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

"I want you to paint a picture," said the strange man in Callum's office.

"But I'm not an artist," protested the Christmas Specialist.

" . . . a picture not in pixels but in protoplasm," he continued as if Callum hadn't spoken.

There was plenty of protoplasm on MacRobert's world, billions upon billions of tonnes of the stuff, if you included the plant and animal life spread out across the suprajovian planet. But what on . . . MacRobert's did the man mean.

"You will pay a visit to three ghosts: the Ghost of Christmas Past; the Ghost of Christmas Present; and the Ghost of Christmas Future."

"Yet To Come," said Callum. "Not Future. Get it right."

"You must undertake three tasks," said the visitor. Odd the way he looked ever so slightly transparent. Almost as if . . .

" Wait a minute," said Callum. "What do you mean, pay a visit. Surely it's supposed to be the other way round?"

"You must create three Christmases."

Callum wondered whether the man was real. The e-cash in transfer escrow was real enough, though.

"I'll do it," he said.

The apparition nodded. The e-cash completed its transfer. Untraceable, thought Callum. His computer issued an electronic receipt.

"Do what, by the way?"

"The tasks are yours," said the ghost and wasn't there.

"Flipping holograms," said Callum MacRobert.

- - -

The house was old and lonely. Never mind that it wasn't old enough to be old. It was built old. Just as some people are born old and never seem to have a childhood. The old man who lived in the house was like that. Callum couldn't imagine his ever having been young.

There were youngsters in the village, but the house was filled with empty rooms, cobwebs for curtains, and carpeted with dust. The garden was a wilderness. The old man lived in three rooms on the ground floor; they were dark, cluttered with the sort of furnishings and bric-a-brac that nobody wants. But the conservatory at the back was bright and golden; and here the old man tended his orchids.

Callum wondered how he could bring Christmas to such a house. This was City territory, about three thousand kilometres out, so there was no lord to order it and no keep to hold it in. If the old gentleman didn't want Christmas there was nothing Callum could do.

"But I've come all the way from the City!"

"Then you can just go all the way back." The old man shuffled away, fumbling with an old music box he pulled out of his dressing gown pocket.

"It's free," said Callum.

"Free?" The old man's head snapped round, his eyes flicking sideways to fix on the Christmas Specialist's face. "You mean I don't have to pay anything?" He reminded Callum of a sparrow.

"Not a bean."

Light streamed from the windows of the old house. Laughing children ran from room to room, trailing Christmas toys and decorations, spilling apple juice and mince pies on the old boards, fighting in the attics and squabbling on the stairs. From the long-abandoned ballroom, cheerful music overflowed into the garden, where the ancient trees straightened their weary boughs and the moss-covered statues joined in the festivities. The old man wandered his transfigured house like a man in a dream, waking up only to smile at the children's games and to eat the Christmas food.

But when the party was over, and the guests had taken their leave, the old man sat down in his worn old leather armchair, and took the music box from the pocket of his long dinner jacket of obsolete design, and caressed it. He looked up at Callum and opened the box. It was not a song that Callum knew; it spoke more to him of the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness than of Yuletide merriment; but inside the lid he saw the words: From your loving daughter Annabell, Christmas 2097.

Callum nodded. The ghost of Christmas past, indeed.

- - -

In the True Greenland quarter of the City, squashed between the Reformed Icelandic quarter on the east and the Viking quarter on the west, Meinheer Klaus's Reindeer Emporium huddled at the base of the glacier-like south slopes of Amalgamated Hydroponic Beets and Tropical Fish Incorporated. At the top of the hill was the big Jewish cemetery, with so many sepulchres and mausoleums along its shaded streets it was reckoned a quarter in its own right.

The Big Pomegranate had as many quarters as a slot machine. Callum wasn't sure what that meant, but it sounded good.

He greeted Mrs Klaus absently. "Are they ready?"

What was a slot machine anyhow? Something to do with buttonholes perhaps.

Meinheer Klaus, an incongruously scrawny man with a missing earlobe, popped out of the back room. "I'm not happy with the colour and the paint's not dry."

Mrs Klaus shooed Callum out of the shop. "They'll be ready in time, never fear."

The ice skaters in their red boots and furs of spun quartz were already out in Memorial Park when Callum arrived, waiting impatiently for the ice engines to finish surfacing the lake. Men in green overalls were setting up micro-fusion braziers and putting the chestnuts on to roast. Callum wasn't too thrilled with the braziers — charcoal was cheaper and looked more Christmasy too — but the park's owners were on a safety kick this year.

Couples were walking arm in arm and hands in pockets by the side of the sparkling river. Children, eyeing each other suspiciously, tagged along behind exasperated parents; some of the youngest were in tears. Others were demanding to be told what had happened to the snow they'd been promised. Callum was wondering the same thing. It was supposed to be a foot thick by now. The ground was cold enough, and the skaters were moving out onto the now frozen lake, but where was the snow plane?

A kilometre-wide shadow slid across the sky and orbited overhead. White flakes began to fall, gently at first, then more heavily. The ice skaters disappeared behind a white veil and the excited shouts of the children came strangely muffled to the ear. Callum frowned. Trust that lot to overdo it. He'd be in deep trouble if they went and blocked Regent's Street in the middle of the evening shopping.

He needn't have worried. The air cleared as if by magic, leaving Memorial Park white under a mantle of new snow. A jopper hovered over the lake, blowing the ice clear; skaters scattered from the down draft. The chestnut vendors swore as drifts of snow buried their braziers. Crowds gathered. The children threw snowballs. A band began to play.

Callum looked up as children pointed eagerly into the sky. Against the sunset glow, six red-nosed reindeer, harnessed to Meinheer Klaus's sleigh, passed jingling through the air high above the park. A silvery dust sprang from their hooves and a silver trail sparkled from the runners. They circled, came back, rolled, then looped the loop, finally slipping in to land to the cheers of a delighted throng.

That was Callum's Christmas Present. The paint looked all right after all, he thought.

- - -

The Gregious Ocean was not a place Callum often found himself. There were no keeps in the middle of the ocean and not a lot of Christmases. Callum stood on the dredger's deck and stared out across the blue water. The ocean was very blue on MacRobert's World.

"Nothing in sight," he said. The horizon was empty; it was hard to see where the sea ended and the sky began. The horizon was very far away on MacRobert's World.

"Not there." The dredger captain pointed skywards. "She'll be coming straight in, I reckon. Why pay for the overflight rights on an orbital entry when you've enough delta-v for a tail down? Besides, they're in a hurry, I gather?"

"Not that much of a hurry. Not after ten years. They could've sent a shuttle ahead to snap up their keep-site. With twelve thousand people aboard, coming in direct must be rather risky. What happens if the drive goes out at the wrong moment?"

The captain shrugged. "They hit the sea at 200m/s and make a dent in the geosphere. Most of them'd survive though."

"At that speed?"

"Sure. That's what happened to the old Ramsden, eighty, ninety years ago. Besides, those doughnuts are a pain on a lifting trajectory. Aerodynamics of a pregnant cow."

A crewman pushed a pair of gyrostabilised binoculars into Callum's hand and pointed. "Six o'clock high."

Callum's eyes searched for the moving point of light that would mark the colony-ship's fusion flame. Nothing. He looked back at the crewman questioningly. The crewman jabbed his finger at the sky.

"Wait for the burn," advised the captain.

Suddenly a blaze of light filled the sky from horizon to horizon. The binoculars became superfluous. Soundless waves of fire, ten a second, pulsed from an impossibly bright core. Now Callum could make out the shape of the habitat torus, a ghostly ring behind the flame. It slid downwards towards the sea, slowly at first, then faster and faster, expanding into a leviathan that towered over the tiny million tonne dredger. "Are we . . . ?"

"We're safe," the captain reassured him. But Callum noticed the crew looking worried. A hot wind whistled over the ship as the giant doughnut plunged towards the water. At the last instant it seemed to halt, then gently kissed the surface. Tiny ripples, a few metres high, crawled away from the touchdown. Already, the dredger was surging forward to dock with the colony; it tossed its head as the ripples passed. And then Callum was inside the hull, and the crowds of children who had never known a planet were cheering the Christmas procession, at its head a fat red Santa with his green-clad elves, behind them a Salvation Army band playing "O come all ye faithful!"

Callum thought of the keep that would now be built and the Christmases Yet To Come.

- - -

"Well done!" The apparition looked pleased. "The tasks have been completed. Past, Present and . . . Yet To Come. It only remains for me to wish you a Merry Christmas."

"Er . . . Merry Christmas to you too," said Callum.

"God Bless Us Every One," said the ghost and was gone.

"Flipping holograms," said Callum.

* * *

© Paul Birch, 18th Dec. 1997.