One Small Step for Santa is a kid-friendly Christmas story told in three episodes, posted serially by me, your merry host, Cheeseburger Brown.
Related reading: Pink Santa
Multimedia note: This story's header illustration has been composited for anaglyphic stereoscopic viewing. For best results, look at it through red-and-blue 3D glasses.
Upcoming: The next story will be The Secret Mathematic, which begins serializing in January 2008. Don't miss it!
And now, our yuletide tale concludes:
The Seyfert City Prison was full of Santa Clauses.
They weren't real Santa Clauses, of course, apart from Novice George and Brother Marcus. The others were people hired by shopping malls to pretend to be Santa so kids could visit them and have their holograph taken, or people hired by charities to stand in the street and collect holiday donations while ringing a bell. Like a lot of pretend Santas, they wore big red pajamas with fake fur trim, and some of them had pillows shoved into their shirts to make them look fat and jolly.
None of the Santas looked jolly now, however, sitting in their little cells behind metal bars, waiting for their turn to talk to the lawyer machine. They had fake white beards, tied around their heads with string or stuck to their faces with glue. Many of them looked very tired, and some of them smelled bad.
"Hey," one of them called through the bars, "you look like the real deal, old man!"
"I am the real deal," said Marcus happily. "I'm Santa Claus."
The fake Santa laughed. "Hey buddy, we're all Santa Claus in here."
"No, I mean I'm a real Santa Claus," said Marcus in a friendly way. "I live at the North Pole and everything. This is my apprentice, George."
"Hi," said George.
The fake Santa scoffed. "Nobody lives at the North Pole, old man -- it's an ocean!"
"You forget," said Marcus, holding up two fingers and bringing them close to each other as if they were magnets; "north repels north when it comes to poles. The needle on your compass points to the Arctic Ocean, which means it's really a south pole up there, magnetically speaking."
The fake Santa laughed again. "So you're telling me the North Pole is in Antarctica, down on the bottom of the Earth?"
"Indeed," said Marcus with a serious nod. "It's the last place people tend to look for it, which helps us keep our work secret. Our order has been based there for over a thousand years."
The fake Santa turned and yelled over his shoulder to the other Santas in the prison. "Get a load of this guy -- he thinks he's the real Santa Claus! Ha, ha, ha!"
"Actually, it goes ho, ho, ho," corrected Marcus.
"If you're really Santa Claus," continued the fake Santa, "why don't you show us a Christmas miracle? Go on: break out of this joint! Show us your magic -- ha, ha, ha! Make those bars disappear!"
Marcus gave him a quick, tight little smile. "Your wish is my command, sir. I predict that something amazing will happen very shortly, and my brother and I will indeed be free."
George grabbed Marcus' shoulder and whispered in his ear. "Really? What's going to happen?"
"Be patient, novice," said Marcus as the fake Santas laughed and laughed.
They all stopped laughing when a loud clank and thump sounded from the ventilation shafts that pumped fresh air into the jail cells. "What was that?" asked one of the fake Santas, and the fake Santa beside him shrugged. Marcus smiled.
The ventilation shafts continued to bump and knock, getting louder and louder, the noises moving along from the far end of the prison block toward the cell where George and Marcus sat together on a hard little bench. Suddenly the sounds stopped, and then a soft voice called out, "O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree?"
Marcus replied by singing, "How are thy leaves so verdant!"
There was a second of silence, and then the sound of a buzzing tool. The metal ventilator shaft groaned as a line was cut into its side, and then another line, and finally a third. Next, a hand in a white glove folded down the flap of cut metal. "Brother Marcus?" asked someone.
"Sister Chloe?" answered Marcus.
An old lady with rosy cheeks and white hair tied up in a neat bun stuck her head through the hole in the ventilator shaft, and then smiled widely. "I'm so happy we found you! Have you been waiting long?"
"Not at all," said Marcus. "Do you know Novice George?"
"It's a pleasure to meet you, young man," said Chloe. She looked at the surprised expression George's face and smirked. "What's wrong, novice? Didn't you know girls can be Santa, too?"
"I'm new," admitted George. "I haven't finished my training yet. I've never met a girl Santa Claus before."
"Well," said Chloe, "all you need to know is that we're wonderful. Now, where are your tangerines, boys?"
"The police took them," said George. "They're lost."
"Oh my," said Chloe, her head still sticking out of the ventilator shaft with loose bits of white hair blowing around her face as the shaft kept pumping fresh air around her. "Then I suppose we'd best make a stop by the evidence locker before we start on our way to the Default Zone."
"Quite right, Sister," agreed Marcus. "Is your team in place?"
"They're right behind me, actually," said Chloe. George and Marcus heard some muffled greetings from inside the shaft, somewhere behind Chloe's bum. "Ready to go?"
George and Marcus nodded. As the surprised fake Santas looked on, they climbed up into the hole in the ventilator shaft and crawled inside. With Chloe leading the way, they shuffled carefully through the tight, metal tunnel, apologizing when they bumped into each other in the dark.
They stopped at a point where the tunnel widened to connect many shafts together. Chloe turned on a little flashlight and introduced her fellow Santa Clauses: Brother Nganga from Cameroon, Brother Matsumoto from Japan, and Brother Eric from England. "Hallo!" said Eric.
Brother Nganga, whose long, brown face was painted with white stripes of dried clay, said he and Brother Matsumoto would rescue the tangerines and meet up with the others back at their hideout. Chloe agreed. Matsumoto, who had a wispy little beard of grey hairs and happy, hooded eyes, turned to give Marcus and George a respectful bow and then squirmed off after Nganga.
Eric, Chloe, George and Marcus continued crawling on for a long time until at last they tumbled out into a cramped, warm boiler room where the air blowing through the shafts was heated. The room was dingy and loud but it wasn't at all gloomy on account of the strings of Christmas lights strung up everywhere. "Where are we?" asked George in wonder.
"We're in a utility room halfway between the police station and the fire department," said Chloe. "My team has been hiding out here for weeks while we got everything ready for the mission."
When George listened carefully and tried to ignore the whistling winds from all the connecting shafts he could hear the thrum and murmurs of city life through the metal walls: horns honking, wallas advertising their wares at the top of their lungs, children laughing, machines working. There were a million busy human beings out there, and none of them suspected that in the air ducts beneath their feet a gang of Santa Clauses had gathered to make the Moon a jollier place.
A moment later Nganga and Matsumoto popped in behind them with the two sacks of tangerines. Nganga was holding the ripped sack together with his hands. "I'm sorry, brothers," he said in his low, rich voice, "but some of the tangerines have been ruined."
"Why would the police do such a thing?" asked Matsumoto sadly.
"It wasn't the police," said Marcus. "It was bandits. They tried to rob us on our way to Seyfert City."
"Bandits?" cried Chloe. "Oh my goodness -- how did you escape?"
"We showed them that giving is much nicer than stealing," said Marcus with a wink. "We showed them how nice it can feel to be a Santa Claus. So they let us go."
"Jolly good!" said Eric, slapping Marcus on the back. "You've done Saint Nicholas proud, brother."
"I hope so," said Marcus. "But I'm sure he would be even more proud if we manage to get these tangerines to the Default Zone and get out with our skins intact."
Chloe nodded. "Don't worry, Brother Marcus. We have a plan." She walked over to a metal locker and opened it, revealing six red jumpsuits, six red caps, and a bundle of safety-harnesses with big brass buckles. "These are the uniforms of the custodians who fix the ventilators when they break down," she said. "We're going to go in disguise!"
Marcus chuckled. "And the shiny black boots?"
"That's my touch," said Chloe proudly.
George, Marcus, Eric, Nganga, Matsumoto and Chloe all put on the red jumpsuits and black boots, then attached the safety-harnesses around them by fastening the big brass buckles. Finally, they tucked the red caps on their heads. "Wow," said George, "now we look like Santa Clauses!"
Chloe pointed to the opening of another shaft. "Okay, brothers," she called, "everybody into the chimney!"
One by one the monks of Saint Nicholas squirmed inside the tight little tunnel and wormed their way along in a shuffling, mumbling line. Chloe pointed her flashlight ahead, leading them deeper and deeper into the network of ventilation shafts, warm wind blowing all around them. As they went the shafts became bigger and bigger until they found themselves in a giant metal cave whistling with air, a giant opening descending into the darkness beneath them.
George was almost blown away in the strong stream of rushing air, but Nganga and Chloe caught him just in time. "Thanks!" he cried, grabbing a hold of the wall and clinging to it with all his strength.
"My word!" exclaimed Eric, his white beard blowing up in his face. "How will we ever get across it?"
"We're not going across it," said Chloe. "The Default Zone is down, at the very bottom of Seyfert City." She unwound a series of pulleys and ropes from her bag. "Now it's time to do a little rappelling."
Chloe connected each monk's safety-harness to the rope, and then fastened one end around a big middle pole at the edge of the deep well. She showed them each how to work the hand-grip on the rope. "You click it open like this to slide down," she explained, "and then click it closed to stop if you're going too fast."
Nganga made a sour face. "I think I should have stayed on Earth!" he said nervously.
"Now now," said Marcus, giving Nganga's shoulder a squeeze. "This is what being Santa Claus is all about, brother. All set, George?"
"All set," said George with as sure a voice as he could muster.
Carefully, slowly, the six agents of the order lowered themselves over the edge of the giant shaft and started on their way down, their black boots clanging on the metal sides as they hopped. "If we fall it will certainly hurt!" squeaked Matsumoto, his wiry moustache twitching.
"Only about a sixth as much as it would hurt on Earth," pointed out Marcus helpfully.
Matsumoto closed his eyes for moment, drew a deep breath, then took his next hop downward, the rope humming as it flew through his harness. The other monks followed, and soon they had descended very deep beneath Seyfert City. The air began to smell less fresh, and it wasn't nearly as warm as it had been in the higher shafts. George wrinkled his nose. "Why does it smell bad, brother?" he called up to Marcus above him on the line.
"The Default Zone is for people who couldn't keep up their oxygen-water mortgages," explained Marcus. "That means they didn't have enough money to pay for the air they were breathing or the water they were drinking, so now they have to live in the Default Zone getting the stinky left-overs from everyone else while they look for better jobs."
"Eu," said George.
"Indeed," agreed Marcus.
At last the gang of monks set foot on the bottom of the shaft. Chloe unhitched everyone's harnesses, then shone her flashlight down a dark passage. "We're almost there," she said, leading the way.
It was dark and little bit scary in the tunnel, but the monks felt okay because they were all together to look out for one another. Because of their harnesses, the monks jingled as they walked.
They arrived at a large, rust-stained hub where eight shafts connected together over a swirling metal fan with sharp metal blades that sang out a low-pitched "whoop, whoop, whoop" as they spun. Dim, orange light flashed over the monks as it shone through the blades of the great fan. Chloe frowned. "This isn't on the map!" she said.
Eric sighed. "It must have been installed to improve the dreadful quality of the air down there."
"Fudge," said Marcus darkly. "What a pickle!"
"Whoop, whoop, whoop," said the giant fan.
"We don't have any choice," said Chloe. "We'll just have to jump right through it."
"What!" cried George. "Do you mean between the blades?"
Chloe nodded. "We'll have to time our jumps very carefully."
Matsumoto's moustache started quivering again. "I'm not sure I can do it, brothers. I don't want to be chopped up like sushi. Sister Chloe, isn't there another way?"
Chloe shook her head. "I don't think so, Brother Matsumoto. We're just going to have to screw up our courage and take the leap. Look at the rhythm of the fan: we have a four second window between each blade to slip through."
"Four seconds?" echoed George in disbelief. "We'll never make it!" He paused, then looked over at Marcus. "But, I suppose that if we do make it, it'll be really amazing, won't it?"
"That's the spirit, George," agreed Marcus with a firm nod of his head. "You're absolutely right."
Chloe looked down through the spinning blades. "The floor isn't very far down. We should be okay if we crouch and roll, to absorb the energy of the impact."
Eric flexed his knees experimentally, still looking quite worried. "I suppose it's one giant leap for Father Christmas then, isn't it?" He stepped up to the edge of the fan and took a deep breath. "Tell me when," he said to Chloe.
Chloe watched the spinning blades with a look of great concentration on her face, her lips moving quietly as she counted in the rhythm. "Ready...set," she said, "...Go!"
Eric jumped. He dropped through the fan precisely between two blades, disappearing in a blink. A couple of seconds later they heard him grunt as he hit the floor below. "I'm whole!" called Eric.
"You're next, Nganga," said Chloe.
"Oh boy," murmured Nganga, his forehead shiny with sweat. Chloe counted the seconds and told him when to jump, and he did it. Next came Marcus, and then it was George's turn.
"Jump exactly when I tell you, okay George?" said Chloe.
George nodded, his eyes wide as they watched the sharp, metal blades spin. He jumped when Chloe told him, and in the next moment he found himself rolling across a dirty tiled floor and crashing into a garbage can. It fell over, spilling bits of paper and plastic packaging everywhere.
He stood up as Chloe's bag landed next to him, followed four seconds later by Chloe herself. "Oof," she said, tucking stray hairs back into her bun.
The Santas stood in a dingy public square littered with bits of garbage. The square was surrounded by squat apartment blocks festooned with rows of tiny, dirty windows. There was a pole with a sign on it, but somebody had bent the sign. It used to say "No Loitering" but now it just said "No."
There was nobody around except for an old man sleeping on the steps in front of one of the apartment blocks. He smelled kind of like some of the fake Santas in prison, and he snored very loudly.
"What a gloomy place," said George.
"Welcome to the Default Zone," said Marcus darkly; "the last hope for the poorest people on the Moon -- free stale air, free stinky water, little hope and no dignity."
Chloe clapped her hands sharply. "Let's not get ourselves down in the dumps. This is the time for action! Brother Matsumoto, let's get a computer link up and running. Brother Nganga, I want you on the plumbing."
"The plumbing?" echoed George. "What's wrong with the plumbing?"
"Here," said Chloe, leading George to a dim corner of the square where a barren, dying tree stood in a cracked planter. "This, Novice George, is the Default Zone's community tree. It's supposed to be a symbol of life and hope for the people who live here, but to save money the Lunar Government turned off the water feed that keeps the tree alive."
Brother Nganga gave a rich, deep laugh. "But we've been re-routing the waterworks, squeezing the main pipes for trickles that gather in the reservoir beneath the square. All I have to do now is tap the reservoir and connect it to the planter, and in a few weeks this tree will be as green as the Congo used to be."
"It looks pretty sad right now," said George.
"Brother Eric will decorate it to add some cheer, won't you?" asked Chloe.
"Oh yes," agreed Eric. "I've quite a knack for sprucing up sad old Christmas trees. My pockets are stuffed with tinsel and little coloured lights."
Nganga knelt down next to the planter and used a tool to open a panel on the base, exposing the pipes beneath. Matsumoto went to the public computer terminal and began pecking on the keyboard, frowning seriously at the words scrolling by on the screen. ""This computer is very old, and not very smart," he called over his shoulder. "It looks like it was donated from the Royal Aresian Library on Mars."
"Can you bypass the security?" asked Chloe.
"Oh yes," said Matsumoto with a little nod. "Just give me five minutes, sister."
"What should we do?" asked George.
Marcus opened the first sack of tangerines as he quietly counted the apartment windows all around the square. "We won't have enough fruit for every house," he said with a sigh. "Too many of them were squashed by the bandits."
"Don't worry," said Chloe. "We'll give some of them chocolates and some of them tangerines, instead of both for everyone. George, would you please take the chocolate from Brother Nganga's bag? How are we doing on security, Brother Matsumoto?"
"Almost there..." he called, still typing madly on the public computer keyboard. "Just a few more seconds."
Chloe suddenly frowned and looked up. George stopped sorting the chocolates as he heard a noise knocking around inside the giant ventilation shaft over their heads. "Santas scatter!" commanded Marcus, and everyone quickly hid. George ran behind the railing of a stairwell, while Nganga squirmed in behind the planter he was working on.
Chloe stood her ground, peering up into the giant, spinning fan. "Well, hello there," she said in a soft, friendly voice. "Are you stuck? Listen to me, I can tell you how to get through the fan. Will you trust me? Okay then, when I say 'jump' you drop right between the blades of the fan. Do you understand? Three...two...one: jump!"
And then, in a flash, the oily-haired teenager from the bandit family dropped through the fan and landed awkwardly in the middle of the square. He climbed to his feet and looked around from behind his dark, lank hair. His body looked very tight and tense until he spotted George and Marcus, and then his shoulders relaxed a bit. "You're -- you're the Santa guys, right?"
George stood up into plain view. "Hi," he said. "You followed us."
"Yeah, it's all over the public screens how somebody broke out of prison through the air shafts," said the teenager. "My dad once showed me how to get into the shaft network, so I came looking for you." He paused, then looked at his feet. "I just thought...I just thought maybe I could help out or something. That's probably stupid."
"Oh no," said Marcus with a wide grin, "it's not stupid at all, lad. We would love to have your help, wouldn't we, brothers?"
Everyone agreed that they would. "Hey," said the teenager, catching sight of Brothers Matsumoto, Nganga and Eric, "there are lots of you."
"And there are plenty more back on Earth," said Marcus. "Christmas miracles need the cooperation of many strong hands and many pure hearts to happen just right. What's your name, lad?"
"Daniel," said the teenager.
"Welcome, Daniel," said Chloe. "Why don't you help George and Marcus put out tangerines and chocolate for the children?"
"Okay," said Daniel bashfully.
Just then Matsumoto clapped his hands together and cried, "We're in!" He turned to the other monks to explain: "I've gummed up the security layer, so now the alarms won't sound when we put the treats on the windowsills. Everyone will go on sleeping while we work."
"Perfect!" exclaimed Chloe.
And so with that George, Marcus and Daniel set to work placing a juicy tangerine or a wafer of dark chocolate on the sills of every apartment window facing the dingy little public square. The work went along quietly until Marcus hesitated at one of the last windows, peeking in through the glass. "What do you see, brother?" asked George.
"Gracious me," said Marcus in a breathy, slightly dizzy way. "Goodness gracious, gracious me."
"What is it?" asked Chloe as she jogged over.
Marcus sighed in a happy way, his cheeks rosy. "It's milk and cookies," he reported. "Someone here still believes in us, and they've left us a traditional Saint Nicholas snack."
He called over Nganga who used his tools to open the window, and then Marcus leaned in and carefully brought out a tiny yellow plate with cookies on it and a tall glass of milk. Before he touched them, however, Chloe broke off a little piece of cookie and put it into a small machine she took out of her bag. After a few seconds a green light lit up on the machine. "It's clean," she said. "Go ahead and eat the cookies, Brother Marcus."
Marcus looked over at Daniel. "I think our new friend is probably very hungry," said Marcus. "Perhaps he would like some cookies?"
Daniel ate the cookies so fast it was as if he'd never eaten in his life. After Chloe tested the milk he gulped it down, leaving the glass bare. "Thank you!" said Daniel, wiping his mouth on the back of his sleeve.
"No need to thank us," said Marcus. "That treat was left out for you."
"Wasn't it left out for Santa Claus?" asked Daniel.
"Indeed it was," agreed Marcus. "Who do you think you're being right now, if not Santa Claus?"
"But I'm not really Santa Claus," insisted Daniel.
"Of course you are," said Marcus firmly. "We all are. That treat was left out to say thanks for an act of senseless kindness, and that's just what you're helping us to do right now, Daniel."
"But Santa Claus is just a story," said Daniel. "...Isn't it?"
"No, my boy, we're quite real," said Eric.
"But it's impossible! How could Santa Claus visit every house in the world in just one night? It doesn't make sense."
"You're right," said Marcus. "That would be very difficult. But when we work together we have a knack for making the nearly impossible come true. The secret of Santa Claus is teamwork, Daniel. There are thousands of monks in our order, and we all cooperate to make Christmas wishes come true for those who need them most."
Daniel looked a bit disappointed. "So there really isn't a Saint Nick?"
"Oh, there is, there is," said Marcus quickly. "But he never leaves the North Pole. It's far too dangerous for him."
"Because somebody might catch him?"
"No, because Nicholas has been given the gift of long life. Nicholas has been alive for centuries, and he hardly ages at all -- which completely changes how one looks at risk. Think about it: if you or I happen to be killed in an accident, we might lose a few decades of life; if Nicholas were killed in an accident, on the other hand, he would lose thousands of years of work."
"I don't understand," said Daniel.
Marcus put an arm around him. "When Nicholas discovered that he was long, he decided that the best way to use that life would be to work every day to bring goodness into the world. I think you know, Daniel, that the world can be a wicked place. That's not something we like to think about, but it's true. All sorts of terrible things happen to good people, and almost nobody does anything about it. That's why Nicholas dedicated himself to being nice, to do what he could to fight that wickedness. He dedicated himself to compassion and generosity, forever."
The other members of the order echoed this, their voices rising in heartfelt chorus: "Compassion and generosity, forever."
"Compassion means feeling bad when others do, and generosity means feeling good by making things better for them. And forever? Forever means we never quit. Forever means we never give up. Forever means we never, ever forget why we do what we do."
"So how can Saint Nick do all that if he's stuck at the North Pole?"
"He can't, Daniel," said Marcus seriously. "We do it in his stead. We are his hands and his feet, his eyes and his voice. We act as his agents. We go out into the world to commit acts of kindness in his name, taking upon ourselves all of the risks -- because we honour why Nicholas refuses to die."
Daniel didn't say anything, though his face screwed up as if he were thinking hard about the things Marcus had said. Just then George finished placing the last tangerine on the last windowsill, and Nganga finished his plumbing work. Chloe took out a golden pocket-watch and flipped the lid. "It'll be morning soon," she reported.
Eric stepped back and admired the newly decorated community tree, glittering with tinsel and winking with little coloured lights. "Jolly good!" he declared.
The man sleeping on the steps lifted his head and blinked, then knuckled his eyes. "Who the heck are you?" he asked in a groggy voice.
"We're Santa Claus," said Daniel. "Go back to sleep, chum."
The man shrugged and put his head back down in the crook his elbow. In another minute he was snoring again.
Nganga frowned and looked up. Once more sounds of knocking and clanking were coming from the ventilation shafts overhead. "Uh-oh," said Nganga. "I don't think you're the only one who followed us, Daniel."
Daniel looked worried. George gulped.
A police constable in a blue uniform peeked through the spinning blades of the giant fan. "There they are!" he called over his shoulder. "I knew it: they're defaulters."
"It's the civils," reported Nganga. "They must have followed Daniel following us."
"Freeze!" yelled the constable. "Stay where you are -- this is a police control!"
Marcus gave him a wry smile. "Are you sure, constable?"
"This is a police control!" the constable repeated.
"I daresay it isn't until you figure out a way get down here," argued Marcus, his tone friendly.
The constable frowned, then looked around nervously at the quickly spinning blades as they chopped the air in front of his face. He toggled his radio and said, "This is Unit Four-forty. I need to escalate a maintenance directive. Can I get the blower down here shut off? Over."
Chloe shook her head. "That isn't a very good idea, you know. That fan is bringing the heat down from the boilers up above. If you turn the fan off, all the air coming through that big shaft beside you will get very cold, very quickly."
"You can keep you opinions to yourself, ma'am, alright? I don't need advice from default scum. This is a police control!"
"Yes, you do keep saying that."
The fan slowed down and then stopped with a metallic whine. The warm air it had been drawing down into the Default Zone square stopped immediately, and the wind coming down past the still fan blades became frigid. The constable shivered, then began attaching a harness and cable to lower himself carefully through the blades. Another police officer watched over his efforts with a worried expression.
Meanwhile, morning came.
The were no windows in the Default Zone but the people who lived there were used to waking up early in the morning to work for their food ration cards. One by one the lights in the apartment windows winked on, and the sounds of murmuring voices and sleepy shuffling footsteps leaked into the square. And then a small child walked past her window, stopped, turned back, and then pressed her face against the glass as she stared at the exotic orange ball sitting on the sill. "Mommy, Daddy," she called, "come look!"
Her father, a tired-looking man with a long face, pushed open the window and picked up the tangerine, turning it over slowly in his tough hands. "What is it?" asked the mother as she arrived to see what all the fuss was about.
"I think...I think it's fresh fruit," said the father in wonder. "This must have cost a fortune!" He turned to his wife. "Did you...?"
"No," she said quickly, staring at the tangerine. "It wasn't me. I haven't seen fresh fruit since we left the Earth."
Their daughter squirmed in between them. "It must have been Santa!" she squealed happily. Then she shouted out the window into the square: "Santa came!"
"But -- that's impossible," said her father quietly, blinking. His eyes searched outside the window, landing on Brother Marcus who was standing right in front of their apartment block.
Marcus ceremoniously touched the side of his nose, and gave the man a wide, jolly wink.
Suddenly families all around the square were discovering their Christmas treats, exclaiming to one another in surprise and delight. "Real chocolate -- wow! And hey, look at the community tree!"
Just then the police constable slipped down between the fan blades, dangling from a rope his partner was feeding through hand over hand. The combined weight of the two large men, however, was too much for the shaft to bear, and the metal began to groan and complain as it bent. "Uh-oh," said the constable dangling on the rope, watching two dents appear where his partner's feet were buckling the shaft.
The seams that held the shaft together in front and behind of the fan split open with a bang. The fan, the rope, the constable and his partner all tumbled into the square in an unruly, bellowing pile. The fan clanged on the concrete loudly, falling into pieces that just barely managed to avoid slicing the police into little bits.
That wasn't the end of it, though.
The police looked up and their faces were both matching expressions of shock as they watched a humidity conduit attached to the side of the broken shaft twist and split. The conduit began spraying out high-pressure mist which, when it met the cold air from the ducts, froze into a sparkling, crystalline powder that fell in swooping, floating clouds down into the square.
One of the children cried, "Snow!"
It was true: the dingy little square in the middle of the Default Zone, usually a stuffy place that smelled stale and old, was suddenly alive with refreshing breezes carrying fat snowflakes of all shapes and sizes. The children burst out of their apartments in their pajamas to slide across the snow, to taste it, and to roll it up into tight balls for throwing playfully at each other. "Yippie!" they crowed.
"Ho, ho, ho!" laughed Marcus. "Marvelous! Simply marvelous!"
And it was: it was marvelous. Even older monks like Matsumoto and Eric, whom had seen many, many Christmas delights in their day, were moved to giggle and smile as they watched the depressing Default Zone turned into a brief winter wonderland, the walls echoing with the laughter of carefree children.
The police were not at all impressed, though. "This is a police control!" said the constable as he pulled himself out from under a piece of the broken air shaft and tried to stand up. Instead, he slipped on the snowy ground and ended up falling right on his bum again. "Oof!" he said, wincing.
"You're under arrest!" yelled the second officer.
"And where did these people get expensive stuff like chocolate and oranges? You people don't have money!" shouted the constable. "You defaulters are all thieves and bandits!"
Marcus knelt down and scooped up a ball of snow, packing it between his wrinkled hands. "Agents of the order!" he called out in a booming voice, "take up arms!"
George, Chloe, Eric, Nganga, Matsumoto and Daniel each gathered their own snowball. "Standing by!" shouted Chloe.
"Prepare to fire," said Marcus, raising his snowball over his shoulder.
The constable's eyes opened wide as he slipped on the floor again. "Hey, wait, don't even think about it! This is a police con --"
He was interrupted as he was hit in the face with a soft, slushy snowball. He sputtered and gasped, and cleared the blobs of ice away from his eyes just in time to be struck by another snowball, and then two more. Another one hit his partner, exploding into a rain of slush on his chest. He fell down.
The people of the Default Zone thought this was great fun because the police were not always as nice to them as they should have been. The children, the mothers and the fathers all packed up little snowballs and sent them flying at the police officers as they slipped and slid all over the place, unable to stay standing under the barrage of packed slush.
"Now's our chance, while the police are distracted," said Chloe in a carrying voice; "Santas scamper!"
So, while the defaulters continued to lob snowballs at the police the monks of the Order of Saint Nicholas jogged out of the square, following Chloe as she dodged into one alleyway and then down another, turning left and then right, leading them along a twisted path away from the core of the Default Zone and toward the public elevators.
The security guard at the elevators was very confused. "Hey," he cried, "I didn't check you guys in!"
"Air duct maintenance," said Chloe, flashing him a identity card. "Official business."
The security guard looked past her, his mouth a round O of surprise. "Oh my goodness -- is it snowing in there?"
"Very big leak," said Matsumoto as he followed Chloe into the elevator. "Give us a minute to lock it down."
"But you're leaving!" argued the security guard, brow furrowed.
"We're getting reinforcements," explained Nganga.
The security guard was still staring at them with a dumbfounded look on his face as the elevator doors yawned closed. The elevator started to move, its smooth hum interrupted as Daniel began to laugh. He laughed until he was red in the face, gasping for air. "That was hilarious!" he wheezed, tears running down his cheeks. The tears weren't sad tears, though. "I've never had so much fun in my life!" he cheered.
Marcus put a hand on his shoulder. "You could join us, you know, Daniel. You could do this every day -- making children happy, throwing snowballs at bullies, braving dangers and having adventures all in the name of compassion and generosity."
"I could?" he blinked, his laughter dying away. "You'd let me join?"
"Why not?" smiled Marcus.
Daniel hung his head. "I've done a lot of bad things. My family -- we're bandits. We take people's things without asking, even if it's all they have. And we scare them. We scare them just for kicks. I read your lips when you talked to my father, and you were right. We are mean. I'm mean."
George looked up. "All that means," he said, "is that you've got a lot of nice things to do to make up for the naughty things. But you can do it. It might take a few years, but you can do it. And then you'll be able to keep doing nice things, until you've done far more nice things than naughty things."
Daniel blinked, thinking about that. "What about my mom and dad?" he asked in a quiet voice. "I can't just run away -- they would worry about me...I think."
"Of course they would," said Chloe, touching his cheek softly. "They're your parents. They love you. And even if they've been living a naughty life, they've been doing those things so that you, Daniel, would always have something to eat. If you do want to come wit us, we can always stop by so you can talk to them first."
"What if they don't like the idea?"
Marcus squeezed Daniel's shoulder. "I wouldn't worry about that, lad. I saw the look in your father's eyes when he let us go. Something in his heart has changed this Christmas, and I don't think he'll be a bandit anymore."
"I should warn you, though," said George, "you'll have to be trained to join the order, and you'll be starting late. You'll be the oldest kid in the class!"
"That's okay," said Daniel. "I've never had friends before, so I don't care what age they are. But will my mom and dad be okay?"
"We'll make sure they're okay," promised Eric. "I'm sure Nicholas will agree that they could use our help."
Daniel smiled. "You're the nicest people I've ever met in my whole life," he said.
Matsumoto grinned and bowed. "That's our job."
"And now it's your job, too, if you want it," added Marcus.
The elevator stopped, and a little bell rang as the doors opened. "Yes," said Daniel, "that's what I want...Santa."
"Ho, ho, ho!" cheered the monks.
They walked out into the crowded corridors of Seyfert City, with people rushing about to and fro and talking quickly into their telephones as they hailed taxis and stuffed food into their mouths. Daniel paused. "They don't even know," he said slowly. "They don't even know what a neat thing just happened down in the Default Zone."
"That's true," said Marcus. "They don't have to know, because they have happy lives with enough money to buy food and presents for themselves. For the kids who live up here, their parents are Santa Claus. We don't worry about those kids. We, Daniel, help those who need something extra special to believe in. And knowing we've done that is all the recognition we need."
And with that the Santas said their good-byes to one another: Chloe and her team would return to their own spaceship, the Donner, and George and Marcus would return to the Blitzen to make their separate ways back to the secret Santa Claus base in the Antarctic. Daniel went with Chloe's team since their ship had more room, so soon enough things were back the way they started with George and Marcus all alone.
As they arranged to rent a new crater-buggy for the drive back to the West Moscoviense Shopping Mall George got a thoughtful look on his young face. "You know, I was pretty scared about taking my exams before -- to become a full member of the order -- but now I feel like I could take them tomorrow and pass without trouble. What an adventure we've had!"
"It's even better than that," said Marcus as they left the rental counter to pick up their buggy and environment-suits. "You've already passed the field test with flying colours. I'm sure Prior Ignatz will agree that you've done a very impressive job here today, and he will certainly agree with my decision."
"What decision?" asked George, his brow crinkled with curiosity.
Marcus turned to George and looked him in the eye very seriously. "As a senior operative in the Order of Saint Nicholas, I officially declare that you have shown the courage, the caring and the unstoppable good spirits that make a Santa Claus great. I hereby promote you to a full member of the order, with all the rights and responsibilities that go along." He offered his hand to shake.
George was so happy he didn't know what to say. He shook Marcus' hand warmly and burst out in a wide grin. "You mean it?" he asked breathlessly.
"I do, Brother George."
"Wow, Brother George!" echoed George, feeling slightly dizzy. "So now I'll get my own territory, right? and my own kids to help?"
"That's right," said Marcus, looking up and down the rows of parked buggies. "Nicholas himself will assign your territory to you when you meet him," he said lightly.
George stopped walking. "I'm going to meet Nicholas? The real Nicholas?"
Marcus nodded. "You'll love him," he said. "Everyone does."
"Wow," said George again. "What territory do you think he'll give me?"
Marcus found the buggy that matched the number on their ticket, then pulled an environment-suit from its hook and handed it to George. "Well," he said, "Brother Oscar is retiring soon, so you might get Manitoba, but after the way this mission went I think there's a chance you may get assigned somewhere...more exotic."
George started climbing into his environment-suit. "What could be more exotic than the Moon, brother?"
Marcus winked. "Well, I know Chloe's been talking about Mars a lot lately..."
Brother George's eyes widened. "Mars!" he cried. "Good gracious!"
Marcus put his arm around him. "There's always another adventure, brother." Then he glanced back over his shoulder. "In fact, I think one is starting right now. It's the police! Into the buggy now, quickly!"
George felt a thrill as his heart started beating faster. He wasn't worried, though: he knew they would escape, one way or another. Marcus zipped up his environment-suit, shoved his helmet on his head, and both monks jumped into the buggy. He popped it into gear and zoomed toward the airlock just as two police officers ran into the garage. "Stop!" they called, "this is a police control!"
"Merry Christmas!" called Marcus as the airlock rumbled open.
"Ho, ho, ho!" roared George.
The buggy scooted out onto the rocky plains of the Moon, lit brightly as the shining sun rose over the grey hills. A new Lunar day was beginning, the blue oceans of Earth glimmering in a beautiful crescent hanging in the black sky. The buggy bounced and skittered, George and Marcus laughing all the way. Behind a cloud of rolling Moon dust, the two Santa Clauses disappeared.
The police officers scratched their heads and looked at one another. "Was that...?" asked one, then trailed off. "I mean, he had a big white beard and everything..."
"Nah," said the other with a wave of his hand. "Don't be silly. There's no such thing as Santa Claus."
"Right, right," agreed the first officer. "That would be impossible."