Home for Christmas
I always try to get home for Christmas. My mother organizes our family celebrations in a traditional style, modelling them on the Christmases she spent as a small child at her grandmother’s house. My father always claims he isn’t interested in the celebrations, and only agrees to them to keep my mother happy, but he’s the one who insists on decorating the trees outside their house with coloured lights every year.
This year, I walked up to the house in the dusk of early evening, and saw the familiar glow of those lights welcoming me. The height of the family celebrations was the dinner on Christmas Day. Over the last few decades there’d been some years when I didn’t arrive until that dinner was over, and other years when it was impossible for me to get home at all. This time I was lucky, arriving on the doorstep on Christmas Eve.
My parents opened the door and took turns to hug me. “Welcome home,” said my mother. “I know you’ll want to change your clothes before you do anything else.”
I nodded, and hurried to my old bedroom. This was part of the ritual of coming home for me. I’d take a moment to wander round my boyhood room, with its clutter of my old possessions. Then I’d strip off my Military uniform, and change into some civilian clothes, feeling as if the process somehow returned me mentally to being that boy again.
Physical and mental transformation complete, I went to join my parents in the living area. I spent a moment admiring the tree, with its bevy of familiar ornaments that appeared each year at Christmas, and then sat down. I accepted a drink and a small piece of cake, and asked the same question I asked every year. “How is everyone?”
My parents talked to me about their work as school teachers, and the retirement plans that had somehow turned into halving their teaching hours rather than giving up work entirely. They told me about my brother’s paintings being featured in an exhibition, my eldest niece’s latest research project, and my nephew’s new girlfriend. I’d heard most of these things during my weekly calls home, but it was better sitting here and listening to it in person.
My parents didn’t ask what I’d been doing. When I first joined the Military, they’d been shocked and anxious. They’d grown resigned to my choice since then, but there was still a gulf between my life and theirs. They were never sure of the right questions to ask me, and there were things that I couldn’t discuss for fear of worrying them. It was a problem that had grown worse instead of easier in the last few years.
I slept in my old bedroom that night, and after breakfast the next morning my younger brother, his wife, and their three children arrived. This year they brought my nephew’s girlfriend with them, which gave me the impression that his relationship was on the brink of becoming official. I did a quick mental calculation of my nephew’s age, and was faintly startled to realize the boy was twenty-eight.
There was the ritual exchange of presents, and then Christmas dinner. The prospective new family member’s place at the table was between me and my nephew. She seemed a nice girl, but hardly spoke, and the few words she did say were rushed out in a breathless voice. I had the feeling she was nervous of being in the middle of our Christmas celebrations, and even more nervous of sitting next to me.
After dinner, my mother organized us to play the usual games. I hovered on the sidelines, watching the others rather than playing myself, glorying in the chance to be blissfully idle. It was late in the afternoon, when my younger niece was eliminated from a game by an especially foolish move, and came to perch on the arm of my chair and whisper to me.
“Can we have a quiet word?”
I realized that her foolish move in the game had actually been carefully planned to give her the chance to talk to me in private, and gave her a puzzled look. “Of course.”
We moved across to stand at the window and look out at the gaily decorated trees. “I’ve decided to join the Military,” she said.
I had to do another rapid age calculation. My younger niece, who I thought of as the baby of the family, was nearly seventeen years old. “You can’t sign up until you’re eighteen,” I said.
“Yes, but I wanted to take my chance to mention this to you now. It’s going to be difficult.”
I nodded. “The family won’t be happy about you joining the Military. They tried to argue me out of it, and they’ll do the same to you.”
“I can cope with that,” she said. “With respect, sir, the real problem is you.”
I’d been fully occupied adjusting to the idea that my niece was old enough to be thinking of joining the Military, but now I moved on to picturing her arriving as a cadet at the Military Academy and could see what she meant.
“If you haven’t changed your mind by next Christmas, we’ll discuss the best way to deal with that issue.” I paused. “If I’m not able to come home next year, then you must call me about it. That’s an order.”
We went back to sit with the others, and I let myself get dragged into the next couple of games. It was late in the evening when a chiming sound came from my pocket. My parents watched with resigned expressions as I stood up.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I’d hoped to stay until tomorrow, but . . .”
“We understand,” said my father. “At least you made it home this year.”
I went to my old room and changed my clothes again. The family gathered in the hall for a round of farewells, my nephew’s girlfriend even more tongue tied now I was back in uniform. I picked up my bag of presents, and my mother handed me a piece of cake wrapped in a paper napkin.
“Perhaps you’ll be able to come back for New Year’s Eve,” said my father.
“I hope so,” I said, though we both knew there was little chance of me managing it.
Finally, I went outside, and gave a last admiring look at the joyful coloured lights in the trees. Above them, two moons glowed in the clear night sky. One large and white, while the other was barely half its sibling’s size, and had a faint hint of orange to its cratered surface. It was currently midwinter here on Demeter, but there was only a faint chill in the air. The inhabited continents of every one of humanity’s colony worlds had been carefully chosen to have mild climates.
The shadowy figures of my waiting bodyguards converged on me, and I handed one of them the bag of presents but held on to my piece of cake. Overhead, I glimpsed the silhouettes of a formation of fighters passing in front of the larger moon. I caused a lot of trouble for my security staff when I came home for Christmas, but I desperately needed my annual break from the pressure of my position.
Ahead of me, the giant ring of a portal was already active and glowing in the darkness. I stepped through it, my portal signal was relayed across the vast interstellar distances between the worlds of Alpha sector, and I reappeared inside the Military Headquarters on the planet Academy. Less than a minute later, I entered the Central Command Centre, and a sonorous voice came from the overhead speakers.
“General Marshal Renton Mai.”
The Military officers at the desks lining the walls all stood and saluted in unison. I saluted in acknowledgement, and strolled on to sit in the command chair at the end of the room. When I tapped the button on the chair arm, the vast holo of the status cloud of humanity appeared in the centre of the room.
I leaned back in my chair, and studied the cloud of close to twelve hundred blue spheres. Each of them represented a colony world, with the blue varying slightly to indicate the political divisions between the six sectors of humanity.
I’d left the status cloud with six of those twelve hundred blue spheres edged with amber, to indicate action was being taken to resolve a crisis. Now one of those six was a clear blue, showing its problem had been resolved. Five of them remained at amber. Another blue sphere was edged with the flashing red of an urgent new problem.
I frowned. That world was in Delta sector, but close to the border with Beta sector, which raised the worrying possibility of a cross-sector issue rather than just the usual planetary based problems.
I pointed at the red ringed world with my forefinger. The status cloud zoomed in to focus on it, and text appeared beside it. I scanned the single sentence and winced in disbelief. The planetary representatives of Fenrir wanted their world to secede from Delta sector and join Beta sector instead!
I suffered a brief but painfully detailed vision of exactly how the Delta Sector Parliament would react to that, and the effect this could have on the historically difficult relationship between Beta and the other sectors. I turned my chair to face the desk of my advisor in Delta sector politics.
“General Sanchez. Situation background?”
“For the last century, Fenrir has been a centre for trade between the worlds of Delta sector and Beta sector, sir,” she said. “Its culture has therefore been strongly influenced by that of Beta sector, giving Fenrir a far more tolerant attitude than most Deltan worlds to revealing clothing and public displays of affection. The population of Fenrir has regularly protested against the morality laws enacted by the Delta Sector Parliament, and the latest demonstrations have escalated into Fenrir making this declaration.”
My sympathy with the population of Fenrir was limited by the knowledge that Fenrir changing sector would inevitably tempt other worlds to shift allegiance as well. Having even a handful of worlds physically in one sector while politically affiliated to another would add a strategic nightmare to the Military’s complex task of keeping the peace between the different sectors of humanity.
“Political responses so far?” I asked.
“The Delta Sector Parliament is currently in emergency session, sir. As yet, they’ve made no official response. The full Parliament of Planets should convene within the next ten hours. There is an initial statement from the Joint Sector High Congress Committee that’s five thousand words long.”
“The short version?”
“It can basically be summed up as you’ve got to be joking.”
“My sentiments and those of High Congress are virtually identical for once.” I turned to my advisor in Beta sector politics. “General Ray Preston?”
“The Beta Sector Parliament is also in emergency session, sir, but they’re highly unlikely to make any official response until after there’s a statement from the Delta Sector Parliament.”
I nodded. “The Military obviously have to remain politically neutral as always, but you two had better start drafting a statement registering concern that shifting planetary allegiances between sectors would create political instability and have negative implications for the safety of humanity. You can phrase it far better than me.”
General Ray Preston suddenly frowned down at his desk. “A development, sir.”
“Good or bad?” I asked.
“I’ve just received a strictly unofficial message from an anonymous source, sir. This suggests the First Speaker of Beta sector is strongly opposed to a breakaway planet of Deltan troublemakers joining Beta sector. His opinion is that Fenrir’s attitudes on sexual issues may be far more tolerant than those of other Deltan worlds, but are still oppressive by Betan standards, so Fenrir’s population would merely change from protesting against the cultural standards of Delta sector to protesting against those of Beta sector.”
“This anonymous source has proved highly reliable in the past,” said General Ray Preston. “My impression is that the messages are coming from someone inside clan August.”
I leaned back in my chair, unwrapped my piece of cake, and bit into it. If this message really did come from someone inside the most powerful of the Betan political clans, then it was probably approved by Lucius Augustus Gordianus himself. In that case, the Fenrir crisis might end as rapidly as it started, but I still didn’t like something this dramatic happening so close to the end of 2788.
Warning red suddenly surrounded another blue sphere. I’d barely had time to work out that was the perpetual argument between Hestia’s two political factions escalating into violence yet again, when a blue sphere in Kappa sector took on a red halo as well.
I sighed. Hestia was a familiar trouble spot, but the problem in Kappa sector was far more worrying. General Hiraga was in command of Planet First’s efforts to prepare worlds in Kappa sector for colonization, and she wouldn’t flag one of them for my attention unless the situation there was extremely serious.
I glanced at my Kappa sector liaison officer, the position currently held by a mere Colonel since any competent General manoeuvred themselves out of it within weeks. “I regret that someone has to bravely call General Hiraga to get full details of the problem in Kappa sector.”
“In the interests of improved communications, it might be best if you spoke to General Hiraga directly, sir,” said the Colonel. “She is sometimes a little … brusque to lower ranked officers.”
I shook my head. “General Hiraga is equally brusque with me. The only difference is that her more withering sentences usually end in a grudging ‘sir’.”
The Colonel groaned and tapped at his desk to make the call. I gloomily munched the rest of my slice of cake as I waited for his report. In my experience, both as a member of the General Staff and as General Marshal, any trouble during the normally peaceful period of the Year End holidays was a bad omen for the coming year. Three crises within the space of a few hours had to mean that 2789 was going to be an extremely difficult year.
© 2016 Janet Edwards. All rights reserved.
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