Elf Camp's cafeteria buzzed with the noise of cheerful kids. At their table, Meghan looked from Jack to Nicole. "No way can Erin Hobbs be...

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Elf Camp’s cafeteria buzzed with the noise of cheerful kids. At their table, Meghan looked from Jack to Nicole.

“No way can Erin Hobbs be on the Nice list,” Nicole said. “What she said about your shirt was plain mean.”

“It’s got to be a glitch,” Jack said. “Remember when Mrs. Weller skipped a line entering grades into the computer?”

“Ew,” Nicole wrinkled her nose. “I got P.J. Parker’s grades.”

Jack grinned. “I got Christine Bail’s.”

“So what was it like being a genius for a day?” Meghan asked.

“Sweet. Only too short.”

A camper waiting tables approached with a tray of smoothies.

“We didn’t order these,” Nicole said.

“I did,” Brian said, pulling up a chair. “It’s a health drink, fresh fruit whipped with yogurt and vitamins. We can’t afford kids getting sick now,” he said, glancing at the countdown calendar hanging on the wall above the kitchen’s swinging doors. It read “22.”

“You don’t expect us to pull all-nighters?” Meghan said.

“Yeah, I’ve got chemistry first period,” Jack said. “And Mrs. Lack won’t let you sleep in class.”

“Forget school,” Nicole said. “My mom’s going to freak when she doesn’t find me in bed.”

“No worries,” Brian said. “Right now you’re all sound asleep at home.”

Jack snorted, “Right.”

“I’m no physicist,” Brian said, “but at counselor training they showed us a video narrated by Carl Sagan. We travel here and back at near-light-speed velocity, passing through a wormhole.”

“Are you talking about time travel?” Meghan asked.

“That’s sci-fi junk,” Jack said.

“OK, then you tell me how Santa delivers presents around the world in one night,” Brian said.

“Whatever,” Jack said, standing up. “This is too crazy for me.”

Meghan grabbed his hand. “Stay, Jack. Please. If this is a dream, we’ll wake up and our lives will be just like before. But if it’s for real … “

“We’ll be exhausted,” Nicole interrupted.

“That’s taken care of,” Brian said.

Brian led them outside to a long, low-slung building adjoining headquarters. Inside, rows of stainless steel cylinders stretched the length of a football field.

“Tanning beds!” Nicole cried.

Brian chuckled. “Hyperbaric oxygen chambers. Normally, they’re used to prevent deep-sea divers from getting the bends and to help wounds heal, but we had them modified for sleep deprivation. They compress the sleep cycles. For every minute inside, you get an hour’s sleep.”

Brian’s phone chimed “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.” He listened, then shouted. “I’m on my way!”

“What’s up?” Jack demanded.

“Trouble on the assembly line. Elves are malfunctioning.”

“Elves? But you said … ?”

“RoboElves.” He ran outside.

The kids chased him. They leaped into the sleigh-cart just before Brian shifted into gear and careened away.

He weaved through a thicket of young pines, emerging in front of the toy-assembly building. Its front, a wall of glass, lit up like fireworks. Arcs of blue and white sparks showered against the panes.

Brian skidded the sleigh-cart to a halt and ran toward the building.

“Stay back!” he ordered, pushed open the door and disappeared inside.

Jack, Meghan and Nicole looked at each other. “Yeah, right,” Meghan said, and led them inside.

They were elves all right, but hardly adorable. What Brian called “RoboElves” were nine-foot-tall mechanical creatures with chrome peaked hats. Two metal arms with claw pinchers jutted out from both sides of their stainless steel bodies. Each robot was lined up along one of a dozen assembly lines.

But something was wrong, very wrong. In bike assembly, RoboElves screwed handlebars onto seat posts. The doll line churned out four-legged mutants. On the skateboard line, the RoboElves were installing wheels on top.

At a computer station, Brian worked the keyboard like a concert pianist, trying desperately to reprogram the robots. All his attempts failed. Suddenly, the robots started attacking each other.

Meghan, Jack and Nicole huddled together.

“Shut it down!” Brian yelled.

A counselor sprinted over to a large switch and pulled down an orange lever.

It was too late. The building shook. RoboElves jerked around. Their arms broke off and crashed to the ground in a shower of spitting sparks. Gears grinding, the lines finally shuddered to a stop. Plumes of smoke climbed toward the catwalk overhead.

“Everybody out!” Brian shouted.

Outside, the four teens stood panting in the snow. A reindeer crossed in front of them.

“Oh, no,” Brian gasped. “This can’t be happening.”

“What?” Nicole asked.

“That’s Rudolph!”

The deer stopped and stared at them. His nose glowed a bright blue.

Sunday: Bad news