My breath forms frosty clouds in the cold night air every time I open my mouth to speak. My companion, on the other hand, is impervious to the cold, so when I can’t hide my shivers, he removes the navy pea-coat he’d put on as a fashion statement and wraps it around my shoulders.
“You should have worn a coat, Zoe,” he chides gently.
“I know,” I say. “But I thought my sweater would be enough. I’ve become soft, living on the Cousteau with you. I forgot how weather works.”
“The weather-cast clearly stated the projected temperature for the evening,” he reminds me. From anyone else, it would be the beginning of a lecture, maybe even an argument, but from him, it’s just a statement.
“I wasn’t paying much attention to it,” I admit. What I don’t say is that I’d been watching him. In three years of dating, it was the first time Basil had come home with me, and watching my synthetic boyfriend examining our Christmas tree had been entrancing. Ornaments I’d seen every year since birth had taken on new meaning as I’d told him the story that went with each one and watching his elegant fingers touch some of the truly special pieces, as if he could tell which ones they were because he knew me so well, had made me melt inside.
“I will endeavor to remind you, in the future,” he says, and again, there’s no judgement. Just a new subroutine to be added to the many already in play.
I can almost imagine his internal process. ‘Subheading: weather, cross-reference: Zoe. If weather is inclement, remind Zoe to dress appropriately. Save instruction. Execute.’
By the time I’ve been through this imaginary scenario, we’ve arrived at our destination: First Episcopal Church of Foggville, on the planet Winter. Like the church I grew up attending in Beach Haven, on Centaurus, it’s a small building, driftwood gray with bright red doors. I’m not even particularly religious, but my father is on Winter conducting the capitol city’s orchestra in their holiday program, and we’ve used the occasion to introduce Basil to the family.
We haven’t really spoken much about faith or beliefs, Basil and I, and I wonder what his AI brain makes of all the pageantry. The pine wreaths and garlands that deck the church are Tradition to me, but he’s stated that the extent of his holiday observances was dinner at the officers’ club, when he was on Earth, or in the officers’ mess, when he was billeted on a spaceship.
We enter the narthex and are greeted by the locals. They don’t know us, but it’s Christmas Eve, so everyone is family. Most of the women are wearing fancy head gear and I grin to myself and then share a memory: “When I was little,” I tell him, “I used to count the number of women with hats.”
He lifts his eyebrows in response and turns back to the crowd, but a breath or two later he informs me that the ratio of women with hats to women without them is 3.479 to one. I laugh and squeeze his upper arm, because he’s completely predictable about things like this, and I love that about him.
We find seats about a third of the way back, near a woman and her young child, the latter obviously wearing her brand-new Christmas dress. For a moment, I’m seven years old again, and sitting with my mother. But she’s retired to Pacifica with her new partner, and Dad is remarried now, as well, and I haven’t been seven in a really long time.
The organ music begins, but I refrain from turning to see if it’s a proper pipe organ or a synthetic substitute. Tonight, being in the moment is more important than music snobbery.
For the next hour, we sit, stand, and kneel as guided by the priest and her acolytes. Basil asks if it’s merely ritual that dictates what we do when, and I whisper that it is, but that typically you sit to listen, stand to sing, and kneel to pray.
He surprises me by participating. His warm tenor has likely never sung these songs before, and I make a mental note to ask if it’s just an experiment to him, or if he means it. There’s an old saying, after all, that there are no atheists on spaceships.
The one thing Basil does not do, is approach the altar during communion. He simply makes room so that I can step past him to get to the aisle when it’s time.
After the service has ended, we leave the warmth of the church and find that they’re serving hot chocolate under the stars outside. One of the clergy members offers us candy canes to go with our cocoa, and we thank her for the refreshments and tell her we enjoyed the service.
“Are you local?” she asks.
“No, just here for the holidays.”
“But you’re part of the Star Navy, aren’t you, sir?” she asks Basil. “I can tell by your posture.”
“I am,” my partner confirms.
“Do you know… my brother serves on the Ballard and I haven’t heard from him in weeks. Do you know if they’re at the front? Or if they’re okay?”
Ordinarily, an officer wouldn’t have that information at their fingertips, but Basil’s neuro net gives him some benefits we organic types will never be able to match. He takes a few seconds to find the desired information then pitches his voice low and tells her. “The Ballard is patrolling the border, but there have been no incursions so far this month. It is likely distance that is affecting your communications.”
“Thank you,” she says.
We take our leave, linger a bit longer while we finish our drinks, and then begin the walk home.
Just down the street, we run into our former pew-mates, and we notice that the little girl has lost her candy cane. I touch the woman on the shoulder, and Basil knees before the child. “I am not fond of sugary foods,” he tells her. “Will you do me a favor and take this confection from me?”
I stifle a giggle at his formal language, but the child seems to find it enchanting. “Thank you!” she says.
Her mother echoes the sentiment.
Basil takes my hand and we walk back to the bed and breakfast that my family has taken over for the month. All too soon, we’ll be back on the Cousteau, where life is a mix of incredibly routine days punctuated by sudden bursts of danger, and I know we’re both feeling time ticking away from us.
“You were good with the little girl,” I tell him. “You’ll be a good father, someday.”
“You know I cannot sire children, Zoe,” Basil reminds me.
“I know,” I say, “but there are lots of ways to have a family.”
“You would want that, with me?”
“Of course, I would,” I assure him.
We arrive at the B&B, but instead of going inside he leads me to the bench on the front porch. We sit, and he reaches into the pocket of his coat – the one I’ve once again been wearing – and removes a small box.
“I am aware,” he begins, a slight electronic quaver evident in his voice, “that dating a synthetic life form has sometimes been challenging, and I am equally aware that our commitment to one another does not require formal agreements or legal documents. However, sharing your traditions over these last three years, four months, and seventeen days has taught me that rituals and practices matter. Weddings are one such ritual that I know to be of particular importance in your culture.”
My breath catches, but I manage to ask. “Basil, are you proposing?”
“Yes, Zoe, I am.” He hesitates for only a split-second before imitating my speech pattern. “Zoe, are you accepting?”
“I am. I am so much.” I tell him.
As he slides the delicate engagement ring – a garnet flanked by two nearly microscopic diamonds – onto my finger, the mist which has been present all day turns into a soft snow.
The Coalition of Aligned Worlds may well be facing war with the Coprenium Empire, but right here, right now, it’s Christmas Eve on Winter, and we exist in a bubble of relative peace.