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"What's this?" Niko held up a silvery star with sharp points that glinted in the soft honey-colored lights of their Christmas tree. A tiny ribbon was knotted around it.
Doc looked up from arranging cookies on plates. "Goose brought them. For decoration."
"But what were they originally?"
He put the last plate on the windowsill and took the star from her, holding it with three fingers like a frisbee. It swirled across the room, cut through two of the green-and-red paper chains, snipped through the band with the socks, and ended up sticking vibrating in the wall just above the dark green holly garland.
Niko sighed. "Seems Goose still doesn't quite understand Christmas." She quickly counted the stars in the box, then looked across the room. Her eyes rested finally on the Christmas tree. "Let's put them on the highest twigs where the children can't reach them."
Doc showed a mocking smile. "You insisted that everybody add something for the party."
"I don't deny it!" She pulled the ladder closer to the tree, a broad pine Walsh had given them for their office, and stretched, balancing on the highest rung, to put the stars in place.
"Be careful. You aren't Goose."
"Really looks good," Doc grinned, looking up at her backside. At her dark look, he hastily added, "If you don't know what they are."
"We simply won't tell anybody." She opened a box of tinsel and began to scatter it on the lower branches, while Doc started to collect the colored paper and glitter foil that covered most of the table.
Niko turned in alarm. "What's wrong?" Doc seemed totally horrified.
"We're in trouble," he murmured. "Really big trouble. We'll never wriggle out of it before the others arrive."
"Stay calm, Doc. We'll finish it just in time. Look, the tree's almost decorated and..."
"That's the problem." He unwrapped the formless parcel he'd found under the heap of papers and foils. "Do you remember the thing Jessie brought us? This supposed-to-be-a-star like those you put on the tree top?"
"Yeah, it's horrible. But she's very proud of it. And..." She turned abruptly to stare at the tree. "We forgot to put it on!"
"She'll be very disappointed."
"We have to get it up there before she arrives."
Doc looked the tree up, down, and across. It was more than two and a half meters high and at least as wide. In fact, it was nearly round. A wonderful tree nevertheless. But how to get something onto the top when it was already covered with decorations? Maybe...
"I've got an idea! Wait for me..." The hacker hurried out of the room.
Niko was sitting on the table, her feet resting on one of the chairs, turning Jessie's star in her hands, when Gooseman arrived. She looked up. Her view whizzed back and forth between him and the tree. "Goose, you can help me!" She jumped to her feet. At his curious look: "I've got to get this onto the top."
He turned to look at the broad pine. "Why didn't you put it up when the tree was still on its side?"
"It slipped our minds," she sighed. "It's from Jessie. Can you reach up high enough?"
"Let me try." He climbed the ladder, stretched for the pine's top. "Guess it's possible." He took the thing from her, leaned over...
"Hey! This is the antigrav thingie QBall..." Doc rushed into the room and stumbled over one foot of the ladder.
Shane lost his balance and fell head over heels into the tree. In a torrent of pine needles, glitter, popcorn chains, and garlands, he crashed to the floor. "Ouch!" Silently, tinsel rained down on him, on the tree above him, on Niko's and Doc's hair, and on Jessie's creation lying on top.
"...wants us to test anyway." Doc finally finished his sentence. "Did I do this?"
"What's going on here?!" They both jumped to attention, trying to hide the mess behind their backs from Zach and his family and...
"We're decorating the tree, Commander," Niko managed to explain finally.
"We just had a little..." Doc searched for the best description. "Accident, sir."
"I see. But what happened in detail, Rangers?"
Niko grabbed the thing from the heap behind her. "We tried to put this on the tree when the decorating was almost done."
Jessie squeezed past her father, reaching for her creation. "On the tree?" She looked, puzzled, at Doc and Niko. "But it's a lantern. You put a light inside it and on the star points you see some Christmas scenes, like Santa's arrival and the stable at Bethlehem." She giggled. "It'd look awful on the tree."
Niko and Doc stared at each other, looked at the mess behind them, and began to laugh...
When the laughter finally faded, they heard a faint tapping of fingernails on the floor. Goose's growling voice demanded, "Can – dammit – can someone help me out of here before I do actual damage to this equipment?!"