By Andre Infante
It’s Christmas on the edge of the solar system. Or, rather, it’s Christmas back on Earth, once you work out the light lag and relativity and all that. Somewhere, way out there in the black, there’s an especially bright star with a rocky planet around it that just passed its winter solstice. Break out the eggnog.
Zed’s fixing the shuttle, so right now it’s just me, sitting up here in the nest, feeling kind of glum and lonely. This is my second Christmas out in the black, and I’m not quite sure how to take it. Its times like this that all the patriotism and good intentions and all that kind of feel empty, and you start to wonder what the hell you’re doing out here. It's not like they couldn't automate what we do. Sometimes I wonder why they insisted on sending humans.
Out the observation port, I can see the BFA slowly revolving it its socket. The status lights twinkle white and red under layers of nitrogen frost, and it would seem almost cheery if I didn’t know what it did. The buffer field shimmers towards the aft end of the ship, sparkling with detonating interstellar hydrogen. I can see the faint glow of the fusion engine to the left. We’re advancing pretty damn fast – enough that time dilation is a factor. Advancing. Nobody wants to admit that what we’re really doing is running like hell as far away from Earth as humanly possible. I rock back in the bucket seat, holding the armwrest to keep from bouncing out.
It’s Christmas at the edge of the solar system, and the apes are getting antsy. I look at the letter I’ve been typing to my brother, and then give up. I don’t want to write the letter, he almost certainly doesn’t want to receive it, and it’ll be March before he gets it anyway. I shut off the console in disgust, stand up on the wall in front of me, and kick off down the hall, across the empty space and onto the back of the central hab.
I climb onto the side and across the surface like a monkey, the ceiling revolving slowly ten feet above me, covered with carpeting and short walls. I grab a pair of handholds, push myself up by my arms so that my legs are pointed roughly downwards, and push off. I fall about ten feet until I settle onto my feet on the ceiling. The gravity is roughly lunar, which is why I can pull that kind of stunt without snapping my shins like toothpicks. There are ladders we’re supposed to use for safety, and mission control bitches at us every time we don’t, but like I say, what’re they going to do, court martial us?
I missed the living area and I’m in the exercise room. I hop over a treadmill and walk through a door in the common area. Zed’s room is off to the right, and mine is to a left. The kitchen is just ahead. They keep the whole thing parceled into small rooms to avoid the curvature of the floor getting nauseating. It’s kind of silly, really. Your brain gets used to it after two or three months. Zed and I have talked about demolishing some of the walls, but we’ve never gotten around to it. Frankly, demolishing any walls when there’s only about six inches between you and the cold place makes me a bit nervous.
I look at the picture of a Christmas tree we'd put up on the wall about a week before. Obviously we couldn't grow an actual tree in a reasonable time frame, even if we had the resources, and Mission Control would throw a bitch fit of ungodly proportions if we used any of their precious feedstock to compile a plastic one. So we got a picture. At least we've been able to get a bunch of lights and decorations on it. Zed has even managed to trick the assembler into making some tinsel. He'd told mission control it was insulation.
Underneath the tree there ware two boxes, wrapped in mylar and tied up with electrical cable. Mission control had put aside eighty boxes with surprise ‘gifts’ for us at the start of the mission, the idea being that we’d open one per year. I guess it was a morale thing. Last year they gave me socks with little smiley faces on them. This year we just airlocked the boxes without looking at them. Zed’s gift is a lumpy parcel, and mine is a neat little cube. I’m honestly curious to see what he figured out to give me. Last year it was a key to a storage locker in the hold, in which he had created an honest to god snowman. Admittedly, he’d done this by dumping the O2 and the algae experiment that was supposed to be in it, and spraying six months worth of water rations into the vacuum, but it was still a nice gesture. Trout at Mission Control was still pissed about that one. I’ve knitted him a sweater out of braided insulation fibers with his favorite football team on it. I requested chopsticks as a cultural concession and sharpened them into knitting needles.
I hang up another strand of tinsel on the tree, draw a quick picture of santa claus on a sheet of RW paper, and thumb-tack it to the tree picture in an empty spot. There. That looks pretty good. I sit back onto the carpet, then get up. I’m bored stupid. I go into my room, and try to read for a while. I’m working on the Time Machine, which isn’t holding my interest at all. I try the TV and find that, again, we have insufficient bandwidth. Ah well, I’m really not that engaged by the prospect of more fuzzy, canned television. I sigh.
It’s Christmas at the edge of the solar system, and the apes are going crazy. I sit up, throw the book reader onto the cot, and bounce towards the hangar. If I’m going to be bored, I ‘m going to go bug Zed and make sure he’s miserable too. I find a ladder, and scuttle back up to the outside of the central hab again. From there, I swing around into the long shaft to the engines and cargo bay at the back. The shaft’s about three feet wide and not well lit, and it takes about a minute and a half to get properly to the end. I get to the airlock, open it, and come inside. It’s cold here, and the air tastes like tin. It’s also got kind of radioactive from the engines, so spending a bunch of time down here is a really bad idea.
I close the hatch dutifully behind me. The central shaft has four 'floors', each at 90 degrees to one another, separated by about seven feet, so getting around is basically a question of picking one and trying to stay low enough that you don’t fall onto the 'ceiling'. I pass over at least a dozen sets of doors before I reached the end. Just before the locked door to the engine room, there’s a black hatch over my head, which I climb down through into the shuttle.
Frankly, I’m not completely clear on why we have a shuttle. I mean, sure, if something goes wrong we can evacuate into it, but then what? Where do we evacuate too? We’re a couple of billion miles from the nearest colony of Earth. I guess we’re just supposed to sit there until we run out of air, water, power, or some combination thereof. Great planning there. Plus, the whole thing is constantly breaking. Sometimes I think they put a defective shuttle on board just to give us something to do. Anyway, the air system is broken again. Zed’s got half the console taken apart and distributed around the cabin space. There’s a bit of gravity here, but not a lot. A few components near the ceiling are floating towards the ground very, very slowly. The coriolis drift has got most of them towards the rear of the shuttle.
He glances up at me.
“Get that letter off to your brother?”
“Huh. Liar. Here, come hold the scrubber in place, I’m going to try to get this panel off."
I lean in, grab the piece, and hold it while he pries on the panel with a screwdriver. With a motion, he pulls himself against the wall and stomps hard on the screwdriver. The panel pops off, and the inertia sends him sliding across the floor. He bounces off one of the benches, hits the rear wall, and settles onto the ground. After a second, he manages to get himself upright.
“I’m okay. I’m good.”
He stomps back to the panel, sets it aside, and looks inside.
“Oh good lord.”
I crane my neck to look.
“What is it?”
“Cockroaches. They got into the scrubber again. Look’s like, eh, a good sized nest. Goddamn, Lee, what do these fuckers eat?”
“Probably set up because of the water and stuff. Think there’s anything with food value in there?”
“Must be. Either that, or they’re magic fuckin’ roaches. God damn. I still haven’t got used to the little fuckers flying past my face in the middle of the night. You know these things adapted to zero gravity faster than any species on record, including us?”
“You told me.”
He shakes his head.
“It’s too early to deal with this bullshit. Goddamnit, it’s Christmas.”
He unhooks a can of bug spray from his belt, and sprays it into scrubber. I wince. I don’t feel like breathing pesticide for six months. The stuff is supposed to break down safely, but it still burns your eyes.
“Merry Christmas you sons of bitches.”
Zed makes a convulsive motion, which was what happens when he starts to spit, and then remembers not to. He swallows lamely.
“Come on, let’s go get some turkey.”
I follow him back to the living area. He sits down in front of the Christmas tree, and I go into the kitchen I come back with two trays of food tubes and a pouch of eggnog. The tray is still warm from the microwave. I throw one tray to Zed, then sit down on the carpet. I squeeze mashed potatoes and gravy into my mouth, while reaching for a tube of turkey paste. After a minute, I realize Zed isn’t eating. He’s just staring at the picture of the Christmas tree, looking kind of glum. Then he turns to me.
“Hey, hey Lee. You think it’s going to be today?”
I turn to look at him.
“Do I think what’s going to be today?”
Of course I already know.
“Do you think someone with a Nolan Bomb is going to set it off today?”
“Do I look like I know that? Jesus, Zed, what kind of a question is that, anyway? “
“I dunno. I mean, last I heard there were ten thousand. Ten thousand of them, and all it takes is for one person to push a button…”
He doesn't say anything. I think about it. After a while, I say
“It’d be a shame. It happening on Christmas like that. It’d be hard to pick a shittier day for the world to end. All those kids – tearing open the wrapping paper, and the parents standing around, and the – the Christmas morning service in church. Snow coming down outside. And then some dumb motherfucker hits a button, and it’s all gone, just like that. And then the buzzer rings, and we do our thing, and then it reaches us and we die too, and then that’s everything. Fuck, man, what kind of a question is that to ask a guy? Jesus.”
“Yeah, I guess. Sorry, man.”
He opens a tube of turkey mash, and squeezes it into his mouth. I'm not feeling very Christmassy, so I get up, climb a ladder to the shaft, and jump into the nest. Zed knows better than to stop me. I check the alignment on the BFA (Big Fuckin’ Array, get it?). It's still pointed squarely at our target, PSR J0108-1431, the larger of two known extraterrestrial intellects or civilizations or whatever the fuck they are. All I know is that it's big, it's hot, and it's pumping out long prime number sequences on every radio frequency, loud.
I run a diagnostic on the library. The files begin to scroll past on the screen, as the computer checks them for corruption. The contents of every history book flashes past in a quarter of a second. The entirety of human output of art and music in five. Every movie and television broadcast ever made in ten. Every book ever published in any country, in any language in half of one. The sequenced genomes of fifty thousand people of every race and nationality flash past so quickly I can barely register it. A set of essays to the aliens, written in every language, by thousands of people. Then, lastly, a long and formal apology and warning amounting to this: if you get this message, it means we fucked up, and somebody set of an N-bomb. You need to run just as fast and as far as you can.
Then it's done. All files clear of errors. I blink, a little hypnotized. The net sum of human civilization has just passed in front of my eyes in less time that it takes to take a crap. I have absorbed exactly none of it. I shake my head, and rub my face. Goddamn it, but Zed is right. What with seasonal depression, the odds of the world ending today are probably a lot higher than they are at any other day. If only it weren't so damnably easy to build Nolan devices. I want to kill the idiot who invented the things. Of course, if we didn't have Nolan devices, we wouldn't have ansibles, but that's a more than fair tradeoff.
I spent the first two months up here in constant fear of hearing the buzzer ring. It’s like living with a live bomb in your torso that you know will go off sometime. It might be two seconds from now, or it might be ten years from now, or it might have gone off a millisecond ago, but the blast front is traveling faster than the nerve impulses so you haven’t felt it yet. That constant, disgusting fear, burning you up. I’d gone on medication for it, but it hadn’t really helped. Eventually, I’d got used to it. You can get used to anything.
I think the people at home have it easier. They never really have to know. The front from an N-bomb propogates at the speed of light, so you’ll never see it coming. Not unless you're thirty four light minutes away from Earth, traveling at a quarter of the speed of light, and have an ansible on board . Not unless you're us. Then you have half an hour, more or less, of warning, sent at a thousand times the speed of light. Thirty minutes to contemplate your fate, and maybe dash off one last message to the stars.
I sit back in the chair, then turn and jump back to the central hab. The hatch is open. I swing inside. The place is dense with life support machinery, food processing, and everything else that doesn't require gravity. Zed is sitting at the back in the lotus position, upside down to me, smoking a cigarette. How he got tobacco seeds on board the ship, I don’t know. How he manages to grow the plants, I don’t want to know. But he does, and here he is, slowly contaminating our air supply. Didn’t really matter, we're probably going to die long before his smoking starts to kill us.
I grab a tube from the CO2 scrubber and flip myself over until I'm facing him.
“Sorry, man. I shouldn't have got mad at you. I’m kind of bent out of shape. It’s a stupid time of year to be stuck out here.”
He shakes his head.
“Not even a problem, Lee. I was out of line. Come on, let’s go put on Die Hard and see if we can trick the compiler into making beer.”
He stubs out his cigarette in an extremely delicate nutritional algae culture, pockets it, and gestures me out ahead of him. I push past a bundle of wires, and swing down towards the kitchen.
During my descent, I suddenly hear an alarm go off.
It takes me a moment to work out what it is. At first I think something’s just broken. But no, it ain’t that kind of alarm.
I hear a whisper from behind me as Zed settles.
I turn to him. My voice is weirdly calm.
“So it happened then?”
“Dead. Yeah. Well, actually, there are a couple of dozen people on Mars who’ve got about fifteen minutes left. And the Europa colony. And us. So call it maybe forty people left alive.”
I shake my head. I keep trying to tell myself that this isn’t important, that life will go on. And then I balk, and find myself looking over the edge into the realization that no, it won’t. There is no rationalization. There is no hope. There is no bargaining, or anything I can tell myself to make it better. The alarm is ringing, and there isn’t anything left to hide behind. This moment ringing in my ears is the one that changes everything.
I sit up straight, hyperventilating. The world is pounding around my head. I can't get enough air, and it doesn't matter. Zed lights another cigarette, walks over to me, and smacks me across the face, as hard as he can. It’s startlingly loud.
“Take a fucking Xanax, Lee. We’ve got shit to do.”
I take a deep breath, and try to focus. My fight or flight response is going nuts, but there’s nowhere to run, so it’s just going in circles. Breathe. WHY? Just do it. Goddamn. Fuck. Shit. Motherfucker. Swear all you like, it won’t make a damn bit of difference. You think I don’t know that? Just keep breathing, Zed’s right, you’re out here to do a job. Okay, I’m feeling better; a little better. Good; get up and go help Zed, he needs us. We’re all going to die, you know that, right? Yeah. Yeah, I know.
I stand up, and follow Zed across the gap to the nest, sitting down in the second seat. Zed’s already punching in the first firing sequence. He’s also running a confirmation scan, firing a pair of ansibles at the rear of the ship and listening for the return signal from the reflectors. I wait for the beep. Silence. Well, it’s real, all right. I punch in my firing code. There’s an odd roaring noise as the BFA warms up, flash-vaporizing the nitrogen ice into a pressurized burst of gas.
After a moment, I realize Zed isn’t typing anything. I look at him. He’s staring contemplatively out the hatch towards earth, the distant spot of light that is the sun. Ghost light, of a star that isn’t there anymore. After a moment, he turns to me.
“Maybe we should stop and think about this.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, if you think about it, what we’re doing here is sending our culture to aliens. We’re making sure our culture survives.”
“Right, well, keep in mind that we’re discussing the same culture that developed the Nolan Device and just annihilated itself. Not to mention the rest of the universe, eventually.”
I stare at him.
“What are you suggesting, Zed?”
He sits there for a moment looking at me. He looks tired.
“This is something I’ve been thinking about, and now that it’s really happened, it makes more and more sense. Lee, we have to seriously consider the possibility that human civilization is not worth preserving.”
He slaps both hands down on the dash, causing him to bounce up in his seat.
“I say we change the message. We already sent out a language primer, so they’ll be able to read plaintext if they’re smart. We keep it short and sweet.”
I stare at him.
“Yep. But I’ll tell you what, man, I’m willing to kill you over this. Do you believe in human civilization strongly enough to kill me for it?”
I look at him, size him up, and then sigh. He's a lot stronger than me, and the man has a point.
These are the last words of humanity, our Christmas card to the stars:
Merry Christmas from Earth! Season’s greetings and Yuletide cheer!
Space-time is burning.
It’s Christmas on the edge of the solar system, and Zed and I are sitting there underneath the newly minted plastic tree, straight off the feedstock, still warm and smelling like gasoline. I take a sip of eggnog. Zed is smoking a thick, stinking cigar. I pass him my gift box.
“Merry Christmas, man.”
He smiles, and opens it.
He pulls a small brown bottle. He uncorks it and sniffs it.
“Christ, man, this is gin.”
“How did you- ? You know what, never mind, I don’t want to know.”
He takes a long drink, and offers the rest to me. I take a sip, and pass it back. He hands his parcel to me. As he does so, he says,
“Not to rush you or anything, but you might want to hurry a little taking the packaging off, we don’t have a lot of time left.”
I nod, and tear the mylar off the lumpy package. What comes out is a small electronic device, padded with insulation. There’s a button. Zed nods. I push it. Zed gestures for me to follow him to the hatch in the nest. Just as I get there, I see the shuttle detach itself from the side of the ship and go sailing out into the black. It gets a hundred meters out, and then silently explodes, with a fairly spectacular flash of light.
“So long, you piece of shit.”
“It’s amazing what you can do with a decently stocked chem lab.”
After a moment, pieces of white insulation and shrapnel begin to pinwheel past the window in the residual electrical field from the engines. I laugh.
“Man, this is a much better gesture now that we’re both going to die. Do you know what Mission Control would have done to us?”
I shake my head.
“How long do you think we have?”
He gives me a big smile, and finishes up the gin.
“Plenty of time. What did you have in mind?”
“Oh, I thought maybe we could break the climate control and get it to sta
So it turns out I'm incapable of writing a straight Christmas story. This wound up way more depressing than it was ever meant to, and I apologize sincerely if I ruined anyone's holidays.
Now go have a merry Christmas or happy holidays or Hanukkah , or whatever you kids are celebrating these days. Give gifts and eat until you're fat, and wake up a horrible hangover tomorrow morning, and be happy that the sun is shining for another day over this weird little planet of ours.
Goodnight, and good luck.