I’m not sure this is true, since like most of the best sea stories, he started with the phrase “This is no shit,” but my grandfather has been telling it every Christmas since the dawn of time (or at least my entire lifetime) and it’s become a piece of family history.
It was a cold and dark December evening, and Grandfa had only recently arrived on Solstice. As you might expect, a planet named for the point at which the sun was at its most northerly or southerly point relative to the equator was a place of extremes. Summers on Solstice were hot and dry, while winters were intense. Miserable even, with near-constant blizzard conditions, broken only by bouts of freezing rain. And of course, it wasn’t really December… not on Solstice… but it was nearly Christmas, so the Earth-named month would do.
Just like any new frontier, whether it was the old west or a colony world, Solstice in its early days had a reputation for being a bit… rough. Grandfa, newly recruited into the SSP (Shore and Sea Patrol), was just twenty-two, and while he’d grown up on the water, he was accustomed to holographic weather interfaces, sophisticated computerized navigation programs, and oceans that had been mostly tamed. Sure, the odd pelagic toothy fish still tried to get up close and personal with an unsuspecting swimmer from time to time, but on Old Earth, Centaurus, and most of the First Worlds, you were never in danger when you were at sea, even in the worst conditions.
Solstice was nothing like that. This was a class five world, which meant technology hadn’t yet progressed beyond early twenty-first century Earth-equivalents. This was intentional. The SpaceFleet and the Department of Expansion had learned that colonies where the founders and first residents had to learn to live with their new homes, and grow with them, were more successful than those where people were just planted with all the tech they were used to ‘back home.’
But I digress.
This is supposed to be Grandfa’s story, not the history of our family’s homeworld.
So… it was a cold and dark December evening, and Grandfa was standing watch on the SSP ship Polaris. There wasn’t a lot of traffic in or out of the Crystal City port at that time of year. Cargo shipments of gifts and specialty items for the winter holidays (Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, the Arcturian Moon Howl Festival and the Pacifican Celebration of the Stars, among them) typically came through the spaceport not the seaport, but there were still the occasional locals who went for winter sails, and got fouled up in the ice floes, or simply got too drunk on spiced wine to navigate home safely.
You could go days – a week even – and the night watch would never have to do more than stare at the sky.
(“And it was fuckin’ brilliant,” Grandfa would say. “Something about the clear, cold air made the stars seem brighter and closer than usual… as if you could reach up and pluck one from the sky.”)
It came as quite a shock, then, when the comm-sys came to life and an anxious voice called for help. “Mayday, mayday, can anyone hear me?” The voice sounded like a child, but Grandfa couldn’t swear that it really was a kid.
“Something in the tone… seemed like maybe it was really an adult with a young-ish voice,” Grandfa explained, then went back to the story.
“This is the patrol ship, Polaris,” Grandfa answered, opening up the computer program used to track incidents. (They had some tech, just not a lot.) “What’s your trouble? What’s your position?”
“We’re caught on the ice,” the voice came back. “My… uh… captain is hurt and can’t navigate. Can you help us?”
“What’s your position?” Grandfa asked again. He couldn’t wake his captain, or the rest of the crew, until he had real information to work with.
“We’re… I think we’re about two hours sailing time from Crystal City Port… I can… I can see the beam from the lighthouse. I’m not… I’m not a sailor. I’m aboard to handle livestock.”
Grandfa was a bit surprised by that. Sane people didn’t transport livestock by sea in December. Not on Solstice. “What’s the name of your vessel? And what’s the bearing to the light?”
“We’re a… we’re the Northern Lights. The light is… um… right… which one is right again? Starboard? The light is off our starboard side… about… if you’re looking at a clock it’s about at the two position.”
Grandfa did the math. Caught in the ice with the light visible to starboard meant… okay… he thought he had it. “Stand by, Northern Lights.” He rang the alarm to wake his captain and the crew, provided the information.
“Your, watch is nearly over, lad,” the captain said in her warm voice. “But the vessel in distress knows your voice. You wanna stay with them?”
“Yes, Captain, I do.” Sure, going below to the warm-and-dry would be nice, but Grandfa wanted to know the crashed ship was okay. The Polaris officers managed to plot a course to where they expected the distressed vessel would be and made way for her. Time passed.
The night grew colder, the sea grew choppier, and chunks of ice began to appear in the water. The Polaris slowed her speed, and Grandfa took over the binoculars to hunt for the Northern Lights . “I was expecting a barge… after all the voice on the comm had mentioned having livestock aboard, but you’ll never believe what we found.”
(At this point in the story, Grandfa would look around at his audience, building anticipation. Sometimes, he’d even solicit our guesses as to what the vessel was. We’d shout out the most ridiculous things… a spaceship! A toboggan! A pterodactyl!)
“Captain, I’ve found her… I think?”
The captain came to stand with him in the bow. “You think? In waters like these, in the deep cold, you better be sure, lad.”
“Well… I’ve found something.” I handed over the binocs and let the captain decide for herself.
“Daaaamn.” Her response came in a slow, amazed drawl. “I imagined a shuttle that got boggy over the water, or a barge, but not…”
“A sleigh,” my grandfather said. “Not what I expected either.”
“There are more things in heaven and Earth, Horatio…” the captain quoted. “Better hail them. See what’s what.”
So Grandfa got on the horn and called out, “Northern Lights, this is Polaris. Are you really… a sleigh?”
“That’s correct,” my original correspondent said. “I can see your lights! Can you help us?”
“We’ll be there shortly,” Grandfa told the voice on the comm. “Who am I speaking with?”
“Me? Oh, I’m Bob.”
Grandfa would have expected a far more exotic name from someone who had managed to crash a sleigh into an iceberg, but Bob it was. The Polaris pulled up as close as they could and that’s when the second surprise came: the sleigh was actually mounted on a barge.
“Curiouser and curiouser,” the captain murmured, quoting Lewis Carroll instead of Shakespeare. “Well, lad, let’s see what’s what.”
And she and Grandfa landed on the ‘berg (after the ice had been tested, of course), and went to offer assistance.
“Ahoy, Bob!” the captain called. “I’m Captain Sawyer and this lad is the one you’ve been talking with. Ensign…”
“Edwards,” Grandfa put in. “Edison Edwards.”
“Ensign Edwards,” the captain repeated. “I don’t see rigging or an engine mount on your vessel, Bob. What’s your method of propulsion?”
“That’s sort of the problem,” Bob said. “Our propulsion system got amorous and broke free. Then we glided into the ice.”
“Amorous? Broke free?” the Captain was not amused. “If you called in a distress signal to prank us in this weather…”
“It’s no prank,” Bob said. “You… you might have heard of the kraken?”
The kraken were a local species. They were sort of like the giant squid of old Earth mythology, but the scientists on Solstice were fairly certain they were sentient.
“You were attacked by kraken? They’re typically docile.”
“No,” Bob said. “Look can you board us and let me explain? Also, if you have a medic, my boss needs aid. He hit his head in the crash.”
Without being told, Grandfa called back to Polaris for a medic to join them. Once he’d arrived, the entire party joined Bob on the barge. “Nick’s below,” he said.
“Nick is your captain?” Grandfa asked.
“In a manner of speaking. We’re not… we’re not really seafarers. We usually have a proper crew, but Nick – he’s the boss – wanted a trial run before Christmas Eve…”
“What’s so special about Christmas Eve?” Captain Sawyer asked.
“Well, we have a lot of deliveries that night… and the barge is new. We used to have a modified shuttle, but atmospheric conditions on Solstice aren’t really great for multiple landings, and the waterways here are so extensive – the seas, the rivers – it seemed logical… but then Blitzen and Prancer caught the scent of a female in heat and went berserk and… well, you saw the crash.”
“Blitzen and Prancer are…?” Sawyer was still confused, which was a relief to my grandfather, because he was, too.
Bob explained. “Oh, kraken. Two of our eight, actually. They’re quite biddable as long as you keep them well fed and let them swim deep every couple days. And they like to pull things. I mean, ours were trained with only positive reinforcement training. We use operant conditioning. Like they used to with dolphins and dogs back on Earth?”
Grandfa and the captain nodded. The medic had gone below and hadn’t returned yet. The older sailor pushed her hair out of her eyes and said, “Well… Bob… we can tow you out of the ice, and back to port if necessary, but… I’m not sure we can help you reclaim your pets.”
“Blitzen and Prancer aren’t pets,” Bob said. “They’re volunteers. Like I said, they like to pull things. Anyway, they’ll probably return. They know there’s easy food from me.”
“Right then,” Sawyer said. “Edwards, here’s what I need you to do.”
Towing ships out of ice was actually pretty standard for an SSP vessel, so Grandfa got to work securing lines and setting up a skeleton crew. He volunteered to lead it… and the captain approved despite his youth.
It took a couple of hours, but the Polaris managed to get the Northern Lights out of the ice, and determine that she was undamaged – miraculous, really. As the SSP officers were preparing the sleigh-barge for the longer journey back to port, the medic – Andrews – returned from below.
“Captain, Edwards, the owner of this contraption would like to see you both for a moment.”
Bob went with them, and they all trooped down below, entering the captain’s wardroom, where they found the captain reclining against the bolsters of his bunk. He was an older man who sported a white beard. He was dressed in red fur, a festive choice, but warm was warm, and his head sported a fresh bandage.
“Ah, there you are… our benefactors!” the old man greeted with far more energy than an injured man had a right to. “Come, let me shake your hands… you’ve saved the Northern Lights. I’m Nick… Nick Winters.”
Grandfa and Captain Sawyer shared a glance – Nick was a dead ringer for the common depiction of Santa Claus, owned a sleigh-barge, and had a team of kraken (supposedly) named Prancer and Blitzen – he was either delusional or he really was… But neither of them voiced their thoughts.
Instead, the captain moved toward the bed, extending her hand. “Happy to help out, Mr. Winter. I’m R – ”
“Rae Sawyer… a ship captain. I should have known,” Nick said. “You always wanted boats and books about sailing when you were a child.”
“Oh, don’t be shocked. We haven’t been operating on Solstice for long – this is only our tenth year.”
“Solstice was only colonized fifty years ago,” Captain Sawyer pointed out.
“I know… we sent things via cargo ship, those first few decades. But now we have operations here, and all is well. Or nearly so.”
“Your assistant… Bob… mentioned that you use kraken to pull the barge?” the captain asked.
“Oh, ho, ho! The kraken. Yes! Yes, we do,” Nick said. “They like to pull things, you know. And they respond well to positive reinforcement training. But the biggest key is that they’re slightly telepathic… unless the pilot loses concentration.”
“Bob said the crash was because your team went off looking for a mate.” Sawyer stated.
“Well, yes, but that was because I was thinking how much I missed my wife. Anna. This time of year, we’re apart more than we’re together. But that’s life, I guess. In any case, Rae – Captain Sawyer – I thank you for your aid.”
“It’s my job, sir,” she said. “I’ve got to get back to Polaris. Edwards, you can stay with Northern Lights til we’re back in port.”
“Aye, Captain,” Grandfa, said, and stepped aside so the senior officer could move out of the room. Once she was gone, he turned to Nick. “You’re him, aren’t you?”
“Him?” Nick looked blank.
“Yes and no,” Nick answered. “Edison Edwards, twenty-two years old – a rare Solstice native. You dreamed of going into space, then were born onto a low-tech world. But you still asked for model spaceships every year. Do you still have the model of the Lightning?”
“I do!” Grandfa said. “The first faster-than-light ship… it’s still in perfect condition, too. But you said… yes and no?”
“The easiest way to explain it is that Santa Claus isn’t a single person. Hasn’t been since the Earth got smaller and the galaxy got closer. We’re all of a piece, though – related – because telepathy and perfect recall are important job skills and they’re bred in us.”
“That’s how you all know what someone wants? You cheat?” Grandfa was offended by the idea.
Nick didn’t seem to mind. “Cheat? Is it cheating when the thought is so big you can’t miss it? But no, we never read people without consent. Against the rules. We do share information… sort of a giant database of all of our memories and encounters.”
“That… makes a lot of sense, actually…” Grandfa said. “Anyway, sir, I’d best get up above. Make sure the tow is set. We’ll be underway in a few.”
“Thank you, Mr. Edwards,” said Nick. “And Bob, don’t fret. You didn’t spill any secrets.”
“No, sir. Of course not.”
Grandfa returned to the main deck of the barge, and once focused on his task, let his conversation with the man in the red suit fall to the wayside… as sometimes happened.
* * *
Days later – on Christmas Eve – Grandfa was again standing a nighttime watch on the Polaris, when jingle bells sounded out of the darkness. He turned toward the source of the sound and was surprised to see the Northern Lights towed by – not two, but eight – kraken pull up along-side.
“Mr. Edwards!” Nick Winter called across the water. “Ahoy, lad! I’ve got a bundle for you and your mates. And something special for Captain Sawyer. Look alive!”
An object was thrown, and Grandfa caught it – barely. It was a burlap bag – sealed against weather and water – filled with parcels, one for each member of the crew.
“Disperse them at breakfast!” Nick shouted. “Not before! And Mr. Edwards? Merry Christmas!”
Waiting until morning was no easier for Grandfa at twenty-two than it had been when he was eight… or when I was. But he did. And the next morning the ship’s mess was full of laughter as the seven-person crew opened their gifts. The captain, too, was smiling. She’d been given a vintage sextant, and no one had ever seen her look more delighted.
As to Grandfa, well, his gift was a model of the Lightning II – an updated version of the original due to launch the next year. As it turned out, he managed to get a posting on it, and while he came back to Solstice to live and raise a family, he got to spend twenty years exploring space, first.
And that’s the story… the story of the night my grandfather saved Santa Claus from an iceberg on a planet where Winter Wonderland wasn’t just a slogan, but a mission statement.
He swears it’s true.
But it could just be a sea story he trots out for the holidays.
— Special thanks to Zack Mann for the opening line.