His Long Penance
He arrived at the planet and stared down at it. It was a beautiful thing. A lovely, shining prison. His ship buzzed at him, reminding him that procrastination was frowned upon.
He surveyed the surface and chose a site for his new home. He directed his ship to hollow out the ice at the North Pole and build a labyrinthine lair. Then, he unleashed his small army of waist-high bots and ordered them to work. They created an elaborate workshop filled with tools, paint, and supplies. The ship had been loaded with enough raw materials to outlast his long sentence–his presence would have little impact on the surrounding environment. He’d already done enough damage.
The bots set to work building dolls and wooden horses. They would learn as they worked, and their toys would grow in complexity year by year.
He captured a handful of the local quadruped herbivores and altered their genetic structure to allow them to escape the confines of gravity. He thickened their coats, lengthened their lifespan, and named them: Dasher and Dancer, Prancer and Vixen, Comet and Cupid, Donner and Blitzen. They would be his only living companions. Their brown eyes were soft and kind. His throat ached when he looked at them. Their namesakes would laugh at him, call him foolish and clingy. But he’d always been the most sentimental of his kind.
He created versions of the local bipedal intelligent life to spread myth and legend, to teach their fellows to string pine trees with trinkets and lights, to light fires of hope on their darkest days, and to celebrate with the giving and receiving of gifts. It was an easy task for him, for he intimately understood the way these creatures thought.
The legends, like the toys, would grow richer with time.
He had more time than he wanted to think on.
He strode through his new home, checking and rechecking his preparations. It wouldn’t do to miss a single detail. The observers must see that he was trying. They had debated on his punishment for a very long time.
He was lucky that they hadn’t destroyed him. He’d pleaded with them to allow him visitors, but his isolation was a key part of his sentence.
When he could think of nothing else to do, he rested.
He woke in the heart of winter, with ice riming his long white beard. The bots had loaded his in-atmosphere vehicle and strapped the reindeer to the front. The animals chuffed and shifted, moving as one. He patted each of them, and he gave them warm honey poured over fruit. They would need a great deal of energy for tonight.
The feel of their hot breath on his skin brought tears to his eyes. He nodded to his bots, and glanced at the observation device that he’d hung himself. He took a deep breath. ”Let us begin.”
He pulled on his bright red suit and started his first delivery run. Gifts vanished from his sleigh to appear in shoes, under trees, in piles next to sleeping children’s beds. The stars twinkled overhead, distant and cold, and the high altitude winds cut through his suit like an icy knife. He urged the reindeer on–faster, higher. They must finish before the sunrise.
Loneliness echoed in his heart.
Minor miracles rippled from his path. Fevers broke, fogged eyes cleared, pains faded. Rich women offered their fur-lined coats to men sleeping in the streets.
He spread happiness and love, and goodwill to fellow men brimmed in the hearts below. People sang and danced and held hands. They laughed in their deepest darkness.
Then he returned to his lair, carved a single line in the hard ice wall, and went back to his bed. In another 9,999 years, his penance would be done. His crime would be atoned for, and he would be able to go back home. He wished that he’d never seen this planet–this orb of blue and green floating in space. He wished he’d left the inhabitants alone to evolve as they would. He’d been told time and again that spreading intelligence wasn’t his mission.
He wished that he’d listened, that he’d obeyed.
His tears froze on his cheeks, and he dreamed of flying home through the stars.
Jamie Lackey’s fiction has appeared in over a dozen different venues, including The Living Dead 2, Stories from the Hearth: Heartwarming tales of Appalachia, and Daily Science Fiction. She has appeared on the Best Horror of the Year Honorable Mention and Tangent Online Recommended Reading Lists. She reads slush for Clarkesworld Magazine. Find her online at www.jamielackey.com.