It is always Christmas in the Neonorth Santarchy.
Reindeer dance in the sky. Snow falls gentle as a dream. There are lights and there is candy and Sam walks down the public street.
Santarchy: Government by the nice. Typified by the belief that everyone should be good every year. Most Santarchies devolve into benevolent dictatorships, with a neoSanta or Santarch operating as head of state “in Santa’s name.”
“Hey, kid,” says a beggar in the door. “Spare a chestnut?”
Sam searches his pockets. Then he shakes his head. “No chestnuts, no sugar plums, not even any cotton candy. But you can have some of my ration, mister.”
“That’s kind of you,” says the beggar. He holds up his Christmas bell. It scans Sam once, and a small red light turns green. “That’s very kind.”
“Merry Christmas,” says Sam.
“Merry Christmas. Merry Christmas to everybody!” says the beggar.
The beggar takes a swig of his Christmas rum. He leans back in the door and he watches the snow fall.
Santa’s Eye gleams.
Santa’s Eyes: the tripod structures used by the Santarchy of the Neonorth to monitor residents. Each structure supports a mechanical eyeball. The eyeball sees when people are sleeping. It observes when they are awake. It recognizes actions as bad or good and informs the central bureaucracy accordingly.
Sam is almost home when his Christmas bell beeps.
“Please turn left,” grates the speaker in the bell.
Sam turns left. He realizes which way he’s going and his heart grows kind of cold. “It’s not my turn already,” he says, “is it?”
“Please continue forward,” grates the speaker.
“What am I going to have to do?”
“Termination necessary for the good of the state,” says Sam’s Christmas bell. “Merry Christmas!”
Sam gulps. But he walks forward. Soon he’s standing by the Old Christmas Gallows.
“Mr. Sanders,” Sam says, wretchedly.
“It’s okay, boy,” says Mr. Sanders. He’s an old man with a thatch of gray hair and a fire in his eyes. “I know what I done and I got no regrets.”
Mr. Sanders is standing on the gallows with the rope around his neck.
“But . . .”
There’s one of Santa’s Eyes behind the Old Christmas Gallows. Its voice is white static and sleighbells.
“Please read the charges,” says Santa’s Eye.
Jill is standing by the Gallows. She’s a young girl in a gingham dress. She’s holding the list of charges, and she looks frightened, just like Sam.
“Cosive—coris—corrosive infulence,” she says. “Seventeen counts. Leckery, two counts.”
“Only two?” says Mr. Sanders. He laughs. “Santa’s not watching me real good.”
“Continue,” whispers the voice of Santa’s Eye.
“Murder—” Jill stops. “Murder?”
Jill stares at Mr. Sanders in horror.
Mr. Sanders looks down.
Jill gulps. She looks back at the charges.
“Murder of a reppesenative of the state,” Jill reads. “One count. The defendant’s been judged and sentenced and his sentence will now be carried out.”
“Sam,” says Santa’s Eye. “It is necessary for you to pull the lever and execute Mr. Sanders.”
Sam walks forward. He reaches several times for the lever. He hesitates.
Mr. Sanders’ cheer fades away as he watches. There is despair growing in his face. “Don’t,” Mr. Sanders says. “Don’t, Sam.”
“Sam,” says Santa’s Eye. “It is necessary for you to pull the lever and execute Mr. Sanders. It is not suitable for the conduct of a society that dissidents and murderers should go free. It is not suitable that society should pay the cost of maintaining their lives. It is not suitable that Mr. Sanders, having been found guilty, should survive.”
“But it is nice,” protests Sam.
“If you do not pull the lever,” says Santa’s Eye, “then you will do harm.”
Sam closes his eyes.
“Sam, no!” says Mr. Sanders.
Sam pulls the lever.
Santa’s Eye burns a dim and flickery red.
“Naughtiness recorded,” it says.
Santa’s Duty: the burden of cruelty necessary to a functional society. The Neonorth Santarchy calls a boy or girl to perform “Santa’s Duty” when they have been so good that year that they can do so while remaining on the Nice List. Those insufficient in virtue or excessive in vice are disqualified from civic service.
Sam stumbles as he walks away.
“I killed him,” Sam says. “I killed him. I killed Mr. Sanders. He kicked his feet like a chicken.”
“‘Oy, kid,” says Peter.
Peter’s a rough-cut kind of man in a black leather coat. He’s got a sack on his shoulder and pockets full of coal.
Sam turns. He looks up. He looks in Peter’s eyes.
“Wow, mister,” Sam says. “Your eyes are like portals to the void.”
Peter’s mouth twitches, revealing a bit of his sharp pointed teeth.
“You shouldn’t be hanging people,” Peter says. “Good little boys don’t hang people.”
Sam shuffles his feet a little. “Technically, I’m still a good little boy,” he says. “I mean, Santa’s probably going to bring me a super-transformer and stuff this year. And a puppy. And maybe a sandwich-making set for my clockwork toaster. Because I’ve been nice the rest of the time. I even did my homework!”
“I see,” says Peter. “That’s very good, isn’t it?”
The things in Peter’s sack seethe.
“It’s very very good,” says Sam. “I got a B plus! And I gave some of my ration to the beggar. That’s why—that’s why—”
Suddenly Sam’s eyes are very hurt and he’s sitting down.
“Like a chicken,” he says.
“Suffer and twist, little boy,” says Peter. “Suffer and twist. But all your guilt won’t save you from me.”
Peter takes a lump of coal out of his pocket. He weighs it in his hand, then tosses it at Sam’s feet.
“Do you know what day it is, Sam?” Peter asks.
“Dunno,” says Sam. “Tuesday?”
“It’s Christmas, Sam,” Peter says. “And if you keep going on this path, then when next Christmas comes along, I’m going to come along, and I’m going to put you in this sack, with the rats. And if you’re lucky, you’ll wind up like me, with pointy ears and pointy teeth and pockets full of coal. And if you’re not—why, then, the rats will eat your fingers and they’ll eat your eyes and then they’ll scurry up your nose and eat your brain, just like they did to the last kid I took.”
“It’s always Christmas in the Neonorth Santarchy,” says Sam.
“It’s December 25th, Sam,” Peter says.
Sam processes this data for a moment. Then he picks up the lump of coal. “I never got a present from someone who wasn’t Santa before,” he says. He turns the lump over in his hands. “If I squeeze it really hard, it turns into a diamond, right?”
Peter doesn’t answer. He just snorts, and turns his back on Sam, and quietly he walks away.
After a while Sam begins to cry. He sits there, rocking, with the coal held to his chest, until hours later he is too much alone to stay.
Ration: the money of the Neonorth Santarchy is backed by naughtiness. The Santarchy treats people with a lot of ration as very naughty, and does not call on them for Santa’s Duty. As the civics teachers explain, to share your naughtiness ration is Nice; to hoard your naughtiness ration is Naughty; and in this respect, like a scant few others, the opinions of the Santarchy coincide with Santa’s own.
It is Christmas every day in Neonorth City, in the Neonorth Santarchy, under the great guiding candy cane of truth.
Sam does his homework and he does his chores. He helps out when people need help. He tries to keep enough ration that he won’t be called on for Santa’s Duty again.
And one day he looks in his four-paned window at the gentle snow, and he says, “I don’t like this any more. I want to be naughty today.”
He cries, because he is a good-hearted boy, and does not know how.
And then a marvelous, wicked thought occurs.
Sam blows on his window. He blows on it until it mists. With his finger, he writes, “Black Peter, Black Peter,” backwards in the pane.
Then he puts on his pajamas with booties, and takes his teddy bear down off the shelf, and he turns off all the lights, and he goes to bed.
There’s a rattling in the chimney that night, and a fierce wind shakes Sam’s house, and he wakes up to see a shape looming over his bed.
“What do you want, boy?” Peter asks.
Sam sits up. He looks defiant.
“I want to be naughty,” Sam says. “Tell me how to be naughty.”
“But Sam,” says Peter, mockingly. “You were doing so well. You ate all your lima beans tonight. You kissed your little sister’s scraped knee and made it better. You even got an A on your pop quiz!”
“Tell me how.”
“Come with me, then,” Peter says.
So Peter walks out into the yard. Sam runs after him in his pajamas with booties, carrying his teddy bear and looking as wicked as he can.
Peter walks through the snow. He looks at a neighbor’s snowman.
“Push off its head,” Peter says.
So Sam turns to the snowman and with a great shove pushes off its head.
Peter walks on.
“Throw a rock in that window,” Peter says.
Peter sighs. He takes a lump of coal out of his pocket. He hands it to Sam. Sam hurls it through the window. Crash! Spun-sugar tinkles to the floor inside.
Peter walks along.
Peter reaches one of Santa’s Eyes.
“Tear it down,” Peter says.
So Sam leaps on it, like a wild thing, and the teddy bear is left behind him, and he claws at the stone surface, and he smashes at the orb that is its eye.
Santa’s Eye gleams. Its voice is snow and homefires, and it says, “What are you doing, Sam?”
“I want you to die!” Sam shrieks. “I want you to die like Mr. Sanders!”
And it feels to Sam like there is a sack around him, as he struggles with the Eye; and there are rats writhing all around him on the warm winter night; and the reindeer overhead are lost in darkness; and Sam’s eyes grow sharper, and his ears grow points, and his teeth are feral sharp things; and he is lean and strange and terrible when he at last rises from the ruins of the Eye with its blood on his hands; and he turns to Peter, then, and he says, “I am yours.”