I made a note of this story about a month ago. I was considering stories for Christmas. Goodness knows how many iterations there are these days, but it was interesting to give it a try and play with the themes. Believe it or not, it was a bit more miserable in the first draft, I think it has a little bit more hope in it now, even if it’s still a bit melancholy.
Anyway. Merry Christmas.
A young man sits alone in a padded chair with cables and wires running in and out of his frame. Electrical monitoring equipment records data about his body while various tubes flush his blood and system with cleaned fluids, minerals and nutrients.
Before him the annual screens of data flow past his eyes. Weather systems, environmental reports, world news and atmospheric readings. Lists of good deeds and misadventures. A planet’s population judged and divided. The man is preparing for another journey. His name is Nicholas. Now Nick.
While the equipment around him glows softly or emits the occasional tone and hum, it shines with new creation and hygienically reflective materials. The air around him is balanced to an optimum level in preparation for high speed travel. He feels good physically, but his mind is weary.
Over decades and years he has read widely, learned more than most would hope for in a lifetime. He has studied and created more than was thought possible when this all began. His charitable work earned him titles and accolades that he preferred to ignore. Some even called him a Saint, a title he found faintly embarrassing.
Nick barely left his compound, delegated meetings and administration to his staff and enjoyed working alone. With an extended existence and experience, there were few people who could understand him, his intellect and learning, his character that had developed beyond regular lifespans.
Every year Nick sends his medical and planning staff away for two hours during this preparation time. He’s not a man with many friends though he can be friendly. He’s not a man who seeks company though is usually greeted with joy and more often surrounded by people. And so it is on Christmas Eve that Nick requests this solitude to consider his place in this world.
He calls up the monitors to show him the Earth. Fires burn, people kill, peacemakers die and children starve. On other screens infants sleep, adults drink and some hold those dear to them closer as they doze in front of entertainment consoles. He sighs, thinking about how little things have changed over decades and believes he could have been looking at the same feeds for a hundred years. Though everything is changing, much is the same and he still has to enact his role as described in bedtime stories and broadcast advertisements.
A free standing unit beeps and tells him that his treatment is complete. The various wires and tubes fall away and he is free to stand.
The treatment gets better each year and he feels as he did when he was 21, though he’s 29 and has been for over a century. He looks at his hands, rude health in his veins and walks on through sets of protective doors into his office. A ritual.
From a locked case next to his desk he takes out a metal tin. It’s the only old thing he owns, that anyone here owns. The corners are starting to rust and the design on the top takes him back to the day it was bought and still contained biscuits. Sitting gently on the edge of his comfortable chair, he rests the tin on his desk and forces the lid off.
He can smell paper and the tiniest scent of spice from the biscuits, though he suspects this is memory and that the food molecules are long gone. The tin holds the last real memories of his actual life. The one before the contract and before the annual journey.
Black and white images are fading, even though they are kept, year after year in their cool and dark tin. They take him back to a time of excitement and of a more visceral life.
Nick had married Eve just before he got this job. An ad man with fresh ideas and a wild enthusiasm for spreading good will and making sales. There they are on their wedding day, all love and unknown futures. The hope in her eyes and the mild surprise in his own that this glorious creature would take him as her own.
More images of Eve, on holiday at a beach when swimwear was bigger and made of strange and stiff fabrics. She smiles from under a wide brimmed hat, her eyes in shadow and her lips in the sun. A photograph of him on the day he signed the contract. He looks back into his own eyes and recognises that look. The reservation and the hope. He can see now the foresight and denial of what he would sacrifice.
His hands idle on the edges of the tin while he stares into his past. The years of experiments and scientific breakthrough. Forever young, the prototype and the future. They had changed him so he could keep their secrets and continue his work. He would never die.
Meanwhile as time exploded around him, technologies changed, transport upgraded and systems improved. The animals were no longer practical and so he bred them for his own amusement.
Nick found himself holding the last image he took of Eve. They’d laughed so often; Christmas Eve. His Christmas Eve, for a while.
He wondered if he knew that she would go. Looking back to that wedding photo, she looks into the future and he looks at her, curious. But she couldn’t stay, it would not have been fair.
To be happy.
After ten years with the Company, Eve sat with him. Ever calm and warm and kind. She described to him her hopes for a family and how she was ageing, but he was not. He realised though children the world over looked forward to his arrival, he could never be a father and so Eve would not be a mother to his children. So he let her go. Go on to marry his best friend to have the family she craved.
He watched them from afar, made sure they wanted for nothing but never saw them again. Of all the people in the world, he knew that his finest friend would be the best man to care for his wife.
Though he grieved at the loss he pushed onward and worked hard to leave them to their own futures. To be happy.
Time naturally pushed onward sometimes too fast and always unstoppable, relentless. They all passed on, one by one. Friends, family and Eve. She was so natural.
The day after her funeral he visited her graveside. He wanted to talk to her as they had when they met, through every single day that he had missed. But that time had passed. It was a sacrifice he decided was best, to let her live and her life to grow and eventually end.
She left him a letter in her will, but he did not read it. It was here in the tin, folded and creased from being carried everywhere, every year.
At the bottom of the tin was a photo of Eve with the reindeer.
He took the letter and put it in the pocket of his red suit. Never opened but always with him on this day. Nick felt ready and headed outside for the last part of his ritual.
His suit is designed to be light and reflective. His temperature is controlled and he’s comfortable even though around him in the wilds of the North Pole, the weather tests the boundaries of most living things. He can sense wolves on the perimeter of the compound and a glance at the fence shows hot bodies through his visor. He trudges across the snow and ice to the breeding unit, his continuing source of interest and joy.
…red faced and perfect…
Entering the unit, the lights glow a little brighter and animals stir in straw and bails of hay. He pushes his visor up on top of his head and seals the door to keep out the cold. One of the females had birthed that morning and he wanted to see this new life before he set off.
He leans on a barrier, looking into an enclosure where the female rests and a small animal wobbles and shivers to its feet. It gives small cries to the warm air.
Nicholas steps into the space and moves slowly toward the mother and offspring. The female groans softly but recognises him and is relaxed.
He kneels before the calf and cradles its face in his hands. So pink and red thar muzzle. A specific breed he has raised for years. Though they are well, the odd facial pigment makes them distinctive. To Nicholas, they are red faced and perfect.
He gazes into the soft black-brown eyes and can hear Eve talking to him from so long ago. The first born this way was thought to be a problem, weaker than the others, a mistake. But she took him in her kindness and fed the animal by hand, each day making it stronger.
When the Summer came, it was a strong and proud male with that odd red face and nose. He could hear her laughter as he frolicked and as he lived. The calf that was marked to be taken out of the breeding program became their focus. Eve had smiled and called him Rudolph.
On his knees, Nicholas smiles at the tiny life, then releases it to feed from its mother. He gets up and wipes tears from his eyes. That last connection to the short life he had still moves him on to the everlasting life he continues.
A tiny display on his sleeve lights up green. He checks the letter in his pocket and heads to the door. The Sleigh bells ring and it’s time to go to work.