It happened every year. Every year, kids would write their letters to Santa. Most would get to him.
But every year some kids would misspell Santa and send the letters to Satan instead.
And every year Santa and Satan would fight over who should get to give the presents to the kids that sent those letters.
“Would you just hand me the letters already? You know that Timmy meant to address it to me,” Santa pleaded, already tired of the argument when it had just started. Or restarted, as the case may be, since they had the same argument every year.
Satan clutched the letters tighter. “No! They’re mine! They were sent to me and they’re mine! I just need to know if these kids were good or not, and what they got last year.”
“I’m not going to let you give them punishment presents! The last time you gave Oswald a snake!”
“That wasn’t punishment!”
Santa stopped and stared at him. “It wasn’t a punishment?”
“Of course not! He asked for a snake, I gave him a snake.”
“You gave him an anaconda!”
“Well how was I supposed to know that he didn’t want an anaconda?”
“Because it’s an anaconda! His parents had to call animal control!”
“They didn’t have to, they chose to, I included care instructions.”
And so it went, neither of them giving in, until Christmas Eve came, and saw Satan riding in his own sleigh pulled by hellhounds, dropping into children’s living rooms and giving them the presents that they’d asked for, carefully tagged as “From: Satan” which led to some consternation from the parents.
Unfortunately, as Oswald with the anaconda can attest, Satan is not very good at knowing what kind of presents little kids want. He read the letters, of course, but… well. Oswald had asked for a little snake, because he wanted a ball python or a Mexican Hognose. Instead he got a snake much bigger than himself that the bullies in his neighborhood were terrified of.
Lisa asked for a puppy. She got a hellhound puppy instead. But no child could ask for a better guardian, and that puppy kept her safe long after it was no longer a puppy, walking with her through parts of the city that no one else would go by themselves, because Lisa knew that she was safe with her dog.
But Nancy asked for a horse, and got a NightMare, its bat wings stretched out in the sunlight and scaring other kids away. But Nancy was convinced that no other horse was as fast or as loyal as hers, and when she rode she felt like she was flying.
It happened every year, and they argued every year, and the presents Satan gave the children that wrote letters to him were never quite right and yet turned out to be exactly what they needed even if not what they wanted. They argued every year, and Santa gave in every year because even Satan gets a Christmas Present.
A general sort of settling-down ensued, although not without mumblings and grumblings from the assembled personages. Medals of honour twinkled and tinkled as well-fed buttocks shifted in search of comfort, straining the pants of uniforms that had once fit better. A morning of discomfort awaited. Their room, small and windowless, was sparsely decorated, just some plastic chairs facing a whiteboard, a squat lectern and a projector.
“Now,” General Falstaff resumed. “As you all know, we’re here today because this,“ he looked around, “venerable institution, has for many generations been home to genius, to a proliferation of rare and brilliant minds who have provided us with so many advances over the years. Advances which, no less, have helped to protect our preeminent nation from the constant threat of foreign invaders.
“And,” he continued, “for this they need money. Funding.” He paused to take in his surroundings. A single strand of tinsel had been draped atop the whiteboard.
“Perhaps they need it more than we realised. But, we need to treat ‘em mean to keep ‘em keen. In exchange for our money we need to see progress. Results! So with a long day ahead of us let’s jump right into our two morning presentations. We’ll break then to enjoy some of Professor Kennedy’s homemade mince pies and eggnog before resuming.”
A wistful half-smile drifted dreamily across the General’s face. He’d been coming to the Halem Institute for many years, and had been younger and more vigorous, once. As had Professor Kennedy.
“First up: Gerstmann. Operation Finland.”
He nodded towards the opposite corner as he sat. Unnoticed there until now stood a calm-looking, scrawny young man clasping a laptop. His festive bowtie and braces jarred garishly with the rest of his ill-fitting attire. All-in-all he looked as miserable as the whiteboard.
George Gerstmann, twenty-three year old genius, walked over to the lectern, where he spent far too long fiddling with his laptop before he finally straightened and turned towards his audience.
An array of powerful faces faced him, but they were the faces of men and women that, once lean and ambitious, had been softened by too many years of comfort and success. Their steel lay underneath a puff-pastry crust. Except for one.
She sat in the second row, whippet-lean, upright, hands resting lightly on her knees. She was among the oldest of them, sixty at least, perhaps seventy. Cropped silver hair crowned a neat, dark uniform, with none of the trappings of ceremony save for a single angular insignia that none of the others displayed. Her grey-blue eyes were fixed on George.
He had heard of her. Everyone in the faculty had. Susan Schumer, Head of National Intelligence Operations, answerable only to the President. Known to all as Sun Tzu. She was a brilliant strategist, a crystal-clear thinker with a reputation for knife-sharp incisiveness that had cut many a funding pitch into ribbons.
George breathed calmly before beginning his presentation. He’d practiced. He believed in the science. This was going to be easy.
He clicked his clicker, and a familiar figure appeared on the projector screen. A ripple of chuckles spread through the audience. Perhaps this would be more entertaining than they expected.
“Now,” George began. “I bet you’re all wondering if this is a joke, right? The time of year being what it is. I assure you that it isn’t. We’ve been tracking this person for many years now, and let me assure you that both he, and the threat he represents to us all, are very, very real.”
A titter escaped the lips of Admiral Bailey in the third row. Sun Tzu turned her head just the smallest fraction, and he snorted loudly in his haste to swallow it.
“The primary goal of our research has been to understand just how he does it. We believe he’s utilising technology that could be invaluable to our national security, and which, if it falls into the hands of a more hostile nation, could spell disaster.
“Think about it. Millions of homes, all over the world, in one night. No security system exists that can stop him. Incomparable reach, which means incomparable power in this world of connectedness and big data.”
There was some uncomfortable shifting of chairs. The entire thing was laughable, but still, no-one liked this kind of talk.
“And nobody knows how it’s done,” George continued. “No-one’s ever been able to study him closely enough.” He paused for dramatic effect. “Until now.
“Last Christmas Eve, one of our interns hid in a rooftop snowdrift for many hours until, when our subject was busy downstairs, she managed to plant a tracking device on his sleigh. It beamed a wealth of GPS information and other data back to our satellite relays, which have proven invaluable in helping us to understand how he operates.
“The tracker had a five-year battery life, and transmitted five years worth of data to our systems. Everywhere he went, how long he spent there.” George regarded them solemnly. “All in the space of twenty minutes, before its battery died.“
Charts and graphs followed, as well as detailed maps of the subject’s movements. George moved to the whiteboard to better illustrate the science behind it all. He sketched swiftly, excitedly. This was his passion project, his particular pudding.
“See. We tend to think of time as continuous and linear, always moving forwards. Sure you get time loops where time circles back around and so on, but it can still be quite easily imagined as having point-to-point linearity. Just like, say, a festive ribbon. Now, imagine if you had the technology to generate, in physical space, a bubble—“
“More like a bauble,” someone in the back row interrupted. A quick glance from Sun Tzu silenced the general mirth.
“—a bubble, inside which time is turned sideways, relative to external time, for the duration of that bubble’s existence.”
George glanced around. Confusion abounded.
“Let me explain what I mean by sideways. Lay a deck of cards out on a table, side-by-side and they’ll run to a certain length. Imagine those cards to be segments of regular time. Now, what if you take up some of those cards, and turn them sideways,” he twisted his outstretched hand from horizontal to vertical, “so that only their thinness contributes to the overall length? You can fit a large amount of sideways time into a short span of regular time.
“We now know, thanks to the GPS timings, that this is what Santa Claus is somehow doing inside the bubble. He’s stacking slices of time sideways, spending ten, twenty minutes in each house, which for everyone outside the bubble seems to pass by instantly. This, ladies and gentlemen, is the real magic of Christmas, and one of the most significant discoveries in this Institution’s storied history.”
They got it now, George could see. They understood. A ruckus erupted, people too used to being listened to all speaking at the same time. He had them. He raised a hand for silence.
“And here’s the really big thing. It seems that molecular ageing somehow stays in regular time. This contradicts what we know of lightspeed travel but, if true, will let us spend near-infinite time working on something before presenting the results a moment later. We could storm an enemy stronghold in an instant. They’d be inside the bubble with us too, but there’d be no time for outside help to arrive.
“The only downside we’ve discovered is that the energy expenditure is tremendous. We think that’s why he eats all the Christmas cake and drinks all the whiskey, why the reindeer eat so many carrots.
“But we’re just at the beginning of this really, there’s so much more to learn. We need funding to infiltrate their facility in Lapland and-”
Cries of “Done!”, “Well done boy!”, “Give him as much as he needs!” rang around the room; the excitement of schoolchildren swept up in the moment.
But one among them was silent. Susan Schumer was thinking, thinking hard. She already understood far better than any of them what this meant. She could see the immense change that this augured, and the repercussions.
But she wasn’t just thinking; she was remembering also. Remembering a particular winter’s night almost sixty years ago. A night with magic in it, that had stayed with her as a twinkling star of gold against the darkness of her difficult, sometimes brutal life. It had lost none of its lustre, and in some ways was the only shining, innocent thing she had left. A night of truancy, hiding under the sofa, peeking, gleefully seeing, finally, black boots stamp softly in the candlelight, shedding coaldust and melting snow. And then hearing a softly uttered Ho-Ho-Ho.
As Susan slowly came out of her reverie she noticed General Falstaff looking her way quizzically. She seemed unlike herself. He raised an eyebrow. She shook her head, just once. He sighed and nodded. It would be done quietly, but Operation Finland was no more.
Santa Claus sighed. He missed the old days. How had it come to this? Progress, that was the problem. Modernisation. More, more, more of, well, everything really, had forced the world into this new way of being. So many people now, living like too many trinkets stuffed into a stocking. And to his mind, it just wasn’t right.
The problem wasn’t that he had so much more work to do these days, although he certainly did have that: more toys to deliver, more homes to visit. And it wasn’t the light pollution from so many cities and motorways, or their raucous cacophony, either. And it wasn’t even the airspace regulations of a hundred different nations. Although he had to deal with all of those now, as a matter of course.
Nor was it, although he mourned its passing keenly, all that was soon to be lost to the world that was bothering him so acutely in this particular moment. He missed deeply, already, the pure pleasure of slicing through the cold air above snow-draped, coniferous forests that went on forever. He missed the incredible peace of those stretches. He missed the flickering glint of window-candles shining bravely out into the darkness, and the cries of discovery from his eager spotter elves. He missed the tugging on the reins; the reindeer’s excited grunting; the banking, downwards arc of the sleigh towards each and every isolated homestead in its turn.
He missed, too, how a jolly Ho-Ho-Ho and a shake of the sleigh-bells used to carry through the crisp night air for miles, enticing adults and children alike from hearth to porch to gaze upwards in wonder. He missed their laughter upon the air. He missed the panoply of the stars.
Yes, that those times were fading was tragic. But when one got all the way down to the heart of it, it wasn’t any of this that had Santa Claus so unhappy. Not really.
No, his primary problem with these modern times was another change in how people lived now; one which made his job so much more unpleasant, so much harder for him to enjoy. And that change was the gradual disappearance of the chimney-pot, the extinction of the flue.
Not that it had ever been the perfect ingress. Teddy-bears weren’t exactly fireproof, and his toes had been roasted more times than he could count. But there’d been a certain charm to it all the same. It always looked very well on Christmas cards.
Yes, true enough, keeping his suit clean had been a nightmare, but Mrs. Claus had never minded a bit of smut. She would welcome him home at the end of each year’s odyssey with arms outstretched and a twinkle in her eye. These days it was twelve hours in the decontamination chamber before she’d so much as take a look at him. And he couldn’t really blame her for it, either. Santa sighed again, a second time. It was what it was.
They’d had to do something, was the thing, or that would’ve been the end of it all. One had to keep up with things or fall away, become forgotten. And things were changing fast.
Recent years had been particularly challenging. He’d gotten stuck behind too many stove doors shut tight from the outside. He’d picked the locks of too many apartment doors, set off too many security alarms. Santa Claus was a visitor, not a burglar. He was a craftsman, not a Jack-of-all-trades. They’d needed to find a fresh approach that worked everywhere, something universally useful that he could refine to the point of perfection. And they had, in the end. Although fresh wasn’t exactly the word for it.
With all the reluctance of a child on the way to the principal’s office, Santa hoisted his sack onto his back. He glanced back towards his sleigh, which lay parked in the shadow of a nearby alley. His chief elf, Bob, offered him an encouraging thumbs up from where he sat perched upon Dasher’s shoulders.
His other two helper elves had dragged the manhole cover away, and were standing back respectfully. They’d worked with him for years, and knew full well how difficult this was for him.
Yes, this was going to be unpleasant. But he was Santa Claus, he reminded himself sternly, and this sewer system led to forty-two apartments, to sixty-three expectant kids who needed some Christmas magic in their lives. The children were the only thing that really mattered. He cast his eyes downwards, and stared into the abyss.
The blackness was absolute, terrifying. One never knew how far down the water lay. And fussing about with flares and the like only made the whole thing worse. Well. Plenty more after this one. Best get on with it then.
The main thing, he reflected philosophically, was to make sure no more children spotted him disappearing back down the toilet bowl afterwards, reaching back out to mop the floor with his hat as he went. For as long as this new approach of his remained largely unreported, he still had his dignity. And perhaps things would change for the better in the future, he thought hopefully. Perhaps this was only a phase.
Resolved to his fate, Santa Claus lowered his goggles and bit down on his snorkel. He laid a finger on each side of his nose, and stepped forwards into nothingness. He sighed for the third time as he plummeted. Oh-Oh-Oh.