As far as seedy rest stops go, the Beaufort Bed & Breakfast was the bee’s knees. Unlike other chains, this place had a distinctive wild western saloon-esque feel to it. The employees were all dressed in dated clothes, but it was their muttonchops that really shone. The player piano in the lobby— oh, don’t get me started!
Geno (as I’d started calling Puck) put down his quadro-pronged food spear (as forks are called in this here province) to read the old-timey blog printout (as newspapers are called in the 21st century). The story was not only relevant, but now that he was distracted, I had dibs on the noodle bowl.
He let out a semi-astonished gasp at the cover story: the rec center I’d refused to compete in had just been destroyed in a train crash. Smashed into toothpicks.
“Fools!” Geno cried, banging the table futilely. This was the third report of railroad-related demolitions in the last two years.
All too often in this corner-cutting atmosphere of ours will zoning officials give the green light for construction over an active rail line; betting on the off-chance that the railroad barons will “forget” one of their acquisitions had worked in the industrial age, but the world had changed. Tragically, local government hadn’t yet caught up to the world.
“It’s in times like these that I think of the children,” I pontificated. Now reeeeel him in…
Having already read this week’s mission brief while Geno fought off a polar bear, I’d decided almost immediately on a leisurely trek through the frozen northern wastes to break bread with that bearded barnacle, Sinterklaas.
See, I already owed ol’ Nick a favor from back in aught-4 (2004 in oldspeak) when he helped me fight my past self from the future for control of the present. And everyone — everyone — knows that if you stay in Santa Claus’ debt too long he comes back with the grim reaper and turns you into an elf.
It’s common sense, yo.
“Those children are certainly going to have an unhappy Christmas this year…”
“Yeah,” Geno sighed.
He put down the paper, probably ready to pledge his life to whatever I was proposing.
“I say we go to the North Pole and give Santa Claus—” I jabbed at the advert next to the train wreck passage, where Santa’s worldwide talent search took up half the page. “The greatest toy ever invented above and below the sea!”
Smiling, Geno jangled the keys to out new hovercraft. “Hrumph! You must be turning over a new leaf. Given the choice, I thought for sure you’d want to expose yourself to that ore.”
“I’ve already been arrested for trying something similar in the Smithsonian,” I admitted, swinging a scarf o’er me shoulders. “Let’s jet!”
Geno jumped as an elf wrapped in tinsel smashed a workshop window, sliding stealthily down the snowy slopes into the maw of a blue whale, thrashing at the gnashing teeth like an arctic Ahab.
“Bwo ho ho!” a violently jolly voice bellowed from aside the pumping furnaces.
Blue flames licked his red suit as the largest man I’d ever seen stepped through the shattered glass, his black boots burning the ground as he pressed down. His eyes were like ice, his beard pointy and silver as knives. Behind him one could hear the cracking of whips and painful, unearthly shrieks. Each step smeared the snow with blood. But there was always more.
“If it isn’t the nicest man on Earth.”
With a twinkle in his eye and a crossbow at the ready, St. Nick regarded me carefully for a second before swooning in faux shock. “Ho ho ho! If it isn’t Gyrobo. And who is this?” he stared down at my diminutive companion. “More assembly line fodder?”
“This is my lead bass player, Jo-Jack Krajesak.” I glanced at the dingy workshop. “We’re here for the talent search.”
“Trying to buy your way out of purgatory, eh?!” the old man laughed. “C’mon in then.”
He clicked his tongue and held up his hand, leading us through rows of suffocating machinery. I’d been in corporate situations like this before: we’d be thrown into a room with half a dozen idealistic dolts convinced their own product was the Next Big Thing.
The secret to success was threats and bribery.
“You!” Barging across the threshold, I accosted the nearest person. “Support my idea or I’ll pay you a lump sum!”
“Take a seat. The focus gree-oup is about to begin.” Santa passed around a stack of agendas. “Let’s introduce our proposals. I think it goes unsaid that the winner will be rewarded with riches beyond measure, while the losers…” he looked out the darkened window that lit the room. Just outside, frozen elves bound with titanium chains were filling a gaping hole with mud and ice.
The last focus group.
Santa plopped himself down, taking up two seats at the head of the brown table. A large portrait of himself as a young man holding a sword hung just above his cap.
A freckled fellow with a slight limp strode to the front of the room. “I’m Bob—”
Quick as a bullet, Santa flipped the table, tore off Bob’s head, spit down his neck, and flew back to his now-fused double-chair before the table landed. “I find the meeting goes easier when I set the tone.” He clapped his hands once, and two emaciated dwarves carried off the carrion. “Next.”
“Hi, I’m Marc Beetlemen.”
And so he was.
“Hi Marc,” we all droned, captivated by his aura of monotony.
“I’m the marketing liaison for Henderson Fashion. Here’s our idea:” he pulled a rip-chord between his legs, causing his backside to instantly inflate. “Functional parachute pants! It’s all the rage in our European outlets. And it actually saves lives.” His lip trembled. “Except for one. My wife, who died testing—”
“That’s some good brainstorming, Marc.” Santa tightened a mammoth tie ’round his thick, tree trunk-like neck. “Next!”
“I’m Jen Ivanov of Boilerplate Studios.” She unfurled a large concept poster. “We’re planning a do-it-yourself video kit to let children inject themselves into as many as twelve inoffensive, generic movies! It fosters creativity within the bounds of polite society.”
We all clapped politely. Next up…
“I’m Justin Thyme, and this is my associate Penwise Sammywistle,” I shouted, springing to my feet. “And boy howdy do we have a surprise for you!”
Santa rolled a two-foot long cigar in his mouth as I passed out small black boxes. Almost immediately they sprouted spindly, spidery legs and slithered up the representatives’ arms, clamping clandestinely on the napes of their necks. Black tubes connected themselves to their hosts’ eyes and ears.
“Great Fox of Fort Knox! My arms… my legs… I’m… paralyzed!” Santa’s cigar fell to the table, splashing ash on his agenda. “Traitor!” he spat. “I’ll hunt you down and use your skin to shine my sled— father?”
“By now the neural link has been completed. The prototypes are burrowing into your minds, dredging your memories for enough data to build a working model of someone… someone… someone close to you.”
After all, what did most people truly desire, year after year? Just a little more time…
“It’s the perfect Christmas present,” Geno added, “a day with someone you’ve lost.”
“I can see my father!” Santa exclaimed. The others were experiencing similar sensations:
“Skippy! I buried that dog twenty years ago!”
“I can see my wife!”
“I can see Marc’s wife!”
“It’s the Brooklyn Dodgers!”
“My parents, back from the grocery at last!”
“Oh God! It’s that drifter!”
As if by some grand clockwork switch, the prototypes paused all movement, then detached. They fell to the table, transforming into inert, benign black blocks.
“That… was incredible!” Santa sizzled. “But what if the naughty children got their hands on it?”
“That’s the YuleProtect™.” I turned one of the boxes over to show him a small keypad. “Each unit comes with a registration code in the manual. You have to plug the device into your PC or Mac with this USB port,” I pulled the slot cover, “the embedded drivers should install automatically, and it will allow you to enter the registration number online and receive an activation code.”
“And then you put the code into the keypad?”
“Up to three times. Our research shows most people only have three dead relatives they want to see. Anyone who wants to use it more times should have to call your support line and pay for reactivation codes.”
“What if someone loses their keys?” Marc asked. Marc. As if he had anything to do with my presentation.
“It still works, but it turns your loved ones into festering corpses bent on devouring human flesh. It’s standard DRM.”
Santa half-stroked his beard. “This seems overly complicated for six-year-olds.”
“Bah! It’s not for them. Christmas for kids? That’s so 1990. Wake up, adults are the ones that appreciate nice things. Throw a toddler a ball of twine, they’re entertained for the evening. Throw a ball of twine at a veteran truck driver, and they’ll throw it right back in your face. And maybe damage your merchandise on purpose. The Next Big Thing is going to hit the 18-65 demographic. I feel it! It burns!”
“Hmmmmm… you’ve clearly put a lot of thought into your proposal.”
“I thought it up while convincing my local school board to eliminate summer vacation.”
“But why make people jump through hoops to make it work?”
Prepared to a “T”, I puffed out my chest. “Recipients need to prove that they’re really nice, and not a naughty person just ‘borrowing.’”
“But couldn’t a naughty person enter registration keys from a nice person, use their device, and the nice person who deserves the present couldn’t use it?”
Wow. Santa was as sharp a bargainer as I’d ever seen, I reckon. “Yeah, but it stops naughty people from getting at it easier.”
He frowned. “No, they’re naughty. They’d find a way. All this does is hinder legitimate nice people from using their sparkly new Christmas present right away. And it hurts those who get invalid keys, or who have more than three relatives…”
For crying out cornflakes! This was gonna be a tough sell. I’d have to give him the same speech I gave Electronic Arts.
“It’s much more than just to stave off the naughty! It’ll turn anyone’s computer into a conduit… so you can gather information: what programs are installed on their computer, whether they plan to leave you milk and cookies… even after the present becomes inert, it’ll keep you hip to emerging trends! And people will be too preoccupied with the present itself to care about the privacy implications!”
That got his attention. Ever since that disastrous hip-hop video, Santa had tried desperately to rebuild his street cred. Having a crystal ball of sorts—
“I could predict the next 10 Big Things!” He slammed a nearby control panel. Every chair but mine, his, and Puck’s, dropped into a fiery abyss. When he shook my hand, I knew, deep down inside, that I would make it out of that compound alive.
Bending into his fur-covered breast pocket, the behemoth passed down a recently xeroxed map to my next rendezvous, where I would most likely sleep for twenty years. Or dance for nickels.
We’d barely taken our first breath outside the workshop when I suddenly remembered. “Sweet Bluebird of Oxford! He said we’d be ‘rewarded beyond all measure’ before the meeting!” I reached out to wail on the steel door.
“No! Stop. He gave me this on the way out,” Puck handed me a folder. Written on the cover: “Pictures of Marc’s wife.”
I rifled through it. “Hey! I know her!”
“You do?” Puck asked, astonished. People should stop underestimating my ability to claim that I know people.
“Yep. Back in my truck driving days, this one threw a ball of twine at me.” I dropped the folder in a lonely snow bank with a modicum of regret.