Here's a secret of the North Pole: Santa powders his hands with talc before donning his thick red mittens.
It is a small secret, true, but some would give anything to steal even that. A secret is a detail, and here in the late December, a detail is as precious as a true name.
Santa, a red exclamation in a white world, walks the reindeer line, stroking sugar-and-cinnamon fur. The reindeer shiver and snort and stamp their hooves, the lines connecting them to the parcel-laden sleigh jingling. Santa looks over to his candy-brick castle and waves good-bye, but no one stands in the doorway to wave back. With a sigh, he climbs onto the sleigh's driver's seat, the bench creaking beneath his weight. He pauses, holding the smooth and supple leather reins, and considers how to start the team. Onward? A-heya? Giddyup? Ho-ho? No, he's already used those. He makes a point of uttering a different word to inaugurate every outing, because he's been doing this for a long time, and if he didn't deliberately insert some bit of novelty into the procedure, he fears his jolly round head might well explode. That is another detail.
Then he has it. He snaps his fingers (no mean feat in his mittens) and with a brisk snap of the reins, he shouts, "Zorxa!"
Zorxa was a great emperor whose realm once encompassed sixteen degrees of the Curvature, and though his despotic rule made him a natural enemy, Zorxa knew how to accept a gift as well as anyone.
The team surges forward, muscles flexing, great gouts of steam pluming from flared nostrils. The sleigh runners sound one brief shruff against the snow, and then there's the ring of bells as the sleigh leaves the ground. Within seconds the reindeer reach the sky, and when they penetrate the white-world barrier, they grunt in pain. Their fur stands on end, and Santa feels the hair on his arms and chest and great round belly rise. His beard becomes an anemone of loose strands, and he gnashes his teeth, and with tears glistening in his eyes, he bellows a defiant Ho-ho-ho.
Then, suddenly, like a cork popping from a champagne bottle, the sleigh breaks free into a dark world.
Santa is once more grateful for the little reindeer at the head of his team, the one whose light yet burns in the cold. The little reindeer's beacon gives Santa's eyes something to focus on, and the team pushes through the dark, navigating by nose.
They come to a cloud of silver mist, and there Santa finds a little boy made of molten silver with liquid silver eyes and sweeping silver delta wings. His wrists are ringed with missile launchers, and a rounded cone emerges from a cavity in his chest. Once there were many silver boys, fleets of them, protecting the outermost parts of inhabited space against things that came from outside inhabited space. But now, there is only the silver boy.
Santa consults his list. "Well, well, well . . . who do we have here?"
The silver boy sighs. Silver gloops and gulps inside him. "You know who I am. This isn't your first visit."
"Goodness me," Santa says to Blitzen. "Somebody doesn't seem very happy to see us. Somebody has forgotten his manners. Somebody," he says, significantly, "is not being very nice."
"You, sir," the silver boy says, "are a tiresome consciousness cluster. Your binary value system remains as laughable as it is irrelevant. How you manage to remain cohesive is beyond me."
"My value system is hardly binary," Santa says. "In between naughty and nice I've made room for you: grumpy but fundamentally sound. Do you want a toy or not?"
The silver boy crosses his arms and pouts. "Something good this year."
From the back of the sleigh, Santa produces a silver cannon that affixes smartly to the silver boy's head. It pleases the silver boy immensely, though he won't admit it.
Santa zooms off, ho-ho-ho-ing.
In the old days a little boy with such a sour disposition would have earned nothing more than a few stalks of straw, but Santa's list has grown short, and he has had to make some compromises.
His next stop is a carbon husk that used to be a star with six planets, two of them inhabited, which were home to the Columnar Beejaru Domani. Now, a little girl lives here, all alone.
The sleigh touches down lightly on the surface of the carbon husk, the reindeer adjusting to the heavy gravity here. Santa climbs down. He erupts in a belly laugh and says, "Why, hello, there, little girl. And a merry Christmas to you."
The little girl is an independent consciousness cluster in the form of a cephalopod with waving tendrils. She lives in a puddle of gel. Both she and her puddle are smaller than they were last year.
"Have you been a nice girl this year?"
"I have been frightened," the little girl says. "The Big Empty has come close three times, and each time I've nearly lost coherence. I am very frightened."
Santa's frosty brow creases. He forces a smile. "But you fought off the Big Empty, I see. You are a brave and very coherent little girl."
The little girl sinks to the bottom of her puddle. "Thank you," she says, shyly.
The cephalopod is a very old little girl. She's all that's left of the Columnar Beejaru Domani, a civilization that once cultivated coral tubes into such clever, flexible configurations that they were used to bridge worlds.
Santa leaves the little girl a toy -- a trio of swimming, dancing lights -- and then he returns to the sleigh and takes off, waving merrily.
"She did not look good," he confides to Dasher. "She did not look good at all. Very sketchy. Very under-realized."
Dasher grunts, hooves scraping vacuum.
The next stop is a point in space where Santa expects to find a little boy named Kindril, the last remaining consciousness of a financial consortium that, at its height, spanned three glittering arms.
Upon arrival, Santa stands in the sleigh and looks around. There is nothing. All is gone. The space here is empty black.
Santa picks up the reins and drives toward the next name on the list.
He fails to find Do-tha-min-tong, a crystalline matrix of a little girl who lived in the Ventral Lanes. Santa scratches her name off the list. She will never see the bottle of whisper-drops he made in his workshop just for her.
Next on the list is Binda Blue Shoe, a mischievous plasma jet of a little girl, but she is gone.
Next, Vornati Vornati Vornati Stop, a little boy. Gone.
The diamond spider thing living where the chessmen built their final lens. A little girl. Gone.
Santa goes down the list, pushing the team relentlessly across the black. Little girl after little girl, little boy after little boy, absent, vanished into the emptiness of the old, dying, dead universe.
Not a particle left of them.
Not a ghost of a wavefront.
"Enough," Santa says, yanking back on the reins and bringing the sleigh to a halt. "I've had enough. He's left me no one. He's eaten them all." He tugs his fur hat firmly over his head. "We know what we have to do. It's time, lads."
"Time for what?" Dasher says, skittishly dipping his antlers.
"We're going to find him," Santa says. "And we're going to put an end to him. Once and for all. We're going to kill him."
"How?" Dasher says.
"Do you have a plan?" Dancer says.
"If Big Empty's absorbed all the little boys and girls, he'll be very strong," Prancer says.
"His consciousness cluster is very solid," Vixen says.
"We can't beat him," Comet says.
"Let's go back to the North Pole," Cupid says.
"We won't help you fight him," Donner says.
"You'll be alone," Blitzen says.
And then the beacon at the front of the team, the one who yet burns, cranes his neck to face the others. "Cowards," he says. "We owe Santa everything. If it weren't for him we'd have all lost our cohesion a billion years ago." The beacon's nose burns so bright it brings tears to Santa's eyes. "What do you think these delivery runs are about? Giving little girls and boys a merry Christmas? The universe is forty-three billion years old. Who cares about Christmas? But all those deliveries, all those toys. . . . Every time we make a stop, Santa assures a small consciousness cluster that, yes, he sees it. That yes, he knows it's there. Yes, it still exists. Santa's keeping things alive."
The beacon looks at Santa. "Unhitch me," he says. "I don't want to be connected to these sad excuses for reindeer any more."
Dasher opens his mouth to speak, but before he can utter even a single word of protest, he is gone. It's as though he never existed, just a spot of cold space left behind. Bells tinkle and fade as his harness falls and falls and falls.
In the darkness floats a wavering shape. "Oh, goodness," the shape says. "That was so deliciously warm."
Dancer vanishes next, and then Prancer, and the shape takes on solidity. It is long and tall and skeletal.
"Let's have some more," it says, and Santa braces himself and thinks of the bumpy, rough texture of reindeer antlers, and the warmth of a reindeer's back, and of dark, spicy odors. But it's not enough. Vixen, Comet, and Cupid sift out of existence like falling grains of sand.
The shape has a face of pale gray. Bottomless eye sockets. It spreads its stick-like arms out and shows its tattered cloak. The gaps in the fabric are vast. "Some more, please, Santa? I have been such a good boy."
"Help me, Santa," cries Donner, and he is gone.
"It hurts," Blitzen whispers as he loses cohesion and disappears.
"Just the little shiny one left now," says the skeleton. "Ho-ho-ho."
But the beacon calmly slips its harness. And it streaks away, darkness drinking its light.
"Ah, well," Big Empty says. "He'll be easy enough to track down, all shiny like that. I've always liked loose ends, anyway."
Santa steps down from the sleigh, the reins dangling down into the dark. He faces the skeleton, only the thickness of his mittens concealing the tremors in his hands.
The skeleton's cloak waves in imagined breeze. "Got a toy in there for me?" Big Empty says. "Candy cane? Sugar plum? Eight maids a-milking?"
Santa surges forward and slams into the skeleton with a bang and a flash of light. They grapple, and where the skeleton's fingers touch, Santa's flesh loses feeling. Teeth clack open and shut an inch from his face. They look very solid. The frayed edges of the cloak slice through Santa's red suit, and he feels cold rush in.
"Those reindeer were very convincing," the skeleton says. "Musk smell and all. It must have taken a great deal of concentration to hold them together."
"They were okay," Santa says.
The skeleton is strong with all the little boys and little girls it has eaten. Slowly, Santa sinks to his knees. His prodigious belly shrinks and his beard thins.
He realizes how close he is to losing coherence, and he knows he must sacrifice something. He can no longer afford to maintain everything in his world as well as himself. So, with a small wail of despair, he gives up his sleigh. He surrenders the leather reins, and the harnesses all festooned with bells. He lets go of the bulging sacks in back, stuffed with toys that die now, undelivered. But there is no time to mourn them, for free of the burden of maintaining their cohesion, Santa feels some strength returning to his limbs. He plants his feet firmly on nothing and gives a push.
Taken off guard, the skeleton loses advantage, and Santa grips its bony arms and forces it back. But only a little. Big Empty is strong. It has spent a long time eating the world. Santa gasps when he finds himself immobilized in Big Empty's embrace.
"You're spread too thin," the skeleton advises, its voice like rushing wind above him. "It's too difficult to keep so much going all at once. You had the right idea with the sleigh and the toys. Remember the last time we fought? That was such a brave and clever move, giving up your wife like that. And effective, too. You got me good that time."
Sobbing, Santa reaches out across the distance. Far away, surrounded by the white-world of the North Pole, stands his castle and workshop. He lets them go. Then the North Pole itself follows. Santa feels like he's killing his own children. And, in a way, he is.
"Lonely, isn't it?" the skeleton says. "But it was the only chance you had. Do you feel stronger now?"
And, no, Santa does not. The skeleton is vast. The holes in its cloak are vast. It feeds on Santa's solidity, leaving more of the emptiness that Big Empty, Old Winter Death, loves so much. Santa's fur suit grows threadbare, and its brilliant crimson fades to a colder wavelength. There is only the skeleton, rendered in sharp detail, tiny pits in its bones.
Then Santa sees a glimmer of light. He wonders if this is the sort of thing one sees before death, and he finds that, despite his great age, he is as terrified by death as any creature.
But, no, he decides. In the darkness, light is nothing to fear.
Light is life.
Light is fire in the cold.
And something yet burns.
It is the beacon, and it is much changed.
Enormous, it thunders toward him, its silver delta wings glinting. It launches silver missiles, and the world explodes in searing white light.
Still entwined, Santa and the skeleton tumble and spin with the shock wave. But Big Empty's grip remains strong. "Two for the price of one," the skeleton says, and Santa hears the beacon whimper.
Santa knows he has to give up the beacon. He has to absorb it, the way the skeleton has absorbed so much, and steal its strength. To save what's left of the universe, he has to kill its last light.
No, Santa thinks. I have mittens. I have hands inside the mittens. I have white hair on the knuckles of my hands inside the mittens. These are my details.
Sparks dance as the skeleton's teeth grind.
"The fur inside my mittens is scratchy," Santa says. "My wife made me these mittens, but the fur inside them is scratchy. The mittens are uncomfortable. But I would never tell her that. It's a detail. I am a cluster of details."
One of the skeleton's arms snaps in Santa's grip, and the skeleton screams.
"I put talcum powder on my hands before I put on my mittens. Sometimes I shake too much out of the bottle, and there's a cloud of talcum powder that makes me sneeze. These are my details. And I am coherent. I am solid. I am Santa Claus."
There is a crackling, like the breaking of dry twigs, and loud pops of implosion. Santa pulverizes Big Empty in his hands. Tiny bits of bone float in space and wink out of existence.
"I am coherent," Santa says again. "I am damned coherent."
He goes to the beacon. But the beacon is no longer really the beacon. It is a colossal reindeer with smooth, gleaming contours, its snout ending in an orb of white light. Its body is studded with ordnance. "We merged our clusters," the beacon says, the silver boy says.
Santa nods, and as he takes stock of what he's lost, any sense of triumph quickly dissipates. His home. His workshop. His team. The toys. And anyway, Big Empty took away the reason Santa kept all those things in existence. All those little girls and boys and the worlds they kept intact, deleted.
The silver beacon reads Santa's face. "There's still one little girl," it says. "The cephalopod."
"But that's all," Santa says. "And I have nothing to give her."
"Do you still believe the cephalopod exists?"
Santa knows where this is going. "I suppose so."
The silver beacon lowers itself, allowing Santa to climb on its back. "Well, then. So long as Santa believes, there will always be little girls."
Rider and beacon sail silently toward the lump of coal where the little girl lives.
Perhaps it won't be a merry Christmas.
Perhaps it won't be a Christmas at all. But it will be a thing.
And here in the late December, a thing of any kind is something to be thankful for.
Copyright © 2003 Greg van Eekhout
Greg van Eekhout's short stories have appeared in Fantasy & Science Fiction, Starlight 3, Robert Silverberg's Fantasy: The Best of 2001, Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, and Strange Horizons, among other places. He lives in Tempe, Arizona. His previous publications in Strange Horizons can be found in our Archive. To contact him, send him email at firstname.lastname@example.org.