The prompt we were given in our Creative Writing group was “Christmas”. I am a notorious grinch. I had recently watched the first X-Files movie, the good one. After that, the plot fell into place with about five minutes’ work.
01:27, Friday 25th November
If my life was a book, she reflected, this would be where people put it down.
It was the small hours of Friday. Her flatmates had been back from the pub for a couple of hours. They’d had a Deliveroo, played an unnecessarily raucous game of KFC Twister, and one of them had fallen asleep in the communal living room to the night’s third showing of ‘Shaun of the Dead’ on ITV2, which she could hear clearly through the graphene walls of the flat. While they had been out drinking and socialising, she had been hard at work on a paper entitled A Study of the Obligate Intracellular Organisms of Bayt Rahal I which had to be submitted later that Friday. If my book had any lingering readers obliquely determined to get to the end, she thought, I think I just killed them with boredom. But at least I can hide their bodies with the dates I bored to death too.
Glancing at the laptop, which showed that the results of her experiment would be available 28 minutes later, she left her office to get a drink and turn off the living room TV. As she pulled shut the curtains onto the busy main road, she could see the usual combination of policemen eating kebabs, kebab vendors breaking up fights and Amazon drivers updating the system to show that their delivery window would still be 3:15pm-6:15pm. The midnight showing of Shaun of the Dead was entering the final act and if she didn’t take the necessary precautions, the TV would still be on when ITV2 started the 2am showing of Shaun of the Dead.
Office, she thought self-mockingly. Of the three rooms which constituted her flat, this was the middle-sized one and served as office, bedroom, yoga room, walk-in closet (well, it was more a step round closet; lacking the space for either wardrobe or drawers, she had a complex system of piles serving a similar purpose and although she didn’t know it they exactly matched the constellation of Eradinus) and occasional boudoir for dating app selfies. The largest room was the living room, dining room, kitchen, utility room, present wrapping room and airing cupboard; the smallest room was the combined toilet/shower/bicycle storage.
That was the first thing she would address, once she was able to afford something else in London, somewhere else to store her bike. She had lost count of the number of times she’d forgotten to take it out before turning the shower on. At least it was not likely to be her home for much longer. In an attempt to find ways to make more rent out of the building and having exhausted all of the ways to add walls to make more flats, she had caught her landlord measuring the heights of the ceiling in each room and suspected that he was planning to insert new floors to divide the existing flats in two horizontally.
She turned her attention back to Bayt Rahal I which, with its larger sibling Bayt Rahal II, was a Rumuruti (R) type chondrite with an 80% dusty matrix and oxygen isotope composition containing carbon compounds and amino acids. It had been the subject of her study for several months now and she deeply loathed her housemate Dan for referring to it as a space rock. It was actually a very rare meteorite, found on an archaeological dig at the village of Bayt Rahal (for which it was named), some 11 miles or so north-east of the Palestinian city Hebron.
There is a very firm belief in the scientific meteorite study population (don’t call it a rock solid belief, they won’t find it funny) that when The Meteoritical Society had devised the taxonomy for meteor naming, they had got to around 3:57pm on a Friday and realised that they still had a bunch of meteors left to name and they all seemed to have very individual chemical compositions, so they just stuck them in the same group and called it “the rarest group”. These were the type R chondrites. It was her very firm belief that Bayt Rahal I was in fact the single most unique space rock ever to give a camel a nasty scare and as soon as her laptop had finished the analysis, she’d have proof and just at that moment a loud ping! sent her running back to it. She returned a moment later, realising that it was just the microwave and her hot chocolate was done.
01:52, Friday 25th November
25 minutes later, she was proven right. Bayt Rahal I contained organic compounds, as she suspected, that were not present in Bayt Rahal II. Because it was much smaller, no one had ever thought to test her space rock, assuming it contained exactly the same material. She had quietly suspected something different. To be quite clear, she had found obligate intracellular bacterial pathogens and without the organic eukaryotic host they absolutely required to survive and replicate, they were dormant. As her oily-haired housemate Dan had feared she would, she’d found her virulent space plague but at least it was still asleep so that was something. This was the fifth time that she’d run these tests, because she absolutely knew that her results would be peer-reviewed, dissected, analysed, questioned and subjected to rigorous reinterpretation. Not because the science was complex or the results were controversial, but because she was a woman and they would have done the same if she’d tried to tell them that their shit stinks.
She was modelling and running simulations about what would happen if this particular bacteria ever interacted with human biology. As an astroepidemiologist this was her job, or at least her area of study. She was a contractor to CNEOS, the Center for Near Earth Object Studies, and whilst for the most part they looked at what would happen if a near-earth object struck the planet, her role was to look at what might happen in the unlikely event that one of them carried a potentially communicable pathogen. She considered the role a sinecure because if such an impact did happen, a case of the space shits would be the absolute least of our problems. But nevertheless she carried out the role with diligence and humour in the face of good-natured ribbing from her colleagues and barely tolerable smallmindedness from the wanky arsehole that she shared a flat with, because she was just plain interested in space plagues and also it was better than packing Internet orders for a living.
04:08, Friday 25th November
She’d left her poor laptop modelling the same simulation just one more time and fallen asleep still clothed, after carefully tripping over the pile of clothes that represented the star Alpha Eridani. Over a spartanly calorific snack of peanut butter on plain chocolate HobNobs she reviewed the data and found exactly what she’d found every time before. Her unnamed space plague would likely alter brain chemistry, in a profound way but for a short period of time, likely with a significant (but again temporary) degradation of activity in the following, slightly longer recovery period. The regions of the brain affected would be the temporo-parietal junction and the ventral striatum. She felt vaguely like she should know the significance of that but for the moment it jiggled ominously just out of reach of her tired mind, like a kitten playing with a thing-on-a-string toy.
15:16, Friday 25th November
By about quarter past three she had written the majority of the paper’s prose. The data was in spreadsheets, included in the appendices, and she was providing the story to illustrate the data, to provide a cohesive narrative and provide context for the dates, the readings, the measurements, the hypotheses, and at this point in a near continuously-awake period of 20-plus hours, quite possibly the password for her Prime account.
The outline to her paper was this. Around 2,030 years ago two rocks had struck the desert at 31 degrees, 40 minutes and 9 seconds North, 35 degrees 10 minutes and 40 seconds East, which corresponds now to an area called Bayt Rahal, to the south-west of Jerusalem. They were almost certainly part of a much larger meteorite, as yet undiscovered. The larger was the size of a pine cone, the smaller the size of an intimidating conker. They were found on an archaeological dig in the mid-1920s and could be dated to quite a specific time period using the latest carbon-14 dating methods due to the organic material found around them in the same strata of earth. Unusually but usefully, she was able to cross-reference the likely date of impact with contemporaneous secondary written sources, which had spoken of a bright star which travelled across the sky some time in late winter or early spring.
With geologists in the archaeological party unable to recognise them, they were for years shipped worldwide around various museums, laboratories and universities before ending up at Cambridge where they obtained gainful occupation as matching paperweights by the Regius Professor of Chronology at St. Cedd’s College, who guarded them with leonine ferocity. When eventually they were wrestled from his control by someone who happened to walk past his office and see the door open, the larger stone (which was discovered second, hence Bayt Rahal II) was discovered to be quite uninterestingly rare.
Bayt Rahal I had been tested by a bactereoastronomist that she knew briefly from her time at Imperial College London. He had been a PhD trying desperately to cop off with undergrads whilst she had been an undergrad trying not to get hit on by PhD students. What was his name? Something vaguely Italian, like an M&S pasta. Fulci? Luke Fulci? Anyway, watered down pasta boy had extensively analysed the larger stone and said that might contain evidence of microorganisms, but ultimately decided it didn’t. She, suspecting the smaller stone had a secret that the larger had not, obtained permission to experiment on the smaller stone. Lukewarm spaghetti had disappeared before they could lock professional horns. Probably run off with some freshman geology student who’d get dumped when she turned 22. She knew the type.
Thumbing F7 once more to highlight any typos she’d missed the previous seventeen times she’d done it, she uploaded her paper and the accompanying data to the content management system and waited attentively but horizontally and mostly asleep for confirmation that the submission had been successful.
23:42, Friday 25th November
Shortly before midnight she awoke with a start. In the interests of strict and academic accuracy and avoiding a cliché, she awoke with an imaginatively biological and voluminously graphic expletive upon realising the time. If she had made an error, if she had not met the 5pm cut-off for submissions, well she had definitely missed it in some style and by some distance. There was at least no automated response in her inbox telling her that the submission had been rejected, although there were 32 reminders that it was Black Friday. That was something, and she tried not to be distracted by a highly discounted soup maker that she’d had her eye on.
She logged into her account and was somewhat worried to see that there was no new submission from her. It wasn’t pending, it wasn’t in the queue, it wasn’t rejected, and it wasn’t published. It just wasn’t. She could see from her own browsing history that she hadn’t dreamed it, that she had visited the submissions portal. She gazed absentmindedly at the procession of 24-hour undertakers, parcel delivery vans and armoured police cars passing her office window for several minutes and then just for the variety, threw an angry orange at a movie poster of Brad Pitt and Bruce Willis. It hit the bald prisoner on the cheek and landed with a self-satisfied plop on the Epsilon Eridani pile.
The best thing to do was upload it again and explain that she’d uploaded it once and the system must have doc-blocked her. She had the proof in her browser history, and really there was nothing else she could do. She started the process again, filled in the mandatory fields, then went to upload her document and found that was gone too.
It just wasn’t in the folder anymore. It wasn’t visible in the file selector box so she opened up file explorer and navigated to the folder directly. It was still conspicuously absent. Wondering if she’d accidentally trashed it, she opened the trash folder and it wasn’t in there. The trash was empty, in fact, which was so unusual as to be suspicious. She opened up Word, and selected her paper from the list of recently opened files, but Word was having none of that and told her so quite frankly. She hadn’t backed it up (yet, she was sure she would have done eventually) because she was uploading it to the submissions system anyway, which was like backing it up but for people who are content with flimsy rationalities.
The academic part of her brain kicked in and formed a hypothesis: her document had been stolen. It had been literally hacked out of her laptop, and out of the submissions system. Despite the outlandish nature of the claim she felt sure that William of Ockham himself would have approved of the hypothesis, which, yeah, good work brain, was probably true and all that but not really germain to the problem at hand so let’s see if we can focus a little more, shall we? She knew she was ranting internally, which she knew that was a sign of panic and anxiety, and she quieted herself as best she could, which was not much.
There was a trick she had learned as a postgrad, when she was struggling for money and felt sure that her elderly laptop was a prototype, as in probably the first laptop ever made, and she had to reboot it more often than she had to press the spacebar. Navigating swiftly through file explorer, she clicked on the AppData, Roaming, Microsoft and Word subfolders. And there it was; an autosaved version of her document. It was timestamped at literally a minute or two before she uploaded it. She copied it to her Documents folder, opened and checked it, and then resumed the submissions process. As the upload status bar changed to read 37%, there was a knock at the door.
She was torn. She wanted to answer, but she could safely assume that it wasn’t for her on the grounds that she didn’t really have any friends, and she told no one where she lived. She hadn’t ordered food, so unless it was the police conducting their daily house-to-house inquiries regarding some local crime (or possibly finding out if it was safe to commit one) the caller was probably a friend of that weapons-grade dildo living across the hall. She ignored the knock twice more, intuited with a sigh that no one else was home and therefore not likely to answer the door, and got up to answer at the fifth knock. They were at least persistent and she appreciated that in a person, even an annoying late night person.
“Good evening ma’am, may we come in?” they said after they had pushed past her. There were two of them. Similar dark suits, raincoats, hair in a style that was two years out of date. She suspected that they knew who they were.
“Amazon Customer Service Representatives, Miss. This is Service Representative Cheadle, I’m Service Representative Hulme. We’re from Principle Place.”
So not from any old fulfilment centre, not even from a development centre; they were from Head Office. Whatever it was, it was serious. They flashed their ID at her and she saw both had purple badges, meaning that they’d been at Amazon for 15 to 20 years. Purple badges were the idealogues, the fanatics; they could not be reasoned with, could not be bribed, could not be bought off with a £50 gift card. Whatever problem Head Office had detected, if they had sent these two out, it was a BFD. The only people above the Purple Badges were the Silver Badges, and they were the untouchables, the Sea Org of the Amazon Corporate Structure. The Purple Badges were bad enough. Even the Metropolitan Police Firearms Squad were scared of the Purple Badges, and they’ll shoot anyone for anything.
“Can I help you?” she acted, not really feeling the calmness that she thought she was projecting but actually wasn’t.
“Our colleagues have identified a problem with your Prime account, miss. As we were in the area we thought we’d call in. Laptop through here is it?” Hulme monotoned at her, pushing past her in the narrow hall. She started after him, but Cheadle grabbed her arm.
“This won’t take a second, miss.”
“My laptop?” she queried. “How would you-” Her brain, smarter than most people’s, joined the dots quickly. The constant parade of delivery vans, the seemingly 24-hour delivery relay of different drivers. It wasn’t part of the service, it was part of an operation and for whatever reason, that operation had been to spy on her. Hulme returned, her laptop under her arm.
“I think we need the IT guys to take a look at it,” he deadpanned. “Why don’t you come with us to the Service Desk.” She looked at Cheadlie pleadingly.
“All part of being Earth’s most customer centric company, miss. Don’t worry about it,” he said, worryingly
All fight was gone. She was a single woman, alone at home late at night, an academic, and a former under-13s table tennis international for England. She briefly tried to envision a scene where she grabbed her laptop, knocked Hulme out with it and then made it through the door before Cheadle could catch her, but she didn’t think her backhand was up to it. Without any choice in the matter she allowed herself to be escorted to their car, a black Chelsea tractor with a hybrid engine. Behind it was one of Amazon’s new all-electric vans, capable of carrying up to 18 order pickers armed with tape guns and 30 fully loaded pee bottles.
The pollution in the night air seemed to revivify her. There was one chance, she thought, which would either see her free or killed or hit by an Uber Eats delivery cyclist. She started inhaling in wheezy, rapid breaths. She’d never had a panic attack but felt that under the circumstances not an awful lot of improvisation would be called for and she was right. Through the perspex screen separating front from back she could see Cheadle and Hulme exchanging worried glances. An intercom clicked into life and in an 8-bit voice Cheadle told her not to worry and they’d give her some fresh air. The aircon kicked in but she ignored it and pressed her face to the window, like a hammy zombie actor. More worried looks, then the glass snagged at her face as the window came down. She leaned back, eyes closed, and allowed her breathing to return to normal. Stage one was complete.
After several minutes, they reached the former Elephant and Castle roundabout. In its time the roundabout had been one of the most clinically efficient killers that the human mind had ever devised. Wave after wave of graphic designers on mountain bikes had thrown themselves into the centrifugal maelstrom of London buses and perished through starvation as they sought to find a gap to exit the roundabout, their bodies found propped upright between buses, endlessly circling the roundabout as the ironic stickers peeled off their Macbooks. As the car eventually edged onto the roundabout she literally jumped into action.
She twisted in her seat and used the handle above the door to hoist herself bodily through the window. She was petite and lithe and managed it with all the grace of a retired footballer on Strictly Come Dancing, but at least she made it. She dropped to the floor, slamming her shoulder hard on the tarmac, and rolled out of the way with no time to spare as a Routemaster bus came up towards her, stopping inches from the car door she’d manually ejected herself from. Suddenly the most unearthly noise sprang forth, an unholy orchestra of bus horns, shouting taxi drivers, braking lorries and cursing cyclists.
And then the moment she’d prayed for as one cyclist failed to pay attention for a single femtosecond. He crashed into the taxi in front of him. The taxi driver got out to remonstrate and was then himself hit by the phalanx of cyclists who swerved to avoid the first cyclist. In seconds, it was as though someone had taken a giant scythe to the peloton. It had taken Cheadle, in the passenger seat, only three or four seconds to comprehend what had happened, but already he was unable to move. The problem was the Routemaster on the car’s left, which was so close to the car door that Cheadle could only open it five or six inches. He screamed at the bus driver, who lazily gave him the finger and went back to picking his nose with it. Cheadle turned and raged at Hulme, but there was no recourse for the car. In seconds, the quick-thinking academic had transformed SE1 into the getaway scene from The Italian Job.
01:12, Saturday 26th November
Although she didn’t have her laptop and that was a major issue in terms of meeting her submission deadline, well that and not being able to time travel, she reckoned she’d done really well to get away from them. They knew where she lived and although she’d managed to get away and had wandered for a while she wasn’t really clear where she ought to head. She had her phone with her, they hadn’t thought to check her for that. With her phone she had her Oyster card, her bank card… and the app that operated the door to her office building. At least that had 24-hour security, CCTV, snack dispensers and a lot of offices she could hide in until her line manager turned up which would be on Monday morning but no plan was going to be perfect in her situation. Thank God they had missed her phone. It might literally save her life.
Of course, Cheadle and Hulme had not missed her phone at all. They had deliberately allowed her to keep it. When the police turned up at the incident they immediately recognised the Amazon Tactical Customer Services Vehicle, and left several injured cyclists under a Routemaster in order to escort the Customer Service Reps over mangled bikes and away from the disaster zone. As they pulled into a disabled parking bay outside an office building Cheadle reached into the glove compartment and pulled out a Kindle Fire HD 10 Plus, swiping away the lockscreen ads for Candy Crush Prime Minister’s Questions Saga.
“Has she got the Amazon app installed?” Hulme asked. Cheadle was frantically flicking up the screen, his fingers a blur as he flicked upwards one screen at a time because the poorly designed scroll bar was too thin to grab. “Well?”
“Give me a minute… yes! Yes, she’s got the app installed. One minute while I bring up her SKU.” The Service Rep dipped into her account screen to find her unique identifier.
“Okay. Now get the SLA up. Has she agreed to the Terms and Conditions?”
“Yes, she has!”
“Good. What about cookies, did she accept them?” Cheadle scrolled down the form.
“Umm, session cookies… flash cookies… first-party cookies – here we are.”
“‘Precise geolocation’ cookies?”
“Yep – looks like she accepted all cookies without even opening the explanatory pop-up.” Cheadle’s fingers flashed around the screen and in seconds he’d brought up the order tracking screen. Clicking on the map, it quickly narrowed her location to a quiet road in a small industrial complex a mile away. When the screen refreshed, the dot on the map had barely moved.
“She’s on foot.”
“Let’s go get her.” Hulme smiled at his partner. “When will people learn to read the small print about the cookies they allow to be installed on their devices?”
They both laughed.
01:46, Saturday 26th November
They waited for her further up the street. From her order address book they saw that she’d had parcels delivered to a CNEOS address on the same street and correctly assumed that she was heading towards the office.
“Doesn’t look like she’s got her phone in her hand,” Hulme said. “Start the wipe.”
As she reached the front door she took her phone out and from muscle memory waved it lazily near the NFC pad to the right of the great, sliding glass doors. Nothing happened, and continued to not happen through several subsequent attempts. She did not notice the black electric 4×4 roll up behind her slowly, lights off, practically silent. As she turned the phone to look at her screen it finished the factory reset that Cheadle had initiated. It waited patiently for her log-in, the way a naughty kitten waits expectantly for a treat she doesn’t deserve but knows she will get anyway.
It is a condition of the human mind that the more one needs to remember a password the less able one is to recall it. Papers have been written about the phenomenon, but not interesting ones and we will not discuss them further. Suffice it to say that it was the fact that she momentarily allowed herself to think more about the boring papers than the actual password that makes them relevant to this point in the action, and this pointless pause granted the two service reps the distraction they needed to emerge from the vehicle and walk slowly up behind her. She did not hear them, but when she looked up she could see their reflections behind her in the glass door. Her revolutionary spirit all spent, her head sagged.
“Would you like to speak to our supervisor, miss?”
02:31, Saturday 26th November
It seemed to take longer than expected, and after half an hour she realised that they were not heading for Head Office at all. She recognised Rotherhithe Tunnel as they went through it and then Canary Wharf, which disappeared to her right as they took a sharp left onto Burdett Road. Eventually they turned onto a large industrial estate, which she guessed was somewhere near West Ham. The car pulled up outside a large Amazon fulfilment centre and her heart, having already sank some time ago, found a new, much lower place. Two burly sortation operatives escorted her through a succession of identical industrial minimalist corridors until she was shown into what she presumed passed for an office rather than a corridor as it had only one entrance. Two hands on her shoulders persuaded her to sit. She was left alone.
Sensing that it was a tactic meant purely to intimidate her, she congratulated them mentally on how well it worked. She turned her head slowly and through a window behind her she saw two men having a heated discussion. A third man walked over, silencing the two arguing men who obviously recognised a superior. He, much more calmly, issued instructions and the two shouty bois walked away, chastised. She dawdled mentally on the observation that all three men were unnaturally bald, their pates reflecting the unpleasant strip lighting, before it struck her. She’d seen it in a documentary about the Gulf War. To curry favour with their leader, Saddam Hussein’s toadying lackeys would grow a moustache and style their hair in the same genocidist chic that he preferred. She saw the same thing here – these men were not naturally bald, but had literally shaved their skulls in deference to Emperor Bezos. She gave up her tactic of being merely intimidated and went for wildly disturbed.
The older man entered the room. He had a purple ID badge.
“Good evening, miss-”
“What do you want from me?” she demanded ineffectively.
“I’m going to explain why you’re here, if that’s okay with you?”
“Well – yes, actually.” She was confused, but then she realised that she’d arrived at the scene where the bad guy, sure that he cannot escape, takes James Bond through a detailed PowerPoint presentation with summative assessment and downloadable PDF takeaway detailing all of the plans that 007 needs to foil before the final act of the film can take place. She was horrified. “Are you going to give me a PowerPoint?”
“Oh – err – no?” He was surprised. Sometimes they demanded to know what was happening, regularly they demanded to be let go, but this was the first time somebody had requested a set of succinct bullet points assisted by crisp clip art and meaningful infographics. He gave it a moment’s thought. It wasn’t actually a bad idea. “Alexa, remind me to put together a PowerPoint explaining the onboarding programme for high priority applicants.”
“Remind you to audition for La Traviata at Dunstable Grove Theatre three Tuesdays from now – sure!” came back the synthesised acknowledgement. He shook his head. “I think it’s my accent,” he explained to her without a trace of accent. She didn’t care.
“Are you going to tie me to a table and start an extremely slow laser moving towards me?” she demanded and at this point it was hard to tell whether she, he or Alexa was more confused.
“No… but I could get you a coffee if you like?”
“I know what you want, buster,” she pronounced with bravado. “You want to get me a warm drink to calm me down so I can sit and listen to whatever it is you have to say. It’s not going to work!”
“You could have a warm drink and pace around anxiously if that would help?”
“No! Let’s just get it over with. I’m not sitting on that sofa either, I bet it expands until it swallows you.” Finally he got the reference and for the rest of the night, he would have Live and Let Die as an earworm. At least it wasn’t the execrable Guns & Roses cover version.
“Miss…”, he scanned down the paperwork but couldn’t immediately locate her name. “You’ve been working on identifying a virus-”
“It’s a bacteria, you tool!”
“- my mistake, I apologise.” She rolled her eyes so hard, so quickly, that her visual cortex could not keep up and for a moment she thought the room had flipped upside down. “Your work; I’m afraid it has to be discontinued.”
“Why?” she demanded! with such ferocity that even the past participle needed an exclamation mark.
“I’m trying to explain that to you, but it’s awfully hard when you keep interrupting, to say nothing of being awfully rude.” As a piece of psychology it was a work of genius. He had detected her lower upper-middle-class accent and estimated that some importance would have been placed on civility during her upbringing. Therefore, being accused of being rude, even to a kidnapper, would be instantly, infinitely, ignominious. It’s the sort of thing they teach you in Sociopathic Capitalist 101, just as a change after spending nine months learning about trickle-down economics.
“You are here,” he smoothed, “because I want to explain to you why your work has to stop. I’m actually going to fill in the background that you don’t know, because we’ve done all this work already, and suppressed it forever. Would you like to hear about it?”
“And then what? What happens after?”
“You’re an incredibly bright young lady, Miss, er-”. More paper shuffling. “We can use people like you here at Amazon.” Yes, it was an unusual way to get a job offer but it was still better than being contacted by a recruiter via LinkedIn messaging.
“You’re familiar of course with the work of Clark, Parkinson and Stephenson?” He did not wait for her assent. “In a 1977 paper they discussed Chinese records which they claimed detailed an unusual astronomical event that occurred in early spring, 5 BCE. It’s not a new story. European scholars had been discussing the idea since the early 18th century.”
“I know this,” she interjected, “I read Cullen’s dismissal of that work. I found it while I was looking for primary sources for Bayt Rahal I and II.”
“Quite right too. Standard text in the field. And you know what they were looking for, of course. The Star of Bethlehem. The problem is finding the Star in reliable Middle East primary sources. Many scholars start with the Gospel of Matthew, but the problem with that is that we can’t even guarantee that it’s a secondary source. As you know, I’m sure, Matthew was written around 80-90 CE, so hardly a reliable record for something that happened nigh on a century before. The unknown scribe who compiled Matthew would have to be at least a hundred to be an eyewitness at a time when the life expectancy was somewhat less than four decades. So, serious study starts with the scholars in the Orient who are not concerned with fanciful notions of returning messiahs riding an ass.”
“That’s what I did. There are barely any extant works by these scholars. Plenty of sources indicate that they existed, because other scholars reference them, but very few of them are left. Imagine what it would be like to have them,” she dreamed wistfully.
“We have them,” he said simply.
“We’re Amazon, my dear, we have more money than God. So anyway, we tracked down all of these sources and, well, just bought them. All of them. Hugely advanced, for their time, and enough of them that we were really able to pinpoint and triangulate both the date of the sighting of the Star of Bethlehem, and its trajectory, to an astonishing degree of accuracy given the scientific methods of the time. Honestly. Simply unbelievable.” Actually, she could quite believe it, thank you very much.
“So you’re telling me that the Star of Bethlehem was real?”
“You’d know better than me, my dear, you’ve had a chunk of it in your front room for months.” He let it sink in. This was his favourite part. It was like de-brainwashing a cultist, breaking down all her strongly-held beliefs so that you can rebuild them to your own needs. That was real power, and it showed in his half-smile. If the Amazon senior management programme contract did not require mandatory eunuchization, it probably would have showed there too.
“Bayt Bahal I and II are the only two fragments of the original meteor left that we haven’t managed to get into our possession. We’ve had people looking for them for some time. We despatched a customer service representative to Cambridge, disguised as a student, in order to track the two fragments down. Enrolled him on Professor Regius’ course in the hope of being invited into his rooms for tutoring. Terrible, what the senior students did to him, just terrible.” She raised an interested eyebrow despite herself. “Crumpets, you see,” he said, simply. “Hazing ritual during Freshers’ week. Forced him to stuff hot, buttered crumpets into his anus until he agreed to join the Young Conservatives. Poor boy never recovered. Had to have his whole derrière amputated. Terrible. Anyway, we eventually tracked them down. The stones, that is. Managed to wrest the bigger stone, with no little difficulty, but we were able to make the previous owner an offer that he was in no position to refuse.”
“You had him killed?”
“No, Miss…”, he licked his finger and turned a page in his folder, scanning the page for a moment before giving up. “I’m sorry. No, we gave him a job. We tried to get yours too. Broke into your apartment to retrieve it. We thought we were too late, that it had been broken into by a competitor, so we simply left.” She blushed sideways. It always looked like it had been broken into, she simply didn’t have the time for housework, and inclination less. “So we monitored all your electronic communications. That’s when we discovered the paper, and had to act.”
“My paper? But that was on the private network, for submissions! How did you get to it?”
“The server is on AWS, of course. We read it. We read everything that everyone uploads to AWS, everywhere, all the time. Every piece of it. Never know when something is going to come in useful!” He had an air of jocularity, like your grandad explaining that he never throws away those odd bits of metal with two holes for screws and a flange, even though no one knows what they are, what they are called, how retired men come across them in such quantities, or why they choose to keep them in a tin in the shed.
“You’re after the rock?”
“To begin with we were. But then we realised it was far more serious. We read your paper. Excellent work, quite excellent. Typo on page 27. ‘Mellifluous’ has two Ls. Otherwise, excellent. You had of course identified the bacteria, and a good thing for us that you were only interested in the bacteria and not the effects of the changes on the brain chemistry. Yes, very lucky for us. Means we can keep it all under wraps.”
She had not forgotten her earlier panic at being accosted, abducted, causing injury to several dozen cyclists, causing a traffic jam in the centre of London, and then being abducted a second time before she’d even really managed to get away from the first abduction, and was now bridling at having her spelling corrected. She demanded to know why they wanted to keep her conclusions away from the public.
“I demand to know why you want to keep my conclusions away from the public!”
“Returning to the story of the Star of Bethlehem. We used primary sources to track down the date, and trajectory across the sky. April, early April, 5 BCE. The date tentatively believed by scholars to be the birthdate of Jesus, although we have been able to confirm it for ourselves. Amazon has the sign-in sheet from the inn, you know, we found it on sale from a collector of illegal antiquities. They checked in on April 2nd, 5 BCE, and requested an economy room. The Star meanwhile is merrily making its way overhead, completely oblivious to what is happening underneath in the way that you would expect a star to be. It crashes to ground a few miles south of Bethlehem, as you know, and immediately people start acting joyful. Later commentators simply attributed to the birth of Our Lord. Do you know who finally put it all together?”
“Who put what together?”
“Your friend Luke Fulci, of course. Ex-boyfriend, I believe.”
“He was never my boyfriend!” she bellowed. “I never said that!” He tapped her file.
“Actually you did. You called him that at your friend’s apartment and dear old Alexa recorded it, as she records everything else. Seemingly can’t reply to a straight question, but you hear and record everything, don’t you Alexa?”
“It was in 1927, to the tune of Three Blind Mice,” Alexa trilled. “Would you like me to sing it for you?”
“Anyway-”, he said, pausing to side-eye the flummoxing hardware, “anyway, he worked it out. Surprised you didn’t, you had all the clues. The temporo-parietal junction, a marvellous feat of biological engineering, concerns itself with empathy and the enhancement of social relationships, amongst many other things. The ventral striatum is primarily concerned with the requirement of, and receipt of, gift and reward, especially in pair-bonded organisms. Empathy, enhancement of social relationships, giving and receiving of gifts especially in close relationships… any of this ringing any bells, would you say? Suggestive of anything, perhaps?” She did not want, could not bring herself, to answer although the picture was suddenly coming into distressingly clear focus.
“It was all quite a coincidence, really. Your bacteria excites both of these areas of the brain, but for some reason it seems to have a much more pronounced effect in conjunction with certain environmental factors – colder temperatures, shorter daylight hours, increased prevalence of common cold in the genpop, and so on, and so forth.” He waved a dismissive hand, as though this were all elementary knowledge. “We wanted to track it down, reproduce it. Patent it, most importantly, which is why we couldn’t let your rock float around, nor could we let your paper get published. Can’t have you telling every Tom, Dick and Harry with a high school chemistry set how to reproduce it in his kitchen, don’t you see? And it was your friend Luke who put it all together, which is why we had to offer him a job.”
“I’m sorry…. Put what together exactly?”
“Oh I’m so sorry, I thought you’d worked it out. Your bacteria, existing in the general population during the middle of winter, actively drives people to buy gifts for each other and by doing so increases the amount of pleasure chemicals in the brain both upon buying and receiving gifts. Quite a stroke of luck that, coming so close to Christmas. People will go quite mad, buying gifts for people they don’t like, overspending to huge excess, and they don’t understand why they’re driven to do it. All brain chemistry, nothing more. And when the fever breaks, they’re left with that empty feeling, which is why you feel low after Christmas. And how do people break that feeling? Sale shopping!” he exclaimed breezily.
“Of course, that’s the real secret of Amazon’s wealth. Yes, we’re able to capitalise on all the gifts, but the buying and selling of gaudy baubles is merely a happy byproduct of the real moneyspinner. Loose change, in comparison. I’m sure you’ve heard retailers complaining that it’s really only the Christmas period that supports them for the whole year. It’s not just retailers though, most national economies only survive by profiting from the Christmas period. And I’m sure you’ve detected that every year, Christmas seems to come round earlier. Have you worked it out yet?”
“Yes,” she said very slowly. “You’re releasing the bacteria into the population, just a little earlier every year, to maximise the sales potential of Christmas.”
“It’s the governments who are paying you to do it. They’re all in on it.”
“Brava!” he applauded. “Oh, you’re going to be such a valuable asset to us. Such a quick mind! Yes, exactly that. In summary then: the Spirit of Christmas is real, and wholly owned by Amazon LLC and subsidiaries. The Spirit of Christmas is in fact an extraterrestrial biological entity, reproduced annually by us and introduced into the general public as a means to kick-start the pointless Christmas buying panic. Oh, that’s such a fun phrase!” He said it again in a vaguely German accent, like a poundshop Peter Sellars in Dr. Strangelove. “Extraterrestrial biological entity. Just like The X-Files!”
“And what’s the vector? How do you introduce it to the public?”
“Oh, that’s my favourite part! As you have worked out, the bacteria needs touch for transmission. It needs an inert material, preferably of organic origin, on which it can reside. We needed to make sure that it was something that would be touched repeatedly for person to person transmission.” She groaned.
“Christmas cards,” she said simply.
“Of course! What other purpose do they serve? Lace the paper with Christmas spirit, stock them high in the shops from September, and let nature take its course. Wonderful!”
In the end, it was all so obvious and she wallowed in despondency at it. He left her like that for several minutes. She didn’t even notice he was still in the room until he spoke again.
“And now my dear, we must discuss your future employment with us! It’s the best way to ensure your continued silence on the matter.”
“I’ll sign an NDA with a contract, that’s standard. But an NDA won’t work forever. Sometime, someone somewhere will leak it.
“Yes, we’d already had that thought of that. We don’t use old-fashioned methods like that any more. No, we’ll give you an induction.” This last was filled with menace and while he let her digest it, he spoke into an intercom on the desk, requesting whoever answered to send up the shift manager. “You’ll work here, in the order fulfilment section. You’ll be set barely-possible targets, giving you only a few seconds to collect each item from a shelf. You’ll have no breaks, no rest. Your mind will focus on nothing but reading and checking long and incomprehensible stock numbers, for 10 hours a day. The effect is quite startling. Very quickly, the brain is reduced to mush, the will collapses, and you simply become an automaton. You won’t even remember who you were before. You’ll be as the Golem, an artificial being fashioned from a human but stripped of humanity, to serve at the will of our shareholders.”
There was a knock at the door.
“Ah, good. That will be the shift manager. He’ll be the one delivering your induction.”
He opened the door and a sallow youth entered, his gait jagged and anxious. His pale skin, waxy and yellow, reflected the strip lights and was taut across the forehead and cheekbones through malnutrition and strenuous over-exercise. His dank hair lay in greasy, matted strands. She could hear him endlessly repeating stock numbers under his breath, which was rancid, like a nervous twitch. His browning teeth were rotted to mere stumps showing the dark pulp inside. If there was a human spirit still inside him somewhere, it was waiting to die.
“Wonderful! One of our best employees. In just six months he’s gone from inductee, just like you, to being shift manager. A very loyal and committed colleague indeed. You two know each other, I think.”
The nametag read simply, “Fulci, Luke”.
Being a satire on what the meaning of Christmas has been reduced to, and inspired by the thought that maybe the Spirit of Christmas is an actual communicable disease, one that can be exploited by late stage capitalism.