The lights were giving him a headache. For the third time, Shane Gooseman lightly touched his badge and let his biodefenses soothe the discomfort. Too damn bright in here, he thought, trying in vain to keep the scowl off his face. He measured his lack of success by the way partygoers melted out of his way.
"The crowd getting to you?"
Goose turned his head. His teammate Niko stood at his left elbow, elegant and beautiful in her deep green gown, her long auburn hair caught up in a twist. Her blue-green eyes met his with a smile.
"Lights're too bright," he answered. "Too many people. And this damn monkey suit—" He tugged at the collar of his tuxedo. "It's even worse than our dress uniforms."
Niko rolled her eyes slightly. "I'll give you my shoes to wear," she told him brightly, "and then we can talk about uncomfortable. But I don't get the sense that's all that's bothering you, Goose."
He felt the muscles of his jaw flex as he clenched his teeth. "Isn't this time of year supposed to be about all the stuff politicians make speeches about?"
A smile flitted across Niko's face. "Like peace, compassion, and the spirit of giving?"
"Yeah," he muttered. "Like that. 'Cause I'm not seein' it." With his eyes he indicated a pair of ladies, brightly dressed in their holiday gowns. "It's almost Christmas, and those two're comparing the size of the diamonds their husbands gave them. I walked by a bunch of senators earlier, all wheeling and dealing, just business as usual. Even the decorations." He pointed with his chin at a huge, gaudy bow of red velvet ribbon twined about with gold trim. "I bet you could feed a lotta poor people off whatever that cost, Niko."
She sighed. "You're not saying anything I haven't thought myself, Shane," she admitted quietly. "On Xanadu we celebrate midwinter with candles, songs, and a special meal. Gifts are small and... not like here. But we're a small society, and we don't use money. It's not really fair to compare."
"Just another way I don't fit, I guess." He shrugged.
Niko studied him. "I think you'd be surprised, Shane. Little Zach and Jessica both spent some time yesterday boxing up their outgrown clothes for charity. Doc was at one of the schools in Alice Springs all day today, getting their computers back into shape." A grin crossed her face. "And he'd probably deny it up and down if you asked him, but I noticed some empty boxes in the office that obviously used to hold components. I think he did a little upgrading on the sly."
Goose shrugged again. "But now we're here, with them." His nod indicated the room at large. "Hearing arguments about diamonds, mining rights, and who's got more money. Dunno, Niko... It's kinda hard to feel good about that. Why say it's about sharing and all that if it's not?"
She laid one hand on his arm and was silent.
"Well! Merry Christmas, Ranger Niko! That's a pretty dress."
Niko flinched back from a blast of alcohol-scented breath as Senator Wheiner came to a stop in front of her. Goose stiffened as the senator's eyes moved up and down his teammate's form in a way that was almost—but never quite—insulting.
"Merry Christmas, Senator," she replied, her tone civil but cool. "I see you've been enjoying the eggnog." Her eyes flicked to the half-empty glass in the little man's hand.
"It's very good this year," the senator agreed. His eyes dropped to her hand on Goose's arm and only then rose to Goose's face. "Hello, Gooseman," Wheiner said, his voice rather cold.
"Merry Christmas, Senator," Goose said cheerfully, letting his eyes bore into Wheiner's. "I don't see Mrs. Wheiner; hope she's not under the weather?"
Wheiner scowled. "She's here," he said grumpily. "Nice seeing you, Ranger Niko."
They watched him stumping away through the crowd. Goose felt, rather than heard, Niko letting out a long breath.
"Ugh," she said, softly but fervently, and then began to laugh.
"Niko, I've gotta get out of here," Goose said softly. "Can you cover for me?"
She searched his eyes briefly, then nodded. "You'll have to owe me one, though," she noted with a mischievous smile. "Stay out of trouble."
He sketched a salute with his right hand. "You know me."
"Yes, Goose," she answered dryly. "That's why I said it!"
Arizona lay white and glittering with snow far beneath his Interceptor as Goose descended toward Longshot Labs. His radio crackled to life.
"Entering Longshot airspace, please identify."
He toggled his mike. "This is Galaxy Ranger Shane Gooseman, here to visit a couple of friends."
"Acknowledged, Ranger Gooseman." He could hear a smile in the controller's voice. "Please set down on Pad 23—and happy holidays."
"Thanks, Control." Goose leaned back in his seat, wishing the controller had skipped the innocent, well-meant greeting.
He could hear them squeaking happily in greeting as he approached the tank.
"Goose!" Winter squealed, and leaped out of the tank to land with a resounding splash. Icarus raced in circles, clicking and whistling, and then darted upward to tag Winter's side.
"Hey there," he called. He wore a plain black skinsuit, his badge clipped to its belt. His bare feet padded across the metal flooring. He tossed aside the duffel containing his clothes. Icarus and Winter slowed to watch him through the tank wall, their eyes fixed on the small box he held.
"What did you bring, Goose?" Icarus asked. "You are carrying something."
He grinned. "Well, you know, out there everyone's sticking lights everywhere..."
Winter rose slowly up to the top of the tank to breathe. "Yes," she agreed. "It's the time of long-night."
"Long-night?" Goose repeated. "You mean the solstice?"
With a slap of his tail, Icarus joined Winter. "Long-night," he repeated. "Humans have festivals and lights, dolphins have long-night."
Goose smiled again. "Well, I brought you your own, if you want 'em." He started up the steps to the top of the tank, opening the box as he went. He set the box on the top step and reached in. Inside, the miniature, self-contained lights—the supply officer who'd found them for Goose had called them "lightbugs"—rolled about like oddly shaped marbles.
"Lights?" Icarus asked. "Okay."
Goose held up the lightbug. "Lights." He twisted it, and it lit up. He tossed it into the tank with a tiny sploosh. It tumbled, glimmering. Goose twisted another and another and threw them in as well. Soon the tank was filled with tiny sparks of light that floated about, bobbing in the currents.
Winter swam up to one of the lights to nudge it with her beak, then flipped it out of the water with a squeal. It landed by Icarus, who clicked at her.
"Human thing," Icarus said, making the sound Goose had learned to recognize as dolphin laughter.
"But pretty," Winter noted. "Thank you, Goose. Come swim with us!"
He set down the box and slid into the tank.
"So," Goose asked, "what's long-night?"
He floated on his back, the dolphins on either side, breathing with them, content to touch and be touched.
Winter clicked. "Long-night," she said. "In winter, days get shorter. Then comes long-night. Then days get longer and calves are born."
Goose chuckled. "Yeah, that's about how it works," he agreed. "Do dolphins do anything on long-night?"
"Long-night is the time for pods to tell stories," Icarus said. "Good pranks that year, bad storms, old stories." He whistled lightly.
"Stories," Winter repeated. "Ranger Niko told me once, long time ago humans did the same."
Goose grimaced. "Not any more, far as I can tell," he said in disgust. "Seems all humans do is spend money."
"Not you," Winter squeaked, nudging him with her beak. "It's long-night, Goose. Our pod is here. Tell a story."
"A story?" He floated, considering. "A story." He took a deep breath. "When I was a kid, I knew a man named Max. He had to go away when I was 13. Later he had a son..."
Icarus and Winter nudged against him, and Winter slapped her tail on the water's surface.
"Good story!" she said.
Icarus clicked softly. "I want to meet Billy," he said. "And Sundancer. Name like a dolphin from our old stories."
Goose burst out laughing. "That'll be interesting to arrange," he said. "A genegineered horse in the aquatics labs."
The dolphins squeaked in laughter. Icarus nudged a lightbug into the air; it landed with a tiny splash near Goose's floating, outflung hand. "Our turn now," Icarus said. "Long long time ago, before dolphins knew about humans, was a dolphin named Sunchaser. She danced with her pod, played and caught fish and made calves. The sea was cold and bright." He nudged Winter.
Winter chittered. "Slowly the days got shorter. The pod was afraid it would get dark and never light again. So Sunchaser said she would find where the sun went when it fell into the sea, to make sure it would come back. That morning when the sun came up, Sunchaser started to swim. She knew where the sun fell into the water, and that is the way she swam. But the sun was too fast for her, and it fell before she reached the falling place." She rolled over, and a fin slapped the water.
"Sunchaser was afraid," Icarus said. "But she kept swimming through the dark. In the morning the sun came up behind her. She swam all day, but still the sun passed by her and fell into the sea. For many days Sunchaser swam. She was tired, and the sun was faster than she was, but she had promised her pod. She met orca and grey whales and sharks. She tricked the orca and sharks and swam away. She asked the whales if they knew where the sun fell into the sea. The whales didn't know, so Sunchaser kept swimming."
"After moons had come and gone," Winter said, "Sunchaser came back to her pod. She was tired and scarred from her journey, and she slept for a day and a night. When she woke up, her pod brought her fish and asked her where the sun went when it fell into the sea. Sunchaser said, 'It goes down before me and makes a circle to come up behind me,' and she ate the fish and took a nap." Winter dove to the bottom of the tank and came up under Goose to poke at his back with her beak.
"Sunchaser was wise," said Icarus, and he ducked his head to squirt water from his blowhole.
Goose smiled—and then his stomach growled.
"You need fish," Winter squeaked, and she and Icarus laughed again.
"I didn't eat much at that party," Goose admitted. Icarus nudged him.
"Get food, Goose," the dolphin said. "Good long-night for us. We are happy."
Goose put his arms around the dolphins briefly, then swam over to the side of the tank and pulled himself out.
"Goose, thank you for the lights!" Winter called.
"You're welcome. Good long-night, my friends."
Goose settled into cruising altitude and opened a connection on his wrist comm. "Hey, Niko."
Her face blinked into view on the miniscreen. "Hello, Goose," she said. Her voice sounded tinny.
"You've got to have Doc work on the pickups in that comm necklace, girl. How's the party?"
Niko wrinkled her nose. "I'm very sick of victory toasts, and Zach and the commander just had to talk Eve Wheiner down off the hors d'oeuvres table. I think she had a little too much holiday cheer. Where are you? You hair is wet—did you go for a swim?"
"Just leaving Longshot. I went to see Winter and Icarus. Hey, Niko, you going anyplace after the party?"
She smiled. "No plans. Why, do you have something in mind?"
Goose felt himself color slightly. "I just thought it would be nice to sit and talk," he said. "Uh—maybe Doc would want to come too? Or Zach?"
Niko considered. "You should be back here in about an hour. Shall we all meet up at my apartment? I'd be glad of some good company. It would be a welcome contrast to all of this."
"Gotcha, lady. Need me to bring anything?"
"I've got mulling spices, wine, cider... Did you eat anything at the party?"
"Guilty," he said with a chuckle. "I'll stop and—"
"No," she said thoughtfully. "I can pick up some things at the commissary on the way home. It won't take me long to throw together. Could you stop at the exchange and get me some candles? I'm running low."
Niko smiled. "You can't have a festival of lights with no lights, Shane," she chided teasingly.
"Check. I'll see you in an hour."
"You bet, Shane. Niko out."
Goose settled contentedly back in his seat. Through the canopy of the Interceptor, the distant stars glimmered down. "A festival of lights," he said softly, and watched them go by.