The word reindeer is an anglicized version of the Old Norse words hreinn (“reindeer” [or “caribou”]) and dýr (“animal”) and has nothing to do with reins. – Wikipedia, accessioned 14 December 2023.
There was nobody else in the office, but that hardly meant that he was alone, or idle. From the three computer screens on his desk came constant torrents of images, text messages, and data. To the visual cacophany was added the chatter from the audio channels he had open. To Mission Control, which was working feverishly from a nearby World War era Quonset hut to prepare Santa’s Sleigh for its annual Christmas launch, in T -74:10:14.5 Zulu and counting. And to the environmental team, which nervously monitored the ice under the sleigh for signs of cracking and catastrophic failure. Every year that risk increased, as the sleigh’s payload grew and the icecap shrank.
Herman sighed. Christmas Eve was just over three days away, and the sleigh loading and shielding tasks were hastening to their conclusion. If he chose, which was not often due to the demands on his time and attention, Herman could look out through his front window, into the forever night of a polar winter, and see the parked sleigh, five cruise ships long, two wide, and as many high, blazing with lights and swarming with outfitters and cargo loaders. Even less likely, he could step outside his office door and catch a whiff from the stables which housed the hundreds of thousands of reindeer that were needed to move that monster sleigh at launch time. Neither would be possible after T -8:00:00, when the blast shutters and heat shields were installed, covering the windows and doors. To protect the cabin, along with the rest of the Santaworks infrastructure, from the consequences of sleigh liftoff. Placards posted by the safety team were everywhere: “The Word Is Sleigh. Not Slay”.
Herman checked quickly to ensure that his computer camera was off, his microphone muted, then he buried his face in his hands. “For this”, he moaned, “I left a successful career in dentistry. What was I th …”?
The crash on the door sounded like two dozen boulders thrown against it all at once. The cabin rocked under the pressure. And after the crash, a deep-resonant shriek: “HERMEEEEEEY!!!”
Only one creature in the universe still called the COO of Santaworks LLC by that name. Even Santa himself didn’t dare. Herman ran to the door, opened it.
It was Rudolph on the other side, pawing the ice. Rudolph the reindeer, now a fully-mature stag, and an impressive specimen with a rack of antlers to match. During the annual rut, Rudolph used that rack to overthrow his competitors, and his red nose to blind them and make the task easier. The team leading the sleigh now consisted of two full divisions of red-nosed reindeer, all sired and led by Rudolph. What’s more, he was now the shop steward for Reinsters Local 1. His pride had grown with his size and bulk and responsibilities, and record of conquests, and he was quick to anger, quick to assert his authority. And right now, in his anger, his red nose blazed like a small sun. Blazed from the wreckage of the pressurized, anti-gravity, heat-shielded mission suit that he evidently had been wearing when whatever had angered him happened.
Herman, confronted with animal rage, responded with elfin majesty and calm, learned through years of dental practice and then corporate leadership. His voice measured, and confident with the assurance of long friendship, he gently twitted, “What’s the matter, misfit?”
Herman’s appeal to their shared history had the desired effect. Rudolph’s fury suddenly collapsed in on itself, and to judge from his quivering knees, Rudolph’s body was at risk of following suit. The red nose dimmed to a flicker. A tear fell from Rudolph’s left eye and clattered onto Herman’s doorstep, frozen solid on the way down.
“Hermey, I love you”, Rudolph whispered.
Herman rubbed Rudolph’s muzzle.
“But we’ve got a problem.”
Herman looked at the fresh dents and scars on his front door. “I figured.”
“How long have we been doing this?” Rudolph’s voice slowly regained strength.
Herman answered. “You were a faun when? 1939 by Common Era reckoning? Almost a century ago? And Santa was already old and gray? It’s gotta be at least a thousand years.”
“And all”, Rudolph’s nose started glowing again, “without a contract?”
Herman’s eyes narrowed, his brow furrowed, his head tilted, his chin lifted, wordlessly demanding an explanation.
“We’re reindeer”, Rudolph began. “Reindeer. Draft animals, by birth and by profession, called to haul things for people and elves alike. Or so we thought!
“Word’s getting out, Hermey. ‘Reindeer’ is our name, not our calling. The ‘rein’ in our name has nothing to do with transportation. That meaning has been imposed on us, has been used to enslave us!” Herman had to shield his eyes from the red fire.
“Look at this operation!” Rudolph demanded. “When I started, Santaworks was a single open sleigh with Santa as the driver, drawn by eight of us. Now? It’s a pan-national corporation of a size and power that Disney and Musk and Bezos and Zuckerberg can only fantasize about! It’s gotten so huge that there are hundreds of thousands of us reindeer, and we all have to wear these ridiculous monkey suits” (he pointed a hoof at the wreckage of his gear) “to protect us from ourselves while we try to drag this mountain around the world at a not-insignificant fraction of the speed of light! And what do we get out of it? The privilege of spending most of the year pawing around the shores of the Arctic Ocean looking for lichens to eat!
This is big, Hermey. Big! For old time’s sake, I’m going to try to keep a lid on it. But I don’t know if I can. I don’t even know if I should!”
Herman, exuding supreme confidence, patted Rudolph on the flank. “You should, you can, and you will. And you’ll do a wonderful job of it. Your word has kept us to schedule, safe from weather and terrain, every year without fail. Your word has kept us from having to register with the human navigation networks, with immense benefits to the company’s finances and the security of its operations. Your word will ensure no workforce disruptions this close to Christmas. You can, if you have to, point out to the rank and file what it would be like if Christmas didn’t come to their fauns.” To that, Rudolph nodded his head, ruefully.
“Especially“, Herman urged, “you can dispel the notion that any of this is somehow deliberate on Santa’s part or Santaworks’s. You know Santa better than that, and can say so. After Mission Accomplished, we all take our January holiday, which can also serve as our 30-day cooling-off period. Then, we can meet, rested and refreshed, and hash out how this happened and what we need to do about it. That will give us two months, near enough, before sunrise and the summertime dispersal, to get to “yes”. Can?”
“I’ll try”, Rudolph replied, somewhat doubtfully.
“You can and you will”, Herman concluded. “The toys must fly on.” He once again patted Rudolph on the flank.
Rudolph nodded his head, then straightened to his full height, turned, and strode purposefully in the direction of the stables.
Herman watched him go, watched until Santaworks’s most valuable living asset after Santa himself disappeared out of sight. He then returned to his office, closing the door behind him and shutting off most of the lights. He went to his computer, set “Do not disturb” flags on his tech, and put the machine to sleep. Only when he was sure that he was cut off from connectivity did he let his smile fade, his shoulders sag.
“Arnie?”, he called out, his voice weak, quavering.
“Coming” was the response from one of the back rooms of the cottage. A moment later, Arnold Carelf was in the COO’s office.
“You heard?”, Herman asked.
“Every word”, Arnold replied, then stretched out his hands.
The two elves hugged and kissed, and then Herman went to his office chair and sat in it, while Arnold started massaging his shoulders. “Fifteen minutes”, Herman stated. “That’s all I get.”
“OK”, Arnold replied, and then he set to work, kneading the tension out of Herman’s body, all the while chanting, “This too shall pass. This too shall pass.”