Christmas Presence by Garon Whited
I try to mind my own business. I really do. But sometimes it’s hard to walk by on the other side.
When I saw him, I first thought him a failed mall Santa, thin of frame and pale of cheek. The red suit was faded and worn, hanging slack everywhere and obscuring the now tight-cinched belt. His boots were dull, his gloves worn to tatters, his cheeks sunken, and his beard was a thin, tangled mass of dingy, off-white hair. He could have been a homeless man living in a Santa suit because the slush soaked through his cardboard box.
The problems with ignoring him were twofold. He was translucent to my vamp-o-vision, and the patterns of his forces were strange. He was no more powerful than any other ghost I’d ever encountered, but his structure was all wrong. The energies reminded me of worldly manifestations of celestial entities I have known. Down on their luck celestial entities.
Bronze did the driving since the evening’s weather saw fit to dump ice and snow on the busy streets. I don’t like driving in the city, mostly because there’s so much going on, so many lights, so many moving, shifting people. It’s like driving through a hall of mirrors. It bothers me.
Bronze doesn’t like cities either—too many obstacles. I mean, she doesn’t like the traffic, finds cyclists annoying, and she despises any pedestrian she’s not allowed to run over. She’s better at city driving than I am—and, for that matter, driving in general. This leaves me free to look around without worrying about which glowing things are relevant to the road. That’s when I spotted him. He stood there on a street corner next to a big holiday display window, trying to talk to people, but nobody could see or hear him.
Bronze pulled over to the curb. It wasn’t a parking zone, but we weren’t parking, just picking up. She opened the passenger door and I beckoned him in. He looked at me, astonished, but stumbled over. People paid no attention, busy on their errands and keeping their heads down against the light sleet still falling, clickety-click on the roof and on the glass. A few irate drivers honked as they were forced to change lanes to go by, but I ignored their fist-shaking and finger-waving.
“You can see me?” he gasped, leaning down to look at me through the open car door.
“Yep. Climb in.”
He did so and Bronze closed her door. We merged into traffic amid more honking and shouting. I smiled at the not-so-jolly old elf.
“Rough year?” I asked.
“You have no idea.”
“What’s wrong? Union labor shut down the workshop, or what?”
He shook his head, lank strands of hair waving back and forth.
“It’s nothing like that. How can you see me? I didn’t think there was anyone left who could.”
“I’m a supernatural entity, myself. I’ve met all sorts, from fairies to angels to werewolves to ghosts. I recognize your type, although we’ve never met. My name’s Eric.”
“Kris Kringle will do.” He offered me his hand. I shook it. It was like shaking hands with a polar wind, a cold sensation and a vague sense of pressure.
“So, how did this come about, Mister Kringle? Last I checked, you were supposed to be much larger.”
“Oh, don’t I know it. Things have been going downhill for years.”
“Nobody believes in me,” he said. “Do you understand what that means for one of my kind?”
“I think so. You’re a spiritual entity, powered by the faith of your believers.”
“That’s… yes, I suppose. Close enough.”
“I am surprised, though,” I admitted.
“Several things. Given what I know, you’re only actively, uh… ‘worshipped’? Celebrated, maybe. It’s only once a year. I’m surprised you get along as well as you do.”
“It’s not exactly as bad as you think, but it’s complicated to explain. Still, you’re right. It hasn’t been easy.”
“Then there’s the whole idea you’re not getting enough to eat, so to speak. I’ve seen you smiling from a dozen billboards and other signs for weeks.”
“It’s those damned ad agencies!” he fumed. “I’m not being celebrated. My chief competitor isn’t either, but he’s got Sundays going for him. No, my image is being used to market toys and expensive gifts and all the rest!”
“But, aren’t they…?”
“No! They’re not helping me! They’re encouraging others to go out and buy things. Stuff. It’s not about the holiday. Rather, it’s not about the spirit of the season. It’s not about loving other people and showing it. It’s not about being a kinder person, a better person. They’ve stolen my face and they use it to sell things!”
Bronze took a turn to avoid heavier traffic and we headed across a bridge, out of town. The skinny man ran his fingers through his beard, trying to comb out some of the tangles.
“It’s the commercialization of Christmas,” I sympathized. “Yeah, I’ve never been too pleased with it, either. But didn’t you start it with the whole workshop of toymaking elves and gift-giving based on a naughty-or-nice list?”
“I did not! That came later. I only wanted to encourage people to be kind, and to show kindness to each other. Love one another and show it, not compete to see who can give the gaudiest presents—or get the most! It’s not a competition!”
“Huh. I see your point.”
Santa sighed and deflated a little, an action he could ill afford in his emaciated state. He looked down at his hands. There were no fingertips to his gloves.
“It all went so wrong,” he sighed, tiredly. “I tried so hard to encourage people to be good people, to be better than they were. Or, at least, to demonstrate goodness and so inspire others. But it all went so wrong. People don’t believe anymore.”
“Surely, someone does.”
“Oh, there are a few children,” he said, waving a hand. “There always are. But they’re being told, younger and younger, how I’m not real. Those few are why I can’t die. They won’t let me die. They don’t know it, of course, but they’re the ones who doom me to haunt the material world.”
We drove on, out of the city. I wondered if turning up the heat would do him any good. No, probably not. If he were a physical entity, maybe, but a spiritual one? Not a chance. The poor guy looked worn down to the bone, sad and tired. I wanted to do something for him.
“Look,” I began, “as I understand it, you just need more people to believe in you, right?”
“So, start small. Do something to make someone believe in you. Then do it again to someone else. One person at a time, maybe once or twice a year—”
“I wish I could. I’ve tried. One person, even ten people, isn’t enough to sustain me sufficiently to produce a Christmas miracle, and right now I don’t have the force necessary to do more than exist.”
I sighed inwardly and wondered why I get sucked into these sorts of situations. Of course, the answer is that I’m a sucker. And a sentimentalist. And a soft-hearted slob, dammit.
These are either terrible qualities in a vampire or the best possible ones. It depends on the point of view.
“What would it take,” I asked, “hypothetically speaking, of course, to give you the force needed to work a Christmas miracle or two? To inspire people to believe? Enough to carry on through next year, I mean? What’s the take-off point where you could be self-sustaining on that front again?”
Mr. Kringle looked at me with a peculiar expression.
“Why do you ask?”
“I don’t know. It varies with the intensity of belief. It doesn’t take as many to work a little miracle, but to give me enough to carry on a Christmas campaign?” He shook his head. “A hundred thousand, at least. Maybe a million. Something like that, I should think, of people who really believe.”
“Hmm. That lets out the idea of pouring vital force into you, or even finding someone willing to host you and be your avatar.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“I deal with entities of your classification on a fairly regular basis.”
“I beg your pardon!?”
“Calm down. I know some celestial entities who think of themselves as gods. They’re more on the order of angels, but they’re independent entities with various origins. The basics are mostly the same across the board for you guys, though.”
“How do you know this?”
“I’m a wizard,” I admitted, truthfully. I try to lie only by omission. “I’m also the part-time avatar of such an entity. Not at the moment, though.”
“You work for a… a… and you want to help me? Can you do that? Is that even allowed?”
“I believe in you,” I told him, simply. He opened and closed his mouth a few times, at a loss for what to say.
“Did… Did I ever… Did I ever give you a present…?” he asked, finally.
“Several times, when I was younger. Not recently, I’m afraid—I’ve been on the naughty list for quite a while and rightly so. This has nothing to do with the fact I believe in you.”
“Yes. Yes, you do, don’t you? And at your age, too. What did you say your name was, again?”
I told him, and he looked thoughtful.
“I seem to recall… Yes, you are on the naughty list, aren’t you?”
“Told you so.”
“You do a lot of things worthy of the nice list, too.”
“Yes, but my naughty outweighs my nice. I know it. Feel free to put a lump of coal in my stocking. I won’t hold it against you.”
“That’s a startling attitude.”
“Temet Nosce and all that. Now, answer me this. As I understand it, you don’t actually have to do anything to benefit from someone’s belief, right?”
“How do you mean? People who believe, uh… well, from your point of view, people who believe provide me with power by virtue of their belief. Individually, it’s not much. Even large numbers of people don’t provide too much. But the yearly festival where they believe together, that’s where it really happens.”
“But if Granddad leaves a present under the tree for little Timmy, signed ‘From Santa,’ it still counts for you, right?”
“Usually. If it’s given and received with love, rather than Granddad trying to score points with the family and little Timmy is a good child, grateful and joyous. Then, yes. It’s not about the presents. It’s about the joy.”
“So, you’re a spirit of joy?”
“’Merry Christmas’ isn’t just a slogan, sonny. I am literally the Spirit of Christmas.”
“Ah. No offense intended.”
“And none taken. I apologize for my tone.”
“Tough times. Stress. I get it. So, last question. If, for example, someone were to… I don’t know… dress up in a Santa suit and bring joy to people, you would be the one to benefit from that?”
“They would be the ones to benefit,” he stated, flatly.
“I sit corrected, sir. But would you…?”
“I would also benefit, yes. I get a little bit of help during the season from a few of the people who dress up and play my part. Not much. Not often. Mostly, it’s a job, not a… a… a calling. But a few.”
“Good. Very good. How do you feel about extra universal travel?”
“I don’t understand?”
“Never mind. It’s another Earth timeline so you should have no problem existing there as long as I’m with you. You multidimensional entities are robust like that.”
Bronze shifted to a higher gear and we headed for the barn at high speed.
“Not to be a spoilsport, but where are we going?” Kris asked.
“First, back to my place. I need to have a brief conversation with Diogenes. Then…” I trailed off.
“Then?” he prompted.
“Then people better fasten their seat belts. Santa Claus is coming to town.”
I’ve gone out in a Santa suit before. It’s almost a Christmas tradition for me. I don’t usually make a big production of it, though. I slip into a hospital, for example, leave presents and cards, maybe a healing spell or thirty, and move on. Occasionally, I’ll go down a street in a poor neighborhood with my Magic Bag of Stuff—a shift-box in a sack, really, so Diogenes can take requests—and hand out goodies.
Not this time. This time, I planned to make it a case of Ho-Ho-Ho-ly shit! Spells to make me show up on camera at night—at least somewhat—and a first-class wig and beard, almost as good as the real thing, helped round out my costume. We needed the good stuff, this time, because I wouldn’t be sneaking around quietly. I’d be in the bright lights and crowds.
“I know you can make cyborg horses. How well do we do flying, robotic reindeer pulling a sleigh?”
He took a few seconds to parse that one, which impressed me. His usual response time is imperceptible. Then again, he’s developing conversational mannerisms. This makes him sound even more human.
“Do the reindeer need to be independent units, or can they be part of the sleigh structure?”
“They can be part of the structure, but they have to pass for reindeer at close range.”
“I presume the one in the lead needs a red light for a nose?”
“More like a nose that emits light.”
“Will you require an autopilot?”
I could feel Bronze volunteer. I was startled. She doesn’t like flying craft. She much prefers wheels or treads—anything staying firmly on the ground. But, being something of an energy-state being, herself, she empathized with Mr. Kringle.
“Apparently not,” I told Diogenes. He hummed a little, like hold music while he ran his calculations. A bit of Good King Wenceslas, I think.
“It will take approximately four days.”
I glanced at the not-fat man standing near me.
“I think we can wait four days,” I decided. He nodded and I went on, “It’s going to be Christmas somewhere.”
With the Ghost of Christmas Presents sitting next to me, I stowed a whole rack of charged crystals under the front of the sleigh.
“What are those for?”
“I’m a wizard and I’m going to be burning through more magic in one night than most professionals see in a year,” I told him. “And I’m talking about professionals in places where magic is as common as rain. There’s nothing halfway about this.”
“As you say. But why do you want me along? You’re the one with all the power.”
“Who’s going to tell me which list anyone’s on?” I countered.
“Ah. That, at least, I can do.”
Bronze stepped blindingly into the sleigh and the reindeer all lifted their fur-covered, robotic heads. The nose on the one in the lead blazed a brilliant red, illuminating everything for a hundred feet. Thirty-six feet shuffled and stamped.
Something in the sleigh hummed to life and an answering hum sounded in each of the reindeer. There was a brief crackling as the systems warmed up, but it was hard to hear under the jingling of the sleigh bells. I didn’t ask Diogenes how it worked and I’m not sure I’d have understood, anyway. It was something from one of those distressingly high-tech timelines. Whatever it was, it made the sleigh shift a bit, greasily, as though it wasn’t in firm contact with the ground, which it wasn’t. I’m glad he worked something out, because it takes a lot of magic to make reindeer fly.
I shook the reins and we took off, headed for the large hoop of a gate.
It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas.
Winter storms buried the region in ice and snow, dragging down power lines, cutting off roads, bursting pipes and dams, and sending most of the city back into the dark ages. Trains couldn’t run, ships were locked in the ice, and, while nothing could stop people from trying to drive, the depth of the snow made it impossible for anything not track-laying.
Sleighs, on the other hand, skimmed right over the frozen wasteland, one, anyway. It went jingling down city streets, tossing out blankets, cold-weather gear, pocket hand-warmers, a lot of food, and occasional packages of medication—insulin, antibiotics, blood-pressure medication, nitroglycerin pills, asthma inhalers, and a bunch of other things people probably ran out of.
“Hey!” I shouted, reining up and standing. “YOU!”
Of the dozens of people along my trail, one man was busy loading everything he could reach into a parka, using like a sack. He looked at me like a kid trying to carry off the whole cookie jar. There’s something disconcerting about Santa Claus taking a stern tone with you.
“Those are for everyone, not just you!” I told him. I leaned, one-handed, over the back of the sleigh, jabbing a black-gloved finger at him like a lance. “You share those or you’re going on the Naughty List!”
It’s not easy, intimidating someone when you’re playing the part of Santa Claus. I mean, what’s Santa going to do? The fat guy isn’t known for being a hardass or a badass. The harshest thing I’ve ever heard of is leaving coal in your stocking. Krampus is another story, but I had a part to play.
On the other hand, while I don’t like using That Voice, sometimes it’s absolutely the right thing to do. The idea of being on the Naughty List was suddenly a terrible, gut-wrenching prospect, bordering closely on the Almighty telling you you’re going to Hell if you don’t change your ways.
The Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come has nothing on me.
On the spot, the would-be Christmas hoarder dumped everything, turned to the wizened old man on his left, and helped him into the parka.
We trotted and jingled our way through several neighborhoods, pausing only now and again for photo ops with children. The children were the worst delay! My natural tendency to be loved by children is exponentially worse when I wear the Santa disguise.
I’m not sure how they’re going to react when the picture isn’t clear. There’s only a ghostly image of Santa, not like the one you get from the mall. It’s probably okay. A mystery like that could add to the spectacle. I mean, it’s fuzzy and translucent, but the image has enough colors in the right places to be identifiable as Santa Claus, just… not a physical being. I set up the illusion spells specifically for that, since not everyone has the same mental image of the big guy.
No doubt there were a bunch of other photo ops when we took off into the sky after a supply run. The sleigh would show up perfectly, of course. The whole point of the exercise was publicity, after all.
We didn’t fix the problems of an iced-in city in one night, but we sure eased a bunch of them.
Next stop, next world…
“And now, over to the local news and our on-the-spot reporter, Lisa.”
“Hi! I’m Lisa Weaver with Channel Eleven news. We’re coming to you live, here at St. Mary’s Hospital, during the seventh annual Christmas celebration and fund raiser. Come on down and meet some of the lovely children who are patients here. They love to have visitors! We’ll be interviewing several of them as the party goes on, and there will be lots of events and door prizes. As you know, the children’s wing at St. Mary’s is a non-profit—uh oh! I hear sleigh bells! Here comes Santa, himself!”
I reined up and stopped near the automatic doors to wave at the cameraman inside. I Ho-Ho-Ho’d, as expected, but didn’t stop for an interview. Instead, I hopped down, sack over shoulder, and went straight to the children.
“And what’s your name?” I asked of the first kid I came across.
I pulled out a sheaf of papers and thumbed through it.
“Edward… Edward… Edward… Did you write me a letter?” As I asked, I got a thumbs-up from the spirit beside me
“I can’t seem to find it, but I know you’re on the Nice List. What was it you wanted?”
Diogenes did his manufacturing trick and I pulled the resulting six-volume set of books out of the bag.
I got through a dozen children before someone from the hospital came up to me.
“You’re not the Santa we hired,” he said, quietly. I glanced out the glass doors and saw a man in a Santa suit looking puzzled regarding the fancy sleigh and the reindeer. Diogenes does good work and Bronze helped. They shifted and fidgeted like real animals and even had plumes from their breath in the cold. The other Santa was also talking with a couple of bundled-up corporate types.
“Who are you and what do you think you’re doing?” the doctor went on.
“Who are you?” I shot back.
“I’m Doctor Rosenthal.”
The spirit at my elbow frowned in concentration, staring invisibly at the doctor’s face.
“Michael Rosenthal?” asked the spirit. I repeated the question. The doctor looked shocked.
“Yes. Do I know you?”
“Nice List,” said Santa. “Pretty far down, but he’s on it.” I smiled.
“You used to,” I told the doctor. “I have a present for you, even though you forgot to write me a letter.”
This one was pre-prepared. It was a box of serum vials and a big, thick, heavy tome detailing the exact processes necessary to reproduce it. Both had ribbon tied around them with big, fluffy bobble-bows. He read the cover: “The Cure for Cancer.”
“This isn’t funny,” he snapped.
“It’s not funny,” I agreed. “But if you fail to believe me—even enough to at least test it—then it’s tragic. I had elves working triple shifts on this for years because we kept getting requests for it.”
At this point, the reporter got in my face with a microphone. The doctor, presents in hand, fell back rather than cause a spectacle on live television.
“Santa, do you have any message for the children?” she asked.
“Of course! Eat your vegetables, listen to your parents, always ask yourself if what you’re doing is right, and have a Merry Christmas! And what’s your name, young lady?”
“Oh! I’m Lisa Weaver with Channel Eleven.”
Two thumbs up from the Christmas Spirit. Nice List.
“I’ve misplaced your letter, Lisa. It’s been a terrible time up at the North Pole, what with foul-ups in the international mail. What did you ask for?”
“I… ah, I asked for a diamond bracelet.”
I reached into the sack, but the spirit beside me also reached in. He was already looking better—his hair was neater and he looked heavier. Now his brows drew together and his jolly face creased in concentration. Instead of a shifting back and forth between the bag-box and Diogenes’ factory, a small miracle occurred. A plain bracelet, mostly braided string and wooden beads, appeared. I drew it out.
“I’m sorry I didn’t get your letter, so, instead of what you asked for, will you settle for what you wanted?” I asked, holding up the beaded bracelet.
“Where…? How?” she stammered, taking the thing from my hand. “My grandfather gave me this when I was ten! I thought it was lost forever! How did you find this?”
“Don’t you recognize me, Lisa?” I asked. “It’s what you wanted for Christmas. I should know. Next!”
Nobody gave me any grief about handing out presents after that. The lady reporter didn’t ask any questions, either, just sat quietly for a while and dabbed at her eyes. I guess the bracelet was important to her. The cameraman, on the other hand, tried like the dickens to keep track of me. I left enough afterimages and fuzz in the camera to be sort-of seen, but not enough to be fully identified unless I held still for several seconds. Even then, it was a ghostly impression, not a clear-cut image. It was easier than a full Santa illusion for the camera, and it lent another level of mystery to the events.
With all the children happily clutching their new toys or books or what-have-you, I mounted the sleigh again and stood on it.
“Ho-Ho-Ho! Merry Christmas!” I shouted back through the open doors.
“Merry Christmas, Santa!” came the ragged but loud reply.
“And, since you’ve all been good little boys and girls, I know what you want for Christmas, even though none of you asked for it! You’re going to get better, each and every one! There’s my gift to everyone who loves you! Merry Christmas to all! And to all, a good night!”
The children, without exception, cheered. The adults were a mix of indignation and outright anger. How dare this fat guy give the children hope! He wasn’t going to have to be there when they lost it, or explain why they weren’t getting better, or any of that. It was easy to tell who believed and who didn’t. They were divided almost entirely by age.
I flicked the reins and we took off like we were going up an invisible ramp. The expressions on the adult faces changed rather suddenly. We did a circle around the hospital at an altitude of a hundred feet, me bellowing a cheery Ho-Ho-Ho the whole way, and flew up into the night.
Don’t believe in Santa Claus, huh? thought I. We’ll fix that, you self-centered, jaded, cynical bastards.
The spirit next to me was much more fleshed out now, with a respectable beard and clean, shiny boots. I could see his belt again, but he needed a bit more weight before he was back in top form.
“Good move on the bracelet,” I told him.
“It’s what she would have asked for, if she had asked. What next?”
“More of the same.”
“For how long?”
“How many Christmas Eves can we find? I can do this all night, provided we make stops to swap out my power crystals. Curing a bunch of urchins can be expensive, the magic bag isn’t cheap, and my illusion spell is a tricky one.”
“I’m not sure how I can repay you for this.”
“What are you talking about?” I demanded. “Who asked you to? Who said anything about that? This is a gift, bringing joy to people—and to you. And me, at least a little. Isn’t this the whole point of Christmas?”
Far below, the redoubt of the humans was under attack. A bunch of mindless, shuffling corpses kept coming in their thousands and tens of thousands. Searchlights and floodlights illuminated the sea of undead as it washed up on the concrete shores.
Clearly, the redoubt was there to attract them so they could be killed—any zombie war is a war of attrition—but they didn’t account for this many at once. Worse, zombies take more work to kill. Sixteen bullets in the chest? So what? One in the brain, maybe, but actual undead zombies don’t have vital organs. Nice idea, but they didn’t execute it perfectly. They call it a zombie horde for a reason, kids.
Guns which had been firing on full auto were now spitting single shots, making each bullet count. Zombies were clawing at the walls, trying to climb, and slowly starting to climb on each other. Another hour, at most, and they would spill over the wall like water over the edge of a full bucket, only thicker and stinkier.
I took a low pass around the outer walls of the redoubt, sleigh bells jingling and me Ho-Ho-Ho-ing as I went. The gunfire stopped as people stared. It helped, because the zombies also stared. The Rudolph up front was a bright beacon in the winter night, after all, and the sleigh bells attracted attention.
“Hush, all you good little girls and boys!” I shouted. “Your Christmas presents will be along shortly! First I have to show these naughty ones which way to go!”
And, slowly, zigging and zagging back and forth to draw as many as possible, we led the horde away from the human redoubt. Inside the redoubt, they were probably having a lot of discussion along the lines of “What did I just see?” but it didn’t matter to me. We were flying low enough that zombies were following the sleigh. That was the important thing.
After half an hour of zombies steadily staggering away, we wheeled and headed back at full speed. I landed amid sleigh bell jingling and promptly started handing out presents from the shift-box built into the back of the sleigh.
Who wants a .22-caliber electric Gatling? Here you go. Don’t forget these boxes of ammunition! Why .22 caliber? Because you get more bullets in a box, son! It doesn’t take an elephant gun to kill these things.
Anybody want some claymore mines? How about a grenade launcher? Don’t push, don’t push! Everybody gets a present! Here’s a crate for you, and for you, and for you…
What’s that? A flamethrower? No. I like where your head is at—set fire to the whole crowd, that sort of thing—but if flaming zombies get over the wall, it’s worse than regular zombies. What’s that? I’m a dumb old man who doesn’t know jack about zombie fighting? And you don’t believe in Santa Claus! You didn’t used to believe in zombies, either! Never you mind, sonny. You just made the Naughty List. Here’s your coal.
Why, yes, young lady, I do have a Davy Crockett hat—no? Oh, you mean the weapon! Well, you’ve been quite good, so yes. Here you go. Would you like a couple of reloads for it? Careful with it! The range isn’t great. And always fire it downwind to minimize the fallout.
You want a what? No, I’m afraid I don’t have a lightsaber, but I do have a monomolecular sword. Use it in good health, and never near anything you don’t want to cut.
A plasma rifle in the forty-watt range? Funnily enough, no, but I do have something you might appreciate. It’s a thermal-frequency autolaser. You’ll want to connect it to a real power supply as it’s really only semi-portable, but you do have some generators around here, don’t you? Good, good. Here, have this can of diesel fuel. And this one. And this one.
Of course I have MREs! What would Christmas be without Christmas dinner? A friend of mine made these especially for you boys and girls, so you may find they taste a lot better than the usual ones. Here, gather ’round and let me just dump them. And dump them again. And dump them again…
Merry Christmas! Merry Christmas! Ho-Ho-Ho!
And we went jingling off into the winter night.
London doesn’t enjoy being bombed. I know. I’ve seen it in mirrors, walked through the aftermath. I’ll give it this, though. I haven’t yet found a London being bombed, blitzed, or outright invaded that didn’t stand and fight until it couldn’t.
During the bombing, huge numbers of people took shelter in the Underground—what Americans call the subway. They weren’t designed as bomb shelters, but deep tunnels deep serve the purpose admirably, especially when there are lots of ways up and down. Even if there is a collapse, just keep following the tunnel and you’ll come to another station.
At the end of one line, however, there’s a nice wall. It’s suitable for drawing on, actually. We drove through the gate and it closed behind us. It was a trifle awkward, what with the tracks, but Bronze is clever. We came off the ground a few inches while the reindeer stayed in contact, trotting along and towing us like a low-altitude kite.
Ever seen people visibly wonder how the hell you got a sleigh down in a subway tunnel? I have. I’ve also seen the looks on their faces when you hand them a steaming pot full of turkey, duck, chicken, beef, or mutton.
I won’t say Diogenes is a great chef, but he has a perfectly serviceable selection of cooking programs and a rather oversized cloning facility as his disposal. Not to mention a micro-gate giving him a time differential advantage.
Adults got what I gave them, which were almost entirely practical things. Food, clothing, blankets, a can of gasoline for a vehicle, a can of kerosene for a heater, medical supplies, and so on. A few got less practical things—it is Christmas, after all—like a bottle of brandy, a sack of coffee, a sack of sugar, or a My First Industrial Tea Set, complete with everything necessary to make five gallons at a time.
I’d have gone with the smaller tea set, but there’s a war on. They’ll make do.
Children mostly got books. Books, and hand-cranked flashlights to read by because the tunnels were rather dimly lit. Not much in the way of actual toys. There’s no point to a cricket bat in a tunnel. Again, there’s a war on. The occasional thunder from above reminded everyone of that.
One man, down between the tracks, crouched next to the sleigh. He passed a hand under one runner, noting how it failed to touch the ground. He looked up at me as though he wanted to say something, but he was too polite. I mean, I had to know, didn’t I? There was no way I could not know. It was my sleigh, after all, and if it didn’t touch the ground, well…
I smiled at him from my spot in the sleigh and kept handing out presents to people on the platform as they filed by.
“Father Christmas?” asked one young man, possibly twelve.
“And what can I do for you, young man?”
“I’d like to have the Ratzies stop bombing us. On Christmas, at least, if you please, sir.”
“Hmm.” I folded my arms and stroked my beard, looking up at the ceiling and trying on my best thoughtful expression. “It is rather naughty of them, isn’t it?”
“Where’s a telephone?”
I had to order people back and promise to continue handing out presents, but I didn’t have to threaten anyone with the Naughty List. They were eager, but also polite.
I made a show of using an old, two-piece telephone device mounted on the wall. I don’t know why it was there. Communications with tunnel workers, maybe? I didn’t really care, though, since I wasn’t really using it. I was talking to Diogenes through my micro-gate. The phone was just a convenient prop.
“Yes? North Pole? This connection is terrible. I’ve got a request for the German bombing to stop. Yes, that’s right. Yes, he’s on the Nice List. Mm-hm. Mm-hm. Can we do it any quicker than that? Yes, I know you’re off the clock, but this is a special order. Just stop the planes. That’s right. Just for Christmas, yes. Yes? Very good. Thank you.”
I hung up the phone and realized the tunnel was deathly quiet. Maybe a hundred people were staring at me and holding their breath. The only sound was the muffled, distant thunder of bombs landing elsewhere in the city.
“They’re working on it,” I told them, and went back to handing out goodies. People were much more subdued, simply taking what I handed them. Everywhere else, the whispers spread like flames in dry grass. The rumor spread faster than I did, moving down the tunnel from station to station ahead of me.
Diogenes, listening through my micro-gate, dispatched half a dozen drone aircraft with laser weapons, dropping them through a brute-force gate at high altitude. It’s possible to manipulate a gate through a micro-gate, but it’s difficult. Fortunately, there was nothing interfering with me, so the targeting was merely a bit tricky.
Everything trying to cross the Channel suddenly wound up in the Channel. The planes currently over London finished dropping their loads and headed back unharmed, but nothing taking off made it more than a hundred yards over the water.
Silence settled on the Underground, broken only by a couple of muffled sobs. I went on cheerily distributing holiday gifts. It wasn’t even midnight, after all.
I had Diogenes keep up a defensive force until midnight the next night. No bombing on Christmas, please. Consider this your lump of coal, Adolf. Consider yourself lucky I don’t shove it where it would do the most good and light it.
Once we left that world, the spirit beside me spoke.
“I’m not sure I entirely approve of that one present.”
“It’s not appropriate.”
“It’s not an individual present, I admit, but the Nazi party is definitely on the Naughty List.”
“I don’t do political parties. I deal in individuals.”
“That’s fair, and I apologize. I shouldn’t be doing that sort of thing while wearing the red suit. This is about you, not about my knee-jerk reaction to a bunch of—nevermind. Just put it down as one of my mistakes when trying to do your job. I’m really not cut out to do things your way, but I’m trying. Okay?”
“I don’t want to argue with someone doing me a favor, so yes. And I suppose I can see your point. I can’t argue the naughty or nice, only the nature of the gift. The method of it, I mean. Stopping the bombing for a day is something I would do, if I could. I did something like it in the previous war, but without all the violence and death. A small miracle, an impromptu truce.”
“Duly noted, and I apologize again. Let’s go do something less questionable.”
A small, private plane, flying through the clouds and snow, came in lower and lower, almost feeling for the ground. Without power, the landing lights in the piddly little regional airport were gone. Getting down without crashing would take a miracle.
Fortunately, it was about still about two hours until dawn on Christmas morning.
A sleigh, pulled by nine reindeer—the extra one having a nose like a navigation light—pulled up alongside. The sleigh was easily visible in the dark and snow, as though some sort of strange aura of light surrounded it. A fat guy in a red suit waved one black-gloved hand. The pilot, gaping, waved back before he caught himself. The sleigh pulled ahead and the fat man beckoned, clearly indicating they should follow. The pilot and co-pilot looked at each other, looked at the sleigh, and, after a brief discussion, followed it.
They landed safely.
The sleigh did not land. Instead, after guiding them in, it pulled up, and circled the air traffic control tower with the half-dozen noses pressed against the glass. With sleigh bells all a-jingle, and with a hearty Ho-Ho-Ho, it departed into the blizzard.
“With this switch, I hereby light the city’s Christmas Tree!”
The tree blazed with electric lights and motorized ornaments, and the sound of applause and sleigh bells filled the air. The mayor beamed, pleased with the applause, but a couple of technicians, off to the side, looked confused. Sleigh bells? The sound guys would have someone’s head for this. There wasn’t supposed… to… be…
The sleigh came between two skyscrapers and steeply down into the plaza, pulled around the tree in a tight turn, and came in for a landing right in front of the stage. The crowd surged back in amazement and the mayor froze where he was.
I hauled out a lump of coal the size of a bowling ball and thumped it down on the podium.
“You’re on the Naughty List, Mister Mayor,” I announced. I flicked the reins and we took off again, heading into the night sky.
“Where to, now?” asked the Christmas Spirit.
“A couple of national capitols. Politicians count as individuals, right?”
“They do. Do you have enough coal?”
“We’re only doing the ones where people can see. If they’re having a quiet night at home, they wouldn’t tell anyone about our visit.”
“But they might have a change of heart.”
I looked at the nice old man next to me. He met my gaze for several seconds before he sighed.
“All right,” he agreed. “Probably not. You know your business.”
“It’s your business,” I corrected.
“Not tonight, it isn’t. You’re doing a surprisingly fine job.”
“Thank you. But I still need your help.”
Moscow, Rome, Berlin, Paris, London, Washington—oh my god, Washington! As I suspected, this particular publicity move required a lot of time, effort, and a small coal mine. We made our point about who was naughty and who was nice, though. There’s nothing quite like making the international news to get people’s attention.
I don’t know exactly how long we spent on the project. It was longer than one night, I know that much. Every time it started to get on toward morning, we went back to Apocalyptica, swapped out crystals, and headed off to another Earth timeline where Christmas Eve was starting. We offended a lot of politicians, but these politicians deserved it. If the actual Santa Claus says someone is on the Naughty List, I absolutely will not argue. Hell, we were talking about politicians! I was surprised they weren’t all getting coal in their stockings, but I’m cynical like that.
As for hospitals, I went all-out. Not only did I actually fix a whole slew of sick children, I handed out technology far ahead of the local level. What do you want cured? I probably handed out the treatment, vaccine, or therapy for it. Publicly. Preferably on live television. Santa Claus just gave the world the cure to “insert horrible disease here.” And the best part? If it makes the news, you kind of have to test it. People expect to hear about it. And, lo and behold, it does work.
Go on, patent it. Who developed it? Maybe, instead of trying to corner the market, you should see who can sell it the cheapest.
How long we spent on it wasn’t an issue for me, though. My measurement wasn’t time. My measurement was the fat man sitting next to me. He gained weight. His beard—now snow-white and perfect—was almost halfway down his chest. His clothes were clean, his gloves, belt, and boots glossy, his cheeks rosy, and his belly jiggled like Jell-O. His ghostly, translucent appearance was filled in, solidified. The only way I could tell he wasn’t human was by the pattern of his energies, not by his opacity.
I finally called it quits after we spent a couple of nights on the project and he didn’t show any improvement. He was as good as I was going to get him.
“Okay, I think that’s it, Mr. Kringle.”
“Please, call me Nick.”
“Sure, Nick. How are you feeling?”
“I haven’t felt this good in ages! You’ve inspired people to believe in me again!”
“But some. A lot. Millions, at least.”
“Yes, well, I had the easy job. Yours is harder.”
“Yes. They’ll believe for a while, but it’s temporary. It won’t last. This is your opportunity. You were saying they commercialized Christmas? Now you have the chance to remind them what Christmas is about. Religious or not, it’s a season of giving, right?”
“It’s about loving one another, being generous, being kind to your fellow man,” he agreed. “They lost the joy of Christmas, for the most part.”
“Now it’s up to you, Nick. I’ve done what I can do. I’m not so good when it comes to love and kindness.”
“Are you sure?” he asked, smiling and looking at me over those tiny round glasses of his.
“Yep. You know, if anyone does, exactly why I’m on the Naughty List. Remember London?”
“Yes. Yes, I remember. I also know why you’re so very far down the Naughty List. Your kindness isn’t enough to put you on the Nice List, but you’re certainly nowhere near the top of the Naughty List.”
“But I am on it,” I acknowledged.
“Yes,” he agreed, sadly. “I’m afraid you are.”
“Then I expect nothing more than a lump of coal every year, Nick.”
“You’ll have it,” he assured me, smiling again, his eyes twinkling.
And, putting a finger aside of his nose—and lacking a chimney—he simply vanished.
Bronze parked the sleigh and leaped from a runner to her statue. Diogenes put the anti-gravity Santa sled somewhere and I went about my business.
Christmas Day, Apocalyptica:
I don’t usually hang a stocking for Christmas. I mean, let’s be real for a moment. Why would I? But Mary likes having a little Christmas when the season rolls around. We don’t make it a big production, but she does enjoy a snowy afternoon and a fireplace, with eggnog—which I despise, but I will never admit it to her—and some snuggling. Even if she doesn’t hang stockings, Diogenes does, whether I tell him to or not.
This year, there’s a lump of coal in my stocking. Mary claims she didn’t do it. Diogenes also denies any responsibility. I would normally assume one of them is playing a joke on me and denying it, but… the thing is… it’s highly compressed coal. The carbon atoms are in a rigid tetrahedral network, crystallized and suitable for enchantment. It’s a lump of coal only in the broadest possible definition, but, technically…
It’s not entirely about naughty or nice, it seems. Maybe it really is all about giving.