Christmas at Star's End
The world was black. Up above was a deep, dark sky devoid of stars or planets, offering nothing but the eerie expanse of intergalactic space. Far below there was the pale surface of an icy planet only lit by its distant star, a white dwarf lost in the endless depths. Then three engine plumes ignited the darkness, revealing the unassuming shape of an Open Source Orbiter perpendicularly descending towards the surface.
Talasea's voice echoed on the local radio channel linked to the small local ground station.
"Santa is coming in hot!"
"Yeah, he is...in fact he's coming in slightly too hot. Ground control to Reindeer, you're going too fast, please adjust speed."
"Well, about that...it looks like one of our engines did not ignite. That might explain the slight speed problem. I assume you don't mind if we use your landing pad for a bit of lithobraking?" One of the plumes weakened then suddenly disappeared, leaving only two flames surging beneath the Open Source Orbiter. The small starship wobbled for a moment before the autopilot took back control. "Oh, it appears we've lost a second engine. Eh, I was going to switch it off to balance our thrust anyway."
Talasea turned towards Isaac. Her copilot/best friend/occasional lover seemed slightly worried, his flight suit sealed tight and his eyebrows raised in the general direction of the haptic displays. He was accustomed to Reindeer's capricious behaviour but it was the first time he had seen the loss of two engines at once.
"Are our engines lost-lost, or lost-lost?"
"Completely toast." Talasea shrugged. Her colourful flight suit made her look like some kind of exotic bird lost in space. "I think it's the fuel injection pump. Or the nozzle connections. Or a combination of both. I've emptied the fuel tanks for the two dead engines." As the Open Source Orbiter was standing upright relative to its axis of movement, Talasea's rotating seat was now below Isaac's and the copilot could only see her hands on the stick and throttle. They weren't shaking. She was flying Reindeer as if everything had been absolutely fine. "Ground gravity is one quarter of standard, it will be a bit shaky but we'll walk it off...and with a bit of luck, our presents will as well. Ok, Reindeer to ground control, I'm landing on two engines with RCS emergency assist. I've emptied most of my fuel tanks, terminal velocity will be slightly above 50 meters per second. Performing final deceleration burn in five seconds."
"Well, I wanted to rebuild that landing pad anyway. Don't you want to purge your cargo as well?"
"Santa never abandons his presents, ground control. Negative."
Isaac sighed and curled up in his anti-g seat in a pure reflex as Reindeer pushed its two remaining engines at full thrust then fired its RCS thrusters as well in order to cushion the blow of the final impact. As far as emergency landings went, he found this one rather honourable. The autopilot had maintained a perfectly straight trajectory and while neither the landing gear nor the engine nozzles particularly appreciated the landing, the cockpit itself barely shook.
Tali unshackled her safety harness, opened her helmet and turned towards Isaac with a smile. Her blue irenian skin blended seamlessly with the lights in the cockpit. She opened the outer airlock and waited for Marjani, the local station's science officer and Great Organiser of Various Festivities. Isaac noticed that she was wearing a complete vacuum suit, which meant the airlock wasn't attached to the station...or couldn't be anymore, since it was now half-buried in the ice.
"I'm afraid Reindeer isn't flying away from this, my dears." smiled Marjani.
"Good. This piece of junk was starting to become an annoyance. I can tolerate and even enjoy a certain amount of technical failures but losing engines in a final approach is too much for me." chuckled Tali in response. "At least the gifts are in good shape. I've got Terran cakes, Eloran wine, and kind letters for everyone at the station."
"Why are we even doing this?" grumbled Isaac from the upper cockpit. "I mean, there's nothing special on December 25th, isn't it? This could have waited a few days and technicians could have caught the engine issues."
"Well, it's tradition. Gifts are given on the 25th of December, Terran calendar...it's one of those things you don't really question, like, say, Elorans insisting to call ships her," answered Marjani while she battled with her helmet which was clearly too small to contain her long dark hair. "Personally I think the date doesn't really matter. It's just a time for kind attentions...and I think you'll agree this is all the more important on the edge of the galaxy. There's only darkness beyond this planet, so if we don't bring each other gifts, who will?"
"Fair enough. I still wonder about the choice of the date." pondered Tali. "Hmmm, doesn't the 25th of December have something to do with, you know, that Christian icon?"
"Saint Nicolas?" asked Isaac.
"No, the other one."
"I think she means Jesus Christ, Isaac. Yeah, I know that theory, but it doesn't make a lot of sense doesn't it? It's common knowledge that Jesus was born between September and March but no clear sources are stating that it was on the 25th of December. Maybe in the Old Bible? But I'm not sure it even exists anymore, even on Earth. The Outer Church doesn't celebrate anything special on the 25th of December anyway."
"Hmmm, I don't know, could it be a Jewish thing?"
"Or Pagan? That Saturnalia celebration, I remember hearing something about it once while I was in Cathedral station."
"I don't think it's a very fruitful debate. It's almost midnight. The galaxy is coming up in the sky again, I want to see it."
Tali dimmed the lights inside the cockpit and switched the external viewports to observation mode. Sharp-bladed mountains of ice towered near the horizon. In the sky, the deep darkness had receded, replaced by a sprawling river of distant stars. The Milky Way galaxy, seen from the edge, seven thousand lightyears above the galactic plane, its arms spiralling in everlasting silence. Everyone stood silent in the cockpit, but Isaac could be heard uttering a final question.
"I mean, who's Santa anyway?"
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