Day 4, Story 4: Xmas Mode


Part 1: How We Got Here

Part 2: Xmas Mode is Coming Again

Part 3: An Xmas Mode Carol

Part 4: Merry (and Mighty) is the Kid that Holds the Pencil

Part 1: How We Got Here

With our children, we are now five generations in. I’m supposed to serve as one of our closest connections to the past. Especially in light of my family’s legacy of leadership in the colony, with all its lessons. 

But the stories from my great-grandfather Paul—just about everyone called him Grandpa Paul—have begun to fade. I hold onto scraps of the memories he shared, like the frayed fabric squares in our ancestral family quilt, stitched by my Great-Great-Great-Great-Great Aunt Peg and patched and handed down endless times until deteriorating into bare threads. 

We have no use for artistic pursuits here, but as a child, I was fascinated by her craft and often imagined what Peg and her life were like.

Like Peg, though several generations and climate catastrophes later, Grandpa Paul and his peers were born on Earth. As feared by our founding benefactor, they never truly acclimated to life on Mars. They did, however, produce the first wave of natives that would carry us forward. For that perseverance, we owe my great-grandfather and his generation a debt of gratitude.

The distance grows exponentially more vast each year. From Earthly ways, from our ancestors, and more urgently, from the production projections and terraformation goals plotted when this colony was founded. Soon, using raw materials provided by our mines for spacecraft and fuel, a sizable influx from Earth will make their home here as conditions deteriorate beyond the threshold of no return there.

We’re not ready, despite our best and most intense efforts. Here, labor is life. Our purpose so noble in advancing humanity and spearheading a brighter future, or really any future at all, that it dwarfs all other aspects of existence. 

The numbers tell a story of accumulating failure to live up to humanity’s high hopes. I can’t be the only one in my circle who dares wonder, in my innermost thoughts, if near-constant work and total sacrifice are sustainable for much longer. I spend little time with my own children, Stella and Darwin, as I now lead planetary-wide production and they spend nearly all their waking hours in their lessons at The Foundry.

Grandpa Paul made the mistake of openly questioning our way of life after many years of seeing some children—including his granddaughter, my mother—struggle to thrive in a relentless system. “This isn’t living,” he exclaimed during a managerial congress. “This is slavery to production.” 

He wanted to make room for comforts and traditions. Instead, he was instantly disgraced.

Labeled a regressor, Grandpa Paul was sent back immediately, fate unknown. To my knowledge, there has been no instance of open subordination of the cause since. “Heads down, output up” is our way. It has to be.

Over time, pressure mounts instead of easing. And despite the many setbacks and far slower than expected pace, we do find ways forward. In our innovation center, advancements stall for years and then accelerate in bursts. We recently learned to manipulate the Higgs field, a culmination of collective scientific efforts dating all the back to 2012. In developing the Higgs Shield, we allowed for freer yet protected movement anywhere on the surface. The result is that terraforming and mining efforts now have the potential to break wide open. 

Scaling will take time. And our focus on Higgs Shield infrastructure delayed mining production, and therefore Earth shipments and migration plans, for a full year. The current output graph is a nosedive. I removed it from the managerial congress assembly presentations to protect morale. 

While I have moments of doubt and even despair, I also hold onto an underlying faith that the numbers will turn around. That we will outpace expectations as soon as humanly possible. “Humanly” being the operative word and the catch.

Part 2: Xmas Mode is Coming Again

The colony’s children create bright spots in daily life. They are also, at times, highly unpredictable variables affecting our pursuit of objectives. Excitement is currently bubbling among the youngest because soon, Xmas Mode will be engaged on the official planetary record. 

Green triangles will hang on every pod door. Strings of red spheres and a lone white illuminated star will be provided to each unit. Thanks to one small win from Grandpa Paul’s tarnished legacy, each pod’s micro-biome will receive an amaryllis bulb, a rare diversion of resources from key production drivers.

The children’s suspense will continue building until culmination in “The Drop.” On Christmas morning, every youth under the age of 18 will receive a gift. The same gift. In the confines of life in the colony, The Drop is a rare source of novelty for them. They look forward to it all year.

Of course, hovering on the close horizon is the sad day every parent dreads when their children realize that The Drop isn’t a celebration or special gift at all. It’s another production driver engineered by the managerial congress. Gifts are chosen for their ability to cultivate highly specific skills needed to improve output-supportive innovation in the colony.

Last year, it was potatoes. Yes, potatoes. Each child woke up to find a stubbly reddish skinned orb of starch material—pure and authentic, according to our benefactor—in their family pod’s stock receiver. Potatoes were new, as we’d not grown them for consumption here, choosing squash as a nutritionally superior alternative for the colony. And as simple as a potato may seem, it was grown on Earth and therefore a true wonder in their eyes. Soil residue added to their amazement. 

That year, The Drop’s intent was to identify potential sources of agricultural instinct, bioengineering talent, or an aptitude called Innoviv. 

Most people now lack the old intuition that once allowed humans to tune into the needs of living things, instead following carefully prescribed protocols for sustenance and growth. But some children are gifted with it. That’s the quality my grandfather dubbed “Innoviv.” It runs in our family and propelled me to my position. My great-grandfather was able to pinpoint Innoviv because he had it in spades, as did my mother.

We’d hoped to reveal who could harness the vitality of potatoes, grown organically on Earth, to service production—to contribute something, anything, of value to the cause. Ideally, leads for new biotech avenues. 

What we didn’t expect was that the children would treat the potatoes as beloved pets. They named the potatoes and formed strangely intense bonds. My own daughter, Stella, called her potato “Bailey” that Christmas morning. How that name occurred to her, I can’t fathom. No one of that nomenclature has ever resided in the colony.

Parents were mortified by what they saw as meaningless, indulgent, and aberrant behavior. In some cases, they questioned their children’s sanity. I understood. But to be honest, in the context of our weary day-to-day, I also found it highly amusing.

Sure, most kids were able to regenerate some potatoes, but their intent was only to secure more pets. As such, The Drop was considered a total waste of opportunity and precious Earth-derived resources, harder to come by each year. 

In the wake of this disappointment, I reminded the managerial congress that failure was an acceptable part of the iterative process, in alignment with innovation. I was met with half-hearted nods.

I chose not to reveal a significant development to the congress that year, regarding Stella’s engagement. She loved and tended to her potato like a pet, yes. But she also gave it a job because, as all children are taught from day one, everyone must contribute to the colony’s success. 

Stella used her potato to power our entire micro-biome. This in itself is not so remarkable, but what unfolded from there was. She then harnessed the energy of plants growing in the micro-biome in a generator she created using components from The Foundry’s lab. Stella then used this larger energy source to run something she called “The Bailey Beacon.” Her intent was to contact intelligent alien life, a dream of hers. But instead of sharing information with the cosmos, Stella was sending out what she calls life energy. I found that idea dubious at best. But the inventive thinking was undeniable.

As mind-boggling as her abilities are, she is a child. And perhaps it would be unfathomable to anyone else, but I’ve decided not to reveal the extent of her talent. I just can’t sacrifice her to the cause, any more than I already have.

I doubt very much that any paradigm-shattering breakthroughs will emerge from The Drop this year, from Stella or any child. The gift will be less ambitious, though more pointed. 

We’ve seen drastic erosion of fine motor skills in each successive generation of pioneers. An emerging scanning technology for the mines will require dexterity and hand-eye responsiveness for optimal real-time exploration of untapped regions. It’s back to human basics as we mend this hole in our collective abilities.

These skills were systematically imparted in the past, so we turned to history for techniques. Each junior pioneer will receive a non-digital paper notebook and pencil, the latter being a borderline pre-Industrial writing tool. 

Our Xmas Mode Commission did make one minor addition to the pencil–a color-changing feature to maximize utility. The self-sharpening feature was scrapped after we realized that sharpening was another helpful fine motor task to increase hand strength.

After some convincing, and though Earth’s resources are approaching depletion, our benefactor agreed to reproduce these relics. They are currently en route and I’m eager to track both short- and long-term impacts.

Part 3: An Xmas Mode Carole

In Xmas mode, in Xmas mode,

The Drop will soon bestow gifts!

In Xmas mode, in Xmas mode, 

The Drop will soon bestow gifts!

Triangles green on every door,

The system feeds and hope restores.

In Xmas mode, in xmas mode,

We celebrate our progress!

Our cause supreme, our cause supreme,

Unwavering innovation!

Our cause supreme, our cause supreme,

Unwavering innovation!

The light of stars ignites our grind,

Our work the hope of humankind.

In Xmas mode, in xmas mode,

We celebrate our progress!

Part 4: Merry (and Mighty) is the Kid that Holds the Pencil

The Drop arrived and early engagement was high, as always. But parental reports soon indicated an alarming spike in defiance.

The notebooks and pencils had to be preserved for the lessons in writing and paper-folding-intensive architectural modeling set to begin the next day. The children begged to use them, directly challenging set limits. Highly unusual.

My family is an accurate barometer for colonial behavioral trends. All Mars family units are limited to very similar experiences, inputs, and exposures, resulting in a tighter range of behavioral expression.

I was not surprised by the reports because I saw how Stella and Darwin reacted, awestruck as they opened the stock receiver, eyes as big as Phobos. They simply could not contain themselves, jumping up and down, and running around the pod as if they’d discovered a new precious ore. 

They tested boundaries like never before. In fact, Darwin told his first lie—a developmental milestone sped up by sheer desperation. 

How did they instantly get so enthralled by something they’d never seen? I was baffled, until it dawned on me. They’d surely noticed images of and references to some paper-and-pen works in the Base of History, a museum that is really just a stark corridor of holoscreens extending from the congressional chamber.

Depicted historical milestones include the early signing of a key multinational Earth treaty that enabled our Mars settlement. There are also storied architects, builders, and engineers, with their plans and drawings. These tools are fundamental to our history, and the children have always been hungry for any details about our origins. 

We try to give them just enough fodder to fuel motivation. To ensure they feel connected to the cause, but not distracted. Yet children are curious. Daydreams and tangents come with the territory.

Starting when I was quite small, I would sneak into my grandfather’s workspace. There I discovered a hidden artifact. A physical book with actual paper. Full of words, all kinds of words, in alphabetical order. 

Pressed letters on the cover held some stubborn flecks of gold, as if clinging to the past: “Dictionary.” I loved scanning through to read and memorize words I’d neither seen nor heard. Bumblebee. Persnickety. Erstwhile. Bamboozle. Chiasmus. Avante-garde.

Even with my own past diversions, and Stella’s previous feat following The Drop, I was unprepared for what happened later that morning. 

Having covertly recovered her gifts from a hiding place under my spare uniforms, she snuck them out to the micro-biome. Sensing she was up to something, I soon followed. I peered in to find her sketching an amaryllis flower. 

As she drew, head down, the ground stirred before her and a tender shoot emerged, flat and pointed like an ancient arrowhead. The stem extended upward gracefully, meandering back and forth, straying only slightly from a straight vertical trajectory. 

When the stalk reached a height of about half a meter, the living arrowhead began to inflate, expanding until the tip split in two and revealed a flash of red. The pace of blooming seemed to increase bit by bit until the voluminous, trumpet-shaped flower burst open like a greeting for Stella. She smiled.

Not knowing what to think or do, I retreated in silence. My heart pounded. I felt a mixture of pride, awe, and fear. This was another miracle to ponder, another secret to keep. I felt more protective of Stella than ever. But there was no time to dwell, as I was being summoned by yet another panicked parent. 

The disturbance caused by The Drop led to trouble mounting by the minute across all grade levels at The Foundry. The next day, children ignored their lessons altogether, pretending to work but instead drawing. First, it was crude, basic shapes, then quickly progressed to familiar and unknown people, anthropomorphized everyday objects, and imagined beings, and vibrant otherworldly scenes that no one could decipher. 

The managerial congress convened to address the crisis of unproductive creativity. General wisdom assumed that the cause would be imperiled by a domino effect of flattening capacity.

A teacher from The Foundry was called to inform the congress. Solemn, she said nothing while projecting examples from the children’s notebooks, one after the other, on the holoscreen. A theme emerged: Xmas Mode. Green triangles and shining five-pointed stars come to life. Strings of red spheres linking planets. Stock receivers holding curious treasures. Families gathered together in their pods. I felt emotion well up that I did not fully understand.

A hush fell over the congress. Unsure but compelled, I cleared my throat and began speaking.

“The joy I saw in my children after The Drop is something I’ll never forget.”

Congressional leaders exchanged looks. Some were furrowing their brows. Some were nodding, barely. They seemed confused.

“Yet we all see it as a failure.”

More confused nodding and skeptical faces. I paced to the other side of the chamber.

“Or is it?”

There were dramatic gasps and indignant exclamations.

Turning to the closest congressional aide, and with increased volume, I asked, “What was the goal of The Drop?”

He looked around before responding, “To enhance fine motor control as a productivity driver related to the emerging mining tech.”

I turned to the nearby congressperson, representing the northern plains region, and asked her, “Does creativity get in the way of that?”

She hesitated before replying, “Well yes, I think so!”  She continued, “With the lack of precision and direction…” and trailed off.

Feeling as though I might burst from all the questions I’d been suppressing, I asked the unaskable.

“Is there room to be human here? Is labor enough to make a life? Is there an objective beyond mere survival? What good is a human future on Mars without humanity? It seems that there are so many questions we ‘fearless pioneers’ are afraid to go near.”

Shock reverberated through the assembly in disapproving head shakes, frustrated hand waving and outcries against a backdrop of conspiratorial murmuring. Always resolute and aligned, the managerial congress had fallen into a state of tension and disarray.

A senior member stood up, staring me down, red-faced, and cried, “There is only room for survival until the skies of Mars are blue!” 

“Let me finish!” I shouted.

There was silence.

“Stella drew our pod. Our Xmas Mode provisions. Our amaryllis in bloom. Our family, all living generations, together,” I continued. 

“She also drew an imagined alien form like nothing I’d ever seen. All of it is seemingly irrelevant to the cause, I know.”

“Exactly!” yelled the senior member.

I took a breath. “But by doing so, she’s mastering the pencil! Her brain is being wired for fine motor coordination—and for joy! Both at once. I ask again. Is this a failure?”

Not a sound.

“What if by steering their education so tightly, we’re narrowing innovation instead of opening it up? Based on their notebooks alone, I’d say they can conceive of all kinds of things that we could never dream of.”

My shoulders dropped. There was nothing more for me to say. 

The Chief Governance Officer requested that I wait outside in the dreary corridor of history while they convened. I was relieved to have a break but resigned to my inevitable punishment, removal from my post rather than expulsion like Grandpa Paul, as Earth is no longer a viable option. 

Though many references had been removed, for obvious reasons, my Grandpa Paul did still have a place in the historical record. He was well-loved before his fall. I walked over to pay my respects and found a measure of comfort in seeing his mischievous, toothy grin on the screen, a smile Stella and Darwin both share. 

“Thanks a lot, Grandpa Paul.” You really don’t hear a lot of sarcasm around here, but he and I used to tease each other. I realized I missed that.

A couple of long hours passed before a congressional aide came to escort me back to the chamber. I took a seat in front and the CGO began.

“Our children are our most precious resource,” she said. “Their survival, and that of their children, is our entire focus.”

I took a deep breath. Here it comes.

“At the same time, we do want them to be happy. Or at least have experiences of happiness as part of their lives as humans.”

Was it my turn to be shocked?

“But some here are very worried by any focus on the concept of joy. An emphasis on fleeting enjoyment over fundamental long-term wellbeing is what degraded Earth and brought us here.”

She continued, “An extremely slim majority agreed that your perspective is worth exploring—provided it is in keeping with our iterative approach to advancing the cause.”

The CGO paused thoughtfully, and glanced at the senior member before adding, “Those in the minority were assured that they will have a voice in the matter as we proceed.”

I could barely process what she’d said. No sooner had my mind snagged on the looming question of “How?” when a first step was proposed. 

The CGO explained that, if agreeable, I would change roles. Instead of leading production, I would lead education at The Foundry. 

“Shaping the next generation of pioneers would be my honor,” I said, shaking my head in disbelief.

I then found myself asking, “Could I also lead the Xmas Mode Commission?”

Her eyebrows raised, and then her eyes narrowed as if questioning my soundness of mind. She replied, “Why take on more? Especially such an inconsequential post?” 

I explained, “Because clearly the children care so much about it. I suspect Xmas Mode holds opportunity. For more understanding of our history and traditions. For joy and connection, which are valuable in their own right and, I believe, able to fuel learning and purpose.”

The matter was settled. Several hours after the congress first convened, I returned to my pod, light on my feet and still reeling. 

That night, I told Stella my news, and how her drawings helped inspire a new direction for the colony. I freely shared how proud I was of her fearlessly inventive spirit. She brightened as if lit from within, and hugged me with an intensity that moved me to tears. A child of few words, she took my hand and led me out to the micro-biome.

Not knowing I’d seen it, she proudly showed me the amaryllis flower. “It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve seen in a long, long time, Stella,” I said.

And then, she brought me to the Bailey Beacon interface. “Look, Mama,” she said. There in the scrolling data stream was—a reply. Source unknown, originating outside the galaxy. 

“How on Mars is this possible?” I thought. But stepping closer, I saw the patterns and the reality that it could indeed be some kind of message.

“I’m working on a full translation, but indications of tone are encouraging,” she explained.

Dizzy from this revelation, I knelt down and held her face in my hands. “That’s incredible, Stella! I’m so proud of you! Grandpa Paul would be dancing right now, you know. He always believed that other life was out there, along with new hope for us humans.”

Instead of deciding for Stella, I thought she should decide. We began to talk about the next step for this discovery. How it might benefit the cause. How it might affect her life. For the first time, I shared my worries with her and explained my instinct to protect her from the very system that sustains us.

“This is what I’m meant to do, mama,” she said after brief thought. “I don’t want to hide it.”

That I understood.

I saw it so clearly in Stella. Even on Mars, in an inhuman and exacting system attempting to eliminate uncertainty, we are deeply human. Flawed, scared, unruly, amazing.

Perhaps our best way forward can be illuminated in the balance of accepting uncertainty, with all its perils and possibilities, while fervently maintaining the conviction that a brighter future can be made. Not by suppressing the human spirit but by nurturing it. 

Deeply thankful for the opportunity granted to me that day, I felt renewed determination to succeed, rather than the fear of failure I’d accumulated for so long.  

That night, as I tucked them in for bed, I taught Stella and Darwin to spell and define one of my favorite words:

Miraculous /məˈrakyələs/ adj. highly improbable and extraordinary and bringing very welcome consequences

The end

(Note: Remaining holiday stories can be found here as they are released each day through 12/24, and ever after.)