“We’ve got a bad problem. The left-handed thing-a-bob that controls the outer gizmo on five has totally failed. First time I have ever seen one go completely like that. Usually they will partially operate, at least enough to…”
“OK, OK! What do you have to do to fix it, and how long will it take? When can I get going? I’ve got thousands of presents to deliver before morning.”
“Oh, it must be replaced. Unfortunately we don’t have a left-handed one in stock here in the storeroom. We have three right-handed ones, but they will not fit.”
“So where is a spare?” yelled Santa, becoming very red in the face. Mrs. Claus reached over and touched his arm as a warning to calm down.
For ten long seconds Santa stood absolutely still, gritting his teeth, as he struggled to control his frustration. Finally he continued in a soft, quiet voice. “How long will it take to get a spare whatever you call it and install it so I can go do my job?”
“That’s the problem. The computer says the nearest one is in the warehouse in Florida. I’ve contacted the duty storekeeper there, and she’ll have one on the midnight transpolar rocket express. That’ll put it here shortly after one-thirty, and we’ll have it installed, tested and ready to go by no later than three.”
“By three! That’ll put us completely out of the launch window.”
This time Mrs. Claus got up from her rocker and walked over to where Santa was standing. His face was even more red, and his eyes bulged out like he was about to explode.
“Oh, have another cup of coffee and sit down before you pop.”
Santa sat down in the controller’s chair, and buried his face in his hands. “Three! It might as well be next week. If I’m out of the launch window, I’ll run afoul of the inter-city rocket busses taking the night shift home. I’ll probably hit every stratospheric red-light between Nome and Naples. Some of the presents won’t get delivered until well after sunrise. Do you know how many children are expecting presents to be under the tree? Do you know what they are going to say if they wake up and the presents are not there? Do you have any idea how many law suits I might face? I could be sued for treble damages, claiming alienation of affection, breach of contract and mental anguish! Somebody call Phineas T. Pettifogger, my attorney. Get the rascal out of bed and tell him to stand by for big trouble!”
He jumped up and wandered back to the table where the Elves were arguing how to proceed The Loadmaster wanted to finish loading in advance, while the Chief Engineer claimed he needed work space inside the cargo hold.
As Santa joined in the discussion, one of the Elf apprentices, easily the youngest and smallest of anyone on the maintenance crew, quietly slipped through the back door of the bunker. The little Elf slowly worked his way up behind the group, then reached up and tugged at Santa’s coat. Without even looking down, Santa brushed his hand away.
“Don’t bother me. I got work to do and things to think about.”
The little Elf persisted, but with no better success. Finally, in the tinniest little voice, he spoke. “But Santa, I know how to fix the sleigh.”
Nobody heard him except Mrs. Claus. She looked up from her knitting, stared at the little Elf, and then suddenly yelled at Santa. “Hey, you old fool, pay attention! The little Elf says he knows how to fix the sleigh.”
‘Oh, he doesn’t know anything,” sneered the Chief Engineer. “He’s only an apprentice, and mostly just washes and waxes the sleigh.”
“Nevertheless, you listen to what he has to say. You were an apprentice onetime yourself, but that was ages ago.”
Santa slowly turned around. For the first time that night, he had just the hint of a twinkle in his eyes.
“OK, Shorty, tell me how to fix that no good pile of junk out there.”
“It’s easy, Santa. Just turn the outer gizmo upside-down. Then a right-handed thing-a-bob will fit, and we have plenty of those. Comet will work almost as well as before. You’ll have to leave off one small piece of the inner shielding, but it’s not on the hot side of the tube, so this won’t hurt.”
“That’s nonsense!” stated the Chief Engineer. But then he stared into space for a moment and suddenly smiled, “But it just might work.”
The Chief Engineer, Mission Controller and Loadmaster rushed out the door to the pad, and gathered around the sleigh. Inside the bunker, one of the controllers listened intently to his headphones, and then turned to Santa and gave a thumbs up.
“How did you know this?” Santa asked the little Elf.
“We take the shielding off when we clean the sleigh every year after your trip, just before we all go to Florida. Sometimes we take the gizmos out, so I knew this one could go in upside-down.”
“See what I have been telling you,” laughed Mrs. Claus, “If you had been listening instead of talking so much, you would have saved a lot of time.” But she gave him a fond look even as she made fun of him.
* * *
It is now T-3 minutes and counting. Mrs. Claus passes the lunch basket through the hatch, kisses Santa on the cheek, and scurries clear of the pad.
5-4-3-2-1 BLASTOFF! All tubes ignite with a roar, and the sleigh leaps clear. As it quickly passes out of sight, Santa can be heard over the data-link, yelling at the top of his voice:
NOW DASHER! NOW DANCER! NOW PRANCER AND VIXEN! ON COMET, you better hold pressure, you rascal you! ON CUPID! ON DONDER AND BLITZEN!
And they heard him exclaim as he roared out of sight:
MERRY CHRISTMAS TO ALL,
IT’S BEEN A HELL OF A NIGHT!