Distant tinny music filtered along the metal corridors of the Epsilon Class Explorer Vessel, each note collecting a thin coating of rust as it went. The vast pressure of vacuum caused dissonant groans as the panels of the ship’s skin shifted to bare the load.
Vast pressure of vacuum, she thought, gloomily. Vast, silent pressure. Briefly she toyed with the idea of spacing the entire worthless lot of them as they gyrated and flirted their way towards a paralytic coma.
“Christmas...” she sighed.
She’d grown up an Ep-Ex rat, living her entire life in the confined space of a ship designed exclusively to travel as far and as cheap as possible. Not for her verdant vistas. Even when they found an interesting spot in the galaxy, she stayed firmly in the cabin which was home, work and comfort. She flew. The crew explored.
The crew. Every three years a new bunch of candidates. Slung deep through the void on a gravity well and then cruising the solar currents in search of something new, interesting and, preferably, extraordinarily valuable. Bunch of warp-drive wannabes. Not one had any idea what their life would become. They dreamt of glory and adventure but soon realised they’d have to drink away the next three years of their life or go mad in the dark expanse she so loved.
“The child is a King, the Carollers sing,
The old has passed, there's a new beginning...”
Not that drinking your life away was always a bad idea, she thought to herself, head dropping in defeat.
The damp tinsel tacked with hot glue and hope to the bulkheads wafted in the scant airflow afforded by the recirculation unit. The goldish fronds clumping like some wet animal.
It was at that point her entirely relative calm was broken.
Judd was a typical adventuring space pirate quarterback. Why a six foot four pile of muscle and teeth would take a job in the cramped confines of a space craft, she couldn't....well, actually, she could guess. On his bare bicep was a passable representation of the ship complete with the date of departure and, rather optimistically she felt, return. This was to be his great story. No doubt he had already picked out the rocking chair from which he would recite great tales of daring do to the hundred or so grandchildren he could already name. Juddson. Judd Jnr Jnr. Juddette.
“Join us!” He gestured with a foamy bottle of many-times-recycled beer.
“I’d rather not.” She turned away to the rows of instruments – lights with every right and reason to flash multicoloured. This, however, did not deter him.
“Captain, I really feel like we've not hit it off like I wish we had...”
She aimed an eyebrow at him, usually enough to send any one of them scurrying. But not Judd, probably thanks to numbing cheer. He merely slumped into the worn foam sling-shaped navigator’s perch, his bulky knee thudding against her dainty zero-g adapted joint.
“ I've got a story for you!” he enthused, his face bursting into a sly grin.
“Ooooohhhh...” his face fell and she marginally corrected the nosedive of her response, “...good.” Her tone didn't rise with any hint of enthusiasm, but a lack of outright threat seemed enough to convince Judd that his story was perhaps the greatest idea he’d ever had. To be fair, she thought, this could well be the case.
“There was this other Epsilon class a few years back a mate of mine was on, came across a habited world covered in the greenest grass you've ever seen. Fruit growing everywhere. Only two species of sentient life on the whole planet – some sea mammals look like bright orange whales filtering algae in the seas – and these furry little primates who harvest fruit on the land. No biggie, right? No real trade potential – the algae wasn't bad, but eat a bowl and you end up as orange as the whales.”
Despite herself, the captain snorted – the irony of a drink-flushed boy criticising those of unusual hue was unintentionally hilarious.
“No language, no buildings, no clothes even. They spent all year wandering around naked eating fruit and getting fat. They sound simple, right? But they had this weird orb thing, some kind of computer.” He flicked idly at a kumquat-sized glittery bauble precariously attached to the main engine core release. “ Didn't seem to actually do anything for them, but every few days the primates came over and pressed their hand against it,” he let the shiny ball roll against his hand, “and there’s this flash of light and...well...nothing. Tech guys figured it to be some kind of scanner.”
She was impressed, thinking that the orb would turn out to be a weapon and the story inevitably descend into epic, culminating in an intergalactic battle for Truth, Honour and probably some kind of apple based pudding.
“So, anyway, as they’re observing, winter comes by,” he gestured around at the tinsel, as if it spoke of something as organic as a season, “and by come by, I mean WHAM, two days later the grass is all sparkly white and even the seas have iced over. The whales dived deep and entered some kind of hibernation. But top side is where it gets interesting.”
He leaned closer, voice dropping. She could smell the stale booze on his breath and the biological results of scant water reserves. His eyes, though, still sparkled and she found herself unwilling to halt the story.
“When warm, the little guys were all spread out across the land. But as soon as it got chilly, they scurried back to the orb, clustering around it like it was some great big heater. And the techs said that yes, it was giving off a faint heat. Like, maybe, a couple cups of coffee-worth! But still, they snuggled up close to it, maybe ten thousand of ‘em. We threw up an IR filter, and sure enough, right at the centre they were warm as an ostrich in clover,”
She blinked, but he didn't pause. Or explain.
“...and they kept moving, milling around like a mass of electrons circling the nucleus of an atom. But those little electrons, they started to fade.”
He flicked the sparkly decoration, sending it spiralling around madly. Light caught and flickered across the room. Irritated, she grabbed at it, carefully lifted it from the bank of switches, placed it under the heel of her boot, and with one deliberate squeeze, shattered the delicate ball.
“Get on with it, okay?”
“Okay,” he mumbled, suddenly much less sure of himself. “Er, the ones on the edge started to die. Just not warm enough, right? But their friends didn't stop to mourn or bury or burn or whatever. They just kept moving with three or four dying every hour. Soon there was a thick wall of furry frozen bodies surrounding this circle of little guys buzzing about. And the more died, the less the wind got in. But the less heat they were all producing. So it kept pretty stable. And this carried on for well over a hundred cycles, them getting thinner and thinner and the bodies piling up.”
She almost asked why no one did anything to stop this, but everyone knew that you couldn't interfere. You could convince them to sign away half the wealth of their entire planet in exchange for a plastic singing Santa (and given the distant rendition of ‘Rocking Around the Christmas Tree’, she could almost support that policy), but stop a race from wiping themselves out and suddenly you weren't respecting their cultural autonomy.
“And all the time they kept touching this orb thing. It was only by the time the numbers were way down, less than a hundred, we realised that the flash of light changed with the different beings. What’s more, the shorter the flash, the closer to the edge they then went. The longer the flash, the closer to the centre they stayed. Until finally only two were left. And on that day, the winter lifted. The grass was green in a few hours. But,” suddenly the greasy smile returned, “there was one thing the pair were left to do...”
She looked at him, could barely bring herself to say it. “Repopulate the planet?”
His face split open, emanating an horrific glee like radiation.
“Well I thought we might just start with dinner, but OKAY!”
As he leaned towards her, she thrust an arm forward, her nimble fingers catching his flushed nose like a prize salmon.
“All that was some kind of,” she paused, letting sufficient bile rise to colour her words bright green, “COME ON?”
He was struck dumb, the stinging pain of his predicament causing tears to leap to his suddenly fearful eyes.
She sighed, letting go of him abruptly so that he tumbled from his seat and landed in a crumpled mess on the chequer plate deck.
“Christmas.” she muttered under her breath as she left the room.