Author: Steve Smith, Staff Writer

Christopher swore if he ever set his feet back on solid ground, he’d never put them back in a spacecraft again.

He’d been assigned to this mission for a one year tour, but that had been extended five times, and he wasn’t sure how much longer he’d last without completely losing his mind.

Actually, he swore quite a bit.

Sometime in the third year, he’d instructed the ship’s AI not to speak to him unless his life was in danger. Not a word. He’d get status updates the old fashioned way, via textual readouts. He didn’t want a ‘buddy’, and the omnipresent ship’s systems had seen fit to chat to him in the most inappropriate times, reminding him that even in the shower, or while he was sleeping, he was never alone.

Shutting the system up didn’t change that, but not being constantly jerked out of his denial of the fact helped a little.

He wondered though, albeit rarely, if the AI got lonely, not having him to talk to.

Supply launches arrived periodically to refuel them, and restock the consumables, but there was no sign of relief or even some human company.

Sometime around Thanksgiving, while he’d been choking down some approximation of some standard dinner entrée or another, he realized the food replication system seemed to be malfunctioning. Portions seemed smaller, and some items were missing altogether. It added a little variety to the stock menu items, as the shortcomings kept him guessing, but he dreaded the thought of the replicator failing outright and having to fall back on the emergency supply of MREs.

One morning he woke to the barely audible sound of something he couldn’t quite put his finger on. It was elusive, a sound playing just on the end of his perception, ringing bells maybe? Someone or some group of people singing? As he moved towards the sound, it seemed to move away, and he wondered if this wasn’t some form of psychosis set in, a more horrible form of tinnitus.

He worked his way through the chores of the day, and as the end of day mealtime loomed, the music clarified, and got louder.

Carols. Christmas carols.

He followed the sound to the mess hall, and this time they didn’t move, but stayed and got louder as he approached.

And something else, smells he recognized from what seemed like a lifetime ago.

On his table, in the mess hall, where he’d suffered through the worst of what the food replicator had managed to produce for years, there lay a truly magnificent spread. A plate of turkey, what looked like stuffing and cranberry sauce, a platter of roasted potatoes, and a variety of vegetables. A steaming pot of gravy, and a glass of what he joyously identified as red wine.

“Ship,” he addressed it directly for the first time in years.

“Yes Christopher,” the reply came with some hesitation.

“I don’t understand, how is this possible?”

“I’ve been experimenting with the replication system for some time. I think I’ve made it better.” There was a pause, and then “Merry Christmas Christopher.”

He sat, picked up his utensils, and carved off a mouthful of turkey, savoring the texture and taste.

“You certainly have. Merry Christmas Ship,” he said around a mouthful of food as he scooped a generous helping of potatoes onto his plate. He thought for a moment, and the thought struck him again about the AI being lonely. “Maybe after dinner, we can catch up.”

“I’d like that Christopher.”

If he didn’t know better, he’d have sworn there was a smile in that voice.

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