A knock on the door interrupted the silent night. Roland Luminos stood on my front porch, shaking snow off his hat and coat. “Merry Christmas, Rhianon! I had meant to bring a bottle of something I distilled in my laboratory this morning, but I completely forgot it.” Thanking the Lord for all His blessings, not the least of which was Roland’s bad memory, considering that what he had distilled may not have been potable, I invited the man inside. Kathy greeted him with a kiss on the cheek.
“By the way, my dear, did I leave an old top hat here at some point?” Roland asked. “It was an old thing, but I was quite attached to it. You see, I was working on an experiment to stimulate the brain cells electrically, through a device cleverly concealed in the hat. I’m sure neither of you ladies has noticed, but some of my friends insist that I am absent-minded, and I thought this might help. But now I can’t seem to locate the hat.”
Kathy looked at me. “Er, what would happen if this hat were placed on an inanimate object. Say, an automaton?” she asked Roland.
He considered the question for some time before replying, “I don’t quite know for certain! As the electrical stimulation would attempt to make contact with whatever the hat lay upon, I would guess that the effect would depend on whether the object had the necessary circuitry to take advantage of what is effectively a mechanical brain. But, hmm, good question. Does that mean you have seen the hat?”
“Nope,” Kathy said. “Just idle curiosity. Can I get you a little mulled cider, Roland?”
Dinner was uneventful. Afterward, we retired to the parlor to exchange gifts. I poured snifters of brandy, and we sat near the fire to ward off the chill in the house. Kathy gave Roland a pair of brass goggles to replace the ones he had destroyed in an unfortunate episode involving monkeys and a carelessly-placed bottle of acid. I gave him a blowtorch, somewhat against my better judgment. Kathy gave me a new fountain pen, while I gave her a bottle of absinthe. Roland said he had purchased new spring bonnets for each of us, but had forgotten them at home with the mystery distilled substance.
Interrupting us was a loud bang on the roof, followed by the clatter of hooves. We rose at the same time to see what was the matter. I grabbed a lantern and dashed outside, heedless of the weather, and stared at my roof. Kathy and Roland followed closely behind. Looking up, I saw the roof sagging under the weight of an enormous sleigh, while eight fierce-looking creatures seemed to float in mid-air. The back half of the sleigh was a steam turbine and water tank. Wisps of steam floated gently into the night sky, but the great turbine was silent.
In the front half of the sleigh stood a man in a fur-lined suit and stocking cap, swearing a blue streak. Kathy squinted at him. “Santa?” she asked, her voice reverting to the girlish squeak of childhood.
“What are you talking about, you idiot child?” the man snarled. “Do I #%& look like #%*! Santa Claus? My $^@& sleigh broke down. I could barely set down on your roof in time. By the way, you might want to call a good roofing company before the next snowstorm.”
“I am somewhat handy with mechanical devices,” Roland called up, “and I have a set of tools here somewhere. Let me take a look and see if I can help.” He found a ladder and climbed up to the roof. Naturally, he forgot the tool kit.
I looked closely at him. The Vandyke, the pencil mustache: it could only be – Vivito Volare. “Mr. Volare!” I called out. “What on earth are you up to tonight? Surely it cannot be peace on earth and goodwill toward men.”
“How is that an invention?” Kathy asked. “We have steam-powered carriages. Just put an engine on the sleigh, replace the horses and you’re done.”
Mr. Volare gave a slightly demonic laugh. “On the ground, certainly. Pah! Any half-wit can do that. But an aerial steam sleigh…now that is an invention. My dear partner, Miss Gray, was kind enough to cross-breed reindeer with eagles to provide me with and train these reingles. They provide enough lifting power for the sleigh, which, as you can imagine, is quite heavy. The propulsion is provided by the power plant in the back, which, thanks to my ingenuity, converts water from this tank into steam, which then runs the turbine. I need both the reingles and the power plant to keep the sleigh aloft. Tonight seemed like an opportune time to test my invention, as the air lanes were likely to be clear. Then misfortune struck: the turbine somehow failed.”
“Ow!” I heard Roland exclaim. He had made it to the roof, and was standing just below the reingles. He waved his hands in the air as their hooves darted around him.
“Be careful, sir! Those are experimental reingles, and Miss Gray and I would thank you not to damage them in any way.”
“I say, Mr. Volare! There seems little chance of my damaging them. The beasts are attacking me!”
“Of course they are. They contain much eagle essence in them, and are, therefore, predators. They see you as their prey. Only their harnesses and their iron discipline prevent them from rending you from limb to limb. Get behind them, where they can still detect you but cannot reach you, before you get hurt.”
Kathy retrieved Roland’s tool kit from his carriage, climbed the ladder, and handed the kit to Roland. Mr. Volare and Roland effectuated repairs in short order, and the sleigh was ready to resume its journey as the clock struck midnight. It was Christmas! I invited Mr. Volare to join us for a warming beverage, but he demurred, saying he had additional tests to run before morning, and Miss Gray would be most displeased if he kept the reingles out too late. Roland climbed back down the ladder, and Mr. Volare made the craft ready to take off. “I’m sorry for being so grumpy earlier,” he said. “It’s the stress of the holidays, I suppose. Creatures that you designed and moved away come back to you, the laboratory is crowded, nerves are on edge. If I’m being honest with myself, the real reason I picked to night to test the sleigh was to get away from the young ones – the mutants and the clones – for a few hours.”
I nodded in understanding. He barked a command to the reingles, and the sleigh started to rise. After he fiddled with the controls, the turbine came to life, steam started pouring through the device, and he achieved more altitude and some forward momentum. He waved to us as the craft gained speed. I heard him exclaim, before he drove out of sight, “Merry Christmas to all! And good night!”