Hoping for Red
by Adam Knight
Vixen had just one question for the doctor:
“Can you do it?”
Doctor Fizzwinkle smiled and patted the fur on Vixen’s neck. Outside of the office, the winds whipped furiously, as they did most of the time north of the Arctic Circle. In the office, though, the glow of fluorescent light and the smell of rubbing alcohol made Vixen feel secure and cared for.
“I’m afraid not,” he said. “The procedure you heard about is simple in principle―I would take DNA samples of you and Mr. Vixen, then analyze the cells to see your genetic predispositions, and manipulate the chromosomes to produce the calf that you and your husband desire.”
“Then why not?” Vixen said, stamping her hooves in a little dance.
“Well, everything is simple in principle,” the Doctor said. “But I’ve never done it before.”
Vixen smiled and shook her antlers. She nuzzled against Doctor Fizzwinkle. All the reindeer, indeed all of the animals in the North Pole, loved the good doctor, the best veterinarian north of sixty-six degrees latitude.
“Have you and Mr. Vixen tried all of the techniques I presented? Did he take the pills I prescribed?”
“Yes, and yes,” Vixen replied.
“Give it time, and patience, and you can certainly have a healthy, normal calf.”
“But I don’t want a normal calf!” blurted out Vixen. The Doctor smiled sadly and shook his head.
“As I said, simple in principle, but tricky in real life. I have done many tests on The Kid, and simply cannot isolate the responsible chromosome. How the Donders produced that red nose, I couldn’t say. Best to let nature take its course, dear.”
The doctor chuckled to himself.
“’Dear.’ Haha! Do you see what I―“
“You’re not funny,” Vixen said crossly. “You don’t know how hard this―I mean, Rudy is adorable and precious and all, but―“
Fizzwinkle held up his hand. He had served as something of an animal psychologist recently, in addition to his regular duties. Rudy, or Rudolph, or The Kid, or The Red-Nosed Runt, whatever he was called, was the cause of most of the reindeer’s anxiety.
“You need explain no more,” said the doctor. He went to the door, opened it and made sure no one was behind it, and then shut it again.
“Officially, my answer is that I can do nothing for you.”
“But unofficially?” Vixen asked.
“There are clinical tests. New, cutting-edge ones out of Sweden that show promise. If anyone can figure it out, the Swedes can.”
Vixen’s eyes widened with anticipation.
“I have a conference there next month” Fizzwinkle went on. “Let me talk to some colleagues and see if they can help.”
Vixen swished her nubby tail happily.
“Would you? For me?”
The Doctor paused diplomatically, and Vixen understood. It wasn’t just for her. Everyone had seen how enraptured The Boss was with Rudolph on that fateful foggy night the month before. If Fizzwinkle could find some way to create another Rudolph…
“I’ll do it for you, Vixen,” Doctor Fizzwinkle finally said. “For you. For all of The Eight. For Christmas around the world. You may have your problems with Rudolph, but he is a game-changer. You have to keep up with the times. We all do.”
That night, Vixen went back to Mr. Vixen and told him what the doctor said. As they huddled in their reindeer stable, her husband mustered what enthusiasm he could, but like all males in January, he was scrawny, antler-less, and physically depleted from mating season. Over the winter and spring he would fatten up, then in August and September he would try to impregnate Vixen, and every other reindeer he could. By December, his antlers would fall off and he would be an exhausted skeleton, as he was now. All of The Eight who pulled the sleigh were female.
“The thing is, dear,” said Vixen, thinking of the doctor’s pun, “Rudolph is not really all that much of a reindeer. Other than, you know.”
“Of course.” said Mr. Vixen.
“I mean, look at him. He’s tiny. He’s an average flyer, at best. His sense of direction is miserable. As a work animal, hundreds of reindeer are born every spring who are better suited.”
“Aside from the nose.”
“You must admit, though, it is a most remarkable feature.”
“Is it? Is it?” demanded Vixen, swishing her antlers at the air futilely. “I see reindeer born each year with bent hooves, nasty birthmarks, tongues wagging all over the place and single-digit IQ’s. They all get sent to the Outer Reaches to munch on scrub grass until wolves take them out. Rudy, though, that freak, gets put at the front of the sleigh.”
“Uh huh,” said Mr. Vixen, who had heard this rant almost daily since Rudolph’s selection as Lead Reindeer. Vixen just went on, though.
“I’ve been―for three years―look, I’m the number four reindeer. I am not that special. Dasher is Number One. She is so strong, she could pull the whole sleigh herself. And Comet is Number Two. I swear there’s radar where her brain should be. Now there is The Kid. If you and I have a normal baby, what chance would she ever have of taking my place on the sleigh? I just want a special baby, a baby with a competitive edge. Start off with a hoof up in the world. Is that so bad?”
“Why not get Rudolph to mate with you?” Mr. Vixen asked. Vixen shivered.
“Ugh. He’s barely more than a teenager. And then we have to work together. The Boss never puts males on the team for that very reason.”
Mr. Vixen said nothing, and Vixen nestled down beside him. She liked her husband, even if he wasn’t one for many words. He was getting old, too, almost eight, and she wondered how many more mating seasons he could participate in, how many more winters he could endure. He had not planted a baby inside of her last mating season, but if Doctor Fizzwinkle brought back good news from Sweden, and her husband still had the old spark next summer, then their baby, not Donder’s, would be the new Lead Reindeer.
Doctor Fizzwinkle returned at the end of February, smiling. He held a large crate marked as medical supplies.
That summer, Vixen and Mr. Vixen visited the Doctor many times. He took tissue samples, asked them about their mating habits and family histories, and spun all sorts of things in centrifuges and looked in his microscope a lot. By August, Mr. Vixen was robust and randy, and he made the very most of mating season. Vixen was so excited that she told her best friend, Blitzen, about the procedure. She thought that surely, Blitzen would be excited for her. And she was! Blitzen was so excited for Vixen that she told Cupid, who told Dasher, who told Comet, who told Dancer, who told Prancer, who told Donder, who was the only one Vixen did not want to know. Donder had always been uppity, but since giving birth to The Most Famous Reindeer Of All, she had become insufferable. When she heard of Vixen’s procedure, Donder flew into a rage and charged at Vixen. Fizzwinkle administered tranquilizers all around.
Christmas came. Vixen was pregnant; she knew it. Mr. Vixen lost his horns, lost his weight, and lethargically slinked off to the stables. Vixen doubted he would last the winter, which made her sad, but she had her special baby inside, growing.
Now that Rudolph was famous, the media attention was ten times what it had been in the year before. He had become, as Vixen predicted, an obnoxious, preening brat. She spent Christmas Eve at 16,000 feet, staring into Prancer’s butt, thinking of how different next Christmas would be.
The spring was a time of idleness for the reindeer. They ate grass, grew fat, flirted, gossiped, and slung rumors. When the day arrived in April when Vixen prepared to give birth, all of the other reindeer gathered around to watch, eager to see the results of Doctor Fizzwinkle’s procedure. Even Donder came, though she hung to the back, pacing and glowering.
The calf came easily and without complication. As the newborn emerged, all eyes watched for the same thing―the color of the little nub of tissue on the end of its nose. When the head pushed through, the reindeer gasped in excitement―then sighed in disappointment.
“What?” panted Vixen. “What is it?”
“The nose,” said Comet. “It’s…”
“Normal,” said Blitzen. “Sorry, girlfriend.”
Vixen slumped to the ground. Normal. She hoped the calf was at least a girl, which it was. A girl would have a better chance of taking Vixen’s place on the sleigh someday. But all of that work, all of those visits and tests, all of those Swedish probes, all of the sleepless nights as she worried if she would be able to produce a worthy reindeer for the sleigh. Normal. The crowd soon dispersed and went back to their typical April behavior.
Doctor Fizzwinkle tucked the baby near the mother’s side. “She is beautiful,” he whispered to Vixen as he patted the fur of her neck. He mopped the sweat from his brow and then left her in peace.
Vixen immediately set to licking and cleaning the slimy thing. It wiggled and grunted, already trying to find its footing. Vixen was first surprised by how warm the little body was. Heat seemed to radiate off of it. As she ran her tongue all over the creature, she made a vow to herself to still treat her daughter with kindness, with discipline, and above all with fairness. She would not let her daughter ever know that she had been born a disappointment.
“Oh, Vixen,” called Donder, who apparently had not left. She strutted over with a smug look on her face. “Are you going to just groom her all day? You know, she has to start walking within the hour. How long do you plan on babying her?”
“Go away. Leave us alone,” Vixen said.
“I will, I will. Rudolph has been practicing his glow. He sits in the dark and concentrates on his nose, trying to make it glow brighter. Of course, he doesn’t have a teacher. He’s the only reindeer to ever have this trait―who could teach him? That precocious little scamp, though, he is just determined to teach himself.”
“Good for him,” Vixen said after nuzzling the baby. “Go away.”
“I want you to know that if I can do anything to help, please, please tell me. I imagine you must feel awful.”
“Why? I have a beautiful, healthy girl,” Vixen said. She stood and took a few steps away from the baby to coax her onto her legs. “I feel wonderful.”
“If you say so. You know, it was hard at first for Rudy, being different and all. But I would not trade who he is now for any other child in the world. Especially not yours.”
“Don’t compare our children,” Vixen growled at Donder. The baby rose to her feet, then staggered and fell.
“Have you thought of a name?” Donder asked.
“No. Mr. Vixen and I have not decided.”
Donder snorted and dug at the mud with her hoof.
“You’re giving the old stud a say? Just pick a name and have done with it.”
The calf tried to stand again. Her legs wobbled, buckled once, then found the proper balance. The calf took one, then two steps before stumbling again.
“My, it has gotten warm out here,” Donder noted. “To be honest, if I had known how special Rudolph would be, I would have chosen a different name. Crimson or Beacon or something.”
“Mr. Vixen and I will choose a name ourselves, thank you.”
The calf took another step closer to Vixen. Donder ignored her.
“Why not something like Mud Puddle? Or Porridge? Or Tap Water? Something juuuuuust right.”
Vixen knew she should have just ignored Donder, just walked away. But instead she bellowed and made two quick, galloping strides towards her, a warning shot, nothing more. Donder was ready. She lowered her antlers and thrust them at Vixen. Vixen lowered hers and the two clashed, tangling their heads together. They grunted and snuffed and stabbed at each other. Donder was the first to strike a blow, her antler cutting into Vixen’s shoulder. Vixen retaliated with a jab that just missed Donder’s eye. The other reindeer rushed over to watch. Blitzen took Vixen’s baby and shielded her from the fight. The battle lasted only a few moments before he came. The boss.
Claus stormed over, wearing mucking boots and denim overalls and hurtling curses at the two fighting reindeer.
“Fizzwinkle told me we had a birth! Not a street brawl. Donder―get off of her.”
The reindeer, compelled by Claus’s magic and by his liberal use of a whip, stepped back. Vixen was bleeding from her shoulder. Claus walked over to her and patted her fur.
“Are you hurt?” he asked. Vixen said no. She was, quite a bit, but would not show weakness before Claus.
“Is this the little one?” he asked, indicating the baby, and he knelt down to pet it. “It’s a beautiful―is anyone else warm here?”
All of the reindeer indicated that yes, it was quite warm. Claus laid his hands over the baby. His eyes widened.
“Fizzwinkle! Get over here!”
The kindly doctor ran over, carrying his trusty medical bag. When he reached the scene, though, he did not open it. He said one thing―
“My, what a warm day!”
Fizzwinkle and Claus ran tests on the baby. All of its vital signs were perfectly healthy. The baby was alert, and moving well for a one-day-old. But in a radius of about forty feet, a circle of heat radiated from the little creature. Both Claus and the doctor were sweating and they stripped off their top jackets. Away from the circle of heat, however, the temperatures were typical. Average. Normal.
“Astounding!” declared Doctor Fizzwinkle. “Truly remarkable. I’ve never―this is―”
Vixen strutted over to Donder.
“Donder, I’d like to introduce you to my daughter. Her name is Scorcher.”
Scorcher immediately became the most popular reindeer at the North Pole. Everyone liked to be near her. Claus had the elves make her a special bed so the calf could sleep in his office. And since Vixen spent so much time around Scorcher, her own stature raised as mother of the most popular reindeer.
Administrative changes came down, as well. The first of which was a rearranging of the reindeer order. While Lead Reindeer―Rudolph’s position―may have been most prestigious, Claus was intent on finding the perfect placement for Scorcher. Ten reindeer would be too many, too unwieldy. In fact, he really wanted to go back to the traditional eight reindeer, meaning two would have to go. Prancer, the oldest of the crew, had already tendered her resignation. So one of the reindeer would not make the annual trip this year. Rudolph with his nose so bright, would stay. So would Dasher, the strongest, and Comet, with her sense of direction. Of course Scorcher, the space heater, would fly. But Claus scrutinized the remaining reindeer to see which one would not make the cut.
It was Rudolph, after all, who made the decision for him.
The month was June, and the children were in the middle of the Reindeer Games. Contrary to popular belief, the Reindeer Games were not an opportunity for friendly play and social inclusion. They were a challenging, rigorous test of stamina and strength that allowed Claus to determine the fittest reindeer for the sleigh. And he did not hand out participation trophies. Rudolph had not been excluded in his first year because of his weird red nose; he had been excluded because he was a whiny, self-important runt.
Unlike Rudolph, however, Scorcher grew up tall and strong, and was right in the mix in her first year of Reindeer Games. She could run and jump as well as reindeer a year older than her. On the mock landing, when reindeer had to drop from the sky and touch down on a rooftop slanted at a forty-five degree angle, Scorcher did it perfectly on only her second try. Rudolph grumbled quietly, though not too quietly, that it was the result of all the special oats and carrots she was being given. His attitude worsened as the Games went on. Claus rebuked him repeatedly.
In the last event of the Games, each reindeer had to recite “Twas the Night Before Christmas” and then recreate every movement of the story. Rudolph completed the event, performing capably but saying “up the chimney he rode” instead of “up the chimney he rose.” Also, when he was on the lawn, the clatter he made arise was peremptory, as though he knew he didn’t have to be perfect to earn a spot on the the sleigh. Scorcher went next, and she was flawless. Even the oldest reindeer, who had played in eight or nine Reindeer Games and had seen it all, applauded as she swooped back from high in the air, landing up on the housetop next to Rudolph.
“Hey, hot stuff,” Rudy said to her, his voice low. “Some performance.”
“Thank you,” Scorcher said. “I practiced.”
“’Course you did. Cut it out. You’re making me look bad.”
Scorcher looked ahead, not speaking. She watched the next reindeer, who botched the “more rapid than eagles his coursers they came” line. Rudy nudged against her.
“Enjoy the applause, hot toddy. It won’t last. Once the others realize you’re just a furry radiator, they’ll ignore you. I’m the special one. The Most Famous Freaking Reindeer of All.”
Still, Scorcher ignored him, and he bumped her harder. Her footing remained steady. Rudolph leaned in close to her ear.
“No one else may think you’re special, but I’ll have my eye on you next mating season,” he said.
“Go away, Rudolph,” Scorcher said. “Go guide a sleigh tonight.”
This time, Rudolph shoved Scorcher hard, and she went tumbling down the side of the roof. She stood shakily, bruised but not seriously hurt. Rudolph’s nose started glowing.
Claus’s ruddy complexion became purple with fury. He pointed his whip at his Lead Reindeer.
“That’s it, Rudy! You’ve gone too far.”
“Am―Am I out?” Rudolph whimpered, his lip trembling, his eyes widening, his knees knocking.
“No,” Claus said. “But your mother is. She raised you to be like this, so she pays the price. Donder, you’re out.”
All of the reindeer were stunned. Claus leaned in to Rudolph.
“And I can replace you with an LED lamp anytime I want, kid,” he warned.
The rest of the year leading up to Christmas Eve was no typical year. Every reindeer on Santa’s sleigh, Donder included, made a visit to Doctor Fizzwinkle and his Swedish medical equipment. In August and September, mating season was filled with hopes and dreams of genetically enhanced reindeer babies taking to the skies. And on Christmas Eve, Rudolph and Dasher and Dancer and Scorcher and Comet and Cupid and Blitzen and Vixen took to the skies, with good old Saint Nick wearing a red tee-shirt and flip-flops.
Not only was Scorcher Claus’s new favorite reindeer, but she had turned out to be a much better kid than Rudolph. She was quiet and humble, and everyone liked her. She was even nice to Rudolph and Donder. Over that winter, Mr. Vixen died, as Vixen had expected. She was saddened for a time, and she wondered who she might mate with the next year. But Vixen made no more visits to Fizzwinkle. One special baby was enough. If more came, so be it, but part of her worried that she had started something that would grow out of control.
She was right. The next April, Doctor Fizzwinkle had his hands full.
Dasher gave birth to Titan, who was male but was triple the size and strength of even his own mother, who was the strongest reindeer of the sleigh.
Dancer gave birth to Stealth, a female. She emitted an electromagnetic field that made the sleigh nearly invisible to radar, the human eye, and the NORAD Santa Tracker.
Comet, who had a keen sense of direction, gave birth to Tomahawk, who could land the sleigh on a child’s dollhouse in a hurricane.
Cupid gave birth to twins named Flare and Glare. Reindeer twins almost never survive, but due to Fizzwinkle’s diligence and the genetic manipulation, Flare and Glare grew up healthy. Flare and Glare had been fathered by Rudolph, which was exactly the sort of scandal Claus feared when he introduced his first male reindeer to the sleigh. Little Flare and Glare were half the size of the other reindeer but had noses that nearly blinded them with brilliance.
Blitzen gave birth to Mensa, a little boy who did not socialize at all with other reindeer but was capable of memorizing astonishing lists. Lists, for example, of all of the billions of nice and naughty children in the world, saving Claus from endless paperwork.
Donder gave birth to Sparkle. Sparkle was an undersized male with no special traits, Rudolph with a normal nose.
That Christmas Eve, Vixen stood with Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Comet, Cupid, Donder, and Blitzen as they watched the sleigh hover a few inches over the ground while Claus made final preparations. None of them would fly this year, or ever again. Vixen was not surprised. All old reindeer end up grounded, in the end.
Vixen sidled over next to Donder. They did not speak. They had nothing to say to one another, good or ill. What was the point of arguing now?
Scorcher stood in the harness, waiting to take to the sky. She stood straight and poised. Vixen felt a flush of pride. That was her little girl up there. She glanced over at Donder, and saw the same expression of pride on her face. She was looking at her little boy up there. Someday, Vixen knew, even vaunted Rudolph would be off the team. So, someday, would her Scorcher. Every one of the special children would someday be replaced by a younger reindeer with even more astounding engineered genetic mutations. It was nature’s way. Vixen sighed, staring off into the cloudless starry sky, when Claus took his familiar seat, gripped the reins, and led the team into the air. And as the eight reindeer and the sleigh passed in front of the pearly moon, Saint Nicholas’s deep, sonorous call rang through the air:
“On Rudolph, on Titan, on Stealth and on Flare, on Scorcher, on Tomahawk, on Mensa and Glare. Now that’s what I’m talking ‘bout; this is my kind of flight! Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!”
About the Author
Adam Knight is a speculative fiction author and public school teacher in northern New Jersey. He has been published in a number of magazines and anthologies, and his first novel, a dystopian take on the education system titled “At The Trough,” is due out from NineStar Press in 2019.
About the Narrator
Tina Connolly is the author of the Ironskin and Seriously Wicked series, and the collection On the Eyeball Floor. She has been a finalist for the Hugo, Nebula, Norton, and World Fantasy awards. She co-hosts Escape Pod, narrates for Beneath Ceaseless Skies and all four Escape Artists podcasts, and runs the Parsec-winning flash fiction podcast Toasted Cake. Find Tina at tinaconnolly.com.
Her very first Escape Pod appearance was in #209, when “On the Eyeball Floor” was narrated by Norm Sherman.