Hi there, is this seat taken? No? Mind if I sit down while I drink my coffee? Good, thank you. I’ve always said coffee’s no good if you have to drink it standing up.
Yeah, I’m a little on the short side. Don’t worry, I get that a lot. I’m used to it. I’m an elf. Santa Group, Christmas Division.
Ah, in that case, I’m taller than you expected. Heh, I get that a lot, too. We’re elves, Miss, not dwarves. No, don’t apologize. The media’s done such a good job of painting us as knee-high childlike pipsqueaks that we don’t even bother any more. As long as I’m updating your mental image, though, we don’t wear funny hats and curly-toed slippers and don’t even get me started on those stupid “elf tights” with the horizontal stripes. Not even the female elves wear those horrible things.
No, we wear pretty much normal clothes, just as I’m wearing now. Oh, and the workshop’s not sitting squat on the North Pole, either, though I can’t go into that too much. Another bit of media fantasy, though.
Look, I sat down here for a reason. You’re a trustworthy type, good with secrets, and I really need to blow off some steam.
Miss, think a moment. Elf. Santa Group. Christmas Division. Of course I know about you. I could tell you about everyone in this cafeteria, but that’s all need-to-know stuff. I’m not going to tell you about anyone else in the place, and I’m not going to tell anyone else about you, got it?
Him? Hmm … okay, he’s a nice guy, wants a family, and he’s definitely noticed you. But now, listen: I really shouldn’t have told you that, and if you tell anyone I did, I’ll call you a liar to your face. Seriously. We clear on that?
All right, good. By the way, don’t give the guy next to him the time of day. I mean it. That one gives creeps a bad name. No, nothing illegal, just a really icky personality.
You’re welcome, don’t mention it. Please. Now, as for my tale. Settle back and “lend me your ear” as the saying goes.
Now, I’m guessing your view of how Santa and Christmas work is the usual jump-in-the-sleigh on Christmas Eve and zip all around the world story, right? I thought so. That’s another media fantasy we’ve let stay in place. If the world knew how Christmas really worked, we’d be doing nothing except fighting off spies and takeover attempts. That’s because Christmas for us is a year-round effort. Santa’s always making deliveries. They just SEEM to all happen on Christmas.
That got your attention, I see! Well there’re a few things you need to know. First of all, we got out of the quaint little workshops ages ago. Santa Group has to stay up with the times. Second, the reindeer are not your average tundra-chewing sleigh-pullers. Aside from being able to fly, they’re smart as all get-out.
Yeah, you live a few centuries and you pick up things, you know? That’s another thing. The reindeer in the team assigned to pull Santa’s sleigh are as old as he is. That bunch is thicker’n thieves, and no one else gets into the club.
Rudolph? He’s another media event, sorry to burst your bubble. No, no, it’s okay, I understand. Now then, it was one of the reindeer, Dancer, who came up with the principle upon which our most important Christmas technology is based. We call it the Dancer Protocol, and it’s the secret behind the Christmas Engine – indeed, the whole of Christmas rests on it.
The Christmas Engine is actually two machines: one which never leaves the shop, and one which is built into the sleigh. The main workshop engine is a massive thing. It has to be, because what it does is gather, concentrate, and condense time into a liquid. The sleigh engine runs on that liquid time to power the sleigh. That’s another bit of information. The reindeer stopped being the sole power getting that sleigh around ages ago.
Look, it’s like this: the reindeer can bend time, but the world population, and the portion of it aware of Santa and of Christmas long ago passed the point where they could bend it enough. Back before the Christmas Engine was built, things were getting desperate. They were actually thinking about multiple crews, but there just aren’t that many other reindeer who have the necessary talent. That’s why the problem needed a solution. Like I said, all of the reindeer are real thinkers, and each was heading up a team working on how to convert reindeer talent to something that could be expanded and used on a much larger scale.
Dancer’s group made the breakthrough, though Comet and Vixen were right on the edge of it. I can’t get into the details – heck, I don’t understand them enough to GET into the details – but the basic concept is that if you can concentrate time enough, then you can bend your travel-path enough to make deliveries year-round and still have them all HAPPEN on Christmas Eve.
That’s right. Santa and the reindeer make deliveries all year; well, with enough days off so they don’t get run off their feet, that is. But to the world at large, everything happens on Christmas night, and all the presents are there Christmas morning. Neat, huh?
Well, now that you’re thinking about that, think about this: what if that Christmas Engine broke down?
Yeah, big trouble. Well, that’s what happened almost a month ago. The big main workshop engine stopped producing liquid time. It didn’t take long for Santa’s next few trips to use up what liquid time was already made, and things ground to a complete halt.
Everyone, and I mean EVERYONE, went into panic mode. We pulled up the schematics on our computer workstations, we consulted notes, we consulted notes about the notes, and we even pulled out the original drawings no one had looked at in decades. We couldn’t find anything wrong. It was spotlessly clean, and not one part was loose or even slightly out of alignment. For that matter, we realigned everything, just in case.
Everything should have been working. In fact, everything did work while it was in test mode with the access panels off.
No, no, we couldn’t have just operated in test mode, though I think that WAS tried. The problem is too many fail-safes built in to the design. It only can be operated a limited time in a very limited way when the access panels are off, and the design is too intricate to bypass the fail-safes without messing up other parts. Besides, when it’s in test mode, it only produces drops of liquid time, not the quantities needed.
Yeah, we were stuck. Now, there is a certain amount of slack built into the system, as I said, so that there can be days off. Trouble was, we were past three-quarters of the year gone and while there were a fair number of off-days remaining, there were still at least a month of trips still to do, and they couldn’t be doubled up. A single trip takes right around half a day but the reindeer, and Santa, seriously need that other half a day to rest up and get ready for the next one. Add to that, the Christmas Engine is only built to bend time one way. You can go into the future and return, but it’s not set up to allow traveling into the past. No one’s been able to make that work. So we were up against a hard deadline.
Still, a week went by – and a second – and we were no closer to even finding the problem than we were at the start, not to mention actually fixing it. We were into the third week and I was on the third-shift team helping run more tests. Frustratingly, everything was still coming up perfect in test mode.
I was replacing a panel, and just as I picked up the screwdriver to tighten it down, I heard a faint scuffle and a click, like one of the relays. I yanked the panel off and there was a pack rat. I mean one with a real pack, and he’d just dropped it on a key relay switch.
“Who are you?” I demanded, but held up a hand. “Don’t run away, I won’t harm you.”
“I’m Isaac.” He was hesitant, and was looking for where he could bolt. “My home got destroyed in a storm and I took shelter in here.” His eyes kept darting side to side, and I knew he was feeling trapped, so I kept my voice soothing.
“Let me guess, you got in here a little over two weeks ago, after that big storm went through.” I smiled reassuringly.
“That’s right.” Isaac relaxed a tiny bit.
“And you always put your pack right there?”
“Sure, it’s convenient.”
I couldn’t help wincing and shaking my head. Isaac looked skittish, so I hurried to explain. “I think I can find you another place to live, but we have to get you out of here. Isaac, you’re breaking Christmas.”
I didn’t know a pack rat could turn pale, but Isaac did. He grabbed up his pack like fire had sprouted up underneath it, and hurried out of the access. I replaced the panel, and sure enough, the Christmas Engine rumbled into life. You should have heard the cheer that went up. So many were running up to thump me on the back, I had to scoop up Isaac to keep him from getting trampled.
I quickly told everybody what had happened, and – long story short – we made Isaac a “Small Parts Inspector” and set him up in a little dollhouse-sized place of his own. Santa approved wholeheartedly, and why not? The guy’s a sucker for happy endings. Heck, we pretty much all are or we wouldn’t last long in the Christmas Division. As for me, I got a week off with pay, which is why I’m here instead of there.
Well, that’s my story, and I thank you for listening to me. You won’t tell anyone else, right? Good. I was sure I could depend on you.
My coffee’s gotten cold and I think it’s about the end of your lunch. Good luck with that guy over there. If he asks about me, I was just a stranger with an interesting, if slightly fantastic, story.
Oh, and if you two hit it off? Don’t let him buy one of those fancy phones or order him one as a present.
He’s getting one. Trust me.