“Xmas at ESL1” by Wil McCarthy
Igbal Renz was a trillionaire—one of the Four Horsemen.
Igbal Renz owned a gigantic solar collector, the size of Wyoming, at Earth-Sun Lagrange Point 1, that provided more electrical power than the entire United States of America.
Igbal Renz owned a space station—ESL1 Shade Station—1.5 million kilometers sunward of Earth, with a crew of 35—mostly women.
Igbal and his people had (probably) made contact with aliens; the mysterious Beings, who could only communicate through the pathways of a human brain twisted on psychedelics. Either that, or Igbal and his people were all nuts, which was a possibility that had to be kept in mind at all stages of the project. Because, you know, he was spending a trillion dollars of his own money to build the starship to go and meet them.
But—shockingly—that wasn’t at the center of his thoughts.
What worried him at the moment was what to do about Christmas.
Good Lord, it sounded simple, right? Igbal wasn’t widely known as a generous man, but he treated his people well enough. Good pay, good bennies, which kept them usually in pretty good spirits. And of course, few of the people here were religious, or even culturally Christian, or whatever. But the holiday season—Hanukah and New Year’s Eve and Kwanzaa, etc., was undeniably a global phenomenon, and he was going to need to mark it in some way, for the people who lived out here in what was, after all, a pretty bleak environment. The mission depended on it. The business depended on it.
The station’s first Christmas had been a special case—everything was brand new, and everyone was excited and very busy. The second Christmas had been okay, too; there were only a dozen people here, and there was still a lot of travel back and forth with Earth. But the third Christmas had been a shit parade, and this year there were nearly twice as many people here, and mostly for indefinite duration. They had all freely chosen to come here, pursuing their own personal dreams of space colonization, but that mattered surprisingly little. The truth was, outer space was worse than Antarctica, worse than a ship at sea. Worse than prison, in some ways. They were all free to leave at any time—free to drop into “squirrel hibernation” and catch the next ion ferry back to Earth. Be home in a month, safe and sound. Nobody was choosing that.
But hell, the records from the drug printer showed their consumption of antidepressants and sleeping pills was through the roof. And stimulants, and alcohol, and blended cannabinoids, what have you. And the holiday season bummed people out anyway, reminding them of where and with whom they were not. So it was a problem he, Igbal Renz, was going to have to deal with.
“Damn holidays,” he said to Alice.
“What?” she said, looking up from her tablet.
The two of them were floating in his office—he looking out the window at the blue-white billiard ball of planet Earth, she fussing with the tablet and looking annoyed.
Alice was his second in command, sort of. Okay, if you wanted to be technical about it, Alice was not an Employee of Renz Ventures at all. Strictly speaking, she was a major in the U.S. Air Force Special Operations Wing, sent here undercover—disguised as an ordinary colonist—to take over the station by force. Which had happened, yeah, sort of. So you could argue she was his boss, or handler. Or jailer. But she had also, even more arguably, been co-opted by the dream of outer space. She seemed to like it here, and over the past six months she’d become so essential to the operation of the station that her formal titles included “Assistant Chief Medical Officer,” “Chief of Security,” and “Head Astronaut,” so one way or another, most of the station crew answered to her. And she never (well, almost never) gave him orders, except in emergency situations. Of which there’d been very few since she’d moved in and started whipping things into shape.
“I said, ‘Damn holidays.’ ”
She looked at him. “What are you talking about, Ig?”
“The holidays. What are we going to do about ‘em?”
Annoyed, now: “Yes, we. We don’t have any way to give out presents. What do we do, ship them up from Earth, at forty thousand bucks a pound? With a 30-day lag, if we’re lucky? It’s already too late for that. And anyway, what if someone doesn’t like their gift? What a waste!”
“This is a factory,” Alice said mildly, with that tone she used for things she didn’t consider important. Which was most things. “Make something.”
“With what tooling?”
“I don’t know. 3D printers?”
“And idle production? That’s even more extravagant. Anyway, people live in rooms the size of a sectional sofa. Where are they supposed to put some pointless tchotchke?”
“Fine. Fresh fruit?” Alice suggested. She was hovering by the exit hatch, with one bare foot hooked lazily on a grab bar.
“It’d rot before it got here. Even apples. The radiation makes them age faster.”
“Hmm. Us, too,” she said unhappily. She was an Emergency Medical Technician, among other things. She was a lot of things, most of them amazing, which was why Igbal had forgiven her for betraying him. Mostly forgiven her.
“Well, we’re living organisms,” he said. “We’ve got repair enzymes and error correction routines. Apples don’t have that stuff.”
She pinned him with a suspicious gaze. “Really?”
“Um, I don’t know, Alice. I know they wouldn’t survive the trip. I’ve tried.”
“Booze?” she suggested.
“Nope. The drug printer’s idle time is already one hundred percent spoken for, making illicit hooch. You people are thirsty.”
She raised an eyebrow. “You people?”
“Fine, us people. Myself included.”
“Maybe we need another drug printer.”
He nodded. “Yeah, we definitely do. It’s on my list. Pfizer’s got ‘em back-ordered, though. Best case, we’ll have one here on the April ferry.”
Alice sighed again. “Why exactly is this my problem?”
“You’re asking me that?” Igbal said. “Really? The ESL1 Shade is measurably affecting the Earth’s climate, and the President of the United States, your boss, was freaked out enough to sneak you in. You seized control, remember? Do you remember that? You want to tell her we’ve got a bunch of people up here, crying into their CHON chow from holiday blues? I’ll tell her myself if you don’t want to.”
“Fine,” Alice said. “I’ll talk to the chef about some fake turkey or something.”
“Hmm.” Igbal had never been one for half measures.
Working the problem, he decided to do something he’d never done before.
“Lurch,” he said, addressing the station’s AI concierge, “place a call to Brother Michael at Saint Joseph of Cupertino Monastery. Let’s see what he has to say. They’re on the Moon, all alone. They must have the same problem.”
“Oh, we plan to spend the Eve and the Day in labor, prayer, and contemplation,” Brother Michael said, when the call had gone through and the problem was explained. “As we spend most eves and days, quite frankly, but with perhaps a bit more focus on the boss’s alleged birthday. I take it that solution won’t work for you?”
“Um, I doubt it.”
“I can give you an excellent recipe for beer, made from the seeds of lupin flowers, if you can believe it. But even if you have the plants already, there isn’t time for the beans to ferment, unless you’re content to celebrate a month delayed.”
“Hmm. Nope, I don’t think that’s going to cut it.”
“Well,” Michael said, with an empathy that managed to sound both grave and amused, “there’s always song. Raising voices together can be a transcendent experience, even among the irreligious.”
“Hmm,” Igbal said, shrugging at Alice. That wasn’t a bad idea, but it hardly seemed sufficient.
Alice exercised her prerogative to ignore the issue and let Igbal deal with it, and get on with her own business, which was very serious indeed.
Thanks to Igbal’s not-secret-enough particle accelerators, ESL1 Shade Station had managed to use its vast energy surplus to produce several kilograms of pure antimatter. It was worth a literal fortune, and was a threat to the security of every nation on Earth. After six months of diligent work on Alice’s part, the security around it was no longer a total joke, but the station was still not really equipped to survive a concerted assault by professional forces. And Lord knew, there were plenty of professional forces making their way into space these days. Even the other Horsemen—particularly Grigory Orlov, of Orlov Petrochemical—commanded enough resources to be more than just an economic threat.
So Christmas was maybe not that big a deal, except that Alice wanted it, too. She was part of this population now, separated not only from family (i.e., her horrible mother) and friends (i.e., her special forces teammates and colleagues), but from the Earth itself, and everything that went with it. Fast food! Lakes! Leaves! Hell, she even somehow missed spiders and caterpillars.
She had new friends here at ESL1; Maag, the witty procedural chemist, and Jeanette, the endlessly cheerful asteroid mining engineer. And flyboy Derek, whom they somehow all managed to time-share romantically, without any significant jealousy, mainly because he was one of only three men on the entire station, and only here intermittently anyway. They were all good friends; some of the best she’d ever had. And there were other friends, too, or friendly acquaintances, here and there among the colonists of ESL1. Even Igbal was her friend, kind of.
But that didn’t make her miss the Earth any less. That didn’t make her stop wanting a Christmas tree and a New Year’s party, and eggnog and all that stupid bullshit.
So, amidst her many labors, she found time to check in on Igbal and make sure he was actually doing something about it. He spent a lot of time with a tablet computer, doing God knows what, and he spent time looking out his office window. Not (she thought) at the distant Earth and Moon, but sidewise at the Hub, and the vast expanse of the Shade at whose center it sat.
Was that useful? Was it holiday-related? She couldn’t tell.
Sadly, he also spent a fair bit of his time in the hibernation lab, pining over Pamela Rosenau. Pamela, who was pregnant with his child, and who had volunteered to be frozen, fetus and all, for a trip to Alpha Centauri that now might be delayed, or might not happen at all.
In the wake of contact from the Beings, corporate priorities had shifted. Alice still wasn’t sure she believed it, but allegedly both Igbal and Hobie Prieto had been contacted (like, telepathically) by actual fucking aliens. Igbal was hardly a trustworthy source for that kind of information due to his drug problem, etc., but Hobie’s own account gave her pause. Hobie was another flyboy, with zero reason to put his credibility on the line for something so clearly outrageous. He said they sang to him! They told him to meet them in the dark between the stars. No-nonsense Hobie! So yeah, maybe.
Anyway, what mattered was that Igbal believed it, and had consequently put Alpha Centauri on the back burner. But Jesus, one look at his face, as he floated next to Pamela’s hibernation tank, said just how not-at-all-lightly he had made that decision.
When Alice entered the hibernation lab, he was murmuring to Pamela’s frozen body, the way people would talk to a gravestone.
“. . . not here for this,” he said. “I don’t know what you’d want me to do. I don’t know what anyone wants me to do.”
He looked up then, and saw Alice hovering in the hatchway.
“Do you need something?” he said, looking caught, and a little angry.
“Are you okay?” she asked him.
“No,” he said, like it should be obvious. Then, when Alice didn’t say anything, he added, “I don’t know whether to thaw her out. She’ll be furious if I do, because it’ll cost her her place in history. She got pregnant specifically for the Centauri mission. Rows of pregnant women, frozen, headed for a new star—that was the plan.”
“But if you don’t revive her,” Alice said, getting it, “she could be in there twenty years. With unknown health effects.”
“Or forever,” he agreed. “She’s carrying my baby, and they’re both clinically dead. And it’s Christmas, and I want her here.”
“That sucks,” she told him. “I’m sorry.”
“And I know I’m not the only one,” he said. “Everybody’s missing someone. Even you.”
“Yes,” she agreed, guardedly.
It was her firm policy to respond to no-win scenarios by escaping. What more was there to say? It was also her policy to leave no comrade behind, no matter how much metal was in the air, but Igbal wasn’t the kind of person you could rescue. Not from this. With some hesitation and a fair bit of guilt, Alice nodded and left him to his ruminations.
She didn’t exactly meet up with Jeanette and Derek “after work,” because there was no such thing as work-life balance here at ESL1. All work was play for the people who’d given up everything to come here. Space colonists! And all play had an element of work to it, because life was dangerous out here. You had to take your gee-pills and your radiation pills and watch out for anything out of the ordinary, that might indicate a leak or (God help them all) a module separation. The bus-sized hab modules were tough, but space was full of little rocks moving at 10x bullet velocities. Space was as dangerous as any battlefield Alice had ever parachuted into, and she never let that thought stray far from her attention.
But anyway, yeah, she met up with Derek and Jeanette for a game of cards in the newly completed lounge module.
“Your deal,” Derek told her grumpily as she entered the module. He was holding out the deck of cards as though it belonged to her, and maybe also smelled bad or something.
Alice took the deck from him and shuffled it. Like all Special Forces types, Alice played a lot of cards, and knew ten different ways to scramble a deck. This was complicated by zero gravity, and by the fact that the cards were rigid brass—intended for swimming pools and hot tubs, not outer space. But some of her tricks worked anyway, and some worked better, and Alice was adaptable. Not particularly stable, but certainly adaptable.
Once the deck was randomized, she flicked cards at Derek and Jeanette, who caught and held them. She kept five for herself, tossing them against the neck of her jumpsuit. She then slipped the deck into a leg pocket, and finally grabbed and fanned out her hand to have a look.
They were, of course, playing five-card draw—one of the few games Derek and Jeanette could both handle. Alice preferred meatier stuff like Texas Hold’em and Canasta, or Bridge if she could find three other people who knew it. But ESL1 was populated with people who’d been raised on the idea that their time was too valuable for such drivel. Even Derek, a veteran who’d flown combat missions against the Cartels, viewed card games with suspicion. But there weren’t a ton of options up here, and Alice was persistent.
“Fold,” Derek said immediately.
“Sure?” Alice asked him. “You don’t want three cards?”
“I’ll take two,” said Jeanette. Then, to Derek: “You okay? You seem down.”
“Perceptive,” he said.
“Dealer takes two,” Alice told them both, and dealt the extra cards.
“Raise five,” Jeanette said. The five-point ante was assumed. Alice would rather play for money—even pennies—to keep it interesting, but no one ever wanted to agree to that.
“See and raise,” Alice said. “Twenty points.”
“Ooh. Fold,” Jeanette said.
Alice glared. “Seriously? You have literally nothing at stake.”
“I have my pride.”
Alice, who had once or twice joined Jeanette and Derek in naked wrestling, wasn’t so sure about that. But it seemed impolite to say so, so she sighed and gave herself the fifteen points.
“You guys are a barrel of laughs,” she said.
“It’s the holidays,” Derek said.
“Oh, sweetie,” Jeanette clucked. “You’re not even going to be here, are you?”
Derek had been at ESL1 longer than almost anyone else, but he spent most of his time running low-speed ion ferries back and forth between here and low-Earth orbit. He was scheduled to depart in four days, picking up another load of colonists—people to help with construction of the now-repurposed starship—plus some assorted light cargo. He would not be back until mid-January.
“This life is starting to wear me down,” he said.
“Too many women to fuck?” Jeanette said, with a just-barely-noticeable tinge of jealousy.
“Three’s more than enough,” he assured her, although Alice was pretty sure he’d availed himself of more than that.
Just then, Maag appeared in the hatchway.
“Ooh, cards,” she said. “Can you deal me in?”
“Sure,” Alice said.
Maag—Malagrite Aagesen—could barely play even five-card draw, and spent most of the time gabbing instead of looking at her cards. But she was a generally cheerful person, and Alice liked her. Maag spent nearly all her synthesizer allowance on teal-colored hair dye, and you could tell, because it meant she had to skimp on other things, like toothpaste and deodorant and even soap. But hair dye was more fun, right?
“Smelly Malagrite,” some of the other colonists called her, though they’d learned not to do it within earshot of Alice. Alice had spent too many of her formative years sweating in ditches and aircraft cabins to pay much attention to how people smelled, and there would be no mean-girl bullshit on this station if she had anything to say about it. Everyone knew she was an expert in Zedo, the zero-gee martial art, and everyone knew she had about as much patience as a wet dog, so the odds were definitely in her favor on this one. And anyway, Maag was one of those people whose natural smell (within reason) was really kind of attractive.
“Derek was just telling us about his shitty life,” Alice said.
“Aw,” said Maag. “Do we need to send you off with another foursome?”
“Maybe,” he said, finally showing some interest, “but it’s really the holidays that have me down. They always do, I guess. I used to think it was because the nights were so long, but we don’t have that problem here.”
Indeed, as far as daylight was concerned, it was always late August here on the station, with the hall lights shifting through sunrise mode starting around 6:30 AM, and gradually reddening and darkening into “moonlight” starting around 7:30 PM. The sun itself was blocked by the Hub, though visible as a yellow-white glow through the Shade beyond it.
The Shade was like a Britain-sized bullseye; opaque and solid at the very center, but hair-thin and nearly 50% transmissive at the outer boundary. In the parts of it that were visible through the station’s portholes, it let through about 10% of the sun’s light, which was almost too bright to look at without tinting the windows. This let a lot of light into the station that was “natural,” if peculiar, and it varied in intensity only fleetingly, as the transparency of the shade was adjusted here and there, to steer it with photon pressure so it didn’t drift out of position. Most of the time, even those changes were basically invisible, so the porthole tint followed the same program as the hall lights: bright mornings, dim nights. So yeah, there were plenty of inconveniences with living on a space station, but a shortage of daylight wasn’t one of them.
“So what do you think is the problem?” Jeanette asked.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Maybe I just want an old-fashioned family Christmas.”
“Aren’t we your family?” Maag asked.
“I know what you mean,” Alice said to Derek, because she really actually did, and she didn’t want Maag making things worse. “There’s nothing different or special happening. Every day is the same. Maybe we should introduce ‘seasons’ here, just to break it up a little.”
“Isn’t Igbal working on some kind of celebration?” Jeanette asked.
“Allegedly,” Alice said. “He’s mostly just holed up in his office, typing code or looking out the window. Sometimes pining over Pamela. He’s more of a mess than Derek, quite frankly. At this particular moment, even the starship doesn’t seem to excite him.”
Then Derek let go of his cards, setting them adrift in the lounge module, and said, “Fuck it. Let’s get drunk.”
But just then, Lurch piped in over the nearest loudspeaker, saying, “Alice Kyeong, please report to the medical lab. Alice Kyeong, please report to the medical lab.”
“What is it?” Alice asked.
“Please report to the medical lab,” Lurch said again. And that could mean several things. Possibly, Lurch didn’t really know what was happening, which wouldn’t be all that surprising. Concierge modules like that were creepily superhuman in some ways, but dumb as donkeys overall. Another possibility was that Lurch was guarding someone’s medical privacy. Still a third possibility—and the worst one Alice could think of—was that something was seriously wrong, and Lurch did not want to start a panic.
“I’m on my way,” she said.
When Alice got to the medlab, she had to plow through a knot of people at the hatchway.
“Everybody out,” she said. “Back off, everyone.”
“It’s Helen,” someone was saying.
“Is she breathing?” someone else asked.
“Back off!” Alice said, as she made her way over to the examination table. One of the construction workers, Helen Sharareh, was strapped to it, and Doctor Lee—Rachael to her friends—was trying to get an IV catheter into her arm.
“Status?” Alice demanded, although Rachael was the ranking medical officer.
“She was found nonresponsive.”
“We found an empty bottle of sleeping pills!” someone called out.
“Shit,” Alice said.
“She’s got a pulse,” Rachael said, “but she’s barely breathing. Pupils dilated. Can you strap this arm down for me, please?”
Despite being unconscious, Helen was somehow twitching, so Alice held the arm against the table and Velcroed it in place.
“Breath smells like vodka,” Rachael observed. “She’s been drinking, too.”
“Wonderful,” Alice said.
Clearly, Helen was trying to kill herself. As far as Alice knew, this was the first time anyone in outer space had ever tried to do that.
With the arm secure, Alice launched herself back toward the hatch, and closed it in the faces of the hovering workers. She turned then, and asked, “Prognosis?”
“Give me a minute.”
The IV was in, so Rachael hooked up a saline pump and then set about inserting a tube down Helen’s airway.
“Epinephrine,” she said. “One milligram.”
While Alice fetched the medication and drew it into a hypodermic needle, Rachael inserted another tube down Helen’s esophagus and into her stomach.
Alice, who had knelt over more than her fair share of nonresponsive patients, injected the epi into Helen’s IV to keep her from going into cardiac arrest while Rachael pumped out the contents of the stomach. Cases like this were a race against time; if too much sedative got into the patient’s bloodstream too quickly, they could simply expire on you even though there was nothing fundamentally wrong with them. On the other hand, if you got ahead of the curve, pumping up the blood volume and clearing out the intoxicants still in the stomach, then the patient would simply sleep it off, none the worse for wear.
But Alice’s only experience was with accidental overdoses—soldiers on deployment who’d maybe snuck some booze to wash down a couple of sleeping pills and a couple of painkillers and a couple of random prescription meds, and thus nearly removed themselves from the battlefield forever. She’d never dealt with an actual suicide attempt, and didn’t really have any idea how it was likely to go.
But Rachael, watching Helen’s pulse ox while she drew syringe after syringe of yellow-white garbage out of Helen’s stomach, finally declared, “She’s going to make it. It was close, though. She wasn’t fucking around.”
“Jesus,” Alice said.
For one thing, this meant morale was even worse than she thought. For another . . . suicide was contagious. If Helen had succeeded, it could have set off others around her, destabilizing them to the point where a permanent solution to their temporary problems seemed like a grand idea.
“This was an accidental overdose,” Alice declared. “A very minor accidental overdose. She just took a couple pills while she was drunk, that’s all. I want you to write it up that way.”
“Okay,” Rachael said, seeming to grasp the logic of that.
“I’ll tell everyone that’s what happened,” Alice said. “However, we found an irregular heartbeat that might indicate a need for care we can’t provide here. In an abundance of caution, we’re going to put her in squirrel hibernation and ship her back to Earth for observation.”
Squirrel hibernation was a lot milder, medically speaking, than freezing somebody. Aside from the lower core temperature, it wasn’t much different than the state Helen Sharareh was in right now.
“That’s even actually a little bit true,” Rachael said; Helen’s pulse was smoothing out now, but it had sure as hell been irregular a few minutes ago.
“That’s fine, Doc. I’m glad you understand.”
To Alice’s surprise, that story actually held up. People believed it, or pretended to, and so as bad as things were, they didn’t actually get any worse. Derek did in fact depart on schedule, with Helen Sharareh tucked away in the hibernation bay. And then nothing happened for a few days, and then it was December 24th, which miraculously managed to be the eve of Hanukah as well as Christmas, and two days before the start of Kwanzaa, and a week before New Year’s Eve, and all across the station people seemed to be letting out their breath and giving up. Okay, fine, nothing special was going to happen. They might as well go about their duties like any other day of the year.
But then, midway through the morning, Igbal started passing out smart-paper sheet music for Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” that included lyrics in English, Mandarin, and the original German.
“Memorize this,” he said to some people known to have musical talent. “Familiarize,” he said to others. And to certain hopeless cases, Alice included, he said, “The words will be underlined when you’re supposed to sing them. Just mumble along and you’ll be fine.”
And Alice thought, okay, singing was good. She didn’t think this was exactly Christmas music, but it was non-denominational and festive, and maybe that was the point.
And although Alice never had gotten around to talking with the station’s chef, Thenbecca Jungermann, there was fake turkey for lunch anyway, along with some fairly convincing “mashed potatoes and gravy,” and green beans that had been grown here in the station’s hydroponics module.
“Happy Holidays. Happy Holidays,” Thenbecca said as she handed out the bowls and utensils, and Alice’s shriveled heart was warmed by the joy Thenbecca seemed to take in this.
There wasn’t room for the entire crew in the dining module, so they spilled out into neighboring modules, eating and smiling and joking in a way they really hadn’t been, lately. And although Igbal Renz had never been much for speeches, he got to the center of the mob, cleared his throat, and said, “When you’re done eating, I want everyone to fan out around the station. Find a porthole that lets you look out on the sunny part of the Shade. I’ve got a present to share, that I want everyone to see.”
With that tease hanging in the air, people finished their dinners more quickly than they might have, or else brought their zero-gee bowls and drink bulbs with them as they dispersed.
And then there was music, playing softly from every speaker on the station. The smart paper sheets had all gone blank—a signal that it wasn’t time to start singing yet. Alice and Maag settled by a porthole in the chemical processing module, looking out at the sunlit Shade, wondering what was about to happen.
The music grew louder. The Shade went white. The smart sheets showed music again, and suddenly everyone was singing. Throughout the station, in voices beautiful or rough, singing together a tune the whole world knew.
“O friends, no more of these sounds!
Let us sing more cheerful songs,
Bright and filled with exaltation!
For to bear our hearts along.”
Something was happening out on the Shade. The white had gone gray, then white, then gray again, and Alice realized the whole thing was pulsating in time with the music, showing jagged patterns in gray and black, and clear sunshine too bright to look at. Starbursts! Expanding ripples! Flocks of birds, and a steady pulsating heartbeat at the back of it all! Igbal had turned the Shade into the biggest video display the human race had ever seen.
Frantically, Alice dug out her phone—an ancient slab of glass and plastic, given to her by the President of the United States—and dialed Derek. He was already a quarter of a light-second away, and the SpaceNet charges were going to be murder, but what the hell. It was Christmas!
“Look at the Shade,” Alice said into the phone, the moment Derek had picked up. “Rotate the ship! You’ve got to see this!”
“I’m looking,” Derek said, and Alice could hear “Ode to Joy” playing in the background, in the cockpit of Derek’s tiny spaceship. “Igbal sent me instructions this morning. Believe me, I’ve got a better view than you do! It’s the most amazing thing I’ve ever . . . nobody’s ever . . . Jesus.”
And then Alice just kind of lost herself in the music. She’d never known the lyrics to this song, or even that there were lyrics, and although they were all about a God she didn’t believe in and a family she’d never had, it seemed to be about everyone, directed at everyone. A song of peace and happiness for the whole human race, nine billion assholes and counting, and Alice was part of it.
And when the music was building to a crescendo, as tears built up in her eyes, she looked down at the lyrics sheet and sang:
“Hark, you millions, I embrace you.
This kiss is for all the world!
Friends, above the starred expanses
There must dwell a loving Lord.
Do you fall in worship, millions?
Do you thy creator know?
Seek beyond the empty heavens;
Above the stars must He dwell.”
And then the music stopped, and the Shade went dark, and nobody said anything for a long, long time.
Igbal was in his office, looking over machine-generated reports, when Alice floated in, grabbing a handrail to halt herself.
“You did good,” she said.
“Really?” he asked, not quite believing it. It wasn’t the kind of thing he heard very often. No matter how much good he did, no matter how much he had single-handedly raised the Gross Domestic Product of the entire world, all people could ever talk about was how selfish he was. He didn’t see them giving all their money to the poor.
“Yes, really,” Alice said, wiping away what looked like an actual tear. It was hard to tell in zero gravity. “Thank you. And Merry Christmas.”
“Merry Christmas to you,” Igbal said. “I’m glad you liked it.”
Just then, the phone rang. More specifically, the station’s concierge passed a real-time message through to Igbal’s office, ringing a chime for his attention.
“Grigory Orlov for you, sir,” said Lurch.
“Put him on screen.”
Igbal’s picture window, with its view of Hub and Shade and Earth and Moon, was replaced with the ugly mug of one of Igbal’s fellow trillionaires: the CEO and majority shareholder of energy giant Orlov Petrochemical. The second-richest of the Four Horsemen, Orlov now resided at an asteroid gas mining facility parked at EML1, where the gravity of Earth and Moon balanced to zero.
Igbal had never spoken with him. In fact, for the past six months—ever since the Beings had made contact—Igbal had spoken to almost no one outside of Renz Ventures.
“Greetings,” Orlov said. He was in some kind of dark control room, filled with graphical displays and orange-lit buttons. Two men hovered behind him, in stretchy gray uniforms straight out of some B-movie wardrobe department. Their attention was not on Orlov or his phone call, but on the workstations in front of them, as though they didn’t dare stop working, even on Christmas-and-Hanukah eve.
“What can I do for you?” Igbal said, now somewhat irritated that this man had interrupted what might have been the first heartfelt conversation he’d had in a long time.
Orlov’s smile was a mask of warmth, thinly painted over a face long accustomed to scowling. “My father had a tradition, to call his enemies on Christmas eve and wish them well. He would put enmity in abeyance for a few days, and take no hostile action even toward those who’d clearly invited it. I disagree with a lot of my father’s ideas, but that one I’ve always respected.”
Orlov’s voice seemed to be chiseling the words out of stone.
Scoffing in disbelief, Igbal said, “Are you calling just to tell me we’re enemies? Seriously?“
“On the contrary. I’m here to offer you my thanks and congratulations. Our telescopes picked up your light show. Our mainframe matched it to Beethoven’s ninth symphony. Your own work?”
“It was, yes.”
Orlov had of course just revealed that he had a telescope pointed at ESL1 at a totally random time, which meant it was probably pointed here 24/7. Igbal shared a look with Alice, who nodded. Yeah, she got that, too.
“A new art form, quite beautiful,” Orlov said. “I can share the recording to all the news media, globally, as my gift to the people of Earth. Assuming they have not seen it already, with sensors of their own.”
“Wouldn’t that be my gift to the people of Earth?”
Orlov clucked. “We are off on the wrong foot, you and I. Can we not share this gift together? You and Beethoven and I? Your beautiful lights, as seen from my perfect vantage. A show of solidarity between adversaries.”
Scoffing again, Igbal said, “You’re not my enemy, Grigory. I have much bigger things on my mind.”
“I see. Well, perhaps you can set those things aside, too, and join me in a message to Earth? Peace and love, for all mankind? You have touched my heart, Renz—a thing not easily done—and I find myself with the curious desire to spread that joy to others.”
Pausing and blinking for several seconds, Igbal processed those words, and came up actually kind of blank. He’d only set out to do something nice for the people who worked here. Something cool, something no one else could possibly give them. It had taken weeks of his time—arguably worth a billion dollars—but he’d done it without reservation, because he wanted to make them happy. Was that kind of thing . . . infectious? Could he spread it? If he could touch the heart of Grigory God-Damn Orlov, then who knew what might be possible?
Finally, after much too long a pause, he looked Orlov in the eye and said, “Okay, fine. Peace and love, all mankind. Let’s do it.”
And so a message of hope was beamed down from Heaven to all the people of Earth, and despite the weight of misery and strife with which human beings had always been afflicted, a little bit of that hope leaked through and, for a moment, lit the world.
Copyright © 2022 by Wil McCarthy
Engineer/novelist/journalist/entrepreneur Wil McCarthy is an award-winning author whose short fiction has graced the pages of magazines including Analog, Asimov's, WIRED, and SF Age. His novels include the New York Times notable Bloom, national bestseller The Collapsium, and To Crush the Moon.