Wednesday 5 December 2007

One Small Step for Santa - Part One

One Small Step for Santa is a kid-friendly Christmas story told in three episodes, posted serially by me, your jolly host, Cheeseburger Brown.

Chapters: 1|2|3

Related reading: Pink Santa

Multimedia note: This story's header illustration has been composited for anaglyphic stereoscopic viewing. For best results, look at it through red-and-blue 3D glasses.

And now, our yuletide tale begins:


It was a dark and starry night, and had been all day.

George woke up to the smell of tangerines, which are like small, sweet oranges. He was lying in a hammock, which is a sort of bed made of fabric and ropes, and it swung gently back and forth as he rubbed his eyes with his knuckles. George yawned.

Outside the window the sky was black. The stars were bright, but they didn't twinkle. There were no clouds or birds, because George was in outer space.

Remembering this made him feel nervous.

The next thing he did was to fall out of his hammock, which was easy because in outer space it's hard to know which way down is. For most of the trip, down had been nowhere at all which George found very confusing because he kept floating around and bumping into things. Today, it turned out, down was toward the front of the spaceship, so that's the way George fell.

He landed on a pillow of big sacks that squirted out the smell of tangerines when he hit them. "Oof!" said George.

"Don't bruise the fruit!" called Brother Marcus from the cockpit.

"I'm sorry, brother!" said George. He pushed away from the sacks of tangerines as gently as he could, although he thought he might have squished one or two because he could see some wet spots on the sacks. He dabbed at them with his pajamas.

"Get up here and strap in," called Brother Marcus. "We're almost there!"

"But I'm still in my pajamas," said George.

"You need to have your seat-belt on, novice, or you might get hurt when I fire the engines."

George scrambled down through the short tunnel into the cockpit. The cockpit had two big squishy chairs, four wide windows, and about a million gauges and buttons and dials. Just looking at the controls made George dizzy, so he looked at his feet while he climbed into his chair beside Brother Marcus and attached the safety-straps around his body.

Brother Marcus had a long, fluffy, yellow-white beard and a bald, shiny head. He had rosy cheeks, a round nose, and a mischievous glimmer in his bright eyes. Now he was talking into his radio, with its long antenna on the outside of the ship pointed back to Antarctica. Into the microphone he said, "Roger that, Kringle Control. Executing burn sequence Tango, entering radio silence. Over and out, and to all a good night."

George wasn't really listening. His was staring out through the four wide windows at the Moon, which he had never seen so big and so close. The silver crescent was covered in all sorts of overlapping circles and rings, which were craters left after asteroids had crashed there. Since there was no weather on the Moon -- no rain, no wind, no snow -- marks like that tended to stick around for a very long time.

"Wow," said George. "The Moon sure is beautiful, brother."

Brother Marcus nodded. "It certainly is, novice. And soon enough we'll be standing on it. Think about that! We'll be making history: this is the very first mission from the Order of Saint Nicholas to serve Lunar children!"

George already knew that. Prior Ignatz had told him, back on Earth, while he had been explaining how important it was for George to go along even through he wasn't a full brother yet. George was just a novice monk, and he hadn't yet finished his training. That's what he said to Prior Ignatz: "But I haven't finished my training!"

"Listen to me, George," said Prior Ignatz; "you're the only one in the order who's ever been to the Moon before. You were born there. You'll be a big help!"

George didn't think he had anything helpful to tell anyone about the Moon. He had been moved to Earth when he was just a little kid, and he hardly remembered the Moon at all. Still, he knew that being a monk in the Order of Saint Nicholas meant trying to be as helpful as you could, every single day, so he had no real choice except to say, "I'll do it, Prior."

"Ho, ho, ho!" laughed Prior Ignatz as he shook George's hand.

So now here he was inside a tiny silver spaceship called Blitzen, flying into orbit around the Moon with Brother Marcus, carrying sacks of tangerines across hundreds of thousands of kilometers of cold, empty space to bring a spark of joy to the lives of the Moon's children.

Brother Marcus pulled back on the throttle and the ship started to rumble. The big rockets on the back were blasting out energy, sending Blitzen and the two monks inside hurtling over the bright face of the Moon toward the far side which never faced the Earth. In the shadows of the far side George could see patches of light shining from the Moon's cities, which were all on the far side because a group of people called the Commercial Islamic Futurists had bought the near side lock, stock and barrel in order to stop anyone from ruining the Moon's face by building stuff all over it. They hadn't been able to afford to buy the whole Moon, though, so there had been people living on the far side for years.

Brother Marcus worked the controls carefully. The engines went quiet and Blitzen drifted into a lower orbit, gradually coming closer and closer to the rocky surface.

Somebody from Moon Landing Control kept trying to call them on the radio, but Marcus sent back only static and a repeating computer message explaining that their radio was broken and that they were landing for repairs. George hoped that would keep them out of trouble.

He couldn't tell how far away they were. Without any sky or air to make distant things hazy, everything on the Moon looked like it was right in front of your nose. What seemed like tiny rings grew into giant craters many kilometers wide, and then what had seemed like dots inside them grew in turn to become giant craters, too. Nestled in the corner of one such crater was a bunch of domes with little lights blinking around them.

"Is that where we're landing, brother?" asked George.

"Yes, novice, it is," said Marcus as he worked the controls. Blitzen turned as it dropped and in another moment George and Marcus could only see stars through the four wide windows. Marcus hit a switch and the ship began to shake again as the retro-thrusters -- which were little rockets meant to slow the falling ship down -- fired with a roar.

The cockpit went thump and bump and then settled to a rest. A cloud of grey moon-dust billowed up around the windows and then rose away. George relaxed in his chair, and noticed that for the first time in days he knew which was down was -- it was pointed toward the ground, which was just the way George liked it. He sighed in a happy way. "That's better," said George.

"Yes," agreed Marcus, rubbing his hands together in excitement. "Now we can actually get started on our mission! Please fetch us the sacks of tangerines, George."

"All by myself?" asked George. "They're too heavy!"

"Not on the Moon they're not," replied Marcus with a laugh. "You of all people should know that. On the Moon, things are only one sixth as heavy as they are back on Earth, because the Moon is smaller and has less gravity pulling you down. You can carry as much as six men, novice!"

"Oh, right," agreed George, undoing his straps and getting out of his chair. "I'll get them now, brother."

"Don't bruise the fruit!" Marcus called after him.

George promised he'd be careful. After he'd changed out of his pajamas, he picked up the two massive sacks of tangerines and slung them over his shoulder, smiling as he realized just how light they felt. Brother Marcus met him at the hatch. He pushed a button and the hatch opened. The monks climbed down the short ladder.

"Behold," cried Marcus, "the Moon!"

George and Marcus were surrounded by ships, each of them standing in a yellow circle painted on the dusty asphalt, their noses pointed to the sky. The monks were standing inside a transparent plastic tube that had been attached to Blitzen by a parking robot. The parking robot was now rolling away, looking back and forth for something else to do. The plastic tube snaked between the ships, leading all the way to a giant dome with tall, glowing letters on it spelling out the words: WEST MOSCOVIENSE SHOPPING MALL.

"What do we do now?" asked George.

"We go shopping!" said Marcus.

"Why?" asked George, his face scrunched up in confusion.

"We need to get our parking validated, so they don't tow away our ship."


So Brother Marcus and Novice George walked into the shopping mall and bought a couple of chocolate milks to drink. The man at the drink stand stamped their parking stub, which sent a code back to the parking robots telling them to leave Blitzen alone. Marcus was finding it tricky to walk in the Moon's light gravity, so they sat down on the edge of a pretty water fountain to drink their chocolate milk. George used a straw, but Marcus lifted off the lid and sipped directly from his cup. Every time he put the cup down it left a dazzle of brown droplets all over his fluffy beard.

The shopping mall was very busy. All sorts of Lunar people were out buying presents for their friends and families for Christmas, Eid, Yule, or Channukkah. There were lighted signs and amazing displays of products everywhere, buzzing or turning or flashing for attention. Holiday music played from hidden speakers, mumbly and slightly out of tune. It was a very crowded place, and most of the people didn't look very happy.

"It doesn't seem like a very jolly season," said George.

"It's even less jolly where we're going," said Marcus. "These are the richest people on the Moon. You and I, novice, are going to visit the poorest."

George pointed to the train station in the distance. "Are we going to take the train to Seyfert City?"

"No," said Marcus with a shake of his head that caused little drips of chocolate milk to fly off. "If we travel through the dome network we would have to get through several security check-points where they would want to know our names and our business. This is a secret mission, novice, so we'll have to be extra sneaky."

"But how, brother?"

"We'll travel outside the domes," explained Marcus. "We'll go over the surface."

George's eyes opened in surprise. "What?" he exclaimed. "Isn't that dangerous?"

"Maybe a little," admitted Marcus. "Don't worry, George: we'll rent some fancy environment-suits so we'll be warm and toasty, and a crater-buggy so the trip won't take long."

"But nobody will know we're out there! What if we fall and get hurt, or what if we run out of air and need help?"

Brother Marcus smiled and squeezed George's shoulder in a friendly way. "Taking risks is part of the game, novice, if you want to be one of us."

George gulped.

Brother Marcus put his cup into a garbage can and then stood up from the edge of the fountain. He stood up too quickly, however, and ended up making a high, slow jump into the air. "Oh my goodness!" he cried.

George caught hold of Marcus and helped him land on his feet. "You have be careful on the Moon, brother!" he said breathlessly. "In the weak gravity you've got to move gently."

"Well, you don't seem to be having any trouble!" grumbled Marcus.

"Hey, you're right," said George. In fact, he felt perfectly at home taking long, bouncing strides. It reminded him of being a little kid. "Maybe I can be helpful after all!" he cheered.

"Of course you can," said Marcus with a grin. "Come on: let's get moving."

George held on to Marcus' arm to help him walk without crashing into anybody, and together they went to arrange for a pair of environment-suits and a crater-buggy. George felt very happy to be able to do something useful for Brother Marcus, but he began to feel frightened again after they put on the suits and drove the little buggy to one of the airlocks that led outside. The airlock had two doors, and while they waited between them all the air would be emptied out. George shivered as the big metal door closed behind them. Then he heard a hissing sound as the air was sucked away.

He tightened his helmet, then turned to look at Brother Marcus whose long beard was all scrunched up around his face. "I'm scared," he said to Marcus through his radio.

Marcus gave him a smile. "Have courage, novice," answered Marcus, his voice crackly through the little speakers in George's helmet. "This is what being a member of the order is all about. Just think about how happy the children will be when we get there!"

They both stopped talking to look as the airlock's outer door yawned open, giving them a view of grey rocks under a black sky. It seemed very cold and lonely out there, and the rocks looked very sharp.

Brother Marcus gave George an encouraging slap on the thigh with his thick gloves. "All set?" he asked.

George nodded. "I guess so."

"Think of it this way," said Marcus as he put the buggy into gear. "It's just one small step for a brother of the order, but a giant leap for Santa Claus."

George nodded again, holding tight to the edge of his seat.

Marcus hit the accelerator and the buggy zoomed out of the airlock and out onto the Moon's surface, bouncing over rocks and kicking up a cloud of grey dust. "Ho, ho, ho!" he crowed, laughing all the way.


Anonymous said...

yeah brotherhood!

I hope this will be a Christmas tradition for many years to come.

"things are only one quarter as heavy as they are back on Earth" - isn't it one sixth?

Cheeseburger Brown said...

Dear Orick,

Quite right! Fixed.

Cheeseburger Brown

Anonymous said...

I understand that this story is for kids, but I have to say I'm really not enjoying it nearly as much as Pink Santa, which I think struck a good balance between being enjoyable for both kids and non-kids.

Is George supposed to be eight? If not the dialog between the brothers seems way too childish and completely unbelievable.

I think it's safe to say that young children won't be reading this story themselves, but will probably have it read to them by a parent. In that case, maybe its safe to assume that the adult can explain things to the child such as what a hammock is, etc.

Anonymous said...

Small typo 'because in outer space it's hard to know which was down is.' should probably be 'which way down is.'

Anonymous said...

I'd have to agree with anonymous on the tone of the story (even if George is 8, the dialog doesn't quite feel right). It reads a bit like one of those educational films you see in grade school, and then crosses over into total kid-confusion mode with "a group of people called the Commercial Islamic Futurists". Besides, if you get too pedantic people start taking issue with your science ("Asteroids? Don't you mean meteoroids?") and then the whole thing is a lot less fun.

One other typo I found: "how happy to children will be" ("to" should be "the"). Also, "out of the airlock and out onto the moon's surface" seems a little redundant.

All that aside, I think there's a lot of potential for fun here once you hit your stride.

Cheeseburger Brown said...

Dear Anonymous,

The dialogue is intended for children, but I'm sorry to hear it's straining your adult credulity.

As for the hammock comment, the conceit of explaining the obvious can serve purposes other than pedantry. Consider, for example, Kurt Vonnegut's Breakfast of Champnions in which the reader has explained to them things as mundane as Volkswagen Beetles and what penises are. Despite this, it was not a book intended for children.

Dear Eddwo,

Thanks. Nipped it.

Dear Sheik,

Well, the bit of history of the Commercial Islamic Futurists I toss in for you folks. With regard to the science, you'll note that in the passage in question they are sufficiently far from the lunar surface that George is seeing macro-scale marks, such as those left by asteroid impacts, rather than the smaller craters left by meteoroids.

The dialogue in Chapter 2 I was worried was getting too complex, but maybe you'll find it an easier pill to swallow. We'll see!

Cheeseburger Brown

Mark said...

I found myself asking just how young George is. I agree that there's something forced about this one compared to "Pink Santa."

Almost like it's a script of someone reading a story to a child, instead of just a story.

But, of course, I love what's happening and look forward to more.

fooburger said...

Two details:
"Maybe I can he helpful after all!"
'I can be'

"days he knew which was down was -- it was"
'which way'

otherwise.. sounds fun....

gl. said...

thank you, Commercial Islamic Futurists!

Cheeseburger Brown said...

Dear all,

See, here's the thing: I don't know what ages your kids are (those of you who have any), but my kids are five and two.

I tell them a bedtime story just about every night, which means my kid-story engine is calibrated at "five years old."

To a five-year-old, it doesn't really matter how old George is -- it just matters that he's younger and therefore needs questions answered. He's the kid-relatable character, as opposed to Marcus whom the kid is supposed to see as parent-like because he's a source of comfort and information.

In truth, George is probably ten or eleven but in his role as a lightning rod for small-child-relatability his age is indistinct.

It's interesting that some of you find this approach more "forced" or "unbelievable", because I think it's a whole lot more digestible for small children than Pink Santa was. It follows my experiences reading Lewis Carrol's original Alice through the Looking-Glass to my daughter, noting what she understood and what she missed, and how she automatically related to the age-vague character of Alice.

At any rate, your feedback is most interesting to me when it's unexpected, so keep it coming.

Cheeseburger Brown

Orick of Toronto said...

well, after you finish this story, I can get a class of grade 4 students to read this and pink santa and see what they thinking. Their feedback should be interesting.

Cheeseburger Brown said...

Dear Orick,

It would be awesome to get their responses. I've also seeded it out to some coworkers with children, and I'll be reading it to mine so see what holds them and what loses them.

As has been touched on in many forums, writing for children is not at all easier than writing for adults despite the misconception some people hold. Really, my only guide is my feelings as to what a five-year-old could digest -- and, specifically, my five-year-old.

I don't mean to sound so pissy or defensive in my comments -- I just really wasn't anticipating the negative response to the tone, and it took me a bit off guard. I had been relatively pleased with myself up til that point.

Never the less, this is how I learn, and this is why having all of you out there reading and responding is so invaluable -- so show me where my assumptions are off-kilter.

I'm incorporating this feedback into my writing of the second chapter, and I do hope everyone will be candid in their feedback once they get to it next week.

Cheeseburger Brown

Mark said...

Good points, CBB. Re-reading it from that perspective, I can see it working better than "Pink Santa" as a story read aloud to a small child.

I was thinking of a child reading the story, not listening to it being read. Hmmm...

My wife and I were talking on our date last night about whether our four-year-old boy is ready for stories read a chunk one night, more the next, and so on. This might be the perfect story to test the waters. He certainly loves rocketships, the fact that the moon looks like a banana sometimes, and Christmas.

Pardon me if I'm being dense, but is George a child or an adult? I just want to answer my won when he asks.

Anonymous said...

Hi Mark,

A couple of typos-- er, wait, that isn't right.

Seriously, though, ever since I saw the new image, I've been hoping to find a pair of 3D glasses (if I were The Doctor, I'd always have some on hand).

Cheeseburger Brown said...

Dear Mark,

I figure George is around ten or eleven. Backstory: a street youth on the Moon, he was shipped by a charitable organization back to the Earth for adoption. When that didn't work out for him he ran away from home, and eventually connected with members of the order as an introverted, very shy and scared little fellow who was reluctant to speak. As his training has progressed he has come out of his shell somewhat, but is still a very delicate, hesitant young boy without much confidence in himself.

As for reading stories in chunks: my eldest wasn't ready for that until pretty recently. Alice was our breakthrough -- previous attempts at chaptered stories left her confused or apathetic about what had happened last time around. Just this week, however, she and her brother have been very attentive to a new line of story I've been telling them about gnomes living in a secret basement beneath our house, and my eldest has been dealing reasonably with the episodic nature. My youngest, of course, is just happy to be along for the ride.

Dear Sheik,

FYI, if you visit the archive version of the story on Cheeseburger you can mouse-over the header illustration to see a non-stereoscopic version.

Sorry about the 3D: I just couldn't resist. I've been working in 3D non-stop for weeks, and now all of a sudden non-3D just seems so...well, flat to me.

Failing the acquisition of anaglyphic glasses, you could always resort to MacGyvering a solution with two pieces of coloured film or plastic -- red on the left, blue on the right.

Cheeseburger Brown

Anonymous said...

Dear CBB,

No worries. I actually was pretty excited when it dawned on me that the extra color flares weren't just for effect. Of course I haven't had to fake up a pair of those since elementary school art class, but perhaps I can find reasonably similar materials around here.

How much effort is involved in making this "deep as life" version from the original?

Cheeseburger Brown said...

Dear Sheik,

If you compare the mouseover and non-mouseover version you can kind of see what I've done to add depth.

Basically, I always draw my stuff on layers anyway, so that wasn't an extra step. Once I had my layers, though, I brought them into 3D space and sent each layer progressively further backward along the Z axis. Since this also made them shrink, when I had them at the coordinates I wanted I scaled each layer up to its original (visual) size.

The only layer I brought forward was the head of the closest reindeer.

Next, I applied an Optics Conpensation Filter which is designed to de-warp images that have been severely distorted by a wide-angle lens. By inverting the values, I was able to increase rather than decrease the warping. By doing this, I was able to place a slight three-dimensional bulge on each element, shifted slightly in each eye in order to simulate parallax perspective differences -- meaning its furthest edges would have greater divergence than the closest parts. This made the layers look a little bit less flat, and gave me a greater variety of depth across each element.

So, considering the crazy stereo rigging I've been doing over the past two months, this exercise was easy as pie.

Cheeseburger Brown

Orick of Toronto said...

CBB, you know what would be more awesome than me reading it to a grade 4 class? You reading it to a couple of grade 4 classes yourself! Anyways, you got gmail.

Mark said...

Am I the only one who colored his glasses with dry erase markers to try to get the 3-D effect?

The wife laughed at me, and it didn't work, anyway. I could see everything, but the colors weren't quite right.

Anonymous said...

Mark: that is just plain awesome. I did that once with a flashlight for my stargazing efforts (you should join us for the Geminid meteor shower). Not gonna try it with my contact lenses, though.

CBB, thanks for sharing that fascinating process (techie geeks like me -- and Mark, assumedly -- love that stuff). Don't forget to reverse the polarity of the main deflector and release a neutrino pulse from the Bussard collectors.

Orick of Toronto said...

mark, haha, you should post a photo of yourself with those marked up glasses.

have you tried candy wrappers?

Anonymous said...

"Don't forget to reverse the polarity of the main deflector and release a neutrino pulse from the Bussard collectors."

Dude, that hardly ever works.

Anonymous said...

Contrary to some here, I much prefer this story to Pink Santa. Actually, Pink Santa was my least favorite of your stories... so I was initially dreading another holiday story.

However, I have very much enjoyed what you have written thus far.

It should perhaps be noted that I'm a dyed-in-the-wool lunar colonization fanatic, so this may color my perceptions.

gt281 said...

Nice start,, sorry can’t think of any editorial comments…
Onward to part 2 of,, “Reindeer Herders on the Moon”…
……..Bless the Web…