They err who thinks Santa Claus comes down through the chimney; he really enters through the heart. – Mrs. Paul M. Ell
It all started when I got a call from my very best client, offering me several days at one of the most beautiful resorts in known space, during which he’d be busy every daylight hour and most of the evening; all I had to do is look beautiful, be incredibly charming at dinner, make sure his suits were perfect and laid out before bedtime, give him massages when necessary, spend 15 minutes on my back most nights, collect my pay and be home in time for Christmas. Best of all, it was his wife’s idea; she despises space travel and would rather delegate consort duties whenever her husband goes offworld. All in all, just about the nicest, cushiest booking imaginable. And it did turn out okay in the end, but…
Hang on, I’m getting ahead of myself. The trip out was uneventful, and these new diplomatic ships are so damned fast we arrived at Alinor in only three days. And that’s when I got my first unpleasant surprise; like a complete dorp I had forgotten that Alinor is a whole planet, and though there are indeed lots of gorgeous resorts in the temperate zone, we were in the tropics. And not Hawaii or Tahiti-type tropics either, oh no; we’re talking thirty-five degrees in the shade, eighty percent humidity tropics. See, the Tsath – those are the aliens my client was there to negotiate with – are rather like enormous frogs, and cool, dry air can make them sick.
But I’m nothing if not professional, so I smiled and resolved to make the best of it. “Just be friendly,” he said; “you’re certainly good at that. Think of yourself as a goodwill ambassador.”
“What, to the Tsath? Do they speak English?”
“Remarkably well. They’re linguistic prodigies; the consul herself speaks at least eleven that I know of. But their thinking is emotive and subjective; they rely on intuition over logic and prefer art to science, so we’re trying to work out a deal to provide them with technicians and automated factories. Just between you and me, they’re really very backward.”
“Is that why you in particular were sent here?”
“Yes. We’ve been trying to finalize this deal for months, but though the Tsath are clearly eager to trade with us, we just can’t seem to come to an understanding. It’s as though they were waiting for something.”
“Well, maybe they are. You said they were intuitive and backward; maybe they’re waiting for an omen or an auspicious conjunction.”
He looked at me as though I had said something he hadn’t thought of before and said, “Maybe they are, at that.”
One of the locals had told me about clothes of a fabric designed to draw heat and perspiration away from the skin, which made the climate quite bearable; so, I decided to make an early start on the second day and go out into town to buy an outfit or seven, but as I was crossing the lobby I suddenly found myself face-to-face with the Tsath negotiator.
“Good morning, Miss Kane! You are just the person I wanted to see!” Her English was absolutely flawless, but what really amazed me was that she could tell humans apart so easily; she had only seen me once, at last night’s dinner, and to me she was nearly indistinguishable from the others of her party but for her insignia of rank.
I bowed my head and closed my eyes for a moment in the Tsath gesture of respect, then said, “You do me honor, Madame Consul; what can I do for you?”
“When I asked Mr. Ituro if you were his wife, he explained that you were a paid companion. Is that correct?”
I inwardly panicked for just a moment; if these people were backward, might they have a primitive prejudice against whores? But her voice sounded pleasant and friendly; I decided honesty was the best policy. “Yes, it is.”
“Ah, I didn’t know Earth people had the trade, too! Well, if you don’t mind, I have a contract for you.”
Before I could think of a reply, she called out to someone, and a Tsath child emerged from behind a display she had apparently been reading. She was cute, in a 30-kilogram-deep-purple-tree-frog-with-spindly-limbs kind of way; fortunately for me, though the Tsath had no visible sexual dimorphism my unschooled eyes could discern, their customs of dress were coincidentally like traditional Western ones: one could tell a girl by her skirts.
“How fortunate I am to have found someone who could keep Nahgi company while I am embroiled in negotiations! Whatever price you ask will be fine with me; you have an honest face so I know you’ll be fair.”
“I’m, uh, very pleased to meet you, Nahgi,” I stammered, totally unsure how to handle this.
“I’m pleased to meet you too, Miss Kane,” she squeaked in perfect English. “I just know we’re going to have ever so much fun!”
“I’m sure we will,” I agreed, feeling very trapped as I watched her mother vanish into the lift.
Though it was rough going at first, I eventually realized she wasn’t all that different from a human seven-year-old, and though I hadn’t baby-sat since I was sixteen it came back quickly enough. I got to see their intellectual dimorphism firsthand: though technical things seemed to confuse or fascinate Nahgi far more than they would a human child, her facility with languages was quite remarkable. She spoke three in all, and despite the fact that she had never heard English at this time last year, she now sounded like a native. I soon realized that she found endless amusement in puns, rhymes and silly word games, though not nearly as much as she found in my painfully-incompetent attempts to pronounce even the simplest words in her language. She was very excited by my promise to teach her a bit of Mandarin the next day, yet at the same time was mystified by my ability to add up the prices of items in my head.
And so, in spite of my initial reluctance, I actually found myself enjoying the day. The marketplace was climate-controlled for human comfort, so I had bought her a little winter suit to keep her warm; she laughed at herself in the mirror and I laughed to see the contrast of my pale human skin in summer clothes with her hairless purple head sticking up from a faux-fur collar. Fortunately, she had been taught which human foods she could eat, but when I took her to the penny arcade after lunch I found that most of the games either bored or frustrated her. Since I was feeling generous and growing genuinely fond of my little charge, I suggested she show me the sorts of playthings she liked in the toy department; this was met with the same enthusiasm one would expect from a human child, so off we went.
When we arrived, I thought her already-huge eyes would bug completely out of her head. The proprietors of the shop had decorated it for the holidays in the antique style of centuries past, with old-fashioned garlands and colored lights; dolls and toy animals ran about the floor, and aircraft flew in formation or performed aerobatics. A wide selection of Christmas music from many different times wafted through the air, as did the savory smell of baked goodies presented on trays for the taking. Artificially-created snow was falling in an enclosed playground out front, and colonial children who had never seen the stuff except in video romped and howled, building snowmen and pelting each other with snowballs. And presiding over the whole from his throne at the back of the area was Father Christmas himself, in the same costume he’s worn since before children first accompanied their parents to the stars.
“Who is that?” Nahgi asked in a hushed voice.
“He’s dressed as a legendary figure called Santa Claus, who is the symbol of our most popular festival. That’s what all these decorations are for.”
“Is Santa Claus a god?”
My stomach dropped. I had no idea what Tsath religious beliefs were like, though her question seemed to indicate polytheism. On the one hand, I might start an interstellar incident by insulting their faith, but on the other hand, I wasn’t about to tell a child of any species that Santa wasn’t real. So I opted for the diplomatic approach.
“Well, a saint. Sort of a demigod, I guess; I’m not an expert in theology.” Oh, good grief; what an inane answer! As soon as it was out of my mouth I wanted to drown myself in the wassail bowl.
But Nahgi didn’t think it was stupid, at all. “So, this is a priest dressed as him for a ceremony!”
“Something like that.”
“Why are the children setting on his lap? Is he blessing them?”
“Well, sort of. They tell him what gift they would like, and the legend says that if they’ve been good, he brings it to them on Christmas Eve, which is six days from today.”
She was so excited I thought she would wet herself, if Tsath do that. “May I sit on his lap, too?”
For a moment, all I could see was a vision of myself standing neck-deep in a hole, which I was digging deeper and deeper. “Well, I would suspect so, but let me ask permission first, OK?” She gave that closed-eye nod, and I approached Santa to ask; as it turned out he was a retired xenobiologist and was absolutely thrilled to share the ancient ritual with an alien child. I beckoned her to the throne, and though she at first approached with awe she was as quick as any human child to clamber into his lap once he bade her do so. And as I watched the timeless scene unfold for a little girl to whom it was wholly new, I thanked the goddess of my profession for tear-proof makeup.
Once she had whispered her Christmas wish to him, hugged him and climbed down, she scampered gaily to my side and took my hand. “I’m ready to go back to the hotel now, if you are,” she said.
“What did you ask him for?” I asked, my heart in my fallen stomach.
“For our people to reach an agreement soon,” she said.
I felt a pall of doom descend upon me. “Sweetie, I’m not sure he can bring you that.”
“Yes, he can,” she said matter-of-factly.
She was right.
By dinner the next day, the talks were concluded; the Tsath had clearly received whatever omen they had been waiting for, and the agreement had fallen into place as quickly and neatly as one might negotiate the sale of a used robot. My patron was mystified; he had no idea what had happened, but being male he was satisfied with the assumption that his own skill at negotiation had somehow broken the impasse. The consul thanked me at dinner for taking such good care of Nahgi, and the child herself came to see me the next morning, to hug me goodbye and to ask for my address so she could write; neither of them said anything about the resolution, either.
I’ll tell you what I think happened, though. The Tsath are creatures of intuition; the negotiators probably projected the typical human “serious grown-up business” demeanor, which may have made them uncomfortable and wary. But when I spent a day with one of their children, and allowed her to see that Earth people were capable of generosity, humor and tenderness, it forged a connection that wasn’t there before. Maybe the Tsath have a kind of Santa Claus, and the discovery that we do as well showed them our two peoples aren’t so different after all.
(With grateful acknowledgement to the work of Zenna Henderson).