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by Seuzz
Rated: ASR · Short Story · Sci-fi · #2234999
Does the Star of Bethlehem shine brightest from orbit?
"And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night."

The pilot anxiously fingered the tissue-thin pages of the pocket Bible as he read. He bobbed lazily in the microgravity with one leg tucked under the seat of his chair, and the commander reached over to gently steady him.

"And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you tidings of great joy, which shall -- "

"Hey, will you look at that!" The mission specialist chucked his chin at one of the viewports. "There's an angel floating just off our port side, and he's holding up a sign that says, 'Fear not'."

"Shut up, Cox," said the commander quietly. To the pilot: "Go ahead, Stewart."

But the pilot closed his Bible with a frown, and kept his head bowed. The four-man crew of the Aurora floated silently in place. "I suppose that'll do," the commander finally said. He gently took the tiny Bible from his pilot. "I'd like to borrow this, if you don't mind." Stewart nodded curtly, and avoided looking at Cox.

So did Flight Engineer Lew Cunningham. He had taken an almost instant dislike to the mission specialist at their first meeting. The man had large, wide-set eyes, but his tendency to sneer and jeer made them somehow look narrower than they actually were, and his otherwise broad smile usually had a sour cast. Even in the best of times he cast a jaundiced glow, and these were not the best of times for the crew of the Aurora.

Cunningham turned to look out the starboard window. Six hundred kilometers below, the polar ice cap slid slowly by, glowing dully in Earth's shadow. As he watched, the forward ridge of a cloud front hove into view, obscuring the ice.

But he and the others would be getting progressively closer views of it. Mission Control estimated they'd make only three more passes before their decaying orbit brought them into the upper reaches of the atmosphere, to be dragged down helplessly to earth. The computers had even calculated where they'd fall to within a few dozen miles: just off the northern shores of Ellesmere Island. The last thing I'll see will be the North Pole, Cunningham had thought mordantly. And it will be the day after Christmas, too.

He roused himself as Stewart thrust past, swimming out the hatch toward the aft cabins. Cunningham hesitated, and when neither Cox nor the stony-faced Commander Mills moved, he pushed himself after the pilot. The man's heels were disappearing into the galley even as Cunningham shot into the connecting corridor. He pulled himself along handrails until he reached the galley door, and looked inside.

Stewart had hooked himself to the wall and was staring at the food panel. He looked over as Cunningham called his name. "You looking to be alone?"

The pilot shrugged. "I'd head back to my bunk if I wanted that."

So Cunningham pulled himself inside and grabbed onto a nylon restraining strap. "We can try that reading again when Cox has comm duty," he said. "Technically, we still have ten hours until Christmas morning."

"Four," Stewart said. "The International Date Line will be sweeping under us."

"Well, if that's the way you want to calculate it," Cunningham replied. He wasn't inclined to argue. "The point still stands. We can find something to keep Cox away and busy." But Stewart only sighed impatiently. "I suppose he ruined the moment."

"He didn't ruin anything, except what it might have meant for himself," Stewart said.

"Six hundred kilometers up, with three days to live, is a hell of a time and place to witness to a man," Cunningham replied. He instantly regretted the sharp tone he'd heard in his own voice.

"Jesus witnessed for three days in Hell," Stewart retorted. Then he hung his head. "I'm sorry. I know what you mean."

Both men fell quiet, and in the minutes that passed they listened to the popping of the hull as the Aurora plunged more deeply into the night side of the planet. "Is that why you joined the space program?" Cunningham finally asked. "I have touched the face of God?"

Stewart gave him a quick, resentful look. "Is that what they say about me?"

"It's an obvious jape."

"I know, I've heard it lots of times myself." Stewart pushed his hair back, and exhaled. "But if I am, it's not like that," he said.

"So what is it?"

It was a long moment before the flight engineer answered. "It's the quiet. The emptiness. I know it's not exactly quiet on a ship or on a station," he hastily added with a small smile. "But you can't get any real silence on the ground either. There's always the birds or the wind to distract you. But up here, even in a tin can -- " He banged a fist lightly on the burnished galley walls. "It's a bubble floating on the lip of the greatest silence possible."

"You mean it's the monastic side of it that attracts you."

"I guess. You're removed from everything, but you keep busy, like in an old monastery. It's important work, too, when you're a pilot. It keeps you serious and focused, since you've got everyone depending on you."

"Everyone depends on everyone else. If you wanted to make a real difference," Cunningham couldn't help adding bitterly, "you'd be the guy who cross-checks all the systems so they don't explode and strand a crew."

Stewart's lips compressed into a tight, thin line, and he lowered his eyes. "If it's all the same, I'm glad we'll be through before the investigation can pin it on anyone. I hate the idea of, well -- Of hating someone for a mistake they made."

Silence fell again, and Cunningham briefly found himself disagreeing with -- and even resenting -- what he thought of as Stewart's "oh-so-charitable" attitude. Someone down below had screwed up in the worst possible way, and the flight engineer wanted to know who it was. In fact, he almost regretted that it was only a blunder that had put the Aurora on a death voyage. Malice, he almost felt, would be easier to forgive. It would mean that someone cared enough to sabotage the flight.

He didn't have long to muse on this, however. A movement at the galley door drew his attention, and he stiffened as Cox swam into the tiny cabin. The mission specialist wore a fixed expression, and he said nothing before strapping himself down and pulling a protein bag from the food locker. "Eat, drink, and be merry," he said as he extended the plastic straw.

"That's not much of a philosophy," Stewart said coldly. "After all, we all have to go sometime."

"I thought you didn't believe in going," Cox retorted. "I thought that was the whole point of -- " He broke off before another sneer could form.

"Dusk always falls," said Stewart. "That doesn't mean there isn't a dawn on the other side."

"Then you might as well not call it dusk."

"But that was how you lived your life?" Stewart flushed. "You did everything that felt good, right away, because there was no point in -- " He caught his breath.

"Don't be such an old woman," Cox retorted. "I've done lots of stuff that hurt because I knew it would pay off later. But there's no time for any payoffs now, is there? So why not have fun while you can? You know," he added with a grin. "The program should include emergency rations of chocolate fudge frosting, and maybe a sex doll or two, for just such contingencies as this." He laughed.

Cunningham tried, but he couldn't suppress a small smile, and he was surprised to see that Stewart smiled a little too. "Maybe you're not wrong, exactly," said the pilot. "Maybe there are times when a sin isn't a sin, maybe it's just an exercise in bad taste." He unstrapped himself, and kicked his way to the door. "I'll be in my bunk. Knock before you come in."

Cox chortled after Stewart was gone. "Looks like I'm the one who made a convert."

Cunningham only grunted, and lost his smile. "What did Mills have to say to you?"

"Plenty." Cox shrugged. "And I told him where to stick it. It's over, and we all know it. There's nothing we or Mission Control can do, unless someone's got two replacement microchips, a new motherboard, and about fifty feet of cable. Oh, and a drill that can open the bulkheads behind the computer core."

"So there's no point in maintaining even the pretense of discipline, is that what you told him?"

"Now, hang on there, I didn't mean -- "

"I should knock out all your teeth. It would make me feel good, and like you say, it's not possible to endanger the ship any further."

Cox glowered. "Mission discipline is one thing. Indulging a religious nut is something else."

"What about basic manners?"

"If Stewart had basic manners, he wouldn't try cramming -- "

"I already told him that was a bad idea," Cunningham said over the other. "You don't have to convince me. But when someone shows you bad manners, you don't go flinging your own bad manners back at him."

Cox smiled sourly. "So why are we arguing? Why do you want to hit me?"

"Maybe I just don't like the sight of you." Cunningham unbuckled himself as Cox blinked. "A man can be right and still be an asshole about it," he said as he kicked himself toward the galley door.

"Anyone who ever told the truth had to be an asshole about it," Cox hollered after him. "It's the only way to get people to listen!"

Cunningham glanced toward the aft, but then pulled himself back into the control cabin. Mills was strapped into his commander's chair, and was frowning out at the vista beyond the cockpit window. Above them hung the gray Pacific; below them, a black void. He glanced over as Cunningham strapped himself into his own chair. "Voices carry," the commander said.

"How much did you hear?"

Mills grunted. "Not enough to make out what the yelling is about."

"I'm sorry, Roy. But if discipline is going to break down around here -- "

"It's not going to break down," the commander said firmly. "We still have three days, and we still have work we can do." He paused. "At the very least, we need to keep our shit together for when the President calls."

Cunningham's mouth fell open. "He's calling?"

"Of course he is. He has to. The whole world knows what's coming to us, can you imagine what they'd say if he let us go without a farewell and Godspeed?" The commander let out a long breath. "And he won't be the only one. I wasn't going to say anything until it was time, but Mission Control's already warned me that that the Russian prime minister will want to speak to us too. And the Chinese premier. The British and the French governments will want face time. The Japanese and the Indians and the Australians, probably."

Cunningham couldn't help snickering. "Are we going to be up here long enough to schedule them all in? I wonder what kind of diplomatic protocol governs who gets to talk to a ship of -- " He couldn't bring himself to finish the sentence, but the words rang inside his head: Condemned men.

"I don't know, I'm just glad it's not our decision. It'll be bad enough having to listen to them. Anyway, that's on the schedule for tomorrow. It being Christmas Day, and all. You know," he added after a moment's thought, "if Wayne wants to have another service -- "

"I already told him I'd be up for it," Cunningham said. "But I don't think he'll want to. Honestly, Roy, I really do think it's best if each of us makes his peace in his own way." He turned an open, almost pleading face upon his commander.

The commander looked doubtful. "We should do something together."

"We will, tomorrow, when we take all those diplomatic calls. Oh, Jesus." Cunningham covered his face at a sudden thought. "It just occurred to me -- I hope I don't crack up laughing in the middle of one of those speeches. That would be awful, wouldn't it, if one of us lost it in the middle of the Mexican president's condolences?"

Mills smiled wryly. "We can control the video feed from this side," he reminded his flight engineer. "But a service of some kind, like I was saying, with just us -- "

"But what kind of service? Wayne would want a scripture reading, but Cox won't stand for one. I don't know why, except that he doesn't believe in it, but I don't know why that's such an obstacle. I mean, do you -- ?"

Cunningham broke off. He was suddenly shy of asking. It seemed a grave presumption to ask another man what he believed. Worse, he realized with a jab of horror, he was afraid of being asked himself.

But Mills answered anyway. "Do I believe in God, you mean?"

"Cox once told me that he only believes in what he can see."

From his flight suit pocket Mills extracted the tiny Bible with its green plastic cover. He thumbed through the pages, and stopped on one. "'And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed.'" He looked up. "No one now alive has ever seen Caesar Augustus. But no one doubts his existence."

"There's direct evidence of it," Cunningham said.

"Indirect evidence, you mean." The commander turned tired gray eyes onto the flight engineer. "Histories and statues and folk tales. But we've also got histories and statues and folk tales about Hercules. That's the thing about indirect evidence, you know. You don't know what it's indirect evidence for unless you can get a look behind at the thing directly. And then what's the point of the indirect evidence? It's like hearing a knock at the door. Unless you've got a peephole, all you know is that there's a knocking. Cox's standards of evidence are too high," he concluded with a grumble.

"So you're an agnostic," Cunningham said.

The commander shifted. "I don't know. Isn't that what a real agnostic is supposed to say? That he doesn't know, and that he doesn't know what he doesn't know?"

"Well, no one knows what they don't know, right?"

"If you're going to turn this into a cross-talk comedy sketch," Mills said, and he unstrapped himself, "I'm going back to my bunk." He heaved himself into the corridor.

Cunningham let him go, and squirmed down into his seat, to gaze out at the void below and the restless ocean above. Wasn't there a Bible verse about that? he wondered with vague irritation. Somewhere in Genesis. Something about God brooding over the formless universe before commanding, "Let there be light!"

But there wouldn't be light, not for another ten or eleven hours, when the Aurora neared the southern latitudes. Then it would sail into daylight, pass over the South Pole, and fly up over the southern Atlantic Ocean and Africa toward Europe and the Mediterranean, returning to the darkness at the top of the world.

They would make only two more such passes before the final, fiery plunge into the cold Arctic Ocean.

Lethargy stole over the flight engineer as he rested weightlessly in the padded chair. He blinked a couple of times to clear the heaviness from his lids and looked at the clock. Thirty-two hours since the fire took out part of the control systems. In that time he'd had maybe four hours of sleep snatched between intense bouts of work. Houston was still trying to find a way to get the ship down safely, but on the last call but one the mission director had told them to prepare for and expect the worst; and if the President and the other leaders were now preparing themselves to deliver eulogies to the crew of the Aurora, that meant the wizards below really had given up.

No wonder he suddenly felt exhausted. Stress, strain, worry, and work had sapped all his strength. Now that he nothing to occupy himself, he felt he could sleep for a week.

His lips twitched at the thought. He didn't have a week left he could sleep for.

He screwed his eyes open and stared at the Earth. The Aurora was moving very fast, fast enough that if he concentrated he could detect the change in the clouds below as the ship sped over them. And the planet was turning as well, swinging the International Date Line, like a scythe, toward them.

Cunningham instantly rebuked himself for the uncharitable analogy. The Date Line was bringing Christmas morning. When had he ever dreaded Christmas morning? It was the day after that he had to dread. But Christmas morning had ever been the best day of the year. He had never lacked for presents.

Even when there was only one present.

It gave him a nostalgic twinge, even now, to think of his father, drawn and gray with worry in those seasons when his quick-rich schemes had backfired dreadfully, so that their Christmas tree was drawn and decorated with crayons and magic markers on a sheet of butcher paper filched from the alley behind a shop. "I can't give you boys any presents this year," he'd had to tell his two sons on more than one occasion. "I can't, but don't worry that you'll go without," he'd assure them. "Someone will supply. Someone always does."

And sure enough, there would always be at least one present at the foot of the hand-drawn tree on Christmas morning, even if it was nothing more than a length of nylon rope with some crude plastic handles attached to its ends -- a makeshift jump rope. Such gifts never came with the name of a benefactor. Until he was sixteen, and could afford to give up the illusion, Lew Cunningham always managed to believe that they were left in the chilly apartment by a jolly, red-suited elf. He smiled even now to think of his father refusing to share the animal crackers and milk that he gave his sons every Christmas Eve, and how he insisted that Santa would only want one cookie and half a glass, so that's all they should leave out for him.

Maybe he dozed while lost in nostalgia, for he came to with a start at the creaking of the cushions in the chair next to him. Stewart flashed him a quick, apologetic smile. "Sorry. I tried not to wake you."

"S'alright, I should move around anyway," Cunningham said. But he didn't. Instead, he tried wriggling down deeper into the chair -- hard to do in microgravity. "What did your family do on Christmas Eves," he asked.

"You mean, did we open presents, or one present, or go caroling?"

"Any of it. I'm asking what you did."

"Well, we opened one present. Not each. Just one. We'd draw straws -- dried spaghetti sticks, actually, and the winner got to open one present. The other two kids got a cookie or a popcorn ball to eat. That was when we were little. When we were older, we'd go with our parents to midnight mass."

"You're Catholic?" Somehow this surprised Cunningham.

"My dad was, at least until he married my mom. She was evangelical." Stewart shrugged. "We moved from church to church, depending on if the preacher was any good. But my mom always went to the Catholic church for Christmas and Easter. She said the ritual made it more meaningful to her. Protestants never really got how to celebrate the holy days."

"I don't know enough about denominational differences to tell," Cunningham confessed.

"Most of differences are pretty silly. It's about what works for you."

Now Cunningham really felt startled. "I thought doctrine was important. That's why there are so many denominations."

"Well, it is," Stewart said. "Though I don't know that it's so important to God." He winced a little under Cunningham's hard stare. "I really shouldn't talk about stuff I don't understand. But that's what my mom told me, at the end."

"What did she say?"

Stewart drew and exhaled a long breath. "Well, the way she put it -- when she was past caring -- she told me doctrine is like a ladder. It's just something firm you can hold onto in order to climb up. It's too hard to have faith in empty air, she said. So you need something to grab onto, some way of explaining what it is you have faith in, and why. When I say God doesn't care about doctrine -- " He shrugged. "I think He only cares that we grab onto something sturdy enough to haul ourselves up. What it's made of is less important than that."

"It sounds very practical," Cunningham said. He'd never imagined God as having only a "practical interest" in doctrine.

"I guess. I think it's like we're stuck in a shipwreck, and He'll let us grab onto any salvageable piece of piece of driftwood that floats by."

"But aren't some things off limits?"

"Well, sure -- "

"What about, like, prayers to the saints?" Cunningham didn't know why he was pressing so hard. It wasn't like he was even interested in theological topics, and even as he asked he felt he was being very rude.

"That's not something I really know anything about," Stewart said. "Being mostly a Methodist and all. But the way I look at it -- The way my mom looked at it, when I asked her -- " He raked his hand through his hair. "Asking God for help is a pretty daunting thing. He's a big fellow, and we're small, and it feels presumptuous. But a saint is more 'us sized'. So God lets us ask them to ask Him. And I guess He eavesdrops," he added with a smile.

A voice sounded behind them. "So are you going to ask God to help us out?"

Cunningham looked over his shoulder, though he didn't have to in order to recognize the voice. "Cut it out, Cox," he sighed. "If you're going to barge in on a private conversation -- "

Stewart cut in. "Why don't you do the asking, if you're so interested?"

"Because I don't believe in Him. Obviously. But what if I asked you to ask Him for me?"

"I'm not a saint. "

"Oh! Or are you too proud to put it to the test?"

"I won't ask for a miracle just to shut you up," Stewart said, and he turned red as he unbuckled himself from the chair.

Cunningham burst in. "Is this really how you want to spend your last seventy-two hours, Cox?" he demanded.

The mission specialist pulled himself to the side to let the pilot pass out of the cabin. "If Stewart's allowed to talk metaphysics, then so am I," he replied when the man was gone. "And he'd feel good if he converted me, so I'd feel good if I converted him. What's so hard about that to understand?"

Cunningham wrenched away his own straps, and Cox warily withdrew into a farther corner. But the flight engineer only grasped the edge of the doorway. "I understand that, Cox," he said. "I just don't understand you."

The Aurora was a small ship, so Cunningham only had his choice of crawling into his bunk or returning to the galley if he didn't want to put on a suit and go sit in the cargo hold. But though he was bone tired, he wasn't ready to crawl into his bunk, where he was sure he'd just fall asleep with memories of the day's arguments repeating in his head. So the galley it was.

He half-expected to find the commander there, but he had it to himself. Mills had been in there, though, for his small writing pad and pen were stuck onto the Velcro strip attached to the food locker. Cunningham pulled them down, then strapped himself in.

He told himself he was angry at Cox, but beneath it he could sense a deeper anger toward Stewart. If the man believed in miracles, why didn't he ask for one? Was it really so hard?

Cunningham put his face to his knees, and covered his head with his arms. If it came to that, he suddenly realized, why couldn't he ask? God, if He existed, and was anything like advertised, could hear him just as clearly as He could hear Stewart. And if He didn't give Cunningham the answer he wanted, well, you had a better chance as an unbeliever who asked than as a believer who didn't. Right?

But still he hesitated. It seemed a silly thing to do. It would be embarrassing. If Stewart, who said he believed in God, hesitated to ask the Big Cheese to do something frankly and spectacularly miraculous, how presumptuous was it for him, who wasn't even on speaking terms with the Deity, to ask?

Cunningham straightened up. In times like this, it was his habit to draw up "pro" and "con" lists, to clarify his thinking. And, though he felt rather foolish at the idea, he uncapped the commander's pen and drew a line down the middle of his notepad, and prepared to make just such a list of the reasons for and against praying for a miracle.

But he didn't. He wrote no words at all.

Instead, almost without intending to, he abruptly drew a series of triangles down the length of the line, yielding a child's version of an evergreen tree. It was the kind of thing he used to doodle in school, and remembering the "ornaments" he and his brother used to draw on the butcher paper on those poor Christmas Eves, he decorated this one now with circles and stars and streaming tinsel. He didn't draw any presents beneath it, though -- it was not the sort of thing he and his father and brother did with their old "trees."

When he was done, he looked around, feeling vaguely dissatisfied with the results. It needed something else, if it was to be a properly desperate Christmas Eve, of the sort he remembered growing up. There were no animal crackers aboard, but -- He opened the food locker and drew out a bar of dehydrated ice cream, and laid it on the seat next to him, and laid the pad atop it. He secured them with one of the straps, then before he could change his mind he pushed himself down the corridor to his bunk.

Why had he done it? His father was dead, and his brother was an invalided fighter jock now pushing paper across a desk in North Carolina. But this would be his last Christmas ever, and an empty gesture in the direction of "St. Nick" at least sent him back, for a little while, to days that, while seemingly hopeless, never decisively foreclosed the future.

He slept.

And he woke with a start at the sound of voices, and instinctively rolled out of his bunk into the middle of the narrow space in the cabin. His heart beat hard. He wasn't afraid of missing the great cataclysm -- he blushed a little to think that he'd rather be asleep when it happened -- but he couldn't bear to think of not being on hand if his crewmates needed him.

A small motor was screaming as he looked into the control cabin. Cox was pressed to the floor and with an automatic screwdriver was taking a panel off one of the bulkheads beside the damaged computer console. Cunningham's jaw fell open. That tool in Cox's hand -- it hadn't been on the flight manifest.

Mills turned at some noise Cunningham had made. His face was haggard, but his eyes were bright and staring. "Merry Christmas," the commander said.

"What's going on?" Cunningham noticed a small metal container, about the size and shape of a toolbox, by Cox's foot. Stewart had secured himself to the floor nearby, and was pulling a length of cable from it.

"It's the damnedest thing," the commander said. "But after the agency made a public announcement, one of the old flight engineers contacted the team specialists." The lines between his eyes deepened as his eyebrows rose. "He told them that the previous class of transports always had a supply of extra tools stored inside one of the bulkheads, and wanted to know why the hell the Aurora didn't. Well, the engineers said they'd never heard of such a thing, and it was probably eliminated for weight issues, and they pulled out the schematics to show that it wouldn't have been feasible anyway, because you know how engineers are, even when they're wrong they can't help trying to prove that they're right, and -- "

He swallowed. "And the schematics showed there was a space exactly where the engineer said there would be, and they called us up to see if we wanted to look inside that space, and we didn't have anything else to do, so -- " He blinked rapidly a couple of times. "There was a container unit there that had exactly the parts we needed for repairs, plus a few more extras."

Cunningham looked down at Cox. "Are we -- ?"

Cox looked back over his shoulder. His eyes were wide and calm, his smile broad. "I told everyone the repairs would be easy to make, if we just had the parts and tools."

The cabin was crowded, so Cunningham pushed himself back into the corridor, and pulled himself down to the galley. From the doorway, he stared at the notepad with its ridiculous Christmas tree, still buckled into the seat.

He reached under it, on an impulse. There was nothing beneath it.

Lew Cunningham sucked on his upper lip, and resolved never to ask Cox or Stewart or Mills if they had found and eaten a dehydrated ice cream bar.

He had given up on one illusion twenty years before. He wasn't much inclined to give up this one.
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