Wendy Watson stood in front of a large canvas, madly hurling paint against it. It wasn't that she was necessarily in a Jackson Pollock phase, as it would have seemed to the casual observer. Rather, she was very nearly a human laser-jet when it came to paint. Layer by layer, color by color, swath by swath, her work took shape. At long last, and after pausing only for her favorite microwaved grilled trout—one of the benefits of the alternative revenue stream on which her employer operated—she was finished.
Lacey walked into the room and gazed upon Wendy's new masterpiece. “That's...really interesting, Dub-Dub. What is it?”
Wendy shot her friend and roommate an incredulous look and raised an eyebrow. “You don't see it?”
Lacey slowly shook her head. “If I knew what 'it' was, maybe I would but....” Her voice trailed off.
“It's a finite, recurring, tessellated subspacial tesseract, of course!”
Lacey gave her a blank stare.
“It's an aspect of the subcutaneous energy that holds the Universe together! Physicists call it dark energy, but it's really not dark at all,” she said pensively while looking back at her painting. “Only I've rendered it in earth tones to reflect the...earthiness of it all.”
“Dub-Dub, I do believe that's the single greatest piece of BS I've ever heard you spout!” Lacey said cheerily.
“Well, this is what the dark energy sine wave signatures I've seen suggest it may look like,” said Wendy.
“What sort of things do they have you doing at that temp job of yours anyway?” asked Lacey, her brow now furrowing in mild consternation.
“I don't doubt it.”
Just then, the growly klaxon on Wendy's Middlewatch sounded. She pushed a button and Ida's face appeared.
“Let me guess,” said Lacey, “the space-time continuum's in trouble again and they need your services again, right?”
“You bet your sweet bippy!” said Ida sarcastically.
“Is she always like that?” said Lacey to Wendy.
“Pretty much,” then to Ida, “Say no more, I'm on my way.” She pushed a button again and the image faded. “Duty calls,” she said with a shrug.
Wendy, now dressed in her Middle uniform, walked into the main control room in Middle Headquarters. While she'd grown accustomed to all the wood paneling and such, she still felt it ought to be all white walls and stainless steel. Ida had told her she'd been watching too much James Bond.
“So what's threatening to end life as we know it this time?” she asked as she walked up to Ida's desk.
“Art,” she said simply.
“Not who...what...an art exhibit, to be precise.”
“And here I was, thinking art's going to save the world,” said Wendy with a roll of the eyes. “So what is it...people going crazy trying to follow Escher's stairs or melt their own clocks to look like Dali?”
Ida cocked her head in that peculiarly Ida way. “Sure, and they're doing it while listening to Stravinsky's 'Rite of Spring.'”
“Of course not.”
“Ah, Dubbie,” said the Middleman as he walked up behind Wendy. She turned her head as he stopped beside her. He held what looked like an iPad, but a bit bulkier and with odd bits sticking out of it. He tapped on it. “I'm glad you're here.”
“You'd better show her,” said Ida. “I'm not sure I can watch it again.”
Ida was unable to re-watch something? That didn't bode well. The Middleman turned and walked over to a large wall monitor and plugged an ISB cord into the pad. “I think you'll find this disturbing. It's raw video footage from the security cameras at the Cleveland Museum of Art.” He paused and looked her in the eye. “Do you have a strong stomach?”
“Uh...” said Wendy uncertainly, “...yeah...why?”
“This is why.” He tapped the pad and an image of the museum's main gallery appeared on the screen. It was video only. It wasn't long before Wendy was glad of that. In the center of the room stood a pile of large, irregular, roughly rectangular stones stacked one atop the other in an interesting helical arrangement. There was a slight metallic gleam to them. As she watched, several small, orange objects moved outward from the gaps between the rocks. They were too small to identify from the image's distance and this resolution, but they kept coming, like bees exiting a hive.
Whatever they were, they began to attack people. Sometimes they appeared to explode, the debris coalescing into more of them. She watched in horror as they swarmed people and stripped their flesh down to their bones. The bits of orange obscured their grizzly work, except for the occasional arterial spurt, and she was thankful there wasn't as much to see as her boss had implied.
“Those things...whatever they are...they're eating those people?” said Wendy in surprise.
“Yes,” said Ida. “They appear to be particularly attracted to babies.”
“That's so sad!”
“Trust me, Honey, if you've ever been within ten meters of a dirty diaper...”
“Ida!” interrupted the Middleman, “I realize your programming doesn't include maternal instincts, but...”
“At least pretend to care?” It was Wendy's turn to interrupt. “They're babies!”
“Let's get back to business,” said the Middleman. “We can discuss our opinions of the very young later. Ida, what can you tell us about this?”
“Not much. The pile of rocks is something called an inuksuk.”
“What's that?” said Wendy.
“Inuksult are monuments erected by the Inuit and other Arctic peoples all across the Canadian shield and into Alaska,” said the Middleman. “They marked hunting grounds, territorial boundaries, migration routes and important historical and religious sites, among other things.”
“So why is a pile of these rocks in the museum?” said Wendy. “And why is this one...killing people?”
“This one was unearthed in the middle of Greenland,” said Ida. “Some geologists found it while drilling ice cores. This one is unusual. The rocks have a very high nickel content, suggesting extraterrestrial origin. It was also encased in a congealed, frozen compound which was, in turn, dusted with a thick layer of ilmenite.”
“Ilmenite,” said the Middleman pensively. “Curious...that's one of the more important sources of titanium ore. But what's that other compound?”
“We don't know. It may be important and it may not.”
“Ida, keep searching,” said the Middleman. “This one seems to have been buried deliberately and we need to know why. Dubbie,” he said to Wendy, “we're going to Cleveland.”
Wendy and the Middleman arrived at the Cleveland Museum of Art to find it in total lock-down. The building was surrounded by what looked like every branch of law enforcement in the country. They flashed their DHS badges and were allowed access.
They walked up to the front doors. The huge columns cast shadow on the outside, but the building's skylights afforded adequate light to the interior. Through the glass, Wendy could see little orange things drifting about lazily. One flew by the door close enough to give her a good look at it.
“They're little fish!” she said.
“Interesting,” said the Middleman. “Proceed with caution.”
“Great,” said Wendy, “cute, but deadly.”
“Indeed.” He held up the titanium skillet he carried. “Ready?”
“I'd ask you to explain again why we're using titanium cookware as weapons,” she said, “but I doubt I'd understand it any better than I did before.”
“Just be sure to use it as both a shield and a weapon.” With that, he nodded to the two FBI agents flanking the entrance and they opened the doors. Wendy and the Middleman quickly darted inside and the doors shut behind them.
They were immediately noticed by several of the little fish. They let out a high-pitched shriek and flew directly at the two of them. Wendy and the Middleman quickly raised their pans. The fish slammed into them and dropped to the floor.
“Interesting,” said the Middleman.
“Are they dead?” said Wendy, looking at the small orange fish now lying motionless on the floor.
“I don't know,” said the Middleman, “but we don't have time to find out. We must get to the inuksuk post-haste. The video indicates there should be swarms of those things and we'll be sitting ducks if we tarry.”
Who talks like that? thought Wendy. She kept it to herself as she and her boss dashed off through the museum. She tried to ignore the bare skeletons lying here and there. Occasionally a fish flew up from one, collided with a pan and dropped silently to the ground.
They arrived in the main exhibit hall with little incident. The Middleman ran up to the inuksuk and began poking around in its nooks and crannies.
“So where are they?” asked Wendy as she scanned the room.
“I don't know,” said the Middleman, “but I don't like it. This should have been a lot harder.”
“I really hate it when you say that.”
After a couple of minutes, the Middleman brought a vial and a small scraper out of a pocket. “I think I've found our sample,” he said as he reached up and scraped some pale material out of a crack and into the vial. At once, the entire structure seemed erupt with little orange fish. Wendy and the Middleman turned and bolted for the door.
They ran down the corridors, the Middleman maintaining his stiff posture, titanium pans whirring in pale metallic arcs. Little fishes made splutting sounds as they contacted the metal and fell onto the floor, leaving an orange, scaly trail behind them. A few of the fish made it through the defenses to bite the humans, only to be grabbed and hurled violently at a nearby wall.
Having reached the entrance, the two of them whirled around to face a veritable hornet swarm of little orange flying fishes hurtling directly at them. They dashed out the doors, slamming them shut behind them. They braced their weight against the panes as scores of tiny orange bodies collided in a rapid, rhythmic thump-thump-thump as they bounced off the glass.
“Holy sh...aving cream!” exclaimed Wendy.
“I'm proud of you, Dubbie,” replied the Middleman.
They turned around to see the small fish still trying to attack them from the other side of the doors.
“I was right,” said the Middleman, glancing down at the skillet in his hand. Both sides of it were smeared with slightly orange-tinted fish mucus. “There's something about titanium that immobilizes those fish.”
“That must be the reason for the ilmenite,” said Wendy.
“Let's get back to the Middlemobile. We need to know what this...” He held up the vial containing the sample he'd collected. “...is.”
Wendy and the Middleman sat in the seats of the Middlemobile waiting for Ida's analysis. The Middleman had scanned the sample material and sent it to Ida via satellite up-link. Soon a readout on the dashboard chirped and he pushed a button. Ida's face appeared.
“Merry Christmas,” she said sarcastically.
“And a happy New Year,” replied Wendy bluntly.
“I have an answer for you,” said Ida, ignoring Wendy, “but you're not going to believe it.”
“After Peruvian flying carp, lucha libre wrestlers, and sorority ghosts, I think I can handle it.”
“It's egg nog,” said Ida.
“Egg nog?” said Wendy. “How did egg nog end up on a rock buried in Greenland?” She looked at the Middleman. “You don't suppose Eleanor Draper's responsible, do you?”
“I wouldn't put it past her...but, no, I don't think so. Ida, please search the Canadian ethnological database and cross-reference with Celtic and Norse mythology. I have a hunch.”
Two hours later, Wendy and the Middleman were walking back toward the art gallery.
“Unbelievable,” said Wendy. “You're telling me that we have to go back in there, splatter more of those little fish, and then pour egg not all over that thing in order to prevent the Inuit Apocalypse?”
“That's correct, Dubbie.”
“But it's the middle of July! Where in the...frell...are we going to find egg nog this time of year?”
“We'll have to make our own.”
“I don't think that was in the Middle Manual.”
“You must have missed the culinary chapter.”
“There's a culinary chapter?”
“There's a chapter for everything, Dubbie.”
“I don't even know where to begin to think about thinking about making egg nog!”
“We need a supermarket and a kitchen, and we don't have much time. That artifact isn't going anywhere, but I don't trust conventional law-enforcement not to do something stupid.”
“Like let the fish out of the bowl.”
“Exactly. Doing so would unleash the apocalypse.”
“Spiffy,” said Wendy, rolling her eyes. “Instead of the Four Horsemen, we get the Four Orcas.”
“The Four Orcas...” said the Middleman pensively. “Of course! Dubbie, if we call forth the Four Orcas of the Apocalypse, they'll go after the fishes and drag the whole thing back to Jotunheim! Good thinking, Dubbie!”
“I have my moments.”
Wendy's Middlewatch chirped. She finished wiping the water off her hands and pressed a button. The Middleman's face appeared.
“How's the egg nog coming?”
“I'm loading the last of it now. You have no idea how hard it was to not sample any of it.”
“You mean you didn't do any...quality control?”
“Of course I did! I had to make sure I had all the proportions correct.”
“Dubbie!” scolded the Middleman. “You know the policy on alcohol consumption while on the job.”
“Then why did you ask? What I meant was...oh, to hell with it, just don't let me drive. I'll meet you out front in a minute.” She pressed another button to end the call, then turned to the large flat-bed hand truck she'd loaded with several large, round canisters containing the egg nog.
It had been difficult enough just getting in here, let alone doing so without being noticed. Getting out would be equally tricky, as she'd traded a large, albeit not-so-noisy, person for a large and quite noisy hand truck. She took a deep breath to collect herself, then pushed her cargo toward the kitchen door.
She carefully peeked out into the hallway. The coast was clear, so she moved from the room, turning off the light as she left. She cringed as she pushed it down the hallway toward the front of the building. It had a stubbornly squeaky wheel and another with a persistent wobble. Where had they found this thing anyway?
She exited the building without incident, which was a miracle in itself. She'd need all the miracles she could get if they were to avert the Inuit Apocalypse. The Middleman was waiting for her.
Wendy and the Middleman tromped up to the front door of the museum. They each held a canister of egg nog in each arm. They were also clad head-to-toe in full titanium articulated plate armor. The sallet helms gave their voices a deep, echoing quality.
“I feel like Joan of Arc,” said Wendy.
“Don't be ridiculous, Dubbie. Joan of Arc died in fourteen thirty-one. Titanium wasn't discovered until seventeen ninety-one.”
“Give in to the Dark Side, boss,” said Wendy, with just a hint of sarcasm.
The two men still stationed at the door looked at them uncertainly.
“I'm sorry,” one of them said, “no...um...” His voice trailed off and he looked at his companion.
“Uh...I got nothin'.”
This would have been a great time to have a free hand to raise a visor. “No time to explain,” said the Middleman crisply. “Suffice it to say that we have fifteen minutes before all hell breaks loose and destroys the world!”
The guards looked at each other, then at Wendy and the Middleman, then back at each other again. They shrugged and opened the door without further word.
Wendy was glad her boss had a way with words. Or, perhaps, it was the way he had of walking into any situation and acting like he owned it...which invariably worked well on those used to simply following orders. Once inside, there was little sign of their previous visit, except for the small orange fish carcasses littering the floor.
“Are you sure this will work? I mean, this isn't like all the other apocalypses we've averted.”
“Good. You're starting to think about the apocalypse in the plural.”
“Well, yeah, but will this work?”
“We'll find out,” said the Middleman flatly.
Sometimes Wendy found that quirk of his a little irritating. “We'll find out? That isn't very reassuring.”
They retraced their steps back to the room holding the inuksuk. It somehow felt like a longer trip than it had the first time. Perhaps that was the stress talking. At last, they stopped just a few feet from it.
“Is it my imagination,” said Wendy, “or is it glowing?”
“That doesn't bode well.” His tone carried a slight bit of stress.
No, thought Wendy, that didn't bode well at all.
“Do you remember the plan?” he asked.
“Pour the nog on the rocks, play the tune, swat the fish, and get the hell out of here when the whales show up...got it.”
They both tottered up on opposite sides of the inuksuk and set their canisters on the floor. One by one, they each picked one up, opened it, and began to pour the contents over the rock.
What a waste of good egg nog, thought Wendy.
Almost immediately, little orange fish began pouring out of the chinks in the rock structure. They promptly attacked Wendy and the Middleman. They were both very glad Ida had insisted on full plate armor—Wendy hadn't been sure where they'd managed to acquire that much titanium plate, but she was certain it had something to do with O2S2K's alternative revenue stream. There were few, if any, places through which any of the fish could find an opening large enough for them to exploit and they didn't seem to have the mental acuity to methodically search for one. Still, they were quite distracting.
“Keep going!” shouted the Middleman.
“Why are you shouting?” said Wendy, as she opened her other canister and started to pour.
The fish continued to bounce off their armor, most of them falling stunned to the floor. Their bodies made the floor slippery and it was becoming difficult to stay upright, given the limited dexterity allowed by the armor.
When both egg nog canisters were empty, they stepped back to evaluate their work. There were still gaps in the coating, enough to allow plenty of the orange fish to work their way out and maintain their barrage.
“We ran out!” said Wendy in dismay. “Now what do we do?”
“We must proceed anyway. I'll need you to run interference while I play the tune that will summon the Orcas.”
Wendy unhooked the titanium frying pan hanging from her belt and held it up in a combat-ready position. “Somehow, this feels wrong.”
“Just be ready,” said the Middleman as we pulled out a small tin whistle. He pulled off his gauntlets, flipped up his visor and put the whistle to his mouth.
Fish quickly found the newly-created openings in the armor and Wendy was having trouble swatting them without hitting her boss. Then he began to play and Wendy paused briefly.
“Close Encounters? The theme from 'Close Encounters' summons the Four Orcas of the Apocalypse?”
“Later,” he muttered between measures of the tune. She kept swatting, missing a fish now and then, which bit the Middleman. He steadfastly ignored the pain. Wendy figured he'd likely pay for that later and she supposed it was better than death...probably.
After three repetitions, the glow from the inuksuk began to be visible through the egg nog. As the glow grew brighter with each repetition, the fish grew more aggressive, as though they sensed what was to come. Soon the ground began to shake.
“Are we done yet?” asked Wendy, who was beginning to tire, as well as growing increasingly frustrated at her continued failure to intercept each fish.
“Keep going,” said the Middleman, “I'll tell you when.” He kept playing, faster, faster, faster.
The vibration grew ever stronger, the glow ever brighter and the fish ever more aggressive. Chunks of plaster dropped from the ceiling. Objects fell from walls. Sparks erupted from the lighting and Wendy began to fear they might be electrocuted. Cracks appeared in the floor through which jets of steam erupted.
“Now?” said Wendy.
“Not yet.” He kept playing, the tempo still increasing and Wendy was beginning to wonder how someone could possibly move their fingers that quickly, especially while being bitten by little orange fishes.
Everything continued to escalate. The ground shook so violently, both of them were having trouble standing. Plaster bounced off their helms. Steam from the ground and the perpetual swarms of small orange bodies made it very difficult to see. Suddenly, the floor heaved violently upward, tossing Wendy and the Middleman backward, landing in a heap of clattering metal.
“Now!” yelled the Middleman. They both scrambled to their feet, barely avoiding bits of floor tile being hurled into the air. The fish suddenly shifted their attention to the inuksuk and abruptly flew toward it—or where Wendy guessed it was in the middle of that cloud of dust, debris and steam. The two of them dashed--as much as they could, clad head-to-toe in metal plates—away from the room. Wendy paused to look back, just as four huge forms erupted from the floor. She could clearly make out the shapes of the Orcas.
“Why do they have Haida markings?” she asked.
“I don't know,” said the Middleman, “but I don't recommend walking up to ask them.”
The Orcas surged about the room, moving in a way that Wendy thought they would had they been half-submerged in water. They lurched and roared, voraciously devouring the little fish and destroying everything in their path. It was beautiful, yet terrible, to behold. The shaking, glowing, roaring and general mayhem grew ever more violent.
Wendy and the Middleman semi-sprinted down the halls, the cracking in the floor following them. The deafening roars of the Orcas echoed behind them. They hurled themselves through the doors, their armor shielding them from the shards of glass that would otherwise have rendered them in unequivocal need of stitches.
The shaking was still noticeable outside, but merely a shadow of what they'd just left behind. They watched as the building's windows erupted outward. The whole structure crashed down, then seemed to fold in on itself like a shriveling tomato. It shrank quickly into a large hole that had apparently opened under it. More steam, dust and flame surged up from all around it. The four Orcas leaped suddenly into the air with a great roar, spun, then dove down upon the museum's sinking carcass. The whole thing erupted in a fountain of fire and ice. Then the hole abruptly sealed up with a great hiss and all was once again quiet. All that remained was a shallow, smoldering crater.
Wendy raised her visor. “Wow!” she exclaimed. “That actually worked!”
“Yes,” replied her boss, “and in front of thousands of people and the six-o-clock news.”
“Sh...aving cream!” said Wendy.
“So how DO we...um...sanitize, anyway?”
“We don't,” said the Middleman as he and Wendy turned to make their way back to the Middlemobile. “Which will people believe...a gas explosion and a sink-hole, or the near-coming of the Inuit Apocalypse?”
“I see your point,” said Wendy pensively. “Let's get out of here. Those cameras over there are making me nervous.”
“For the record,” Wendy added, as they pulled away from the curb, “I still think that was a terrible waste of perfectly good egg nog.”
The Middleman just chuckled, his armor clattering a little from road vibration.