The senior staff of Site 19 huddled in the conference room, warming themselves from the chill air of the cold mid-December morning. Coats and hats hanged on the wall and over the backs of chairs, ice and snow dripping into puddles on the tile floor, as their owners drank strong black coffee from styrofoam cups and chatted idly. None of them knew why this emergency meeting had been called, nor why on such short notice, so early on a Sunday morning right in the middle of the holidays. The muffled conversation came to a halt as Site Director Ives entered the room, carrying a stack of notes and a reel of slides, and approached the podium in the front. The director's suit was wrinkled, his tie undone, beads of sweat on the balding man's forehead (though the heater had yet to kick in) as he shuffled through his papers before addressing the group.
"Good morning, everyone," Ives said. "Thank you for coming on such short notice. I know it's early and most of you had the day off, but we've got quite a lot to discuss and there's a lot of work to be done. I've just finished up a conference call with the O5 Council, and I'm afraid I've got some bad news."
Ives paused and shuffled through his notes again before continuing. "At 0532, Greenwich time, we received an emergency distress signal from Area 36, near the magnetic north pole. Security personnel reported that unidentified aircraft had been observed entering the zone of exclusion around SCP-4040's main facility and they believed a hostile attack was imminent." Ives paused. "Three minutes later, we lost all contact with Area 36. We attempted to raise SCP-4040 directly and got no response as well.
"We went into high alert at that time. We dispatched Mobile Task Force Alpha-7 from Montreal and they arrived at the scene at approximately 0930." Ives set up the reel of slides on the projector sitting on the front desk, and pulled a screen down from its place along the wall. "Adelstein, could you dim the lights, please?"
Dr. Adelstein flicked the switches by the front door, casting the room into darkness as Ives turned on the slide projector. "When MTF A-7 arrived, this is what they found." Ives pressed a button and a slide popped up on a screen, depicting a single small house, alone on the Arctic tundra - what remained of that house, anyway. The windows had been smashed in, the door kicked open, its interior laid bare to the cold Arctic winds and the perpetual winter twilight. A giant candy cane standing in front of the dwelling had been smashed in two, and whatever color the building had been before, it was covered in a bizarre sort of ooze, dark and red, that dripped from the rooftops and formed crimson icicles, hanging by the dozens over the awning.
"It wasn't much better inside." Ives flipped to the next slide, of the little house's parlor - furniture overturned and broken, cabinets emptied onto the floor haphazardly, everything covered in that strange thick red ichor. "The annex was the same - except for the bodies." The next slide showed a tiny humanoid, no more than four feet tall, dead on the floor. Its skin was horribly burned and fused together like it had been set on fire, its flesh fused to its tiny green outfit, also soaked in red. "We found sixteen SCP-4040-3 dead in the annex. One hundred and eighty-four unaccounted for. No survivors that we've been able to locate. The entire on-site security team was also KIA."
"What about SCP-4040-1?" asked Dr. Johnson.
"As of this time, MTF A-7 has been unable to locate SCP-4040-1 or his remains," Ives said as he flicked through several more slides, every one showing a similar scene of devastation to the Arctic workshop.
"And the rei-"
"All nine instances of SCP-4040-2 are missing as well, I'm afraid." Ives signaled for Adelstein to turn the lights back on as he shut off the projector. "Area 36 is a total loss and almost all of SCP-4040 is either dead or in the hands of a hostile power. As you all know, it's now slightly less than four days until this year's scheduled occurrence of Event 1225-Pinnacle. In light of the damage to the facility, even if we're able to recover the surviving elements of SCP-4040, I'm afraid that…" Ives stopped in mid-sentence as he looked out over the researchers.
"I'm sorry," he continued after collecting himself. "I've seen a lot of shit go down in my day and I never thought I'd have to say something like this, but it looks like we're going to have to cancel Christmas."
The room was aroar with worried exclamations. "Cancel Christmas?" "No presents?" "What'll I tell the kids?"
"Please, everyone, calm down," Ives said as the group fell silent. "We're collating the available evidence as fast as we can, but what we need right now is information management. The O5 Council feels that, given our minimal lead time, Procedure 1843-Scrooge-Haymarket-4 - that's the "Elves' Union Goes on Strike" story, by the way - is the appropriate cover story to disseminate to the media. We should be able to cover this up and keep the civilian world from getting too worried about Santa's absence until we can get a substitute toy delivery up and running."
Dr. Jones raised his hand. "Do we have any suspects yet?"
"All we know for sure is it wasn't the GOC and it wasn't the Reds," Ives said. "We've been in contact with Geneva and Moscow since this whole thing started and they're as much in the dark as we are. It doesn't look like a CI job, either. The signs just aren't there. There aren't any bullet casings, either - whoever took this place down, they did it without firing a single shot."
Dr. Michel spoke up next. "What about that ooze all over the place in the photos? It's not… elf blood, is it?"
"No, thank God," Ives replied. "That's the strangest thing of all, really. The lab boys are still trying to figure it out, but as far as we can tell, it's tomato sauce. Ordinary, run-of-the-mill, five-cents-a-can tomato sauce, with a little extra salt. Anyway, there'll be time for Q&A later. We've got to get started on this."
Ives picked up his briefcase from next to the podium, set it on the table, and opened it to reveal several manila folders packed with pre-prepared documents. "This is what we'll be working from and what I want you to disseminate to the personnel under your authority. Anderson, get this out to the press ASAP - the LA Times, the New York Post, CBS, NBC, ABC, BBC, CBC, everyone."
"Yes, sir," Anderson said.
"Jenkins, get the AFL-CIO and the Teamsters on the line, see if we can arrange some "sympathy strikes" with the elves' union."
"Right away, boss," Jenkins replied.
"Clef, I want you to liaise with the Republican party, have Goldwater or someone give a pro-Santa speech."
There was no response. A confused mutter filled the room as the researchers looked around for the missing administrator.
"Has anyone seen Clef?"
Fitzroy the elf woke up with a start as a bright light shone in his face. His joints ached, his skin still burned from the hot liquid that the men in green costumes had sprayed him down with, and his head was pounding. He opened his aching eyes slowly, trying to adjust to the glare of the bright lights. As he looked around, he found himself in a massive room with high ceilings and distant walls. His feet were shackled to the chair in which he sat, and a second chain bound him around the waist, leaving only his arms free. In front of him sat a long bench, one of five stretching the length of the room, before which sat scores of other elves shackled as he was. In front of each of them, as in front of him, sat a curious collection of accessories - a hot plate, a spoon, a potato peeler, a kitchen knife, and an ice chest.
Fitzroy struggled with his swimming head as he tried to remember how he'd gotten there. It had been just another morning in the week before the big day, just another shift making toys for the boss' big delivery. At least it had been until the lights went out and the men in green busted down the doors. He could see a few of them marching back and forth between the benches even now, their green dresses (or togas, maybe) dragging on the floor behind them, their matching spiked crowns obscuring their faces in shadow, each of them wearing a tank over their shoulders connected to the nozzle that spewed that burning hot red fluid that had scalded his friends to death as they grabbed him and injected him with something before tossing him in a sack.
Fitzroy didn't have much time to contemplate the circumstances of his captivity, or what fate had befallen the boss, before a loud and evil voice rang out over a loudspeaker hidden in the rafters, echoing throughout the cavernous building. "Good afternoon, my happy little elves," the voice declared. "I'm afraid there's been a little change in the work schedule this holiday. For the next couple days, you'll be working quadruple shifts. Meal and smoke breaks are canceled, and you won't be making toys anymore. You'll be making something… different." The speaker snickered to himself. "We've got a big quota to make in time for the big day, and I'm counting on your magic little fingers to make it happen. And once this is finished, you can all go back to your happy little elf families, safe and sound."
"Oh, and by the way," the voice added, "I have your boss and his… delightful little animal friends in captivity as well. If you resist, or fight back, or don't work your hardest - well, I can't guarantee that I won't be eating reindeer sausage this Christmas!" The speaker laughed, his wicked, cacophonous howl echoing over the booming loudspeaker. "Now then, no time to waste! Get started! You'll find the recipe guide in the cooler. Start by warming your hot-plate up to medium high, then go ahead and add a few tablespoons of butter…"
"Extra! Extra!" shouted the news agent to the dozens of somber businessmen passing his stand on 5th Avenue. "Special edition! Elves' Union pulls out of negotiations! LBJ demands immediate resolution to Christmas catastrophe!" A man in a trenchcoat and fedora hat flipped a nickel to the newsman as he grabbed a copy of the New York Times off the stack, unfolding it and reading as he walked;
CHRISTMAS IN PERIL AS STRIKE CONTINUES
Elves threaten to stay off the job until after New Year's
"First canceled Christmas since 1896," says Santa Claus
Is there still a reason for the season?
The man folded the paper up as he crossed 59th street, approaching the throng of people outside FAO Schwarz. With no kindly elf to deliver toys for their kids, the parents of the city had gone mad. The man peered in the window at shelves almost bare, as men in suits practically engaged in tugs of war over stuffed animals and Barbie dolls.
"You must have more bicycles in the back!"
"Do you have any more Jack Proton toys? I'll pay anything! ANYTHING!"
"Whatever she's paying for that doll, I'll pay double!"
A man was standing by the door with a box of teddy bears and auctioning them off to the highest bidder as the man in the coat made his way past. People were waving bundles of cash in the air, a look of desperation in their faces as if they were bidding on the last loaf of bread in Manhattan. The man decided to take his leave before the police showed up and found his way to a phone booth on the corner. Closing the door behind him to keep out the winter chill, he fished through his pockets for change as he dialed seven digits and dropped a dime into the slot. The phone rang five times before his intended contactee picked up.
"Doc. It's me."
"Who is this?"
"It's… it's nobody. Listen. Cronkite was right. This place is going insane."
"We're gonna have to speed up production. We need at least 10,000 more units, and we need to be able to get them on the shelves by Christmas Eve!"
"Are you crazy? I can't work that fast."
"This is our golden opportunity, doc! Every toy store on the island is sold out. All these people out here gotta get something under the Christmas tree now that Santa's out of business. That something could be your toys."
"What if something goes wrong? You know this technology isn't perfect yet."
"Relax, doc! This is a once-in-a-lifetime shot! If we play this right, every boy and girl in Manhattan is going to be playing with one of your toys. And once the word gets out… this could be the year the whole world learns the name 'Wondertainment!'"
Dr. Jacob Andrews, flashlight in hand, made his way through the dark, cramped basement of Site 19. Most people barely even knew the basement existed, let alone had a reason to go down there and root around the old stacks of Spiritualist quack artifacts, and mothballed electronics from World War II, and reams and reams of handwritten SCP files from the days when things like radium and daguerreotypes were considered anomalous. Andrews had his reason. Nobody had seen Dr. Clef since the meeting yesterday morning. Everyone assumed he'd gone home, or walked out, or holed up in one of the labs, or something. Andrews knew better. Passing the shelves of preserved Egyptian mummies and turning left at the Olmec head, Andrews reached the brick wall and counted off one, two, three, four, five, six bricks before he grabbed onto the masonry and pulled.
The wall opened up instantly, and the smell of salt water and kelp hung heavy in the air as Andrews descended the stairs into the hidden grotto beneath Site 19. Andrews admired the seashell motif along the walls, turning off his flashlight as he approached the well-lit area at the bottom of the stairs. A new smell struck Andrews as he entered the main room of the massive cave - the undeniably distinctive scent of simmering cream, and the frizzle of potatoes gently sauteeing in bacon grease, and the undeniably savory aroma of Mercenaria mercenaria sitenineteenia, the unique species of quahog found only in the waters of this grotto. The meandering tunnels and low ceilings of the Chowdercave could be next to impossible for a stranger to navigate - but Dr. Andrews was no stranger, and in thirty seconds flat he found himself in the "kitchen" of this subterranean base, where Dr. Alto Clef, dressed in his black chef's coat, stood over the stove, stirring a pot and flipping potatoes in his skillet, a dozen spice jars open on the shelf beside him.
"I thought I'd find you down here, Alto," Andrews said to the inward-focused chef.
Clef lowered a spoon into the creamy broth simmering on the stovetop and brought it to his lips. "Needs white pepper," he muttered to himself.
"We've been worried about you, Alto. Have you been down here all night?"
"I've got to get this batch just right, Jacob," Clef replied. "We both know I'm the only person in the entire Foundation qualified to deal with the man behind this Santa-napping."
"You don't know it was him,"Andrews said. "Just because the North Pole was covered with tomato sauce doesn't mean it was the Ma-"
"Nobody even eats that shit anymore!" Clef responded angrily, turning away from the stove as he pulled the potatoes off the flame. "Who else could it be?"
"He hasn't been seen since that cookoff in Rhode Island five years ago. The one that almost got you killed."
"Don't remind me. If I'd been half a second sooner with the parsley, I'd have -"
"Stop, Alto," Andrews said. "You haven't put on that coat in five years now. You're not getting any younger, and… well, we all count on you to keep this place together."
"Santa counts on us too," Clef said. "Those GOC bastards would have turned the North Pole into glass years ago if it weren't for us keeping an eye out for the old man. And we've let him down. And if there's anything - anything I can do to help him, even if it means going back on my promise to never wear that hat again… then I'll do it."
Andrews sighed. "I can see you've got your heart set on this, then." The doctor turned around and began to make his way back to the stairs.
"Wait!" Clef shouted. "I… I could use your help."
"Just like old times, huh?"
Clef smiled. "Make sure the Chowdercopter is fueled up and ready to go. Oh… and see if you can grab some white pepper from the Site pantry."
General Thomas Dawes made his way down a hallway deep within the secret recesses of the North American Aerospace Defense Command. On his left, he was followed by Researcher James, special liaison from the Foundation. On the right followed another military man, his uniform green to Dawes' blue; Colonel Arthur T. Bakker, special liaison from the Global Occult Coalition.
"General," Researcher James said, "I'd like to state again my formal opposition to the GOC having an official presence here. Their position on SCP-4040 is well-established and it simply isn't conducive to our purposes here."
"The Global Occult Coalition stands by its belief that the rogue entity designated KTE-4040-1 is a clear and present danger to international security, General," Colonel Bakker stated with a smirk. "But be that as it may, it is the full intention of High Command to adhere to the terms of the March 1953 Memorandum of Understanding with the Foundation regarding that entity."
"I don't know if my kids would agree that Santa Claus is a 'rogue entity', Colonel," General Dawes said as the trio approached a locked door at the end of the hallway and the general rang its doorbell. "But let's see if we can find him first before we figure out what to do with him."
A guard on the other side of the door opened it. "Area - attention!" the airman shouted, signaling the dozens of airmen in the dimly lit room to stand at attention before the general ordered them back to their posts.
James looked back and forth, taking in the surroundings as best he could. Beneath the dim red lights, men sat in rows at radar terminals, each of them scrutinizing half a dozen or more of the tiny green monitors. Half a dozen officers sat at a bank of phones, most of them in the middle of discussions with Washington, or Moscow, or Beijing, or who knows where else. "This is where the magic happens, gentlemen," General Dawes said as he swept his arm out over the room. "Most people think all we do here at NORAD is watch for a Soviet airstrike. That's part of it, sure, but we've got hundreds of top secret radar arrays all over the world that feed directly into this room. We could probably break DoD's budget just sitting in here, around the clock, tracking every last bird in the sky all around the world." The general laughed to himself. "But that's not what this equipment is for. This is magic radar, you see."
"Magic radar?" Colonel Bakker asked skeptically. "The High Command was not aware NORAD was in possession of magical equipment."
"Oh, it's not the radar itself that's magic, Colonel," General Dawes replied. "These radar arrays are specifically designed to track flying objects powered by magic. That's what we use this system for, on this day every year. To track Santa's sleigh." The general turned to one of the men manning the phones. "Any news from the Kremlin, Captain?"
"Nyet, sir," the officer replied, stifling a chuckle at his own joke. "No sign of the big man."
"If you don't mind my asking," Researcher James chimed in, "how is any of this going to help us figure out who kidnapped Santa, or where they've taken him?"
"As soon as we got the call from the White House that Santa was missing," General Dawes answered, "we started poring over the logs from these arrays. Sure enough, we had some readouts. Whoever got ahold of Santa and his reindeer got on that sleigh and flew it into the middle of nowhere in Wisconsin. By the time the Green Berets got there, though, they were long gone. They must have loaded the sleigh and the reindeer onto a truck or something and moved them by land from there.
Anyway, it's the morning of Christmas Eve now, of course. But Christmas Day officially started in the western Pacific about seven hours ago. Everyone knows Santa does his work at the stroke of midnight, and we've got seventeen midnights to go."
"So what?" James asked.
"Well, whoever's got Santa, they haven't made any ransom demands. Our guess is, they want him to do something for them this Christmas. Why take the reindeer and the elves as well? They want the elves to make something and they want Santa to deliver it - and he'll have to do that at midnight. As soon as he makes his move, we'll know where he is."
"Deliver what?" Colonel Bakker asked. "Guns? Bombs? Germ warfare? This is sounding more and more like a Pizzicato situation, General."
"That's just wild guessing," James responded. "We can't just jump to conclusions here."
"I will not be second-guessed by a cut-rate mad scientist, 'Researcher'," Colonel Bakker snapped.
"Mad scientist? That's a laugh coming from a John Wayne wannabe like you. After the mess you idiots made of SCP-1609, I wouldn't trust you to neutralize a stray dog."
"I've read your dossier, James. You're not even qualified to be in this room. Why don't you go back to Site 82 and talk to your… what was it, 'toilet ghost?'"
"That's 'butt ghost' to you, you as-"
"Gentlemen!" General Dawes shouted. "You can't fight in here! This is the war room!"
James and Bakker stared silently at Dawes, a mixture of confusion and disdain in their eyes.
"My wife loves that movie," Dawes said.
"General!" shouted one of the airmen at the terminals. "We've got something!" The three rushed over and crowded around the airman's chair, where a single blip was moving towards the top right of one of the screens.
"What are we looking at here, Airman?" Colonel Bakker asked.
"It's over the Midwest right now, sir," the airman replied, "supersonic speed, definitely magical. Heading sixty degrees north by northeast - huh."
"What is it?" asked James.
"If it keeps that heading, it'll be in New York City by sunset."
"New York City," Dawes said to himself. "What could Santa want in New York City?"
"Chowder," James mumbled under his breath.
"Excuse me?" Bakker said.
"I said… umm… Chaplin! Yes. Project Chaplin. False alarm, general. That's one of our birds."
Bakker stared James down, a skeptical glare in his eyes. "Our intelligence did not indicate that the Foundation was in possession of magical aircraft."
"It's a new project. Top secret. We've been developing a plane capable of keeping up with SCP-1115. Looks like just a test run. See how it flutters back and forth a little from its heading? That's how it… how it works. Can't share all the details in mixed company. You understand, Colonel."
"SCP-1115? Those flying robots?" General Dawes chuckled. "Good luck keeping up with them. They had me try to shoot one down in a P-38 back during the war. I was lucky I made it out alive."
"Well, false alarm though this may be," Bakker said, "I really should let High Command know what the current situation is. Is there a private phone nearby?"
"Two rooms down," Dawes said. "Airman Rodriguez will show you to the open line."
"High Command switchboard, how may I direct your call?"
"Put me through to General Abrams at once. Gold priority, security code Delta Omicron Six Six Niner Epsilon Tau."
"One moment, Colonel."
"This is General Abrams speaking."
"Santa's in New York. The Foundation already has a bird in the air en route."
"Unknown at this time. They've got magic radar. Get our primary radar online and watch their bird. It… flutters. Once they do the groundwork, they'll no doubt set Santa loose on his sleigh."
"And then we neutralize KTE-4040, I assume?"
"My thoughts exactly, General."
Santa Claus hanged upside down above a giant vat of boiling clam juice. A rope tied around his ankles was the only thing keeping the not-so-jolly old man from falling to his doom in the steaming pot. In front of his field of vision stood his kidnapper - a grizzled old man dressed in a red chef's coat, a toque as red as blood on his head, a tomato embroidered over his heart. The man pinched and twirled his mustache as he paced back and forth in front of Santa. Reaching out to the control panel before him, he pulled the main lever a tiny bit - and the rope loosened, sending St. Nicholas hurtling a few inches closer to the pot.
"It's not much I'm asking of you, Santa," the man said. "Just tell me the magic words I need to use to get those reindeer of yours in the air, and I'll be on my way. And once I've taken care of delivering my special presents to all the good little boys and girls, I'll let you go, and your elves, and your reindeer, and you can go back north and rebuild your little house and your little factory, and you can go on like none of this ever happened."
"Never!" Santa shouted defiantly, his voice echoing through the abandoned warehouse his captor had turned into a sweatshop over the past week. "I won't let you do whatever you're planning to do to all those good little children!"
"I was kind of hoping you'd say that," the man said as he pressed the intercom button on his console. "Libertines! Do you copy!"
"Yes, sir," a voice crackled over the radio.
"Take one of the reindeer down to the basement. I don't care… the freak one with the atomic nose. We're eating good tonight!"
"No!" Santa shouted. "Please don't hurt Rudolph!"
"You know what you have to do to make this stop, Santa," the red man said. "Tell me the magic words."
A tear fell from Santa's eye, rolling down his bald head and dripping into the clam juice where it boiled away instantly. "Alright. Come here and I'll tell you everything." The man leaned over the edge of the pot as Santa, between his tears, told the man all the words he'd need to know - how to get the reindeer flying, how to break the sound barrier, how to stop time long enough to visit every house in the world before the sun came up.
"I knew you'd see reason eventually," the kidnapper said. "I'll go ahead and call off that order of reindeerburgers now."
"AAAAAAAAAAAAAAH! AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAUGH! IT BURNS!" The kidnapper recoiled in surprise from the horrific scream he heard the instant he pressed the intercom button.
"What is the meaning of this, Santa? I swear, I'll butcher every one of those reindeer myself if… AAH!"
The kidnapper's words were cut off as a flying porcelain bowl smashed into the side of his head, shards flying every which way as piping hot cream splashed all over his immaculate coat. He turned towards the door where his guards were standing and saw them on the floor, coated in the same boiling broth that had now soiled his costume. Standing between them was his counterpart - black coat, black hat, a massive tank strapped to his back, bowls hanging by the dozen from his utility belt, a long tube connecting the tank to the massive cannon in his hands, and a righteous sneer on his face as he eyed the man who had kidnapped Santa Claus.
"The Manhattanite," Clef responded as he stared down the vermilion varlet before him. "I knew it was you the second I saw the pictures of Santa's workshop coated in Manhattan-style chowder."
"Impossible! There's no way you could have tracked me here!"
"Quite possible indeed, you burgundy burglar of Christmas cheer," Clef replied as he approached his arch-nemesis. "The breed of clam you used was specific to the East River. Once I figured that out, it was a mere matter of checking through the real estate records to find any disused waterfront warehouses that had changed hands lately. Now stand down - I'm taking you in and I'm letting Santa go."
"Don't you take another step!" The Manhattanite dodged a blast from Clef's Chowdercannon as he leapt towards the console, wrapping his hand around the control lever. "One more step and Kris Kringle here is Santa stew!"
"You monster!" Clef shouted. "What is it you want from St. Nick, anyway?"
"Nobody eats Manhattan-style chowder anymore," the Manhattanite mumbled to himself.
"Excuse me?" Clef asked.
"Chowder! It's everywhere these days! From Suffolk, to Seattle, to San Diego! From Lafayette to Las Vegas! From Miami to Manitoba! From DC to Dallas! From Tampa to Timbuktu! You can't so much as walk through the door of a seafood restaurant without shoving a bowl of it in your face! But you know what, Chowderclef?"
"Everywhere you go, everywhere in the whole wide world, it's New England style. Nobody has time any more for the simple joys of clams and tomato sauce. It's all heavy cream, and bacon, and potatoes, and a splash of sherry… it makes my blood boil, Chowderclef! Not that you can even boil that stuff - oh no, it scalds the milk, we must be delicate with it!
"It's time the world got to know what real clam chowder is all about, my friend. That's why I've had the elves so hard at work this last week. They finished up an hour ago. You know, it's amazing how well the magic on that sleigh works - I didn't think we'd be able to load 3,268,896,174 gallons of piping hot chowder onto the back, but believe it or not, it fits!"
"3,268,896,174 gallons?" Clef said to himself as he came to a horrific revelation. "Why, that's exactly…"
"Exactly!" the Manhattanite shouted. "Exactly one gallon for everyone! When the sun comes up on Christmas morning, all the little boys and girls aren't going to find hopalong boots and talking dollies underneath their Christmas tree. No, they're going to find the greatest gift of all - piping hot chowder."
"You're insane, Manhattanite!", Clef yelled. "You can't take away everyone's presents and give them your disgusting tomato soup! They'll detest it! We'll have a revolution on our hands!"
"A revolution indeed!" the Manhattanite shouted! "A chowder revolution! We shall cast down our New England oppressors once and for all! And it starts - now!" The Manhattanite jerked the control lever all the way down, snapping it off in his hand as Santa began to lower slowly towards the vat of clam juice.
"Your choice, Chowderchump - save Santa, or chase me!" The Manhattanite dodged three blasts from the Chowdercannon as he leapt through a door at the edge of the room. Clef started to give chase, but stopped himself - in less than thirty seconds, Santa would be in the soup. As fast as he could, Clef switched the control knob on the Chowdercannon to Setting #2 and poured a bowl of the creamy, savory end-product into a bowl, gulping it as fast as he could. Strength welled within him, Omega-3 acids coursing through his veins as his muscles seemed to double in size. Santa even fancied that he saw a stylized image of a clamshell appear on his bicep as Clef rolled up his sleeves, set his hands on the side of the boiling pot, and, impervious to the pain from the hot steel, upended it and turned it on its side, spilling its deadly contents down the stairs and over the half-dozen guards in their Statue of Liberty dresses who had been on their way up the stairs to confront the Dark Chef.
A kitchen knife tossed from his utility belt severed the rope, and Santa fell into Clef's waiting arms before being set back on his feet. "Why, if it isn't little Alto!" Santa said, his typical joviality returning to his voice. "I guess that Easy-Bake Oven I gave you when you were little paid off, didn't it?"
"Are you OK, Santa?"
"Nothing a long winter's nap won't fix! Believe me, I'm putting you on my 'Nice' list for next year!"
"There's still this year to worry about, Santa. Where's the sl-"
Clef stopped mid-sentence as he heard the jingling of bells outside the window, and turned just in time to see Santa's sleigh ascending into the night sky, a bubbling pot of chowder sitting in the place of Santa's bag of toys. "Ho ho ho! Merry Chowdermas!" The Manhattanite's voice echoed through the empty streets.
"Dammit!" Clef shouted. "We're too late!"
"No need for imprudent language, little Alto! It's not quite midnight yet," Santa said. "He won't be able to use all of my magic until it's Christmas day. You can still catch him!"
"No offense, St. Nick, but I know what your reindeer are capable of. My Chowdercopter might have magical clam-power, but even it can't keep up. There's no way I can catch him in time!"
"Oh no?" Santa winked and stuck his fingers into his mouth as he whistled. In a moment, an eerie red glow began to emanate from the staircase to the ground floor - and a single reindeer trotted up the stairs, past the Libertines rolling in agony as the chowder burned away their flesh, his bright red nose illuminating the room like a Christmas tree.
"You called, Santa?" the reindeer asked.
Santa and the elves stood on the roof of the factory in the darkness, looking out into the overcast sky for any sign. Santa checked his pocketwatch - a quarter after one. He sighed.
"Do you think Chowderclef's alright?" Fitzroy asked Santa.
"I think… I think it's going to be a late delivery this year, boys."
"Wait!" one of the elves shouted. "Look over there!" A faint glow shone through the clouds to the east. It might have just been a warning light from one of the beacons on the river - but as they watched, and watched, and watched, it started to grow brighter, and brighter, and brighter still - until Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer himself emerged from the fog - and behind him came Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner, and Blitzen, and behind them the sleigh - and riding on that sleigh, alone, smiling, and covered head to toe in tomato sauce, was Chowderclef. A cheer rose up from the elves as the sleigh alighted on the rooftop and Clef stepped off.
"Alto!" Santa shouted. "I knew you'd do it!"
"It wasn't easy," Clef said. "The GOC tried to shoot us both down. I guess they figured nobody would know it was them if Santa and his reindeer just happened to get blown up by air-to-air missiles this year. I'm going to have to have words with them after we're done here. Now this guy here-" Clef patted his red-nosed mount on the head - "now he's a real trouper."
"Thanks, Clef!" Rudolph said. "All I did was do a barrel roll like you said."
"Don't be so modest, Rudolph! It was you who came up close enough for me to make the jump onto the sleigh."
"But how did you stop the Manhattanite?" Santa asked.
"Well, Santa, in the middle of all our fighting, I asked him a question."
"What was that?"
"He's spent his entire life fighting to wipe out New England-style chowder. I asked him if he'd ever actually tasted any."
"You mean he hadn't?"
"I had a special batch just for him. Call it a Christmas present." Clef pointed to the control knob on his Chowdercannon, which had been turned to the third and final setting. "I spent days trying to get that batch just right - and to make sure it was perfect, I ran it through SCP-914 on Very Fine. He was in tears after a single spoonful. He poured the pot out over the Atlantic Ocean and parachuted out."
"Wonderful, Alto! You see - Christmas can soothe the heart of even the most wicked man!"
"Oh, I doubt we've seen the last of him, Santa. This isn't the first time we've dueled over the question of soup supremacy - and it sure won't be the last."
"Well, the important thing is, I have my sleigh and my reindeer back! Thanks for all the help, Alto - I've got a Christmas to save!"
"It's already a quarter past one, Santa," Clef said as he looked downward. "It might be too late."
"Oh, Alto. The magic works for any midnight! I've still got six more chances!"
"But what about the toys?"
"The Manhattanite never got anywhere near the toys, Alto! I keep them somewhere very safe," Santa said with a wink. "It's just a matter of picking them up and - say, Alto?"
"There is one more thing we can do to make up for lost time. I hope you don't mind lending a hand a little while longer - and letting me borrow that cannon of yours…"
Dr. Andrews sipped the coffee in his styrofoam cup as he drove home along the darkened roads. His watch said it was 5:32 AM. Christmas morning. He hadn't had a wink of sleep in the past three days. Nobody at Site 19 had, with all the work convincing people that things would be just fine as soon as the elves settled their labor dispute with Santa. He'd spent all night on the phone with Researcher James at Cheyenne Mountain - tracking the bizarre radar sightings all around the eastern seaboard, and ultimately dealing with the blowback after the GOC had been caught red-handed violating the rules of engagement trying to shoot down Santa's sleigh and the unidentified object chasing it. What had become of them after that was anyone's guess - it was a miracle NORAD was still standing after what the GOC liaison had tried to do to "neutralize" their "magic radar".
Andrews pulled into the driveway of his little house in the suburbs and shut off the motor as he climbed out into the pre-dawn air. Site Director Ives had been kind enough to let him spend the morning at home and explain to his girls why Santa hadn't come. He groaned as he looked at the headlines in the morning paper on his doorstep;
NO SIGN OF SANTA AS CHRISTMAS HANGS IN BALANCE
LBJ makes last-minute call to North Pole as strike continues
Riots in New York, L.A., London outside sold-out toy stores
Buckley and Vidal debate: "Is Santa a Red?"
Andrews dropped the paper in amazement as soon as he saw the tableau in his living room. Beneath the glow of the lit-up Christmas tree lay dozens of presents, all wrapped up in paper and bows. He hadn't bought then. Karen hadn't bought them. Who had? Like an excited little boy, he fell to his knees and examined the tags. "To Jane, from Santa". "To Amy, from Santa". "To Mom and Dad, from Santa".
He had done it! Somehow, his crazy old friend in the black coat had done it! Santa was safe and it would be a merry Christmas after all. Andrews was about to race upstairs and wake everybody up when he noticed something else - a certain aroma wafting in from the next room. He turned the corner into the kitchen and there, sitting on the warmer on the stovetop, was a great big pot bubbling with cream, and potatoes, and clams, and just the right hint of bacon, and a little splash of sherry. A note on the side read "To the Andrews family - from Santa Clef". Four brand new porcelain bowls and shining silver spoons sat on the counter next to the stove, waiting to be used. Cautiously, Andrews dipped a spoon into the pot and took a taste.
"Hmm," he said to himself. "The white pepper really does make a difference."