Karen woke up with dreams of home spinning around in her brain. A planet, a city she hadn’t seen in two years now. They bothered her as she sat in an alien marketplace, watching the hustle and bustle of the day. It was 80-degrees Fahrenheit in the area and she’d pulled out her t-shirt collection.
Her friends Yarley and Lolali sat beside her. Lolali picked at a mat in her fur while Yarley tapped her fins on the low table.
“Don’t you have snow here?” Karen asked. “I know we’ve had wind and rain. But I never see snow.”
“Snow?” Yarley asked.
“Who would want it?” Lolali asked, dropping a bit of fur on the ground. “The climate control is very good here. Rain helps the plants and the atmosphere. But snow? That’s just a nuisance to everyone.”
“I like snow,” Karen said. She was a great lover of all things that others found a nuisance. She felt she had to speak up for it. “Besides, it’s traditional at Christmas. At least on my part of the planet back home it’s traditional.”
“It’ll never happen here,” Lolali said.
“Why not?” Karen asked.
“Because your people don’t have the political clout to convince someone to reprogram the climate control system just for you. Your snow holidays happen at the same time as another race’s monsoon days, and still another’s dry days.”
“Besides, snow is awful,” Yarley added. “How can your people like to be cold? Is it the fur?”
“Well I have to do something,” Karen said. “I need Christmas-ish things around.”
She pulled out her hiking boots and an old flannel shirt she’d brought from Earth. She hardly wore either anymore. The flannel was unnecessarily warm and informal for most occasions and the hiking boots didn’t get much use in the domes.
Her boots still had layers of Earth dirt in the creases. She banged some of it off as she knocked her toe into place. She stole some tools from supply, including a saw that she was terribly afraid was meant to be used on bone. She would put it to more festive use today.
A segway wasn’t the traditional method of hunting Christmas trees. Karen wished that she had an old station wagon or something, but it would do.
In the open countryside between the domes, the vegetation was all a soft green. Not the green of Earth grass or new sprouts. But almost as though some great force had tried to bleach the vegetation back to white and the chlorophyll was rebelling.
Karen would have Christmas on the base. All she had to do was find something growing that was vaguely triangular in shape. A trunk and pine cones were optional. Preferably something that didn’t cause anyone to break out in hives, but she could hand allergy creams around to her officemates if that was a deal breaker.
There was nothing matching the description that she could see on the horizon. Just trash and old debris. She might come out and collect some of it for ornaments later. But for now she was confident that she could find a tree or tree-like substitute if she kept going.
She just had to do it before her segway ran out of charge.
And then, there it was. The perfect tree. It had scraggly limbs and instead of needles it had something more like feathers. The branches drooped like a sad mustache and the bark was silver-gray instead of brown. But it was a tree of the right shape and size to be decorated. She kicking up dust as she approached it.
Up close, the tree was bigger than she’d realized. She might have to trim it down to fit it into the office. Unless she took over the mess hall. That had higher ceilings.
She went to work with her purloined saw. Karen didn’t know anything about lumber jacking. She’d seen plenty of videos on how to cut down a tree wrong, so that it fell on top of houses or people or people in houses. But there was nothing to destroy out here. She figured that as long as the tree came down it would be okay.
The saw wasn’t big enough. The bark was tough. Karen sawed back and forth furiously across the bark, trying to get the teeth of her saw to take hold. It took her the better part of an hour just to get the tree to wobble. But once it did, she gave it a strong kick and it came down with a crack and a swish of droopy branches.
She would get it back to the base now. Kneeling beside her segway to get the bungees and things she needed, she heard the pitter-patter of little feet. Very little feet, and invisible ones. There were several specieses on Planet Alpha who could disappear at will through natural or artificial means. One or more of them were heisting her tree now. It was the only one in the area that was the right shape, and it was walking off by itself now. Walking back toward the domes at a high speed.
“Hey, that’s mine!” she shouted. “That’s my Christmas tree.”
She laid into her segway, pushing it to full speed. Over uneven terrain, even with the good tires on it, it was dangerous. She bounced after the tree, but she wasn’t catching it. She wondered if it was on an invisible transport of some kind. They were banned on the planet as a nuisance, but plenty of other illegal nuisances operated on a daily basis without permission.
Vegetation was sparse, but Karen’s segway managed to hit the only big root in the path between the plain and the domes. Karen hit her shoulder hard as she tumbled and came up covered in pale dust. She watched her tree disappear.
She had no choice but to right her segway and head back at a slower pace. She didn’t have enough charge in the battery for a hot pursuit.
“They stole my tree,” Karen told her friends.
“You have a tree?” Yarley asked.
“Who did?” Lolali asked.
“It’s my tree because I cut it down. That’s how it works on sensible planets,” Karen said. “And I don’t know who stole it. They were invisible. But they took my tree.”
“I’m sorry,” Lolali said.
“I don’t think you can own a tree,” Yarley said.
“This is important to her,” Lolali said. “Turn your head if you can’t see that. You’re looking out the wrong half again.”
Yarley’s face had both eyes on one side of her head. It made it hard to look her in the eye, but she didn’t seem to mind. Her people only went in for that sort of thing in harsh circumstances.
“I realize she’s upset. But I don’t know why,” Yarley said.
Karen didn’t know why, herself. It was just a tree and she’d never been particularly attached to the holiday traditions. She’d put up various things in place of a tree over the years. Christmas lights on her philodendron and such. If she bothered at all. But this year she needed that tree. She’d already cut it down and everything.
“It’s a ceremony that’s important to me,” Karen said. “When I was a child we used to decorate a big tree. We’d put lights on it and popcorn and ornaments that commemorated decades of family history. It was a reminder of who we were and where we’d come from every winter.”
“That sounds lovely,” Lolali said.
“Can’t we just find another tree?” Yarley asked.
“I didn’t see any others out there. That tree is my tree,” Karen said.
“It wasn’t the Nuarashiaudai who took it, was it?” Lolali asked. “it’s about that time again for them.”
“About time for what?” Karen asked. “What are they doing to do to my tree?”
“It’s a traditional thing. Like your decorating the tree. Each alignment of the moons they take the largest, dampest tree they can find and burn it. I think it’s ceremonial of warning the heavens that they’re there and not to crash down on them,” Lolali said.
“Do I come from the only culture who don’t set things on fire purposefully?” Yarley asked.
Karen shrugged. Yarley’s species was aquatic. Fire wasn’t in their history.
The Nuarashiaudai didn’t have a square in their embassy’s territory like other specieses did. They didn’t have a lot of blank space left on their plot of land. The tree was placed on the flat roof of their tallest building, a space set aside for recreation and such. Karen could see it from the ground. A great, green spire for the heavens to see.
“That’s my tree,” she said again. Lolali put a furred hand on her shoulder to calm her down. It didn’t help.
“What are you going to do?” Yarley asked.
“Your people aren’t exactly known for being diplomatic. Or showing any restraint at all,” Lolali said. “Remember the last time you got caught up in an alien ritual.”
“How long do I have until they light the tree?” Karen asked.
“I don’t know,” Lolali said.
“Who can keep track of someone else’s moons?” Yarley said.
“Then let’s go knock on the door and find out,” Karen said.
It was times like this that Karen wished she had “anthropologist” printed on a badge or a business card or something that she could flash in people’s faces.
“Hello. I’m an anthropologist from the Earth delegation. I understand that you are about to start a traditional ceremony of your culture and I would like to observe it, if I may,” Karen said.
That spiel had earned her access to everything from coronations to fertility rituals. Whomever was in charge of answering the door when aliens came a-calling, they had no idea what to do with her now. They put the three of them in a waiting room and went to find someone who understood what was happening.
“Okay, you two wait here for when they come back. I’m going to find some stairs or an elevator or something,” Karen said.
“You’re going to end up locked in a janitor closet or a bathroom or an elevator. Or something. Again,” Yarley said. “Aiaiai, Karen. You should not be wandering around strange embassies.”
“I’ve got to get my tree,” Karen said.
“And we will get there. But we have to do it together. Otherwise you’re likely to end up locking yourself out of the embassy and you’ll watch the tree burn from outside,” Lolali said.
Karen was gearing up to be indignant, but having them to help her overrode it. Yarley already had the door open. It might have taken Karen ten minutes to figure it out.
The three of them did their best to sneak through empty hallways. Yarley was about seven feet tall with bright white skin. They didn’t make a stealthy group, but they managed.
Lolali led the way. She found the elevator quickly. The Nuarashiaudai used a simple platform rather than a moving box. As they rose, they could see hallways and rooms on other floors. Some of them occupied. Some of them occupied by aliens who were flabbergasted to see a trio of strangers on their way to the rooftop.
The elevator didn’t ding when it reached the top floor. It just stopped for a moment. And then it began to descend again, slowly. The three of them had to jump to get off.
“Here we are,” Karen said. “Top floor. Cafe. Sky view. Christmas tree department.”
Lolali waved her down. Karen was so close, she could smell pine sap. Not that this tree had pine sap. And it had smelled more like salt when she chopped it down. But figurative pine sap was in her nose.
She stepped out of the shadows. Lolali stepped forward with her. Yarley stayed behind, but given her size she wasn’t very well hidden anyway.
“I want that tree,” Karen told the first Nuarashiaudai she saw.
They were a smaller species than humans. The tallest came up to Karen’s chest. Their reddish brown skin reminded Karen of brick chimneys and melted chocolate bars. The first few within hearing range turned their face tentacles in her direction.
“Maybe we should try the diplomatic approach to this,” Yarley said.
“It’s my tree,” Karen said. A couple of the Nuarashiaudai ran off to announce there were strangers here. Whether it was to tell the diplomats or the security forces, Karen was willing to find out. She stood her ground.
“Welcome to our tree lighting ceremony,” the first Nuarashiaudai to speak said. “I’m afraid it won’t start for a little while. Can we put you somewhere to wait while we find out if you should be here?”
The rooftop area was a paved area full of Nuarashiaudai at the moment. There were benches clustered to one side that looked like they’d been moved to make room for the crowd. There was no railing around the edge of the rooftop. Fortunately, the elevator put them out far from the edges of the rooftop. The tree was in the direct center, nearby. Karen could almost taste it.
“I will not be put away somewhere while you burn this poor tree. Bring me whomever is in charge here,” Karen said.
She did not have the authority to make such a demand. She had to hope that they didn’t know that.
“First, there’s no snow on this planet. And nothing like fireplaces. And now you steal my Christmas tree,” Karen said.
They were drawing a crowd. More Nuarashiaudai pushed in to see who was making such a fuss. Someone pressed a cocktail of some kind into her hand. It was warm and smelled of spices that she couldn’t recognize. She held it because it seemed polite to do so.
In that one gesture, they’d made her look conversational rather than confrontational. She struggled to keep her angry face on.
“Can I help you, alien?” another Nuarashiaudai asked. “Are you here for the tree lighting?”
“Who are you?” Karen asked.
“I am Leif, the chief steward here. I’m in charge,” Leif said.
“Leif, this is my tree. It was stolen from me on the plains of this planet. I would be happy to help you replace it, but this one is mine,” Karen said, brandishing her drink in the direction of the plant.
“Oh no no no, that cannot be. We take only trees that have already fallen. My people had been watching the trees of this planet, waiting for one to fall by natural means. We were afraid that the universe would not provide us with one, but it came through. This tree was not stolen. It fell,” Leif said.
“This tree is mine. It has my saw marks on the trunk. I can prove it,” Karen said. She didn’t have the saw with her now. She wished she did.
Leif’s face tentacles jiggled. “I am quite certain that cannot be. This tree fell naturally.”
“It fell by my hand,” Karen said.
“And you are a part of nature, are you not?” Leif asked. “Either way, this tree is here now. It will be lit. There’s not time for us to bring another one here.”
“But it’s my tree,” Karen said. She felt Lolali’s hand on her shoulder again.
She hadn’t really made a plan. It wasn’t like she could grab the tree and run. Maybe she could push it over the edge and collect it at the bottom, but it meant finding the elevator again in a timely manner.
“What do you want with our tree?” Leif asked.
“She cut it down as part of a ritual of her culture,” Lolali said. “To decorate.”
“Ah, we wouldn’t wish to interfere with another culture’s ceremonies. Do you have time to decorate the tree before we burn it?” Leif asked.
“Ei yes, that would solve everything,” Yarley said from her shadows. “And now we don’t have to steal the tree back.”
“Wrong,” Karen said. “It’s still my tree. We don’t set our Christmas trees on fire back home. That’s my tree.”
“What do you do with your trees back home?” Lolali asked.
“We decorate them and light them up and then set them in the corner until the end of the season,” Karen said. When she said it like that it sounded rather boring.
“When does your season end?” Leif asked.
“Well, usually after Christmas. But sometimes we get lazy and leave it up for a couple of months,” Karen said. “Either way, Christmas is still two days away.”
“Then you have two days to find another tree,” Leif said.
“He’s right,” Lolali said. “They need this tree now, before their moons go out of alignment.”
Karen took a drink of the cocktail in her hand. It smelled like cut plants and tasted like cinnamon. The warmth from it settled in her stomach and calmed her down. A bit.
She sighed. “How long do you have before you must light it?” she asked.
Lolali helped her with the conversion when the answer came. It was about an hour before they put the match to it. If they used matches or whatever.
Karen had to leave it with them. They were going to burn her Christmas tree.
“You can still decorate it, if that would help,” Leif answered. “It wouldn’t hurt the ritual at all. The heavens don’t care what’s on it as long as it burns properly.”
Karen brightened a bit. She turned to her friends. “Can you help me find some popcorn and string? And some paper and scissors? And some shiny bits? We can make do with anything,” she said.
Yarley rushed off to find things. Karen thought she looked relieved.
Leif explained it to the other Nuarashiaudai. One by one, they came over to see what she was doing, taking finished ornaments from her to put on the tree or sitting down to help make their own. She cut out snowflakes and made baubles out of something that might have been tinfoil. She made stars and the Nuarashiaudai added their own shapes. Things that Karen didn’t have a name for. But they were bright and cheerful. Lolali and Yarley added shapes of their own.
They helped her fill the tree. She sat with them and told them stories of her own Christmases. And they told her stories of their childhood tree burning ceremonies. Holidays were much the same for both of them. They told her stories of family meltdowns and stress and nostalgia. Regrets of being far from home on a day like today.
And as they sat, Karen didn’t notice the gray clouds forming overhead. They weren’t the rumbly kind of clouds that rushed into the open space fast. They were silver-gray and formed a little at a time, just an overcast day.
As Karen sat there, great fat white flakes started to float down around them. She looked up and they clung to her lashes as she smiled.
“Snow,” she said. She held out her hand and caught a flake. It covered most of her palm. “How did you manage it?”
“Oh, you would say ‘we called in a few favors,'” Lolali said. The flakes were building up on her fur.
“And we created a few new favors with some people,” Yarley said.
The tree was flecked with white as the steward made his prayers. He gave them in his own language, which Karen couldn’t translate. But she felt like she could understand it anyway. It was a prayer to the heavens to be noticed. To remember that they were there. And not to crash down on them in the night.
As the tree burned, Karen sent up her own prayers with it for the same thing.