The Huron Carol
rating: +26+x

2020


24 December


'Twas in the moon of winter-time
When all the birds had fled,
That mighty tricksy Overwatch
Sent SCPs instead;
Within their cells they thrashed around,
While we all huddled underground;
Jesus it's cold down here,
Jesus, we're bored;
Christmastime in quarantine!

"That killed ten minutes," muttered Dr. Michael Nass, adjusting his pillow and pulling up the covers. Though not a religious man, as Chair of Theology and Teleology at Site-43 religion was often on his mind. On this particularly pointless evening he'd been pondering the life of a long-dead Jesuit, and had eventually pulled up the notepad on his PDA to vent his Christmas blues. Jean de Brébeuf had brought smallpox and Christianity to Huronia some three hundred and fifty years ago; he'd been burned at the stake for his trouble, many miles down the shore from the forest beneath which the Site now sat. Before that fiery finale, the poxy priest had composed the "Huron Carol" in the Wyandot tongue to fob his God on the locals. The retranslated tune was good and creepy, like most memorable Christmas carols, not least because of the context of impending doom hanging over every word.

The smallpox-related tangent hadn't been accidental. As if on cue, the same warning that had popped up on his PDA every fifteen minutes for the past week again made its appearance:

NOTICE FROM THE FOUNDATION EMERGENT THREAT TACTICAL RESPONSE AUTHORITY

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Lake Huron Research and Containment Site-43 has experienced a containment breach. An unclassified pathogen has entered the air circulation system, necessitating the complete lockdown of the facility. All travel from the subterranean levels to the surface is to cease immediately, the Inter-Sectional Subway System is to be deactivated and shuttered, and all personnel are advised to associate with groups not exceeding three persons total to avoid experiencing the effects of the pathogen. All non-essential Site activities are hereby cancelled until further notice. Remain calm, and attend to your needs.

Happy holidays,

— Dr. Daniil Sokolsky, ETTRA

He dismissed the notice with extreme prejudice, and fired up 43NET. He wasn't surprised to see that he had five new messages, all of them from his Assistant Chair, Brenda Corbin.

Send me the code for the artifacts locker, wanna do some classifying.

Got a file on Daevic midwinter celebrations. What say I decorate the cafeteria? Or would that be in bad taste?

Do you think Sinclair at 87 would let me see that spell for summoning Krampus?

Singing from next door, "Jingle Bells." Gonna do a study on magical thinking in stressful situations.

Come on, Michael, I'm dying here.

He knew he should respond. He knew he needed to do something about this.

He sighed, dropped the tablet face down on his chest, and closed his eyes. Only who fucking knows how much longer to go, he thought as he drifted off to a dismal doze.

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Beneath a vast and stolen park
The deadly doctors hide,
And fiddle with their DVDs
Because they're stuck inside;
But entertainment's hard to find
When lively spirits are confined;
Making the best of it,
Making it work;
Christmastime in quarantine!

"What do you think? A Christmas Story?" The disheveled man pulled the DVD sleeve out of the box, and stared at it uncertainly. "I always liked it, but I've also seen it ten thousand times." He glanced over at the two women sitting on the couch.

"Fuck A Christmas Story," said the one tall one with freckles, Dr. Lillian Lillihammer. He couldn't see the freckles, because her chin was facing him; she'd hammered her head against the top of the couch frame five minutes ago, and hadn't moved since.

"Maybe Christmas Vacation?" suggested the shorter one without freckles, Dr. Melissa Bradbury.

Dr. Harold Blank, neither overtly freckled nor overtly clear-skinned, rooted around in the box a bit. "Don't wanna do Christmas Vacation. Don't like starting a series partway in."

"Well we're not just watching Vacation," said Bradbury. "That's the wrong kind of escapism right now."

"Fuck Vacation," Lillihammer agreed.

"More importantly, fuck European Vacation," Blank sighed. "Die Hard?"

Bradbury shook her head. "Getting sick of the 'Die Hard is the perfect Christmas movie' meme. Sick of memes in general. Too much like work." She glanced at Lillihammer, who did not respond. After a moment, she nudged her.

"I like Die Hard," said Lillihammer. "I'm not gonna fuck it."

"Aha!" Blank pulled a cheap-looking case out of the box triumphantly. "Aha, aha, aha!" He'd found two more. He fanned out his prizes on the floor, and gestured at them theatrically. "Behold."

Bradbury leaned forward. Lillihammer reluctantly returned her neck to a safe angle. They both began frowning.

"Deck the Halls, Jingle All the Way and The Santa Clause 3," said Bradbury. Her eyes widened with each title. "Why would you even have those?"

"For just this reason." Blank opened the case for Deck the Halls. "This is the worst one, so it should be first." He popped open the tray of his Blu-Ray player, and dropped the disc in.

Lillihammer was suddenly grinning. "I think you've discovered the true spirit of Christmas, Harry."

As he flopped down between them on the couch, they completed the thought in unison:

"Judgement."

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'Tis difficult to celebrate
When nothing's going right,
And in the minds of many men
It's just another night;
Does ducking friends to do some work
Make you a genius, or a jerk?
Heaving our heavy sighs,
Weaving our lies;
Christmastime in quarantine!

Dr. William Wettle stared at the stacks of CD-ROMs with the intensity of focus reserved for those with absolutely no imagination. He didn't imagine a new one had suddenly appeared between blinks; he didn't imagine any of the stacks were suddenly a little bit taller, or that perhaps an extra CD had popped into existence between the ones he could see. Totally unburdened with a creative impulse of any sort, he gazed contentedly at the static pile of storage media.

After two straight hours of silence, Dr. Daniil Sokolsky finally addressed him: "What're you doing?"

Wettle did not glance across the lab to where Sokolsky sat behind a cluttered desk, redacting colour printouts and frowning. "Classified."

Sokolsky raised an eyebrow. "Classified? I'm clearance level five. You're level, what, two?"

This time Wettle did look at him. "TWO? I'm a full researcher! Level three." He looked back at the CDs, untroubled by the thought that he might have missed the appearance of a new one. "Anyway, I'm doing a replication study."

Of course you are, thought Sokolsky. "What're you replicating?"

"Okay, well, you know how if you die, and you have a lot of CDs, sometimes a new one appears full of all the awful stuff you thought you deleted?"

Sokolsky kept his breathing even by dint of tremendous effort. "You mean SCP-5751, a file on which I, Daniil Sokolsky, are the researcher of notice?"

Wettle nodded. "Yeah, that one. Well, I'm trying to see if the extra disc shows up when the collection is being monitored." He pointed at the CDs. "These belonged to Dr. Phillips."

"Thought Phillips would have CD-I," Sokolsky remarked.

Wettle blinked, still staring straight forward. He did not respond, which meant he did not understand. He did not respond often.

Sokolsky sighed again. "Phillips is the guy who got crushed by his own bookcase last week? At, ah, 17?"

"Yeah. Nothing good ever happens there."

"What if he never deleted anything awful? Maybe there's no extra CD to generate."

Wettle scoffed. "He worked at 17."

"Okay, that's fair." Sokolsky stood up from the desk, and stretched. "But you know, sometimes the anomaly just plain doesn't happen."

Wettle shrugged. "Science doesn't care."

Sokolsky walked over to him. "How many replication studies does it take to prove that something isn't happening, anyway?"

Wettle shrugged again. "You can never have too many."

After another few minutes of silence, Sokolsky pulled up a chair and sat down. They stared at the discs together as a ticking clock marked the progress of the hour.

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They are a cold and callous lot
Who face a daily doom,
But in the heat of jeopardy
The rose of love may bloom;
Our tinder hearts can find a spark
That's buried deep within the dark;
Even down in the pits,
Keep looking up;
Christmastime in quarantine!

She gently closed the door behind them. The halls of Habitation and Sustenance resounded with a funereal silence; the lack of sound was almost deafening, broken only by the soft click of the lock. She glanced at the nameplate for a moment, as she always did, feeling the usual inexplicable rush of warmth.

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"We still good?" Phil asked.

Amelia checked her tablet. "Yep. 43NET says there's nobody else in the halls, and it'll keep our path clear. Praise be to Big Brother."

"Amen."

She was carrying a bundle of assorted holiday nonsense — chocolate, candy, cheap little toys, Christmas crackers, and a card. It was all wrapped up in clear plastic, upon which the distorted image of Phil's constant companion, Doug, had manifested. Doug was humming an eerie tune; Phil chose to think of it as his version of a Christmas carol. The bundle was attached to a string of helium balloons, which bounced back and forth and rubbed against each other noisily. One of them was also transparent; from time to time, to seek a better vantage point from which to stare fixedly at Phil, Doug apparated on it as well.

"Whose idea was this?" Phil asked, as he locked the door with his key.

"Mine," she said. They started down the hall, one of his arms around her shoulders, one of hers around his waist. "But I ran it by the other Chairs and Chiefs first. We've all got provisional clearance to know about 5520, but we're not supposed to be interacting with it. Our little secret." She glanced at him. "Our little secret, too."

He nodded.

They walked in contented silence for a while, Doug still humming — though only Phil could hear it — and keeping otherwise uncharacteristically mum. Phil was almost sorry when they finally reached a thick vault door with a complex key lock, and Amelia detached herself from him to put the package down.

She tapped a long series of numbers into the pad, spun the vault lock handle, took a deep breath and opened the heavy door.

They were looking into an impossibly deep, seemingly endless gulf in the rock, a narrow chasm which stretched down and onward to an extent which he immediately knew was anomalous. The far end of the cleft terminated in a gargantuan tangle of machinery, scaffolding, switchback stairs, pipes, chimneys… all of it lit by what had to be thousands of sharp white stars, industrial-grade spotlights, floodlights and wall fixtures. It was the most magical, unreal, terrifying thing he'd ever seen.

He looked at Amelia. She was staring at a fixed point far away, somewhere between where they stood — he looked down and realized that the door opened onto a sheer drop, and his stomach turned — and the eternal factory beyond. As his eyes adjusted to the weird play of light and dark, he saw what she was looking at: the silhouette of a man, standing on a ledge cropped out from the cavern wall. Phil couldn't tell if the man was looking at them, or at the factory. He had an uneasy feeling that it might be both.

"How long has he been down there?" Phil asked. He was so lost in thought that the words came out sounding comically natural.

"Decades," she said, the same dreamlike quality on her face. "More than half a century."

He didn't know what made him do it, but he knelt down on the floor and stuck his arm through the door. He felt underneath, scooching closer to give him some extra reach. The door was sat on what felt like a very solid metal beam, more than a foot thick… but the beam seemed to be hanging over nothing at all.

He stood back up. "This really goes underneath the entire Site, doesn't it."

"Yeah." She picked up the bundle again and looked at it thoughtfully. "Yeah, he's always down there beneath us, wherever we go. Some days he knows what's up, some days he doesn't. I&T gets messages from him; they're not happy messages. I don't think he wants to be down there."

The silhouette was unmoving. "Then why don't they bring him back up?"

She shook her head. "That's above my pay grade." She looked down at the bundle. "In fact, there's a good chance we'll get in shit for doing this, but… " She shrugged. "We're stuck in here for a few days. He's stuck in there all the time, and nobody ever visits."

Neither of them had stopped looking at the silhouette; they were both pleased when their hands found each other anyway, and linked together.

"Well, let's do it," said Phil.

She thrust the package through the door, and let go. It gently floated towards the distant lights, the colourful balloons an almost absurd contrast against the dark, desaturated canyon. Doug rode them down for a while, staring back at Phil as he always had and always would, before disappearing suddenly; Phil knew, without looking, that the gaunt grey face was now observing him from the face of his wristwatch.

Was it their imagination, or did the figure's head tilt back perceptibly, watching the gaudy gift descend?

"Merry Christmas, Dr. Rydderech," Amelia whispered, and closed the door.

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Chief Eileen Veiksaar sang along enthusiastically. She'd always hated "Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer," but this year the morbidity seemed somehow more appropriate.

The Identity and Technocryptography Section was utterly deserted; Eileen was drinking alone, blissfully unworried about other people's technical difficulties for the first time in a long time. The music was so loud, and she was belting it out so hard, that she didn't hear the ancient printer in the locked room start screeching as it bent ribbon to paper.

And a Happy Christmas to you as well, Vivian.

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They were almost back to the dormitory. "No presents," Phil remarked.

Amelia nodded. "No food."

"No snow."

"No carols."

"No party."

"No friends."

"No family."

They reached the door, and Amelia opened it. They walked in, hand in hand; "No life," said Doug from the mirror beside the door.

"Our first Christmas," she said, "and nothing Christmasy about it."

He closed the door behind him. "The best Christmas of my entire life." It was suddenly hard to speak. "No contest."

She tackled him so hard he hit his head on the door; he didn't really notice.

Doug had the uncommon decency to watch what happened next from the bedside mirror, all the way across the room. Perhaps it was his idea of a Christmas present.

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For them what make the wheels go 'round
Our troubles are their own
And never letting down their guard
They bear the cross alone;
They worry, that we need not fear
They suffer, that we may have cheer;
Keeping the fires lit,
Holding the torch;
Christmastime in quarantine!

Chief Delfina Ibanez stood up on the toes of her tall boots and peered through the laboratory window. She saw three bright actinic flashes, heard a loud thumping sound… and a muttered curse. After a few moments of silence, a series of loud clangs echoed out into the empty corridor, punctuated with further, louder curses. In two distinct voices.

She keyed her radio. "Bremmel's fine. He's in the Arms lab."

The voice of Dr. Helena Forsythe bounced back to her: "Breaking things, I imagine?"

"Yep. And yelling at his new assistant." She adjusted her uniform jumpsuit and continued down the hall. "Who's next?"

There was a pause of several seconds before Forsythe responded. "Elstrom had the sniffles this morning. 43NET says she's in her office; let's make sure it's just the sniffles."

Ibanez didn't work in Security and Containment anymore; she now led the Site's MTF detachments. But with everyone confined to quarters, or at least confined to their workspaces, that role was on hold. She'd been drafted into wellness check duty, as she had what Health and Pathology considered a near-flawless immune system.

"Any new patients?"

This time the pause was longer, and Ibanez nearly radioed again when Forsythe finally answered. "Three, maintenance techs. Pensak brought them in. Infection rate's stayed slow but steady all day; just us indispensables, getting expended."

"Yeah." Ibanez wished she had a flashlight, or maybe a billy club, to drag along the walls or tap the windows with. She felt like a cop in a period piece movie, walking the empty streets at night. This was more or less acceptable to her; some fictional cops were alright.

She stopped dead at the sound of coughing, from up around the bend. She pulled her facemask up over her mouth and nose, and turned the corner.

"Shit." Dr. Karen Elstrom was lying on the hall floor, gasping for air. She'd managed to twist herself around when she fell; Ibanez knelt beside her and carefully, carefully set her torso back into a breathable position. The coughing stopped.

"Need a stretcher and a friend outside Elstrom's office," Ibanez said into her radio. "Got another present for you, Helena."

"Decked," Elstrom muttered.

"What's that?" Ibanez fought the urge to lean closer.

"Decked," Elstrom muttered again. "In the halls."

Ibanez laughed. "Stay jolly, Karen. Help's on its way."

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In days of yore from Britain's shore
A prodigy did sail,
And in the frigid hinterland
She authored her own tale;
But 'cross the pond, her pride decreased,
And lonesome eyes turned to the east;
Yearning for hearth and home,
Picked up the phone;
Christmastime in quarantine!

Dr. Udo Okorie rubbed her eyes. "What time is it there?"

Her mother looked cheerful and sprightly, as she always did. "Just past eight. Happy Christmas!"

"Merry Christmas." Okorie yawned. "Where's dad?"

"Grumbling at the coffee maker. One good thing about your flight east, I wasn't outnumbered by non-morning people anymore."

My 'flight east'. Here we go. She adjusted her webcam slightly and leaned back in her chair. "Anything new at Site-91?"

"Nothing we can tell you about over the internet," her father grumbled, sitting down beside his wife. They were wearing matching bathrobes, he in red, she in green. "Happy Christmas, wunderkind."

"Merry Christmas, dad." She didn't mean to insist on the terminology, but something wouldn't let her lapse back into Britishness.

Her mother looked concerned, suddenly. "You feeling well? You look peaked."

Okorie laughed. "It's three in the morning, mom. Of course I look peaked."

The vast cable connecting them across the gulf of the Atlantic Ocean lost the thread for a moment, and she was faced with the image of her parents staring expectantly at her, not having received the response yet. It made her feel queasy.

Recognition finally dawned as the signal came through, and her father shook his head. "Shouldn't you be in the labs, looking for a cure?" He stifled a yawn of his own. "I'm sure they could use an acroamatic abatement specialist."

Okorie shook her head again. "I don't think the virus is anomalous. It's just… new. We're great with anomalies, but sometimes we have trouble with mundane things."

"Like calling your parents," her mother agreed.

Okorie stared at the screen for a moment. "Yeah."

"Even a pandemic couldn't bring us together," her mother continued. "We had to be personally affected for you to reach out."

"We?" Okorie laughed incredulously. "We. How are you affected by this?"

"If you are, we are," her father said matter-of-factly.

A moment of silence passed, and Okorie felt a lump in her throat. Her mother was the first to speak: "You won't believe what your father dissected the other day!"

"And you won't believe what oozed out," he agreed.

The lump slowly receded, and she swallowed hard. "Tell me all about it."

Happy Christmas.

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The heavy head that wears the crown
Is bowed in silent prayer
That unseen foes will overpass
His sunken kingdom fair;
Behold the lord beneath the lake,
Companion trailing in his wake;
Holding court in the gloom,
Still as a tomb;
Christmastime in quarantine!

They walked through the pitch black tunnel, listening to the sound of the water pressing in on all sides. Allan McInnis, Director of Site-43, took the lead; the All-Sections Chief, his deputy, lit their path from behind him with a flashlight.

"Another predictable day?" McInnis asked, hating the exhaustion in his voice.

"Yes," the Chief agreed, still calm and collected as ever. "No sign of a vaccine, no idea how the virus works. It's definitely not COVID."

"Of course it isn't," McInnis sighed. One week ago, in the middle of what would have been the Christmas shopping rush if not for the pandemic, the Foundation had snatched a piece of anomalous art from Toronto's Eaton Centre supermall: a fifteen-foot inflatable Santa Claus with green skin and a nauseated expression, wobbling like a drunken sailor without any apparent air pump. They'd dismantled the thing carefully, taking all the appropriate precautions, but once they found the tiny note nestled within the vinyl saint they'd suspected that it wouldn't end up mattering.

♪ On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me ♪

♪ Plague ♪

Art brings people together. Welcome to our world.

Are We Celebrating Yet?

The first cases had been reported just an hour later. It was a respiratory disease, that much was clear; not as virulent or as deadly as COVID, but still enough to shut down the entire Site.

"Seems awfully blunt, for an Are We Cool Yet joint," McInnis mused as they walked into Intake Point 94. They were two hundred meters below the surface of Lake Huron, in a dome composed of one-way glass. The murk around them was impenetrable; the dim lights in the small observation room extended only a few feet beyond the bubble.

They dropped their packs carefully and sat down together on one of several benches facing the lakebed. "AWCY is like Anonymous," the Chief mused. "Can't boil them down to one approach. Quarantine gets to everyone eventually, even lonely artists."

"It wasn't supposed to get to us." Everyone at Site-43 was long since vaccinated for COVID-19. McInnis had to admit, the 'gag' had been an effective one.

"We can afford to take it easy for the rest of the year." The Chief pulled a fabric pouch and a cast-iron bowl out of his backpack. "We don't get many chances to hold back and give thanks."

McInnis reached into his own bag and withdrew a tall bottle of red amber liquid. "I quite agree. Here's something to be thankful for."

The Chief raised an eyebrow. "That the Bowmore 25 Year?" He walked to the glass wall, placed the bowl on the floor, and emptied the pouch into the bowl.

McInnis nodded, pointing. "That red willow tobacco?"

The Chief nodded back. "Purification, respect for the balance, and the promise of good tidings. Seems appropriate for the season." He lit the tobacco. "Also to be burned before a storm, in hopes that it will pass us by."

McInnis poured the Scotch into two plastic cups. "May any Groups of Interest lurking above catch wind, and fuck off."

McInnis didn't swear, so the Chief laughed. The Chief didn't laugh, so McInnis grinned, which he also didn't do. "I seem to recall that tobacco's also for strengthening the bonds between people." The director offered a cup to his deputy.

The Chief nodded. "Not that we need it." He was about to take a sip when he noticed McInnis staring out at the gloom, and followed his gaze.

Two pinpricks in the dark, watching the tiny fire through the supposedly-opaque glass. Then two more. Then two more.

McInnis raised a cup to them, as the smoky aromas of tobacco and Scotch washed over him. "Do they know it's Christmas?"

The Chief laughed again. A shadow passed overhead, plunging the chamber into complete darkness. A moment later, something vast, sinuous and spined writhed past the glass in front of them, obscuring the shining eyes, and then it was all gone. They were alone again.

McInnis spoke first. "That's a new one."

The All-Sections Chief shook his head. "Old one. Very, very old one."

A sad kind of trumpeting sound warbled through the water as they soundlessly tapped their plastic cups together, and drank deep.

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O ye who would protect us,
To your own salvation look;
Go not abroad securing, but
Stay home and read a book;
Enshrine this fact within your head:
It could be worse, you could be dead;
Merry Christmas one and all,
If that's your thing;
Good luck with your quarantine!


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