“Welcome to Nexus Station, Gentles,” the computer-generated voice said. “Perform post-fold checks and report any issues. We will arrive at the shuttle drop-point in four days and eleven standard hours. Thank you for folding with us.”
Saree worked through the post-fold checklist.
“All systems are operating nominally, Saree,” Hal said in his smooth, tenor voice.
“Thank you, Hal.”
“You are welcome, Saree. I have sorted through the incoming communications. While most of these are advertisements of no interest, I have placed one in your ‘possible’ folder. Since we know there is no filk on Nexus Station, you may want to explore a fold transport called ‘The Christmas Folder,’ while we wait for the fold out-system. It seems to be based entirely on an Old Earth tradition and therefore, you may find something of interest.”
Saree finished her checklist. Hal was right, as usual—everything was operating nominally. But he was merely a virtual assistant, she was in command, and therefore responsible for her shuttle. She brought up the message and jolted back into the pilot’s chair at the deluge of red, green, silver on the screen and loud, jangling bells. She shook off her surprise, turned down the volume and reduced the size of the advertisement manually. She, and Hal had limits set. How did this advertisement overcome those? And why? The shock made her want to sweep the thing away. It wasn’t good advertising for humans. Or many other species.
Well, Hal said this was an Old Earth tradition, so she would check it out, now that it wasn’t blasting her with rads. She vaguely remembered Christmas from her early childhood. There was a poor family on a difficult journey, with a new baby, and then a lot of rejoicing. And a lot of sitting on those hard pews and singing, late into the night. Some of the songs were pretty. Christmas wasn’t celebrated on Sa’sa. None of the human religious celebrations were. No one wanted to accidentally offend the Sa’sa. Nor would her foster parents spend any credits on anything so frivolous. Or anything that wasn’t absolutely necessary.
But back to The Christmas Folder. She found the ‘About Us’ section. It was almost impossible to find, hidden among advertisements for artificial trees decorated with tiny lights and shiny things, brightly wrapped gift boxes, and a rather large, old human man with long white hair and beard in a bright red suit. The music jangled and bounced, an advertisement tune:
The Christmas Folder, a magical place;
The Christmas Folder, a dream come true;
The Christmas Folder, a gift for everyone;
The Christmas Folder, Santa’s home in the stars;
The Christmas Folder, Santa’s sleigh flies!
The Christmas Folder, we’re always open…
Saree turned the volume down again. Annoying, but probably effective advertising. The jangling tune continued but actual content finally appeared. She scanned it quickly. The Christmas Folder was based on the Old Earth tradition of Christmas, where in a single night, the red-suited man named ‘Santa’ would deliver presents to good girls and boys by sneaking into homes down some sort of effluent port, leaving the presents under the decorated trees. An old man breaking into homes, leaving presents for kids? A shiver ran down Saree’s spine. That was kind of creepy. There must be more to the story. She dug further into the history.
Ah, this Christmas was the twisting of several human myths and religions, then commercializing it. Saree nodded. Interesting. So, the Christmas she remembered as a tiny child was the religious celebration or at least some facet of it. The Christmas Folder celebrated the commercial side, which magnified and twisted the myth of wealthy benefactors giving gifts to needy children to celebrate the birth of the religious savior-figure, named ‘the Christ’ or in these myths, ‘the Christ Child.’ She remembered Christ from her early days, along with other names as well.
Hal broke into her musing. “Saree, I suggest caution. I have analyzed the available data, and there is a statistically significant number of shuttles that disappear after docking with the Christmas Folder. You should probably avoid visiting. I apologize for not finding this data sooner.”
Bright and shiny was often a lure for the unwary. Nothing was new under the stars. “What percentage, Hal?”
Saree shrugged. “That’s well under the normal accident rate in a system. Is there any way to prove the Christmas Folder is at fault for the disappearances?”
“No, Saree. But they don’t stay in systems long enough for investigations to finish.”
“Are there any confirmed reports at all?”
“No, Saree. These disappearances could all be tied to normal in-system accidents.”
Nothing to worry about. Hal was just being his normal over-cautious self. She brought up the section on music. The annoying advertisement changed to a new happy tune.
His little red spaceship shoots across the sky,
With eight engines racing, just watch them fly!
A team full of elves printed presents all year,
On the planet North Pole with the magic reindeer.
Space Santa! Watch him fly,
Space Santa! He’s our guy,
Space Santa! Bringing gifts to all,
Space Santa! Space Santa!
Saree laughed. Out of habit, she brought up the metadata. Performed by Trillian Dent and the Hitchers, circa Old Earth 2000. A fun tune, but certainly not the kind of music she was interested in. At least this one was cute. She dug deeper into the Christmas Folder listing and found advertisements for some small musical groups rotating to different locations on the folder. Some of them were labeled as Old Earth music, so she brought one up. A beautiful tune with soaring voices and instruments started:
“Oh, holy night, the stars are brightly shining, it is the night of the dear Savior’s birth…”
Not quite what she was looking for either, but much closer. This one was clearly from Old Earth. And it was pretty. She moved to another group, this one with a guitar.
“Silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright…”
Saree found herself blinking back tears before the first verse was finished. She remembered this song. The tune, the words, it all brought back a feeling of safety and joy, her Mother’s arms holding her tight, her Father carrying her to bed. What Christmas was supposed to invoke, not the spending of credits.
When the song ended, she smiled sadly. This kind of song didn’t encourage beings to buy things. Saree was surprised she’d found this or that it was sung at all on this particular ship. She swept the advertisement away and brought up navigation, plotting a course to the Christmas Folder.
“Saree, this does not seem like a wise course of action,” Hal said.
“I know, Hal, but I really want to see this group.” Saree checked the math again. “Please notify the Captain we are going to the Christmas Folder but will return within two days.”
“Thank you, Hal.”
“You are welcome, Saree.”
“Welcome to the Christmas Folder! A gift is waiting for you! Just sync your personal net to our Sleigh, and we’ll guide you smoothly through the snowy woods. Santa is eagerly awaiting your visit! Ho, ho, ho!”
Saree chuckled. All the research she did while they flew here paid off. At least she knew what a sleigh was. These bright, bouncy ads were ridiculously annoying but strangely addictive. She found herself humming along with the jingle. The Christmas Folder was immense and there was no real-time map, just a cartoon showing a twisty, windy path leading to ‘the North Pole’ so she had to accept the Sleigh guide or she’d quickly be lost. Something they did on purpose, she was sure. She put her Scholar’s robes on and a pair of soft shoes.
“Saree, I believe the Christmas Folder employs some very strong communication blockers. If you insist on going, I would like to send several remotes to act as relays.”
“If they’re small enough to avoid notice, I agree. Communication blocking is a standard commercial practice to keep your audience engaged. I doubt it’s anything more sinister. The Guide™ says the Christmas Folder is safe.”
“Please standby. I will attach them to your Scholar robes, then deploy them along your route as necessary.”
Saree paused at the shuttle hatch. There was no harm in indulging Hal’s safety protocols. A niggling in her back brain wondered why she was so determined to go when there wasn’t any filk on board, but it was quickly pushed away by the bouncy music.
“They are in place. Please be cautious, Saree.”
“I will. Don’t worry.” Hal opened the shuttle hatches. She secured them behind her, then entered the codes for the Christmas Folder airlock. Opening the hatch, she stepped out and stopped, gazing in wonder. The decking was covered with fluffy white, approximating snow, and dark green growths, tall and thin, like Old Earth pine trees, stood along the edges. The ceiling was bright blue, and the lighting bright, like a clear winter day on a yellow sun world. A fresh, slightly astringent green scent wafted through the air and string instruments flowed and swooped in a lovely musical backdrop. A being, only a meter tall, dressed in a green and red outfit, stood in front of her.
“Welcome to the Christmas Folder, Scholar Sessan. A gift of Christmas Folder credits has been deposited in your account. You may spend these credits anywhere on the folder. Please accept the Sleigh guide so you don’t get lost. The Christmas Folder is gigantic, filled with all kinds of marvelous things! Enjoy yourself, eat, drink, be merry! If you have questions the Sleigh guide can’t answer, there are Elves stationed throughout the folder. They can answer any question. Since you are a Scholar of Music, the Sleigh guide has been adjusted to emphasize our musical offerings. You may change this in your personal Sleigh settings. Be sure to follow the path to Santa! He has gifts for all good beings!”
The greeter, a character called a ‘Santa’s Elf’ had an annoyingly high-pitched voice, rather like a piccolo. It was also, under the outfit, rather orange. An RR from RR Caeli. Interesting and slightly alarming. RRs were often found on stations, doing maintenance beyond the public corridors. They were also often associated with station Below, a criminal entity on most space stations. Some station Belows had ties to Familia. But the Christmas folder was orbiting Nexus, and RR Caeli was practically next door, so RRs working here weren’t unusual.
Without a real alternative, Saree accepted the Sleigh guide into her public partition. She bowed. “Thank you, Gentle RR. I appreciate your welcome.”
The RR jumped a bit—in surprise?—and bowed deeply, then stepped back and swept a hand to the path in front of her. The Sleigh guide suggested she take the primary path and highlighted offshoots she could take to specialized Christmas areas. There was Candy Stripe Land, with sugary treats; The Christmas Tree Forest, with trees and the shiny ornaments for sale; Santa’s Closet, for Christmas-themed bipedal species clothing, mostly human; Sugar and Spice, with drinks and food, both for eating there and making later; the Gift Box, toys for all ages and many species; and finally, the North Pole, where Santa lived. Surprisingly, there was even a Christmas Chapel, but the emphasis seemed to be on the production of glitzy Christmas shows and music performances rather than worship.
Saree searched for the musical group she’d found in the advertisement, but she couldn’t find them in the Sleigh. As she wandered down the main path, more and more beings, mostly humans, joined her. Every few meters, the number of decorations on the trees increased, along with the number of wrapped boxes under them. The walls became covered with ropes of sparkling red, green, gold and silver, and everywhere, ‘for sale’ items were displayed. The atmosphere changed too, the air saturated with baking bread, warm spices and sugar, and the music returning to bouncy advertisement tunes. She stopped in front of another Santa’s Elf. This one was tall and thin, with large, dark eyes, a thin mouth, and hardly any nose—a bipedal species she didn’t immediately recognize. “Excuse me, can you help me find the St Nick Minstrels?”
“I do not recognize that name. Please wait one moment, Scholar.” The Elf turned away and swept through a holo in security mode. It turned back with a headshake. “I am sorry, Scholar Sessan, but that group has left the Christmas Folder. May I suggest a trip to the Christmas Chapel? Christmas on Ice is starting shortly.”
Saree shook her head. “Thank you, I appreciate your help, but no. I am looking for Old Earth music, in the pre-spaceflight era, mostly religious. Do you have any groups performing that?”
“I apologize, Scholar, the information you have is out of date. We no longer have any religious music. It occasionally leads to unfortunate conflicts and we prefer not offending anyone.”
Saree bowed. “Thank you, then. I will return to my shuttle.”
“Oh, but Scholar, you really must visit Santa. He has a gift for you.” The smile was wide—but false.
Or was it? This being wasn’t human. It may have learned human mannerisms to work here. Remembering her cover persona, Saree bowed and moved down the path. As a poor Scholar, she’d be interested in anything free. She entered the Christmas Tree Forest and stepped to the side of the path, surveying. A huge number of trees, decorated in a bewildering variety. Some had single color schemes, some had subject themes, most weren’t even trees, but holo light shows with music. All of them were for sale, and all of them displayed ornaments for sale. Or you could purchase the entire decorated tree. Many of the ornaments were holo-based, showing various Christmas themes, mostly happy human children opening gifts. Saree heard music ahead, so she continued through the ‘woods’ to the center of the room.
A small group of singers, dressed in scanty versions of the Christmas Elf costumes, wailed and danced on a small platform to electronic noise. The dancing was a racy bump and grind, the words suggestive. Intermittently, dancers in costumes like the featured gifts for sale bounced across the stage as part of the performance. More and more beings, almost all human, crowded around her, staring at the stage, completely captivated.
This wasn’t Christmas at all. This was sex. Saree snorted. And sex sells. The thought penetrated the jangling bells in her head. Why was she heading deeper into the folder? This wasn’t Christmas, not to her. She looked closer at the dancers. Big smiles, bright faces—and empty eyes. Maybe it was just the drudgery of repeating the same performance over and over, but maybe not. When the dancers finished, they ran off the stage, and each one led a costumed character around the room, announcing where this particular ‘toy’ could be found.
A pair stopped in front of her, a woman in the dancing costume, and a man in some sort of military outfit. She thought it was from a popular immersion vid game, with the dull green shirt and pants ripped and torn under a black harness, the man wearing the outfit ridiculously muscular. The dancer was also ridiculously proportioned for a human. Both of these beings had body mods, extensive ones that might not be entirely healthy.
They bowed gracefully. “Scholar, thank you for gracing us with your presence. I’m Cattivo, this is Sergeant Strong.” She looked up at Saree through her lashes and rubbed her body up against his. “We’re both available…at the Gift Box,” Cattivo said in a low, breathy voice. The man held out a hand to her and rumbled in a deep bass, “We’d be honored to lead you there.”
Saree bowed slightly and said, “I’m sorry, Gentles, I’m not in the market for gifts. I’m looking for Old Earth music.”
“We could sing you some,” the woman said, her voice gaining an edge of desperation. “At the Gift Box, we can make all your dreams come true!”
“Saree,” Hal’s voice was full of static, “the air of this folder is laced with relaxers. You should return to the shuttle.”
“What happens if I don’t follow you, Gentles?”
The woman clamped her lips into a rictus of a smile and the man said, “Nothing good.” The word ‘good’ was under his breath, barely said at all. In a much louder voice, he continued, “Why wouldn’t you want to? We can help you find the perfect gift for a loved one or yourself.” He leaned towards her, staring into her eyes, his hand still outstretched. “All your dreams can come true at the Gift Box.”
“Saree, this folder is owned by Familia,” Hal said. “You should return immediately.”
She bowed again to the pair and noted both dancers were wearing skin-tone gloves extending to their elbows. “Why don’t you lead me to Candy—” the man shook his head a tiny bit, “—wait, no, I need to watch my kilos, the Christmas Chapel.” She crooked her elbows wide in invitation.
They both smiled, with a bit of relief, and hooked their arms through hers. Good thing her Scholar’s robes were long enough to cover her skin because she didn’t trust anyone or anything on this folder. And those gloves had some odd bumps on them. Some sort of drug? Probably something to lower inhibitions, put her in the mood to buy things she didn’t need.
They escorted her to a seat in the Christmas Chapel, where she suffered through another outwardly cheerful performance showcasing various gifts for sale.
“Saree, please purchase something and return.” Hal’s voice was more broken, with interference; she could barely understand him. “You do not want to be detained on this folder.”
At the end of the performance, she yawned elaborately. Cattivo and Strong waited for her. She smiled at them. “Well, that was a stimulating performance. I’ll purchase the vid! As a traveling Scholar, I can’t really afford it, but how can I pass it up?”
They both smiled, genuine smiles.
“But I’m exhausted. I’m returning to my shuttle. Perhaps I’ll see you after my sleep shift?”
“Of course, Scholar, we’d love to show you the rest of the Christmas Folder!” Cattivo said, bouncing excitedly.
They maneuvered through the crowds, one of them on each arm. Saree said, “You can join me on my shuttle for a drink if you’d like.”
“Oh, no, Scholar, we can’t intrude like that. If you’d like a drink, we can take you to the North Pole Lounge. There are all kinds of entertainment,” Cattivo said.
“Really, Scholar, we can’t leave the folder. We’d be honored to buy you drink though,” Strong echoed.
So, they were captives here. Probably recruited from a dirt-poor world, shown a luxurious escape, and trapped into a life of servitude. An all too common occurrence in the universe. Especially with Familia.
“No, I’m exhausted. I need some sleep. But thank you.”
“Of course, Scholar, this way.”
They led her to her shuttle airlock. Saree turned and bowed. “Thank you for your company. I’ll see you after I get some rest.”
“We look forward to it.” They bowed and waited while she made her way inside. Once she secured her airlock hatch, Saree took a deep breath of unscented air and reveled in the silence. Ah.
“Saree, I am relieved you returned safely. I have some vid for you to review. I do not believe the beings on this folder are treated well. I suggest we depart immediately. I can implement our normal cloaking procedure so we can depart without further delay.”
Saree slid into the pilot’s seat and fastened her harness. “I agree, Hal. I’ll plot a course, you cloak our release from the shuttle.”
She brought up navigation and plotted a course back to their folder, barely checking the computer’s calculations.
“We are released, Saree, you may initiate thrust.”
Saree carefully pulsed the thrusters to send them away from the Christmas Folder, then applied more thrust to bring them into the orbit designed to match their folder out of Nexus. Once safely in the orbit, Saree said, “Hal, be sure to refuse any and all communications from the Christmas Folder.”
“Certainly, Saree. I believe the original communication had some sort of subliminal conditioning. I apologize for not discovering this before showing it to you.”
“No apologies necessary, Hal, there’s always new things coming out. You can’t catch them all.”
“I will increase my surveillance on all incoming messages, Saree.”
“Thank you, Hal. Now, what did you find?”
A folder of vid files appeared in front of her. She selected one. It was a vid of a factory floor. The noise was ear-shatteringly loud, clouds of smoke hanging in the air, and beings of several species worked at stations, assembling what appeared to be toys. The vid view narrowed in—the beings were leashed to their stations. Oh, this was not good at all. Saree continued to sweep through the vids, all of them showing misery and pain.
“Hal, we need to package and send this to Gov Human and Gov Caeli. Anonymously, please. I don’t know if this will be enough to act on, but at least we’ll have tried.”
“Certainly, Saree. I will route through several systems to disguise the origination.”
“Thank you, Hal.”
“You are welcome, Saree.”
“Welcome to Eridanus Constellation, Gentles. Perform post-fold checks and report any issues. We will be at the shuttle drop-point in five days and two standard hours. Thank you for folding with us.”
Saree worked through the post-fold checklist.
“All systems are working nominally, Saree,” Hal said.
“Thank you, Hal.”
“You are welcome, Saree. I have sorted through the incoming communications. I believe this one will be of interest to you.”
A vid file appeared. Saree swept it up, on to the main screen display. A Universe News Network host intoned, “A joint Gov Human and Caeli raid occurred on the famous Christmas Folder two days ago, on the very date Old Earth celebrates Christmas. Viewers are warned, the vid of the living and working conditions for the workers is disturbing, and therefore, in a separate vid file. Gov Human Special Agent Nicolas Santa and RR Caeli Special Agent Rudolpho held a press conference.”
A human man in the normal dark grey coverall of the Gov Human enforcement agency stood next to an RR Caeli wearing a dark green coverall. SA Santa had bright white hair, and unusual for a space service member, a bushy white beard, highlighted by a non-regulation red kerchief around his neck. He said, in a deep booming voice, “In a joint operation, The Captain and executive crew of the Christmas folder have been arrested, along with the corporation owners. Many are known Familia members. The rescued workers have been sheltered on several stations. Their identities and locations will not be released.” SA Santa smiled. “We wish all the rescued workers, and you, the best as they celebrate a real Old Earth Christmas in freedom.”
This story turned much darker than I originally intended. It does mirror reality for far too many people here on Earth today. Want to avoid this kind of exploitation? Give books! Or experiences; time and attention are the best things we can give the people we love.
Thanks to Operation Brat: Serving Those Who Serve for the original Christmas Tree picture (badly modified by the author) and author Julia Huni for “Space Santa,” from her Christmas story, The Trouble with Tinsel.
Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!
Copyright © 2018 by AM Scott, except “Space Santa” used by permission of Julia Huni Copyright © 2018.
Photo Credit: Windy Barton, Operation Brat: Serving Those Who Serve.
All Rights Reserved.