Distant Early Warning

by Paul Ray 2002

"SNEW."

"What?"

"SNEW. You know, S.N.E.W., like snow, only SNEW."

Gordon leaned back in his chair clasping his hands behind his head as he fought a grin. "This is the DEW Line, after all."

"You're an idiot," said Spencer, obviously not amused. "Hand me that chart."

Gordon was somewhat disappointed. He was dying to explain his witty acronym, but his colleague simply avoided asking the dangling question. Defeated, he silently passed the chart roll over, then picked up his steaming mug.

The two scientists were holed up in a small observation hut, furnished with the barest of necessities they required to conduct their research. The small building was at the base of a massive radar dish in the isolated north of Nunavut Territory. A sparse line of such stations stretched across three thousand miles of frozen landscape above the Arctic Circle in the far Canadian north.

"I can think of a million other places I'd rather be on Christmas Eve," said Gordon, between sips of hot liquid. "And a million things I'd rather be doing."

"You seemed enthusiastic to join me last time," replied Spencer, not looking up from his chart.

"That was last time. That was summertime. And it wasn't the exciting task of configuring the equipment that got me to tag along I might add. But now, fishing season is definitely over." He made a mock shiver sound before continuing. "I kinda hoped it would be a little more interesting. Besides I thought you would appreciate the company."

"How noble. Well, if this Cold War relic will perform for us tonight, we'll be out of here soon enough."

"This station was originally designed to watch for nukes coming over the pole, not spying on Saint Nick. Do you think we'll actually even see anything?"

"If our calculations are anywhere near correct, then yes. Don't forget, we're not the only ones interested in proving his existence once and for all."

"Right, right, all of our eager investors." Gordon said leaning forward to also look at the chart. "Our little grant, anyhow. But do you think the effort will be worth it? I mean really, so what if there is a Santa Claus?"

Spencer looked up.

"Proving he's real is just the first step," he said. "If we can figure out how he actually does what he's apparently capable of, then there's no telling the uses such fantastic technologies could have for the betterment of mankind."

"Mind boggling. Like how such a fat guy squeezes down a narrow chimney pipe, or how he gets airborne in that sleigh of his-"

"And how he does it all so quickly!"

Blip.

"The scanner." Spencer pushed away from the desk and his chair glided over to the radar console. A green line slowly swept the radius of the circular monitor.

Blip.

"There!" said Gordon, pointing at the screen as he peered over his partner's shoulder.

"Yes, yes, I see it. Over Newfoundland." There was excitement in Spencer's voice.

"That makes sense, considering time zones. Look at him go."

Blip.

"This is amazing. Here it is finally: our proof! We did it! We actually did it!" cried Spencer. "SNEW!" he suddenly exclaimed as he spun in his chair. "SNEW! The Saint Nick Early Warning line!" Then he burst out laughing.

"Oh..." the tone of Gordon's voice dropped, and the laughter died.

"What?"

"He's gone."

Spencer looked blankly at the slowly sweeping line. The blip had vanished.

"I don't understand," he said, somewhat perplexed. "What happened?"

"Maybe there really is no Santa. It was just some sort of malfunction all along," Gordon offered. "Are you sure the equipment is properly calibrated?"

"Yes, positive. You saw me check it over. Everything's working perfectly."

"Well then, maybe he just had to go home and get some more toys," Gordon said.

"Of course! He's just taken care of every kid in South America, and on his way to pick up another load, he decided to get Newfoundland out of the way, too. It makes perfect sense with them being half-an-hour ahead and all." And it did make sense: even Santa couldn't possible carry an entire planet load of toys in one go.

They watched the screen intensely, waiting for the sleigh to return. Minutes passed, and each wondered if the other had yet blinked, let alone breathed. The chair creaked a little as they stared at the hypnotic line sweeping the spotlessly dark screen for what seemed like the twentieth time around.

Bleep.

"There!" they both shouted, and then embraced. The green dot had reappeared, moving away from the very North Pole itself!

"Will you look at that?" exclaimed Gordon. "Look at that trajectory! It'll pass right above us!"

Spencer grabbed some binoculars from a nearby table, and handed a pair to his friend.

"Let's get a first hand look at this jolly old elf!" he said, pulling on his coat.

Arctic air rushed into the hut as he pulled the door open and the pair stepped outside. The sun, which had struggled throughout the short day to hold its place above the distant horizon had been replaced by a sliver of a moon, yet an endless blanket of whiteness reflected a brightness of its own.

"SNOW!" shouted Gordon.

"I know," replied Spencer.

"No, no, SNOW! S.N.O.W., instead of SNEW."

"SNOW?" But then Spencer clued in.

"SNOW!" they shouted in unison. "Saint Nick Overhead Warning!" And together they broke into fits of laughter.

They were both looking up through their binoculars when the warhead exploded directly above, melting them and the knee-deep snow for miles around.

More green dots appeared on the tiny round screens of other radar stations along the SNEW line, indicating that several more Santas were on their way.

x x x




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