“Christmas Yet to Come”
By Len Saculla
Peter 181 BM pressed his button nose hard against the polyglass window and gazed excitedly at the winter sky above the capital city. His maternal grandfather, Aaron 797 BM, gently squeezed the boy’s shoulder, grinned like he was still six years old, and asked, ‘Can you see Santa yet?’
‘Still no sign,’ Peter whispered. ‘I don’t think he’s – no, wait, that must be him!’
‘Quick, boy, get the window up and fire the pulse gun.’
The flying motor sleigh with the ancient and, frankly, humungous red-cloaked rider was now in full view. This was it: Christmas Eve, the most exciting moment of the year for both a school age child and his 49 year old carer. Peter raised the barrel of the rifle and, with a little help from Aaron’s steadying hand, squeezed the trigger that sent their beam zooming towards its aerial target. Along with maybe five hundred others from stations near the rooftops and within the living towers of New London.
Boom! Ker-phuff! Whoosh!
‘Direct hit! Well done, boy! Now put the weapon down and stretch your arms out. I’ll make sure you don’t fall.’
Their target had fractured into a myriad fragments. Many of these were simply perfumed flakes of snow – a pleasant, refreshing, olfactory experience – but the real prizes were the pliant, edible balloons which now festooned the atmosphere – the so-called Santa Clones. They held some soft-centred sweets but were mostly full of pure air, a true Christmas treat and –
‘Quick, Peter, there! Grab it carefully now. It’s OK, I’ve got you. Wow, what a Christmas catch!’
The boy placed the Santa Clone carefully at the base of the tree. Saving it for later, like a solid citizen. His grandfather closed and locked the window.
‘Can’t we keep it open a bit longer?’ Peter 181 BM asked.
‘You know the pollution rules. They’re only meant to be relaxed for a brief time not the whole holiday.’
‘But what about the sky show?’
‘We’ll watch it in safety,’ Aaron 797 BM confirmed.
Peter hid his disappointment by carefully dismantling his pulse gun and stacking the pieces in the drawer beneath his couch. Just like Robo-Teach had shown him on the projection screen that morning. And the morning before…
Aaron was watching the vista outside, wondering how good a display the city authorities would put on this year. They could do wonders with this new photonic technology, enabling scenes to be viewed perfectly from almost any angle. It was good to be sharing Christmas with his grandson, especially this Christmas. Of course, the extra food rations helped as did the lightly narcotic effect of the perfumed snow. He’d always loved this time of year, even if Christmas wasn’t quite as good as when he was a lad.
‘What do you mean, Pops?’ asked Peter.
Aaron, realising he’d been uttering his thoughts aloud again – strange habit, must be an age thing! – scuffled for an answer until his gaze fell upon the tree. ‘Well,’ he drawled, ‘we used to decorate the tree, if I remember rightly. With balls and strips of metal.’
‘Really? Wouldn’t that get in the way of the home tree’s fun-func – job? Robo-Teach says every dwelling must have one to help bring back the air.’
‘True enough, Pete, but a little seasonal sparkle wouldn’t hurt. It’s Health and Safety gone mad, if you want my opinion.’
Peter half-squeezed his eyes shut, tried to picture the plant as anything but brown and green; couldn’t. Maybe Pops was just having another senior moment.
The sky show was starting. Peter joined his granddad at the sealed window, ready to enjoy the display and happy to let Aaron interpret, even if it didn’t fully accord with the commentary text that Robo-Teach had provided.
Suddenly the usually dull overcast was bright and alive and one hardly knew where to look. The wonderful traditional story played out in all the different areas of the dome with every memorable element present and correct: the Baby Jesus, the Virgin Mary, the Three Kings and the Star in the East. Peter did not know the symbolic significance of every aspect of the tale – it was Robo-Teach’s or Grandpa’s role to tell him – but he knew all about this final cog. The huge, solitary yellow star on its red background represented the supremacy of China, the one world superpower where all the electronics products originated from and, lately, the shipping place for the world’s daily noodle rations, the staple food that kept the wolf from the door. Although he seemed to remember Robo-Teach showing the Chinese flag with four smaller stars as well. Just another example of how stories get changed in the telling.
Noodle-brain! he told himself. What wolf, what door? He was starting to think and speak like Pops, without fully understanding why. He glanced across at Aaron who was –
‘Granddad, why are you crying?’
‘Am I, boy? Oh, I suppose I am. It’s just that I love Christmas so much and this will be my last.’
‘No it won’t, Pops!’
‘Have you forgotten that I’ll be fifty next year? You know what that means.’
Peter pursed his lips, recalling some sentences that his mother had told him before sending him off to live a special year with his grandfather. How there were so many hungry human mouths to feed these days and that everybody voted for Pop Control and even though it was harsh, it was necessary. The day after Aaron’s 50th birthday he would be taken off to a special place called ‘Nirvana’ where he wouldn’t need to eat and drink anymore and ‘wouldn’t be a drain on the world’s dwindling resources’. Peter had started to suspect that this was a kind way of saying Pops would be dead, but he didn’t want to utter the horrible word; especially now, at Christmas. Peter was a sensitive boy – his Edu profile gave him a 96% score in this area.
Gently, he said, ‘Pops, why don’t you tell me all you know about the Christmas story? So that… I’ll promise to remember as much as I can.’
The crepuscular display was still in full swing. Aaron squeezed the kid’s arm affectionately and replied, ‘I forget a few details but some remain clear, Petie. The Baby Jesus and the Virgin Mary. Well, that was quite a big deal a long time ago and I suppose Jesus was the first IVF birth. Now everyone is, I know, but he was the firstborn. Significantly, I think Mary was quite poor and had not obtained a loan or even permission from the International Monetary Fund to bring an infant into the world. The police and the government were unhappy but when they saw how beautiful Jesus was, they made a solitary exception. Then again, maybe it just cemented the ruling position that the Earth’s population needed to be brought under strict control…’
He tailed off into his own morbid thoughts once more. Peter, almost feeling that it was his duty to act the adult and change the subject, stated, ‘My favourites are always the Three Kings.’
‘Ah yes,’ Aaron responded, pointing at the grand projections to the south, north and west. The east still held the dominant star. ‘Some people,’ he continued, ‘believe these signifiers of good luck have their origins in the playing cards games people used to play during celebrations.’ He caught Peter’s puzzled look, added, ‘Have you ever played solitaire on your screen?’
‘Yes, Pops, it was in my course on Retro.’
‘There you go, then, you ought to recognise the cards.’
Peter’s tongue licked a bit of loose noodle out from between his teeth. ‘Aren’t there four different kinds of cards in solitaire – two lots red, two lots black?’
Aaron tousled his grandson’s hair. ‘Wow, aren’t you just a magic memory stick? Very like your mother. You’re right, of course. Three is good luck; so the one missing is the King of Hearts, who used to be called the King of Herods. I think there was some unsolved crime or other hanging over him and his wife. You forget a few things when you’re my age.’ He swatted an imaginary bug away from his eyes in what he hoped was a gesture loaded with subtlety. ‘It’s all starting to fade now, Petie; shall we pull the shade down?’
Peter busied himself unwrapping the Santa Clone and deciding which light as air sweet to start with. Aaron checked his wrist-screen. There were several messages from Gwyneth 250 BF, Peter 181 BM’s workaholic but still loving mother. Make sure he doesn’t overeat (on these rations, how?); make sure he doesn’t get too excited; make sure he doesn’t stay up too late seemed to be their gist. Aaron 797 BM switched to a rolling news channel. Flat economic growth; seasonal celebrations across United Europe; the latest Virtual Sports results tumbling in. Farther afield, in the part of the globe people still referred to as the Middle East although it now encompassed all of North Africa and much of Pakistan, war raged on. Poignantly, there were reports of bombings and street fighting in both Jerusalem and Bethlehem. You’d think people would be able to call a temporary truce, a pause in their religious conflicts, for the holy time of Christmas.
Peter glanced across at his grandpa, lost in the cares of the world. Peter would miss Pops when the time came for him to… leave. But he was really ancient, to be fair; one had to make room for the next generations. Peter couldn’t imagine ever being that old; fifty seemed like forever away. Even next Christmas – probably to be spent with his mother – was unthinkably far ahead in the future. Robo-Teach preached that it was best to live for today and Robo-Teach was right, as always.
Later, as Central Control dimmed the apartment lights and the two males were tucked up in their separate beds, Peter whispered, ‘Merry Christmas, Pops. I’ve had a wonderful time.’
‘You deserve it, Peter. You’re a good kid. Merry Christmas.’
As he drifted off to sleep, Peter 181 BM wondered if the Baby Jesus ever grew up, if he became an adult, maybe even reached his half century. He resolved to pose the question to Robo-Teach when he logged on in the morning.
But he never remembered to do so.