Wednesday 12 December 2012

Christmas Coal

Preamble: Have no fear, gentle readers, the current serial is still a healthy part of an important science-fiction breakfast, but before the telling continues it's time now for an annual custom that has become a yearly tradition here on the brown: Christmas-themed science-fiction (or, when that's not available, science-themed Christmas-fiction).

For the uninitiated previous offerings include stories concerning the Order of Saint Nicholas (like One Small Step for Santa, Girls Can Be Santa Claus Too, and The Dangling Thief), stories written for Footprints magazine (Burden of the Flake, Simcoe's Black Fire) and one scifi novella chocked full of Christmas allegory (now titled The Salt Moon Robots).

As my gift to you, please help yourself to a download of this handsome vertical poster of a robot taking a crap. I had a big glossy one printed up for my own washroom for like twenty bucks. What an age we live in!

This year's tale is just a wee wisp of a thing because I'm currently overburdened with real-world duties, and what writing time I can squeeze in I've largely been giving to advancing the action in Mons. It's not because I'm a word miser or because I hate holidays or don't believe in faeries or have hired a ghost writer who charges by the character and then let all that ambiguity pool to his advantage by considering characters from an ASCII point of view instead of a dramatis personae point of view and is a bastard. Don't be moved by such mad, mad rumours as that. It's just that I'm a bit pressed for time and can't say why, is all.

Merry merry! Your story has been deposited in the slot below:

by Cheeseburger Brown

It was a balmy spring morning in Antarctica.

We were doing an aerial survey over the Ellsworths. I knew them like my pocket. I was first to notice the collapsed ice sheet. The pilot was sceptical. "I know my mountains," I snapped. "That's new. Bring us down. I want to walk the till."

We were first. I planted my union's flag, sent errand boys to fetch beacon buoys. I unhitched my belt and peed into the soil. Mine.

Kneeling, my hand sieved. I sniffed the pebbles with my telephone. Good traces. I had every reason to hope for gold and coal and more. This failing glacier had uncovered the tips of some rich veins.

"I want cores through the moraine," I called as I strode, pointing this way and that; "Spectro that ice wall for mineral stains. Mapping? I want my map already. Chef - my tar."

Chef scampered up with a thermos of hot tar. Mapping saluted as she tapped her telephone against mine. I looked down at the screen. "Uranium?" I echoed. "Who would've believed it? We're going to be rich. But what's all this blocky junk?"

The mapper shrugged uncertainly. "I think it might be tech."

"Tech from before the Pleistocene? Dinosaur telephones and such?"

"I don't know what to say. Weird, isn't it?"

"That you'd shut up or that we'd find tech under a glacier? Don't answer that. I already know it's a tie." I waved her away. "Somebody blow a hole in that ice sheet so I can see this stuff for myself. Explosives!"

I sipped my tar as I walked down the freshly exploded tunnel in the ice. A couple of interns jogged ahead of me setting up lights on poles. The insurance guy with a camera for an eye wasn't more than two steps behind me. The rest of them were more timid.

But then there I was, stopped like an idiot. The insurance guy stumbled into my back. "Holy smokes," I said.

Because we'd come through a mangled metal wall and into the remains of a vast hangar. The ruin of a giant dirigible's sagging metal skeleton was the only equipment present aside from odds and ends scattered across the floor. "Must be some kind of abandoned military base..." I said aloud. The insurance guy made a note.

My mineralogist shook his head. "No way, boss. For thousands of centuries this place has been buried under two miles of rock-hard ice -- until last week it was covered by at least fifty feet of the stuff. Can you imagine the tech to bore your way in here?"

I shrugged, rubbing my chin. "Tech or time," I said. "Soviets could've spent the whole Cold War digging it out."


"It's history, chum."

"History is bunk," claimed the mineralogist.

I gestured at the derelict hangar. "But the present is irrefutable. Let's see what we can see. Witness a bit of impossible. Come on."

An intern brought me a hand-held flashlight. I led the way into a dark corridor lined with crew's quarters. I waved my flashlight across the open doorways: bunk beds, twin desks, icicles and pieces of trash. I slowed and squinted, examining one room more closely. Rosary beads? A grey cassock hung on a nail? Stained glass and a crucifix.

"It's not military," I grunted. "It's religious."

"What?" said five guys at once.

I started into the cell but was startled by a loud sound at the end of the corridor. Everybody's flashlights converged in time to see bits of frost drifting down to where a pile of machine parts had just been spilled across the floor. The insurance guy's eyes widened. "Animals?"

I pushed through everyone and jumped over the spilled parts to lope down the hall. My flashlight beam bounced and jerked around. Up ahead I saw a blur of motion. "Hey!" Ignoring my doctor's advice I ran as hard as I could.

A shadow fled from me. I followed it up a twisted flight of metal stairs, his footfalls singing out in the dark ahead of mine. I closed the distance at the top. I threw myself at him and we both hit the floor hard.

I flung him over and drew my piece, the ammo humming with live action as the barrel arrived level with his nose. His lips quivered.

"Give me a reason not to shoot," I growled around clenched teeth.

"It's a sin."

The rest of them piled into the room behind me. I risked a quick glance around. Their flashlight beams swam over dark consoles with cracked screens -- not old but systematically sabotaged. We were in a control room overlooking the abandoned hangar. "What is it boss? Is it a tiger? Can we eat it?"

I got up on one knee and then stayed there to conceal how hard I was panting. Pinned under my other leg was a skinny white kid in a monk's cowl with a bald spot shaved on the top of his head. He was holding up his piano-player's hands in surrender. They trembled.

"No," I said. "It's a novice monk."

I disengaged my piece. It stopped humming. I jammed it into my holster and got up the rest of the way. I hitched my fingers in my belt. We all stared down at the kid on the floor.

He seemed pretty harmless until I noticed what he'd been running toward: an open canvas bag with plastic explosive, lengths of copper wire and some minor tech. He was a bomber.

"Son, level with me: are you a suicide bomber?"

He shook his head. "Not on purpose."

"Your American is accented funny. Where you from, kid?"

"Aren't we speaking English? I'm from -- I'm not really from places, as such. I mean I was born somewhere but that's not really relevant now. What I'm saying is --"

My piece resumed humming. His eyes opened wider.

"Eek! From here, I'm from here, please don't shoot me, I'm from here!"

"From Antarctica?" I asked sceptically.

He nodded. "Yessir."

"What state?"

"Pardon me?"

"You say you're Antarctic American, fine. What state of the union were you born in, boy?"

"Well, which state are we in now?"

"North Chevrolet."

"That's where I'm from then."

"How could you not know what state you're in?"

"The names of places change quickly. We don't pay them too much mind, sir. Would you mind please putting your weapon away again? I find it makes it hard to breathe when it's looking at me."

I snorted and holstered it again. "Fine," I said. I offered out a hand and helped the kid to his feet. He kept his back to the consoles, looking from one us to the next nervously.

"What are you going to do with me?" he asked. "Are you going to take me captive?"

"You're in a rush to have your fate decided, monk?"

He tugged back the sleeve of his robe and looked at his watch. It was one of those fancy watches -- a space watch, like they wear on Ares. He looked up again. "A little," he admitted.

"Tell me about your order. Who are you people? What is this place?"

"Sir, can I be plain with you? I can only answer those questions if you're planning on keeping me here a while. If you really are going to take me back to your ship to capture me I can't say a thing."

I frowned. "That doesn't make a lick of sense."

"I'm sure you've already worked out that most orders that operate burrowed under a glacier tend toward secrecy, sir."

"Fair enough. And I'm sure you've worked out that most prospectors that operate in these lawless mountains tend toward violence. If you want to play coy with me you've got to suspect I can hurt you. If this is some kind of mining-for-Jesus thing I need to know the lowdown on my new competition."

The monk tried to smile but couldn't. "We're not miners," he said. "I can promise you that. Hurt me if you have to. You have no idea the bonds of my oath."

"Oath to who? To God?"

He glanced at his watch again. "And to Nicholas."

"Oh yeah? Saint Nicholas? Santy Claus? Is he here, too?"

"No. We've moved our base of operations to an orbital platform."

I stared into his eyes and he stared into mine. I saw some steel there I hadn't appreciated before. Was this punk kid trying to bluff me with laughable nonsense? What did he have up his sleeve to be so suddenly brave?

We all guffawed. Prospectors love to guffaw. When I'd had my fill of it I addressed the skinny novice again. "So you want to tell me that Santy Claus is bugging out of the wrong pole, and you're the last one left behind to put out the candles? Is that it, kid?"

He rolled his eyes, becoming increasingly fearless by the minute. "It isn't the wrong pole, sir, it's the pole that is magnetically south-attracting. The north end. You're right that the order is bugging out. This used to be the land of eternal snow but now that it isn't anymore it's time to move on."

"Listen to that," scoffed my mineralogist. "He's a weather hippie."

"I won't have anyone badmouthing the melt," I agreed, giving the monk my hardest and darkest look. "The melt puts food on my table. The melt gives us all a chance. It's the melt that's made America great again."

All the men mumbled their appreciation for Antarctica's recent economic upswing in reverent tones. They took out their necklaces and kissed their tokens.

"Alright," conceded the monk, "but you've got to see how it's a poor turn of events for secret orders with a network of hidden fortresses under the ice. We didn't used to have pioneers stumbling into our facilities and trying to claim them. We didn't used to have to hide from prospectors. There didn't used to be raccoons to eat our garbage. Everything's changed."

I narrowed my eyes. "Now you're spilling it freely all of a sudden."

He cast a sideways look at his watch. "Now I have nothing to lose, and you nothing to gain."

A felt a sick knot twist up deep in my stomach. "You were rigging this place to blow, huh?"

He nodded.

"On a timer, is it?"

He nodded again.

I licked my lips. "What chance do we have?"

"That depends how athletic you are, sir."

We ran. We ran hard. We barrelled through the corridors and down the metal stairs and across the derelict hangar. I yelled at the interns to forget the stupid lights and keep running. We threw ourselves through the hole in the hangar and pelted through the way we'd blasted open. Just as we neared the mouth the ground rumbled and bucked beneath us, throwing us off our feet. Snow rained from the ceiling. A rush of hot air and orange light guttered from the hangar behind us.

"Go!" I bellowed. "Go, go, go!"

We tumbled out into the sunshine. The whole side of the mountain was tumbling in upon itself and releasing pyroclastically rolling clouds of white snow and grey ash and black cinder flashing with flame. The report echoed off the surrounding peaks inspiring half a dozen avalanches. Clouds of snow roiled up into the sky on all sides, hiding the sun behind a glittering veil.

The crew yelled back and forth as the airship teetered on its struts. Interns grabbed my elbows and dragged me out of the snow. "Captain! Captain!"

I waved them off me angrily. "Where's the monk? Where's the kid?"

My mineralogist pointed into the sky. A small craft was steadily climbing atop a pillar of smoke, old-fashioned chemical engines sputtering flame and sparks and sending a thin, distant roar into the air evident only after the last echoes of the explosion decayed away completely. We all silently watched as it yawed into position for an orbit shot and dwindled, after only a moment or two lost to our sight.

"Good luck, Santy Claus," I said. Because why not? It's a catch as catch can world -- everybody deserves a little whatever they can get. Then I turned back to my people. "Radio the union and tell them we're claiming what remains of the workshop of Saint Nick for metal salvage and full curio rights. If they sound like they want to call me crazy remind them how armed I am. Now: let's tear this mountain apart. There's coal in them hills."

We got to work. You've can't lolligag on spring sunshine. It's quick to dwindle. Before long we'd have the claim locked in and the fencing up then I could post a guard and call it a day. We'd fly home over North Chevrolet's famous fields of sugarcane and corn, the palm fronds bowing from the wind of our passage.

Come evening you'd better bet I'd look at the stars a bit differently, knowing Santy Claus was up there, looking down on us -- on a tough little planet with no hiding places left.

It was nice to know there were still some people good enough to be his concern, whoever they might be.



Sheik Yerbouti said...

Fun tale. Thanks for taking the time to hammer out the characters, character by character.

SaintPeter said...

I love the boss. I totally imagine him as this 1950s Heinlein archetype. All Business, tough as nails. Fun!

I'm glad the novice monk made it out in time.