A Story by Nicholas Hallum OPERATION SLEIGH RIDE National Security Administration [NSA] EYES ONLY – CLASSIFICATION LEVEL 10 DO NOT READ THIS FILE IN THE CLEAR CLASSIFIED RECORD 12.20.00 13:14 HOURS
The Christmas tree was up. Every year, we hand cut a Noble Fir in the National Forest, and the piney scent permeated the house. At the time, I don’t think anyone really minded that we were smelling the tree’s sappy lifeblood draining out: that thought only came to me later.
In the dining room, there was a new table runner – white and gold – and the antique sideboard was crowded with candles. My parents had gone all out that last year before I left for college. And I thought for sure that I’d be loaded up with presents. My parents, even at my late stage in childhood, have maintained that harmless fiction of Santa Claus, so I have continued to receive presents from both of my parents as well as the yearly assortment of odds and ends from Santa through the years. Mostly the Santa presents are the strange ones – unusual fruit and ancient toys – but my parents preferred to speak as if these came from a once-forgotten relative who now re-appeared once a year.
And I humored them. After all, I was the only child, and I supposed they could dote on me as they wished until I left the house. I never took the time to mention to them the uncomfortable fact that my friends had faded out of any association with Santa – that white and red-cloaked goblin of Christmas – many years ago, around when they were nine or ten. I didn’t mind the extra attention, and it seemed innocent enough at the time.
But that last Christmas before I left for the East Coast did turn out to be particularly unusual. My mind was already set on design school, where I hoped in my half-aware way to study architecture or mythology or some combination of the two. So I was barely paying attention when my parents announced that my estranged uncle would be staying with us over the holiday season. And I had little idea how much his visit would change my holiday season, the aftermath of that season creating an avalanche that affected all the rest of my days.
Uncle Harry was an elderly recluse who long ago had served in some campaign for the Armed Forces. He’d been permanently disabled because of some old Armed Forces campaign, but it was classified, so he couldn’t tell us what had happened. He was with us for the holidays because he had taken an unfortunate fall in the facility where he lived. I can’t remember quite why the staff were unable to care for him over the holidays. Perhaps it was his conspiracy thinking and his constant paranoia.
But the truth was that his old injuries had gradually led to partial disability and he had never quite recovered, either in his head or his limbs. In fact Uncle Harry still bore a scar on his head, and a plate in his skull underneath the skin. I fear his head had never been quite right ever since.
And on my last year at home for the holidays, Uncle Harry was with us, in the flesh.
My parents decided that he would take over my warm attic bedroom, where all my favorite things were stored. I was banished to the downstairs study, to sleep on the couch by the fire in the tree. It wasn’t entirely a bad place to be for the holiday week, but it disgruntled me, being out of touch with my familiar things and my familiar bedroom.
The first night my uncle stayed with us was unremarkable. He stumbled upstairs with his cane and collapsed into bed and we didn’t hear from him for the rest of the evening. Downstairs, we played board games, drank cocoa and discussed holiday festivities in muted voices. Little had changed on the first night for our holiday, other than the fact that I stayed put downstairs and rolled out my sleeping bag, as if I was a visitor in my own house. Get used to it, I thought to myself. Things will never be quite the same for me again.
Little did I know how true I had read the future.
CLASSIFIED RECORD 12.21.00 20:07 HOURS
The second night, after Uncle Harry had limped and staggered up to the warm attic bedroom, I heard his querulous tones, drift down to our level.
“Nick?” He called out. “Nick? Can you help me out here?”
I glanced at my father. He is named Nick as well. But he shook his head ponderously. “No, he means you, unfortunately. Uncle Harry said he had something to tell you while he was here. I’m not sure what it was, some sort of family tradition he wanted to pass on to you?”
When I got up to the bedroom, the lights were low. Uncle Harry was sitting up in bed. I stared down at Uncle Harry; it had been years since I’d seen the old man.
The old man was liver-spotted and jaundiced, his head a misshapen egg resting fragile and unbroken on the gray and threadbare sheets. An oxygen machine hissed and sighed in the corner of the room, a line running to the old man’s face.
I sat down in the armchair opposite, and listened to my Uncle suck on the oxygen line, his breath leaking out of him with a rasping gasp.
“Look son,” he said finally. “You can tell me the truth. It’s almost Christmas, am I right?”
I shook my head, bemused at his confusion. But I spoke gently to him. “Um, that’s why you’re here, Uncle Harry. You’re here for the holidays with our family.”
“What day is it?” he said anxiously.
“It’s only the twenty-first,” I said.
“All right then, all right.” Uncle Harry’s arms were bare branches, splayed out along the bedspread, his fingers flexing anxiously in an unseen wind. He plucked at the bedspread. “There’s something I need to tell you before this year’s Christmas Eve arrives. We only have three days then.”
“What’s that you want to tell me?” I said.
“It’s this here,” he said. And he pulled out from under the bedspread a tattered old file folder. On the cover was stamped a faded red logo that read:
– CLASSIFIED – EYES ONLY.
“Should you be showing me this, Uncle – ”
He pursed his lips, as if he regretted trusting me. “Never you mind what they tell us to do,” he said. “You’ve got to know the truth after all these years. The whole world should know the truth.”
He pulled a tattered old piece of newspaper from the file folder and shoved it into my hands. “Read this,” he murmured. “I was there. I worked for NORAD.” He tapped the newspaper urgently.
“North American Air Defense Command. The good guys keeping the Ruskies from bombing us out of existence. That’s where I worked. I got this first call, and then I got a second call. This is just the first of the calls.”
“And those calls matter how – ?”
“Just read it!” Uncle Harry waved a liver-spotted hand at the torn newsclipping I was holding. “That’s where the story begins, with the first call.” I looked down and began to read.
CHRISTMAS TALES: HOW NORAD STARTED TRACKING SANTA CLAUS
TOLEDO OHIO – DEC 25, 1981
On December 15, 1955, U.S. Air Force Col. Harry Shoup, the director of operations at the North American Air Defense Command (NORAD) received a phone call at his Colorado Springs, Colo., office. The call had come in on one of the top secret lines inside NORAD that only rang in the case of a crisis.
Grabbing the phone, Shoup must have expected the worst. Perhaps Russian bombers overhead or invasion by sea. Instead, a tiny voice asked, “Is this Santa Claus?”
“Dad was pretty annoyed,” said Terri Van Keuren, Shoup’s daughter, recalling the legend of that day in 1955. “He barks into the phone,” demanding to know who’s calling.
“The little voice is now crying,” Van Keuren continued. “Is this one of Santa’s elves, then?'”
The Santa questions were only beginning. It turned out that on that same day, the local newspaper had run a Sears Roebuck ad with a big picture of St. Nick and text that urged, “Hey, Kiddies! Call me direct … Call me on my private phone and I will talk to you personally any time day or night.”
But the phone number in the ad was off by a digit. Instead of connecting to Santa, callers were dialing in on the line that would ring if the Russians were attacking.
Before long, the phone was ringing off the hook, and, softening up, Shoup grabbed a nearby airman and told him to answer the calls and, Van Keuren said, “‘just pretend you’re Santa.'”
Indeed, rather than having the newspaper pull the Sears ad, Shoup decided to offer the countless kids calling in something useful: information about Santa’s progress from the North Pole. To quote the official NORAD Santa site, “a tradition was born.”
From that point on, first CONAD and then, in 1958, when NORAD was formed, Shoup’s organization offered annual Santa tracking as a service to the global community. A phone number was publicized and anyone was invited to call up, especially on December 24, and find out where Santa was. Manning those phones over the years have been countless numbers of Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps personnel and their families, and for many people, turning to NORAD to find out where Santa is became something to look forward to each year.
I finished reading. I knew who my Uncle was in the story: his name was Harry Shoup. But I had never known he had been employed in a critical operational role for NORAD. Why was he showing me a clip from a inane story about Santa Claus though? Why not something about the operational importance of NORAD in maintaining our defensive shield against the Soviet Union?
I looked up from the article, intending to congratulate Uncle Harry on playing such an important part at NORAD and on his starring role, being featured in a silly old Christmas legend.
Of course, I also wanted to ask him about what he’d called the second phone call.
But when I glanced up from that timeworn piece of newsprint, I saw that old Uncle Harry had fallen asleep. The oxygen ventilator had fallen from his face, and I could plainly see the wounds from some ancient conflict that had scarred his cheek with red starbursts. In his sleep, he moaned and clenched his fists together. I found in one fist a clump of holly, cutting into his skin. Gently, I took the thorny leaves out of his hold before I tucked the bedspread over his hands and chest. I left Uncle Harry snoring in the darkness. I tiptoed downstairs, where I finished creating a hand-made Christmas card for my old Uncle.
CLASSIFIED RECORD 12.23.00 08:23 HOURS
The next morning, at breakfast, Uncle Harry seemed unusually agitated. I tried to ask questions about the documents he’d had in the CLASSIFIED folder, but each time he hushed me. “Not now,” he mumbled. “Not where they can hear us.” He nodded significantly at my parents.
It was late afternoon by the time my parents left to run some Christmas errands. At that point, Uncle Harry seemed to be nodding off, ready for his afternoon nap. I couldn’t easily get his attention. Nevertheless, I stuck a cup of hot coffee in his hands and tried to rouse him, to finish the story.
“You said, last night, that the article only covered the first phone call,” I said. “What was the second call? The second call you received at NORAD?”
Uncle Harry jerked his head up from his chest. “NORAD, did you say?”
“Yes,” I said emphatically. “NORAD. I’m asking about the second phone call.”
There was a long pause. The logs crackled in the fire at our feet. I almost felt like falling asleep myself.
“What day is it now?” said Uncle Harry.
He held a pair of wavering fingers up in the air. “Two days left. I havta tell ye – ”
Then he cut himself off, and leaned forward, closer to me, the paranoia wide in his eyes. “There’s no one else here, am I right? Dis is eyes-only stuff.” He tapped a finger significantly on his head. “There’s only a few can know what I have in my head, in my memory, ye understand. Only the select few can be trusted. Can ye be trusted?” He stared at me, his face stark with fear.
“Sure, sure I can,” I said reassuringly.
“Good, good,” said the old man. “Now where did ah get to the last night?”
“You showed me the newspaper clipping. How NORAD started tracking Santa’s progress on Christmas Eve.”
“I did? I told you all that already?” He looked relieved.
“Well, you told me about the little kid calling, and you taking the call. That’s where you stopped.”
Uncle Harry sat forward in his chair. “Ah.” He looked disappointed. “I only got to the first phone call.”
“Right,” I said patiently. “Only the first one.”
“Okay, a-ok then.” Uncle Harry straightened in his chair, as if he were about to undertake an official duty. “So the second phone call I received later that same day. The General on the phone – General Gorman – he was most emphatic and most angry with me for telling children about Santa Claus.”
Uncle Harry held up a hand, stopping me from saying anything else.
“General Gorman was angry because in fact, it turned out that CONAD had been engaged in top secret tracking activities for the past ten years, and I’d just given the game away.”
“CONAD?” I asked quietly. Uncle Harry gave me a stern look. But he answered my question.
“CONAD. People thought it stood for Continental Air Defense Command. But it didn’t. Nah, it never did. CONAD stood for Claus Operations North American Defense.”
I chuckled. “Ah, c’mon. Claus Operations?”
“I’m not jesting nor joking son, don’t interrupt me again.” Uncle Harry stared at me until I looked down, abashed.
He leaned close and I could feel the old man’s acrid breath on my skin. “Here’s the truth, Nicky my boy. Ever since the crash in Roswell, the government had’a been tracking a number of unidentified flying objects – UFOs – an’ in December of every year, they became aware of a strange ob’ect that emanat’d from around the top of the world, up where the northern auroras come from. An’ they decided to track it down. They found out its pattern, and they sent agents to discover more. They gave him the code-name Dark Sol. And our mission was Operation Sleighride.”
He leaned forward, his voice a near-whisper now, hoarse and uneven.
“The truth of it was that NORAD was trackin’ this Dark Sol creature and they’d found out quite a bit about ‘im. If it was a him a’tall. I got briefed on all of the particulars of this creature, you see.”
Uncle Harry tapped a finger significantly alongside his nose. Then he glanced around the house in a paranoid fashion, looking for unseen eavesdropping agents.
His voice grew even softer, until I could hardly hear his next words.
“Dark Sol was in fact a very strange alien creature who had been here on Earth for generations, perhaps even millennia. Once he was worshipped as a God – perhaps even Odin or the Celtic God Julle. Mostly, it had withdrawn from human contact, retreating to the darkest coldest parts of the world. But it was a multi-dimension creature, influenced by human energy, and somehow it chose its own strange and twisted way of interacting with human beings. Over the centuries, this Dark Sol creature had taken this worship to heart. In the time of year when people do admit of miracles and more – that’s the time of year that the creature chose to manifest in the human sphere. This was the creature’s time to invade our way with an eldritch charm, a way of invading our space without seeming to do so, a way of exploiting our primal nature, our primitive superstitions. It chose chimneys, you see…”
Uncle Harry leaned forward slightly.
“NORAD had to take him out. But it wasn’t easy. It cost us, something terrible…”
His voice drained away as his chin fell slowly down to his chest. And I was unable to wake him again until late that night, when my mother helped him first to dinner and then up to his bed, where he snored like a foghorn all through the winter night.
CLASSIFIED RECORD 12.24.00 02:49 HOURS
I was woken in the night though. A strange moaning woke me. “Nick,” the voice called out, an echo in the darkness. “Nick, Niiiiick.” I staggered out of my bed, clutching my bathrobe to me, trying to determine what was the matter.
It was Uncle Harry, of course. He knew he’d never finished talking to me the previous day. But now it was three in the morning. He didn’t care.
His eyes were wide and frightened, his cheeks flushed with unnatural vigor. “I gotta tell you the truth,” he said over and over again. “See, the generals were sure they were doing the right thing, but I ain’t too sure, after all this time if they did anything right.”
“What did they do?” I asked.
“Well, ye see, in the modern era, with America winning the Cold War and the Russian Sputnik launch and the moon landing, the President decided that we were through with this kind of ancient threat. This Dark Sol was in the sky, every night around the solstice period. Maybe this was when he could contact his home world? Who knew? We could no longer tolerate the annual invasion from some other dimension. We decided we needed to eliminate this Dark Sol threat.”
“But who was this Dark Sol?” I said. “Really, I want to know. If the government wanted to eliminate that threat, didn’t they find out all about him first?”
Uncle Harry blinked at me. “Well sure, they found everything they could. They knew that he was some minion from the stars and was once he was considered the God Odin. I already tol’ you that part though. This Dark Sol creature though, he had data. He had followed, tracked, logged and categorized all humans from at least 1500 until the modern era. Four hundred – five hundred years – of data. We couldn’t allow it to continue.”
“So what raised the alarm?” I asked.
“Technology. Better telescopes. Spacecraft. Humans began to see him in the air. Word was getting out, you see, word was getting everywhere. In recent centuries, people with better telescopes began to see his mode of transportation, and the creatures that carried him in Earth’s atmosphere.”
“What to my wondering eyes should appear, eight tiny reindeer,” I muttered, sotto voce.
“Correct.” Uncle Harry nodded. “They weren’t reindeer, of course. Eldritch horrors, more like.”
Uncle Harry quivered with fear, pulling his bed clothes closer.
“But his strange shape-shifting capabilities were the most concerning – they could take him into each and every household. Was he an alien census taker? What was his purpose here in our dimension? Apparently, he could invade our most private moments – in our sleep – all human life on Earth. Because of his nocturnal activities, he seemed to know everything about human activity, and that’s not to be tolerated. Not by the U.S. government. Not in that era of progress and Sputnik.”
The frigid wind blew threw through a crack in the window. I shivered in my chair.
“But wasn’t he doing good? Just trying to help children.”
Uncle Harry pounded a soundless fist on his bed clothes. “But that’s just it, you see. This Dark Sol threat had a serious misunderstanding of how the world of human beings worked. He wasn’t American at all. He was probably a Socialist or a Communist – like the Soviets and the Red Chinese. Somehow, he’d gotten this idea of a collective gift of giving to all people, without measuring if they are worthy – or with a very rough rubric, some sort of “Naughty/Nice” binary – that just wasn’t American. Had to be eliminated. The U.S. government, in its wisdom, decided that in the future, children will begin to see their parents bringing them presents instead of some strange creature who has little in common with the world of human beings. The government needed to eliminate this terrible threat.”
And then Uncle Harry had fallen asleep again. The wind blew in the window, and I tucked Uncle Harry back deep in his quilted bed.
CLASSIFIED RECORD 12.24.00 14:51 HOURS
The next day the winter storm settled in, covering our neighborhood in snow and ice.
I spent all morning clearing sidewalks and driveways. There was a flurry of Christmas shopping, activities and family meetings and the like. So Uncle Harry and I could not get a moment to talk until the morning of Christmas Eve day.
Unexpectedly, about three o’clock on that stormy day, we found ourselves alone in the house, my mother out at a church function, my father out shoveling an elderly neighbor’s driveway.
I tried to get Uncle Harry to continue the story from where he’d left off on the night he’d called me to his bedside. But Uncle Harry had apparently imbibed too much of the egg-nog, and he didn’t pick up the story as a single chronological thread. Instead, he was gabbling fearfully about the battle of the North Pole.
“When we got into the ice zone, the aliens were already prepared… hordes of ‘em, ready for battle.”
“But how?” I wanted to know how preparations were undertaken, and what line of events led to an attack on this Dark Sol creature. Uncle Harry was not traveling in a rational path for me. He never let go of the ancient CLASSIFIED folder he kept close to his chest, so whatever was in that folder was no help to me. Instead, I had to piece together what he was talking about from his own wandering imprecations regarding that last ice-bound battlezone.
“The snowballs!” he moaned. “They kept coming, all through the first night. Endless snowballs falling as heavy as bricks onto our soldiers, crunching into our armored divisions. Sinking them into the frozen sea. And then after we thought we were through the worst of it, the snowmen just seemed to rise up off the cliffs, coming solid out of the snowbanks. Snowmen with ferocious teeth, and you couldn’t stop ‘em. The only thing that worked were flamethrowers, and we were low on fuel.”
“How did you strike back?”
Uncle Harry shuddered, the memories overtaking him. “Operation Sleighride was falling apart. Hot buttered bombs, flaming like Molotov cocktails, turning our tanks into baked Alaska on sight, yeah, that was the worst, when the hot buttered bombs came soaring overhead, heavy munitions striking our rear guard.” Uncle Harry’s teeth chattered. “Soon we were isolated there, no more air support, no more backup battalion left to defend us. But we persevered. We were the elite Dark Sol hunting team, and we were not giving up.”
“When we finally reached the uttermost North, the light was leaving the sky. The jagged ice caught the red light of the setting sun, creating an expanse of rosy alpenglow that filled the sky. As the light faded, I could see the pinprick glow of artificial lights, scattered like fireflies. Some alien technology that added a sparkle across the ancient packs of ice. The edge of the bloody alpenglow faded from the frozen ocean. We were alone. There would be no protection.”
Uncle Harry stretched his fingers out above him, remembering the night. “Stars burned, pinpricks against the darkness, almost painfully bright at this rarified height in the Northern latitudes. And when we got there, they were ready for us. Garlands were strung like concertina wire across the trenches of the Artic battlefield. When we got close enough to touch the green garlands, the lights on them began to explode, hot blasts searing our eyes, sending holly branches into our ranks, taking us apart.”
Uncle Harry bent his shoulder, as if he were again holding an M-16 assault rifle. “We fought bravely. Even as holly hand grenades came blasting out of the Claus Cave, followed by throwing stars that seemed to blast out of the heavens. Tasseled ribbons slashed through us, reaving through the darkness, leaving our ranks of men wounded and scarred with red streamers of blood.”
The old man shut his eyes, as if in resignation or uttermost fear. “They had weapons we’d never seen before. Rolling wreaths came bouncing across the snow, and we were astonished to see them explode like mortar shells as they came close enough to cause damage.”
I was at a loss. “But you had weapons too – I mean, the United States Air Force, right?”
“Sure, sure,” mumbled Uncle Harry. “But it wasn’t much use. They had weapons that I haven’t seen until the modern era. Attack drones massing in the wind above us. They dropped ornaments that shattered apart as they landed, and released clouds of poison gas that left a sickly sweet scent of cinnamon and cloves as they took our soldiers down one by one.” He shook his head. “Pine needle spikes. Elves wielding lethal shelves, throwing mistletoe darts all night long.”
“Elves?” I queried.
Uncle Harry opened his eyes. “Of course they weren’t really elves. Haven’t you looked at the psychographic profile, the documents from those who have been abducted by those grey aliens? Same look and size as your typical elf, you know. It’s the ears that give the game away. They all have the same spiky ears, the same unnaturally large eyes. Aliens, all of them.”
“We took out some of them, as many as we could,” he said grimly. “We did it using their own tactics. We had stockings of coal swung from our shoulders, heavy as maces, knocking those alien elf soldiers down like skittled pins, scattering them like bowling balls across the white snow. We did that to them, striking the blows we could for humankind, until the coal ran out.”
He whispered, his last words almost unintelligible. “Chestnuts exploding above us in the fiery light. Ice tubes firing off the shoulders of Orion. Terrible, terrible, that cataclysmic night.”
I leaned forward. “But you survived. Some of you had to survive such an onslaught, right?”
Uncle Harry nodded miserably. “We sent in a phalanx of snow angels, but they all were melted. And then the hardest part came. Frost flowers blossomed across our machinery. Moments later, we could hear the metal cracking and breaking into bits of frozen fabric, like so many walnuts giving way to an iron jaw.”
The wind blew the door open and a swirl of snow filled the room. Uncle Harry winced and trembled. His breath as he spoke puffed out into tiny clouds, like the ghosts of words.
“Then he appeared. Dark Sol himself, on that terrible sleigh, drawn by his eldritch horrors, horns dripping with blood, slavering fangs and dark hoofs alight with flames. He thundered towards us. Bells of doom rang over the battlefield. Ye gods!”
I stood from my chair and got over the door in time to slam it shut against the cold storm outside.
“We’d finally cornered him, taking out all his creatures. His small minions were choking to death around him, their strangely pointed ears curling down like falling leaves as they succumbed to the flamethrowers.”
The fire crackled in front of us. There was a long pause. Uncle Harry had stopped speaking. “Then what?” I said finally. “Then what happened?”
Uncle Harry turned towards me. In the course of telling his story, Uncle Harry had seemingly aged overnight. His cheeks were fissured like a corroded mountainside, his pupils glimmered deep in their sockets, like glowing candle flames, the heavy flesh beneath his eyes puddled and yellowed with age, the wick of him burned too low to save.
“I had him,” said Uncle Harry. “I had him right there in my sights. Dark Sol, and all the centuries he had in him.”
The old man curled his body into a crouch again, as if he held a hot M-16, bullets pumping out of it. “I had him dead to rights. And he turned toward me. I still don’t know the answers to the perennial questions: What did he want to do to human beings? Who was he? What did he really want of us? And right there, in my gunsights, I could see the corpulent size of him, red in the face as he breathed out his last, the human-like fronded beard around his face rising and falling as frost settled across his eyes. But then – ”
Uncle Harry let go of that invisible M-16 rifle. He stood to his full height. “I let him go. After all that long battle, after all of the men who had fallen, all the tanks that sunk to the bottom of the Artic sea, after all that, I was the one to let him go. I could see his eyes there, alien and human, winking into a different dimension, and I could have held him there, tied to that moment. But instead I let him go, fade into wherever he came from. I don’t know why I did it. But you must understand, I did it for you, my boy.”
“Yes,” whispered Uncle Harry. “Because he’s followed me ever since. He only comes to houses now that are related to me by blood, and you’re the last one to get presents from this ancient eldritch creature. You’re the last one to be ministered to by his strange attentions.”
Uncle Harry opened his mouth to say more words, but then a shiver overtook him, and he began to cough and hack. He could not seem to catch his breath, and he was unable say another articulate word the rest of the evening.
Our extended church group invaded the household soon after for our annual holiday gathering: middle-aged matrons with blue hair and heavyset men who laughed as hearty as any Santa and children young and old chasing each other around the house in circles, people galore filling every spare inch. Uncle Harry retreated to the attic redoubt he’d taken from me, and I didn’t see him for many hours. I wasn’t sure whether I could believe this arcane tale told by my reclusive Uncle. But after a few Christmas drinks and a festive party, I was ready for the sleep of the just.
I woke near midnight on that dark Christmas Eve, as I lay in my sleeping bag before the fire. I woke to hear something vast and unearthly slither down the inside of our chimney.
CLASSIFIED RECORD END TRANSMISSION 12.25 00:00 HOURS
A Story by Nicholas Hallum