Plugs

Santa checked his list a second time. Cargo on board, ship sealed, launch tube filled with water, pressure equalized. He was off.

As it cleared the sea surface, Santa’s sleigh sprouted wings. Powerful engines coughed to life and plasma kissed the frigid Arctic water.

“Look ma! It’s a flying fish!” “It’s a plane!” “It’s Santa Claus! ” “Hush, children. Chew your blubber.”

Acceleration pegged, he’s fast. Damn fast. Actually, they call him the streak. You gotta admire his physique.

Santa fired up the Chronotron when he hit cruising altitude. Psychedelic colors out the wazoo. His sleigh fugued. S l e i g h s. T o y s t o o.

2048 Santas disbursed toys with manic speed. But for every stocking filled, 1.17 babies gave out their first cries.

10,000 elves worked for Polar Enterprises. World population growth had forced Santa into an “arms” race he could not win. Corners were cut.

“DaAaaAaD! Santa left me a game console carved from a bar of soap!” “Wadja expect for free?”

Presents rattled down the chimney. “Ho ho ho” blue-shifted into the supersonic shattered windows and the fish tank. “Sorry,” drifted down.

Genevieve tore open the white package, ensanguined in the red-litten den.”You shouldn’t have!” Whips and cuffs: just what she’d asked for.

Unidentified blip, fighters scrambled, just after pilots smoked surprise holiday presents.

The jet fighters, their hash-powered pilots drifting in and out of consciousness, lost the rocket in a mysterious polar fog.

Plunging into the Arctic Ocean as dawn broke, Santa had one last gift in the back. Mrs. Claus did look good in Victoria’s Secret. Ho ho ho!

end

Something was different; Andy wasn’t exactly sure what. There were some different smells, maybe.

Andy rubbed heavily at his eyes. He had a headache, and he realized after a minute that he had been sleeping on the couch in his clothes. He probably shouldn’t have done that. He also probably shouldn’t have snuck into his brother-in-law’s physics lab last night and randomly connected equipment to a ouija board, but what the hell: he’d been really drunk at the time.

He patted himself down for a cigarette, squinting at the somehow-different wallpaper. Nothing. He stumbled down the stairs and into the somehow-different street, spotted the neighborhood store a couple of doors down from where he expected, and shambled over to it.

Inside the different smells were stronger, and he thought now that the air felt a little different on his eyeballs. Hangover.

“Give me a pack of Marlboros,” he said to the short, dark-skinned guy behind the counter. He uncrumpled a twenty from his pocket and laid it on the counter.

“You mean Millboros?” said the store guy. Fucking foreigners couldn’t even get brand names right.

“Right there–” said Andy. “Not where your hand is, to the left. The hard pack. Thank you.”

The store guy slid the cigarettes across the counter, took the twenty, and gave Andy back a fifteen and some change.

Andy stared at the fifteen. “What the fuck is this?” he said.

“It’s a fifteen dollar bill, ma slacka,” said the store guy. He began to slide the twenty into the cash register and looked at it. “What the fuck is this?” He made a face. “Oh, this suit is ugly! This ain’t no money!”

Andy had to admit, Andrew Jackson was not the prettiest president, but he didn’t like where the conversation was going. He looked around him, really paying attention for the first time since he’d woken up. There was a jar of tiny fangs on a shelf near him. Further down, the boxes of cereal were cylindrical, and they were whispering. Andy turned and ran out the door and into the street, pursued closely by the store guy.

“Hey, stop! Thief!” yelled the store guy.

“Halt, in the name of the Vizier!” cried an authoritative voice. Andy didn’t even turn to look; he just kept running.

Idiot. Nobody can outrun ostrich-mounted police.

The CEO turned to Phyllis Baker. “Lunch for four thousand, please,” he said, looking down on the fleet of school buses pulling into the parking lot. “Peanut butter sandwiches, apples, cookies, juice, that sort of thing.”

It was Take Your Child to Work Day. The big day.

Phyllis made a few notes, and returned to her desk to place the order. Then she walked the cubicles where each boy or girl was installed at a workstation laboriously handwriting their letter.

“Dear Santa: I have been nice all year.”

That’s how each letter would start. Each one would go on to ask for CyberMore, Inc’s success. Some would request a share price increase, some asked for increased orders, some for less expensive supplies. A few children in a pilot program asked for disasters to befall the corporation’s major competitor CompuXS, but Child Resources felt such requests endangered those childrens’ naughty/nice ratio for the next year.

Child Resources. Phyllis’ department, one of the best-funded at CyberMore. The equipment to monitor every employees’ child alone ran over a billion dollars. “Can’t have the little darlings getting into mischief,” the CEO said.

Phyllis loaded food on a gray cart and wheeled it from cubicle to cubicle. To every delighted child she whispered the secret of making invisible ink from apple juice. She suggested that they negate their visible wish. “Wouldn’t you rather have a dog?” she’d say, while CompuXS shares multiplied in her account. “I think you really want a toy, don’t you?”

When another hour passed without word, and the automatic voice that answered for his lawyer still repeated the generic message that meant it either didn’t recognize the caller or it did, but didn’t have any news he’d want to hear, Javad Azaizeh decided to go out for a walk. He wrapped the scarf around his neck, turned up the collar of his jacket, and pulled on his warmest hat. It would be ironic to have made it unscathed through half a Kharbarovsk winter only to catch a cold just when he might be back in front of crowds who wanted to hear his voice.

Javad’s ears popped as he door of his building shut behind him. The light, filtered by the blue plastic of the snow tunnel walls, was twilight-colored and noon-bright.

A scrap of paper, scuttled along by the wind, stayed just ahead of his feet. Midway through the second block, words appeared, lines in Korean script. A menu, to judge by the pictures of bulgogi and bibimbap — smart paper, a page set for a local frequency, that had come loose of wherever it had been posted originally. Another three steps, and the menu faded to a flyer for the jewelry store Javad was passing, then to a teaser for that day’s Tikhookyeanskaya Zvyezda. For a few seconds, under the concrete arch of a bike lane, the scrap showed nothing but crawl-scrolling gray-pink snow.

He followed the page, even when the tunnel wind took it off his usual route. Flickering false-3D ads melted into handwritten daily special lists, which morphed into tables of apartment dwellers meant to accompany banks of buzzer-buttons. Javad forgot the courtroom in Brussels, the message he hadn’t gotten. When he passed a school where a chorus must have been practicing, a few staves of whatever the folk song they sang sketched themselves across the wrinkled, dirt-smeared paper, and, before he could catch himself, he hummed the first notes.

He felt the vocal lock tighten in his throat. The lawyer must not have been successful; Javad still didn’t own the performance copyright to his own voice.

Wincing with shame more than pain, he leaned against the wall, feeling the chill of hard-packed snow through the plastic. He took thin breaths and let the paper continue tumble and change without him.

There’d be a message now, one telling him about the fine he’d just incurred.

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