Rudolph! is a first-person account of the behind the scenes workings at the North Pole. Narrated by Bernard Rosewood, one of the elves of the North Pole Consortium, the story begins with Santa's realization that a young girl's holiday request of getting her dad back for Christmas isn't going to happen. Dad, you see, died in a car accident on a snowy road shortly after Thanksgiving. The NPC can do a lot, but they can't do miracles.
Enter Rudolph, who has been hairless, cranky, and perpetually irradiated since the unfortunate malfunction of the Nuclear Clock in 1964. Rudolph is a survivor of the worst accident in the four hundred plus years of NPC delivery, and if there is anyone on staff who believes in miracles more than jolly St. Nick, it's Rudolph. Bernie, in a valiant effort to keep Christmas from going off the rails, is swept up into a Heaven-storming, Hell-crusading, Night of Bad Musical Numbers adventure to ensure that every child wakes up with presents on Christmas Morning. Rudolph! is a funny and fast-paced reaction to fifty years of world-weary cynicism, technological advances, and post-millennial ennui since Rankin & Bass brought a stop motion reindeer into our living rooms.
I wanted to make sure I had enough great books to make this bundle irresistible. The problem is, not everybody has a book-length manuscript centered entirely on the winter holidays. Mark is the only author here whom I don't know personally; I asked other writers for recommendations, trying to uncover another title or two. Mark answered the call—with a delightful story about Rudolph. And it may not be the story you expect! – Kevin J. Anderson
"He can write anything, from fantasy to hard SF to satire. For those of you not already in on the secret, this collection is proof that Teppo's one of our best, a writer who understands genre and storytelling at some kind of samurai level."–Daryl Gregory, author of Afterparty (for The Court of Lies)
"Rudolph! is the perfect antidote for All The Bad Things"–Kristene Perron, Kung Fu Nurse and co-author of WarpWorld
"Teppo proves to be a marvelously eclectic writer, both devious and passionate, taking elements of fantasy, SF, horror, detective fiction, and other genres, and giving them the urgency of the spoken word (from folktales to polemics)."–Faren Miller, Locus (for The Court of Lies)
The night before the night before Christmas, I caught Santa Claus trying to hack into the Vatican's computer system. He was using his wife's iMac, belly pressed against the edge of her desk, glasses threatening to slip off the end of his nose. The blue light from the computer screen bleached the ruddy color from his skin, making his face look flat and two-dimensional.
A Norman Rockwell portrait of the kid with his hand in the cookie jar.
"What are you doing?" I demanded. "It's after midnight. You should be in bed."
He started, his eyes flicking between me and the computer screen. "Uh, Bernie, I, uh, couldn't sleep."
"You take your Valerian root?" I asked as I walked across the room. Mrs. C's study was all done up in light wood, polished and burnished until it glowed like warm butter. The floor was covered with a large area rug filled with a mesmerizing swirl of reds and greens and oranges. The two windows high on the wall behind Santa leaked grey light; there was a lot of fog over the North Pole at this time of year.
Santa didn't answer my question.
"Look," I said, "you know the way this works. You've got to be ready for Zero Hour. We have just a few simple procedures for you to follow. You don't skip any meals, you stay off the treadmill and out of the pool, and you get at least ten hours of sleep every night. I'm not your mother—I don't want to be your mother—but I am SECO, and I am charge of making sure you're ready to put the red suit on two nights from now."
Santa glanced at me, his blue eyes blinking over the rim of his glasses. "Ah, Bernie, I'm a little keyed up. I was just doing a little surfing, you know, to relax."
I held up a hand. "I don't want to know where you're surfing."
"It's not where you think."
"Come on, Santa, you're using Mrs. C's computer. Why else would you be in here? You don't want us logging the web traffic to your computer."
"I'm not looking at porn," he bristled.
"I don't care if you are." I tugged at the sleeve of his bath- robe. "Fun time is over. You need to—" I caught a glimpse of the screen. He didn't have a web browser open. In fact, it looked a lot like a Telnet window. The letters looked funny, and it took me a second to realize the command line prompt was in Italian. The rest of the words looked a lot like Latin. "Humani Generis Redemptionem," I read.
"I'm not looking at porn," Santa repeated, his voice soft and sad. "I'm looking for Suzy Anderson's father."
My retort died on my tongue. I had read the report.
Midday on the 22nd, Zero Hour minus fifty-seven, Santa had been taking his pipe in his office. While trying to stuff his pipe—a new Dunhill Calabash given to him on his birthday by Mrs. C—it had slipped from his fingers and fallen under his desk. Rooting around for his pipe, Santa had found a small envelope covered with gold stars.
It was a Christmas letter from one Suzy Anderson of 1224 Foxtail Lane in Troutdale, Oregon. Written shortly after Thanksgiving of this year, wee little Suzy Anderson, like all young girls and boys, had hand-written a letter to Santa Claus. In little Suzy's case, she was asking for her dad back for Christmas.
No big deal, right? I don't think I'm going to surprise anyone when I say that we've misplaced Christmas letters before. Come on, an organization this size? I'm surprised we've not lost more of them. Finding a letter this late in the Season is not a reason to panic. The North Pole Consortium—the organization of elves that manage and run the entire North Pole operation—is well equipped to handle such emergencies. In this case, a couple of elves held Santa down, another one got the letter from him, and when I got the call, I came up and told him everything was going to be just fine. "Don't panic," I had said. "We're trained professionals. I've got a team of four working on it right now. It doesn't matter where Suzy Anderson's father is. We'll find him. We'll get him on a plane. We'll get him home in time for Christmas. It's not a problem."
Easy to say; harder to solve.
Santa was watching me closely now, peering at me like he knew what I knew and was waiting for me to acknowledge that I knew that he knew that I knew what he thought he knew. The ole Saint Nick eyeball trick, which has never worked on me.
The report on Mr. Anderson had been routed straight to the top, with copies to SECO (Senior Elf in Charge of Operations—me) and EOD (Elf on Duty—my boss). It had a big "Eyes Only" banner across the top, which meant that under no circumstances was I to tell Fat Boy—internal code name for Santa—what the team had discovered.
And yet, the ole Saint Nick Eyeball and a Telnet window to some- where with an Italian command line. Odds were Santa already knew something . . .
You see, David Anderson had been involved in a four-car accident on I-5 over the Thanksgiving weekend. Just outside of Wilsonville. Slippery road. A semi going too fast. The accident had made the local eleven o'clock news. The following day's edition of the Portland Oregonian had included a small mention that, along with three other people, David Anderson had died in the accident.
Getting Daddy home in time for Christmas was a little out of our jurisdiction.
"I found the Oregonian article, Bernie," Santa said.
I swallowed. "Yeah?" I tried to stall. He hadn't blinked yet, and the letters on the computer screen kept distracting me.
It wasn't the fact that Santa was poking around the Vatican network that was worrying. It was the fact that he had gotten that far already.
"Is there something you want to tell me?" Santa asked.
I covered my eyes and wiggled my head, shaking off the ill effects of the Santicular Evil Eye. "Nope." I fumbled for the sleeve of his robe, tugging at it when I found it. "Come on, Santa. It's late. You should be in bed. I'll have Nigel send up something to help you sleep."
He pulled his sleeve free of my hand. "I don't want to sleep." He started tapping the computer screen with his finger, and he didn't stop until I opened my eyes and looked up. "Did you know that this office has been doing Christmas deliveries for four hundred and ninety-three years. And in that time, we've never missed a request. Not one."
"We're working on it," I squeaked.
"How?" he growled.
I shrugged. "They haven't told me. I'm not part of that loop." "How can you not be? You're Senior Elf. There's nobody between you and EOD."
"Senior Elf in Charge of Operations," I corrected. "I'm the one who is charge of making sure you're ready for Flight Night. I run the Zero Hour prep squad, and our job is to watch your weight, your sleep habits, and to make sure you're not overly stressed." I nodded towards the computer screen. "This qualifies as stress, and I want you to stop this nonsense right now and go back to bed. It's very late."
"Stop patronizing me. I'm not a child."
"No, you're my charge. I'm trying to do my job."
Santa ground his teeth. "So am I."
I raised my hands. "Do I need to make a call? Do I need to get someone to escort you back to your room?"
Santa reached into the large pocket of his robe and pulled out a yellow and black stun gun. He put the flat mouth of the device in my face. "Go ahead and try."
I kept my hands up.
"Do you know what this is?" He lowered the weapon slightly and put a little pressure on the trigger. A red dot appeared on my chest. "It even comes with a laser sight. Though, at this range, I don't think I'm going to miss. It delivers an electrical signal designed to override the central nervous system and directly assault the skeletal muscle structure. It's got two probes that will deliver a burst of—"
"Yeah," I interrupted. "I'm familiar with the specs."
Santa nodded. "Good." The mouth of the stun gun didn't waver. I sucked in a big lungful of air. "Can we talk about this without the Shockmaster 3000 in my face?" These things were all the rage this year among the security conscious, and I did know the specifications of the weapon. The Shockmaster Series was rated at twice the power of its closest competitor. Too many nut jobs out there had the mental acuity (or drug-induced lack thereof) to monster their way through the nominal levels of electric current offered by other electroshock personal defense weapons. The Shockmaster Series bypassed the brain and went right for the more basic informational pathways of the body: a blast of white noise to jam all circuits, followed by an overwhelming surge of current that makes your muscles lock up tight, leaving the brain wondering who shut off the lights. Meant for your basic three-hundred-pound violator of the restraining order, I wasn't quite sure what it would do to an eighty-seven pound elf.
"Are you going to listen to me?" Santa asked. "And my other option is?"
I tried to look bored as I glanced at my watch. "Five minutes." I tried not to think too hard about the failure to clear Santa's robe of advanced hardware.
"What is the Consortium doing for Suzy Anderson?"
"Making a video tape," I said, dredging up the details of the Eyes Only report. "I think they're pulling as much video as they can scrounge, along with a bunch of photos. Some kind of life retrospective."
"That's not what she asked for."
I shrugged. "Yeah, well, the guy is dead. Not much we can do about bringing him back from . . . you know . . ."
Santa shook his head. "Four hundred and ninety-three years, Bernie. That's an awfully long run." "And you've done well. The odds of being able to fill every request every year for nearly five centuries have got to be astronomical at this point. It's a simple matter of math, Santa: sooner or later, you're not going to get the roll you want. You do what you can. It's no reflection on you or your ability to execute the office. You can't take it personally."
I shrugged again, though this was more of a 'well, what can you do, you over-achieving nutbag?' sort of shrug.
"Maybe some of my predecessors were inclined to accept substitutions, but I'm not," Santa said. "You let one kid down, you might as well not bother with any of them."
"I'm glad you're taking this so well, and haven't wandered out in the dark lands of depression," I quipped.
Santa's grip tightened on the stun gun. I stretched a little higher for the ceiling. Defuse, Bernie, remember what they taught you? It's not my job to take him down. I just have to defuse the situation. Get him to put the gun down. Get him relaxed. And then make a call. Get a few of the Burly Boys in here and let them sock Santa full of Thorazine and Vicodine. Hey, let's just keep Fat Boy on ice until Zero Hour. Remember the prime directive: keep him calm and get him in the air for Flight Night.
"Look," I said, licking my lips carefully. "Maybe I'm going about this all wrong. What can I do to help?" Calm. Keep him calm.
"I'm looking for David Anderson," Santa said. "I'm trying to find out where he's gone."
Maybe a six by three plot in the Troutdale cemetery? Noticing the pitting around the twin holes in the muzzle of the Shockmaster 3000, I kept that answer to myself. I focused on the computer screen instead, paying a little more attention to the Italian and Latin on the screen. "You think the Pope knows?"
"No, I don't think he knows, but someone above him might."
I'm usually not this dense, but I was operating at a handicap, so it took me a few seconds to figure out who—and what—Santa was talking about. "Heaven?" I squeaked. "There's got to be a manifest somewhere. There's got to be a list. Nothing happens without a list, Bernie."
"And you think you're going to find this list on the Internet?" "Why not?" he asked. There was a slight catch in his voice. I looked at his eyes and saw the tiny crack in his armor. "You can find anything on the Internet, can't you?"
It wasn't much, but it was just enough of a question that I saw my opportunity.
"Yeah, sure," I told him. "You can find anything." Except for a decent chocolate chip cookie recipe. "How about this: I help you look, you put the cattle prod down. Deal?"
He thought about it.
"Come on," I pressed him. "If there is anything, it's going to be in Latin. You need my help."
He frowned. "I can read Latin."
"Yeah, sure," I said. "Who writes your Christmas card to the Pope every year?"
I had him, and he knew it. His hand went down, and I tried not to look too relieved.
I reached for the keyboard. "Let's see what we can find."