Chapter 9 – Four Brawling Nerds

Four Brawling Nerds

“Who are you?” I said, planting my feet apart and signaling my men to hold.

The figure in the center left, who seemed to be the leader, laughed. It wasn’t a particularly unpleasant laugh – like Kristopher’s – but it was the laugh of a person who had spent one too many hours trying to debug a segment of faulty code.

“Collectively? We’re some of the few humans in this place,” the figure said, bitterly. “The elves couldn’t write a line of code to save their lives. They aren’t designed to be particularly imaginative.”

Another figure, to the left, spoke up. His voice was huskier, and had traces of a Russian accent. “We are the most proficient science and technology experts on Earth,” he stated flatly. “Kristopher has a massive operation, but he still needs humans to do the thinking. The elves just do the legwork. Biochemical work, technological development and IT are all filtered through us.”

“So you’re the idea people,” I said, glancing at all of the figures. “Then you’re probably aware that we just mowed down Kristopher’s entire personal guard on the way here. What stops us from going past you, besides the force of your personality?”

The first figure held up a wireless keyboard.

“My enter key,” he said, hovering his finger over the center of the keyboard. “If I should feel compelled to push it, the next time the world will see your body will be in the bottom of a stocking for some little brat. If I really wanted to, I could dig through the archives and select the very worst person on Earth.”

I looked at his face. I couldn’t see it very well in the darkness, but I didn’t think he was kidding.

“Point taken. That puts us at a bit of an impasse. But I assume there’s a reason you haven’t pushed that key yet.” I said, narrowing my eyes.

“You’re quite right, Captain Mesner.”

“We’ve got a bit of dispute,” said the one on the far right, in a southern accent, “which involves your continued existence. My colleagues here appear convinced that you might actually take down Kristopher. As you pointed out, you went through his whole personal guard. Me and the lady on your far right prefer to reserve judgment.”

I nodded. “I take it you had something in mind that might convince you.”

The lady spoke up. She had a brassy alto voice, with a distinct Brazilian edge.

“Very astute. To be blunt, Captain, Kristopher is incredibly intelligent, and very capable. We’re only willing to give you our support once we know that you have at least one member of your team with the ability to defeat us in a duel of our own devising.” She said, crossing her arms.

“Because, if we refuse, you tap the button?”

The first speaker nodded.

“Trust me, it’s an act of mercy compared to what Kristopher would do. My colleagues here aren’t coldblooded, Captain, and neither am I. But suffice to say that we made the mistake of making a deal with Kringle. He has people we love in the palm of his hand. If we sent you on, and you failed, we would all pay irreparable prices. The only difference between my colleagues and I is that I believe you have already proven yourself, and they don’t. So we set up this contest to settle it. But Captain, remember that you’ve only got one chance. When the time comes, you won’t be able to dither.”

“What is the nature of the contest?”

“ It would be advisable, Captain, to send the person who you think is best equipped to handle computers. Since all of us have considerable experience in that area, we feel that that is the best plane upon which to match wits.”

“Fair enough.” I turned to Graile. “They’ve all but asked for you by name. Ready to shine, soldier?”

He ripped off the sort of smart salute that brings tears to the eyes of retired military men. “Yes, sir.”

*          *          *

The contest was simple. Graile would sit down at a computer console that had been set up and log in. His goal was then to disable the machines of all four of his opponents without having his own disabled.

The machine was blazing fast, even by modern standards. It had more cores then an apple orchard, enough memory for an elephant herd, and an ergonomic keyboard.

“The one complaint we don’t have,” the woman said, “is about impoverished material.”

Graile sat down in the chair, and placed his fingers over the keyboard. According to the rules of the contest, we had to stay back. Graile was going to have to do this one on his own. He hadn’t been happy about losing all of his programs with the mini-computer, but he didn’t have time to recreate them, nor could it be argued that he was the only one with the qualifications to meet this group on their own ground.

Unfortunately, the situation changed very quickly. As Graile logged in, a cage descended, trapping us in place.

The leader of the group of programmers looked up from his computer.

“There is one tiny catch,” he said, staring right at Graile. “These computers can affect this room, as you’ve just seen. And trust me, if you’re worried about your friends, you should be. Kristopher isn’t going to show mercy, and my colleagues wouldn’t be satisfied if we did. All that I’ll guarantee is that I will not actively try to kill them, and remember that I don’t speak for everyone here. Just know that this room is very well guarded, being Kristopher’s personal archive.”

Graile, to his credit, did not show any fright.
That’s it, Graile, I thought to myself, Never let them see you bleed.

And with that, the contest commenced.

*          *          *

It soon became clear that the head programmer’s warning had been far more important to how the contest played out then anything else. The contest commenced with a huge auto turret emerging from the floor directly in front of us, while Graile was doing something mysterious on his computer. In the knick of time, Graile deflected it’s arm upwards so that it sprayed the roof with bullets.

“That was poorly played. I’d concentrate on your friends, rather then what I’m typing,” said the head programmer, tapping buttons. Graile said nothing.

Which was good, because at the same time, someone tried a direct attack on his machine, while another person, who I identified as the woman, took the opportunity to attempt to shut the gates on us.

Even at speed, the gates didn’t get further then a couple of inches. Graile swatted the person who had attacked his computer by containing their program, adding a couple of nasty lines, and spiking it back to them.

But even as he did this, another person lifted the cage, which was revealed to have docked with a sister piece on the floor, and held it aloft to the ceiling, which was higher then the darkness had initially let on.

I couldn’t see Graile, but I was determined not to sit idle, merely because I was imprisoned. I looked around the cage. The only obvious way to escape would be to somehow undock the bottom, which would have been disastrous.

As that thought hit me, I shouted to the team. “Grab the bars of this cage, men!”

Sure enough, even as we grabbed the sides of the cage, the bottom detached, plummeting below to hit the ground near the Southern programmer. He was distracted for just a moment. I couldn’t see what Graile did, but he pushed the Enter key with exaggerated force, and as the Southerner turned back to his computer, his face crumpled in rage, and he slammed his fist on the keyboard.

One down, three to go, I thought.

Suddenly, the room sprouted a wide variety of auto turrets from every possible location. The lead programmer had mentioned that it was well defended, but I wondered that they even had room for data storage.

The turrets all focused directly on our cage. Apparently, one of the programmers was planning on going all in.

Fortunately, this also left them open to Graile’s attack. I saw him bring up a box, then glance quickly at the programmer across from him. His hand darted over the number pad, entering in three digits.

The turrets instantly swiveled to face the Russian programmer, just as they were ready to fire. But he used whatever protocol he had used to activate them all, and turned them all off.

Graile took this breather to fend off two more personal attacks on his computer. Then, unseen by the programmers but visible from the ceiling, he redirected the turret which had nearly killed us right at the beginning, and fired directly at the Russian’s console.

I watched it erupt in a wave of bullets. He did not throw a temper tantrum, but simply took his hands off the keyboard, placed them on his stomach, and sat back.

Two down, I thought. But my grip on the cage was starting to slip.

Then I noticed that the female programmer was doing something else. Suddenly, in a ring around the room including the floor directly below us, the arena was cris-crossed with the same shop lasers we had seen in the gallery. They certainly had a thing for those around this place. The fact that they were red and green did not, somehow, make me feel better about them.

The female programmer hit a button on the keyboard. I tightened my hands to keep a grip on the cage as we began to fall. At the last second, Graile redirected the cage, causing it to swing sideways.

We were thrown to the edge of the arena, but it was a close shave. One of the lasers on the other side of the room nearly scalped me in the process.

But we didn’t have a moment to rest. Graile had lost concentration saving us, and that had given the woman the opening to send him something nasty at the same moment as the lead programmer hit him.

Even though Graile was clearly fighting for control for a moment, the lead programmer seemed frustrated.

But the woman did not notice, or lose time. She picked up the turrets which the Russian had left behind, and aimed them at us again.

“Scatter!” I shouted.

The turrets couldn’t be aimed at each of us in turn. We needed to buy Graile some time.

But she had been expecting that. As men ran off in one direction, in the ring, she started spinning the cage in a circle like a mace, and running it around the ring after us. Thinking quickly, I realized that there was one place where it was easiest for Grail to save us, and ran directly behind her.

She took the bait. The swinging cage followed me. I saw a screen appear on the head programmer’s console as Graile deftly deflected the programs.

Then, in one perfectly executed swoop, he pulled the cage up, over her head, down again, and swatted her machine right off her desk.

She stood up, enraged, picked up her keyboard, and threw it across the room into the lasers, then sat down again heavily.

I was about to say “one to go,” when I noticed that the lead programmer was sweating and gritting his teeth.

He swore under his breath.

Suddenly, he looked as though he had had an idea, and started calling up files in a desperate search.

On his screen, a file appeared that changed its size even as he entered in keystrokes to check it. But an instant after he found it, the computer crashed. Graile had dealt with him stealthily from the beginning. He’d nearly gotten us killed by spending the time writing it first. The Trojan horse was a cross between a disk fragmenter and the world’s least efficient keystroke logger. Graile had put in a dummy portion which looked like it was sending back info about the programmer’s activities, which the programmer had detected. When the programmer tried to delete it, it merely changed the location of the important portion, and kept fragmenting the hard drive with every keystroke.

The result was that the hard drive was now an unusable mess.

The head programmer gritted his teeth for a moment, and then breathed out.

“I take back what I said earlier,” he said, standing up, and shaking Graile’s hand, “that was very well played.”

*          *          *

The lead programmer saw us to the door, and handed Graile a USB drive coded with the program that could open Kristopher’s door.

“Kristopher is on the top floor of this building, two floors up. But I warn you, he still has guards you haven’t met along the way, and you can’t bypass them. The ventilation in this building isn’t like other ventilation systems; all of it is connected to a sterilization chamber that is in Kristopher’s own quarters. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you much more. Hardly anyone has ever seen his personal quarters. But wherever you go, I can keep him from knowing that you’re coming.”

“That’s all we need.” I said.

He nodded, and pointed down the hallway.

“Deck him in the halls for me. I have a daughter back home, and… well, I’d really love her to spend a Christmas when she isn’t in danger.”

I put a hand on his shoulder.

“I know how you feel. We’ll do our best.”

And with that, I lead my men down the hall.

“Only one more floor to go, and then we personally knock down the door of Mr. Kringle,” I said.

But the next room we encountered looked disturbingly peaceful. It was an atrium of some kind, with a door to the stairway.

“Graile, have you got that key?” I asked.

He nodded, and walked to the door. Sliding aside the hidden catch for the USB drive, he put the drive into the socket.

But rather then the door sliding aside, every alarm in the building went off. Instantly, all the doors in the room locked, which I had expected. But the burning flame which traced down their seams and welded them shut was something new.

Suddenly, the atrium was a lot less friendly. Three gigantic elves, at least seven feet tall, melted out of the seemingly innocuous surroundings, in three points around the room.

They all had different colored military uniforms, in red, green, and white. Below their berets, they had expressions of grim brutality. They had arms the size of my torso, and torsos the size of busses.

“Hello.” grunted the one in green, raising a huge gorilla fist.

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