One Small Step for Santa is a kid-friendly Christmas story told in three episodes, posted serially by me, your waylaid host, Cheeseburger Brown.
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 continues:
When you look up at the Moon in the sky it might look like a very small place, but when you're driving across the bottom of a deep crater, lost in a forest of giant Lunar boulders, the Moon can seem very, very big indeed.
It was quiet, because there isn't any air on the Moon. It was also very dark and very cold, because it was night-time for the far side, and on the Moon each night lasts for two whole weeks.
Brother Marcus grumbled. He kept hitting a little box on the dashboard of the buggy that was supposed to tell them where to go, but instead of showing them maps it was showing them nothing but squiggly lines. It beeped sadly. "Fudge!" yelled Marcus.
"We're going to be lost forever," said George.
"No," mumbled Marcus. "We would run out of air long before forever. But that isn't a very cheerful thought, is it?"
George agreed that it wasn't. "What are we going to do?" he asked.
Marcus sighed as he steered the crater-buggy around a mound of sharp stones. "I'm going to drive up the highest hill I can find, and then maybe we can have a look around and figure out where we are."
"But everything on the Moon looks the same!" cried George, pointing to the jagged shadows all around them, dimly lit by the red beacon on the nose of their buggy. The map machine beeped sadly again.
Brother Marcus shook his head. "Don't let your hope go out, novice. How can we keep it alive for others if we haven't got any ourselves?"
"What should we hope for?"
"Unlikely things, novice," said Marcus. "The odds are that we are in serious trouble, but maybe -- just maybe -- we're not. That is what we're hoping for: the faith that nearly impossible things can happen, now and again."
"So it's nearly impossible that we'll survive?" cried George.
Brother Marcus smiled and put his arm around George in a comforting way. "That's not it at all, novice," he said quietly. "Instead, it means that however we manage to get out of this trouble will be -- if nothing else -- interesting, on account of how unlikely it will have to be in order to happen."
"I don't understand," said George.
"Don't worry," said Marcus. "You will."
The buggy shimmied and shook as it worked hard to climb up the edge of the crater, then bounced and skidded as it coasted down the other side. Marcus spotted a smooth, round hill rising above the field of rocks. "That looks like a good look-out point!" he said, turning the steering wheel to head for the hill.
George, however, had spotted something different: nestled by the rim of the crater they were scooting away from was a little cluster of domes, lit by a single, feeble lamp on a rickety pole. "It's somebody's house!" called George, tugging on Marcus' environment-suit.
Marcus looked over. "Aha!" he cheered, twisting the wheel to spin the buggy around. "We can ask for directions!"
George grinned, happy to have been so helpful twice in just one day.
Brother Marcus and Novice George parked the rented crater-buggy outside of the domes. When Marcus turned off the engine the headlights and the red beacon went out, and it became very, very dark except for the bright stars up above. The dark was inky and solid in a way Earth dark seldom was. Marcus started walking slowly and carefully toward the little cluster of domes, but George was so eager to get within the light of the feeble lamp on the rickety pole that he charged ahead with giant, Lunar leaps.
A door opened on the nearest dome. Three people in dirty, lumpy, funny-looking environment-suits stepped outside and put their hands on their hips.
George skidded to a stop, and waved in a friendly way. "Can you guys hear me through this radio?" he asked, but none of the people in the funny environment-suits said a word.
Brother Marcus arrived behind George. He was fiddling with the knob on his radio. "Hello?" he said over and over again. "Are you reading me, friends?"
The three people simply stared at George and Marcus. The glass of their helmets was so dirty it made it hard to see their faces, or to guess how they might be feeling about George and Marcus. George's smile sort of melted away, dripping down into a frown of worry.
Suddenly, the tallest of the strangers stepped right up close to George, and then reached up to grab his helmet. George gasped. The stranger gently knocked the glass on the front of both their helmets together and said, "Can you hear me now?"
His voice was muffled, like he was speaking through a sweater or from inside an aquarium, but George could hear him just fine. The vibrations from the stranger's voice were making George's helmet vibrate, too, because they were touching; this vibrated the air inside for George's ears to hear. George said, "We're lost!"
The stranger seemed to think that was kind of funny. "Lost, are you?" he said.
"Yes," said George quickly. "Do you know the way to Seyfert City?"
"Not from around here, huh?" said the stranger.
"No, we're from Earth. Can you help us?"
The stranger nodded slowly. "Yeah, sure. Why don't you and your chum come inside and we'll have a chat by the fire?"
George looked back to Brother Marcus, whose eyes were narrowed with suspicion. He frowned, but he gave George a little nod to say it was alright. So George, Marcus and the three strangers went back through the door and then stood together inside the airlock. When it had filled with air the door on the other side opened and everyone took off their helmets.
They were in a dingy old dome that looked like it had been cobbled together with spare parts and garbage. It was filled with all sorts of junk and odds and ends, including a dirty sofa which one of the strangers pointed to and said, "Why don't you chums sit down?"
George and Marcus sat down. The three strangers sat down across from them on a broken-down buggy with no wheels. The first stranger was a man with a big black beard, the second stranger was a woman with pointy eyebrows and a little pinched mouth, and the third stranger was a skinny teenager with pimples and a scowl on his face, his eyes hidden behind a smear of oily hair.
"So," said the man with the big black beard; "what's your business in Seyfert, chums?"
"We are monks, sir," replied Brother Marcus, "on a mission of charity to the Default Zone."
"Oh yeah?" said the man, leaning forward. "What kind of charity would that be?"
"We're from the Order of Saint Nicholas," said Marcus carefully. "We bring sparks of hope to those who need it most."
The man with the big black beard considered this thoughtfully, and then the woman whispered something in his ear. He said, "So what kind of money are we talking about here, pops?"
"Money?" said Marcus. "Our gifts are not money, sir."
"So what are you bringing to those poor chums?"
The man with the big black beard looked confused, so George said, "They're like small, sweet oranges."
"We'll be meeting up with our friends in Seyfert City," added Marcus. "They have the chocolate, of course."
"The chocolate?" echoed the man with the big black beard.
"That's right," said Marcus.
"Why in space would you come all the way from that old Earth just to bring oranges and chocolate to a bunch of defaulters?" said the man, now sounding quite angry instead of confused. "Do you expect me to believe that malarkey?" he cried. Malarkey is a sort of nonsense, meaning the man thought George and Marcus were telling lies.
"Who do you think you are?" added the woman with the little pinched mouth. "Santa Claus or something?"
Brother Marcus solemnly tapped the side of his round nose with his gloved finger. "Yes, my dear," he said, "but keep it under your hat. We're trying to keep a low profile."
The woman crinkled her brow like she didn't understand, so George felt the need to explain again. "When Brother Marcus says 'keep it under your hat' he means 'keep it a secret.' He just talks funny."
"Tangerines are very hard to find on the Moon, you see," continued Marcus. "Can you imagine what it will be like for those children to wake up one morning to find such an unlikely delight? A gift from nobody, of something delicious and rare! When a desperate child sees such senseless acts of kindness are possible, it rekindles the embers of their hope, and that they carry with them forever."
The man with the big black beard didn't seem impressed by this. "You're out of your head!" he shouted.
"That stands to reason," agreed Marcus. "Being entirely in one's head can be discouraging, and we are not in that business. A little oil in your grip on reality keeps the works ungummed; and a little spice keeps a man peppy." He paused, then patted his pockets until he found a red and white striped candy-cane which he then offered to the man with the big black beard. "Naturally, peppermint is very peppy as well."
The man stared at the candy-cane as if it might be poison, but the teenager's eyes opened wide and he licked his lips hungrily. Marcus wondered whether he should offer it to the boy instead when he rocketed forward and snatched it out of Marcus' hand. The woman with the little pinched mouth grabbed it away from the teenager, in turn, and stuffed it into her pocket. The teenager looked angry but he didn't say anything. He hid behind his hair and slouched lower against the buggy with no wheels.
"Listen here," said the man with the big black beard, "we don't go in for that kind of malarkey out here. We're not candy-cane kind of people."
"Everybody likes candy," argued Marcus. "What sort of people are you, then?"
"We're bandits," said the man with a deep frown. "We're interested in food and water, air and money. That's it. We don't waste our time with stupid things like candy. So we'll steal your oranges, but you can keep your peppermint to keep you company on the long walk home."
"You can't do that!" cried George.
"Oh yeah?" said the man. "Who's going to stop me, kid? You and your grandpa?"
The teenager and the women guffawed when they heard this. It seemed like what they liked most was watching other people feel surprised, upset and afraid. They were hungry for other people to feel rotten, because they felt so rotten themselves.
"No," said Marcus quietly. "You'll stop yourself."
"More malarkey!" shouted the man, his black beard quivering.
"You'll see," promised Marcus.
"There's nothing to be seen!" said the man with a dark laugh. "My chums are already outside taking everything we want from your buggy. It's already happened -- anything you're planning to do to stop us is too late."
Marcus gave the man a little nod and then stood up. "Well," he said in a cheerful way, "thank you for your hospitality. I'm sorry you weren't able to help us, but I'm consoled by the fact we'll shortly be able to help you."
"What in space is that supposed to mean?" growled the man.
Marcus wouldn't say. He smiled to himself and put his helmet on, then waved at George to follow him as he walked back inside the airlock. The inner door closed behind them and the airlock hissed as the air was sucked away. The outer door opened and the monks walked outside into the cold, dark, silent night.
"Oh no!" cried George.
Two more bandits in patched environment-suits were at the buggy, and they were roughly pawing through a sack of tangerines they had pulled right out of the insulated cargo cage. Marcus walked up to them with George at his heels, glancing over his shoulder to see the black-bearded man and his family come out of the airlock after them.
The bandits stopped ransacking the buggy as Marcus approached. Marcus looked down at the sack, which had been torn. Many squashed tangerines had fallen out and, without the sack's electrical heater and the cargo cage's insulation to keep them warm, they instantly froze into orange, sparkly blobs. Marcus heaved his shoulders as he sighed.
The man with the black beard shoved Marcus out of the way so he could get a look for himself. George couldn't hear his voice, but he saw his lips move inside his dirty helmet as he cried out in disbelief, "Oranges? Nothing but oranges?"
Marcus scooped up one of the frozen blobs and held it in his glove. He touched his helmet to the man's helmet and said, "They're not oranges. They're children's dreams. And because your friends didn't think they could be worth very much, they've stomped on them and ruined them. That's mean, sir, very mean."
"We are mean," said the man.
"But you weren't always mean," said Marcus. "Once, long ago, somebody stomped on your dreams and now you've forgotten how to be nice. You've got a knot of hurt where your heart's supposed to be."
"The world isn't a nice place!" said the man.
"You're right," agreed Marcus. "That's why it's up to people who care to be extra nice, to help make up for how not-nice the world can be sometimes." At that he stepped back from the man and returned to the buggy, somehow dignified despite his clumsy, Earth-man strides. He carefully picked up five tangerines, then closed the seal on the sack and put it back inside the cargo cage.
Marcus walked up to George. Through his radio he said, "Novice, please give one of these to each of our hosts and wish them good tidings."
George did as he was told, shaking a little bit as he stepped near each of the bandits and handed them a tangerine. He knocked his helmet against each of theirs and said, "Merry Christmas, friend," before moving on to the next. The bandits held the tangerines in their gloves, watching them release little puffs of steam as they froze.
When he tapped his helmet against the teenager's helmet, the boy said, "Why are you giving this to me? We're robbing you."
"Because it will taste more delicious to you if it's a gift," said George. "Stolen food tastes terrible."
"You should hate us!" said the teenager.
"I'm afraid of you," said George. "But I don't hate you."
The man with the big black beard rushed forward to grab Marcus' helmet and knock it against his own. "What makes you think we're just going to let you drive out of here with that fruit?" he yelled.
To answer him, Marcus pointed. The man turned around. The woman with the little pinched mouth was cradling her frozen tangerine in her gloves as if it were precious and delicate, like a baby. The teenager was standing beside her, and he had tears rolling down his cheeks. He wasn't crying because he was sad, though: he was crying because nobody had ever been so nice to him, even his own bandit mother and bandit father.
He didn't even know people could be nice to each other for no reason. Until that day, he'd never seen anything like it, and realizing this made him feel a bunch of feelings all at once. So he cried. His shoulders shook.
He stepped forward all of a sudden and pushed the tangerine back into George's hands. "I can't take this," he said, his helmet against George's, their eyes looking right into one another's. "It belongs to some poor kid deserves it more than me."
"It's okay," said George. "It's for you."
The teenager's nose was running. He sniffed, then shook his head. "If it's mine, then I get to decide what to do with it, right? And my decision is you should give it to somebody in the Default Zone. Give it to them from me, okay?"
George smiled. The teenager smiled, too, despite his tears. Marcus nodded to himself and climbed aboard the buggy. George climbed in beside him and put on his seat-belt. The engine started with a hum they could feel through their bums. None of the bandits stepped forward to try to stop them, not even the man with the big black beard.
Marcus put the buggy into gear, and got ready to drive away.
The man with the big black beard waved for his attention, and then leaned over so his helmet could touch Marcus' helmet. "Wait," he said, his voice sounding dry and kind of weak. "Before you go...before you go I want to tell you how to get to Seyfert. And to say I'm sorry."
Marcus grinned, his white teeth shining out from his white beard. He said, "Thank you, friend."
"But you have to tell me: are you really Santa Claus?"
Marcus winked. "Truly, friend, I am -- and today so are you."
Moments later the five bandits were waving good-bye as Brother Marcus and Novice George zoomed away on their buggy, bouncing over the rocks and at last heading in the right direction to safely find Seyfert City.
"You handled that very well, novice," said Marcus. "I think you really do understand the spirit of Christmas."
George blushed. "Thank you, brother."
An hour later the buggy rolled over the top of a big hill and George and Marcus got their first view of the giant network of shining domes that formed Seyfert City, the lights of ships rising and descending overhead in a busy flurry of traffic. Directly ahead, nestled between two grey boulders, was an airlock leading inside the city.
"Hooray!" cheered George.
"Ho, ho, ho!" laughed Marcus.
When their buggy was just a short distance from the airlock, however, red and blue lights started flashing from all directions. Six black and white crater-buggies drove out from behind the boulders and surrounded George and Marcus, forcing Marcus to hit the brakes. Sharp voices yelled over the radio: "Stop your buggy in the name of the law! This is a police control! Put your hands up!"
"Oh dear!" said Marcus, taking his gloves off the steering wheel and holding them up where the police could see them. George did the same.
A police constable in a blue environment-suit with a big golden badge hopped out of one of the buggies and walked over to George and Marcus. He was holding up a bright flashlight. George blinked, because the flashlight was shining right in his eyes. "So," said the constable, "we've finally caught the famous Seyfert City Highway Bandits!"
"We're not bandits -- we're monks!" cried George.
"We're on a mission of charity," added Marcus, "from the Order of Saint Nicholas."
"Never heard of it," said the constable. "But you can tell the lawyer machine your whole sad story once you're in jail."
The constable made a quick sign and then six more police officers hopped over to the buggy and began pulling George and Marcus out of their seats. "Gracious!" said Marcus as they put his hands behind his back and attached them together with manacles, which are metal rings that go around your wrists with a short chain between them so you can't move your arms.
"We're not dangerous!" insisted George as manacles were put on him, too.
"We'll see about that, bandit," said the constable.
Two of the police officers hauled the sacks of tangerines out of the cargo cage, peeking inside the seals curiously as steam puffed out, fogging their helmets. "Be careful with those," Marcus cried out as he was dragged away. "Don't bruise the fruit!"