Holiday Contest Winner
Congratulations to M. Lawrence! His story, “Faery Lights,” is the winner of our Holiday Short Story Contest, and he is the recipient of the $100 Amazon gift certificate. Thanks to everyone who submitted stories to the contest. There we some very great stories and it was difficult to choose a winner.
M. Lawrence has been writing since the age of 13. He currently works as a freelance writer and English teacher in the Middle East. For more about M. Lawrence, visit his Review Fuse profile page or his personal blog.
Although it was not a requirement of the contest, M. Lawrence has granted us permission to post his full story here on the blog for your holiday enjoyment. We hope you like it as much as we did. Happy Holidays and be sure to watch the blog for more contest announcements in the future.
Lonely places can make a man pure loco, if he’s there long enough. Way I figure it, McDonnell had finally snapped. He showed up at my bunk at oh-dark-thirty and tapped me on the head. Said he was going out to hang Christmas lights.
Only he said “faery lights,” ‘cause that’s the way they say it over where he’s from in Scotland. He had a whole mess of them hung in a big loop over one shoulder, and he must’ve mistaken disbelief for admiration when he saw me staring at them.
“I made them meself,” he said. He’d gotten bulbs from God knows where and jury-rigged them every half meter or so to a long coil of insulated wire he’d scrounged up.
“Great, McDonnell,” I said. “I hope you didn’t rip that wiring or those bulbs out of something we need. Don’t want to find myself without oxy in a week ‘cause the warning bulb is twinkling outside.”
A hurt look came into the hulking man’s eyes. “Thought you knew me better than that, boyo,” he said. “The bulbs are spares. So is the wiring. We’ve got plenty and you know it. Besides, it’s just for Christmas and Hogmanay and then I’ll take it down.”
“Well go have your fun, and don’t freeze anything important off,” I said. With a grunt of annoyance, I turned over in the bunk.
“You’re a good man in most every way, Clay,” McDonnell said. “But you sure can be an arse when it comes to the holidays. If you need me, I’ll be outside.”
After he was gone, I lay there in the bunk for a while, eyes open, thinking over what McDonnell had said. He’d made it sound like I was some kind of grinch. Whatever. I closed my eyes, pushing down my irritation, and mentally ran through the day’s schedule.
I was reaching up to undo the bunk’s webbing when I felt a tremor pass through me, and the whole station groaned. I ripped open the webbing, but before I could get my stick-seal moccasins on the floor, McDonnell was on the station intercom, calling in from his suit helmet.
“Clay! Did you feel that?”
I lurched out into the hallway outside the bunkroom. “Yeah, I felt it,” I shouted. “On my way. Don’t get your panties in a wad. Probably just Shireen letting off a little steam.”
I loped along with the peculiar gait stick-seals force on you, but made it to the control room in record time. The seismic detection board was whooping like a roughneck on a three-day bender. In a few seconds, I managed to push enough of the flashing buttons to get the infernal thing to calm down. Didn’t help that I had a crazy Scotsman shouting over the loudspeakers the whole time, asking for a report.
“All right, I got it!” I finally yelled. “Looks like a 4.3 event.” I studied a topological model of the area on the screen in front of me. “You coming back in?”
“Not yet,” came the reply. “I’m almost done with the faery lights and I want to finish up.”
A fresh wave of annoyance pierced me like a hot knitting needle. What right had he to waste his time on something frivolous like that? He could have been killed when the station shook. Then I’d have really been up a creek. I swallowed a sharp reply.
“All right. Come in as soon as you can. I’ve got a scheduled ice-coring to do later.”
“Thanks, Clay. Knew you’d understand.”
I grimaced as I shut off the ‘com channel. Didn’t help he was being so nice about the whole thing, to boot.
I was suited up and ready to go out when McDonnell finally came back through the airlock. His pressure suit and faceplate were rimed with frost, which melted almost instantly when he hit the warm station interior.
McDonnell twisted off his helmet, revealing a bearded grin.
“They’re gonna be beautiful, Clay,” he said. “Once I hook ‘em up to an electrical source, they’ll shine just like the town square back in Banff on Christmas Eve.”
I raised my own helmet up and with a firm twist, locked it onto the neck ring.
“That’s great, McDonnell,” I said. “Merry Christmas and all that. Happy now?”
I brushed past him into the airlock before I could see the hurt look that was undoubtedly coming over his face.
“I didn’t get everything done on the maintenance schedule for modules D and E,” I said, not bothering to add that his absence was the reason. He knew. “See if you can get to that while I’m gone. I’ll be back in two shakes. Shut the airlock door, willya?”
He shut it, all right. More like slammed it.
I spent the next three hours in the shadow of an ice boulder as big as a three-story building, drilling deep. I grinned as I drew out a nice long core sample, pure and pristine, its layers clearly demarcated. This was what I’d come out here for, away from people to cold, pure white and utter darkness. It was perfect. Too bad McDonnell had to keep bringing old Earth traditions here and screwing things up. I sighed with exasperation. The man was a brilliant engineer, and the mission couldn’t get along with him, but still—
I sealed up the core sample and stowed it on the little one-man rambler that had brought me here. Firing up its little electric motor, I began to wind my way back through the maze of gigantic ice blocks.
As I topped the last ridge and saw the station, I hit the rambler’s brakes. The station had been transformed. From end to end, its white painted pipes and panels were all wreathed in twinkling white lights. The dim ghost of Sol had sunk beneath the horizon hours ago, leaving only the baleful light that reflected from the colossal limb of the yellowish-brown orb that dominated our sky. Against the twilight, McDonnell’s faery lights flared out, looking like little lightning bugs as they flickered in the thin atmo. I keyed the radio transceiver in my helmet.
“McDonnell, I’m coming in. Just topped the ridge.”
“Clay!” McDonnell’s voice came on, sounding breathless in my ears. “Thank God you’re back. Come in, quick! Something’s happened!”
“You saw what?” I tried to keep the raw skepticism out of my voice, but I was fighting a losing battle. Across the control module’s conference table, McDonnell’s eyes blazed at me.
“I ken ye’d nae believe me,” he said, his Scots accent grown thick nearly beyond comprehension from his excitement. He shoved a photo viewer over to me. “Take a look a’ these, and maybe ye’ll see I’m not some kind o’ numptie.”
I picked up the photo viewer and quickly leafed through the images stored on it, figuring I could ask him later what “numptie” meant. “Did you take these out the porthole in module D? These aren’t your Christmas lights, are they?”
“Look for yourself, Clay. They came after I switched my lights on, after my lights started blinking.”
I held the viewer closer to my eyes, staring at the swarm of light specks that contrasted with the black outside the porthole.
“Once they showed up, the wee lights started blinkin’ just like the faery lights I hung. Same rhythm. On and off, on and off. I took these pictures, and then they just left.”
I set the viewer down and cradled my forehead in one hand. “Where’s that eggnog you made? You know, the stuff that has more nog than egg in it.”
“You don’t think I’ve been takin’ some nips from my stash on the sly, do ye? I wasn’t pished.” He sounded shocked.
“No, McDonnell,” I said. “I just need a stiff one before I report this to Titan Base, and that egg nog is the closest thing we’ve got on the station right now.”
When McDonnell came back with one for me and one for him, I sipped as much through the wide bore straw as I could, gasping out loud as I felt the stuff burn its way down my esophagus.
“All right, I’m ready,” I said.
When I stood up, drink in hand, it happened. For a brief moment, I thought that the McDonnell family eggnog had hit me harder than I’d figured on. The room heeled over like the deck of a ship on the slope of a monster wave. Despite my stick-seal moccasins, I fell, missing out on a beautiful concussion only because of the low grav. Behind me, I could hear McDonnell yelling something in a Scots accent so dense that I couldn’t tell whether it was a curse or a prayer. All around us, the station creaked and groaned as its massive bulk slowly shifted. The behemoth that was our home began a terrible slide forward and down. A shower of sparks cascaded from the ceiling, and we plunged into a darkness mitigated only by the glow of the icy wasteland outside filtering through our portholes. Above me, a pipe wrenched too far out of alignment burst, sending a shower of scalding hot water down onto my neck and back. I screamed and writhed and lost my grip. Hurtling forward with the station’s momentum, I met up with a metal floor cabinet that wasn’t traveling as fast as I was. The resulting blackness was predictable.
I awoke, my mouth feeling as parched as Odessa in July. Wincing in pain, I raised my head from the decking. As I surveyed the wrecked control room around me, my memory returned. I rolled over, gasping aloud from the searing agony of my burned neck and back.
“McDonnell!” My voice was loud in the unnaturally silent control room. Except for the slow drip of the ruptured pipes above me, the place was as quiet as a tomb.I croaked out his name again. My gaze found his crumpled body. Crawling to his side as fast as I could, I gently turned him over onto his back. His chest moved and his pulse was strong. I exhaled in relief. He’d come around in a few minutes with nothing more than a whopper of a headache.
When McDonnell opened his eyes and groaned about twenty minutes later, I was sitting near his head, my back against the station hull. He looked at me and blinked slowly.
“What’s happened? What’s going on?” he asked.
While he’d been unconscious, I’d thought of all kinds of nice long detailed explanations to that inevitable question, but I really only needed two words.
He raised himself up on one elbow, holding his head with the other hand like he was afraid it might fall off.
“What d’ya mean?” he asked.
“We fell into some kind of sinkhole,” I said. “Shireen’s eruptions must have created a weakness in the ice crust beneath the station.”
He started to speak, but I stopped him.
“Hold on. It gets worse. Our oxy and power generating modules were smashed by the ice avalanche that we’re mostly buried by right now.”
“The reserve tanks?”
“Stripped off on our descent,” I said. “My guess? They’re lying down in the crevasse under us somewhere.”
“How much oxy do we have left?”
“Less than 12 hours, I think. We lost a bunch when the station fell and some of the modules sheared right off.”
McDonnell struggled to his knees.
“We’ve got to start a distress call,” he gasped out, his chest heaving. “There’s a helium-3 transport ship that is scheduled to pass right over us on its transit to pick up mined gas. They’re not supposed to stop here, but if we signal–”
I gripped his shoulder as he began to haul himself to his feet.
“Don’t bother. I tried it. All communications are out. Our antennas were all torn off by the avalanche, too.”
“Can we get them back? Rig something up?”
“What do I look like, some sort of djinn? They’re way down in the crevasse. There’s ice debris sitting on top of our upper hatches, and the lower ones are buried. We can’t get out by ourselves.”
“Somebody’ll come check on us when we don’t report in,” he said.
I just shook my head. “We just made a report, remember? We’re not due for another 10 hours or so. By the time they mount a rescue mission from Titan base, we’ll be–”
“Don’t say it,” he said. He put his face in his hands.
I began mentally composing a little homily about how sometimes you just had to accept cold hard facts like death with dignity, but before I could say anything, he raised his face to meet mine. His eyes shone with tears, but there was something else there, too.
“My faery lights,” he said.
It only took McDonnell fifteen minutes to program a simple relay switch into the lights’ electrical system from the control board. We chose the oldest distress signal known to man: three short, three long and three short. When it was done, he joined me by the porthole in D module where I sat watching the lights. Like me, he had donned his pressure suit. The heaters in them would keep us warm once the station lost environmental.
I glanced up at him as he ducked through the door of the module. “What’s the ETA on the transport ship?”
“It should be here in another 8 hours, give or take,” he said. “Its planned trajectory should take it right over our position. If this works, the crew will see us all lit up like a Christmas tree.”
“If this works.” I shivered. It had to be my imagination, but it felt like the module was already growing colder. The station lights were completely out here, and we sat in darkness, our only illumination coming from the strings of lights hanging outside and the faint blue light that filtered down into the crevasse from above.
“We’re deep down in the sinkhole,” I said. “The transport’ll never see us or our lights by themselves.”
“Don’t worry, Clay. They’ll come.”
McDonnell lowered himself, clumsy in his pressure suit, setting his helmet onto the floor beside him. He sat in silence, and the lights outside the thick glass alternatively bathed his face in a warm yellow glow, then plunged it into darkness every other second. After a while, he began speaking in a quiet voice.
“When I was a bairn, my dad was a fisherman on the North Sea. I don’t have to tell you that it was dangerous, thankless work, no matter the time of year.” He scratched his beard thoughtfully. “When my dad was gone on a long fishing trip, my mum always worried about him. The first night he was gone, she’d put a candle in the window of our house, the one that faced the cold, dark sea. And she would light that candle every night until he came home.”
He turned his face to me, and in the sole illumination from the electric lights outside, I could now only see half of it.
“Somehow, I feel like we’re doing the same thing now. Lightin’ a candle, holding out hope against the cold and the dark. Against death.”
“Your dad always come back?”
McDonnell frowned at me, at the strangled tone of my voice, but he answered softly.
“Well, they don’t always come back, you know?”
I told him then of my own childhood, recalling another Christmas night. The house behind me festooned with blinking lights, and me standing there in my PJ’s, yelling till my throat was raw after a swiftly departing set of car taillights.
“I waited for him every Christmas after that, but he never came back. Never.”
I ran my hands through my hair, clutched it until my scalp hurt. “So you can see why I don’t get the warm fuzzies when I think about your precious holiday.”
“Don’t you pity me,” I snarled, “I don’t need anything from anybody—especially that.”
Visibly wounded by my barbed words, McDonnell fell silent. I closed my eyes again, feeling hot pricks of water behind my lids. We sat silent in that darkness for a while, and I must have dozed off, exhausted, for the next thing I heard was McDonnell’s voice calling to me.
“Clay, wake up! They’re here!”
Groggily, I opened my eyes and squinted up at the porthole. Outside, McDonnell’s lights kept up their steady rhythmical blinking. But beyond them—
I was on the front lawn of my childhood home, and I had a jar in my hands. All around me, in the summer night, glowing fitfully in the green grass between my bare toes, and flitting from mailbox to tree to sidewalk, was a myriad of fireflies.
And now, impossibly in the subzero cold out there, they had come back. Hundreds of thousands of them, glowing little dots of light, each flashing in sync with our own creations of wire and glass, telegraphing our distress call to the world above. I drew in a long, shuddering breath and rose to join McDonnell at the porthole where he watched them. His half-open mouth made a circle of fog on the surface of the glass as he breathed, and I stood beside him in the cold of module D and watched the intricate dance of the little faery lights outside. They couldn’t know what message they were carrying for us—they were at best glowing imitators no more intelligent than many of Earth’s own sea dwellers. Yet even so, my heart swelled to see them. For their message, whether they knew it or not, was one of hope.
As the radio crackled to life with the transport ship’s response to our call, I swallowed my pride and looked McDonnell straight in the eye.
“Merry Christmas,” I said. This time, I meant it.