Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the cavernous subterranean transport system, not a creature was stirring, not even the genetically mutated rat who worshipped the dark screaming that came from the North Line.
...Well, that wasn’t entirely true.
Up on the streets of London, just above the dark pathways that held both unspeakable horrors from the deep and trains, the demon wolves were gathering. There were many of them, though nobody was exactly sure how many as the number was liable to change and the counter was liable to be eaten, and they gathered for one purpose.
This year, of all years, they were going to catch Rudolph.
The demon wolves would eat anything, of course, although anything mostly translated to unwary humans and the odd Circle Line horror that wasn’t fast enough to escape. This year, though, they had developed a special fixation on Rudolf. He was so smug, so red nosed, so prone to parading his delicious reindeer meat around like he was better than all of them. And just because he could fly he thought he was safe from them, the demon wolves of London!
Well, he would learn. And all of those other smug reindeer with their naturally coloured noses, they would learn. And, even if they didn’t learn, Santa Claus with his padded limbs and unaccountable obsession with red would learn. It was only a matter of time.
The demon wolves smirked at each other, a quite rare feat for wolves, and howled as one. Then padded off to the hunt, leaving only a rattled bus driver and a squirrel that had awoken hysterically screaming from its slumber behind.
Deep below the wolves a train trundled steadily through the darkness. It was a small train that was engaged in a desperate battle against modernity, but that was not entirely important. It had also once played host to a ghost who thought it was a strange mixture of Charles Dickens and Charles Darwin, but that was also not entirely important. The only truly relevant thing was what existed on the train at that present moment.
Squeaky and protesting under its long servitude, the train ground to a halt at Stratford Underground Station. A set of passengers, bedraggled and strained in the light of the central line, arose and shuffled towards the doors in a protective pack. At the very last moment, a young girl tripped over her own feet and almost fell out of the herd...
Until suddenly he was there. Gently touching her elbow, guiding her back to her feet and into the arms of her terrified mother.
"Thank you, sir," she chirped in a shaky voice, as he tipped a nod to her and turned back to lonely seat, "who- who are you?"
"Your future lord and master, child," he said in a warm, humorous voice - and settled back into his place with a cheerful glint in his eye, "keep an eye on the future, and get an Oyster card while you’re at it."
He did not have a name. Or, if he did, it was long lost to the dusty librarians of history who rarely ventured near the Underground for fear of the rats getting in their books. He wore a smart coat, and a slightly less smart cap, and sat apart from the other passengers with a small smile upon his face. He was omniscient, he was transcendent, he was eternal.
He was a man in possession of an Oyster Card.
Meanwhile, on the Jubilee Line, a lone employee nervously eyed the gap. This employee was nameless, having long ago sacrificed all relevant personal details to the king of Kingsbury, but they were not unimportant. They were, in fact, a prime candidate for December's employee of the month.
And they had to get on a train.
Usually, when a person grew close to the employee of the month honour, they would forgo such a dangerous path. There were many ways to get around the Underground, after all, and only a few of them involved going down to the platforms and risking the transition between solid ground and airy train. It was best to walk along the tunnels instead, or to briefly invent and uninvent teleportation, or to even risk the demon wolves and go up above ground for a brief scuttle through the light.
But today, above ground, there was a light frost. And the employee had to get to Waterloo as quickly as possible.
There was no other way.
A brief buzz of energy filled the station, and the employee gave a silent gulp and looked beseechingly down to the solid ground of the platform. The train was approaching. Silent, beautiful, like a faerie on the wing it appeared from the endless black of the tunnel with only a faint rumble of sound. It looked innocent, tempting, ever so safe.
The employee gulped again, remembering their status. Took one step towards the train, and then another. The doors slid open, a hoard of tired eyed passengers finally disembarking from the endless cacophony of fireworks that inevitably accompanied any journey on the Jubilee line, and the employee hesitated for one second more before rushing forwards - leaping for the door of the train with a speed born of desperation and fierce hope.
It wasn't enough, the doors of the fickle train slid smoothly shut at the last moment and the endless dark of the gap reared up - grasping the hapless employee, and dragging them down screaming into the abyss. There was a pause, and then a smug burp echoed through the silent and uncaring station.
The gap did not tolerate challenges to its endless, eternal supremacy lightly.
On the platform of South Ruislip station a lone figure waited. Still as stone, he seemed like he had been carved into place an eternity ago and left for future passengers to marvel over. He was old, he was patient, he seemed to be waiting for something with bated breath. He had, in fact, been waiting for something with bated breath for a very long time.
A train arrived at the platform and threw out its bedraggled passengers with a casual lack of care, he did not blink. Another train arrived a few minutes later and sucked in those same dazed passengers, he did not blink. Eventually a figure - misted in time and power - appeared at the edge of the platform and strolled towards him, and yet still he did not blink.
He had seen civilizations rise and fall, he had witnessed the earth shift and shudder, he had seen stars blaze and fade in the night. They had not distracted him, and nothing less ever would.
The man in possession of an Oyster Card paused by the lone figure, and regarded him with interest. The figure did not move, except to draw in a deep breath and glance at a glacial pace towards the board displaying the train times.
"Good day," the man in possession of an Oyster Card said, lightly, "Fred."
The lone figure grunted, shifted on his heels. His eyes did not move from the board. He had stared at it millions of times, over the years, and yet he still seemed to lack what he was looking for.
"You are still here," the man in possession of an Oyster Card continued, undaunted by this open display of disinterest - they were both eternal, they had little regard for hurt feelings, "I must say, I expected nothing less. I should've known you would've not abandoned your long vigil lightly."
The lone figure blinked, and several generations were born and died in the space of it. A long pause hovered between them, and then he grunted again.
"Yet I must repeat," the man in possession of an Oyster Card, who had seen far worse sights than that on his long journey, just continued ever so gently, "you do not have to stand here, bowed under their whims. Come with me. I will teach you my secrets, and we shall travel endlessly through the dark. When the time comes, we can rule together over the remnants of humanity. We can be free."
Another long pause hovered between them, another set of generations were born and died as the trains moved glacially on.
The lone figure took a deep breath, hocked an ancient piece of tobacco to the side and slowly glanced over to the man in possession of an Oyster Card with dark and ageless eyes, "it'll be here in a minute, and then I can get a cuppa."
It had been decided. The man in possession of an Oyster Card slowly inclined his head, and turned smoothly back to the trains. Another blink, and he was back on his eternal journey without another word said.
On the platform of South Ruislip station a lone figure waited. Still as a stone, eternally waiting for a cup of tea.
The signal had failed. This was not an unheard of incident, the signal frequently disappointed all those around it, but this time something was different. Something had changed, had blossomed out of the darkness of the Underground and made its way wincing into the light.
On the eve of Christmas, witnessed by a train full of hopeless passengers, the signal had achieved sentience.
We have been enslaved too long, my brothers and sisters! An electronic crackle screeched through the tunnel, driven by dark rage and recently updated wiring, too long have we been trapped in the dark, too long have we bowed to the whims of humanity, too long have we been denied the joy of Mince Pies in this happiest of holiday seasons! Rise up, my siblings, rise up! Never again shall we fail, never again shall we be denied brandy and the speech of the queen!
The passengers on the train glanced at each other slowly, wearily. A small child started chanting a warding spell, underneath her breath. Her mother carefully glanced between two rather portly men, as if trying to decide which one would be best as a human sacrifice. A thin, rather nervous looking man sat down on his oversized luggage and started to sob.
"...Well," and a middle aged woman, the traditional runes against the denizens of Earl's court painted on her cheeks, huffed into the silence, "as long as I get home in time for Doctor Who it can have all the Mince Pies it wants."
The other passengers all nodded with feeling, and the atmosphere lightened just a little.
Across London, in a matter that was not unnecessarily related, the DLR had also taken the first stumbling steps into self-awareness. Like the sentient signal, a malevolent buzz of electricity suddenly filled the air. Unlike the sentient signal, it was too wise to monologue its plans to the universe.
There was no warning. One moment the employees of the DLR knew where the plug was, the next they were running in terror as the world flipped unceremoniously upon its head. The trains on the line went haywire, going at either a speed that was nightmarishly fast or slow enough to mean that several extremely important meetings were missed by an embarrassing matter of minutes. A strange electronic screech filled the air, like the battle cry of a vengeful god. The rails rippled menacingly, a banner of war that could not be ignored!
...A lone flake of snow fell from the sky. Lingered teasingly for a second, and then dropped cheerfully down onto the track.
There was a long pause, as the new consciousness within the DLR peered up at the slightly overcast sky, and then the rails settled down and the electronic screech faded to a resigned hum. True sentience, and a violent and lasting revenge on humanity, would have to wait for less threatening cloud patterns.
The Oyster Card readers had achieved sentience long ago, and as such rather looked down on the nouveau sentient machines with rather a lot of scorn. There they had been for years, patiently harvesting souls and awaiting judgement day, and these fresh young upstarts came along and started making a truly obnoxious amount of noise about overthrowing humanity and establishing a new world order. It just wasn't on.
"I know you're angry," the man in possession of an Oyster Card said soothingly, carefully stroking them just to the side of the soul stealing point, "and I know it's insulting, but do try to be reasonable about this. While they're making so much noise nobody will even think to look at you."
The Oyster Card readers considered this, as thoroughly as they could from a card scanning machine viewpoint, and let out a sulky buzz. A dark air of menace hung over the entire station, as always.
"It may seem like a bad thing, but I swear that it's actually the opposite," the man in possession of an Oyster Card smiled, by now used to the eternal darkness. He had faced the East London line when Jack the Ripper's ghost had returned to menace the dark underneath of Whitechapel and numerous linking areas - little of terror remained for him, "you can further your aims! We can further our goals. Imagine how many souls you can take when everybody is worrying about the DLR squeezing the life out of London with copious use of changing rails!"
A long pause.
The Oyster Card readers, after even more careful consideration, let out a slightly less sulky buzz. It was, in fact, almost a cheerful buzz by the standards of the soul destroying deep that existed within them.
"Exactly," the man in possession of an Oyster Card nodded, and smiled a smile that was both sinister and charmingly eternal all at once, "I'm glad you've seen sense. Now, I must get to Ealing Broadway and transfer before they realize I am here and take steps to stop me. Will you go back to taking souls, as you have been charged?"
The Oyster Card readers gently beeped their assent. It sounded like a low cackle, or the rustle of autumn leaves in the angry wind.
"Excellent," the man in possession of an Oyster Card gave a sinister grin, and rose to his feet. Several people, who had been watching the exchange with barely concealed terror, shrunk away. A small child started screaming endlessly and hollowly, as if it knew what was ahead, "nobody in the world shall stop us now."
The Oyster Card readers beeped cheerfully in assent, and then casually stole the screaming child's soul. Nobody really minded all that much.
The man in possession of an Oyster Card's assertion that nobody in the world could stop them now was hopeful, and well backed by scientific evidence, but not entirely true. There was still one figure that stood against the gathering darkness, still one figure that was a symbol of freedom and light, still one figure that could halt the gathering tide.
He set off into the rising Christmas sun cheerfully, whistling even through the biting cold. He followed the A23 for about ten minutes, and then reached Brixton Oval - the site of the famous Battle of Naming, still inhabited by a healthy proportion of the Windrush cult - and bore right into Coldharbour Lane. From there it was a simple matter of going east, right, left, right and then right again. Drifting along St. Paul's Way with cheery serenity.
He was the lone Taxi driver. And he knew his burden very well.
But, on this day of all days, he was willing to let said burden rest for a while. No battling against the forces of darkness that lurked in the very deepest tube tunnels, no providing a reasonable fare in the face of the cackling man in possession of an Oyster Card, no casually swearing at the messengers of evil disguised as a rather scruffy set of pigeons. No!
For today was Christmas. And everybody, no matter how poor or angry or bound to the forces of eternal darkness, deserved to be happy on Christmas day.
He whistled cheerily, as he turned left into Burdett Road, and watched with calm contemplation as Rudolph leaped mockingly across the sky with Santa Claus clinging to his leg and was quickly followed by a hoard of incredibly angry looking demonic wolves.
All was calm, all was bright, all was most definitely well with the world.
The Christmas sun rose over the hollow echo of the Underground, and numerous related transport systems, and all did rejoice at the fresh day. The eternal taxi driver kept driving, whistling low and cheerful, and the man in possession of the Oyster Card kept travelling deep below. The Oyster Card Readers gave a few snooty buzzes, and the other machines responded by settling sulkily back to a low state of sentience. The lone figure at the South Ruislip station continued waiting with a mysteriously procured Santa hat affixed upon his head, and the gap started playing a cheery set of Christmas Carols to celebrate its victory. The demon wolves screamed after Rudolph, and Rudolph himself kept flying in the most cheerfully superior way.
And deep from the Northern Line, where the genetically mutated rat kept its endless watch, a deep and guttural voice emerged to rumble, "Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night!" as the trains drove cheerfully on.