Xavier Xanthum’s Xmas
Xavier Xanthum switched off his book with a sigh and stared at the window. He was in deep hyperspace, so the window was black. Whatever was out there, space travelers had long ago decided they didn’t wan to see it. When he was in hyperspace, then, the window served as a vid-screen. Xavier called out, “Larry, give me a snowy village scene.” He turned away while the computer worked on the problem, and found the disembodied eyeballs that were Larry’s physical manifestation watching him.
“You are troubled, Xavier?” Larry’s voice came from the speaker on the wall, not from the eyes. It took some getting used to, but Xavier and Larry had been together a long time.
“Larry, how long until we make landfall?”
“Approximately four weeks.”
“And how long since we celebrated Christmas?”
“What?” Larry was taken aback, not an easy thing to do to a computer. He recovered almost at once, however, and said, “You were on Gobulan D on December 25th four galactic years past. It is an Earth-colonized planet, so they presumably celebrate Earth holidays.”
“Huh.” Xavier couldn’t recall, but four years was a long time in space. “What’s the date now?”
Xavier made a rude noise. “What’s the Earth date?”
“That is a meaningless concept. You are approximately 40,000 light years from earth.” Hyperspace really was an amazing thing.
“Count the days from the last time we were on Earth.” He reconsidered. It had been decades since he’d been on Earth. “Or from that holiday on—where did you say?”
“Count the ship’s days on an Earth calendar.” He waited a moment, then demanded impatiently, “well?”
“By that meaningless reckoning,” Larry said with disapproval in his allegedly synthetic voice, “this would be December 24th. Do you wish to know the year?” For a computer, Larry could be very sarcastic.
Xavier ignored the sarcasm. “December 24th? Then we,” he announced, “are celebrating Christmas tomorrow.”
“Very well, Captain.” Larry really could be sarcastic. “In what way do you wish to celebrate this event?”
“In the traditional manner!” Xavier said. “You figure it out!”
And then Larry refused to say anything more. Xavier, for his part, went to work on creating decorations. He had no access to pine boughs or holly in the ordinary way, but Larry, when asked if the replicator could generate a Christmas tree, gave a curt “of course. Santa will bring it after you go to bed.”
Xavier thought that was unnecessarily sarcastic, but he forgave Larry. The computer didn’t like it when Xavier got irrational. It made Larry nervous. He played around with the lights to give the single living-working space on his ship a Christmas feel.
The basic flaw in his holiday plans, Xavier realized, was the whole gift-giving thing. He’d been reading what the computer library called “classics of earth childhood,” and Christmas definitely involved the exchanging of gifts. Well, he would just have to give Larry a gift, since there wasn’t anyone else.
That left him with the dual challenge of finding a gift for a sentient computer, and doing it in secret when Larry knew every item on the ship and saw everything.
And who would give Xavier a present? He tried not to think about that. He even re-read the first chapter of Little Women to remind himself that it was better to give than receive. He wished there might be some starving immigrants he could give his breakfast to. He knew it was all silly anyway. Just something to pass the time.
Even so, Xavier felt a little excited when he woke the next morning. He had found a sock and attached it to the sticky-tab nearest the air duct (as the nearest substitute he could think of for a chimney).
When he rolled out of bed—Xavier kept the g-field just strong enough that he didn’t have to strap in at night—and exchanged his sleep-suit for a work jumpsuit, he saw a small, weedy-looking fir tree next to the driving panel.
Instead of pushing the button to fold the bed back into the wall, Xavier took a closer look at the tree. Two small, colored balls hung from branches too limp to support them.
“Larry?” Xavier called softly. “Did you do this?”
The eyeballs appeared next to him. “I studied 20th-Earth-Century holiday vids, and this seemed to be the most popular look. It is something called a ‘Charlie Brown Christmas tree.’ And it was easy to replicate, using the program for—” Larry broke off, and finished lamely, “well, you could eat it if you wanted.”
“It’s lovely, Larry,” Xavier said not quite truthfully. “And a tree needs a present.” He pulled a small box from where he’d hidden it in his covers. He thrust the box at the eyeballs, which got a little brighter.
“Thank you, Xavier. Would you open it for me?”
Larry had no hands, since he didn’t really exist outside the computer. Even the eyeballs were a projection, or possibly a hallucination. Xavier opened the package, feeling a small surge of pleasure even though he’d filled and wrapped it. “More memory for you!”
“I thank you,” Larry said. Xavier could tell he was pleased. He’d meant the memory plates as back-up, but Larry would make good use of the added capacity.
“I’ll install it right after breakfast.”
“I regret that I could not. . . .” Larry began, but Xavier was looking at the stocking he’d hung. It was wriggling. Xavier shoved off across the pod and lifted the sock, which definitely bulged and squirmed, from the sticky-pad.
“What in space?” Man and computer spoke together, as a small, furry head popped out of the sock, uttering a plaintive mew.
“Where did it come from?” Xavier asked. You couldn’t make a kitten from the replicator.
“I have no idea,” Larry said.
“A stowaway? For all these weeks? And why come out now, to hide in my stocking?” He cuddled the soft animal as he spoke, and it licked his hand.
“Larry, a bowl of milk, warm.” The bowl appeared in the food slot, and Xavier held bowl and cat as the animal lapped the milk with enthusiasm. He scanned the night’s instrument records, as his hand absently stroked the soft fur. Only one anomaly appeared, far too close to them for a brief period and then gone, and that was too absurd to credit.
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