The Hiccup at the End of the World
Science-Fiction / 4500 words
PREFACE: I’d never thought of writing a Christmas story before… so this one’s a first for me. It’s set in the far future, in a time when Christmas (and most other human holidays) has become more like a myth of ancient times. Hope you enjoy it. And happy holidays!
As humanity spread through the stars, its population exploded. Commerce grew exponentially and new businesses appeared.
Toymaking was one of the fields most impacted, as there were so many children born every day, on every planet, in every galaxy.
Santarians are the most skilled toymakers, of course. It is a well-known fact, their reputation reaching throughout the Imperium—and even beyond.
For centuries, various companies would use them, until one day a series of natural disasters hit their homeworld, leaving it devastated and on the brink of ruin.
They only had one option to survive.
The planet, along with all its inhabitants, was put on sale.
When Kringle & Krane purchased Santaria, the whole world was turned into the most gigantic toymaking factory in the universe.
It required a huge investment from the famous toy distribution company to fix and terraform the planet to their needs, but they gambled it would be worth it in the long run.
And it was. They tripled their revenue within two years of opening the new factory. And doubled that number a year later.
By then, Kringle & Krane had bought out all the competition. They were the only game left in town. But they had grown so much they constantly needed to hire new staff.
And so it was that Nicholas Renn came to Santaria.
Two locals received him—a male and a female.
The species was small, with fur covering their entire bodies, and multiple antlers popping out of their skulls. They had little round eyes that always looked at you in what felt like constant awe and bewilderment.
Renn was brought to a room with blue and red walls. The table was green, the chairs yellow. His eyes felt assaulted, but he said nothing as he sat across from the two Santarians.
The female was looking at a sheet of paper set on the table, while the male had his eyes fixed on him, as if studying him with a startled gaze.
“I am Riv,” he said. “And this is Ayu.”
The female looked up, looking just as perplexed as her companion.
“You are Nicholas Renn, yes?”
“It says here,” she said as she tapped the paper, “that you wish to deliver toys for Kringle & Krane. Why?”
“Because you need delivery men and that I have the means to do it.”
“There are others who do as well.”
“Of course,” he said with a smile.
“That is not reason enough,” said the male.
Despite his astonished expression, it sounded like he was scolding the applicant.
“I want to work at the rim,” Renn said softly. “There are colonies there that are never visited. Those worlds have children too. Children who feel abandoned, forgotten by the Imperium. That should not be.”
The two Santarians looked at each other, then back at the man.
“We cannot deliver there!”
“Well, there are no orders. We can only deliver what is ordered, of course.”
The man made a dismissive gesture.
“Even better. The toys can be gifts, then. It will make them feel special. As well they should.”
If their faces could have frowned, certainly they both would have now. Instead, they looked at him with a puzzled expression.
“I think you mistake us for what we are not. We are in the business of making money—” The female looked down at the sheet. “—Mr. Renn. Not throwing it out the window.” She looked back up.
“Oh, it won’t cost you a thing. I’ll buy the toys and deliver them myself.”
Again, the two Santarians looked at each other, then back at him.
“How many toys would you buy?” asked Riv.
“I don’t know. A few thousand, maybe? I suppose I could always get more, later, if needed.”
“But...” Ayu paused. It was more than appearance this time. There was genuine confusion in her words as she spoke again. “That would make you a customer, not a delivery man. I think you have the wrong office.”
“No, no,” he said, shaking his head. “This is where I need to be.”
The male clicked his tongue, likely annoyed, though it was difficult to say from his expression.
“If you have enough money to buy so many toys, I do not think you would need a job.”
Renn smiled. “I am just one man, Riv. These children need to know that the Imperium remembers them. That is why I need Kringle & Krane. But you’re right, perhaps what I need is not a job, but rather to rent one of your ships. Would you be so kind as to tell me how to do this?”
When a man comes with a personal fortune and is ready to spend whatever it takes to get done what he wants to be done, many doors will open before him quite easily.
And so it was that Renn obtained what he had asked.
He cringed when he saw the rainbow colors the ship had been painted with, the Kringle & Krane logo, and the company’s motto spelled out in large, fuchsia letters: “You order the toy, we deliver the joy!”
Well, he had asked for it, hadn’t he?
He filled it with thousands of toys, then headed for the rim worlds.
One after the other, he visited them. Each time, he would talk to the children and give them gifts. He delighted at seeing the joy in their eyes.
Finally, he reached Adilya. The onboard AI labeled it as “the home of the broken, the beaten, and the damned.” If any place needed his help, this would be it.
He rushed toward the surface and landed in a field of yellow grass, not far from a small village.
Voices rang in the air well before he saw them.
The children came to him, running and laughing. There were some adults, too, who eyed him suspiciously.
“Hello!” he called out once they were close enough. “My name is Nick, and I come bearing gifts.”
“Why?” asked one of the adults.
Renn pointed a finger at the ship behind him.
“Because the Imperium wants you to know you are not forgotten.”
The man spat on the ground. “We settled here fifty years ago. We haven’t seen a single Imperial ship since. Calls for help have remained unanswered. This is too little too late.” He squinted. “Feels like a bribe, too.”
There was much to unpack in that statement, so Renn pondered for a moment as the children gathered around, looking up at him with curiosity.
“It is no bribe,” he finally said. “It is a pact.”
Renn nodded seriously. “As of today, you are no longer alone, and you will have protection. I will make sure of it.”
The other man laughed. “You?” He glanced at the ship with some disdain. “A toy distributor?”
Before he could answer, some of the children tugged at his sleeve. When he looked down, he saw a boy staring at him with wide-open eyes that reminded him of the Santarians.
“You brought us toys?”
He smiled. “I have.”
“I want to see them! Show us!” cried out all the children at the same time.
Renn spent the next half hour distributing wrapped toys to the children.
When one of them had asked why they were wrapped, he had tried to explain.
“Because they are presents. I know it is not your birthdays, but it is an ancient custom. It is part of the spirit of Christmas.”
“The spirit of Christmas?” asked a little girl.
“Christmas is a time of giving, caring, and sharing. The gifts symbolize all of these things.”
An old man who had been listening burst out laughing.
“You talk of a myth that died with old Earth.”
It wasn’t just Christmas, to be fair. It also was Thanksgiving, Halloween, and every holiday humans had ever imagined. Some colonies still celebrated them, but they were few and rare and often did in a form so altered they had morphed into something different. Local traditions known under new names, their origins lost in the mists of time.
Renn smiled. “Not everywhere, it hasn’t. Certainly not here, not today. Christmas lives in our hearts, and will live on as long as at least one person remembers it and spreads its spirit forward.”
The old man said nothing, as the children became agitated, laughing as they discovered their toys.
When Renn was done giving out gifts, he looked up and saw that the adults were still there, eyeing him just as suspiciously as before.
He walked up to the first who had talked to him.
“You said you had called out for help? Why?”
The man squinted. Spat again.
“Our world is dying. That’s why.”
The squinting man’s words left Renn speechless.
After a couple of minutes, he looked at the playing children and frowned.
“How do you mean, dying?”
“Which part of ‘dying’ do you not understand?”
The old man stepped closer and held out his hand to appease the other.
“Leave it alone, Fryth. The stranger cannot understand. How could he?” He sighed as his eyes turned to Renn. “There is a disease spreading through our lands. It eats everything on its way. The earth, the plants, the trees, the flowers... Everything it touches shrivels and dies and blackens. We can’t go back there again either. Those who have attempted to do so, hoping they could fix the land, perished as well, their bodies withering and darkening in much the same fashion.” He glanced at the laughing children. “While I can appreciate your gesture, it is a pointless one. We are all doomed.” He looked back at him. “Now you had better leave, lest that sickness takes you too.”
Renn stared at the old man, shock on his face.
“That’s impossible,” he muttered.
The one named Fryth tensed.
“Are you calling us liars?”
The giver of gifts shook his head. “No. Of course not. I just don’t understand how this can be happening...”
He knelt and placed the palm of his right hand flat against the earth.
“What are you doing?” asked the younger man. The hostility in his voice had now morphed into puzzlement.
Renn closed his eyes and focused.
It did not take long for him to feel it.
It was there, spreading and calling.
He jerked back and stood, the frown on his face increasing.
“Has this world been terraformed?”
Before the adults could answer, one of the boys looked up from his toy with blinking eyes.
“What is terraformed?”
Renn’s gaze softened as he looked at the child.
“Terraforming is a process that men do to change a world. It is an abomination.”
“Why do they do it then, if it’s an abimation?”
The boy wrinkled his nose, crossed his arms, and stomped his left foot.
“That’s what I said!”
Renn chuckled. “Well, sometimes people do bad things for what they believe to be good reasons.”
Pacified, the boy dropped his arms to his sides and tilted his head.
“And they’re not?”
Renn pondered this for a moment.
“I suppose sometimes they really are...”
“Then how can it be a bad thing?”
“Well, maybe you want to help a friend who’s bad in class by giving him all the answers to a test—”
“I would never!”
The man grinned and ruffled the boy’s hair—which got him a frown in response.
“Good for you. But some would, thinking they’re helping. And while it’s true the friend would get a good grade—assuming neither got caught—it wouldn’t resolve the underlying issue. If the friend is faced with the same problem again, he would still not know how to resolve it.”
The old man cleared his throat.
“Are you saying terraforming cannot turn a world into a better place? Because I can tell you it did here.”
Renn sighed and shook his head.
“Not all worlds are meant to hold life. It is not good to force one’s needs upon a planet. It will fight back. I fear that might be what is happening here. Do you have ships to evacuate, if it comes to that?”
The first man snorted. “Why do you think we asked for help? All our ships are broken and stranded. We have no way off.” He motioned with his chin toward Renn’s ship. “Except for that.”
“Maybe he should take the children with him,” said a woman from behind him.
Fryth groaned. “I’m not giving this joker my kids. Are you kidding me?”
Renn held up his hands.
“Let’s not get carried away. There are other things we can try before we consider that option.”
“Like what?” asked the old man.
“Before anything else, I need more information. I have tools on the ship that should help with that. I’ll have to go into orbit and travel around the globe to analyze it from every angle. Once I’ve collected enough data, I’ll be able to better assess the situation.”
The old man seemed skeptical.
“How could you heal a dying world?”
“Will you be our savior?” asked a little girl.
Renn’s eyes went from one to the other.
“I am no savior,” he said quietly, “but I have a few tricks up my sleeve.”
Circling the planet, Renn studied the displays.
The drawback of renting a Kringle & Krane ship was that it was not equipped for tasks such as this. And while it did have an AI, it was a rather cheerful and useless one, that would constantly boast the virtues and reach of the company.
But Renn had expected this, and since he disliked being powerless, he had brought his own tools with him.
Including an AI.
It was a tiny thing, the size of a spot of dust, that he’d merged with his wristpad. There were laws against tampering with these devices, but he cared little for such matters.
He tapped the small screen to activate the AI.
Hello, Nick, echoed a female voice in his head.
“Can you look at the data I’ve gathered about the planet below? It’s limited, but perhaps you can make some sense of it...”
The voice fell silent as the AI worked.
He could see the effects of the ‘disease.’ It was fairly obvious. Large swaths of land had turned black, everything on the ground dying. Humans had had to flee, entire villages and cities abandoned as the population migrated to greener pastures. The buildings remained, but plants within died. Even wood structures would darken and shrivel, as if scorched by invisible flames.
There is a power eating the planet, said the voice.
“Tell me something I don’t know.”
It does not match anything in my knowledge base. I am now scanning Imperium records.
“What is causing this?”
I do not have enough data to answer that.
Renn leaned closer to the screen, watching live as the darkness spread and an entire forest died.
“What would you need?”
A sample of dead earth. Preferably from ground zero.
He sighed and turned to face the controls. His hands ran over the console, pressing various buttons in a quick sequence.
“How long do we have before the whole planet is affected?”
At the current speed of propagation, a month. However, speed is increasing. The contamination could be completed within a couple of weeks.
Renn swore. “Great. Just great. Can you figure out the location where it all started from the data we’ve gathered so far?”
Yes. I have identified the most likely location. Should I take over the ship to take us there?
He sat back in his seat and nodded.
“By all means. Should give me some time to think.”
For a few seconds, he pressed the display of his wristpad against the scanner bay of the console, thus giving his AI access to the entire ship.
We should reach our destination in five minutes.
The craft dipped toward the surface, its speed increasing.
I found no matches in the Imperium’s bases.
Which didn’t mean a thing, of course. They were at the rim. There were countless mysteries beyond, things no human had ever seen.
As they came closer to the planet, Renn saw that the earth here was even blacker. It no longer seemed scorched. The surface was smooth, as if the ground had been covered with some pitch-black substance.
The ship landed softly, and he stepped out to examine the barren landscape. There were no lifeforms here, not even trees or bushes. It was flat as far as the eye could see, with only occasional hills—though these too were just as black and smooth.
He crouched and reached out with his hand, touching the sickened soil with the tips of his fingers.
“It feels like plastic,” he muttered.
There was a distinct tingling sensation, and he felt something trying to suck the life out of him. Focusing, he pushed the force back. He did not stop once the feeling had subsided, but kept going, pushing further, until a hole formed on the black surface, and a glimpse of green grass appeared underneath.
But as soon as he pulled his hand away, the green shriveled and died, and the blackness filled the hole again.
“I can’t fix this without knowing what is causing it,” he said. “Any thoughts?”
I need a sample, repeated the AI.
He grunted. “Fine.”
As he brought out his phaser, he considered how the humans had likened this to a disease. He could see why. Nor was it unthinkable. A world is, after all, a living and breathing thing—to a degree. But if this planet was really sick, what could have caused it? A virus? And had it occurred naturally, or had it been engineered? Or could it be a consequence of human intervention? Could they have altered their world’s essence through their actions?
Aiming the phaser toward the ground, he pressed the trigger and kept it pressed as he drew a small rectangular shape with the beam. Smoke rose from the surface, carrying a stench of molten skin which made him grimace.
Once he was done cutting through, he pushed his fingers into one of the gaps, grabbed, and pulled. The substance was resilient and resisted, but he tore it out, leaving another hole in the ground. Underneath, he could see withered plants and scorched dirt. But within seconds, the black substance expanded to fill the hole.
He could feel the morsel he held tingling against his skin. Still it attempted to drain his vital energies, though it could not.
Once back on board, he placed the sample in a glass container, where it could touch nothing living. He half expected it to die, but it did not.
He realized he thought of it as a living entity itself.
A virus is also a living entity, remarked the AI.
“True. Can you make anything out of it?”
It is too early to say. Give me a few minutes.
Renn chuckled as he turned back toward the controls and set a new course for the ship. With a few quick strokes, he started recording the spreading of this thing, to see if perhaps he could identify some sort of pattern.
You were correct, finally said the AI. It is a living organism that feeds upon other living organisms. But it is not a virus.
“How can you be so sure?”
Because it is sentient.
Renn remained quiet for a long moment, staring at the black substance in the glass container. It did not move.
“How do you know that?”
It felt my prodding and tried to resist. When one technique failed, it would try another. It was not just instinct. There was a clear purpose in its actions.
His eyes went back to the screen, and he looked at the quiet planet below. So much of its surface had turned black. Could he destroy this creature, whatever it was? He did not like to kill. But if he did not, these humans would be doomed. The substance would absorb them, just like it had already absorbed so many of this world’s lifeforms.
There had to be another way.
With a frown, he stood and walked out of the control room. He had not looked at the entire ship yet, he’d had no reason to. But he did now.
The largest space he knew of was the hold, and though most of the toys had already been distributed, there still were some left there. Perhaps he could find another room... it didn’t need to be quite as big.
But everything he found was significantly smaller.
He went to the hold and stared at the mostly empty space, pondering.
Would there be enough room left?
He could also move what toys were left into a smaller compartment. It would take some time, but it felt like the most sensible solution.
Working as fast as he could, it took him a little over an hour to get everything transferred.
Once this was done, he returned to the hold.
“We’re gonna need glass,” he said. “Lots of it.”
He gestured around him.
“Enough to make a cage that could fill this space... or at least, most of it.”
There is no building material available on this ship. But there are glass walls and various items that could be repurposed.
He grimaced. “That would take too long.”
“How do you mean?”
We could use heat generated by the ship’s thilium core to melt all the glass and shape it as you wish.
“Could you handle it on your own?”
There was a brief moment of silence, which Renn knew to be indicative of surprise.
There are decommissioned robots aboard. I suppose I could use them as arms... What are you going to do?
“What I do best, of course.”
He started with dirt. He always had some with him, inside a small pouch that hung from his belt.
Grabbing a handful, he threw it into the air, and it swirled, spiraling endlessly before him.
Next, he tossed a rock into the drifting cloud.
Lifting a hand, he made a few quick gestures, and the dirt coalesced into a small globe, with the rock at its center.
Pausing for a moment, he considered his work. He made new motions, and the shape grew. And grew. He could feel the energies coursing through his body, running through his arms, escaping from the tips of his fingers to pour into the form.
Some might have called it magic, but they would have been mistaken. There was nothing magical about this process.
A cloud of particles sprung from the pores of his skin. Each particle carried a microscopic machine, engineered by a technology so advanced that no human could comprehend it. There were thousands, millions, billions of them. They were an integral part of his body, so he needed not speak. A simple thought sufficed to command them. They knew what he wanted them to do, so they obeyed.
Now, Renn used them to create a miniature planet.
Three hours later, it floated before him. He watched with a smile as tiny rivers appeared, forests grew, and other lifeforms emerged.
He had never created a world so small. Nor had he ever made one that could heal itself—that was required for his plan to succeed.
As he brought the finishing touches to his creation, he heard metallic footsteps behind him. Turning, he saw four robots walk in with a large sheet of glass, which they set on the ground under the floating planet. They turned and marched back out.
“I take it you are done?”
Almost. Four of six parts have been completed. I thought we could start installing what is done to save time.
Are you finished with your project?
Renn considered the miniature planet and pondered for a moment.
“I think so. Though it is a strange sensation to create something you know is fated to be destroyed. I find solace in the knowledge it will be reborn.”
Only to die again.
By the time the robots had installed two side panels, the last parts had been completed.
Half an hour later, the world floated within a self-contained glass cage.
It is not sealed, remarked the AI.
“I’ll need to go in there for the next phase, so we can worry about sealing it later.”
The ship went back down toward the surface, though it did not land. Instead, it hovered a few feet above the ground.
Renn opened the hold’s door and looked down at the black substance. He had held it in his hands. He knew its texture, its patterns, its hunger. This knowledge gave him power over it. The cells within his body could control this alien being.
He held out his hands and focused.
Energies once again coursed through his arms and shot out toward the ground. The blackness squirmed as it felt itself pulled. It resisted, fought back, but it was no match. Soon it was ripped from the earth, as if vacuumed by an irresistible force.
Renn walked backward as the substance came to him. With a few gestures, he shaped it into a ball. Two robots slid one of the glass panels aside so he could enter. He looked over his shoulder and smiled as he saw his creation floating above him. He stopped and, with a calculated motion, sent the ball toward the miniature planet.
The substance hit it like a bolt. More of it was still coming into the ship—a long black trail of solid smoke.
Now that it had been offered new food, the creature no longer resisted. It came willingly, and hungrily. Within minutes, the entirety of its being had wrapped itself around the globe. Renn walked out, and the cage was closed.
Though the alien had been big enough to cover the whole planet, it had not started that way. It had expanded to fit the size of its prey. Likewise, it now contracted to fit its new home. And as it devoured its lifeforms, new ones were born, in an endless cycle of life and death.
Unending food for an insatiable appetite.
There was likely no need to seal the cage, but Renn felt it would be safer to do so. He would not want some human to stumble inside and touch what now looked like a simple, smooth, black globe. He shuddered at the thought of what would happen then.
The ship landed and he went outside.
Though the black substance was gone, all he could see now were dead trees, dead leaves, dead flowers, and scorched earth.
He knelt and set his hands against the ground.
Closing his eyes, he allowed the energies to course through him again.
He stayed like this for over an hour.
When he stood, the landscape looked much the same.
He stumbled back into the ship, exhausted.
After six hours of sleep, Renn returned to the village. He was greeted by the same group of children and adults.
“Your world is no longer dying,” he told them.
The children laughed and cheered, but the adults all looked at him like he was crazy.
“Nothing has changed,” said Fryth, pointing at a distant forest of dead trees.
Renn just smiled.
“You are a strange one,” said the old man. “You talk of long-dead customs, yet use modern technology...”
“How would you know what I use?”
The man laughed and pointed at the ship. “We have nothing like this here. Or that.” He pointed at Renn’s wristpad. “Our people were left here to die. All our equipment is broken and there are none among us who remember how to fix them, let alone make new ones.”
“Things will change,” said Renn. “Others will come.”
The old man sighed. He glanced at the children, who still played with their new toys.
“You mentioned Christmas earlier. You do realize it was traditionally held in December, a word that has no meaning on this world? We never even have winters here.”
Again, Renn smiled. “You do not need snow to experience a Christmas miracle.”
Without another word, he turned and went back on his ship.
They all watched as he lifted off and sped back out into space.
A week later, trees became green again, and new flowers blossomed.
That day would be remembered as a Christmas miracle.
And thus was a new tradition born.
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Text (c) 2021 by Alex S. Garcia.
Header: royalty-free stock images, edited by me.
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