48 Cliff Road, Cowes, IOW, PO31 8BN, England
Paul@paulbirch.net and http://www.paulbirch.net
Callum MacRobert, the premier Christmas Specialist of MacRobert's World, occasionally took on off-world clients. The Bavarian dwarfs of Hellsten Welt, MacRobert's underbody; colonists from the lesser planets and habitats of the Epsilon Eridani system; even, on one occasion, the hard-bitten miners of the cometary belt. That last he subsequently regretted, since not even a torchship could make the run there and back in less than two months and his business suffered considerably in his absence.
Yet such excursions paled into insignificance against the Christmas he brought to Ultima Thule, a planet deep in the jet of the Vela Prime quasar. A Christmas a billion years, perhaps, before the Bethlehem shepherds first heard the good tidings, or the first MacRobert of MacRobert was born — for what's the odd two thousand years in a billion?
Callum was in his office, passing the time with an ancient computer game called Threading The Needle, in which a bendy elastic thread had to be coaxed through a seemingly endless progression of ever-finer needles using only the up, down, left and right arrows for direction and the space bar to move forward. Apart from the fact that the thread ends didn't fray, it was almost as infuriating as the real thing. Callum screamed silently as the needles unthreaded for the nth time and wondered why he bothered.
An abrupt feminine cough made him look up. The woman who stood there — not a lady, he thought, despite her tweedy clothing and weather-beaten appearance; perhaps a schoolmistress — frowned at the comfortable client's chair, then rested gloved hands on its back. "Mr MacRobert, I understand you organise Yuletide festivities?" It was barely a question.
"Christmas festivities, yes," Callum corrected. "How may I help you?"
"My planet has need of your services," she stated. "You will be suitably reimbursed."
Callum raised an eyebrow. "Your planet?"
"Ultima Thule. You've never heard of it."
Definitely not a question this time.
"Er, I believe the fifth planet of Wolf—"
"No. It is not in this region of space. You will be required to keep its existence and location confidential."
Callum raised the other eyebrow. "That is most … unusual."
"We fear that widespread knowledge could destroy human interstellar civilisation," she deadpanned. "Or worse."
"The origins and evolution of life on Earth may be caused never to have eventuated."
Callum tried to raise a third and fourth eyebrow. Either this woman was nuts or … "That sounds like time travel."
"Yes. We do not know. Our planet may be living in the past."
"Old fashioned, you mean?"
"No. At a proper time one billion years before your present."
Callum gulped. "Then why hire me? Isn't that dangerous?"
"Yes. And yet sooner or later we must attempt the experiment. By restricting this knowledge to just one insignificant non-scientist — did you say something? — we hope to limit any paradoxes to within manageable proportions. Besides, we do need someone to teach us how to organise … fun. Our lives have been rather grim and joyless these past years." For an instant, an unassuaged hunger showed in her dark eyes.
The men were even stuffier than the woman. Callum wondered if they'd chosen her as their contact because of her friendly and outgoing disposition. He sighed. To think he'd once thought Ultima Thule a romantic name. Ho, ho ho? No, no, no, more like! Assuming such absurdities as Thulian Santas were ever permitted to eventuate.
Callum knew he was being unfair. From what the Thulian woman had already told him, their colony, less than ten thousand strong, had been in a continuous state of emergency for half a century. Still, why did they have to be so … dismal? He'd been looking forward to the big shindig at Praseodymium Keep.
"Where's the wormhole?" asked Callum. They were standing in an empty single-story box in the geosphere base. In one wall, a circular flat-bottomed cut-out, like a capital omega, led to a similar room. A very ordinary industrial console could just be glimpsed off to one side through the archway.
The grey man in charge indicated the opening with a concise gesture.
One of the younger … engineers? … was more garrulous. "The wormhole string is too narrow to see. Of order one hundredth of a femtometre. We have expanded the opening to 2.8 metre diameter, which, at a string tension of 20 giganewtons per side, implies a total energy of 350 gigajoules."
"Ah, right," said Callum.
"The other side of that circle is in Ultima Thule," said the woman.
"More precisely," the grey man corrected. "In the grounded starship 40 Eridani A 32."
"Flight 32 to 40 Eridani? I heard about that!" Callum frowned. "Didn't it go missing right off its pellet stream, oh, thirty years ago?"
"Fifty years," said the woman. "Twenty years for the news to reach this solar system."
The grey man condescended to explain. "This side of the wormhole must have been floating free in interstellar space when it was caught by the relativistic pellet stream and the starship's magnetic field. At that point the opening would have been a mere needle's eye buried within a single heavy nucleus." Callum looked up sharply.
"We do not entirely understand the mechanism," the grey man went on. "However, with that nucleus to give first purchase to the pellet stream bombardment, kinetic energy from the stream was somehow transferred to the wormhole, the mouth consequently dilated to macroscopic size, ultimately in excess of the diameter of the habitat torus. At the same time, the far side of the wormhole was driven by the rocket thrust of the pellet stream up out of the star in which it had come to rest."
"You can see what happened," said the woman. "Once the wormhole was big enough, the ship slipped through … "
"Residual transverse motion took us out of the pellet stream," the grey man put in.
" … and there we were on the far side of the sky with no way back."
"By the time we understood what had happened, the wormhole had radiated too much energy and shrunk to under a kilometre diameter. It was all we could do to land on the nearest habitable planet. More than a generation passed before we were able to work out how to control the wormhole, and another to fly the Eridani end back here at light speed."
"Jolly lucky to find a suitable planet, though!" said Callum, ever one to look on the bright side.
"Suitable!" the woman blurted. "You call no sun, arctic cold and lethal radiation suitable do you?"
"Now Martha," chided the grey man. "He hasn't seen it yet. Let us go through."
"Good grief!" thought Callum, as the Thulians stepped through the wormhole. "She has a name."
Well, that was boring, thought Callum to himself. No sensation at all. Just like walking from one room to another. Exactly like walking from one room to another.
"Now see our world," said the woman. Martha, Callum reminded himself. "Put these on. You will need them."
Callum struggled into the heavy furs and followed the others out into the starship habitat. Lights glowed from dwellings lining the circular valley, but the torus roof was almost completely dark and seemed opaque.
"Night cycle," said the woman. "There is a serious power shortage. Most of our reactors were destroyed in the Mutiny."
"In year Landing plus six," said the grey man. "Many of our people died. There was much fear."
"Fear of treason, fear of reason, fear of the sunless, fear of the hopeless, fear of isolation, fear of radiation, fear of time and fear of place." All the Thulians covered their eyes. "Now," continued the woman. "Come see the Night."
Callum followed to where a makeshift airlock cut through the hull, and an unlit covered way sloped down to a dark plain.
"Come," said the woman. "Your eyes will adjust."
Callum stumbled down the slope and out onto the cinder plain. Behind them, the bulk of the starship loomed darkly against the sky, while to left and right a glint of water revealed the shallow lake into which it had set down fifty years before.
Callum looked up and gasped. Multicoloured curtains of light writhed across the sky from horizon to horizon, hypnotic, ever-changing, brighter than a full moon or jovian's rings.
"Dose rate over 100 rem per year at this latitude," the grey man said.
"It's the quasar," the woman explained. "Thank Time for hormesis. That which does not kill us makes us stronger. That's what blocks the sunlight too — a nebula replenished and ionised by the jet radiation."
"A quasar? Haven't they all died out by now?"
"Yes. Most of them," replied the garrulous engineer. "Our astronomers observe a significant surplus in this region of space-time, most readily explained if the proper age of the universe here is one billion plus or minus three hundred million years less than at the other end of the wormhole."
"Ah, I see," said Callum. At last he really did.
"It is not certain," said the grey man. "Yet if wormholes can cross time as well as space, and multiple distinct wormhole routes to the same region of the universe are possible, then paradox-generating time travel is inevitable."
So, if those astronomical observations were to be trusted, Callum organised the first Christmas festivities in the Night long before Christmas Was, for a people who had forgotten not only the meaning of Christmas, but the very meaning of fun itself. Truly, a great responsibility. For if the Thulians' fears proved accurate, it might also soon become the Night before Christmas Wasn't.
© Paul Birch, 22nd Dec. 2011.