Merry Christmas from Max, Clara and me.

Hello from Budapest, Hungary! I’m in about week six of a ten-week European tour, and at the moment I’m especially looking forward to seeing The Nutcracker at the Hungarian State Opera on Christmas Day.

Knowing that this was coming up, I was struck by the idea of Clara and Max going to see The Nutcracker. Admittedly, I don’t know if the ballet technically exists in their universe (weird that neither of them recognised the similarities with Operation: Sugarplum if it does) but we can ignore that. At the end of Operation: Sugarplum, Max mentions that the Veritas team would be working on a game set in a world of haunted dolls. So I took that and ran with it!

Before we get to the story, though, I wanted to let you know that both Drosselmeier Industries books are available outside of Amazon now! If you use Kobo, Apple Books, B&B, etc., then visit the Drosselmeier Industries page for all the links.

And now, on with the story!

~*~

“I still can’t believe that you have German grandparents and you have never seen The Nutcracker! Your nickname is ‘Nutcracker’, and you’ve never seen it. How is that possible?”

“I’ve never been to the ballet at all,” Max Drosselmeier admitted, once Clara allowed him to get a word in.

He wasn’t sure he was going to enjoy that night’s performance, either, but he wasn’t going to tell Clara that. She’d gone out of her way to get good seats and she hadn’t stopped talking about the upcoming theatre trip for at least a week. Max appreciated her enthusiasm to share this Christmas tradition with him.

They filed into the theatre, through doors with red velvet curtains pulled to either side. An usher directed them to their seats: six rows back, directly in the centre. The seats, also red and plush, were comfortable enough, though Max’s long legs were squashed in the confined space.

The lights dimmed, and the overture began. Clara took Max’s hand and grinned at him. The curtain rose to reveal a massive Christmas tree in one corner, decorated with glittering baubles and flickering candles. Max was transported back to Christmases with his paternal grandparents: the snow, the smell of chestnuts on the fire and the roast in the oven… the light-headedness after a glass or two of glühwein.

He settled down in his seat as dancers entered the stage. Maybe the ballet wouldn’t be so bad.

Read more: Merry Christmas from Max, Clara and me.

~*~

Clara glanced over at Max every few minutes. They’d only been dating a few weeks, and she had worried whether expensive tickets to The Nutcracker were a bit too much this early in the relationship.

Fortunately, Max seemed to be enjoying his first ballet experience. She’d even caught him tapping his toe along to the Nutcracker March, thanks to their clasped hands resting on his knee.

She slid her gaze to him once more as the Mouse King made his appearance in young Marie’s bedroom. Max leaned forward, his head tilted to one side. Clara had been waiting to see how he reacted to the similarities between the ballet and his virtual reality game, Operation: Sugarplum. He hadn’t looked at the program before the show started, but she couldn’t wait to see his face when he realised some of the characters shared the name Drosselmeier.

As the Nutcracker Prince and the Mouse King continued to confront one another, an electronic vibration ran up Clara’s arm. She looked down and saw the lit-up screen of Max’s smart watch.

“Max, turn it off,” she whispered, quickly puling her hand away from his. To her annoyance, he didn’t immediately lock the screen, but cupped his hand around it to block out as much light as possible while he read the incoming message.

“Max!” she hissed again. The person on Max’s other side turned to glare at him, but Max didn’t notice.

“I have to go,” he said, standing in his seat.

“What?”

“Emergency. I’ll explain later. I’m sorry.”

He started edging his way along the row towards the aisle, oblivious to the grumbling and stares from the people he was disrupting.

Clara fixed her gaze on the stage. The Nutcracker Prince was triumphant over the Mouse King, but she barely registered his victory. Her face burned, partly from embarrassment, but also from being ditched on a date she’d been looking forward to so much. Max had better have a good explanation later.

~*~

Max’s mind whirred on the short drive from the theatre to the Drosselmeier Industries offices. He knew he’d have to find a way to apologise to Clara later, but right now, he was preoccupied with the text he’d received from his uncle:

There’s a Faceless One in my office. Get here as soon as you can.

Max wasn’t sure why Josef was at work at close to 9pm on a Saturday, but was glad Josef, and not any of their other colleagues, had been there to find the Faceless One,. Few people knew about Max’s uncanny ability to remove characters from the company’s virtual reality system – the Veritas – and he preferred it that way.

The problem was, though, that Max had only worked on the Faceless Ones game in a limited capacity, and he hadn’t touched it at all in at least a month. Usually, Veritas characters survived a few days at most outside their games. How had this one lasted so long?

Max swiped his way into the building. The lift seemed to take an eternity to reach him on the ground floor and take him to Josef’s office on the third. Josef met him in the corridor.

“Where is it?” Max asked.

Josef eased the door open and nodded towards the far corner. “I trapped it under the bin. It didn’t seem to know what to do about that.”

As Max followed his uncle’s gaze, the upturned bin in the corner jiggled. The rim raised slightly off the ground before clattering back onto the tiles. The noise made Max flinch in the otherwise quiet office space. Swallowing, Max edged towards it. In theory, he knew what he would find but sometimes seeing the Veritas characters outside of their natural environment was unnerving. He suspected that would apply especially to creatures designed for a horror game.

He bent down and lifted the bin, putting it aside. The Faceless One’s body looked like a live porcelain doll, with segmented limbs and a wobbling head that was slightly too big. As with most characters removed from the Veritas, it was also pixelated around the edges. The fuzziness usually suggested that the character would soon disintegrate in the real world and return to its game automatically. Was the Faceless One simply disintegrating at a quarter of the speed of other characters?

It took a tottering step towards Max. Despite its lack of features, he still had the sense the little creature was staring at him as it turned its head slowly upwards.

“You are weird-looking, aren’t you?” Max told it. “Still, could have been worse. Could have been your dad.”

Inside the game, the Faceless Ones first appeared as children, growing up into grotesque, distorted versions of the toys they started out as. An adult would likely have been much harder to manage. At least, Max hoped a child was less likely to try to eat him. Or whatever it was faceless dolls did to people.

“Now, how have you lasted here so long?” he asked it.

It couldn’t answer him with words, but it seemed to understand the question. Or maybe it was just a coincidence that it chose that moment to throw itself towards Josef’s desk. It awkwardly pulled itself up the chair, inhibited by both its small stature and the way its fuzzy limbs kept passing straight through the chair when it tried to grab on.

It reached the desk and planted itself on the keyboard. The computer was open to Josef’s email inbox, but the Faceless One didn’t seem to be interested in the content. Instead, it basked in the glow coming from the screen.

As Max and Josef watched, the light grew brighter, but it also coalesced into a narrow beam between the screen and the Faceless One. The Faceless One thrummed with energy and its fuzzy edges started to solidify.

“Is it… feeding?” Max asked in a loud whisper. He didn’t want to disrupt whatever it was the Faceless One was doing.

“if it is,” Josef whispered back, “then it’s interesting it can do it from my computer and doesn’t need the Veritas.”

“This explains how it’s been here so long.”

“Can you get rid of it?”

“Sure can try. Does your bin have a lid? We need to get it upstairs somehow.”

Max retrieved the bin from the corner and Josef found the lid near his desk. They stood on opposite sides of the Faceless One and on Max’s count, grabbed it by the arms and forced it into the bin. Max grimaced as they pushed the lid in on top, despite knowing that the Faceless One couldn’t feel any pain as they squished it inside.

Together, they carried the bin up three floors in the lift to the area where the Veritas team worked. There were offices for designers, storyboarders, developers and animators. Max went straight to an office at the end of the corridor with seven computers arranged in a U-shape around the room.

“I used this one the last time I looked at Faceless Ones,” he told Josef, switching on a terminal. “The characters are only ever removed from the instance I play, not the game in its entirety. So hopefully opening the game on here will send it back.”

He drummed his fingers on the desk as he waited for the computer to start up. When it did, he sat down in front of it, and paused with his fingers over the keyboard as he considered where he needed to go. For all he knew, the files could have been moved or changed or removed from this computer all together. He’d have to hope for the best.

A metallic scraping noise alerted Max to the Faceless One trying to escape its confinement. Max leaned to his left and firmly pressed down on the bin lid as he opened the file he needed with the other hand.

He pulled on the headset and looked around the world he had entered. A toyshop, dimly lit. Shelves full of teddy bears, puppets, balls, cricket and baseball bats…. And behind the tall counter, rows of porcelain dolls on floating shelves.

The Faceless One could have come from there. There were no gaps on the shelf, but Max could slip it in somewhere and let the game sort itself out.

Or more likely…

With a few strokes of the keyboard, Max manoeuvred into the workroom behind the counter. Baskets of doll limbs lined the walls. Two dark corridors led off to other parts of the workshop, but Max avoided those. He was on edge enough without an oversize doll coming for him in the dark.

Instead, he made his way to a worktable in the centre of the room. There were tools laying on it: wire cutters, a chisel and a pair of pliers. A tin full of lengths of thin wire sat across from them. And between them all were four leather restraints, spaced exactly where a small Faceless One’s wrists and ankles would be.

This was the place.

Satisfied that he knew where he needed to return the Faceless One, Max removed his headset. Now he needed to find the files associated with that scene and code the Faceless One back in. As he’d once said to Clara, he could move quickly to write over a game when he had to, but he didn’t love the idea of doing it in a game that wasn’t his.

Max spent the next hour trawling through the development files. Josef disappeared and reappeared with a flask of tea, which he left by Max’s side, then disappeared back to his office.

Max finally found the relevant scene and arranged the view so he was looking at the Toymaker’s worktable from above. He leaned down again and removed the lid of the bin. He didn’t have to search around for the Faceless One. Its tiny hand clamped around his fingers in seconds. Wincing, Max hauled it onto his lap.

“Let’s put you back where you came from, hey?”

Slowly but surely, Max found the relevant components of the doll and dragged them back onto the worktable. There was the physical rendering, followed by embedding the character traits and programming certain actions.

He saved his changes compulsively, each time looking down at the Faceless One to see if there was any change. He knew his job was done when the weight on his lap vanished, and the Faceless One on the screen squirmed on the worktable.

Mission accomplished.

Max sat back and took a large swig from the flask of tea. He wouldn’t be satisfied until he ensured that everything was as it should be on the game’s front end. After another mouthful of tea, he re-opened the game and slid on the headset again.

The Faceless One was trying to sit up on the table in front of him.

“Oh no you don’t,” Max muttered, and clicked on the restraints. They fastened around the Faceless One’s limbs, securing it in place. Finally, the scene looked as it had when Max had viewed it so long ago.

Max removed the headset and closed the game. He looked at his watch. It was after ten. The ballet would be well and truly over by now. Max pulled out his phone, wondering whether Clara had been in touch. She hadn’t, but he knew he needed to apologise for ruining the night as soon as possible.

He pressed the call button and then turned in surprise when Clara’s ringtone trilled behind him. There she was standing in the doorway.

“Clara.” Max hung up the phone and slipped it back into his pocket.

Josef must have let her in. She didn’t have access to the building and usually it was Max escorting her when she visited.

“Crisis averted, I assume?”

“Um, yeah.” Max gestured vaguely to the computers behind him. “But we have a lot of new material to add to our research notes. How did you know I was here?”

“Figured an emergency here was more likely than one at your apartment. Plus, I could walk here from the theatre, rather than calling an Uber.”

“Ah. Right.” In his rush to get to the office, Max hadn’t really considered that he’d left Clara with no transport. He rubbed the back of his neck, not sure what to say next.

“The ballet was good,” Clara remarked, filling the silence.

“I’m really sorry.” Max crossed to the door and took Clara’s hands in his. “I know you were really excited for tonight.”

“It’s okay,” Clara replied, giving a little shrug. “I know you had to fix things up here before they got out of hand.”  She tried to smile, but Max could see the disappointment behind it.

“I’ll make this up to you, I promise.”

Max put his arm around Clara, and together they began to walk out of the office.  When they reached Max’s car, Clara paused before climbing in.

“You know,” she said. “At least it was The Nutcracker. We can just try again next Christmas.”

Published by Emily Wrayburn

She/Her. Writer. Reader. Blogger. Hufflepuff. Theatre nerd.

One thought on “Merry Christmas from Max, Clara and me.

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