A tale of Christmas yet to come. If you’re new here you’ll need to catch up on where this story came from. First this one, then this one.
Those two now appear in Underdog Anthologies 4 and 5, and the one you’re about to read is in Anthology 7.
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
“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
“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
“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
“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
“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
“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?”
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
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
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
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,
“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
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
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
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
“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
“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
“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
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
“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
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
They both nodded.
“And you didn’t believe a word of it, did
Betty and Phil glanced at each other. Both
“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
“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.”