Founder’s Day approached, and seven year old Billy Brewster trembled with excitement. He shivered with the cold, too, but that was not unusual.
The planet New Antarctica — or that frozen hell as it’s called — celebrates Founders Day to commemorate the day the original settlers crashed there.
They created the holiday to appeal to all religious faiths. Though to be honest, most settlers who haven’t scraped together enough credits to leave the planet have no faith in any merciful deity anyway.
This Founders Day was a typical Founders Day, like every other day in New Antarctica. A freezing wind tore at the family’s shelter.
Dead bodies of the lovely birdlike creature, the blue zygonauts, lined the fields, frozen in colorful patterns. They lived and died in the flashes of temperature warm enough for their brief existence. Children bundled in protective suits walked happily between their bodies, searching for the loveliest dead frozen creatures to bring home and post outside their house.
After helping Billy decorate the outside of their cube with the dead bodies — a touching holiday tradition — Billy’s parents got called away.
They said they’d be back and he wasn’t to open any presents.
Billy, like children everywhere, tore about their bare dwelling like a whirlwind.
He found a box. He picked it up. It rattled. What could it be? It squealed.
Squealed? Something living? A pet on this planet? Billy was young and didn’t consider how he would feed it. He was only two when his uncle lost his job and wanted to come live with them, so he hadn’t learned about survival of the fittest yet.
He set the box on the floor and it squealed again, soft and gentle, like it was calling him. How could something be soft and gentle in this brutal climate? Billy’s tiny heart raced.
Driven by love, and the sad innocence of youth, Billy unwrapped the package and found a steel cage inside.
A creature about the size of an earth kitten, with eyes as large as half its body mewed again. Those eyes locked on Billy, and Billy fell in love.
Billy got his tools and liberated the creature. As soon as he freed it, the beast hummed a soft, soothing sound, and wrapped itself about his wrist as though it were snuggling.
“Iggy, I’ll name you Iggy,” Billy said.
The creature purred contentedly.
“Iggy loves me,” Billy said, as he gently moved his free hand over to rub its soft fur.
Before he reached it, the creature revealed a razor row of sharp teeth, and nipped off half of Billy’s little finger.
“Iggy,” Billy said, tossing the creature down. He stemmed the blood with a quick patch of emergency salve, something toddlers learned to use and carry.
Iggy came for his feet and Billy took off.
The creature nipped at his heels, tearing off pieces of his thick boots.
The creature was one of those few creatures that thrived in New Antarctica. Small, but mean and brutal and vicious — a perfect match for the planet. The eating machine is the simplest translation of the name. It starts its life by eating the first thing it sees, and doesn’t stop till it is finished. Then it eats everything in its path until it’s full, or it dies. The mating habits of the creature remain a mystery, since no one desires to save them for study.
Billy made his way to his parents’ bedroom, and slammed the door.
Sounds of shattering steel came from the door. Soon, a tiny hole appeared. “I’m doomed.”
He texted his mother, “Opened present early. Looks like it’s going to eat me.”
The climate on New Antarctica allows communication devices to work only via text.
His mother texted back. “Oh, my poor baby. You opened Daddy’s present.”
Billy’s father Otis watched the exchange, smiling, thinking his wife Martha had gotten some bad news about her family, whom he despised.
“IT’S ALMOST IN,” Billy texted back, breaking the grave prohibition of using all caps in a message.
When Martha screamed, “My poor baby,” Otis snatched the communications device from his wife, read the conversation, and keyed in rapidly, “Under the bed. There is a present. Get it. As soon as the door breaks, point it toward the door and open it. It is Mommy’s present.”
In the box was another similar creature. Once Billy opened it, and it saw the original beast, they locked jaws. Since this is an upbeat story, their encounter will not be described. Just say it was brief and ended with pieces of both pets oozing parts on the floor.
So, now on New Antarctica, on Founders Day, no one, but no one, opens any presents until all the members are together.
The harsh climate on New Antarctica and few natural resources for building force many residents to live in enclosed quarters for extended periods of time. Death threats are common between family members who in other environments might be content with mean stares or dinner invitations snubs.
The residents have heard the touching O Henry story, “The Gift of the Magi,” and they say this is their version of that tale. How you may think about this is up to you, but it means a great deal to them, and they do have so little that gives them joy in their bleak land.
Ed Kratz is a retired civil servant who has recently been published in Daily Science Fiction and Every Day Fiction.