The weather at Site 81 during the winter was typically a mix of cold and wet, with minor variations taking cues from there. Any given day it could be overcast and just above freezing, where the falling rain would feel like it was fine to ignore the rules about how cold water can get without turning into a solid, and the next day it would be sunny and ten below. Most of the more pleasant weather usually didn't show up until January, with December being left the "cold and miserable" and February being given the "cold and oh my god the ice".
Demeanor could not have been higher during these dreadful winter months, though, because the senior staff at Site 81 was particularly keen on embracing the Christmas spirit. The long, stark hallways were draped with a menagerie of multicolored lights and tinsel hangings, and the common spaces were littered with frosted evergreens (no doubt pulled mysteriously from a local farm under the cover of night, much to the confusion of the tree farmer in question).
Yes, the spirit of the season was strong at Site 81, and was strengthened specifically by the bombastic frivolity of one Director Karlyle Aktus, the merriest seventy-five year old in the entire Foundation. The old man had donned a Santa getup at the stroke of midnight on November 30th, and hadn't taken it off yet. Despite this strange aversion to changing clothes, those who had the courage to draw near to the doctor maintained that he still somehow smelled of peppermint, instead of old socks. This was seen as a particular blessing.
The month had flown by under a deluge of end-of-the-year containment and finance and casualty reports, and before you could say "ho-ho-holy shit" it was Christmas Eve. Much of the non-priority site staff had left to see their families during the short leave they were allowed at the year's end, and most of whom remained were so caught up in their projects they had forgotten what year it was.
There was a small group of researchers left that, despite the comparative safety of their project, were tasked with overseeing and maintaining the object throughout the evening. The object in question was a box wrapped in red paper and tied with a golden bow, that would only open at midnight Christmas morning, and would either release a harmless gift or an XK-Class "End of the World" scenario. The streak of non-end-of-the-world-scenario openings had grown to forty-five years the Christmas prior, and there was doubt that the object would do anything at all this year. Regardless, the containment procedures were strict, and nobody wanted to face the Disciplinary Committee on Christmas after causing an entropic violation.
The four of them sat staring at the box, idly taking notes or poking at their tablets. Jordan was the team leader, the dark-skinned young man from Ghana. Beside him was Hank, the forty-four year old retired air traffic controller, and beside him Myra, the daughter of some Site 19 higher up. Rounding out the bunch was Kevin, the eternal nerd, who continued to pound away at his keyboard, frantically pumping as much information regarding the box in front of them into the Foundation database as he could before the big moment. They were all relatively silent, until Hank spoke up to voice his concerns during the eleventh hour of their vigil.
"This fucking sucks," he said, crossing his arms. "They're having Christmas breakfast in the G-Wing cafeteria. We're watching a box."
Jenna nodded and tucked a strand of brown hair behind her ear. "Wouldn't this be a terrible place to be if this thing caused an XK, too? Why are we here?"
Jordan shrugged. "You'll need to talk to," he looked down at his case files, "Dr. I. P. Freeley, the original author of the containment procedures."
Hank raised an eyebrow. "I. P. Freeley?"
"Yeah, see, right here, I. P. Free- ah, fuck."
Jenna snorted, and then turned back to her tablet to idly peck away at some game while the clock pittered along in the background.
"Cheer up, guys," came a voice from the back of the room. "Think of all of the people we're helping by maintaining our courageous watch over this most heinous-"
"Shut the fuck up, Kevin," said Hank, sharply. "We get it, the box is a big deal."
They collectively rolled their eyes as Kevin praised himself on his demeanor, and quickly sunk back into the silence that they had so recently tried to pull away from. Another minute ticked by, and then an hour, and suddenly it was twenty-one hundred hours. The home stretch was before them, but-
"God, this is taking forever," Hank interrupted.
Suddenly, the room was filled with the sound of bells. Small bells, large bells, shrill bells and deep bells, all manner of metallic percussive instrument. They jumped to attention and turned to see what the ruckus was all about, and found themselves staring down the tallest, baldest, most eager looking Santa Claus they had ever seen in their entire lives.
"D-Director, a pleasure to see you," Jordan stammered out. "What are you doing down here? Shouldn't you be-"
"Nonsense, Jordan," Aktus said as he strode merrily across the room. "Why, it is Christmas Eve, is it not? What better place to be than alongside you lot?" He hefted a bag over his shoulder and tossed it onto a lab bench near them. "And look here at this, would not you see? A gift from the workers over in Wing G!"
Jenna coughed. "Why are you talking like-"
Santa Aktus patted her heartily on the back. "No time now for questions, you dear sweet young thing. The time is now for stories from home that I bring!"
He plopped down on a bench, close enough that they could almost see through his customary dark sunglasses to whatever mysterious orbs lay behind them. The sight even brought Kevin to a standstill, who scooted over to join in the event. "Now, where was I? Oh yes! A holiday tale, one of my brothers and a holiday grail."
Hank nudged Jordan in the side. "Is he going to keep doing this, or?"
Director Aktus laughed. "No, no, none of that. This story is not even about a grail, I just could not think for the life of me of another word that rhymed with tale." He shook his head and laughed. "I would not be a good rapper, I fear."
He adjusted slightly, reaching into a back pocket for a small flask. The old man took a drink, inhaled sharply, and sighed. "Not exactly where we were planning on spending Christmas Eve, yes?" He took account of their reactions. "No, I did not think so. Better to be home spending time with family, of course."
"When I was young, I was assigned to a project with the Foundation in Bulgaria, near my homeland. It was a cold winter, bitter, and I was working on a highly classified project. My younger brothers, they were both with additional projects in and around Bulgaria as well, but their priority levels were not so high. I had taken the project because of the promise of a promotion. The Foundation was more lax about family visits then, but this project would put me away from my loved ones either way. For the sake of my career, I took the position."
"I got the news that my father had passed away from my youngest brother, Jeremiah, while I was on duty. He had been struck by a stray bullet during a shootout in my hometown and bled out on the street. Both of my brothers had left to run to his side at the hospital before he finally left this world, but I stayed at my post."
"My mother, she was wracked with grief, and my brothers were there to comfort her, but I remained in that bunker. When she stumbled into the street the next month in a drunken stupor, calling out for my father, and was struck by a car, my brothers attended her funeral. I stayed at my post."
He closed his eyes. Jenna had not been watching him, but she did now, and noticed tears running down his cheeks. "But that was then, my friends, and those were different times. Harder times, in my country, and I am grateful that I was given the opportunity to get away. The Foundation undoubtedly saved my life, and yet… I would have liked to have been there for them. I was very much obsessed with the research, and my duty with the Foundation, and protecting the world that- that I did not take care to protect those closest to me."
Aktus leaned forward, taking a breath. "We are told when we join the Foundation that we are giving up everything in order to save the world. We are told that nothing is sacred except securing, containing, and protecting. We are told that nothing is more important." He shook his head. "But that is a lie. Your families are more important. Your friends are more important. If the world ends tonight, would you like your last thought to be that you spent your final moments in this lab?"
He stood up. "Go home, friends. Be with your families tonight. If the world ends, I want you to spend it with them."
They resisted, at first, but eventually the director won them over. One by one, they moved towards the exit, wishing the old doctor a Merry Christmas, and disappeared down the long hallway. Kevin was last, his arms full of notes, but Karlyle waved him off, smiling. He, too, left the room, and then there was just the director.
The air was quiet and still within the dark lab, and Karlyle stood, wrapped within it, staring at the box. He heard the door behind him swing open, but he did not move. He saw a shadow moving towards him, but he did not breathe. He heard the breathing of another man, and he lowered his head. Neither of them said anything as the last few minutes ticked by, and finally Karlyle shuddered.
"…do you think it will be her, this year? Is that why you've come?"
Neither of them spoke, neither of them moved. Karlyle didn't need to see a clock to know it was time. The air warmed slightly, and the golden bow began to sizzle. It sparked and hissed and finally there was nothing left but the box beneath it. The lid shook slightly, and slid off to the side. The room was silent again, and Karlyle moved forward. He looked down, his face beneath his dark glasses soaked with memories, and caught his breath.
He wavered for a moment as he stared into the box, his body swaying slowly. He reached out, as if to grab something, but his hand hung in mid-air and stopped. He smiled. He turned around to face the men behind him.
"Will you… will you walk with me, Joshua? At least for now?"
They said nothing. He nodded in recognition, and began walking. They followed him, out of the lab and into the long hallway.
A short time later, Director Aktus emerged into the courtyard at Site-81. The snow was falling, as it had been falling all night, slowly and quietly. The world was still. Karlyle took a deep breath, filling his lungs with the cold Indiana air.
He began to turn, but hesitated. "It's been a long time, since…" He trailed off, praying for a word, a touch, anything from them. "After mother passed, I… I was wrong. I should have come back, should have been there." He sucked in air. "I haven't seen either of you, I thought that you- they told me that you…"
He breathed out, and saw another figure move across the courtyard to him, holding a thermos. Karlyle smiled, and reached out his hand.
"Good morning, Jordan."
The young researcher took his hand and shook it, and then placed in it a mug of a hot beverage. "Merry Christmas, Director. I thought on your offer, but my family is many thousands of miles away. I'm afraid you'll have to do with me, tonight."
Karlyle laughed, and took the drink. "I think that will be just fine, Jordan, thank you. You can note an all clear in your case report for the object, as well. No hostile activity detected."
Jordan laughed as well, and together they walked back into the building. As they moved towards the door, Jordan turned to him.
"Who were you talking to, Director?"
Karlyle paused for a moment and looked over his shoulder. A single pair of footsteps were slowly collecting snow in the light of the moon, and the courtyard was empty. He closed his eyes and nodded.
"Nobody, Jordan. Just an old man talking to himself."
Later they were seen drinking and throwing darts in Aktus' office, and prank calling the senior staff at Site-19. Aktus made a note to never spackle the holes in his walls that resulted from their activity that night.
Deep below Site-81, in a
secure bunker, a red box sat open
on the floor.
Within it was a photograph of a family,
three sons and their parents,
together on their last Christmas.
They were smiling.
On the back of the photograph,
a single line of handwritten text:
Sleep in heavenly peace.