28. L’HEURE FATALE: Lighthouse for the World

He faced the ambassador and rasped, “You must leave. Earth is not ready.”

Why would anyone venture to the top of the world? The fringes, of course, have supported life for centuries, humans included…but the very peak?

In centuries past, the “white north” was a land of high adventure. Dogsledders, boot-treaders, mountain climbers, hook grapplers, and their brave entourages would set out for uncharted lands. Some journeyed to map the world…others to claim some chunk of ice or land for their selfish selves. Some journeyed for personal reasons…to find meaning in life…to elude a criminal’s death—and to find it!

But we must recall the most famous reason of all: world peace.

It was by no means a perfect plan. Toys for the good children and coal for the bad, on a single day per year? It could only have been the brainchild of a madman—and a genius.

By incentivizing good deeds and punishing the bad, Kris Kringle expected to nudge the Earth’s people further and further into goodness. He had chosen the North Pole as his base of operations for several reasons. It was far from prying eyes and their judgment, while at the same time the magic at his disposal would give him unprecedented insight regarding the lives of others; it would force him to cut off ties with all except for a few cooperative locals, making him the most impartial judge possible; it would remind him that life is hard, and that not only twisted hearts, but also merciless weather and starvacious conditions can drive any among us to evil.

Nothing in Kris Kringle’s plan was random or spuriously chosen. Were infrequent toys not weak incentive, one might ask? Why should he refrain from appointing himself King of the World, and founding a utopia based on instant gratification and instantier punishment? I would remind such a one that this is the foundation of dystopia! No, this could not be government, Mr. Kringle knew. It could not dwell in the land of adults, in jails, in courtrooms. It had to be an invisible hand, forever unseen, shrouded in myth!

No legend, however, remains legend in perpetuity. Indeed, the map of 3001 was a veritable un-chart of former lost lands recovered and made unremarkable. As early as 2027, a North Pole real estate agent planted a foot through “Santa’s” workshop by complete accident.

From that day forward, Mr. Kringle was part of the publicity machine. Without his devoted wife and elves, he never would have made it; just the idea of commandeering his own social media never failed to make him shudder.

The worst tide of modernity, however, was the rise of the werewolves.

There was an unbelievable time when he was the first to preach about loving your fellow wolfman, as well as every other species of thing-man, stuff-person, and non-human animalcule under the sun. That was before Igor’s rise—a rise, by the way, that Mr. Kringle had welcomed.

At the 217th annual International Christmas Policy Convention in the year 2304, Mr. Kringle was invited, as usual, to shake hands with world leaders. Back then, global werewolfinization was a fresh new concept; werewolves constituted 0.0015% of the world’s human population. Igor mildly suggested that Santa Claus become a werewolf to better represent the changing demographics of the planet’s youth, and Santa, laughing, his belly quaking, replied, “If we all become werewolves, how will I tell all the children apart?”

Many laughed; Igor did not.

Just ten years later and Mr. Kringle’s words, now a public relations blunder, were blasted again and again from the parapets, through the bugles of news and gossip. A Christmas story for the modern age, emblem of sorrow and cynicism! How the mighty Santa Claus had fallen—no sage, but purveyor of tasteless jokes!

Yet they made no attempt to stop his flow of gifts and coal. They still did love him, though they chose not to admit it. Did they forgive him with compassion, send him educational brochures about inclusive language, to help void his future words of insensitive bigotry? No! They forgave him with their greed! Those with technical know-how as to how Santa delivered his gifts began to game the system; adults wrested wealth from the youth, or bullied the youth so that they might give to the bad. And the root of it all was this gripe with Santa’s contorted anti-werewolf morals!

So Christmas happened more or less as it always had: the supernatural sleigh came low to every rooftop, every chimney, every streetside cardboard box, every fire in the wilderness, to every knowable habitation wherein dwelt needy children. Many of them, innocent of their parents’ issues with Santa, watched uncomprehending as protests streamed before their doorsteps, as Santa iconography was tarred and furred.

Then came the year 2328, which marked the conclusion of World War Nine.

 It was the last war before the establishment of the one World Government. With all lands in reeking, smoking disarray, so much land charred, so many of the chimneys toppled, Mr. Kringle struggled to keep tabs on every Earthling, despite the potency of his surveillance magic. He struggled, too, to remain composed as he faced so much death and destruction, and as he crossed the countries to watch its aftershocks unfold…and with so few to support his own self back home, beyond his wife and elves and reindeer.

Worst of all, he really, really, truly could not tell any werewolves apart. He had made mistakes in the past, here and there. This time, however, he mistook nation for nation.

When he realized the mistake, he did not apologize. He simply struck out.

The torch-bearing, pitchfork-raising citizens of the world rushed his door in a siege that lasted nearly a full year! Then, in the winter of 2329, Santa lost his marbles completely—cast them to the four winds. Like a bowl full of frustration, he outright refused to give gifts this time—and let animals have them instead. (After all, he pointed out grimly to himself, some of them had been werewolfinized, and against their will at that!)

So the armies of the world sent out their bombs, which plummeted upon Santa’s Workshop. All his factories were wiped out in a great flash reflected from every hanging icicle and every glacial overhang, and the polar bears mourned that day.

When Mr. Kringle came to, there was nothing but white and the wind that passed like haze—harsh as it was, he was numb, feeling nothing at all. Despite being a magic man, his powers had been nigh exhausted by time and change and shuttered hearts…it took him so long to crawl to the wreckage of the workshop, to confirm that his wife and the elves were not spared.

His life became utter despair, not because of the loss of life (for such an old man makes peace with death) but because of the ghosts that began to haunt him. I am not referring to the ghosts of said wife nor those of said elves nor reindeer, nor even to the metaphorical ghosts haunting all us denizens of the living universe, but to the lingering ghost of a man even more depressed than Santa Claus: Ebenezer Scrooge.

Scrooge was born bitter and he died bitter. Though a product of old-timey England, he scorned Christmas nor and forever. One spirited night, one day of embracing the holiday spirit, had not been enough to change his ways, to make these greedy claws soft for three-hundred and sixty-four more…

Now Mr. Kringle lived out his last days in the rotting remains of a busted-up cabin, sitting in a corner by the fireplace that never stirred. His red clothes were potato bags upon him; he wished he could starve himself and be free from tedium, and from the ghost of Scrooge sitting in the corner opposite.

He was especially irritated by the four additional ghosts hanging over Scrooge’s shoulders: those of Christmas Past, Christmas Present, and Christmas Yet to Come, plus a man named Jacob Marley whose thematic relevance to Scrooge’s story Mr. Kringle could not ascertain. Yet Jacob Marley was the most dreadful of the ghost-ghosts, for clamped to his ankles and wrists were jangling chains, and oh did he so love to jangle. It was every night with this guy—and the North Pole, you know, experiences six months straight of night skies every year.

Since he had not bothered repairing his magi-technical global observatory apparati after the bombing, Mr. Kringle no longer observed anything but his slow demise. He was helped into sheer madness by Scrooge’s money-related non sequiturs and the endless naïve attempts of Past, Present, and Yet to Come to inject Scrooge and Santa Claus with the Christmas spirit.

Until, one night, Marley’s ghost stopped his jangle.

He paused and sniffed. The same way a living mortal can smell rain, he and the other ghosts could smell a falling star (though in this case it was a flying saucer, technically). “It comes,” he muttered vagaciously, so that the ghosts of the various time-linked Christmas concepts nodded sagaciously.

“What comes?” groaned Scrooge. “Better be my next paycheck!”

He did not laugh at all at his own clever joke. His words in the cabin were an echo far colder than snow. Mr. Kringle shivered, as he always did to hear of Scrooge’s avarice.

Marley’s ghost sniffed again. If he knew he was smelling a speeding ghost shark approximately five thousand kilometers distant, he would have been quite astounded. Thinking it another falling star, he said, “Oh, that one comes too.”

Mr. Kringle rolled his bloodshot eyes. With an effort and many pains, he shifted onto his side, cheek on the dirt.

The gesticulating Christmastime ghosts urged him to instead get up and see the sights, the twinkling stars now crossing paths with Earth’s handsome sky, so, reluctantly, the man stood. He seized the one remaining windowsill, slammed his numb head against the window. Chill sweat dripped into his eyes, further obscuring the outer wastes already muddled by glass-bound frost.

It seemed he had visitors—and werewolves they were not.

Slow minutes passed as some kind of horde approached his door, step by eerie step. He feared he was watching a village of new ghosts, eager new haunters.

Then they were at his door, or the place where a door once was; that hole had been long ago divorced of it. Still the space ambassador knocked, rapping at the wall adjacent to the door-hole, for he has researched Earth’s customs.

There came a silence. Far up and away, the moon was twinkling, like shattered teeth…

Mr. Kringle’s first thought, as he observed that Flutoidan ambassador, was that he was a Martian, for though he was in most aspects an ordinary man, an unexplainable quirky something hovered about him. Was it the placid face avuncular? Or was it merely the wire-thin antennae which wafted in the breeze?

More aliens fanned out behind him, and Mr. Kringle could also descry, some meters distant, their stationed saucer. These people were Flutoidans, dozens of them, and they came in every make and form and shape! There were Flutoidans who looked just like humans, except with funny accessories. There was a sort of reptoid whose bulbous head had the shine of slime and the curve of a banana…there was a brownish, somehow predatory being…there were smiling bugs with rosy cheeks, and greyish people with goggle eyes, and pointy-eared kids, and slug-footed codgers, and the one they had chosen as their great ambassador was the uncular type who gestured for Mr. Kringle to calm down.

“BEEP BOOP,” ejected the ambassador. “Take us to your leader.”

Mr. Kringle’s throat and lips were cracked almost beyond repair. He licked his maw for several seconds before breathing, “Who wants to know.”

In their beeping language, the Flutoid denizens blorped to one another for a solid minute. Mr. Kringle pondered whether he should conquer this Martian and his crew…whether today’s Earth was worth rescue from a distant planet’s tyranny.

“We come in peace,” said the ambassador in mechanical monotone. “We seek interplanetary friendship. We were told that the leader of this globule was located in the settlement you call the en-why-dee-see, but we knew he was a decoy when we saw that he had no distinguishing features as compared to his subjects and displayed no obvious virtue. So we followed our instincts and sought Earth’s true ruler where a Flutoidan ruler would dwell: at the crown of the world.”

Mr. Kringle understood. He was clad in regal red. He did retain humanny flesh, unlike those he had once watched. He did have an ancient gift-giving legacy, and he supposed perhaps the Flutoidans knew of this. A responsibility to Earth fully dawned on him now—to keep, to protect, but not necessarily to lift up. He professed his kingship with a slight nod, and the ambassador, mimicking what customs he knew, stepped away and bowed.

Then Santa Claus rasped, “You must leave. Earth is not ready.”

The ambassador’s eyes widened.

Turning to his people, he said with his mouth in an unbudging O and a voice like a megaphone, “BEEP BOOP EARTH IS NOT READY.”

In a distorted cacophony they all trumpeted the same, neighbor to neighbor, as if not believing what they had been told, and Mr. Kringle clapped his ringing ears shut. The flying saucer standing on spindle legs behind the Flutoidans opened up, and they rushed in like a gaggle of geese wearing fake tentacles, robot parts, wacky masks, and not actually looking like geese at all. When all were inside, the door closed in a flash, the tripod legs withdrew, and the silver plate zipped away, just as if a giant had thrown it.

The cabin was still. Mr. Kringle collapsed anew into his corner, and the ghostly rabble restarted their gabble. Marley’s ghost hopped and jangled, apparently excited by something as minor as alien invaders. Scrooge happily conceived price tags for the Flutoidan saucer, antennae, and the probable space guns lurking in their belts. In the middle of this, the detached Mr. Kringle reflected that even those who claim to want nothing—those single-minded aliens—wanted something out of him. That was their way of using him! Just another form of greed.

Newly convinced of the vices contaminating every living creature, Saint Nick allowed his eyes to slide shut. He would sleep with his back against the wall, right here. Nothing would stir him.

Except the crack of laser gunfire.

His eyes flew open at the distant hiss, and the suggestion of pain—pain not his own. He had abided here with every intention of hermitage, of blinding himself to violence and folly by fleeing it…only he still retained a kernel of that durned thing sympathy!

“Do I hear guns?” said Scrooge, looking about as if he had fox’s ears. He told his host, “Up, man, up! Time is money! So’s guns, if we sell them. Bah! Humbug!”

The trading of more laser fire screamed across the icewaste. Mr. Kringle was sitting bolt-straight and shaking, caught in moral crisis.  Perhaps one would think that the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet to Come who had once saved Scrooge from a bitter Christmas funk would step in at this juncture, be the angels on his shoulder—but, true to their names, they only helped on Christmas. Seeing Mr. Kringle’s distress, they shrugged amongst themselves.

The Christmas man did what he had never dreamed of doing, not even in his glory days: he ran out of that cabin. Though his body felt as if falling apart every trotting step of the way, his mind was elsewhere; the scraps of boots barely sheathing his feet were the least of his troubles. And the lasers with their squelching sounds were troubling in a different sense, troubling to his conscience only.

He paused not ten scant meters from the fighters, hidden behind a convenient snow-lump. Yes, a motley medley they seemed to be…and werewolves they were not—not entirely!

He recognized some of them on sight…dimly now, but, as several of them were old, he knew them when his mind was sharper, and thus their likenesses had been burned into memory. Helen, her long history often buried under fur like so many autumn leaves, clutter of time, was shamelessly bionic now. She was out there with her lightning strut, alongside a handful of Brown House agents, good as anonymous.

Along with the robo-woman and her were-people, there were in attendance what could be described as a fish-man, a shark-man, a castle-bat, a cat-cat, and, tentatively, a man-man-man-man-turkeybone-man, with some unknown amount of Egyptian god mixed in there. And they were doing a dance of death, and shouting about their rationales, and below them were the rubbish remains of shattered moons—and so many other soldiers in fatigues, wounded, trampled, ignored. A war! The smallest war there ever was, between the rulers of the world-nation and those who were nationless!

But even so (Mr. Kringle reflected as Robert, like some dapper oceanic wrestler, raised Helen high above his head and tossed her onto rock), it was all so utterly useless. This was humanity’s truth—pettiness, not greediness! ‘Bah humbug?’ Not even! More like ‘bah hum-dust-in-the-wind!’

That is just what he said, in a half-conscious yelp he hoped would be his death rattle. Fitting that it would be incomprehensible to all but himself—just as the ways of these brats were incomprehensible to Mr. Kringle!

“HO HO HO!” he began derisively, and he rocked backward on his heels like a drunk. “’BAH HUMBUG?’ MORE LIKE ‘BAH HUM-DUST-IN-THE-WIND!’” He began to laugh a real laugh, but the sound caught in his throat as he plopped face-first into the snow-lump he was using for cover.

Who dared pause or look his way? One second lost, and surely there went the battle.

Only Jaw, who passed through the battlegrounds as a specter, would dare. He soared beyond laser sparks and straight through Adam’s lunging chop, past Trials’ runaway forklift and steamroller, and dove for Santa Claus—not even knowing for certain who, or what, he really was.

He rematerialized and settled beside Mr. Kringle’s fainted form. Being a soldier, he knew some tools of the first-aid trade. With his fins he checked the man’s temperature—so cold as to remind him that survival itself at the Pole was a miracle. He checked the fading pulse. Then he began CPR, though without the exchange of breath; even though there was a living human head somewhere within Jaw’s shark guts, forcing the poor Santa dude to brave the rows of sharp teeth in a cavernous maw was not worth that trouble.

None of this revived him, but Jaw knew to be patient. A startlingly warm heart hovered over Santa Claus, a welcoming space just beside the tussle over the planet’s fate.

Then came a tender move: Jaw lowered his head, as if bowing, and his doughboy helmet slid onto his patient, over the classic red cap!

“GASP!” came Santa Claus’ voice! He stirred! No—more than that—he leaped, feeling instinctive joy! It was the feeling that he had received something great: a stroke of generosity. He had received something so meaningful from another, and for, possibly, no reason at all…merely because he was there!

But! But that was only his unconscious mind feeling the love! His rational mind, once his body leaped, gripped the helmet tight, compelled him to sweat with fear! He cowered like a man at war—for were there not laser guns here, and was this not a soldier’s helmet? He threw his head aloft, searching for rockets! And he sensed that in a moment, flashbacks would ensue—

There was only silence. And with it the stillness; the entire monster party had paused, mid-battle, and turned to him. Stunned, to see this act of goodwill.

This must have been a stroke of inspiration for them, for it was then that the SWAT-team soldiers looked at each other and asked the silent question: “What is this for?” And Helen, sore from Robert’s throw, dusted herself off, only for Robert to come running back—and help her to her feet.

This ripple of quiet friendship would have continued its happy spread, had a shooting star not flickered in the sky…and hurtled ever closer! It was the now-familiar sight of the Flutoidan flying saucer, and like a benevolent buzzsaw it whorled down to land and thumped on its tripod in a little clearing devoid of warrior werewolf bodies.

Straightaway the fighters ran to the ship, all eager to give their own explanations. Mr. Kringle, still in paranoia’s sweep, watched this with some terror, eyes bulging, hands fiddling with the helmet clasp. He marveled as the crowd was ejected from the door-front, sent sprawling onto their backs by—Adam!

Yes, Adam, not with his bloodsucking tendrils, but with a burst of pure sunlight and without even an “excuse me!” He took on a regal bearing; his head became a hawk’s; he was now the Sun God, for who among them had a better claim to that title Master of Earth?

The instant that wiggly-antenna’d alien ambassador set foot on the polar soil, Adam—that is, Amun-Ra—spread his arms wide in gallant welcome and boomed, “WELCOME, SPACE DEITIES! I SEE YOU ARE LOOKING FOR OUR LEADER. WELL, HE IS I, AMUN-RA, GOD OF THE SUN AND ARBITER OF ITS RAYS! MIGHT I TREAT YOU TO A GRAND TOUR OF THIS WORLD’S GREATEST MONUMENTS—SAY, THE PYRAMIDS OF GIZA?”

Though none were sure whether or not the Flutoidans had strong emotions (for they did not express them in their faces and voices), suffice to say the ambassador was not impressed.

He said softly, “That is of no interest to us. However, we thank you.”

Amun-Ra began to speak again, but the ambassador held up a hand to calmly hush him.

“We have been observing you Earthlings at war for several minutes now,” said the ‘bassador. “That one” —he pointed to Mr. Kringle, who was too far to hear him clearly and was near about to faint again— “feared you were not ready to meet us. We are having second thoughts.”

Santa Claus struggled to his forearms, then his feet. While the crowd’s eyes were fixed on the Flutoidan, those of Santa Claus flew elsewhere, directed by a distant sound.

Another visitor was coming towards them, huffing and charging across the ice. His arm was wounded and his spirit remained in flux. It was Igor! Alone, teeth grinding!

Was this werewolf an enemy? Should he be stopped? Santa could not begin to answer; neither could Robert, Trials, and Jaw when they turned to see the president almost in their faces.

“LET HIM THROUGH!” cried another.

Was that Alice, marching in his footprints—shamelessly human? Carrying the body of Dracula over her shoulders? Had she, like the alien visitors, seen in Igor a hope-inducing glimmer?

“I dunno about this,” Trials meowed with concern.

“Me neither,” said Robert, and yet he stepped back, clearing the path. Igor strode through, nodding in brief thanks.

The ambassador was standing ready. As Igor approached, his steps became lighter, his strides longer, his manner back to business. He beamed and barked, “Hello!”

He held out his hand, but the ambassador did not shake.

“Listen, this handshake is a gift,” said Igor. “The handshake is a symbol of interplanetary friendship—we’ve been over this—and if you do not accept, we Earthlings cannot trust you.”

The ambassador watched him.

“Listen,” he breathed, “the truth,” he sighed, “is that this is no ordinary handshake. When you shake, you will realize why werehumanity is so strong, and why our society is so beautiful. You will become more beautiful yourselves.”

The ambassador watched him.

“Listen,” he said in almost a growl, “I promised my allies that this would be done. I promised them that we’d have harmony throughout the galaxies, and if you do not shake, we will consider you untrustworthy. We will consider you enemies.

The ambassador did not respond.

Igor, his whole arm shaking tremendously, reached for the ambassador’s hand. He never reached it, however; a far colder hand reached out from behind, taking his wrist and stilling it.

Helen stepped by his side. “Tell them the truth,” she said.

His head whirled around. “That is the truth!”

“The whole truth. They can’t agree if they don’t know all the terms.”

Igor swallowed.

“Listen,” he re-began. “The truth is, ambassador, that my hand contains a substance that will, if you touch it, turn you into a werewolf. In several days, that same substance will initiate the serial biting disease. Thereby you will infect your whole crew, and eventually all of your people.”

He was watching the ambassador’s face…seeing no change.

“The truth is that my people do not like non-werewolves.”

“Not just that,” Helen said almost under her breath, “they hate them.”

Now the ambassador nodded.

“That is enough,” he said, his hand raised again. “We will leave for a long time, but not for an eternity, because tonight we have seen what makes the people of Earth great: not the idea that you are paragons of good, but the fact that on Earth, evil and sorrow, and despair, can always be reconciled.”

Igor’s head sank. Helen looped her arms around his torso and led him away; where he had gone sullen, she brightened.

Out in the crowd, people were recovering. Werewolves returned to their feet, injured but not gone. Jaw had left to attend to Santa, who laid against his sharken back, sobbing and shaking but no longer so alone. Alice propped Dracula against a rock, watched him sputter back into consciousness.

And the great count of the night looked at his feet then, at his sneakers. Walter’s sneakers. Water pooled around the heels, almost as if they were crying. Or as if the ice were melting…with the power of heartwarmth!

“There will always be hate,” said Adam, who had reverted to less-than-god status.

“There will always be love,” said Dracula.

“And there will always be our memories,” said Robert.

“And look,” said Alice, pointing, “the Northern Lights!”

“And I brought cheeseburgers!”

That last line made everyone, including Santa Claus, the soldiers, and every last Flutoidan in the bowels of the ship, raise an eyebrow.

Trials hacked out a laugh. “Just kitten,” she said—right before summoning a huge buffet of burgers with her Burger-Lurger-Merger spell! A tray fifteen meters across; quite enough for a spaceship’s worth of people!

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