Santa Nick was dozing under the furs as Rudolph led the sleigh home after another busy Christmas delivery. Nick was shattered, but a month’s hibernation would fix that. With young Nicky still learning the business, there were decades of festive seasons to go before the youngster took over as Santa.
Santas weren’t immortal. They lived and died like everyone else; they just took longer about it. They found partners and bore children or cloned them, like everyone else did. Nick’s partner was Christie, who helped young Nicky supervise the workshop elves and manage the reindeer stables. When letters to Santa started arriving, they’d divide the mail sacks between them.
Once hibernation was over, Santa Nick found an everyday job for the spring and summer in the tradition of Santas through the ages. He needed to find out what people wanted for next Christmas.
Christie spent most of January looking for Nick’s summer job. These had ranged widely, from driving a stagecoach to managing a team of delivery drones; from airship pilot to teleportation operative; from sawbones to surgeon. You learned a lot of skills when you’d lived as long as Nick had.
The sleigh touched down on pristine snow in a forest clearing. At the press of a button, a cover rose from a compartment at the rear and up over the seats, locking itself onto the dashboard.
The last bundle in the sleigh was hay for the reindeers’ breakfast. Nick unhitched them to make their own way home. They would come back to the sleigh in time to prepare for next December’s run.
Nick stepped off the running board, mentally reciting the password for the hibernation portal. He strolled into a thicket of holly and disappeared.
“It’s f-f-f-freezing, Shorty. How long have we got to stay here?”
Shorty blinked. “Till S-S-Santa reappears.” He blinked again.
Santa Claus had gone behind the sleigh to finish fastening the cover and hadn’t come out again. That were ages ago.
For days, we’d searched the clearing and the undergrowth and even under the sleigh, and there were no sign of a red coat nor any door or cave, or even footprints in the snow.
Santa were nearly as big as me, and a dirty great red coat i’nt something you’d miss in a green an’ white forest, but Shorty weren’t thinking straight anymore.
“He ain’t here, Shorty.”
“We wait. We’re out of beer so I’m going to that village to get us some, and I’ll look for a couple of thermacoats. You stay here and watch for Santa. Get under one of them furs in the sleigh.”
Shorty dragged the Personal AirCraft from the bush where we’d hid it, his teeth chattering almost as fast as his eyelids was blinking. “If Santa comes out, don’t let that red coat out of your sight. If you’re not here when I get back, I’ll go back up and find you.”
The PAC made a funny choking noise when it started. I wondered what I’d do if Shorty didn’t come back. But I’d often wondered that.
Christie was worried. Santa Nick should have been back by now. They had a job interview coming up with the Post Office.
Young Nicky had hitched up Dancer to the trap, and they were circling the clearing. Empty cans were littered around the sleigh and a battered Personal AirCraft, shoved into a nearby bush, was visible from above. Christie understood now why Nick couldn’t leave the hibernation portal and risk revealing its location.
What did the squatters want?
The cover’s flap moved and a sharp nose poked out. Christie tuned into the sleigh’s microphone.
“I’m going shoppin’. Keep your eyes on that thicket.”
A deeper voice grumbled. “Can’t we go ’ome, Shorty?”
“We’ll go when we’ve got what we come for.” A compact figure hopped out of the sleigh and blinked several times. “I reckon Santa’s workshop’s around ’ere somewhere, full of stuff we can sell. They musta used that chameleon spray to hide the entrance – the real McCoy, not that rubbish knock-off I got hold of.” The speaker dragged out the PAC and mounted it. “Anyway, I don’t think we can recharge this heap o’ junk enough to get us home till the weather changes. There’s too much cloud up there.”
Christie had an idea.
They left the clearing before Shorty got the PAC airborne, but he still wasn’t back when they returned. They parked Dancer and the trap out of sight and hid among the bushes with young Nick draped in a green blanket.