On the fourth day of Robot Christmas, our machine overlords gave to me: “The Flight Before Christmas,” an original short story by Megan O’Keefe about the marked downsides of employing elf laborers. Megan E. O’Keefe lives in the Bay Area of California and makes soap for a living. (It’s only a little like Fight Club.) She has worked in arts management and graphic design, and spends her free time tinkering with anything she can get her hands on. Megan is a first place winner in the Writers of the Future competition, vol. 30. Steal the Sky is her first novel. You can find Megan online and on Twitter @MeganofBlushie.
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The Fight Before Christmas
The Missus took a swig of peppermint schnapps, sighted down her old .32, and squeezed off another shot. On the snowbank below, an explosion of ice crystals and green felt pinwheeled through the air. A single jingle bell rolled down the bank toward Pole Station, coming to rest against a curly green shoe with blood-speckled bone sticking up from its opening. Return fire peppered the battlements, and the Missus dropped down for cover. The elves were only firing airsoft guns, but she didn’t want to risk putting an eye out.
“Got another one,” Trufflebell said as he offered her a half-opened slide box of ammo.
She grabbed a few shells and winked. “I see everything.”
“Thought that was Big Red.”
“He don’t see much but heartache, nowadays.”
Trufflebell frowned and fidgeted with the hem of his evergreen tunic. The Missus pretended not to notice and busied her hands reloading the rifle. She knew he blamed himself for the feral-fae outbreak—he’d been workshop foreman, after all. It’d been his job to see that the elves made everything that needed being made, including their antivirals.
That was the deal Big Red’d made with them, all those years ago, when he’d found a way to pierce the veil and bring them all through. Come to Pole Station, keep the workshop fabricators running, and they get the gift of lucidity. Of peace on Earth. Just so long as they keep taking their damned meds.
She caught one skittering on all fours across the ridge of the snowbank and took aim, turned him into so much fairy dust. A horde made a break for it, retreating behind a thicker drift of snow, and the Missus couldn’t get her aim straight in time to pick any off. She chewed her lip, wondering.
“They’re falling back.”
“Running scared.” Trufflebell risked a peek around a battlement. “Once the virals wear off, there’s not much room for coordinated thoughts. We just go… feral.”
His throat bobbed as he swallowed, and she passed him the schnapps. Poor sod, she thought as he wrinkled his nose and drank. His life-mate, Sugarmouse, had been first to go feral. She’d almost bit Trufflebell’s throat out before the Missus was able to drop her with a freshly fabbed Excalibur replica, meant for some kid in Wisconsin. Lucky for them the elves were fragile things, little more than hollow bones and thin skin. Feral or not, they’d die of exposure before they’d make it out of the Arctic.
She scanned the sky, hoping for sight of Big Red, but knew it was too early yet. It figured the little rascals would pick the one day a year he was out on the job to mess up their dosage.
“Wish we had some air support,” she muttered.
Trufflebell’s eyes widened. “I might have something in the workshop. A new kind of toy.”
The Missus shrugged. “Lead the way.”
The workshop had gone into emergency shutdown mode after Sugarmouse had died and the others had fled to the snow. Trufflebell’s hands shook as he switched on the backup lighting, red and green LEDs sparking into colorful halos throughout the cavernous warehouse. Beneath the light switch, the emergency antiviral sprinkler system control panel had been pried open, a screwdriver jammed into the electronics. The Missus shook her head. Sugarmouse must have gotten to it before it’d gone off. The thing was supposed to start spraying at the slightest hint of a fang.
She followed Trufflebell, rifle propped against her shoulder, as he scurried through the endless rows of shelving. Just yesterday, the bins all around had been stuffed full of toys. Now they were empty, waiting for Big Red to return from his night’s work and start on the list for next year.
“This kid,” Trufflebell said as he turned down a row somewhere in the teenager sector, “got kicked to the naughty list at the last moment.”
He pulled down a yellow plastic bin and set it on the ground between them. The Missus crouched alongside it, rifle still propped against her shoulder, and peered within. Far as she could tell, the contraption was four fans glued together.
“What is it?”
“Quadcopter. You control it with a phone, or the handset, and it flies around. It can’t carry much weight, but I bet there’s a camera around here we could rig to it. At least we could see what they were up to then, right? Here, take the controls.” Trufflebell was talking fast, his hand trembling as he held a plastic rectangle spattered with buttons toward her. Sweat danced like snowflakes on his brow. She hadn’t seen it on the roof, she’d been too focused on the ferals scampering below, but his fingertips were scraped and bloodied, skin peeling back from the nails. Like he’d pried at something. Something metal.
A figure moved in the corner of her eye.
The Missus sprung to her feet and jumped forward, leaping over the box. Trufflebell squealed and sprawled at her feet, but she didn’t pay him any mind. She spun around, smooth as she’d been ten, twenty, hell, even a hundred years ago. The elf who’d lunged for her smacked into the shelves and cried out, its frail bones crunching from the impact. Going feral may make ’em stronger, but it didn’t do a thing for those hollow bones.
Its eyes were full red, its teeth icicle sharp. She didn’t hesitate to fire.
Something bumped her legs. She looked down to see Trufflebell, arms wrapped around her knees, grunting with effort as he tried to tackle her.
“Knock it off.” She kicked him free and he staggered sideways, glaring up at her.
“Enslavers,” he hissed, bunching up his shoulders and thrusting his arms forward as if he were an extra in some B zombie movie. “Murderer!” He strained all over, shivering with the effort, but still his eyes stayed golden, his teeth dull and flat.
The Missus sighed and didn’t bother to point the rifle at him. “No use, kid. You’ve had a double-dose of the antiviral.”
His shoulders slumped. “How…?”
“The schnapps. Did you ask the others what they wanted, before you cut off their med supply?”
Even if he couldn’t muster up the feral teeth, he still managed a pretty decent snarl. “How could they decide when their minds are enslaved to their bourgeois masters?”
“That’s a no.” Jesus, but she hated it when kids asked for the works of Karl Marx for Christmas. She gave Trufflebell a thump on the back of the head with the rifle butt and he crumpled. Wouldn’t be good for his noggin, but she figured he didn’t have much going on up there, anyway. When Big Red got home, they’d work together to send poor misguided Trufflebell back through the veil. See how he really liked living in a land without antivirals.
Shouldering the rifle once more, she picked up the yellow bin and propped it against her hip. With any luck, she could get the fabricator humming along and crop dust the whole mess of feral elves with antivirals from the quadcopter long before Big Red returned home.
The Missus climbed the steps up to the battlements, humming merry jingles to herself. And if there was a glint of red in her eye… Well. That’s what the schnapps was for.