It was North Pole Industries’ annual pre-Christmas team meeting, and Head Elf Bernard had taken the floor with unaccustomed gravity.
“We have a new competitor,” he said. “A particularly concerning one. They managed to keep it under wrapping paper until this very morning.”
“Challengers come and challengers go,” replied Santa Claus, not looking up from his phone. “Anyone remember Sears?”
Bernard shook his head. “It’s worse than that.”
Santa turned his phone screen-down and looked around the great mahogany table at the other half-dozen elves, finally resting his eyes on Bernard. Even seated he was nearly eye-level with the wizened little elf. “Is Jeff finally coming for us?”
“It’s more of a joint venture, but yes, Amazon is involved. With all that customer data lying around, it was only a matter of time…”
Santa took a hard, loud inhale through his nose, then blew out his cheeks. “Bernard, we’ve been over this. Tracking just aren’t my kind of cookies. I know the lists are obsolete. But tradition is our business, dang it!”
“I understand, sir,” said Bernard, looking down.
“All right. Well no matter what they do we’ll always have the edge in delivery.” Santa took off his glasses and wiped them with a handkerchief. “Or is Elon in on it too?”
“It seems they’ve partnered with Virgin, actually.”
Santa put his glasses back on. “Richard always was on my naughty list.” He took a cookie from the plate before him and downed it in a single bite, then picked up his glass of milk and chugged thoughtfully, placing it down empty with hardly a sound. “I suppose it was only a matter of time.”
“There’s one other thing,” Bernard said grimly. “It’s not at all nice.”
Santa leaned back and started packing his pipe. “Tell me everything.”
The man balanced a laptop precariously on his legs, shifting it continuously between the ends of his shorts and bare, pale flesh beyond. Even at max brightness he squinted to make out the screen against the bright daylight. Seagulls cried, and waves crashed on the Caribbean beach. The Zoom call’s video was currently focused on the view inside an immense, halogen-lit hangar. In the foreground was the top third of a woman in a white jumpsuit and a shiny red hardhat with a white Virgin logo across the front. Figures in similar red hats and white jumpsuits moved busily in the background.
“Engineering just gave us the final green-light,” she said, gesturing with the iPad in her left hand. “Sleigh 2 is ready for the Big Eve.” She was clearly shouting to be heard through her scarf.
“Outstanding,” said the man in shorts. “Lucas, how’s things looking in Seattle?”
The Zoom call’s focus shifted to a bearded man wearing AirPods and a hooded sweatshirt. His background was clearly green-screened, an empty white conference room with a partly cut-off Amazon logo above a blank whiteboard. “Last I checked the data analysts were manually deleting duplicate profiles and subbing gifts based on estimated household income. We’ve only got so many PlayStations, after all. Should be done by EOD on the twenty-second.”
“Did you guys end up dropping the universal gift card idea?”
“Yeah, seemed lame.”
“Agreed. Kavita, your hand is up?” The woman looked up from her iPad. Her mouth was moving behind the scarf but there was no sound. “Kavita I think you’re muted.”
“Sorry. Yes, everything is clear on the technical end but we’re still missing the biggest piece of the puzzle.”
“I am reliably informed it has been taken care of.”
Her eyes crinkled into a smile that was visible even with the scarf. “You found a pilot?”
From just off-camera, sitting in the shade beside the man in shorts, another man spoke up with a smooth British accent:
“I’ve got a guy.”
“Ooh, what kind of pilot?” asked the brown-haired American woman.
He put his beer down on the window of the outdoor bar and tugged at his red turtleneck. Even on a winter evening, Southern California made him sweat. “Private,” he replied finally in a vaguely German accent. “Very private.”
The woman smiled up at him. He averted his eyes and looked around. A “Bavarian” Christmas market in the Mission-style, complete with overhanging palm trees decked out in string lights. People were milling about in Christmas attire. He overheard a few passers-by commenting on his “costume.”
“Hmm, like for billionaires?” The woman giggled as she said it.
“Exactly,” he said. “I was tired of seasonal work. For centuries it was walnuts this, oranges that, carry a sack, scare some kids. There’s no platform there, yah? So I recently decided to transform my professional brand.”
The woman nodded energetically, as if she completely understood.
“You worked in agriculture?” said the woman’s blonde friend. “Was it, like, an organic farm? This guy friend of mine, he spent a year on this organic co-op in Hawai’i—”
His phone started vibrating in his pocket. “Sorry, I have to take this,” he said, and pulled it out with a jangling of the heavy chain around his neck. “Hallo?”
“Kramps, my man!” came a British man’s smooth voice. “You busy right now?”
Krampus looked at the two drunk women. They had turned halfway away from him, were whispering something while grinning sideways at him. “A little bit, yah.”
“Well whatever you’re doing, wrap it up. I need you at the South Pole by sunrise.”
“The sun doesn’t rise at the South Pole this time of year. And, damn it, why?”
“Sleigh’s ready. Time for your test flight.”
He groaned and pinched the bridge of his nose, then turned toward the corner away from the noise of the bar. “Richard,” he hissed, “I am a magical holiday demon. I don’t need a ‘test flight.’”
“I bet you don’t! But mission control wants a dry run.”
“I can head to HQ first thing in the morning.”
“That’d be too late. Pickup car’s almost at your location anyhow. You know the one. Cheers!”
The call beeped off before he could respond. Krampus clucked his tongue in frustration and jammed the phone back in the pocket of his pine-green skinny jeans. He composed himself, turned back to the women, and flashed them a fanged smile. “So sorry ladies, duty calls.” He touched the brown-haired woman on the shoulder as he squeezed past and whispered, “You’ve got my Snap.”
He hurried through the crowd, ignoring the shrieks and laughter of everyone who looked at him, and emerged from beneath gigantic flashing candy canes onto a crowded sidewalk. A black Town Car pulled up to the curb directly in front of him. He opened the back door and ducked in, extra low to avoid banging his horns.
He watched Christmas displays roll past the window all the way to LAX, where he breezed through the terminal, strode across the tarmac, and climbed aboard the waiting private jet.
Santa scowled at the attorney on his computer screen. He wore a shirt and tie and sat in a well-appointed home office. “You’re telling me we can’t even file a cease and desist letter?”
“Of course we can,” the man on the screen replied. “But it wouldn’t fix your current problem. Christmas Eve is less than a week away. The wheels of justice only turn so fast.”
“Come on Jim,” Santa growled. “What even do I pay you for?”
“You don’t pay me, Nick,” the lawyer said calmly. “We can still take the legal approach. You have a case, and we have plenty of time to get it heard in the States by next year. But this year is out of the question. If we could have started sooner—”
“Coulda, woulda, shoulda,” Santa interrupted, waving the man off. “If this thing goes down, there might not be a next year for us.”
The man on the screen was quiet for a moment. At last he said, “I’m sorry.”
“Never mind. I’ll have Bernard send you all the docs, and you can work on the filing. I’ll find a solution on my end in the meantime.”
“All right,” said the lawyer, his expression concerned. “Nick?”
“Don’t do anything you might regret.”
“Good night, Jim,” said Santa, and ended the call. He took off his glasses and buried his face in his hands, and took several deep breaths. Then he sat up, put his glasses back on, and picked up his phone. The call rang twice and was picked up. “Ho-ho, Zee Pee!” he said in his jolliest voice. “Now, don’t give me that, I know for a fact you’re not busy right now. The Feast of Saint Nicholas ended two weeks ago!”
Krampus sat alone in the closed-down dining area of Virgin Galactic’s Spaceport America. He didn’t have service in the middle of the New Mexico desert and was struggling to connect to the Wi-Fi. The spaceplane to Antarctica didn’t leave for another twenty minutes, and he had nothing else to do, so finally he sucked it up and approached the only other person in sight, the too-awake blonde woman behind the counter by the gate.
“It’s about a four hour flight,” she told him, after giving him the password for the staff Wi-Fi network. “There’s no toilet on the plane so I recommend you go now if you need.”
He found the men’s room and settled in at a sleek, futuristic-looking urinal. While he pissed, the door opened and someone walked in. Whoever it was walked right up behind him and jabbed something solid and cylindrical into the small of his back.
“Agh, what the fuck!” he cried, pressing himself awkwardly up against the urinal.
“You should know better than to cross the Man on Top,” replied a man’s voice with a sharp Spanish accent.
Krampus twisted his neck around and down and saw a gaudy red hat with feathery white trim, atop a head of curly brown hair belonging to a small, dark-skinned man. “Piet? What are you doing here? And I thought you weren’t doing the blackface any—Ow!”
Zwarte Piet shoved the cylindrical object even harder into Krampus’ back. “Shut it, goat boy. You’ve been naughty, and now you’re gonna get whacked.”
“What—I—This has nothing to do with you!”
Piet shoved even harder. “I said shut it!”
With a roar Krampus pushed off the wall, twisting to throw his entire weight behind his elbow. He caught the man on the side of the jaw and sent him sprawling to the ground. Krampus looked down at the motionless man. Both his hat and his wig had come off. The birchwood rod he had shoved into Krampus’s back had rolled across the floor.
“Dummkopf!” Krampus muttered. Then he zipped his fly, washed his hands, and walked out.
Santa sat in a huge easy chair by the roaring fire. Mrs. Claus stood behind him, massaging his shoulders.
“I have to do something, Anya,” Santa said quietly.
“There is only one thing you have to do,” she replied gently. “It is what you’ve always done.”
Santa tilted forward with a groan. “This is different,” he mumbled. “Kids aren’t like they used to be. I see them when they’re sleeping. I know when they’re awake. Their phones are right there, either way. Most of them don’t even know how to handwrite a letter!”
Mrs. Claus continued rubbing down to his back. The door creaked open.
“Sir?” said Bernard, leaning his head into the room.
Santa looked up, hope plain on his face. “What’s the latest?”
Bernard shook his head. “Piet couldn’t get the job done. We’re out of options.”
Santa’s face fell. He looked back to the fire, his elbows on his knees and his hands cradling his chin behind his huge beard.
“The Claus is never out of options,” he said softly. The fire popped and crackled. “Mobilize the reindeer.”
“Sir, it’s only the twentieth—” Bernard began, then stopped, his mouth forming a silent Oh as understanding dawned across his face. He nodded vigorously and began to pull the door closed. “Yes, right away sir.”
“And the Rudolph special.”
Bernard opened the door wide and simply stared. “Sir! That’s been mothballed since the Wall fell…” he trailed off as he met Santa’s grave expression. “Of course. Sir.” He bowed and pulled the door fully shut. Santa returned his gaze to the fire once more.
“Nick,” said Mrs. Claus, leaning her face down beside his, a note of worry in her voice. “You don’t have to do this.”
“I think I do,” Santa replied, the flames reflecting in his eyes. “If they won’t be good for goodness’ sake, you’ve got to give people the coal.”
The South Pole was more like a military base than the luxurious Spaceport America, not least because everyone was wearing some sort of uniform. They gave Krampus his own, a green-and-red striped flight suit, of the heavy sort fighter pilots wear. He went to the restroom, which he was relieved to see was single-occupancy, and put it on.
He checked himself out in the mirror when he was done, and noticed the name-patch on his breast pocket. It read: ANTI-CLAUS.
An important-seeming woman with a scarf and an iPad whose name-patch read K. DHAWAN escorted him across the freezing-cold hangar, shouting all the way about the vehicle’s revolutionary stealth and speed.
The craft before him was similar in shape to Santa’s sleigh, but shining aluminum and nearly the size of a small airliner. Its top was covered over with glass to form a sort of cockpit, and the entire fuselage rested atop a triangular wing array. It had three rocket cones at the rear and numerous small maneuvering thrusters along its sides. Looking up at the underside of the wing array, Krampus saw printed, white on a red background: VIRGIN ANTARCTIC.
“Sexy,” he said.
“The best VC money can buy,” the woman agreed.
“What kinds of guns does it have?”
“Guns?” the woman laughed. “There are no weapons on Sleigh 2. It is strictly a delivery vehicle.”
“Well what if… don’t have to worry about… him?”
The woman snorted. “If it comes to that, you can outrun him. Santa has a magical sleigh with reindeer. You’ve got a magical sleigh with rockets.” He could tell she was beaming behind her scarf. “Look, it’s just a test flight. You’re going to circle the planet once or twice and come right back. Mission control will be with you the whole way.”
Krampus nodded, not certain he was reassured. “All right.” He climbed up the ladder, ducked his horns in under the cockpit roof, and waited as technicians climbed around and over him, strapping him in and locking him into a specially-fitted helmet.
When they closed the cockpit everything got quiet, save for the background hiss of the comms radio in his ear. He tapped his fingers anxiously on the steering yoke as a truck of some sort taxied the sleigh up to the immense hangar doors, which were rolling slowly open. Two minutes later, the doors stopped, and Krampus faced a profoundly dark night lit only by a receding double line of blazing flares.
Santa saw Krampus in his mind’s eye. Somewhere over the southern Indian Ocean and moving fast, very fast.
With no presents for ballast the handling was a bit less responsive than he was used to. But the reindeer’s acceleration and speed on the straightaway was superlative.
He savored it. Just for a moment. The reindeer before him pranced on air.
He pulled the reins slightly to adjust course as the sleigh hurtled over Sweden. Sunlight glimmered off the Baltic Sea and Poland rolled into view.
The world in daylight was quite a sight. These days he flew almost exclusively at night, not because he had to, but because it made the various air forces less nervous, and he preferred not to get their emails.
He pulled back on the reins and the sleigh jumped up a few miles to avoid a Moscow-to-London passenger jet. He entered Russian airspace over the Ukraine, daring them to shoot him down. He knew they wouldn’t, of course, and that they couldn’t if they wanted to.
A bell jingled in his in-cap headset and he heard the elf Gustav, voice of Arctic Mission Control. “We’ve got his heading, sir. Seems he’s gonna do a flyover of China and Alaska, then loop around the Arctic Circle and head back through Alaska again and down the East Pacific.”
Santa was already pulling the reins left, adjusting course due east over Kazakhstan. “A joyride, then.”
“Any presents on board?”
“Can we be sure?”
“We cannot, sir.”
“And so if we were to shoot first…”
A short pause. “Then you would have plausible deniability,” said Gustav. “Sir.”
Krampus had a bad feeling, so he pinged mission control for the fifth time in a minute. “Any sign of Big Red?”
“Negatory on the NavSat, AC. You’ve got the sky to yourself.”
He had just passed over the Philippines, the nighttime lights of Manila spread out below him like a galaxy that stopped at the sea. He had done some practice gift drops at the behest of mission control, plucking presents off the platforms at the end of the conveyor belts in an enormous Kansas warehouse and dropping them through the fabric of reality onto specified 3-D GPS coordinates. Not as romantic as sliding down chimneys, he reflected, but much more efficient.
Krampus eased the throttle forward. Sleigh 2 was fast. Spacefaring video game fast. It was a genuine joy to fly, and easy too. He could get used to—
“AC, we got a bogey coming in hot over the Gobi—”
“—evasive action. Now. This is not a drill, I repeat, not—”
It popped up, then, on the radar map on his HUD. A single red dot, hauling ass over Mongolia.
“Oh fuck me,” he said. “I fucking knew it.”
He swung away due east and pressed the throttle to max. The acceleration pushed him back in his seat with an amount of Gs that would have killed a human. He watched the map. The red dot was beelining for him. Gaining. He looked at his airspeed indicator. It flickered back and forth between 668 and 669. “Hey, uh, MC,” he said. “I thought you said I could outrun him.”
“You can,” said the man on the other end, who sounded exasperated. “This doesn’t make sense, he shouldn’t be breaking six-fifty miles per second but he’s moving six-eighty at least… six-ninety… seven hundred…” Mission control trailed off. Krampus thought he heard shouting in the command room, away from the mic.
“Fuck this,” he muttered, pulling southeast toward Chile. “MC this is AC, abort mission, I’m coming back.”
There was a sound like a man pulling on a headset. “AC, drop altitude, stat. We just ran the headings, you’ll be intercepted before you get back to base. You might be able to lose him in the Andes—”
Krampus punched the mute on mission control and nosed Sleigh 2 down as he crossed from night into morning. The west coast of South America came around the curve of the horizon, rushing towards him.
On the map, the red dot kept gaining.
He pulled Sleigh 2 into a dive and shot past the southern face of Aconcagua, then immediately braked and pulled hard northwest back over the Andes and out to sea. “Woooo!” he screamed as the red dot on the map overshot him all the way past Buenos Aires and started banking north over Uruguay. Krampus accelerated hard northwest, past the Galapagos.
His elation faded as he saw the red dot accelerating even faster. In a few seconds it had overtaken him on the map.
He looked right, then left, trying to get a visual. Then he looked straight up through the cockpit roof and saw Santa Claus, not ten feet away, his sleigh and reindeer upside down, matching speed. Nick looked right down at him, the stump of a pipe gripped between the teeth of his grinning mouth.
All at once Santa’s sleigh dropped out of sight behind him and a beam of glowing red light appeared on his left, shooting off into infinity. Krampus brought up the rearview camera on the HUD and saw Santa head-on, his eight reindeer in their two columns with Rudolph in front. Rudolph wore an angular metallic helmet over his entire head, the end of the elongated snout open like a muzzle with a sickly red glow deep inside. Santa reared back with his whip and cracked it forward, and as the whip reached its full extension another brilliant red beam lased out of Rudolph’s muzzle.
Krampus saw it on the rearview, and he saw it out the front windshield as the beam blasted straight through his fuselage.
Sleigh 2 shuddered. Alerts filled the HUD and a beeping alarm filled his ears.
The fireball streaked smoke as it fell like a meteor over the Pacific.
Santa’s sleigh landed gently in the shallows off a sheltered Oahu beach, the reindeer pawing uncomfortably in a foot of saltwater. Santa himself jumped down with a splash and trudged to the shore. His black boots sank into the sand.
The scorched Krampus lay at the end of tangled parachute cords. The faceplate of his helmet was smashed and his left horn was missing. Santa stood over him for a silent moment.
“It’s over, Krampus,” he said, softly.
“Fuck you,” gasped the horned figure. “Eighteen hundred years of drowning naughty children, and for what? What thanks have I ever got?”
Santa puffed at his pipe. Silvery smoke wafted up in the moonlight.
“This doesn’t end with me,” Krampus continued. “You’re washed up, old man. As long as there’s consumerism and venture capital to burn, they’ll keep trying. Eventually they’ll find a way.”
Santa said nothing. Waves broke in the darkness behind him.
“You know, the ironic part in all this,” spat the demon, “is I only did it because I wanted to be important like you.”
Santa took the pipe from his mouth. “You are important, Krampus.”
“I just wanted,” continued the figure on the ground with a sob, “to be loved.”
Santa pulled from the pipe again, exhaled a cloud. “Machiavelli says it’s better to be feared.”
Krampus snorted a laugh, followed by a painful gasp. He sniffed, and with effort brought a furry hand to his nose and wiped. “I’m sorry, Nick. Christmas, I’m so sorry.”
“I forgive you,” said Santa, reaching down his white-gloved hand. “Mele Kalikimaka, brother.”