I'll Be Home For Christmas
by Jane Lebak (12/99)
The radio in the corner of Rafael's lab played scratchy Christmas tunes while the doctor bent over his current project. That project himself, Joe, lay with his eyes closed as Rafael adjusted the mechanisms in his throat and requested tools one at a time from an assistant who was also a cyborg.
Joe swiveled his eyes and extended his one working hand to the nearby keyboard, hunted and pecked for a moment, then sent the message. Rafael's terminal beeped as the network transmitted the message. He glanced at it, then returned to his work. "Asking me how much longer isn't going to get us there any faster, Joe. I could give you just any old voice, but it's important to recreate your own. Your cover is blown otherwise. I think I can do it, but it's going to take a few hours."
Joe sighed. His lungs, at least, still worked enough for that. His voice-box had gotten fried last week when a capacitor deep inside had blown, demolishing half his implanted circuitry and nearly killing Joe. Merry freakin' Christmas, Joe, from your electronics. Joe had been days away from learning to make the cyborg body walk for the first time since Cross Karacoram, and then the machinery had betrayed him. Rafael had unearthed Joe's keyboard from the first months so he could communicate somehow.
Rafael and Joe agreed that the first thing to do, after getting Joe out of immediate peril for his life, was to restore speech. The enforced silence simultaneously rendered Joe more helpless and more powerful. "You're hard enough to talk to," Rafael had said. "Let's get you able to complain again so I know everything else that needs fixing."
The cyborg assistant offered Joe a smile as he handed Rafael another minuscule tool. Joe groped and typed, "Do we have to listen to that?"
"It's Christmas Eve," Rafael replied. "If you hate it that much, get up and turn it off yourself."
Joe used his working hand to make a rude gesture. The cyborg laughed. Rafael didn't notice.
As Joe lay on the table, "Silent Night" ended, and the deejay announced a dedication, to J from J in Utoland City. Joe tried not to look like he was paying attention.I'm dreaming tonight of a place I love Even more than I usually do. And although I know it's a long way back, I promise you, I'll be home for Christmas. You can count on me. Please have snow and mistletoe And presents 'round the tree.
As Rafael glanced at Joe, he saw a brief darkness overshadow the young man's face.
"Don't even think about it," Rafael said. "You didn't have even a chance to go home for Christmas this year. And there's only about twelve hours left."
Before Joe had agreed to cooperate with Rafael's human-rebuilding experiment, he had been promised he could return to his team the instant all the surgery was finished. Rafael had hedged his estimate, but Joe had thought six months the upper limit. Eighteen months later, here he was.
Every time Joe got close to being able to return, some mechanical glitch set him back almost to the condition in which he'd awakened in Rafael's lab. Human body parts could compensate if one of the systems failed; they could heal themselves. Electronics, Joe had discovered firsthand, couldn't. Inevitably, any system failure left the rest of the augmentations unstable and had Rafael cleaning up damage in seemingly unrelated parts for weeks.Christmas Eve will find me Where the love-light gleams. I'll be home for Christmas, If only in my dreams.
Rafael caught the impatience in Joe's face, and he murmured, "If you aren't respectful, I may install one of those love-lights on your forehead."
Joe typed, "Try it. You'll die." Rafael didn't look at his screen when the message beeped up at him. On the radio, the song had nearly ended.
I'll be home for Christmas, If only in my dreams.
In silence, Jun sat at the empty bar in the Snack, doing the accounting and trying to cipher out what damage Christmas had done to her business. Not much: Utoland paid lip-service to Christmas, but since it was mostly a foreign holiday, nobody got into a frenzy the way they did in Ameris and Europa. Because of the general disinterest, though, the tiny Christmas tree in the corner had cost quite a bit more than it should have; the mistletoe was plastic; finding non-blinking white lights had taken her four trips to different department stores. White candles gleamed in all the windows.
Ken entered carrying a few small packages, the perfunctory gifts the team exchanged every Christmas. It was more for fun than any sentimental attachment to the holiday. Jun knew that. But she also knew the other reason they maintained the holiday tradition.
She'd tuned the Snack radio to the only Utoland station playing Christmas carols. Ken paused behind her on his way to the tree. "It's... You set it up great. Just like it used to be." Ken hadn't come to help her. None of the guys had. "Everyone will love it."
Before Ken finished arranging his presents near Jun's, Ryu and Jinpei walked in carrying their own.
"Where's the egg-nog?" Jinpei called across the room.
"I couldn't find any. You're welcome to make some if you want." Jun double-checked her addition and wondered why she couldn't balance the last two cents and why it mattered so much that she find them. "Cookies and cider are in the kitchen, though."
Jinpei darted inside and returned momentarily carrying the plate of cookies and a tray with four glasses and a pitcher. "When are you going to finish, Neechan? I want you to open my gift!"
Giving up on the errant change, Jun closed the ledger and locked it in the safe. Closing her eyes, she whispered, "Are you here, Joe? Remember I invited you to join us, wherever you are? Well, everyone's arrived. You can show up now."
Momentarily she joined the others by the tree. Ryu was looking at it a little wistfully. Jun turned her eyes away from his face.
Ken was whispering, "I know, Ryu."
Jinpei darted to the tree. "What do you know, Aniki?" Before Jun could send him a warning glance, Jinpei said, "Well, now that we're all here, let's get started!"
Ryu looked down. Ken said in an uncharacteristically soft voice, "Ryu and I were just thinking that we're not all here."
Jun rested a hand on Jinpei's shoulder and drew closer to the guys. "Joe grew up with this holiday, and we only even noticed it because of him. If we're still going through the motions, then he's here."
Ryu smiled a little. "I suppose." He stood a bit straighter. "Should I be Santa Claus this year?"
"You've got the paunch for it!" Jinpei laughed, and he ran to get the red hat. Ryu sorted through the presents and handed them out to the others. Jun found she'd gotten a CD of her favorite dance band, some new perfume, and a paperback novel. Jinpei had gotten a video game cartridge from Ken and Ryu, and Jun had given him new headphones for his walkman. As everyone opened their gifts, the others admired them. At the end, Ryu said to Jun, "What should I do with the last one?"
There was an envelope on the tree that said only, "Joe". Jun smiled softly. "I said it was Joe's holiday, didn't I? Joe, wherever you are, I wish you some measure of peace. Merry Christmas."
Jun closed her eyes and tried to imagine her wish taking wing and spiraling upward from her heart and the souls of the men around her, careening out into the holiday night like a homing pigeon in desperate search for its target. Find your target, she prayed. Carry the olive branch in your beak, and tell his soul he's still firmly nestled in ours. And even as she did so, she knew that if only this once, the prayer would be answered. The gift would be given.
To J, From J in Utoland City. Please be home for Christmas, if only in our dreams.
In Rafael's lab across Utoland, the scientist continued adjusting the replacement voice box cradled among the nerves and wires snaking through Joe's throat. He assumed by the look on Joe's face that Joe was concocting of all sorts of interesting phrases to break in the new device once Rafael pronounced it operational. The doctor had already ignored two beeps on his monitor.
All the other cyborgs, when he revived them, had said things like "Thank you" and "You've given me a second chance." Joe's throat had been horribly damaged at first. He'd given his initial consent by nods and hand signs, asked questions by pecking with one terribly shaking finger, and finally submitted out of sheer exhaustion and pain. The day Rafael asked him to try speaking, Joe had said, "I'm only cooperating because I've still got a job to do."
The clock hands crept closer and closer to looking like one hand, and Rafael tried to blink the sleepiness from his eyes. At nearly midnight, they all ought to be resting. The assistant, after handing the doctor the wrong tool three times in a row, had long since departed for his own quarters. Rafael didn't understand how Joe was still awake despite the sedatives and local anesthetic, but somehow the young man evaded sleep.
Finally satisfied with the results his computer was giving, Rafael closed up Joe's throat and said, "Give it a try."
Only then did Rafael notice the expression in Joe's eyes, far more mellow and peaceful than he'd expected. Even in the white glare of the surgical lights, Rafael couldn't shake the hazy, dreamy sense that the holiday had worked its charm on the young man. Joe hadn't gone home for Christmas, but maybe somehow home had gone to Joe.
Joe rubbed his throat tenderly, then said in a soft and raspy voice, "Merry Christmas, Doctor."
The clock hands had just reached midnight. Behind them, the radio played "O Holy Night."