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Christmas at the Three Letter Agencies

Air Traffic Control hates this night more than any other.

Granted, it’s Time and a Half for the shift, overworked at the best of times, directing Dreamliners and Airbuses on different bearings. Ensuring safe passage of last-minute holidaymakers though the London Upper Flight Information Region. Non-jolly souls fleeing the winter. British Airways 147, turn on heading 120˚. Easyjet 2401 climb to flight level 30. Qantas 111 with a faulty fuel gauge divert to Schipol. Each gets assigned a squawk code on handover. That last one is squawking a special code, 7600, for a minor technical failure. As they leave a region, each jet becomes someone else’s problem. Tension is normal, it’s a high-pressure job, where sometimes bad things happen. Squawk 7700 for an emergency. 7500 for the dreaded hijacking. But on this night, every year, the region is everywhere. No code exists for The Problem.

Local time is 11:55 UTC.

It hasn’t begun yet, but it will.

The Problem isn’t wake turbulence, a storm front moving in, nor even unexpected military traffic. It’s not even like that one time, unannounced, the launch of a Norwegian sounding rocket lit the boards red for every warning system in Europe. The Problem is all-encompassing, global, and unique to this night: December 24th.

Sure enough, in the stroke before midnight, an Airbus 340, Air France 891, radios ATC at Heathrow. Voice comms are in English as is all commercial radio traffic. A trail of red lights, just off to starboard, running on a parallel course at 38,000ft, with approximate ground speed of 550kts. ATC sees no corresponding transponder, no S-Band, no ADS-B. Not even a radar return, but the report is believed nonetheless. Separation rules are moot. Control Zones mean nothing.

It’s Him again.

Clear the airspace.

Santa’s Sleigh enters the UK Air Defence Region without a flightplan, or so much as a by-your-leave. No NOTAM – Notification to Airmen – is possible because every year his route differs. Two Typhoon F2s on the QRA5 alert, turbines already spooled up at the end of the runway for just this purpose, are scrambled out of RAF Coningsby. Flight Captain John Harrow eases the throttle forward: the fighter is unleashed. Then he shoves the throttle through the gate, igniting max reheat even before pulling back on the stick. Get to 38,000ft in a few minutes and escort The Problem out of the UKADR. Maybe even learn something. He angles the lead fighter’s FLIR, hunting for anomalous infra-red signals. They’ve been briefed on this scenario. Top secret. UK eyes only. The MBDA Meteor long range missiles on each wing pylon aren’t training articles either, they’re quite armed. It’s only prudent.

Harrow lines up an intercept approach. It’s there! He gains a lock, starts recording, just in time to see that characteristically odd three-second-long flicker the Sleigh does. Up until now only a privileged few have ever seen this, including himself on the same sortie seven years ago. A recording is a first! Vindication for Harrow, who’s always believed, and a small breakthrough getting infra-red data. Which means, for the jokers in Whitehall, a small nugget of classifiable intel for GCHQ.

Suck on that, NSA, look what we got. (The special relationship gets another straw.)

The flickering stops, meaning the Sleigh’s UK payload has been delivered in its entirely, in that one timeless instant. Santa rapidly accelerates through the transonic region, effortlessly breached in defiance of known aerodynamics. He reaches an estimated Mach 2.2 by the time he’s over the horizon.

The Typhoons stand down.

Some four hours later it’s the USA’s turn, as ever starting five minutes before local midnight. The CIA’s Foreign Technology Division has long wanted to bundle off Claus to a black site, had he not possessed control over… well they’re not exactly certain what he has control over. But they want it. From time to time the CIA gets a walk-in, some rando claiming to be an elf in human form. Nevertheless, a faction within the Company, off-books money in hand, invariably gives it a shot. Turn the guy into something akin to a double agent, then the “elf” smuggles an ADS-B transponder into the Sleigh, or preferably something a little more bespoke. Nothing has panned out yet. It’s not even the weirdest thing ever dreamt up at Langley.

Goddamn flight safety hazard, they tell the FAA, though in reality plotting the Sleigh on a map would enable its encouragement into one of “those” hangars at Groom Lake. A little reverse-engineering on the down-below wouldn’t go amiss. The CIA, as ever, could use advanced aerotech for its more daily machinations.

Something has to replace the long-retired SR-71.

Up in Washington, in the J. Edgar Hoover building, the FBI has a case file which has been open almost as long as it has existed. A small team in the basement, headed by the redoubtable Helen Cleaver, has just completed a three year effort working up a complete psychological profile of S. Claus. Santa is permanently jolly, and in the stoney-faced world of law enforcement, that unsettles them. He’s unlike any normal human they’ve ever dealt with.

A front? A facade?

What are the neurological underpinnings of being happy?

Based mostly from public-facing data, he fits into a category all by himself. Analysing his actions, working backwards, they try to predict his next move, but it’s always the same. Giving away presents for free – No obligation! – doesn’t break any current or proposed Federal Law, but it sure as hell doesn’t sit right. Cleaver, a capitalist hard-liner, believes it is an entrepreneur’s God-given right to make a profit. Free is anti-competitive. Un-American, even. So, the logic follows, the gifts are not actually free, but perhaps freemium? It’s an avenue to explore.

And, she thinks darkly, the obligation will surely come.

Milk and cookies be damned, someone at least get that sonofabitch trackable.

The Sleigh might be invisible to primary surveillance radar, but by God the FAA were going to plot him on a map. All ATC wants for Christmas is an Instrument Flight Rules approach. KRINGLE-1 is currently 60 miles out of McCarran, doing an estimated 900kts – thank you Bill Hayward and his keen gaze, from his Cessna 172 – and can’t be vectored through the usual air corridors. His report allows shadowing of the Sleigh with every F16 Holloman AFB has. A single sighting is about as much as they could hope for.

Even SIGINT with the Boeing RC-135 has never revealed much; so much for signals intelligence. It’s an eyeballs-only job, and wholly dependent on reports of strange lights and sounds in the midnight sky. This is about as effective as tracking flying saucers, of which more than one analyst in the CIA’s Technical Intelligence Division has noted the parallels: shifting in and out of reality, high-G manoeuvres, rapid bursts of acceleration, existing more as apparition than hardware, and with about as much disruption.

And that flickering when delivery is activated.

How ironic, if, with drones as popular gifts, Santa descended from controlled airspace to below 400ft and collides with last year’s presents.

Albert Gibson, one of the senior ATC controllers at McCarran International, saw a UFO once, though merely a flat uninspiring white dot in the distance. He’s read up on them ever since, hoping for a real-life replay of that opening scene in Close Encounters. Santa, on the other hand, is just an annual nuisance. Though he can’t help wondering about the similarities. How odd that 1950s flying saucers, when witnesses got on board, seemed to be craft controlled by mechanical levers. Tracking only the sophistication of the day, when elves co-incidentally only made simple wooden toys. These days making toys depends on 20 nanometre chip fabrication plants, and flying saucer encounters these days are all holographic displays and neural interfaces.

Alleged, of course, not proven.

But still.

Gibson’s in a flying saucer club, with dwindling membership. He reckons that tech is now getting so advanced, you probably couldn’t even recognise it. Show a man from 1900 a printed circuit board and it would look to him like nothing more than an artwork. Invisible. Pervasive. There’s a train of red lights in the sky, piloted by a jolly man in a red suit happening in the sky above him right now.

Houses aren’t built with chimneys anymore, Santa’s intrusion capabilities have more than kept pace with modern developments.

But he can’t quite bring himself to make the connections.

The FBI has a file on Gibson, however much of a stub it is, for his saucer club interests. But if they ever re-read it, along with the transcripts, they might suppose he has a solid point in amongst the dross. Chip fabrication plants are more suited to 21st Century China, and all the cutting edge gadgetry coming out of Shenzen. What need has the North Pole of anything comparable? It’s the FBI’s job to make connections, backed up by evidence.

Back in the 50s, the Feds fought big crime and big communism. Old-style Reds Under the Beds, common wisdom said, assumed their way of life should be mandatory. Ditto the Capitalists. So prevalent were the commies that they seemed to have infiltrated Hoover’s very eyeballs. Ideology permeates the Bureau from top to bottom. Even now, a filter of anti-communism layers over everything they see.

They follow the logic. President Reagan, legend has it, won the Cold War by enticing the USSR to spend money it couldn’t afford. To defend against military threats more illusion and pork barrel, than fully operational. What if, the theory goes, hard working parents are being drained of cash using the same stratagem? This is from your brother. This is from Auntie. And this best present of all which we can’t hope to match is from Santa, a charismatic cult leader, whom we love more than Mommy or Daddy.

Undermining the USA from beneath.

Free toys for kids, then, sounds like an angle. But why? A data-collection scam in support of an ideological movement? It’s gotta be that. Big Data in Toyland. Someone who inspires loyalty even above that of a nation state, even above the (God Bless) President. Cleaver’s theories are coalescing, but aren’t quite there yet. One thing is for certain, however.

It can’t be allowed to stand.

Gibson is right about one thing: Elves on Shelves, the latest evolution of the Christmas ontology, don’t have detectable tech, NFC chips and Bluetooth 4.0 and the like. In Ford Meade the NSA have a dedicated data centre purely for project KRAMPUS. So far the data-collection operation has focused on chat messages and emails to various network entities claiming to be Santa, or agents operating on his behalf. Kids, it has to be faced, are not known for their info-sec skills. And while the NSA are theoretically prohibited from — let’s call it metadata collection — on their homeland, well that still leaves the rest of the world. USA data can be got by the reciprocal agreement with GCHQ, who do much the same in the UK.

It’s not focus on decrypts the NSA can do in the face of this, as much as a vast pattern matching effort. Traffic analysis, with sophisticated point to point timing, shows something large and inviolable up at the North Pole where nothing should be, or can be seen. Tracing outwards from there shows a correlation between Elf on the Shelf physical locations (Amazon’s warehouse servers and purchase data have been thoroughly penetrated by another of NSA’s little side-projects) and information flow, but the analysis is still ongoing. Regardless, the North Pole needs a physical look.

The CIA has independently reached the same conclusion, but has so far failed to get an asset on the inside. Whatever operation is being run at the top of the world is cloaked so thoroughly in secrecy within a vast Hollywood propaganda operation, that it might as well not be there. Not in its true form, at least. Their stated mission, their vision statement, is to understand the world and the CIA gets twitchy when it doesn’t. Various Santa tracking websites exist, but they don’t tally with each other, and no solution has been found by leaning on the admins. Google is someplace they might think about running agents against. But are they really going to infiltrate NORAD — North American Air Defence by God — and all the potential blowback it might entail? NORAD has a Santa tracker which doesn’t line up with the sightings. Did they cut a deal? Are they being leaned on themselves? To deliberately pump out disinformation? Obfuscating Santa’s location seems suspicious to say the least.

With few infiltration options left, it’s at least it’s on the table.

A shame, then, that the three letter agencies don’t really trust – or even talk – to each other. The CIA has a handle on the tech, the FBI on the motivation, the ATC on actual sighting data. Now Aaron Black, a junior in the NSA, scotch in one hand, mouse in the other, is digitally stalking his estranged kid. All the surveillance tech at Fort Meade, which he’s absolutely not supposed to take home with him, allows him to almost know as much about little Aaron Junior as Amazon does.

He darkly contemplates all manner of mischief the supersecret Tailored Access software could do to make Perfect New Dad’s life hell. Aaron Junior puts an Elf on the Shelf in front of the webcam, blocking the view. Beady elven eyes peer back at him, just as the network intrusion detection app goes apeshit.

He slams the laptop lid closed, a cold sweat forming.

If he ain’t on duty, he ain’t obliged to report it.

Gibson, back in the ATC, has noticed an anomaly. Something’s coming in on the 110 MHz frequency. The rest of ATC controllers look at each other, exhausted from the workload of getting hundreds of flights safely on the ground. Nothing else is in the air. He checks his watch. Oh two hundred Zulu time, the small hours of the morning. All the normal parents are asleep, the kids will be anything but. He knows his own daughter will be counting the minutes, the seconds, until morning.

“Ho ho ho,” comes the signal. Voice comms.

This has never happened before.

It’s spillage, it must be, some kind of leakage from a side-channel. Some prank. But the message isn’t meant for them. Santa Claus – the real one on the real Sleigh, not a mall simulacrum – is broadcasting to his acolytes for the first time in his long history. All the Elves on Shelves, tracking just one tech level up from human, become active relays for his Christmas message. Everything is in place.

And Santa’s message to the world’s adoring children is simply…



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