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Glitter on the Tree



Decking the halls didn't take long. There was only one hall on the ship, an open living space encompassing the bedroom and lounge areas. Elaine estimated thirteen minutes, forty-three seconds to deck the whole damn thing, including the bathroom, observation tower and of course the ubiquitous metal canisters, to its absolute limit of festive gaudiness. This left, according the computer, nineteen hours, six minutes and thirty-one point five seconds to their next jump, and eleven hours from there to Sylvia Station IV.

It was forty-five minutes of 24:00, December 24, GST.

"We're not going to make it," Elaine said, raising her hoverchair to affix the tip of the last chain to the ceiling, and daubing it in place with a few sprays of glitter paint.

"You're just now figuring this out?" Dusty was sitting on one of the space tubes (well, you had to do something with 'em, he figured) and playing tic-tac-toe against the computer on a cheap handset. He'd won the first game and lost the subsequent 59. He was starting to suspect that it was cheating. Tic-tac-toe was marginally more interesting than teasing his wife about her girly-girl decorating, and much less dangerous.

"Of course n--Get off that thing!" Dusty jumped halfway across the room at her shout and was looking around for his laser pistol when he realized that nothing lethal had sprung, oozed or poured from the canister. It, and its hundreds of cousins, remained benignly sealed.

"That thing could be explosive, corrosive, lots of other nasty -osives," Elaine added.

"It hasn't exploded in the last two days," Dusty said, picking up the handset and checking for damage.

"Maybe it hasn't sprouted yet. Or whatever it's going to do at midnight."

"Hon, it's not going to do anything at midnight. And if it does..." He waved a hand around them. "It doesn't matter if I'm sitting on one or not, since our living room's full of them."

"You're such a bundle of cheer sometimes, dear."

Dusty shrugged and sat back down in the same spot, brushing aside a stray bit of tinsel.

"Dusty-love, where do you think I should put the last of the glitter-paste? You know there's no point in saving it until next year. It'll just dry out or get flushed by mistake."

"Find something that's not glittery, and glitter it." He countered the computer's X with a very casual O. Ha-ha! Lulled you into a false sense of security, did I?

"What about -- this!" She threatened one of the canisters with the spray-nozzle of the paint can, then sighed and screwed the top down. "It's only so much ballast now, anyway."

Another O -- just watch the damn computer see through this ruse -- "He might still take them," Dusty said absently, watching the handset.

"He said Christmas, Dusty; Christmas, or else." Elaine tried to echo their client's inflections.

An X there? What the hell? Dusty shook the handset -- the machine had beat him again. He looked up to see Elaine watching him, obviously expecting some kind of response. "We could have timed it a bit better, I suppose," he said lamely.

"We could have timed it a bit better. No shit, Sherlock."

"Well, what do you want me to say? Looks like we came halfway across the explored galaxy and we're not going to get paid -- that's a bummer. Major bummer."

"Don't joke about this -- all right? We needed this."

Dusty grinned. "We could hit up your daddy."

Elaine shuddered. "Don't even."

"He'd give you credit if you asked."

"Don't even. I'd rather take out another mortgage on the ship."

"Pretty soon we'll be taking out mortgages to pay off our mortgages. Not a good strategy, hon. We're not in that deep. We're late with a few bills, not starving."

Elaine rubbed her face with her hands. "I'm sorry. I'm just not used to this. Is this how most people live?"

"What do you mean?"

"Worrying about credit all the time."

Dusty laughed. "Trust me, hon -- we don't worry about credit all the time. We have a roof over our heads. Well ... a mobile sort of roof, at least."

She floated over to him and hovered her legless body down into his lap, laid her dark head on his shoulder. "I never thought about it that way. This still sometimes seems an odd way to live, Dusty. Rootless. Impermanent. I'm not a rich bitch, am I?"

"Not rich, no. Ow! Uncle, uncle! That's a sensitive part of a man's body, you know. Put down the spray can and no one will get hurt."

Elaine nibbled his ear gently. "You can't possibly be comfortable, sitting like that."

"Now that you mention it, we could go somewhere more comfortable."

"Uh, I'll have to clean off the bed."

"What's on the bed?"

"Space tubes. I had to move some of them to get into the compartment where I put the Christmas decorations." She growled under her breath, looking around them. "That's another thing that gets my back up. Why can't we stick these things in the cargo grapples? Isn't that why we have them?"

"He didn't want them to freeze."

"The space tubes are temp-locked. They're not going to freeze. He's just being a paranoid jerk. So here's the question, Dusty -- what's in those tubes? What's so important that it can't be exposed to cold or radiation, even if the chance is only slight?"

"Babies?"

"Don't even."

"Not baby babies, like the squirming kind. Fetuses. You could easily have life support in those canisters to keep 'em going a few days. Until Christmas. Might be the life support runs out on Christmas and they're all going to be full of dead babies when we open them."

"That's horrid. Besides, why would Sylvia Station IV possibly need babies?"

"Could be clones of some important person. Maybe that's why he was so hush-hush about it."

"Now you're getting into soap-opera land, Dusty-love. Besides, he told us that he needed this stuff for their Christmas rituals."

"And you believed him?"

"Why would he lie?"

"If he's a terrorist and these are full of flesh-eating bacteria, he'd have every reason to lie," Dusty said.

Elaine shuddered and floated backward, putting a bit of distance between herself and the canisters. "I hate this! Not knowing. I want to find out what's in one of these things. Can we open one?"

Dusty raised his hands and held them out like Libra's scales, weighing imaginary options. "Let's see. Flesh eating bacteria. Open space tube. Flesh-eating bacteria. Open--"

"Oh, do be quiet. You don't really think there's some sort of hideous disease in there, do you?"

"Not really," Dusty admitted, "but I don't want to be the one to find out."

"He seemed all fired up when he was talking about their Christmas celebration. He said they needed to keep some of their old customs alive. I wonder what sort of Christmas customs they have on Sylvia, Dusty?"

"Probably tinsel and glitter, just like everywhere else."

"Oh, Dusty, maybe they do something exciting and exotic."

"Spraying the populace with flesh-eating bacteria, perhaps. Could be some kind of population-control thing."

Elaine mocked a slap in the air. "Would you quit with the flesh-eating bacteria, already? I really don't believe there's anything dangerous in there."

"Babies. I'm telling you. Didn't they used to sacrifice babies back on Old Earth?"

"At Christmas? I think you're thinking of some other holiday."

"Perhaps they sacrifice babies on Sylvia." Dusty was getting intrigued in spite of himself.

"That's so absurd. But if it's true, we have a moral obligation to do something, don't we? I mean, we're freerunners, not pirates."

Dusty waved his hand at the interior of the ship's cabin. "What are we going to do with 300 babies?"

"Drop them off at the nearest planet. I don't know. You don't really think it's babies, do you?"

They both stared at the nearest canister intently. It, like all the others, was featureless and gray, about two-thirds of a meter long. It was old and battered. Markings on the side had been painted over, more than once from the look of them, with different kinds of paint.

"Can you read any of it?" Elaine asked.

"Some of 'em; that one says 'Wang Chung Frozen Vegetables,' and the one I was sitting on said 'Dow Milk Substitute No. 45.' They're cobbled together from all sorts of places. I doubt if any of them contains what it says on the side, unless you think we're smuggling condensed milk halfway across the galaxy."

"No, of course not. I thought there might be a clue or something."

"A clue?" Dusty said, amused. "Like on a detective vid? Perhaps we'll find a folded-up piece of polyfibrithene stuck to the bottom of one of 'em, with cryptic messages and dates. 'Pink leopards crow at dusk. 15:00 23-5-76. Maryanne.'"

"Oh, please," Elaine snapped. "Maybe if we tested the paint," she added thoughtfully.

Dusty placed his hand on hers. Elaine started to pull away, then saw what he had pressed into her hand: his Swiss army electroknife.

"Or we could open it."

"Damn you, Dusty Winters, you cantankerous little shit. You want to see what's in here as much as I do, don't you?"

Dusty grinned. "A gentleman never tells."

The canister was locked. Dusty bent over it, rubbed his hands together and took his knife back. He was clearly in his element now.

"Stebbins lock. Electrocouple with random switching. This'd probably cost you fifteen credits in any hardware store."

"Easy?"

"As an Iridian prostitute, baby." Dusty unscrewed the top plate of the lock. "Look at this, it's not even secured. Any reputable lock will shut down tighter than a drum the minute you start tampering with it. No problem for someone who knows what they're doing, of course, but this one doesn't even take minimal precautions. Cheap, cheap, cheap. Hand me the ohmmeter, please?"

While Elaine watched, fascinated, Dusty's quick fingers dismantled the lock in less than a minute.

"Ah, the moment of truth."

"Suits," Elaine said.

"You take all the fun out of it."

"Better that than dead," she said over her shoulder, floating toward the lockers.

The two stripped off their outer clothing and suited up. Elaine sealed her helmet and said, "Computer, please monitor air quality within the cabin and let me know if it falls outside human minimal safety parameters."

"As you wish, my lady."

"One of these days I'm going to reprogram that thing," Dusty's voice said tinnily in her ear.

"Touch my computer and die, love. Would you like to do the honors? You opened the lock, after all."

"Ladies first."

"Coward." Elaine floated down to the floor and carefully pried loose the canister's lid. She wasn't sure what she was expecting -- a hiss of escaping gas, maybe; a cloud of some noxious substance, jetting from the opening; a tentacle snaking out and seizing her foil-covered wrist.

Nothing happened.

Elaine peered into the container. "Oh, for crying out loud."

Another canister was inside the first.

"This guy is either really paranoid or he's transporting something really dangerous," Dusty said, kneeling beside her. "Maybe both."

"Maybe he expected us to open it," Elaine said.

Unlike the outer canister, which had been merely sealed, the inner one bore glowing dials and controls. Elaine, scanning them, saw that the interior was being maintained at 20ºC and 33.5% humidity. Other readouts gave percentages and figures that she didn't understand. Some of them fluctuated occasionally, traveling slightly up or down the scale.

"One thing's for sure," she said. "It's organic, whatever it is."

Dusty set to work on the new lock, which took him no longer to crack than the outer one had. "This container's not space-rated," he said as he worked. "It's sealed, but it'd never stand up to hard vacuum. It's for maintaining the environment of whatever's inside it. The outer one is for protection. "

"Probably cheaper to do it that way," said Elaine. "Space tubes are a dime a dozen, but the maintenance costs on vacuum-worthy life-support tubes are so high it's easier to double-seal it. Put a standard life-support canister inside a cheap hard-vacuum one." Growing up in a space-shipping yard did have its advantages, she though.

Dusty seemed unimpressed. "Lot of effort, seems to me."

"Well, just the fact that it's organic makes it illegal on Sylvia Station. On any space station," Elaine said. "The double-sealing method lets shippers take organics through station runs without having to go through decontam."

The lights on the lock went dead and Dusty snapped it loose. "Well, looks like we've reached the moment of truth."

Elaine giggled, resting a spacegloved hand on the back of Dusty's suit. "What do you want to bet there's another canister inside this one? And another one inside that? Russian dolls, nesting until they're too small to see."

"I wouldn't be surprised." Dusty gripped the edges of the lid. "Doesn't want to come off." He grunted, twisting it until it popped free.

The canister was full to the brim with bright green leaves. Dusty and Elaine recoiled from their poisonous-looking edges. The lid slipped from Dusty's gloved hands and clanged against the lip of the container.

"Computer!" Elaine cried breathlessly. "Is the air safe?"

"The content of the air is well within human safety parameters, my lady."

"Has it changed in the last, oh, sixty seconds?"

"The oxygen content has increased by 0.05%. Trace quantities of organic matter have been detected."

"What sort of organic matter? Is it safe?"

"I do not have enough of the substance to analyze, my lady. My scrubbers are collecting it as it enters the recirculation ducts."

"Please analyze when you have enough."

"Yes, my lady."

She looked back at Dusty just in time to see him cautiously touch one of the leaves. "Dusty, don't!" But his glove did not melt into smoking slag. Nothing shot from the mass of dark green leaves to impale him.

"It looks very Earthlike," Dusty said.

"How do you know? You've never been."

"Neither have you. I've seen pictures. Come on, it won't hurt you."

Carefully, Elaine touched one of the leaves. It was oval-shaped and about as long as two knuckles of her finger. Greenish-white berries nestled among the leaves.

"What do you suppose it is?"

"I don't know. Maybe the computer could tell us."

"I'll need to take some of it over to the spectrolyzer." Elaine carefully detached a sprig of the plant, with berries dangling from it, and floated over to the corner of the room that she called her lab: a computer terminal and some assorted medical equipment gleaned secondhand and restored by Dusty. She laid the plant on the spectrolyzer's sensitive tray and closed the little door.

"Computer, please tell me what kind of plant this is."

"Processing. This is a specimen of a nearly extinct parasitic shrub once common in temperate climates on Old Earth. Neither its habitat nor the plant it once parasitized still exist. This particular species is Viscum album, the European mistletoe."

"Is it dangerous?" Elaine asked.

"Invalid parameter. Bad command or filename. Please clarify your request, my lady."

"Can it hurt us in any way?"

"According to my databanks, this plant is poisonous if taken internally."

"Is it safe if we don't eat it?"

"Some individuals may experience mild skin irritation from handling the leaves or berries," the computer said.

"Other than that?"

"I am not showing any other known hazards."

"Is the air safe?"

"Yes, my lady."

Elaine unsealed her helmet. Dusty, hovering at her shoulder, did the same.

"So it really is from Earth," Elaine breathed, staring at the small pile of leaves. She stripped off her glove and touched the tip of one leaf, very gently, as if it was a snowflake that might melt away from the warmth of her finger. It did not feel exotic, the last remnant of a long-vanished world. It just felt like a leaf.

"Careful," Dusty said. "Skin irritation."

"It's not burning me." She pulled off her other glove and turned to the computer terminal. "Let's see what other information we have. Computer, please display the results of your databank entries on Viscum album to the screen."

Lines of type scrolled upward. Elaine started reading and began to laugh.

"What's so funny?"

"It is associated with Christmas, after all. This plant was associated with a superstition in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that -- oh, Dusty, it's too funny! They thought it was an aphrodisiac. Apparently, holding it over someone's head was supposed to make them kiss you."

"Oh, really?" Dusty picked up the leafy sprig and held it over Elaine's hair, then bent in to touch his lips to hers. "I'll be damned, it works. Who would've thought."

She snatched it away from him. "C'mon, you jerk, I'm serious. Says here that it was considered sacred by ... some cultures I've never heard of. Extinct tribes, I guess. One called the Norse. Oh, and Druids! My best girlfriend in high school was a neo-Druid. Nifty."

"I'd like to get back to this aphrodisiac thing."

Elaine scrolled back up. "Yeah, it says that the leaves and berries were hung up at Christmas and solstice ceremonies in the late Second Millennium as a fertility symbol. It was believed that if you come upon anyone standing under a branch of mistletoe, you must kiss them. But only at Christmastime."

"What time is it now?"

She checked her chrono. "Oh, hey! It's two minutes after midnight, December 25, Standard Time. Merry Christmas!"

"So the fertility symbol should be working, right? Let's try it out."

Elaine tucked her hand coyly behind her back. "I've got it right here and you're not getting it back. You'll try to take advantage of me. I'd better hold onto this."

"Not a problem," Dusty said, grinning. "We've got a whole tube full of it over there. I can think of some places I'd like to hang it. Like over the door to the bedroom, yeah, and over the bed, that's a good place. Hey, you remember all that stuff I said about your holiday decorating? About making the ship all girly and all that? I take it all back."

"What do you mean, we've got a tubeful? Dusty, we've got about a ton and a half of the stuff. Our buyer's not going to want it if they need it for their fertility rites and we get there the day after Christmas."

"Good God, I think you're right. In that case, we should have enough to hang it all over the ship. Let's see, how about here and here --" He touched each of her breasts through her vacuum suit, "and here..." moving his hand down.

"I knew you were going to take advantage of me. You cad, you cad." Elaine placed the slightly crushed sprig in her hand on top of his head and kissed his nose. "I think this is going to be a permanent fixture from now on."

"But it only works on Christmas."

"You wanna bet? But just in case, we'd better get busy. What time is it now?"

"You're the one with the chrono."

Elaine looked at it. "Five minutes after. Only twenty-three hours and fifty-five minutes to go."

Dusty picked her up, hoverchair and all.

"Oh, Dusty, wait!" Elaine tried to wiggle free. "I forgot about the glitter paint. Now it's going to dry out and go to waste."

"I don't care about the glitter paint. Glitter anything you want. Glitter the mistletoe for all I care. Just glitter it later."

Carrying her in the crook of one arm, he went to the open tube of mistletoe and pulled out a thick wad of it.

"Now, Dusty, where are you planning to put that? Oh, my God! Stop it! I'll scream. I swear I will."

"It's space. No one can hear you scream, remember?"

"Put that down. Put me down. Aha! I've got glitter paint here, buddy. Don't cross me. Dus-- Now, Dusty Win-- oh, my. Okay, if you really want to."

Six minutes after midnight. Twenty-three hours and fifty-four minutes to go.

Lots of glitter paint, and a shipful of mistletoe.

It was going to be a good Christmas.







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