All a Good Night

Submitted into Contest #178 in response to: Write a story about an unconventional holiday tradition.... view prompt

22 comments

Science Fiction Christmas Happy

Wooden men and animals never seen on Earth, celestial ephemera, and shapes with meanings known only to their designers rose up from the salt and the dust in the false twilight of Annabelle's glow. The lighting would take place at midnight, at Charlie's signal. The littlest ones were excited, not least because it was the only time all year they could stay up so late. 

Annabelle, the lesser, further, and dimmer of the two stars that lit our not-quite barren world was the reason we never had full night nine months of the year. Just a kind of persistent soft twilight bookended by the rise and fall of Agnes. Back when such things mattered, we found it romantic, Charlie and I. It still was. I held Charlie's gnarled hand in mine and we watched Andy's grandchildren shake with the eager anticipation of chasing devils. 

Agnes was an angry bitch. She bore down on us during the long day with an intensity I was sure was meant to sterilize her child of the disease transmitted when our landers tumbled out of the sky and spilled their infectious contents in red smears and purple bruises across the sand. 

Our landing was a barely mitigated disaster. I was seventeen and had gotten pregnant on the ship. Far from a scandal, it was celebrated. I wasn't the only, and not the first, but Andy was the first born on new ground, almost before we'd reached it. It had been a close thing. I was bleeding from the head and seeing double. I saw two of the column of smoke rising from our companion lander, and two of the lumpy, red-stained sheet that covered the mangled body of Andy's father. Through my delirium and grief, I don't remember Andy's birth, nor him first being brought to my breast.

Others were much worse off. It was a long time ago, a time of pain that was gone but never forgotten. We'd made it, so far, and we've made it so far.

There are no pine trees on this world, no Christmas trees, but we make do. We tried planting them, but they never took, not without more soil amendment than we could afford to take from the meager stores we'd been left with.  

There is no holly, no poinsettias, no amaryllis. There is mistletoe. Plenty of mistletoe. It's a parasite and it took to this world even better than we did. The things that pass for birds here love it and shit the seeds everywhere, on everything. I have no idea why the planners thought we needed to bring it, but if we don't make it, it will be mistletoe that is the lasting legacy of our attempt, the only living foreign visitors left for future discoverers to notice.

The devils danced among us. Charlie and I sat propped on a blanket in the center of a vast circle, which itself was in the center of an even vaster plain. I nodded to the couple chosen this year to be the signal bearers and put the sulfured paper stick in Charlie's hand. Charlie was too enfeebled to send the signal himself, but he would be seen to be the initiator of it, as tradition demanded. I lit the stick in the little token fire that had been made for us, and heard silence spread out from us in waves as the entire village noticed, one by one.

The couple approached carrying their own sparklers. I helped Charlie birth new fire from his and watched the couple head out with it among the devils, searching one out to carry the signal. Charlie broke the silence, croaking out the traditional starting call, "All a good night!". His voice was too weak to be heard by the furthest of the celebrants, those standing ready to put the torch to their own creations, but the word went round and the silence turned to expectant murmurs. 

Dust devils occur when hard packed ground baked by the sun heats the air just above it. That air is trapped by a heavy wall of relatively cool air above. Any crack in that wall, and the hot air rushes up in an inverted tornado, like water swirling into the drain of an upside down bathtub. 

Here, the cracks appeared only after Agnes set. It was an unusual phenomenon, created by, our best minds guessed, the particulars of air currents over Zebediah, the high, steep range to our southwest, whose base our growing village was neatly tucked against. 

One thing that people who remain on Earth don't think of about settling a new planet is the need for a whole new calendar, whole new clocks. Debate over it raged on the ship, to pass the relentless years and because everybody knows that time is the ultimate master. We wanted to elect one we could live with, could live under. 

Some wanted to mark Landing Day as the new year. Some wanted to shoehorn a resemblance of Earth's months and hours into wholly different cycles of night and day and axial tilt. Some wanted to ignore both and simply import ship's time whole and unmodified into new ground and new stars, never mind that Einstein told us that non-simultaneity was the law of the universe and ship's time bore even less relation to Earth time than a stopped clock would. 

The end result of the compromise was that the month we still called December was the hottest month of the year. Some suspected a cruel joke by Australians in the party, but more likely it was the kind of compromise humans are all too fond of, the kind that left everyone maximally unhappy. Still, it fit. Agnes made our land all but uninhabitable in the summer days. The only thing for it was to batten down, to tuck into cellars and ride it out, and to get needful chores done when only Annabelle ruled the sky. It was, for us, what the looming dark of winter was for those who had originated the old traditions of light and sleighs and bells.

Salt was the perfect medium for capturing Agnes's wrath, holding it till she was gone and letting it seep out under Annabelle's watch to fall up through the cracks. In summer, the devils wandered across the great flat to our east, just beyond the reach of Zeb's protective shade. 

It is our version of a not-so-wintry wonderland each December. For weeks, wood and straw are gathered and carted out by night, to be piled into large heaps forming a wide circle. We have plenty of time; it's too hot to plant or to build, and too late to recover anything not harvested a month ago. The most vigorous of our generations, the children of Andy's generation, those just starting farms and families of their own, had, of late, taken on a new idea of sculpting their piles of twigs and branches and logs into fantastical statuary riddled with voids designed to feed the flames to come. 

I watched the young couple venture out among the wraiths swirling around us. Science attributed their faint blue-white glow to static charge released by friction in the dust's violent lashing. Legend said it was lost spirits trapped in the vortex, held by spawn of the eternal battle between Earth and Sun, between Zeb and Agnes. 

I could only see the couple as shadows among shadows. It was easier to follow the disembodied light from their sparklers, darting here and there in pursuit, sometimes separating, sometimes converging as they sought to surround one of the capricious imps. 

There! They caught one. They released their bundles and a shower of sparks rose to the sky like a swarm of brilliant fireflies. The plain erupted in cheers, the perimeter of our festival erupted in flame, and the children squealed in delight. 

Wine flowed. Young couples retreated to the shadows, to celebrate, in the ancient ways, their love and the hope of generations to come. Families gathered around their fires or visited the fires of good friends, waiting for the devil to come, be consumed, and bless their house with a year of good fortune. 

The children joined the chase, flitting here and about after one ethereal column of dust and static glow or another. When caught, the children threw sparklers, confetti, leaves, or more dust into them, whatever was at hand. 

They hoped to guide the devils' random motion toward the flames. I watched one scattering of children, their faces indistinguishable, mere silhouettes against the surrounding walls of fire. They came together to surround a devil, to usher it with their offerings toward the perimeter. There was no escape for the devil. It was surrounded by joyous, devious children. 

I watched them toy with it, sending up the symbols of the season. Our season, a season we brought from earth and made our own, made fit for our world. They worked together, children of different families united to a common task. These are children wholly of us, ancient Earth forgotten, never known in their minds. 

They believed that their coaxing would turn the random motion of the dust devil -- in reality guided only by the caprice of atmosphere and fine gradations of heat -- toward the fortune of their families and their friends. 

They've done it! A flaming, writhing whirlwind shot toward heaven when the first of hopefully many devils thrashed desperately as it was exorcised and forced to release its trapped spirit. The victorious children came running to Charlie and me. I gathered an armload of trinkets wrapped in bright, festive paper from the wagon as they approached.

"Grandpa! Grandma!" a young one cried, the apparent leader of the ad-hoc troupe that had won the first battle. "We caught one! We pushed it into Danny's fire!" Charlie was 'grandpa' to everyone here, young and old. Everyone but me. To me, he was husband, and father of five of our six children. 

"I saw it." Charlie promised them, a little white lie. I helped Charlie hand one present out to each child. As quickly as they'd come, they were gone, off again on a new chase, torn between showing off the prize they'd won and finding a devil to throw the wrappings and ribbons into. 

I leaned closer against Charlie and squeezed his hand. He squeezed back, weakly, but he did. He looked at me with his rheumy, half-blind eyes, still twinkling in the firelight after all these years, and I saw memories in them. Not just our world, but of Earth as well. 

We came here as young adults, too late to be children chasing devils, but we had our memories. We had loved, we had laughed, and we had seen our colony grow from hanging on by a fingernail to establishing itself firmly in the earth, the soil of Zeb.

We'd watched our children, our children's children, and their children's children work the soil and slowly, little by little, evolve a yearly celebration to mark the passing, finally, of the longest day of the year. On this day, Agnes once again reached her high water mark in the noon sky, the apex of her struggle against Zeb to eradicate us. It marked the beginning of her slow retreat to gather her forces and leave us a respite in which to gather ours.

Pillars of flame shot to the sky as one chase after another caught its prey. Children scampered and laughed and battled and came to Grandpa for presents. Gatherings both rowdy and bawdy celebrated the night. Lovers entwined and dreamed of future families. Charlie and I held each other, all those things long past for us, but carried on in our children. 

It wasn't yet a sure thing, but it looked like we might be battling mistletoe and other devils for a long time to come. I kissed Charlie despite being under nothing but stars, and he spoke to me before dropping his head and beginning to snore. 

"I wish it would snow, just one goddamn time", he said. 

December 24, 2022 21:12

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22 comments

Graham Kinross
20:45 Jan 02, 2023

I like the chat about setting up a calendar. It’s one of the things so many science fiction writers forget about other planets. Even if the have similar mass and a breathable atmosphere time will work completely differently there. You laid out problems well and I liked the detail about the mistletoe being a weed. Good reason to develop a kissing culture.

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Kyle Bennett
21:00 Jan 02, 2023

I worried that that might be too drawn out, or seem superfluous, but it seemed necessary in order to put Christmas in the heat of summer. I think in a lot of science fiction, it's a detail that, unless the difference matters to the plot or the setting (see the Mars trilogy by KSR), it is probably best left implied.

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Graham Kinross
21:07 Jan 02, 2023

At times I think those details make the story. The Martian, one of my all time favourite books and films is heavy on scientific details and that’s part of the draw, it’s so viscerally real that it’s like reading a documentary, non fiction instead of science fiction. I haven’t read the Mars Trilogy yet but it’s on my very long to do list. Just remembered the mention of Dune, not so much for science details but for world building and going into the technical details of things.

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Kyle Bennett
21:26 Jan 02, 2023

I like the detail a lot too, but it's not for everybody, and not for every story. Highly recommend Mars, though it kind of fades by the third book. KSR is one of my favorite writers (though he also has my least favorite science fiction book ever), I also recommend his "The Memory of Whiteness" which spent a lot of time as my all time favorite #1 in scifi. When that man writes a scene with music, you can practically hear it and feel it. It's amazing. I was semi-consciously channeling him in this story, though obviously I can't hold a cand...

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Graham Kinross
21:43 Jan 02, 2023

For a recommendation that isn’t a huge blockbuster, I would suggest Sea of Rust by C Robert Cargil, about droids after the apocalypse. One of the best told stories about non human characters I’ve ever read. The Revenger books are really good as well but I can’t remember the name of the Author right now. They’re Science Fantasy like Dune, but with a slight horror feel to them. Hints of Indiana Jones in space.

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Kyle Bennett
22:24 Jan 02, 2023

I will check out Sea of Rust, thanks. Are you a fan of the Culture series by any chance?

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Betsy Ellis
22:14 Jan 19, 2023

Kyle, I am familiar with Burning Man and thought immediately of it when you mentioned twiggy statuary to be lit. I really liked the burning statuary and dust devils as a holiday in a new world. I have never seen a dust devil though. It took me a second read through to really get it and watching a dust devil burn on YouTube, although I don't believe everything I see on the internet. I like SF so I also am impressed by such world building in such a short story. Little things I noted: In the first paragraph you wrote "The lighting would ...

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Kyle Bennett
18:02 Jan 20, 2023

Betsy, thank you for the very constructive criticism, and the overall praise. I will definitely keep your points in mind in the future. it's always a bit of a tradeoff, especially with a tight word count limit, between explaining and referencing. I don't always get it right, and especially when editing, the world is so complete in my head that sometimes I cut things that readers need for it to be complete for them. I'm glad you thought it was worth re-reading to really get it, and apologize for making you need to.

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Kyle Bennett
18:10 Jan 20, 2023

Also, dust devils are really cool. They're usually only a few feet wide, but can extend maybe a hundred feet or more to the sky. They're mostly harmless, but sometimes can do minor damage. Every so often, one will go through my yard and scatter anything loose, knock over lawn chairs, things like that. I saw one once carry my neighbor's popup tent over the wall of his yard and drop it a hundred feet away. It was held down with cinder blocks, but the ropes snapped. They happen on calm, sunny days, not associated with any storms.

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Julie Grenness
22:14 Jan 05, 2023

Well done. This story conveyed a great response to the prompt. Fans of science fiction love would love this choice of imagery and language. You paint a lovely picture of unknown frontiers. I hope you keep on writing such great stories, keep on imagining.

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AnneMarie Miles
17:10 Jan 05, 2023

This was delightfully immersive. Very creative of you to birth a new holiday - Landing Day - and with it, a new reality wherein which humans have had to inhabit a new place. It's relatively new for them, too, seeing has Charlie and his wife still remember Earth. Very unique and cool idea.

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Michał Przywara
21:54 Jan 03, 2023

Great world building in this one - really feels like a believable space colony. I particularly like the mention that for the kids, this is all they know. There is no pining for an Earth they never knew. But, the other little details also sell the world, like the calendar talk, the mistletoe, etc. The devil chasing ritual is also well realized. One of the things I like about sci-fi is how it can explore both how things stay the same, and how they change. This is very evident with culture stuff (maybe that's more speculative fiction?) and he...

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Rebecca Treadway
20:14 Dec 31, 2022

Loved it, too! Very unique, and good world-building in such a short story, no less. :-) I hope you're turning this into some kind of Sci-Fi/Fantasy.Space Opera series? :D

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Kyle Bennett
21:05 Dec 31, 2022

Oh no... don't tempt me :-) But thank you.

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Rebecca Treadway
21:19 Dec 31, 2022

I know how that goes, trus tme. lol. Maybe an anthology, then? ;-)

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Kyle Bennett
22:08 Dec 31, 2022

My wife would kill me. She insists that if I'm going to write a novel, it better mean finishing the Ben Franklin time travel thing I started, that she fell in love with.

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Rebecca Treadway
00:09 Jan 01, 2023

An anthology is a collection of short stories. :p I tell my clients this, though -- finish the *story* and don't worry if it's a novel or novella - just finish it then figure out the word count. lol. You're a good storyteller, keep at it!

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Laurel Hanson
13:21 Dec 31, 2022

I love this! World building is incredibly hard, and doing it within some confines of science (rather than purely fantastical) is unbelievably hard. This is amazing. You have a super story with real nice characterization here. The translation of the Christmas holiday to form the foundational center of the calendar year on another planet is cool but building such a beautiful and inventive celebration with the raw material of another planet - this is super. And you've got to love: "Some suspected a cruel joke by Australians in the party." :)

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Kyle Bennett
19:37 Dec 31, 2022

Thank you very much, Laurel. You might have noticed it was inspired a bit by Burning Man. I live in the desert, so I am very familiar with dust devils, and it was fairly straightforward to imagine a world and a celebration involving them (and a relentless sun). When I first came here and saw them, I always thought I wanted to chase them, try to stand inside one. But I never bothered to get out of my car, and still haven't. They're probably not as easy to catch as I imagine. And I love that you caught the Australian remark. Thanks again.

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Delbert Griffith
21:31 Dec 29, 2022

Hell of a great tale, Kyle. You created a great atmosphere in this foreign atmosphere, along with treating us all to trenchant observations and relevant facts. You are a fine writer, my friend. Hats off to you.

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Kyle Bennett
23:31 Dec 30, 2022

Thank you, Delbert. That is really nice to hear.

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