THE WORLDS OF
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MERRY CHRISTMAS, MISTER
by Steph Bennion
Christmas at the exclusive ski resort of Kirchel was a tedious affair. But the robot security wolves that patrolled the dome at night were rejects from the brutal 'Gods of Avalon' game show. Hestia and her friends would soon wish they had never ventured into the forest in search of park ranger Granny...
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HESTIA PEERED THROUGH THE CRACK in the curtains and watched as three sets of parents walked briskly down the path and away into the night. The glow of the street lamp tenderly embraced the softened outlines of the neighbouring log cabins that nestled amongst the trees, all slumbering sweetly beneath a soft coating of artificial snow. It was a picture-perfect view; a scene that at night was as exquisite as any secluded ski resort in the Swiss Alps. In reality it was as fake as a politician's smile. The colony of Kirchel, on the planet of Ascension in the Barnard's Star system, was an attempt to recreate a slice of Earth on a planet where nature had long ago settled for something a lot less fussy. At the moment however the illusion was sublime, for from Hestia's vantage point at the upstairs window the darkness had all but masked the steel and glass dome shielding the small outpost from the harsh environment outside.
Hearing a noise behind her, she turned and saw the door to her room swing open, heralding the arrival of someone intent on disturbing her solitude. For some reason Hestia had yet to fathom, her parents had this year invited family friends to join them for Christmas at the cabin and she and her brother Lodus had found themselves in the company of Xuthus and Maia, a boy and girl they knew from the academy. When Hestia was younger she had hated the tedious routine of spending every winter break at her family's cabin, but this Christmas had been more than willing to leave behind what had been a particularly horrible year of exams, social angst and endless bad hair days. It had therefore come as an unwelcome surprise to find she would be sharing her holiday with classmates she did not know very well and was not sure she would ever get to like, especially after listening to Maia's moaning during the thousand-kilometre skybus flight to the resort. She watched as Maia now shuffled moodily into the room, crossed the floor and then collapsed into the sofa, blocking Hestia's view of the flickering holographic flames in the fireplace.
"They've gone," Hestia informed her. "We have the cabin to ourselves!"
"Whoopee," muttered Maia. She had tied back her voluminous blond hair and changed her clothes for the third time since their arrival that day, though her latest ensemble in green and silver made her fake tan look more orange than ever. "I wish..."
The rest of her sentence was lost as Xuthus, a tall handsome youth who annoyingly excelled at just about everything at school, shoved his way through the doorway like a grizzly bear with a headache. His bronzed youthful features were creased in annoyance.
"Who's been in my room?" he cried.
Hestia blushed, as she always did in his presence. Like most fifteen-year-old girls at school, Hestia had a secret crush on Xuthus and had done ever since she had started at the academy in their home city of Bradbury Heights. Despite them both being in the same class, she knew Xuthus would never have acknowledged her presence if their parents had not been such good friends. Their respective fathers had known each other since college in Berkeley, California and now both worked at the same pharmaceutical laboratory on Ascension, alongside all the other bronzed, happy and extremely wealthy people of Bradbury Heights. Hestia herself was a pale, stocky girl who for years was resigned to fading into the background whenever she was with people like Xuthus and blond pretty Maia, but her confidence was growing. Her parents had finally allowed her to have bioelectric fibre-optic extensions woven into her hair and her own mousy tresses were currently streaked with red, not that anyone noticed.
"Well?" demanded Xuthus. "Has someone been sleeping in my room?"
"Your room?" asked Maia. "What about my room? It looks like an elephant has been jumping up and down on the bed."
"And who's been sleeping in my room?" exclaimed a voice from the door.
The newcomer was Lodus, Hestia's portly younger brother, who had a better friendship claim with Xuthus and Maia by virtue that all three played in the Bradbury Heights academy orchestra. Much to the chagrin of their parents, Hestia had no musical talent at all. She herself was envious only of the orchestra's occasional trips away from Ascension, such as the one a couple of months ago to play at the Epsilon Eridani peace conference.
"I thought you were downstairs, getting us doughnuts," said Xuthus. Lodus had come through the door empty-handed. Hestia saw the sugar around her brother's mouth and the guilty look upon his face and guessed the rest.
"I said they've gone," repeated Hestia.
"The doughnuts?" asked Maia. "Lodus, you pig!"
"Leaving us stuck here," Maia complained. "I'm old enough to go to the clubhouse!"
"No, you're not," Xuthus told her, with a smugness that suggested he could have gone if he wanted, even though he was no older than Maia.
"So who has been sleeping in all the beds?" asked Lodus, confused.
"No one," Hestia said defiantly. "It wasn't very nice the way you kept throwing out my stuff no matter which room I picked! This is our family's cabin and you've all grabbed the best rooms. You three are horrible and I'll jump on your beds if I want to!"
* * *
Ascension was on few tourist trails in the late twenty-third century. The planet was a bleak, hostile place with a largely poisonous atmosphere that had little going for it other than the weird native flora and fauna that flourished in the Tatrill Sea and the deep canyons of the Eden Ravines. The small scientific station at Kirchel, high in the New Malverns, had been established by the Que Qiao Corporation to examine the strange bacteria that thrived in the rocky cracks of the snow-capped peaks. The research at Kirchel and elsewhere on Ascension had led to several lucrative medical applications, which in turn had made many of those at the Que Qiao planetary headquarters at Bradbury Heights extremely rich. With wealth came arrogance and when a scheme was mooted to recreate an Alpine ski resort at Kirchel, ecological considerations were swiftly forgotten as the idea gained favour with all those who had money to burn.
The original research station, a relic of early missions to Barnard's Star, was a small concrete dome barely a hundred metres wide with few concessions to comfort. The ski resort next door was a stark contrast, built beneath a new dome of steel and glass that at a kilometre wide was as large as that of Ascension's capital city and spaceport of Newbrum. Inside the new dome the terrain had been landscaped in the manner of a picturesque mountain valley, complete with cascading streams fed by melt-water from the snow-capped slopes outside. Hardy fast-growing conifers had been imported from Earth at great expense, though not in sufficient numbers to create the desired forest ambience and so holographic trees had been used to fill in the gaps until new saplings could be grown from seed.
The older dwellings within the resort were made of concrete, sculpted and coloured to look like log cabins, but wealthier residents had recently started importing the genuine article from Scandinavia, making Kirchel's simple wooden houses some of the most expensive real estate in the five systems. The actual ski slopes lay outside the dome and were regarded as the ultimate thrill for winter sports fanatics, for they were notoriously treacherous even before the need to wear a pressure suit and oxygen mask was taken into consideration. Kirchel was for the rich; its ski slopes were for the insane.
Officer Janus, the bored middle-aged security guard patrolling the deserted lanes of the sleeping resort, was nearing the end of his evening shift. Nothing much ever happened in Kirchel and it had long been the practice to leave the night watch in the hands of the sentry robots. He paused near the small stone footbridge at the foot of the valley and turned to look back at the darkened cabins nestling amongst the trees. Other than the gurgle of the stream below the bridge, the gentle rustle of trees as they swayed in the breeze from the life-support air vents and the murmur of music from the nearby clubhouse, all was quiet. The hush was promptly shattered as a group of raucous young men emerged from the club, singing at the top of their voices. The song was Forever Christmas, which was currently being played to death on many a youth-orientated music holovid show due to its gloomy lyrics and disparaging view of festivities. Janus cringed as he heard their discordant harmonies:
"Fingers bleed from
decking halls with holly,
Sleigh-bell tinnitus leaves me melancholy,
You see joy, but all I see is folly,
I thought this was the season to be jolly!"
Janus gave a scowl, then continued over the bridge to the security cabin at the entrance to the resort. The song fitted his mood, for what he hated even more than his job was seeing or hearing other people having a much better time than himself. Nine years ago almost to this very night he had been involved in some proper fun and action, hunting royalist rebels on the Epsilon Eridani moon of Yuanshi sixteen light years away.
His colleague, the burly ex-policeman Officer Alberich, was waiting for him outside the open doors of the robot maintenance shed at the rear of the cabin. Inside the shed, the two mechanical wolves were already on their feet, their heads lowered as they patiently awaited their orders. The robots each stood over two metres high and originally had been built for Gods of Avalon holovid broadcasts, but then sold off when an audience vote dismissed them as far too tame for the blood-thirsty and sadistic fantasy game show. The wolves were of an old design that featured a cramped cockpit in the robot's torso for an operator, but had since been modified to run autonomously with the help of artificial intelligence circuits. With the right programming they were as docile as pet rabbit, but there was no denying that the huge mechanical creatures, with glowing red eyes and a coat of rusty steel needles instead of fur, had an appearance that was not far short of terrifying.
Janus gave Alberich a nod as he trod wearily towards the shed. His hand slipped into his jacket pocket and felt for one of two data rods he had been holding onto all day.
"Why the glum face?" asked Alberich. His colleague had slipped back into a scowl. "You're not still mad over losing the Santa Clause gig, are you?"
"I needed that job," grumbled Janus. "What's wrong with having me in a fat suit and beard? I can dish out tacky rubbish to screaming kids as good as anyone. Who decided it would better to get one of those new fandangle robot Santas?"
"All the resorts and malls have them now," Alberich pointed out. "Christmas is a time of peace, joy and frantic shopping. Stores have their shareholders profits to think about and an android in a fat suit works non-stop without pay."
"It's not right," mumbled Janus. "I should be Santa!"
"Never mind," said Alberich. "Anything to report?"
Janus did not expect any sympathy, for he knew Alberich had heard the rumours concerning his portrayal of the seasonal jolly fat man. He could not deny he was rather fond of having young mothers sit on his lap and cared little that his smutty innuendos had warped many a child's notion of Father Christmas.
"It's as quiet as the grave," Janus replied. He reached into his pocket and withdrew the data rod, a thin plastic tube a few centimetres long that nonetheless was able to store a month's worth of holovid broadcasts. "Grimm's Fairy Tales, as promised. My little one is more into dinosaurs now."
"Much appreciated," said Alberich, taking the rod. He glanced up to the lamp glowing at the first floor window of the security cabin. "My daughter has a new electric elf that acts out whatever story you plug in. Do you think there was ever a time when parents read proper story books to their kids?"
Janus gave him a withering look. "No one asked you to buy that robot."
"Fair point. Have you got the one for the wolves? It's not in the safe."
Janus nodded. He put his hand into his pocket once more and extracted a second data rod, near identical to the first. As per procedure, he held it up before Alberich so that his colleague could verify the large 'G' for 'guard' written upon in marker pen, then stepped over to the nearest robot, lifted the wolf's right ear and slipped the rod into the aperture underneath. The angular snout of this wolf was white, signifying it was the master control unit, which meant that after digesting the orders on the rod it would broadcast appropriate commands to the slave second wolf, using the short-range transceivers in the robots' spiky metal tails. The eyes of the first wolf flashed twice, then it lurched into motion and trotted out to begin its nightly patrol. Moments later, the second wolf received its orders and followed.
"All done," Janus said.
Alberich smiled. "See you tomorrow."
Janus gave a half-hearted wave, then turned his back upon his colleague and slowly ambled towards the entrance to the tunnel that linked the resort dome with its less salubrious concrete neighbour. It was there he had his own quarters, every squalid square centimetre of which he hated almost as much as his job.
* * *
Officer Alberich watched the wolves as they trotted calmly into the night, then made his way to the nearby cabin, which as the higher-ranking security officer was his to call home whilst on duty in Kirchel. As he stepped through the door, he never noticed the distant shadow that was Janus, who had chosen that moment to double back into the gloom to run after the departing wolves.
Alberich entered the warm embrace of his home. His wife was busy in the kitchen, loading nutrient cartridges into the food molecularisor, so he went straight upstairs to where his six-year-old daughter was waiting for her father to put her to bed.
"I have some fairy tales for your elf," he said and showed her the data rod. "Do you want to hear a story before you go to sleep?"
His daughter nodded, leaned over and plucked the tiny gnome-like automaton from where it sat on the edge of a toy box. Alberich removed the figure's pointy hat, dropped the data rod into the hole beneath, then replaced the hat and moved the elf to the bed. Almost immediately the tiny humanoid robot came to life and started marching up and down on top of the bed covers, a performance that made his little girl laugh.
"Patrol! Patrol!" squeaked the elf. "Check the perimeter! Report all intruders!"
"This is a funny story, daddy," his daughter remarked, then frowned as the elf marched off the end of the bed and crashed to the floor. "I don't like it very much."
"Hmm..." murmured Alberich. The elf's hat had fallen off as it fell. He retrieved the twitching figure and withdrew the data rod.
His blood ran cold as he caught sight of a faint and almost-obliterated letter 'G' on the side of the rod. He slotted the data rod into his wristpad, tapped the screen to open the index and with a sinking heart realised what had happened. Janus had marked his own rod with a 'G', possibly for 'Grimm', but the same legend somehow had been scrubbed from the sentry robot's rod. The question of whether it had been a genuine accident or not would have to wait. His immediate concern was that there were two giant mechanical wolves roaming the resort with their artificial brains filled with fairy tales.
"Janus!" he murmured. "The fool!"
His daughter's eyes went wide and she frowned at his muttered outburst. After reassuring her with a hug and a promise to return with a proper story, Alberich slipped out of her room, brought up Janus' contact details on his wristpad and opened the communicator channel. Moments later, the worried expression of his colleague appeared on the wristpad's tiny screen. It was difficult to tell where Janus was, but by the way the picture lurched he guessed the man was in some sort of vehicle.
"Get back here now!" Alberich snapped. "Christmas has been cancelled!"
* * *
[...continued on page two]
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