Downtime (Fiction)

This story is called Downtime, and I wrote it in the early 90’s. It was at one point going to be published by Pulphouse but never made it into print.

This work is not public domain. It is copyright 1994 by Charles Von Rospach. Please do not republish or post it anywhere else without my explicit approval.

A bit of history — I wrote a number of stories about your typical IT type contractor, who got into doing work for an unusual clientele; other stories in this series that got published including being hired by God to hack Satan’s databases and working for a witch to fix her spell database on Halloween. The series was about your typical middle class normal working stiff finding out that things we consider fantasy elements were in fact true. I enjoyed twisting the standards of the field in different ways, just to see what happened, and treating fantasy as SF (or vice versa) was a writing hack I liked. These stories also tended to feature Apple computers and cockatoos, just because I could….

The intent was to write a continuing series of these stories, other future clients included an embezzling Tooth Fairy that wanted the evidence deleted, A leprechaun who lost his pot of gold at the track, Elvis and the Easter Bunny. Ultimately I thought I might tie it all together into a novel.

For now, though, it’s just a fun remnant of my writing life, and I hope you enjoy it.

Downtime

The phone rang just as I taped my finger to Kevin’s present. I didn’t want to spend Christmas Eve working, but when you run a business like mine, you do what you have to do. You can’t ignore your customers. Emergencies don’t take holidays off, and nobody would be calling me tonight for anything else. I ran and grabbed it on the third ring.

“Jason Chilson? My name is William Shields. My apologies for calling so late, but we have an emergency and you come highly recommended.”

“Mr. Shields, if you need me tonight I’m available, but it is Christmas Eve. You would save a lot of money by waiting until the 26th.”

“I realize this is an imposition, but we have a critical deadline and the entire operation is at a standstill. If we don’t get things finished up tonight, we’ll lose a major contract.”

There went my hope for spending the evening with my family.

“If you’ll let me know where to meet you, Mr. Shields, I’ll see what I can do. With any luck we can resolve this quickly and get everyone home for Christmas.”

The streets were almost empty, most people already home with their families and the rest jamming the malls. The jeweler who had the earrings that Gina wanted had already closed, not that I could afford them, but the bike shop was staying open late. Maybe, just maybe, I could get there before they closed and buy Kevin that bike he longed for. That I could squeeze in knowing the money was coming, so maybe this job wouldn’t be a complete loss.

I drove past that travel agency with the Bermuda posters. Sigh. We went to Bermuda on our honeymoon. Kevin would love Bermuda. I haven’t had a vacation since I started this damn business. Sometimes I wonder if it’s worth it.

My destination was on the outskirts of the financial district, a company called Toyland Imports. A bored guard signed me in and escorted me to the elevator, which took me to the 15th floor. The elevator door slid open and I stepped out into the snow.

Snow? I looked around. The floor of the 15th floor was covered with snow. The elevator door closed behind me. I glance behind me, to see the elevator door firmly attached to a large, granite rock. In front of me, across the snow-covered ground, stood a small cottage. Behind it I saw another building the must have been a barn, since there was a corral attached to it. The animals in the corral were definitely not horses. Elk? On the 15th floor?

I decided I must be hallucinating. I’m on the 15th floor of an office building in downtown Los Angeles. It doesn’t snow in buildings in downtown Los Angeles.

Does it?

“Mr. Chilson! Glad you could make it. Let’s go inside where it’s warm and we can get started.”

I shook myself out of my reverie, and bent down to shake the outstretched hand. That was when I noticed that the hand was attached to a four-foot tall man wearing Spock ears. I decided I was definitely hallucinating. I must be.

“Mr. Shields?”

He must have noticed my confusion, because he smiled and wiggled his ears. “Call me Bill. My elven name is Hëathflig, but I don’t use it with humans. Welcome to North Pole Station. C’mon into the workshop and I’ll explain. We’ve got some wonderful mulled cider on the stove.”

I followed him down the path, around the cottage and past the barn to a large, square building. I wished I had a jacket, but I hadn’t realized it was going to be snowing.

The cider was as good as he’d claimed, but it didn’t make me less confused. “Bill, how did I get to the North Pole?”

“Not the North Pole, North Pole Station. We’re currently somewhere outside the orbit of Mars. We had to abandon the Pole itself in the ’30s when airplanes and scientists got too close for comfort. The elevator is a teleportation unit. Toyland Imports is a front operation for my employer, Santa Claus. We like to keep a low profile.”

“You work for Santa Claus?”

“Jolly old man, wears red clothes, laughs a lot, needs to go on a diet. Maybe you’ve heard of him.”

“I’ve heard of him. I just stopped believing in him about thirty years ago. I don’t believe in the Easter Bunny, either.”

“If this project works out, I can arrange for you to meet him. The rabbit could use a good consultant.”

I choked on my cider. As he handed me a napkin, he was trying hard not to laugh and doing a rotten job of it. “I’m sorry about that, but I couldn’t resist. No, the Easter Bunny doesn’t exist, but I hate passing up a good straight line.”

His ears twitched when he laughed. I tried really hard to hate him, but I found myself grinning along with him. Well, if I had to hallucinate, I guess I could do a lot worse than this. I haven’t had cider this good since grandmom died. “Remind me to wear a bib before I ask about the Tooth Fairy. You probably realize this is a bit tough to accept right away but given that the alternatives is that I’ve gone stark, raving mad and I don’t believe even Roger would try to pull off a practical joke this, um, enthusiastic, I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt for now, and I’ll worry about my sanity once your computer is back on-line.” I took another sip. “Damn, but this is good cider.”

“If you want, I’ll get the recipe from Mrs. Claus for you. How about we get you a refill and go check out the disaster zone? We wouldn’t want Kevin to wake up to a missing dad on Christmas. The machine’s in the over here.”

“How did you know his name?”

He stood up. “I work for Santa, remember? Making a list and checking it twice and all that stuff. Good kid, but he needs to cut back on sweets. Too many cavities in his last checkup. What do you think the computer is for? Oh, and the Tooth Fairy is real. Pays in cash, if you don’t mind quarters.”

He laughed and grabbed my cup and took it into the back room. When he re-appeared, the cup was steaming. He waved me over, and I followed him. I realized I was smiling.

We ended up on what was obviously a manufacturing floor. Manufacturing is the same everywhere, even if the line workers are three feet tall with orange skin and beards, even on the women. However, a healthy floor is alive with noise and chaos and the silence was deafening. There were at least a dozen production lines building, boxing, or wrapping what seemed to be every possible toy in existence, from dolls and tapes to bikes and stereos. Nothing was moving.

“Jesus. You’re completely shut down?”

“Our entire system is computerized now. Fully relational database, with cross-references into the good/bad lists, the wish lists and the need lists. We didn’t realize we had a problem until the Quality group noticed we were sending a subscription for Organic Gardening to Rush Limbaugh. We started checking, and we found the entire database was corrupted. We had to shut down because.”

“Let me guess, Bill. If we don’t fix it tonight, there’ll be no Christmas, right?”

“This isn’t a TV show, Jason. You’ve done your Christmas shopping, right? Will those presents magically disappear at midnight?” He shook his head. “No, we don’t own Christmas, but there are thousands of people out there — kids and adults — who will wake up tomorrow and be disappointed if we don’t pull this off. We don’t do major miracles up here, but thousands of minor miracles can be just as satisfying.”

We walked past a workbench where a couple of computers were being assembled.

“Bill, you build computers, too?”

“Yeah — those are Apple II’s. We worked out a special deal with Wozniak years back. He thought it was great idea. We’ve been trying to do the same for the Macintosh for three years, but the contract is stuck somewhere in Legal. The Brownies are a pain when negotiating a contract, but we haven’t lost a suit yet. IBM won’t return our calls though, and we can’t work with the Asian clone manufacturers. So while we do some clones, our mainstay is still the Apple II.” He sighed.

“Seems like easy money for them. Why won’t they cut a deal?”

“They don’t believe in Santa Claus. They say they won’t do business with ghosts.”

“You contract with the toy companies for this, then? This stuff is legit?”

“Sure. We have contracts with everyone. We don’t want to steal their product or cut into their income, so we get samples, build our version here and then deposit funds into the company’s account to cover what we built. As far as their accountants are concerned, we’re just another third world sub-contractor that builds their product off-shore and ships directly to the retail outlets. To the kids, it’s as good as the originals. Sometimes better. Our failure rate is a lot lower than most companies.”

We walked through another door into an office filled with computer terminals, and then into the computer room, filled almost to overflowing with a collection of machines that would make the most jaded techno-nerd drool. He sat me down in front of a terminal and logged me onto the machine.

While their hardware was exotic, the software was pretty vanilla. When one thinks of Santa Claus, if you think of him at all, it’s a man with a parchment book and a quill pen scribbling notes, not a couple of mini-computers with an Accounts Payable program and a relational database, but the reality is that down below the facade, even the most romantic and exotic industries are pretty mundane. The bills have to get paid, the orders have to get shipped. Right now, however, that wasn’t happening. Time to get to work.

I pulled up a few sample records to see what happens. They definitely were having some problems, but nothing that some time and sweat wouldn’t fix. Fortunately, their system was based on a program I’d worked with, which makes things easier for me. Going into software cold is scary.

I started a couple of background procedures to re-initialize the table indexes.

“I think you’re in luck, Bill. As far as I can tell, nothing’s lost, and I should be able to get things patched together. Did the system crash recently?”

He nodded. “Three days ago. Rudolph was practicing landings and put a sled into a powerline. Diagnostics showed it was clean, so we thought everything was fine. We noticed the problems this morning.”

“He’s okay, isn’t he?” I suddenly realized I was worried about the health of a deer with a light bulb for a nose. When did I decide this was for real? I mentally shrugged.

“Rudolph is fine. No injuries, just short enough power failure to kill the computers. It happens once in a while. This is the first problem we’ve had.”

“Normally, you shouldn’t have a problem. Unfortunately, there’s a bug in this version of your database where under some circumstances, if it crashes it doesn’t realize that the index files weren’t completely updated. Very small window of exposure, and it doesn’t happen very often. I found this out the hard way with a different client. The database manufacturer has fixed it, but decided to sit on reporting the bug to customers rather than have to deal with updating everyone. Saves them money, they say, since so few customers were going to be affected. Idiot beancounters forget that customers lose money and have deadlines. I’ll give you the name of the patch to ask for after the holiday.

“Fortunately, there’s a fairly easy way to patch things up. If it works, you should be back in about ninety minutes.”

“Great! If we prioritize based on time zone, we might still make it. It’ll be a long night, though.”

I’ll do what I can. Maybe I can isolate out the corrupted records and let you work on the rest, then do those on a separate batch. Would that work for you?”

He brightened. “Perfect!”

“Great. Let me pound on this for a bit, and you can go alert the troops that they’ll be back on the job in, oh, twenty minutes with the first batches. I almost hate to ask, though: does Mrs. Claus have any more of that cider?”

He smiled. “I’ll check. Back in a few.”

I started isolating out the problem records and clearing access to the rest so he could get his people back to work. People? Are three foot tall, pointy-eared beings people? Well, why wouldn’t they be?

He returned about 15 minutes later, carrying a large Thermos. “So, Doctor, how is the patient?” He set the Thermos down on the console. “I thought I’d save myself a few trips.”

I smiled. “Good thinking, because you’re ready for the first batch. There are only about 5,000 corrupted records, so you’re lucky you even noticed them in time. I’ve got them locked out, so I can update them manually. The rest are yours. I’ll merge these in as I get them fixed.”

“Yippee!” he yelled, and, I swear, he jumped up and clicked his heels. The toes on the tips of his shoes jingled merrily. He yippee-d his way out the door, and I sat and listened to the floor come back to life as I tracked down and eliminated the bitrot.

I continued plugging away, completely losing track of time. Suddenly I realized Bill was standing over my shoulder, watching.

“By George, we’re going to make it. Not only that, your cider is getting cold.”

“Well, I’m never going to finish this cider in time alone. Go find a cup grab a chair. I’m on the last batch.” I looked at my watch. “Whoof. I’ve been here that long?”

“Time flies when you’re having fun.”

“Or in the company of good friends.”

We clinked mugs, and I leaned back in the chair. “I was thinking. If we’re in space, why aren’t we floating? There shouldn’t be any gravity here.”

“Our technology is advanced compared to what you have on Earth, Jason. We have the ability to transport people and material long distances instantaneously. Remember the transporters on Star Trek? Ours actually work.”

“And the snow?”

“The boss is a traditionalist. The reindeer like it, too, and the gnomes and dwarves come from the colder lands, and it reminds them of home.”

“Reindeer. That explains why you have a stable. I was wondering about that..”

“You know, if you have contracts with all these large companies, how have you kept your operation a secret? What’s to keep me from spilling the beans on you? Elven hit-men?”

He laughed so hard his shoes tinkled. “Nothing that baroque. What person in the world is going to admit publicly to working with Santa Claus? Would anyone believe you? If the president of Sega announced he was dealing with Santa Claus, what would happen? What sane person would take that chance?” He took a sip from his mug. “Besides, we investigated you before calling, and your customers appreciate your judgment and discretion. We don’t believe you’d do anything stupid, either to us or to yourself.”

He had a point. Maybe the National Enquirer would buy the story, but would I want to have my name attached? “You know, this isn’t exactly a small operation. How do you pay for all this? Royalties on the Santa Claus name?”

The elf laughed again. “No, that’s in the public domain. Our funding comes from strategic minerals. We mine the asteroid belt, transfer the raw materials down to Earth and sell on the open market. With our technology, the mining is dirt cheap, so to speak. We make enough to support ourselves and carry on our operation. Everyone wins.”

“If you really have all this high tech stuff — teleportation, space stations, advanced manufacturing concepts and I don’t know what else, why are you selling raw materials and not technology or engineering?”

“We do. Not all at once, and we don’t sell technology that is so advanced it’ll raise questions Earthside. It’s impossible right now for us to make, say, teleportation available because it requires too many technology advances for people to accept it without wondering about the source. We don’t want to start those UFO rumors again, do we? Besides, technology is a tool that can be used for both good and evil, and if society is given something before it’s ready to cope with the implications, you run the risk of it destroying itself. We learned the hard way to be careful.”

He had a point. We decided to go take a look at how the floor was going, a decision made easier because we’d run out of cider. I wonder if that stuff’s addicting?

Conveyor belts carried the gifts to one wall where a set of machines was installed. An elf or a gnome would grab the gift and stick it inside one of the booths, load some data from the invoice with a bar-code reader and push a button. When he opened the door, the booth was empty.

Movement at the front door suddenly caught my eye. A few elves were running out with packages, then re-appearing empty€“handed.

He caught where I was looking. “Hey, you should see this! Come on.” We followed one of the elves out the door, where I could see a sleigh was rapidly filling up with presents. The reindeer — including Rudolph, who blinked his nose at me when I scratched him behind the ears — had already been hitched up.

Bill stifled a sniff. “The Boss can’t cover the entire territory any more, but he loves the traditions, so he does one city a year the old fashioned way. This year it’s Cleveland. It was going to be Miami, but with hurricane Tim popping up so late in the year, we had to change.”

We stood in the snow and watched the loading go on, until the sleigh was full. Then he came out of the house, red clothes, beard, belly and all. Santa. Father Christmas. Kris Kringle. The Big Kahuna himself. I’ve never run face to face with one of my cultural icons before, so I didn’t know what to do? Do you shake hands? Bow? Collapse in a heap in the snow in a faint? I settled for standing there grinning madly and trying to keep my knees from wobbling.

Santa settled the problem for me. He strode over and grabbed me on the shoulder with one of his hands. “Thank you, Jason, for what you’ve done tonight. Thousands of children will awaken to happiness tomorrow because of you. You have my gratitude.”

With that, he hopped into the sleigh, and then double-checked the anti-gravity pads, verified the radar cloaking field, keyed in the recall alarm and finally called to the reindeers, who pulled the sleigh to a huge teleport booth to the side of the corral. Just as they were about to close the door, he looked over to me and waved. “Merry Christmas, Jason! Ho! Ho! Ho!” He then put his finger aside of his nose, winked, and pushed a button on the sleigh’s console. With a pop, Santa, the sleigh, and all of the reindeer disappeared.

Bill grabbed my arm. “Thank you for everything. It’s time you got out of here and started your own Christmas.”

I realized he was crying. I realized I was crying, too.

In the lobby, the guard got a strange look on his face as I went by. It wasn’t until I got out to the car that I realized that I had fresh snow on my shoulders. I made a mental note to warn them.

It wasn’t until I had the key in the lock at home that I realized I’d forgotten to get the cider recipe. Damn. I opened the door just as the clock in the hall started chiming ten. Gina was asleep so I quietly wished her a Merry Christmas and crawled into bed next to her. As I was drifting off, I kept imagining I heard sleigh bells.

As happens every Christmas, Kevin woke us up far too early. I couldn’t blame him this time, though, since the bicycle was gorgeous. It was all we could do to keep him from running outside with it immediately, even before the rest of the presents were opened. Gina smiled at me and she squeezed my hand.

It was going to be tough explaining the diamond earrings, since Gina knew the store was closed last night, and we’d both agreed to wait on them until business got better.

But I knew I was in trouble when Kevin brought over that last package, a small envelope marked as from Santa. I started looking through my mental excuse file for something she might accept. Without opening them I knew that inside I’d find three tickets to Bermuda, and I better have a better excuse than Santa Claus for them. Maybe if I told her my new client was a travel agent? I couldn’t convince her that Santa brought them, could I?

But inside the envelope was nothing more than a three by five card, with a few lines of text penciled on it. I smiled, and realized I’d gotten the best Christmas present ever.

Ten thousand little miracles, and I was blessed with one. I got up to see if we had any cinnamon in the kitchen.

# END #

This work is not public domain. It is copyright 1994 by Charles Von Rospach. Please do not republish or post it anywhere else without my explicit approval.