The Christmas Meteorite
Better late than never....
This Christmas story was translated from German by Barbara Conrady. Feel free to read it now or keep it for Christmas next year. :-)
Danke Barbara (How about some more Austrian chocolate?) and also thanks to Tayryn for beta-reading the translation and offering helpful comments and suggestions!
......... some time after episode 48 .............
All by herself, as is the case when you're the only one on duty during the night shift, Yasko was sitting in Command Centre, filing her nails. She was bored to death, to put it mildly, and craved a couple of fashion magazines to pass the time. Considering her situation in general (far away from any Earth mass media for years), she would have joyfully put up with any antiquated issues. Meanwhile, her nails were perfectly neat and shiny, a manicured piece of art, so to speak - not in her wildest dreams she could have found another spot to file. With a sigh she put the file aside.
Doing so, she glanced fleetingly at the main monitor, which showed the movement of one of the computer controlled cameras during its routine check of the Alphan night sky. Just at that moment, a shooting star flashed above Alpha and disappeared behind the bordering crater hills. On the occasion of this rare event, Yasko considered wishing for a fashion magazine, since shooting stars are well known as a guarantee for good luck, granting wishes in an inexplicable way. At the same time, she had great trouble making a choice because numerous other ideas surged vehemently into her mind. While weighing up all her desires, suddenly a new, less joyful thought struck her: Watching shooting stars might have been well justified on Earth, but surely not in the atmosphere-free space around the moon, so it dawned on her she had better let go of her secret hopes and go to work.
She jumped up as if bitten by a tarantula, hammering her instructions for the computer into the keyboard while - and this was against all ergonomic comforts - standing up. The computer slowly woke up from its lethargy and let Yasko know that, despite all the assistance from its sensors and technical gadgets, it certainly hadn't noticed anything exciting, so everything was perfectly normal. Finally the machine demanded to know whether there was anything more it could do for the "operator". The "operator" in the form of Yasko was rather disconcerted by now, staring at the main monitor which still showed the crater ridge where the shooting star had come down. Totally lost, her hands took the initiative and typed the Commander's code into the commlock.
In spite of
the late hour - it was half past two in the morning - John Koenig was busy with
his latest habit: worrying about the whole base's ability to function.
Naturally, the crew was constantly busy doing maintenance and constructing new
machines, hardware and programmes, but little by little, wear and tear seemed
to be gaining victory over a well functioning Alpha. The resources were
sufficient to keep the base going, but above that? Workers and raw material
were in a bad way - to repair the numerous and increasing damages, there would
have had to be at least twice as many people than were currently living on
Slowly but steadily, the base was falling apart.
In the midst of those thoughts the commlock signal beeped, and John wasn't sure if the message waiting for him was to be preferred to his mulling over problems.
Yasko, who was on night duty, blinked at him excitedly from the tiny monitor. In his mind, John leaned back relaxing. Yasko's "emergencies" were usually trifles and banalities, which were easily solved by offering some encouraging words and clear instructions.
"Commander! There's something wrong here!!"
"What do you mean, Yasko? Please be a little more specific." A volley of incomprehensible gibberish sounded from the commlock's speaker, which John stopped with a sharp word.
Helena emerged from the next room, wearing a very old, faded pyjama-top and a hairstyle which, as usual at that time of night, was all over the place. "What's wrong, John?"
Helplessly he looked at her. "No idea. It seems Yasko fell asleep while on duty and is now telling me about a hail of meteorites which apparently buried Alpha under it."
His interpretation of Yasko's description caused another acoustic attack out of the commlock.
"But if no alarm was set off and there were no abnormal measurements, where's the problem?"
"Commander! I know what I have seen."
With a sigh John stood up. "She knows what she has seen," he explained to Helena, then he put on his uniform.
John stepped out of the elevator, which already was festooned with all kinds of Christmas decoration. Not even the artificial mistletoe was missing, dangling from the ceiling, which sometimes caused ticklish situations for innocent crewmembers. He entered the bare corridor leading to the Command Centre. This corridor had been declared a "working room", meaning a Christmas-taboo-zone, to put a stop to eager crewmembers with a "Christmas decomania".
Tony Verdeschi's loud voice was already sounding from inside Command Centre, promising Yasko hell if the voice's owner, meaning Tony Verdeschi in his position as security chief, had left the valleys of deep sleep for nothing. John entered the room, finding Maya concentratedly sifting through the camera recording Yasko had pointed out to them on her monitor. Finally she straightened up. "I'm sorry, Yasko. There is nothing to see here. Not the tiniest trace of a shooting star."
Yasko squirmed under the looks of her superiors and finally gathered all her courage for a reply. "Please, Commander! Believe me, it was really there! Isn't it suspicious that now, suddenly, nobody sees anything of it?"
Tony's expression revealed unmistakably what he found suspicious about the whole thing. It obviously had nothing to do with space phenomena or technical defects, but rather with mental insufficiencies which, in his opinion, were romping merrily inside Yasko's head. But he didn't voice his opinion as he saw Maya, who knew exactly what he was going to say, shake her head with squinted eyes.
"All right," John said. "If it means any relief to you, we'll send an Eagle to the spot where your shooting star has come down, later, when day duty has begun. They will check if there are any traces. That's all we can do at the moment."
"Send an Eagle now, Commander!"
"Well, well, let's not go overboard!"
The night had passed peacefully without any further disturbances. In Command Centre, things had returned to normal. The day team had replaced Yasko, after hearing her agitated report of the night's events with great amusement.
With a broad smile Sandra turned to Tony who showed up late for duty, his face lined with sleep. "Well, it appears we are going to hunt a shooting star today!" she said. "I hope the one who catches it is granted three wishes!"
"Shut up!" he replied grumpily. "I don't want to hear any more of that nonsense. We should send Yasko for a long term stay in Medical Centre."
"Tony!!" The rebuke came immediately from Maya's corner. "It's better she alerts us one time too many than one time too little!"
Since nobody could say anything against that view, daily routine settled over the crew, at least until Alan Carter, who apparently had just checked today's schedule of Eagle flights, contacted Sandra. "We're going to look for what?" he shouted into the commlock as if the person on the other end of the line had a screw loose and didn't hear well on top of that. At just that moment the alarm went off, and as suddenly as it occurred, everybody's hearts seemed to stop beating. A feverish rush of actions followed. Seconds later John came dashing into Command Centre, and even before he could ask the inevitable question what the hell had happened now, Maya already had the answer.
"Commander, you won't believe this: There is a man outside, knocking at the door, asking to be let in." She pressed a few buttons, and on the main monitor a huge grey figure appeared, pressing its nose against the door's glass and waving both hands frenetically. Apart from the man's bare presence, the most striking thing about him was that he didn't wear a space suit.
"What the devil.!" Tony began as the figure started hopping from one leg to the other and folding its arms across its body, shivering. Small clouds of dust rose from every of his movements, stopped for a second in the empty space, then indecisively floated down to the ground.
"Our instruments can't measure anything," Maya stated worriedly while still - though without success - tried to get the sensors to give some sort of answer.
"Great!" Tony exclaimed. "So our measure instruments are all up the spout too then! Sandra, I need a system check!"
"There is nothing wrong with the sensors," the analyst replied after a while, concernedly watching the figure on the monitor who apparently called out something to them, which was inaudible because no sound could be conducted through the vacuum. Reading lips was not difficult, however, since the word was Help.
"Commander!" Sandra was melting with pity. "We cannot let him stand out there like that!"
John raised both hands, signalling the decision was taken away from him. "Open the airlock," he said surrendering, "but I want a security team there, Tony. Whoever the guy is, he should know we are not completely defenceless!"
The airlock's inner door opened, and for a few moments nothing happened. Then the grey mass began to move, staggering towards the reception committee consisting of almost twenty people, including security and medical personnel. The newcomer reached the threshold, then fell with a heavy thud to the ground right in front of the Alphans' feet. A large cloud of dust whirled up, causing fits of coughing and sneezing among the people and temporarily reducing the sight to zero. The security team collectively raised their stun guns, aiming grimly into the thick dust cloud in order to kill the grey monster immediately - provided that there was a grey monster in the dust cloud.
But, since nothing happened and the dust began to settle leisurely on the people and all over the room, John signalled the medical team. Two guards cautiously approached the peculiar guest who lay sprawled in front of them, arms stretched out sideways, not moving. Helena instructed them to turn him around, which they did with all due circumspection, touching him only with their fingertips. He was as hard to move as a wet sack, but finally showed them his unconscious front view.
"My goodness!" Helena exclaimed. "Did the guy bathe in moon dust?" She quickly wiped the dirt off his face, and an elderly, bearded man became visible. He had bluish lips, a red nose and a huge bump on his forehead. The chief medical officer used her scanning device to examine him, read it, turned the switches, scanned him again and finally tapped her finger on the display when there were still no data visible. "It seems my scanner is broken."
John explained to her that probably there were no measuring results to be expected from this guest. "Take him to Medical. I want him to be watched strictly round the clock. Helena, please let me know when he wakes up."
The group dispersed, and John returned to Command Centre. Arriving there, he heard that Alan Carter was waiting in the Eagle, literally with the engine running, to start the scheduled reconnaissance flight. John sent Maya to the Eagle hangar, telling her to accompany the pilot and search the moon landscape with a sharp eye for anything unusual.
An hour later a message was sent from Medical Centre: The stranger had recovered consciousness and, to everyone's relief, was behaving in a friendly way.
John was still waiting for the first report from the team on the Eagle, which, when it finally came, was rather unspectacular. The crash spot, if the stranger's landing could be called that, was impossible to discover because it was simply too dark. John ordered Alan to search the area grid square for grid square, as in his opinion the man could hardly have flown through space like a human rocket. His space ship had to be somewhere, probably stuck to a crater wall!
Next, he hurried to Medical Centre. On the way there, he was harassed acoustically by Christmas songs droning from every corner. From every open door he passed, holiday mood and Christmas smells came gushing out, and he gave a capitulating sigh. Although he appreciated the fact that Earth customs were upheld even here in the emptiness of deep space, which made him generally give the crew a free hand concerning the celebration of holidays, he himself was no big fan of such exuberant ceremonial activities.
To his delight, Medical Centre looked as plain and unadorned as usual. Only the windows showed some shy little attempts of Christmas decoration. Just like John, Helena disliked home customs being exaggerated in a kitschy, over-ornate way, so she had her personnel who were crazy about decorating firmly under control. John grinned remembering Helena telling him outraged about her nurses who had taken to ambushing her every year, armed with colourful lamps, balls, plastic snowmen and shining reindeers, pouncing on every free wall or area, so that the chief medical officer had to jump around like a tamer among the unleashed ones, in order to save at least the medical instruments, computers and laboratory equipment from the well-intentioned optical disasters.
John entered the diagnostic unit from the side entrance. In the midst of medical and security personnel the stranger was standing, wearing huge white trunks with big blue polka dots, patiently letting Helena examine him. He was tall, fat, and by now, clean again. His beard was white and, along with a tousled mane of just as snow-white hair, framed a friendly face dominated by cheerful blue eyes and little wrinkles revealing that he loved to laugh.
"I'm almost done," Helena said in John's direction, removing the stethoscope from her ears. Then she asked her patient to relax on the examination cot, and John went ahead to Dr. Russell's office.
A moment later she entered the office, surprising him with a very puzzled expression.
"What's up?" he demanded to know.
"First of all: Our instruments here can't detect the man either," she replied. "We can only tell what we can grasp by our own senses. He seems to have banged his head terribly, as you can tell from the bump on his forehead, but I can't check definitely whether there's any organic damage."
"Did he tell you anything?"
She sighed. "Not much. He's. let's say. a bit crazy. - No! I don't think he's dangerous!" she hurried to add when she saw the alarms going off in John's head. "He isn't. He's very kind and cheerful, but he is a little bit off his rocker."
"Do you think he's trying to fool us?"
She shrugged. "Who knows? We don't have a chance to find out. - But you should take a look at this!" She called Paula through the open door, and a few moments later the nurse appeared with a pile of clothes in her arms.
"That's his - how shall I call it - costume. We cleaned it a little." Paula spread out the clothes on Helena's desk in front of John. It was a bright red, slightly dusty set of Santa-Claus-garments, all complete, including a black belt, golden buttons, white fur collar and matching fur cuffs. Only the jelly-bag cap was missing.
John's hand went perplexed to his mouth as he stared at the clothes. "Did he have anything in his pockets?"
She nodded. "Sweet stuff," she said. "Candy canes and shell-almonds. Everything's real."
Speechlessly he stared at her, and her face mirrored a mixed confusion of amazement, incredulity and the urge to protest. In the corners of her eloquent expression, though, there was a touch of smiling amusement.
"Helena, I must talk to him."
"Go ahead," she said. "I just want him to eat something."
"Did he say he's hungry?"
She laughed. "That wasn't necessary. His stomach was growling so loudly I could hardly check his heartbeat!"
When they entered the patients' room together, the strange guest was neatly dressed in a pair of blue base pyjamas size XL, sitting on the bed smiling. John introduced himself as the commander of the base, and told the guest in what kind of place he was.
"Very interesting," the man said, and it was obvious he didn't have the faintest idea of what was going on. "You know, I actually have been asked if I happen to be a certain Santa Claus, the - what was that? - the man who appears on Christmas!"
John cast Helena a stern look, but she seemed just as surprised as he was, and looked searchingly around the room. One of the nurses discreetly slunk away while another one was very busy examining the ceiling panel. The guest didn't notice anything of the silent communication. He leaned closer to John and continued half whispering, "To be honest, I don't know the guy, but I'm not so sure the others believe I'm telling the truth! I hope at least you believe me."
"I definitely believe you are not Santa Claus!" John replied; a bit annoyed about the loose tongue of some of the Alphans.
"Listen, Commander Koenig, it's getting a bit boring here. Where can I have a wild time?" Innocent blue eyes scrutinized John.
"Wait a moment!" Helena intervened in her function as the keeper of health. "You won't have anything like a wild time for a while, my dear. You have at least a bad concussion, which means you have to take it easy and stay in bed!"
At just that moment a medical assistant entered carrying a big tray of food, which caught his attention immediately.
"What's for dinner?" John asked curiously.
The assistant seemed to shrink noticeably before she reluctantly answered, "Gourmet stew, Commander."
John and Helena looked at each other in dismay. Of all culinary oddities the cooks on Alpha had come up with in the course of time, the gourmet stew was definitely the most awful invention which could possibly offend the palate and any other parts of the digestive system. The guest, however, lifted the lid off the plate, grabbed the fork and shovelled the attack on the taste-buds, "the decline of the whole Western civilization", as Alan once had called the stew, joyfully into his mouth.
"Delicious!" he exclaimed as he finished the plate, went on with the soup which he spooned up in no time, and finally devoured the dessert. Then his imploring look fell on the assistant who had been watching him openly and with obvious amazement. "Only one thing could complete my joy and satisfaction," he declared in a long-winded way. "A few more helpings of these wonderful tasty creations!"
The assistant, still with an open mouth and wide round eyes, looked at John, which Helena interpreted as a question. "Go on, Mary," she said. "If he's starving like that, we can hopefully help him - especially since he's so easily satisfied!"
In the meantime, "Operation Shooting Star" had begun to run fully. Half of the Eagle fleet was involved in the search. The area had been determined based on Yasko's data (Yasko, by the way, was obviously very satisfied now), and it had been extended a bit in hopes of finding the Alphan guest's spaceship and getting more information out of it.
Tony co-ordinated the operation from Command Centre, and Alan, again accompanied by Maya, was in charge on the spot. He let his Eagle circle above the search area, following the signals he received from the other teams.
The search was made difficult by the fact that the moon was far away from any external light source, so each grid square had to be thoroughly lit up by human floodlights. More than once, sharp shadows appeared like the shape of a vehicle made by human hand, but the shadows vanished as soon as a second light source drew nearer from another side. Since sensors couldn't be used and it was necessary to rely on one's eyes, the undertaking was difficult and troublesome.
They worked hard for several hours until Alan noticed it was time to refuel. Returning to the base he flew around the search area in a wide curve, chatting with Maya about all kinds of Christmas customs on Earth. Suddenly, Maya became distracted and interrupted Alan. "Go a bit deeper," she requested. "About two degrees starboard. Something's moving."
Alan gazed in the direction, but saw nothing. Still, he changed the Eagle's height and direction. "What do you see?"
"There's a light."
"Right ahead! Don't you see it? It's small and red!"
Alan sighed very audibly. When Maya saw a red light it didn't mean that his own weak human eyes were able to detect it too. "Did you morph that falcon's look into your eye again?" he asked with a grin.
Surprised, she looked at him. "Yes. Sorry," she replied remorsefully. "I totally forgot."
But of course, she had been right. Steered by the Psychon, Alan finally saw the red shining spot which had attracted her attention. It kept moving around restlessly, and wasn't visible all the time. Alan turned on every single floodlight of the Eagle so that the ship looked like a horizontal rough Christmas tree, floating across the moon's surface. The light caught the red shining spot, and the thing that became visible behind it made both Alan and Maya freeze speechlessly behind their consoles.
"Rudolph," was all Alan could finally say. "Rudolph."
"What was that?" Tony's question sounded through the speaker into the command module. "What are you babbling, man?"
"Rudolph the red nose reindeer," Alan intonated faintly, "had a very shiny nose."
The question marks the Command Centre was sending into the Eagle floated almost tangibly across the cockpit.
"There are eight reindeer staring at us like a bus," the pilot explained breathlessly. "They've got their sleigh with them too." And at the very front the leading reindeer was standing, holding up its big red shining nose proudly against the arriving Alphans.
"Everybody," Maya said after a while. "I think we can stop searching. We found the - spaceship."
Christmas drew nearer. The problems, however, didn't become less.
John felt like doing anything but celebrating. One of the electricity generators had broken down. It was difficult to repair, and it was not clear whether the spare parts could be produced at all. One generator didn't mean the end of the world, but if one broke down, so could a second. Then a third and a fourth.
Another potential source of worries was the arrival of the unusual, strange guests. The reindeer had successfully been driven into a transporter Eagle and transferred to the base. An area in the Eagle hangar was prepared for the animals. They appeared to feel comfortable there, and joyfully devoured all the kitchen scraps they were offered.
In the meantime, naturally, the old gentleman and his "crew", to many Alphans, had indeed become Santa Claus and his reindeer team, even though John - as usual - saw the affair in a more sceptical way. Helena assumed the whole thing was a phenomenon that perhaps was manifested in the personification of a collective wish made by the whole crew. After all it was suspicious that the man had appeared exactly during Christmas season, and that human instruments could detect neither him nor his animals. To John, all these were unmistakable signs that good old Santa was anything but real. Not to mention that Santa Claus in reality didn't exist in the first place, and was simply invented to confuse generations of children. The fact that John had to actually stop and think about it, however, bemused him too. Apparently he wasn't as immune to Christmas magic as he had always thought to be after all.
In the midst of his musings, Sandra burst with a message she had received from the recreation area. "Eddie Collins is asking from Club 99 whether he can serve Santa alcohol."
"Well, he is sitting on a stool in the club singing loudly cheerful drinking-songs. - The Alphans around there seem to enjoy singing along with him," she added unnecessarily.
"Where are the guards?"
"Tony is checking on them now."
"Ah, John," he heard the security chief's voice. "The guards are asleep in Medical Centre. There was no one from the medical staff in the room, so he could slip out of there unnoticed. He must have gone straight to the recreation area."
"Tony, I'll see you at the club."
"Come in, come in!" Santa called beamingly as the security team followed by John came storming into the Club 99. "Commander, come on and have a drink with me."
John went up to him. "What did you do with the security guards?"
"What I did? I didn't do anything. The men were tired and went to sleep. So I thought it would be nicer to not disturb them."
John breathed deeply. Certainly the guards had simply fallen asleep on their posts!
The old man motioned him to come closer and whispered, "You know what I noticed, Commander? Everybody here looks cheerful, but in reality they're not. Something should be done about this!"
"Come on," John said lamely. "You can't cure a concussion in a bar."
From that day on it was clear that Santa used any chance to sneak out of Medical Centre. No door could be shut enough, no guard could be awake enough, no sleeping pill could be strong enough for him not to escape. He appeared here, there and everywhere, strolling through the base, chatting merrily with the people, being so kind and unsophisticated that everybody was happy to see him and have a word with him, until a squad from Medical Centre came hurriedly gasping to take him back again.
The commander was not very happy about the situation, but deep inside he had softened towards this incarnation of a good-natured soul. Whether he himself believed that the man was "the" Santa Claus, was something he preferred not to think about.
In the repair dock, Alan walked around the ruins of the once so proud sleigh. Bent parts were sticking bulkily up in the air, and the runners had inexplicably rolled up like spirals, sticking to the side like crooked corkscrew curls, so that the sleigh's frame was lying flat on its face like a lame duck.
Santa stood beside it, and it was clearly visible that he was concentrating hard, searching his brain for a memory that made sense. He bent down and picked up a small golden bell. It was out of shape and sounded tinny.
"We have to repair the thing," Alan said pensively. "Or else, how are you going to continue your journey?"
"I wouldn't know where to go anyway!" Santa replied absentmindedly.
Alan, who had hoped that seeing the sleigh and the reindeer would help the man's memory, turned to the wreckage disappointedly. "Doesn't Helena have some drink for you that might help your memory?"
"She claims that rest is the only means for me to heal completely," was his reply. "She worries a lot about me. But you know, I can't stay in bed. Too much energy! - May I ask you something, Alan?"
The pilot let go of the bulky sleigh's seat he had struggled with, and straightened up. "Sure."
"Tell me, why does every other person here slip strange little letters into my pocket, or place them into my hand furtively? And there are things written in there, like 'fashion magazine', or 'new video collection' or 'five boxes of Budweiser'?"
In the commander's office, a short, unscheduled meeting was taking place. John, Helena, Tony and Maya were attending.
"Helena, please, when can we expect that guy to get out of here?" Tony got worked up. "We keep catching him all over the base, after he's put our security guards to sleep. Besides, he and his bunch of reindeer are eating us out of house and home! We won't have anything left soon! I would prefer celebrating Christmas without having a security problem!"
"I really don't understand what kind of security problem you're talking about!" the doctor retorted belligerently. "He is peacefulness personified. Okay, he does have a restless streak and an enormous appetite, which could indeed cause us some problems in the long run, but his recovery won't take that long. I give you my word on that. You'd better put up your stockings and hope that he'll give you something in spite of your hostility!"
Tony snarled. "Oh come on! You're not going to tell me you already nailed your stockings to the wall!"
"Easy, easy," John intervened. "What is the objection to keeping him here until he's right in the head again?"
"Nothing!" Maya beamed. She had grown fond of the friendly old man who kept wandering all over Alpha in his ultra-large pyjamas.
"Nothing!" Tony growled gritting his teeth. "As long as he's put away in Outpost Ten, tied up and gagged!"
"But, Tony, he isn't interested in doing us any harm!" Maya said shaking her head. "He never enters a closed area, and did you ever hear an unfriendly word from him?"
"That doesn't mean he's not going to slam us all in the end!"
"Let's give him a chance," John said. "I know he is an inexplicable phenomenon. But if he really intends to hurt us, how are we going to fight him anyway? So let's treat him as a welcome guest! Who knows, Tony, maybe you'd really better put up your stockings?"
The addressed left the office fuming with rage. John grinned after him.
At that moment his commlock beeped, and Sandra spoke. "Commander," she said. "You had better come to Command Centre. There is another one of Yasko's 'shooting stars' approaching."
John rushed to Command Centre where everyone was gazing at the main monitor. A shining yellow streak was running through the pitch-black darkness. Sandra tried hard to magnify it. She succeeded, and the band approaching the moon at great speed turned into a sleigh pulled by reindeer, spraying sparks and little stars while the deer romped high-spiritedly through the vacuum. On the sleigh were seated a wrapped up figure holding the reins, and a handful of smaller figures wriggling and waving their arms about, pointing excitedly to the moon.
"I'll be damned!" John muttered. "This is getting too much for me!" He glanced around and saw in everybody's faces the same overstrain he was feeling himself.
It didn't take long until the airlock opened to the small group of people who had touched down with their sleigh on one of the landing platforms. The Alphans welcomed the colourful group inside the base. The first person who entered was an elderly small rosy-cheeked woman wearing Santa-Claus-clothes. Her look was very stern. Her hair was put up in a grey bun, and she wore square glasses. Behind her, several dwarf-like beings with colourful caps, pointed ears, funny jackets and striped socks were bustling about. Screaming with joy they pounced on Santa who was silently hanging about in the background, now wearing his cleaned red costume. Finally he stepped forward, the small Christmas elves clinging to his arms and legs, and his face revealed that meanwhile, from the bottom of his oblivion, a certain memory had emerged - not exactly a good one.
The small woman in red stood arms akimbo, and screwed up her face.
"I can't believe you were that lucky again!" she rounded on him. "Falling into the hands of such nice people! You know, ladies and gentlemen, even being such an old fogy, he still hasn't learnt anything! Hardly does he see a fast new sleigh, he loses his mind and thinks he has to test its abilities. And the next moment he's up and away, although it's almost Christmas, and there are heaps of work waiting for him. - And, of course, he loses control of the vehicle and crashes into the only celestial body around! And I mean the ONLY celestial body around! And there you are! Memory lost, sleigh lost! And let me tell you this: For the next hundred years, the old sleigh will do!" She drew a deep breath and turned to John. "Thank you very much for taking care of this old idiot. I've really been worried that we might have to cancel Christmas this year! Something like this has never happened before! Really! Making me worry like that!!" She gripped his wrist and dragged him to the airlock. While walking, he half turned around and said with a nod, "My wife!"
John nodded back and couldn't suppress a grin. He had experienced dressing-downs like that himself.
Like magic, the whole spook was over. The sleigh with the reindeer, with everyone aboard, had lifted off and after a short time had disappeared between the far stars into the void.
Alan scratched his head. "If somebody told me it was all just a dream, I think I'd like to believe it." But the broken sleigh was still lying in the repair dock.
The next day was Christmas Day, a day which John had been thinking of with increasing worry and anxiety the nearer it came. He knew he would have to make a Christmas speech, talking about past successes and future hopes, which should keep the Alphans going for another year. But the reports about the base's desolate condition had piled up over the past few months. They had been drifting through space too long, had lost too many people, suffered too many defeats. No matter how upbeat the mood all over the base would be, the cheerfulness would be forced, a short escape from hard reality.
He woke up early, rough ideas for his speech spinning round in his head. He dismissed them one after another, trying to find something better and, above all, something more non-committal and at the same time more encouraging. To his relief, his commlock startled him up from his thoughts, and he was glad to see Helena on the other end of the line, who was grinning at him like a little golden Christmas angel.
"John, please, look at the base!!" she called with so many exclamation marks that John leapt out of bed at the same moment, simply slipped on a gown and dashed out. The first thing that struck him was how clean everything was, and how new. He rushed to Medical Centre where Helena came running up to him excitedly. "Everything's working!" she exclaimed. "Even the blessed ultrasound machine I've been wanting to send straight to hell - it's going without a hitch!"
"Come on, let's go!" John called. From Command Centre they could hear a commotion even before the elevator's door opened. Many Alphans were present, and all were very excited. Among them were Maya and Sandra, as well as Tony and Alan.
"John, you forgot your commlock in your quarters, otherwise we would have told you much earlier!" Tony informed him, a broad grin spreading over his face. "Brace yourself! We're sitting here on a literally brand-new, almost fresh-from-the-factory Moonbase Alpha, John! I can't believe it!"
Sandra looked up from the computer. "Updates!" she said impressed. "With multiple new functions!"
"The Eagle fleet is complete again," Alan said awestruck, and John's head was in a whirl.
The main monitor flickered as if touched by a ghost's hand, and in the next second Santa Claus smiled at them from the screen. "I've been neglecting you all during the past few years, says my wife," he explained. "Therefore - and out of gratitude for putting me up." He glanced at Tony. ".even though I ate you out of house and home - we pepped up your base a little. I wish you a Merry Christmas!"
John nodded with a smile and thanked him. "Christmas has never been merrier!" he said.