PAUL BIRCHTHE RUBBER REINDEER
You might think that MacRobert's World would be overrun with reindeer, what with Christmas coming every day, but that's not the way Callum MacRobert saw it. Apart from half a dozen hard-working and increasingly tired-looking creatures dragging the sleighs of the professional Santas, and the odd specimen kept in the keeps' zoos, reindeer were few and far between. Even the Scandinavian keeps, like Nye Narvik, Vaasasaari or Svarlbard, preferred joppers and air-powered snowmobiles to reindeer-driven sleighs — and anyway for serious travel most people used the transport web within the geosphere interior.
After all, even though it was always Christmas somewhere, Christmas still came only once a year to each keep. Mostly. Not including the schizophrenic keeps that couldn't make up their mind which calendar they were on — remind me to tell you about the civil war in Old Lisbograd-St.Pietersburg some time.
Where was I? Oh, yes. The MacRobert's reindeer shortage. Callum often had difficulty hiring live reindeer for his extravaganzas and had been reduced to using animatronic models or actors in costume, but had never got around to doing anything about it. As his friend Jane Grey said, "You can't do everything." Mind you, since she was kneeling on the library table at the time, playing climb around the room without touching the floor, she might have been thinking of something else.
All this changed when two expatriate Chinamen and a Korean founded the Antiquated Christmas Reindeer and Slippery Sleigh Company and imported three thousand reindeer embryos from Home, subcontracting Equine Womb Enterprises to bring them to term. Nanowheels Unlimited produced the RunDry™ low-friction sleigh runners, and Caruthers' Carpathian Carpentry, fighting off a strong bid from their ruthless rustic rivals Cadman's Cunning Cabinetmakers, the sleighs themselves.
Callum was a bit miffed at first. Christmas was his business. He could do without any competition from non-MacRoberts, thank you very much. But once he realised that Messrs. Wu, Hung and Moonsmith had no intention of horning in on his territory and meant principally to hire out their services to Christmas Specialists like himself, he cheered up. With real reindeer pulling real sleighs, even if the customers couldn't always afford real snow, the Christmas celebrations he organised took on a new gloss. There's nothing like reindeer droppings underfoot to make everything seem really real.
Yet if hiring out sleighs were all there were to the Antiquated Christmas Reindeer and Slippery Sleigh Company there'd be little more to say. The introduction of reindeer would be a mere footnote in the history of MacRobert's World, and this story would scarcely have got past the bottom of page one. However, a little arithmetic shows that the Antiquated Christmas Reindeer and Slippery Sleigh Company needed another string to their stable or, rather, another job for their strings. Three thousand reindeer could pull at least three hundred sleighs, enough to convey Christmas Santas to over a hundred thousand keeps. Whereas at this epoch there were still only a few thousand keeps on the whole of MacRobert's World.
Wu, Hung and Moonsmith's solution was a sleigh-riding school. They called it Wu, Hung and Moonsmith's Peripatetic Sleigh-Riding and Santa-Training School, Incorporating the Elf Efficiency League and Reindeer Races. Or WHuMPS for short. There was one big school North of the City, with its own dedicated snowplane, and twenty six travelling branches that moved from keep to keep around the planet, wherever the snow lay round about, deep and crisp and even.
Whumps was a success from the start. Until you've seen a dozen sleighs, pulled by eight reindeer apiece, driven by whip-cracking Santas, with green-clad elves standing on the runners, hanging onto the back seat like grim death, all racing each other down a snow-covered mountain, you haven't seen anything … well, obviously, you have seen something, unless you've been blind from birth or confined in a lightless dungeon all your life, but you certainly haven't seen a dozen sleighs, etcetera, racing each other down a snow-covered mountain. You definitely haven't seen a Whumps race.
Unfortunately, it wasn't all fun and high jinks, as Jane Grey learned to her cost when the sleigh on which she was near-side rear elf came a cropper. Six reindeer were written off with broken legs, one of the other elves got concussion and Santa almost suffocated in a snow drift. Miss Grey broke her arm.
"Serves you right," said Callum, who still thought Christmassy entertainment should be his business and felt unreasonably aggrieved by Messrs. Wu, Hung and Moonsmith's success. "Sleigh-riding at your age!"
"What's wrong with my age?" Miss Grey goggled at him. "I'm only twenty—"
"At any age," interjected Callum hurriedly. "It's not safe."
"It was only that one reindeer that stumbled and brought the rest down," Jane said. "The sleigh just piled into the back of them and catapulted over."
"That's what I mean," said Callum. "One little slip and it's six dead reindeer and injured riders scattered all over the mountainside. You're lucky you didn't cause a pileup or there'd be dead people too."
"We were at the back," said Jane. "The reindeer that fell was slowing us down, I think. But you're right, it was a bit hairy."
Just how hairy was made clear a few weeks later, when a similar accident near Bremahafen Schneewald took out five of the racing sleighs and thirty-four reindeer. Seven people were killed and a further nine badly injured. Whumps faced a barrage of criticism, a big jump in bookings and a media stampede for filming rights. The newly-formed Society for the Safety of Reindeer called for the races to be banned and there was a big public outcry. This being MacRobert's World, most of the outcry was against the Society for the Safety of Reindeer. One or two keeps withdrew their invitations, but most contented themselves with upping the school's damage and liability bond.
Callum found Miss Grey poring over the race videos. "It looks to me," she said, "as if these reindeer have a design fault."
"They're animals, not robots," said Callum. "No one designed them. Unless you mean God?"
"They're not wild animals; they're domesticated," said Jane. "Their breeding seems to have introduced a weakness in their legs. Look at the statistics. Out of 3000 reindeer, 107 have had to be put down with broken legs in just three months. At least nine of them were just walking around the paddock. At this rate they'll all be dead in seven years. I'm pretty sure those bones shattered before they fell down, not after. Like people with osteoporosis. I don't know who sold them those embryos, but Messrs. Wu, Hung and Moonsmith have got taken good and proper."
"It's a long way back Home to complain." Callum agreed.
Miss Grey was right. Geneticists, brought in by the school's vets, soon discovered the same defective gene in all their reindeer. "Cut price clones," Miss Grey reported. "Apart from the X and Y chromosomes, their genotypes are practically identical. Fine if you've got a good specimen to start with, not so good if it has a serious genetic weakness like these."
"That's probably why they were being sold off cheap," said Callum. Now that Whumps was in danger of having to close for lack of able-bodied sleigh pullers, he could sympathise. "I like being able to hire real reindeer. Hope they don't go under. I suppose they could try replacing the reindeer's bones with titanium alloy, but it'd be horribly expensive."
"I've an idea," said Miss Grey. "How much money do you have?"
"Quite a bit. Why?"
"How would you like to own a herd of reindeer you could hire out or sell to Whumps?"
Callum shrugged. "I guess. But Home's too far. It'd be nearly forty years before we got a new batch back."
"We don't need to buy from Earth. The Habitat Authority has diverse reindeer codings in its archives. I checked. We can have the work done here on MacRobert's."
"It wouldn't be cheap," said Callum thoughtfully, "but I dare say I could raise enough."
"We could do a bit of genetic engineering on their legs too," said Miss Grey. "EWE and ME have some new facilities."
"We do?" Callum looked puzzled. "News to me."
"Not you and me. EWE and ME. Equine Womb Enterprises and Myological Engineering. I was reading about it in Rare Earths Obstetrics Monthly."
"Muscles and stuff."
And so it came to pass that as the last of Wu, Hung and Moonsmith's substandard clones were hobbling arthritically across the straw of their stables, Callum and Grey's new and improved breed of MacRobert's reindeer were to be seen bounding joyfully into action. Up slope and down mountain, over rock, snow, grass, moss or heather, it made no odds. These creatures of compressed muscle and solid sinew were equally at home on any terrain. No longer limited by the poor fracture energy of bone, no longer fearful of broken legs, they raced hell-for-leather down the steepest gradient. For when they stumbled, or when they fell, they felt no fright, they took no hurt. MacRobert's rubber reindeer simply bounced!
© Paul Birch, 23rd Dec. 2007.