It was our first real fight, me and the Kates. I mean, there'd been plenty of normal childhood bickering: pushes and shoves, pinches and hair-pulling and nasty words, and of course the inconsolable crying jags and transient I-hate-you-forevers. But this one was different.
Katerina was from Russia, the grand-daughter of Marxists who eschewed religion and superstition. In spite of her father's wishes, or perhaps to spite them, she had adopted her grandparents ideology, and carried around a copy The Communist Manifesto, in the original Russian. "Religion is the opate of the masses," she said, waiting for us to be impressed with her vocabulary.
"What does that even mean?" I asked. I had never heard of opates in science class, and had no clue how they related to mass.
"It means that religion is like taking drugs."
Caitlin rolled her eyes. "What? Santa is about Christmas, dummy, not religion."
"Santa is about controlling children."
This was the argument that split asunder the friendship of the only three kids – not counting Erich and Joanie, who didn't really count as far as we, or they, were concerned – on the newly expanded International Space Station, a scant week before Christmas. We weren't even supposed to be there. The first families in space experiment had been a success and we were all supposed to go home in September. But it didn't really work out that way.
It's kind of a strange thing to have to admit, but I was secretly glad when the oil fields blew up and nobody had the power to come pick us up. I didn't want the adventure to end. But it was more than that. I didn't want Katerina to go back to Russia and Caitlin to go back to Ireland.
So there we were, a week before Christmas, hanging out on my bunk, talking about what we weren't going to get for Christmas, when the fight broke out. Did Santa exist? Or not? It had been years since I'd believed in Santa. I had figured out the math and I knew that it just didn't make sense. If Santa moved fast enough to deliver all those presents, his mass would increase to the point where he wouldn't fit through the door, much less the chimney. He'd have become his own gravity well.
But that didn't mean, as Katerina insisted, that anyone who believed in Santa was "an idiot." Just because you haven't studied general relativity yet doesn't mean you're an idiot.
And it didn't mean, as Caitlin proclaimed, that anyone who didn't believe in Santa was "a fokking heartless bitch."
The truth was, though we were all only ten years old, I loved them both with all my heart, and there was little that hurt so much as watching them scream at each other. I tried to find a middle ground, some way for them both to be right, and managed to turn both of them against me. I can't figure out what I said wrong. Everything, I think. They both decided that I'd taken the other girl's side, and stormed out of my room and in opposite directions. It was quite an eternity before we spoke again.
It was a long week before Christmas.
Have I told you about recycled food? There's only two things that make it palatable. The first is a bit of real, unrecycled food to mix in with it, and we'd run out of that back in October. There was a rumor that in February NASA was going to send an unmanned supply drone, but most of that was expected to be medicines, contraceptives and spare parts for the station. Stuff we couldn't make ourselves.
The other thing that helps is having friends with whom to share and mock your meal.
Mealtime was dismal.
There were other things I missed. I missed the Gaelic and Russian lessons. I missed talking about the books we'd read or the vids we'd seen. I missed just talking. I missed the games of Seek, where we'd search the station to find out where Erich and Joanie had gone to snog, as Caitlin called it. We'd find them with their clothes half off doing things that looked thoroughly unpleasant. But they sure did look like they were enjoying it, at least until we snapped some photos and ran off giggling with Erich hot on our heels.
A long week, indeed.
The vid feed from Earth was filled with Christmas specials. Movies. Cartoons. Grinches and Peanuts and Red Rider BB Guns. And commercials.
Things had changed a lot in the months since the terrorists struck. Less flashy, blinky, high-powered toys. More solar cells and especially spring & gear powered toys, which would work even at night and on cloudy days. And what toys they were! Spring Sprung and Gary Gearhead and Powerhouse and all the others. My mom shook her head in disbelief.
"What have we been reduced to? I haven't seen wind-up toys since the 90s. Wind-up sushi." Then she'd sigh. "We're doomed."
But I thought they were cool. Especially Powerhouse. Powerhouse came as a box of parts, a book of theory and sample designs, and a big roll of blueprint paper. You made your own toys, using Powerhouse and anything else you wanted to incorporate into it. The commercials showed people using pieces of other toys that didn't work anymore without batteries, or household supplies, or even sticks and twigs. "Semi-perpetual motion," the commercials said.
The Kates had thought it was cool, too. "We could use it to power those stupid dolls my mum made me bring," said Caitlin.
Katerina giggled. "We can make them snog all day, and call them Erich and Joanie."
But we wouldn't be getting Powerhouse, or any other toy, this Christmas. We hadn't had fresh supplies since July, and Powerhouse didn't even exist before November. There'd be no toys, and no Christmas, and now, not even any friends to help ease the pain. With the adults too busy keeping the station from falling apart, the only person who was talking to me was Erich. And all he'd bother saying was, "Stop following me around," or to kick my bunk from below and tell me to stop fidgeting.
Despite all evidence to the contrary, time passed. Eventually, it was Christmas eve. We all gathered in the common room, where my dad had run some anemic blinky lights. Caitlin's mom built fake Christmas tree out of a toilet plunger and several colors of electrical wire and Katerina's father rigged it up with some cheesy fiber optics, lit by a single bulb. The Kates and I pretended not to glower at each other morosely.
Captain Fisher tried to get us all singing Christmas carols, but she gave up after the third song petered into nothingness.
"Fuck it," she said. "Merry fucking Christmas. I'm taking tomorrow off."
That was it for the festivities. Erich unplugged the tree, and people wandered off. Pretty soon the station settled into silence.
For some reason I couldn't sleep. Erich snored in the bunk below me, and I tried to ignore it, but it was worse than usual. Eventually, I decided to take a walk.
I wandered into the common room about the same time as the Kates. We all stared at each other for a long time.
"This sucks," I said.
It was in the silence that followed that we heard the sound. Faint. A soft swish. A door opening. Closing. Opening again. Over and over. We followed the sound.
It lead to the airlock.
Captain Fisher sat inside, cross-legged, staring through the thick glass out into space. The inner door opened, then closed. We watched as her thumb hovered over the button to open the outer door, then pressed the other button. The inner door opened again.
We didn't need to discuss it. We didn't even need to look at each other to know. We all held hands and walked into the airlock, and when the door closed behind us, we surrounded Captain Fisher and hugged her. We stayed that way a long time, not talking, just being there, and eventually her lips twitched into something like a smile.
"Thank you," she said. "Thank you."
We walked her back to her room, and then headed back to the common room. And that's where we caught him, fumbling with an extension cord so he could perch the sad tree thing precariously on top of a heap of gift-wrapped boxes.
One of us cleared our throats. Maybe all of us did.
He started, sending the tree tumbling. He caught it by the extension cord, then turned to look at us.
"Isn't it a bit past your bedtimes?"
"We're in space. There's no bloody thing as time."
"Hrm." He tried to put the tree down, and discovered that the wires had gotten tangled in his beard. Fiber optics shone white stars in the thick, white hair. "Perhaps you should pretend, then."
"You aren't real," said Katerina. She poked him in the belly, and then stared at her finger. "Are you real?"
He chuckled. "Ah, now, there's no simple answer to that. Let it suffice that I'm here now. Aha!" He extricated the tree from his beard and held it out. "Someone hold this, please."
I took it, and he combed thick fingers through his beard.
Katerina bit her lip. "But my Baba says..."
"'Religion is the opate of the masses,'" he finished her misquote. The corners of his mouth twitched upward. "But I have nothing to do with religion. At least not directly. Sometimes I'm appropriated – Christmas, Saturnalia, whatever. This isn't about religion. It's about something far more important – sharing. Doing nice things for each other. Helping people out when they really need." He shrugged. "You don't need religion for that."
He took the tree back from me and put it back on the heap of presents, then brushed off his coat.
"Well," he said, "maybe time doesn't exist in space, but it's still ticking away, and I have a lot of work before the night is out. You all run off to bed. Don't spoil things for the adults, okay?" He ushered us out of the room and closed the door behind us.
I looked at the Kates. "Did that just happen?"
"It's impossible." And, "We're dreaming."
I hit the button that opened the door. He was gone, but the presents weren't. I don't know where he might have gone – he'd have had to go through us to get to the airlock. But he hadn't. He was just gone.
"Bedtime," I said.
"They'll be here in the morning," I said, and they believed me.
Powerhouse was even better than I'd expected.
This story is a part of the Spec the Halls contest for speculative winter holiday-themed fiction, artwork, and poetry. You may find guidelines and links to other entries at http://www.aswiebe.com/specthehalls.html