Set Up Thine Altar Here

rating: +91+x


Dr. Thaddeus Xyank leaned back in his chair, staring at the ceiling, wishing desperately to find a radio station that was not playing that godawful holiday music. A record snowfall on Christmas Eve. How fucking quaint. Everyone he had bumped into today was so oppressively cheery it turned his stomach. So here he sat in his half-lit office, rubbing his eyes and hoping against all hope that it would just plain go away.

The team disappeared into the back of the object, carrying their wired transmitter with them. "Alpha, one-zero, confirm uplink."

~Reading you clear. Uplink established~

"Excellent. Do you have visual on any dash twos?"

~Negative. Scanner sweep confirms they're all at the feast.~

"Alright," Thad replied. "Launch on my mark."

By his calculations, this was the quietest of all possible Christmas Eves at Site-17. But the quiet didn't stop the memories trickling back in, and despite a mountain of papers to his right insisting they needed solutions, it didn't seem he would be getting any work done. Thad's eyes crept up the filing cabinet and bored holes in the top drawer where he knew his emergency bottle of brown liquor (he was pretty sure it was rum this time) lay waiting for him.

"…Fuck it."

In his pocket were keys which were soon in his hand and sooner in the lock and on his desk was a bottle and no glass. He kicked off his shoes, propped his feet on the desk, popped the cork and drank, watching the snow continue to accumulate outside.




The object began to shake. At the edge of his perception, Thad swore he saw the figures on the face of it begin to… shift. Not move exactly, but change, moment by moment, between three separate versions of themselves.

"Dr. Xyank! They're gone! Get out of there!" Kremlin shouted in the back of his skull. The alarm was blaring and the bulkhead sliding closed.

"Room for one more?"

Thad glanced to the doorway and was only a little bit (but not very) surprised to see another person who looked exactly like himself. He smirked and shook his head. "Quietest of all possible December 24ths?"

"Yeah…" the Xyank at the door responded. "Funny.. out of infinity, two of me picked the same one."

"Was bound to happen somewhere." Thad corked the small bottle and tossed it to Xyank. "Pull the nameplate and close the door. There's a record snowfall to watch."

~Isolation protocol is now in effect. This lab will be sealed in 10 seconds. All Foundation Personnel, evacuate immediately~

The whole room began to flicker rapidly then, while simultaneously not changing at all, and Thad became very, very dizzy watching it. As quickly as his legs would move (which was not very), he backed toward the closing door.

There was a burst of sound and light, and the face of the object cracked. Seventy five hours with a diamond carbide drill had been needed just to sample the mineral, and before Thad's eyes a crack as wide as his thumb had opened up.

From within, the creature emerged. And Thaddeus saw. He saw very well indeed.

Xyank did as he was asked and perched on the corner of the desk, taking a large, long swallow of the rum he had been given. "… Hey, how old are you?"

"You don't know?"

"I don't remember this, so… no. I'm sure I don't need to explain it at this point."

Thad rolled his eyes and took the bottle back. "I'm not sure how much good it would do." Another hard swallow. The liquor felt hot and filled the back of his mouth with salty nastiness, but the finish was smooth and pleasant, like molasses and ginger. He checked his watch, and then his internal chronometer, and did some quick math. "…I'll be seventy-five in about four days."

Xyank nodded, pulling a chair out of a neglected corner of the room and mirroring his double's posture… it just seemed more natural, less disorienting. "I'll be eighty-two in the same."

"Really? Surprised I'm holding up that well. Have you been back home to refresh the…" Thad vaguely gestured to his torso. "Well, any of it."

Xyank shook his head. "You know there's no 'there' there anymore."

He ran down corridors as they screamed. As they blew their brains out. As they tore at their flesh. He ran past sirens as they howled. He did his best to ignore the raving over the intercom. He ran with about fifteen other people who also knew they would run no matter what, until a pipe broke and hot steel meant for an isolation protocol melted their faces off.

And he kept running. Because that's what he saw and that's what was right.

"Right…" Thad said. "Thanks for that." He took another shot and slammed the bottle down.

They shared a moment in silence. Snow drifted placidly downward, highlighted by the sulfur orange glow in the parking lot beyond the window. If he listened carefully, Thad was sure he could almost hear it.

"It's funny," Xyank said finally. "All the numbers, all the rigor of the theory, and it still doesn't explain moments like this one."

"Is this the part where an older, wiser me explains in terms I can understand some secret key to unlocking all the pain of December the 24th? And then I bend over on my desk after you leave and have the good long cry I've been putting off these past 30 years, because Christmas Magic or some other ridiculous horseshit?"

Xyank rubbed the bridge of his nose with both hands. "No…It's the part where I point out that if you wanted, you'd never have to experience a December 24th ever again. Not until you were actually ready for it."

Thad glared at his double with the fury of ONE star in particular.

Undeterred, Xyank continued. "…And yet here we are."

The escape capsules up ahead, for Class B and A assets to get out in the event that something just this ludicrous had happened.

A man wielding a crowbar smashed him in the face suddenly. Completely expectedly, but with no time to react. Seeing is not undoing. This track was set. Fifteen seconds and this man had already plucked out his own eyes.

Thad saw stars. He raised an arm and blocked the crowbar. Thad's radius broke but the titanium ulna held firm. He grabbed the crowbar, bashed the eyeless madman and ran, half blind and bleeding, back down the hall.

There would be just one capsule left.

"I had work to do," Thad insisted.

"You could have done it in 18th century Istanbul, or 30th century Mars with equal convenience," Xyank countered.

"I've changed my mind. Get out."

"So you can drink yourself stupid and alone on Christmas eve?" Xyank asked.

"Yes, that is exactly why." Thad wasn't looking at his companion anymore, so he was shocked when he reached for the bottle and his fingers grabbed only air. His fist struck the desk hard enough to make it jump. "WILL YOU-"

"NO." Xyank said, drinking a modest nip. "No. I absolutely will not let you sit here in the dark with your demons alone."

Thad's jaw clenched so tight that his teeth ached, and still he clamped tighter, speaking through pencil line lips. "Why?"

Soaring over the city, he saw the creature. It was enormous. It was beautiful. It was horrible.

It saw. It saw, and so did everyone else. They saw very well indeed.

Most of them broke beneath it. Some stayed to fight the broken and keep the innocent innocent, even to the last moment which they knew was coming. Some held hands and hugged their lovers tightly. Some beat oblivion to the punch.

Thaddeus Xyank ran.

Later he would say that he panicked in his own way like so many others did.

But it wasn't panic. He wasn't even there. Where a mind should have been, there was only matter, cold and dispassionate, riding on the rails of fate.

"Because it's not your fault," Xyank said finally.

Thad's body suddenly felt very… very strange. Like a balloon inside full of something both warm and cold at once had suddenly burst. His eyes began to cloud.

"I came here because what happened was…" Xyank paused looking for words but there weren't any. "…I came to pay my respects. Because after talking to Dr. Glass for long enough—"

Thad's emotional revelation paused briefly for a sputtering laugh. The drink was starting to sink in behind his sinus, but he would cling to the mask of sanity as long as he could.

"Shut up and listen to me. Listen to YOU. This is bigger than us. We are small wheels in this machine, if we can be said to be wheels at all. The fact that you can see it, doesn't make it yours!"

"So what?!" Thad said, grabbing the bottle back roughly. "I'm supposed to just sit back and do nothing while causality falls apart? Have you seen the naked present? Have you even tried?! Someone has got to do something!"

Xyank took a deep breath and cleaned his glasses. "I know…And you will." He stood, taking the bottle out of Thad's stupefied hands, and pulling one last nip from the bottle before pouring the last ounce on the floor. "But it's too heavy for you. And the sooner you realize that you're not the only one capable of understanding it, the better off this world will be." Without looking, Xyank pulled a bit of paper from his pocket, and began to scribble a shape.

He saw this, but did not know it or feel it. And as the wall of light flew toward him, as he saw it would, he would probably have thought himself a coward.

"Fine, thank you for your weak platitudes, Mr. Ghost of Christmas Future. I'll be sure to send Dickens your—"

…But there wasn't time.

Silence. There was no one left to berate. The double was gone, leaving only the outline of his loafers in the liquor on the floor. Alone once more, without even himself to keep company, Thaddeus Xyank stood, took the nameplate into his pocket, and walked down a fleet of quiet corridors to the parking lot. Cold air stung his nose in the snowy night, and for a moment he thought he saw a pattern in the swirling of the flakes as they passed by each lamp post. Yet there was no pattern. Merely the quiet whisper of wind, ice, and simple random beauty.

When his phone rang, he answered it, sobered himself, and got into his car.

His very next sensation was that he was alive, and that he no longer saw. At least that was something.

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