Admiral Lupesku acknowledged a knock on his door. Ensign Gintera Berkova entered the admiral’s office and saluted.
"My Lord Admiral," she began. "We received a message from Captain Syrbu of the Shadow. He urgently requests to speak with you via a secure channel.”
"Did he say why, Ensign?" the admiral replied.
“No, sir. He only said the matter was your ears only and of supreme importance,” she said.
“Route the message to my terminal,” Lupesku said peevishly.
“No, sir. The classification of the message session is too high," Ensign Berkova said, in a nervous voice.
“Very well,” the admiral sighed. “I will be at the communications center in a few moments.
The ensign saluted and left.
I hope Syrbu isn’t jumping at phantoms again, the admiral reflected as he fastened his tunic.
Admiral Lupesku sealed the secure communication booth and activated the console. A sallow image of Captain Syrbu appeared on the screen.
He almost blends into the grey bulkhead, the admiral thought.
“Syrbu, what is so important?” the admiral demanded. "You're observing a backwater planet.”
“My Lord Admiral,” the nervous captain stammered. “The planet may not be as underdeveloped as we believed. I did not want to risk the report getting lost or discounted in channels."
“Syrbu based on your past performance, this better be good,” the admiral demanded.
“Sir, I understand. My crew and I have thoroughly checked the material I want to share. I need time to describe the situation to you."
“Proceed, captain,” the admiral said in an even tone.
“Before the Shadow's current assignment, the ship received the new advanced sensor system. I did not expect the sensors to register anything as my assignment was a backward planet, and the sensors are for combat situations. The sensors were silent during our first two months watching the planet,” Syrbu said.
“The sensors started registering activity on the planetary date of December sixth. We started tracking a single-person vehicle moving at high speed over the planet at a low altitude. My crew observed the vehicle’s appearance at 24:00:00 planetary time, over an area the natives call Germany. The vehicle traveled north to south in straight lines about five meters above the ground. The vehicle's lines of travel shifted to the west as the night progressed."
“You called me about that?” the admiral demanded.
“Sir, the vehicle’s speed approached warp speed. The vehicle made numerous stops lasting no more than several nanoseconds. We thought the equipment was malfunctioning," the nervous captain replied.
"How is that possible, Syrbu? The equipment has proved reliable on other ships," the admiral demanded.
“We didn’t know, sir. We did not want to make a report to find out it was an equipment glitch. Especially with my reputation. We tracked the vehicle for several hours before it disappeared. We checked the equipment repeatedly. “
“Is that all you have to report?” the admiral asked as he moved to break the connection.
“I have much more, my Lord Admiral," the captain blurted out. "The first incident was nineteen planetary days ago. Tonight we tracked three similar vehicles moving at similar speeds. All three vehicles initially appeared over different parts of the area the natives call Europe. We tracked a one-person and a two-person vehicle with similar speed and behavior as the original observation. I wanted to speak with you because of the third vehicle.”
"The first two vehicles were so small and flew so low that we did not capture accurate images for analysis. The third vehicle was larger. It appeared in Europe and reappeared over North America. We did capture an image of the vehicle," Syrbu said.
“Was the vehicle a known configuration?” the admiral asked.
“No, sir. The vehicle appeared to be a land vehicle the terrestrials call a sleigh. The vehicle was bright red. Nine land quadrupeds called reindeer by the natives appeared at the front of the vehicle. The vehicle had a single operator in an open cockpit. A large sack sat behind the operator," the captain answered.
“Syrbu, I don’t like jokes! You said a land vehicle and land animals were flying?” How could an operator survive in an open cockpit at that speed? Was he wearing a protective suit?” How did the sack not fall out of the vehicle?” the admiral huffed.
“We don’t know how any of what we saw was possible, sir. The ship's engineers assured me the vehicle had the aerodynamic characteristics of a brick. The spectrometer scan indicated the operator's suit was made of fur and lacked a face plate," the distraught captain reported.
“That makes no sense. What signals came from the craft?” Lupesku asked.
“There were no transmissions, my lord admiral. The vehicle did not use radar. The craft did not appear to use navigation software. We observed no electronic signature of the sleigh. The vehicle had no navigation lights aside from a single red light on the head of one quadruped,” the captain reported.
"What can you tell me about the vehicle's propulsion systems?" the admiral asked.
"There were no jet engines or reactor exhaust, sir. The reindeer must propel the sleigh," the nervous captain suggested. “The vehicle is silent. A vehicle moving at high speed should produce sonic booms. We found no reports of those noises,” the captain said.
“Are you intoxicated, Syrbu?” the admiral demanded. “Are you done?”
“I am sober, sir. My report is not complete. Our Fleet's ships take hours to accelerate when reaching warp speed. The vehicle made thousands of stops lasting nanoseconds or less. We do not know the reason for the stops. At the end of each stop, the vehicle returned to its prior speed immediately. We can’t understand how,” Syrbu said.
I must admit getting intoxicated sounds like a good idea, Syrbu reflected. I may do that after this conversation.
The admiral paused for thought. The story is incredible. What if the story is true? I need more evidence, he concluded.
“Was the operator relieved and replaced?” the admiral asked.
"No, sir. We did not observe a change in the operators. The reindeer were not fed or replaced with another team. We saw no evidence of life support equipment on the vehicle.”
The captain paused like he was uncertain how to proceed.
“Syrbu, if you have something to say, say it. I doubt you can say anything will be more absurd than what you have said,” the admiral huffed.
This report will probably end my career, the captain thought. I have little to lose if I say everything.
"My Lord Admiral, after we sighted the vehicle, all our specialists examined the information,” the captain began hesitantly. “The ship’s zoologist, Lt. Apostoli, noticed something. She suggested we should be hearing complaints about reindeer dung falling from the sky. There were no such reports.”
“Did Admiral Gutsu put you up to this nonsense, Syrbu?” demanded Lupesku.
“No, my Lord Admiral! I have not spoken with Admiral Gutsu in months," Syrbu pleaded. “I can substantiate everything I’ve said.”
"Lt. Apostoli has not studied reindeer. She has studied similar animals and expected the reindeer would need to relieve themselves. Dung moving at the same speed as the vehicle would create substantial damage, injury, or a huge mess. She found the absence of reports strange."
The captain paused. The admiral and the captain wanted the interview to end for different reasons.
“What else, captain?” the impatient admiral probed.
“My intelligence officer, Lt. Banagher, reviewed the planet's literature looking for references to the vehicle. He found a story mentioning the vehicle. The natives tell their young offspring the story describing the vehicle," Syrbu said.
“What is unusual about that? We tell our offsprings of the Empire’s conquests,” the admiral said proudly.
"The story he found was written over two hundred planetary years ago, sir," the captain said. "If the beings on this planet had this technology two centuries ago, we underestimated their capabilities. Lt. Banagher noticed no planetary military challenged the vehicle, even though the vehicle passed through restricted areas. At least one planetary air force broadcast bogus positions for the larger vehicle. He suggests we may have found evidence of a sophisticated planetary defense system. Banagher believes we may be observing a training exercise …"
The night was ending. Santa’s sleigh was over the Aleutian Islands.
I've completed naughty and nice lists, Santa thought. Good thing too. The day is close.
Space aliens watched this year. I doubt they'll hang around long. I don't know what they're thinking, but I doubt they're thinking of sugar plums, he thought with a mental chuckle. I am sure they’re puzzled after tracking St. Nicholas earlier this month. Father Christmas, Pere Noel, and me showing up last night would have been a shock. If they stick around, I wonder what they will do when Father Frost and the Magi take their turns next week. Doesn't matter.
Santa remembered years ago a writer observed advanced technology acts like magic. The writer didn't consider the converse. Sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology. Tonight demonstrates the converse's truth,
Time to head home. I hope Mrs. Claus has made her special cocoa. She should be shapeshifting into a nightgown. I hope she'll greet me as a hot blonde in the short red nightgown that appears to disappear. She still has her magic. We should have a good night, especially since night lasts another month at the North Pole. HO! HO! HO!
Turning to his reindeer, he shouted, “Rudy, take us home. We don't want to keep the lady waiting."