*It is now complete. It ended up being somewhat shorter, but that’s probably not a detriment. And if you want to blame anyone for this, blame my husband who has been mainlining Christmas movies in the evening. Well, that and the fact I haven’t had a good night’s sleep in over three weeks. – SAH*
It doesn’t snow in space. There are no chimneys in a scout ship lost in unknown coordinates. And John was fresh out of socks, and he was all out of the energy to wash one and hang it on the non-existent chimney.
He looked at the date blinking on his calendar. On Earth, in his native coordinates in Colorado, a North American State, it was December 24 and 11:30 pm. Stockings would be hung on mantels, and adults would be telling children they really should go to bed so Santa Claus would come. His parents had been pros at the deception, and he and his sisters had been treated to what sounded realistically like the jingling of sleigh bells, and hooves on the roof. Dad had gone to the trouble of installing speakers in the attic space, so he could add to their experience.
He wondered how dad would react to news John had been lost. Dad had got a lot less animated and joyous since mom had died last year. He seemed to just be waiting to join her. He’d probably shake his head and say “Danger of the trade.” And then hope to join John too when his time came.
John stared at the flawless grey glasssteel ceiling above him. It was a danger of the trade. Scouting was difficult work. You set off for a series of coordinates, quite literally to see where they led. If promising you’d set up a beacon there, which would allow the actual planet scouts to come, land, and explore and return home.
No one would endure both the risks of scout location and of planet scouting-clearing, both.
But you, yourself were dependent not just on your native mathematical ability, but also on a complex and often temperamental AI system to find their way back home. If either failed, you could be lost, in space, in time, or both.
In the last four hundred years, Schrodinger ships — so called because the first one might have arrived, might not, and no one knew for sure — had gone from wildly unreliable, to reliable only when paired with humans, so hopped up on dangerous drugs they died within ten years, to AI controlled and mostly reliable. Mostly. If there was a beacon onto which the ship’s AI could fasten, and a decent pilot aboard, you could be sure you’d return.
But if you were a scout setting beacons for jumping places, you might return or not. You might miscalculate. Or the AI might fail.
John tasted bitter bile at the back of his throat. On Christmas day, too.
Not that it mattered, or not really. He had jumped… he looked at the display: five times to get here. And that last jump had gone seriously awry, and the constellations looked odd, and the AI stubbornly insisted they were in Location Unknown, Coordinates Unknown. He might be in the past or the future. He might be in another universe, for that matter. Every hundred years or so the eggheads liked to claim the jump-ships, a more dignified name for Schrodingers, were actually jumping between universes. It was all the same to him, of course.
That blinking calendar on the dash displayed his personal date, the hours and days counted inside this ship from the moment he had embarked at Pikes Peak Port, with a cup of coffee and a doughnut consumed in haste, hugging his sister and telling his nephews he’d be back for Christmas.
The kids had asked he name a star after them. Paul James would be an odd enough star, but not weirder than some he’d heard. Some he’d heard had names like Peanut Butter And Jelly and Do Drop In. After all naming the new was scout’s privilege. A small payment for all the risk.
How long did he have, really?
There was food and water for a week. Maybe a little longer with care. And air would recycle as long as the power held. For how long did he have power? Could he get at least nearer a star in that time?
The distant stars shone like pinpoints in black velvet. They looked indifferent and cold.
It was now twenty minutes to midnight on Christmas eve. He imagined his dad and sisters — Bella and Anna — getting the news he was missing. It was stupid, because he had no idea how long the exploration bureau would wait to notify family. At this point he was less than a day away. Surely they wouldn’t.
For a moment, just a moment, he contemplated opening the AI panel. But then what? unless there was an obvious cut wire with a note to connect again, he’d never figure it out. People spent a lifetime studying both AI software and hardware before they were competent to touch those in a scout ship.
He could — and did — redo the calculations again, and feed them to the AI while programming it to jump to the pre-planned point. He pressed execute, felt the slightly queasy clenching of the stomach in the translation. And… Velvet with pinpoint stars.
He rested his forehead on the edge of the console, and hoped against hope for a miracle. He was twenty three. He’d hoped to do this another year, then find a place somewhere in the outer worlds, maybe find a wife–
This would just push dad towards giving up on life. And what would his sisters tell the kids?
He knew this could happen. He just didn’t expect it would happen to him.
And more than anything, he wanted to be a kid again, back home, with his mom reading the Christmas story about the wise men who came, following a star.
At that moment it seemed to him he heard his mom say “Follow the star, John.” It was her voice with that hint of a smile, like she spoke when she was amused or he was being dense. “Just follow the star.”
He opened his eyes, with a feeling as if he were waking up. There, in the center of the screen, one of the pinpricks seemed just slightly shinier than the others.
It’s probably an optical illusion, he thought. But really, what did he have to lose, after all? Yes, it was completely irrational, but then again, there was no rational response at this point. He’d done everything he’d been trained to do, and he was completely lost.
He hadn’t done manual jump calculations, on sight, since his first year in the Academy, but what the heck. Calling up on blunted memory, he feverishly calculated the location of that bright, particular star.
And then, heart beating erratically, simultaneously sure that all was lost, and that he’d be home in a few hours, he pressed the translation button.
There was the queasy feeling in his stomach, and the display went black. Which was not supposed to happen. At all.
From above, he swore he could hear sleigh bells and…. tiny hooves? On the scout ship?
Then suddenly the AI chimed announcing they’d reached the point, and John was in orbit on an Earth like planet.
John looked at the coordinates, and blinked. He would swear that was the point he’d been aiming for all along, when he’d started out and gotten so disastrously lost.
He checked his log book and there it was.
It was with his voice colored by wonder and confusion that he recorded the message for the beacon as “Welcome to Christmas point.”
Paul and James would wait a little longer.
He released the beacon into orbit, to greet the planet scouts when they came.
And then, holding his breath, afraid of some bizarre accident, he pressed the go home program.
It was a minute past midnight on Christmas day when he emerged into Earth orbit, and little more when he sat down at Pikes Peak Space Station.
Bella’s home, in Colorado Springs was awake, with her kids and Anna’s opening all their gifts, and breakfast on the table.
Still dazed, short on sleep, John sat on the sofa, watching the familiar excitement, part of him still shocked that he was here, that he’d made it back at all.
Dad got up from the chair near the fireplace and came to sit by John. “I’m glad you’re back,” he said. “They told us you were late and might be lost. Some glitch?”
John nodded. “Yeah. I swear I heard mom’s voice telling me to follow the star. And it worked. It makes no sense.”
His dad stared at him a long time, then went to the pile of unopened gifts, and brought John a small package, he set on John’s lap. The tag said “For John, From mom.”
John looked up at his dad.
“It was in a box, on her closet shelf. There was one for each of you kids. I didn’t know. Found it yesterday. Started clearing her closet.”
With trembling fingers, John pulled the bow, and opened the bright red paper wrapping.
Inside was a silver star, in filigree, finely wrought. A Christmas tree ornament, with a loop of ribbon for hanging.
“Dad!” John said.
“Bella’s was a heart and Anna’s was a bell. And I had a feeling, from the shape I could feel.”
John held the star in wonder, feeling its swirls and turns. “I’m going to hang it in the cabin, over the instrument panel. I know it’s silly, but I feel if it’s there, I’ll always find my way home.”
His dad smiled, but his voice was thickened by tears as he said, “I don’t doubt you will.”