17 December 2020

 

WIGHT CHRISTMAS

by Philip Purser-Hallard

 

‘Can you help Jason in the Magical Grotto, Barry?’ Tracy the admin’s waiting to pounce as I trudge through the mud in front of her Portakabin. ‘The walls are leaking again with all this rain, and he’s having to move the bran tubs.’

‘Sorry, Trace,’ I say, waggling the pickaxe in my left hand at the shovel in my right. ‘The chemical loos are playing up, and all. Mrs W wants me to dig a latrine in case of emergencies.’

‘Bloody Norah,’ says Tracy with feeling. ‘If they’re gonna start making me go in a ditch, that’s it for me. I’m off to my sister’s early.’

‘You and me both,’ I reply. ‘Not to your sister’s, obviously.’

It’s all a lie, of course – well, not all, those toilets are genuinely dodgy – but if I told Tracy what the excavating equipment’s actually for, she wouldn’t approve.

They’re decent tools too, good dwarven steel from the Forges of Azghad deep beneath the Peak of Perillon, that I’ve been keeping in proper nick in my shed for when they’re needed. You can’t buy quality like that at Homebase. Or at all, these days.

She sighs. ‘I’ll have to find Jason another Little Helper, then.’ When I arrived here at Santaland, the employees in that particular role were called Elves, but I got very vocal on the subject and now it’s Little Helpers. They all think it’s some PC thing, but it’s about pride. I’ve got nothing against elves – some of my best friends, and all that – but I’m not having any human calling me one.

Tracy goes on. ‘I’d send Kayleigh, but she’s trying to mend the fairy lights over in the Enchanted Northern Lights Forest Walk, after that kiddie got the electric shock. I don’t care what Mrs W says, we can’t be having that.’

‘What’s the rush with the grotto, anyway?’ I ask. ‘We haven’t even got a Santa.’ The last one didn’t even make it through his first day, after spending the morning swigging from a hipflask, telling a little girl reindeer would burst into flames if they travelled at over a thousand miles per hour, then vanishing into the North Pole Playbarn and passing out in the ball pit. Frankly, I was impressed. A couple of us Helpers have tried filling in since, but Kayleigh can’t do the voice and I just don’t look the part.

Tracy groans. ‘Oh, God. Mrs W thinks there’s a new Santa coming today, but he phoned me just now to say he’s got that alopecia and his beard’s falling out. I don’t know how I’m gonna tell her.’

‘Well, rather you than me, Trace,’ I admit. I hoist the pickaxe again. ‘Anyway, that lav isn’t going to dig itself.’

‘Barry?’ she says tentatively as I turn to go. ‘I’ve been thinking, you know. Most of us are stuck with this, but you don’t need to be working in a dump like this at Christmas. Most of our Little Helpers ain’t that little – I mean, you’ve seen Kayleigh, bless her. Bloke like you, you could do panto. There’s money in that, and between the shows your time’s your own. They’re crying out this time of year for… well, you know. People your sort of height. You’ve got the beard for it, and all.’

‘Been there, done that,’ I say. ‘Fancied something different this year.’

 

* * *

 

It was Elaphar got me into this, of course. Elaphar of bleeding Lornlethias, one of the aforementioned some-of-my-best-friends and your actual Elf of the People of the Forests of Light, with all the annoying baggage that lot always bring with them. You know, all the nobility and righteousness and inconvenient altruism.

He’d been at a loose end ever since last Christmas, when we bested Crag son of Scarp, the erstwhile Troll King, like us a long-lived survivor of the long-since-ended Third Age. In the old days, the armies of our sundered peoples led by Athelys Elvenhorn and Kelvaín Cunninghand joined in common cause to defend the Western Realms from Crag’s monstrous armies at the Battle of Hammerpass.

This time we found him in a basement in Swindon, and I put my battle-axe through the laptop he’d been using to post hurtful comments all over the internet.

Elaphar was all for killing Crag, but we’d been making a lot of noise and it turned out that Scree, wife of Scarp, was still around too, and it was her basement. When we told her what her son had been up to she got quite indignant and told her he’d show some respect for other people while he was living under her roof, or he’d feel the heelstone of her hand. Then she told Elaphar and me how nice it was to see people from the old days, and gave us some mince pies and mulled wine.

I suggested Crag could get some other hobby that would get him out of the house, maybe join a choir. I was actually working up to a ‘Troll the ancient yuletide carol’ joke, but everyone else seemed to think it was a really good idea, so that’s where we left it.

 

* * *

 

I find Elaphar right where he said he’d be, round the other side of the earth mound where Ye Olde Traditional Christmas Market (one stall selling pick ‘n’ mix and candy floss, one selling the same plastic junk we stuff into the bran tubs) has been set up. Like me, he’s dressed in the daft green leprechaun outfit that’s the compulsory uniform of Little Helpers everywhere. Like mine it’s dripping with rain, but with his lanky blond waifiness he very nearly carries it off anyway.

He’s already cleared away some of the scrub growing on the backside of the mound. There’s nothing else round this side except the rubbish skips and a muddy approach road for service vehicles.

‘Do you have them, Barί?’ he asks me. I’m visibly carrying two quite large digging implements, so I just give him a look. ‘Wonderful!’ he says when the penny eventually drops. ‘Then we must make haste.’

I don’t reckon anyone will miss us for a while, and if they do realise we’ve both nipped off somewhere, well, I don’t think they’ll be in a rush to investigate. Elaphar and I arrived at Santaland together, it’s obvious we’ve got shared history, and most of our colleagues here just reckon we’re an item. Elaphar hasn’t twigged, of course, because elves don’t think like that, and I haven’t corrected the misapprehension because it’s really funny.

The tall streak puts his back into it, I’ll give him that, but his lot weren’t built for digging the way we dwarves were. Soon I’m a good yard deep into the mound, tunnelling away with my axe, while he’s pretty much just using the shovel to clear away the earth, and having to bend down low to do it.

‘So, you still reckon this place is haunted, then?’ I ask as I excavate, with no less scepticism than when he first came to me with some article he’d found on his phone, listing all the reasons this place had to close early last year.

The norovirus was the big one, obviously, giving the news site the lovely headline ‘WINTER CHUNDERLAND’, but there were also mentions of the mud, the reindeer running away, the impenetrable fogs that suddenly descended without warning, the staff having breakdowns, children seeing terrifying apparitions in the mist, all the usual stuff they put in these reports.

‘Haunted? No!,’ Elaphar laughs merrily until I want to deck him with the pickaxe. (Just the handle, obviously – like I say, he’s a mate.) ‘No, it’s cursed. I know such places. In my youth I travelled with Ningalast the Red, one of the great wizards of the Third Age, and he broke the power of many such mounds. Did you know these parts well in those days?’

‘These parts?’ I grunt, as I delve once more into the yielding earth. ‘Not so well, no. Might have passed by underground, on my way somewhere.’

‘Mounds like this were common here even then,’ says Elaphar ominously. ‘They are relics of an older Age than ours, my friend. Even in those days they were places of ill-omen.’

 

* * *

 

When we dwarves dig, we don’t mess about. Twenty minutes later, Elaphar and I are standing inside the mound – well, I’m standing, Elaphar’s kind of bent over because the ceiling’s pretty low – and we’re gazing around ourselves with awe and, in my case, a fair dollop of the old avarice.

Because the mound’s full of treasure, isn’t it? Treasure of the Elder Ages, not your Saxon tat. Gold goblets and plate, silver brooches and pendants, gemstones by the hundred. Off this central chamber, which is lit by the damp and listless morning light from outside, half a dozen side-tunnels snake off into the darkness, holding who knows what further troves of wealth.

‘Will you look at this lot,’ I whistle. ‘Reminds me of a dragon’s lair I saw once in the Kingdom of the Copper Crown. I think they’ve built Stoke-on-Trent there now.’ I reach out to pick up a particularly scintillating ruby, but Elaphar grasps my hand.

‘No, Barί. The hoard will be cursed. I have seen such things before. If you take just one gem from it, it will destroy you.’

I say, ‘Mate, you know we dwarfs don’t listen to that sort of warning. Frankly, we reckon they’re in bad taste. No, I’m just going to take all the loot I can carry and stick it in my shed, if it’s the same to you.’

‘Please, just wait for a moment,’ Elaphar says. ‘I think there’s someone lying over there.’

I say, ‘Well, it’s a tomb, isn’t it? That’s what these places were for.’ I look around again at the scintillating treasures surrounding me. ‘Funny, I’d have thought some archaeologist would’ve dug it up before now.’

‘They’ll have considered it,’ says Elaphar, ‘but then decided the whole idea was too depressing and given up. That’s what the curse does to people. That’s why Santaland fails every year.’ He’s crossed over to the figure lying on a gilded bier at the far end of the mound, under a pile of crimson velvet and golden chains. He gasps. ‘Barί, come quickly!’

‘I’m not over-keen to inspect a millennia-old corpse, to be honest, Elaphar old son,’ I say, but in fact I’m gazing raptly at the treasures on display, with gold… wealth… riches… running through my head on a loop, and I can’t be doing with the interruption.

‘Barί!’ the elf shouts. ‘It’s Ningalast the Red! And he’s alive!

I break eye-contact with the gems to stare at him ‘Are you telling me some idiot’s left an actual proper wizard lying about in –’ I begin, but at that point a bunch of skeletons with swords come out of the side-tunnels and start trying to slaughter us, which gets a bit in the way of my train of thought.

 

* * *

 

They’re wights, of course – reanimated remains of the dead, raised to activity by the residual magic of some evil enchanter or necromancer, probably long gone himself, but leaving the spell behind. You don’t see a lot of them about the place these days, although I did run into a clutch of them just outside Cowes a few centuries back. They’re nasty buggers, difficult to kill because of being dead already – you have to smash them into squirming bits and make sure none of the bits are in a position to hurt you.

If we’d come here thousands of years ago when they were less decomposed, we’d have a real problem on our hands, but like I say this lot are just skeletons now, and this really is a damn good pickaxe. I’d rather have my proper battle number, but beggars can’t be choosers.

While I’m hacking the bone-men to bits, and vaguely aware of Elaphar laying about himself with the shovel up the other end of the chamber, I try to remember what I know about Ningalast the Red. One of the Seven Great Wizards from Over the Ocean, I’m pretty sure. He had a chariot drawn by – yales, was it, or was it dire-elk? – and a fortress somewhere up in the northern ice-fields. He was well-known as a friend of elvenkind, which obviously didn’t endear him to my lot.

The Seven Wizards were immortal, obviously, which now I come to think of it means it’s less of a surprise that Ningalast is still around now than that the other Six aren’t.

Anyway. As soon as the last wight’s been ground into bonemeal, Elaphar’s grabbed its sword and is chopping away at the golden chains, which I now see the comatose wizard isn’t wearing for decoration. I go over and join in with my pickaxe.

Somehow the cursed hoard’s lost all its charm for the moment. Either the spell’s gone, or spending all this time with Elaphar’s beginning to get to me.

As soon as we’ve freed him from his bonds, Ningalast the Red begins to stir.

I say, ‘So – have we broken the curse, then?’

‘No,’ Elaphar says. ‘We need to break up the hoard. It is the only remedy in such cases. Each piece must be given to someone else, and we must keep none of it for ourselves.’

I say, ‘So… you could give me that diamond-studded statuette, say?’

‘No,’ says a booming voice, and Ningalast the Red is struggling weakly to sit up. I’m surprised for a minute that he understands English, but I guess it’s all part of the wizardry. ‘The finders must keep none of it. All must be given away.’

‘Well, you’re no fun,’ I mutter.

The elf and I hoist him up by the armpits, and he stands. He’s a heavy bloke, plumper than the wizards I remember, and his beard tickles my ear. He’s just as cramped under the low roof as Elaphar is, but with a fair bit of struggle we manage to manhandle him outside onto the slippery approach road, and prop him up against the bins. With trembling hands he fills an ornate pipe with some stuff that’s probably not legal any more.

A thought strikes me and I say, ‘Oi, mate, do you know of any spell that can fix leaks?’

He glares at me. ‘Did I not, dwarf, I should make a poor wizard indeed.’ He lights the pipe with a snap of his fingers.

Elaphar and I stroll a little way away. He sighs. ‘It pains me to see Ningalast in this mood. His disposition was usually a jolly one. He loved children and halflings.’

‘Right then,’ I say. ‘So we’ve got a priceless treasure trove to distribute somehow, and a bloke who’s going to be acting very oddly until we find some way to integrate him into Fourth Age society.’

‘Yes,’ Elaphar agrees. ‘It is a challenge.’

‘Also,’ I carry on, ‘Mrs W’s replacement Santa isn’t arriving today, which means that Santaland is basically just Land unless we can get hold of someone to replace the replacement.’

The elf frowns. ‘Actually, Barί, I think the other problem might be more important?’

I sigh, too. Elaphar’s handy in a scrap, but when the First of All was handing out the brains to the elves, he wasn’t exactly at the front of the queue.

‘Let’s put it this way,’ I say. ‘I think we can get this place some halfway decent reviews on TripAdvisor. Let’s get your mate there over to the Magical Grotto, and bring the other Little Helpers back here with the bran tubs.’

© Philip Purser-Hallard 2019.

Read the epic story of Barί and Elaphar’s previous adventure, ‘The Fourth Age of Christmas’, at http://www.infinitarian.com/thefourthage.html.

19 December 2019

Stable Genius

STABLE GENIUS

By Philip Purser-Hallard

Wiseman stares at the scrap of paper. It’s been pulled out of what looks like a reference book, flimsy paper close-printed in a font he doesn’t recognise. It’s barely half a page, and the bottom half at that. Its lower and right edges are still crisp and well-defined, the left and upper ones ragged.

He takes a deep breath, and reads.

‘…data losses resulting from natural disasters and tit-for-tat cyberattacks during this part of the 21st century. However, legends of her early life abound. It is said that her parents were smuggled across the border in a horse-box bringing donkeys to an El Paso riding center; that she was born in an animal stall there, a few hours later, a US citizen by birthright; that the family only avoided a border patrol raid before fleeing north to Cairo, Illinois because her father was forewarned in a dream by the Founding Father Alexander Hamilton. Her junior high school civics teacher, Lucas Heilig, claimed late in life that in 2030 he missed her from the return coach after a trip to Washington, only to find her in the Capitol building, debating constitutional law with various Congresspeople and their staff. Another story tells of a cousin’s wedding where the beer…’

Wiseman shakes his head slowly and turns the paper over. He notes that while the bottom of the page is white and clean, its ragged top is brown and brittle. Though one might guess that the page had been near a fire, to him the effect is more reminiscent of ageing, as if the page gets younger the further down one reads.

‘…beyond any dispute, even by her opponents, is the scale of her achievements in office. Her domestic record, in comprehensively reforming the school and prison systems, enshrining universal healthcare across all 52 states, and clarifying the Second Amendment to define the NRA as a terrorist organisation, would make an exceptional legacy in itself. But it is in her international achievements, especially the virtuoso diplomatic work involved in establishing the Pan-American Free Movement Zone and brokering the Jerusalem Accords, that the political genius of the 50th President becomes truly apparent. It is unsurprising that her career gave rise to the cult of personality that spawned her remarkable origin narratives, nor that her reputation would grow in memory following her assassination shortly after her re-election in 2058…’

Wiseman lays the paper carefully on his desk. He realises that he has been tugging at his grey hair, an incongruously girlish habit he acquired when he grew it long in college, and has failed to break in the many decades since.

He sighs. ‘And this is all there is?’

‘It’s all that came through before the systems failure,’ Maggie Starr says curtly. The head researcher on the protoscope project knows as well as he does how little of their hopes this shred of truth represents. ‘Aside from some dust. We’re analysing that now.’

‘The ’scope is supposed to lock onto nodes of information density,’ Wiseman reminds her. ‘Are you telling me the best it could find was a book? No phones or tablets?’

Starr looks offended. ‘The geographical scale of the sample was pretty small. If this book’s on a shelf with a bunch of novels, say, it could easily be the peak of the local information gradient. Like the way lightning can strike a tree next to you even when there are mountains in the distance.’

Wiseman is no outdoorsman, and he doesn’t figure Starr for an outdoorswoman either. ‘What’s its value to our principal?’

‘Limited,’ Starr admits, ‘but not zero. There’s some geographic detail, though the source admits it’s unreliable. One personal name, and not a common one either. Of course it would be better if we had her name, but… There are the dates. If she’s in junior high in 2030, and elected for the first time in 2054, she’ll be the youngest President in US history, unless there’s a younger one over the next 36 years. She’ll be a little kid right now. A baby, even.’

Wiseman nods slowly, acknowledging all of this. Starr’s right that it’s not nothing. Still, their boss is not going to be pleased. He wanted info on his immediate successor, not the next but four.

Starr’s mind has obviously been working along the same lines. ‘I guess we can look on the bright side,’ she says. ‘It’s not like he wanted to find the next one so he could train them up for the job. He’s not the mentoring type.’

Wiseman sighs again. ‘That’s not our problem. We serve at his pleasure. It’s not our job to ask questions. At least,’ he adds, to forestall his subordinate’s objections, ‘not those kinds of questions.’

‘So,’ Starr challenges him, her glasses glinting icily. ‘You’re going to go to the President – this President – and tell him that the young Hispanic daughter of illegal immigrants will be sitting in his chair in the Oval Office during his children’s lifetime? That it could be pretty much any immigrant kid alive today?’

‘She’s not an immigrant,’ Wiseman objects. ‘It says right here she’s a US citizen.’

‘Oh, like he’s capable of grasping that distinction,’ Starr says. ‘We can’t even be sure it’s a girl. Who knows what “she” means fifty years from now?’

Wiseman raises an eyebrow. That point hadn’t occurred to him.

‘You’re willing to tell him that?’ Starr insists on knowing. ‘You know what he’s likely to do.’

‘Our job’s to gather the information,’ Wiseman repeats. ‘Information’s an end in itself, remember? The more we know, the better. What the President does with it is on him, Maggie. Our hands are clean.’

‘No, Trey,’ she says, flatly. ‘It’s on your head if you do.’

‘Well, maybe.’ He smiles grimly. ‘Maybe that’s why I’m the Director, and make twice what you do.’

Starr shakes her head in disbelief, then whistles. ‘Still, I don’t envy you telling him that’s all we’ve got. He’s going to be furious.’

‘Could be,’ Wiseman agrees. ‘That part’s my job, too. Who knows…’ He allows himself a rare, wry chuckle. ‘If he takes it really badly, maybe I’ll be dreaming of a Founding Father tonight. I always wanted to meet Ben Franklin.’

And picking up the piece of paper Starr has given him, Trey Wiseman sets out to seek the ruler of that land.


22 December 2018

Dendrotheology


DENDROTHEOLOGY
By Philip Purser-Hallard

I

‘Do you have any religious affiliation?’ the customs officer asks, in a tone too bored to display any remnant of embarrassment.
‘Religious affiliation? Oh no, nothing like that,’ replies the Reverend Monsignora Dr Imogen Tantry, S.J., the fingers in the left-hand pocket of her slacks devoutly crossed.
‘Are you carrying religious artefacts or relics, or scriptures or sacred texts in any format?’
‘Certainly not,’ she says, praying that the encryption applied by Brother Quelle of the Congregation for Pontifical Intelligence is opaque enough to screen her palmpad’s data from whatever quantum scan the customs desk may currently be performing on her hand-luggage.
‘That’s good. Because it’s my duty to warn you,’ the officer continues, still reciting from his inner script, ‘that all expressions of religion, public or private, are strictly illegal on the rootworlds. Those convicted may be subject to corporal punishment and a prison term.’
‘So I’ve heard,’ Imogen responds. ‘Don’t worry, I’m not interested in all that nonsense.’ The Society of Jesus takes a pragmatic view of deception by its members, when dictated by a higher necessity. Although the man she has followed here is not a Jesuit, she supposes he must have justified his answers in much the same way.
‘Well, then, Dr Fidele,’ says the customs officer, passing back her fake identity card, ‘welcome to the Eleventh Ias’par Rootworld.’
Imogen nods gravely, and makes her way towards the spaceport terminal’s exit.

II

The spaceport terminal is controlled by Tangential Spacelines and adapted to the needs of its mostly human staff and transit passengers. Even so, the shops and offices of the concourse are interspersed with soil-floored solaria for the use of local customers and employees – arrangements similar to those the Halogen Dawn, which brought Imogen here from Jupiter’s Galilean Transit Hub, made for its Ias’par passengers.
In another respect, though, the Ias’par influence is everywhere. By Earth’s calendar today is 24 December, and anywhere in human space Imogen would expect to see snow-filters applied to the shop-window displays, foil decorations hanging from the fittings in the bars and cafés, a lit-up tree in the concourse. The Halogen Dawn had such ornamentation in abundance, its servitor drones being rather excessive in their seasonal enthusiasm. As on most worlds, those commemorations were resolutely secular, with Imogen’s fellow-passengers giving barely a thought to their underlying significance.
When the Ias’par banned the import of religion, though, they were thorough. And trees… trees are a particularly sensitive topic.
Outside the terminal, it is altogether clearer that Imogen is on an alien world. Though Kar’sept City is a major nexus of interspecies trade and commerce, Imogen’s route to the University passes few high-rise offices, or indeed buildings with recognisable roofs and floors. Most of the workplaces are more like what she would consider walled gardens than buildings. Inside them, the adult male Ias’par go about their business efficiently enough, their limbs swaying busily and crowns rustling with purpose, with none of the leisureliness a human might associate with such places.
They crowd the streets, too, towering over Imogen, their roots probing gracefully across the compacted-soil sidewalks. Occasionally they break into whirling runs after the flatbed trams that ply the city. For many of them it is that time of the year, and Imogen is occasionally showered by dry leaves whose autumnal tones are rather spoiled for her by seeing them shed like dandruff by passing pedestrians.
The bushes shiver and twitch as Imogen passes, and in the distance she sees a creeping vine slither up and over a wall. Aside from visitors of human and other sentient species, she sees no animals anywhere; the Ias’par’s original biosphere simply never evolved them, and the worlds they colonise are first thoroughly scoured of any native life. Instead, scraggy perennials scurry from soil-bed to soil-bed, and flocks of winged seed-pods ply the air.
This being her first visit to a Ias’par rootworld, Imogen also sees for the first time, at a distance, the sessile females of the species. All are rooted firmly in their harem-groves behind the walls of private dwellings, but the most affluent males – those who can afford the best security arrangements – display their wives and concubines on artificial hillocks for the envy of passers-by. Many of them are gravid, visibly fruiting with the seedlings they will scatter in their death-throes.
This being a major population centre, the infants are gathered up regularly and planted in communal nurseries where they can grow sociably together, chattering and playing catch and swapping toys – until the fateful days of puberty, when the males will gain the ability to uproot themselves and walk, and the females will be prepared for the short, unhappy and ultimately explosive reproductive careers that await them. For them, their greatest hope is that they will be proven infertile and transplanted back to the nurseries, to act as aunts to future generations of seedlings.
The Ias’par are among the most intensely patriarchal societies in the known galaxy, but given their biology it is difficult to see how else they could have developed.

III

‘So, welcome to the Planet of the Atheist Tree-Men,’ says Dr Muriel Xue, Imogen’s contact at Kar’sept City University, as she busies herself in the rudimentary kitchen of her staff bungalow. ‘Don’t mind the tap-water, it’s fine once it’s been strained and boiled. The Ias’par can’t imagine why we’d prefer it without all the nutrients. I drink tea a lot these days.’
‘I’ll take your word for it,’ Imogen replies, rather stiffly.
Dr Xue, a lapsed but still reasonably sympathetic Catholic, was among those human expatriates who Father Dmitri Larsen-Goya contacted on his arrival on Rootworld 11 a month before. He claimed an interest in xenoanthropology, and volunteered his time to help collate her research. After his disappearance Dr Xue checked her files to see what he had actually been doing, and immediately put a call through to the Vatican’s Congregation for the Extrahuman Churches.
The academic is thus in part responsible for Imogen, as Pope Cosmas IX’s xenotheologian-at-large, missing Christmas at home in favour of her current mission for the Holy Father, an altruistic intervention which Imogen is doing her utmost not to resent her for necessitating.
‘I thought I knew the type,’ Dr Xue explains as she pours tea for them both. ‘They’re usually much younger, though. They turn up full of zeal and holy purpose, convinced they’re the ones to finally win the heathen devils for Jesus – or Mohammed or Buddha or Beyoncé as it may be – or get martyred in the attempt. I think a lot of them would prefer the second option, to be frank. To them the Ias’par are just a challenge, whereas in fact they’re a prime example of where that sort of thinking will get you.’
Imogen nods. ‘Most of the species I’ve known who lack natural religious impulses find faith baffling, but they’re usually quite tolerant of it, indulgent even. I haven’t encountered one so actively hostile before.’
She knows the reason for the Ias’par’s antipathy, of course. Thankfully the Catholic Church was not involved, but it is not a story that does much credit to her more distant co-religionists.
Four centuries ago, a far-flung human colony found itself sharing a stellar system with one of the outlying Ias’par branchworlds. A faction among the colonists was thrilled by the opportunity this represented: as it happened, the human outpost was partially funded by a Protestant megachurch back on Earth, and its mission parameters included an earnest injunction towards xenoevangelism. Invited on a goodwill visit to the branchworld, the human colonists took with them a consignment of Bibles – expensive, old-fashioned King James versions, 2D-printed on real paper – to distribute among the locals.
The Ias’par had no native religion, and their verbal culture had transitioned directly from oral tradition to electronic storage without the intervention of a printed medium. At first the recipients accepted these unfamiliar gifts with polite puzzlement. It was only once one of their scientists analysed a page and discovered exactly what paper was that the visit blew up into a major interplanetary incident.
Understandably, the Ias’par reacted much as Imogen might on being presented with a book bound in humanoid skin. The colonists’ hasty explanation that the trees used to provide the wood-pulp had been non-sentient, indeed not even mobile, did little to ameliorate the perceived insult.
To make matters worse, one of the more scholarly of the Ias’par went so far as actually to read – or rather, to listen to a scanned version of – one of the Bibles, and reported, shocked, that it appeared to be an account of a holy war waged by humanity against trees, after a tree was falsely blamed for their initial fall from their deity’s favour. Generations later, hundreds were massacred to build a vessel to preserve the lives of mere animals in a flood, whose end was signified by a twig torn from yet another hapless tree – and the New Testament was worse still.
It turned out the Christians’ humanised deity was a carpenter, a word synonymous with ‘butcher’ as far as the Ias’par were concerned, and he harboured a particular antipathy towards those of the arboreal persuasion. He talked of condemning trees for bearing bad fruit, and on one occasion even cursed one he judged to be lacking. At his triumphal procession severed branches were laid as a tribute for his pack-animal to trample. That a tree had been instrumental in his death seemed to the Ias’par scholar to be poetic justice, though it had doubtless provided more fuel for the humans’ arboricidal jihad.
The human missionaries were expelled at once, and their adopted world did not survive the Ias’par’s subsequent orbital bombardment. Meanwhile the news of this repugnant alien philosophy, quickly reaching the Ias’par rootworlds, poisoned human-Ias’par relations for generations, and eventually hardened into the deep-rooted hostility to all varieties of religion still displayed by the Ias’par today.
The branchworld in question was promoted to rootworld status about two hundred years ago; Imogen is standing on it now. Evidently Fr Larsen-Goya hoped to undo the damage at its source.
It turns out, though, that Muriel Xue thinks there may be an additional wrinkle. ‘Actually, I’m not sure they’re completely impervious to religion,’ she suggests. ‘Some of the urban legends I’ve been studying suggest the opposite, in fact.’ Though her official research here is rather more staid, Dr Xue has a sideline in recording the scurrilous and subversive stories the Ias’par women pass between themselves, conveying them from nursery to harem-grove and sometimes back again as individuals are transplanted – interactions which amount to an alternative oral culture among the Ias’par, going largely unheard by the males.
‘Be that as it may,’ says Imogen, ‘Fr Larsen-Goya came here hopelessly unprepared, and wholly against the standing orders of the Curia and the advice of the Bishop of Europa. From what she tells me, a former curate of Larsen-Goya’s was recently awarded the Medal of St Kloxoth for his missionary work among the Veliuonans, and Larsen-Goya wanted one of his own. He seems to think that if he converts a few Ias’par to Catholicism the Holy Father will hand him a decoration too.’ She sighs. ‘Have you heard where they’re keeping him?’
Dr Xue shakes her head. ‘That’s the thing, though. I had lunch with the Consul’s husband yesterday. As far as the Consulate have been told, Larsen-Goya’s not been arrested. The City authorities always report that sort of thing to the Consul straight away – they always have in the past, at least. Either this time they’re playing it close to their trunks for some reason, or something else has happened.’
‘But he’s been missing more than three weeks,’ Imogen protests. Since the start of Advent, as she recalls. ‘Where could he have gone?’
‘Well, I’ve had a thought about that,’ Dr Xue says. ‘I’m not sure it’s going to be helpful, though.’

IV

The stone wall is high, taller than all but the oldest Ias’par. Even in the dark of the rootworld’s twilight Imogen can see that it is as roofless as most of their structures. It has no windows – with the open sky above such conveniences are optional, and based on Muriel Xue’s conjectures its users must prefer privacy. The door is of heavy metal and comes up only to a normal Ias’par’s crown-height. According to the Kar’sept City zoning registry – which Imogen was able to hack into with great ease, thanks to the impressively proactive data-security package Brother Quelle installed on her palmpad – the site is registered as the meeting-house of something called the Wormwood Club. The term is meaningless in the local language (the Ias’par biome having produced neither artemisia trees nor indeed worms), but not, of course, to readers of the Book of Revelation.
As Imogen circles the wall now, she sees that the clubhouse’s most exceptional feature is its shape. Basically rectangular, with its length aligned along the planet’s east-west axis, it has two smaller rectangles protruding from its longer edges, to the north and south. It is, in short, cruciform.
It is also occupied. Imogen, already aching from the standing tram-ride from the University, creeps closer through the offputtingly affectionate undergrowth, to where she can hear the rattling rustle of Ias’par speech. It is, as far as she can tell, a single voice – speaking with some intensity, but quietly, so as not to be overheard from the street. She thumbs an icon on her palmpad, and a translation is relayed directly to her earbud.
‘– and what was that manger made from, my brothers? Was it brick? Was it steel? No, it was wood – sliced from the bodies of slain trees, then nailed together by carpenters. Those shepherds – what did they carry? Crooks, brothers, hooked sticks made from the limbs of trees, amputated then stripped of twigs and leaves. That frankincense, that myrrh – resin, my friends, bled from the wounds of trees to scent the bodies of their human tormentors. Even at his birth, their saviour demanded the wood and sap of our arboreal brethren as tribute. And still, each year at that time, the humans celebrate by abducting an innocent tree, and dragging it inside a human dwelling as a trophy. I tell you, my brothers –’
Imogen tuts, and thumbs off the translator.
Not an abandoned Christian sect, then. Rather, these Ias’par apparently represent a new dendrocentric religious movement, loosely incorporating elements of Christian myth and iconography in much the same way as Islam or Mormonism – or, for that matter, Satanism.  
It was only to be expected, considering the visceral response the human settlers’ conventional Christianity evoked among these people.
After what Dr Xue told her, Imogen had been hoping that Dmitri Larsen-Goya was safe, hidden away by this Ias’par congregation. Now it seems far more likely that the priest’s intended flock have kidnapped him with sinister, perhaps even fatal, intent. If he is alive at all, he is surely within these walls, helpless against their ministrations. It seems that Imogen is conscientiously obliged to mount a rescue.

V

Imogen crouches down further into the undergrowth’s caress as angry male Ias’par spill from the mock-church, embroiled in a whole plethora of blazing arguments. Her palmpad can only relay snatches of their furious clattering, enough to get a flavour of the debate.
– planted himself beneath this Bodhi tree and was enlightened! The tree gave him wisdom! We can enlighten the humans too! We must –
– these Dryads are supposed to be gods who are human and tree! The Yakshis and Kodama as well! How can you explain –
– ceremonies in sacred groves! The Druids, the Vestal Virgins, the Gothar – all of them worshipped among trees! In which case –
– but the Iroko is the house of the Orishas, and an Orisha itself! The tree is a god and the dwelling-place of all the gods, so –
– a single great tree that supports the world – it supports all the worlds – its name is Yggdrasil! These Norse humans once worshipped it – we must too!
Imogen waits patiently until the congregation have dispersed, still quarrelling. With luck, the material she uploaded from her pad to the church’s in-house network will keep them exegeting for years.
She sighs. In theory, of course, the Catholic Church would take an even dimmer view of giving the Ias’par information about humanity’s false religions than it does of ministering to them in its own name. It is a grave sin, one which could imperil her soul as well as theirs.
As a Jesuit, though, Imogen knows the value of pragmatism. And it is hardly as if the Ias’par have taken much of value from Christianity – they might as well be allowed to look at the alternatives.
She checks her palmpad. The Halogen Dawn is still in the system. Its last shuttle leaves in an hour and a half; the spaceport is a half-hour tram ride away. Provided Fr Larsen-Goya is fit to walk, she can still have him off Rootworld 11 and back inside human jurisdiction by Boxing Day. By Epiphany the two of them should be in Rome confessing to the Holy Father.
Assuming, of course, that her fellow priest is still alive.
Imogen steps into the enclosure. A long groan greets her, and she quickens her step towards the rear of its open-air nave. In the dark she can make out a murky human-shaped figure. She wonders how badly he  has been hurt.
She activates her palmpad’s light-field, and immediately struggles to suppress an uncharacteristic urge to giggle.
‘Are you injured, Father?’ Imogen asks Dmitri Larsen-Goya solicitously, her voice only slightly wobbling.
The man groans again. His arms and legs have been bound to a metal frame. He stands amidst a pile of gift-wrapped boxes. He looks intact, though his dignity most certainly is not.
The cleric has been tastefully wreathed with gold and silver tinsel, and draped with a string of coloured lights. Glittering baubles dangle from his elbows, wrists and fingers, and on his head has been placed a shiny silver star.
Imogen finds herself reminded that God has a sense of humour.
Fr Larsen-Goya came to the Eleventh Ias’par Rootworld hoping to earn a medal from his human superiors. In the event, though, it is the trees themselves who have decorated him.


© Philip Purser-Hallard 2017

21 December 2017

The Fourth Age of Christmas

THE FOURTH AGE OF CHRISTMAS

by Philip Purser-Hallard



‘You sure you’ve got the dosh, pal?’ asks the barman, smirking at me. ‘I though you might be a bit short.’
‘Nah mate, I’m fine.’ I grit my teeth and hand it over.
‘All tenners, is it?’ he says, grinning now. ‘Just making sure. I wouldn’t want to short change you.’
Time was I’d have hacked his feet out from under him and stomped on his face with my steel-soled boots, but those days are long gone. My battleaxe and armour are stacked up under a tarpaulin in my garden shed back home, next to my pick and shovel and the largest collection of uncut gemstones in the country.
Besides, it’s Christmas, isn’t it? There’s glittery tinsel strung up all along the bar, kids out in the High Street are getting cattle-prodded into line ready for Santa’s Grotto, and the Hippodrome opposite has the usual posters up of a bunch of minor soap and reality TV stars, including Gerald the dog from the hilarious YouTube video.
Maiming potential audience members would not be well received by the theatre management. If I lose my biggest source of income for the year I could end up having to sell off one of those stones, and they’ve got sentimental value.
So I take the tray the loudmouthed git hands me, set it carefully on the next-door bar-stool, clamber down to the floor, carefully reach for the tray and carry our seven pints across to where the other six are waiting, still thirsty from our matinee performance.
‘That barman’s a knob,’ I say, handing out the drinks to Kenny, Lenny, Jimmy, Mickey, Ashvin and Jock. ‘He reckons just because the play does jokes about our height, we won’t mind him piling in.’ I climb onto the bench next to them.
Ashvin grimaces. ‘“I’ve had it up to here with people looking down on us,”’ he says glumly, quoting from the script. ‘“How could they stoop so low?”’
‘I’ll nut him in the guts if he tries it with me.’ That’s not a quote, it’s just Lenny being Lenny.
‘We all pay our price for treading the boards, Barry,’ Jock says in his plummy baritone. He’s the oldest of the others, and the only one who works full-time as an actor – or as often as he can get the parts, which is another thing altogether. ‘We owe it to the public to pursue our calling, whatever the opprobrium heaped upon us.’ If nobody stops him, he’ll bring up that time some bloke recognised him as a robot off of Blake’s 7.
None of these lads are dwarves, of course – half of them don’t even have beards. They’re just short humans. Little people. Persons of short stature and restricted growth. I haven’t seen another actual dwarf since Owaín, son of Dowaín Barrowbeard of Ironvale, lost an argument with a runaway coach-and-four in the Quantocks, ooh, 200 years ago now.
Still, this lot are an OK bunch to work with, most of the time.
The door opens and in comes this bunch of prannies dressed in green jerkins, jingly hats and little pointy boots. Santa’s Little Helpers from the grotto outside. None of these blokes are all that little, but they’ve all got that fey, fragile look about them, like love interests in a bittersweet Hollywood romcom.
‘I swear,’ one of them declares, ‘another kid asks me if these ears are real, I’m pulling them off and stuffing them up his nose.’
‘Them lot on a break or something?’ Jimmy asks us.
‘Probably handing over to an evening shift,’ Ash says. ‘It’s late-night shopping tonight.’
‘Your round, I believe, Leonard,’ Jock informs Lenny, finishing off his pint quick enough to start me worrying about his performance this evening. Jock’s a pro, but sometimes ‘The show must go on’ means loading him into a wheelbarrow and telling the audience he’s Sleepy.
Still, I’m thirsty too. ‘Might as well get them in now, mate,’ I tell Len, finishing my own. ‘Save time later.’
So Lenny goes over to the bar. And of course, just as he gets there one of Santa’s helpers turns round a bit too fast, bumps into him and spills about half a pint of beer over his head.
Some of the others would just sigh and tut at that, but not Lenny. Especially not when this prat laughs a friendly, merry laugh, and says, ‘My apologies, my little friend! I didn’t see you down there!’
So of course Lenny punches him in the crotch and he doubles up neatly. But by that time I’m running over there too, because I know this bloke.
Because it’s only bleeding Elaphar of Lornlethias, isn’t it? Elaphar the Archer who stood at the left hand of Athelys Elvenhorn against the dwarf armies at the Battle of Halvard’s Delving, who dispatched more than fifty of my brothers with his fleet arrows, and who later slew the Dwarflord himself, Kelvaín Cunninghand, at Battle of Tholdor’s Flood, with a single true-aimed shaft of elven alder-wood.
That Elaphar of Lornlethias. And he’s here, in a frankly dingy Wetherspoon’s in this grotty town centre, clutching his remaining beer and dancing gracefully backwards as Lenny kicks him in the shins and yells, ‘I’m sorry, mate, did I spill your pint?
Then two of Santa’s other helpers grab Len and drag him off, and I can see by the clunky way they move that they’re just human. Elaphar steps forward again, looking relieved, and reaches out his hand to Lenny saying, ‘I’m sorry I offended you, friend; please, let me make it up to you by – aargh!
That bit’s because I just broke a bar stool over his shoulders.
And then the rest of the lads are piling in, Jock shouting, ‘A barney! How splendid!’ There’s only four of them, but they’re bigger than us, and for a while there’s a lot of fists and feet and teeth and elbows involved, and not a lot of time to think about the other stuff.

* * *

Thing is, all this isn’t as surprising as you might think. There may not be many of us still around from the old days, but most of us are pretty easy to find, if you know where to look.
I mean, take me. Two months of the year I work in a big building with huge posters up on the outside saying DWARFS. Makes loads of sense for me, of course – if small humans can get seasonal work playing us, why shouldn’t we? – but it’s not exactly inconspicuous.
It’s not even like learning the lines is a problem. You need a good memory when your natural lifespan runs to thousands of years.
With some of them, though, it’s just lack of imagination. If you see a really big bloke shifting the stock at Carpet Giant, you’ll know what I’m talking about. And I know for a fact there’s a nest of brownies have infiltrated the Girl Guides.
You remember that singer, Ethel Merman? Actually a merman. Not a lot of people know that.
And honestly, superb archer and dread warrior though he may have been, Elaphar of Lornlethias was never all that bright. I’m not at all surprised he’s got a job by answering an ad in a local paper saying ELVES WANTED.

* * *

Anyway. The barman phones the landlord, who it turns out has an arrangement with the bouncers at the strip club round the corner, and pretty soon the lot of us are out on our ears on the street, with the night frost coming on and the kids at the grotto all gawping at us.
As we get to our feet and brush ourselves off and stuff, Elaphar’s staring at me. Finally he says, ‘Barí son of Arí Cavernskull of Netherdeep? Can it really be you? Barí the Steadfast, who stood with Kelvaín at Hammerpass, when the dwarves fought alongside Athelys’ armies to protect the Western Realms from the stone armies of Crag son of Scarp, the Troll King?’
I gape up at him. ‘Isn’t that just bloody typical of elves?’ I say, indignantly. ‘Forget all the times we fought each other, forget all the brothers of mine your people slaughtered at Halvard’s Delving and Tholdor’s Flood, forget the fact that you personally killed Kelvaín once he’d helped out Athelys at Hammerpass –’
‘Only after he betrayed us to the Goblin Lord at Morholm,’ Elaphar objects mildly.
‘– forget the fact that your people and mine are mortal enemies, let’s just accentuate the positive, shall we? If you think –’
‘This ponce still bothering you, Barry?’ Lenny asks, coming over to us. ‘’Cause I’m ready to go again any time he likes.’
‘Nah,’ I say wearily. ‘Thanks for asking, though. Turns out we know each other from way back.’
‘Barry, we’re expected in the green room,’ Jock admonishes me, like we’ve never had to drag him there on time before.
‘Yeah, I know,’ I say. ‘You lot head off, I’ll be there in a sec.’
‘So what are you doing in town, Barí?’ Elaphar asks as they go.
‘I’m, er…’ I start. I’m standing right underneath a poster, in fact, but like I say he was never one of the bright elves. ‘I’m… in a play,’ I say. ‘I’m… kind of an actor these days. Some of the time. Look, it’s not as if what you’re doing is all that –’
But his eyes have lit up with understanding. ‘You’re in the pantomime?’ he says, delighted – but he’s pleased for me, not laughing at me, you know? ‘Can I come? I love pantomimes!’
Bloody elves.

* * *

He meets me at the stage doors after the performance, bubbling with excitement. ‘Barí, look!’ he says, waving his phone at me.
Not that I’m precious about it or anything, but I’d been expecting him to say he thought I was good, or how much he enjoyed the play, or something. Not that I’d believe him, it’s just what people say. I know he was in the audience because there were elven war-cries mixed in with the booing whenever the Wicked Queen was on stage.
But no, he’s got this thing on his phone he wants to show me. ‘Look at what?’ I ask. ‘Yeah, see you in the pub,’ I add as the other six pass us. ‘The one we haven’t been barred from, yeah?’
‘Someone took pictures of our fight earlier,’ says Elaphar.
He’s on the local paper’s website. GNOME WAY TO BEHAVE, it says. Dwarfs Vs Elves Bust-Up in Town Centre Pub. And yes, it does have photos.
I groan. ‘Well, that’s me out of a job this Christmas. You too, I suppose. I’d better go and tell the lads.’
‘Wait, though,’ Elaphar says. ‘Look at the first comment there.’
It’s from someone calling themselves Rocky McRockface, and it says Pointy-eard beanpoll gettin his arse kickd by beardy shotrarse LOL Shoudve just stomped on him LOL.
‘Well,’ I say. ‘Thanks for bringing that to my attention, mate, but…’
‘Don’t you see? He’s taunting us,’ Elaphar says.
‘Yeah, he’s taunting us. Not very well, either. But –’
‘Look at the username,’ Elaphar insists. ‘You know what this means, Barí.’
‘I really, really don’t,’ I say. ‘And it’s been a trying day and I need a drink. So, Elaphar old son, if you don’t mind ­–’
‘A crag is a rock!’ he shouts. ‘A scarp is a rock face! And “mac” means “son of”, of course. Barí, it’s Crag son of Scarp!’
I frown. It really has been a long day. ‘You mean this internet troll is an actual troll? The Troll King, in fact?’
‘Of course!’ cries Elaphar. ‘And he’s picked us out to goad with his cruel barbs! We, the last survivors of the Armies of the Western Realms! We, the heirs of Athelys and Kelvaín, who fought him at Hammerpass! He’s challenging us! It is our duty – it will be our honour and our glory – to hunt down this Troll King and destroy him once and for all!’
I grimace, tugging at my beard. I look back at the theatre, with its great big posters up of people who used to be in Doctors or Britain’s Got Talent, then over at the pub I’ve been barred from. Then at the only slightly worse pub I haven’t been barred from yet, where the others will be settling in until closing time.

‘Well,’ I sigh. ‘I probably haven’t got anything better to do now, have I? Let’s go to my place and I’ll get kitted up.’

 

© Philip Purser-Hallard 2016

23 December 2016

The X-Mass (1955)

THE X-MASS (1955)

‘IT CAME FROM THE SKIES – TO SAVE OUR WORLD!’

It starts with a voiceover – male, of course, American, a voice precision-honed by decades of whisky and cigarettes. Solemn, faintly awestruck, its speaks over a still image of a star.
‘Imagine, if you will, a chance encounter. A meeting between a so-called “cosmic ray”, originating from some far-distant star, and a cell of the human body.’
The visuals are changing now, a montage of photographs of stars and the night sky.
‘The X-ray is invisible, silent, intangible. It has passed through the universe for aeons to reach us. It would slide through your skin without giving you the slightest sensation. Yet when it touches this one cell, this microscopic cog in one human machine, it makes a change. A shift, a mutation into something new and unknown.’
The stars fade into images of cells under a microscope.
‘Let us further suppose that this cell is a germ cell, the cradle and crucible of human life. A seed from which a new life might grow. This cell has not yet been awakened – should not have been for many years. Yet now it is touched by the hand of the cosmos.’
More and more cells become visible.
‘See how it begins to multiply and grow, into a shape which that inhuman hand has helped to create. This mass of cells may come to form a life – a life that is itself, perhaps, no longer altogether human.’
* * *
We are in the home of the Elvey family, in Santa Mira, California. The living-room is decorated for Christmas, and a clock and calendar tell us that it is 10 p.m. on December 24th. The Elveys’ twenty-year-old daughter, Virginia, is pleading tearfully with her fiancé George – who, it seems, plans to leave her.
Their conversation is awkward and oblique, but if we are sufficiently attuned to the embarrassments and evasions of the times we will understand that Virginia has discovered that she is pregnant, and that George knows all too well that the baby is not his.
‘Please, George,’ Virginia insists, her face streaked with tears. ‘There’s no-one else. There’s never been anybody else!’ But George won’t be played for a fool. Resisting Virginia’s last-minute attempts to cling to him, he pushes her onto the sofa and leaves. As soon as he’s gone, her parents rush in, demanding to know what’s going on.
As she tells them, though, their faces harden. They are a respectable couple, pillars of their community – Mr Elvey a prominent businessman and city councillor as well as George’s employer, Mrs Elvey the chairwoman of the local bridge club – and they have no room in their family, their lives or their house for a daughter of poor judgement and worse morals.
Before long we see Virginia wandering the streets, disconsolate, eventually arriving at the door of her bohemian schoolfriend Josie and her eccentric menagerie of animals. It’s clear that Virginia is reluctant to turn to Josie, who wears polo-neck sweaters, spends time with unsuitable men and reads inadvisable books – who is, in short, exactly the kind of woman Virginia’s parents fear she has become – but in Virginia’s current state Josie’s the only person who she’s sure will take her in.
* * *
Time passes, represented in the traditional way with pages flying from a calendar. We hear a baby’s cry. Virginia’s son has been born.
In Josie’s basement flat, the baby lies in a crib next to Josie’s well-fed cats. Virginia is singing to him. There is a commotion at the door, and her father arrives with George. It is the first time she has seen either of them since December 24th. She goes to talk to them, leaving the baby with the three cats.
Mr Elvey has come to make Virginia an offer. He and Mrs Elvey are willing to welcome their daughter back, and he has persuaded George, against his better judgement, to reinstate his offer of marriage – but the baby must go. ‘Oh, but you can’t mean that, father. He’s your grandson,’ Virginia reminds him. ‘I’ve called him Alexander, after grandfather. Oh, do come in and meet him.’ But Mr Elvey is implacable: the child must be put up for adoption.
Josie intervenes at this point, coolly observing that Mr Elvey is taking more of an interest in his daughter’s living arrangements now he has announced his candidacy for mayor of Santa Mira. An ugly scene follows as Mr Elvey determines to take the child by force if necessary, and he and George force their way past Josie and Virginia into the living room.
There is no baby there – just an empty crib and four plump cats.
Mr Elvey demands to know where the child has been hidden, but Virginia is as confused as he is. Eventually he leaves, vowing to return, and a frantic Virginia hurries back to look for baby Alexander – only to find him lying in the crib as before, gurgling happily at the three cats Josie actually owns.
* * *
Years pass now, the escalation acknowledged in a montage of shots of juxtaposed seasons, and we find Virginia living in a house on the edge of town, kissing her new husband Frank Eckers hello as he returns from work as Professor of Poetry at UC Santa Mira. Outside, two Labrador dogs bound across the yard, playing riotously together.
Frank has brought home some colleagues for dinner: Dr Casper, a biologist, Dr Millicker, a physicist, and Dr Beltzer, a chemist. As they are greeting Virginia, the dogs in the yard race for the kitchen door and inside – but only one dog enters, accompanied by ten-year-old Xander Elvey. Dr Millicker obverves the transition, and is astounded and disturbed.
(Xander arrives in the kitchen fully clothed, of course: any idea that such a state of affairs is not utterly to be expected would be as alien to this feature presentation as allowing Virginia to stay living with Josie rather than normalising her as definitely heterosexual. Whatever uncanny metamorphic powers the cosmic rays that spawned Xander have granted the cells of his body, they evidently extend to the fabrics he wears and the contents of his pockets.)
‘Hey, Ma!’ Xander cries. ‘Rover showed me a new rabbit-hole he’s found. He wanted to chase the rabbits, but I wouldn’t let him. I went inside and Ma, there are baby rabbits! Gee, it was neat.’
‘That’s great, honey,’ Virginia replies, unfazed.
Dr Millicker insists on quizzing the boy. Virginia is uncomfortable, but Frank points out in an aside to her that his position at work is precarious, partly because of Mayor Elvey’s campaign against certain elements in the town who, according to him, are more than likely sleeper agents for communist Russia. Frank needs the support of Millicker and his other colleagues, which was why he brought them home in the first place.
Meanwhile, Xander has guilelessly demonstrated his abilities for them until all three astounded scientists are convinced no trickery is involved. Frank explains to them that the boy is a sport of nature, and has no father.
Jovial Dr Casper is intrigued. ‘Then I don’t understand why he’s a boy at all,’ he frowns. ‘We know that each cell in the human body has twenty-six chromosomes, of which two determine the person’s sex. A child with an X and a Y chromosome is a male, a child with two X chromosomes is a female. That’s just how nature made us. Now you tell me this boy has no father, yet your wife must herself have two X chromosomes. Which makes me wonder – where did this boy’s Y chromosome come from? It’s incredible enough to imagine a child born without a father, but all biological science tells us that that child should not be a boy, but a girl.’
‘But Dr Casper, I can be a girl,’ Xander replies – and we see that he has indeed transformed himself into a girl, a pretty one with pigtails and a fetching lacy dress.
Dr Millicker is more perturbed than ever by this new transformation, and speculates aloud as to whether Xander is human at all. ‘Yet what if some thing… some unknown, alien mass… gained the ability to mimic humanity, as predators camouflage themselves to creep up on their prey unnoticed? How could we tell that it was not human at all, but an infiltrator intent on subverting our society for its own sinister purposes?’ He denounces Frank and his household as communist spies and saboteurs, and storms out.
Xander wants to know what communists are. ‘Ah kiddo, there aren’t any real communists,’ Frank sighs. ‘Not in America. Your granddad wants to scare people so they’ll keep on electing him, that’s all. It’s just our bad luck he’s decided they should be scared of people like us.’
* * *
Soon afterwards, though, with the connivance of Mayor Elvey, Dr Millicker has Frank dismissed from his position at the university, and Xander insists on probing further into the tensions in the town.  Soon his mother and stepfather have told him all about US-Soviet relations, the Cold War and the Bomb. The boy is appalled by the idea that the world might be plunged into a destructive war at any moment over a question of ideology.
‘Say, though,’ he muses. ‘I bet someone like me could do something about that. If someone could look like all the generals, the scientists, even the President… well, they could find out where all the Bombs are kept, and learn all the secrets of how to stop them working. If neither side had Bombs they could use, and all the new ones they built stopped working too… why, they couldn’t ever go to war at all.’
Dr Millicker is at work on a less peaceful project, however. Correctly deducing that Xander owes his existence to cosmic X-rays, he has hastily invented a machine which can end that existence, by bombarding the subject with a barrage of man-made X-rays. (The logic of this is opaque at best – after all, there would be just as much reason to suppose that the child would thrive on them. But ‘X-rays created this monster, and X-rays will destroy it!’ is all the explanation we’re likely to get.)
Shortly afterwards, on a Christmas shopping trip into town, Virginia loses sight of Xander. By now she is used to his ways, and looks for him among the town’s animal population, before she notices a commotion in front of the town hall. A stranger, a grown man, is denouncing the Mayor and his campaign of fear against the peace-loving people of Santa Mira – in much the same terms as Frank and Virginia used when giving Xander his crash course in politics. The man pauses to wink at Virginia, and she – and we – realise that this man is Xander himself.
‘You’re so busy fearing one another,’ he insists to the townsfolk, ‘– your neighbours, the Russians, invaders from outer space – that you never see that the real enemy is yourselves. Your hatred, your suspicion, your closed minds and your fearful hearts. You can free yourselves from all of these fears.’
Dr Millicker, though, has other ideas. He arrives in the town square with the X-ray beam weapon mounted on a military truck (by this point he has, somehow, enlisted the aid of the United States armed forces against this small boy) and turns it on the impromptu orator. Being an X-ray weapon, it is of course formed in the shape of an X, the diagonal cross picked out in light bulbs which pulse brightly as the X-rays are emitted.
The speaker writhes in pain and his form begins to shimmer and change – reverting first to a terrified ten-year-old boy, and then to a Labrador which tries to escape through the crowd, but is cut off by the soldiers. Virginia struggles to fight her way through the crowd to her son, but Dr Millicker has turned the beam on him once more. He begins to grow, losing human form entirely and eventually becoming a giant, amorphous, pulsating blob which Millicker calls ‘the X-Mass’. Virginia tries again to reach him, but is held back by her ex George, still unmarried and still her father’s loyal henchman, who insists that she will only endanger herself. ‘I still care about you, Virginia,’ he insists creepily.
In the background, the attentive cinemagoer may see a second Labrador fleeing the square.
* * *
The rest of the third act follows a predictable trajectory, with Millicker and the military pursuing the unspeaking, glowing blob through the evacuated town. The Mayor is cornered by the X-Mass, but rather than flow over and smother him it turns back and risks another assault by the X-ray beams. Only Virginia, who has succeeded in escaping the evacuation, witnesses the Mass taking refuge in a shopping  mall, whose schmaltzy Christmas decorations are quickly augmented by electrified wire and landmines.
Virginia tries to reach Xander, but can’t get past the electric fences. She’s there when, called in by the President at Dr Millicker’s urging, USAF planes arrive overhead and drop an ominous payload on the mall.
From the distant vantage point where Millicker and the soldiers are observing the town, we see the Bomb fall, the mushroom cloud rise… and then immediately reverse itself, collapsing back into nothing. The mall is destroyed along with its monstrous occupant – but Virginia, cowering just around the corner across the square, survives.
* * *
Virginia returns through the miraculously fallout-free city to her empty house, where she finds a note waiting for her.
Ma,
They wanted to see me dead, so I gave them what they wanted. I broke off a part of me, and sent it to the mall to die. The rest of me’s left town along with everybody else.
I can’t come back, though – not even for you, not even a bit of me. If they catch me, men like Dr Millicker will study me, and maybe find a way to kill me better next time. A way I can’t come back from.
I’m going away – maybe to Washington, maybe Moscow. Maybe both. You remember my plan, to save the world from the Bomb? Well, it’ll work a whole lot better if I can be lots of people at once. I didn’t know I could do that before, but I can. I can break myself up into lots of bits – maybe lots of people, maybe lots of tiny bits that can get in people’s heads and change the way they think.
If everyone who could launch the Bomb isn’t themselves at all, but me… well then, the Bomb will never fall again.
I love you, Ma. I hope I can save you – and everyone else.
The note is signed, of course, with an X. (An initial? A kiss? A statement of anonymity? Or perhaps simply a cross, to show that Xander has graded the work of the human race and found it disappointing.)
* * *
The final shots are of crowds on a city street – not Santa Mira, though. Maybe New York, maybe Los Angeles, maybe neither. Somewhere anonymous, where hundreds of ordinary people are going about their daily business. The camera lingers on their faces.
The  voiceover artist is back from his whisky and cigarette break:
‘And so a new era in mankind’s history begins. One where any face you see could belong to this new being that walks among us. Your neighbour, your teacher, your doctor, your President – any one of them could belong to this great collective, this new movement of humanity towards a greater goal. Moved by a spirit that, while perhaps inhuman, still has the interests of humanity at heart.
‘The spirit… of the X-Mass.’
Roll credits.
* * *
(The 1958 sequel, Night of the X-Mass, is disappointing. The less said about the 2008 remake, X-Mass: Presence, the better.)