Thursday, December 17, 2009

Free Holiday Read: Christmas at Farhallen

Set in the Starchild universe, several decades before the first book.

Although the long-haul colony freighter had hung within it for approximately seventy-two hours, hyperspace remained a theoretical construct, explainable only through strings of numbers, symbols, and the occasional Greek letter. It would get the ship where it needed to go, but no one on board knew how.

The idea didn’t bother Captain Blake Farhallen. All he needed to know was which button to push and when to push it. After he pushed it, they would theoretically emerge from the wormhole, hyperspace tunnel, or whatever the mathematicians had decided to call the theoretical construct, and end up where they’d intended to go. He hadn’t actually tried it yet, but he had no option other than to assume it would work. Assuming anything else would just be asking for a nervous breakdown.

His carefully calculated attitude of intellectual indifference didn’t stop the rest of the crew from engaging in speculation about the functionality of the phenomenon of hyperspace. The current argument revolved around what the actual, factual calendar date was at the moment. Most importantly, whether or not it was Christmas yet.

Farhallen sprawled in the captain’s chair—not that comfortable a chair for sprawling, to be honest, but he was s sprawler by nature. Lieutenant Pru Holloway had her head bent over a computational pad, poking it rhythmically with a stylus. Bret Diego, the engineer, watched her intently. He’d already done his own calculations, but Pru wanted to run them herself.

“Are you sure that’s right?” Bret asked.

Pru gave him a withering glare. Her distinctly Japanese features and jet-black hair belied her name. “Of course I am. You used the wrong entry formula. It changes the rotational structure of the hyperspace corridor.”

“Huh,” said Bret, thoughtfully scratching a spot on his temple. Pru presented the pad to him with a look of almost menacing glee. “Huh,” said Bret again, and slumped back into his own chair to mumble his way through the numbers.

Pru threw her triumphant look at the captain. He grinned. She was cocky, overconfident, and annoying as all hell, and he had a strange feeling he might marry her after this was all over and they were back on Earth.

“Is it Christmas?” he asked her.

Her glee changed instantly to peeved annoyance. “How the hell should I know?”
Farhallen chuckled and shook his head. “I thought that was the point of the exercise.”

“The point of the exercise,” Bret put in, “was to hand me my ass on a plate.”

“Which I did,” Pru shot back.

“Which you did. However—” He passed the computational pad back to her. From where he sat, Farhallen could see the long, red line of a correction across its flat, black surface. “I screwed it up, you’re right, but you set the median warp factor too high.”

Pru wrinkled her nose so firmly it nearly disappeared into her face. “Dammit. You’re right.”

“I am.” Bret’s voice was bland. “And it’s December twenty-fourth. More or less.”

“Christmas Eve, then.” Farhallen unsprawled a little; the position was starting to strain his back.

“Christmas Eve,” Bret confirmed.

“I never celebrate Christmas,” Pru announced. She was a member of one of the modern Buddhist schools that had never made much sense to Farhallen. Then again, none of the classic Buddhist schools had ever made much sense to him, either.

“No candy canes for you, then,” said Bret. He was imperturbable, or at least Farhallen had never seen him perturbed.

“We should do something.” This was First Officer Melanie Walsh, whom Farhallen had thought was ignoring the shenanigans. “Just a little something. It doesn’t have to be religious.”

“It’s fine with me,” the captain said. “But you’d better hurry. It won’t be Christmas anymore in thirty-six hours.”

“Who said thirty-six hours?” Pru protested.

“I did.” Farhallen pushed up from the captain’s chair and stretched. “I’m the captain. So you officially have a day and a half to make it Christmas.”


The biggest problem with hyperspace, besides its being purely mathematical, was that it was boring.

Farhallen didn’t do well with boring. He was high energy—it was one of the things that had led him to the military in the first place. Having something to do would at least help, even if it was celebrating a holiday that might or might not be relevant.

It also gave him the chance to stroll the halls and act as if he were in charge of something. He hadn’t done anything remotely command-like since they’d entered hyperspace.

They didn’t have much, if anything, that could be pressed into service as Christmas decorations. Not for the first time, he wondered if the mathematical construct of hyperspace might involve some color—maybe even handy shades of red and green. But most experts in how hyperspace might or might not work seemed to agree that looking at it was a bad idea.

But when he got back to the common room—more like a common closet, since there was barely room for any meaningful congregating—the crew was already busily decorating.

They’d cut red and green paper into garlands and Chinese lamps, draped from corner to corner of the tiny space. Pru was standing on a chair pointing at Bret and the others, barking out orders in her high-pitched, Chihuahua-like voice.

Farhallen grinned. She really was his favorite.

“Mistletoe,” she said. “Mistletoe and oak leaves. That’s traditional and Pagan at the same time.”

Bret nodded and scurried off, presumably to stick a hand out the window and pluck a supply of mistletoe and oak leaves out of the hyperspace navigation wormhole tunnel or whatever it was that surrounded them. Farhallen shook his head. Bret hadn’t even questioned the order.

“How many religions do we need to represent?” Farhallen queried. Eyes turned in his direction; they’d been so involved in watching Pru that they hadn’t even noticed he’d come in. So much for his compelling aura of command.

“All of them,” Pru chirped. It was a sharp-edged, somewhat irritated chirp, like a sparrow being waterboarded.

Farhallen gave her a look meant to be searching, but he was sure it was more besotted than anything else. “There’s only thirty people on the ship, Pru. Maybe six religions represented, tops.”

“We’re an exploratory vessel with long-term goals of colonization,” she countered. “Thus we represent the whole planet Earth and all its varying belief systems.”

He found himself agreeing before he even gave himself a chance to think about it. “You’re absolutely right. Good point.” To his surprise, she gave him a little smile. His heart turned inside-out. God, he was an idiot.

Bret returned, carrying an armful of what looked very much like mistletoe and oak leaves. Farhallen blinked.

“Synthetics,” Bret said by way of useless explanation. “You’d be amazed what you can scare up if you ask nice.”

Farhallen rolled his eyes. This place was a nuthouse. At least at the moment, it wasn’t boring.

And it got suddenly less boring. Abruptly, the ship lurched to the side. It sat at an almost forty-five degree angle for a few seconds, then slowly rotated back into place. Pru fell off her command perch. Farhallen caught her, not sure how he’d managed to get to her before she face-planted into the deck. The pole in the middle of the room, which he now saw was festooned with Stars of David, Wiccan pentangles, and the strange, Ouroboros-like symbol of the nascent Church of Far-Seeing, tipped sideways, as well.

Bret pushed the pole back to a right angle and looked at the captain. “What the hell was that?”

“How the hell should I know?” Farhallen countered. “I’m just the captain.”

Then a high, screeling sound filled the small room, and the baffle plates began to open. A morass of emotion poured through Farhallen, along with an intense flood of adrenaline.

The baffle plates were supposed to stay securely closed, a tenuous but effective barrier between the crew and the poorly defined dangers of hyperspace. They could open automatically, though, if the ship’s hyperspace arc took it close enough to a planet. The ship would then drop out of hyperspace to allow the crew to take readings and make appropriate reports.

All this rushed through his mind as the adrenaline brought him to a high state of alert, then his military training kicked in to bring him back into a slow-moving ocean of calm.

“Turn around.” His voice was dead calm. “Turn around. Don’t look out the window.”

Everyone in the room obeyed immediately. Pru passed him a worried look, biting her lip. Slowly, Farhallen followed his own order. He stood stone-still, fists clenching and unclenching, the sound of the baffle plates opening a harsh, metallic wail behind him.

It took exactly one hundred and seventeen seconds for the baffle plates to fully retract and settle into the locked, open position. It felt like three hours. Farhallen closed his eyes to ride out the wait. Knowing he couldn’t turn around and look made him want to turn around and look. What the hell could be so bad about looking at hyperspace, anyway? It was just math.

He jumped when the baffle plates slammed into the locked position. Pru glanced at him sidelong, and he could see fear in her eyes. He’d never seen fear in Pru’s eyes before.

He swallowed. Heavy silence fell over the room, so thick he could breathe it.

Finally, carefully, he said, “Nobody move. Don’t turn.”

He knew what he was about to do, knew he had to do it, because the captain did these things. The captain took the hits he needed to take, to keep the rest of the crew safe.

“No.” Pru’s protest was so soft it barely stirred the tension-thick air.

Farhallen turned around.

Had he turned a few seconds earlier, the results might have been different. As it was, he saw the strange, waving undulations out of the corners of his eyes as they disappeared off the sides of the wide viewscreen. They were green and red but also pastels and grays, like nacre, but overlaid with blood, fire, and thick, heady rain.

There was no describing it, not really. It moved off the edges of his vision, leaving him with the feeling that someone had thrust an eggbeater into his ear and turned it on high.

Everything seemed to dip and sink under him. He thought he staggered, but he didn’t, his feet still anchored firmly to the floor.

Then the colors disappeared, leaving the viewscreen speckled with stars, and the looming, pregnant curve of a blue-green planet.

He stood stock-still, staring at it, his breath suspended.

“Captain…” Pru’s voice, quiet.

He blinked and realized he needed to draw air, and soon. “Turn,” he said, the word barely audible even to himself. “Turn. Look. My God, look.”

He heard them turn behind him, the faint rustle. Pru stood at the corner of his vision, and her shift was a circular movement just to his left. Then the sound of moving bodies was eclipsed by the sound of indrawn breath, as if everyone in the room had gasped simultaneously. Perhaps they had.

It was beautiful. A perfect orb, its curve filling the wide viewscreen. Blue and green, oceans and continents brushed with wisps of white cloud.

They’d all seen Earth from space, and more than once. Looking down on this planet, though, they saw different outlines, a continent with a curve of coastline like a lion’s head, proud and commanding. An ocean so deep green-blue that Farhallen thought it must be deeper than any ocean Earth had ever hosted.

The collective gasp had eased into a reverent silence. They were closer to the planet than he’d ever imagined would be safe for a jump out of hyperspace, but the vagaries of viable jump points weren’t to be questioned, especially if they worked.

He felt as if he could reach out and touch it.

“We’re the first,” said Pru, her voice baby-soft, like a prayer. “The first ever.”

Farhallen smiled. “We are.” Reluctant, he turned away from the beauty of the blue-green orb and faced his small crew. “Merry Christmas.”