Gooseman leaned back in the pilot's seat. BETA control had taken over the landing now. He snorted and suppressed a sneeze. The scents still stuck in his clothes and hair, though he had washed them at the hotel. Smell, it was said, was the strongest memory sense... Let's hope not. Smoke and dust. Burned cloth, flesh, and fuel. Blood. Thanks, but no thanks. He knew he was going to get in trouble for what he had done on Frontier. More precisely: for what he had not done on Frontier.
He wasn't bringing them in.
His eyes burned with smoke and memories. He closed them tightly, then blinked against the scraping feeling. The com beeped and Cmdr. Walsh appeared on the screen.
=Gooseman. Two CHUs are already prepared, bring them directly to LongShot after your landing. QBall and Prof. Negata are awaiting you.=
He took a deep breath and reached for the microphone. The reprieve was over. "CHUs aren't needed, sir. I've no passengers onboard."
There was a moment of silence at the other end of the line, then: =Report to my office. Immediately after you land.=
"Aye, s–" The line was closed.
The commander awaited him, sitting behind his desk, hands folded in front of him.
Goose stepped into the room, saluted, and put the datapad with the first mission report on the desk before he came to attention in front of it, waiting motionless. The silence lengthened.
"Damnation, Gooseman! What on Earth made you do that?!"
He didn't stir. There was nothing to say that wasn't already written in the report.
"Do you want to be frozen that you're giving such strong ammunition to the senator?!" Walsh took a deep breath. "Answer me!"
"They deserve a chance, sir."
Walsh raised his hands in disbelief. "And of all the STs it had to be Stingray!" The commander's palms slammed on the desktop. "The bastard's been committing crimes around the clock since he escaped from Wolf Den! And you–!!" He jumped up, stared into the motionless face in front of him. "–aren't in the position to grant one!"
"Sir. If I'm not, who else is?"
"Nobody is!" Walsh snapped angrily, "and none of us is in the position to argue about it! You'll go back there and get them!"
"I won't, sir."
"For Heaven's sake, in the senator's eyes you'll be as responsible for every civilian victim of theirs from now on as if you'd murdered them yourself! You go back and–" Walsh stopped.
The change in the face of the ST in front of him was subtle; if the commander didn't know Shane so well, he wouldn't have noticed it. It wasn't the appearance of something. It was something leaving. With very slow movements Goose reached for his badge, took it off, and held it out to Walsh across the desk between them.
"I won't accept it!" the commander snarled at him, feeling uneasy. "Don't think you can escape that way!"
The ST's fist clasped the golden badge, clenched around it with his full strength until the hand above the desktop trembled with tension.
Regarding the motionless, stony face, Walsh sighed, knowing this wouldn't get them anywhere now. "Dismissed! Wait for further orders at your unit's office. Be sure: This isn't the last word on it!"
"Yes, sir." The badge still held in his hand, Gooseman turned and left the room.
The door had slid shut behind the ST before Walsh noticed, on his desk and on the readpad holding Gooseman's report, the drops of blood.
Niko got up when Goose entered the office. It had been quite a while since they had had a job together, and in the last two weeks it had seemed he'd disappeared totally. One of the missions no one talked about, she assumed.
"Hi, it's been a long time since–" Seeing his face, she interrupted herself. "Are you okay, Goose?"
He didn't respond, didn't even seem to hear her as he crossed the room and dropped himself at his desk, staring at the wall.
"Shane?" she asked, worried now. "What's wrong with you?"
His badge clattered onto the desk next to him. Her eyes widened as she saw the blood on it and on his fingers as he propped his elbows on the desk and buried his face in his hands.
"Shane. Do you hear me?"
Nobody is! He felt blood on his skin. Again. Blood and smoke and sand. Weapon oil and fuel. Burned flesh. Death. He hadn't granted Stingray a chance. But Stingray was needed for it. Goose hadn't said that. Hadn't known how to say it. How to explain it to the commander. Wolf Den two weeks ago mixed with Frontier mixed with Wolf Den years ago...
You'll be as responsible for every civilian victim of theirs from now on as if you... Blood and dust. Burning flesh and fuel. Smoke from blazing buildings moved across the street, camouflaging the battle.
Murderer. Two gunshot wounds in his right thigh ached. Blood flowed down his leg. His childish hand pulled the trigger. The body of the nameless boy collapsed on Frontier's main street. "Why," cried a voice. He hadn't an answer, as he hadn't had one three years ago. "I don't understand," the voice continued. He hadn't got it himself back then. But nowaday's self understood. She'd been one of the few things that hadn't hurt him there. There had been something. Nameless. Wordless. Between dust and smoke and bare metal walls. It had been as much as drugs and indoctrination allowed. His self shivered, seeing the past with today's eyes. He'd had to grant that chance, or Wolf Den would have won, would have defeated him in the end. His subliminal eidetic memory recalled the events in brilliant colors, precise sensations, burning clarity...
The nameless boy collapsed on the bare metal floor outside the lab, covered with his blood. He smelled it, tasted it, was drowned in it, surrounded by the smoke of Frontier's burning buildings. No indoctrination, not even drugs, excused his actions this time. Blood trickled down his wrist. Murderer. He had to do it or he would have broken. The scent of blood filled his nostrils. You'll be as responsible for every civilian victim of theirs...
"Shane. Do you hear me?" Niko repeated. His shoulders twitched, but he made no sign that he had heard her. She laid her hand on his arm and the pain of his torn self rushed through her mind like an electric shock. She stumbled backward, leaned against his desk and took a deep, vibrating breath. He didn't react to her touch.
She stared at the blood that trickled down his wrist, soaking his sleeve. At the blood on his badge. She gathered up her strength, pulled his hands away from his face, forced him to see her. "Shane!"
Something mixed into the smell of blood. A scent, a fragrance that didn't fit in. He saw his face reflected in jade-green, worried eyes, saw the half of his face striped with blood, as her face was with blackness. The memory wavered, faded. He couldn't recall the woman's black-and-white face any longer; instead his mind showed him flowing chestnut-red hair and compelling, intense jade eyes in a face filled with worry and – Fear? For me? He closed his eyes, didn't want to see his blood-covered self again...
...Shane... The mental voice cut in, called to him inside himself. ...Shane. What happened to you?...
He pulled away from her. Niko was never to know what he had done. But her grip was firm. She didn't let him go. "Please. I can't tell you," he said in a hoarse whisper, meeting her eyes with a hunted look, so very far away from his usual arrogant, composed self.
She felt the shaking inside him, had the impression of cracking glass. It was the first time she'd sensed him without his shield of arrogance and cynicism, and she shuddered at the deep scars in his soul that had begun bleeding again. She'd never believed that souls could be shattered. Until now. And now she feared he could break into a thousand pieces right beneath her hands. She couldn't press him any further. It wasn't important what had happened. Not now. He had to make peace with it, but at this moment the attempt would destroy him.
"Your hand needs treatment," she said, feeling the blood dripping down from his wounds onto her skin.
He blinked, didn't say anything.
"I'll go and get the first aid kit." She pushed herself off the desk.
"No need." He took a tremulous breath and reached for his badge. The cuts in his skin were gone in a second. "Don't forget what I am." His voice trembled. He attached the badge to his shirt again. "It's too dangerous."
"You should clean it," she said uneasily.
He stared at the bloody star. "No, it fits."
Sensing the wounds in his soul, she agreed wordlessly as he rubbed the blood off his face.
Walsh appeared on the screen. =Gooseman. You'll have to revise your report on your last mission. It's acceptable that you were defeated in circumstances like those, but your report sounds as if you let them go on purpose. Correct that! I'll expect your final report tomorrow morning.= The monitor grew dark.
Goose clenched his hands around the edge of his desktop. "Yes, sir." He murmured raspily.
"Shane? Are you okay?" Niko asked carefully.
"Somehow." He shrugged. His voice was still hoarse. "I have to tell plausible lies."
"You let them go," she said, faintly but persuasively. "You had to grant them a chance."
"Damn right," he whispered. "I had to grant me a chance." His voice nearly broke at the last words. And I hope Darkstar uses hers as well.