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When the Inessentialists of the Habitat Authority first mooted the idea Callum quite liked the sound of it. A Christmas Tax, so the less fortunate could celebrate Christmas too.

But on MacRobert's World nothing was ever as simple as it seemed, even when it seemed simple enough to start with, which was seldom. Especially when it came to Christmas, which was twice a day at least

What about the keeps — there were some — that never celebrated Christmas at all? What about the ones that celebrated twice? And crucially, what about the Habitat Authority itself? Joppering into the drear land of the Hospice of the Sisters of Forgiveness one rainy afternoon, fresh from the festivities at the Keep of Erbium, Callum was in no mood for nit-picking. The wealthy keeps of the Rare Earths Association could afford to hire him; the Sisters could not: it was as simple as that.

As the jopper blades stopped whirling, the gaunt figures of the Forgiven drifted forward like alms-seekers; the refuse of MacRobert's, poor, sick, exiled, outlawed, crippled or discarded; failures and addicts (mostly addicts), the Sisters took them all. Behind them the prefabricated huts that were all the above-ground accommodation that could be afforded hung like grey blotches on the landscape. Only the Hospice itself seemed real, a sturdy stone edifice overlooking rows of brassicas in the earthfarm fields.

No Keep. The Sisters were too hard up. The Forgiven didn't get much in the way of entertainment either. Callum did his best, lending his services for free, but Christmas in the Hospice was a dismal affair at best. A levy on the wealthy territories would put that right. It was obvious.

It wouldn't do his own business any harm either, the unworthy thought intruded. If the Christmas subsidy brought in enough extra customers he might even be able to expand. Anyway, it was clearly the duty of the planet's premier Christmas Specialist to support the new idea.

Later, putting Forgiveness behind him, Callum was fired with a vision of the Christmas spirit spilling over into all the mean dark places of the land, from which hopelessness and poverty had excluded it; and blessed the Inessentialists who had invented this wonderful Christmas Tax. He ought to have known better.

MacRobert of MacRobert, Founder of the World and Callum's Revered Ancestor, would have spun in his grave — if he'd had one. He hated 'isms; even Essentialism was to him an evil, if an unavoidable one — for how can a man-made world subsist without the stewardship of its Habitat Authority? Essentialism does no more than it absolutely must. But no Solar System would have been large enough to contain the Old Man and an Inessentialist Authority both.

Still, he'd have been pleased with the upshot.

Some months later, Callum set down his jopper alongside the blue and white figure of a Habitat Authority marshal, two miles outside Juniper Keep. 'What's wrong? Juniper's computer just cancelled my down rights.'

The marshal grimaced. 'They're not even allowing overflight, and they've blocked all access from the transport web.'

'But why?'

'They're refusing to pay the Christmas Tax, that's why. And trying to stop me serving a court order. Idiots. All I have to do is walk in.'

Callum said 'I'm their Christmas Specialist. I'll go with you.'

As they climbed over the last rise a spear of blue-white light seemed to spring from a fountain of earth in front of them and strike the upper slopes of the keep. The marshal swore and dropped to the ground.

'Heh!' Callum waved his arms over his head 'Friend! Kamerad! Amigo!' An angry bee clipped his left ear.

The marshal pulled him roughly down 'Don't be a fool! We're under attack.'

Callum squinted up at the sun-washed flanks of the keep. 'I'm their Christmas Specialist,' he repeated. 'They won't shoot me.'

'So what's that trickling down your neck? Cranberry sauce?'

Callum distractedly touched the red stain to his lips 'They hit me!' He fingered his autocom. 'Juniper. Emergency. Stop shooting, you idiots. I'm neutral!'

'MacRobert .Not when ye come with a damn tax collector. Get away wi' ye or we'll kill ye dead. Christmas has syne gotten too bane expensive.'

'I don't understand. Surely you can afford the levy? You've the biggest spread this side of the City. What is it? Ten million square klicks?'

The marshal nodded. 'They're just greedy. Want to keep it all for themselves.'

'A heert thet, meershal!' snapped the autocom. 'Yon's oors awa', and we'll aye fight tae keep ut.'

'I don't understand,' said Callum again. 'Surely there's no question of taking their land away.'

'Well they might have to sell a few thousand to pay the tax,' the marshal admitted.

'A few toosan'!' The autocom spluttered and became all but incomprehensible with rage. 'Mair ca' fefty toosan'! Tha' ken fu' well w' senk nigh'er all oor brass 'tae land far oor kinder aye tee gro' t'!' The voice of Juniper seemed to get a grip on itself. 'For oor children, MacRobert, d'ye hear, and oor children's children. Twa hunnert years o' this and we'll be bankrupt. Bankrupt I say!'

The marshal tried to interrupt. 'It's for the greater good. Think of all the people with no Christmas to look forward to.'

Juniper ignored him. 'Aye, MacRobert, and how much of their filthy loot ha' they promised to you?'

Callum protested, uneasily. He knew what he'd been thinking. 'It can't be that bad surely? They only want a small bit of your annual income.' Out of the corner of his eye he saw the marshal's face. 'Well? That's correct, isn't it?'

The marshal unconsciously perhaps, imitated the apologetic handwringing of a jewish moneylender. 'It was deemed simpler to apply the levy to all equivalent occupied volume,' he said, 'then provide subsidy by perceived indigent population.'

'But that's not fair!' Callum was beginning to think he'd been supporting the wrong side.

'The Sisters of Forgiveness will receive substantial assistance,' added the marshal hopefully.

'Aye, and if the Sisters want tae move their hospice onto our land they'll be welcome. We've asked them oft enough. But we'll nae have it stolen fra' us to please yon Authority scoundrels.' Callum stood up, unmindful of the snipers on the keep. 'Juniper. Shoot him if you want. I'm going home.'

- - -

The Habitat Authority's blockade of Juniper Keep was less than totally successful. Juniper kept its gates shut, its citizens at home, and its bank codes under wraps. Troops patrolled its territory for errant marshals and shot down Authority flyers foolish enough to venture into its airspace.

With Juniper's example, other keeps remembered their traditional antipathy to taxation and joined in defying the unconstitutional inessentialist demands. The seeds of rebellion spread. A war unique in MacRobert's history was in the making, a war between keeps and Habitat Authority, a war that might end only in the destruction of the entire planet.

The Habitat Authority Council, Inessentialist to a man, was obdurate. Controlling more firepower than all the keeps combined, it wasn't going to back down; its own authority was at stake.

- - -

Meanwhile, Callum's business fell through the floor. So perhaps it was not entirely surprising that his next major engagement was deep in the geosphere itself, in the Authority's own habitat under the Martial Sea.

It was a fine party. Everyone who was anyone in the Authority was there — even the Council, resplendent at the High Table. Callum was pulling out all the stops.

The festivities were in full swing. An enormously fat man began to sing in a deep fruity voice:

'I'm dreaming of a white Christmas,
Just like the ones that never were!'

That was the signal. Santa's reindeer split apart and opened fire. Unearthly voices sang in chorus, a pure rich note two octaves above middle C, as relativistic electron beams, pulsing faster than the eye could see, riddled the exploding bodies of the Council. Flesh splattered.

Guns spilled from Santa's gut; green-clad elves snatched them up. Waiters dropped their trays, drew weapons from beneath their aprons. Clansmen fanned out across the room. There were screams, cut short. Inessentialists died. Silence fell.

Reinforcements of uniformed keepmen arrived in the hall from the transport web under the caterers' access rights. As they secured the area, Callum turned towards a heavyset man whose Torquemada costume was splashed with blood and gravy.

'I want you to write a cheque,' he said.

The treasurer of the Authority looked at him and scowled.

'It's a remarkable fact,' said Callum, 'that the Habitat Authority controls more "equivalent occupied volume" than all the keeps put together. You've just been celebrating Christmas here; so you must pay the Christmas Tax. A tidy sum, I believe.'

- - -

The fiercely independent keeps celebrated their victory over the Inessentialists, whose disgraced survivors had fallen from grace in a chastened Habitat Authority counting the cost of its mistakes.

The Sisters of Forgiveness received a hefty emolument from the Christmas Tax Escrow Account, built a magnificent keep with the proceeds and celebrated Christmas every day.

Callum MacRoberts rebuilt his business as the first and foremost Christmas Specialist, and found himself more in demand than ever.

And the Council of the Habitat Authority asserted its renewed Essentialism by quietly abolishing the Christmas Tax and promising, henceforth and for ever more, to respect the freedom of the keeps.

Christmas was tax-free once again.


© Paul Birch, 20th Dec. 1996.