Cameron Boyd liked to go to the outskirts of Moreau Town to eat his lunch each day. He’d arrived on the surface to begin his new life as a civilian a few days ago, and had been assigned a work detail straight away. He was helping the agricultural team with the planting and managing of food crops. It was simple but gratifying work. Already he had started some meaningful relationships with new people.
As much as he liked to socialise as he worked, his lunch time was an oportunity to be alone, to contemplate and pray. There was a nice fallen tree that he like to sit on while he ate.
Today, as he approached his usual place he noticed that it was already occupied. Two people were siting on his log. As got closer he realised that it was Neal and Laura – the newlyweds. They were sitting very close, staring into each others eyes. It seemed that every sentence spoken between them was punctuated by a quick kiss on the lips. Boyd felt heart-warmed that people were finding such happiness here on their new homeworld, but he also felt slight pangs of regret. Cameron had never been lucky in love. He considered turning and going back so as not to intrude on their privacy, but his foot caught a dry twig and made a loud snapping noise. The couple look up and saw him.
“Well, I see you two lovebirds have re-appeared already. Shouldn’t you be somewhere else enjoying yourselves?”
“Oh, we’ve just got back from honeymoon. There’s a lot to do around here and we’re eager to get back into it.”
“Argh, people today just don’t know how to enjoy themselves.”
“Oh,” Neal said. “We’ve been enjoying ourselves. There’s no question about that.” The couple smiled at each other and kissed again.
“Ah, I should give you some space. I didn’t realise you were here.”
“No, it’s okay,” Laura said. “Come join us. I’m eager to hear what’s been going on here in town while we’ve been away.”
“Well Lass, life continues on much the same.”
“I heard that you’d resigned as Chaplain of the Endeavour.” Neal moved slightly so that there was room for Boyd to sit comfortable at the other end of the log.
“Yes, that’s true. I’m just an ordinary man now.”
“Well, I’m a little surprised Chaplain, I mean, uh Mister Boyd.”
Boyd grimaced. “Please, just Cameron.”
“Cameron.” Laura smiled. “Anyway, I hope it works out for you.”
“I’m sure it will Lass.”
“You know I realised something this morning,” Neal said suddenly. “If you look at the Earth calendar, then technically it’s Christmas eve today.”
“Seriously?” Laura asked.
Boyd shook his head in wonder. “How far we’ve come that a day like Christmas can arrive without us even noticing.” He took his seat next to the others and began to unwrap his sandwich. “It certainly doesn’t feel like Christmas. It’s been quite warm lately. I’m sure this is Moreau Town’s summer. We won’t be getting a white Christmas I don’t think.”
Laura shrugged. “I grew up in Australia. Christmas wa always in Summer so it feels quite natural to me. Besides, Christmas was about family for us, it was never about the weather.”
“It sounds like you had better childhood Christmas experiences than I did lass.”
“We should do something,” Neal said.
“Something? Such as?” Boyd took a bite and savoured the fresh bread.
“I dunno, but we need to mark the occasion.”
“Perhaps we could put on a special Christmas dinner for the colony, give everyone a small gift. I think it would do the people a lot of good – give them something familiar to enjoy here on this alien world.”
“Sounds like a plan to me,” Laura said. “Having been a chaplain and all, I vote that you take charge Cameron.”
Boyd smiled. “I’d be glad to lass if you both agree, but I can’t do it on my own. I volunteer both of you to help me.”
“I’m keen,” Neal said. “I discovered a new type of fruit while we were out on our honeymoon. There’s a grove of trees not too far away. I could take a group of people to collect some. They’re delicious and they’d make a decent gift.”
“I’ll help Cameron get things ready here,” Laura said putting her arm around Neal. “That is if my husband can bear to be apart from me for a few hours.”
“I think I’ll be able to cope,” he said, before launching into a passionate kiss with her.
“Well,” Boyd said standing. “I think I’ll ah, go see if I can enlist Aria Bekhit. If anyone is good at organising people it’s her.”
“Mmmhmm,” one of lovers said in a muffled voice through the kiss. Boyd couldn’t even tell which one of them it was. He wandered off back toward town, feeling a little embarrased but quite bemused.
* * *
Boyd and Laura found Aria Bekhit inspecting the half-constructed facility that would soon serve as a science building. Laura and Neal would both have labs in there when it was done.
“What can I do for the two of you?”
“Well Lass, do you by any chance know what day it is today?”
Aria shrugged. “I can’t say that I do.”
“It’s Christmas Eve – the twenty-fourth of December.”
“Oh,” Aira said. “I haven’t had much experience with Christmas.”
“Yes, I support it wouldn’t have been such a big deal in Egypt,” Laura said.
“Not especially. I grew up in a muslim family, not that we were particularly devout. My cousin converted and invited me to a Christmas service at the Coptic church once. It was interesting.”
“Well we were thinking of doing something for the colony, putting on a little celebration as it were,” Boyd said with enthusiasm.
“That isn’t such a bad idea actually. A lot of people are missing Earth. They’re feeling very out of their depth here on Xinju, as if they’ve left behind everything that is familiar. An old familiar holiday could really lift their spirits.”
“Then you’ll help us?”
“What do you need?”
“Well we’d like to put on a special meal. We’ll need to use a few extra supplies than normal.”
“I’ll talk to the catering team,” Aria promised. “What else?”
“Well there are decorations to make and gifts to prepare.”
“I’ll volunteer to put in a little time with you if you can wait until tonight.”
“Absolutely Lass. I have to return to my agricultural duties soon anyway. Can we perhaps use a room in the dormitory building?”
“Certainly. I’ll have a room ready if you meet me there tonight.”
“It’s a date!” Boyd beamed. Then added, “In a platonic sense of course.”
Bekhit laughed. “Go back to work you crazy man. I’ll see you tonight.”
* * *
It was starting to get dark by the time that Boyd met Bekhit, Laura and Neal at the dormitory building. He’d gathered a few people who had attended his recent church service to help out as well. Bekhit, true to form, had already taken charge of things. She was organising people to make decorations, prepare gifts and making novelty biscuits for dessert during tomorrow’s Christmas dinner. Boyd was surprised at the amount of materials they had found to work with. Ingenuity had ruled the day it seemed.
Laura had managed to secure a large quantity of burned out plasma modules from the engines in Endeavour‘s shuttles. With a little work they would look like like red and green balls which could be hung on trees. Boyd sat down and started to tie string to the modules.
“We could be working on this lot all night,” he said. “You know It’s funny, this reminds me a little of my first Christmas.”
“You remember your first Christmas?” Neal asked. “I find that a little hard to believe.”
Boyd chuckled. “No, not my first as a child, I mean the first year that Christmas meant something to me. I spent the night in a room about this size with a small group of people. Then just as now we stayed awake most of the night. Of course we weren’t making decorations. It was a life and death situation, and I didn’t think any of us were going to get out of it alive.”
“Sound positively festive,” Aria joked.
“It was in the Barrow Military Correctional Facility.”
“You were serving as a prison chaplain?” Laura asked as she mixed icing sugar with red food dye for the biscuits.
“Oh no Lass. I was an inmate.”
This admission seemed to bring the room to an awkward silence.
“Ah, what we you in there for?” Neal asked.
“That, my lad, is a different story for another time. Let’s just say that I was in there.” Boyd sighed. “I was angry with the world. I cared nothing for anything or anyone – least of all myself. You see, I felt I’d suffered a great injustice, but at the same time I Was carrying a lot of guilt. It was a particularly dark time in my life.”
“I find it hard to imagine you in a situation like that Chaplain,” Aria stood to fetch a basket of fruit from the other side of the room.
“Well, let me paint the picture for you,” Boyd said, and he began to tell his story.
* * *
Barrow Military Correctional Facility was in Northern Alaska. It was dark outside all day every day, and the cold was baltic. I’d spent most of the last few years living in space. I’d become accustomed to the perfectly regulated climate on board military space craft. I wasn’t used to this kind of weather. I found myself doing a lot of exercise, just to keep warm. It wasn’t as if the guards tried to make our life miserable, there was heating in the prison, and good food to warm our bellies, but with the frame of mind I found myself in, it could have been a medieval dungeon.
When I had first arrived in my cell several weeks ago, I’d found only two possessions: a mouth sanitiser and a Gideon Bible. I’d spend my evenings ripping pages out of the bible one at a time. The last thing I wanted was the mocking words penned by self-righteous authors from ancient times, telling me how bad I was. I was rotting in prison – I didn’t need reminding of that.
I hadn’t heard the guard’s footsteps approach this particularly afternoon. I’d given up paying attention to the ‘staff’ as we called them. I was dragged with a start from my self-pity by the clanging sound of my heavy metallic door being dragged open. I looked up into the face of a guard – Simon was his name.
“You got a visitor Boyd.”
I regarded his expressionless face with curiosity. “Who is it?”
“You’ll find out when you get there.”
I was in no mood for entertaining guests, but the curiosity got the best of me. I literally could not think of a single person who would care enough about me at this point to come visit me. I had no living family, and no real friends to speak of anymore.
I stood, shrugged my shoulders and said “Lead the way Giles.”
Simon visible stiffened at my words. This was the way we mocked the guards. We called them all Giles – that’s how we got through the day – by pretending they were our butlers. Some times a prisoner would get a mouthful of fist for such a wise crack, but Simon always ignored the barb. The challenge was almost like a sport amongst us – see who could be the first to make Simon snap.
I stepped over the threshold from my cell into the corridor. It was the mystic barrier that I was only ever allowed to cross when given permission. Crossing that line was always a strong reminder to me that I had lost my freedom.
“By the way,” Simon said. “I’ve arranged for a prison chaplain to come spend some time with you all this evening in the rec room. You’ll get a Christmas gift and a dessert. All residents who behave themselves are invited. I assume you’ll be there?”
“Christmas huh?” It hadn’t even occurred to me that it was Christmas eve.
“That’s right. Now move along Boyd. Your visitor is waiting.
* * *
There was only one cubicle free when I reached the visitor room. Evidently, Christmas Eve had brought plenty of well-wishing family members. I clenched my fists at the thought of it. Why would people pretend to care about each other this one day of the year? What was the point?
Simon directed me to the only empty seat. I pulled it out and thumped into it. Only then did I bother to look up into the face of my visitor.
“Anderson Bell!” I spat – literally. As soon as I’d done it I realised what an adolescent gesture it had been, but it as too late to take it back.
“Nice to see you too Cameron.”
“What are you doing here?”
* * *
“Hold on a second,” Neal blurted out, interrupting Boyd’s story. “Aren’t you and Captain Bell good friends?”
“We are now, and we were before. Think of this as a temporary setback in our relationship.” Boyd rubbed his eyes and blinked several times, then glanced at the clock on the wall. “Now if you’ll let me continue my story?”
“Sorry.” Neal gave a sheepish grin. Laura squeezed his shoulder and kissed his ear.
“Now where was I? Oh yes, I’d asked Bell what he was doing there.”
* * *
“I came to see how you’re doing,” Bell said, staring me directly in the eye. His mouth was straight, his jaw set, but his eyes betrayed his emotions. He felt sorry for me. The goon actually felt sorry for me. I thought I could also see a little guilt hiding behind his eyes – but that might have just been wishful thinking on my part.
“I live with terrorists Anderson. I sit down to eat breakfast next to murderers. How do you think I’m doing?”
Bell’s gaze dropped to the bench in front of him. There it was – the guilt I’d been hoping for – well he deserved to feel it.
“It’s Hell in here. I just want you to remember that when you get tucked up in yer bed tonight.”
Bell said nothing.
“You should be in here with me. You know that right.”
Bell sighed deeply. “Yeah.”
I crossed my arms tightly over my chest like a declaration of victory. What more was there to say?”
“The fact of the matter is Cameron, the jury made their decision – in both our cases. You just,” Bell searched the air for words. “You went too far.”
I slammed my fist on the bench, hard enough to cause several other inmates nearby to look up at me briefly. “I did it for her. I was all for her.”
Bell shook his head. “She didn’t see it that way. You scared the hell out of her.”
“I know, and you know the worst part? It was all for nothing. It was always you that she wanted – not me.”
“Look I didn’t come here to talk about Sonya,” Bell straightened up, suddenly all business. “I just wanted to come see you, and make sure you were okay.”
“I’m not okay Anderson. I don’t think I ever will be. I’m not going to help you salve your conscience. If you want forgiveness you’ll have to look elsewhere. Try talking to someone who cares.”
I stood, and pushed the chair so hard that it skidded a few metres across the floor.
“I’m still your friend Cameron,” Bell raised his voice.
I turned my back on him, hesitated for just a second, and then looked back over my shoulder. “No you’re not Anderson. No you’re not.”
* * *
I spent the rest of the afternoon fuming in silent rage. How dare he show his face to me. I was enraged at the injustice of it. His visit had been nothing to do with my feelings – it had all been about him. He was trying to feel better about himself. Why had he chosen Christmas eve to make his little appearance? I’d been in this prison for weeks. Did he really expect I’d be more open to forgiving him on this festive day of the year? Peace on Earth and all that crap.
Dinner time couldn’t have come sooner. A hot meal would take my mind off the turbulent storm of emotions raging in my heart. The meal that night was traditional Christmas fare – Turkey with roast vegetables. It seemed to cheer many of the other inmates, but the dark cloud over me would not shift.
I was sitting next to Rocko – a large man who was doing time for beating his superior officer half-senseless. The officer had died several days later from health problems that had been complicated by his injuries. Rocko was unusually jovial tonight. That wasn’t like him.
I said nothing during dinner. I think everybody around me could tell that I was in a bad mood. They conveniently ignored me and I quietly appreciated it. What I would have given for a little glass of whisky that night. I’d never been a big drinker, but a single grain scotch had been something I’d often treated myself to on special occasions.
After the meal was over, people stood from their seats and started milling about the mess. Around that time Simon appeared. He whistled for silence and was granted it quickly.
“If any of you would like to follow me into the rec room the chaplain is waiting for you.”
To my surprise, Rocko was the first to start moving.
The last thing I wanted to do was indulge the chaplain in his Christmas cheer. Despite this, heading back to the solitude of my cell didn’t seem appealing either. I’d only go and stew on things again,
“Come on Boyd. You’ll regret it if you don’t go.” I looked up to see Simon standing over me.
“I’m not in the mood.”
“There’s a free gift for everyone, and some Christmas pudding.”
I shook my head.
“Fine, be that way.”
Simon moved on, looking for someone else to harass.
I sat there staring at my empty plate.
I needed to drag myself out of this bad mood if I was going to have any chance at sleeping tonight.
I was feeling curious about the gift. Since I’d ripped up the last page of my Gideon Bible I had only one possession left. Perhaps it would be something good.
I left out a long deep sigh. Perhaps it would be fun to mock the chaplain. I was sure I wouldn’t be the only one doing it.
Against my better judgement, I stood and made my way toward the rec room.
* * *
The Chaplain was a man in his thirties. He had an immaculately trimmed beard, but was dressed very casually. “How you doin? he asked as I entered the room. Come take a seat. I complied. “I’m Mike.”
“Cameron,” I mumbled.
“Well,” Mike said, addressing all of us in the room. “This is gonna be pretty informal. I’ve got a gift here for you all, just to make you feel a little Christmas cheer. They’re gonna bring some desert in for us later but I’m basically just here to chat.”
Mike started handing out gifts. It looked almost amusing, seeing these tough men accepting small parcels wrapped in coloured paper. They were all quite eager to get their hands on something. Again, Rocko was at the front of the queue.
Mike handed him a red parcel. “Hey Man, mind if I have the silver one instead.”
“They’re all the same.”
Several inmates behind Rocko chuckled. He turned around and gave them a stare that silenced the laughter. “Hey I like silver okay?”
“Sure thing Pal,” Mike exchanged the red gift for the silver one. Rocko went and took a seat and the queue moved on. I slowly took my place and waited for my turn. Mike handed me my gift and offered me a huge smile. I didn’t return it.
I sat back at my place and slowly opened the gift. It contained a safety shaver. It used a low powered energy beam to cut the unwanted facial hair – but it couldn’t be used to injure anybody. There was also a data pad which had been pre-loaded with several books and a film. All in all it was a pretty decent gift and more generous than I had expected.
I had barely finished throwing away the wrapping paper when Mike plonked himself down on the chair next to me.
“So how you doing?”
“What’s it to you?”
Mike shrugged. “I’m here to talk. Simon tells me you’ve had a particularly rough day.”
“Look brother, I really don’t feel like telling you my problems right now. I’m sure you get paid whether we open up to you or not, so let’s just pretend that we got all touchy-feely together and you put some joy back into my heart okay.”
Mike laughed. “Ah, they don’t pay me for this Pal. That’d be the day.”
“So what are you doing here then?” I scoffed. “Why all this?” I held up my gift.
“I do this because I believe it’s important. I do it to show people like yourself that you matter – that you’re important and valued. Christmas spirit and all that.”
“I hate to break to you brother, but perhaps you haven’t heard. We’re the bad guys.”
Mike smiled. “Well we’re all bad in our own ways aren’t we?”
“I just don’t get it. Why do people make such a big deal out of Christmas – like it’s some significant thing. How can the world be made a better place by everybody spending money they don’t have on stuff for people they don’t even like?”
“That’s your experience of Christmas?”
“Well I’m real sorry to hear that Cameron.”
I was taken aback. “So Simon told you my name as well huh.”
“Don’t be offended. He was quite worried about you today y’know.”
“I don’t believe that for one second.”
I turned to face the chaplain eye to eye.
“So you really think people like me matter huh. That we’re to be valued.”
“Yes I do. See that’s what Christmas is about. I believe that God valued me, all of us so much that…” Mike didn’t finish his sentence. My hands balled into fists of granite. Before I even knew what I was doing my arm powered around thrusting my knuckles right into Mike’s face. He almost fell off his chair as I bounded off mine.
“Don’t talk to me about God.” I pointed my finger at him. My voice was like gravel.
Before I knew it, there were two guards behind me. I was dragged backwards, their firm grip under my shoulders, toward the door.
Now I’d done it. I already felt bad about what I’d done to Mike, but my course was now set.
I didn’t bother struggling against the guards. They were too strong for me.
“Nobody move!” Rocko’s voice echoed through the small room.
Suddenly, the guard’s grip on me went limp and I almost collapsed to the floor.
I looked up to see that Rocko had taken advantage of the distraction I had caused. He was standing behind Mike, holding something under the man’s chin. As I looked closer, I saw that it was a knife, and it was embedded hard against the chaplain’s throat.
“Just relax everybody,” Rocko said. “It’s gonna be a long long night.”
To Be Continued…
Boxing Day – 26/12/2011