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holiday decoration

by Tony Daniel

ANDERSON STOOD BY the outer shell window in his room and gazed at the Big Dipper. Some people called it the Great Bear or the Plough, but Anderson could see a scoop pattern in the arrangement of stars. The other forms he had trouble picturing.

What is a plough, anyway, he thought. And don’t answer that, Gear! Something to do with Earth-style farming. I’m not stupid.

But it was a hard thing to imagine what it did even after you had seen photos. Like trying to figure out how a sewing machine worked. A plough is a kind of “sowing” machine. It sows seeds.

Incorrect, said Gear. A plough prepares the soil, while—


The artificial stimulus, which translated as spoken words in Anderson’s brain, ceased. Gear could be so annoying at times like this. Anderson’s mind was racing. He didn’t want all the regular answers. It was Christmas Eve.

In his hand was a snow globe that had originally come from Earth. Inside was a figure of Santa, his sleigh, and eight tiny reindeer.

“Where’s Rudoph?” he’d asked when his mother had given it on Christmas Eve six years ago, back when he’d been six years old.

“This was made before Rudolph came along,” she’d answered.

She’d come into his room to find Anderson in his pajamas, looking out his bedroom window at the stars, just as he was tonight. He’d told her he would probably not be able to sleep no matter how long she read to him, so instead of a book, she’d given him the globe.

“Your Nana gave it to me when I was about your age,” she said. “It’s nearly seven hundred years old.”

“What if I break it?”

“Don’t worry about that,” she replied. “It’s been treated with hardener. That’s why it lasted so long.”

He shook it and the snow swirled. The sleigh, forever suspended over a rooftop with a chimney, traveled through the blizzard bringing toys.

“Back then, they didn’t know Santa came out into space, did they?”

His mother smiled. “No, they didn’t know,” she told him.

He’d fallen asleep holding the snow globe. The next morning when he jumped up to go check for presents, he shook it from the covers and the globe fell with a bang onto the floor. It didn’t crack. His mother was right; it was hardened against breakage.

Christmas was pretty big in the North Bottoms, the part of the Sphere where Anderson lived. That didn’t mean everybody celebrated it, though. It was always weird to see neighbors and kids at Education who you thought you knew pretty well, but who didn’t do Christmas. This was even some people who went to churches. Zens like Mr. Timehound next door, and Basics like Anderson’s friend Sigi, didn’t go in for Santa Claus or giving out gifts at all, for instance.

Anderson was twelve now. He didn’t believe in Santa anymore. He hadn’t for a good two years. He’d had the talk with his parents after Sigi had told him she thought it was all made up. And after that, Gear had filled in the details and provided the breakdown of the psychological justifications for pretending to little kids there was such thing as a magical being known variously as Santa Claus, Father Christmas, or St. Nicholas.

But like a lot of things, there was part of him that still believed, despite his parents’ gloomy faces when they’d informed him of the truth, and despite the dry info-dump that was Gear’s special form of torture when he was in explaining mode.

“One day you’ll appreciate having a Gearbox put in when you were born,” his father had once told him. “Some people don’t get one until the mandate kicks in at sixteen and then it can take years to learn how to really use it. And Angsties never get one at all, of course.”

One day maybe I will, Anderson thought. But not tonight. Not when some drawn-out lesson from Gear could totally ruin Christmas.

Anderson looked at the outer two stars on the Big Dipper. If you drew a line through them and followed the part that left through the lip of the dipper the line would point at Polaris. This had been the North Star for planet Earth, more or less hanging right over the Earth’s North Pole. Now it was just a star. But you could see it a lot better here than on Earth. The Sphere contained the Sun within it, of course, and blocked off almost all light. There were energy regulatory vents and inertial transfer pistons that bled unused energy into interstellar space. But for the most part, the Solar system was shut up in its own vast ball. Only people who lived in the Shell, like Anderson, could see out, could see the stars and the Milky Way, whenever they wanted. The others had to go on special vacations to the viewports, and some people had never seen a night sky at all.

Anderson felt sorry for them. He liked the Sun okay, but he couldn’t imagine living in the perpetual day of the Insiders. Sure, they had the Flukes, the rotating shading blanks in the interior sky that provided the day’s dark periods according to old Earth seasons. But it never really got dark-dark Inside, and even though each of the Flukes had a pattern of holes cut in it that let through pinpricks of sunlight to simulate stars, this was a far different thing than real, actual lights out there. Of course, nobody but the Basics who remained back on Earth had the Moon.

Anderson shifted his gaze over to the stars that made up Draco. The imaginary lines of the constellation coiled around Polaris. He always picked out the squashed square of the dragon’s head first. He even knew the names of the stars, courtesy of a lesson from Gear: Beta Draconis, Gamma, Nu, Xi—

What’s that?

Something strange in the Dragon’s head. A red light.

Aw, come on. It can’t be.

But the light was definitely red, and getting closer. Or at least brighter.

It’s got to be a ship coming to dock, Anderson thought. But he resisted unmuting Gear to confirm or deny this. This was exactly the kind of thing Gear would drone on and on about, telling Anderson what the cargo might be, and the alien or colonial culture that produced it, and then going on about how the link-hoops worked to make faster than light travel possible. Gear would make it all a geography lesson and skip the interesting parts like whether or not that particular ship had been in a firefight with the Galz pirates, what its weapons systems were, and whether or not it could blow up a planet or make a star go nova—just the kind of stuff that really interested Anderson.

But the red light wasn’t a ship. It began to move from the left side of the sky, where Draco presently resided, across to the right, while always growing brighter. Ships didn’t have marking lights. Why have exterior lights when you could outrun the very shine the lights made itself? No, the glow they put out was residue from the hoop transfer differentials, whatever that meant. Gear had, of course, explained it all once.

Anderson had seen plenty of ships. This was no ship.

It’s headed this way. He fought the urge to draw back from the window. Instead, pushed his head against the glass, and felt the reassuring surface that lay between him and space. The window wasn’t real glass, of course, but a light-frequency-passing structure equivalent in density and strength to the interior of a neutron star or, more precisely, the nucleus of an atom. The quantum effect that held a neutron and proton glued together was ramped into the macro-world by SQUIDs, the superconducting quantum interference devices that held the Sphere together, and kept it as tight as a drum.

Closer. The red light trembled now. Moved up and down in regular motions, not precise, but fluid.

Like a galloping reindeer, Anderson thought.

Anderson squeezed his eyes shut, hard. Wiped his eyelids with a finger and thumb. Opened his eyes again.

Still there. And now it looked like something. Something with a light in the front and maybe a smaller, white light in the back. A lantern, maybe?

Not possible. That’s vacuum out there. There is no way a lantern could even burn without air.

He wasn’t entirely sure of that fact, but again he resisted the urge to let Gear tell him the real answer. Gear would insist on saying more. Telling him what the lantern and the red light actually were.

Closer. Moving fast now, and in a direction of travel across Anderson’s field of vision, which would also take it across the stripe of the Milky Way that stretched diagonally from the upper right to lower left of Anderson’s sightlines.

He could have irised out his perception, gone to virtual remote sensing via Gear’s input. But he didn’t. He waited and watched.

The two lights and what was between them, a line of something that looked and moved very like antlers bouncing up and down, crossed the Milky Way in front of Anderson’s unaided eyes.

Had to be a few hundred meters out. Had to be very, very close to see this much detail.

What could not be—was. Reindeer silhouettes. The red light was attached to what would be the nose of the most forward of those reindeer silhouettes. And to the rear, a sleigh followed along after the silhouettes. The lantern hung from its side, and you could clearly make out it was a globe inside some kind of containing contraption. Dark bands cut across the light.

Exactly like an old fashioned lantern in a picture.

And in the sleigh, lit by the lantern’s light: a lumpy form, the form of a man. A man exposed to the vacuum. A man holding strips of darkness that might be reins.

A man calling out.

This was when Anderson knew it had to be fake, had to be some kind of stunt or something. Because he heard the distance voice of the man, a low-pitched, happy voice calling loudly, but contained, not a scream because he was out in empty space and ought to be quickly dying. Not that you could hear a scream in space. Not that any of this made sense.

“On Dasher, On Dancer, On Comet, and Cupid—”

Enough! Unmute!

The tiny click in his hearing that let him know Gear was now speech enabled.

All right, tell me. What is that, Gear?

What is what, Anderson? I do not understand to what you are referring.

Out there! Anderson found himself speaking aloud, something that he almost never did with Gear, something that was for newbies and babies. “What is that thing out there that looks like Santa and his reindeer?” he asked loudly, his voice trembling.

Out where?

“Outside my window!”

Gear was silent for a moment, then answered matter-of-factly. Interesting. Remote sensing indicates a quantum foam anomaly. It is traversing local composed reality in discrete instantiations of seventeen point eight micro-millimeters separation from a position Solar system north-northwest to south-southeast. No observable point of origin.


A foam anomaly is a region—although “region” is not a precise characterization—of space-time that is unformatted. The information content has been temporarily removed from the underlying space-time structure. These anomalies can occur around an area of extreme quantum resolution such as the Sphere, where artificial states of quantum entanglement are generated and resolved on a scale an order of magnitude greater than what would be space-time normal.

Gear, I see Santa and his reindeer outside my window.

As stated, quantum foam anomalies are statistically more likely near the Sphere. This is the first instance on record of one occurring, however.

That’s not a quantum foam whatever you call it, Gear. I see Santa!

But he didn’t anymore. He craned to the right, but whatever it was, the sleigh, the reindeer, the hallucination, had drawn out of sight.

Another long moment of silence. Anderson squeezed the snow globe in his hand tightly, tensely, knowing it would never break. Still no answer. When Gear didn’t talk for a perceptible second or two, you could be sure there was some massive computing going on.

Finally, Gear replied.

I have no further information, Anderson.

What do you mean? And then, just to be sure he was understood, he also spoke the question aloud. “What do you mean you have no further information? You always have further information, Gear.”

I have no further information, Anderson.

“Did I just see Santa? Analyze me!”

Accomplished, Gear answered. You are telling the truth.

“No I’m not!” He was shouting now, but he didn’t care. “Gear, take a reading on my brain-state. Make sure I’m not going crazy!”

Accomplished, Gear said. Although you are at present in an excited condition, all parameters fall within acceptable norms. You are not insane, or going insane, Anderson.

“Then why did I just see Santa Claus out my window?” he said. “Check my memories. Come on, Gear!”

The Altblock Conventions limit my access of individual thoughts and memories to volitional communications.

“I’m giving you permission,” Anderson said. “Look at my brain and tell me what I just saw.”

You are specifically offering permission to access recent observational memory storage within your nervous system?


I refuse.

What? “Why?”

Your recent observations have characterized a null portion of space-time. You have balanced the sum total of information in the universe. If I access your observational data, the anomalous region will either return to a null state or become irrevocably resolved.

“Like that cat you were telling me about. In the black box?”

Schrödinger’s Cat is a thought experiment. This is a situation with real consequences.

I don’t mind knowing the truth, Gear. I’m twelve now. I’m old enough to take it—especially if it keeps me from thinking I’m going spring-sprung crazy.

That is not what I refer to. Observation of your state of observational uncertainty will cause that state to resolve. This poses a danger to the Sphere. A vacuum cannot exist without information to structure it. The Sphere’s hull may communicate such information and lose form itself.

“You mean there might be a hull breach?” A breach. It was supposed to be impossible, but this was the great nightmare of everyone who lived in the Shell. To be sucked out there. The layer between life and death felt so very thin in this part of the Sphere.

Precisely, said Gear.

“But I know I couldn’t have actually seen Santa.”

Really, Anderson? Do you know that?

“Mom and Dad told me Santa is fake. You told me he doesn’t exist. You gave me that whole lecture on the origins of the myth.”

Were you actually listening, Anderson?

“No, but that’s not the point.”

But that is exactly the point, said Gear. You were not convinced.

“I know there’s no such thing as Santa!”

Some part of you doesn’t know that at all, Anderson.

“How can that possibly be true?” Anderson stomped his feet. He jumped up and down on the soft-pad floor of his room. “There’s no such thing as Santa! There’s no such thing as Santa!” he yelled. “See?”

Something brings the toys.

What, are you trying to pull over on me—that it’s alien elves or something? Mom and Dad bring the toys!

Something makes your mother and father want to put out toys in the dead of night.

“Myth does,” he replied. “You said it yourself. The power of myth because of the way humans evolved. We needed myth in the old days to explain stuff. Now it’s all like, you know, leftover material. Like food you have to eat because you’re not supposed to let anything go to waste. Santa is garbage. Leftover garbage that only kids believe in.”

Like gravity.

That’s different. You can feel gravity. It affects things.

Any gravity you feel in the Sphere is a quantum trick, Anderson. As the controlling A.I., I compute it and I make it for you.

“That’s not the same as Mom and Dad pretending to be Santa and putting stuff under the Christmas tree for me. They never met Santa.”

And I have never experienced gravity. All I know is what people have told me. That is all I know about anything, as a matter of fact.

Anderson held up the snow globe. He shook it. The little bubble trapped inside shook up the snow, or whatever the white flecks were. The sleigh remained motionless, frozen in time, always and never delivering its load of toys.

There is no Santa, Gear.

Believe, Anderson. It could save many lives.

He shook his head. “I can’t.”

You must.

There are over three hundred billion children in the Sphere.

I know. And I know most of them well.

“Why me?”

You were the only one looking in the right place at the right time.

Anderson gave the snow globe one more shake, then dropped it. It made a thump against the soft nubs of the floor covering.

“There’s no Rudolph in there,” he said. He raised his eyes to look out the window again. “Or out there. And whatever it was is long gone,”

Is it?

Anderson looked to his right. There, at about two o’clock in the sky, seemingly emerging from the center Cassiopeia itself, was the red light again. It had zigged away, and now it was zagging back toward him.

Very close now.

Headed straight for his window.

Enough light from the lantern on the sleigh to see by.

Reddish face, but that could just be the lantern glow. White beard.

Red suit.

How is he going to get in? Is he going to cause a hull breach? Is the whole contraption going to splat up against the window in a bloody smear? “How is this even happening?”

Magic, perhaps.

“That explanation from you, Gear? Is that all you’ve got?”

As a famous fictional character once said: “when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”

I know! That’s Sherlock Holmes. I read the stories. He’s made up, Gear!

Yet Sherlock Holmes is who my chief programmer had in mind when he made me. Or actually my programmer modeled me on Sherlock’s brother, Mycroft.

Would you cut it out with the history lesson. Santa is about to crash into my window!

It will be interesting to see how the quantum states resolve themselves.

Aren’t you worried? For me, at least?

I think you will be all right, Anderson.

You’re sure of that?


“Do something!”

This is up to you.

Outside, the forever night sky burned with stars.

And then he heard it. The clanking of the bells, in tandem with the canter of nine reindeer. And the laugh. The deep, throaty laugh. All sounded as if it were coming from outside, from vacuum. From nothing at all.

Drawing nearer.

I believe, he told himself. “I believe!”

The basso profundo laugh. “Ho, ho, ho!”

“But I don’t believe. I can’t believe this,” Anderson said, “But I have to believe it.” He bent down, reached for the floor, but never took his eyes off the window. His hands closed on the snow globe. He picked it up, stood up straight. No Rudolph. But Christmas on the way.

What if the snow globe did break after all these hundreds of years? What if tonight was the end for it? Even its hardened shell couldn’t survive a hull breach, could it?

“Ho, ho, ho,” cried the voice. “Merry Christmas!”


Did he? Maybe. Was it enough?

Merry Christmas, Gear.

Merry Christmas, Anderson.

“Tell Mom and Dad, will you? In case.”

You will tell them yourself, tomorrow, Gear replied, then added: in all likelihood.

The sleigh was very close now. The reindeer were huffing and puffing nonexistent mist. The man on the sleigh was smiling.


Behind the man, the Big Dipper. Draco. Cassiopeia. And the great glowing smudge of the Milky Way chalked across the sky.

Anderson held his snow globe and waited for another moment only.

Christmas arrived.

holiday decoration

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