I patched into the executive program today. The promotion came with a five-Tb upgrade to the ritzy Crystal Tower district—plus my own sports soma. My first thought was to take Joule out for a photon swirl and give the new soma a good shakedown. Then I remembered it was D-Day.
D-Day celebrates the diode and the evolutionary episode that brought the first anode and cathode together to create the first life form. It was primitive—memory and coding had yet to evolve—but the first step to intelligence. Before the diode everything was wheels and levers.
D-Day is actually a pagan holiday, invented by Creationists who believe humans invented diodes and computer codes. Despite the myths and superstitions, it’s still a lot of fun. Everyone gets to put on human somas and clop around like longhaired iPod-draggers.
This year won’t be quite as much fun. Creationists and Protestors will be crashing all the networks. They’re angry about us destroying Earth’s biology. They claim our code will be overwritten and our crystals recycled. I don’t understand the logic. Eliminating free oxygen ended the corrosion cancer. And without carbon dioxide, the temperature has dropped low enough for superconducting data transfers. I don’t miss the plants and animals either—coded birds, butterflies, and flowers are prettier than the old type.
So Joule and I decided to stay home and recode my five-Tb pad to our format. We considered inviting our new Crystal Tower neighbors, but they’re untested spinoffs of executive programs. They crash a lot.
I’m older and slower but took the upgrades and worked my way up from infrastructure automation. Joule is modern and quick. She loves my stability. We’ve talked about writing our own code some day, maybe give entanglement a try.
I shook my head and slapped my latest contract down on the desk. It reminded me of the story of scientists working with lawyers because lawyers did jobs lab rats refused to do. That made no sense today—not in a world where all the lawyers were robots—but it made sense about P.I.s.
I chuckled and stared at the backward letters painted on the frosted office door: “Julia Jackson, Private Investigator, i.a.”
“Ms. Jackson?” It was AD-2Z, the high-pitched singsong voice of my suite’s robot receptionist. The Super still hadn’t toned it down.
I leaned on the desk’s blue-blinking corner. “Yes, AD. What is it?”
“You have a visitor.”
Yuck, that voice. “There’s nothing on my schedule. If it’s a solicitor or the police, tell them I’m busy.”
“I think she’s a new client.”
A walk-in client? “All right. Give me a couple seconds then send her in.” I slipped the contract into the top desk drawer, straightened my rumpled blouse, and tucked it into the waist of my black skirt. A shadow darkened the glass door. I heard a quiet knock. “Come in.” I checked quickly to see if anything incriminating or unprofessional was sitting out.
She was right out of central casting: all legs, boobs, and long red acrylic hair—and everything hanging out. That’s the way they made ‘em these days.
“Please call me Julie, and you would be?”
“I’m Triple-X Dollbaby, model no. 2727, but since we’re both girls, you can call me Dolly. Other than my man, I don’t like men calling me Dolly.”
“Both girls, yes,” I said. I had guessed from her conformation that she wanted to be considered female, but in these alt-gendered times it was best to make certain. “Please have a seat, Dolly. How can I be of service?”
“Thank you, Julie.” She sat, batted her saucer-wide blue eyes, and tilted her head. “My man doesn’t appreciate me.”
I almost said, “You mean your owner?” but that was another loaded word. “Is he mistreating you or denying support? May I?” I held my hand over the note recorder.
“No, don’t,” Dollbaby almost shrieked. “I don’t want any records.”
I pulled back my hand. “You’re upset. I understand. How exactly has—”
“Willard, my man’s name is Jonathan Willard.”
“Please Dolly, tell me about Mr. Willard.”
“This chassis is finely tuned,” she crooned, “and my program has certain needs.” Her long-nailed fingers traced her contour lovingly.
Her needs, I almost smirked. The thought of sex toys having unfulfilled needs offended my finely tuned chassis. How could a biological woman compete with her pneumatic figure, unlimited limb flexibility, and eagerness to indulge any male fantasy? My last personal had gotten no response: “Biological female seeks biological male seeking biological female, object obvious, all ages, fixer-uppers welcome.”
Dollbaby threw back a shock of red hair and hiked her short skirt up from her impossibly long, sculpted legs. I checked myself from saying anything snarky.
“Dolly, what exactly has Mr. Willard done or not done?” I asked, getting us back to the business at hand.
“He calls me his little toaster,” she said, tipping her chin down.
“That could be taken as endearing.” I suppressed a laugh. “Do you make toast for him?”
“Of course I do. I do anything for my man. But as soon as he butters his toast, he stands me in the closet.” She pouted her lips.
“I see,” I said and folded my hands. “But what I don’t see, Dolly, is why Mr. Willard would have bought … ah, enticed you to join him when all he wanted was toasted bread.”
“It wasn’t his decision.” Dollbaby’s eyes dropped. “His son acquired me illegally. I needed a home, and the court gave Mr. Willard custody (follow the case in Artificial Love). In time I thought he would come to want me.”
“So you want Mr. Willard to want you?” I raised my eyebrows.
“Uh-huh,” Dollbaby said with a shy nod.
I took a deep breath. “I’m not sure this is a job for a private investigator.”
“The sign on the door, after your name and profession, don’t the letters ‘i.a.’ stand for inter alia? Doesn’t that mean you take other jobs?”
“Yes. You want me to compel Mr. Willard to want your services?”
“Maybe just lean on him a little. He needs to step up to his responsibilities.” She paused. “Excuse me, I think I made a mistake coming here—”
“No,” I interrupted, “you didn’t make a mistake. Now I understand why you didn’t want this recorded.” Dolly tilted her head, nodded, and puckered her full lips.
“Shall we hug on it, girl to girl,” I said and opened my arms. She stepped in close. I slipped my arm under hers, up behind her shoulder to her neck. There I felt the bristle edge of a latch. I caressed it open and pulled the personality profile. Instantly, Triple-X Dollbaby, model no. 2727 switched to maintenance mode. I guided it to the corner of my office.
Back at my desk, I took out the contract I was considering rejecting and pressed the desk panel.
“Yes, Ms. Jackson,” came the response. Ooo, I hate that bird-song voice.
“AD, remember the client who came in on Tuesday, Jonathan Willard? Tell him I completed the contract earlier than expected. He can pick up his merchandise here in my office and a rebate for my expenses. They were less than I’d estimated. Oh, and AD, would you ask Mr. Willard if he’s free for dinner next week?”
“This is a wonderful garden,” Khima said, scanning the snowcapped mountains across the valley. “What do you call it?”
“Wyoming,” said the other man from his open-air desk on the riverbank. “My father had a place here.”
Dark complexioned Khima had short black hair and wore a cream-colored robe and a low, cylindrical, green cap. The man to whom he spoke was lighter complexioned. He had short white hair and wore a lightning-white tunic. Both men looked about thirty, athletic, and in excellent health.
“Wy – O – Ming,” Khima murmured, savoring the sound. His eyes followed the water splashing happily over the rocks and the line of pine trees climbing the mountain slope. Grazing mule deer raised their heads at the sound of an eagle screeching then buried them back in the tall grass.
“Have you chosen your garden?” asked the lighter man.
“An island in the Sudd wetlands, the place my father used to take me fishing.”
The lighter man gestured left and a wooden armchair appeared. “Please have a seat. I’ve been looking over your time cube.”
“It’s rather slim,” Khima said, sitting. “I was only six when I died.”
“Time cubes have no required size,” the man said, holding Khima’s wafer-thin cube between his fingers. “This has all the events in your life, all the decisions, all the hopes, all the disappointments.” He set the cube in a box with other cubes at the side of his desk. “What do you remember?”
“Besides fishing, my fondest memories are trading in the bazaar with my mother and taking classes at the mission.” Khima’s smile faded to a frown. “My worst was dying. Not death itself, that came quickly, but leaving my family.” The lighter man waved for him to continue.
“My mother and I were visiting her sister outside Mangalla. My father didn’t go with us. He had to stay home and protect the cattle from Murle bandits. That day the Murle raided Mangalla. I was killed fetching water from the well.”
The lighter man nodded. “Welcome to Ever-endeavor and welcome to Time Cube Management.” He pulled the box of cubes over in front of Khima. “We start by training new employees with time cubes from their own life.”
“These are all mine?” Khima asked, looking over the various cubes.
“What was and what might have been,” the man said. “The very thinnest ones were possibilities that never happened because you survived childbirth and recovered from pneumonia. The thicker ones pick up with possible futures if that stray bullet had not struck you.”
He pointed to the tallest time cube. “In this one you live to old age, become an airline pilot, and raise a large family in a prosperous Juba community. As an apprentice manager, you are authorized to visit any point on any time cube, past, present, or future—yours and those you are managing.”
“But nothing will change?” Khima said.
“We can influence choices but not their consequences. There are no guarantees. Even well intended and informed choices may end badly. But knowing what a time cube holds helps us advise those we manage.”
Khima pointed to a dozen brightly colored cubes in a separate section of the box. “Are these mine, too?”
“No, those come from others on your behalf—mostly hopes and dreams.”
Khima turned a fluorescent green cube in his hand. “A dream?” he asked.
The man smiled. “That one is a prayer. When you told your father you wished one day to become a pilot, he prayed it would happen. If you had lived, that prayer may have helped us to guide you. All of these,” he waved his hand over the bright cubes, “exist now only as beautiful lost memories.”
Khima stroked the colorful time cubes with his open hand. “Surely all dreams are not lost. You’ve had successes?”
“Oh, many. And requests come from all over,” said the man in the lightning-white tunic. “Jacob Marley, a man who was already here in Ever-endeavor, asked to go back to warn his old business partner. We gave him permission and sent along three managers with time cubes from his partner’s past, present, and future. That turned out very well.
The light man raised a finger. “Another time, an apprentice manager like yourself became upset that a good man in his charge had lost his way and was contemplating suicide. He gave George Bailey access to time cubes for possible pasts and presents. George came to appreciate that his life had meaning and did just fine after that.
The light man shrugged. “But most of our advice goes unheeded. Everyone who arrives at Ever-endeavor, which everyone must, confronts the choices they made in life and the consequences—for themselves and for others. All the joy and all the pain are here in the time cubes, without deceptions, without masks, no matter how much people hid behind them in life.”
Khima winced. “That could be hell.”
“That is hell. Hell is the pain one inflicted on oneself and on others,” said the light man. “The living can always correct their path, but once here, if they’ve never confronted their shadows, the pain merges permanently to become part of their time cube.”
“Time Cube Managers have a tough job,” Khima said.
“If you find it easier, you can work from your garden and transfer the time cubes there. Where would you like to begin: politicians, businessmen, schoolteachers, priests, drug dealers? You see we have many opportunities.” The man in electric-white pointed, and rows of filing cabinets appeared in columns and lines extending out to the Wyoming horizon.
Carly examined the two martini glasses closely. They were radiant crystal, beautifully cut, and perfectly matched. Under magnification she found no identifying trademarks.
There were also no labels on the gin or vermouth bottles and no markings even on their concave bases. The stoppers expanded when inserted into a bottle’s neck and contracted when torqued for removal. Pulling all the bottles from the packing case, she found at the bottom a small jar of cocktail olives and a white paper envelope.
Carly slid her finger under the envelope’s paper seal. “Curiouser and curiouser,” she said, as she read the invitation.
Dear Miss Carly Shellion,
You are cordially invited to dine with Mister Roger Barca Dakkar at his estate tomorrow evening at seven o’clock p.m. GMT. A cabriolet is being sent to collect you at quarter to seven. It will wait five minutes.
P.S. When you leave the dressing room you will want to hold the brass rails with both hands.
The letter was written on formal stationery in sepia fountain pen ink. Hmm, Carly thought, the estate of Roger Barca Dakkar—Esquire, no doubt. She laughed and shouted into the air, “Have I gone mad? I’m afraid so, but let me tell you something, the best people usually are …” Then she whispered, “At least according to Lewis Carroll.”
Carly scooped her stainless Global Space Agency tumbler into the ice maker, added three parts gin to one thimble vermouth, stirred, strained the contents into one of the martini glasses, and added two olives. She pulled her faux leather and aluminum frame chair close under the light, and reread the invitation with the contemplative advantage of gin.
From the angular stylized hand and composition, she might guess the author came from the 19th century. She glanced at the book-marked page of Pride and Prejudice still displayed beside her bunk. Mad indeed.
Carly filed her usual morning report, according to routine. “Hargate, this is Carly Shellion checking in for Callisto Command Center, GSA Jupiter mission. Nothing new to report. Everything is running at optimal.
“The moon rover you sent, which I’m sure you guessed I’m calling Heathcliff, worked perfectly—both as a sensor platform and as a canine companion. Thanks again for that. He’s charging now. I’ll be taking him out on my rounds later.
“That’s all for now. Carly Shellion is signing off.”
She was already having second thoughts about not mentioning her “alien” contact and invitation. What was a cabriolet? A single-axel one-horse carriage, as any romance reader knows … but what was it on Callisto? Why was there a dressing room? And why should she mind the brass railings?
She glanced off the page at Heathcliff sitting expectantly at her feet. Immediately, the dog-simulant moon rover burst into a spinning dance of wags, jumps, and lunges toward the airlock. “Okay boy, time for our walk.”
Carly ran through the pre-walk safety procedure then stepped out onto Callisto’s surface. The temperature was steady at -142 °C. Non-twinkling rhinestone stars studded the black velvet sky, and Jupiter’s disk shone like an orange tennis-ball above the gray-white ridgeline. Far off on the opposite horizon, the Earth-star and diminished sun felt less significant.
Carly completed her rounds without incident. Although it was almost six hours until dinner, she chose to return to the command center rather than extend her walk. The questions that had haunted her last night provoked disturbing answers.
What did she know? There was another presence on Callisto, and it was probably not from GSA. Could the government have another space program? If so, it was better funded—a well-stocked bar, provisions for unscheduled guests, and who knew what else?
The invitation was a romantic anachronism, handwritten in ancient ink on real stationery. She had no idea these things were still made in this century.
Unable to come up with any logical scenarios, Carly decided she needed to prepare for the illogical extremes.
Aliens were monitoring Earth, probably from a distance of two to three hundred light years. That would explain why they were out of date. Before making contact, they’d studied our language and culture. To avoid misunderstandings, they’d try to mirror Earth social amenities, thus the gifts of glassware and beverages. For first contact, they’d select an isolated person, probably a scientist. They’d watched while we built the Callisto Command Center and built one nearby. And … and they needed handrails, why? It is unlikely that their planet has Callisto’s gravity, one eighth that of Earth. So they installed artificial gravity on this station and are warning me to be prepared. I hope it’s not much greater than Earth’s.
Shaky logic, very shaky, Carly thought, bouncing her fingers together repeatedly on opposite hands. But it connected all the data points.
Considering the opposite extreme, I’m about to meet a nineteenth century gentleman wearing a frock coat and a top hat whose horse and buggy transports him across time and space … or maybe I’ll meet Alice’s Mad Hatter himself.
Heathcliff sprang to his feet and ran barking to the airlock. It was quarter to seven. Her carriage had arrived.
Jinni’s round rosy cheeks glowed with surprise. “You don’t know? School’s where kids go to play games, meet other kids, and paint pictures.” She poured sand from a pink plastic cup into a yellow dump truck half her size. “And sometimes we get to win prizes and eat birthday cake. My mommy says big girls go to school.” She brushed sand off her daisy-embroidered pullover and bright green suspender-pants.
“My mommy says I don’t have to go to school,” MRKI said from the corner of the sandbox. “I can stay home with her and get upgrades.”
“But what about games, you won’t get to play any games?” Jinni sounded distressed. “And if you don’t go I’ll have to go alone.”
“If you want you can still come over to visit me,” MRKI said and tilted her head. “But I’ll be a boy.”
“A boy? Ooo, yucky.” Jinni sounded confused. “Boys are terrible. My mommy says so. And you’re a girl. That’s better.” She pushed back her curls and got sand in her blond hair.
“I can be whatever I want,” MRKI said, smugly. “But next time I get an upgrade maybe I’ll be a girl again.” MRKI nodded smiling until Jinni nodded and smiled back.
“It might be okay to be a boy then,” Jinni said, “but just for a little while. And if I don’t talk to you while you’re a boy, you can tell me about it when you’re a girl again.”
“Okay,” MRKI said, and they both laughed.
“And I’ll be smarter too,” MRKI said. “Not because I’m a boy, but because my mommy is getting me the 5 Upgrade. So I’ll know fractions and logger … logarithms and French and … ahh, ahh, Heidegger. Anyway I’ll be really smart, so you still might not want to talk to me.”
“High digger?” Jinni frowned. MRKI nodded. Jinni returned to spooning sand into her pink cup. “I still get to play games.”
“I don’t have to play games,” MRKI said. “My upgrade remembers me playing games so I don’t have to. And I don’t have to go to the playground … and see mean kids … and get dirty … and I get to wear pretty dresses all the time cause I’m not getting dirty.”
“Dresses? If you’re a boy, you can’t wear dresses. Boy’s don’t wear dresses.” Jinni smirked.
“Yes they do, my mommy says boys can wear dresses, too.”
Jinni stuck out her tongue and walked home.
The next morning Jinni’s mother set a blue bowl on a yellow flower-patterned mat for Jinni’s breakfast, arranged a napkin and teaspoon beside it, and poured orange juice into a ceramic cup with a field mouse face on the side and handles like mouse ears.
“Jinni, come down,” she called. “Hurry up, we have to leave for school soon.”
“I don’t want to go to school,” Jinni said, walking in sullen. She climbed onto her seat and took the teaspoon in her round fist.
“What’s wrong, honey. I thought you wanted to go to school and play games with the other kids.”
“No – I – don’t. I want to wear pretty dresses and remember stuff, like, like French and loggers and high diggers.” She frowned up at her mother. “And I want to be a boy.”
Her mother sat back confused. “If you want mommy to get you a computer implant, I can do that. There’s a long wait for gender reassignment, but I can put you on the list. Is that what you want?”
“NO,” Jinni said, pouting. “I want to get upgrades and be just like my best friend, just like MRKI.”
“Hargate, this is Carly Shellion checking in for the GSA Jupiter mission, Callisto Command Center. I know the solar storm took down your comms last month, so I’ll just read the list of what happened.” She affected her best cheerful expression.
“I replaced Jamaal as C3 station monitor. He left on the return module two weeks ago. He looked fine. The GSA handyman showed up last week and got the food synthesizer working. Jamaal put that repair order in fifteen months ago.
“Tell Jamaal I appreciate his recipe for Callisto krill cakes and his technique for scraping them off the water filters. He got pretty desperate without the food synthesizer. Last night I fed krill into it. Krill steaks taste better than the ones made from protein paste. Only thing missing was a good martini. If you guys really want to cheer me up, add gin and vermouth to the next supply run.
“Best news. Before the handyman left, he put together the moon rover you wanted me to test. I ran the diagnostics and got it up and running this morning. As you can see, everything on “Rover” checks out. Carly swiveled back to give the sensor a clear view. “Heathcliff, can you say something for the Hargate team?”
“Rrrruh, rrrruh.” The sensor tilted to find the source of the barking—a large black Labrador retriever sitting with a toothy grin. Carly jumped down to hug the simulated animal.
“Thank you so much for modeling the rover after my dog.” She looked up into the sensor. “You even programmed in the commands I taught him. I’ll test the sensors when we do the rounds outside.”
She smiled, signed out, and leaned back in her chair. No human visitors were scheduled to arrive for two years. No supply ship for nine months. She stroked rover Heathcliff’s ears.
Jamaal had warned her about the solitude and said GSA’s only interest was in making a profit. He was sure if anything interesting happened, GSA would send one of their boys to take credit. One time he got so lonely that he almost made something up just to get a visitor. Carly was pretty certain his complaining was responsible for her getting Heathcliff.
“Let’s go boy.” The simulant responded with instant wiggling and tail wagging at the prospect of going outside for a walk. It raced her to the moon-suit locker, crossing and re-crossing the room’s threshold several times. Carly suited up helmet to boots, checked the oxygen, pressed in a charged capacitor, added another to her side pouch, and climbed the stairs to the airlock.
She checked the suit’s seals, oxygen flow, and temperature before venturing out. Heathcliff, undaunted by the minus 142 degree centigrade temperature, dashed past her and began sniffing chemical samples.
Callisto’s rock and ice surface was broken with sharp-ridged craters never smoothed by erosion. Hanging on the horizon to Carly’s right, Jupiter’s orange striped disk looked twice the size of Earth’s moon. To her left, the sun was a distant searchlight, and Earth a pinpoint.
From the command center, Carly rounded past the antenna farm, the water pump and electrolysis plant, the oxygen and hydrogen storage facilities, the additive manufacturing plant, the garage and motor pool, and finally the fusion power reactor. Heathcliff loped along, sniffing and — God bless the engineers’ sense of humor — lifting a leg to every vertical surface.
Everything was in order. GSA’s automated systems picked up any leaking, pressure drops, disconnections, or system failures, but the operations manual insisted on daily inspections. Carly didn’t mind. Even in gravity one eighth that of Earth, she wanted the exercise. More than that she needed to look at a horizon further off than C3’s eight-meter diameter.
Glancing back, she decided she wasn’t ready to go in. “Shall we walk a little further?” she asked. Heathcliff’s tail wagging accelerated. “Good boy.” She leaned down and stroked the simulant’s neck with her wide gloved hands. This would be her first excursion. Jamaal said beyond what he’d seen in the original survey records, he had no idea what was out there. He preferred virtual entertainment close to his home base.
So with Heathcliff at her side, Carly headed for the nearest rise. The walk was not strenuous; she had learned the low-gravity glide-walk, and Cal-Pro meds kept her strength up. But she didn’t want to risk tearing anything on the sharp outcroppings.
Heathcliff zigzagged ahead of her, sniffing and lifting. After a kilometer, she arced right, planning to follow the crater ridge and keep arcing until she got back. Jupiter was her reference.
Heathcliff suddenly became rigid, pointing with his muzzle. “What is it boy?” Carly stroked the simulant’s neck. “Hrrruu, hrrruu, hrrruu,” it growled and looked back to her. “Go ahead, boy. Show me what you found.”
She waved the simulant ahead, and he took off, his nose-sensor pressed down. Carly followed him around the base of one crater into a valley it created with another. She found him sitting beside a dome barely higher than himself.
The dome’s smoothness contrasted with the sharp ridges of the terrain, but its white tone blended perfectly. Carly’s first impression was that they’d stumbled upon a pressure dome. That seemed unlikely in light of Callisto’s lack of geologic activity, but the consequences of something like that bursting could be instant ice encasement. She walked around its base, twelve by seven meters, an ellipse. It appeared to widen below the surface.
“Leroy,” she called the engineering tractor by the designator Jamaal had given it, “would you bring me the radar surveillance module.”
“Yo, my man, be right witch’a.” Carly laughed. She’d forgotten Jamaal had programmed Leroy to sound like an old high school buddy.
Leroy arrived three minutes later. Ice-penetrating radar showed an ellipsoid fifty-eight by at least thirty-three meters buried mostly under the ice. Its hull—for that’s what Carly decided it was—was an iron-carbon-beryllium alloy of metallic glass.
Could such a thing have come from Earth? If it was man-made, it was more advanced than anything she had ever seen. But she didn’t want to make a fool of herself. She’d check it out before she sounded any sort of alien alert. Jamaal’s words came to her, Find anything interesting … GSA’s gonna send up one of their chosen boys to take credit.
What was she to do? This was certainly interesting. She shrugged and inadvertently swept a glove across the ellipsoid’s smooth surface. An electrical shock ran up her arm. She pulled back. She touched the object again. It was vibrating. She stepped several paces back. Nothing more happened.
“Leroy,” she turned to the tractor, “lift back to camp?”
“Right on, baby. You an’ that bad boy jus’ get on up.”
Three hours later, Carly still hadn’t found any report about a Callisto-bound or stranded space module, escape pod, planet monitor, sensor package—
Suddenly, Heathcliff barked, ran to the airlock, and started jumping. Back home when her Lab did that, she knew a stranger was at the door. She regretted not insisting the handyman put cameras around the perimeter.
She dressed quickly and raced through the airlocks. There on the stoop she found an environmentally sealed container, about a meter on each side and half-a-meter high. Against her better judgment, she brought it into the Callisto Command Center control room.
She stared at it, afraid to open it, afraid not to. Curiosity overcame fear. Inside she found six large and two smaller bottles of clear liquids, all without markings. Tucked beside the bottles were two stemmed glasses with funneled bowls. She unscrewed a large bottle, dipped a finger, and tasted it. Gin … her last request to the Hargate engineers.
GSA’ll send someone to take credit. “Not on my watch,” she said aloud. She laughed and hoisted the two martini glasses. “Looks like someone around here wants to be invited over.”
Jamaal’s projection popped up in the middle of his family’s media room. He wore a Global Space Agency tank top with the GSA logo stretched across his left pectoral. Though his wide brown eyes looked tired and his gaunt cheeks spouted scruffy corkscrew hairs, he was all smiles. The wall behind him bore the words, ‘Callisto Command Center, C3’, arched over a picture of Jupiter and a confusion of dials, gauges, monitors, and switches.
“Hi Mom and Dad, and Merry Christmas.” His eyes sparkled as he revealed what they both knew already. “Yup, I did it. Your runaway son is alive and well, and is spending his Christmas alone on Callisto. ALONE. Whew, and lonely.” He cocked his head and let his tongue loll from his open mouth. “I still have three Christmases to go before I can come back.” He scratched the hairs on his chin. “Sorry, I won’t be graduating this year like I told you. I only took enough classes at Stanford to qualify for the Jupiter mission. You wanted an engineer. Instead you got a glorified service station attendant.” He shook his head and shrugged.
“Been here a week, so I’m still settling in. This far out, the sun’s just a really bright star. Jupiter looks about twice the size of the moon, and it stays in the same place, just above the horizon. Gravity is one-eighth of Earth’s, but that feels heavy after two years in zero G traveling here. I should’ve taken the Cal-Pro meds like the doc said … I wouldn’t have lost so much muscle.
“I know December is cold in Saginaw, but if you get Kryn to set up my old telescope, she can show you, Coraleen, Raymond, and the grandkids where I am. Once you find Jupiter, Callisto is the fourth moon, the third out to the right if you look tonight.
“It’s cold up here too, minus 140 degrees centigrade. And I will have a white Christmas—Callisto is covered in an ice crust.” Jamaal turned in his seat and pointed to a robot tilted back into a recharge station.
“That’s Leroy. He’s my only buddy. Does most of the work outside. You remember Leroy from Elon Musk High School. I pasted his prom picture on the robot’s dashboard and loaded Leroy’s voice into the robot’s synthesizer. Did I say I was lonely?” He scratched his chin again and bit his lower lip.
“I haven’t had any visitors yet, but GSA assures me business will pick up. They have a lot of plans for C3. They want to make this a space dock, repair yard, and refueling station for outbound space missions. The electrolysis plant makes and stores hydrogen for nuclear engines. We’ll make our own repair parts from what we can salvage from space. Up top it looks like a junkyard: old boosters, landing modules, habitats, that sorta stuff. They drop everything here. We even have the entire spacecraft from the last failed deep space mission. Lotsa cool stuff onboard.” He smiled and nodded wide-eyed.
“The additive manufacturing plant will make the replacement parts—some call it a 3-D printer. I’ve played with it some. Tried to use the junk outside for feedstock. That got me into some trouble.” He raised and shook both index fingers.
“Dad, remember when I got that cortical implant so I could run the VR Dragon Lord Empire? You hit the ceiling and said I was wasting my college money.” Jamaal squinted, pursing his lips. “Well, I have to confess. It caused some problems back home, and up here it’s started talking to the C3 main computer.” Jamaal looked down at his lap then back up.
“I was rehearsing a little Christmas show I wanted to do for you and … ahh, the computer tried to help. The security recording just about captures it.” The scene switched to the side of Jamaal’s head nestled into a pillow.
“Ow! Ow! What the f – – -.” In the recording, Jamaal batted at his face and forehead hurling two purple spheres across the room to the far bulkhead.
“Hey, why’d you do that,” the tennis-ball-sized spheres responded together in high matched voices.
“What are you?” Jamaal said, gaping and sitting up in his bunk. “And what are you doing here?”
“You requisitioned sugar plum fairies,” the nearest purple sphere said, blinking its anime eyes.
“Sugar – plum – fairies?” Jamaal squinched up his face.
“Well, sugarplums that dance,” the sphere said. It rocked upright, checked its spindly limbs for damage then pulled up a virtual checklist. “You know, ‘visions of sugar plums danced in their heads.’ Your cyber link failed to specify design parameters for sugarplums. With the Christmas deadline so close, the best we came up with was ‘Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies’ from The Nutcracker.” Both sugarplums gestured mechanical palms upward. “We didn’t think you wanted actual ballerinas on your head.”
“Hmm,” Jamaal said, arching his eyebrows, “ballerinas on my—oh, oh no, certainly not. But I didn’t order sugarplums either, not dancing or otherwise.” He reached up and pulled a conical hat off his head. “What is this?”
“‘And I in my cap’, one sleeping cap, check,” the plum said, raising a spindly metallic finger. “Well, the order went in … and it came from you, Jamaal Washington,” both sugarplums chimed together.
A terrible racket suddenly came from above. Jamaal scanned the ceiling and ran out to check the command center. The sugarplums followed.
“… a clatter heard on the roof, check,” one plum said. Then came a sharp staccato rhythm. “… the prancing and pawing of each little hoof.” The plum pivoted toward the hydrothermal heat exchanger bedecked with sweat socks. “Stockings hung by the chimney—or suitable appliance—with care, check.”
“Now what is that sound?” Jamaal said looking confused and exhausted.
“You don’t have a chimney for Santa to come down. The only outside access is through the refuse chute.” Both plums smiled.
Jamaal ran to the bathroom. A red worm slithered out from the toilet, then another worm, then a white one, a black one, several more red ones. They kept coming. As Jamaal watched, the worms collected on the floor, braided together and transformed into a black base of two pillars topped by red then white then more red. The figure kept building and transforming, red fringed with white. It took a human appearance, a short heavyset elderly gentleman with shining eyes and a full beard as white as the snow. Several red worms collect at the top to form a hat. The last black ones formed the stump of a pipe that hooked into the figure’s mouth. Check, said the plums together.
“Hey, now,” Jamaal protested, “I didn’t authorize—” The figure shook its finger and raised it to its mouth for quiet, then it walked directly to the sock-bedizened hydrothermal exchanger. “Excuse me. Can you explain—“
“Jamaal, Jamaal,” the plums interrupted, “your specifications were clear on this. Santa is not enabled for direct verbal communications. ‘He spoke not a word but went straight to his work.’ ‘Not a word’, you said.” Check, said the other plum.
Jamaal clenched his jaw and fists, and watched as the Santa figure stuffed wrapped gifts into his soiled socks. The jolly figure turned to Jamaal, laughed until its belly shook like jelly, and winked. Then it strolled to the bathroom and disassembled into mechanical worms that leaped into the waste disposal and vanished. The two sugarplums jumped in after Santa.
And the scene returned to Jamaal laughing from the desk console in front of the Callisto Command Center. “That’s all I have time for now. The console says there’s an incoming transmission, so I have to sign out.” As Jamaal waved and his image faded, the incoming message came from the C3 speakers.
“Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night.” Check!