It was a dark and starry night, and had been all day.
George woke up to the smell of tangerines, which are like small, sweet oranges. He was lying in a hammock, which is a sort of bed made of fabric and ropes, and it swung gently back and forth as he rubbed his eyes with his knuckles. George yawned.
Outside the window the sky was black. The stars were bright, but they didn't twinkle. There were no clouds or birds, because George was in outer space.
Remembering this made him feel nervous.
The next thing he did was to fall out of his hammock, which was easy because in outer space it's hard to know which way down is. For most of the trip, down had been nowhere at all which George found very confusing because he kept floating around and bumping into things. Today, it turned out, down was toward the front of the spaceship, so that's the way George fell.
He landed on a pillow of big sacks that squirted out the smell of tangerines when he hit them. "Oof!" said George.
"Don't bruise the fruit!" called Brother Marcus from the cockpit.
"I'm sorry, brother!" said George. He pushed away from the sacks of tangerines as gently as he could, although he thought he might have squished one or two because he could see some wet spots on the sacks. He dabbed at them with his pajamas.
"Get up here and strap in," called Brother Marcus. "We're almost there!"
"But I'm still in my pajamas," said George.
"You need to have your seat-belt on, novice, or you might get hurt when I fire the engines."
George scrambled down through the short tunnel into the cockpit. The cockpit had two big squishy chairs, four wide windows, and about a million gauges and buttons and dials. Just looking at the controls made George dizzy, so he looked at his feet while he climbed into his chair beside Brother Marcus and attached the safety-straps around his body.
Brother Marcus had a long, fluffy, yellow-white beard and a bald, shiny head. He had rosy cheeks, a round nose, and a mischievous glimmer in his bright eyes. Now he was talking into his radio, with its long antenna on the outside of the ship pointed back to Antarctica. Into the microphone he said, "Roger that, Kringle Control. Executing burn sequence Tango, entering radio silence. Over and out, and to all a good night."
George wasn't really listening. His was staring out through the four wide windows at the Moon, which he had never seen so big and so close. The silver crescent was covered in all sorts of overlapping circles and rings, which were craters left after asteroids had crashed there. Since there was no weather on the Moon -- no rain, no wind, no snow -- marks like that tended to stick around for a very long time.
"Wow," said George. "The Moon sure is beautiful, brother."
Brother Marcus nodded. "It certainly is, novice. And soon enough we'll be standing on it. Think about that! We'll be making history: this is the very first mission from the Order of Saint Nicholas to serve Lunar children!"
George already knew that. Prior Ignatz had told him, back on Earth, while he had been explaining how important it was for George to go along even through he wasn't a full brother yet. George was just a novice monk, and he hadn't yet finished his training. That's what he said to Prior Ignatz: "But I haven't finished my training!"
"Listen to me, George," said Prior Ignatz; "you're the only one in the order who's ever been to the Moon before. You were born there. You'll be a big help!"
George didn't think he had anything helpful to tell anyone about the Moon. He had been moved to Earth when he was just a little kid, and he hardly remembered the Moon at all. Still, he knew that being a monk in the Order of Saint Nicholas meant trying to be as helpful as you could, every single day, so he had no real choice except to say, "I'll do it, Prior."
"Ho, ho, ho!" laughed Prior Ignatz as he shook George's hand.
So now here he was inside a tiny silver spaceship called Blitzen, flying into orbit around the Moon with Brother Marcus, carrying sacks of tangerines across hundreds of thousands of kilometers of cold, empty space to bring a spark of joy to the lives of the Moon's children.
Brother Marcus pulled back on the throttle and the ship started to rumble. The big rockets on the back were blasting out energy, sending Blitzen and the two monks inside hurtling over the bright face of the Moon toward the far side which never faced the Earth. In the shadows of the far side George could see patches of light shining from the Moon's cities, which were all on the far side because a group of people called the Commercial Islamic Futurists had bought the near side lock, stock and barrel in order to stop anyone from ruining the Moon's face by building stuff all over it. They hadn't been able to afford to buy the whole Moon, though, so there had been people living on the far side for years.
Brother Marcus worked the controls carefully. The engines went quiet and Blitzen drifted into a lower orbit, gradually coming closer and closer to the rocky surface.
Somebody from Moon Landing Control kept trying to call them on the radio, but Marcus sent back only static and a repeating computer message explaining that their radio was broken and that they were landing for repairs. George hoped that would keep them out of trouble.
He couldn't tell how far away they were. Without any sky or air to make distant things hazy, everything on the Moon looked like it was right in front of your nose. What seemed like tiny rings grew into giant craters many kilometers wide, and then what had seemed like dots inside them grew in turn to become giant craters, too. Nestled in the corner of one such crater was a bunch of domes with little lights blinking around them.
"Is that where we're landing, brother?" asked George.
"Yes, novice, it is," said Marcus as he worked the controls. Blitzen turned as it dropped and in another moment George and Marcus could only see stars through the four wide windows. Marcus hit a switch and the ship began to shake again as the retro-thrusters -- which were little rockets meant to slow the falling ship down -- fired with a roar.
The cockpit went thump and bump and then settled to a rest. A cloud of grey moon-dust billowed up around the windows and then rose away. George relaxed in his chair, and noticed that for the first time in days he knew which was down was -- it was pointed toward the ground, which was just the way George liked it. He sighed in a happy way. "That's better," said George.
"Yes," agreed Marcus, rubbing his hands together in excitement. "Now we can actually get started on our mission! Please fetch us the sacks of tangerines, George."
"All by myself?" asked George. "They're too heavy!"
"Not on the Moon they're not," replied Marcus with a laugh. "You of all people should know that. On the Moon, things are only one sixth as heavy as they are back on Earth, because the Moon is smaller and has less gravity pulling you down. You can carry as much as six men, novice!"
"Oh, right," agreed George, undoing his straps and getting out of his chair. "I'll get them now, brother."
"Don't bruise the fruit!" Marcus called after him.
George promised he'd be careful. After he'd changed out of his pajamas, he picked up the two massive sacks of tangerines and slung them over his shoulder, smiling as he realized just how light they felt. Brother Marcus met him at the hatch. He pushed a button and the hatch opened. The monks climbed down the short ladder.
"Behold," cried Marcus, "the Moon!"
George and Marcus were surrounded by ships, each of them standing in a yellow circle painted on the dusty asphalt, their noses pointed to the sky. The monks were standing inside a transparent plastic tube that had been attached to Blitzen by a parking robot. The parking robot was now rolling away, looking back and forth for something else to do. The plastic tube snaked between the ships, leading all the way to a giant dome with tall, glowing letters on it spelling out the words: WEST MOSCOVIENSE SHOPPING MALL.
"What do we do now?" asked George.
"We go shopping!" said Marcus.
"Why?" asked George, his face scrunched up in confusion.
"We need to get our parking validated, so they don't tow away our ship."
So Brother Marcus and Novice George walked into the shopping mall and bought a couple of chocolate milks to drink. The man at the drink stand stamped their parking stub, which sent a code back to the parking robots telling them to leave Blitzen alone. Marcus was finding it tricky to walk in the Moon's light gravity, so they sat down on the edge of a pretty water fountain to drink their chocolate milk. George used a straw, but Marcus lifted off the lid and sipped directly from his cup. Every time he put the cup down it left a dazzle of brown droplets all over his fluffy beard.
The shopping mall was very busy. All sorts of Lunar people were out buying presents for their friends and families for Christmas, Eid, Yule, or Channukkah. There were lighted signs and amazing displays of products everywhere, buzzing or turning or flashing for attention. Holiday music played from hidden speakers, mumbly and slightly out of tune. It was a very crowded place, and most of the people didn't look very happy.
"It doesn't seem like a very jolly season," said George.
"It's even less jolly where we're going," said Marcus. "These are the richest people on the Moon. You and I, novice, are going to visit the poorest."
George pointed to the train station in the distance. "Are we going to take the train to Seyfert City?"
"No," said Marcus with a shake of his head that caused little drips of chocolate milk to fly off. "If we travel through the dome network we would have to get through several security check-points where they would want to know our names and our business. This is a secret mission, novice, so we'll have to be extra sneaky."
"But how, brother?"
"We'll travel outside the domes," explained Marcus. "We'll go over the surface."
George's eyes opened in surprise. "What?" he exclaimed. "Isn't that dangerous?"
"Maybe a little," admitted Marcus. "Don't worry, George: we'll rent some fancy environment-suits so we'll be warm and toasty, and a crater-buggy so the trip won't take long."
"But nobody will know we're out there! What if we fall and get hurt, or what if we run out of air and need help?"
Brother Marcus smiled and squeezed George's shoulder in a friendly way. "Taking risks is part of the game, novice, if you want to be one of us."
Brother Marcus put his cup into a garbage can and then stood up from the edge of the fountain. He stood up too quickly, however, and ended up making a high, slow jump into the air. "Oh my goodness!" he cried.
George caught hold of Marcus and helped him land on his feet. "You have be careful on the Moon, brother!" he said breathlessly. "In the weak gravity you've got to move gently."
"Well, you don't seem to be having any trouble!" grumbled Marcus.
"Hey, you're right," said George. In fact, he felt perfectly at home taking long, bouncing strides. It reminded him of being a little kid. "Maybe I can be helpful after all!" he cheered.
"Of course you can," said Marcus with a grin. "Come on: let's get moving."
George held on to Marcus' arm to help him walk without crashing into anybody, and together they went to arrange for a pair of environment-suits and a crater-buggy. George felt very happy to be able to do something useful for Brother Marcus, but he began to feel frightened again after they put on the suits and drove the little buggy to one of the airlocks that led outside. The airlock had two doors, and while they waited between them all the air would be emptied out. George shivered as the big metal door closed behind them. Then he heard a hissing sound as the air was sucked away.
He tightened his helmet, then turned to look at Brother Marcus whose long beard was all scrunched up around his face. "I'm scared," he said to Marcus through his radio.
Marcus gave him a smile. "Have courage, novice," answered Marcus, his voice crackly through the little speakers in George's helmet. "This is what being a member of the order is all about. Just think about how happy the children will be when we get there!"
They both stopped talking to look as the airlock's outer door yawned open, giving them a view of grey rocks under a black sky. It seemed very cold and lonely out there, and the rocks looked very sharp.
Brother Marcus gave George an encouraging slap on the thigh with his thick gloves. "All set?" he asked.
George nodded. "I guess so."
"Think of it this way," said Marcus as he put the buggy into gear. "It's just one small step for a brother of the order, but a giant leap for Santa Claus."
George nodded again, holding tight to the edge of his seat.
Marcus hit the accelerator and the buggy zoomed out of the airlock and out onto the Moon's surface, bouncing over rocks and kicking up a cloud of grey dust. "Ho, ho, ho!" he crowed, laughing all the way.
When you look up at the Moon in the sky it might look like a very small place, but when you're driving across the bottom of a deep crater, lost in a forest of giant Lunar boulders, the Moon can seem very, very big indeed.
It was quiet, because there isn't any air on the Moon. It was also very dark and very cold, because it was night-time for the far side, and on the Moon each night lasts for two whole weeks.
Brother Marcus grumbled. He kept hitting a little box on the dashboard of the buggy that was supposed to tell them where to go, but instead of showing them maps it was showing them nothing but squiggly lines. It beeped sadly. "Fudge!" yelled Marcus.
"We're going to be lost forever," said George.
"No," mumbled Marcus. "We would run out of air long before forever. But that isn't a very cheerful thought, is it?"
George agreed that it wasn't. "What are we going to do?" he asked.
Marcus sighed as he steered the crater-buggy around a mound of sharp stones. "I'm going to drive up the highest hill I can find, and then maybe we can have a look around and figure out where we are."
"But everything on the Moon looks the same!" cried George, pointing to the jagged shadows all around them, dimly lit by the red beacon on the nose of their buggy. The map machine beeped sadly again.
Brother Marcus shook his head. "Don't let your hope go out, novice. How can we keep it alive for others if we haven't got any ourselves?"
"What should we hope for?"
"Unlikely things, novice," said Marcus. "The odds are that we are in serious trouble, but maybe -- just maybe -- we're not. That is what we're hoping for: the faith that nearly impossible things can happen, now and again."
"So it's nearly impossible that we'll survive?" cried George.
Brother Marcus smiled and put his arm around George in a comforting way. "That's not it at all, novice," he said quietly. "Instead, it means that however we manage to get out of this trouble will be -- if nothing else -- interesting, on account of how unlikely it will have to be in order to happen."
"I don't understand," said George.
"Don't worry," said Marcus. "You will."
The buggy shimmied and shook as it worked hard to climb up the edge of the crater, then bounced and skidded as it coasted down the other side. Marcus spotted a smooth, round hill rising above the field of rocks. "That looks like a good look-out point!" he said, turning the steering wheel to head for the hill.
George, however, had spotted something different: nestled by the rim of the crater they were scooting away from was a little cluster of domes, lit by a single, feeble lamp on a rickety pole. "It's somebody's house!" called George, tugging on Marcus' environment-suit.
Marcus looked over. "Aha!" he cheered, twisting the wheel to spin the buggy around. "We can ask for directions!"
George grinned, happy to have been so helpful twice in just one day.
Brother Marcus and Novice George parked the rented crater-buggy outside of the domes. When Marcus turned off the engine the headlights and the red beacon went out, and it became very, very dark except for the bright stars up above. The dark was inky and solid in a way Earth dark seldom was. Marcus started walking slowly and carefully toward the little cluster of domes, but George was so eager to get within the light of the feeble lamp on the rickety pole that he charged ahead with giant, Lunar leaps.
A door opened on the nearest dome. Three people in dirty, lumpy, funny-looking environment-suits stepped outside and put their hands on their hips.
George skidded to a stop, and waved in a friendly way. "Can you guys hear me through this radio?" he asked, but none of the people in the funny environment-suits said a word.
Brother Marcus arrived behind George. He was fiddling with the knob on his radio. "Hello?" he said over and over again. "Are you reading me, friends?"
The three people simply stared at George and Marcus. The glass of their helmets was so dirty it made it hard to see their faces, or to guess how they might be feeling about George and Marcus. George's smile sort of melted away, dripping down into a frown of worry.
Suddenly, the tallest of the strangers stepped right up close to George, and then reached up to grab his helmet. George gasped. The stranger gently knocked the glass on the front of both their helmets together and said, "Can you hear me now?"
His voice was muffled, like he was speaking through a sweater or from inside an aquarium, but George could hear him just fine. The vibrations from the stranger's voice were making George's helmet vibrate, too, because they were touching; this vibrated the air inside for George's ears to hear. George said, "We're lost!"
The stranger seemed to think that was kind of funny. "Lost, are you?" he said.
"Yes," said George quickly. "Do you know the way to Seyfert City?"
"Not from around here, huh?" said the stranger.
"No, we're from Earth. Can you help us?"
The stranger nodded slowly. "Yeah, sure. Why don't you and your chum come inside and we'll have a chat by the fire?"
George looked back to Brother Marcus, whose eyes were narrowed with suspicion. He frowned, but he gave George a little nod to say it was alright. So George, Marcus and the three strangers went back through the door and then stood together inside the airlock. When it had filled with air the door on the other side opened and everyone took off their helmets.
They were in a dingy old dome that looked like it had been cobbled together with spare parts and garbage. It was filled with all sorts of junk and odds and ends, including a dirty sofa which one of the strangers pointed to and said, "Why don't you chums sit down?"
George and Marcus sat down. The three strangers sat down across from them on a broken-down buggy with no wheels. The first stranger was a man with a big black beard, the second stranger was a woman with pointy eyebrows and a little pinched mouth, and the third stranger was a skinny teenager with pimples and a scowl on his face, his eyes hidden behind a smear of oily hair.
"So," said the man with the big black beard; "what's your business in Seyfert, chums?"
"We are monks, sir," replied Brother Marcus, "on a mission of charity to the Default Zone."
"Oh yeah?" said the man, leaning forward. "What kind of charity would that be?"
"We're from the Order of Saint Nicholas," said Marcus carefully. "We bring sparks of hope to those who need it most."
The man with the big black beard considered this thoughtfully, and then the woman whispered something in his ear. He said, "So what kind of money are we talking about here, pops?"
"Money?" said Marcus. "Our gifts are not money, sir."
"So what are you bringing to those poor chums?"
The man with the big black beard looked confused, so George said, "They're like small, sweet oranges."
"We'll be meeting up with our friends in Seyfert City," added Marcus. "They have the chocolate, of course."
"The chocolate?" echoed the man with the big black beard.
"That's right," said Marcus.
"Why in space would you come all the way from that old Earth just to bring oranges and chocolate to a bunch of defaulters?" said the man, now sounding quite angry instead of confused. "Do you expect me to believe that malarkey?" he cried. Malarkey is a sort of nonsense, meaning the man thought George and Marcus were telling lies.
"Who do you think you are?" added the woman with the little pinched mouth. "Santa Claus or something?"
Brother Marcus solemnly tapped the side of his round nose with his gloved finger. "Yes, my dear," he said, "but keep it under your hat. We're trying to keep a low profile."
The woman crinkled her brow like she didn't understand, so George felt the need to explain again. "When Brother Marcus says 'keep it under your hat' he means 'keep it a secret.' He just talks funny."
"Tangerines are very hard to find on the Moon, you see," continued Marcus. "Can you imagine what it will be like for those children to wake up one morning to find such an unlikely delight? A gift from nobody, of something delicious and rare! When a desperate child sees such senseless acts of kindness are possible, it rekindles the embers of their hope, and that they carry with them forever."
The man with the big black beard didn't seem impressed by this. "You're out of your head!" he shouted.
"That stands to reason," agreed Marcus. "Being entirely in one's head can be discouraging, and we are not in that business. A little oil in your grip on reality keeps the works ungummed; and a little spice keeps a man peppy." He paused, then patted his pockets until he found a red and white striped candy-cane which he then offered to the man with the big black beard. "Naturally, peppermint is very peppy as well."
The man stared at the candy-cane as if it might be poison, but the teenager's eyes opened wide and he licked his lips hungrily. Marcus wondered whether he should offer it to the boy instead when he rocketed forward and snatched it out of Marcus' hand. The woman with the little pinched mouth grabbed it away from the teenager, in turn, and stuffed it into her pocket. The teenager looked angry but he didn't say anything. He hid behind his hair and slouched lower against the buggy with no wheels.
"Listen here," said the man with the big black beard, "we don't go in for that kind of malarkey out here. We're not candy-cane kind of people."
"Everybody likes candy," argued Marcus. "What sort of people are you, then?"
"We're bandits," said the man with a deep frown. "We're interested in food and water, air and money. That's it. We don't waste our time with stupid things like candy. So we'll steal your oranges, but you can keep your peppermint to keep you company on the long walk home."
"You can't do that!" cried George.
"Oh yeah?" said the man. "Who's going to stop me, kid? You and your grandpa?"
The teenager and the women guffawed when they heard this. It seemed like what they liked most was watching other people feel surprised, upset and afraid. They were hungry for other people to feel rotten, because they felt so rotten themselves.
"No," said Marcus quietly. "You'll stop yourself."
"More malarkey!" shouted the man, his black beard quivering.
"You'll see," promised Marcus.
"There's nothing to be seen!" said the man with a dark laugh. "My chums are already outside taking everything we want from your buggy. It's already happened -- anything you're planning to do to stop us is too late."
Marcus gave the man a little nod and then stood up. "Well," he said in a cheerful way, "thank you for your hospitality. I'm sorry you weren't able to help us, but I'm consoled by the fact we'll shortly be able to help you."
"What in space is that supposed to mean?" growled the man.
Marcus wouldn't say. He smiled to himself and put his helmet on, then waved at George to follow him as he walked back inside the airlock. The inner door closed behind them and the airlock hissed as the air was sucked away. The outer door opened and the monks walked outside into the cold, dark, silent night.
"Oh no!" cried George.
Two more bandits in patched environment-suits were at the buggy, and they were roughly pawing through a sack of tangerines they had pulled right out of the insulated cargo cage. Marcus walked up to them with George at his heels, glancing over his shoulder to see the black-bearded man and his family come out of the airlock after them.
The bandits stopped ransacking the buggy as Marcus approached. Marcus looked down at the sack, which had been torn. Many squashed tangerines had fallen out and, without the sack's electrical heater and the cargo cage's insulation to keep them warm, they instantly froze into orange, sparkly blobs. Marcus heaved his shoulders as he sighed.
The man with the black beard shoved Marcus out of the way so he could get a look for himself. George couldn't hear his voice, but he saw his lips move inside his dirty helmet as he cried out in disbelief, "Oranges? Nothing but oranges?"
Marcus scooped up one of the frozen blobs and held it in his glove. He touched his helmet to the man's helmet and said, "They're not oranges. They're children's dreams. And because your friends didn't think they could be worth very much, they've stomped on them and ruined them. That's mean, sir, very mean."
"We are mean," said the man.
"But you weren't always mean," said Marcus. "Once, long ago, somebody stomped on your dreams and now you've forgotten how to be nice. You've got a knot of hurt where your heart's supposed to be."
"The world isn't a nice place!" said the man.
"You're right," agreed Marcus. "That's why it's up to people who care to be extra nice, to help make up for how not-nice the world can be sometimes." At that he stepped back from the man and returned to the buggy, somehow dignified despite his clumsy, Earth-man strides. He carefully picked up five tangerines, then closed the seal on the sack and put it back inside the cargo cage.
Marcus walked up to George. Through his radio he said, "Novice, please give one of these to each of our hosts and wish them good tidings."
George did as he was told, shaking a little bit as he stepped near each of the bandits and handed them a tangerine. He knocked his helmet against each of theirs and said, "Merry Christmas, friend," before moving on to the next. The bandits held the tangerines in their gloves, watching them release little puffs of steam as they froze.
When he tapped his helmet against the teenager's helmet, the boy said, "Why are you giving this to me? We're robbing you."
"Because it will taste more delicious to you if it's a gift," said George. "Stolen food tastes terrible."
"You should hate us!" said the teenager.
"I'm afraid of you," said George. "But I don't hate you."
The man with the big black beard rushed forward to grab Marcus' helmet and knock it against his own. "What makes you think we're just going to let you drive out of here with that fruit?" he yelled.
To answer him, Marcus pointed. The man turned around. The woman with the little pinched mouth was cradling her frozen tangerine in her gloves as if it were precious and delicate, like a baby. The teenager was standing beside her, and he had tears rolling down his cheeks. He wasn't crying because he was sad, though: he was crying because nobody had ever been so nice to him, even his own bandit mother and bandit father.
He didn't even know people could be nice to each other for no reason. Until that day, he'd never seen anything like it, and realizing this made him feel a bunch of feelings all at once. So he cried. His shoulders shook.
He stepped forward all of a sudden and pushed the tangerine back into George's hands. "I can't take this," he said, his helmet against George's, their eyes looking right into one another's. "It belongs to some poor kid deserves it more than me."
"It's okay," said George. "It's for you."
The teenager's nose was running. He sniffed, then shook his head. "If it's mine, then I get to decide what to do with it, right? And my decision is you should give it to somebody in the Default Zone. Give it to them from me, okay?"
George smiled. The teenager smiled, too, despite his tears. Marcus nodded to himself and climbed aboard the buggy. George climbed in beside him and put on his seat-belt. The engine started with a hum they could feel through their bums. None of the bandits stepped forward to try to stop them, not even the man with the big black beard.
Marcus put the buggy into gear, and got ready to drive away.
The man with the big black beard waved for his attention, and then leaned over so his helmet could touch Marcus' helmet. "Wait," he said, his voice sounding dry and kind of weak. "Before you go...before you go I want to tell you how to get to Seyfert. And to say I'm sorry."
Marcus grinned, his white teeth shining out from his white beard. He said, "Thank you, friend."
"But you have to tell me: are you really Santa Claus?"
Marcus winked. "Truly, friend, I am -- and today so are you."
Moments later the five bandits were waving good-bye as Brother Marcus and Novice George zoomed away on their buggy, bouncing over the rocks and at last heading in the right direction to safely find Seyfert City.
"You handled that very well, novice," said Marcus. "I think you really do understand the spirit of Christmas."
George blushed. "Thank you, brother."
An hour later the buggy rolled over the top of a big hill and George and Marcus got their first view of the giant network of shining domes that formed Seyfert City, the lights of ships rising and descending overhead in a busy flurry of traffic. Directly ahead, nestled between two grey boulders, was an airlock leading inside the city.
"Hooray!" cheered George.
"Ho, ho, ho!" laughed Marcus.
When their buggy was just a short distance from the airlock, however, red and blue lights started flashing from all directions. Six black and white crater-buggies drove out from behind the boulders and surrounded George and Marcus, forcing Marcus to hit the brakes. Sharp voices yelled over the radio: "Stop your buggy in the name of the law! This is a police control! Put your hands up!"
"Oh dear!" said Marcus, taking his gloves off the steering wheel and holding them up where the police could see them. George did the same.
A police constable in a blue environment-suit with a big golden badge hopped out of one of the buggies and walked over to George and Marcus. He was holding up a bright flashlight. George blinked, because the flashlight was shining right in his eyes. "So," said the constable, "we've finally caught the famous Seyfert City Highway Bandits!"
"We're not bandits -- we're monks!" cried George.
"We're on a mission of charity," added Marcus, "from the Order of Saint Nicholas."
"Never heard of it," said the constable. "But you can tell the lawyer machine your whole sad story once you're in jail."
The constable made a quick sign and then six more police officers hopped over to the buggy and began pulling George and Marcus out of their seats. "Gracious!" said Marcus as they put his hands behind his back and attached them together with manacles, which are metal rings that go around your wrists with a short chain between them so you can't move your arms.
"We're not dangerous!" insisted George as manacles were put on him, too.
"We'll see about that, bandit," said the constable.
Two of the police officers hauled the sacks of tangerines out of the cargo cage, peeking inside the seals curiously as steam puffed out, fogging their helmets. "Be careful with those," Marcus cried out as he was dragged away. "Don't bruise the fruit!"
The Seyfert City Prison was full of Santa Clauses.
They weren't real Santa Clauses, of course, apart from Novice George and Brother Marcus. The others were people hired by shopping malls to pretend to be Santa so kids could visit them and have their holograph taken, or people hired by charities to stand in the street and collect holiday donations while ringing a bell. Like a lot of pretend Santas, they wore big red pajamas with fake fur trim, and some of them had pillows shoved into their shirts to make them look fat and jolly.
None of the Santas looked jolly now, however, sitting in their little cells behind metal bars, waiting for their turn to talk to the lawyer machine. They had fake white beards, tied around their heads with string or stuck to their faces with glue. Many of them looked very tired, and some of them smelled bad.
"Hey," one of them called through the bars, "you look like the real deal, old man!"
"I am the real deal," said Marcus happily. "I'm Santa Claus."
The fake Santa laughed. "Hey buddy, we're all Santa Claus in here."
"No, I mean I'm a real Santa Claus," said Marcus in a friendly way. "I live at the North Pole and everything. This is my apprentice, George."
"Hi," said George.
The fake Santa scoffed. "Nobody lives at the North Pole, old man -- it's an ocean!"
"You forget," said Marcus, holding up two fingers and bringing them close to each other as if they were magnets; "north repels north when it comes to poles. The needle on your compass points to the Arctic Ocean, which means it's really a south pole up there, magnetically speaking."
The fake Santa laughed again. "So you're telling me the North Pole is in Antarctica, down on the bottom of the Earth?"
"Indeed," said Marcus with a serious nod. "It's the last place people tend to look for it, which helps us keep our work secret. Our order has been based there for over a thousand years."
The fake Santa turned and yelled over his shoulder to the other Santas in the prison. "Get a load of this guy -- he thinks he's the real Santa Claus! Ha, ha, ha!"
"Actually, it goes ho, ho, ho," corrected Marcus.
"If you're really Santa Claus," continued the fake Santa, "why don't you show us a Christmas miracle? Go on: break out of this joint! Show us your magic -- ha, ha, ha! Make those bars disappear!"
Marcus gave him a quick, tight little smile. "Your wish is my command, sir. I predict that something amazing will happen very shortly, and my brother and I will indeed be free."
George grabbed Marcus' shoulder and whispered in his ear. "Really? What's going to happen?"
"Be patient, novice," said Marcus as the fake Santas laughed and laughed.
They all stopped laughing when a loud clank and thump sounded from the ventilation shafts that pumped fresh air into the jail cells. "What was that?" asked one of the fake Santas, and the fake Santa beside him shrugged. Marcus smiled.
The ventilation shafts continued to bump and knock, getting louder and louder, the noises moving along from the far end of the prison block toward the cell where George and Marcus sat together on a hard little bench. Suddenly the sounds stopped, and then a soft voice called out, "O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree?"
Marcus replied by singing, "How are thy leaves so verdant!"
There was a second of silence, and then the sound of a buzzing tool. The metal ventilator shaft groaned as a line was cut into its side, and then another line, and finally a third. Next, a hand in a white glove folded down the flap of cut metal. "Brother Marcus?" asked someone.
"Sister Chloe?" answered Marcus.
An old lady with rosy cheeks and white hair tied up in a neat bun stuck her head through the hole in the ventilator shaft, and then smiled widely. "I'm so happy we found you! Have you been waiting long?"
"Not at all," said Marcus. "Do you know Novice George?"
"It's a pleasure to meet you, young man," said Chloe. She looked at the surprised expression George's face and smirked. "What's wrong, novice? Didn't you know girls can be Santa, too?"
"I'm new," admitted George. "I haven't finished my training yet. I've never met a girl Santa Claus before."
"Well," said Chloe, "all you need to know is that we're wonderful. Now, where are your tangerines, boys?"
"The police took them," said George. "They're lost."
"Oh my," said Chloe, her head still sticking out of the ventilator shaft with loose bits of white hair blowing around her face as the shaft kept pumping fresh air around her. "Then I suppose we'd best make a stop by the evidence locker before we start on our way to the Default Zone."
"Quite right, Sister," agreed Marcus. "Is your team in place?"
"They're right behind me, actually," said Chloe. George and Marcus heard some muffled greetings from inside the shaft, somewhere behind Chloe's bum. "Ready to go?"
George and Marcus nodded. As the surprised fake Santas looked on, they climbed up into the hole in the ventilator shaft and crawled inside. With Chloe leading the way, they shuffled carefully through the tight, metal tunnel, apologizing when they bumped into each other in the dark.
They stopped at a point where the tunnel widened to connect many shafts together. Chloe turned on a little flashlight and introduced her fellow Santa Clauses: Brother Nganga from Cameroon, Brother Matsumoto from Japan, and Brother Eric from England. "Hallo!" said Eric.
Brother Nganga, whose long, brown face was painted with white stripes of dried clay, said he and Brother Matsumoto would rescue the tangerines and meet up with the others back at their hideout. Chloe agreed. Matsumoto, who had a wispy little beard of grey hairs and happy, hooded eyes, turned to give Marcus and George a respectful bow and then squirmed off after Nganga.
Eric, Chloe, George and Marcus continued crawling on for a long time until at last they tumbled out into a cramped, warm boiler room where the air blowing through the shafts was heated. The room was dingy and loud but it wasn't at all gloomy on account of the strings of Christmas lights strung up everywhere. "Where are we?" asked George in wonder.
"We're in a utility room halfway between the police station and the fire department," said Chloe. "My team has been hiding out here for weeks while we got everything ready for the mission."
When George listened carefully and tried to ignore the whistling winds from all the connecting shafts he could hear the thrum and murmurs of city life through the metal walls: horns honking, wallas advertising their wares at the top of their lungs, children laughing, machines working. There were a million busy human beings out there, and none of them suspected that in the air ducts beneath their feet a gang of Santa Clauses had gathered to make the Moon a jollier place.
A moment later Nganga and Matsumoto popped in behind them with the two sacks of tangerines. Nganga was holding the ripped sack together with his hands. "I'm sorry, brothers," he said in his low, rich voice, "but some of the tangerines have been ruined."
"Why would the police do such a thing?" asked Matsumoto sadly.
"It wasn't the police," said Marcus. "It was bandits. They tried to rob us on our way to Seyfert City."
"Bandits?" cried Chloe. "Oh my goodness -- how did you escape?"
"We showed them that giving is much nicer than stealing," said Marcus with a wink. "We showed them how nice it can feel to be a Santa Claus. So they let us go."
"Jolly good!" said Eric, slapping Marcus on the back. "You've done Saint Nicholas proud, brother."
"I hope so," said Marcus. "But I'm sure he would be even more proud if we manage to get these tangerines to the Default Zone and get out with our skins intact."
Chloe nodded. "Don't worry, Brother Marcus. We have a plan." She walked over to a metal locker and opened it, revealing six red jumpsuits, six red caps, and a bundle of safety-harnesses with big brass buckles. "These are the uniforms of the custodians who fix the ventilators when they break down," she said. "We're going to go in disguise!"
Marcus chuckled. "And the shiny black boots?"
"That's my touch," said Chloe proudly.
George, Marcus, Eric, Nganga, Matsumoto and Chloe all put on the red jumpsuits and black boots, then attached the safety-harnesses around them by fastening the big brass buckles. Finally, they tucked the red caps on their heads. "Wow," said George, "now we look like Santa Clauses!"
Chloe pointed to the opening of another shaft. "Okay, brothers," she called, "everybody into the chimney!"
One by one the monks of Saint Nicholas squirmed inside the tight little tunnel and wormed their way along in a shuffling, mumbling line. Chloe pointed her flashlight ahead, leading them deeper and deeper into the network of ventilation shafts, warm wind blowing all around them. As they went the shafts became bigger and bigger until they found themselves in a giant metal cave whistling with air, a giant opening descending into the darkness beneath them.
George was almost blown away in the strong stream of rushing air, but Nganga and Chloe caught him just in time. "Thanks!" he cried, grabbing a hold of the wall and clinging to it with all his strength.
"My word!" exclaimed Eric, his white beard blowing up in his face. "How will we ever get across it?"
"We're not going across it," said Chloe. "The Default Zone is down, at the very bottom of Seyfert City." She unwound a series of pulleys and ropes from her bag. "Now it's time to do a little rappelling."
Chloe connected each monk's safety-harness to the rope, and then fastened one end around a big middle pole at the edge of the deep well. She showed them each how to work the hand-grip on the rope. "You click it open like this to slide down," she explained, "and then click it closed to stop if you're going too fast."
Nganga made a sour face. "I think I should have stayed on Earth!" he said nervously.
"Now now," said Marcus, giving Nganga's shoulder a squeeze. "This is what being Santa Claus is all about, brother. All set, George?"
"All set," said George with as sure a voice as he could muster.
Carefully, slowly, the six agents of the order lowered themselves over the edge of the giant shaft and started on their way down, their black boots clanging on the metal sides as they hopped. "If we fall it will certainly hurt!" squeaked Matsumoto, his wiry moustache twitching.
"Only about a sixth as much as it would hurt on Earth," pointed out Marcus helpfully.
Matsumoto closed his eyes for moment, drew a deep breath, then took his next hop downward, the rope humming as it flew through his harness. The other monks followed, and soon they had descended very deep beneath Seyfert City. The air began to smell less fresh, and it wasn't nearly as warm as it had been in the higher shafts. George wrinkled his nose. "Why does it smell bad, brother?" he called up to Marcus above him on the line.
"The Default Zone is for people who couldn't keep up their oxygen-water mortgages," explained Marcus. "That means they didn't have enough money to pay for the air they were breathing or the water they were drinking, so now they have to live in the Default Zone getting the stinky left-overs from everyone else while they look for better jobs."
"Eu," said George.
"Indeed," agreed Marcus.
At last the gang of monks set foot on the bottom of the shaft. Chloe unhitched everyone's harnesses, then shone her flashlight down a dark passage. "We're almost there," she said, leading the way.
It was dark and little bit scary in the tunnel, but the monks felt okay because they were all together to look out for one another. Because of their harnesses, the monks jingled as they walked.
They arrived at a large, rust-stained hub where eight shafts connected together over a swirling metal fan with sharp metal blades that sang out a low-pitched "whoop, whoop, whoop" as they spun. Dim, orange light flashed over the monks as it shone through the blades of the great fan. Chloe frowned. "This isn't on the map!" she said.
Eric sighed. "It must have been installed to improve the dreadful quality of the air down there."
"Fudge," said Marcus darkly. "What a pickle!"
"Whoop, whoop, whoop," said the giant fan.
"We don't have any choice," said Chloe. "We'll just have to jump right through it."
"What!" cried George. "Do you mean between the blades?"
Chloe nodded. "We'll have to time our jumps very carefully."
Matsumoto's moustache started quivering again. "I'm not sure I can do it, brothers. I don't want to be chopped up like sushi. Sister Chloe, isn't there another way?"
Chloe shook her head. "I don't think so, Brother Matsumoto. We're just going to have to screw up our courage and take the leap. Look at the rhythm of the fan: we have a four second window between each blade to slip through."
"Four seconds?" echoed George in disbelief. "We'll never make it!" He paused, then looked over at Marcus. "But, I suppose that if we do make it, it'll be really amazing, won't it?"
"That's the spirit, George," agreed Marcus with a firm nod of his head. "You're absolutely right."
Chloe looked down through the spinning blades. "The floor isn't very far down. We should be okay if we crouch and roll, to absorb the energy of the impact."
Eric flexed his knees experimentally, still looking quite worried. "I suppose it's one giant leap for Father Christmas then, isn't it?" He stepped up to the edge of the fan and took a deep breath. "Tell me when," he said to Chloe.
Chloe watched the spinning blades with a look of great concentration on her face, her lips moving quietly as she counted in the rhythm. "Ready...set," she said, "...Go!"
Eric jumped. He dropped through the fan precisely between two blades, disappearing in a blink. A couple of seconds later they heard him grunt as he hit the floor below. "I'm whole!" called Eric.
"You're next, Nganga," said Chloe.
"Oh boy," murmured Nganga, his forehead shiny with sweat. Chloe counted the seconds and told him when to jump, and he did it. Next came Marcus, and then it was George's turn.
"Jump exactly when I tell you, okay George?" said Chloe.
George nodded, his eyes wide as they watched the sharp, metal blades spin. He jumped when Chloe told him, and in the next moment he found himself rolling across a dirty tiled floor and crashing into a garbage can. It fell over, spilling bits of paper and plastic packaging everywhere.
He stood up as Chloe's bag landed next to him, followed four seconds later by Chloe herself. "Oof," she said, tucking stray hairs back into her bun.
The Santas stood in a dingy public square littered with bits of garbage. The square was surrounded by squat apartment blocks festooned with rows of tiny, dirty windows. There was a pole with a sign on it, but somebody had bent the sign. It used to say "No Loitering" but now it just said "No."
There was nobody around except for an old man sleeping on the steps in front of one of the apartment blocks. He smelled kind of like some of the fake Santas in prison, and he snored very loudly.
"What a gloomy place," said George.
"Welcome to the Default Zone," said Marcus darkly; "the last hope for the poorest people on the Moon -- free stale air, free stinky water, little hope and no dignity."
Chloe clapped her hands sharply. "Let's not get ourselves down in the dumps. This is the time for action! Brother Matsumoto, let's get a computer link up and running. Brother Nganga, I want you on the plumbing."
"The plumbing?" echoed George. "What's wrong with the plumbing?"
"Here," said Chloe, leading George to a dim corner of the square where a barren, dying tree stood in a cracked planter. "This, Novice George, is the Default Zone's community tree. It's supposed to be a symbol of life and hope for the people who live here, but to save money the Lunar Government turned off the water feed that keeps the tree alive."
Brother Nganga gave a rich, deep laugh. "But we've been re-routing the waterworks, squeezing the main pipes for trickles that gather in the reservoir beneath the square. All I have to do now is tap the reservoir and connect it to the planter, and in a few weeks this tree will be as green as the Congo used to be."
"It looks pretty sad right now," said George.
"Brother Eric will decorate it to add some cheer, won't you?" asked Chloe.
"Oh yes," agreed Eric. "I've quite a knack for sprucing up sad old Christmas trees. My pockets are stuffed with tinsel and little coloured lights."
Nganga knelt down next to the planter and used a tool to open a panel on the base, exposing the pipes beneath. Matsumoto went to the public computer terminal and began pecking on the keyboard, frowning seriously at the words scrolling by on the screen. ""This computer is very old, and not very smart," he called over his shoulder. "It looks like it was donated from the Royal Aresian Library on Mars."
"Can you bypass the security?" asked Chloe.
"Oh yes," said Matsumoto with a little nod. "Just give me five minutes, sister."
"What should we do?" asked George.
Marcus opened the first sack of tangerines as he quietly counted the apartment windows all around the square. "We won't have enough fruit for every house," he said with a sigh. "Too many of them were squashed by the bandits."
"Don't worry," said Chloe. "We'll give some of them chocolates and some of them tangerines, instead of both for everyone. George, would you please take the chocolate from Brother Nganga's bag? How are we doing on security, Brother Matsumoto?"
"Almost there..." he called, still typing madly on the public computer keyboard. "Just a few more seconds."
Chloe suddenly frowned and looked up. George stopped sorting the chocolates as he heard a noise knocking around inside the giant ventilation shaft over their heads. "Santas scatter!" commanded Marcus, and everyone quickly hid. George ran behind the railing of a stairwell, while Nganga squirmed in behind the planter he was working on.
Chloe stood her ground, peering up into the giant, spinning fan. "Well, hello there," she said in a soft, friendly voice. "Are you stuck? Listen to me, I can tell you how to get through the fan. Will you trust me? Okay then, when I say 'jump' you drop right between the blades of the fan. Do you understand? Three...two...one: jump!"
And then, in a flash, the oily-haired teenager from the bandit family dropped through the fan and landed awkwardly in the middle of the square. He climbed to his feet and looked around from behind his dark, lank hair. His body looked very tight and tense until he spotted George and Marcus, and then his shoulders relaxed a bit. "You're -- you're the Santa guys, right?"
George stood up into plain view. "Hi," he said. "You followed us."
"Yeah, it's all over the public screens how somebody broke out of prison through the air shafts," said the teenager. "My dad once showed me how to get into the shaft network, so I came looking for you." He paused, then looked at his feet. "I just thought...I just thought maybe I could help out or something. That's probably stupid."
"Oh no," said Marcus with a wide grin, "it's not stupid at all, lad. We would love to have your help, wouldn't we, brothers?"
Everyone agreed that they would. "Hey," said the teenager, catching sight of Brothers Matsumoto, Nganga and Eric, "there are lots of you."
"And there are plenty more back on Earth," said Marcus. "Christmas miracles need the cooperation of many strong hands and many pure hearts to happen just right. What's your name, lad?"
"Daniel," said the teenager.
"Welcome, Daniel," said Chloe. "Why don't you help George and Marcus put out tangerines and chocolate for the children?"
"Okay," said Daniel bashfully.
Just then Matsumoto clapped his hands together and cried, "We're in!" He turned to the other monks to explain: "I've gummed up the security layer, so now the alarms won't sound when we put the treats on the windowsills. Everyone will go on sleeping while we work."
"Perfect!" exclaimed Chloe.
And so with that George, Marcus and Daniel set to work placing a juicy tangerine or a wafer of dark chocolate on the sills of every apartment window facing the dingy little public square. The work went along quietly until Marcus hesitated at one of the last windows, peeking in through the glass. "What do you see, brother?" asked George.
"Gracious me," said Marcus in a breathy, slightly dizzy way. "Goodness gracious, gracious me."
"What is it?" asked Chloe as she jogged over.
Marcus sighed in a happy way, his cheeks rosy. "It's milk and cookies," he reported. "Someone here still believes in us, and they've left us a traditional Saint Nicholas snack."
He called over Nganga who used his tools to open the window, and then Marcus leaned in and carefully brought out a tiny yellow plate with cookies on it and a tall glass of milk. Before he touched them, however, Chloe broke off a little piece of cookie and put it into a small machine she took out of her bag. After a few seconds a green light lit up on the machine. "It's clean," she said. "Go ahead and eat the cookies, Brother Marcus."
Marcus looked over at Daniel. "I think our new friend is probably very hungry," said Marcus. "Perhaps he would like some cookies?"
Daniel ate the cookies so fast it was as if he'd never eaten in his life. After Chloe tested the milk he gulped it down, leaving the glass bare. "Thank you!" said Daniel, wiping his mouth on the back of his sleeve.
"No need to thank us," said Marcus. "That treat was left out for you."
"Wasn't it left out for Santa Claus?" asked Daniel.
"Indeed it was," agreed Marcus. "Who do you think you're being right now, if not Santa Claus?"
"But I'm not really Santa Claus," insisted Daniel.
"Of course you are," said Marcus firmly. "We all are. That treat was left out to say thanks for an act of senseless kindness, and that's just what you're helping us to do right now, Daniel."
"But Santa Claus is just a story," said Daniel. "...Isn't it?"
"No, my boy, we're quite real," said Eric.
"But it's impossible! How could Santa Claus visit every house in the world in just one night? It doesn't make sense."
"You're right," said Marcus. "That would be very difficult. But when we work together we have a knack for making the nearly impossible come true. The secret of Santa Claus is teamwork, Daniel. There are thousands of monks in our order, and we all cooperate to make Christmas wishes come true for those who need them most."
Daniel looked a bit disappointed. "So there really isn't a Saint Nick?"
"Oh, there is, there is," said Marcus quickly. "But he never leaves the North Pole. It's far too dangerous for him."
"Because somebody might catch him?"
"No, because Nicholas has been given the gift of long life. Nicholas has been alive for centuries, and he hardly ages at all -- which completely changes how one looks at risk. Think about it: if you or I happen to be killed in an accident, we might lose a few decades of life; if Nicholas were killed in an accident, on the other hand, he would lose thousands of years of work."
"I don't understand," said Daniel.
Marcus put an arm around him. "When Nicholas discovered that he was long, he decided that the best way to use that life would be to work every day to bring goodness into the world. I think you know, Daniel, that the world can be a wicked place. That's not something we like to think about, but it's true. All sorts of terrible things happen to good people, and almost nobody does anything about it. That's why Nicholas dedicated himself to being nice, to do what he could to fight that wickedness. He dedicated himself to compassion and generosity, forever."
The other members of the order echoed this, their voices rising in heartfelt chorus: "Compassion and generosity, forever."
"Compassion means feeling bad when others do, and generosity means feeling good by making things better for them. And forever? Forever means we never quit. Forever means we never give up. Forever means we never, ever forget why we do what we do."
"So how can Saint Nick do all that if he's stuck at the North Pole?"
"He can't, Daniel," said Marcus seriously. "We do it in his stead. We are his hands and his feet, his eyes and his voice. We act as his agents. We go out into the world to commit acts of kindness in his name, taking upon ourselves all of the risks -- because we honour why Nicholas refuses to die."
Daniel didn't say anything, though his face screwed up as if he were thinking hard about the things Marcus had said. Just then George finished placing the last tangerine on the last windowsill, and Nganga finished his plumbing work. Chloe took out a golden pocket-watch and flipped the lid. "It'll be morning soon," she reported.
Eric stepped back and admired the newly decorated community tree, glittering with tinsel and winking with little coloured lights. "Jolly good!" he declared.
The man sleeping on the steps lifted his head and blinked, then knuckled his eyes. "Who the heck are you?" he asked in a groggy voice.
"We're Santa Claus," said Daniel. "Go back to sleep, chum."
The man shrugged and put his head back down in the crook his elbow. In another minute he was snoring again.
Nganga frowned and looked up. Once more sounds of knocking and clanking were coming from the ventilation shafts overhead. "Uh-oh," said Nganga. "I don't think you're the only one who followed us, Daniel."
Daniel looked worried. George gulped.
A police constable in a blue uniform peeked through the spinning blades of the giant fan. "There they are!" he called over his shoulder. "I knew it: they're defaulters."
"It's the civils," reported Nganga. "They must have followed Daniel following us."
"Freeze!" yelled the constable. "Stay where you are -- this is a police control!"
Marcus gave him a wry smile. "Are you sure, constable?"
"This is a police control!" the constable repeated.
"I daresay it isn't until you figure out a way get down here," argued Marcus, his tone friendly.
The constable frowned, then looked around nervously at the quickly spinning blades as they chopped the air in front of his face. He toggled his radio and said, "This is Unit Four-forty. I need to escalate a maintenance directive. Can I get the blower down here shut off? Over."
Chloe shook her head. "That isn't a very good idea, you know. That fan is bringing the heat down from the boilers up above. If you turn the fan off, all the air coming through that big shaft beside you will get very cold, very quickly."
"You can keep you opinions to yourself, ma'am, alright? I don't need advice from default scum. This is a police control!"
"Yes, you do keep saying that."
The fan slowed down and then stopped with a metallic whine. The warm air it had been drawing down into the Default Zone square stopped immediately, and the wind coming down past the still fan blades became frigid. The constable shivered, then began attaching a harness and cable to lower himself carefully through the blades. Another police officer watched over his efforts with a worried expression.
Meanwhile, morning came.
The were no windows in the Default Zone but the people who lived there were used to waking up early in the morning to work for their food ration cards. One by one the lights in the apartment windows winked on, and the sounds of murmuring voices and sleepy shuffling footsteps leaked into the square. And then a small child walked past her window, stopped, turned back, and then pressed her face against the glass as she stared at the exotic orange ball sitting on the sill. "Mommy, Daddy," she called, "come look!"
Her father, a tired-looking man with a long face, pushed open the window and picked up the tangerine, turning it over slowly in his tough hands. "What is it?" asked the mother as she arrived to see what all the fuss was about.
"I think...I think it's fresh fruit," said the father in wonder. "This must have cost a fortune!" He turned to his wife. "Did you...?"
"No," she said quickly, staring at the tangerine. "It wasn't me. I haven't seen fresh fruit since we left the Earth."
Their daughter squirmed in between them. "It must have been Santa!" she squealed happily. Then she shouted out the window into the square: "Santa came!"
"But -- that's impossible," said her father quietly, blinking. His eyes searched outside the window, landing on Brother Marcus who was standing right in front of their apartment block.
Marcus ceremoniously touched the side of his nose, and gave the man a wide, jolly wink.
Suddenly families all around the square were discovering their Christmas treats, exclaiming to one another in surprise and delight. "Real chocolate -- wow! And hey, look at the community tree!"
Just then the police constable slipped down between the fan blades, dangling from a rope his partner was feeding through hand over hand. The combined weight of the two large men, however, was too much for the shaft to bear, and the metal began to groan and complain as it bent. "Uh-oh," said the constable dangling on the rope, watching two dents appear where his partner's feet were buckling the shaft.
The seams that held the shaft together in front and behind of the fan split open with a bang. The fan, the rope, the constable and his partner all tumbled into the square in an unruly, bellowing pile. The fan clanged on the concrete loudly, falling into pieces that just barely managed to avoid slicing the police into little bits.
That wasn't the end of it, though.
The police looked up and their faces were both matching expressions of shock as they watched a humidity conduit attached to the side of the broken shaft twist and split. The conduit began spraying out high-pressure mist which, when it met the cold air from the ducts, froze into a sparkling, crystalline powder that fell in swooping, floating clouds down into the square.
One of the children cried, "Snow!"
It was true: the dingy little square in the middle of the Default Zone, usually a stuffy place that smelled stale and old, was suddenly alive with refreshing breezes carrying fat snowflakes of all shapes and sizes. The children burst out of their apartments in their pajamas to slide across the snow, to taste it, and to roll it up into tight balls for throwing playfully at each other. "Yippie!" they crowed.
"Ho, ho, ho!" laughed Marcus. "Marvelous! Simply marvelous!"
And it was: it was marvelous. Even older monks like Matsumoto and Eric, whom had seen many, many Christmas delights in their day, were moved to giggle and smile as they watched the depressing Default Zone turned into a brief winter wonderland, the walls echoing with the laughter of carefree children.
The police were not at all impressed, though. "This is a police control!" said the constable as he pulled himself out from under a piece of the broken air shaft and tried to stand up. Instead, he slipped on the snowy ground and ended up falling right on his bum again. "Oof!" he said, wincing.
"You're under arrest!" yelled the second officer.
"And where did these people get expensive stuff like chocolate and oranges? You people don't have money!" shouted the constable. "You defaulters are all thieves and bandits!"
Marcus knelt down and scooped up a ball of snow, packing it between his wrinkled hands. "Agents of the order!" he called out in a booming voice, "take up arms!"
George, Chloe, Eric, Nganga, Matsumoto and Daniel each gathered their own snowball. "Standing by!" shouted Chloe.
"Prepare to fire," said Marcus, raising his snowball over his shoulder.
The constable's eyes opened wide as he slipped on the floor again. "Hey, wait, don't even think about it! This is a police con --"
He was interrupted as he was hit in the face with a soft, slushy snowball. He sputtered and gasped, and cleared the blobs of ice away from his eyes just in time to be struck by another snowball, and then two more. Another one hit his partner, exploding into a rain of slush on his chest. He fell down.
The people of the Default Zone thought this was great fun because the police were not always as nice to them as they should have been. The children, the mothers and the fathers all packed up little snowballs and sent them flying at the police officers as they slipped and slid all over the place, unable to stay standing under the barrage of packed slush.
"Now's our chance, while the police are distracted," said Chloe in a carrying voice; "Santas scamper!"
So, while the defaulters continued to lob snowballs at the police the monks of the Order of Saint Nicholas jogged out of the square, following Chloe as she dodged into one alleyway and then down another, turning left and then right, leading them along a twisted path away from the core of the Default Zone and toward the public elevators.
The security guard at the elevators was very confused. "Hey," he cried, "I didn't check you guys in!"
"Air duct maintenance," said Chloe, flashing him a identity card. "Official business."
The security guard looked past her, his mouth a round O of surprise. "Oh my goodness -- is it snowing in there?"
"Very big leak," said Matsumoto as he followed Chloe into the elevator. "Give us a minute to lock it down."
"But you're leaving!" argued the security guard, brow furrowed.
"We're getting reinforcements," explained Nganga.
The security guard was still staring at them with a dumbfounded look on his face as the elevator doors yawned closed. The elevator started to move, its smooth hum interrupted as Daniel began to laugh. He laughed until he was red in the face, gasping for air. "That was hilarious!" he wheezed, tears running down his cheeks. The tears weren't sad tears, though. "I've never had so much fun in my life!" he cheered.
Marcus put a hand on his shoulder. "You could join us, you know, Daniel. You could do this every day -- making children happy, throwing snowballs at bullies, braving dangers and having adventures all in the name of compassion and generosity."
"I could?" he blinked, his laughter dying away. "You'd let me join?"
"Why not?" smiled Marcus.
Daniel hung his head. "I've done a lot of bad things. My family -- we're bandits. We take people's things without asking, even if it's all they have. And we scare them. We scare them just for kicks. I read your lips when you talked to my father, and you were right. We are mean. I'm mean."
George looked up. "All that means," he said, "is that you've got a lot of nice things to do to make up for the naughty things. But you can do it. It might take a few years, but you can do it. And then you'll be able to keep doing nice things, until you've done far more nice things than naughty things."
Daniel blinked, thinking about that. "What about my mom and dad?" he asked in a quiet voice. "I can't just run away -- they would worry about me...I think."
"Of course they would," said Chloe, touching his cheek softly. "They're your parents. They love you. And even if they've been living a naughty life, they've been doing those things so that you, Daniel, would always have something to eat. If you do want to come wit us, we can always stop by so you can talk to them first."
"What if they don't like the idea?"
Marcus squeezed Daniel's shoulder. "I wouldn't worry about that, lad. I saw the look in your father's eyes when he let us go. Something in his heart has changed this Christmas, and I don't think he'll be a bandit anymore."
"I should warn you, though," said George, "you'll have to be trained to join the order, and you'll be starting late. You'll be the oldest kid in the class!"
"That's okay," said Daniel. "I've never had friends before, so I don't care what age they are. But will my mom and dad be okay?"
"We'll make sure they're okay," promised Eric. "I'm sure Nicholas will agree that they could use our help."
Daniel smiled. "You're the nicest people I've ever met in my whole life," he said.
Matsumoto grinned and bowed. "That's our job."
"And now it's your job, too, if you want it," added Marcus.
The elevator stopped, and a little bell rang as the doors opened. "Yes," said Daniel, "that's what I want...Santa."
"Ho, ho, ho!" cheered the monks.
They walked out into the crowded corridors of Seyfert City, with people rushing about to and fro and talking quickly into their telephones as they hailed taxis and stuffed food into their mouths. Daniel paused. "They don't even know," he said slowly. "They don't even know what a neat thing just happened down in the Default Zone."
"That's true," said Marcus. "They don't have to know, because they have happy lives with enough money to buy food and presents for themselves. For the kids who live up here, their parents are Santa Claus. We don't worry about those kids. We, Daniel, help those who need something extra special to believe in. And knowing we've done that is all the recognition we need."
And with that the Santas said their good-byes to one another: Chloe and her team would return to their own spaceship, the Donner, and George and Marcus would return to the Blitzen to make their separate ways back to the secret Santa Claus base in the Antarctic. Daniel went with Chloe's team since their ship had more room, so soon enough things were back the way they started with George and Marcus all alone.
As they arranged to rent a new crater-buggy for the drive back to the West Moscoviense Shopping Mall George got a thoughtful look on his young face. "You know, I was pretty scared about taking my exams before -- to become a full member of the order -- but now I feel like I could take them tomorrow and pass without trouble. What an adventure we've had!"
"It's even better than that," said Marcus as they left the rental counter to pick up their buggy and environment-suits. "You've already passed the field test with flying colours. I'm sure Prior Ignatz will agree that you've done a very impressive job here today, and he will certainly agree with my decision."
"What decision?" asked George, his brow crinkled with curiosity.
Marcus turned to George and looked him in the eye very seriously. "As a senior operative in the Order of Saint Nicholas, I officially declare that you have shown the courage, the caring and the unstoppable good spirits that make a Santa Claus great. I hereby promote you to a full member of the order, with all the rights and responsibilities that go along." He offered his hand to shake.
George was so happy he didn't know what to say. He shook Marcus' hand warmly and burst out in a wide grin. "You mean it?" he asked breathlessly.
"I do, Brother George."
"Wow, Brother George!" echoed George, feeling slightly dizzy. "So now I'll get my own territory, right? and my own kids to help?"
"That's right," said Marcus, looking up and down the rows of parked buggies. "Nicholas himself will assign your territory to you when you meet him," he said lightly.
George stopped walking. "I'm going to meet Nicholas? The real Nicholas?"
Marcus nodded. "You'll love him," he said. "Everyone does."
"Wow," said George again. "What territory do you think he'll give me?"
Marcus found the buggy that matched the number on their ticket, then pulled an environment-suit from its hook and handed it to George. "Well," he said, "Brother Oscar is retiring soon, so you might get Manitoba, but after the way this mission went I think there's a chance you may get assigned somewhere...more exotic."
George started climbing into his environment-suit. "What could be more exotic than the Moon, brother?"
Marcus winked. "Well, I know Chloe's been talking about Mars a lot lately..."
Brother George's eyes widened. "Mars!" he cried. "Good gracious!"
Marcus put his arm around him. "There's always another adventure, brother." Then he glanced back over his shoulder. "In fact, I think one is starting right now. It's the police! Into the buggy now, quickly!"
George felt a thrill as his heart started beating faster. He wasn't worried, though: he knew they would escape, one way or another. Marcus zipped up his environment-suit, shoved his helmet on his head, and both monks jumped into the buggy. He popped it into gear and zoomed toward the airlock just as two police officers ran into the garage. "Stop!" they called, "this is a police control!"
"Merry Christmas!" called Marcus as the airlock rumbled open.
"Ho, ho, ho!" roared George.
The buggy scooted out onto the rocky plains of the Moon, lit brightly as the shining sun rose over the grey hills. A new Lunar day was beginning, the blue oceans of Earth glimmering in a beautiful crescent hanging in the black sky. The buggy bounced and skittered, George and Marcus laughing all the way. Behind a cloud of rolling Moon dust, the two Santa Clauses disappeared.
The police officers scratched their heads and looked at one another. "Was that...?" asked one, then trailed off. "I mean, he had a big white beard and everything..."
"Nah," said the other with a wave of his hand. "Don't be silly. There's no such thing as Santa Claus."
"Right, right," agreed the first officer. "That would be impossible."
Girls Can Be Santa Claus, Too | The Salt Moon Robots
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