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Generation Xmas

Tony Dunnell lives in a Peruvian jungle town on the edge of the Amazon rainforest. He is a freelance writer, straying further into fiction with every passing day. Read more of his writing at tonydunnell.com.
This is a nightmare. It's spreading like a virus through the ship's first generation. I look at their faces in the classroom, all these bright faces, normally so studious, now filled with childish wonder and confusion at the thought of this ridiculous lie. I almost wish it were a virus, something I could deal with, control.
Whoever let this slip has a lot of explaining to do. Not a hitch for twenty-six years and then a loose-lipped parent unleashes Christmas. The fools have been toiling in the printer bay for the last two cycles, desperately trying to design and print toys from our limited resources. We don't see any harm in it, they decided. We'll make it secular and inclusive, they said. Then they dumped this shit on me.
Nisha, who at eight years and three days is the oldest of the first generation, raises her hand at the back of the class from behind her neat desk. "Professor Mitchin, how does he get here?"
"He rides a sleigh, pulled by eight reindeer." I'm not sure if it was eight. Maybe it was six.
"What's a sleigh?" says Nisha.
"What's a reindeer?" asks little Ted, his expression as confused as ever.
"Won't they just rupture, suffocate, and die?" says Meni, a girl destined for leadership.
"One at a time now, please." I've never seen them like this. They'd been born into our closed system of focus and learning, of carbon cycles, galactic cosmic ray shields and ark ecosystems. Frivolousness has never been part of the curriculum. Until now, it seems. "They're magic, Meni. They... Santa makes a protective bubble that keeps them safe. Right, let's move on to--"
"But sir, how can he reach us?" asks Meni. "It's not possible, unless he creates a wormhole through spacetime or manipulates other hypothesized dimensions, but how could he do that?"
"He has a special space reindeer. Okay, let's continue with water systems and--"
"What's a reindeer?" repeats little Ted, his voice like sugar.
"It's a species of deer, a hoofed, four-legged ruminant mammal that lives on Earth." It's hard not to curse. Four-legged fucking ruminant.
Ted's confusion only deepens. "And one deer is more special than the others?"
"Yes. He's called Rudolph." I rub my eyes and give in to the sinking feeling. "Rudolph the Wormhole Reindeer. He's very clever."
Nisha isn't buying it. "But at the speed we're traveling, sir, how could Rudolph open a wormhole close enough to us? As soon as he opens it, we'll be gone."
"Like I said, there's quite a lot of magic involved."
More little hands pop up across the classroom. "Yes, Diego."
"When Santa Claus reaches us," says Diego, scratching his head, "how does he get into the ship? Ted's mother says he comes down a chimney, which is a dirty hole in a house that lets smoke out into the sky. But we don't have any holes like chimneys."
Ted's mother, Laura Cope. That gossiping toad. I should have known.
"He comes through the habitat airlock during the sleep cycle."
"And brings us things?"
"Yes, gifts."
"Why?" asks Diego.
"Because he's kind. But only if you've been good. Apparently."
The children look around at each other with blank expressions. None of them have ever been bad or misbehaved, as far as I am aware. The ship doesn't produce wayward children. Out here, waywardness is next to lifelessness.
"But if he comes from Earth and then through the airlock," Meni says, "he'll have to go into quarantine."
"Well, the quarantine protocols don't apply to Santa."
Concern spreads across Meni's face. "But he's so fat. He looks sick. Maybe he's got parasites?"
"He's very, very old. But healthy. Perfectly healthy."
Little Ted's hand is raised with such fervor it looks like he might take off.
"Just a few more questions. Ted?"
"Are elves his slaves?" asks Ted. Damn that Laura Cope, she even fleshed out the backstory.
"No, Ted. They're his helpers. He pays them well, full employee benefits, health, nothing to worry about." It's time to end this nonsense. I'm tempted to confess and tell them all it's just a damn story, not real at all. It isn't their little faces that hold me back, but the inevitable backlash from their parents. "Listen, everyone. It's fun. You'll enjoy it."
A tentative calm settles across the classroom. Nisha stands and raises her hand. I try to hide a sigh.
"Sir," she says, her brow furrowed below her yellow bangs, "it doesn't sound like fun. It sounds dangerous." A murmur of consensus ripples through the class. "If he comes," she continues, "we shouldn't let him in."
The children nod their support, apart from little Ted, sitting with his arms crossed, scowling. "But that's mean," he squeaks. "If he comes all this way with his magic space mammals, we have to let him in."
The children mutter among themselves. Nisha sits back down in contemplation. Little Ted crosses his arms even tighter.
"Very well," I say, pulling a sheet of sketching paper from my desk draw. "We'll write him a letter."
Class finally ends and I ride the axis to Ring C. I stride along the ring's curving passageway until I reach the door to the printing bay. I take a deep breath and glance at the letter in my hand.
The door slides open and reveals a scene of parental chaos. The mothers and fathers are buzzing around the bay like angry bees, some locked in fierce debate, others cursing the 3D printers as they struggle to spit out amateurish imitations of toy cars and cats and astronauts. I see Laura Cope and her husband and sidle up to them before making my announcement.
"Excuse me," I say above the chattering of the printers. "Quiet, please. Excuse me, everyone!" The parents, annoyed at the interruption, turn to face me.
"What is it, professor?" asks Laura's ludicrously mustachioed husband.
I keep my voice strong and steady. A neutral tone, I hope, to disguise my pleasure. "I have an announcement to make." I clear my throat for dramatic effect. "I know you've all been working hard to meet the demands of the newly initiated Christmas. But there's no need. It's been cancelled."
"What?" says Laura, her eyes blazing like plasma drills.
"Yes. I've been talking to the children and... well, they wrote a letter, collectively." I flourish the sheet of paper before me.
"Give me that," snaps Laura, snatching the letter from my hand. She looks around at her fellow parents and begins to read aloud, her words cold and clipped. "Dear Santa. Thank you for the work you do. We have all been good this year, but we would prefer it if you and Rudolph the Wormhole Reindeer--" she glances at me, eyes narrowing "--didn't come to our ship. It is a long, long way and Meni says you might have parasites and that's why you are so fat. We won't open our airlock for you, so please give our gifts to the children on Earth, if you can fit through their chimney holes. Sincerely, the children of the G.S. Lyra."
No one dares speak for fear of Laura Cope, who is straining like a ruptured bulkhead in a blowout. The silence is broken as a freshly printed soccer ball plops out of a printer and bounces across the bay.
"It was a unanimous decision," I explain. "The letter is to be addressed to Santa at the North Pole and jettisoned into space." I leave the letter in Laura's trembling hand, turn swiftly and walk out of the printer bay, avoiding the eyes of the parents. The door slides shut behind me.
I stroll back along the crisp white curve of Ring C, whistling an old Christmas tune and thinking to myself: They'll make a fine generation, these bright little kids, as they reason their way through the void.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, December 25th, 2020
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