know how they are progressing in there and whether they are a threat to us.” Alan checked his screen. “Twenty seconds and we’re done.”
“You were out with Pete last time. What do you mean, you nearly got caught?”
Alan waved his hand. “Oh, it wasn’t a big deal. The drones were sent, we had six minutes to finish the download before they arrived and we were out of there in two.”
“You know a capture of any of us means a total pull-out, right?” Betty’s eyes widened. “Shut everything, take what we can carry and run. Find a whole new place to live. That’s a big deal. A very big deal.”
“Don’t worry about it. We didn’t get caught and we won’t this time. Download is complete.” Alan shut down his laptop and disconnected it from the exposed cable. “We leave the canopy. It’ll take them that little bit longer to find our breach and every second counts now.”
“Drones are activated. They’ve noticed us.” Betty tapped at her tablet screen. “Seven minutes. Let’s move.”
Alan folded his laptop and placed it in his shoulder bag along with the cables. “Seven minutes is plenty of time. Come on.” He grinned at Betty. “This is fun, isn’t it?
“You’re insane.” Betty took the lead. “Hey, won’t they just follow our tracks in the snow?”
“You go ahead. I’ll follow.” Alan picked up what Betty had assumed was his walking stick. He pulled a lever and extended one end into a rake, laced with strips of cloth. “Drone cameras are low resolution. They won’t be able to see our raked-over tracks and they’ll be busy hunting for the breached cable. Which they also can’t easily see because we’ve left a white canopy over it.” He lowered the rake to the ground, behind them. “They’ll have a precise location and waste time scanning and re-scanning it. We have time to get well out of the way.”
“You’re so fucking complacent.” Betty trudged through the snow, her tablet now stowed inside her thick jacket. “You don’t seem to realise how dangerous this is.”
“I know exactly how dangerous it is.” Alan’s voice lost its humour. “I’ve done this dozens of times, at all times of year, and we’ve cut it very close more than once. This is one of the easy ones.”
“Easy!” Betty snorted. “We have seven minutes to get clear before the sky is full of drones and you think that’s easy?”
Alan’s sigh didn’t make her turn. She was focused on getting away from what had just become a target site.
“The information we get is important.” Alan said. “And yes, it’s a risk. A big one. But they only ever send one drone to hunt for us and that drone always concentrates on the breach point. This time it’ll take them seven minutes to get here and we’re four minutes from cover. This really is one of the easy ones.”
Betty let out a gasp of disbelief. “I never want to be your watchman on one of these missions ever again.”
Alan laughed. “Nobody ever does.” His tone became serious. “It matters though. I’m the only one hacking into their systems. I take out someone different every time because if I can’t do it any more, or I get caught, the rest of you need to know where the access points are.” He paused. “If I take out the same person every time and we both get caught, it’s over.”
“Oh great.” Betty scowled at the new snow before her. “So I’m expendable.”
“No.” Alan spoke quietly. “I am. You, Pete, Stan, Eddie, Helen, all the others, are the ones who will replace me when I’m not around any more.”
“Huh?” Betty stopped and turned to face him. “What do you mean?”
Alan motioned her to keep moving. “We can talk about this when we’re safe. Let’s get inside.”
Betty scanned the fresh snow in front of them. “Where’s the entrance? I told you when we arrived, we should have marked it.”
“Never mark anything. It gives a drone something to find.” Alan pointed at her hands. “Where’s your tablet? It has a map that makes use of their GPS system to tell us exactly where we are, and where the access hatch is.”
“Can’t they track it?” Betty pulled out her tablet and turned it on.
“Yes.” Alan waved her concerns aside. “But we must be very close. It should only be on for a few seconds. It’s a risk, but pissing about here while there’s a drone on the way is a far bigger risk.”
“Okay. The access hatch should be about five metres that way.” She pointed to her left. “And it’s starting to snow again so we’d better hurry.”
Alan was already probing the snow. “Found it. Time to turn off anything electronic.”
Betty shut down her tablet then helped him shove the snow aside with her hands. They cleared just enough to get the hatch open and dropped into the darkness inside.
Alan lit an LED flashlight, pulled the hatch closed, spun the wheel that held it closed then jammed his rake’s handle through the wheel. “If they managed to trace the GPS signal, this should slow them down. The new snow will hide our tracks, hopefully before the drone arrives.”
“How can you be so calm? I’m terrified.” Betty hugged herself.
“You develop a certain fatalism after you’ve done this a few times.” Alan picked up the sticks wrapped, at one end, in pitch-soaked cloth, part of the return-journey items they had left here, and struck his lighter. “You just know that any mission can be your last. So every time I get home, it’s a great feeling.” He grinned, lit one of the torches and handed it to Betty, then lit another for himself. Then turned off the flashlight and pocketed it.
He hefted the bag containing the rest of their supplies and started along the rusting pipe. “Come on, we have to get the hell out. We have new information to take home and this whole trip is wasted if we get caught.”
Betty followed. “Why don’t we use the LED torches? We used them on the way here and they have plenty of charge left.”
“No electromagnetic radiation. Nothing. Not so much as a battery powered watch. We know their cameras are crap, we’ve downloaded footage that shows them getting worse over time, but we also know they are very advanced in RFID and in detecting electrical fields.” Alan turned to smile at her. “So we go all caveman on the way back.”
“You really think they can spot the EMF of an LED?”
“No idea.” Alan turned into a junction in the pipework. “In this game we take no chances. No markings anywhere, we can use the computer map to get here but to get back…” He took a piece of paper from his jacket. “We go old style.”
Betty took the paper and unfolded it one-handed. “What the hell is this? It looks like a computer map drawn in pencil.”
“That’s exactly what it is. I hear that, in the days before GPS and satellites, they had to make these by measuring distances on the ground.”
“Oh come on.” Betty followed Alan as he turned into another pipe. “How are you even making these turns? There’s nothing on this paper to tell us where we are.”
“I’ve done this trip so many times I don’t need the map any more. This is for you to follow. Call it on-the-job training.” Alan stopped and faced her. “Can you tell where we are on that map?”
Betty stared at the paper. “I don’t even know where we started from. How the hell do you work this?”
“It’s best used with a compass, but those don’t work in these steel pipes.” Alan took a pencil from his pocket and marked an X on the map. “This is where we just came in. Remember the turns we made?”
Betty shook her head. “Compass?”
“More olde worlde stuff. Don’t worry about it.” Alan smiled. “So, where do you think we are?”
“Um…” Betty put her finger on the X and started moving along the lines.
“Wrong way. Not your fault, there’s nothing to orient yourself with here. Try again.”
Betty treated him to her best withering glare, then looked at the map. She moved her finger along the lines, traced two turns and said “here.”
“Yes.” Alan punched the air. “You’re a natural born map reader. Okay, we’re heading here –” he placed another X “– to a bit that looks like a blank wall. There’s a panel on the left side, press it and it pops open. Type in 5794 and the wall opens. Always remember to close the panel before you go through.”
“Okay. I think.” Betty marked an X where they were on the map now.
“Right, Let’s go, and try to keep track of where we are on the map.” Alan started walking.
Betty followed. “Why are you showing me this now? Shouldn’t we be running?”
“We are in old steel pipes. If we run, the noise we make will echo through the whole system. Slow and quiet is the best way now.” His shoulders slumped a little but he kept walking. “You need to know this stuff. Everyone who has been out with me has one of those maps and knows how to use it. So when the day comes that I can’t do this anymore, there are plenty who can replace me.”
“You mean when you get too old?”
Alan half-turned his head, enough that Betty saw his tight smile. “I hope that’ll be the reason,” he said.
Betty followed him around a left turn. She marked the turn on the map, thinking about how her opinion of Alan had changed. He might seem irresponsible, even reckless, but he risked capture every time he went on one of these missions. She pursed her lips. She had been wrong about him. Everything he did was calculated and precise. It just looked random.
An echo along the pipes broke through her thoughts. A long slow groan, a bang, a rattling. They both froze.
“That can’t happen.” Alan’s voice quaked. “Drones can’t do that.”
“What is it?”
“Something broke open the entry hatch.” Alan grabbed Betty’s hand. “Where are we on this map? Right now.”
“What the hell does that matter?” Betty looked into his eyes and saw the raw fear in them. “I…” she touched the map. “Here, I think.”
“Good.” Alan reached into his bag. “Here, take my laptop. You’re younger and faster than me. You take the first left, the second left, then the second right turns, Open the panel, press 5794, close the panel and go through. I’ll catch up.”
“You want me to leave it open for you?”
“No. Always close it. I know how to open it when I get there.” He pressed the laptop into her free hand. “The information in here is what matters now.”
“But… what is it? Who broke the door open?” Betty clutched the laptop and felt her knees tremble.
“They sent more than a drone this time. Not a human, a machine. The one they only use on Earth Day.”
Echoing along the pipes came a heavy thump, then a deep, resounding ‘Ho ho ho’. The jingling of distant bells sounded but it was hard to say where they came from.
Alan closed his eyes. “Send not to ask for whom the bells jingle.”
Betty’s eyes widened so far it hurt. “He’s real? Green Santa is real?”
“Yes. Get going. I’ll be behind you but don’t look back and don’t wait for me. Get that information home. If I fall, do not – do not – come back for me. This is more important than either of us.”
She saw, in his eyes, a primal terror. A caveman faced with a tiger when all he had was a stick. She knew, in that moment she knew, that he was going to fight razor tooth and slashing claw with a stick because it was all he had to defend the thing that mattered to him. Betty turned and ran, her map now crumpled alongside the laptop in her hand, her blazing torch flaring behind her. First left, second left, second right. The map was in her mind and her imagination charted her progress.
Behind her, Alan’s footsteps and heavy breathing followed. She knew he had no need of the map but still she worried. His footsteps slowed, he was falling behind. After the second turn he was no longer in sight, only his wheezing and staggering footsteps told her he was still moving.
The bells jingled louder. Betty remembered the tales of her childhood, tales she thought had been made up. Send not to ask for whom the bells jingle. They jingle for thee. Nobody who heard them ever lived to tell, but stories said there had been one, long ago. Betty prayed to a God she half-believed in that she would be another.
Second right. The last turn. Ahead was the blank wall, the end of the pipe maze. Behind her, Alan’s footsteps stopped. His coughing echoed along the pipes. He was already too old for this game.
There were other footsteps. A steady, measured tread that gave the impression of a large man, or man-like thing, casually following. Something that never tired, never rested. No matter how fast you run, you have to rest sometime. Green Santa just keeps going.
Betty took two steps back along the pipe. Alan had told her not to go back but could she really leave him? She looked down at the laptop. Alan was right. If she lost this, it had all been for nothing.
The heavy footsteps stopped. Betty held her breath. They had no electronics switched on. All the Green Santa had to track them with was the flicker of their torches and if he couldn’t see that from his current position then his only option was to listen. To wait until they made a sound.
Betty turned, very slowly, and watched every step she took towards the end wall. She avoided every bit of debris, touched nothing that could make a noise. She had nearly reached the wall when the echo of Alan’s stumble came through the pipes. He must have tried the same trick, and failed.
“Ho ho ho.” The humourless laugh bounced along every pipe in this maze. The heavy footsteps resumed, faster this time.
Betty dropped her torch to the ground near the wall and used its light to find the faint outline of the panel Alan had told her was there. She pressed it, the door popped open and she hastily pressed 5-4-9-7. A red light came on but nothing else happened. Betty’s fingers shook. What did I do wrong?
Five. It started with five. Betty pressed five. She closed her eyes and thought about what Alan had said. It was linked to the map in her mind. First left, second left, second right. There were no ones or twos in the number. Her mind recalled Alan’s face giving her the directions. Open the panel, press 5794. That was it. Betty pressed 7-9-4.
The light turned green. Betty closed the panel. There was a soft click and a section of the wall swung open. There was light beyond. Betty glanced back, hoping to see Alan following. Instead, Green Santa’s voice boomed along the pipes.
“Well, it seems you are on the naughty list. Now you have to come with me.”
Alan’s voice followed. “Just kill me, you green metal bastard.”
“Oh no,” Santa boomed. “Naughty people have questions to answer.”
“I have nothing to…” Alan’s voice choked off, followed by the dull thud of a falling body.
Betty stifled a scream, but it came out as a squeal.
Santa fell silent for a moment then called out. “There is another naughty one here.” The stomp of his footfalls resumed. Betty stepped through the door and closed it as quietly as she could. Its lock clicked softly into place.
Betty placed her ear to the steel door. The muffled stomping drew closer, accompanied by the jingling bells. She clenched her teeth. Could he just smash through this door? The footsteps stopped.
Her body shook like leaves in the wind. Somehow she forced herself to silence, despite the tears rolling down her cheeks. Eventually the footsteps resumed but going away, getting fainter.
Betty let out a long, quiet sigh and sank to her knees, still clutching the laptop and the crumpled map. She knelt there for what felt like eternity before she finally looked around at where she was.
It was a corridor. White and clean with striplights along the ceiling. This is not where we started from. What do I do now? The map held no clues, it ended at the door she had just come through. She stared along the corridor, one way and then the other, but both directions seemed identical. Which way should she go?
A buzz, a hum, a rattle… familiar sounds. Betty stared along the corridor until a battered electric car came into view. More like an oversized child’s go-kart than anything else, it trundled along at a sedate pace towards her.
Phil sat in the driver’s seat. His face showed deep concern as he stopped alongside her.
“Alan?” The question needed only that one word.
Betty shook her head.
“Get in, quick.” Phil let her settle into one of the rear seats before turning the ramshackle machine around and setting off. “This is evac time. We have to get the hell out of here now. Don’t blame yourself because nobody else will. It was bound to happen one day.” He shook his head. “What happened? How did Alan manage to get blindsided by a drone?”
“It wasn’t—” Betty’s voice cracked. She cleared her throat. “It was Green Santa. He followed us into the pipes and caught Alan.”
“Shit. I can’t radio ahead. They’ll be scanning the area for signals now. I wish this heap of junk could go faster.”
“I think he killed Alan. I heard him fall.” Betty’s voice trembled.
“No way. Santa always takes them alive and Alan will talk. Oh, he will resist but they’ll make him talk.” Phil’s body shuddered. “They have very persuasive ways.” Phil turned his head. “You heard him fall, you say? Green Santa didn’t see you?”
“No.” Betty felt a tear slide down her cheek. “But he heard me, and I heard the bells.”
Phil whistled. “Wow. You’re only the second one in history to hear those bells and survive. You just became very, very important.”
“Since Dawn died all those years ago, just after we ran from the cities, it’s been harder to convince the young about Green Santa and the jingling bells.” Phil shot her a sly glance. “You didn’t believe it, did you?”
“No, not really. It all seemed a bit too weird. A robot they only use on Earth day? Why wouldn’t they use it all the time?”
“It’s fear. It’s how they control people.” Phil turned a corner. “For this one day they want everyone to turn off the power in their homes. They could do it centrally, but getting people scared enough to do it themselves – that’s real control. Green Santa is the enforcer for that specific control. And there are more than one of him.”
“How many?” Betty had found it hard to believe in one Green Santa. Was there an army of them?
“Nobody knows, but he’s struck in multiple places at once so there are certainly more than one.” Phil brought the vehicle to a halt beside a plain white door. “Here we are. Let’s go home and then leave it as fast as we can.” His mouth grinned, but his eyes were full of sadness.
Betty climbed out of the makeshift car and picked up her bag, Alan’s laptop and the map he had given her. “I don’t get it,” she said. I’ve lived here all my life and I’ve never seen this corridor.”
Phil moved to the door. “Oh it’s quite a labyrinth down here. Very few people know all of it. We only know the parts we need to know. So if any of us get caught, they can’t get the whole floor plan out of us.” He tapped on the door.
“Do you know it all?” Betty wondered just how much more her mind could take. Green Santa turns out to be real, then there are lots of Green Santas, and now her home was getting bigger around her.
“Well that’s the thing,” Phil said. “If there’s more I don’t know about, I don’t know it’s there. So maybe I do know it all or maybe I just think I do because I know more than some other people.”
Betty shook her head. “Forget I asked.”
Phil tapped the door again. “Come on. This is no time to be asleep on the job.”
The door swung open. A wide-eyed Terry stood there, with a much older man behind him. Grey, wrinkled and holding on to a cane, they both recognised him at once.
David. One of the few remaining of those who had originally fled the cities to found this colony. He was originally known as 23-David, his city designation, and the stories he had told about life in the city were hard to believe.
David spoke. “Come inside. We are already packing to move. Abandon that vehicle, we have no time to dismantle it.”
“You already know?” Betty blushed at the awe in her voice. “How?”
David pointed his cane upwards. “Hidden cameras in the ceiling. No point keeping them secret any more, now we have to move. They don’t have sound but Alan’s empty seat was all we needed to know.”
Terry ushered them inside. “Sorry about the delay. When I saw Alan wasn’t with you I went to alert David and the others. We just got back to the door.” Behind him, at his desk, his monitor was blank. “It’s all turned off now. We’re running silent on electronics.”
David laughed. “Yes, they are getting their Earth Day power-down in here too this year. They’d love the irony, if they had any sense of humour.” He shuffled to another door. “Come on. Bring the laptop. While we pack up, I want to see what Alan found.”
“You’re going to turn it on?” Betty clutched the laptop to her chest. “They might trace it.”
“We’re going to the Faraday cage. I gave instructions that it should be dismantled last.” David made surprisingly fast progress for a man whose legs seemed to no more than shuffle.
Betty leaned towards Phil as they walked. “What’s a Faraday cage?”
“It’s a big metal mesh box connected to earth. EM radiation from a laptop won’t go through it.” He motioned her forward.
The cage was only large enough for two but the mesh sides meant they could see and hear David while he started up the laptop and opened the files Alan had downloaded. His breath came out in a hiss almost as soon as he read the first few lines.
“This does not look good,” he said over his shoulder. He read further, fast, flipping screens and scanning the contents. “Oh this is very bad.” David shut down the laptop and closed it. “We’ll study it in detail later but just scanning it was bad enough.”
“What is it? Are they coming for us?” Phil’s fingers twitched.
“They are now.” David stood, opened the door and handed the laptop to Betty. “Take good care of this. Don’t let it get damaged. We’ll have to make copies of those files but there’s no time to do it now.”
Betty accepted the laptop and put it carefully in her bag. “What do you mean, ‘they are now’? Weren’t they before?”
“Oh, in a half hearted way, yes. They had hunts, they considered them sport, and they’d send armed drones out to kill us if they found us, but mostly they ignored us. That old drunk, Kim Jung Kerr, left most of the running of the cities to his sidekicks and they were pretty useless. They couldn’t co-ordinate a drunken night in one of Pissed Harry’s brew rooms.” He started towards the main hall where the evacuation gathered.
“So what changed?” Phil walked alongside.
“They finally left the old drunk in his mansion with an endless supply of wine and the lazy bastards let computers control more and more of the way their society works. We all know how computers think.” David tapped his head. “They don’t. They follow programs and they use algorithms to perfect the efficiency of those programs. Efficiency. Not humanity. Computers care nothing for that.”
“I’m not following this. Computers run the cities?” Betty’s head swam with too much information, too fast.
“They do now.” David pursed his lips. “People always placed too much faith in their computers. They thought artificial intelligence was real. It isn’t. You start a program and you give it algorithms so it can adapt – but it’s not a living thing. It can only adapt within the constraints of the original program. It cannot think up something new.”
“You’re losing me too,” Phil shook his head.
David stopped. “Okay. You were born here, you didn’t see the cities. You’ve heard about the genderfluid rules they had when I left, yes?”
They both nodded.
“And you didn’t believe a word of it, did you?”
Betty and Phil glanced at each other. Both blushed.
“I don’t blame you.” David resumed walking. “It sounds fucking crazy and it was. It was intended to be crazy. It was set up so people would demand an end to it. Computers, programmed by likely psychopathic morons, found a solution and applied it. Computers do not debate, they don’t ask opinions, they just implement what they were programmed to do.” He took a deep breath. “Everyone in the city is now neutered at birth, Except the breeding class, the elite. They produce all the children now and they select the best for themselves. The rest are surgically adjusted into worker drones. Like ants or bees. And they don’t even know it’s happened.”
Betty stopped walking. “That can’t be true. People would revolt.”
David stopped and faced her. “You’d think so, yes. Our people would for sure, but revolts, even talking about it, were so deeply crushed that all of us who would have revolted simply left. The rest, well, they got what they wanted. Someone else to run their lives for them.”
Phil wrinkled his nose. “So really, we can fight off an army of neutered weaklings, surely?”
“That’s not what they’ll send.” David’s eyes hardened. “They use people as workers, there is nobody in the military. That’s entirely computer controlled and it’s big. Very big.” He waved his hand at their protests. “Not to fight an enemy. To keep their people in line.”
“So why should we worry?” Betty said. “If they use their military on themselves, we don’t matter to them.”
“We are not talking sense and reason. We are talking computers. Give it a problem and it will try to fix it by any means at its disposal. It does not care about consequences or collateral damage. It is focused on one problem and what happens to the rest of the world does not matter.”
“This is getting scary.” Phil glanced at Betty. “Will they use nukes?”
“Unlikely,” David said. “Somewhere in their databanks will be information on what happens to electronics in a nuclear blast. Deleting themselves will not be an attractive solution.”
“So what then? What can we expect?” Betty felt for the laptop in her bag. It seemed less benign than it had before.
“When we tapped in before, humans would have seen it, humans would have sent a drone, found nobody and given up.” David paused. “Computers do not give up. You know those old scary stories about zombies? We still have some scratchy DVDs of zombie apocalypse films.”
“Yeah, I’ve seen them. Spooky, but you’re losing me again.” Betty blinked a few times and looked at Phil.
“Me too,” Phil said. “Zombies are walking corpses. Not computers.”
David continued. “What’s scary about zombies, even though they are slow, is that they never give up. Never stop. Never rest. You can easily outrun a zombie but you have to stop sometime. You have to sleep. While you sleep, the zombie is still going. Catching up.”
“So what you’re saying is that the computers are going to trail us like zombies?” Phil’s nose wrinkled.
“With a slight difference.” David looked them in the eyes, one after another. “Computers are a bloody sight faster than zombies. Welcome to the real zombie apocalypse.”
“Why? What did we do?” Betty’s lip trembled.
“We hacked in. Alan’s downloading of those files triggered a defence response – not from people this time, from the computers. This time they won’t give up.” David sighed. “We’re going to be running forever, and we brought it on ourselves.”