It was Jenny Cupcake who found the body. An avalanche had exposed a transparent wall of ice; and behind the ice, an elf hung, suspended in ice, arms akimbo and skin blue. His eyes stared forward blankly, and his mouth had dropped open. He looked flash frozen.
Jenny Cupcake tapped the ice with the butt of her Uzi. “You okay in there?”
The elf made no reply; didn’t blink, didn’t move, made no sign that he had even registered Jenny’s presence.
She peered at him. His uniform was outdated but identified as a worker from Sector 7-G. A ragged stump marked the spot where his left thumb had been savagely removed from his hand, and angry looking red gashes criss-crossed his palm. He had probably been a wood worker.
She shouldered her weapon and tapped the ice in front of the elf’s face. “Hey,” she said again, softer than before. Her voice was higher pitched than anyone else’s in Perimeter Patrol, and she always worried she might cause an avalanche and bury the entire workshop with a careless word or shout.
The elf’s left eyelid twitched.
Jenny jumped back, and cried out. Her heart pounded in her throat. Goodness gracious, she thought. He’s still alive! She smiled, and then started to giggle. She always did when she was nervous.
A hideous squawk erupted from beside her, and she jumped again, looking around wildly. When it sounded again, she chided herself. It was just her walkie-talkie. Trying to bring her giggling under control, she flipped it open. “Prancer Five here.”
A deep voice boomed out of the speaker. It was the Big Guy himself. “Report!”
Jenny cleared her throat. “I think we’ve got a situation here Santa.”
“What kind of situation?” The Big Guy’s voice was terse. He was in a bad mood. It was just a week before Christmas, and production was backlogged, particularly in the Electronics division. The programmers were having a hard time integrating USB expansion ports into the new robot dolls and making them compatible with the newest circuits from YoYoDyne. They kept protesting that it was a hardware issue, not a software issue, but Santa was unsympathetic. Quotas had to be met.
“I think you should come out here and take a look,” Jenny said.
The walkie-talkie vibrated in her hand even though she couldn’t hear anything. Santa was grumbling. “Where are you?”
“Quadrant 2L. South side of Peppermint Mountain.” She relayed her exact coordinates.
“I’ll be there in a few minutes. Santa out.”
Jenny Cupcake released the “talk” button and reattached the walkie talkie to her belt clip. “Well, old buddy,” she told the elf, “we’re going to get you out of there and back to work.” She started to giggle again, completely unaware that within just a few hours she would be giggling even more wildly, and for the very last time in her life.
Doctor Evergreen stared at the frozen elf. It did indeed wear an outdated Sector 7G uniform. Seriously outdated. Like, by two hundred years. Doctor Evergreen hadn’t seen that particular pattern and fabric in Santa’s workshop since the 1700′s. “You found him buried on Peppermint Mountain?”
Jenny Cupcake nodded, the bell on her cap jingling merrily. “I found him in Quadrant 2L. I think an avalanche uncovered him.”
“Hm.” Doctor Evergreen peered at the body.
“The point is,” Santa thundered from behind him, “is this elf still alive? Can we put him back to work?”
Doctor Evergreen sighed. It was always work for the Big Guy. “He could be. If he is I’ll have to be very careful in reviving him.”
“Oh, he’s alive!” Jenny blurted out. “I saw his eye move!”
Santa laughed, a cheery “HO! HO! HO!” that reverberated throughout Sick Bay.
Doctor Evergreen made his way over to his instruments. “Then I can definitely revive him. He should be back online in just a few hours.”
“He’ll need reeducation,” Santa said. “We phased out Sector 7-G in 1947. Nobody wants wooden toys anymore.” He yawned and stretched. “Give me a holler when you’re done, will you? I’m gonna take a nap.” He lumbered out of the room, muttering to himself.
“Can I stay and watch?” Jenny Cupcake asked. “I’ve never seen one of your experiments.”
Doctor Evergreen looked at the young elf, and decided she was probably harmless. He shrugged. “Sure. But don’t touch anything.”
“Oh, I won’t!” Jenny bounced to a workbench and jumped up, laying her Uzi down next to her. “I’ll be perfectly good!”
Doctor Evergreen grunted. As long as Jenny stayed out of his way, she would be fine. Of course, the whole thing couldn’t have come at a worse time. He was pretty sure he was on the verge of a major breakthrough in advanced toymaking. If this newest project worked out, then the elves would be able to control toy assembly nanomachines through a special neuro-computer interface. It was exciting research, but none of his test subjects had survived for long after he had put the implants in their brains.
The frozen elf gave no hint that he was alive. Doctor Evergreen wondered how to proceed. He hadn’t been in this lab for long, only eighty-three years. His predecessor, who had vanished under very strange circumstances, had been a sloppy note taker and an even worse house keeper. Doctor Evergreen was still trying to work out the man’s organization system, and it seemed he was always losing tools. He kept stumbling over items labeled “Project Epiphany”, but there was no hint as to what that might have been.
At last he decided the simplest route was the best, and he picked up an ice pick from his medical bag. He wiped the tip clean of his last test subject’s brains, and began picking at the ice.
After he had been at it for an hour, he heard snoring behind him. He turned. Jenny Cupcake was fast asleep on the workbench, cuddled up with her submachine gun the way children worldwide cuddled with their teddy bears. The sight was adorable, and Doctor Evergreen smiled. Someday she’d make someone an excellent specimen.
A sharp crack from the block of ice drew Doctor Evergreen’s attention back to the frozen elf. He blinked, then rubbed his eyes, not sure he was really seeing what he thought he saw. Just a moment before the elf had been lifeless and still; now its eyes rolled wildly in its head and the muscles in its jaws worked. Its mouth was still blocked by ice, so it couldn’t talk. It looked like it was suffocating.
“Oh my goodness!” Doctor Evergreen exclaimed. He had expected that hours of resuscitation efforts lay before him. “Keep calm,” he told the elf. “I’ll have you out of there in a jiffy!”
He took up his ice pick again and tapped away at the ice that trapped the elf, working first on its face so that it could talk and breath.
Finally a chunk of ice fell away from the lower half of the elf’s face. Working carefully with a pair of tongs, Doctor Evergreen removed a chunk of ice from its mouth.
“There you go,” he said. “What do you say to that?”
The elf said nothing coherent, but its mouth dropped open and air rushed out. Doctor Evergreen staggered and nearly fell over when the stench of its exhalation assaulted his nose. Then the elf let out a low, drawn-out groan.
“Huh,” Doctor Evergreen said. He leaned closer to the elf, and its jaws snapped shut with a loud clack. Doctor Evergreen jumped back. The poor thing was disoriented. A couple of centuries trapped in ice would do that to anyone, even one of Santa’s elves, who were bred to handle extreme conditions.
Doctor Evergreen chipped away more ice. It came off in big chunks now. When it was all gone and the elf was completely free, Doctor Evergreen took a step back and looked over his handiwork with pride. Sure, the elf was confused and probably terrified, but it would get better with time; and then it would be re-educated, and back online in no time, probably in a sector that needed less specialized skills.
Then the elf’s mouth dropped open again, and this time a single sound came out. He said a single long, drawn out word as he lifted his left hand and reached out toward Doctor Evergreen. “Braaaaaaaaiinnsss!”
“Holy crumbcakes!” It was the foulest curse Doctor Evergreen knew, and he stepped back as he said it. The elf reached for him.
“Calm down!” Doctor Evergreen shouted. “You’ll be all better soon!”
“Braaaaaaaaaiiinnnsssss!” the elf repeated. It took a shaky step forward.
Doctor Evergreen stumbled backwards and reached out blindly behind him, hoping to grab something to use as a weapon. He bumped into a chair, nearly knocking himself over. He grabbed the chair and sent it hurtling on its casters toward the elf.
The chair bumped into the elf and it fell over on his back. Doctor Evergreen let himself relax for just a moment. How was he going to treat this? This was going to take more than a couple of days in a re-education camp.
“Hey!” a new voice squeaked. Doctor Evergreen turned. Jenny Cupcake had woken up; she sat on the workbench, looking confused.
“Jenny, get out of here,” Doctor Evergreen shouted at her.
The shambling elf thing on the floor raised its eyes to Jenny. “Giiiiiirrrrrrllllll braiiiiiinnnsss!” he hissed. And with a speed that Doctor Evergreen would not have thought possible, the elf was up on its feet and shambling toward Jenny.
“Goodness gracious!” Jenny cried. She reached down, grabbed her Uzi and disengaged the safety.
“Don’t shoot!” Doctor Evergreen yelled. Jenny was good with her guns, he knew, but even a carefully applied spray of bullets would destroy his sensitive equipment and he still didn’t know what half of it did.
“Eat hot lead, you motherfucking zombie!” Jenny shouted. She squeezed the trigger, and her submachine gun spat out bullets and smoke. Shells flew everywhere. Doctor Evergreen was well out of Jenny’s line of fire, but he dropped to the ground anyway, despairing as he watched glassware shatter and computers explode.
Several bullets hit the shambling elf. The elf staggered backwards, but did not fall over.
“Holy crumbcakes,” Doctor Evergreen cursed again.
Jenny’s gun suddenly ceased firing. Doctor Evergreen risked a look up and saw her fussing with the weapon and cursing. And, strangely, she was giggling, a high pitched little laugh that was somehow even more disturbing than the zombie elf’s moans.
“Jenny, look out!” he shouted at her.
Jenny looked up just in time to see the elf — bullet ridden, slimy and still wet from the ice that had so recently entombed it — stumbling toward her. She screamed as it grabbed her and spun her around so that she faced away from him. It bit into the back of her skull and then pulled its mouth, flesh and hair dripping from its mouth. It spat out bone fragments, then took another bite.
Doctor Evergreen watched for a moment, then clambered to his feet. It was too late for Jenny. The elf — no, the creature — chewed, and Jenny screamed that she was blind. Well, no wonder, Doctor Evergreen thought wildly. The thing had eaten her occipital lobe.
But there was no time for analysis. Doctor Evergreen had to take advantage of the creature’s distraction. He ran out of Sick Bay and slammed the door behind him.
This, he thought, was not going to end well. Not end well at all.
He took a moment to catch his breath, then reached down for his cell phone. Damn. He’d left it in the lab.
“Code red!” he shouted. He began to run toward the Big Guy’s office. “Code red! Santa! Help!”
Five minutes later, Doctor Evergreen stood in front of Santa’s big desk, wringing his hands as the Big Guy watched the tape of the events in the lab. Santa was a big guy. There was no denying that. Even the huge easy chair that Mrs. Claus had given him last year was too small for him now.
On the screen, in grainy black and white, the elf bit through the back of Jenny Cupcake’s skull and started eating her brain. The tiny speakers conveyed Jenny’s screams — and her odd giggles — in a voice as tinny and small as the electronic chip in a musical Christmas card.
When the tape was done, Santa punched the power button on the monitor. “Huh. Didn’t see that coming.”
“This is horrible.” Doctor Evergreen kept rubbing her hands on he moaned. “All my equipment smashed, all my research gone. Even my predecessor’s research. What am I going to do?”
“Doctor Evergreen, there’s a brain-eating monster in there, and all you can worry about is your research notes?”
Doctor Evergreen looked up at Santa, who looked genuinely annoyed. “Sorry, sir,” he said.
Santa huffed and then looked back at the monitor, though he left it switched off. He leaned back in his chair and templed his fingers before him. “We have to figure out how to kill these things.”
“There’s just the one.”
Santa looked surprised, but recovered his composure quickly. “Of course. Just one. I meant, let’s hope there aren’t any more of those things out there. So we need to figure out how to kill this thing. In case any more show up.”
Doctor Evergreen sat down in sat down in the chair and thought hard. None of his research had prepared him for this. But he remembered some scary movies he had watched late one night back in the 60′s; he’d been so stoned that night it was amazing he remembered anything about it at all, but one piece of information floated up. “I think,” he said slowly, “that if we cut off its head or destroy its brain or something, that might kill it.”
“You think so?” Santa asked.
“Excellent.” He leaned forward and pressed the TALK button on his intercom. “Miss Gingerbread, would you contact Mr. Peartree and have him report to me immediately?”
A tiny voice squeaked through the intercom. “Yes, Mr. Claus.”
Santa turned to Doctor Evergreen. “Peartree’s my finest sniper. He should be able to shoot the thing right in the head.”
The door opened just a minutes later, and an elf stepped through. At just under three feet tall, he was taller than most elves. The clothes he wore were so black they seemed to eat the light. His black curly-toed looked like puddles of oil. The bells on his toes and his cap were muffled, and barely jingled at all when he walked. Large mirror-lensed sunglasses hid his eyes, and a deadly looking rifle hung from a strap over his shoulder. A cigarette dangled from the corner of his mouth, and the smoke encircled his head like a wreath.
Santa stood up slowly from his seat. “Mr. Peartree. “Thank you for coming.”
“Yeah.” The deadly-looking elf’s speech was as terse as his outfit was dark. He dropped his cigarette to the floor and crushed it out under his heel. “What’s the job?”
Santa swung around his monitor around to face Mr. Peartree, and typed a few keystrokes on his computer. The scene of the elf eating Jenny’s brain replayed itself. “We need a good clean shot to the head. Just one should do it. Do you know that room?”
Mr. Peartree lit another cigarette and took a long drag. “Sick Bay. No problem. I know all three entrances to that room.”
“There are only two!” Doctor Evergreen said.
Mr. Peartree smirked. “That you know of.”
“That’s enough,” Santa said. “Mr. Peartree, this needs to be done as soon as possible. You’ll be paid the standard rate. Just be careful. That thing is deadly.”
“No problem.” Mr. Peartree spun on his heel and left the room as liquidly as he had arrived. The door closed behind him.
Santa sat back down on his chair; it creaked ominously. “Let’s watch,” he said. He twisted a dial on the side of the monitor and a new picture appeared: a live streaming image of the medical lab.
The elf’s face, still dripping red and gray, dominated the screen. Its mouth opened and closed, opened and closed, as it looked back and forth.
Doctor Evergreen had been staring at the elf so intensely that when a black shadow passed before it, momentarily blocking the view, he jumped. “What was that?”
“I don’t know.” Santa fiddled with the controls, and the view pulled back, showing the elf’s entire body, and the now-empty workbench that it stood before.
Doctor Evergreen shuddered. Jenny’s body should have still been on the workbench where the elf had dropped it. But it wasn’t. “I don’t –”
Then the shape passed before the camera again. This time, Doctor Evergreen saw it for what it was. “It can’t be,” he breathed.
Santa leaned forward, squinting. Then he reached into his breast pocket and removed a pair of reading glasses and slipped them on to his face. “Son of a bitch,” he muttered.
“It’s Jenny!” Doctor Evergreen exclaimed. “But that’s impossible! I watched the thing eat her brain!” He swallowed past a huge lump that had suddenly appeared in his throat.
“Do you know what this means?”
Santa sighed. “Taking out their brain’s not gonna kill them.”
Doctor’s Evergreen’s stomach lurched as he watched Jenny’s reanimated corpse shamble around in the lab, moaning for brains and giggling. “Holy crumbcakes. We’ve got to stop Mr. Peartree!”
Santa picked up his walkie talkie and adjusted the frequency. “Mr. Peartree, come in! Mr. Peartree, do you read me?”
The walkie talkie clicked and then fell silent. Santa cursed, then punched the “talk” button on the intercom. “Miss Gingerbread, assemble an armed response team at the medical lab on the double!”
“But Santa, I can’t.”
“What? Why not?”
“Because last week you reassigned all security personnel to Toy Production. Don’t you remember?”
Santa swore again, then picked up his walkie talkie once more. “Mr. Peartree, if you can hear me, I want you to abort the mission immediately. Do you read me? Abort!”
He put the walkie talkie down, then stood up again, pulled open one of the drawers of his desk and pulled out a pistol that Doctor Evergreen thought looked as big as he was.
Santa flipped open the chamber and spun it, checking the cartridges. Then he shot Doctor Evergreen an urgent look. “Let’s roll.”
Mr. Peartree slid through the corridors of Santa’s complex, unnoticed by the other elves that toiled there. Half of that was stealth; the other half was the overworked and burned out state that every elf went through this time of year. His walkie talkie squawked at him one, and he stabbed the “Off” button reflexively. He had a job to do.
The door to the medical lab was closed but unlocked. He chuckled. The creature, whatever it was, obviously hadn’t worked out the basic principle of the doorknob.
He raised his gun, keeping it up with his left hand, and placed his right hand on the knob, flattening himself against the door itself. He counted to three, slowly, under his breath, then twisted the knob and thrust the door open. He took a step inside and brought the gun’s sights level with his eye.
He had been expecting the monster to be standing right in the middle of the room, but it wasn’t there. He grinned. “The chase is on,” he muttered. It was the most dangerous game. Elf.
He scanned the room slowly, then he heard a low moan to his left, like someone trying to talk through mud. “Brrraaaaaaaiiiinnnnssss!”
Mr. Peartree spun and fired his rifle. It was a perfect shot; a tiny black hole appeared in the elf’s forehead. But instead of falling over and dying, it simply kept shambling forward.
“Oh, so you’re gonna play tough, huh?” Mr. Peartree grinned; he liked a challenge. He took aim again, this time right at the undead elf’s eye.
But before he could fire, another voice welled up behind him, a high pitched squeaky voice.
Mr. Peartree turned. Jenny Cupcake stood right before him. He recognized her; they’d actually been married for some time, but she’d walked out on him, claiming that she could no longer handle what he did for a living. Now, it appeared, she was an undead brain-eating monster from hell.
Some people, it seemed, never change.
Mr. Peartree aimed his rifle again, and a thrill went through him. “See you in hell, bitch!” he cried at her.
He never fired. The back of his head exploded into a raging storm of sharp pain. Everything went red, then black. His head felt oddly cool, like there was a draft in the room.
“Ah, shit,” he muttered. And that was it for Mr. Peartree.
“What do we do? What do we do? What do we do?” Doctor Evergreen was panicking. He and Santa had not made it to the lab in time; in fact, Jenny and the first elf had just finished eating Mr. Peartree’s brains when they’d shown up. If Santa hadn’t thought quickly and pulled the lab door shut with a slam, they would have been eaten for sure.
“Where are the other doors?” Santa demanded, interrupted Doctor Evergreen’s frantic mantra.
“There’s only one other door,” Doctor Evergreen replied. “It’s in the back. It’s locked and there are dozens of heavy crates in front of it.”
“What about the third door?”
“There is no third door. Mr. Peartree was just messing with me, I’m sure of it.”
“Are you sure about that?”
Doctor Evergreen nodded. “Of course I’m sure.” He realized he was shouting, and made a deliberate effort to lower his voice. “If there was a third door, I’d know about it by now. I’ve been all over that lab.”
Santa regarded Doctor Evergreen for a long moment. Then he said, “All right. Let’s get back to my office. I can coordinate crisis response better from there. You!” He pointed at one of the harried-looking elves who was scuttling by with a large bundle under her arm.
“Stay here and guard this door. As of this moment you are officially relieved from toymaking duties until further notice. If anything happens, you let me know immediately. Do you understand?”
The elf saluted sharply and stood at attention, her bells jingling authoritatively. “Yes, Mr. Claus!”
Santa didn’t even acknowledge her. He simply grabbed Dr. Evergreen’s arm and began to run.
“I was afraid this would happen,” he panted.
Doctor Evergreen pulled himself to a stop, forcing Santa to turn around. They were at the intersection of two corridors. “You knew about this, didn’t you! You knew something like this was going to happen!”
“Not now, Doctor Evergreen. Come on!”
But Doctor Evergreen was adamant. “No, Santa. Tell me what’s happening.”
Santa sighed and rolled his eyes. “Yeah. I guess I did know that something was going to happen.”
“So tell me!”
Santa took a deep breath. “Project Epiphany. It was your predecessor’s idea. We thought we could disable the lower brain functions in elves and injecting them with a reanimation tincture I created and make productivity skyrocket.”
Doctor Evergreen blinked in shock. “What! And you didn’t tell me!”
“It was a failure. The things were unstoppable. We couldn’t kill them. We finally just drove them out into the Arctic waste and hoped that nature would take its course.”
“The Arctic Circle,” Doctor Evergreen muttered. “It’s just like a deep freeze out there. You should have known when you saw that elf encased in the ice!”
Santa shook his head sadly. “I just assumed all the zombies were dead. I had no idea what Jenny had found.”
“You just forgot, didn’t you?” Doctor Evergreen was flabbergasted. “I can’t believe it! You just forgot!”
“Okay, so I’m a bad Santa. Let’s just get back to my office.”
There was a loud scream from the right. It was followed by another scream, and then the familiar moans: “Brrrrraaaaaaaiiiiiinnnnnssss!” This was followed by a ghastly high pitched giggle.
Doctor Evergreen looked back to the lab. The door was still shut. What on earth was happening?
“The third door,” Santa said.
Doctor Evergreen’s heart sank. “I swear I didn’t know!”
“I ought to just leave you here,” Santa snarled. But then he grabbed Doctor Evergreen’s arm and began to run again.
Doctor Evergreen stood silently watching the carnage on one of the closed circuit TV screens in the Big Guy’s office. The number of zombies shambling through the corridors of the workshop had already tripled. Even now he could see Jenny and another elf fighting each other for the brains of a young elf in a Programmers’ Union uniform. His stomach turned at the sight. “What are we going to do, Santa?”
Santa said nothing for a long moment. Then he sighed. “We’re going to have to go with emergency plan Omega Z.”
“Omega Z? Nuke the facility from orbit? But you can’t! It’s only a week to Christmas! The toys!”
“We’ve got no choice. Get into the escape hatch, and I’ll initiate the detonation sequence from here.” He punched the intercom button again. “Miss Gingerbread, I want you to make an evacuation announcement. Anyone still able to leave the workshop must do so within ten minutes. We’re going Omega Z.”
“Goodness gracious!” Miss Gingerbread squeaked. “For real?”
“Yes, for real. Now do it! Then get out of the building as quickly as you can.” He turned to Doctor Evergreen. “Move it!” He typed a series of commands into his computer, and a panel on the south wall of his office slid aside, revealing a black tunnel.
Doctor Evergreen ran for the tunnel and ducked inside. He heard Miss Gingerbread’s voice start to blast over the PA system: “Ladies and gentlemen, this is an evacuation alert. All elves who are still alive must evacuate the facility within ten minutes. This is not a drill. Repeat, this is not a drill.”
Doctor Evergreen paused to listen to the voice. This was the worst thing he could imagine. Santa’s workshop invaded by zombies. The entire facility being nuked, and only a week before Christmas! How could this be happening?
“Move it!” Santa’s voice was loud and commanding from behind him. He looked behind him; Santa was crawling into the tunnel behind him, barreling on him like a giant boulder. Doctor Evergreen didn’t have a chance to turn around completely before Santa was on him, shoving him backwards down the tunnel. He scrambled to get himself turned around, but he couldn’t get a grip on the floor or walls. Then high pitched voices screamed out, “Santa braiiinnnssss!!!”, and then Santa screamed.
Heart pounding, Doctor Evergreen ran.
When he opened his eyes again, Doctor Evergreen found himself out in the snow. Before him, flames leaped skyward from the ruins of the workshop. Smoke billowed upwards, colored orange and red by the flames. Elves milled about them, looking lost and confused. Doctor Evergreen counted less than a dozen of them; Santa had employed close to five thousand.
“Holy crumbcakes,” he said. Grief welled up in Doctor Evergreen’s chest, and he fell to his knees. “This is all my fault!” he wailed, pounding the sides of his head. “Everyone’s dead! I should never have released that elf from the ice! I should have known where that third door was!”
One of the other elves patted Doctor Evergreen on the shoulder. “There, there,” she said. “You couldn’t have known what would happen.” She paused. “Could you?”
Doctor Evergreen shook his head. “I suppose not. Well, there’s nothing for us to rebuild at this point. We’ll have to find a new Santa and issue some press releases. I think…”
He was interrupted by a sound overhead, something like a jet engine, something like hoofbeats. He looked up, saw a miniature sleigh pulled by eight tiny reindeer.
Doctor Evergreen felt his heart sink. Santa had a list, and he would be checking it twice.
And as he drove out of sight, Doctor Evergreen heard him exclaim, “BRAAAAAAAAIIINNNNSSSS!!”