Chapter Eight: More Ado About Nothing
Lookout Tower D
A forest perimeter guard was one of the easiest positions a Scout Elf could fill. It required no human interaction, had minimal day-to-day duties, and every single outpost was located smack dab in the middle of some of the most beautiful natural locations known to elf or man. Landing an FPG assignment fresh out of basic Scout Elf training would inevitably be followed by rumors of friends in high places circulating for months after deployment. At least, that was Harriet’s experience. Her rumors had been especially jealous, given she was one of those rare recruits who landed the job as her first assignment. She could see why. The job was great.
She just wished someone had mentioned that the trade-off for this dream job involved spending most of your time trapped in a magically expanded lookout tower with only a bunch of board games and the least graceful winner she had ever met in her life.
Ephraim had landed the job through the more expected route of serving elsewhere in the Scout Elves for long enough that the higher-ups decided that you deserved a break. And in everything other than playing board games, he was a great elf to work with. They just spent a lot of time playing board games.
He pulled an exaggerated grimace as her piece finally landed on yet another of his properties. “Ooh, and that one’s got a hotel, too… “
“Okay,” she said, her irritation worn down to boredom at this point, “I don’t remember what that means.”
“It means it’s got a super high rent.”
“And,” he said, presenting one of his neatly stacked piles of cards, “I own all the orange properties.”
She half-heartedly waved an imaginary flag.
“Which means the rent’s doubled,” he continued.
Chewing on her cheek, Harriet considered spouting, “Look, I get it. You got me good. Can we get on with it, please?” She ended up just pushing around her few remaining bills.
“And after a quick calculation here,” he said, scribbling a bit on some scrap paper, “that’ll be $1,900.”
She didn’t look up from her idle bill pushing. “I have $150.”
Another exaggerated wince, with the added flair of sucking in air through his teeth. “Ooh, too bad. Guess I won again, huh?”
“Yep, guess you did,” she said, groaning to her feet and stretching out her stiff limbs. “I’m gonna do a walk ’round now.”
“Already?” Ephraim said, glancing up at the wall clock as he started packing up their board game. “Huh. I hadn’t realized that much time had passed.”
“Yup,” said Harriet, pulling her overcoat from the downsized wardrobe.
“Want me to set up another game while you’re gone?”
“Only if it’s Mousetrap,” she said, yanking her hat down snugly over her ears.
Ephraim groaned. “Again? You always want to play Mousetrap.”
Harriet had already elected to ignore the comment, along with the long-overdue conversation it promised about proper sportsmanship and how this was the only one she had fun playing as it was the only one she had a shot at winning when the walls flickered far too close together for comfort.
Every time she blinked, the room around her shrank or expanded, as if the tower was flirting with the idea of restoring its non-magical dimensions. She could only stand a second or two before she had to squeeze her eyes shut against the motion sickness.
The floor felt about as steady as the walls, so she preemptively crouched into a ball, squatting with her chin on her knees and her arms protecting her head. She still ended up losing her balance and let herself roll onto her side.
“Stay down!” Ephraim shouted. So she did. There was a reason he’d been assigned her superior. Right now it was his job to figure out what the hell was going on and her job was to do what he said.
The walls moaned in protest as the floor continued to lurch and buckle beneath her. Right when she started to consider that this just might be her reality now, everything stopped. She didn’t trust it. Her eyes remained shut and she made no move to get up.
She felt a light tap on her shoulder. “It’s safe to open your eyes,” Ephraim said.
So she did, slowly, one eye at a time. The room had snapped back into its magically forced dimensions, but the place was a mess. It seems she wasn’t the only one who couldn’t stay upright through… whatever that was. The only thing remotely tidy was the comms array, which was both mundanely and magically bolted into place. It would take hours to set everything right. Especially all that goddamn monopoly money.
Ephraim looked just as shaken, but otherwise unharmed. He looked her over, asking “Anything hurt?”
“No. Not that I can feel, anyway.”
“Wait a bit for the adrenaline to wear off before you say for sure.”
She nodded. “What the hell was that?”
He swallowed before answering. “Dunno,” he said, “but whatever it was, we need to report it to HQ.”
She was about to ask whether he wanted to radio it in or should she when yet another unbelievable thing interrupted her train of thought.
The tiny red light on the radio flickered into her peripheral vision. It signaled that someone was trying to contact them from another radio set. The only radios that could communicate with this one were Lorraine’s back at HQ or one of the outposts along the perimeter they’d use on their walk ’rounds. No one else had any way to contact them. The whole reason they were stationed here was to keep it that way.
“Hello? Hello? Is this thing even working? Anyone there? Hello?”
That wasn’t Lorraine. And while she and Ephraim had played their fair share of pranks on each other, he wasn’t good enough to radio in from an outpost while standing right next to her. Someone, somehow, had gotten past the magical barrier surrounding this place right after their tower had flipped the fuck out.
“What do we do?” she hissed, just in case whoever that was could hear her.
“Should we answer it?”
“Maybe he’ll go away if nobody answers.”
“No,” said Ephraim, “we should keep him where he is so we don’t have to find him again.”
Made sense. She gestured to herself, then to him, then pointed to the radio with a questioning look.
“I’ll answer him. You call this in on the backup one. Take your walkie talkie to stay updated,” he whispered. Harriet nodded once before slipping out the door as silently as she could.
Scout Elf HQ
Everyone at HQ was becoming inoculated to activity and flurry happening around them. This wasn’t the first time a surge of problems hit, but whatever was going on, it never seemed to affect more than one or two areas at once. This time the magical glitches hit the Forest Perimeter Guards. Lorraine, the home contact for Lookout Tower D, sat unnaturally still at her terminal, waiting for her agents to call in with something. The part of her brain not working hard at keeping her calm was vaguely aware of Myrna running back and forth behind her, dealing with her colleagues’ issues. She knew it was only a matter of time before she would need her help.
Her unnerving diligence paid off. Immediately after the panicked call from Harriet, she flagged her superior down.
“Breech reported at Lookout Tower D,” she said as Myrna made her way over.
“Goddammit. Who’s posted there?”
“Agents Ephraim and Harriet, sir,” Lorraine said, rolling away from her desk to give Myrna access to her terminal, “Agent Ephraim is currently keeping the leak distracted at the radioed outpost they called in on. Agent Harriet used the emergency line to call it in.”
“As far as we know, sir.”
“No, sir, just as confused as we are. Says he was hiking when he just showed up outside the outpost.”
“Good,” said Myrna, backing away, “Have Agent Ephraim tell the leak a Ranger will head over as soon as they can, but it may take a while as they’re dealing with a different emergency at the moment. Contact the closest Dependency Claus old enough to pass as a Ranger, debrief them, and send them as an adult front ASAP.”
“Yes, sir,” said Lorraine, immediately spilling into a D.C. search. She had just opened the relevant browser when she and everyone else’s terminal were stopped dead by a pop-up.
“This is Mother Nature,” it read. “Stand down. I am handling the situation. I will debrief Santa immediately after. Thank you for your efforts.“
It rendered everything unusable. Neither random mouse clicks nor the usual keyboard shortcuts could get rid of it.
“You have got to be kidding me,” Myrna growled.
“You want to know something, Agent? Elf to elf? I don’t know about you, but I’m getting really really tired of these huge magical clusterfucks showing up to wreck shit and ruin my day, only to fuck off without having the decency to let any of us fix them before they go.”
Lorraine took a little too long to reply. “Yes, sir.”
The message decided to blip away on its own. Myrna took her time staring at the now normal screen before turning to address everyone.
“Guess we’re back to normal now. I’m going home. Anyone else not currently assigned for duty can also go back to their lives. Alert me when the next thing cocks up.”
And with that, she teleported away as the rest of the HQ resumed as much as they could of their interrupted routines.