“Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.”
As my response, I shot Douglas the dirtiest look I could muster. I recognized the reference to the classic 2D film of course. It had recently been redone in our own time/space by an Alpha Centauri tri-D company and had been critically acclaimed, though personally I thought it would have been improved by leaving out the Centaurian equivalent of a Greek chorus. Still, far be it from me to quibble over the cultural preferences of alien races. I had troubles enough of my own, here and now.
“I realize that,” I retorted with a roll of my eyes, choosing not to dignify Douglas’ reference with further commentary. “It’s the rest that I’m finding difficult to believe.” Granted, we’d encountered some odd attempts to alter the history of Earth time/space 227, but this had to be the most ridiculous yet.
“Oh come now, where’s your Christmas spirit?” Douglas asked, his eyes twinkling with amusement as he picked up his period-appropriate pipe from the end table, and pressed the button that made it give off convincing though completely non-carcinogen-containing smoke. There were limits to what even he was willing to endure in the name of historical accuracy, and to my relief authentic tobacco was apparently outside them.
Still, it was a filthy habit. “I think it disappeared the moment you mentioned “zombie elves,” I countered. Sniffing indignantly at the pipe – I was becoming increasingly suspicious that Douglas smoked it less for authenticity than because he was developing a genuine affection for the habit – I got up from my chair and paced over to the sideboard, where I poured several finger-widths of sherry into a glass. The occasion certainly seemed to call for it. Honestly. I knew the Victorian era of Earth 227 was of particular interest to historians, given the way the American Uprising of 1775 had played out, but attempting to modify it by assaulting a cultural icon with the galactic significance of Father Christmas was just too much. Moreover, given St. Nick’s practically unique status as a non-sequential temporal-spatial anomaly, rendering him ineffectual in one timeline would cause a cascade effect throughout the others, causing irreparable havoc throughout all of space-time.
Which was, of course, why we’d received the call from headquarters to investigate the situation when Father Christmas reported his elves were dragging around lifelessly, their normally cheerful expressions abandoned in favor of blank eyes and dazed countenances. Worse still, the toys they were now creating might have been embraced by the horror movie-inured children of the 21st century, but were totally inappropriate for their Victorian counterparts.
Shuddering at the photo included in the communiqué we’d received, which featured a fang-toothed stuffed rabbit with a blood-smeared lower jaw, I took a long sip of the sherry in my glass, then turned back to eye Douglas skeptically. “You’re certain this isn’t some sort of joke? It seems a bit farfetched.”
Douglas puffed at his pipe as he studied the briefing paper on the table beside him, and shook his head. “They used all the official codes,” he replied, almost apologetically. “If you’d prefer to remain here, though, I’m sure I can settle this one on my own.”
I snorted my opinion of that, and shook my head. “No, I’ll come,” I grumbled. Given Douglas’s predilection for focusing on the more romantic aspects of our assignments, my presence was likely to be the only thing standing between the mission’s success and the end of Christmas as we knew it. Besides, I’d been complaining lately about how the time in which we were stationed limited the amount I could legitimately participate in our assignments. Turning down an opportunity to participate as an equal was something for which Douglas would mock me for years.
Unwilling to look too excited despite the thrill that sped down my spine, I set down my glass on the sideboard, crossed my arms over my chest, and met his eyes levelly. “I warn you – if any of these alleged zombie elves says one word about eating my brains, I’m going to sleep gas the lot of them.”
Douglas chuckled, then turned off his pipe and stood up. “I’m fairly certain that would put you on the very top of Santa’s naughty list,” he warned as he stretched and headed toward the controls for the molecular transmitter unit, secreted beneath the fireplace mantle. The field shimmered, and with one last grin, he stepped into it and promptly disappeared, leaving the field glimmering in invitation for me to follow.
“I’m going to regret this,” I mumbled as I snatched up my bag, gathered in my skirts and followed him through. Hopefully he’d at least set the matter displacement system to reassemble our molecules inside Father Christmas’ home. I was quite sure I wasn’t adequately dressed for outdoors at the North Pole.
The wind chilled my very molecules as they reassembled in a frozen wasteland, and I pull my shawl tighter around my shoulders, for once grateful for the multitude of layers that composed my very proper Victorian era ensemble. Douglas’ hand was raised to shade his eyes as he peered around, no doubt trying to determine where he’d landed us. Unfortunately, I couldn’t even rebuke him for not asking directions, given that not a creature was in sight – or at least, none that I could see through the blowing snow.
“Not exactly Santa’s workshop,” I called out over the howling wind as I stepped toward him, barely able to pick out his lanky figure through the blizzard-like conditions. He didn’t respond immediately, and I paused, glancing around the barren landscape and tugging my shawl closer. For some reason, I’d never envisioned the North Pole as such an unwelcoming location, no doubt due to the numerous Christmas specials I’d avidly watched as a child. The reality was a far cry from the romanticized cartoon version, and I shivered as the pitch of the wind changed, nearly shrieking its displeasure at our presence.
Chiding myself for the flight of fancy, I turned back toward Doug to see his reaction.
He wasn’t there.
“He couldn’t have,” I whispered nervously, unwilling to acknowledge the possibility that he’d abandoned me in the wastes and returned home, but knowing it was entirely possible. If he hadn’t noticed my arrival…
My eyes dropped to the ground, and I let out a sigh that mingled relief, annoyance, and something akin to fear. Dozens of miniature foot prints were rapidly filling with snow, but the large impression in their midst could only have been made by Doug’s fallen body.
Which, unfortunately, was still nowhere in sight. Only a pair of narrow tracks, like ones left by the runners of a sled, gave a clue as to its current whereabouts.
“Vir-giiiin-iaaaaa,” the wind howled ominously, and this time, I was fairly certain it wasn’t my imagination that supplied the high pitched, eerie laughter that accompanied it. Squaring my shoulders and cursing myself for a fool to have ever accompanied Doug on this mission to begin with, I began following the sled’s trail. Surely half a dozen zombified elves tugging a sled couldn’t have gotten too far ahead.
The blowing snow whistled around me, freezing my lashes and biting through both my shawl and dress to gnaw at my skin. “Leave it to Douglas to be abducted by zombies in the middle of a blizzard,” I grumbled, but my heart wasn’t in it. While I sincerely doubted the elves were about to begin eating his brains – which supposed he had any to begin with, something I’d often questioned – they’d obviously taken him for some purpose. Without knowing what had been used to alter their mental states, I could only imagine what that purpose might be.
Sadly, my infrequently utilized imagination hadn’t atrophied from lack of use. Voices seemed to chitter around me, shrill and mocking, reminding me that I’d scarcely worked in the field for years, suggesting that a woman born on an orbital platform had no hope of surviving a blizzard in a polar region. Ignoring them as best I could, I increased my pace, less concerned now that I’d lose the trail in my haste than that the snow would soon cover it over. Without it – well, losing Douglas wasn’t something I cared to consider too closely, but I’d also likely lose any chance of finding shelter myself.
“He couldn’t have materialized us inside the workshop. No, that would have been far too simple. No doubt he wanted to get a good look about, it’d be just like him,” I fussed aloud, more to drown out the other voices, real or imagined, than because I had any hope of a reply.
“Just like him,” a high-pitched voice agreed behind me.
I spun on my heels, holding tight to the handle of my bag as I swung it, hoping to bowl over whoever it might be. And stared into the barren vista incredulously as my bag met nothing but air.
“This is getting ridiculous,” I grumbled, and all around me, the wind carried whispers repeating Ridiculous in a seemingly endless echo, accompanied by shrill, mocking giggles.
“You’re supposed to be zombies, not pixies!” I shouted out, feeling foolish even as I did so. It was nothing but the wind, most likely, and an echo, and an overactive imagination. Nonetheless, the echoes seemed to fade away at my words, and for a moment, I felt a surge of pride and relief. Perhaps all I’d needed to do was confront my fears to prove to myself just how ridiculous they were.
My relief vanished a moment later, when the echoes were replaced with low, ominous moans that send a thrill up my spine that had nothing to do with the temperature. Tightening my grip on my bag lest the wind tear it from my grasp, I turned around and saw, not too far distant, the sort of cheerful gas lights one immediately associates with human habitation.
As the moans seemed to close in around me, I did the only rational thing I could think to do. I hiked up my skirts, Victorian concepts of modesty be damned, and ran.
The sound of footsteps dogged my heels and the moans seemed to close in around me as I picked my way through the snow as quickly as I could, keeping my eyes on the goal. As I grew closer, I could see the faint outline of the house, with smoke emerging from the chimney, whipped away by the wind almost at once but suggesting warmth and a fire within. The tracks I’d been following were long lost, but at the moment I didn’t care; the only thing on my mind was to get inside and to bar the door behind me. Hopefully, there’d be time to locate Doug and save him from whatever fate the elves intended for him once I was ensured of not becoming their dinner myself.
The moans grew louder, closer, causing the hair on the nap of my neck to stand erect as I scurried up the slippery wooden steps of what could only be Santa’s workshop, tore the door open without preamble, and rushed inside. As I slammed the ancient oak door behind me, I could hear small bodies throwing themselves against it, snarling amidst their moans, and hurriedly manhandled the massive bar into place. Then bent over, nearly double, and tried to catch my breath. The past five years in Victorian America had ill-prepared me for physical exercise; I’d thought myself in good shape, but the time elapsed since I’d graduated from the Academy of Temporal Integrity had taken its toll. Vowing to setup an exercise routine of some sort, even if it meant using the treadmill Douglas had secreted in the portion of the basement where we stored some of our less explicable technology, I forced myself to straighten up and return to the matter at hand.
I shook my skirts to remove what snow I could as I considered the situation. Whatever it was that had caused the elves to take on the aspect of horror movie villains was clearly still in effect. Assuming they’d all been effected simultaneously, this suggested that either A) the substance or substances to which they’d been exposed had long term (I refused for the moment to consider permanent) effects, or that B) somehow, they were still being exposed. I considered and dismissed an air-borne virus of some kind as the culprit; given the length of time that had passed since my arrival, I would have surely been experiencing some symptoms myself. Water, then, or contact, or…
I shook my head. More evidence was needed before I could afford to make any assumptions. Giving one last nervous glance toward the door, from whence I could hear continued sounds of attempted forced entry, I turned to make my way through the dimly lit foyer. As disappointing as I’d found the North Pole’s exterior, the interior was nearly more so – still, given the circumstances I was almost relieved to find not an elf in sight. Time enough for further confrontations once I’d gotten to the bottom of the mystery and located Doug.
A series of turns later, I found myself at what could only be the main workroom. The gaslights flickered ominously, casting the corners of the room into deep shadow, and despite my determination to focus on the more practical aspects of this case, a thrill of trepidation tingled up my spine as I eyed the windows apprehensively, then turned up the one nearest the door. While it could easily reveal my location, it was also the best source of illumination at hand, and given what I knew of the normal routine at the North Pole this was the room in which the elves spent the majority of their time. It seemed likely that any clues to be found might be located here.
Dolls, stuffed animals, and wooden toys adorned the shelves on the walls, but it was the unfinished ones on the workbenches that drew my attention. I set my bag down and pulled out a pair of surgical gloves – no need to be concerned with anachronisms here – and tugged them in place before I moved to the nearest to examine it more closely.
The wooden toy had apparently originally been intended to be some sort of sailing vessel; a Noah’s ark, I assumed, given its general shape. At some point, however, the macabre had taken control of its construction. The ship now featured a figurehead, painstaking carved to represent what could best be described as a zombie mermaid, its eyes hollow and vacant, its expression pained. A mast had been added, seemingly at odds with the rest of the design, and from it hung ripped, tattered sails of a reddish-brown color that appeared as if they had been soaked in blood. Apparently, whatever had affected the elves had struck suddenly, catching them at their daily employment, which matched the information we’d received from Santa Claus himself.
I paused at that thought. Santa had contacted the TRU for assistance, but I’d seen no sign that he or his wife were in residence. Had he succumbed to whatever had infected the elves, or was he, like Douglas, now their prisoner? Or had he fled before our arrival? There was no way to know, but the knot in my throat seemed to tighten as I considered the possibility that St. Nicholas might no longer be with us.
I attempted to dismiss the thought from my mind as I set the ship back down on the workbench and proceeded toward the chief elf’s desk. A pile of mail covered most of the surface, leaving only bits of the wood exposed, but my eyes focused in on one particular padded envelope.
Which wasn’t scheduled to be invented in this timeline for another hundred years.
Carefully, I set my carpetbag down atop the remaining letters, and considered the desk’s other contents. Broken bits of toys, a few finished projects that had apparently been placed there for approval, and a small glass vial.
“As Douglas would say, that’s very likely our culprit,” I muttered, unwilling to admit even to myself that I rather missed Douglas’ ability to state the obvious. I opened my bag and extracted a device exquisitely designed to resemble a simple knitting needle. A careful twist of the knob at one end, however, activated the device and exposed the digital readout. “Now, we just have to hope there’s sufficient residual sample for a positive identification,” I mumbled to myself as I scraped the probe’s tip over the bottom of the vial and caught a slight whiff of peppermint. Hurriedly, I reached into my bag and pulled out a mask that would filter out most airborne toxins. It seemed unlikely that the contents were gaseous, but I wasn’t particularly inclined to take chances. Not given what was at stake.
The probe beeped loudly, the sound echoing through the cavernous workroom, and I nearly dropped it in surprise before turning it to look at the display. Definitely the culprit; while the substance’s primary ingredient had a mint extract, it also contained powerful traces of an illegal drug known to induce hallucinations while reducing the individual’s willpower. Given the concentration, I could only conclude that it was nothing short of a miracle that the elves were functioning independently at all.
“Must be the differences in their physiology,” I mumbled, looking around the room for a likely vector. “Which might also explain why the drug doesn’t seem to be wearing off, and their erratic behavior outside.” Neotropalomine didn’t normally induce hysteria, but wild elves were rumored to be high strung creatures. It seemed reasonable that Santa’s more domestic ones would share the same latent tendencies.
A tray filled with empty cocoa mugs and a large thermal pitcher provided the missing piece of the puzzle. “Must’ve taken a work break,” I said aloud, nodding. It would’ve been reasonable for the chief elf to portion out a new shipment of peppermint flavoring as a special treat, and no doubt the elves would have had time to return their cups to the tray before the symptoms became obvious.
With that part of the mystery solved, I turned to the next task at hand, and began pulling apparatus out of my bag. As I should have known, there was nothing supernatural involved at all; drugs were something I was fully equipped to handle. “At least they chose something that should be negated fairly easily,” I said decisively as I began assembling the equipment. “All I need to do is create an antidote, and we’ll get those poor things back to work.”
A loud crash against the window indicated that those poor things had discovered my whereabouts, but this time, I set my jaw and directed a confident look in its direction. Creating an antidote wasn’t the only thing I needed to do, after all. I’d have to obtain a test subject as well. Digging still deeper in my bag, I extracted a tranquilizer gun containing a powerful sedative, one which should pose equal to even an elf’s unique body chemistry. I might be out of practice, but Douglas wasn’t the only one who’d undergone combat training at the Institute. I was confident that this time, I would be equal to the task.
“Come on then, you little beast,” I snarled an hour later as I followed my intended test subject down the shadowed hallway, a syringe filled with a potent tranquilizer in one hand and a butterfly net I’d snatched up from one of the shelves in the workshop in the other. A blood-stained dust cloth I’d snatched up from one of the work tables was wound around my arm, covering the teeth marks that I’d acquired during my last attempt to apprehend one of the elves.
As I’d expected, creating the antidote had caused no difficulties; even the limited components I carried in my bag had proven equal to the task since I had a sample of the original drug to work from. I was fairly confident it would negate all the drug’s effects, but it seemed prudent to test it on one of the elves before finding a vector through which to deploy it to the others.
Unfortunately, the elf in question didn’t appear interested in being apprehended. The matching teeth marks on my leg, which bled freely, indicated that the one I’d originally attempted to capture hadn’t been interested either.
“Just hold still!” I demanded of it as it skittered away on all fours, then grinned over its shoulder at me tauntingly. The drug, it appeared, had affected the elfish population of the North Pole in one of two ways; the majority were likely wandering about aimlessly as Father Christmas had originally described, but weren’t anywhere in evidence. The others…
Well, my original accusation that they were acting like pixies wasn’t too far from the mark. Feral pixies, perhaps, given the way they’d abandoned the majority of their clothing and their propensity for biting at me whenever I attempted to lay hands on them. These were the elves who’d attempted to incorporate ghoulish elements into the holiday, the ones who’d been taunting me almost since I’d arrived, and undoubtedly the ones who’d done who knew what to Douglas and the North Pole’s unaffected inhabitants. For all I knew, they’d already consumed their less talkative brethren, though I hoped they’d confined their attempts at cannibalism to various portions of my anatomy.
Unfortunately, they were also too fast and too agile to tag with the gun, which was why I was attempting to inject the tranquilizer by hand.
“Hold still!” it echoed back as it skittered around the corner, its high pitched voice a mockery of every Christmas special I’d ever viewed as a child.
“You hold still, you…” I rounded the corner myself, then blinked. The elf in question was nowhere to be seen.
I paused and scrubbed my hand over my forehead. Further examination of the envelope in which the tainted vial had presumably arrived hadn’t given any indication of the sender, but I’d hardly expected otherwise. The would-be time stream saboteurs were always adept at covering their tracks; it would be difficult if not impossible to determine who was responsible for this particular incident until it was too late for it to do any good. Which left my antidote the sole thing keeping the entire time stream from dissolving into chaos, all due to the loss of a time-defying cultural icon. Under different circumstances, I might have welcomed the opportunity to single-handedly save the multiverse. Just now…
Just now, I found myself missing Douglas. Who, despite all his faults, was a far better shot than I was.
A skittering sound to my left caught my attention, and without conscious thought, I swooped the butterfly net down over the elf’s head. He thrashed and clawed at the netting as I grinned at him smugly, and quickly stabbed the hypodermic into his arm, waiting until the elf wavered and collapsed before attempting to pick him up.
“Gotcha,” I whispered as I slung him over my shoulder, abandoning for the moment the native dialect I’d adopted since my arrival in the Victorian era five years earlier. At the moment, I couldn’t have cared less.
Fortunately, the antidote I’d concocted proved to negate all ill effects of the original dosage, and it was with a smug grin that I once again headed down the hallway toward the kitchen. One vial, emptied into the supply of drinking water, would hopefully suffice to return the majority of the elves to themselves; the remainder could be tracked down later and injected manually by their fellows.
One thing nagged at the back of my mind, though. As yet, I’d seen no sign of either Douglas or Santa himself, nor did the elf who I’d restored to himself know where they might be held. Still, I was inclined to be positive. Once the elves were cured, no doubt one of them could identify their whereabouts.
With this in mind, I pushed open the kitchen door, humming a Christmas tune. I’d solved the problem on my own, quite without help, and – my train of thought broke off at the sight of Douglas, a steaming mug in one hand and his feet propped on the table’s edge. A position that was mirrored almost exactly by his companion, who was seated across the table.
It appeared I’d found Santa Claus after all.
Douglas laughed. “Oh Virginia, if you could just see the look on your face just now.”
I blinked a few times, trying to make sense of the day’s contradictions. The zombie and pixie-like elves, nearly freezing to death and being eaten alive – above all, Douglas’ abduction, which had apparently resulted in him sitting in the kitchen, eating cookies and drinking cocoa with Father Christmas himself.
“You set me up,” I concluded, directing a glare in Douglas’ direction, growing only more annoyed as he grinned at me smugly.
“He wanted to grant your Christmas wish, Virginia,” Santa answered, gesturing for me to join them at the table. “And how could I say no, when you’ve been such a good girl all these years? He smiled warmly and wagged a finger at me, and added, “You may want to watch your language, though. You’ve lost quite a few points over the years because of that.”
I nodded dumbly, uncertain how to reply, then took a breath and turned my attention back to Douglas. “My Christmas wish,” I repeated, eyebrows rising. So far as I knew, I hadn’t actually made a Christmas wish, and I was quite certain that if I had, it wouldn’t have involved elves, zombie or otherwise.
Douglas took a sip from his coca and smiled sheepishly. “You’ve been complaining for years you have so few opportunities to do your best work,” he shrugged. “I realize that’s unlikely to change, given the time period, but – well, the workshop and the area immediately around it exist within a sort of temporal bubble. So I contacted Santa, and asked him to give you the opportunity you’d wished for.” He smiled warmly and added, “You were brilliant, you know. Oh, you nearly poisoned that elf with your antidote considering he’d never ingested the original drug, but we managed to intercept it in time. But you did everything perfectly for the situation.”
“You staged all this. For my benefit,” I repeated numbly. The elves, the toys, the drug – none of it real, all a show put on to give me an opportunity to shine.
Santa Claus got to his feet, and came over and pressed a kiss onto my forehead. “Merry Christmas, Virginia.”
I smiled. Perhaps Merry Christmas and zombie elves were compatible, after all. Still…I stepped toward Douglas, who held out his arms, no doubt expecting a heart-felt hug.
Instead, I smacked him along side his head. “Never do that again,” I demanded, then turned toward the room’s other occupant and smiled almost sheepishly. Douglas’ expression had put the cap on what had, all in all, been an excellent adventure, but one final thing needed to be said.
“Perhaps, Sir, you’d better put me on your naughty list after all.”