To celebrate the season and to make up for my long (very, very long) neglect of this blog, I decided to offer up a little story I wrote a few years back about Christmas in space. It was supposed to be under 1,000 words but I never quite managed it. However, it’s still short and sweet and might help get you in the mood if, like me, you’re feeling a tad grinchy.
The Longest Night
At midnight, we sat down for breakfast. Despite eternal darkness and round the clock shifts, I couldn’t get used to it. Think of it as second noon, I told myself, to no avail. I was tired and I wanted to sleep, but the night was only beginning. The sun wouldn’t be up for, oh, let’s see, five months?
I slept, I ate, I worked, I watched videos, I slept. Without the rise and fall of the sun, my life melded into one seamless pattern of motion, non-motion, do, not do. I didn’t feel alive, much less like celebrating.
“Do you know what day it is?” Marissa asked, oblivious to the irony, and also forgetting she’d asked me this question, albeit with slight modifications, about a dozen times.
“It’s not day, it’s night,” I said, feeling mulish and out of sorts. She made a raspberry noise with her lips. Do you have any idea how annoying this is to hear every night for two weeks? I wanted to grab her lips with all of my fingers and squish them into a lip taco.
“Winter Solstice,” she said, beaming.
“The shortest day of the year? Do you know how much that cheers my heart?”
“It’s the beginning of the new year, Tweedle Dum,” she said, snitching a baco-stick from my plate and popping it in her mouth. And to think I used to find her attractive.
“Only 250 days until sunrise,” Jarvis said from his end of the table. He was pissed too. I was starting to get an inkling the shrinks had underestimated the long term effects of sunlight deprivation.
Sure we had all the happy lights and bird song and videos of sunny places and sunrise simulators and starry night stickers above our bunks. Sure none of it helped. Not any more. They’d warned me to stop looking at my earth time display. I couldn’t help it. I was addicted to the mere thought of night and day, the vague idea that somewhere, the sun was rising.
“I made cookies,” Marissa said, and Jarvis and I stared at her like she was insane. Maybe she was. Isn’t it always the smiling ones who go first?
“What . . ?” I struggled with the question. I used to say ‘what on earth?” but that had become so far removed from our reality that it felt stupid. “What did you use to make cookies?” I managed to ask. Jarvis actually looked up from his plate, concern pulling his eyebrows together.
“You guys act like I said I’d made a hydrogen bomb, for chrissakes,” Marissa snapped, her cheery outlook slipping. “There’s bread mix. There’s chocolate and sugar substitutes. It’s really not a big deal.”
“How did you cook them?” I asked, intrigued. Her smile came back and she pushed away from the table, stood up, and walked to the other end of the galley.
“I took a piece of metal sheeting–”
“From our roofing supplies,” Jarvis snapped.
“And a couple of the back-up happy lamps, like so.” She pulled the items out of a cabinet. Jarvis and I shot out of our chairs to investigate. Proudly, Marissa pulled back light aluminum from a flat roofing sheet. We stared down at blackened bread mix shaped into lumpy checker-sized clumps.
“That’s swell, Marissa,” Jarvis said, and we exchanged a look laden with fear. Suddenly, we didn’t feel so lucky to not be out with the rest of the crew, checking on the sensor array.
“I blended water with calcium powder to replicate milk,” she said, oblivious to our horror.
A loud thump on the outside of the dome distracted all of us. The cookie sheet clattered to the counter.
“What the hell was that?” we three asked simultaneously.
“Check the blipper,” I said, but Jarvis was already there.
“Nothing,” he reported.
Three more bangs. This time more localized, as if something large hit against the exterior doors over and over.
“It sounds like . . .”
“What?” I snapped at Jarvis, who looked at Marissa, who looked at me.
“Like someone’s knocking,” she said.
“That is the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard you say and that’s saying a lot,” I said.
“I’m just saying-”
“Well, don’t.” I marched over to the console and double-checked all the readings. Nothing out of the ordinary on the comp-cam.
We ran through possibilities while the banging continued, or at least Jarvis and I did. Marissa seemed to have gone off the deep end, merely staring at the doors. We ignored her and this gave her the opportunity to lose her mind completely. She’d initiated the opening sequence before we realized.
“What the hell-!” I shouted.
A shape stumbled in, a person shape.
“-are you doing?” I finished more quietly.
“It’s a . . .”
From out of the frozen, poisonous waste that was our home, a human being stumbled in. Or what looked human, because no oxygen breathing life form could survive outside for more than a minute, and we’d detected no vehicle, no ship, nothing.
It wore a long, burgundy tarp with a synthetic fur trim, a hood over its head, a thin and scraggly beard hanging down its front. It slumped in and threw a bag on the floor, then fell into a chair. It pushed back the hood, and still looking every bit like a terran man, it rubbed its face.
“Man, it’s been a long night,” he said, looking at us for the first time.
“So, Jarvis,” I said, turning to my co-worker, “I seem to be hallucinating. What do you think Marissa put in those cookies?”
“You didn’t even eat any!” she yelled, then went back to staring at my hallucination and chewing her thumbnail.
“Sorry, Mac, I see it too.”
“So where are the freakin’ cookies?” the man asked, squinting at our bright lights.
“The cookies. You think I came all this way to bring your naughty ass a present?”
Marissa nearly fell over getting the sheet of jaw breakers. She slapped them down in front of him and whispered, “There’s milk too.”
He looked with baleful eyes at her offering. “Christ,” he muttered.
“Hey,” Jarvis stammered, “She worked hard on those.”
“I know. Why do you think I’m here? My reindeer will all need reshodding after this.” He glumly lifted a cookie and bit into it. We all winced at what sounded like teeth cracking. As he chewed, I realized I stood slack-jawed and useless while some sort of alien entity had his way with our cookies, with our station. It might be mind control. I couldn’t think. I watched him finish the entire cookie, then slurp from a tube of milky water.
He wiped his mouth with his sleeve and belched. “Worst cookie I ever ate,” he announced. “Before I forget,” he leaned over and dug through his bag. “Here you go sweetheart, knock yourself out.” He handed Marissa a flat package, wrapped in shiny gold paper. It even had a bow on it, though crushed. “You’re my last stop. Thank you folks, it’s been real.” With that he slung his bag over his shoulder and left, through our impenetrable, computer locked and laser sealed doors.
My earth-time watch clicked off a second, and another.
“What just happened?” I asked.
“Open it!” Jarvis exclaimed, excited as a boy.
“No, it’s not safe,” I heard myself mutter.
Marissa pressed the package to her chest. “I think I’ll save it for morning,” she said.