48 Cliff Road, Cowes, IOW, PO31 8BN, England and

The laser message from MacRobert's underbody was only the start of what was perhaps Callum's most unusual Christmas. Which, for a Christmas Specialist who thought it a bad year when he saw less than a hundred Christmases in keeps all across MacRobert's World, was saying something.

"There's something wrong with your video transmission," said Callum, squinting at the distorted shapes on the screen.

"... Entschuldigen sie ... hurricane ... Götterdämmerung ... optical depth ... power ..."

The screen blanked for a second as the communications software automatically adjusted for the poor signal, replacing the live video with an animated evocation. Callum laughed at the cartoon figure. It reminded him of an overexcited orange in a fruit juice commercial. "... Not think ... thermal ... core ..."

Abruptly the audio channel cleared as the handshaking computers cut the bit rate further and fell back to text transmissions. Words scrolled across the top of the screen and the orange continued talking in the smooth rich tones of a Negro, which, for reasons best known to itself, the software considered the closest approximation to the orange's true voice.

"... Will be lucky when you for Weihnachtsfeiern to us come."

An apple bounced into view. "Nicht lucky," it said. "Happy. We should be most happy for you to officiate at our Christmas celebrations here in Hellstenweltforschungprojekt."

- - -

Like most people on MacRobert's, Callum gave scant thought to the underbody thousands of miles beneath his feet, far below the deep geosphere and the support web's racing filigree. Once a lonely gas giant circling the star Epsilon Eridani, now it lay hidden by his ancestor's creation, the vast suprajovian planet that englobed it. Once its unbroken cloud cover and extreme albedo had won it the name of Hellsten Welt, the brightest world; now, in its Stygian darkness, English speakers called it Hell's Welt, a scar in space, but to those whose business took them into its gelid atmosphere it was simply Hell.

From Erebus Station at the geosphere base, Callum embarked on a re-entry vehicle, a stubby lifting body, fusion powered, that clung to an eccentric orbital ring dipping into the outer reaches of the atmosphere, then dropped off into the depths with a sickening suddenness. Lights on the underside of MacRobert's shone like stars in Callum's sky, but the planet itself was utterly lightless. Down through the still, clear air the plane plunged, first pulling out of its dive with agonising gee force, then, as Callum fought for breath and his eyes uncrossed, gliding on deeper through the stratus clouds of the thermocline where the warmth of MacRobert's had not yet penetrated to relieve the ancient chill of the abyss. All at once, the star-lights were gone, as though God or MacRobert had flicked off a switch, and the darkness closed in unrelieved.

A bump signified their arrival at the research vessel. Peering out into the glimmer of navigation lights, Callum could just make out the globular shape of the riesenweltschiff in its broad delta wing. The sphere he knew was the best shape to resist the immense pressures at research depths; this was the crew habitat. The delta wing survived unsealed, equalising pressures inside and out; on its trailing edge fission motors supplied propulsion. Callum sat up to disembark ... and promptly fainted under Hell's three gees.

- - -

"Don't try to sit up," warned the friendly voice. It sounded female ... and German. Callum tried to sit up, grimaced and sank back. He seemed to weigh a tonne. Had he had an accident? Memory came back and he opened his eyes. He closed them again. Deliberately, he opened and closed them three times in all, to make sure he was seeing what he thought he was seeing.

"My eyes," he moaned. "You look like a ... well ... a dwarf. A small fat dwarf."

"That sounds about right," said the voice. "My name's Trudi. But I'm not fat, I'm exceptionally slim. Mother says I'm going to be a heartbreaker one day."

Callum opened his eyes again. Yes, the voice definitely belonged to a short and immensely fat dwarf. He ... no, she ... the dwarf had no beard and he supposed those bulges must be her breasts. She was no more than two foot high and almost globular. She had almost no neck and a flattened head. She could have been made of dough.

He peered around, moving his head as little as possible. The room was decorated in Black Forest cuckoo-clock style, all wood and fretwork and furniture polish and softly glowing lanterns. There was something wrong with the perspective, though. From the balconies around the perimeter, it seemed nearly three stories high, but Callum was sure he'd bang his head on the ceiling if he stood up. Then he realised that, for a race of dwarfs, it was probably just right. No doubt they'd put him in a hall because their ordinary rooms would be too small for him to fit into.

- - -

"Herr Schiffmeister Schmidt at your service." The dwarf's short legs were so well spaced he could never have clicked his heels, but somehow that teutonic gesture came across without a sound. An oblate spheroid barely taller than Trudi and rather broader in the beam, his long white beard brushed the floor as he waddled over to Callum's mattress.

"And I at yours," echoed Callum politely, but in some confusion. "Er ... I don't believe I've met any of your people before. Have you lived here long?"

The dwarf laughed. "About sixty years. Studying the Hellstenwelt and mining helium-3. Your Habitat Authority knows all about us, but, fearful of socio-political repercussions, prefers that we do not venture into the overlands; and, truth to tell, your feeble gravity has scant attraction for us! Hah!"

"Sixty years!" murmured Callum.

"My great grandfather was the first Schiffmeister. We do not live as long as you, but we live faster, yes, by jingo."

Callum was still struggling. "Are you aliens, then? But how come you're so ... German?"

"Hah! Kein aliens are ve. Ein tausand jahren mine ancestors in Bavaria geleben habt. Ja, und still do! Chairman ve are to ze very core of Hellstenwelt. Hah!" Both dwarfs nodded vigorously.

"But ... surely you're not ... human?" persisted Callum.

"Ah, what is human? We do not know. Your redoubtable Habitat Authority does not know. But this we do know. Once we were human; but then we were made anew for the great worlds, the riesenwelten, how say you, the gas giants, where the gravity pulls like a sow, and the strongest bones would crumble. Hah! Yet we are Christian souls still and Christmas is nigh upon us."

Callum blinked. "Made anew? Of course! Like my reindeer. Gene engineered with no bones! That's why you're so short and ... if you'll pardon me ... stout."

"Ja, wirklich. No bones but gristle, and so the gravity moulds us towards our noblest, strongest and truest shape, the holy shape that God and Nature both alike revere. Die Sphäre." Here the dwarfs touched fingers and thumbs in a circle in front of their faces, like Roman Catholics crossing themselves.

"And yet," the Schiffmeister went on, "we are not wholly fitted to our task or inured to our dwelling place, for the deeps and the darkness without press in upon our spirits; despair stalks the corridors and brings murder and madness to our craft. Full seventeen men have died this month alone, nine by their own hands, eight by the hands of another. And one woman, whom we loved above all others; and one child that is missing. Aid us, we pray you. Bring Christmas cheer into our lives, drive out the dark."

"Oh, lumme," said Callum.

- - -

The dwarfs were all very busy, sanding down the dark wood and applying fresh paint and pale varnish. Already the hall was brighter, its Gothic corners transformed into an elfin grotto, its old lanterns supplemented by daylights, spots and uplights. All over the ship, dwarfs were squinting in the unaccustomed light. Callum wasn't sure it would work, but, after all, these people's metabolism must still be mostly human. "It should be brighter yet," he said. "Heller. Light by day and dim by night."

The Schiffmeister shielded his eyes with a pudgy hand. "No day and night in the Hellstenwelt, meinherr. No light save the blitzen and a rare electro-luminescence."

Callum was unmoved. "But in the Hellstenweltschiff, meinherr, there will be day and night henceforth. And the day will be hellsten, or hell take you!"

The dwarf demurred. "Yet ever have the dwarfs dwelt in halls of stone, far beyond the reach of day; do not the stories tell us so?"

"You're not dwarfs!" Callum insisted. "You're human-ish beings. And human beings need day and night. Diurnal rhythms, vitamin D, all that jazz. Besides, Black Forest dwarfs don't live underground. They live in little wooden houses in the forest. Everyone knows that."

The Schiffmeister grimaced as another uplight blinked on. "So be it. Let there be light!"

"And dark," said Callum. "Once every twenty four standard hours."

So the dwarfs dressed themselves in primary colours of red and blue and yellow, drank themselves merry, and rolled about the floor on their globular tummies, enjoying themselves as on no Christmas Eve before. And after those who could still move had rolled themselves into bed, and the lights had dimmed into night, Santas stumbled through the darkened corridors with their spherical bags of presents. And then the bells pealed and the dwarfs gathered joyfully in the Chapel to hear the Christmas Message, for ever old, for ever new.

And the evening and the morning were the first day.

* * *
© Paul Birch, 24th Dec. 2008.