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The Reindeer Conundrum Part Two
by Mark Zubro; illustrated by W.S. Reed

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The Reindeer Conundrum written by Mark Zubro and illlustrated by W.S. Reed is a Christmas story with a message from the very heart of the holiday. It appears in the anthology Shifting Through the Snow from MLRpress. These are shifter stories connected with the holidays. We'll be serializing it in our online editions for the next five weeks. Beginning December 8, it will be available on line as an ebook and a paperback.

The Reindeer Conundrum part two:

December 23 5:20 A.M.

"You can have the fame," Rudolph said.

"Sure, we get one lousy poem, and that was from nearly two centuries ago, and you get TV specials with your name in great big red letters."

Rudolph hid his sigh. They called this syndrome 'antler envy' because usually it was reindeer bragging about the size of their racks or feeling bad because their antlers were smaller than some other reindeer. Rudolph thought this was all reindeer-waste. He asked, "Is that what this is about, television time?"

Blitzen shook his antlers, but then muttered, "And the residuals from all the cards and wrapping paper."

"It's distributed evenly."

"Santa takes half."

Blitzen had been pushing for a strike by all the reindeer for years. He'd had no luck. With his attitude toward elves, he wasn't going to get their support. Without such support, any talk of a strike was useless.

Santa had ordered studies about the 'antler envy' syndrome, but the elves had finally convinced him to cut the funding. Rudolph thought the whole thing was kind of hopeless. Studying what's inside a reindeer's head? For most of them, he thought, you might as well examine the inside of one that was mounted on a wall. He shuddered. One of the nightmares of being a reindeer flashed through his mind: being someone's trophy, your head on a wall in someone's den. Those were the only times that Rudolph wished it was possible to time travel. He'd go back, and while Santa wasn't looking, put coal in the stockings of all the reindeer-trophy-hunters starting with the year they were born.

Rudolph suspected Blitzen was lying or at least not telling the whole truth about Santa's disappearance, but there was nothing he could think of to make the whole story come out.

Rudolph said, "I'm going to have to take this to the Shifter Police."

"Discreetly. This can't get out." Blitzen whispered. "You're not going to tell Tarandus?"

"He's head of Production and Quality Control. He'll hear about it. Once rumors start, you know how it is. Rumors fly faster than Santa on Christmas Eve. And Tarandus may have some insights. He's worked with Santa for many years."

"Quality control!" Blitzen's voice was nearly a shriek. "Everyone will panic. Christmas Eve and no Santa! You're right this is going to get out! I'll be blamed." He touched his nose to the ground and moaned. "This is awful."

"One of the things we're not going to do is panic. You're right, no Santa on Christmas Eve is unthinkable, but we have time to think and search logically and sensibly."

"But it will get out."

"Who's going to tell?"

"Ralph, the elf who I sent for you?"

"Did you tell him why?"

"No, just the story I told him to tell you to get you here."

"And other than your staff who searched, no one else knows? You didn't have Comet and Cupid in here? They weren't trying any pranks while your back was turned?"

"Of course not."

Comet and Cupid were known for playing practical jokes. All the rest of them were fed up to the tips of their antlers with their never very funny antics.

This wasn't the first time that Rudolph had heard such grousing from one of the elite eight. Rudolph was used to it. None complained as much as Blitzen. Reindeer didn't want to be around Blitzen because he seldom shut up about how rotten his life was. He got his job as head of the Reindeer Rearing section because, as head of the department, he actually had the least contact with young reindeer. It was mostly an administrative job.

No one was sure how Blitzen got put in charge. It was one of those mysterious things that Santa did, like smoking a pipe while whizzing around the world at incredible speeds. Although not so much in the past few decades since all the smoking warnings. Now, he never smoked while he flew and had cut down at all other times as well. Immortal with diseased lungs wasn't something he wanted to try. The point is he'd been able to do so while dashing around the world.

Rudolph also wondered why Santa had chosen Blitzen as the one to tell his troubles to this year. As far as he knew, Blitzen wasn't a particular friend of Santa's. They weren't enemies, but they weren't close. Why not the Head Elf or the Head of Reindeer operations? Something was odd here.

Blitzen added, "You know he's always been jealous of our ability to shift."

"Sure. He and I have talked, but it was never more than a passing notion, as least as far as he said to me."

"Hah! Shows you who was really closest to him."

That was another thing. Reindeer jealousy. Sometimes Rudolph was just tired.

Blitzen asked, "Want me to call the angels? See if they've heard anything on high?"

"Not yet. You know how they blab everything to everybody. We don't need a host of shepherds flocking around here. We don't want chaos for Christmas."

Blitzen said, "The elves could be made to search."

"Without being told what they were looking for?"

"We could just say hunt for a fat old guy with a white beard."

Rudolph bit his tongue. He refused to be mean enough to say, "They aren't as stupid as you. And they didn't lose Santa." Rudolph had to admit, it did sound like Santa had done this deliberately. Or was making decisions based on powers that were not to be messed with.

Rudolph trusted the elves. They were more Keebler than Tolkien but altogether pleasant and cheerful. They were a blessing. Rudolph always got his staff elves at work and at home the best presents for Christmas. Of course, elves already had pretty much everything they needed, but Rudolph put a lot of thought into what he gave them, food mostly from their favorite Earth delis. Katz's in New York City was immensely popular followed by the Pickle Guys, also in New York. He'd seen a quartet of elves down a whole quart jar of pickled garlic at one setting. He liked it too, but one or two cloves, and he was done.

The point for today, was they had to find Santa. There were less than twenty-four hours before the big Eve. They could maybe, if they were lucky, make it to Christmas Eve without him, but for Christmas Eve, no Santa, no presents, no nothing. They'd be out of work and out of business. No reindeer wanted to leave a cushy life to be out in the forests day after day fighting off flies, wolves, and polar bears.

By this time, Blitzen was trembling. "The Shifting Police told me if I screwed up again, they'd turn me into a jacket for a teenage human."

"I won't let them hurt you."

"I won't go to them."

Rudolph knew he wouldn't.

Blitzen continued, "Cover for me. Please." His pleading was as annoying as his grousing.

Rudolph reassured him and left.

6:45 A.M.

Santa was missing. This wasn't a casual shifter crisis. This was serious. Oh, sure Santa and Mrs. Claus took vacations. For all the years Rudolph had known them, they'd gone to Cancun for a month every February. Santa wouldn't just up and leave voluntarily, or at least Rudolph didn't think so. Certainly not at such a critical time. He found the notion of Santa being gone disconcerting. He couldn't imagine what would happen to all the kids in less than a few days if he didn't come back. It was unthinkable with catastrophic potential.

Rudolph had done the best he could to show no emotion in front of Blitzen. Of all reindeer! But he was deeply upset and worried.

Rudolph strode purposefully to the office of the head of the Shifting Police.

Rudolph wasn't sure who he could confide in. He thought the news of Santa going missing should probably be kept quiet. He also didn't think he had much choice about his next move. The head of the Shifting Police might have knowledge that would help. Although his understanding from over the years was the Shifting Police were more there for instilling fear and meting out punishment than prevention or rehabilitation.

He entered the Shifting Police offices. They were right next to the hospital wing and sometimes reindeer patients and prisoners overlapped the two.

As he walked in, there was a reindeer with all four legs spraddled out on the ground while refusing to even try to get up. Rudolph had fallen on the ice once into this awkward position. Despite all the cartoons with animals doing a four-legged pratfall, there was nothing funny about it, and it was quite painful.

He didn't know the reindeer in question. A reindeer with a white scarf, the sign of a nurse, stood next to the prone creature. She was asking questions. "Can you shift yourself into a more comfortable position?"

The reindeer on the floor moaned then muttered, "Let me die."

The nurse noticed Rudolph and came to attention. Rudolph strode over. She said, "He's barely a year old. He can't stand up. I think he tried to shift and become an elephant in Africa. That actually sort of worked until he tried to get back. That much shifting in one so young is dangerous. He should still be back on rodents, kittens, puppies, or other small animals."

Rudolph put his nose down by the young reindeer's ear and murmured, "You're going to be okay. Become as calm as possible, and if you can, try shifting to get up, maybe into a small animal. That'll help."

The youth shook his antlers and moaned. Rudolph saw several more reindeer with white scarves hurrying forward. It took a few minutes to get him upright, but when the helpers eased their grips, he collapsed again in seconds. A vast wound-harness was brought forward.

As they struggled to right him, Rudolph mused about what adults had wondered about kids for years. Why couldn't they learn to do as they were told? He knew the answer was pretty much universal across species from humans to amoeba: because they were kids.

When the young reindeer had been stabilized in the harness, Rudolph looked back up at the first nurse he had encountered. "I need to see Pulks."

"In his office, I believe."

Pulks was the head of the Shifting Police, and had the reputation of one of the meanest reindeer at the North Pole.

Rudolph had heard that these days Pulks was a flop at all but the simplest shifts in time and space. Rudolph thought perhaps they should hire more physicists to train reindeer since the shifting problems all seemed to involve time and space. And that whole blink of an eye bit? How could it take that little time? But it did.

How had Pulks become head of the Shifting Police? Santa was a forgiver. He got a lot of criticism for that. Never to his face. Rudolph wished he could match Santa's capacity for kindliness, patience, and forgiveness. He tried but with nowhere near as much success.

Pulks did indulge in one reindeer oddity. He polished his antlers until they gleamed and shone. He also had the tips honed to razor sharpness and then had them painted deep forest greens and browns. Pulks had much of this work done professionally. Rudolph never understood the need. They fell off once a year and got replaced, but that was another thing Rudolph was trying to learn, to be less judgmental. So many had been mean to him, but he wanted to meet nastiness with kindness. He wasn't as successful as he wished to be.

The elf secretary in Pulk's outer office looked up when Rudolph entered. She came to attention and said, "I'll notify Mr. Pulks you're here."

Rudolph said, "Thank you."

She left, returned, and nodded. "You may go right in."

Rudolph ambled through the doors to the inner office.

Rudolph had been promoted ahead of Pulks. The notoriously nasty reindeer hated him for that among other things. Pulks had been crippled in a fall from a roof while practicing the night before Christmas Eve a long time ago. His career among the elite eight had been cut short before it even started. He'd tried to go on anyway, and kept practicing all that day with his wound, trying to compensate. That activity had made it far worse, and he'd become crippled for life. Santa had done everything he could for the brave reindeer, but the twisted animal that was Pulks had never recovered. He had the best artificial leg on the market. New ones at his merest whim. Lichen and treats delivered to his feed whenever he wanted. Nothing satisfied him. Now years later, Rudolph didn't think anything ever would.

Pulks had found out that when he shifted, the crippled leg came with him. It was an unchanging permanent part of him like Rudolph's nose.

Rudolph understood the anger and frustration, or thought he did, but he didn't put up with Pulks taking out his anger on either his employees or shifters who had committed crimes.

The office was tundra chic, luxurious foliage rife with lush grasses and almost pulsing lichen. Rudolph sat across from Pulks.

"To what do I owe the pleasure?" Pulks asked.

Rudolph said in a low, calm voice, "Santa shifted."

Pulks came to his feet. "That's not possible!"

Rudolph remained seated. "I'm not dealing with possible or impossible. I'm telling you what was reported to me."

Pulks snorted. "He's just gone off to the other side of the compound." He tapped computer keys. "I've got his tracker program right here."

They'd installed the tracker years ago for use on Christmas Eve, but as the complex had gotten bigger Santa had agreed to install one full-time.

Pulks clicked the mouse.

"It's been turned off."

Rudolph nodded and held out the tracking chip Blitzen had given him.

"Well, if you had that, why didn't you just say so?"

"We're all going to be calm about this," Rudolph said. "We're going to handle this discreetly and efficiently without setting off alarms around the world."

Pulks said, "It's possible he was taken against his will."

"Possible, but who would dare? We don't have security cameras. Even if someone stole a ton of toys, there's no possibility of getting away through all that cold, snow, and ice."

Pulks shrugged. "I have no idea who would dare." He sighed. "He'll have to be hunted."

"Yes, of course. How?"

Shifting reindeer could be found. Young ones had temporary chips. The adults, who mostly did not have chips, generally had to file shifting plans. There were provisions and exceptions for going in the blink of an eye without telling anyone, but things tended to get more screwed up when you hadn't told anyone. For whatever reason, the times when a plan wasn't filed always seemed to be when the worst tragedies struck. Plus, with no plan filed ahead of time, you could be in more trouble when you got back if something did go wrong. You didn't want to be exiled to a herd of reindeer in Siberia in the middle of winter. The least of your worries there were scarce provisions, and the biggest problems were packs of hungry wolves. No one had been able to figure out a way to shift fast enough to defeat a pack of hungry wolves.

Trying to shift a herd of reindeer in the blink of an eye to avoid wolves? They'd tried it once. The logistics had been a nightmare, but the organizers had been determined. It had worked. For a few minutes. There'd been stampeding reindeer and then poof they were gone, and you had some very confused, worn out, and hungry wolves. Until those reindeer too old or with waning shifting skills or too young and inexperienced involuntarily shifted back. So the sick, the young, and the old reindeer were the victims as they usually were. The shifting hadn't saved them. The experiment was abandoned.

Pulks said, "We're only designed for monitoring shifting reindeer breaking the rules. We have nothing to do with Santa shifting. I bet he didn't. He's here somewhere. It's just Blitzen in panic mode, and you've fallen under the spell."

"You can't use some of the same tracking mechanisms with Santa as you use with reindeer?"

"It's never been done."

"How about if you try and see what happens?"

"A waste of time."

"But you don't know that. If Christmas fails, and we didn't try everything, there will be plenty of blame to go around."

Pulks grumbled but after five minutes gave in with little grace.

"And you'll send out search parties of your own? It's best if we check this twice."

Pulks gave him a most ungracious, "Fine."


"Of course."

As Rudolph got up to leave, Pulks gave him a nasty smile. "You are going to talk to Tarandus?"

"Yes, and all the leaders of the sections who've worked with Santa longest."

"I'm sure Tarandus will have comments to make especially in light of no Santa for Christmas Eve."

"We aren't to that point yet."

"Aren't we?"

"Do you wish we were?"

"It's a big mistake by Santa."

Pulks was another reindeer who occasionally talked about a revolution or so gossipmongers said. It was never clear what they were angry about or why they needed a revolt. Rudolph mostly dismissed them as silly rumors. Right now, there was something about the extra sneer in Pulks's smile and tone of voice that gave Rudolph pause. It might be a heck of a lot easier to have a revolt by just getting rid of Santa. Rudolph shook off the thought. It made no sense. Destroy Santa? Destroy Christmas? What good could possibly come of that? And these malcontents weren't that nuts to deliberately get rid of Santa. They couldn't be. Or Rudolph didn't want to think about them being capable of such an atrocity.

As Rudolph walked out, the full enormity of Santa being gone hit him. The end of Christmas. It was too terrible to contemplate. He'd do everything he could to ensure Santa was present on Christmas Eve. He squared his antlers and marched on.

Sure, he often grumbled about the amount of work, and that some of the elves and reindeer he had to work with were a pain, but he'd never wish for something so awful. He quickened his steps. Whatever was wrong had to be put right.

Part One: .

Part Three: .

Part Four: .

Part Five: .

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