“Artie, I brought you a present.” Pete said, walking into the control room of the warehouse, his trademark coat hung over one shoulder and in his arms an innocent looking box wrapped in festive paper.
“Ah, good, I was beginning to think you couldn’t handle it on your own.” Artie replied, standing up from his desk and running a hand through his curly, graying hair.
“Well thanks for the vote of confidence; maybe next time I’ll let you play errand boy and show me how it’s done.” Peter Lattimer replied, smiling as Artie held up his hands to say no offense meant. Truth be told, ever since Mica left he had been running non-stop and Artie’s constant pessimism, even though not meant to harm, was wearing thin on him.
“Pete, you should know by now I have absolute confidence in you. Did you have any trouble reverting the family?”
“Nah, once I put the box in the goop they all changed right back, and a few shocks from the Tesla-gun made sure they all thought they had been suffering from some holiday food poisoning,” Pete answered, sitting the box down on the desk and reaching under his coat for the bag of doughnuts. He didn’t even wait for Artie to ask before pulling out a large Boston cream pie and handing it him. Artie began to say something about needing to stop having these ‘celebration treats’ when he was cut off by a beeping from his Farnsworth.
“It appears I am needed in deciphering a few ancient Phoenician tablets,” Artie said with a smile. Pete knew how much Artie lived to get knee deep into an ancient script. He was much the same way with puzzles, but had never been interested in languages; English was hard enough. “Just make sure you put that in the proper shelving unit and–” but once again he was cut off, this time by a beeping from the central computer on the other side of the room.
“What’s up?” Pete asked, following Artie to the screen.
“Seems someone has uncovered Jack Kurby’s original shading pen. It can let the user bring pictures to life.”
“That doesn’t seem too dangerous.” Pete noted, seeing the worried look on his mentor’s face.
“It is if someone starts drawing Godzilla,” Artie replied, scribbling a note and handing it to Pete. “Put that on Dent’s gift box so Claudia can file it away.” with that, Artie donned his glasses and coat and was out the door. Pete moved to the box and placed the sticky note atop it before running out the door himself; failing to notice the note falling off as he swung the door shut.
Ten minutes later a grunting was heard from the warehouse side entrance to the control room. The door burst open as Claudia Donovan kicked it open, her arms laden with boxes and Christmas wreaths. “Don’t worry about me; don’t need any help at all,” she announced to the empty room as she made her way to the table to sit the heavy load down. It was only after she dropped it that she noticed she was alone. Sighing, she looked around to make sure the others weren’t hiding and went back to the boxes.
It had been a few months since Mica had left and with HG having attempted to go psycho-chick on the world this left just Claudia and Leena as the sole females in the house, and Claudia was in no hurry to get to know Leena any more than she already did, despite the fact that she knew it wasn’t really Leena’s fault, she had still been responsible for nearly causing Claudia to lose everything by impersonating her to free MacPherson. And the two just seemed to rub each other the wrong way ever since.
Opening up the first box, she coughed as the dust filled the air; from what she could tell it had been many years since Artie had decorated for anything other than Boringday, which seemed to be his favorite holiday as it matched the interior of the control room perfectly. Pulling a long strand of tinsel out, she set to work. Half an hour later she had the room looking much more jolly; a small artificial tree covered with old-style bulbs sat in the corner, garland hung from the bookshelves, and the computers were now topped with miniature snowmen. The only thing left was to hang the wreaths in the windows. She was about to do just that when she noticed the box sitting with the rest that she didn’t recall bringing up from the basement. It certainly matched the decorations, being a festive green and white with a red bow sitting on top. Looking it over, she found the lid had lifted off; as she did so there was an odd humming and she felt an odd sensation, a rising need to reach into the box for something. She tried to stop herself, but it was too late.
As soon as her hand touched the bottom of the felt lining in the box she felt something begin to happen; the first and most noticeable effect was the fact the box seemed to be growing. Indeed the entire room was growing! Snapping out of her trance, Claudia dropped the box on the floor, but still she continued to shrink. Almost as bad as shrinking was the fact her clothes seemed to be changing; her jeans turned to a bleached white before shrinking to become almost skin-tight around her legs. Her shirt and jean jacket turned a true blue before crossing stripes appeared over her shoulders. Her sneakers were changing into knee-high shiny black boots.
“Oh, this is so not good.” she said as she continued to shrink down until she was no more than a foot tall. But the changes weren’t over yet. She felt her skin stiffen as her legs locked themselves straight at the knees, making her stand at rigid attention. She was unable to move them at all as she felt her body continue changing. Her feelings were dulled from her waist down, as if she had been sitting on her foot for a very long time. This numbness continued its way upward as her stomach and chest soon felt the same way; she felt her chest expand as if taking a deep breath before freezing in place. Claudia panicked for a moment before she suddenly realized she didn’t need to breathe; in fact her face was pulling itself into an overly happy smile before becoming as stiff as the rest of her body. She felt white gloves appear over her hands shortly before they too transformed to the same hard metal as her legs and chest.
“Think, Claudia, think!” She muttered between clenched teeth. Her arms were now locked in place at her side and her face was now beginning to tingle as well. She felt a great shudder from within her body as suddenly there was a sound, she thought it was her heart but she suddenly realized it was the sound of a clock. Gears began turning and clicking inside her torso as the change completed. To top it off, a tall shako hat appeared on her head, finishing the transformation.
Claudia stood still, frozen in place for a moment, unable to move. Then after what seemed like an eternity of being frozen she suddenly felt something ‘click’ inside her. She tried to blink but unexpectedly found her face was frozen in the same overly happy smile, she pulled her hand up with some difficulty to touch her face and found it was now completely made of metal. “Ok, calm down, just think.” she thought to herself as she was unable to make any sound on her own with her mouth frozen shut.
She took one unsteady step forward, her knee pulling up, bending perfectly at the joint. She could see the shiny metal pin connecting the two parts of her legs and feel the gears twisting inside her to draw the leg up, then reverse to kick the leg forward and place it back down on the ground. The same process was repeated with the left leg, bringing her back to standing perfectly straight and at attention. Mentally Claudia was exhausted; moving just those two inches to her felt like she was moving through pea soup after it had been frozen. She was oddly happy to find that even if she relaxed completely, she remained standing in the same position.
Turning around, she ratcheted slowly toward the box that had done this to her; now knowing it was indeed an artifact, she began running through a list. “Ok, what turns people into toys?” she asked herself as she continued to slowly march forward. As she neared the box, she saw the name etched into the top. “Dent?” she thought, “Dent the tin toy maker.” she exclaimed silently, remembering the notice from yesterday when Pete had been dispatched. “Ok, late nineteenth century; pioneer of tin toys. I need a way to reverse the change.” Unfortunately examining the box revealed nothing, she even tried to re-enter the box hoping it would turn her back to normal, but that resulted in nothing.
“Well I’m still okay; as soon as Artie and Pete get back they’ll see the box with me nearby and put two and two together. I’m fine. In no danger. Just have to wait here . . . For a while . . . “ she said, trailing off as she heard a rumbling from the other side of the room. “Yes! This is Pete and he’ll see me and . . .” then her thoughts trailed off at seeing Leena enter the room. “Oh crud.”
“Artie, are you in here?” as the innkeeper opened the door and looked around. Leena was shocked to see the office looking so festive and figured Pete or Claudia had been up to some decorating. Walking over to the desk, she set the clipboarded requisition that needed Artie’s signature down and looked at the pile of boxes that sat jumbled on the other side of the table. “And guess who gets to clean up after them.” she sighed. Walking around, she stopped as she stubbed her toe on a heavy box that was lying on the floor. This one she didn’t recognize from her years on the warehouse so she was instantly wary. Bending down, she picked it up, noticing the sheet of paper laying nearby. “Claudia, please put this away in section 3.” Leena read Artie’s scribble with a sigh. “Looks like I get to do her job for her. Again.”
Claudia suddenly found herself once again frozen in place. Unable to move and halted in mid-step, she had fallen to the floor. At the time however Claudia was more annoyed by what she was hearing “Hey, I do all the work I am told to and plenty I’m not,. When was the last time you were down in the warehouse?” she mentally shouted but didn’t make an audible sound.
Leena at this point noticed the mechanical toy soldier that was sitting under the table on its side. Picking it up, she paused for a moment. As an empath she felt something oddly familiar about the toy, but couldn’t place her finger on it. She wondered about that strange feeling but attributed it to the artifact she was holding in her other hand and assumed the tin doll was a simple decoration. She took the toy over to sit it underneath the tree, giving the key in its back several twists and watched in amusement as it went shuffling clumsily across the wood floor before turning to leave and take the artifact box to storage.
Claudia was experiencing something different. As she was wound up, she felt an intense pressure within her body, building with each twist of the key. She wanted to somehow stand straighter to relive the pressure but couldn’t. “You are so paying for this when I get back to Normalll!” she exclaimed wordlessly as she was set down and suddenly felt her body moving on its own. Her legs were swinging up and down as much as before, but now they felt like they were going at super speed. Or at least a more natural speed than the snail-slow pace she had been going before. She was unable to stop herself as she continued to march forward. She watched the desk loom into view as she headed directly for it. Just when she thought she was about to hit it with her swinging arms, she stopped, turned around wobbly, and continued back the way she came. Her arms were swinging mechanically; her gear-driven legs propelling her forward. She had only just made it back to the tree when she felt herself slowing down, which was almost as odd as being forced to move was. She felt the compulsion to march draining away as her limbs moved more and more slowly until she came to a rest just after turning around once more.
As she stopped, she once more assumed the stock-still at-attention position. Then she heard a small ‘click’ and again found herself able to move about freely; well, as freely as she could in her current metalized state.
“Yeah!” Claudia said to the empty room, while feeling slightly dizzy and lightheaded at the same time, “There’s gonna be some payback . . .” for a little while she was fully content to simply stand in place and regain her composure; the feeling of marching around with no control at all was a mixture of frightening and exhilarating. “I need to get back to normal before I start to like this too much,” she mused. With that she set out towards the warehouse side doors, which appeared to the toy to be a long distance away.
About two hours later Pete opened the doors to let Artie inside they had both arrived back at roughly the same time and were happy to be inside, away from the relatively cold weather. “I have no idea South Dakota could get this cold,” Pete said, closing the door behind him.
“It’s not actually that cold; you are just accustomed to the normal temperature of the dry desert air, and this now higher humidity feels cold to you.” Artie replied, hanging his coat up and stopping as he noticed the decorations.
“Looks like somebody was busy.” Pete remarked picking a snowman off the table and examining it.
“I was wondering where that girl had gotten too.” Artie said looking the place over, although he was doing a good job of hiding it Peter could see the smile creeping around the edges of his mouth.
“Suddenly I’ve got the urge for hot chocolate.” Pete said, heading toward the attached house that resided within the warehouse walls with Artie close behind. As they entered the kitchen they saw Leena brewing a cup of her tea but Claudia was nowhere to be seen.
“Is Claudia in the warehouse?” Artie asked taking a seat at the table.
“She must be, hasn’t been around here all morning.” Leena replied, dipping her tea bag into the steaming hot water.
“Ever since she put away Dent’s gift box?”
“No. I put that away, I haven’t seen her anywhere today.”
Artie looked at Pete for a moment as if to ask if they were thinking the same thing. Pulling out his Farnsworth, Artie dialed Claudia but received no answer. Pete left the house to head back into the control room to see if she might be in one of the lower levels. Artie dialed Claudia once more, but this time received an answer; but it was Pete’s face that appeared on the screen.
“Her Farnsworth was here under a pile of Christmas boxes. I don’t see her anywhere.”
Artie closed the visual phone and spun around in his chair to face her. “Leena, by any chance did you happen to notice a small toy near the box? About six inches tall, made of pot metal?” he questioned.
“Actually I did. A cute little tin soldierette. I assumed it was just another decoration and put it under the tree. You don’t mean that was Claudia, do you?”
“Yes I’m afraid that’s exactly what I mean. Pete, is there a toy like that under the tree?”
“Sorry, nothing.” Pete replied, pushing the branches aside and getting a better view. “She would have to be here somewhere, right? The doors were closed and she wouldn’t be tall enough to reach the windows. I mean, where would she want to go?”
“I’m not sure, but keep looking.”
“Maybe she thought that if she was exposed to the neutralizing goo she would be turned back to normal?” Leena asked questioningly as she followed Artie out of the house and into the hallway leading back to the control room.
“Lets pray she didn’t” Artie said, looking worried. Soon they were in the cluttered room and aided each other in checking ever inch of the place looking for a miniaturized redheaded toy soldier. It wasn’t long before Artie let out a groan as he stood up, holding a loose air duct grate in his hands. “Quickly, she’s out in the warehouse and probably heading to the goo refinery.”
“Why is that a bad thing?” Leena asked as she ran behind the other two. “Wouldn’t she turn back to normal?”
“No.” Artie replied huffing slightly. “If Dent’s box is gooped she’s returned to normal, but if she gets gooped it would cancel the effect of the box on her. Neutralizing its power for a period of time. She’d remain as she is now.”
“As a wind-up tin toy?” Leena wondered.
“Which is why I was instructed to just goo the box, not the toys –err– people.” Pete interjected, taking a left as he followed the air vent overhead.
“Correct, if you had gooped them they would be stuck in their transformed state even though the box would be neutralized,” Artie clarified.
“For how long?” Leena asked.
“Until the ambient power of the artifact restores itself in the absence of the goo.”
“Which is?” Pete prodded, getting a little impatient with Artie’s pedantry.
“About two weeks, give or take a few days. It’s not an exact science, sorry to tell you.”
Pete didn’t reply and instead continued to follow the pipe run; turning left as it branched off, he ultimately knew it was heading toward the goop refinery. The trio followed the path until they reached the refinery a short time later. Entering through the blast doors, Pete looked up to see the vent grate was swung outward. “How did she even get through there?”
Artie shot Pete a look asking him to think about what he had just said, Claudia was the only person in history to find a warehouse without being brought to it by someone else. Navigating the mazelike ductwork and removing an air vent would be a cakewalk for her.
The three walked around the room, looking for any signs of their miniature friend, but couldn’t find anything until Artie looked into the vat of purple goo itself.
Claudia had a hard time getting the grate off from the inside, but by wedging her hand between the grate and the base had popped the lid off fairly easily with her metallic arms. That had only left her with negotiating the ten-foot drop to the floor. “Not looking to be sent to the repair shop anytime soon,” she thought to herself, chuckling at the fact that she could make jokes like that at this time, but in the end she knew there was really only one way down. Backing up, she made a running start, as well as she could manage on ratchety tin legs, and jumped from the opening. Even with her forward momentum, she still missed the pool’s edge by only a few inches, which seemed like yards to her and landed in the center, making a “bloop” sound in the thick goo. The water-like fluid broke the momentum of her fall nicely and she found herself sinking towards the bottom. She expected herself to start reverting to normal instantly, but as she hit the bottom with a dull thud she still had not yet changed in the least.
She now found herself in a new problem, having not transformed back, she had nowhere near the height needed to reach the rim to get out. And swimming at all with her mechanical little wind up toy legs and arms was impossible. With out any way of escaping but not in any danger of drowning since she didn’t need to breathe, Claudia let herself sit, hoping someone would eventually figure out what had happened and save her.
After a uncertain while of feeling sorry for herself, she suddenly saw Artie’s hazy face appear over the rim of the tank; at the same time there was a now familiar click as she stiffened to attention and froze in place, but she could still watch as he stuck his hand into the goo tank without even bothering to roll up his sleeves. Upon being lifted out, she was relieved to be wiped dry by Artie via his scarf while Pete and Leena both tried to explain what happened.
Artie silenced them with a finger and proceeded to tell the Claudia-toy in great detail about the box and its effects, being silenced himself by Pete when he began to get off topic as was usually the case. He summarized quickly, “So, since you were neutralized by the goop as you are now, it will take a while to build up the charge again.”
Claudia felt her heart, or her key as it were, freeze with fear, she would be stuck like this, for how long? She wanted to ask the question, but remained rigidly frozen in place, a silly smile on her painted lips.
“As with most things, the goop would neutralize the artifact’s power for about two weeks, or until Christmas Eve as it were,” Artie supplied. “Fitting, in a way…”
“So she’s stuck until then?” Pete’s head loomed into Claudia’s range of vision.
“Well, I think I may have something to help alleviate her current problem of immobility.” Artie replied taking her out into the warehouse.
Ten minutes later Claudia found herself standing upright on the floor of the control room, with the other three standing back a safe distance. Artie was busy setting an artifact into position as Pete and Leena watched.
“But I thought Child’s Play was only a movie.” Pete said as Artie arranged a talisman on a stand.
“All those stories have a grain of truth to them; you should know that by now. The movie was adapted from an old legend that can be traced back hundreds of years to Victorian England.”
“So you’re going to turn Tin Claudy into a serial killer?” Pete joked. Claudia was unable to do anything but silently fume at him for the bad joke.
“No, but the talisman animates inanimate objects using spiritual energy. In this case it will be Claudia’s own.” With that, Artie pressed the ruby at the center of the gold talisman and stepped back as a beam of light hit the small toy.
Claudia felt herself changing slightly. Her limbs were becoming not so stiff and her hands formed fingers into individual digits. Her mouth also opened slightly and she was now able to utter a sigh of relief for the first time since the ordeal began. She relaxed from her stance and looked up. Artie stopped the talisman and ran over, lowing himself to her level on the floor.
“Claudia, are you ok?” he asked as Pete did the same, Leena standing overhead.
“Yes!” she exclaimed, happy to find she could move and talk on her own. “I. Was. So. Scared.”
She stopped upon hearing her voice. It was high-pitched and came out in short segmented patterns, kind of like a old-fashioned pull string doll’s. Still, it was better than the silence.
“You know, you pull off the toy soldier look really well,” Pete said, smiling and giving a mock salute. Claudia stiffly pointed a finger at him and told him to wait until she was back to normal.
“Yes, about your getting back to normal; I’ve checked through every source I can think of and I still can’t find anything that would increase the rate of the box’s power returning. It appears you’re going to be stuck like that until the energy comes back naturally.”
“In. Two. Weeks?” she asked, feeling at a loss.
“Yes,” he replied sighing. “For the meantime you’ll have to just wait it out.”
“It. Is. Not. That. Bad.” she said, trying to cheer Artie up. “I’ll just give some fashion tips to Barbie,” she thought to herself. Claudia-toy stepped over to an ornament box that was her height and sat down, crossing her slightly more flexible legs.
As if on queue Pete sat up, brightened, and looked at Leena smiling. “Hey, do we still have Myca’s doll house in storage?”
“No! You. Are. Not. Putting. Me. In. a. Doll. House.” she exclaimed as Leena nodded and went to find it.
“Oh, be a good little soldier,” Pete said with a smile as he gave her a tap on the hat with his finger. That was enough to jar her key, setting it turning slightly. There was a metallic ‘click’ deep inside her; Claudia felt her arms and legs stiffen again as she stood to attention and marched forward a few inches.
“This. Is. Going. To. Be. A. Long. Two. Weeks.”