Our office has an annual short story competition. This year’s was “A Journey Home for Christmas”. The winning entry – a pooly-scanned, cliche-ridden rewrite of The Night Before Christmas, full of half-rhymes – was third-rate. A friend of mine submitted this, and it frankly should have won, but it was genre fiction and thus never really stood a chance.
* * * * *
The grand audience chamber does not seem to move. Gravitic panels reduce the inertia of the four building-sized engines of the Gaxian space-cruiser Gargantuan to little more than a tendency for the unwary to spill their drinks.
Dread Emperor Zorgax, Fist of Devastation, Immortal Ruler of the K17 Quadrant, Chosen One of the Unspeakable Squid-God, is coming home for Christmas.
Not to the palace-world of Spiff, where nothing exists except to serve his whims. Nor to any one of his innumerable pleasure domes, each occupying some of the most desirable real estate in the galaxy. No, Zorgax’s destination is an unmarked house, on a quiet street, on an unremarkable ball of dirt in a system off-limits to all.
This year, Christmas is at his mother’s.
Zorgax – a bear of a man with a bristling beard – stands in the grand audience chamber and considers the empty void on the other side of the monomolecular glass. He could sit on the gothic throne and regard the same view, but while the steel seat is a powerful statement of might it is also criminally uncomfortable. Cushions are not an option for a serious Dread Emperor, so Zorgax stands.
“We will be entering orbit in ten minutes, Dread Emperor.” The lackeys all look the same to Zorgax; generations of selective breeding have given them all the same unctuous unobtrusiveness. He flaps his hand in dismissal.
Zorgax paces. He pours himself a glass of some alien liquor and swirls it: the luminous teal concoction clashes terribly with his blood-coloured imperial regalia but it does refract the light in an impressive way. This year… this year will be different.
This year the bomb bays of the Gargantuan are crammed with gift-based warheads – surely one will satisfy his aunt.
This year he has had the finest minds of the empire calculate the optimal cooking time for a turkey of any given weight, although the mighty task of persuading his mother that he knows best is still down to him.
In the window a mottled blue-green orb seems to expand to fill the viewing space. Targeting overlays on the glass spring to life, picking out population centres and military strongpoints.
The Dread Emperor sighs. Festive cheer is not something he can overcome with an orbital bombardment. He swirls the liquor in his glass one more time and takes a hefty swig, which he immediately regrets. In his trepidation he has poured himself a double measure of Listerine.
It takes Zorgax a few moments of strangled coughing to realise that what he can see from the window is changing. Millions upon millions of small contrails burn through the atmosphere of the planet below – missiles, launched from the Gaxian fleet. Zorgax’s supply of gifts.
“Yes, Dread Emperor?” The lackey is at his elbow so fast Zorgax half suspects the man was standing behind him the whole time. “Might I be so bold as to mention that your breath is remarkably fresh?”
“Why are there missiles raining down on my mother’s planet?”
“You gave the order, Dread Emperor, in the strangled dialect of the extinct Orthari race.”
Zorgax is silent for a moment.
“Tell me, lackey: does the strangled dialect sound a lot like a man choking on mouthwash?”
“They have been likened in the past, Dread Emperor.”
“So descending on the population of this world as we speak is a barrage of…”
“Porcelain statuettes of adorable dogs, Dread Emperor. Most are expected to survive the descent but if they do not we still have enough ammunition for a salvo of novelty foodstuffs.”
Zorgax watches the finest dog statuettes the galaxy can provide rain down on the deserving and undeserving alike. He catches sight of his reflection in the window and quirks an unexpected smile: the bearded man in red, dispensing gifts to an unsuspecting world.
“Launch the novelty foodstuffs,” he says with an imperious wave, “and ready my landing craft. The one with the red searchlight in the nose.”
Pleased with himself, Zorgax lets loose a booming laugh that echoes from the vaulted ceiling of the grand audience chamber. The lackey bows in obeisance.
“It will be a Christmas miracle, Dread Emperor.”