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How To Save Christmas [1/2]
Hobbes: writing with colours
wafflestories


“This is the best idea.”

Wheatley swung around a tight corner and pushed his management rail into overdrive, optic a gleeful slit. He hummed through a narrow tunnel made entirely from hollow, circle-cut panels, a bright electric glare flicking dark-light-dark-light on his shell as he picked up speed.


“I can't believe I never thought of this before! Not- I mean, it would have been of limited use before, there being a time-sensitive element here, but still, bloody amazing idea, pat on the back, Wheatley, mate, you are on fire!"

Up ahead, the widening mouth of the service tunnel was obstructed by a curious, glowing web, a shapeless pyramid of pulsing blue pinpricks over something angular and unfinished. It looked as if the nanobots- always at it, never stopped, now there was a work ethic- were busy constructing something fairly vital. Unfortunately for them, Wheatley was in far too much of a hurry to apply the brake, even if he had noticed in time.

“Whoahwhoah look out, emergency, core coming through!”

He burst through the middle of the glowing web in a small flaring explosion of pinprick light, leaving a ragged hole and whizzing out the other side pursued by a shrill indignant chorus of squeaking, his shell trailing a spindrift of flaring blue.

“Sorry! Sorry about that, Jer! You-you know, you should really think about putting up some sort of sign, next time, cones, maybe some temporary traffic lights, just a little free tip there-”

The tunnel opened out over a wide, empty chamber, dark and mostly featureless- below. Above, in the haunted ceiling, hundreds of rails identical to Wheatley's own crossed and re-crossed the tiles, diverging, converging, running parallel in great long straights, curving away to dark openings around the walls, the crumbling remains of a grand terminal, built solely for personality cores, spheres like him. He didn't like it much, usually, in here- it was too quiet for his liking, far too empty- but today he had other things on his mind.

“Oi! Hey! Hey, you! I know you’re lurking somewhere around here. C'mon, look alive, we haven't got much time!”

Wheatley zigzagged from intersection to intersection, his connector clacking and whirring in protest as its worn bearings bounced across the uneven old tracks. Here and there, where the rails met the walls, a few dull grey spherical shapes hung, unmoving, from their own connectors. He slowed, approached the nearest one, upper handle twitching anxiously, the lower clamped tight against his shell.

“Is- is that you? Are you... alive, at all?”

The sphere didn't move. Wheatley edged closer, making a tiny, anxious swallowing sound in the back of his processor.

“R-”

“BAM!”

A smooth whizz of bearings on his blind side, a tremendous metal CLONK of impact, and Wheatley went flying sideways, his inner shell free-tumbling in its casing as his rail connector swung him in a crazy overcompensating arc. The thing that had been clamped firmly under his lower handle slipped free, falling end-over-end through the hazy air and slapping gently on the chamber floor, a good sixty or seventy feet below.

“AAAHHH! Oh- oh, fantastic, look, you've made me drop the bloody thing now!”

The sphere that had ambushed him- slightly bigger, significantly less dented, its optic a bright, smooth acid-green, twisted neatly with the momentum and braked to an easy stop on its own rail, laughing.

“Oh, yeah. Gets you every time. You should take a few notes from me on being cool in the face of danger. You're jumpier than a jumpy guy with a nest of scorpions in his pants.”

Wheatley bristled and zipped off towards the chamber floor, taking advantage of a descending system of cantilevered rails, the weighted girders pivoting down and angling him lower and lower until he was finally down on the lowest rail, among the dust and fluff that had collected on the tiles, poking anxiously at his prize with a handle.

He didn't like the Adventure Core (Rick, self-appelled.) Rick's artificial character was programmed along certain, fairly stereotypical lines; brave, suave, outspoken, self-aggrandising and, above all else, super-super-confident. Rick Went Places, and Got Things Done- or if he didn't, was able to make it sound like he had, to the extent that it hardly mattered if he really had or not. Rick was newer, bigger and shinier, and had a core stuffed full of dashing edge-of-your-seat anecdotes which painted him as some kind of cross between Indiana Jones and Chuck Norris, which was quite an achievement considering that he was a metal ball with an eye in it. And, to just about put the tin lid on the whole egregious package, Rick had the casual, gravelly voice of someone who comes on your telly to sell you expensive whiskey, or possibly amazing sex. Wheatley had the twitchy, jittery voice of someone who grows cabbages and gets rained on a lot. It just wasn't fair.

“Look, never mind all that, just come down here, quick. This is seriously important.”

Rick swung lazily towards the floor. “Oh yeah? There's only two things that're really important; adventure, and the ladies. And I guess you could go right on and put the ladies under the heading of adventure, so there's only one thing that's really important; adventure. That thing don't look like an adventure, Blue. That looks like a book.”

“Spot on,” said Wheatley, proudly, looking down at it. “That's exactly what it is. A book, that I found.”

Rick made a derisive noise. “Ahh, books are for nerds an' Girl Scouts. No-one ever had an adventure with their nose stuck in a book.”

Wheatley swept the book protectively towards himself with his handle, stirring up a cloud of dust. “Well, that's where you're wrong, you are absolutely wrong there. This book, basically, is an adventure, all on its own. Well- not literally, but it's got some pretty interesting stuff in it, nonetheless, lot of useful info. And ideas. Lots of ideas, which we are going to need, if we're actually going to pull this off.”

“Pull what off?” Rick blinked. “What're you yammering about?”

Wheatley paused, dramatically.

“Hey, I said,” said Rick, louder, what're you y-”

“Yeah, yeah, alright, I know! I did hear what you said- not deaf- I was in fact pausing dramatically. Might have paused for slightly too long, admittedly, few nanoseconds too long there, might have looked a bit like I'd forgotten what I was saying, but I was in fact only pausing, for dramatic emphasis. What I was going to say was, buckle yourself in, Rick, because you and me- well, mostly me, this being my idea, credit where it's due, but also, partially, you- we, are going, to save Christmas.”

The other sphere's reaction was not really all that Wheatley had hoped. Other than a tiny automatic narrowing of his rectangular pupil, a quiet zz-zzt as it adjusted, the only response was a slightly irritated blank stare.

“We're going to... what what now?”

“Save Christmas,” said Wheatley, as patiently as he could, which wasn't very.

“Christmas being... some kinda pretty lady?” Rick perked up, immediately. “In trouble? Typical 'damsel in distress' scenario, huh? Say no more, Blue, just point me at her and relax. That lady is saved.”

“Right, no, whoah there, hold your horses there, Casanova, you have entirely the wrong end of the stick. Nowhere near the right end of the stick, you're not even close. Arctic. Christmas isn't a lady.”

“Aw, shoot. Ah, hell with it, I'll rescue him anyway. Been a while since I stretched the old adventure muscles- I could do with the exercise.”

“Nonono- look, it's not a person-”

“Well, then, what the hell is it?”

There was a longish pause. Wheatley's optic flicked downwards, back to the book, which lay open on its spine between them, cover-up, the faded colours smudged with dust.

“You don't got the foggiest idea what it is, do you?” said Rick, eventually.

“Wh-no, no, aha, no, wrong, I definitely have got the foggiest idea what it is, dzzz, you're wrong again, there. I absolutely know what it is. It's just- uh- it's just a little difficult to explain off the top of my head, bit tricky- which is... which is why I brought the book! Yes! Excellent visual aid. Genius idea on my part, if I do say so myself.”

“Sure, for a Girl Scout.”

Wheatley narrowed his optic. He tried to think of something to say, some sort of devastating comeback that would leave the other core speechless and reassert his authority in the situation. He couldn't- he never could- but that didn't stop him from trying, scouring his unhelpful memory banks for the perfect witty retort, until he realised that the long silence made it look as if he'd forgotten what he was talking about again.

“Just- just look at the book, alright?”

Rick rolled his optic, and looked. Wheatley poked it with his handle.

“The whole thing is basically a list, for what you need, for Christmas. I mean, there's some plot in there, too, but it's all a bit convoluted and- and anyway, half the pages are missing, so we don't really need to concern ourselves with all that. The money shot's right at the end, here, ummm...”

Flipping the book awkwardly pages-up with his handle, he craned towards it and started to think, hard, about algebra. He'd crash-tested this method before, and it had worked surprisingly well.

“Where'd you get this thing, anyway?” said Rick.

“Daycare. There's tons of 'em down there! Mad on books, children. Pretty easy ones, 'course, nothing ground-breaking in most of 'em, big pictures, not many words, a lot of people called Dick running about, plus a surprisingly high occurrence of living household appliances, which makes you think, really, instilling Science from a young age, I suppose. Clever idea. Anyway, shh, I'm trying to think.”

He closed his optic, and concentrated. Algebra. Sums with letters in, agh, they were horrible, he loathed the whole area, but that wasn't the point. If x equalled y minus three, and y was equal to three zs, how many x's were in two ys? Y had to be three times as much as z, so x had to be more than z, too, unless-

His inner fan sprung to life, whirring frantically as his mainframe tried and failed to crunch the numbers, sucking cold air into his shell and creating a flurrying breeze that flick-flick-flicked the book's remaining pages into a colourful storm. Wheatley's optic sprung open, and he slammed his handle down on the blurring pages, trapping the last one flat against the book's crumpled spine.

“Ha! Brilliant. Worked. Look, see? This is what we've got to go on. This, right here, this is what Christmas looks like.”

Rick stared at the painting. It spanned both pages, painted in soft, warm tones, showing a vaguely dated-looking living room- the striped caramel-coloured wallpaper, egg-shaped chairs, and the cat clock with the swinging tail were all large clues. An open fire was roaring in a brick fireplace covered with ornaments and cards, presents sat piled up in colourful beribboned pyramids on the rug, and a big, bushy, perfectly conical tree stood guard over the whole scene, heavy with lights and baubles, sparkling with tinsel.

By the fireplace, hung with big red-and-white furry puffballs of stockings, there was a little table, decorated by a pretty plate and a glass. The note propped up against the latter was difficult to read, small in the double-page painting, but it was possible to make out the first words.

Dear Santa,
This year, I would like...

“Amazing, right?” Wheatley said, gleefully. “I know, I couldn't believe it when I saw it, I was like, oh, what, I want to be in that picture, hanging out, with all the shiny sphere-y things, maybe just chilling in that very comfortable-looking armchair thingy, you know? Go on, tell me, what do you think?”

“Ahh, I dunno,” said Rick, his handle hitching up a little on one side, an involuntary little flicker of disdain. “It looks kinda... safe.”

“I know! Safe. That's half the reason it's so amazing, right there, how safe it looks. I mean, that does not look like a room in which anyone's ever been disassembled. Or, you know, maimed. Or fired, even, urghh, no, definitely not, not in that room. Safe as houses, which makes sense, because if you follow the rest of the book, sans the missing bits, it specifies that the room is, actually, in a house. Which is safe.”

“Okay, and this is good, because....?”

Wheatley patted the open page with his handle. “Maybe it’s not to you mate, but that's just because you lack vision. Scope. What I thought is, since we can't actually get into the book- don't think there's an invention for that, yet, more's the pity- maybe, we can sort of recreate it! In here. Well, not in here, obviously, it's a bit too big, gloomy, not very festive, but somewhere fairly close to here. I know just the place.”

Rick snorted. “Forget it. Rick the Adventure Sphere ain't messing round with a bunch of pretty snowflakes and twinkly lights. I got bigger fish to fry. And when I say fish, I mean bears. You ever wrassled a bear?”

“Can't say I have-”

“Yeah, that's a shame. Nothin' like wrassling a grizzly or two to get the blood pumpin'. Mind you, in your case, I'd say my money'd be on the bear.”

“Um, cheers,” said Wheatley.

“Anytime. Well, bears ain't gonna wrassle themselves. Enjoy your book, Twinkles.”

“Hey, hey, hey, whoah, wait, come back! I-I haven't told you the really good part yet!”

Rick, who had turned on his connector, swung back, his optical lid half-lowered, sceptical. “Really good part?”

“The bargain,” said Wheatley, in a hushed tone, his pupil widening into a big awed spotlight of stratosphere blue. “Look. Here's- here's the thing. If you set all this up, get it just right, on the right day- that's today, by the way, midnight tonight, I checked- something happens. This great big fat bloke, right, all in white and red with all fluffy bits and a face like an old cushion, he shows up, out of nowhere, and- get this, this is the best part- he gives you whatever you want. Whatever you want! You have to write a list, and- there's a few stipulations, bit of token payment involved, it's sort of like a contract, but essentially, that's it. Whatever you want.”

Rick hesitated.

“What- anything? You're sure?”

“Ab-absolutely anything. The sky's the limit. Said so in this book, so it has to be true. They wouldn't have put it in a book if it wasn't true, right?”

“Anything?” said Rick, slowly, as if he was testing out the edges of the idea, turning it to find a way that it would fit into the slot in his mind, the place for input that only ever took one shape. “Anything... like an adventure?”

“Whatever you want,” said Wheatley, confidently, emphasising each word with an eager, double-handled nod.

Rick's optic narrowed. His own handles crooked into a big, self-assured smirk.

“Well, then, what the hell are we waiting for? Let's save this son of a bitch!”

*

“Right,” said Wheatley, a little while later, as the two spheres motored along down the dark service tunnel, “the first thing we need, right out the gate, is a tree.”

“You're sure this Santa fella wouldn't be happy with a really awesome explosion, instead? 'Cause I can do really awesome explosions. I bet if he saw one of my five-alarm specials, he'd forget about his dumb ol' tree.”

Wheatley rolled his optic, a exaggerated movement intended to convey his derision just as effectively as Rick's had before, rendered totally pointless by the fact that he was in the lead by at least six feet, zipping along on the only rail. He spun his inner gimbal to face the core behind him, rolled his optic again.

“I already told you, twice. Less than a minute ago, I told you. The tree's non-negotiable. If we want the bloke to show up, we've got to play by the rules."

"Sounds like he's got his head up his ass to me. I don't see why he can't save his own damn... thing."

"Well, it's a-a- tradition, you see? Christmas always ends up in some sort of jeopardy, pretty much every year, all the available literature, books, films, they all seem to point to that as incontrovertible fact. See, I have in fact done my research. Every year, basically, something always goes west and then, whoops, it's got to be saved. And, uh, usually, it's just little things that it needs saving from, you know, minor, inconsequential details, like, oh no, tree won't fit through the door! Or- or- some sort of evil yet technically contractually justified property owner, threatening eviction!"

"Yeah, speaking of-"

"Don't worry, don't worry, it's all fine on that front, I checked, we're in the clear. She seems pretty preoccupied at the moment, up there somewhere watching the deer again. Seems to like 'em, no idea why, it's not like they're very Sciency or anything. They just eat grass and moo. Bark. Whatever it is deer do. Anyway. Something like that, something trivial, is usually about the size of the threat. Whereas- this is the good bit- whereas we are facing nothing less daunting than the complete death of the whole bloody thing! I mean, had you heard of Christmas? Before I started going on about it?"

"Nope."

"Yeah, me neither! Probably nobody has for ages! Bloody centuries, I reckon! I mean, it's a monster challenge, not going to lie, but it's amazing, because if we do, if we do manage to save Christmas, we will have saved it harder than anyone else has ever saved Christmas in, in the world. Possibly even in the universe. We'll have averted total disaster- ah, speaking of which, heads up.”

The nanobots had been busy, building up a second bright, blue-glowing pyramid in the mouth of the tunnel, exactly where the first had been and- by now- very nearly the same size. The two cores pulled their handles close to their shells, putting on a burst of speed that broke them through the glow in a small dual explosion of glittering blue dots and tiny, furious, edge-of-hearing screams.

"Those little guys are not having a good day," observed Wheatley. "Anyway, the point is, saving Christmas that much has got to be worth something, right?"

"Guess so," said Rick, and went back to humming his own theme music, under his breath but still with rather obnoxious volume. Wheatley had a pretty good idea that Rick still didn't care one iota for this whole venture, as long as he got a share in the outcome of it, the big carrot that he, Wheatley, had dangled in front of the green-eyed core to get him going. It was a little depressing, to be honest. This whole thing, if he understood it correctly, was supposed to be a pretty enjoyable venture in its own right. The other pages in the book still clamped tightly under his handle, the ones not missing and rotted away by damp and age, showed humans busy making the various necessary preparations for Christmas, leading up to the big payoff on the last pages, and they all looked happy, excited, invested in the task in hand.

Maybe somewhere else, somewhere not-here, like the places in the book, with all fluffy white stuff all over the ground and big twinkly stars everywhere overhead, somewhere where everything wasn't necessarily always out to kill you, where people weren't necessarily hell-bent on landing you with whatever boring, menial task that they happened to want doing, maybe somewhere like that, all this preparation and missioning about might have been... well, fun.

"This has got to work," he muttered, as the two of them buzzed over a deep, debris-filled cavern and into a markedly more overgrown, more dilapidated part of the facility. "It's got to."

"You talking to me, Twinkles?"

"No. And it's Wheatley. Come on, this way, we're almost there."

"I don't exactly got a lot of choice. I'm stuck back here staring at your metal ass, and let me tell you, it ain't no Picasso. Next time, I go first. Anyway, I thought you said you needed a tree? There's like a bajillion million trees all over the damn place, what's wrong with these?"

"What's wrong is they're the wrong shape," said Wheatley. He whirred slowly down the plant-clogged hallway, slowing in the places where natural gaps in the foliage made it possible to make out separate trees, examining the selection with a critical eye. "I mean, realistically, we haven't got much of a chance of finding an actual fir tree of any description just lying around in here, yes, not big on the old Norwegian spruces, this place, hideously overgrown potato plants are more or less our lot, I'm assuming, but it's meant to be at least vaguely conical, and look at all of these, they just look like sort of... leggy sprouty bushy things. Splats. So, unless we could somehow shave one into shape, not looking likely at this juncture, do not have the necessary equipment for that, we need to find one that's at least roughly- cone-shaped. Which might be a bit more of a problem than I'd anticipated, the selection here is not the greatest, have to say. I-I mean that one looks like a drunk penguin more than a cone, and that one isn't even trying, it looks nothing like a cone, more like a massive great big yacht on its side-"

"You think? I'd'a said it looked more like... a mushroom cloud. Or an exploding volcano."

"Yeah- I bet you would. Sensing a sort of theme, there, bit of a sort of preoccupation of yours, it's a bit disconcerting, wish you'd dial it back, really."

"Yeah, and I wish you'd dial your face back, Twinkles. Boom. Oh yeah. That was a good one."

"Oh, come on! That didn't even make any sense!"

"Your face doesn't make any s-"

"Right, you know what, I don't need to take this, I have no idea why I included you in the first place, to be honest, if this is the level of help I can expect from you, I'll find the bloody thing on my o-"

He hummed into a new clearing in the potato-plant thicket, looked up, stopped dead.

*

"There you are, son, come on, stop messing about with those blessed bird-boxes and give me a hand. We've already lost your mother, she spotted that sale on perennials up the far end and it was like Red Rum at flipping Chepstow. Right, just stand by this one- that's it- we just need to check if it's going to fit in the lounge. I'm not hacking off four inch of trunk again this year. Don't slouch, lad, stand up straight- watch out for the needles- righto, spot on, it's an inch under, that'll fit nicely, I reckon. What d'you think of this one?"

*

“She's a beauty, Dad,” said Wheatley, absently.

“Huh?”

Wheatley twitched, sparked, blinked. “I-I said she's a beauty, Rick. Look at the foliage on that! It's- it's those two panels, they've sort of- moulded it, lying up against it like that. No- no doubt about it- that is the one we want, right there.”

“Right, great, so... how do we move it, again?”

Wheatley's optic skittered shiftily sideways.

“Umm...”

*

“Pull!”

The massive potato plant shuddered, its thick foliage stirring as if caught in a stiff breeze. The steel cable wrapped around its thick, trunk-like stem at the base- tied with all the care of two tricky management-rail loops around its axis, a risky under-over manoeuvre, and a lot of tricky pulling-tight- chewed into its leathery flesh, biting deep and causing a huge, shuddering crack of a sound.

“Careful! Don't damage it!”

“Don't worry, Twinkles,” grunted Rick, straining away at his end of the cable wrapped round his handle. It might have been the work of the uneven pulley they'd managed to create from scratch with the cable, or the Adventure sphere's superior size and strength, or possibly Wheatley's paranoia about hurting the tree, but he was definitely producing more of a result than the other core. His side of the cable was already halfway through the plant's thick stem.

“I'm treating this baby like I'd treat a pretty lady. Takin' her down slow and showin' her the ride of her life.”

“Oi,” snapped Wheatley, yanking hard on his length of cable. “I saw her first. If anyone was going to be doing any... ride-related... business, it would definitely be me. I-I mean, it is a bit of a moot point, of course, because, well, lets face it, we're cores, and she's a tree. Best will in the world, it's just not going to work out. Giant mutated tuber and two little robots- yeah, gonna call that one, it's doomed from the start, even- even, and this is a long shot- even if she did happen to be into threesomes, at all. Not at all a given, even if she was able to communicate to us one way or the other. Which, again, bloody great big plant, she can't.”

“Anyone ever tell you,” ground Rick, heaving away on his side, his bearings whining, sending a heavy swaying shudder through the tree to its very tip and showering them with leaves, “you talk way too goddamned much? You're worse than that little pink geek, and that is saying something. It's like everything in your head just falls on out of there like a pack of lemmings at a clifftop hoe-down. Lady comes anywhere near you, oh, man, she's going to get so bored, she's just gonna fall right over asleep before you even get a chance to ask her time of day.”

“Oh, really? That's what you think, is it? Well, you are absolutely mistaken, on that. You could not be more wr-”

With a final jolting CRACK, the loop of the cable snapped together, crunching through the last few centimetres of potato fibre and sending the giant plant keeling slowly from the triangular alcove that had shaped it. The falling tree cast a huge, cone-shaped, rapidly-growing shadow across the mulchy tiles. Rick, at the far edge of the danger zone, dropped the cable immediately and backed up, whooping, but Wheatley didn't stand a chance. Frozen at the very centre of the rushing tree-shaped shadow, he looked up, pupil pinpricking, and then-

WHUUUUUMPHH.

A long pause, full of settling twigs and gently-floating leaves. Rick backed up a little on his track, shaking the end of the cable free from his handle. The tree had come to a stop at a forty-five degree angle against the wall, completely burying the other core, connector, rail, and all.

“Uh... Blue?”

“Iff she 'llrghff?” asked the tree, anxiously.

Rick took a moment to translate. “Yeah, tree looks fine... you comin' out of there any time soon?”

There was a distant rustling sound, somewhere behind the thickest part of the toppled plant. When Wheatley spoke again, he was a great deal more understandable, if still a bit muffled.

“Hang on- ah, right, got it- sorry, got a bit caught up on this branch, do not want to break it off, it's just sort of snagged-”

Something went crack.

“-it's fine, it's fine, that wasn't the tree, I think, that was me- yep, definitely me, and I didn't need that bit for anything anyway- ah! Here I am, brilliant. We did it! Well- well, technically, I did it, but you helped, you helped, no need to split hairs.”

Rick watched Wheatley as he dragged himself out from behind the tree, blinking, connector gears struggling for traction on his badly-dented sloping length of rail. He was covered in bits of leaves and sap, but otherwise none the worse for wear, handles crooked proudly as he regarded the fallen plant.

“Right, next bit, what was the next bit... oh, right! We've got to put it up somewhere, now. Grab your bit of cable, mate, come on, put your back into it- I know just the place.”

*

“Okay, it's getting kind of late, who wants to help me get the tree done?”

“Me! I do!”

“...anyone? C'mon, Brenda-”

“No can do, I need to finish this report by five.”

“Hey! Hey, over here, I'll help! Got nothing important on, sent all my- my spreadsheets, whoah, certainly were a lot of 'em, but got them all done, just twiddling my thumbs over here now, basically-”

“Jack, c'mon, you're not doing anything.”

“Oh, yeah, sorry, but when they removed my spleen last week, they said no heavy lifting for at least a fortnight.”

“Hey? Hello? Are- are you hearing me, at all? I'm- I'm literally right here, saying I want to help, pick me! Decorate anything you throw at me, I can! See, look, I already did my cubicle, festive as anything. Obvious qualification, right there, you can treat that as my decorationy... resume.”

“For God's sake, again with the damn spleen? What kind of excuse is that? They took Chris's other kidney yesterday, and he still did all the paper chains and arranged the catering.”

“Look, get off my case, you've already got a volunteer.”

“Yes! Thank you! You have! Right here! Me!”

“Uh... hey.”

“Brilliant, right, so, what should we put on first? Because you've got the age-old question, lights first, or tinsel? Myself, I'm a fan of tinsel first, then you can see what sort of gaps you need to fill, but then again, it all hinges on the type of lights, obviously, because with your basic big long string, you can just go round in a sort of rough spiral, whereas with the old sort of 'hoop' style, you have to get a bit clever with crossing over in a sort of figure-of-eight-”

“Yeah... look-”

“Lets get these boxes open- nono, it's fine, I brought scissors- ah, see, these ones are definitely of the string variety, so all we need to decide is if we're going for the 'straight up the back and then spiral down to the floor' method, bit risky but a better chance of even coverage, or- for the traditionalists- start from the plug and go around and around up to the top. I'd say probably that one, with this tree, second option, because it's in the middle of the floor here, you'd notice a big old line going up one side-”

“Look, I appreciate-”

“We're going to have to watch out for needle-drop, too, of course, it hanging right over the photocopier like that. Shouldn't shed too much, I mean, it's been sitting there in the stationary cupboard for a couple of days, couldn't help noticing, and- and this dry, stuffy environment isn't going to do much for it, it's like the Sahara Desert with cubicles in here sometimes, but I-I have been sneaking in every few hours and tipping bottles of Evian into its holder thing, so that should have helped.”

“Okay, so that's why the carpet in there was soaking wet. I kind of wondered.”

“Don't have to thank me, don't have to thank me, all for the seasonal good- here, help me get these sorted out, I've got into a bit of a mess here, somehow-”

“Hey- look, can you please go and help somebody else?”

“-which is weird, 'cause they weren't tangled a second ago, I was only trying to find the... plug... uh... sorry? Didn't... didn't quite catch that, mate.”

“Hey, um, tell you what, Nathan's in the kitchen, microwaving the food and stuff. Go and bu- go and see if he wants any help.”

“But... I mean, you-you just said you needed help with this, literally a minute ago-”

“Yeah- I- you know what, it's really kind of a one-person job- how about helping Gilligan fix up the Secret Santa table? She looks like she needs a hand.”

“But I- I- right. Right...”

“Sorry, it's just-”

“No, no, no, no, that's fine! That's absolutely fine, don't want to get underfoot, obviously, l-last thing you need. Decorate away. Not a problem. I- I've got... things to- to file, anyway, lots of things, memos, spreadsheets, all sorts. Rushed off my feet. Wish I could help, but, rrrghh, just too busy, I am, really, far too busy.”

“Uh, good, okay. See you later.”

“...yeah. Cheers, mate. Merry Christmas.”

*

“Hey, Twinkles! Quit staring into space and help a guy out, willya? This thing ain't exactly a hayseed!”

“Oh- oh, right, sorry, helping, helpinnng-”

Wheatley backed up on his rail, taking up the slack in the cable, optic straining near-closed, yanking as hard as he could. The tree swayed away from Rick's end of the line, scattering leaves, wobbled, then lurched six inches or so downwards, its own considerable weight carrying it the rest of the way and wedging itself into the hollow circular panel in the floor. As Wheatley and Rick watched- the one with baited (and wholly unnecessary) breath, the other with confident complacency- the thick central stem shivered into stillness, a more or less perfect vertical, reaching nearly to the ceiling.

“Ha! Look at that! It fits!”

“Toldya,” said Rick, then span on his axis and zipped back to the book, which Wheatley had laid reverently open to the correct page on the chamber floor (the effort had cost him a lot of strenuous thinking about simultaneous equations and a near-meltdown.) The chamber was small, much smaller than average, being less of an actual chamber than a space wedged in behind the walls, between a heating duct and a lot of conduit pipes. The ceiling was low, set a single rail running in a rough track around the edge of the room, and the walls were grimy and daubed with faded, incomprehensible drawings. Wheatley didn't know what they meant or how they'd got there, but he thought they looked appropriately bright and cheerful- more so than the usual blank white or grey walls, in any case- and the open pots of paint that littered the floor would probably come in handy later. If he'd had any sort of ability to control the construction of the chamber itself, he would have liked to have mixed up the colours of the panels themselves a bit, get a pretty sort of chequerboard effect going, maybe even write something appropriately festive on the wall somewhere, but he was happy to settle for what he had.

“So, are we done yet?”

“Nnnot yet, no. Got a little bit more to do, won't take long,” said Wheatley, absently. He backed up, slowly, gazing up at the shaggy, roughly cone-shaped mass of the tree. The leaves were the wrong shape, and it was missing a few bits from the long, hazardous journey down here, testimony to it having been dropped a few times, crammed through openings slightly too small for it, and used once as a shield from a particularly non-discriminatory turret. Turrets only shot at humans, as a rule, but sometimes- for no apparent reason- they seemed to take offence at Wheatley's voice.

The tree was still in pretty good condition, though, considering- and if you squinted...

“See, it's a bit bare, really, just sitting there like that with nothing on it. Lights, that's what we need. Just like in the picture, little shiny ornamenty light type things- oh, that'd be tremendous, if we could get our handles on some of them. Not sure where from, though. Not big on sparkly-type little ornaments, really, round here.”

Rick brightened. “Lights, huh? Hey, maybe we can set something on fire.”

“While that's a... an interesting suggestion, will definitely, definitely take it on board, um, it is maybe a smidgen too drastic. She's a tree, after all, she's essentially one-hundred-percent firewood. Could end badly.”

“You have no spirit of adventure. So, what exactly are we gonna use? 'Cause I ain't never seen anythin' sparkly 'round these parts.”

“Alright, keep your hair on, I'm thinking! Just using the old ideas generator, never let me down yet, hardly- let's see, something- something shiny... sparkly little... things...”

There was a pause.

“Ohhhhh. Oh, you know what, Rick, I just had an idea. I just had a really brilliant idea. Wait there, don't move, I'll be right back.”

Part 2