2094-07-06 Local Time 0835
BetaMountain – Passenger bay
The sirens started wailing. Bright red warning lights and yellow flashing lights lit up, making a madhouse out of the arrival lounge for VIPs.
Gooseman smiled cynically. So they still secretly scan the arriving diplomatic vessels. He felt for the data transparencies in the flat bag strapped under his shirt. I wonder what registered first – the transparencies' alarm sensor imprint or my DNA?
Heavily armed space marines surrounded the passenger shuttle. Now it gets exciting. He leaned back and waited, bored, while the security group's commanding officer outside exchanged fierce words with the Kiwi captain. Then the men stormed the ship. Amateurs. The first five would be dead without a doubt if I fought. And I wouldn't make guarantees for the remaining fifteen, either...
They surrounded him, the heavy LGs ready to shoot. He held his hands in plain sight in front of him and slowly stood up. "No need to shout, guys. I'll come along on my own."
Twenty-eight levels below the VIP terminal in the GRS5s office, Niko looked up from her report at the sound of the sirens and had a look at the chrono. Next to her, Zachary pretended he hadn't heard her murmured, "Welcome home, Shane."
They marched through the familiar corridors heading for Walsh's office. The soldiers didn't let Goose out of their sight. Poor fools. Five of them followed their commanding officer with the prisoner into the commander's office. Walsh looked up from his desk.
Goose came to attention. "Ranger Gooseman reports back from his temporary transfer to Kirwin. Ambassador Zeezo sends his regards, sir."
"Pardon?" The commander looked astounded, but regained his composure quickly. With a wave, he chased the space marines out like hens. "Wait outside with your men, Sergeant."
"Sir, this prisoner is classified as dangerous–"
"Wait outside. That's an order!"
"Yes, sir." The door slid shut behind the soldiers. Walsh activated the sealing field.
"And now to you, Gooseman. – At ease. – You're accused of being a deserter. What's that nonsense about Kirwin?"
"Deserter?" Gooseman's eyes glowed under the raised brows. "Commander, I've been working as an advisor on security matters for the agricultural department of Kirwin for the last year. Sure, the affair was classified of highest security by the Kiwis, but at least you must have been informed."
Walsh snorted. "We'll have this checked out in no time."" He entered a request on his terminal. After a fraction of a second, a secure classified file appeared on the display: A transfer form, filled in by... himself. Hartford! Walsh snorted soundlessly. And EDP always insisted that BETA's mainframe is safe. Ha!
"I'll have that checked. – Sheela, a request for the ambassador of Kirwin: In the last year, did a Series-5 Ranger serve as an exchange officer on Kirwin? If yes, in what capacity? Classify the request as priority one." Walsh leaned back, folded his hands over his belly, and inspected the man in front of him.
Shane looked healthy again, though more slender than before. His movements when he'd come in were lithe, more agility than strength, the same slender elegance that had been so typical in his mother's family. If Walsh had to assess the ST he'd consider him more dangerous than he'd been back at Wolf Den. The most noticable differences were the shoes instead of heavy boots – low shoes, to be precise, which matched the blue-and-white uniform, which was slack though still correct. His hair was a little bit longer. And he'd just set a new personal record in arrogance: he'd entered the room between the marines as if Sergeant Maxwell's security unit was his normal escort to hold open doors for him.
Fifteen minutes later, Walsh's adjutant handed him a printed hypercom cable.
To: BETA – Headquarters Galaxy Rangers
c/o.: Cmdr. Joseph Walsh, supreme commander GR
From: Planetary Government
Ministry of Agriculture
Department of Cultivation
This is to certify officially that Galaxy Ranger Shane Gooseman was Ambassador Zeezo's esteemed guest at the ambassador's estate on Kirwin during the last 13 standard months. Ranger Gooseman acted as an advisor in his capacity as Galaxy Ranger in a high-security project to increase protection of our cultivation areas on border planets.
His knowledge in applied weapons technology was of inestimable help to us.
signed: Zeezo, ambassador of Kirwin
"It seems that some affairs got pretty mixed up, Gooseman." Walsh lowered the HCC with an unreadable expression. "I'm going to correct that. You'll get a pass chip for that time. Wait in your unit's office till I'm done with this mess. – Dismissed."
"Thank you, sir." Goose hesitated a moment. "Before it slips my mind–" He pulled a black file out of his shirt and handed it to Walsh. "For you."
"What is this?"
"The documents you wanted." The ST left the room as Sheela entered with the daily mail.
"You've got a picture postcard, Commander. Via interstellar post."
"This day gets more and more crazy. Who, for heaven's sake, would send picture cards to my office? Give it to me. – And then I need a connection to the BWL." Walsh opened the card with the colorful image of the flying Mothmoose on it, glanced over the short handwritten note, reread it again more slowly and began to laugh...
DID YOU REALLY BELIEVE I'D FORGET TO COVER MY ASS, SIR?
2094-07-06 Local Time 1911
BetaMountain – MPQ 219
Goose entered the access code and slid open the door. "Am I welcome?" He stumbled back as a tiny grey furball shot up into his arms. "Seems so." He grinned at the purring cat.
"It doesn't only seem so, Shane," Niko corrected softly. "You are welcome."
"You should see what SecStaff did to my quarters." Gooseman dropped his bundle right behind the door and jumped down the stairs.
"A note on your door again?" Niko smiled and embraced him, careful not to squeeze Poss.
"What door? They must have used a missile to get in there." He grinned. "I guess I'm going to be your house guest for quite a while..."
"You're no longer ill, Shane," she reminded him faintly. "We're going to get in trouble. I don't think I can accuse SecStaff a second time into going on the defensive."
"There can hardly still be an idiot straying through BETA who doesn't believe us attached after our escapades." He pushed Poss up his shoulder and hugged her closely, kissing her neck. "To hell with their opinion. Leave these damned disciplinary proceedings to me."
2094-07-06 Local Time 2338
BetaMountain – Cmdr. Walsh's Office
"STP, GTP, Wheiner's blackmailing with the brain unit... it's all there, Joseph." Negata scanned through the transparencies in the black file on Walsh's desk.
"He could have blown up the whole story and put the senator's head on the block." Walsh looked at the documents, lost in his thoughts, "–and also mine. I'm still wondering why he hasn't done it."
Negata expelled the electronic equivalent of a snicker. "Because you still underestimate him, Joseph. Have a look at this..." He referred to a data transparency at the end of the file.
Walsh pulled it out, skimmed through it. "That's a gene comparison from a lab on Kirwin. Nothing special."
"Read the evaluation at the end."
"...Correspondence of genetic code samples: 49.9%. – Well, and?"
"Which samples, Joseph?" Negata's electronic snickering got louder. The brain unit seemed to bo very amused.
"Gooseman, Shane and... that can't be true!"
"Walsh, Joseph," Negata finished his sentence for him. "He was better than you ever took into consideration. – And now turn the sheet over and read the back."
Sometime E.W. will make a mistake that doesn't lead to Wolf Den, and then may all gods ever invented by man have mercy on him. He's going to need it.
Bury this with the other evidence,
2094-07-07 Local Time 0829
BetaMountain – GRS5 office
"Hello, Doc." Zachary Fox was piling up the documents and materials for today's work on his desk when he noticed a movement at the computer console from the corner of his eye.
"Doc isn't here, Zach." – Gooseman.
"You here? And even on time? What's happened?!"
"Nothing. Except that I'm trying to avoid any more disciplinary proceedings."
"So you're searching for new quarters?"
"But it's legal, isn't it?"
The wolfish grin wasn't really appropriate to comfort Fox: "Absolutely. – At least from my point of view. – GV, Interlink with BETA mainframe, department 'Library and Archive,' subdepartment 'Jurisdiction,' section 'Tax laws,' subsection 'Tax reports.' Question: Is it possible to write off against taxes medical and psychological treatment for a private person who isn't related by blood or marriage? Please answer in detail." Gooseman and taxes? Fox couldn't help but listen attentively.
=No, Gooseman. Only treatment costs of family members can be asserted.=
"Question: Within the last – let's say 20 years – was it at some time possible to write off such costs?"
=No. The present tax laws date from the year 2042. Only the amount of possible compensation payments for family members was adjusted 18 years ago. Do you want a table?=
"No. Question: If someone successfully wrote off nonrefundable treatment costs between 2084 and 2086, does that meet the criteria for tax evasion?"
"What amount would that person owe now?"
=In general, the amount refunded in the past plus 50 percent of the refunded amount per past year, plus debit interests.=
"Is a criminal procedure possible?"
"Gooseman." Zach didn't at all like the cold gleam in his youngest teammate's eyes. "What do you intend to do?"
"Get myself a signature. – GV, I need certified printouts of the following archive files..."
=In your case, the consent of a commanding officer is needed.=
"What are these files?"
"Oh, only ten-year-old tax reports."
"Believe me, you don't want to know."
"For what, specifically, do you need a signature?"
"Just for a special permission. You know this nice clause in my contract of employment: As soon as it concerns anything but professional issues..."
"You need the consent of a BWL member, which you are never going to get."
"Exactly. But in this case that's about to change – if you grant these printouts."
Fox sighed. "Okay, then. – GV: Permission is granted for printout of the requested files."
=Thank you, Captain Fox. Please enter the requested file numbers.=
Gooseman typed them. Seconds later three transparencies with certifications of authenticity slid out of the console. Goose grabbed them, glanced through them, and clenched his fist with a "Yes!! – GV, bug-proofed connection with..."
2094-07-09 Local Time 1911
BetaMountain – MPQ 219
"Little surprise, Niko." He was waiting at the table when she entered the room. He pushed an officially sealed document towards her. "No need to hide any longer."
She took it, read it, and had an additional close look at the seal. "Is this authentic?"
"Yes, of course."
"A special permission for us to share quarters," she whispered in a flat voice. "How did you get it?"
"It came by mail today."
"But..." Her eyes fell on the signature. "Wheiner?! What in hell...?"
He smiled diabolically. "Looks like someone told the senator about some inaccuracies in some of his older tax reports which would be pretty expensive for him today should the revenue office... And tax authorities accept anonymous tips."
"You didn't... did you?"
"Blackmailing senators seems to be kind of a tradition in my family."
"You will get on the top of his hit list for this."
"I don't think so," he grinned. "The bureau for investigation of tax offenses routinely checks all incoming tips."
"Than Wheiner would take care that you don't get a chance to call."
His grin deepened. "Maybe. But I don't believe he could get to all the lawyers in and around Phoenix in time when my ID is deleted from the active duty list... And even Whining Eric can't walk off with the whole mountain without anyone noticing. In fact, I think he will be very worried about my personal welfare from now on."
She laughed out loud. "You're crazy."
"Not at all. Only very, very alive..." He pulled her close to him. "And I intend to stay that way!"
She wriggled out of his arms, still snickering, and waved the transparency. "First we frame this!"
He started straight up in bed, back and neck very straight, his breaths exactly controlled. Pain corroded his lungs. The lack of oxygen reached for his perception...
Niko's hand lay on his arm, pressed it, finally shook him. "...only a dream, Shane. It's only a dream."
He looked at her while the panic in his eyes slowly died, and his breathing calmed down as he felt his chest muscles doing their job easily and effortlessly. He propped his arms on the quilt, sat for a moment with legs drawn close.
"Are you all right?"
"Yes." He shuddered, expelled the horror out of his thoughts. "When I nearly snuffed it I dreamed of running, flying, or simply of holding you tight... And now that it's finally over...."
"You've started to deal with it. I think..." She began to smile lasciviously, kissed him and shoved him backwards, "we should make some new dreams for you."