“So, and just to be absolutely clear here, you still haven’t gotten anything from him?”
The mailman looked for all the world like if there was anywhere he’d rather be, it definitely wasn’t here, handing a few scant envelopes to the man standing by the PO box. He blinked slowly, shaking his head, “Nah.”
“O-oh…” Jim Ingraham put his hand on them, scanning through a couple as they laid out on the counter. He glanced up again with a smile, “Just...you checked the back too, right? Nothing er… fell out?”
“Yeup. I checked.”
“Of course! I mean, of course you did!”
“Mm…” The postman turned to start putting more letters into boxes, his hand tensing when Jim started up again with, “But he’s probably shipping from some far off location, so, I mean it could’ve gotten-”
“Jim, it’s been a year.” The postman stuck a few letters in an open box and moved on to the next, “You got work to do, don’tcha?”
“Oh uh, yeah, heh...guess I do!...Thanks, as always.”
“Mm.” The postman gruffly replied, shutting the mailbox doors to head out into the cold. Jim waved his handful loosely, a polite smile on as the postman got back on the snowmobile, bringing it back up to his chest and turning through the door and back down the long hallway towards his new office. Tucking the bundle under one arm, he dug in his jacket pocket till he found the small device he was looking for, waiting till he had some good acoustics before starting the new tape.
“This is Agent Jim Ingraham, and uh…” He paused, giving a laugh as he walked on, “Wow! A whole year, huh? Has it really been that long since your last letter? I mean, I didn’t think my mixtape was that terri-” He stopped himself, breathing in for a moment, before his shoulders slumped, “No...no you’re probably just busy with...well with whatever you’re doing out there. And shipping has to be a bill and a half, right?”
“How am I doing? Well… “ He stepped into the office-the large open space tucked far back into one of the FBI hallways, a potted carrot plant on the desk the only clear sign the space belonged to him now, tucked by the heater and a sun lamp needed for all the staff here. “You know-surviving! It’s uh… bout fifteen degrees over here? Kinda hot for summer actually. You think it’s got anything to do with those ice caps melting? You, uh, kept up on that stuff more then I did.”
He walked around to grab a seat at the desk, leaning on it as he kept talking, “It must be exciting wherever you are, right? Over at the arctic branch it’s been the same old, same cold -bit of ah, arctic humor there for ya!...ahem! But uh… Same paperwork, same offices-oh! We did get a new coffee machine, that’s exciting, right?” He paused, expression staying hopefully positive before dropping to a small frown.
“...Kinda wish I knew where you were, I’ll be honest. My last letter came back to me, so… update me on your address? When you have a sec?...” He breathed in deep, sighing as he stopped the recording.
Jim rubbed over his face, leaning so his elbows rested on the desk, setting his chin in his hands and letting out a sigh. He probably should’ve seen this coming. At the end of the day, him and Nelson had probably been acquaintances at best. Coworkers who’d at least get each other a birthday card if they saw it coming up. And when you moved on from a job, there wasn’t much chance of you keeping a friendship going after it. Wasn’t exactly anything keeping you from just...making friends at whatever other cool place you started working at. Especially after getting transferred to the middle of the tundra.
He’d just moved on and it was probably about time for Jim to accept that…Or he could do what he usually did when he got bored and lonely.
“Just arrived in Scoggins, Minnesota… Population: 754. Temperature?...mm...it’s cold. And not much to look at.”
When the FBI had first caught wise to Nelson’s ‘vacation’ plan a while back, Jim might have taken it upon himself to save a few of the tapes and stash them away. You know, protecting the truth and all that. He really had just wanted to make sure Nelson’s hard work on the Scoggins’ case had been preserved somehow instead of just swept under the rug.
But...sometimes it was also just nice to hear his voice again. Folks were quiet in the arctic outpost and with the wind outside, sometimes it was better to avoid talking over folks or having private conversations. It brought a little smile to Jim whenever he heard Nelson stumble over what to call the case. The thought of that same guy going on to not only help the president but get a couple reunited seemed so far fetched if he’d only had the tapes to work off of.
“There’s a weird man staring at me… hopefully this won’t be a big waste of…”
“...” Jim blinked, his brow going up, “Was there always a pause there?” He hadn’t played the tape that much, right? It didn’t look like the tape had broken or gotten stuck inside the recorder. Yet the pause went on. It seemed to stretch for so long before a voice came back to it. It sounded like Nelson, it said the same lines he did, but he almost sounded...confused. As if he’d just read a part of a script he didn’t quite understand. “... time… Agent Tethers out. ”
Jim picked up the recorder and gave it a good once over. “Guess this thing is a little outdated…” He glanced to the office door, “Maybe I could see if the budget would have room for-”
He sat up straight, eyes looking over the office. His door was still shut, so nobody had poked their head in. But that voice...that...hadn’t been a part of the tape, had it? It sounded like someone standing right in front of him. “...Hello?”
“Jim??? Jim is that you?”
Now he got to his feet, the sense that something wasn’t entirely right prickling the back of his neck. He mostly ignored it, putting a hand back to rub his neck. He glanced down at the tape recorder in his hand, brows knit. It had been a while since he’d started off with the first tape. Maybe it’d just been different then what he remembered… Still, he could have sworn Nelson didn’t mention him. Not once, far as he recalled.
“Maybe I should check the other...ah...HAH-CHOO!”
Jim gave a laugh, rubbing his neck, “Thanks! Sorry I really need to duAAAAAAAAAAGUH?!” Before he could even reconsider, primal instincts had him flinging the recorder as far away as possible, which for an office worker like Jim with poor arm strength, wasn’t too far since he could lunge over the desk to catch it before it crashed to pieces on the floor, “Nelson?! That’s seriously you on there???”
The voice on the tape recorder gave a surprised laugh of its own, “I guess it is??”
Nelson Tethers?? That Nelson?”
“I’d have thought my voice was pretty distinct, but if I sound like someone else…”
Jim had begun to rotate and observe the tape recorder for all it was worth, trying to find out whatever magic trick was going on here. The only detail he could really find changed was the record button. The marking on it had gone from a square in red to a very simple eye he couldn’t recall seeing there before, “How the heck are you pulling this off?”
There was another surprised sort of laugh from the recorder, the man on the other end sounding just as shocked as Jim was, “I don’t really know??
Jim stares at the eye for a beat, squinting as he glanced at it “Are you… inside the tape recorder??”
“Wh-no!” Nelson paused, “...Least I don’t think so?” Another pause and Jim could hear a faint sound in the background-like ancient, creaking metal. “No, no, definitely not. But uh, wow! I honestly didn’t think I’d hear from you again! Things have been kind of… hectic, to say the least.”
Concluding that looking over the tape recorder hadn’t found him a tiny Nelson inside, Jim set it down on the desk with the speaker upright, fumbling for a pen and notepad, “You aren't in some sort of danger again, are you?”
There was another pause and the faint sound of a sigh on the other end, “...No. Not anymore, anyway. But enough about me here. How are
Jim couldn’t remember the last time somebody asked, the excitement of the situation almost making him forget to jot down notes, “Oh I’ve been good! Good as you can be over here, I guess! It’s a little hot for summer at 15 degrees but folks in the station near us are pretty nice! They got this lemon tree growing in the break room and sometimes they make lemonade for us with it! Kind of poignant all things considered, right?”
“They can pull that off in the Arctic?”
“Oh yeah, yeah!” He fumbled for the recorder, picking it up to show it towards his own carrot plant, “With lights these days you can simulate sunlight just about anywhere for growing stuff! Word is they’re gonna use it when they go into space in the future!”
“Have you tried anything like that?”
“Oh! Oh, I...guess you can’t see through it too. I saw the eye and I just thought-” Jim cleared his throat and tried to move on, “I’m growing some carrots in my office. Mostly a personal project. Guess it makes it feel a little more like the old setup, you know? Oh oh! And I’ve been working on those Puzzle Sensei magazines of course! Starting to run low on them these days.” He ended with a laugh, rubbing his neck as he glanced to the box in the corner. “Just a couple more issues to go! You haven’t...picked up anymore, have you?”
The voice on the other end had paused, silence and the creaking of metal going in the background of the tape.
“...Nelson? Are you still there?”
“Oh! Oh uh, yes. Yes I am. Sorry, I haven’t really been in a location to get anymore of those magazines.”
“Wow! They must have you traveling a lot, huh?”
“Yes, uh, they … Listen, Jim?” Jim heard a soft creak of wood, like somebody leaning on a desk, “I...I said how terrible I felt back then, but I don’t think you ever got the apology you deserved.”
“Oh! Nelson, I mean, it’s fine! It was for the good of-”
“The country, I know… but things got so crazy.” When Nelson spoke, his voice sounded tinged with regret then he’d heard in the man before. “I barely let you get a word out. Filing that tape started that whole mess but you still didn’t have to get stuck in the middle of it. So… I’m sorry you got transferred because of me.”
Jim didn’t expect the shaky exhale he gave, or the sudden feeling of relief in his chest. But he works past it, a more in character smile coming to his face, “Well...thanks, Nelson. I forgave you a while ago, so you really don’t have to worry. I promise.”
There was a small laugh on the other end that stretched into silence once more. The tape kept moving, as if it would never run out, that creaking sound echoing in the background, “...this should probably be the last time we speak.”
Jim blinked a few times, “I uh, I think you broke up a bit there, Nelson.”
“You heard me, Jim. You can’t get interference on a cassette tape.” Nelson waited to make sure Jim stayed quiet before he went on, “A lot about me has changed since I left the FBI. I pulled you into my mess with the Scoggins incident, but this one is worse. Far worse then anything I ever dealt with in Minnesota. For your own personal safety, you need to cut all ties with me. Just forget you ever knew I existed.”
“Whoa whoa whoa! Hold on a second!” Jim had picked up the recorder now, eyes widened as he held it up to his face, “I thought you said you’re not in trouble anymore! Is something happening?”
The voice sighed, “It’s not me who’s in trouble here, just-”
“L-like is this a witness protection thing? You never told me about the next job but if it was like, assassinations or something like that-do assassins use a lot of puzzles?”
“What?? No, no I’m not an assassin! Just stop the tape and throw it out when you do! Better yet, burn the whole recorder! This is already a huge risk just talking to me now!”
Jim’s brows knitted, “Can you at least tell me why?”
Nelson gave a frustrated groan on the other end, “Jim for the love of Pete, would you just-”
Jim blinked. Was that...a voice? Was someone else there? It sounded so...wobbly. Something about it made the hairs on the back of his neck stand up but he couldn’t for the life of him figure out why. Nelson gave a startled gasp on the other end. “I told you not to sneak up like that, Gu-”
“ARe yOUuU taLKAING TO frIEnd?”
“I...I was just marking down a recording.”
“WAAanT TO viSiT?”
“Visit? What are you… wait. Guybrush what’re you… how are-wait. WAIT. STOP! ST-”
The recorder went still in Jim’s hands. He tried to press play again, to get any sort of connection back again, but the only thing that played was the tape he’d put in before. The calm tone of Nelson pointing out nearby details of Scoggins played in the office, leaving Jim something else to focus on as his thoughts raced. In times like these, an agent had an obligation to mark down observations to get a better picture of a situation. There were only a few he could pin point that he scribbled down while Nelson on the tape talked about strange little people sightings:
- Nelson was on some sort of metal craft judging by the noises. Most likely was a ship but a plane could be an option
- Nelson was in some sort of work-related(?) situation where he couldn’t get outside help
- He was not alone
- Whatever was with him might not be human
- Their name was Guybrush
Right as he finished the last bullet point was when the tremors began. At first nothing more then a low rumble, but it soon intensified to the point where the room rattled. Jim had only seconds to grab his plant and duck under the desk as the earth quaked beneath him, the yells and startled screams of his fellow researchers echoing through the small halls of the station. The lights flickered on and off, waving from their hanging chords, soon slower and slower as the quaking halted itself back down to nothing.
As the ground steadied, Jim set his plant under the desk (in case of any more incidents) and found himself coming out of his office with other agents, either rushing to equipment or towards jackets to get a look outside. It had only just occurred to Jim he hadn’t taken his off after getting the mail when he ran for the doors outside first. He couldn’t even say why. Maybe that odd conversation had given him a bad feeling in the pit of his stomach. There’s only a few others standing outside when he arrives, all of them staring in a stunned silence out at the frozen tundra.
The landscape had been an open field this morning. What now loomed over their station was a ship. Planted firmly in the permafrost, the US navy ship stood taller then any of them. Its hull was stained and rusted, pocked with barnacles and scrapes from the sudden landing in the ground. Ancient metal creaked and groaned as the ship adjusted to being out of the water, crushing it’s lower half under its own weight like a beached whale.
While the few agents started to talk again-about where it came from, who sent it and why-Jim could only focus on one aspect and one aspect only. And that was how familiar that metal groaning sounded to him.
“Nelson...what’ve you gotten into this time…?”