“Captain Mollytibbles, we have a situation.”
I looked over the mounds of paper on my desk at Lieutenant Twinkle standing in the doorway. The bells on her red-and-white-striped uniform jingled merrily, but worry made her green face lime, and her pointy ears quivered above her red hair.
I swallowed a sigh. I was hours behind on the days’ lists already, and it was still morning. “What is it, Lieutenant?”
“We lost half the crop in field seventeen last night.”
I leaped to my feet in shock. “The teddy bears?” Not the bears! They were only two days from harvest.
My gaze fell on the blue-coded stack of papers on the left side of my desk. The “nice” list. Thousands of children on that list were supposed to receive those teddy bears. “How did this happen?”
“I don’t know, sir.” She fidgeted with the bells on the tips of her pointy shoes. “We had soldiers at every point, like you ordered, and we’ve been laying concertina wire as fast as possible. After what happened in field twelve, we didn’t want to take any chances.”
“Please don’t remind me about field twelve.” That day haunted my nightmares, and I often woke from my sweat-soaked bed with the images burned into my eyelids. I would never be able to look at nesting dolls the same way again. “Do we have any clues as to the identity of these terrorists yet? Have they made any demands?”
“I don’t know, sir. I don’t believe so.”
Sergeant Squeegle burst into the room behind her, his uniform bells playing the first strains of “Jingle Bells.” He skidded to a stop and held out a piece of paper. “Lieutenant Tooby wanted you to see this, sir.”
I waved him over and took the paper. It was a still image from our satellite. Dark shapes moved among the field of teddy bear ears poking through the ice. I squinted at the photo. “What am I looking at, Sergeant?”
“Sir, according to Lieutenant Tooby, they’re…penguins.”
My ears twitched, and the paper fluttered to the desk. “Penguins?” I must have misheard.
“This is the North Pole. We don’t have penguins.”
“Apparently they’ve migrated, sir.”
Lieutenant Twinkle piped up. “Perhaps it’s some sort of arctic fox. Or a polar bear.”
“That’s ridiculous,” Squeegle said. “Ma’am.”
“No sillier than migrating penguins, Sergeant.”
I picked up the phone. “Send Lieutenant Tooby to me.”
While I waited, I studied the photo more closely. Now that I knew what to look for, the dark shapes did indeed look like penguins.
Another figure appeared in the doorway. At exactly three feet, the elf in question was almost a full two inches taller than everyone else in the North Pole Defense Force, and his ears jutted well above his short red hair.
“Reporting as ordered, Captain,” he said.
“Penguins, Tooby?” I held up the photo. “Do you want to explain?”
“Gladly, sir.” He held his arms behind his back and stared down his long nose at a point over my head. “At 0600 yesterday IntGat discovered a coded message on Arcticnet. The message was decoded as follows: ‘Tuxedos rented. Appetizers done. Moving on to soup course anon.'” He briefly met my eyes. “It was the ‘anon’ that provided IntGat with verification that the penguins were behind it.”
“No one else would use such a pretentious word,” I said. “Very good, Tooby. Do we know how they’re reaching the crops?”
“We believe they’re tunneling up from the ocean.”
I rubbed my chin. “Do you think they might be willing to talk to us? Negotiate?”
“No, sir. When the fur seals of Antarctica tried to end the Flipper Fur War with talks, the penguins sent the negotiators’ pelts back in the form of coats.”
I pressed my lips together and considered our options. “We’ll have to capture one and question him.”
“Yes, sir. Are we authorized to use enhanced interrogation techniques?”
“Yes.” The paperwork was dreadful, but the alternative was too horrible to contemplate. Already we’d lost a quarter of our crop. What next? The building blocks? The toy soldiers?
“You’re dismissed,” I told all three elves.
When I was alone in my office, I flopped back in my seat and blew out a sigh. Christmas was only weeks away. Even when nothing went wrong, getting everything done in time was a race to the finish line. And every year it was got just a little bit harder.
When Lieutenant Tooby returned that night, I’d still only made a small dent in the piles of paperwork.
“We captured one, sir.”
I set my quill down and rubbed my eyes. “Where?”
“He was scouting field twenty-three. We believe he was part of an advance unit.”
“The talking dolls, sir. When you pull the string on their backs, they–”
“I know what the dolls do, Tooby.”
“Have you interrogated the prisoner yet?”
“We’re just starting.”
“I’d like to be there.” I hopped off my chair and rounded the desk. “Lead the way.”
I followed the taller elf through a series of corridors decorated in a slew of pastel colors. The uniform bells filled the concrete hallways with a roundelay of “Jingle Bells.”
While I’d never say it aloud, I sometimes grew tired of the song. Why not “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer?” It was our national anthem after all.
Tooby hurried down the stairs to the fourth sub-floor, which was painted a bright sunflower yellow. It struck me as wrong to have our interrogation chambers painted such a cheerful color, and I made a mental note to have it repainted next year.
As we closed in on the room, a high-pitched squawking reached my ears. A voice rang out, “My name is Emperor James Lafferty. I will speak only to Him .” Another squawk.
Another voice, elfish, rose over the noise. “Why are you here?”
“My name is Emperor James Lafferty. I will speak only to Him.”
“He won’t even tell us his rank,” Tooby said, his hand on the door. “He insists on speaking to–”
“Him,” I said grimly. “Yes, I heard.” I nodded for him to open the door and readied myself for what I was about to see.
He did, and I had to will myself to step into the room.
A coppery, fishy odor wafted over me. Streaks and splashes of red had turned the walls a sickly orange. The interrogator, Lieutenant Smibbles, wore an apron over his uniform. It, too, was splattered in red.
The penguin squatted atop the interrogation table, held in place with enough chains to secure a polar bear. Its chest heaved, and its beak drooped open, foam collecting at the corners of its mouth. Despite it all, a defiant gleam remained in its brown eyes.
“Captain,” Smibbles said. He held something in his hands I couldn’t identify, but it gave me shivers to look at it.
“Have you learned anything, Lieutenant?”
“No, sir. But I’m confident it won’t be long.”
I turned to the penguin. “Emperor Lafferty, why are you here?”
“I will answer questions only from Him.”
“Are you trying to ruin Christmas for the children?”
His beak opened, and a sound emanated from his throat. It took a moment to realize it was laughter.
“You find that funny?” I said. “You like to see children suffer?”
He made a sound like a sneeze. “Not as much as your boss does, from the looks of things.”
Smibbles made a move toward the prisoner, but I held up a hand. “What are you talking about? We–He brings joy to all the children of the world?”
Emperor Lafferty rolled one swollen eye at me. “If you call being mired in the nineteenth century joy. Your toy crops?” He made a rude noise. “Toy soldiers? Nesting dolls? Open your eyes. Today’s kids want video games. Electric scooters. Stuff like that.”
“But those things don’t grow here. The electronics freeze.” Why was I explaining myself to a prisoner? We didn’t have to justify what we were doing. We’d been delivering toys to good little girls and boys for centuries.
I decided to try a different tact. “Why do you keep attacking our crops then?”
“I’m only allowed to answer questions from Him.”
“He…is busy. I’m the best you’re going to get.”
His beak opened and closed in a thoughtful manner. Finally he said, “We believe it’s time for new leadership.”
“New–” I sputtered. “You want Him to step down?”
Tooby and Smibbles exchanged glances, but I didn’t look away from the prisoner. “Who would take His place? You?”
“Of course not. I’m but a loyal soldier. Our leader would step in. Emperor Emperor Maurice Paddington the Third.”
“How does destroying our crops help that?”
“When the children find out they’re no longer receiving even the awful toys you’re offering, they’ll be primed for our advertising campaign.” He tried to raise a bound flipper. “Does disappointment fill your heart every Christmas? Tired of receiving lame gifts from a fat old guy out of touch with today’s youths? Something new is coming this Christmas. Stay tuned!'” His eyes glittered.
“That’s it?” I said. “That’s a terrible ad.”
“We’re still hammering out the kinks.”
I started to lean against the wall and remembered the blood. Running a hand over my face, I said, “This needs to stop. I want you to deliver a message to your leader.”
“What message?” he said, narrowing his eyes in suspicion.
“Your ideas are not without merit, but this isn’t the way to resolve our differences. If the two leaders meet and discuss this at the table, maybe we can come to some sort of arrangement agreeable to both parties. Can you tell him that?”
He bobbed his head.
I waved a hand at Smibbles. “Release the prisoner and escort him outside the perimeter.”
“Yes, sir,” he said.
Tooby followed me back to my office. “Your orders, sir?”
“You know what you have to do?”
“When you have the location, gather the NPIS and meet me in the sit room.”
He nodded and dashed out.
I shut the door and shoved my desk aside to reveal a small safe. A scanner glowed softly in the center of its door. I rested my right ear against the screen.
“Authorization granted for Captain Mollytibbles,” the electronic voice intoned. “Ho ho ho.”
I sat up as the door slid into the floor to reveal a triangular green card. Copper wires ran along the card horizontally, and tiny lights flickered here and there. I withdrew it and shut the safe.
All I could do now was wait until Tooby returned with his report.
Sergeant Squeegle arrived near dusk. “The lieutenant is ready for you, sir.”
“Thank you, Sergeant.”
I hurried to the sit room, nodding to the security cameras hidden behind glistening icicles made of glass. NPIS soldiers stood against the icy blue walls, eyes straight ahead, expressions blank. Their uniforms were solid white, iceberg logos sewn on the pockets. No bells hung from their clothes, and they carried knitted white caps to cover their hair.
I inserted the security card into the reader, and the door opened. “Ice Squad, enter.”
They filed in around the table, an eerie quietness to their movements.
Lieutenant Tooby arrived last, a stack of documents in hand.
I motioned for him to speak, and he cleared his throat. “We tracked the combatant to a location forty klicks away. Triangulation points are field eighteen, the Donner Iceberg, and the Dasher Ice Shelf. We suspect they’ve carved out a base for themselves near the Rudolph Shelf.”
One of the Ice Squad soldiers raised his hand. “Sir, are we to eliminate all enemies with prejudice?”
“Extreme,” I said. “We expect nothing but one hundred percent success. This is our way of life at stake here.” I looked around the room. “Lieutenant Tooby will fill you in on the details of the operation.”
I returned to my office to work through the rest of the day’s naughty lists when Tooby returned.
He set a stack of satellite photos on the desk. Even with the lack of detail and the graininess, the carnage was unmistakable. Much of the Rudolph Ice Shelf was cracked in half. “It’s done.”
“Coddybiggles sustained a severe laceration to her femoral artery. We don’t know if she’ll make it.”
I nodded. “If there’s nothing else, you’re dismissed. Get some rest.”
He hesitated. “Permission to speak freely, sir?”
“What is it?”
“Eventually someone is going to find out about Him. What do we do when that happens?”
“The same thing we’ve done since He died: more propaganda and a campaign of dissemination.”
“Yes, sir.” In the doorway he stopped. “How much longer do you think we can keep up this charade?”
“As long as we have to.”