Seconds over the North Pole
by Michael Bard
© Michael Bard -- all rights reserved
Ah, Christmas at the Pig! One of the few luxuries I allowed myself these busy days.
And it had been a busy year. What with that idiot inanimorph blasting off into interstellar space and screwing NASA. The US Air Force was still annoyed over what he'd done to their detection grid, and NASA was just one buzzing nest of ass covering.
It'd hurt Ad Astra's business with NASA, but helped otherwise as NASA wasn't flying anything right now.
Years ago I'd stayed on Easter Island and worked. I had nothing better to do. But, not anymore. It didn't make Drew happy, but it made Dr. Derksen feel a lot better about my mental health.
I walked over to the bar and Donnie raised an eyebrow until I pulled out the Hassan's trophy and thunked it down. Yes, I'd been lucky enough to win it again, though I wasn't really angry as Hallan had well and truly gotten me. I just wish I'd been in a better mood that day but I still couldn't' believe that almost every student at that lecture I'd given had thought that the Trojan War had ended in a mass marriage. It had been celebrated by individual pair safe sex with divinely supplied condoms in the honeymoon suite inside the belly of the Trojan Horse.
I shuddered and mentally damned for the eight thousand, four hundred and seventeenth time that Disney cartoon version of The Iliad from 15 years ago.
Anyway, I hadn't taken Hallan's prank on me well then, but I'd taken him and his friends out for dinner later in thanks. They deserved it for the round about way they'd gotten me. Fried chicken? I shook my head.
Nodding my thanks to Donnie as he handed me my usual Rum and Coke, I walked over to a booth and sat down with a relaxed sigh -- the bag of presents was not light. I smiled, thinking about the one for Jubatus. Just a simple red button labeled "Destroy Universe Button". He knew that I'd worked out the Grand Unified Equation -- not that anybody else did -- and he was so terrified of those equations yielding a way to cause reality to destroy itself. If he pushed the button, a voice would tell him he had thirty seconds before reality ceased to exist, and then wish him a nice day. Same thing if he tried to destroy it. There was also a camera, but I wasn't sure it would survive Jubatus' reaction.
I took a sip and dug out my laptop to get some work done as it was still too early for the main party. I'd come down to give a lecture and had nothing better to do with my time. The children's party, however, was just beginning. Flipping the laptop on, I pulled up the graph of the problem I'd been working on --
"There is so a Santa Claus!"
I blinked and looked over and saw two young boys, eight or so, glaring at a defiant little fuzzy squirrel morph. She was the one who'd spoken.
"Only babies still believe in Santa Claus!" snapped one of the boys.
I could see the squirrel fighting to hold back tears. "Is so! There is! There is!"
My work could wait. There was something I'd been preparing for later, but with some editing it would work now too. I closed the laptop with a snap, finished off my drink, and walked over to the argument. Already the other children were gathering around smelling blood.
"Leetle Virginia still believes in--!"
"Excuse me?" I interrupted.
Like one they all turned to look at me, all immediately gathering into a defensive pack, and all sharing a look of complete innocence. Most were human as SCABS usually didn't affect children, but there were a few exceptions.
"I couldn't help but overhear you discussing the existence of Santa Claus."
A couple of them shuffled their feet, or paws, and one clacked a hoof on the wooden floor awkwardly.
"He does so exist!" Virginia shouted out.
"He does," I answered.
"And how do you know?!" the boy who'd been taunting Virginia snapped out.
"I know because I've seen him."
"Hah!" another boy said.
I looked up at the ceiling for a second. It was all an act of course, before looking back at the child who'd last spoken. "I guess it's safe to tell you -- it's been declassified -- and I guess that you're all old enough." That got their interest.
"Tell us what?" an older girl raccoon asked.
"About the last raid by the US Military on the North Pole."
"That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard!" the boy who'd started it all asked.
I just raised an eyebrow. "Think about it little man."
He glared at me.
"Santa knows when you're good, and when you're bad. He can sneak into your house. He can deliver all those billions of presents."
"You think so? Nobody knows how he does it, but there are theories. He's kept the US Secret Service terrified for decades -- they've never been able to stop him from giving the President his annual hunk of C.O.A.L."
"How does he do it?"
"That's the trick isn't it? And that's why the US sent us up there. To steal Santa's technology!"
"Technology is evil!"
"Is it? That can be debated, but the fact is that Santa has it, and the US doesn't! And that's kept the US Military in a state of terror for the last two centuries. Why do you think NORAD monitors his course every Christmas Eve? Out of a sense of public service? Hah! They do it because they don't trust him!"
I felt the inanimorph stool behind me and graciously sat down.
"You're making it all up," the boy who'd first ridiculed Virginia said, but I could tell that he was wavering.
"You think so? Do you want to hear the story? Unless you think you're too young for it--"
The gauntlet was picked up. "I'm eight!"
"Well the, sit down one and all, and let me tell you the story of a merry band of military veterans and their three hour raid--"
I'd been recruited by the US military as a technical specialist -- Ad Astra had no qualms sending me as it allowed them to force a equal sharing agreement. We were the fourth mission -- the first three had been with the various elite groups (Seals, Marines, Rangers) and each had failed. They'd dropped in, as we were doing, contact had been lost, and nothing had ever been heard from again.
Personally I suspected they'd been forcibly recruited into Santa's reindeer, but without visual evidence there was no way to be sure.
A number of high stealth reconnaissance robots had snuck in past Santa's perimeter and gotten some information out before being destroyed. That, and records from two centuries of annual monitoring were all we had to go on.
Anyway, for this mission the US had decided to go with a primarily SCABS assault group. I was along as the technical specialist and mission commander. J. Acinonyx was detached from the seals as sniper. Fortunately for his career after he scabbed over, cheetah's don't mind water. Ensign A. Roteshems with the sole normal in the group. The other two members -- J. Sleeper and B. Derksen were already on the ground waiting.
We were on an Airforce supply plane high in the stratosphere preparing to jump. The General gave us a last minute briefing. "We don't know how good SAD-G is, so you'll have to HALO in. Open your chutes at the last possible moment..."
"SADG?" the little girl asked.
"Santa Air Detection Grid. You have to remember that the US Military just loves their acronyms."
Anyway, we nodded, even though we all knew it all already. The General was as nervous as I was as the survival record for military aircraft flying over the north pole was not good. NORAD would have appreciated that during the Cold War a century earlier, but the Russians had known too, and had plotted their ICBMs to stay out of the believed interception area.
The speaker in the cargo air crackled to life. "Energy spike! Secure for evas--"
I was already holding tightly to the railing along the side -- the ride could have been smoother -- but then I suddenly found myself jerked and then falling through the foggy Christmas eve. The assault had been set for Christmas eve in the hopes that the heightened activity level at the North Pole would keep them too busy to deal with us.
From behind and above me I felt a puff of warm air, and looked behind through the goggles of my breathing mask at the fading fireball that'd been our aircraft. Turning I looked at Acinonyx and nodded my thanks. I could tell that he also had Ensign Roteshems.
Remember, I said that most of us were SCABs? Most of us also had special abilities. I was there for my intelligence and heightened senses. Acinonyx was there because he was capable of operating his metabolism at extreme speed and react far faster than mortals could. He'd deduced that we were screwed, grabbed me and then the ensign, and shoved us all out of the plane, in the time it took me to blink.
He'd left the others because the three of us had the only high altitude parachutes and survival equipment. The price of war.
"We'd better separate!" I shouted out. "Smaller radar blips for interception! I'll meet you on the ground! And thanks soldier!"
He grinned behind his special-designed mask -- to deal with his muzzle -- and shoved us both away.
The upper atmosphere was cold and bitter. Sleeper had given us the cloud cover we'd requested, and visibility sucked. There were landmarks, but all our electronics were shut down to minimize the chances of detection. We had two days to make our way to the pickup zone where a US Sub, with the permission of the Canadian military for a change, was waiting below the ice to pick us up.
"But the US owns all the arctic waters," the older child who'd first denied Christmas burst out. "Canada's just full of it!"
I looked at him. "According to international treaty, Canada owns it. One of the few good things to come out of SCABS is that the US military has gotten a little less arrogant due to the possibility of an inanimorph wiping out all their assets. And anybody can be an inanimorph."
The fall seemed endless, the only measure we had of our altitude was the altimeters set in one corner of our breathing masks. I waited and waited, alone in the dark mist, the only impression of movement the pressure of the moving air against the tight thinsulate of my thermal suit. I waited till the last possible moment before popping my chute, and I was jerked so hard that I almost lost my lunch. The fall was short, fifteen seconds or so, before I hit the snow covered ground hard and fast. With long practiced motions I released the parachute and it vanished, blown away into the mist. Although I didn't need it to breathe, I left my mask on and switched on the night vision system. I really wished there was an alternate, but I needed to see.
"Sleeper!?" I called.
A voice whispered into my ear: "I've got you Carter. Acinonyx is half a klick north-north-west. I'm guiding Roteshems to him."
"Lead me to them."
Switching off the night vision, I let his gentle nudges lead me in the right direction.
Sleeper was the other reason the US had brought Ad Astra into it. He was the only inanimorph we'd ever recruited, and one of the powerful ones. The best way I could describe him then was as a living weather system. He'd ensured the dense cloud cover to cover our --
"Ma'am," little Virginia asked. "Was it right to risk canceling Christmas?"
"Canceling Christmas?" I asked
"With all the fog you--"
Another child, the raccoon, burst in, "That's why Santa has Rudolph silly!"
"Rudolph, Nikon?" the older child who'd taunted Viginia bust out. "That's just as fake--"
I glared at him. "What's your name boy?"
"Umm..." he hesitated for a moment before answering. "Ro-- Ronald."
"Well Ronald, you're right. There is no reindeer named Rudolph."
He turned to Nikon, who was a very small Raccoon SCAB. "Hah! Told ya so!"
"Ronald -- there is a R.U.D.O.L.P.H. unit though. And the song is right. The first R.U.D.O.L.P.H. unit was spotted in 1939."
"But he's a reindeer!" Nikon burst out.
"He just looks like a reindeer -- just like you just look like a raccoon. R.U.D.O.L.P.H. is short for Realtime Universal Device/Omnicapable Luminant Picotechnological Hybrid. Although it's avowed purpose is foul weather navigation, that glowing red light on its nose has been recorded as outputting light intensities of 6.3 gigacandelas. Nobody knows what its upper limit is. In fact the US air force lost an S72 Bluebird to one just last year."
Nikon's eyes opened wide, and glowed in the firelight like a flash.
Now, where was I--?
It didn't take Sleeper long to get us together, and it was only an hour's march through the hard arctic snow pack to the energy dome that surrounded Santa's Workshop. Nobody knew what kind of energy field it was as it blocked all wavelengths of radiation, and acted as a selective mirror to visible light. A light warmth radiated around it, and Sleeper had already commented that he could get in, but with difficulty. Switching on my night vision I watched him form into a roughly reindeer shape -- to try and hide from any interior sensors -- and then push his way through the field. Acinonyx went, and then Roteshems, and then I.
Inside there was no wind, and it was far warmer. All over it glowed with a universal phosphorescence. We found out later that it was some kind of tailored bacteria glowing due to radioactive decay. Roteshems and I turned off our night vision systems as I opened a sample bottle and shook it a bit unit it had captured some of the glowing air.
"Sleeper, look for Derksen. Acinonyx, find a high spot and cover us. Roteshems, you're with me." Sleeper bounded off, leaving faint impressions in the glistening snow, and Acinonyx vanished -- whether due to his speed or his snow-white thermal suit I couldn't say.
"Oh give me a break!" Ronald burst out. "You were there? And Jubatus Acinonyx? And Jon Sleeper as an inanimorph! You're just full of it!"
I could see the children's willing disbelief wavering and knew I had to do something. "Ronald, the world is sometimes a wondrous place. Why are you surprised? What's the odds of a bar being where the smartest woman in the world, the discoverer of SCABS, the leading SCABS researcher, the world's richest SCAB, and so many other world famous people all gather? And yet they do. Dr. Stein comes here regularly, as does Dr. Derksen," I waved at the two doctors who were just coming in, Dr. Stein's hooves clomping against the wall as he banged the snow off. "A lot of us come here because we've known each other for years. We all got together because we're all unique, with special gifts. There is almost no chance."
I could see the other children nodding.
"Now, if you'll let me continue?"
Acinonyx was the only one of us well armed. He had a high powered sniper rifle with variable ammunition to provide long range fire support. The plan was for him never to fire -- we just wanted to sneak in, grab what we could, and get out alive. However, I felt a lot more comfortable with him at my back.
Roteshems and I dug into the soft snow, and then I pulled out high powered binoculars. Snapping out their tripod, I plugged them in to my goggles and slowly scanned our surroundings. Snow, snow, a reindeer of some kind standing alone in the snow-- There! A large manufacturing complex apparently made of gingerbread, with a troop of E.L.F. units marching in front.
I knew it wasn't gingerbread, couldn't be gingerbread, but nobody knew what it really was.
Sleeper whispered in my ear: "Derksen." Unplugging my goggles I looked around and saw a small arctic fox looking at me.
"Life is short--" he began.
"--but the years are long," I responded.
"Not while the evil days come not," Derksen responded, finishing off the proper identification response. It had nothing to do with our mission, instead taken from Heinlein's Howard Families. I really doubted that Santa was an SF reader.
"Wait a minute," Howard burst in. "Everybody knows that arctic foxes can't speak!"
"Derksen just looked like an arctic fox. He was a polymorph sent in a month ago to infiltrate and gather intelligence. He wasn't military, but a US citizen who'd been drafted for the mission. He's still pissed off at the US government for that."
"But the vocal cords--"
"Ronald -- he's a polymorph. His vocal cords could be whatever he wanted them to be. He often used eagle eyes in his fox face while he was scouting."
"Shhh!" Nikon and Virginia burst out together.
"Now, as I was saying--"
"You sure you haven't been IDed?" I whispered.
"As sure as anybody can be -- it's all a guess though. I have patients--!"
"It's Christmas eve and you're not the only doctor in the US you know."
"Not here and not now. What information do you have?"
"I can confirm some speculation. There seems to be only one of each of the reindeer morphic units. I don't think they're mechanical. I saw one collapse and a bunch of E.L.F.s dragged it off. I was able to spot a replacement being decanted from a clone tank of some kind. Santa also has a visitor -- I've seen them once or twice at a distance, talking. And something happened about an hour ago -- the D.A.S.H.E.R. bounded up to the B.L.I.T.Z.E.N., and a minute or so later the B.L.I.T.Z.E.N. fired something from its horns upward."
"Well, Ms. Carter, if Santa has all this secret tech, then how do you know what all the reindeer stand for? Or did you steal it and it's been suppressed all this time?" Ronald.
I really wanted to spank him. But, since I'd originally prepared a more explicit version of this for latter, for a far more discriminating audience, I had an answer all prepared. "Ronald, you do know that Santa and his reindeer do leave the North Pole? And that they have for centuries? Do you think that raids on the North Pole are the only thing governments have tried? Last I heard, the US had lost over 800 men -- there are still too many classified missions for me to know an exact number -- in Christmas eve close range observation. Not to mention the twelve attacks on twelve different Christmas eves on his sleigh and transport."
"So what are the other reindeer then, smarty?"
"D.O.N.N.E.R. is the acronym for Destructive Obligate Non-Nuclear Experiential Replicant. It's an anti-nuke shield device which can dampen and cancel high energy reactions within a half klik radius. It was IDed in 1952 when an atomic missile was fired at Santa's sleigh.
"D.A.S.H.E.R. stands for Destructive Activity Seeking Human Experiential Replicant. It's a wide frequency detection system. We know it can detect fission and more conventional gasoline and diesel powered devices. We learned the hard way that it can detect chemical explosions at short ranges.
"D.A.N.C.E.R. stands for Destructive Activity Negating Cervine Experiential Replicant. We don't know how, but it can dampen energetic chemical reactions, including explosives such as gunpowder. It was identified in 1881 when the British army tried shooting Santa down with cannons.
"B.L.I.T.Z.E.N. is short for Bethe-Langston Integrated Toroidal Zeropoint Energy Neutralizer, named after the theoreticians who first worked out what it was likely doing. Somehow it can fire a disintegrator from its horns that breaks apart atomic bonds, but the reaction only releases comparatively low energies.
"V.I.X.E.N. is short for Verisimilitudinant Intelligent Xenograft ENgine. If it touches you with its horns, it can transform you into a cervine of some sort. The exact limits of its transformational ability is not know. And it can even affect SCABS.
"C.O.M.E.T. is the scary one, and its name is short Cyber-Organic Metahuman Elimination Tool. Just think Terminator. I've seen video of him ripping apart Sherman tanks as bazooka shells bounce off him.
"C.U.P.I.D. is the one we were lucky enough to identify, but its existance explains a lot about the failure of earlier raids. Its name is short for Clandestine Undercover Personnel Infiltration Device, and it can take both human and reindeer forms, possibly others. It's a specialist at infiltration and undercover operations.
"And E.L.F. is short for Expendable Life Form. The English were desperate to get that tech back in the late 19th century. They failed and had to use children in the factories instead. An E.L.F. is a grown artificial life form that has just enough of a mind to learn simple repetitive tasks. The ultimate assembly line worker. Or soldier, as long as you don't expect too much imagination. A bit like you--"
I glared at him until he looked away. "Now, where was I? Derksen was just reporting about the B.L.I.T.Z.E.N. unit firing at something--"
"That was our transport. Acinonyx got Roteshems and I off just in time."
"Crap. Is the sub --?"
"I don't know -- I hope so, otherwise we've got a long trek out."
"Ma'am," Roteshems whispered in my ear as he touched my shoulder. "I think something's going on."
I plugged the binoculars back into my goggles and shifted the focus to zoom in. Searching for a second, I spotted Santa Claus in his red and white power armour talking to what looked like a giant white rabbit wearing dark sunglasses. I couldn't see Santa's lips, but it wasn't hard to read the muzzle of the rabbit.
"-eter is willing to verify your data records in exchange for updates from your yearly visit. And he's willing to trade the Q36 De-explosive Gate Modulator --"
Over in the corner with the Lupine boys Wanderer half choked on his eggnog.
"-- for your Dimensional--" the rabbit turned away and I couldn't see his muzzle for almost a minute before he turned back. "--ABS was a bad idea, but he needed more sentient rabbits to deliver the eggs! And since you won't let him make use of your artificial life cloning technology--!" The rabbit turned and looked straight at me, taking off the sunglasses to scratch between his eyes.
I recognized the rabbit as he was on the FBI short list. It had long been suspected that the Easter Bunny had been recruiting near full rabbit SCABS, and one named Phil Geusz was on their short list as possible recruits. He'd been in the auto unions before SCABS and disappeared for two weeks around Easter every year. Whispering "Phil Guesz--", I watched the meeting carefully
I heard a scream--
"The Easter Bunny?!" Ronald burst out. "Give me a break--"
I, the other children, and a surprisingly large crowd of adults, turned and looked at him, and I could just make out Phil sitting at the bar glaring at me. Winking back, I turned my attention to Ronald. "Ronald, why do you say that there's no Easter Bunny and no Santa Claus?"
"Because everybody knows it!"
I watched Virginia start to sniffle. "Just like everybody knew man could never fly? Just like everybody knows there's life on Mars? Just like everybody knows that SCABS are subhuman?"
"Now, just a minute--!" he burst out.
"Do you know why everybody thinks there's no Santa? No Easter Bunny? No Tooth Fairy? Do you?"
He glared at me defiantly, and I wished for the eight hundred and seventy-second time that parents had to be licensed before raising young.
"Think what they do. All the governments live in terror of them. They can get anywhere, leave behind unbelievable masses of material. Think what could happen if the Easter Bunny decided to go bad! He could put an egg-sized high explosive anywhere he wanted, and no government, no security force, could stop him. The official coverup used in regards to Area 51 is a variation of the tried and true methods first developed in the British Empire in regards to these supposedly mythical entities. They teach everybody that the Easter Bunny, that Santa Claus, is a myth. They propagate the lie. And everybody believes them because it's set up that if you don't believe the lie, you're a child. Ronald, it's obvious that you're aiding the government cover up here -- I just hope you're proud of yourself. And since you think that everything I say is a lie, then I see no reason to continue."
"It is a lie!" Ronald burst out.
"Is it? Why? Because everybody tells you it is? The same reason that technology is evil!"
"It caused the Plague!" he burst out.
"No. If the SCABS virus came from Mars, then technology only brought it here. It did not create it. From what I over heard from Mr. Geusz," I pointed towards Phil sitting at the bar and he cringed as some of the other patrons snickered, "the Easter Bunny introduced SCABS to deal with his labour shortage. In fact, maybe all the so-called mythicals did because we were actually catching up to them -- reaching a point where we could deal with them." I stood up and glared at them all. "If you all want to continue helping the coverup--"
"I believe in Santa Claus!" Virginia burst out. "And so do I!" agreed Nikon.
"And I was there," Dr. Derksen clicked out. I turned and looked at him in his typical cockroach form and nodded my thanks at him. I was half afraid he wouldn't go along with it.
I stood up.
"Ms. Carter," Virginia asked, "what happened next?"
"Indeed," burst in Wanderer, "I too wish to know how our wondrously multitalented doctor escaped the legendary lair of Santa Claus. And more about those so secret activities of yon bunny."
"Please Dr. Carter--" I looked up at Hallan.
"Assuming there are no more interruptions--" I glared at Ronald.
"Yay!" burst out the children.
Smiling, I sat down.
Hearing a scream, I spun around, ripping the cord out of my goggles and looking at Ensign Roteshems. Or what had been Roteshems. He, it, was partially human, its white camouflaged thermalsuit torn as it'd grown, the red shirt it was wearing underneath torn at the seams. Its head had fully transformed into that of a reindeer, and its arms and hands were close to the forelegs of a reindeer. A bullet had impacted with its shoulder, and the flesh was hanging loose but bloodless, and I could see steely-blue bones revealed. Another bullet impacted its skull, shattering an eye, and sending shards of bloodless flesh against my mask, leaving the undamaged steely-blue skull behind.
I stared as the skull stretched out into a cervine muzzle, new reindeer flesh growing around it.
There was another scream, inhuman, and I turned and saw Sleeper growing more and more solid as the V.I.X.E.N. touched its antlers to him. His body changed from semisolid, to flesh and bone, the bones appearing first, and the flesh growing around them. He wasn't becoming a reindeer, but a white-tailed deer.
I drew my pistol and starting shooting the C.U.P.I.D. again and again, bullets glancing off its skull. Finally, it was more luck than anything else -- I think a bullet went in an eyehole -- the skull exploded, and the artificial life form thumped to the ground, bone shrapnel piercing my thermal suit and digging into my flesh.
In the distance Christmas bells began ringing, and I heard the random shots of E.L.F. units zinging past me. I tried to grab a skull fragment off the ground as I got up to run, and was swept off my feet as Acinonyx grabbed me and Derksen. Together we fled into the snow.
"I think the only reason any of us got away was because it was Christmas eve. Santa was too busy getting ready for his home infiltration to pursue us. Acinonyx grabbed Derksen and I, and took us most of the way to the rendezvous point, but he was never the same. He resigned from the military soon after. I found out later that he'd never killed anybody before and shooting the C.U.P.I.D., Ensign Roteshems was the first time he'd ever killed anybody. Sleeper vanished -- somehow he ended up in the wilds of the continental US living as a deer. When I got back home, I discovered that Santa had left me a C.O.A.L., same for the rest of us. I don't know if the U.S. tried again. If they did, they never asked Ad Astra for--"
Ronald started slowly clapping. "What a lovely story."
I looked at him. At least he'd been quiet for the conclusion. "A story? And why do you say that?"
"In what way do you have any more proof of that then we do that Santa actually exists? Why should I believe you, and not my parents?"
I snorted. Time for the piece de resistance. "I never said I didn't have any proof." Reaching into my purse, I pulled out a heavy piece of bone, a shattered fragment of deerskull showing half an eyeslit and most of one side of the upper muzzle. It was dark and black, and glistened with a slight blueish sheen. "I managed to grab this." I tossed it on the floor in front of the children, it landed with a dull thunk.
"We couldn't cut it. It's impervious to every known acid. An applied electric current did cause it to soften and become kneadable like clay, but removing the current caused it to stretch back into this shape."
Nikon gingerly touched it. "Pick it up dear -- feel it. It's proof that Santa exists. Just get it back to me before you leave."
"Thanks Ms. Carter!" Nikon picked it up and ran a claw along it, and held it out to Virginia as the other children crowded around.
"Dr. Carter?" Hallan asked.
I turned and looked at him.
He lowered his voice. "What did you make that skull fragment out of?"
"Who says I did?" I asked sweetly, then winked at him and got up to wait for the party to begin.
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