In the center, a coffee cake glistened, the frosting so fresh it slid off the side.
Her eyes twinkled, even in the damn hologram.
by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
|Boz woke up slowly, convinced he was hearing an ancient crooner sing "White Christmas." He pulled his pillow over his head to drown out the noise before he remembered where he was.
Space. The ship. Light-years from anything.
Christmas carols? He'd never expected to hallucinate them.
He sat up. His room was filling slowly with light. The on-board systems had been set up to mimic a typical Earth day (as if a typical Earth day had constant sunshine), and they did adjust for the seasons.
When the Beautiful Dreamer had been in the planning stages, the crew decided two things: that they'd remain on a 24-hour day, and they'd follow the western calendar. He didn't mind the 24-hour day, but he saw no reason to keep the calendar. He had voted against it and had been overruled, which was funny, given that he was going to be the only one awake to "enjoy" that calendar.
He sighed, rolled over, and pulled the pillow off his head. Sure enough, some twentieth century icon was singing about Christmas. Only the song had changed to "I'll Be Home for Christmas." That was a cruel joke. No one on this ship was going home again.
Not that Boz cared. He hadn't had a home in decades.
He sat up, rubbed his hand through his scraggly hair, and asked, "Computer, what's the date?"
The computer answered in its relentlessly cheerful voice, "December 25."
"I'll be go to hell," he whispered, and then shivered.
The music wasn't playing in the computer speakers. If it was, he would have heard it directly in his room. Instead, it sounded far away, as if someone were playing tunes down the hall.
(It actually sounded just like it used to when he lived alone in New York: Christmas music would waft at him from everywherehis neighbor's apartment, the nearby storefronts, the street below. He shivered again, not liking that memory. Those days before he'd joined the mission had been difficult ones.)
"Make the music stop," he said.
"I do not register any music." When the damn thing was being negative, the voice grated all the more.
"Well, somebody's playing some, and there's just you and me on this ship." "Correction," the computer said. "There are 656 individuals on this ship. I am not an individual. I am a construct designed to
"I know." He wished he hadn't spoken aloud. He sighed and tried again. "Has someone awakened accidentally?"
"All of the sleep chambers are functioning properly. The crew is unchanged."
"Then where is the music coming from?" Boz asked.
"I do not register any music. Hearing things is a warning sign. Should I call up the holographic psychiatrist?"
"No," Boz said, and decided to stop talking to the computer. If the computer determined he was crazy, the damn thing would wake someone else upwith no hope of that person returning to cold sleep. Then Boz would be stuck with another persona person who had been told he was ill, injured, or had mental problems.
He couldn't cope with that.
The music had changed again. Now young people's voices rose in "Happy, Happy Holiday Time." At least that tune was a little more modern. The chorus of pure children's voices gave him a sudden longing for snow, of all things.
Snow and chill air and a breeze. What he wouldn't give for a breeze.
He stopped just inside his door and leaned his head on the metal. He hadn't had this kind of homesickness since the first month. He'd been alone on this vessel for nearly a year, and for the most part, it hadn't bothered him, just like predicted.
He was an off-the-charts introvert, someone who would live alone even if he were given the choice to live with people he liked, someone who preferred his own company to everyone else'sat least, that was what the battery of tests said. The tests had been strictly anonymousdone by number, so that the researchers wouldn't look at the subject's history. Once his number was revealed, all Boz's personal history did was confirm the diagnosis.
No marriages, no children, his parents long dead. Boz had lived alone since he was sixteen years old, and hadn't missed the company.
But the point wasn't ancient history. The point was Christmas carols"Jingle Bells" now (what did that song mean, anyway?)and the fact that the computer denied any knowledge of the sound.
Something had malfunctioned, oddly malfunctioned. He would find it.
He pulled open the door. The music got louder. He could hear piano and drums behind those children's voices, singing happily about dashing through snow (ooh, the longing again: he shook it off. He couldn't get lost in nostalgiahe had two more years of breezelessness ahead). The smell of hot cocoa warmed him, and made him think of the only Christmases he'd ever celebrated: those with his parents.
He looked down. A tray sat just to the left of his door. A mug with something that looked like hot cocoa and steamed like hot cocoa sat on one edge of the tray. In the center, a coffee cake glistened, the frosting so fresh it slid off the side.
His stomach growled.
He bent down and touched the tray. It was real. Had he ordered it? The three 'bots that had been brought along to make his life easier would put a tray out if he wanted it. He had never wanted one before.
He touched the mug, recognizing it as one of the ship's set. He only used his personal dishes, an affectation the captain called it, but part of the ritualized necessities that kept him going.
The shrinks had said that he wasn't mentally healthyat least when it came to socializingbut he was exactly the kind of person to be left alone on the ship for the three years it took to get to the new colony. Initially, colony vessels like the Dreamer kept three or four people awake to handle backup problems, but the monotony put them at each other's throats. More than one "accidental" death had changed that policy, and then the shrinks got involved.
Competent introverts were the answer.
Boz's problems faced him on the other end, when the ship reached the new planet's orbit, and he woke up the main crew. From then on, he would be in close contact with people, maybe for a year or more.
He worried about it, even now. He had actually told Captain McNeil that the required socializing disqualified him. Boz wouldn't be able to tolerate the living conditions, not just on the ship, but in the colony itself.
"We know," the captain said. Her pretty blue eyes twinkled. He'd often wondered how such a cheerful person had risen so far in the colony programs. "We have several solutions on the dock for you. You can study them as you travel."
His stomach clenched. He didn't want to think about the future. It scared him more than he wanted to admit.
Almost as much as the Christmas carols and the hot cocoa. He crouched, touched the mug, felt the warmth through the unbreakable synth ceramic. Then he stuck a finger in the liquidvery hotand brought it to his lips.
Hot cocoa. He hadn't had that in years, hadn't thought to make it here either, even though the ship's stores had everything he could ever want.
Then he touched the coffee cake. It was warm too. He broke off a piece. It felt fresh baked.
He took a bite. It tasted like the pastries he used to get in New York, before he moved to Houston to begin training for the colony program. Rich, warm, delicately spiced. A taste of the past, one he hadn't even realized he missed.
The entire morning was unnerving him. Was this some kind of test? If so, who had created it, and why do it now, when the ship was in flight? They couldn't turn back, and Captain McNeil had explained to him that they didn't want anyone else to wake up if at all possible.
He ate the coffee cake, sipped from the cocoa but left it on the tray. Too much sweetness for him this early in the day. He pushed the tray asidesomething to deal with laterand headed down the hall, toward the music.
Instrumental now. Something from the Nutcracker Suite. He'd never bothered to learn much about that thingwhat he knew about most of the Christmas traditions, he'd picked up as part of the culture. In fact, he'd felt a little relieved to be away from the annual holiday-assault fest.
He hadn't even realized.
The music grew louder as he reached the rec room. One of the bots stood outside, a tray of cookies on its head. Christmas cookies with frosting and sprinkles and "Happy Holidays" written in red and green across the tray itself.
"I didn't program you for this," Boz said to it.
"That is correct," it said in its mechanized little voice.
He let out a small sigh of relief. He had been starting to doubt his own memory.
"Then what's this all about?" he asked.
"You must enter the recreation room," it said.
"First, tell me what's going on," he said.
"You must enter the recreation room," it repeated. "Or have a cookie."
He flattened his palm against the door lock, then grabbed a cookie despite his best efforts not to and stepped into the recreation room. The music was louder here. The entire place smelled like pine needles. He took a deep breath of the nearly forgotten odor.
In the corner, a tree leaned against the wall. The tree was decorated with tiny multicolored lights and silver balls that reflected those lights. Beneath the tree, hundreds of presents glistened.
Garlands hung around the room, and more lights hung from the ceiling. Their colors reflected on silver disks that lined the floor.
He took a step forward, and one of the disks shimmered. Then a hologram of Captain McNeil rose in front of him. The hologram was cheaply madeBoz could see through her to the treeand winked in and out, as if it couldn't quite sustain the image.
"Merry Christmas, Boz," she said. The image paused. He sighed. It expected a response.
"Merry Christmas," he said.
She smiled. "I hope you don't mind the intrusion into your routine. We programmed this celebration before we left. We've used your file to design the best holiday we can for you."
The image paused again. He wasn't sure how to respond. Say thank you? For scaring him half to death? He couldn't say that. He couldn't say much of anything. He felt as tongue-tied as he would have if she were actually standing in front of him.
Finally, he managed, "Okay."
"We weren't sure about the music. We programmed our favorites. You can change that program now. The bots will prepare a roast turkey dinner for you with all the trimmings. You're welcome to have it whenever you like."
Her eyes twinkled, even in the damn hologram.
"But do open the presents. Each member of the colonizing team brought something they thought you'd appreciate, something you could watch or read or study in the long years ahead."
His mouth was dry. They gave him presents? Why?
"We wanted to tell you how much we appreciate you guarding our ship for the next few years," Captain McNeil's hologram was saying. "We know you wouldn't be able to take the thanks personally, and thanks means so much less when the task is actually completed. So we thought we'd say it now."
The other disks sprang to life. All 656 colonists stood before him, most miniaturized so that they could fit into the room. He took a step backward.
Six-hundred-and-fifty-six people staring himor the image of them staring at himmade him want to flee.
"Thank you, Boz!" they said in unison. "Merry Christmas."
And then, mercifully, they all vanished.
Even the captain.
He swallowed against his dry throat. The music changeda chorus of out-of-tune voices lustily sang, "We Wish You a Merry Christmas." He had a hunch he was listening to the crew.
The door swished open behind him, and one of the bots entered, a tray of beverages on its round head.
"Mulled cider," it said. "Or coffee or spiced tea
No matter how hard it tried, it didn't sound like a waiter. Boz smiled, in spite of himself.
He took the mulled cider, then sat on one of the couches, his heart still beating rapidly. He reached over and touched the tree. His fingers passed through the branches. Another hologram, only a better one than those produced by the disks scattered across the floor.
Then he reached for a present, expecting his fingers to pass through them. But the box was real. He picked it up. His name was scrawled on it in an unfamiliar hand. The tag said the gift was from someone named Betsy Wilson.
He didn't remember a Betsy Wilson. He felt vaguely embarrassed about that. He picked up the gift, opened it, found a dedicated readersomething with a permanent battery and a voice-over function. He would no longer have to use the computer for his late-night reading.
Thoughtful. Bought with him in mind.
He understood what was going on. This was part of the program to ease him into the colony, to prepare him for the future.
He should probably resent it. Perhaps he should act cynically and say there was no warmth behind this gift.
But there was. The colonists could have integrated him in a thousand wayshe'd read about half of those ways on the first part of the journey (and hoped he wouldn't have to do them). Thisthis was heartfelt.
He sat on the couch for a long time, clutching his reader, sipping his mulled cider, taking cookies from the tray on top of the bot's head.
Then he made a decision.
The captain was right: thank-yous after the fact didn't mean as much. He called up the computer log, and had the computer record the room. He hoped the recording would get his face, the absolute awe he felt. Because he wasn't good with words, especially words others would eventually hear.
But even he could say thank you.
And he did.