John Forge is the station chief of a mining colony on a futuristic Mars and all he wants is a home and family...and Suzie Shelty, the colony's morale officer. Trouble is, while Suzie might admit to being infatuated with the handsome captain, she's not so sure she believes in love. Fortunately she does believe in holiday magic and with John's help creates for the station the first Christmas on Mars.
Suzie's uncertainty and John's unwillingness to compromise could keep them apart. But a mirror that reflects the future--and a certain jolly old elf--may yet make this Christmas the first of many these two will enjoy together.
Publisher's Note: Novella originally appeared in the Ellora's Cave anthology Holiday Reflections.
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November 13, 2009
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Excerpt from Reflecting the Future by Cricket Starr
Ah, to keep her with him for the rest of the evening...or the rest of their lives. That's what he really wanted, to keep her for the rest of their lives, regardless of what she had to say about her duty to the other men, her job and how he couldn't really feel what he knew he felt.
He knew what was real and what wasn't. He wanted a home and Suzie in it with him.
She sighed, and for a moment he wondered if she didn't want that as well. She rubbed her head against his shoulder and leaned up to smile into his eyes.
Wasn't there more than a passing affection in her smile for him?
"So, about the holiday..." she began, her voice teasing.
John made a great show of a heartfelt sigh and feigned reluctant interest in hearing her proposal. Most of Suzie's schemes to raise the morale of the colony turned out to be at least entertaining, if not completely successful. What with the possible upcoming changes to the station that he was trying hard not to worry about, he and his people could use a good distraction.
"What did you have in mind?" he asked.
"There hasn't been that much to celebrate lately, so perhaps we could make up an occasion. Since winter is just beginning, I was thinking we could celebrate that old Earth holiday that comes at the start of winter. You know the one, Christmas."
"Christmas?" John creased his nose, trying to remember just which holiday that was. He'd left Earth as a young man, after being raised in a very poor family eking out a bare existence in the city. His parents had moved frequently during his childhood, chasing jobs and opportunities, and with money as tight as it had been his family hadn't been able to celebrate much of anything.
Heck, he'd been happy when he'd had a roof over his head.
Unconsciously, he tightened his arm around Suzie. Strange as it seemed, here on Station Twenty-One was the first time in his life that he'd felt like he had a real home. Now all he needed was a family to go in it, marriage and children.
Sensitive as always, Suzie looked up at him. "What is it, John?"
"I like the idea."
Suzie beamed with enthusiasm. "Good! It will be a Christmas just like in the old books. We'll have lots of decorations and lights with bright colors, songs, fancy food and good wishes for everyone. We could decorate the dining hall with an old-fashioned Christmas tree and give out presents."
"Sure, simple ones for the adults. Practical items mostly, but toys and games for the children. Maybe we'll have a Santa Claus distribute them."
As she mentioned the name a memory came to him from his childhood. A memory of a fat, bearded man in red, handing him a red and white striped crook-shaped piece of candy. It had been one of the rare occasions he'd gone into a big fancy store in the city with his mother. Just as they'd come through the door the big man had shouted "ho, ho, ho" and given it to him.
There had been a big debate over his keeping the treat until the man had assured his mother in his deep voice that the candy was free. It was a candy cane, a present, he remembered being told--to celebrate Christmas, a holiday of good will toward men and gifts for those who had none.
He'd taken nearly a week to finish the candy cane, nibbling a little bit each night until there was none left. It had been delicious and the best present ever, if only for how unexpected it had been. John's life as a child had held too few happy surprises, something he planned on remedying with his own children should he have them.
Something else he wanted to have a serious discussion with Suzie about--the idea of having children, something possible on the Martian mining colony where they lived. They were on a new frontier, where new families were encouraged. But it was hard to plan children with a woman who didn't take you seriously when you asked her to be your wife.
For now his responsibilities included the kids on the station, and the idea of giving them the same thrill he'd had on getting that piece of candy so long ago really appealed to John. Only he'd do more than give the kids candy. There'd be presents, special ones for each of them.
"Could I play Santa Claus?" he blurted out before he could stop himself.
Suzie startled and stared at him with wide-open eyes. "You'd want to? I was going to ask--you are the logical choice--but I didn't think you'd agree."
John warmed considerably at the look of admiration in her face. "I think it's a great idea." In fact, it was getting greater all the time.
To his dismay, she bounced out of the bed and pulled on the clothes she'd been wearing when she'd arrived. "I'll get right on it, then!"
"No reason you have to do it now," he couldn't help complaining. "It could wait for a day or so, or at least until tomorrow morning." He'd hoped to persuade her to stay in bed with him all night. It had been a couple of months since she'd slept with him.
"But I want to get the order in tonight. It will take at least a week to get here as it is. Besides," she hesitated putting on her shoes and didn't look at him. "I have another appointment tonight."
John had to resist letting his jaw drop. Suzie almost never had double-booked on a night she spent with him. "Who with?"
"You know I'm not allowed to say," Suzie smiled brightly at him. "It would be better for you not to know, anyway." She leaned over and gave him a sweet kiss on the cheek. "It was fun with you. You are one of my favorites."
One of her favorites. John fumed silently as she closed the door behind her. That was the standard closing line of every morale officer he'd known in the past ten years. This was the first time in over a year that Suzie had used it with him.
Double booking on his night with her, bringing up station business during their lovemaking and using standard surrogate language with him. It all fell into a pattern. Of what he couldn't say, but he didn't like it at all.
* * * * *
Suzie checked her display one more time. The screen held an inventory of all the stuff she was ordering from the Stellar Trading Company's interspace website. She was making her list and checking it twice--to verify she hadn't missed a single item. She wanted to make the first Christmas on Mars the best she could possibly manage. It would blow her budget for the rest of the year, but provide the kind of celebration she was hoping would keep her memory alive on Ares Mining Station Twenty-One.
The expense wouldn't be wasted. After all most of the items could be saved and reused for subsequent holidays...for after she was gone.
A pang of dismay slipped through her, but she quickly suppressed it. This was not the time to be feeling bad about her upcoming departure. She hadn't even made up her mind...yet.
Her finger hovered over the submit button, but just then a pop-up window appeared, floating in the middle of the screen. "Special offer, available only for the next ninety seconds! Grab bag of fifty-six assorted surprise items, perfect for holiday gifts!"
Assorted gifts? She peered closely at the small image on the pop-up. It certainly did look like a lot of interesting items, most of them small but intriguing. She could make out a few small toys, what seemed to be a pocket laser, jewelry and grooming supplies, including a couple of mirrors. The number was interesting as well as there were exactly fifty-six people on the station.
Suzie sat back in excitement. There'd be something for everyone! The cost was just a little over her budget...she'd have to cut back on something else. The clock on the pop-up was winding down with only thirty seconds left.
Regretfully, Suzie removed from her list one of the Christmas tree ornament collections she'd picked out and just as the clock was running out, accepted the pop-up offer. With a bright "ding" the gift assortment was added to her inventory.
Somehow they'd live without the two dozen "golden-wire birds of peace". No one would miss them, and maybe she could have some of the children make ornaments to put on the tree in their stead.
Of course she hadn't even decided what to use for the all-important Christmas tree that all the books indicated was needed for their celebration. Mars didn't have any natural vegetation large enough to substitute and the artificial trees the catalog had offered were far too expensive, either to buy or ship. She'd have to improvise something.
After one last check, Suzie submitted her order and it disappeared from the screen with a soft whoosh. Mission accomplished, she turned off the machine and headed for her sanitary. As she'd told John, she did have another client tonight and needed to shower. Section two, subsection three of the morale officer handbook stated clearly, "surrogates must attend a morale appointment clean and without residue of previous encounters".
If it was one thing Suzie understood, it was how to go by the book.
She dropped her robe and stepped into the warm water. As always it smelled fresh and clean...you'd never suspect with the kind of filters and clarifying apparatus attached to the line that this was the exact same water she'd been using for the past two years. Even though the station was supplied with plenty of water, Suzie appreciated that she didn't have to be cautious given her special needs.
In fact, the recycler was so efficient she could take as long a shower as she wanted...and often did, particularly on nights when she'd been with John.
She smelled her fingers, which still held a little of the scent of his hair, and smiled dreamily, remembering how the coarse strands had felt against her skin. Her cheeks still bore some sensitivity from the roughness of his beard, another sensation she rather enjoyed. Somehow John always managed to have a little bit of a beard, as if the facial hair suppressor he used could only do so much.
Such an intensely sensual man, with all those hormones driving him--how could any beard suppressor compete?
He was a big man, black-haired and grey-eyed, who exuded power and control. John was a throwback in so many ways, a man from a time when you needed strength to move equipment, not buttons. She knew he'd been in the Ares Mining Company for nearly fifteen years, at least ten of it spent here on Mars.
He'd had morale officers before, and this was her second assignment, so it wasn't like they didn't both know the rules. Even so, she knew she'd gotten too close to him. Several times he'd talked of love and permanence between them.
As if that were possible. Suzie sighed. She was no better. For the past two years, she'd been his surrogate, as well as that of the other unattached men. But they would fade into the background of her memories while John she knew she'd remember the rest of her life.
Even so, it still wasn't going to lead anywhere. Her job was to be the stand-in lover to all the men, and occasionally she'd fall for one of them or the man would fall for her. The book talked about that and said it was natural...that didn't make it real.
Her looks and spirit had lifted her out of the obscure inner-city orphanage she'd grown up in, where no love had ever lasted more than a few days. Children transferred in and out in days and those in charge never stayed long. Only Suzie had been a constant. Always there, always alone.
She'd never known what it felt like to have someone care for her on a permanent basis. She wasn't even sure it was possible to feel that way everlasting.
Suzie wasn't sure that she even believed in love.
She'd stayed at the orphanage until she'd grown old enough to leave and take up training. Training in how to make other people happy, something she'd been good at for many years.
Trouble was, now there was really only one man she really wanted to make happy, sexually at least. It was even affecting her work. Tonight was the first time in two weeks that one of the men not on her regular schedule had come asking for a morale boost. It was like everyone was avoiding being with her.
She had to admit that she wasn't a very good morale officer anymore.
Morale officer's handbook, section ten, subsection three. "When a morale officer loses perspective, she must arrange transfer, preferably at the end of her assignment". Her assignment was up in two weeks. Barely time for the holiday celebration she had planned.
All her life she'd wanted to belong somewhere. Station Twenty-One was the first place she'd felt completely at home and now she was afraid she was going to have to give it up.