by Michael Kingswood
If someone had told Brian’s 8-year old self that he would one day be outside the world fixing Santa Claus, he would have laughed and called him crazy.
But then, when he was 8 years old Brian hadn’t really had a notion that there really was an outside of the world. It wasn’t until he was a teenager, and the lower deck areas of the world were opened to him, that he was first able to look outside, through a small viewing port in the floor, and see the majesty of the stars that his teachers had told him about for so long but that he had never truly believed actually existed until then.
From then on, he’d wanted to be one of the lucky few who got to go on EVAs, to repair and maintain the world’s external systems. And he had.
And now, here he was, breathing recycled air that carried a hint of peppermint instead of the usual sweet-sour of the EVA suit’s scrubbers—it was Christmas Eve, after all—and approaching a red-painted sleigh, festooned with golden jingle bells and apparently pulled by 8 annoyed-looking reindeer simulacrums as it tumbled helplessly through the void of space. A large, red-coated man simulacrum seated in the driver’s seat of the sleigh flailed his right robotic arm uselessly, while its left remained completely motionless. And Brian knew immediately what the problem was.
He fired a quick burst from the maneuvering pack that he had strapped on around the waist of his suit, and his approach velocity, displayed in green text on the lower right of his facemask, slowed to just over a meter per second. Then he nudged with his chin on the transmit key for his comms array.
“EVA Delta Four, approaching Kringle.”
There was a burst of static, and then Brian heard a female voice in his left earbud. Sounded like Stacy, the new girl in the comms division. “Roger that, Brian. What’s his status?”
Brian grinned. He hadn’t worked with Stacy too many times, but every time he did, the warm cheeriness of her voice lifted his spirits a bit. “Looks like a bad actuator in his left arm. Should be an easy fix.”
“But why would that throw him off course so bad the auto-shutdown kicked in?”
Brian couldn’t stop from laughing over the comms circuit, even though it was a violation of regs. “You haven’t dealt with procurement much, have you?”
As he spoke, he noted the range to Kringle, displayed on the lower left of his facemask. Then he fired another quick burst and reached out with his left hand.
It seemed he should be able to take hold of the jinglebell-lined reigns leading from Kringle’s seat to the first reindeer pair right now, but he knew from experience distances could be deceptive out here. He opened his hand and waited, as his residual momentum carried him the rest of the way in.
“Kringle’s thrust controller is on his right. Attitude controller on his left. His belly’s too big for cross control, and no one ever installed backups.”
“Wish I was.”
The reigns impacted Brian’s glove and he grabbed hold. The last of his momentum carried the rest of him gently into the side of the tumbling sleigh, and for a moment, Brian twisted halfway around. He winced as the flexion on his left arm made the seam of his suit dig into the meat of his shoulder, and bit back a curse.
That shouldn’t have happened; he hadn’t checked the fit well enough before he went out.
Stupid. But there was no help for it now. Brian gritted his teeth and worked to right himself.
After another moment, he managed it, then he unclipped the tether line that was clipped to the front of his suit and secured it to an eye on the top of Kringle’s sleigh, just in front of the big robot’s seat.
It was aware of him, of course, and Kringle’s eyes focused in on him tightly as Brian secured himself. His cheeks, rosy red, offset the grey of his irises, but the ever-present smile that made his round face into a welcoming bit of joy for the kids was gone. Even simulacrums can show frustration, it seemed.
“Hey Kris,” Brian said, and pulled himself over to hover next to the robot. “How ya doing?”
He didn’t expect a response; Kringle didn’t have wireless voice comms. Instead, the robot just flailed its right arm again.
“Yeah. Well, hold tight.”
Brian was pretty sure he knew what the problem was, but he still needed to be certain. Brian reach out toward the robot, and Kringle’s eyes narrowed but he didn’t move; he knew the drill. Behind Kringle’s left ear was a data access port, concealed beneath a flesh-toned covering flap. Brian linked in a data cable, and a moment later he heard a deep voice in his right earbud.
“Ho! Ho! Ho!”
Kringle’s lips moved in time with his words, and it was almost like Brian was speaking to him through air instead of vacuum.
“Merry Christmas, Kris,” Brian said. “Run diagnostic, please.”
Kringle replied almost before Brian had finished the command. “Left shoulder gyro-actuator failure. 100% loss of function.”
Yep. Just like he though. “Thanks, Kris. We’ll get that fixed right quick.”
“You’re a good little boy.”
Brian had to laugh at that. He keyed the comms array again. “Confirmed it’s a bad actuator. ETA for repairs fifteen minutes.”
“Roger, Brian. – ” A burst of static, and then Stacy’s voice was replaced by an older, male voice. Taro, the EVA section supervisor.
“Give me a dosimeter check, Brian.”
He blinked, surprised. Taro didn’t normally jump in like this. Brian raised his left wrist and looked at the display attached there. Though his facemask showed key flight parameters, other information like consumable stores could be accessed here. Two taps on the display brought up the dosimeter, and Brian felt his eyebrows rise.
He chinned the comms button again. “150 mrem/hr.” That was way higher than it should have been.
“I was afraid of that,” Taro said. “You’re drifting faster than we expected, and the vector shifted; you’re heading toward the shield edge.”
Crap. It must have been when he impacted the sleigh on arrival. Brian turned around and looked back at the world, and his stomach rose into his throat.
It wasn’t really called the world, of course. Its name was Hermes. But it was his world; all he had ever known. Twenty kilometers of dimly-illuminated, silver-grey starship, with two seven kilometer long, four kilometer radius counter-rotating cylinders containing all the living space in existence, as far as it mattered.
He had never been farther than one or two kilometers away from the ship’s surface; there had never really been need. When he’d set out to retrieve Kringle, the sleigh had only been one and a half kilometers away.
They were further out now. Much further. He could clearly see the reactor sphere and engine nacelles five kilometers aft of the stern-most living cylinder. Normally he’d only be able to see part of it.
Brian tugged at his tether and spun himself about, to look forward, toward the shield.
It was barely visible, just a circle of blackness a kilometer ahead of the forward cylinder, extending five kilometers past the outer edge of the cylinders in all directions forward.
Most people sighed through the portion of Physics class that explained it, but since Brian had wanted to be an EVA tech, he hadn’t. Because Hermes was traveling at such great speed toward their destination, the light from stars ahead was blueshifted substantially. Which meant the normal amount of harmful radiation that existed in space increased as well, from the forward direction. The shield was constructed of high-density material to block most of those high energy gamma rays, so the people onboard could be relatively safe during the journey.
Which, since it was supposed to take 300 years or so, Brian supposed was a good idea.
Before when he’d looked at the shield while on EVAs, Brian had imagined he could see that destination star—SAO 229624, but everyone just called it Eden—through the shield, even though he knew it wouldn’t be clearly visible to the naked eye until probably his grandchildren were his age.
Still, he liked to imagine it.
Now, all he could see was that he was far closer to the edge than he had business being. And getting further away by the second. He looked back at the dosimeter on his left wrist. 165 mrem/hr.
Crap. But survivable crap. He’d have to sit out EVAs for a while, to avoid exceeding his annual dose limit, is all.
Once he got past the shield’s perimeter, though…
He nudged the comms array. “ETA on shield edge?”
“Twelve minutes. Work quickly.”
Brian tugged on his tether and spun himself back to the sleigh.
“Kris, maintenance shutdown in five seconds.”
“Confirmed. Merry Christmas! Ho! Ho! H – ” and Kringle’s voice cut off and his body stopped moving completely.
Brian got to work. Fast.
* * * * *
Some time later, Brian wasn’t sure how long because he hadn’t checked his chronometer, static sounded in his left ear, then Taro’s voice came through again. “What’s your status, Brian?”
Brian paused in the middle of screwing in a fastener to hold the new actuator in place within Kringle’s shoulder socket, and scowled. “Almost there. Be easier if you stop bothering me.”
“You’re about to reach the edge. Time to call it.”
“I’m right there,” Brian said, hearing the frustrated growl in his own voice and feeling surprised at it.
“Check your dosimeter.”
Brian ground his teeth, but shifted his focus away from the robot’s open shoulder and rotated his left arm to see the display again.
His blood ran cold.
It was into the realm where he would have to turn back or not do any EVAs for a couple years if he kept it up for much longer. He wouldn’t feel any immediate effects from the radiation until he hit 50-75 rem total, though, so he should be ok.
It increased to 5 rem/hr.
Brian looked to the shield, and blanched. Taro was right. He was definitely passing beyond the protective boundary. Radiation levels would only go up until they reached a level where he wouldn’t have to worry about not doing EVAs anymore. Survival would become a concern.
He looked back at the shoulder. He just needed to insert three more screws, then attach the arm connectors and the flesh covering. Then re-sew the suit together. Five more minutes, tops.
Brian flashed back to that time when his 8 year old self had watched Santa come flying into the world from the north pole of the forward cylinder, then spiraled down to settle onto the room of the Hermes Christmas Center, one of the few buildings in the world with a fireplace. And this one large enough to house a bonfire big enough to warm up five thousand kids at a time who, like him, were gathered in a semi-circle around the flagstone-constructed mantel that housed it. A fireplace large enough that Santa could come down the chimney with ease, popping out from his door atop the mantel and then sliding down a red and white candycane-striped slide with his satchel of gifts for all the kids in the world.
Every year the gift was different. Brian later learned they were pre-selected based on kids’ ages on a rotating basis. It was all part of the Christmas Program the Hermes’ builders had constructed when they made the ship.
But even knowing that hadn’t changed the magic of those memories for him, even now a couple decades later.
All the children in Brian’s world were waiting for that bit of Christmas joy and magic. And there was only one Kringle simulacrum in the entire universe. Or at least in the entire universe that mattered.
He felt wetness running down his cheeks, and realized he was crying over the loss those kids were about to experience. And not just those kids, but all kids that would even be born in his world.
No. Not on his watch.
Brian turned back to his work and keyed his comms unit again. “Five minutes, Taro.”
“You don’t have five minutes. Recall now.”
The screw was halfway in when Taro’s voice interrupted again. “You’re grounded Brian. I’m remote-activating your Nav pack.”
Brian froze in surprise for a second, then grabbed hold of the edge of the sleigh, hard. A moment later, he felt like a rope was pulling him backwards as the thrusters on his maneuvering pack fired.
It wasn’t a ton of force; it didn’t have to be, in space. But the angle was awkward, and his grip not the tightest in the bulky pressure suit gloves.
It also didn’t help that the sleigh began to spin from the new force, first slowly and then more rapidly.
Brian lost his grip. He flew back, away from the sled, and then jerked to a halt as his tether line went taught.
The sleigh jerked slightly, and its rotation changed again.
The thrust from his Nav pack continued. For a second, Brian considered just giving in, heading back.
“I’m not leaving, Taro,” he said into his comm. Then he reached down and hit the disconnect latch on the maneuvering pack that kept it strapped around his waist.
Immediately the thrust ceased as the pack zipped away behind him.
“You crazy – !” Taro cut off what he was about to say, then after a few seconds all Brian could hear was him working hard to bring his breathing under control from the fury-imposed high he must surely have been riding just then. Then he spoke again, his voice calmer but caring a tone of cold anger, and disbelief. “You just killed yourself, you know that? And over a stupid robot?”
“We’ll see about that.” Brian cut off the comm channel, then hauled himself back up the tether to the sleigh.
The rotation was more intense now, and he felt it in his stomach more than he had before. But a glance at the dosimeter lifted his spirits a bit. Steady at 5 rem/hr. That bit of thrust must have helped mitigate his escape vector.
Not that it would do him much good, if he didn’t get Kringle fixed.
He looked into the robot’s dead, lifeless eyes and managed a grin. “Looks like I’m hopping a ride with you tonight, Kris.”
Then he got back to work.
* * * * *
Brian keyed in the simulacrum restart code into the data pad on his left wrist. A second later, Kringle’s eyes lit up and his head gave a little jerk. He focused in on Brian and beamed out that smile that always lit up a child’s heart.
“Ho Ho Ho! Merry Christmas!”
“Merry Christmas, Kris. Run diagnostic, please.”
“Affirmative.” Half a second’s pause. “All systems fully functional.”
Brian let out a breath that he hadn’t realized he had been holding. “Do you have a fix on the Hermes?”
“Affirmative. Navigational system synch completed. Hermes range 7.5 kilometers, bearing 265 mark 20.” Another slight pause. “Warning, we are outside the shield barrier. Radiation levels are likely extreme.”
Brian nodded. “I know. I’ll be riding back with you, if that’s alright.”
Kringle looked sidelong at Brian for a second. His eyes flicked down to Brian’s waist, where the maneuvering pack used to be, and his eyebrows rose.
“Evidently you have no choice.”
He shifted over to the left, moving as far as the restraints that kept him secured to his seat would allow.
That didn’t leave much room, but right then Brian didn’t feel up to complaining. Using his tether and the eyes built into the sleigh’s top, he hand-over-handed his way to the other side of the sleigh from Kringle, then slid in next to him as best he could. He took a moment to adjust the latch point for his tether to bring it closer to him, then cinched it as tight as he could.
It wasn’t the kind of straps that were holding Kringle in place. But it would do in a pinch, and it was far better than nothing.
Brian looked back at Kringle and saw the simulacrum watching him, expectantly. He nodded. “Let’s go deliver some toys.”
Kringle grinned broadly. “You are a good little boy.” He reached forward and took hold of the reigns. “Now Dasher, now Dancer, now Prancer, and Vixen. On Comet, on Cupid, on Donner, and Blitzen!” he said. Then he gave the reigns a snap.
The engine buried in the sleigh below their seat came to life, a low rumble that carried through the sleigh’s material and Brian’s suit. But more importantly, the reindeer began to run.
And the sleigh turned back toward the Hermes, and all the waiting kids.
* * * * *
Brian had only been in the hospital once before. To have his appendix out when he was fifteen. It sucked then. It was almost worse now, and he wasn’t in any physical pain.
But holy cow, was he swamped! It seemed like every parent in the world had come by to thank him, leaving behind a card or a little faux-flower, or one or two bits of chocolate. By the time the nurse declared visiting hours over and shoed the last of them away, the little table next to his bed—beneath an electronic window-approximation that displayed a forest so large and thick that it could only have existed for real on Earth, so many decades and light years behind them—was covered to overflowing with the well-wishings.
Several had fallen onto the floor.
Not that Brian minded so very much. He understood how they felt; he would have felt the same if he had a kid. But he didn’t feel like any sort of hero, even though many of them said he was..
It had been, frankly, embarrassing.
So when the door to his little room, all two meters by four and decorated as lifelessly as only a high-tech medical station can be, opened again, he didn’t even bother to look over.
“Look, I – ”
He cut off when Stacy’s voice reached his ears. “Hey Brian. How you feeling?”
He looked over then, and there she was. All cute with her auburn hair and the little dimple in her left cheek, wearing the white and grey jumpsuit that the operations staff all wore.
“How’d you get in here? They just chased everyone else away.”
Her grin made the dimple a little bit deeper. “I’m friends with the nurse supervisor.”
“I just wanted to check on you. You going to be ok?”
He shrugged. “Doc says I didn’t get enough dose for any stochastic effects. May have a higher chance of cancer down the line though, so we’ll be running tests more often.” He sighed. “I’m out of the EVA business for a while though. Maybe forever. Even if Taro doesn’t fire me.”
Stacy snorted. “If he tried to fire you, he’d probably end up spaced. You’re the most loved person in the world right now.”
Brian snorted, but he couldn’t doubt that was true, after what he’d been through with the parents. Instead he just shrugged again.
“How long are you in here?”
“Docs want me to stay a couple days, just to be sure nothing unexpected comes up.”
Stacy nodded. “Well when you’re out, you want to grab some egg nog?”
Brian grinned, the first true grin he’d managed in several hours. “Sure. Sounds great.”
After all, the man who saved Christmas for the entire world deserved a reward, didn’t he?
A collection of Michael Kingswood’s stories were published and are available here: