I've been here three months now, and I still haven't decided what my Astrogation Thesis is going to be about. Prof. Jordan harrumphs about this every time he sends a data burst - which I thankfully receive only once a week. Whenever he prefaces a sentence with "Now then, William, it's time to make a decision..." I know the usual lecture on my future, career, commitment, and profitability, is in the offing. I'll get to it, I'll get to it, but at the moment, it's more fun just exploring the outpost and the Moon's surface. So much junk is stored here - left behind no doubt by those who wanted to keep some of history intact for future use. I suppose the novelty will wear off soon enough, but I'm enjoying the freedom now. As long as I do my caretaker chores, the Foundation is happy.
I was having a great time in Section C one afternoon, going through some old plascrete crates full of something called 'books'. At least that was what the label on the crate read. The contents were blocky and short, and stacked neatly inside. They smelled kind of musty though. Old, like the inside of well used space suits - only cleaner somehow. A moment of consideration and heavy thinking produced a solution to my puzzlement: these were paper products. I shivered in distaste, and nearly dropped the one I was holding. It fanned open. Bound sheets of fine white stuff, neatly covered with tiny text, flapped back at me. I fingered one in awe: these were once part of a living tree. Paper manufacture was one of a myriad of things that ultimately caused the creation of this outpost, Earthwatch Prime, in the first place. I felt like I was touching the distant chaotic past.
I must tell Jen about this, I thought. She's a rapt audience when I wax lyrical about my 'finds': like most of us - craving for all things 'Earth'. Besides, even with two light-years distance between us, I'd much rather talk to her than the Professor. She's much prettier, and funnier than he. Jen's also a lot smarter than I am, and knows exactly what she wants out of life. Professor Jordan adores her for that fact alone. I thought it was rather nice of him to assign her to be my tutor two years ago. And believe me, I've been availing myself of every opportunity to get ahead - one way or another.
As I carefully replaced the artifact in its receptacle, a splurge of color caught my eye. I gingerly plucked another blocky volume from the crate and inspected it. There was a small inset picture, but it didn't look real. Painted perhaps? They did things like that back then, or so I'm told. The little 'painting' was primarily dark blue with white speckled all over it. Damage? Ash? I gently wiped a forefinger over it, but it didn't come off, and the surface was not pitted. It must really be part of the picture, I surmised. There was a structure with a sharply inclined roof, all lit up from inside, and something long in the sky behind it. I looked at it for a long time, but couldn't make believable sense of it, so I turned my attention to the label. The script was so ornate, that it was even more difficult to fathom. After some minutes, I managed to decipher "T'was The Night Before Christmas".
"Who, or what, is Christmas?" I mused aloud.
I had my hand on the edge of the book ready to open the cover to find out, when a klaxon alarm sounded overhead. A very loud klaxon alarm. It nearly deafened me. The voice of the main computer was even louder still.
"INTRUDER ALERT! INTRUDER ALERT! MAIN AIRLOCK! INTRUDER ALERT!
It took a bare second to put the book back into its crate and seal it in. Taking a deep breath, I yelled into the air. 'Turn the alarm off, you stupid computer! I'm the only one here, for Earth's sake! You've got my attention!" By then, I was running for the station control room, via the weapons locker, and to the main airlock. All the while, my mind was turning over worst-case scenarios. Had the supply ship turned up a month early? Was someone shipwrecked on the Moon's surface outside the station? Raiders?
"Computer, scan occupants of airlock. Keep it sealed! Give me details." I puffed out loud. Damn, I've gotta get more exercise.
"ONE HUMANOID BIPED AND NINE SMALLER QUADRAPEDS. THE VEHICLE OUTSIDE THE AIRLOCK IS OF UNKNOWN ORIGIN AND CONTAINS AN UNIDENTIFIABLE POWER SOURCE. THERE ARE INTER-DIMENSIONAL IRREGULARITIES."
Oh, great! Pity the Computer couldn't understand sarcasm, or I'd let fly with a few choice witticisms. Its description told me bloody little. Could it be Scumvrates - aliens from the Orion Sector? I was glad to have grabbed a plasma rifle instead of the skimpier stunner. Those reptilian rats were a bugger to knock out. The biped puzzled me, though: irony curled my lip, and I wondered if they'd brought an interpreter along with them. Sure, they like to be polite when they trash a place on a grab and run operation. Earthwatch was an official 'ark' site and protected by all the worlds in the commonwealth. Those Scumvrate bastards were just looking for trouble, and they were really, really going to find it.
I finally came to a slithering halt before the airlock door. Something big was blocking the window of the inner hatch, and an ominous pounding from the other side of it reached my ears.
"Okay, Computer. Close and seal the Ready Room behind me." I hefted the rifle to the ready over a makeshift barricade. "Open the inner airlock door."
Assorted hisses and clangs announced that my orders were being obeyed. Last of all, the airlock door 'fzzzzzzzztd' open.
A big red something snarled in the opening. "Well, it's about time!" Nine small furry heads with sticks on top framed the doorway around it, bad-tempered curiosity written on every face. One seemed to be in ill health, as its nose was demonstrably red.
Well, they weren't Scumvrates. Not even a close second. What filled the airlock was absolutely ludicrous. The giant in the red coat and trousers, and the silly hat - all trimmed in fluffy white stuff - was human. Tall, weighed about three hundred pounds, and grumpy as hell. Worse, he spotted me. I suppose he couldn't help it really: I'd stupidly risen from the barricade and stood transfixed with my mouth hanging open. Was this some kind of joke?
"You!" The red and white individual bellowed, advancing on me. He brushed the barricade and my rifle aside, and grabbed me by the suit-front. I felt myself lifted up off the floor until I stood on tippy toes. Yes he was definitely human: an iron grip, burly hands, biceps of steel, chubby red cheeks, long white beard, blazing angry eyes, smelling of candy.
And he'd arrived without a spacesuit. So had his little friends. Damn. Something was way out of sync', here.
The red-clad one was yelling again. Remotely, I thought I'd better pay attention.
"...Where are they? Where did they go?"
"Wh...who? I'm the only one supposed to be here." Despite the shaking he was giving me, I thought I'd mastered that rather well.
"Not here, you blockhead! On Earth! The planet's empty! Not one single soul is down there!" He shook me one more time, just to get the point across, then he let me go.
Rocking back and forward on my feet, trying to gain some balance, I just stared at him. He must be mad, or something. "Sir," no sense in being disrespectful is there? "There hasn't been a human living on Earth for the last two hundred years. Preservation policy forbids it."
The intruder looked stricken. "Are you the only one left, then? You poor soul." He then covered his eyes with his meaty hands and groaned. He appeared genuinely distressed. I ventured a wary hand to pat the broad red expanse of his shoulder.
"A question woke me. I've slept far too long." He murmured from behind his hands. "Too long."
Feeling bold, I patted his shoulder again. "Sir, who are you?" I asked quietly. I certainly didn't want to rile him up again.
The old man, if that is what he was, stared into my eyes for a very long moment, then at his own attire, and at his creature companions. Finally he turned back to me with infinite sadness in his eyes, and whispered. "You don't know?"
I slowly shook my head.
The intruder wiped a hand across his eyes, and his shoulders sagged in defeat. "There have been many names for me over the eons, but you can call me Kris. I'm sorry to have been such a boor, but the silence down there was nigh deafening when I awoke. All I heard was someone asking "who, or what is Christmas?"
I very nearly choked. No! It couldn't be! It was impossible. Wasn't it? So was a human not requiring a spacesuit on the surface of the Moon. I didn't even want to think about the creatures he'd brought with him. I was flabbergasted. "Sir? I asked that self-same question only minutes ago."
The old man brightened visibly. "At least my internal direction finder is still working."
There was more mystery here than met the eye, and I found myself wanting more and more to hear his story. I smiled. "Perhaps you had better come inside, then. I guess I could use the company."
It probably seemed a foolish move, inviting the old guy into the station like that, but curiosity had me by the scruff of the neck and wasn't about to let go. Inexplicably, a part of me felt like a naughty child feeling the first thrill of the unknown, and another felt like I was rolling in cotton candy.
Kris beamed. "Well, thank you kindly, young man." He reached back into the airlock and fetched out a rather large, lumpy red sack, and then shooed all the little creatures out into the spaciousness of the Ready Room proper. "Out you come, kiddies. It looks like we've been invited to supper. "
They didn't look so fierce, now, in the full light. It seemed that what I'd taken to be sticks, were actually branching, pointy, bony structures attached to their furry heads. If you got too close though, it was possible to lose an eye. I fervently hoped that the computer could produce something for them to eat.
After I'd introduced myself, our little group proceeded up to the living areas on level two. As we strolled along, I noticed Kris admiring the walls of the corridors and the many technological fixtures with something akin to puzzled bewilderment. "You have an interesting...er, house...here, William." He ventured finally. He appeared almost relieved when we reached the living quarters and oversized lounge area.
We took seats at the dining table, while the little creatures, or reindeer as he called them, went off to investigate the furnishings. I winced, and hoped they wouldn't chew on anything important or needful, like life-support or gravity grids.
"Can I get you something to eat or drink? The food's not great, but it's edible." I turned back to my guest and offered with a smile, spreading my hands.
Kris chuckled. "Well, I never leave home without a supply of vittles. What say I furnish the feast, to make up for my earlier misbehavior?"
This I had to see. "Sure."
The old man took off his hat and tucked it into the pocket of his coat, which he then removed and hung over the back of his chair. Suspenders held up his red trousers, under which he wore a white, long-sleeved jersey. He looked like someone's grandfather from any backwoods planet out in the galactic rim - though somewhat cleaner. Kris happily rubbed his hands together and rummaged in his sack. What emerged was a huge woven hamper, and the smells emanating from it instantly made my mouth water. Out of the sack, he also took a large red cloth and laid it over the table. From the hamper, he began to pull an almost endless progression of hot goods and platters, identifying them for me as he laid them on the table. After a moment, the memory of the computer's assessment of 'inter-dimensional irregularities' began to take on a deeper meaning. Nearly as deep as the food hamper. I seriously entertained the thought that Kris had a tiny wormhole in there, feeding him. One that small could probably make several fortunes for the creator. I angled my head, trying to see inside it.
I rubbed the back of my hand where Kris had smacked it with a metal spoon. I hadn't realized I'd reached for the hamper at all, until that stinging thwack. How did one roast a pot anyway, I grumped, getting back to his culinary litany? Something stirred in the back of my mind, and I vaguely wondered what it would take to make Kris part with his hamper. If the Moon had a title deed of ownership, and I had access to it just then, I'd probably offer it to the old guy in exchange for that innocent looking basket. Not only would it be an answer to my career and success, but it would possibly feed me for the rest of my life, as well. Somehow though, I don't think Kris would accept the offer - he didn't seem to need or want anything at all, except maybe companionship.
I sighed and shook my head, as Kris finally brought out a steaming red jug and two red mugs. He appeared to really identify with that color. Each to his own, I guess.
"And at last, Eggnog." He announced with a flourish. Filling both mugs, he presented one to me then appeared to think for a moment. "What's the date?" He inquired.
"Hmm, GM 837 - 20th, I think." I replied, sniffing cautiously at my mug. Then I caught him staring blankly at me. "Oh! Computer, what's today's date - old Earth calendar?"
ACCORDING TO OLD EARTH STANDARD CALENDAR, TODAY IS 24TH DECEMBER, OF THE YEAR 3604.
Kris seemed to beam, twinkle and sparkle all at once, he was so pleased. "Perfect!" He announced. "Merry Christmas, William!" And with that, the old man drained his mug.
I took a sip of mine, and then a deeper mouthful. Grief, that was good! I let him refill the mug again, before asking, "Is this it? Is this what Christmas is?" I indicated the laden table with an unoccupied hand.
"Ohh, ho, ho, no." My companion chuckled. "It all began for humanity a very long time ago. Would you like to hear about it?"
I thought he'd never ask! I nodded eagerly, but had to wait while he fed the reindeer, before Kris settled back in his chair.
"Well, now. I've been around a mighty long time. I slept in the Earth with many other spirits of my kind, only going out into the world, now and then, between times. One event, or another would waken us, or humans would get too loud in their dealings, and we'd have to take steps. Well there came a time when a child was born. A very special child, on a very special night, a very long time ago in a small town called Bethlehem...."
I listened, totally entranced, while the old man wove an oral history of the human race. I was unashamed of the tears that laid silent tracks on my cheeks when he told of the death of that special child, and what it had portended for humanity. The journey had begun then, and was still in progress - only we didn't know it. He made it sound real, and worthy, and mighty in spirit.
Kris went on to explain how Christmas came to be: "I woke one evening to find a man dying in the snow. His name was Kris Kringle, and he had a mighty errand to perform, but an accident made sure that this would never happen. He was crying out in despair with his body and soul - and that is why I heard him. He died there, while I held his hand, and I comforted him with the promise that I would finish his errand for him. So I became him for that night, and I delivered the items in his sack. It was a pitifully easy thing to do, but I distributed every wrapped package to every intended recipient, and then some. And I must say, that I enjoyed it so much that I got a bit creative with giving the humans in the village things to treasure: even if it was just a memory, or a smile, or enough to eat. Anyway, I listened in the next day - a day in celebration of the birth of that child I mentioned before, incidentally - and how they mourned when the body of the real Kris Kringle was discovered in the forest. I read in the minds of some of the people of how they vowed to see Kris's sacrifice and compassion kept alive the next year, by doing the same thing in his honor. I was touched. They did it too, you know. I checked, and helped where I could, and whispered suggestions into specific ears. It became a habit after that, I suppose. One I really didn't want to break. And I became stronger as the rumor of the event spread across the continent and the seas, and people helped keep it alive by giving to those they loved, and helping those in need." Kris stopped briefly. "How's the turkey, son?"
I looked down at my plate, at the inroads I'd made into the feast. Once I'd gotten past the anatomical resemblance the 'turkey' had to a semi-intelligent alien species on a planet in the Interior, I'd tucked in with gusto. Where did one get such food that tasted so good and looked so exotic? I finally looked back up and grinned. "Tastes like chicken."
"I'm not surprised!" Kris rolled his eyes and harrumphed a bit.
I blinked a bit in shock. Did he really know what 'chicken' tasted like, let alone what it was? That old adage was a running joke where I came from, and usually alluded to 'I don't know for sure, but it tastes great.' I gazed at my companion with new respect, as he got on with his story.
"It was fine for many years", he said: then his voice grew more somber. "But progress shot forward in both technological, and spiritual senses. Over time, the meaning and spirit of what Christmas was really about, got lost." Kris looked very tired and old just then. "When this happened, I slept longer and longer, and then didn't wake up at all. Rapid change just took over, and people forgot in all the rush." He looked up at me and smiled. "And then you asked your question, and I woke up and came looking for you."
"Wow." It was all I could manage just then. The magnitude of his story made me feel very small. I looked Kris over for a very long moment, absorbing his costume and accoutrements. Finally, I just had to ask: "Kris, have you always looked like you do now?"
The big guy chuckled his peculiar ho-ho-ho-ing laugh. "No, William. I change with people's perceptions and with their fashionable trends. Thankfully, they've let me keep my beard, and sent me Rudolph to lead the reindeer team in recent years." He averred fondly - the little creature with the ruddy nose wandered over and nuzzled his hand before bounding off again. Kris drew himself up to his full awesome height, and sniffed disdainfully. "What's wrong with red anyway? I like it very much."
I laughed. "It's a grand color, Kris. And it suits you very well. Hmm, I guess I should tell you what happened while you slept."
The old man sat forward with an eager expression on his red cheeks. "That would be most gratifying, William. Yes, please."
"Well, probably several centuries after you went into your long sleep, the Earth was starting to really deteriorate physically. Overpopulation, pollution, and waste took its toll, and it started to die. Not as many children were born each year, species of animals and plants disappeared, and so on. The ecology couldn't keep up under the onslaught of humanity's foibles, no matter how much we tried to fix it. It was too little, much too late."
A sudden bleakness crossed my companion's features at these disclosures. I felt his discomfort enough to ask what was wrong.
"No wonder I had no energy and couldn't wake up." He noted broodingly. "If Earth was dying, then so were we."
I took 'we' to mean the fellow spirits he mentioned earlier. It was hard to swallow around the sudden lump in my throat. And I thought I knew helplessness. Now I knew better. Kris waved me to continue after a moment.
"Well, we'd managed to formulate wider ranging exploratory spaceflight by that stage, and the world government decided to try to co-opt everything into extending our reach by promoting colonial settlements on other worlds. The discovery of temporary wormholes in the space-time continuum, and the development of the Ellison Drive enabled us to travel farther and faster than we ever had before. Control was a bit wild at first, but the scientists eventually got it under control, under budget and viable. Short high energy bursts and a tame wormhole got the first interstellar spaceship out of the solar system, and to a planet in the Orion Belt. We called it Gaia - the rest is history. Worldgov' evacuated the Earth, and put a satellite cordon around it, forbidding landing there. On the planet surface, teams spent twenty years replanting anything they could lay their hands on, and cloning animals to be released. Then the homeworld was left on its own to regenerate. That was nearly two hundred years ago. It'll be another four hundred or so before the Commonwealth government lets anyone move back home again. This station, Earthwatch Prime, was built here on the Moon to house some of the artifacts from planetside, and to monitor the status of re-growth progress." I tied up my nutshell version of Earth history, and smiled at my guest. I was startled to find Kris gazing at me in stunned amazement.
"You mean you're not the only human left? That there're more of you?" He demanded, echoing his earlier belligerence.
"No, no, no! Humans just moved out for the duration! The central seat of government is on Gaia - where I was born. There are at least 12 billion, or so, of us spread across twenty-nine worlds. I'm just on contracted assignment as Caretaker here for a year, so I can finish studying for my Astral Navigation degree." I spread my hands in apology, for letting him think that humans had died out. Oh, grief!
"Well," he mused thoughtfully, after a few calming breaths, "It explains why I can't hear them, and maybe why Christmas has been forgotten."
I had an inspiration about then. "But it's such a beautiful story, and you have to tell it again: to anyone who will listen. Look, how do you feel about public speaking? My professor at Gaia Central University could help you reach people. Earth history and culture is very, very popular among the worlds - everyone dreams of one day going 'home', even though they never can. Humans aren't as long lived as you obviously are. Maybe you could bring the story to them. Then you'd hear 'them' - the people - again."
Kris appeared to be thinking it over, methodically stroking his beard while he did so. His blue eyes blazed with sharp speculation. "How far is it, to this Gaia?"
"If you had no problem getting here on the strength of a question, then I'd say that you'd have no problem getting there, or anywhere else. How do you navigate?" I pressed eagerly.
"By thoughts and feelings - the stronger the better. I believe that I find thoughts on Christmas to be the best pin-pointers. I sort of browse around when I get where-ever it is I arrive at." Kris supplied, catching some of my excitement. "I'll do it." He finished firmly, grinning, and swatted me on the back with one of his meaty paws.
The impact nearly threw me off my feet. Rubbing the offended spot, I half grimaced, half grinned back at him. He'd be all right.
"Good, I'm going to send you to a friend who is a caretaker on another station, and then she will send you on to Gaia, and the Professor." Plans ran wild in my head. Even the reindeer must have caught on to it, because they milled around us excitedly, butting gently with their horns, er, antlers.
Kris and I shook hands on it, beaming at each other.
"I will have to return to Earth periodically, to renew my energy with it, and to sleep." He said gravely. "Would you mind if I dropped in to visit you now and then?"
I grinned. "Not at all. It would break up my study quite nicely. Besides, it gets to be too quiet here, some days. Please come, you'll be very welcome."
Kris half-turned and snapped a crisp command at the table. The hamper rose on four spindly legs, and stepped neatly over the debris of our feast. Its large handle split into two and became arms ending with hands and long dexterous fingers. They deftly shoved platters and things back into its open maw. I still couldn't see the wormhole inside, and I wondered if it was because my eyes were bulging so hard they hurt. I tried very hard not to have hysterics just then.
While Kris oversaw this operation, I excused myself and quickly ducked down to the hydroponics dome. When I came back, I'd finally gotten my sanity under control, and I presented him with something. It was a transparent plastic tube filled with soil from Earth, some leaves and twigs and pebbles: a little bit of everything. I had tied a flower to it with a bit of long grass. I felt a bit awkward, and shuffled a bit in explanation. "It's from Earth. So you can take a little bit of it with you, when you go away. Merry Christmas, Kris."
He looked gobsmacked, and very touched. When he suddenly hugged me, I think he surprised both of us. I felt slightly ashamed of my earlier covetous thoughts about his food hamper.
"Merry Christmas, William. And thank you."
"You get ready to go, and I'll call Jen." I wasn't even going to try to explain all this to her. Let her find her own adventure. For the life of me, I couldn't stop smiling.
Kris was soon back outside the airlock, settled into his vehicle, strange as is was, and all the little reindeer were nestled into their harness, with the red-nosed one in front. Funny, I could see his little nose glowing very brightly even from the control-room window.
I called Jen.
"Hi Will, how're things?" Came her cheerful voice over the vid-com. "Studying hard?"
"Are you?" I grinned back. Aside from being my tutor, Jen was also a fellow classmate at Gaia U. - studying for her astrogation thesis. The only thing different was, she knew exactly what to write for hers. Jen's current tenure away from Uni' was a beacon point space station - hence the two-light-year distance. "Listen, I'm sending you a visitor. He's really nice and quite harmless, but he's got one hell of a story. I really think you'd get a kick out of hearing it."
Jen's face looked out at me with a quizzical expression that clearly said: "am I going to regret this?" Her puzzlement cleared, and her mouth made an 'o' shape when I added: "It's about Earth."
Then we got to the silly bit. I took a deep breath, and went on. "Okay, I need you to close your eyes and think hard about something you've always wanted, but never got. Now, say this: what is Christmas? Repeat it." Taking my eyes off Jen parroting my words, I saw Kris give me a 'thumbs up'.
His 'ship' swooped spaceward and disappeared in a flash of white light. What wouldn't I give to write a thesis about that? I longed wistfully after the magic hamper for a moment, and then smiled, ever practical. I probably wouldn't have been able to figure out how it worked on my own anyway. And I was still kind of dealing with its sudden sprouting of appendages.
When I looked back at the vid-screen, Jen's image was gazing out at me in exasperation. I heard a sudden bang and clatter from her end of the line, and saw her duck.
"Crap! Something just landed on the control-room roof!" She frantically threw back at me. Then her gaze was drawn off to the side by something. Her control room window, I hazarded. Jen's mouth dropped open. "Gack!! He's not wearing a space-suit!"
"Jen! Jen!" I had to call her several times to get her attention. She finally responded, wide-eyed. "It's okay, really." I told her. "Send him on to Prof. Jordan when he wants to leave. Merry Christmas, love. Call me later." With that, I smiled and ended the transmission.
Then I got quietly drunk - happy, but drunk.
When I staggered out into the dining area the next morning, I found a small pile of packages, a little tree with colored balls on it, and a hot jug of eggnog on the table. Sipping the eggnog from a familiar red mug, I opened the packages. There were a number of data chip texts with titles like "Wormholes for Dummies", "Transdimensional Travel" and an "Inter-dimensional Irregularities and Wormhole Travel: Theory and Practice" by one Kris Kringle; a real book like the one down in Section C, labeled "A Christmas Carol", and some music discs tagged 'Christmas Carols'. Grinning to myself, I began thinking about my next data-burst to Professor Jordan, and my decision to write my thesis on 'Inter-dimensional Irregularities and Travels As Used by a Christmas Spirit." Prof. Jordan probably wouldn't believe me at first, but changing that would only be a matter of time. I raised my mug and toasted the Earth rising over the Moon horizon in the dining room window.
"Merry Christmas, old girl. It seems that there's hope for us yet."