Dane County Regional Airport
December 24th, 2022CE
“Well, I think that’s the last of it,” John Roley stood up from the control panel he’d just finished screwing back into place and brushed down the front of his pants, sending several small bits of discarded wiring insulation tumbling onto the floor. “Fire up the panel and let’s see what we’ve got.”
“Yes sir,” ISAC replied.
“Sir?” John arched an eyebrow as the first displays in the Wells’s cockpit began to blink to life. “Since when have you been unironically deferential to anyone?”
“Eh it’s the holidays. I figured you deserved the win. Particularly since the main flight computer doesn’t seem to want to give you one.”
“Yeah, yeah,” John waved the comment away with his right hand. “That ends tonight. It’s the—”
“It’s not the display,” ISAC cut him off.
“It’s got to be the display,” John countered. “I’ve checked every other part of the system. The display is the only thing that… son of a bitch!”
A large chunk of the display panel on the ship, which normally would have contained the Wells’s instrument cluster, flashed an angry red. A dictionary worth of incomprehensible error messages spooled out on the secondary display below it for about five seconds, at which point that display also froze and a pained klaxon sounded out in the cockpit. John clapped his hands over his ears and glared at ISAC’s nearest camera pickup. ISAC acknowledged the gesture, waited exactly 2.3 seconds, and then shut down the flight computer. The alarm and the lights on the control panel began winking out one by one.
“It’s not the display,” John said.
“Really?” ISAC replied. “You sure you don’t want to turn it on again, just to make sure?”
“Not the time, ISAC.” John grunted. “Damn it, I told Laura the Wells would be flying by now.”
“Don’t be so hard on yourself, she’s known you for a long time. I’m sure she never actually anticipated that would happen.”
“It should have, though.” John flopped down into the pilot’s seat and began drumming his fingers against the control yoke. “The flight computers in this thing are 29th century tech. They’re practically indestructible. For all three of the things to go down this hard at the same time is… insane. It’s got to be interference from one of the peripheral systems.”
“I still think it’s software.”
“Can’t be software. You’d have found it by now.”
“I dunno, as you said it is 29th century tech. It can be a little weird sometimes. You should go home – I can stay here and check through the code again.”
“No, I’m not going to make you work through Christmas Eve on your own.” John let out a sigh. “We can both head home. I’ll just tell Laura that the vacation will need to be delayed a few days until we’ve chased this down and got the Wells flight worthy again.”
“No,” ISAC insisted. “Don’t be stupid. I’m an AI. I get that you humans place a weird significance on me being physically present for communal holiday celebrations, but from my perspective there’s not much difference between me being there and me just remoting into the home terminal. And if it is software, I can probably get this whole thing fixed on my own and no one needs to delay their travel plans.”
“I suppose that makes sense.” John’s gaze darted towards the camera pickup again. “You know, we could also just celebrate here this year. Decorations might be a little sparse, but if you think about it the Wells is a lot bigger than the house.”
“Oh that sounds great,” ISAC replied. “I’m sure Laura’s mom would absolutely love being served airplane food while Christmas carols play over the PA system. And I bet that the random ear splitting alarms urging everyone to evacuate before the plane blows up would really add to the festive atmosphere. She certainly wouldn’t add it to the list of reasons she’s compiled to quietly resent you and—”
“Okay!” John raised both hands in surrender. “You’ve made your point, it’s a bad idea.”
“Go,” ISAC insisted. “Get some sleep, unhide the gifts, double check the locks on Frank’s cage. I’ll still be here in the morning.”
“All right, fine.” John stood up and pulled his coat off the rack in the rear corner of the cockpit. “I suppose some sleep and time away might do me some good.”
“Good human,” ISAC said with a level of satisfaction that was just shy of reading as smug. “I’ll take care of everything, you’ll see.”
“I’m sure you will.” John cracked a smile as he finished pulling on his coat. “Merry Christmas, ISAC.”
“Happy holidays to you too,” ISAC replied.
John nodded and headed out of the cockpit. ISAC watched him go on the surveillance system. He’d barely gone twenty feet when he suddenly stopped.
“You know, ISAC,” he began, brow furrowing, “now that I think about it… you’re a peripheral system attached to the flight computer.”
“Oh no,” ISAC deadpanned, “you’ve uncovered my devious plot. The flight computer is perfectly fine. I’ve just been overloading it with garbage data so that it immediately crashes on startup and starts playing that benighted alarm sound so that I can drive all organic beings out of the Wells, leaving me alone on Christmas Eve to use it for nefarious purposes.”
John’s eyes narrowed as he stared into the nearest security camera, a calculating expression settling onto his face. The next few seconds played out in intense silence. And then, John began to chuckle.
“You’re right,” he said, his face softening. “Stupid idea. I guess I really do need to get some sleep.”
“Get home,” ISAC laughed back. “Before Laura gets mad at me for delaying you!”
“Okay, I’m going!” John grinned and resumed his march to the exit. ISAC watched him go as long as his security cameras would allow him, then switched over to monitoring the telemetry from John’s phone as he got into his car and began driving out of the hanger and down the runway. Once he’d confirmed that John had gotten past the airport security gate, he played the sound of a human exhaling over the PA system as something not entirely unlike tension relaxed deep within his neural networks.
“Okay,” ISAC said over the PA system, “He’s gone. We are Ho Ho Ho for Operation Rudolph.”
One of the overhead compartment doors in the passenger area dropped open. A few seconds later, a tall, sinewy man who seemed to be at least three feet too tall to fit in the storage bin began to squirm his way free of the confined space. The maneuver required him to contort his body in at least three different ways that would have probably been fatal for a human. Or, to be more specific, to an organic human. Fortunately Od-1, more formally known as Captain Odysseus of the Temporal Consistency Agency, had never needed to worry about organic limitations.
“I am not pleased,” the synthetic groused as he ungracefully dropped towards the floor, catching himself in a handstand in the middle of the aisle. “According to the schedule he was supposed to go home six hours and twenty-three minutes ago.”
“Yeah, well, turns out that John’s gotten a lot better at understanding the documentation for the flight computer than I expected.” ISAC shot back. “For now, we’ve got a devious plot to enact. You have all your gear?”
“I believe so,” Od-1 performed a short cartwheel to right himself, then pulled open another overhead bin and pulled out a massive leather sack, dyed a lurid red and trimmed with white fur. “And I used the time spent in the overhead bin to recompile the list and verify it, twice, as is the tradition.”
“Well I can guarantee you that no one’s going to know that, but I admire your commitment to work method.” As ISAC spoke the low hum of electronics and machinery began to steadily build within the Wells as systems came online. The flight instrument panel flashed red for a split second, then emitted a pleasant “ding” noise as the computer finished its boot-up sequence. “Jumping now.”
A wave of blue light swept over the Wells in her hangar, briefly suffusing everything within the craft with its glow. When it receded, the hangar was gone, and the ship floated in the center of the swirling blue pseudo-universe that was the time stream.
“This is… unnerving,” Od-1 said as his feet began to lift off the floor. “Isn’t there usually gravity?”
“Yeah, not this time.” ISAC said. “Jumping the Wells from a standstill is normally a really bad idea. Makes it next to impossible to control exactly where we jump back, or how much momentum we’ll have coming out of the jump. So to avoid all that, I put us in the exact center of the time stream. Local gravity zeroes out, so we don’t pick up any new momentum. But we are going to have to get used to living like astronauts for a while.”
“We?” Od-1 grabbed onto a chair to steady himself. “Have you gotten legs since we last talked?”
“Okay, just you,” ISAC admitted. “Trust me though, you’ll be glad for the added targeting precision once we get to stage two.”
“Very well,” Od-1 sighed. “I will cope.”
“Glad to hear it.” ISAC’s fans whirred as he began loading a very large database labeled Phase One. “So first up, there are a lot of socks in here. Where are we coming down on that?”
Port Augusta, South Australia
December 25th, 2022CE
12:02:18 PM (Local Time)
Jacob Bowman, single father of two, was in his element. Arrayed in front of him were all the ingredients for a Christmas feast of epic proportions. In three hours, his boyfriend would be arriving with his parents. And he was determined that they would be greeted by some of the finest food ever prepared by man. So absorbed was he in this task that he didn’t notice when his youngest, Kevin, wandered into the kitchen until the five year old began tugging at his apron.
“Dad,” Kevin said, “where’s the sherry?”
“Why do you want sherry?” Jacob asked.
“We need it for Father Christmas.”
Jacob chuckled and looked down at his young son. “Father Christmas came last night, Kev,” he explained. “He won’t be back until next year!”
“But he’s here now,” Kevin insisted. “We need the sherry!”
“What?” Jacob cocked his head at his son, trying to decipher the expression in his wide, determined eyes. “What do you mean, he’s—”
“Ho ho ho!” a booming voice bellowed from the living room.
A moment of horrible clarity settled into Jacob in that moment. The voice he heard now was completely unfamiliar to him. And his daughter was in the living room. Instinctively he pulled Kev behind him with one hand, while the other sought out the large cast iron pan setting on the stove.
“Kev, you stay behind me, all right?” He whispered as he began moving towards the living room. “Do not let go of my hand.”
“Dad, we need the sherry for Father Christmas!” Kev protested.
“Not now Kev!”
It only took a minute to reach the living room. Standing in front of the fireplace was a tall, rotund man in red and white furs. Rosy cheeks poked through a large, curly white beard. Laying on the floor in front of him was an overstuffed leather sack, opened at the top to reveal it was full of brightly wrapped packages. And sitting before him, looking as enraptured as he’d ever seen her, was his eight year old, Emily.
“Jesus Christ,” Jacob breathed.
The jolly old elf’s head immediately snapped towards Jacob at the sound.
“No, not at all!” He said. “It’s Santa!”
Jacob advanced, frying pan raised over his head to strike as he did.
“Get out of my house!” He demanded.
“No need for violence!” The man insisted. “I’m just here to deliver your gifts!”
“The hell you are!” Jacob snarled. “Emily, come over here love!”
“Dad!” Kevin whined.
“It’s fine, kids,” the intruder chuckled as he reached into his bag. “I know I’m a little late this year, but Santa’s sleigh was stuck for six hours and twenty three minutes because someone—”
A million horrible thoughts of what the intruder might be reaching for in that bag ran through Jacob’s head in that moment. Before he even realized what he was doing the pan had left his hand, arcing inexorably towards the intruder’s head. The unfamiliar man reacted with preternatural quickness as one hand snapped up and clamped down on the pan, halting it the air just a few centimeters away from his temple. Cool gray eyes stared back at Jacob from under curly white hair. And then, the intruder made an exaggerated wink at him.
“Naughty, naughty!” The man laughed as he let the pan drop to the ground in front of him. “Now, let’s see. I believe I have presents for all three of you!
“Yay!” the kids cheered.
Jacob stood, frozen in shock, as his brain struggled to process what he was seeing. The man who would be Santa dutifully distributed a new Nintendo Switch and massive Lego set to the children, then turned to Jacob.
“Jacob!” the man said. “I’m afraid that you didn’t write a letter to Santa this year, so I didn’t know what to get you.”
“Gahhhh…” Jacob blinked.
“Don’t worry!” The man in red grinned, showing what seemed to be an unnatural number of teeth. “Your children told me that you are very fond of socks!”
“Buh?” Jacob looked down to a package of unremarkable white crew socks being pressed into his hands.
“Well, that’s it for now. Time for me to go on to the next house – I have three billion twenty million one hundred and three thousand sixty four left to go! Until next year, Merry Christmas!”
“Gur…” Jacob intoned as “Santa” hefted the bag over his shoulder, tromped over to the chimney, and gave one last wink. Space momentarily seemed to fold around him, and then he was gone.
“…But that’s a fake fireplace…” Jacob muttered. “We don’t even have a chimney.”
“Dad!” Kev squeezed his father’s hand and bounced up and down. “It’s magic!”
“Wow!” Emily marveled at her gift. “Santa brought me two Nintendos this year!”
Jacob let go of Kev’s and rushed towards the front door. Once outside he immediately looked up, scanning the sky for signs of reindeer. He didn’t see any. He did, however, see just about everyone else on the block also looking towards the sky.
“Did…” he shouted in the direction of his nearest neighbor, “…Did you just get visited by…”
His neighbor nodded dumbly back. Further down the street, a Lamborghini decorated with a massive bow appeared in someone’s driveway in a flash of blue light, with Santa in the driver’s seat. Simultaneously the same man was setting up bicycles, piling up camping gear, and at once house tying up a very confused looking pony in the back yard. Every time one of them finished a task they’d vanish in a flash, only to simultaneously appear elsewhere with another round of gifts to distribute.
“I never should have stopped writing letters,” someone muttered.
December 24th, 2022CE
“…Do you ever wonder if we should have gotten a dog?” Laura asked.
“Hmm?” John looked up from his book and followed his wife’s gaze towards the oversized cage installed in the corner of their den.
Inside the cage was Frank. Or, as John had come to think of him, the dodo god of destruction. The fluffy gray bird stood about three feet tall and was currently lying upside down on a children’s slide installed for his amusement. In one clawed foot, he held a tomato. In the other, an apple. Every few seconds he would reach down to try and take a bite out of one, only to be thwarted by the pear that was currently filling his bulbous beak. This apparently caused Frank a fair bit of distress, as pears were clearly a dessert fruit and therefore not to be consumed before the apple and tomato. However the fact that he could simply drop the pear had not yet occurred to him.
“Every single day,” he said.
His phone began to ring before he could get any further. Frank let out an indignant squawk at the sudden sound, dropping all his food and rolling the rest of the way down the slide in an untidy mess. He landed on his face, feet waving uselessly in the air, and issued another squawk of challenge into his own abdomen.
“Well, glad to see that stalemate resolved,” John quickly checked the name on his phone before hitting accept. “Hey Tim!”
“Hi John!” the voice of Tim Jackson sounded over the phone. “Sorry to be calling so late, but I’m trying to get a hold of ISAC. Is he there with you?”
“No, he stayed behind on the Wells,” John said. “Still chasing down the issue with the flight computer to try and get her ready for tomorrow.”
“Oh, okay. I’ll try to send him a message over that network then. Thanks! Merry Christmas to you and Laura!”
“Merry Christmas!” John hung up the phone and set it down on the arm of the sofa again.
“Are you sure you don’t just want to cancel that?” Laura asked. “If the Wells is having another one of its… episodes… it seems to me like it might be a good idea to keep my family as far away from it as possible.”
“Nah, the time travel systems are all fine. Besides, I think this is the first time that your mom’s been genuinely excited about interacting with me. I’ve got to take advantage of that opportunity.”
A long pause followed.
“Laura,” John said, “this is the point where you laugh and reassure me that I’m overreacting.”
“Wellll…” Laura grimaced. “I’d really like to, but…”
“Oh shit.” John winced.
John’s phone began to ring again. This time he accepted the call without looking at the caller ID. “Hello?”
“Hey John, Tim again.” Tim’s voice had pitched up slightly, an undercurrent of tension now present that hadn’t been there before. “ISAC’s not at the hangar.”
“Sure he is,” John said. “I left him there myself. He’s probably just got the network down for a diagnostic.”
“Yeah, I already thought about that,” Tim said. “But then I checked the security cameras. The hangar’s empty.”
Laura looked over at John, an inquisitive look on her face.
“Tim, can I call you back in just a second?” he asked, voice trembling.
“Sure,” Tim said.
“Thanks.” John hung up the phone and flashed what he sincerely hoped looked like a reassuring smile at Laura. “We’re good!”
“Uh-huh.” Laura raised an eyebrow. “Is that the kind of good where someone’s about to show up to kill us, or the kind of good where we end up with our house being designated as the preferred habitat for a critically endangered species?”
Frank let out a mighty squawk and flapped his vestigial wings, as if to provide punctuation to her point.
“The one where ISAC just ran off with the Wells for reasons unknown?”
“So probably the second one.” Laura sighed. “John, please understand that I would love to go on a Christmas Eve adventure with you and enjoy some hijinks. But I’m coming off a double shift in the OR, and I even with this weird Guardian metabolism I really need to be in bed before ten if I’m going to be good to go tomorrow. Think you and Tim can handle this one solo?”
“Probably,” John said.
“Good.” She smiled and leaned over to give him a peck on the cheek. “You boys have fun. If you get in over your heads, call me.”
“Okay,” John stood up from the couch and began heading for the door. “Love you!”
“Love you too!” Laura called back. “And if you bring back a girlfriend for Frank, I will divorce you!”
John exited the room and took a calming breath. Once that failed to work, he hit redial on his phone.
“Okay,” he said. “Laura’s out for this one. So what’s going on?”
December 24th, 2022CE
The drive to Tim’s house took far longer than John had hoped. The snow had been getting steadily heavier since he’d left the airport but hadn’t yet reached the tipping point where plows were being deployed. His car had done its best to navigate regardless, but after the third time he nearly spun out on a curve he’d had to slow down to a snail’s pace.
Please, he thought as he trudged up to the front door and rang the bell, let there at least be some good news about this whole mess.
Tim’s stony expression as he answered the door killed the small ember of hope John still had.
“How bad?” John asked.
“Australian news service just got the first clear pictures posted,” Tim replied. “It is clearly Od-1 in a Santa suit.”
“Happy Holidays to you too,” Tim’s mouth stretched into a humorless smile.
“At least no one’s made the connection to us yet,” John grumbled as he stepped inside and began stamping the snow off his shoes.
“Yeah…” Tim cleared his throat. “…About that.”
John stopped and looked up at Tim. “Please, no…” he began.
“Special agents Danvers and Voss are waiting in the dining room,” Tim said.
“Yeah.” Tim extended a hand. “Want me to hang up your coat for you?”
John pulled his coat off and handed it over to Tim as he focused on getting out of his shoes. “Are they going to be showing up at my house next?” he asked.
“They were thinking about it.” Tim took the coat and did his best to hang it up on a hook by the door. It immediately fell down into an untidy heap on the floor, dragged down by what was probably far too much added weight in the pockets. “Then when I told them you were on your way here they decided to wait.”
“And they just felt like trusting you?”
“Ehh… truth be told I think I may have just been confirming something they already knew.” Tim scooped the coat up and tried hanging it a second time.
“So they’ve lo-jacked the car again. Great. Every time I try to be nice, they install more surveillance.”
“You know we can hear you,” an unfamiliar female voice chimed in.
“Of course you can hear me!” John shouted back as he headed up the very short staircase leading from the entryway into the living/dining area. “I’d be much more surprised if you didn’t, since last time I called a plumber he found a bug in the freaking toilet tank!”
Inside Tim’s dining room were what appeared to be two slabs of well-manicured beef molded into matching black suits. The woman who’d spoken earlier sat at the table, back ramrod straight and fingers clasped in front of her as she stared at him. Behind her, her partner slowly sipped at a paper takeout cup with a small candy cane hanging off the edge where it was slowly melting into the steaming hot chocolate without whipped cream, no doubt a concession to the deadly seriousness of the situation.
“So.” John sighed as he sat down across from the woman. “Which of you is which?”
The woman pointed a thumb over her shoulder at her partner. “Danvers.” She then turned the same thumb towards her own face. “Voss.” Meanwhile her partner set the cocoa down and pulled out a set of badges, which he laid face up on the table for John to inspect.
“You can put those away,” John sighed and began rubbing at his temples. “I already know you are who you say you are.”
“Still got to show you,” Danvers said.
“Particularly if we end up needing to take you in after this little chat,” Voss added.
“Take us in for what, exactly?” Tim asked.
“How about aiding and abetting in about five billion counts of trespassing?” Voss suggested.
“We…” John mulled that over for a moment. “…probably couldn’t be convicted for that.”
“Well let’s hope we don’t have to find out.” Voss opened a manilla folder and slid an enlarged photo of Od-1 crouched in a fireplace across the table. “You want to tell us anything about this?”
“I’d love to, if I had anything to tell,” John said. “All I can say for sure right now is that I clearly made a mistake introducing him to the works of Terry Pratchett.”
“I told you that was going to end badly,” Tim muttered.
“He did fine with Neil Gaiman,” John shot back. “I figured we were over the hump.”
“Gentlemen,” Voss interrupted. “Focus, please. How dangerous would you say he may be to the people whose homes he’s currently breaking into?”
“He’s not dangerous at all,” Tim shook his head. “And, technically, he’s not doing anything illegal either.”
“How do you figure that?” Danvers inquired.
“Because he’s law enforcement,” Tim told him.
John closed his eyes and began reciting in a matter of fact tone. “The TCA charter was ratified in 2215 by thirty five nations including the United States of America. This empowers higher ranked officers of the TCA with broad discretionary powers when acting outside their time of origin to enter the private property of citizens of signatory nations, provided no harm or damage is done to their persons or property in the pursuit of their duty. Due to the unusual nature of TCA operations, this authority will be enforced retroactively, so as to provide them with legal immunity when operating in the field.” John’s eyes snapped open again. “And you better ask any questions you have about that in the next two minutes, because after that I’m probably going to forget all of it because it’s no longer deemed ‘essential knowledge’ by the things that fed it to me.”
“Sounds like bullshit,” Voss said. “Laws can’t be applied retroactively like that.”
“Not today, no, but apparently the governments of 2215 have a different view of civil liberties as they apply to time travel,” John countered. “And trust me, as bad as this currently is, getting more of the TCA involved would only make things a hundred times worse.”
“He’s right.” Tim shrugged. “Not that we can do anything to prove it to you, but it would be nice to have it on the record that we warned you ahead of time.”
“And you’re saying this…” Voss waved one hand in the air. “’Christmas miracle’ is something officially sanctioned?”
John cocked his head and looked off to the side for a moment. “Well I wouldn’t necessarily rule it out… but yeah, probably not.”
“Hey now…” Danvers stepped in and put a hand on Voss’s shoulder, an easy grin spreading across his face. “Look, it’s a holiday, we’re all tired, and we’d like to get home just as much as you.”
“Why?” John arched an eyebrow. “The whole reason you’re here is that you’re both Jewish and don’t celebrate Christmas.”
The easy grin began to drain from Danvers’s face and John felt Tim’s foot kicking him in the shin under the table.
“Ah…” He cleared his throat. “Sorry… it’s been a long day and I sometimes forget that I shouldn’t make it obvious that I can see people’s personal histories when I meet them.”
“Why is he doing this?” Voss asked.
“He just told you,” Tim shot a strained look at John. “He gets really stupid when he’s tired.”
“Not him!” Voss pointed to the picture of Od-1. “Him.”
“Well…” John waved one hand in the air.
“Od-1 is… aptly named,” Tim offered. “He occasionally gets ideas that most would consider… whimsical. And runs with them.”
“This is somewhat more elaborate than what he usually gets up to though,” John admitted.
“And how is he doing it?” Danvers asked. “I get the broad strokes, but he appears to be showing up at several houses simultaneously. Based on what you told the government when you went public five years ago, that shouldn’t be possible.”
“I actually was thinking about that on my way over,” John said. “I don’t think he technically is appearing multiple places simultaneously. I’m pretty sure he does one house, jumps back to the Wells, restocks, then jumps out again with a gap of a few milliseconds added to the destination. That way there’s no simultaneous jumps, and in the event that they get the math wrong and send him to the wrong branch of the timeline there will most likely be another iteration of him that jumps in to full in the gap.”
“And that would work?” Danvers asked.
“Well…” Tim shrugged. “I mean… we’ve never tried it. But yeah, it would probably work. Though the time commitment would be insane.”
“How do you mean?”
“Well it’s not exactly Christmas magic,” Tim said. “He’s not freezing time for anyone here, he’s just dipping in and out a few billion times. For us it all happens in one night. But for him, it’s all just laid out linearly.”
“How much time are we talking about?” Voss asked.
“Well…” John began.
Time and Location: Largely Incomprehensible
Day 297 of Operation Rudolph (Shipboard Time)
Od-1 appeared back in the Wells’s cargo bay and immediately went limp, letting his leather sack free to drift in the microgravity environment. It had barely left his hand when a small robotic drone swept in to snare it and drag it over to the loading area where gifts sourced from a plethora of parallel universes were being sorted, labeled, and packed. Simultaneously another drone buzzed in from the other side, trailing an extension cord. It offered the end to Od-1, who took it gratefully and connected it to a matching cable extended from his wrist.
“Ho ho ho…” the tall synthetic spread his arms out and let himself slowly spin in the middle of the room. “Hopefully that’s the last house for a while with parents who are awake.”
“We both knew the risks,” ISAC reminded him. “That’s why we’re hitting the countries with relaxed gun control last.”
“I’m less worried about them shooting me as I am them shooting the bag,” Od-1 explained. “I’m reasonably sure most bullets from this time period won’t be able to penetrate my armor.”
“I’m not. If someone manages to breach your skin and expose your endoskeleton, every tabloid out there is going to be reporting that Santa is a secret Terminator. I’d rather not be responsible for embedding the idea of Cyber-Santa into the collective unconscious of mankind.”
“Maybe that’s where that TV show got the idea…” Od-1 mused.
“Not if we do the job right,” ISAC said. “How long do you need to charge, an hour?”
“Make it two,” Od-1 said. “Best practices are that my batteries should be swapped every five years to avoid capacity losses. According to my internal clock, I’m two years past that. I’d like to try and compensate by limiting the charging current.”
“Hmm, fine.” ISAC’s terminal whirred slightly. “I’ll use the time to see if I can modify one of the elves to swap your batteries for you later.”
“Use Herbie,” Od-1 pointed at one of the drones idling by the wrapping station. “I like him.”
“…A lot.” John finished.
“When Od-1 commits to a bit, he goes all out,” Tim added.
“Well, time’s up,” Danvers said. “How do we stop him?”
“Stop him?” John asked. “What makes you think we can stop him?”
“That’s what you two were planning to do, isn’t it?” Voss asked.
“No, we’re here to try and figure out how the hell we’re going to handle the press after the fact,” Tim told them.
“Any chance we had of actually stopping them ended when the Wells left,” John continued. “Without the ship, we’re just a couple of guys with some weird time powers.”
“I suppose we could try setting up a bear trap in front of the chimney…” Tim mused.
All eyes slowly turned towards the redhaired man.
“Oh, come on,” Tim said. “He’s a HIRC. Worst case scenario, he just has to get a vice to straighten out his tibia afterwards.
“Anyway,” John looked back to Danvers and Voss. “What do you think happens if we ‘stop them?’”
“No more home invasions, for one,” Voss said.
“And tomorrow morning, the entire population of the United States wakes up to discover that for a few hours, Santa was real and just decided to skip over the entire western hemisphere,” John pointed out. “How do you spin that?”
Voss and Danvers stared back, then slowly turned to look at each other.
“Could you give us a moment alone?” Voss asked.
“Sure.” Tim stood up and motioned for John. “Come on, let’s go into the greenhouse.”
The two had barely left the room when they heard the beginnings of a heated discussion between the two agents. Tim obligingly led John into the greenhouse extending into the backyard, then closed the door to give the two their privacy.
“That was slightly evil,” Tim said.
“Beartrap in front of the chimney,” John shot back.
“Okay, fair.” Tim admitted. “Seriously though, how do we handle this?”
“I was hoping you might have an idea,” John admitted. “There’s… a lot to unpack here.”
“Yeah. Like what happens next year,” Tim said. “I’m betting there are going to be a lot of kids going without gifts once all the adults get back into the habit of believing in Santa again. Unless you think that Od-1’s going to be making this a new Christmas tradition?”
“Not even Od-1’s that committed,” John said. “Plus I don’t think he’d be able to get very far without the element of surprise.”
“Definitely not.” Tim nodded and looked down at a row of orchids in front of him, his jaw silently working as he thought. “…John, quick sanity check, are we the ones trying to kill Christmas here?”
John raised an eyebrow. “How many live horses has Od-1 distributed tonight?”
“Oh, yeah, the horrible aftermath.” Tim sighed. “The movies never got into the logistics.”
“Maybe—” John began.
Before John had a chance to finish his sentence, there was a bright blue flash in the corner of the greenhouse which faded to reveal the figure of man dressed all in fur from his head to his foot, and his clothes all tarnished with ashes and soot.
“Ho ho HOLY SHIT!” Od-1 shouted as he turned to see John and Tim staring back at him.
“YOU!” John pointed menacingly and began to advance.
“Uh…” Od-1 sputtered as he began to retreat. “Yes, that’s right, it’s me, Santa!”
“SANTA MY ASS!” John lunged forward.
Od-1 dodged, nimble and quick, and pulled open his sack as John slammed into the far wall of the greenhouse.
“Now, let’s all be calm!” Od-1 pleaded, throwing presents out before him like caltrops as he continued to retreat around the greenhouse. “Santa is only here to bring joy and presents to all the good girls and boys of the world!”
“Dude, I don’t even have kids,” Tim interjected.
“Well, yes, but you’re still getting presents from me. I mean, from Santa. Who is me!” Od-1 said as he pitched the last gift in John’s direction.
“You tell ISAC that when he gets back, he’s grounded for the next two months!” John shouted.
“But I thought he was supposed to be taking your mother-in-law to see the last London Frost Fair tomorrow!” Od-1 protested.
John paused for a moment, weighing the options, as the door to the greenhouse flew open to reveal Voss and Danvers stacked up in the doorway, each sweeping across the room with their service weapon.
“FREEZE!” Danvers shouted, bringing the gun up to point at Od-1.
“Time to go!” Od-1 declared.
“Don’t you da—”
There was another flash as Od-1 vanished before John had a chance to finish admonishing him.
“Damn it,” Danvers re-holstered his gun. “Couldn’t you have done anything to keep him here?”
“John tried,” Tim pointed out.
“And failed,” John continued. “Even if we could trap him, he’d just jump out a few seconds later.”
“Damn it.” Voss grunted. “Okay, plan B. Do you know how to find them once they’re done?”
“Probably,” John said. “I’m assuming they’re going to try and jump back into the hangar down at the airport once they’ve finished.
“Right.” Voss shot an undecipherable look at Danvers.
The man nodded in acknowledgement, pulled out a phone, and began dialing. A few seconds passed in silence before the faint sound of someone on the other end filtered out.
“Danvers,” he said. “We’re switching to plan B. I’m going to need everyone you can find put on a plane and flown out to Madison right away. …Yes, I do know what day it is…”
Meanwhile Voss reached into her own pocket and retrieved a set of car keys.
“Get your coats on,” she said, “we need to get down to that hangar right now. We may not be able to catch them in the act, but I want to be ready for them when they get back.”
Dane County Regional Airport
December 25th, 2022CE
The door of the hangar began to rattle a few seconds before the Wells arrived in a rush of displaced air. The ship settled into place with a symphony of sloshing fluids, creaking joints, and stressed metal.
“That does not sound entirely healthy,” Od-1 noted as the ship rocked to a halt again.
“Yeah…” ISAC agreed, “I probably should have more carefully considered the effect spending 583.09284392 days in microgravity would have on everything with liquids or pressurized gasses in them.”
“Isn’t the Wells supposed to be ready to fly in a few hours?”
“Yep.” ISAC simulated a sigh. “I suppose that means we have one last Christmas miracle to pull off. Good thing neither of us needs to sleep.”
“Agreed.” Od-1 pulled his false beard off his face and stuffed it into the pocket of his threadbare red suit. “I believe the loudest sounds were coming from the aft starboard landing gear?”
“Yeah, the hydraulics in the shocks are all screwed up,” ISAC confirmed. “Looks like you’ll need to bleed some air out of them at the very least.
“I will begin immediately,” Od-1 rose from the floor and headed for the aft boarding ramp, whistling an unnaturally precise rendition of “Jingle Bells” as he went. An organic human probably would have found the dark hangar nearly impossible to navigate, but the Wells had carried through a fair bit of heat from the jump and was currently bathing the whole structure in brilliant infrared. It only took a moment to find the large tool cart holding the equipment needed to bleed the landing gear and roll it over to the afflicted section of the plane.
This is more like it, he thought as he began hooking up the tools to the landing gear’s bleed valve. Nothing like the purity of a mechanism in need of repair to refocus the mind.
“Dashing through the snow…” he recited in an atonal approximation of singing.
“Where’s the beard, ‘Santa?’” John’s voice rang out from behind him.
Od-1 spun around, eyes wide, to see John and Tim standing about ten feet away, arms crossed in front of them. “Oh,” he said. “That is right. I did encounter you several months ago.”
“A few hours from our perspective,” Tim said.
“Time travel is strange,” Od-1 commiserated.
“I don’t think you want to be throwing stones tonight,” John glowered. “Why?”
“Why what?” Od-1 asked.
“Why…” John motioned at Od-1’s suit.
“Oh,” Od-1 looked down at his clothes as if he’d genuinely forgotten he was wearing them. “Morale building!”
“Yes, on a planetary scale!” Od-1 smiled. It was not an expression he used often, and based on the facial reactions he observed from John and Tim he made a note that he might need to spend more time practicing. “The last two years have been rough. ISAC and I became concerned that your entire species was in dire need of cheering up. This seemed like an acceptable means of addressing the problem before it had a chance to metastasize into something much worse.”
“And is that all?” John asked.
“That is all.” Od-1 said.
“That’s…” John’s jaw worked silently. “…unexpectedly sweet of you.”
Od-1 cocked his head to one side. “…And Sasha made me a bet the last time I saw him.”
“There it is.” Tim shook his head.
Outside, the sound of a helicopter on approach grew steadily louder.
“Seriously,” John asked, “where is the beard?”
Od-1 reached into his pocket and pulled out the somewhat bedraggled white beard.
“Get it on,” John told him.
“Why?” Od-1 asked.
“Because in about five minutes, most of the White House press corps is going to be getting off a helicopter to get an exclusive interview with Santa Claus.”
“I have your script right here,” Tim waved an envelope in the air. “Courtesy of the press secretary herself. Apparently, Santa had an unprecedented reindeer malfunction that resulted in all kinds of mistakes being made with the yearly gift deliveries.”
“But fortunately it’s been fixed, and will never happen again,” John continued. “Right?”
Od-1 stared at the envelope for a moment, then reached out to take it from Tim’s hand. “Right,” he said as he began sticking the beard back into place. “Santa will begin memorizing the script.”
“Good,” John turned and began headed towards the hangar door. “And you’ve lost flight privileges for three months, by the way!”
“Awww,” Od-1 drooped slightly.
“Anything else you’d like to say for yourself before we turn the media loose?” Tim asked.
“Yes,” Od-1 finished putting the beard in place and adjusted his red furry cap on his head. “Merry Christmas to all! And to all, a good night!”