Updated: Feb 15
At the end of the Great Machine’s cycle, a three-fingered glove reached for an icicle that was reflecting the orange street lights of Arkology.
Igraine shifted her chaperon while the doll attempted to escape her hold. “That’s ice, Anwin. Now, back in your bag.”
The doll looked at her with its buttons for eyes while tapping her arm in protest.
“You wanted to look at the snow. Come. The Associate is waiting for us.”
As the doll settled itself in her pouch, Igraine cursed the cold under the vapor of her breath. But the brightly lit haze circumventing the ghetto’s streets gave it a festive atmosphere. Careful not to slip, Igraine paced across the city’s third deck while the doll was sticking her head out of her pouch like a gopher.
As she approached the insulae, dodos were clearing the staircase whose steps looked hardly safe enough to walk. But in Arkology, one learned to enter the buildings with the belief that thinking about safety merely invited Jim to strike. On the second floor, Igraine grabbed at the doll stirring in her pouch. “Oui, Oui. You can get out.” Stuck in her suede overalls - stitched together from whatever patches they could find - Anwin was kicking her feet in the air as Igraine put her down. The bell at the tip of her liripipe was ringing as Anwin followed Igraine up to the door of the Associate’s den.
After knocking, she rubbed her arms, waiting for the door to be opened. When there was no response, she knocked again and stared at the spy hole with puckered lips.
“Coming!” cried a man from the other side. “Oh, dear!”
Igraine cringed as she heard something topple over.
“Ah, it's you!” Soft music was playing in the background as he opened the door for her. “Please, please. Come in. Don’t want to let the warmth out.”
“Merci.” Anwin was racing ahead as Igraine walked into the heated cabin.
A veil generator on the ceiling cast its warm glow on the writing desk and decorative items littering the ground.
“Pardon me, I was in the middle of something,” Associate 176 apologized. “Can I take your coat?”
Igraine, not accustomed to such courteous behavior in this city, was momentarily stunned. “Oui, merci,” she said, keeping an eye on Anwin who was busy exploring. “Anwin. Don’t touch anything. 176, is that Christmas music I hear?”
“Yes, miss. As a matter of fact, I was in the middle of decorating.”
Igraine glanced at the garlands of gold-colored paper high on the walls. “I can see that. Why?”
His lips shaped into a line. “Well, because it's Christmas, miss.”
“On Earth,” Igraine rebuked him.
“I’m from Earth.”
She rolled her eyes. “Oh, never mind.” When Igraine entered the next room, Anwin was looking up at a decorated coral stem with tubes fanning out like the branches of a pine tree. Standing on the tips of her boots, the doll reached for a mushroom dangling from a turquoise tendril.
“Anwin. That’s not a toy.” Igraine picked her up. “176. What is that thing?”
He shrugged. “It's the closest to what I could find, which resembled something akin to a Christmas tree.”
She looked at the purple fruits hanging from the branches. “And you put cheese berries in there?”
“By lack of other ornamentation. So, I collected one for each day on the advent calendar. And every day I’ll have one after dinner. Don’t you celebrate anything?”
Igraine held Anwin, who was outstretching her arm for the ornamentations just out of her reach. “Don’t have anything to celebrate,” she said with an awkward smile. Her memories of festive days invoked recollections of loneliness and shame. She hated how everyone was looking forward to the festivals, but her.
The days running up to celebrations were filled with flashy ornamentations, messages, and activities until it was time for the family gatherings that made her feel miserable. While her siblings would receive praise, people were struggling not to vocalize their disappointment with her.
When Anwin nearly slipped her hold to touch a berry, Igraine snapped out of her self-loathing. “Leave it alone, you,” she commanded before turning to the Associate. “So, what was this important message you mentioned?”
“Message? Oh, yes.” He swung to his desk and grasped an envelope to hand over. “The latest dispatch from the committee.”
Igraine let Anwin hold the message. “Merci. Was that all?”
He rubbed his hands together. “Miss. I was thinking…” he began hesitantly. “Days such as these are best spent in company.”
Igraine was stopping Anwin from folding the envelope. “Oui?”
“What I’m- Would you join me for Christmas dinner?”
“Ah. Uhm…,” she muttered, shrugging her shoulders. “Sure. I mean, I’d be delighted.”
“Well, wonderful!” he said, relieved. “It is great to have some female company.”
“Are there other guests?”
“Oh, well… ”
“I, uhm. Have been short on time. And… Arkology isn’t a city where it’s easy to make lasting relationships, as you well know.”
“Oh. Do you need any help with the dinner itself, sir?”
“Well… let’s see. I have enough tableware, and I can arrange some of the side dishes easily enough. Just the main course…”
“I can do that!”
“It's fine! It's still some cycles away,” Igraine said and continued to assure him it wasn’t a problem. But once standing outside, she stopped to look at Anwin who was back in her pouch. “What did I just agree to?”
The doll shrugged.
Igraine rubbed her red face, lambasting herself for proposing it. Not only did she have more important things to do. She couldn’t even cook. That had always been Mr. Butler’s job, including Christmas dinner.
She remembered the first time having Christmas dinner. At first, Igraine was very nervous. All of Sanctuary’s denizens and personnel had gathered at the candlelit tables decorated with red blankets and polished silverware. Having been on Atlas for less than a year, she knew little about the celebration. She was offered a chair next to Amber: a girl her age who had also arrived recently. Amber was a simple girl, with dark locks resembling dried grass. But they hit it off that evening while bonding over roasted turkey. Igraine had never eaten turkey before. But Amber had barely eaten meat at all before arriving in Sanctuary. She couldn’t stop talking about the variety of dishes, as all she had ever eaten in her life had been potatoes, sour bread, and porridge. Never before had she heard anyone talk this much about food. Ever since, Igraine didn’t mind these celebrations, unlike in her own world.
“Turkey.” The word was wistfully passing her lips when she heard a drumbeat in the distance.
While Igraine was standing among the kipps, waiting for her turn to gather water from the city’s many heated fountains, an orchestra of percussion instruments was sounding increasingly louder. The instruments belonged to a procession of Homecomers wearing orange surcoats. A dozen of them were towing a floating mockup of the White Airship: the zeppelin responsible for delivering all of Arkology’s denizens. The Homercomers believed that the city was a part of some grand plan. They were likely one of the few tribes celebrating any holidays as (by some twist of logic) they had managed to find meaning in the rotating gears of the Great Machine above.
Igraine had considered it wasn’t that much different from watching the stars. Still, the earth’s constellations correlated to the seasons. Unlike here in Hades, where the climate was dictated by the …. of a mechanical system.
Anwin was leaning out of her pouch again, pointing excitedly at the big balloon.
Hastily, Igraine forced the doll down and hurried home, ignoring the shouting of the missionaries.
Back at her den, Igraine sat at her desk, basking in the warm glow of a biostove. Leaning back with her fingers shoved together, she looked at a defunct animatronic cat statue with saucer-shaped eyes. As it was grinning at her while bearing its pearly human teeth, Igraine wondered what even the point was. It was just dinner. And yet, she kept thinking of Mr. Butler’s turkey. She wouldn’t be in Sanctuary this Christmas to enjoy it.
Behind her, Anwin was prancing around, in her favorite mushroom-themed dress, with her bunny doll to the radio music.
“What to do, Anwin?” she moaned. “I can’t cook. I’ve never made anything more complicated than mushrooms roasted over an open fire. Maybe I should get something to eat from Boel’s place.”
She rested her head on the desk. “I can’t do that. I need to get something suitable. Like, stuffed turkey.” She lifted her chin. “Wait. What If I catch a bird for dinner?”
Anwin stopped to look at her, pulling the rim of her mushroom hat down. Then she nodded agreeably and then pranced on like a happy little gnome.
Igraine groaned. “Some help you are.” She looked back at the cat. “What about you? You think Boel can help me?”
The statue gave no reply.
“As good a place to start as any. Come, Anwin. Back in your pen.”
(To be continued........)
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