Jan backed into a cavern at least a hundred metres across, leading the little tour group. “This is the hangar for the miracle of science and engineering we call Santa’s Sled.” She stepped aside to give everyone an unimpeded view. “And when I say Sled, what I really mean is multi-mode lunar transport shuttle.” Jan smiled, but no one except Eugene noticed. Her words didn’t penetrate beyond ears in most cases, but she kept talking, giving important figures and technical specs, and wishing they’d come up with a cool acronym.
Sleek and powerful, it looked like a racing machine or a star fighter from some science fiction blockbuster. Unlike the vehicle it had been named for, the Sled was completely enclosed and solid black. Several blinking lights showed through the tinted windows.
Awareness took a long time to filter back to her audience. “–and two full sets of maneuvering jets and rear thrusters. The fuel supply is good for six runs pole to pole. Oxygen recycling system can keep Santa and a crew of three elves going for up to two weeks, although you’d have to ration the food supply to make it that long and you’re never more than ten hours from rescue with the backup sled and emergency teams standing by.” Six of the seven elves seemed suitably impressed, but Eugene didn’t really count. He winked at her and cocked his head in Santa’s direction. The big guy shook his head from side to side, a frown scrunching his brow.
Jan pulled something small and black from a pocket, held it above her head, and smiled with pleasure as every eye present tore itself from the Sled to fix on the object. She waved it like a small sword. “This is every guy elf’s dream. With the remote, you can pilot the Sled for short distances, give verbal commands to the on board computer, and activate either of the two stealth systems.” Jan pointed the remote over her shoulder and pressed a button. Jaws dropped. The Sled disappeared, replaced by the real thing – red paint, gold trim, leather seats, silver bells and runners.
And reindeer, nine of them hitched to the sled, shuffling and puffing and twitching and doing all of the things reindeer do when they’re waiting to go somewhere.
“It’s a holographic projection, of course.” Eugene walked up to Rudolph. The reindeer ignored him completely as he reached up and poked a finger through the famous nose. “As long as you don’t try to touch them, they look absolutely real. Very cool.
“The second stealth system is a bit different, an old standby if you’ve ever watched any scifi.” A few quick steps hid him behind the sled. “Go ahead Jan.”
Jan pressed a different button. The reindeer disappeared in a shimmering heat mirage to reveal Eugene. The white-clad elf waved. “Same technology, different direction. Still works as long as you don’t actually touch the sled.” He reached out and knocked on something no one could see. Three sharp taps produced three ripples that spread out several feet from his hand but faded in less than a second.
Jan clicked again and air shimmered, becoming the Sled again. “Thanks for the demo,Eugene.” She tucked the remote into her pocket. “And that, gentlemen, concludes our tour of the Lunar North Pole facility. We’re happy to take any questions you might have, but there’s a lot to be done before Christmas Eve.”
Santa cleared his throat. “There certainly is, here and back home. I think we can safely save any leftover questions for e-mail. Thank you very much, Jan and Eugene. We appreciate your taking the time from very busy schedules.” His face lit with a smile. “And I very much appreciate the reindeer.”
The two R&D elves grinned back. “You bet, Chief!”
As he turned, Santa’s eyes swept across the five candidates. “The shuttle home leaves in about three hours. Relax and wander around a little, but don’t be late for the return flight. My schedule doesn’t have any room for delay.” He crooked a finger at Frank and the two of them took a few steps toward the sled as the rest of the little group dispersed.
“What’s up, Chief?”
“I’m going to stay in the forward cabin for the trip back and try to get some sleep.” The jolly old fellow looked around, making sure no one could hear him. Then he leaned in close anyway. “Give them some homework. I’d like their impression of the facility and what they would do in the job with the given resources.”
The elf winked. “No problem, Chief. When should they hand it in by?”
A deep, wicked, and very non-traditional chuckle slipped out of the beard. “That’s where the stress comes in. E-mail in my inbox by the time I get to my office after we land. You can review them, too. See how they match up with reality.” The smile faded, not quite disappearing. “What do you think, Frank? How are things looking for C-Night?”
“Not nearly as rough as it looks.” He waved at the pile of equipment on one side of the cavern and at the pile of rubble on the other. “Systems are all in place for support, living quarters, and family space. Toy manufacturing facilities are a long way from complete, but we’re shipping up from Earth this year, and probably next. I don’t want to say it’s going to be smooth sailing, but I can’t see any more major hurdles. The Sled was the last big one, and boy was I glad to see the reindeer.”
Santa’s grin flared up. “Surprised, though.”
“I’ll say. You could have hung ornaments from my teeth. But it looked good, really good. Jan and Eugene really came through.”
“Hmm. They certainly did. Now I know what all of the electronics on my sled the last two years were for.”
Frank nodded. “The two of them should get a really big bonus out of this, Chief. And some time off.”
Santa glanced over to the corner where two crates served as a desk. The two huddled over a laptop, whispering to each other and pointing at things on the screen. “You’re absolutely right, Frank. Offer them a nice long vacation early in the new year and don’t be surprised if they take it together.”
(Note: Branch Santa is released on http://lanceschonberg.com under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 3.0 Unported License. It can be shared, copied and distributed, but not changed or sold.)by