The Last Christmas Present

Copyright © 2008, John F. Raffensperger. 25 Dec 2008, Christchurch, NZ.

The Nixon took off from Mars on time, Friday, 5:50.05, 21 Dec 2068. It was a small tech ship on a boring route through a couple moons and three asteroids. The one passenger was already angry.

“Where’s the bloody coffee? Eur-Mine wants an emergency fix, they could at least put out for coffee.” Focused on his need for caffeine, Dagmar Hamilton opened every locker, then slammed them shut.

Warwick, the normally taciturn pilot shouted at him, “Oy! Lay off the banging!”

Dagmar stopped banging at locker four, knowing it was childish. One locker after another was filled with laser matchers, logic arrays, and fibreboards. He knew them well. He spent most of his time teaching others how to use them. This job was supposed to be a simple debugging of the fibre-matroid interface of the op driver to the master mining controller, but two other techs had tried and failed. So Eur-Mine had called in their top consultant. Despite the failure of the other techs, he was confident of his skill, and had bid only three days for the job.

Towards the back of the craft, Dagmar thought his search for coffee was near success. Instead of tech gear, he saw cans of food and hygiene packs. The most wear was on the second-to-last locker, which held a leather jacket, some clothes, and a mesh bag full of luxury foods, the most recognizable being a wine bottle.

Warwick had turned in his seat and was watching him. “Oy! Lay off my stuff!”

Dagmar closed the locker. “Then where’s the bloody coffee!?”

“Last locker.”

“So you couldn’t have told me that?”

He put the desiccated powder in an aerogel carafe, filled it with hot water through the valve, and settled into videos streamed to his visor, knowing he would fall asleep.

Hours later, Warwick woke him. “C’mon, mate, time to split.”

“Do I have time for another coffee?”

“Make it quick.”

“Okay. Let me get my $#!7 together first.” Dagmar made the coffee and decided to pinch the carafe so he wouldn’t have to hurry drinking. He gathered his visor and computer, and started picking equipment from the lockers.

Dagmar shouted to the pilot, “Who’s there from Schlummer?” Schlummer, Inc., had designed and installed the master mining controller, and already had someone on site to help coordinate the repair.

“Dunno,” Warwick shouted back. “Five minutes to separation. Get your ass in gear.”

“Great. Just great,” Dagmar muttered. He glanced toward the cockpit. Warwick seemed preoccupied, probably starting the separation sequence. Dagmar opened the second-to-last locker, pulled the wine from the mesh bag, dropped it into his sack, then opened the next locker over. “Where’s the 4@<%!~9 drive de-gausser?”

Warwick had had enough of this irritating passenger. “You got three 4@<%!~9 minutes to separation, and you don’t got your 4@<%!~9 $#!7 together!?”

Dagmar replied, “No worries, here it is.”

Warwick waved dismissively. “Have your ass ready by Monday, eleven hundred hours.”

Dagmar pushed his sack to the rear of the craft, opened the hatch and crawled through. A minute of silence, then a pop, a steady hiss of propellant for a half hour, then quiet.

Three hours later, long after he’d finished his coffee, the landing on Europa was automated and gentle. He waited for the green light on the hatch, then crawled into the concrete bunker. He was glad to feel gravity again.

Now, to find the Schlummer guy and get this job done. It was a little weird that the other guy wasn’t there to meet him.

He walked down corridor B, his sack over his shoulder. He paused at a panel, spoke his name and typed a password. The computer scanned his retina and face, and gave him voice access.

He started walking down the corridor again. “Dingo, who is the Schlummer rep?”

The computer replied, “The Schlummer rep is Alan Billinghurst.”

Dagmar stopped cold. His bag fell to the floor. He closed his eyes, saw the horrible accident yet again, felt the kick of the half-megawatt burst-laser drill in his right hand, and watched the young boy’s chest instantly char.


He pulled himself together, and continued down the hall. “Right then. The thing to do is do the job and get the hell outa here. Dingo, please list the essential inventory levels.”

The computer replied, “Thirty-six days oxygen. Thirty-five days water. Thirty-six days power.”

“Sounds okay for a three-day job.” He walked to the loo down the dark hall.

The autolight went on. No toilet paper. “Dingo, please list the toilet paper inventory level.”

“About three days’ toilet paper.”

“You’re joking! You’re 4@<%!~9 joking! Dingo, where is Billinghurst?”

“Alan Billinghurst is in stockroom D11.”

He made his way to D11. The room was full of crates. Before Dagmar could even see him, Billinghurst called out, “Do your job and stay out of my way.”

Dagmar squeezed the door handle so tightly that he thought it might tear off. “Right.” Then he walked out.

He decided to find a bunk and dump his kit. Bunkroom 1 was empty and dark. The autolight did not go on. “Dingo, lights, please.”

The computer voice came from the hall, not the bunkroom. “Sorry, that room is shut off.”

“Dingo, confirm the oxygen inventory.”

“Thirty-six days’ oxygen. You can verify oxygen supply at C0.”

Dagmar dropped his bag in the bunkroom, and walked to C0. The ventilation control readout showed “Expected oxygen inventory: 36 days, 1 hour, 19 minutes.” As he stared at it, the display refreshed to show “Expected oxygen inventory: 36 days, 1 hour, 18 minutes.”

He went into the adjoining utility room and examined the oxygen tanks. Almost all of them showed physical analogue dials that read empty.


“Dingo, re-set oxygen inventory levels to three days.”

“Dagmar, please confirm that the station has only three days’ inventory of oxygen.”

“Confirmed, Dingo. Confirmed. $#!7!”

Dagmar made his way to the hydro unit. The panel readout showed “Expected water inventory: 34 days, 22 hours, 31 minutes.” He checked the adjoining utility room. Most water tanks were empty.

He ran to the power unit. “Expected power inventory: 36 days, 0 hours, 27 minutes.” Most fuel cells were empty.

“Dingo, when did Billinghurst arrive?”

“Alan Billinghurst arrived yesterday at twenty-two thirty-six.”

Dagmar thought, “Then he doesn’t know.”

“Dingo, connect to Billinghurst.” The panel on the wall showed his old acquaintance looking tired. “Alan, we’ve got a problem.”

Billinghurst said, “Sure do. Dingo, disconnect.” The panel went off.

Dagmar paused again. “Dingo, connect to the Nixon.”

The computer paused, then Warwick appeared on the message screen. Dagmar started talking fast. “Warwick, we got serious problems. The computer says 36 days of essential inventory, but I’m seeing only three days. We don’t even have that much toilet paper.”

“Oy, Hamilton, I don’t have time for this. Wipe your ass with cargo wrap.”

“Warwick, we have three days’ oxygen!

There was a pause. “Oy.”

Then, “This’ll mess up the schedule. Maybe not too much. Look, all right, mate, I’ll reschedule and get back to –.” The message screen went off.

“Dingo, send a text to Billinghurst as follows. We have three days’ oxygen. We have three days’ water. And we have three days’ power. End text.” The computer chimed once.

He still had his job to do. The next day went quietly. He stayed away from Billinghurst, texting him when he needed to coordinate work. He tried several times to contact the Nixon, but got no reply. Sunday morning, he woke up early, and worried.

“Dingo, send a top-priority message to Mars headquarters, duplicate to Alan Billinghurst, Eur-Mine Europa support and the Nixon, as follows. Hi, this is Dagmar Hamilton. I’m here at Eur-Mine Europa. When I arrived, all inventory levels for this facility read at thirty-six days, but on inspection, I found only three days’ inventory. Repeat, we have three days of essential inventory. I have informed Warwick Hubbard on the Nixon. Hubbard said he’d come back early to get us, but I have not heard from him in the past forty-one hours. We need a pick-up by twenty-four hundred, twenty-four December, or we are going to die. End message. Dingo, inform me as soon as receipt is confirmed by any recipient other than Billinghurst.”

Forty-eight minutes later, as Dagmar was just starting to get some intuition – the fibre-matroid interface was working perfectly, as were the op driver and the master mining controller – the computer chimed.

“Dagmar, your message was received at Mars headquarters.”

Seven minutes later, Dagmar was starting to think that the fault lay in the interface between the facility opsys and the mining controller. That meant it wasn’t Eur-Mine’s fault. It wasn’t Schlummer’s fault either. It was the Eur-Mine construction contractor. And it probably explained the false sensor readings.

The computer chimed again, “Hi, Dagmar and Alan, this is Brian Jackson at Eur-Mine Mars. The Nixon’s had an accident. We thought you knew. We can pick you up eight January, oh-three-hundred.”

The speaker paused.

“I realize this puts you in a bad situation. I have nothing to say to make this better. If you want us to contact family, send through the authorization. Again, sorry.” The message screen went off.

“Dingo, text a message to Alan as follows. Let’s turn off –”

“No need.” Billinghurst was at the door.

Dagmar said, “Okay if we retreat to C0 with the water, and shut off everything else?”

Billinghurst didn’t reply for a while, then said, “No. We’ll die anyway, and I won’t die next to you. You take C0. I’ll take D11 with half the water.”

“Right,” was all Dagmar could say. And Billinghurst was gone.

Dagmar continued working on the facility opsys fault, simply to occupy himself. He didn’t have the parts or equipment to fix the problem, and it would have made no difference if he had, but doing his job was what he did. On Christmas Eve afternoon, he made a comprehensive report on the opsys fault. After he had sent it to the Eur-Mine tech-heads, he put his head against the panel. Then he kicked it.

Not knowing what else to do, he collected his bag from the bunkroom and carried it to C0. He sat on an empty oxygen tank and put his head in his hands.

He thought that his life was supposed to flash before his eyes, so he tried to go back to the beginning and work all the way forward. But the beginning seemed to be a courtroom, the inquest, where he was trying to explain the accident. He was sorry. Alan was crying, “My son! My son!” Dagmar was talking with his lawyer. Then he was in another courtroom, the wrongful death lawsuit, trying to explain the accident. He was sorry. He was calling his banker. The police were clearing things out of his Nelson flat. He was sorry, but now he was hurt and angry, too.

He forced himself to remember what he could of the years after that, but they ran together in circuits, tech classrooms, and mining facilities. The only thing that seemed salient was the wine he stole from the Nixons pilot.

He dumped out his bag. There was the bottle. It had a screw top. It was dark green, with white labels front and back. He picked it up and looked at the front label. Pegasus Bay Riesling 2067. A picture of a winged horse on an indigo spot. 11% alcohol. e750ml. He wondered what the “e” meant. Produced & bottled by Donaldson Family Ltd. Waipara Valley, Canterbury, New Zealand. He looked closely at the back label, but for some reason saw only the words “family” and “serving it cool”.

“They must be nice people,” he thought. “Cantabrians.”

He looked at the oxygen level. All tanks read empty. “Dingo, what is the oxygen level?”

The computer answered, “Thirteen per cent.”

He figured he had an hour before he started to get tired.

He looked at the wine bottle again.

He went to the loo for his drinking glass. As he reached for it, he knocked it and it broke on the floor. “$#!7.” He was starting to tire.

He went back to C0 and found the coffee carafe. He unscrewed the top with the valve, and the carafe became a cup. He fingered it for a few minutes, then put the cup and bottle in his sack, not wanting to risk dropping them, and walked to D11. He took out the cup and bottle, dropping the sack to the floor.

He pushed open the door and walked around the crates to find Alan sitting on a chair, with crackers and an open tin on a crate before him. Alan glanced at Dagmar, put down his cracker and looked away.

Dagmar waited a few seconds, then said, “I got wine. Would you like some?”

Alan looked at Dagmar, then at the bottle, then again at Dagmar. He was expressionless.

“Come on,” Dagmar thought, “We’re about to die.”

Alan finally nodded slightly.

Dagmar pulled up another chair, and set his glass and the bottle on the crate. He opened the wine, putting the blue-grey top on the crate next to the bottle.

Alan drank up the remaining water in his glass, then pushed it across the table toward Dagmar, who filled it with the pale yellow liquid. Then Dagmar filled his own glass. Each man stared into his own cup.

Bubbles appeared on the inside of the glasses. Not too many, not as many as a champagne.

Alan stared at the glass. “Hmph. Sparkling.”

Dagmar was surprised, too. Must be some kinda nice stuff.

“Where’d you get it?” Alan looked at him again.

Dagmar replied, “Pinched it off Warwick.”

Alan pushed the tin toward Dagmar. “Foie gras. Help yourself.” He pointed to the crackers.

Dagmar took a cracker, then cut a piece from the pink-gray block and pressed it into the cracker’s little indentations. He bit into it. It was good.

He looked at Alan. “Where’d you get it?”

Alan was still looking at his glass. “Pinched it off Warwick.”

“Hunh,” grunted Dagmar. It was the funniest thing he’d ever heard.

He picked up his glass and held it a moment, looking toward his old friend and enemy.

Alan saw the gesture, looked Dagmar in the eye, then briefly raised his own cup enough to respond.

They quickly finished the foie gras, and the wine went just as fast to Dagmar’s head. He was tired.

Alan refilled the glasses. They leaned back in their chairs, not looking at each other.

Dagmar went to tip the last wine into Alan’s glass. When the bottle touched the glass, it fell from Alan’s hand and shattered on the floor. Dagmar realized Alan’s eyes were shut. Staring at him, Dagmar put the bottle on the table, slowly took the last drops from his own glass and set it down. Then he leaned back and closed his eyes.