sidebar image
Story by Mizor(aka krashkart and squid109)
Graphics by Pic

Chapter 1

Time: CY 10086 - AD Dec 5163
Location: Winnipeg Drift

chapter image"Wreck us all with balls of molly, walla walla wa na paw paw wa," sang Harper, mangling the old Christmas song he had learned as child as he placed the miniature plastic Christmas tree on the table in the Maru's common room. Reaching upwards to attach a sprig of artificial mistletoe to the overhead, he continued his murder of the ancient song. "Fizz a reason tooty ....OWW!." His singing stopped in mid word, as he doubled over in pain.

"Harper!" exclaimed Trance, who had just walked into the common room from the Maru's berthing compartment. "Are you all right?"

"I'm fine, Trance," Harper reassured his shipmate. "That bullet wound in my side is just reminding me that it isn't healed yet."

"I told you you're going to have to take it easy," scolded Trance. "It's only been a couple of weeks since we left New Texas. It'll be months before you can be fully active. You were shot three times. You're lucky to be alive, let alone up and about. What were you doing anyway, and what's that on the table?"

"Back on Earth it's two days before Christmas. I'm putting up Christmas decorations." Harper sat down on one of the bench seats that ran along the sides of the table. He indicated the tree on the table."That's a Christmas decoration. A Christmas tree. It's not a real one . A real one would be much larger, and be a real tree. Beka tolerates your plants, but I don't think she'd go for me bringing in a 2 meter tall tree aboard."

"That's not very helpful," complained Trance as she sat down on the table top. "What's Christmas, and why do you put up artificial plants to celebrate it?" Her legs, dangling over the side of the table brushed against Harper's, who without being aware of what he was doing moved his legs to increase the amount of contact with Trance's.

"Yeah, I guess you wouldn't know," agreed Harper. He picked up a piece of the artificial mistletoe, and started turning it over in his hands. "Rev could probably tell you more about its origin than I can. It dates back to an old Earth religion called Christianity. According to that religion, their god sent his son down to Earth to teach mankind how to be better. Later on it became mixed up with some other religions, and a mythical being called Santa Claus who brought gifts to children, and later still it became commercialized into nothing but an excuse to exchange gifts. But, it always remained a time for families and communities to get together and celebrate their togetherness."

"If you're celebrating Christmas does that mean you're a Christianityier?" asked Trance.

"They're called Christians, my grape goddess," explained Harper. "And, no, I don't believe. The Christian god is supposed to be just and merciful, but what sort of just and merciful divinity sends Nietzscheans and Magog to rape my home planet, and kill my family members. I believe in myself and nothing more."

"Oh," said Trance sounding slightly disappointed. "Well then, maybe Santa Claus will bring me a gift. I'd love to have a Benesserit orchid. They smell so nice, and they bloom all year round. What's that in your hand?" she asked, pointing to the mistletoe.

"It's mistletoe," explained Harper. "You hang it from the overhead, and anyone who walks under it can be kissed." As he spoke he lifted the mistletoe and placed it over Trance's head.

Trance jumped off the table and scurried back towards the berthing compartment ignoring Harper's puckered lips. "OK," she said, "but if Rev's the one who stands under it, you're going to kiss him, not me." She shut the door separating the common room from the berthing compartment.

Harper put the sprig of mistletoe down. He didn't believe in Santa Claus either, but if Trance wanted a Benesserit orchid she was going to get one. It was time to pay a visit to a nursery. Considering the Maru's current location, it shouldn't be hard to find one that had the orchids Trance wanted.

Three plant stores later he wasn't so sure. Located aside a major Slipstream nexus connecting the Andromeda Galaxy with the Large Magellanic Cloud, Winnipeg Drift was a major center of trade and commerce. It served not only as a clearinghouse and storage facility for goods being transshipped to other locations, but as a refueling and repair station for long haul cargo runners. It was a warren of warehouses, repair facilities, and commercial office buildings. According to some spacers, there were more warehouses than permanent inhabitants on the drift. The Maru, like many other small, independently operated freighters was homeported out of the drift. Virtually every spacer who transited the spacelanes sooner or later bought gifts for family, friends, or loved ones from the shops on the drift. Unfortunately, the majority of those spacers were paid better than Harper was.

He'd been able to locate the flowers easily enough, but the prices ranged from 300 to 450 thrones. The lowest price was still 100 thrones more than he had in his credit account. It was time to go to plan B, and see if he could earn the extra money he needed. Finding a public communications kiosk he made a call.

"Jimmy," he said to the man at the other end. "Harper here. Yeah, it has been a while. Look, I need a favor. I want to get a present for a girl, and I'm low on cash. No, I don't want a loan, I want to know if you have any work you can steer my way. Something legit that I can knock off quickly and will bring in a few hundred thrones. Really? Thanks. Twenty five percent? You're out of your mind, I'll give you ten. OK, done. You make the call, give me the address and I'll be on my way. Thanks, and I owe you a favor."

The man on the other end of the communicator was known to everyone simply as Jimmy. He was a professional middleman, connecting people with certain hard to find skills to people who needed to hire someone with those skills, and taking a percentage of what they were paid. Beka had introduced Harper to Jimmy on Harper's first visit to the drift and Harper had been hired out by him on a few occasions. The job Jimmy had subcontracted Harper out to seemed straightforward enough. He simply had to crack a password protected computer file and collect 500 thrones, seventy five of which would go to Jimmy.

Hailing a cab, Harper directed it to the address he had been given. The address was on the third floor of a nondescript office building. The name engraved on the plasti-glass in the door read simply Ebeneezer and Marley Designers. He pressed the announcing button located on the wall beside the cypher lock, and a moment later the door opened.

The individual on the other side of the door made Harper think of a well dressed starvation victim. Tall, and almost cadaverously thin, the man was wearing a shirt and pair of slacks that screamed expensive. His hair was a coiffurist's dream, immaculate with not a strand out of place. His fingers glittered with rings, one for each finger. Harper detested him on sight, but reminded himself that money was money no matter who it came from. Apparently the antipathy that Harper felt was mutual, for as the other man took in Harper's well worn cargo pants, T-shirt and scuffed spacer boots, his nose wrinkled as if he was smelling something disagreeable.

"You must be Harper. I'm Ebeneezer. Mr. Ebeneezer to you. I need you to decrypt some of Marley's computer files. Follow me."

"Who's Marley, and why do you need the files decrypted?" asked Harper as he trailed after Ebeneezer.

They stopped in an office that had been stripped bare of all furnishing except for a desk, a chair, and a computer terminal.

"Ebeneezer and Marley, Designers. That's us. Marley was the designer, while I handled the business end of our operation," explained Ebeneezer. "This was Marley's office. He was working on some new projects when he died suddenly. I haven't been able to locate the details of the projects, however, he has some protected files on our business computer, so I suspect that that's where they are. Marley was always paranoid that someone would steal his ideas. I can't crack the protection so I'm hiring you to do it, and give me access to the files."

"Piece of cake, " reassured Harper. Privately he suspected that if Marley had died suddenly this Ebeneezer person had probably poisoned him, but decided not to mention his suspicions to his employer. "Just give me a little time and I'll have the computer spilling it's guts for you."

"How do I know you wont copy the data for yourself?" demanded Ebeneezer. "Marley was working on a system to increase the efficiency of AP power converters by 15 percent. I can patent the process and retire rich. Without those plans I'll be ruined."

"Because I'm a genius, not a thief," responded Harper struggling to keep his temper under control. "Either you trust me to do the job you hired me to do or you don't. But, if you don't, who's going to get the data for you? You might, I'm not saying you will, but you might, find two better crackers on the drift than me, but I can guarantee you wont find three. Now let me get about my business."

He pulled the data wire out from its socket in the data port affixed to his neck, plugged the wire into the computer terminal's data port, closed his eyes, and entered the realm of cyberspace. He was dimly aware of Ebeneezer standing behind him, observing him, probably with intent to stop him from stealing the data.

Whoever Marley had been, he hadn't been a slouch at protecting his data. In addition to the usual protections, there were several particularly nasty pieces of black ice, the type designed not just to prevent someone from accessing the data, but to fry the brain of the person jacking in. Marley was good, but Harper hadn't been exaggerating when he said he was the best. It was slow painstaking work, much like navigating through a minefield, but in just a little more than an hour Harper had the traps deactivated, the encryption decrypted and the files available for viewing.

"There you go, just as promised," said Harper. "That will be five hundred thrones. Cash isn't necessary you can deposit the money directly to my credit account."

He might as well have been talking to himself. Ebeneezer literally pushed him away from the console as he took over the seat Harper had been using, and began to study the data displayed before him. As he read the contents of the screen his face began to flush. "That schemer," he bellowed. "That ungrateful backstabber. If it wasn't for me he would have been begging in the streets, and this is how he thanks me?" He turned to Harper. "Where's the data I hired you to find?" he demanded. "These files are worthless to me. Nothing but business plans, lists of contacts, and possible partners. He was planning to abandon me and set up business on his own. These are useless to me. You'll get nothing from me. Get out. Now!"

"Wait just a minute," retorted Harper. "You hired me to decrypt some files for you, which is just what I did. If the files weren't the ones you wanted, that's your problem not mine. I did what you hired me to do, so pay up."

"Never!" shouted Ebeneezer. His face was so red that Harper thought he might explode. "You didn't deliver what I needed. I know how to set up a business, and know the people listed in these files. I see no reason to pay you to supply me with information I already have."

Harper's response was loud and profane. He discussed Ebeneezer's ancestry, habits, and probable ultimate destination in great and graphic detail. He was so wound up that he didn't notice the businessman slip his hand under Marley's desk and push a button. That was, until the security guard came up from behind him and clamped a come-along onto his shoulder.

"OK bub," said the policeman. "You're free to go. Your girlfriend has posted peace bond for you."

The policeman's words roused Harper from his semi-doze After the security guard had slipped the come-along on his shoulder, he had been faced with the prospect of excruciating pain and a crushed shoulder, or going docilely along with the security guard to the police station. Once at the station he had been booked on disturbing the peace and disorderly conduct . Fortunately he had left his pistol aboard the Maru before he had gone on his gift purchasing expedition, or he most likely would have been sitting in a secure cell rather than the holding tank, and facing far more serious charges. Since he was a transient spacer, and not a citizen of the drift, he was being kept under lock and key until a crew member from the Maru arrived to bail him out, after which he would be required to remain aboard ship until she departed the drift. His one call to the Maru hadn't been picked up, and there being nothing else he could do, he sat down on one of the benches in the cell and tried to take a nap. This wasn't the first time he had languished in a cell waiting for Beka to bail him out, and he suspected it wouldn't be the last. And to be honest, as far as holding cells went this one wasn't all that uncomfortable, as long as he could ignore the two drunks in the adjoining cell, who insisted on singing loudly and off key.

At the policeman's words he stood up and took stock of his situation. His wrist chronometer and other personal possessions had been taken when he was booked, but his natural sense of time, and his stomach, told him that it had been about four hours since he had left the message. From the guard's words it seemed that Trance had been the one who had come to his rescue.

As he suspected Trance was waiting for him in the release area. She was nervously clutching a small purse and looking down at the floor, attempting to avoid eye contact with the other, mostly disreputable looking, inhabitants of the room. Her tail was hanging straight down and twitching in a fashion Harper had come to recognize as near fear. When she saw him she ran to him and gave him a hug, which almost sent him to his knees as she pressed against the wound in his side. Ignoring the jeers, catcalls, and the pain, he hugged her back.

As soon as they were safely aboard the Maru's common room, Trance let loose with a verbal storm. It was a combination of relief and near hysteria, her words coming out in one continuous sentence. Harper, showing a rare instance of good sense, let her run down rather than try to defend himself.

"What were you thinking?" cried Trance? "You're nowhere near healed enough to go running around town taking dubious jobs you could have had a relapse and why did you loose control like that when that Mr Ebenezer refused to pay you you should have contacted Beka and Rev instead I was at the market buying food when you left the message Beka is on the town and won't be back until tomorrow and Rev is visiting some of his Wayists friends and I didn't know what to do when I received it and I was scared for you and so I took all the money I had saved up and was going to buy presents with after you told me about Christmas and went to the police and it wasn't enough so I tapped the Maru's operating funds to get more and Beka will probably kill me when she finds out I tapped the funds without her permission and..."

She ran out of breath and began sobbing. Harper not knowing what else to do pulled her to him. Trance buried her face in his chest and sobbed for a few more minutes before getting herself under control.

When she finished crying Harper put his hands on her shoulders and gently pushed her away from him. "You're right, babe," he said. "I screwed things up big time. I wanted to get you those orchids you wanted, and maybe something for Beka and Rev as well. But, instead I ruined things for everybody. I can't get you the orchids, nor do I have enough to get Rev and Beka anything nice either. And since you had to spend your own money to bail me out of jail you can't buy anything either. I guess I'm just like that guy in the stories my parents used to tell me about. The guy who stole Christmas. Damn!!"

Her emotional venting done, and calmer now that she and Harper were safe, Trance shook her head in disagreement then reached out and took both his hands in hers. "Harper," she said, "do you remember what you told me about Christmas? You told me that it was originally about someone teaching others how to live better lives and about family and community coming together. It would have been nice to get those orchids as a gift, and I really did want to buy you and Beka and Rev something nice but presents aren't family. You, Beka, and Rev are my family now, and we're yours, and what I have now is far far better than what I had before I met you and the others, and I think you can say the same thing too. You're not nearly as healthy as you think you are. You could have very reopened your wounds and be in a hospital now, or worse. No amount of presents is worth that Harper."

Harper looked long and hard into Trance's eyes, as if seeking answers to unasked questions. At last he smiled. "Yeah, babe, you guys are my family now. I guess I got so wrapped up in the idea of gift giving that I forgot about what the holiday is supposed to be about. Tell you what, after I pay off Jimmy I'll still have some thrones left over. Tomorrow why don't we both go out on the drift together. We can have lunch and buy Beka and Rev something, and say the gifts are from the two of us. Oh, and when Beka gets back aboard tomorrow, I don't think we need to tell her that you had to bail me out of jail."

"I'd like that Harper," said Trance. "It sounds like fun. Oh, and remember what you told me about the mistletoe?" She released one of his hands and pointed up towards the common room's ceiling. Harper looked in the direction Trance was pointing. They were standing under the mistletoe he had placed there that morning. "Do you kiss me or do I get to kiss you?" she asked.