The door to Walsh's office hissed open.
"Gooseman!" Zachary snapped as the S5's entered the commander's office. "I wasn't even on this ball when the first poems showed up!"
"Letters of complaint go to the attention of Professor Negata, Owen, BWL administration department 1B, 28th floor, building 2A," the ST returned without batting an eyelash. "Three written copies requested."
"What!?" Zach's mouth fell open.
"He still holds the patents," Shane said with a careless salute at the commander.
"That's not the point, Gooseman," Walsh said, amused, from behind his desk. "What's important is: are you making any progress in the Crusader case?"
"Not really, sir. But the suspect list is shortening, now that I can cross out Captain Fox as well." He shrugged fatalistically. "Seems in the end I'll prove that hack to be me."
Walsh coughed suddenly.
"Please, my Goose man!" Doc placed a hand over his heart in mock horror. "Who on Earth would believe that?"
"Who knows?" The ST looked over his shoulder at the computer psychologist. "What's that line from that English detective... Sher– Shar– Charley Horns or some such: 'When you have eliminated all which is impossible, then whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.' I forget who the author is."
"Sir Arthur Conan Doyle," Walsh said dryly. "And the character's name is Sherlock Holmes. But you quoted him right." He nodded approvingly. "And now, on to business, Rangers! Your unit is scheduled for a field exercise."
"Another practice-hunt?" the captain asked in mild annoyance. "Isn't there something more important to do?"
Doc smiled broadly. "What are you thinking, Zach? We'll get put down as busy for a week, Goose will sniff out the fugitive within an hour, and paid holidays, peo–"
"That's why Gooseman's the rabbit this time," Walsh said over Doc's cheerful words. "The usual equipment, Gooseman, plus credit card. Playing range is this state. Chief Engineer O'Malley will care for your cat. Your teammates will be after you in three hours." The door hissed shut on the commander's last words.
If you think you think
You only think you think
That I'd never do that trick
Half way between Phoenix and
Saguaro National Park (West)
"Only Goose goes three hundred miles on horseback through Arizona starting in late morning in mid-June!" Doc snorted. "Voluntarily!" He shuddered. "My saddle is melting under me," he complained. "Why can't we use the gliders, Boss?"
"Because it looks as if he's heading for the National Parks, Doc, and vehicles aren't allowed there." Zach ground his teeth and wiped the sweat off his forehead. The temperature was over 95F by now and the heat was still increasing. "Law from 2046."
"Can't we apply for special permission?"
"In a field exercise?!" Zach threw him a dark look. "Think again!"
"But they have air conditioning!" the hacker protested.
"Don't be such a whiner." Niko shook her head. "What did you expect of him? That he'd stay right under our noses in Phoenix? We know him better than that."
"But a race through the desert?! In June?!"
She shrugged. "Shane."
Saguaro National Park (West)
307 miles off Phoenix
slightly above 200F (according to Doc's personal feeling of temperature)
In their own way these are beautiful...* Niko thought. Her gaze swept across the extended cactus field their path ran through. Bushy cacti grew knee-deep all around the narrow sightseeing path. Their long golden thorns stuck out between almost glowing pink blooms. Gigantic yellow and orange flowers several meters above the ground topped the tree-like Saguaros that were scattered among the smaller cacti.
She'd asked about them at the mission this morning and had learned that the bloom of the hedgehog cerei, as the smaller cacti were called, was almost over while that of the big Saguaros had just begun.
Not for the first time she wondered how the plants managed to flower in this scorching heat at all. It was a horrible time to travel this country, still... The sights were probably worth the strain, though she doubted very much that Zach and Doc would agree. The summer heat had already baked the soil to a nearly stonelike hardness, at least when it came under the hooves of a cybersteed. They hadn't seen a hoofprint in hours. And on this near desert soil...
"Wait a minute!" Niko's call brought them to a halt. Zach and Doc turned their horses back toward her. "Could that be a hoofmark?" She pulled Mel a few strides away from the path and dismounted. Crouching, she ran her fingertips over the tiny drift of sand, careful not to erase the shallow, round dent in it.
After a moment, she shook her head and looked up, laying her hand at the brim of her hat to shield her eyes better against the burning sun. "I'm not sure. Zachary? Can you have a look at it?"
"Why don't you use your powers to discover whether or not it's him?" Doc muttered under his breath while nudging Voyager to follow Brutus.
"Because I'm unable not to notice the information I receive through the link about his position if I tried to determine his position psionically," she returned icily, at least as icily as possible while sweating in a heat of, according to Mel's sensors, 106F. "And that would be unfair!"
"And us being baked to dust is fair?"
"In this case, yes!"
"Stop it, people. Please." Zachary's usually iron nerves were worn thin by this heat, too. He examined the imprint Niko had found.
"What do you think?" the telepath asked him.
"It's possible. But I'm not sure, either." He sighed. "I was stationed at the Baltic sea when I had my course of trail-tracking. Hiiumaa is mostly limestone and sediments, and the climate's moderate. No conditions like this. But if this is indeed a hoofprint then he can't be that far ahead of us. This sand is as dry and fine as dust. The lightest breeze would have erased the imprint."
Doc jumped down from Voyager. "Let me see it, too." He crouched down between Zach and Niko, looking curiously at the sand drift. "If it's a hoofprint," he began, pointing vaguely at it, "then in what direction does it go?"
"Away from the path," Zach concluded. "If we assume we were right that he followed it up from the old mission."
The hacker looked darkly. "Not that we have a sure proof for that, either."
"He did," Niko said with conviction. "Anywhere else he had to cross soft ground where he'd have left tracks. The path was the only way he wouldn't leave tracks behind, unless he returned straight back to the tarred street."
Zachary nodded. "And there he'd have run into us. I agree. He left the path here." With a glance on his compass, he continued, "There's an old mining town in that direction. Maybe that's his aim..."
"Gooseman and digging?!" Doc raised a brow and a sweat drop on it was in danger of dripping down into his eye. He rubbed it away, smearing sweat-sticky dust across his dark face. "So it's that direction," he concluded for himself, "we should try to find another print, then, and–" He sighed. "–get out of this kiln before we dry out like Californian raisins–" He leaned back.
"Caref–" Zachary reached for him.
"Doc!" Niko cried out. "W–!"
"WILBUR!" Voyager hooted.
But all of them were too slow...
at the same time:
Dellinger's Tailor Shop for the Fine Gentleman
"I assume the price on this tag is the amount of money I get if I disfigure myself with wearing this?" the client asked with a raised brow, also raising the expensive blazer with two fingertips expressing contempt.
Charles Dellinger – he preferred his given name pronounced 'Shahrl' as in French – noticed that this client was able to raise his brows and to deliver the image of threateningly lowered brows with it. It wasn't the first time Charles had to reassess this client:
Maybe the gentleman in question had entered the shop wearing dusty black jeans and a shirt Mr. Dellinger preferred not to think too closely about. Maybe the customer had looked as if he would have problems with settling even a bill at Woolworth's. But at Charles' snippy question about how he was going to pay, the man had named a customer account, entered the password, and caused a blinking gold frame around Charles' handheld's display that had altered the tailor's behavior immediately. The account belonged to one of his best customers; one that was worth Money. Capitalized. And the man obviously knew what he wanted. Still–
"You have to understand. This season the jackets are worn closely fitting, especially the creations in the Italian style–"
"Rubbish," the client chided. "It's too tight and there's not enough space at the shoulders and under the arms. What would I do with a suit I can't move in, Charley? Get a job as a mannequin?!"
Mr. Dellinger suppressed his wince at 'Charley' and sighed. "Maybe we should try some of the more conservative models then..."
"And don't come up with another frilly, pastel-colored whatever."
Charles sighed again. Audibly. What a pity. Here he had finally a customer who made the best advertising a tailor could possibly get, in spite of his bluish sun glasses, and the man ignored the current fashion completely. What was the saying? Life's a bitch. How true.
"Now this should be to your taste," Charles brushed some imaginary dust molecules off the smooth cloth and took a step back to have a full-length view of his customer's appearance. Satisfied with what he saw, he smiled. "Plain yet elegant but comfortable."
His customer shrugged the shoulders, stretched his arms, and turned at the hips to test the freedom this creation allowed. Charles had to catch himself not to stare at the impressive muscles curling beneath the smooth cloth. At least he managed not to whistle admiringly. "I just hope you don't plan to rob somebody, sir. It's loose enough that you could hide a holstered uzi beneath it."
The expression of his customer was hidden by reflections in his glasses. "Not even nearly," the man stated flatly. "But a narrow Beretta might fit." He bent his neck to check the fit of the collar, then finally nodded approvingly. "That's better. Do you have something like this in silk?"
late at night
Her door hissed closed behind a weary Niko, who took the knife out of her boot sheath, pulled the knee high boots off her sore legs, and tossed them beneath the hallway table. The knife ended on top of said table. She took off her weapon belt half way to the stairs, draping it over the bannister. Goose would have a fit... she thought and shuffled down the stairs.
Three days gone. Another three to go. They had returned only minutes ago and she was more than glad that Zach had granted them at least a couple of hours to sleep in their own beds. Tomorrow the chase would go on. She remembered his dry question if she were still sure that using her psionics to find him was unfair and grimaced.
Goose... Doc would get him for the sight-seeing of Saguaro-land...
Doc, standing at his console, looked over his shoulder. "Any luck at the airport, you two?"
Zachary tossed his hat on the coat rack. "Nothing. And you?" Niko dropped herself unceremoniously into the nearest free chair.
"Arrrrrr...." The hacker straightened and pressed his hands against his back. "I can't stand any longer. – I tried to talk RHONDDA into using the internal surveillance system for checking if he's still on the base. But to no avail. Our dearest mainframe is acting the coward."
"By base you mean his quarters?"
"Yeah." The hacker sighed. "RHONDDA had a tough talk with ALMA. Guess who won? And you know about that monstrous locking device Goose installed after the case with the mad droids?"
"Ouch. Yes. Better leave it alone."
"But I'm through with the check of the credit card accounts." Doc shook his head. "Nada. None of BETA's card accounts was billed with anything unusual during the last four days."
"Any hotel or guest house bills within this state?"
Doc snorted. "Over one-hundred."
The captain frowned. "And within Phoenix itself?"
"A dozen. But I doubt very much that Goose is among them." Doc drew a face when he shifted his weight. "He must know that we'd check BETA's accounts if we got back alive."
"Does it still hurt?" Zachary asked compassionately.
"Don't start, boss!" The hacker produced an impressive mix of a groan and a growl. "I wished he hadn't gotten an untrackable card. Normally I'd just list what had been bought on those accounts with the hotel bills on and we'd have a pattern. But this untrackable thing jumps between all of BETA's accounts with its billings." He snorted. "Simple system, but damned effective."
"Can you give us a list of the hotels and what's going on there at the moment?"
"Sure." Doc tried to reach his console's keyboard without bending down. "Darn." He unclipped his CDU. "Just a sec. – Pathfinder, I need your typing assistance–"
=Really, Docco! You should get off your butt and–=
"I am off my butt!" The hacker yelled at the bluish sparkle. "I can't get on my butt, okay?!"
=Whoa, Doccolino. This is a children's TV show! You ought to do something about those fits of temper. Maybe you should get yourself an appointment with you?=
Zach edged for the door. "Try to find out if any irregularities came up at those hotels. Unexpected guests or some such. I'll be back after dinner."
"Here's the list, Captain." Doc sighed. "But it doesn't look good. Most of the rooms at the hotels that billed BETA had been ordered long before we got that assignment."
"Well, yes, one." Doc appeared very unhappy. "The Saguaro Hotel Tower."
Zachary frowned. "That's an expensive address. It's unusual for BETA to book rooms there."
"Expensive?" Niko snickered. "That's an understatement, Zach. Not that I don't believe Goose capable of using one to distract us."
"People, they are hosting this year's LLPC." Doc shook his head. "The fifth League Literati and Poetics Convention."
"You mean–" Zachary began.
"They are filled up to their roof with poets," the hacker said dryly. "Do you really believe Goose can blend into such a group without going nuts?"
The Captain shrugged. "Niko and I checked the airport this morning. No luck. So your hotel is the only trace we have." He reached for his hat. "We'll check the other places as well, but I don't want to ignore the possibility that he is staying at the Saguaro."
Saguaro Hotel Tower
Conference Hall A
"Art for the art's sake is the only kind of art to be considered art. Everything else is but an artistic veil tossed over non-art!" the Dharguni author with his wild mane in sunset colors seemed to imitate a Philomachus pugnax, a Ruff, proverbially ruffling his feathers in his brown business suit.
The attacked human poet didn't appear to be concerned about it. She had a deep sip out of a long drink that looked like a mix between a Banana Daiquiri and a Bloody Mary. The sight alone convinced Niko that not being anywhere near it was something for which she owed the Powers That Be eternal gratitude . Meanwhile, the sipper on stage returned the Ruff's volley: "Here we got a fine example of verbal Dadaism. Though not necessarily in the meaning of the post World War II art form."
Niko, inconspicuously searching the room, listened, and found herself increasingly amused. A feeling that a sizable number of the huge audience shared with her. The discussion panel was obviously a popular event. She recognized quite a few of the faces gathered around the round-table. The Dhargun, Onbyr, was famous for his abstract poesies. The woman he attacked was Chidera of Nigeria, who had written a much cited epic about Africa's way to prosperity.
Though Niko hadn't thought that a literati panel could become that heated. The discussion leader had noticed the underlying aggression as well. "Maybe your colleague to the right has something to add to this. Mr.–"
"Do you have to disturb our guests much longer, Ranger?" The hotel manager, Mr. Delarus, seemingly always agitated and in a hurry approached her as fast as the crush in the audience allowed. "This is one of the finest houses in Phoenix. I doubt very much that a fugitive–"
Niko sighed. "Mr. Delarus..."
On the podium, the sandy shock of the man addressed had raised an inch, though not enough to erase the reflections from the spotlights in his bluish colored glasses. Were they really blue? He took his glass up with dark gloved fingers and swirled the clear liquid slowly, studying it most fascinated. "Maybe," he said finally.
Onbyr snorted. "And what is that supposed to mean?"
"Maybe not art."
Amusement rippled through the group of international literati and poets gathered around the conference table and spread out into the numerous audience. A couple of panelists hid their smirks behind the occasional drinking glass or notebook. Niko frowned, something stirred in her memories but she couldn't quite grasp it. "Who's the gentleman with the sandy hair in the discussion round?" she asked the hotel manager quietly.
"Oh," Mr. Delarus blinked twice and, nodding like a chicken searching for grains, used his sleeve screen to check the admission data.
'Functional clothing' was still the hype, despite being on the market for over a decade now. And today's models were above many of the bugs and issues of the earlier versions. Niko recalled the beginning of the inbuild printing devices from a museum show. There had been a reason for the line 'Let's fart a fax'...
"He's a very unknown poet from the former Republic of South Afrika. I can print you a copy if you like..."
"No need." Niko stopped him, though it was highly unlikely that Delarus wore such an old model in his position. "I just wondered."
The noise caused by the amused audience died slowly. It was obvious that the sandy-haired had won the audience with his refusal to take the matter seriously. Still... With a sigh of regret Niko called herself to order and concentrated upon surveilling the crowded audience for hints of their "rabbit".
Doc had finished his round and signalled her from the entrance.
She acknowledged him with a nod and began to make her way to the exit. It didn't look as if the hacker had been more successful than she. They could only hope that Zach dug something up at the spaceport.
On the podium behind her the offended Dharguni poet barked, "How dares someone who hasn't even been published under his own name to have an opinion about the value of true art?!"
Just as the door closed behind Niko, the South African replied dryly in his heavily accented voice: "I read the price tags on yours."
Zach had waited for them in the lobby. "Anything new from you?" But their dark faces told him that they hadn't been more lucky than he. He sighed. They were running late. Very late.
"I still think we should frisk the airport and BETA itself." Doc leaned carefully against the reception table.
"We checked BETA before we even used the satellite surveillance," the captain reminded him.
"Yes, and all it got us was running after Triton through half of the state!" the hacker snorted. "A fine exercise. For my backside." He caught himself. "What I mean, is Goose knows the surveillance systems as well as we do, maybe better. I doubt he's able to trick me at the comps but he's well able to trick us out of BETA while he lies back comfortably in an air conditioned room with Tri-D and enough snacks for a week. And the airport sees so many travelers that it's impossible to track every single person coming and going. He could even have stayed there. So..." he shrugged.
"You really want to get him, don't you?" Niko asked the hacker.
"For every single thorn, my dearest lady!"
"We should frisk those places again just to be sure." Zach cut in. "If you can't find something it's usually in the place where you looked first. Still, I don't want to ignore that the only hint of an unexpected guest was in this hotel. Niko, you stay here." He indicated a sauntering maid in an 18th Century servant's apron running ads for the highlights of the LLPC schedule. The slightly blurred fringes marked her as a holographic entity. "Tomorrow is the final banquet of the convention. Everyone will be there or be highly suspicious. Attend it. Doc, you go back to BETA. See, if you can convince the mainframe into tracking one of the personnel even inside personnel quarters if necessary."
"Charming. The mainframe vs. ALMA round two. Does anyone want a copy?"
"Me, please." Niko snickered. "And five credits on ALMA."
"Always. I take it that you'll take the airport then, Zach?"
"Yes. And now get going. We have only tonight and tomorrow left, otherwise..."
"...we'll hear the next three weeks that he outdid us." Doc shuddered.
Late in the evening this part of the mountain was utterly silent. Usually. At the moment, the silence was broken by the conversation Doc had with ALMA about granting him access to Shane's apartment.
"...but you must see that it is in Goose's interest to allow me to make sure he isn't hiding from us in there. If he hasn't left the mountain at all, it is most likely that he will be punished for not fulfilling his order."
=You are searching for him, therefore he has fulfilled his order, Ranger Hartford.=
"The scheduled exercise is the search for a fugitive, ALMA, not hide-and-seek play." Doc smiled broadly. He was definitely making progress here. "And if I can't convince myself that he isn't hiding in his quarters then I won't go looking for him elsewhere and thus he does not fulfill his order of fleeing from us."
=Rubbish!= ALMA's not-at-all chirping electronic voice interrupted him briskly. =Ranger Hartford, stop nitpicking at logical definitions! Fact: you intend to enter these quarters without having a valid permit of access. Fact: that is forbidden. Result: You violate the law. Period. Get lost!=
A crackling indicated that the connection had been cut. Doc just gaped at the door speakers for several minutes. Then he snorted. So that heap of disorganized fuzzy-logic-bytes wanted to do this the hard way?! Okay...
International Air- and Spaceport
"Blond? About six foot five?" The airport security's chief – A. Smithee – frowned. "Hm... yea, there was one. Five days ago. Though the hair was more sand than blond."
"You are sure about the day?" Zachary inquired.
"Oh yes." The man snorted. "Look, Ranger. Usually, it's the Space section where there's trouble, but that customer..." he shook his head. "That South African poet was worse than the 87 drunken Andorian math hooligans roaring obscene equivalence relations across the C terminal!"
Zachary stopped. "Did you say 'poet'?"
"Yes." He snorted again. "A Jan van Stratten. His wallet had been stolen."
"Do you remember him well?"
"Yeah." Smithee snipped an imagined dust flake off his desk. "I won't forget that pettifogging fellow anytime soon! Man, that man got on our nerves with his replacement IDs."
"Did he have green eyes?"
"Hard to say. He wore a pair of those colored glasses."
Zachary, turning from the counter, activated his wristcom. "Niko."
She answered quickly. =Yes?=
"I probably got a trace. Cross-check with the hotel manager if there's a Jan van Stratten – Stratten with double-T – on the convention. It's poss–"
=You think that could be Goose?=
"Possibly. Fox out."
Saguaro Hotel Tower
"Ranger! I must protest. Mr. van Stratten was very insistant about that he was not to be disturbed before the afternoon tea. You cannot possibly disturb a guest because of his sleeping hab–"
"Mr. Delarus," Niko said firmly while keeping a tight grip on her patience. "Mr. Stratten's–"
"Van Stratten!" the hotel manager corrected her with an indignant sniff.
"Mr. van Stratten's sleeping habits are of no concern to me. But he is the only guest who had arrived within the critical time for whom you have only a temporary ID. That makes him highly suspicious. So either we disturb Mr. van Stratten now, or I am forced to involve the PPD and all this becomes official. What do you prefer?"
Delarus glared darkly at her. Chicken-chested or not, the man defended his guests. Niko had to give him credit for that, though that feature of Mr. Delarus' character had become pretty annoying by now. Finally, he deactivated the door bell block and had it ding.
"If Mr. van Stratten doesn't answer the door I'll need you to override the lock," Niko said about two minutes later.
"Only if you show me a valid search warrant for his rooms, Ranger." A muscle in Delarus' cheesy cheek twitched. The argument was stopped by the door sliding open.
The man – Niko assumed it was one inside the ball of white, fluffy hotel towels – had drawn a foamy wet path across the carpet. A slowly expanding puddle formed around his hammertoed bare feet, as he stood in the door. Apparently, he'd been taking a bath when they rang him out.
"Mr. van Stratten, I'm sorry to–" Delarus began.
"Mr. Jan van Stratten?" Niko cut smoothly in, ignoring the hotel manager for once.
"Ja?" he asked drowsily, in what was likely his mother tongue and blinked through steamed glasses almost hidden in the chaotic towel turban he'd wrapped around his head.
At her inquiry he blinked some more, then failed to hide a yawn. "Sorry, what did you say?"
She repeated patiently, searching for a sign of Goose among the towels and in the room behind him.
"You ring me out of my bath... at this afschuwelijk time to ask about my papers?"
Van Stratten rubbed a bare left foot against his right ankle and spread his toes. If his heavily colored Standard was any indication, then he wasn't happy at all. Though his cold glare would have been far more impressive if his glasses weren't almost opaque with steam.
"My wallet was stolen at arrival. Do you know what it means to get temporary replacements at this place?" He snorted. "Something unnecessary, if the authorities–" He glared at Niko as if she personally had robbed him of his papers. "–had done their jobs." With that he turned his back towards her.
"Heer Delarus." Niko got the impression they'd really annoyed the man, for his accent had become even worse. His 'Delarus' sounded like 'Dehjarysh'. "Have a bediende taking care of the wet carpet." The door slammed into their faces. "Daag."
Office of Cmdr. Walsh
"Commander, I swear I have no idea why the Mountain suffered a massive power failure! What makes you think that I'm responsible?"
"Besides this note from Ranger Gooseman's AI informing me about an attempted violation of Ranger Gooseman's privacy?" Walsh asked him in a dry voice, indicating a message displayed on the ceramic surface of his desk.
"That program did what?!" Hartford gaped.
"ALMA informed me about your attempted violation of privacy, Ranger Hartford." Walsh repeated patiently and scrolled down to the end of the message. "Including a list of the usually applied penalties – just in case it slipped my mind." He added with irony. "Did you know that the maximum punishment issued for it so far is nearly ten years close confinement?"
The hacker gulped.
"And the fact that the mainframe is whining across the base that its shrink talked it into being a bad comp..." Walsh pressed his fingertips together. "...was a strong hint, too."
"I–" Doc stuttered.
The pink eyeball of Gooseman's AI suddenly appeared on Walsh's desk, replacing the message. The commander only winced slightly and leaned back. The humming of the console systems indicated that the room was being scanned. With a blip the AI disappeared from the screen on Walsh's desk to glare down from the window projector behind the commander.
"What on Earth–" Doc began. "I thought the display function is access-limited!"
"It is." Walsh shrugged fatalistically.
ALMA's single eye seemed to narrow and zero in on the hacker. Its larger-than-life display bathed the room in a cozy pink light. It's electronic voice was anything but. =You, sir, are a privacy violating boob who ought to learn personal rights on the spot!= With another blip, it was gone.
"I thought you knew by now that ALMA's no standard AI, Hartford." Walsh sighed. "She's programmed to keep Gooseman at bay if necessary. So keep that in mind, dammit! Last time you pulled a stunt like this it took me six months to reconstruct the payroll budget!"
Doc winced. "Please tell me it didn't happen again this time..." He swallowed. "You have no idea what kind of invoice-agents Morcistof has in it's service..."
"You were lucky, Hartford. It killed some emails and my good humor." Walsh grunted. "And now, realign Rhondda. She's getting on my nerves with her continuous apologies!"
Be close to your friends
Be closer to your opponents
Combine and enjoy that if possible...
Saguaro Hotel Tower
Great Banquet Hall
LLPC evening reception
"I'm sorry, meneer."
An affable yet strangely determined male voice interrupted Niko who tried to convince Senator Wheiner that she was here in terms of her service and not because she was offering escort services on the side.
"The dame is here with me and I need her exclusive presence. Right now." Van Stratten deliberately stepped between her and the obnoxious senator. "I'm sorry, lieb, but the wine's warming." His silk gloved hand laid her hand over his arm. "Play along," he hissed under his breath and nodded briskly over his shoulder at Wheiner. "I'm sure you'll excuse us."
A pair of surprisingly rigid shoulders shielded her from the fuming politician. She frowned. Since when...?
As if on cue the poet slumped into a posture that would have every martial arts trainer worth his money burst into tears. "Sorry, I'm not good at that," he admitted with a somehow helpless smile after they left the senator's vicinity.
"Nobody is good at Eric Wheiner." She eased the comment with a smile. "Thank you, Mr. van Stratten. For your help against the senator."
"Senator?" Van Stratten hesitated uncertainly. "Is that man any important?"
"You didn't know him? He belongs to the Board."
"Ah, so he's not."
The dry comment had her looking up at him, but all she saw were the hundreds of ceiling lights reflecting in his bluish glasses.
"Do you share my warm wine with me? As my pardon regarding our bad start this morning?"
She didn't know herself why she answered with an all too swift, "Sure."
"So you really have solely Boer ancestors?" Niko asked curiously and sipped at her wine.
"The van Strattens are in South Africa since the Seventeenth Century." He shrugged and had a small sip of his white wine. "The estates are near Capetown and on Witwatersrand."
"I thought they were in the diamond business," Niko thought aloud.
"Diamonds and gold ore." He shrugged dismissively. "I'm not into that."
She thought of the arguments she caught at the round-table. "Why don't you publish your writing then?"
"I do. Under a pen name."
"What is it?"
He had another sip of his wine before he answered. "Kruisridder."
She thought to catch a spark of mischief in the light grey eyes behind the glasses, but the lens reflections erased the impression quickly. "Does it have a meaning?"
"Yes." He nodded and sipped at his wine. "Maybe I tell you later." After a moment he put the glass down and looked at her. "My... family wouldn't be too happy about it." He quirked a smile. "I'm the black sheep among them."
"About your work or your pseudonym?" she queried.
Another tilt of his head that had the reflections of the glasses hide his expression. "Likely both."
"Why don't you give them a chance?"
He looked away, had the candle flames reflecting heavily in his glasses. Then he said, mostly to the potted palm next to them:
"The dragon stirs,
"But he doesn't dare,
"To face again,
"Even with God,
"The monsters of Camelot."
Niko fell silent for a moment. "Do you have much family left?"
He shrugged and reclaimed his glass. "Not too much, not too close." He took another sip, studying her over the edge of his glass. "Why do you ask?"
The inquiring look had her blushing. "I mean, I just thought... after the catastrophic epidemic in your country... How come..." Her sentence trailed off when she realized that she was about to talk about untouchable matters to a mere stranger.
Van Stratten smirked. "My family practices celibacy since five generations."
She laughed out loud. "Then how come that you're existing?"
The grey eyes behind the ridiculous glasses sparkled, dragging her in. "That's a matter of further discussions."
Niko laughed faintly. "Discussions for another time. After all, I'm supposed to be working here tonight." She pushed her chair back and got up. "It was a pleasure. And thank you."
"Believe me." He stood as well. "The pleasure was all mine."
Governor Square 38
"Where did you say this scan came from?" Senator Eric Wheiner asked, unsuccessfully hiding his shock. "A poet convention?!"
"The Fifth League Literati and Poetics Convention, sir." The leading InterSec agent – identification P, today confirmed. "It's held until today at the Saguaro Hotel Tower."
"Were the Galaxy Rangers present?"
"Yes." The agent nodded briskly. Wheiner relaxed. "They were performing a training investigation on a fake fugitive."
"Could it be that your agent scanned one of the rangers accidentally?"
"No, sir. Agent S solely focussed on the listed conventioneers. The audience is of no concern to us."
"We scan the participants of the LLPC by default. Aliens and literati are most often subversive." The edges of the agent's mouth dropped down. "The scan that triggered your alarm undoubtedly belongs to a conventioneer." He had a look at his e-pad. "A previously unregistered human male: Jan van Stratten, officially a citizen of Cape Town. But we have no registration of any residence of him there. Shall we investigate further?"
Wheiner made a weak gesture waving the comment aside. "That's not necessary, agent P. That's all for the moment."
The agent clapped his heels and left.
Wheiner stared at the closed door for a long time. There had been a couple of invitations to the convention that were issued to pseudonyms. 'Crusader' had been on the list since last Fall after he had ruined Wheiner's chances for Premiership. And hadn't appeared. But this year... according to InterSec's data, the host named the list of conventioneers complete. And there was one among them who knew what that hack had to know...
Damnation! How could he have been so blind? So stupid? 
The face of a man long dead appeared in front of his inner eye. Wheiner flipped the InterSec report open and had another glance at the front page. The secretly taken hologram showed the ST in dress uniform at a recent event. The senator swore violently. How could he have forgotten that the gengineered bastard wasn't only his arch enemy's brat but also...
...the grandson of the most dangerous man he'd ever met?
A wolf at the leash, a sword bound in its sheath, to hunt the Whining man's enemy.
He snorted. He definitely didn't regret Hays untimely death. Quite contrary! But apparently the gengin had gotten more from that side than those ridiculous green eyes. How could he ever have believed that a military dumb ass like Walsh would be able to keep something like that at bay?! Hadn't that tinseled asshole even set the brat to catch the hack-writer last year? Wasn't it likely that the cretin knew...?!
But that wasn't the point now.
The control he'd counted on was either rapidly thinning or didn't exist at all. The brat lacked the education Jonathon Hays had had, but – sheesh, it had managed to sneak itself military honors! Making it difficult to get the necessary majority for freezing it.
He couldn't risk facing such an enemy again. No way. The senator clenched his fists.
Hays. In all the years there'd only been one attack on the man that hadn't led to an immediate and devastating retaliation: the assassination. He'd been damn happy that the Orange-T issue hadn't been answered. The first Premier had had a history to take out the backroom people first!
The creature had to disappear before it got a chance to disrupt his career.
A cynical voice in his head told Wheiner that Walsh's gengineered brat had done enough of that already!
Saguaro Hotel Tower
"Ranger Niko?" The receptionist called a very tired Niko over. "Mr. van Stratten left this message for you."
She looked up. "For me?"
"Yes. He said to thank you again for the nice evening." He handed her a small, gold-plated tray, holding a folded piece of paper on a small book. On top of it all gleamed...
...a set of cuff links; two whitish, rectangular milk opals, each with a red Medieval cross embedded in its center. She hesitated to touch them. She had been on duty, she couldn't possibly accept something that expensive!
"Is Mr. van Stratten still in the house?" she asked the receptionist.
"I'm sorry, Ranger. Mr. van Stratten left an hour ago."
"Did he leave an address?"
"I'm afraid not. But wait a moment, I will check the system..."
Hesitantly, she put the cuff links aside and unfolded the pale yellow paper...
The dragon stirs
He has to dare
to face again
without any God
the monsters of Camelot.
She looked at the handwriting that was so very precise that she doubted very much that it was his usual style. And stopped at the signature below them: Kruisridder. He'd told her before but now she saw it written. Somehow the word seemed to ring a bell inside her that she couldn't quite touch. Her eyes fell onto the third item on the tray: the book.
It turned out to be a small Afrikaans-English dictionary. One of the pages was marked. She opened it at the marking, found an entry emphasized with blue marker pen:
"Kruisridder – Crusader."
"That– !?!!" She clamped her mouth shut over the rest, stuffed cuff links, note, and booklet into her pocket and stormed out of the hotel.
Office of Cmdr. Walsh
2 hours later
"Yes?" Lt. McIntyre looked suspiciously up at the tall stranger strolling eagerly into the base commander's office as if he did it every day. He handed her a formal business calling card.
"Jan van Stratten for commander Walsh, please."
"The guest pass is to be worn in plain sight." She narrowed her eyes. "The officers told you, didn't they?"
With a careless shrug, he said, "A guest pass? I don't have such a thing, Miss." He looked astonished at Sheela's service weapon suddenly pointing unwaveringly at his chest, and tilted his head. "Shall I go back and fetch me one?" he asked.
Walsh's adjutant was not tempted to laugh. "Don't move an inch, mister."
"But I have an appointment with the commander!"
"Not according to his schedule," Sheela snapped. "Listen, it's a miracle that you got this deep into the administration area without a correct guest pass."
The man in front of her kept his hands in plain sight. "Would a personnel ID card do, miss? It did everywhere else." He blinked. "If you can refrain from shooting me I might give it to you."
"Go on." She did not indicate the movement with her weapon. He fumbled with two fingers in his chest pocket, pulled a card out, and held it out for her. Sheela snorted. She knew the man on the holo well enough not to be fooled. "Activate the DNA check," she ordered.
He pressed his thumb onto the card edge with the reading sensor. After a moment the ID blinked green. "Heavens, Gooseman!" Sheela lowered her weapon and shook her head. "I'd never have recognized you."
"Good." He grinned. "That was the reason for all this. May I go in now?"
"Sure. He's already waiting for you." She stopped and held up van Stratten's calling card. "Shall I introduce you?" She winked.
"Yes, please. That would be very kind," he answered in that Afrikaans accented drawl.
Sheela snickered. "Be serious. Ranger Hartford was injured."
"What happened to him?"
"Well... it's the kind of injury for which you don't apply for a purple heart."
"You mean, he–?"
"Let's say he got intimate with a thorny specimen of the local flora," Sheela managed to say straight-faced.
"You are the first to recognize me straight off, sir. May I ask what my mistake was?"
"I've known you for twenty-five years, Gooseman, and Struyvens at Wolf Den served under my command. Give me some credit."
And Joseph had known only one man to wear an obviously expensive custom suit with such an eager carelessness. But that was a heritage the boy had no clue about. Shane could alter his appearance, but this went deeper...
Walsh gave him a brief smile of approval. "You gave your teammates quite of a race, boy."
A brow, still much paler than usual, was raised. "I thought that was my order, sir."
"It was," the commander confirmed, calling the mission file onto his display, skimming the automated entries briefly. "You didn't use the credit card?"
"I used it only for the hotel. I wasn't sure Doc wouldn't be able to find out which one I'd gotten. I had the bills sent to your attention."
"They are here." Walsh confirmed. "Let's see what we have here..." He expanded the faintly glowing display in his desktop and called the bills in order of their date. "You took the European saying of 'sending someone into the desert' literally, Gooseman?"
"I needed time for the preparations, sir. And the Saguaro bloom is quite impressive." The ST added with a grin. "Everybody should see it once."
"Ranger Hartford got wounded." The commander reminded him sternly.
"Hey! It's not my fault if Doc doesn't know how to keep his butt off a cactus!"
Walsh preferred not to comment that. "How did you manage to gain access to the convention?"
"The convention hosts like to have authors with public impact. After last year's elections, they placed a permanent invitation to Crusader."
Walsh seemed to choke at Gooseman's careless shrug.
"I've been hunting him for almost a year now. There're a lot of things nobody else but me – and Crusader himself – knows about him."
The commander shook his head. "How could you keep the transformation up for that long?"
"Aside from the jaw line, that I could do - if I wasn't going to eat – with cheek pads, it's mostly pigment alteration. I limited that to the visible areas. The hair is a non-permanent dye job. I pretended to suffer from jeg lag and spent only some hours out among the people. Lots of food and ten to twelve hours of sleep a day, and all's well. I even kept a little back for emergencies."
"Like Ranger Niko appearing at your doorstep asking about your temporary IDs?"
Walsh threw him a doubtful look. "You took a considerable risk, Gooseman."
"Not with the trafo, sir."
"But with the situation as a whole, Gooseman."
"It's an exercise, sir. Isn't that for pushing the limits?"
Walsh snorted. "Let's talk about the bills. The suit is ok - keep it, it suits you -, suitcase and hotel as well. Glasses... tsk. Shoes, socks, a dictionary, books about South Africa..." The commander scanned the bills quickly, scrolling rapidly. Stopped. Read again. Stopped again. And barked: "1,826 credits for cufflinks?! Did you settle for raw diamonds or what?!"
"Opals, sir." The ST raised a fair brow. "Milk opals, to be exact."
Joseph sighed wearily, thinking about a certain individual's affection for glittering objects, and rubbed the bridge of his nose. "Take off these glasses. They get on my nerves!"
At the same time
in the anteroom
"Ranger Gooseman arrived twenty minutes ago." Lt. McIntyre told Niko who almost raced into the outer office. "You can go in."
Noticing the verve with which the Ranger passed the barrier to the inner office, Sheela mused aloud. "Looks as if the rabbit is going to be skinned..."
Niko stormed in without as much as a glance for the commander, let alone a salute for her highest superior, and got straight into Shane's face.
"'Monsters!'" she quoted and the single word oozed with fury. "How dare you –" She drew a deep breath, glaring at him. He wore still the grey custom suit of van Stratten but back in his usual, slightly aggressive posture.
"Monsters!" she repeated. "Is that how you see me?! Is that what you think we are?! And don't dare tell me," her voice increased another ten decibels, causing the commander to wince, "it was for the art's sake!"
"Ranger Niko, I–" Walsh began.
"Not now!" she barked, definitely not caring at whom. Behind them, the door to the office was opening again to allow Zach and Doc in.
"Goose, you–" the Captain began, and was drowned out by Niko:
"For I know damn well it was not!" she snorted. "You rat!"
"Rat?!" The ST gave back. "As far as I can tell you're angry because I did not tell you!"
"Angry?!" She flared up. "Angry?! I could kill you for that stunt!"
"Wait a minute! You are furious at me!?! Just for the record: I should be furious, since you betrayed me!"
"That's not the point!"
"The wine was!"
Zachary and Doc exchanged a long glance with each other and the commander, then edged for the door. Outside, the Captain wiped his forehead, looked at the hacker, and said under his breath, "Run! We can take him to task later, I don't want to be ordered to sort that out!" Doc wholeheartedly agreed. Before they'd even crossed the outer office, Walsh's door hissed open again and Niko stormed out.
"For your damned play of a poet you played with me! But I'll tell you now, mister! I am nobody to play with!"
"Oh yes, right now!" Doc, Zachary right behind him, bellowed back, thinking of a predatory cactus and an obstinate AI. "Because she won't listen to you anyway and the two of us have a bone to pick with you!"
"Do you want it to be one of yours?" the ST growled back over his shoulder. And – seriously – his snarl was somewhat more impressive than Doc's. "Then keep getting on my nerves!" But this time, his growl utterly failed.
Maybe Doc's teeth were less impressive than Shane's fangs, but with a decharged implant Zach's charged bionics were somewhat more substantial than Shane's muscles. And they both were clearly settled on having a talk with the ST. Right now, though not necessarily right here...
"I said I'll answer your damned questions," the ST growled furiously, whirling back at the door. "But first let me go and talk–"
"Not until you explained to me why you sent us into the boondocks!" The Captain interrupted him briskly, leaning in the door frame and effectively blocking the exit. "And while we're at it. I'd like to know how you got the idea of hiding at a poet convention of all chances!"
"Yea, somebody like me doesn't fit in there, right?!" Fox stopped at the sharp cynicism in the ST's voice. "Because I'm just the gunslinger. The thug, destined to blow the shit out of some petty ass. Nothing else. Right?"
Both his teammates winced visibly. They had had his trail at the airport. They had the irregularity at the convention. They even frisked the hotel he stayed in. They just hadn't believed he could be among the visiting poets themselves.
Something must have shown on their faces.
"Nobody ever believed I'd be able to find Crusader. Nobody expected me just to gather some information about him." There was anger in his voice. And accusation. But also a weary exhaustion that hadn't shown as long as the ST had been furious enough. To Zach's silent relief, Goose dropped himself into the chair in front of his cluttered desk.
"Niko did," the Captain mentioned.
"Because I told her," the ST shot back. "Three days ago she walked past me. There weren't ten meters between us. I sat in a bright spotlight, dammit! My cammie wasn't that good, if it weren't what you didn't expect to see. I even flirted with her last night and she didn't see me." Frustation ran high in his voice, as he slumped down, as close to defeated as he ever came. "So I told her. I just damned told her! This morning."
"And what?" Doc cut in. "That you offered my testicles to a hedgehog cereus? That you set ALMA onto me? That you played that hack?!"
"That I am that hack!"
It had grown late during her wandering in and around the mountain, but she'd needed time. Time to calm down, time to become accustomed to the idea that he'd hurt her just to keep up his play...
Niko laid her hand upon the door opener to her apartment and steeled herself inwardly. His psionical imprint was still very fresh on the door. He had touched it. Not long ago. Likely, he'd used ALMA again to enter, to invade her rooms and was now waiting for her...
The door hissed back. Emptiness welcomed her.
He hadn't waited.
She was satisfied. She was disappointed.
And furious at herself because she was both.
But he had been here. That was a fact. On the small table next to her wardrobe lay some sheets that hadn't been there when she'd left.
A not too clean hardcopy drawn from a book. With a coffee mug ring on it.
Not even an address on top. She was tempted to tear the three sheets.
The atypical rustling of paper kept her from doing it – only the topmost was a transparency – the rustling of cheap, rough paper, that easily crumpled, that didn't hold the ink well. The lines on them, written in blue ink, were already fading. The words would be gone if the paper ever got wet. Gone in an instant, if the dry paper ever touched a flame.
Lines on a paper clearly not meant for eternity...
Fangs reach for the limbs
Swords tear through the flesh
and projectiles hit the chest
nothing hurts more than the pain of shattered souls
when shards of self splinter at the helpless attempt
to find a way in a life that doesn't make any sense.
being trapped within mankind
who had twenty years to learn
but not two like the knight.
being feared by mankind
who only sees a knight's armor
but not the soul within.
being called arrogant
but how are feelings considered
that can't be understand?
It was old, already yellowed. He'd never intended to show this to anybody.
She'd worked enough with paper texts to know that the sheets were likely about two years old. Two years...
Crusader hadn't been active that early.
And these certainly weren't anywhere in the comps.
With a deep breath, she turned for the new sheet, the transparency. It was a page from a textbook. The lines at the top hadn't been copied legibly, but it was about a German poet of the last century. One of the small quoted poems had been circled with a pencil:
On the wall was written with chalk:
'We want the war'
The one who wrote it, has already fallen.
~Bertolt Brecht 
A part of the line beneath it was also marked: "...like nobody else Brecht understood the sharp poignancy that turned a poem into a weapon." 
At the bottom of the page was a single line scribbled in his typical handwriting of slightly tilted block letters: "I AIMED AT xxx xxxxxx xxxxxxx E.W., NEVER AT YOU."
She smiled weakly, deciphering the crossed out words as 'the rotten asshole'. The following sob took her by surprise.
"I asked you once about the poems," Niko, standing in his door, said faintly. "Do you remember? And you denied it."
"No, I told you the poem in my mind was in the comps." He pushed the door wide open and let her in. "And it was by then."
"But you didn't tell me, Shane," she whispered after he'd closed the door behind her, shrouding them in darkness. He seldom used lights, and he didn't activate them for her benefit this time. Alone in the dark – another matter of trust. She had to trust him completely, he on the other hand was able to see by the tiny sparks of the few LEDs of his console on stand-by. "Don't you trust me?"
"It wasn't a matter of trust, Niko. It was election week back then. Do you remember what I wrote? And about whom? Had they caught me they would have *cleansed* everything possibly contaminated with me and my ideas. I don't... Your disbelief was a protection, girl."
"You could have told me afterwards."
"The order to hunt down Crusader was never withdrawn. And they wanted me badly enough to set me onto me..." His voice trailed off into silence. Then she heard him chuckling. "Hell, did you notice how that sentence sounds?!" he groaned. "Seems like all those books Walsh had me reading after Wolf Den were totally wasted..."
"Yes, for someone attending a poet convention, your diction is horrible." She blindly made a step forward, and touched the cloth of a uniform shirt, rough compared to the silk last evening. The poet was gone, the soldier was back. Or...? "The first one's..." she hesitated. "That was before Wheiner seemed to win the election. Why did you upload them anonymously?"
"The comment in the hardcopy I gave you. It stuck. I'm trained to deal with all weapons available. If poems are weapons, too, was I able to handle them?" She felt him shrugging under her fingertips. "It was a test."
"But why did you make such a mystery out of it? Why didn't you just show–" She stopped. "You wanted to know what we thought about the poems, not about you writing poems."
"You got it."
There was no emotion in his voice. A carefully maintained shield to keep her from sensing the hurt she knew must be there. She'd always wanted him to be more than a weapon, and when he finally was, she just didn't see him, not even when she sat at his table flirting with him while searching for him. "I'm– Eeek!" She jumped. Something furry rubbed along her legs.
"Poss!" The ST growled. "Keep your nose off my girlfriend. – Lights."
She blinked against the sudden brightness, the sudden change. "Believe me, I never expected them to have such an impact." He'd scooped the cat up, stroking his ears. "I didn't want to hurt you. But then Wheiner was about to win the election, giving me an opportunity to test those weapons in the field." He gave her a twisted smirk. "That was just too damn good an opportunity not to do it!"
Hangar Bay 2
on board Ranger-1
"And, my Goose man. How are your iambic hexameters doing?" Doc asked cheerfully while boarding Ranger-1.
"My jambo-what?" Goose stuffed his board bag into his locker and slammed the door shut. A warning growl crept into his voice. "You better didn't have this jambalaya again, or you make the flight in the rear cargo."
"But Goose my man! It seems you have something against spicy Creole cuisine."
"I have something against spicy Creole cuisine in you in a closed room." He stomped down the aisle past Zach.
"Goose, where are you going? You're supposed to..."
"I get my gasmask." The ST vanished through the lock into the rear cabin.
"What?" Zach scratched his scalp.
"Things are back at normal, captain," Doc told him good-naturedly.
"At least at what qualifies for 'normal' around here." Zach looked doubtfully at the lock through which the ST had disappeared.
"You don't look too relaxed about it."
"I can't help it." Zach sighed, secured his bag and headed for the cockpit. "He's Crusader, Doc. That were his poems. And the press was in a flurry because of them. I don't think the matter will rest at that. There are bound to be consequences."