48 Cliff Road, Cowes, IOW, PO31 8BN, England
Paul@paulbirch.net and http://www.paulbirch.net
Callum's jopper whirred over the Territory to the South East of the City, with Jan van der Kleeves of the New Dutch Reformed Civic Association crammed in the back. Callum always liked to look over his venues from the air, especially with a new client; it helped him get a feel for the ambience unique to every keep and region. Transport tubes were the same everywhere. Not that the New Dutch Reformed Civic Association owned a keep; they lived in a few thousand square miles of tulip-rich fenland in hamlets raised like moles above the countryside and connected by a network of straight narrow roads leading to the city of Greater New Amsterdam. "Population 69,327 at the last census," said the young Dutchman proudly.
Callum shrugged. He was used to grandiose names and titles. And why not? No doubt it would be a great city in a few hundred years. Silly to call it Titchy Little New Amsterdam Town and have to change it later. Titchy or not, it stood at the end of a broad lake, in a bight of the river that reached towards the sea then bent round and followed the coast in a channel cut off from the open water by a narrow spit of sandy dunes some twelve miles long. Round-hulled fishing boats rolled around its end. Jan saw Callum examining them. "For the tourists, meinheer," he explained.
Callum swung the jopper back up along the river. Ahead, beyond the far side of the lake, out of place in this even landscape, loomed a conical hill for all the world like a volcano. It even had a crater at the summit, and a gleam of … "Is that water?" asked Callum.
Jan leaned forward. "Glass," he said. "Hydroponics greenhouses to use a little of the carbon dioxide the mountain extracts. Look very carefully and you can see the gap around the outside of the crater where the air goes in, and the gap in the middle where it comes out again Don't fly too close or you may get sucked in."
"Who owns it?"
"Some big big firm from the City," said Jan, "We buy much foodstuffs from them and thusly can grow more tulips, meinheer."
The island where the Christmas festivities would be held lay near the centre of the lake, surmounted by a large and rambling building that was doubtless the New Dutch's idea of a pleasure palace. Immaculate gardens and grassy slopes led down to sandy beaches and wooden jetties. Or jetties that looked like wood but were probably vapour-deposited quartz.
Callum nodded. "Do-able, very do-able," he said.
"Meinheer?" said Jan.
Callum MacRobert, premier Christmas Specialist of MacRoberts World, blew his trumpet to start the proceedings. "Vrolijk Kerstfeest en een Gelukkig Nieuwjaar," he shouted. "Let the Christmas spirit flow!"
The Dutchmen cheered and made a rapid though dignified beeline for the schnapps. The great painted calliope began to grind out its festive music as plump perspiring boys wound a handle as tall as a man. Even plumper women in traditional costume tried to dance to the tune, in an intricate choreography made no easier by the boys' inability to keep to a constant speed.
Callum picked up a ham sandwich.
Callum looked at his sandwich in puzzlement. "It's just a ham sandwich," he began.
"Stop in the name of the law!" Dressed in a one-piece garment of unrelieved black, the intruder leapt onto the podium. He brandished a rolled-up document. "Under the authority of Justice Josémaria of the Santa Brava del Costa Circuit Court you are hereby enjoined to cease and desist from these unlawful celebrations."
"What the heck?" Callum grabbed the scroll. "Sodding Christmas Rationalists!"
"Who are the Sodding Christmas Rationalists?" asked a solid burgher, already glowing from the effect of the schnapps. "Are they clowns?"
"Must be from Little Sodding," put in another, looking round and nodding. "A hundred versts down the coast."
"Clowns?" snapped Callum. "Clowns? I suppose they are. They're an offshoot of the Christmas Unifiers, who wanted to make everyone do Christmas the same day." He turned back to the ninja and waved the court order in his face. "What is this? We beat you fair and square two years ago. You lost your case in the Tesseract no less."
The ninja sneered. "Justice Josémaria recognises the futility and wastefulness of outmoded superstition and unnecessary frivolity. You're in his jurisdiction now."
Callum looked round. "Are we?"
The solid burgher snorted. "He'd like to think so. Let him try. Just let him try, that's all. We saw the dagoes off five hundred years ago in the old country. We'll see them off again today."
"Well, don't start a war over it," said Callum. "Easy enough to get the injunction overturned. In the meantime let's just ignore it. You! Why don't you go away and leave us to get on with our party? Where's your Christmas spirit?"
The burgher nodded owlishly. "Let peace roll down like water, and Christmas spirit as an ever-flowing stream!"
"Close," said Callum. "Get this maniac out of here!"
The ninja struggled in the arms of Callum's waiters. "Reactionary swine! You're making this planet the laughing stock of the galaxy! Every day Christmas Day? Faugh!"
"Did he actually say "faugh"?" asked the Christmas Specialist. "I didn't think it was possible."
Late in the afternoon, Callum and the Mayor of Amsterdam walked down to the lake, due to be frozen for tomorrow's Boxing Day activities. A band of mist rolled towards the island from the top end of the lake, as refrigerated air spilled over the water's surface. The remaining rowing boats made hastily for the shore. "That volcano of yours came in handy," said Callum. "We'd have had a job getting enough cooling power otherwise."
"A clever idea," the Burgemeester admitted. "Look, here's Jan and Gerda. What are they doing?"
The young man and his friend were almost spherical with heavy clothing. "We're going out on the lake," he said.
Callum shivered. The outriders of the freezing air were already swirling past the island. "You must be mad," he said. "Everyone else is coming in."
"It'll be fun," said Jan, and Gerda's red face smiled and nodded like a doll's.
The Burgemeester shrugged and sighed. "Ah, youth!" Suddenly, Callum felt old, though he was closer in age to Jan and Gerda than to the mayor. To cover up he said, "The lake's being cooled from below too. I hope they don't get stuck in the ice."
"There's this about it," he added. "Your December's in the spring so it won't get dark for another three hours."
The Burgemeester said, "All the same, I've a sneaking sympathy with the Unifiers, in a way. Christmas isn't the same when it's not midwinter. I wasn't born on MacRobert's, you know. I spent my childhood at Home, near a place called Hellevoetsluis. Do you know it?"
Callum shook his head.
"Perhaps it wasn't so picturesque as I remember it, nor the snow so white and deep, but Christmas was really Christmas then. Though it was Nieuw Jaar when we had the biggest parties, yes, by gosh, meinheer!"
Callum turned up the collar of his coat. "Let's go in. It's bitter out here."
The Burgemeester raised his hand. "Wait. What's that over there?"
"On the lake. It looks like a wave. Pushing the mist away. It's coming towards us."
Callum frowned. "That's not right. What can it be? Unless it's some even colder air."
"That's not air." The Burgemeester pointed. "It's liquid. Look at the ripples! It doesn't look like water though. There's something wrong with it. I say, it's moving fast."
The wave swept past the island, leaving the single rowing boat bobbing in its wake. Callum sniffed. He knew that smell. "That's not water. It's alcohol. The blessed Christmas spirit!" He ran down to the jetty. "Jan!" he called. "Gerda! Get back here, quickly!"
The Burgemeester followed him. "What's the problem?"
"It's still coming." Callum shook his hands helplessly, as if to bar the flood of ethanol. "The volcano must have sprung a leak. Look at the boat!"
Jan was already struggling, his boat low in the rising liquid. Gerda was bailing desperately.
"It won't float." Callum didn't know what to do.
A liquid tide swept smoothly over the gunwales and the boat vanished. Two heads remained visible a moment longer. "Jan! Gerda!" shouted the Burgemeester and ran to the end of the jetty.
"No!" yelled Callum. "Don't do it!"
The Burgemeester dived into the lake where the youngsters had gone down. He didn't reappear.
"Specific gravity nought point seven," muttered Callum. He took a few steps towards his jopper. He stopped, turned back to the lake, then threw up his hands. "Hopeless!" He ran back up towards the pavilions. "Everyone inside!" he shouted.
A waiter bearing a pudding in a sea of flaming brandy was coming outside.
"Stop! Wait! Put that light out! Take it back!" Callum knew he was too late. The whiff of alcohol was overwhelming. A thin blue flame seemed to reach out from the lake, touch the startled waiter and suck itself back to the lake with a gentle whoosh. Suddenly the mist was gone and a wave of heat washed over the island. The far shore shimmered, but the blue fire was almost invisible.
"Inside! Inside!" yelled Callum again. "Get below before it uses up all the oxygen!" He rushed inside. Puzzled revellers were staring through the french windows, making no move to get themselves to safety. "Don't wait. You'll suffocate. Get below!" Perhaps it was the scorching heat more than Callum's exhortations, but suddenly they were stampeding towards the stairs and turbo lifts in a crash of crockery and upset tables.
"Damn that sodding rationalist!" shouted the solid burgher in Callum's ear as he pushed towards the kitchens to warn the staff. Callum frowned. Was it possible? Would they really go this far?
Deep in the cool safe depths of the geosphere, surrounded by crowds of angry Dutchmen, Callum wondered. He was never to know for sure, though the subsequent war between the New Dutch Reformed Civic Association and Santa Brava del Costa was answer enough for some. Sabotage or accident, that was one Christmas that Callum would never forget, and that three brave souls would never remember.
© Paul Birch, 14th Dec. 2002.