Chapter 1: Nightfall
2092-07-02 Local Time 0223
BetaMountain – MPQ 217
The sound came unexpectedly, crept from the peripheral circles of his perception into the focus of attention. He searched for a connection... He was immediately wide awake.
"Gas grenade. Out of here!" He pulled her out of bed without a thought for her nakedness. She woke up; the information trickled into her mind over the bridge into his thoughts. She leaped up and ran for the door. The man was like a shadow behind her – she thought. When the door sprang open she turned around for him and saw him lying collapsed on the ground.
"Shane!" The panic in her voice frightened her. Without regard for the yellow-green clouds of gas, she ran back to him, pulled him into the corridor and shut the door. "Shane!!" She shook him. He coughed convulsively and red blood poured over her hands. Pain and panic filled his mind and burned into her brain. She tore herself away and ran for the nearest transmitter: "Medical emergency. Personnel apartment 217 – security alert phase 1 – Ranger Gooseman wounded. Attack with an unknown gas."
One of the medics had given her a blanket. They insisted that she had them examine her, too, but she didn't leave the floating stretcher. Shane's coughing had stopped, but still the sheet was soaked with light-red blood. She couldn't feel his breathing any longer... "He's suffocating!" The medics reacted immediately. One of them pushed her back into the arms of someone behind her. She struggled to free herself.
"Miss. You can't help him now." It was one of the security officers who had cordoned off the apartment while the men from the hazardous materials department approached in full gear with heavy breathing apparatus.
"But I–" Tears started to trickle down her face. She sobbed.
"Let the medics do their job." He tried to calm her. "You should let them examine you – you were exposed to that gas, too. Come on. I'll take you to MedoStat. Shall I contact somebody for you?"
2092-07-02 Local Time 0401
BetaMountain – MedoStation
Zachary found Niko wrapped up in a grey-green terry robe in the waiting room. She sat, grey-faced, arms slung tightly around herself and legs drawn up, on one of the uncomfortable plastic chairs. "Niko. How are you doing? Where–"
She sobbed and clamped her hands around her upper arms. "Still in the OR. They say, noth..." She swallowed heavily. "Nothing is certain yet but..." she sniffed, "they don't believe that themselves." She stared despairingly at the ceiling. Zach silently cursed her gift. "That doesn't make any sense!" she whispered. "I had at least as much of this toxin as he..."
"Wait here. I'm going to talk with the physicians. Maybe they'll tell me what's happening because I'm his commanding officer." He touched her shoulder soothingly with his bionic hand. She didn't need the fears her words caused him on top of her own.
"I don't want to mislead you, Captain: It looks very bad. In fact, the whole respiratory system is a single open wound. How he can still get oxygen under these circumstances is a mystery to us. The tissue actually seems to be liquefying. If we can't stop this process successfully..." Niko stood outside at the window and stared through the glass into the OR. Dr. Miyar looked earnestly at Fox. "It would be better if you prepared the young woman for it." He shook his head. "I've never seen anything like this before."
"Would batches of that gas do any good? I can arrange it."
"Certainly. But I doubt that we have the time for an analysis. We don't even know how this process works, let alone how to stop it. And there's still the question of why this stuff that's strong enough for a Supertrooper has no effect on a young woman like Niko. We–"
"Of course! – Keep him alive. I know who may be able to answer some of your questions, Doctor." Fox ran for an intercom. "Verbal identification: Fox, Zachary, Galaxy Rangers Series-5, Captain. Request an immediate secure contact with Walsh, Joseph, Base Commander."
2092-07-02 Local Time 0438
BetaMountain – MedoStation
"Take your personnel out of here, Doctor. We're taking over."
"He's my patient! I'm not going anywhere until I've exhausted all chances of helping him."
The floating brain unit broke in: =Swear him in, Joseph. We have no time to lose. I'm a geneticist, not a general practitioner.=
"What's actually going on here?"
"Your patient is something – special."
"I've already noticed that, but–"
"Raise your right hand. Do you swear never to pass on in any form what you learn about this patient or any matters related to him, now and in the future?"
"Only if it doesn't harm my patient."
Negata studied the indicators above the bio bed. =How have the values changed since admittance?=
"Blood pressure has stabilized by about 60 to 65 percent standard. Breathing is heavily reduced and the patient accordingly cyanotic. At this time it's taking six units of blood plasma per hour to compensate for the loss of fluids."
=Are there any witnesses to the incident?=
"Ranger Niko was with him when it happened, Professor. She's in the waiting room."
=I need to talk to her.=
"We were asleep, sir. He woke me, shouted something about gas. It came out of the ventilation system. We ran for the door. He was just behind me..." She trembled again and Fox standing beside her chair laid his hand on her shoulder supportively. "Or that was what I thought... till I turned round and... there was gas everywhere."
=Describe the gas.=
"It was... shaded somehow, orange and yellow-green, and it smelled like... like..." She faltered, searched for a comparison.
=Like apricots and gasoline?=
"Yes." She flared up. "Then you already know this horrible stuff!"
"Then you do know how to help him?"
=No, Niko." The brain unit floated for the door. "Send her home, Joseph. She's okay.=
"Fox, get her–"
"I am going nowhere at all!!" Niko flared up like a kicked cat and spat her words at the commander. "Not until I know that Goose will pull through!"
"You can't stay, or–"
"You'll freeze me?" she snapped. "I won't go! If I have to I'll spend the winter here. But I won't go."
"The same goes for me, sir."
Walsh followed Negata with a resigned sigh.
"Is it what we feared?"
=Yes, old friend. Genomtoxin.=
"You have to help him..."
=Joseph, I don't even understand why he's still alive. Genomtoxin destroys all tissue based on artificial DNA such as STJ. He should already be just a red puddle!=
Walsh lowered his head, bit his lip. "Maybe I have an explanation." He took a deep breath. "Gooseman's DNA is only partly based on STJ."
=What did you say?=
=And the rest of it!?=
"He's Leana's and my child."
=For heaven's sake, Joseph. Do you know what you're saying?=
"Yes. And I think it's his only chance."
=Who was the geneticist responsible?=
=He's dead. Do you have his papers?=
=Then we'll have to see whether the natural DNA sequence is enough or not.=
"What does that mean?"
=What do you know about Genomtoxin, Joseph?=
"Only that it was developed after the Wolf Den riot as a special weapon against Supertroopers."
=It works on the basis of the standardized inactive code of artificial DNA like STJ. That's almost 90 percent of the helix. In artificial DNA the inactive part is simply a permanent repetition of a short inactive standard fill sequence, the SFS, while the inactive components of natural DNA are as complex and differentiated as the active parts because they were formed during the evolutionary process and sorted out later. Genomtoxin actually is nothing but a protein that cracks the SFS in an enzymatic process. The molecules of the gas penetrate a cell based on artificial DNA, destroy tissue structure and function – as it were, the construction plan – and go on to the next cell. A single gas cartridge can kill almost an unlimited number of STs. The received dose of the gas only influences the time until exitus. – And it is totally harmless to normal people, since natural DNA doesn't include the SFS.=
"My god. Does an antitoxin exist?"
=No. It was never developed. Wasn't necessary.=
"Then we have to get it out of his body..."
=It is tissue transitive, Joseph. His chest seems to be the only affected tissue because lung tissue is designed for gas absorption. We'll try it, but if he survives long enough... Call QBall over and get me a direct connection with the main computers. If we program the molecule structure as the scan pattern, we should be able to separate the gas molecules from his body matter.= The brain unit floated toward the operation room. =While I get this know-it-all to keep the test object alive.=
"Owen. He isn't–"
"I'm ready, Professor." QBall straightened up and pushed his goggles higher up his nose. "The computers can't make a better resolution of the gas structure."
=Feed the data into the matter scanner. – Doctor, do you use cell lasers on dirty wounds?=
"Of course. We're up-to-date. But–"
=Use the matter scanner data as target coordinates.=
"They have an error of more than 8 percent compared with the instrument's own detector. It will unnecessarily injure the patient."
=You're not listening to me, are you? If we don't remove the toxin inside him, there won't be anything left of your patient! So start, will you!=
The yellow-white beam shot glistening into Gooseman's chest, focused on a gas molecule deep inside the bloody pool of his respiratory tract, heated it until it reached the reaction enthalpy of the compound. The molecule broke into ions, which immediately reassembled into new compounds. Foreign substances of many different structures began to accumulate in Goose's lungs: carbohydrates, cyanides... some highly toxic but not capable of specifically destroying DNA. They would clean up these leftovers later. The laser searched for a new target; focused, hissing. The smell of burned flesh filled the room. The body strapped to the operation table twitched. The physician, green-faced, changed the bags of plasma in shorter and shorter intervals to compensate for the loss of body fluids. Walsh dug his fingernails into his palms. Time was running...
2092-07-02 Local Time 2305
BetaMountain – MedoStation
"That's how it looks now. We are still neutralizing the gas in his body. I can't say how long it will take." The physician looked tired.
"Is he faring better yet?" Niko had dark rings under her eyes and was still waiting, clothed in the terry robe.
"We can't stabilize him before we have removed all the toxin. It depends on whether he survives till the end of the procedure."
"He will make it!"
"Your friend is extremely seriously wounded, Miss. Don't forget that. And you really should get some sleep. You won't help him by staying here."
"I'm staying." She pointed at a sports bag next to her chair; Zach had brought it to her during his lunch break, telling her also that Poss had appeared at his place and that Eliza was taking care of the cat now. "But I would be grateful for a room to change clothes."
"You can go into the nurses' room." He tried an encouraging smile. "They probably also have coffee and some cookies."
"I don't feel like eating."
"Still here?" Doc arrived a short time after her return from the nurses' room. "You must look after yourself. Goose wouldn't want you to–"
"Forget it, Doc. Everyone around has already tried to get me to leave. And that's exactly why I'm staying. Nobody can take him anywhere without my noticing." She slumped down on the plastic chair. "I'm frightened out of my mind about him..."
"Hey! These are the best specialists in the world. You can trust them. If someone–" He broke off when he noticed her expression, the fear, the fatigue and the fury behind it.
"These specialists – QBall, Walsh, Negata and the whole club – drove him through hell at Wolf Den, Doc. And now he's been poisoned by a gas that doesn't work on me at all. I'm sensing clearly that they know what it is – and that they never thought it necessary to find an antidote for it. So don't talk to me about trust!"
"You mean, one of them is–"
"No. But Supertroopers were never rated highly. Except for Walsh, I believe everyone in there is capable of seeing Goose as nothing but a test animal." She trembled.
"You look ready to drop. You need a few hours' rest."
"No, I won't give up, no more than he..." She nodded in the direction of the OR with tears in her eyes and whispered, "I can feel him, Doc. The pain, the panic, the fear..."
2092-07-03 Local Time 1517
BetaMountain – MedoStation
=He mustn't use his abilities, Joseph.=
"The implant is already discharged."
=That doesn't mean that his bio defenses are inactive, they're just not enhanced. And especially since the affected artificial DNA forms the base of his powers, I can't foresee the consequences.=
"What could happen?"
=The tissue could degenerate, the different DNA components could turn against each other. He must not use his bio defenses for any reason before his body has fully regenerated.=
"He is trained to use them automatically when he's wounded."
=That has to be prevented.=
Brows drawn together, Walsh looked at the motionless figure in the breathing apparatus. "When it will happen?"
=If he doesn't regain consciousness within the next five hours...=
The doctor's voice roused her out of a doze. "You can go and see him. The commander wants to talk to you first. Shall I contact your colleagues?"
She was already half out the door. "Yes, please."
"And be warned: He's more dead than alive."
She looked with shaded eyes at the doctor, who suddenly remembered what was said about the woman on the Series-5 team. "I know."
...the first sensation was pain: burning, throbbing, surrounded by numbness and cold; then the weight of his unmoving ribs. Shaky pulse beats penetrated as sounds into the focus of his attention, combined with the searing wheeze of the vanishing breath, and were pushed aside by green-black spots in his visual field: lack of oxygen. His body didn't reply to his desperate, reflexive attempts to breathe. The panic grew, together with the number of spots. Again gas was pressed into his lungs, was forced coldly burning through the upper respiratory tract, tore open the scarred-over bronchii, and reached the alveoli. The green-black spots were expelled by white, burning pain. The white faded to a pale yellow. Shadows moved on it between the reappearing spots. Other sounds interfered with the wavering pulse: electronic bleeps in the same rhythm, a metallic clack. The wheezing of air, vanishing again, drowned out the bleeping, called back the fear of suffocation. Again breath was pressed into the lungs, the cold expelled the inner burning, and his relief at getting air vanished in the pain of inflamed wounds. The white faded again. The shadows came closer. A voice echoed inside him...
"Shane?" Niko gripped his hands, massaged them till the skin seemed less transparent. They grew no warmer. She felt cold sweat tingling at her fingers as her thoughts cleared themselves a path through the chaos.
"Is he awake?"
"I'm not sure, Commander." She concentrated, again tried to break the barrier of pain, and cringed under the striking waves of agony and fear when she reached him again. Confusion welcomed her, desperation. Fury touched her senses, confirmed the success of her first attempts. "He understands it, sir." She stumbled when the contact broke off and the recollections of it were written into her memory. "He can hardly get any air, Professor. His dominant feeling is the fear of suffocating."
=I know, Niko,= Negata answered, =but he has only about 40 percent of his lung tissue left intact. The rest is eaten up into a bleeding mess and full of poisonous products from the decomposition of the deradiated gas molecules. For the wounds to close we had to adjust the artificial respiration to the lowest life-supporting level.=
"Why isn't he being respirated via the blood, sir?"
=His lungs are a single bloody clot. The scar structures will close the respiratory passages if we don't force them into movement.=
"And scars don't breathe..." Walsh added in a hoarse voice.
...the rage died, seeped away at the order not to use his bio defenses. The voices became blurred, were sucked away by the green-black spots. Then the next wave of white, burning pain broke down on him and drowned him in the darkness...
"Professor, how long until he can use his bio defenses?"
=Not until his injuries are fully healed. I don't know what would happen if he did.=
"I should set a psionic block the next time he regains consciousness."
"A mental barrier to prevent him from involuntarily activating his abilities."
=Do it right now.=
"He has to be awake, Professor. If he's unconscious I can't reach him that deeply."
2092-07-04 Local Time 1456
BetaMountain – MedoStation
"Captain Fox." Walsh awaited him at MedoStat's entrance. "Get Niko out of here and put her to bed. She's been here for nearly 72 hours."
"She won't want to go, sir."
"Fox, either she goes now voluntarily or the physician gives her a tranquilizer. We don't need another emergency on your team."
"How is Goose doing?"
"He regained consciousnes for a short period a couple of times. Whether he has a chance or not will be decided when the artificial respiration is stopped."
"When will that be?"
"Not until the day after tomorrow. And whatever's going to happen, she'll need a clear head, so get her to sleep. And be sure that she gets at least 48 hours of rest. If necessary, stand next to her bed with a stunner," growled Walsh, rumbling.
"May I visit him?"
"Yes. You have to go in anyway to get her out of there." After an angry sigh: "Don't tell her, but I'm going to drop the matter of her refusal to obey orders."
"Thank you, sir."
"Forget it. I've known for quite a while that the two of them cling together like leeches. But as long as I don't have to notice it officially..."
The metallic clacks of the respirator's heavy ventiles marked the time in the room, divided it into intervals of five seconds, each of them filled with the burning pain or the excruciating hunger for breath in the otherwise motionless body on the bed.
Zachary remained next to the door, tried to get control over his thoughts. The respirator's tubes, as thick as three fingers and transparent, were connected to the permanent tube via handles. A grey-white aerosol was mixed into every forced breath. Different IV needles stuck out of Goose's left elbow and hand. Sensor stickers on neck, temples, and chest connected the ST with the supervising medo computers.
Half-open green eyes wandered over to the curled-up figure in the chair next to the bed and returned to him, though veiled in the rhythm of breathing, with a questioning look.
"She's okay, Goose," he said faintly. "The poison had no effect on her."
The green eyes closed in relief for a moment, returned to him after three breaths, rested for a moment, searched Niko's face again, and burned back into Zachary's eyes with a furious sparkle inside them.
"I'm here to get her to bed, Goose," he said, smiling. Some things never change: this man will watch her even out of his grave! Zach startled at the thought: He's not far away from there... He walked over to her, had a short look at her sunken cheeks and the deep shadows of exhaustion around her eyes. Two people have fought for a life here. A thermal coffee pot and empty paper cups stood on the floor next to the chair – probably a little present from the nursing staff. "Wake up, Niko. It's time to sleep in your own bed."
It took some time for her to react and straighten up. "I can't leave..."
"Niko, you can't go against the commander's orders forever."
"The commander knows what h–"
"Lieutenant!" Fox became slightly louder. "You need rest. You're of no use to anyone in your condition."
"Even he wants you to sleep, Niko."
She winced and turned her attention away from Zach. Her gaze unfocused briefly when she touched the pain and pushed it aside to feel for Shane's self... Rage met her; fury penetrated the chaos, threw to her out of his wounded self a single word that crashed into her mind: Sleep. She retreated, stood up, trembled and met Goose's urging green eyes.
"I'll go." The relief in the ST's gaze was cut off by his eyes closing.
She was so exhausted that Zachary had to steady her. As he closed the door the control panels next to the bed showed the patient's fall into sleep: a single green lamp amongst a cascade of yellow and red.
2092-07-04 Local Time 1532
BetaMountain – Apartment 219
She was already asleep as he pulled the blanket over her. Zach watched her for a moment, then walked into her kitchen and made himself a coffee. He took a seat on the sofa with a heap of mission reports, put his feet on the coffee table, and tried without success to do some work. The impressions from the medo station pushed themselves in front of the letters. Gooseman was always fair-skinned, but now? His skin was almost transparent. You could see the dark-violet blood vessels. The cascade of needles in his arm, the violence of the respirator, under which the restrained body twitched at every stroke... He tried to imagine a day made of such pain in five-second intervals, with the knowledge that the next day will be the same, and the day after it... with the permanent sensation of suffocating. He pushed the image far away with a shudder, got up and looked in on the curled-up figure in the next room. Niko slept with her arms wrapped around the pillow and her face, even in sleep, showed the pain of her being a witness... This isn't only Goose's battle.
After two more hours, he initiated a computer connection with his own apartment three cross-corridors away.
"I'd better be far away when she notices this," he murmured faintly, put the note on the table next to the door, and left.
You should sleep for at least 48 hours. Do that. GV won't open your door earlier. Doc knows he'll spend two years at Pluto Base if he lets you out before that, so you can save the call. I'm sorry. It's an order from the commander.
Chapter 2: Darkness
2092-07-06 Local Time 0911
BetaMountain – MedoStat
"The surrounding muscle tissue is all right as far as I can see." Miyar, the sworn-in physician, together with Negata, was looking at the false-color image on the monitor of the scanner that QBall guided over Gooseman's chest. The physician pointed at yellow threads between the ribs. "The tendon structures are preserved, too. Let's go deeper inside. Show us the actual lung tissue." The image changed from mainly green and yellow colors to red, violet, and white. The physician hissed through his teeth. "That doesn't look as good." He frowned. "Maybe 50 percent."
=Less,= the brain unit next to him said. =Some of the smaller bronchii are closed. Even if the tissue is intact, it doesn't have contact with oxygen-bearing air. I assume 40 to 45 percent breathing capacity at most. An increase during the next days is possible, if the inflammation in the lung tips decreases.=
"Professor, if we keep up the forced respiration, we risk a degeneration of his own breathing muscles."
=After one week?=
"Breathing muscles are designed for permanent use. They go downhill fast. I strictly advise against further forced respiration."
The brain unit hesitated a moment. =We'll take the risk. From now on, he's yours, Doctor.=
"We're going to stop the artificial respiration now." The doctor's voice came from outside his visual field. "Stay calm and collected. Your lungs are still severely injured. Breathing for yourself will be accordingly difficult, so I'll apply an oxygen tube to your nose after I've taken off the respiration. Breathe consciously and as regularly as possible. I'll start – now."
The clacks of the respirator's ventiles stopped, leaving a vibrating silence behind. The tube in his throat now blocked his breathing; he felt hands removing the plaster strips on his cheeks that kept the tube fixed still. The doctor's hands were great shadows before his eyes that mingled with the fast-approaching green-black spots. Something slipped strangling out of his throat, and cool gas flooded against his nose with a soft whisper. The terror increased, hammered against his will. Stay calm! Rage gave him control over his tortured body. Trembling muscles obeyed the command to breathe, pulled apart the ribs, stretching the maltreated tissue behind them, and created the reduced pressure that pulled the cool gas through his nose, down his windpipe into the bronchii filled with mucus and blocked by countless scars left by inflammations, that blocked so many respiratory ways, till the air reached the alveoli in which the oxygen it carried was exchanged with the carbon dioxide within his blood before different muscles pressed the chest in again to expel the old air that now congested the mucus-filled bronchii and blocked the new inhalation...
"Slowly, exhale deeply. Don't stop. Go on." The physician observed the breathing process on the scanner. "I'll tell you when you've exhaled completely."
...the ribs closed excruciatingly slowly against the strongly increased resistence. His brain screamed in terror for the next breath, a breath his will still refused to take. "Now!" Again air was drawn in, pushing back the panic. Again the exhalation endured longer than reflex wanted to allow. "Now!" Relief. Again. Again and again... He gained a feeling for how it felt shortly before the releasing "Now" came, how close the ribs had to be pressed together, how tense which muscles were. His body's protest ebbed away, leaving behind only the pain in his wounded lungs and his throat, irritated by the tube. He opened his eyes, saw the physician next to the bed at the monitor and Walsh standing with tightly folded arms at the door. He wanted...
"Not a word!" The physician again. "Your throat is still sore. Your lungs have enough to do just to keep you alive. So don't be difficult."
He tried to nod and noticed, frightened, that his body didn't obey him. Breathing. Everything else could wait. He concentrated again on the sensation in his lungs when the cool, oxygen-filled air streamed in without violence, driven by his own muscles, flooded his body; and was driven out to be replaced...
2092-07-06 Local Time 1500
BetaMountain – MPQ 219
"I swear I'll kill both of them!" Enraged, Niko shot out of her finally opened door. "And this AI shouldn't feel too safe, either!"
Doc jumped out of her way. "Hold on a minute, Niko. They could practically have strapped you onto the next bio bed, the way you were looking."
"To lock me up!" she snorted, furiously shook back her hair and was halfway to the MedoStation. "If something happened to Shane–"
"I visited him yesterday evening, Niko. Everything was okay. He had slept." As she wasn't paying attention to him: "Zach called this morning. They've stopped the artificial resp–"
"What did you say?!!"
"He's gotten through it. They didn't want you to be there."
"This is getting better and better!"
"Please understand me. Anything that could have distracted him from the process of breathing would have been dangerous..." He grabbed her arm, stopped her for a moment. "And in Goose's place, I wouldn't have wanted the woman I love to be there for that procedure." She stared icily at him for a moment, then tore herself free and marched on. If the floor were only a little bit softer, her heels would slam through to the next level. I wouldn't want to be in the commander's shoes, if he should meet her today... After a short shrug as he looked after her: Or in Zach's, either.
2092-07-06 Local Time 1543
BetaMountain – MedoStat
Warmth. His right fingertips were warm. New needles? He searched for any additional pain, found only the old friends in his chest. No, somebody was touching him. He collected strength for a few breaths and turned his head to the side – Niko. How long has she been here? Yesterday, she was here, too. Or was that the day before? The time blurred yet again. The fatigue came for him once again. Not now!! Fury defeated pain, let him take deeper breaths that increased the oxygen turnover and dissipated the fog around him. It could never be so difficult to press her fingers...
She felt the fingers in her hand twitch, looked up and met glowing green eyes. "Shane..." The twitch repeated, became a brief grasping before the hand fell weakly back. "Don't say anything. Your throat is still irritated." Instinctively she stretched her hand towards his lips and saw the flash of panic appear in his face. Every breath is a battle for shaky ground. Every cubic centimeter of air is a precious victory. Everything in the view field is felt as a rival for air... She dropped her hand and bit her lip, shocked, as she began to understand the physician's martial description.
"Who..." The word was no more than a croak. He never had been obedient. His eyes fixed on the medical devices in the room, on the needles in his arm.
"We don't know who's responsible for the gas. There weren't any traces."
He closed his eyes. The wheezing in his breaths got louder. Again a word: "Physician..."
"Dr. Miyar is treating you."
"Zach informed Commander Walsh, since nobody knew how they ought to help you..."
His gaze hold her. "Who...?" The rattling in his lungs nearly drowned the word.
"Walsh was here the whole time, QBall, Negata."
His eyes glared up at the last name, showed a cascade of emotions: rage, pride, fright, caution, fear and fury, over and over again fury, which slowly yielded to exhaustion. She watched him. His lips formed further words, but he didn't have enough breath to pronounce them. She lay her hands upon his, pushed aside the curtain of pain and rage and read the sentence in his mind: ...Wolf Den. This is all connected with the STP...
"I guessed that, too. This gas..."
...a weapon against STs. Only possibility...
"You mean, Negata?"
The negation out of his soul was of unexpected intensity. ...no – different enemy. Need to... prove...
"You need to get well first, Shane." She smiled sadly, when she felt how the exhaustion embraced him closer and closer. "You look terrible."
...what happened to me...
"The gas ate into your lungs. They deradiated it inside your chest with a medical laser, but the decomposed compounds are mostly poisonous and causing inflammation. They say you're not allowed to use your bio defenses at all before everything is fully healed, or else your sytem will collapse. They didn't explain that very well." He looked questioningly at her. "I've blocked the reflex, Shane." When she saw the fury flashing up in his eyes she added faintly: "I can remove the block when you are well again. But until then it's the safest solution for you." The tiredness drowned him, a last impression flooded over to her: relief and a sentence fragment: ...not at you... gives strength...
"You're right, Doctor." Niko silently wished the faint red on her cheeks to hell and forced herself to answer as coolly as possible. The physician led her to his office and offered her a seat. "I'm what come closest to a family for him."
"I thought as much." Miyar laid his fingertips together. "I saw what they had to do to get you away from here." He smiled briefly. "I was beginning to think they would request a sniper with a tranquilizer gun for you."
"But I'm no relative," she interrupted him.
"So what?" He made a dismissive gesture. "Nothing is normal with this patient. I've got two people whirling around me constantly and giving me hell because of him. One of them is the Commander, Aesculapius only knows why, and the other one is you – and I believe you are more useful."
"What do you mean?"
"Look, miss. This battle isn't over for Gooseman. On the contrary, it's just beginning. At the moment we're treating the inflammation with strong drugs, but we can't go on with that or we would do irreparable damage to his immune system. If we break off the therapy, the dance with secondary infections begins – and I mean everything, from a simple sore throat or a slight cold over the already present bronchitis down to pneumonia. And every little trifle like a slight sniffle can throw him back weeks, and even worse, can cause attacks that scar over more lung tissue."
"He's never been ill before, Doctor."
"That'll change. And that's why I'm worried about whether he's going to make it. We're talking about months, likely years."
Her lips twitched cynically. "He's a born combatant." Literally, she added in her thoughts.
"Maybe he has a chance, then. The emerging syndrome is severe bronchial asthma. But I can't treat him with the drugs for it because of the toxins in his lungs. We have to treat him the way they did 120 years ago."
"What does that mean?"
"In the end? That his body has to make it on its own. We can make it easier, help him survive the crises, but he has to win on his own. Nobody can help him. If I use the historical data as a base for the recovery prognosis..." He looked uncomfortably at her.
"Say it!" Her voice was freezing cold.
"One out of a hundred made it with this syndrome. The others – gave up at some point."
You mean, they...?"
"Died, or never left the hospital again in their lifetime."
"Goose will be that one, Doctor! Challenge him and he'll make it."
2092-07-06 Local Time 1917
BetaMountain – GRS5 Office
"That's how it looks, Zach." Niko sat on the smooth-worn couch with her legs drawn close, settled her chin on her knees, and looked horribly lost. Fox had made her a hot chocolate, which stood untouched on the upended package box next to her on the floor.
"Gooseman is strong, Niko. If anybody has a chance, it's him."
"You weren't there today, Zach," she whispered. "I was."
"He was always too stubborn to give up, don't forget that. And that's still how he's going to be." I'm going to lose two friends otherwise... "Let me guess: he's already thinking about how to get out of there."
A smile whizzed like a painful memory over her face. "Not directly. He's dealing with who and what did this to him."
"Typical Goose." Zachary labored to sound optimistic. "When we return from our next job at the latest, he should have a detailed plan about exactly what he's going to do and in what order to the person who's responsible."
"You weren't informed? We're to escort Zozo and Waldo on their yearly diplomatic tour."
"Can you give me time off?"
"I've tried." He shook his head. "The Board of World Leaders insisted on your presence. They said something about more elegant representation. You have half an hour tomorrow morning to say good-bye. That's the best I could do." He couldn't understand her muttered reply from where he stood. And he got the impression that it was better that way...
2092-07-12 Local Time 2138
BetaMountain – Cmdr. Walsh's office
"I don't understand this. How can he of all the people in the world have gone into anaphylactic shock? He's never had an allergic reaction to anything." Frustrated, he threw the transparency down on the desk in front of him.
=I'm not sure, Joseph. But you said he's literally your son.= The brain unit buzzed closer. =STJ is highly adaptable. The code is capable of correcting almost all conceivable deficits within the carrier-DNA.=
"And the STJ components are destroyed."
=At least reduced.=
"There's still the question of what caused this shock."
Negata scanned through the physician's report. =Here it is. They started him on solid food yesterday because his body began to resist the infusion needles. He had some vanilla ice cream this afternoon to minimize difficulties in swallowing. His pain level is still on the upper limit.= He focused his sensors on Walsh. =You have this lactase anomaly, haven't you?=
"Yes. But that's no allergy. I just can't digest milk properly, that's all."
=But his body system is heavily weakened. And he isn't fully used to solid food again,= Negata pointed out. =If the fetus got the gene responsible for lactase formation from you, then it's quite possible that in its destabilized state, his system reacted to lactose as a poison.=
"My god. To think of it – nearly to die because of a sundae."
=It was a close shave. If the resuscitation team hadn't figured it out immediately... Even now they'll have to keep him in an artificial coma for some days.= Negata turned again to the data screen, brooded. =Miyar probably shouldn't use Gooseman's file, but more likely yours.=
"Then we can bury the both of us."
=It would be enough to complete his medical data.=
"There shouldn't be any questions when we use today's events as an explanation."
=Except why we kept vital data secret.=
"He's part of the STP – the security level is still Ultraviolet Plus. Strictly speaking we aren't allowed even to concede that he exists." Walsh shrugged. "And Wolf Den has always gotten bad press after the riots."
2092-07-17 Local Time 1007
BetaMountain – MedoStat
"Do you hear me?" A hand smacked against his cheek. "Come on, I know you hear me, Gooseman! The sedatives are all out of your system. Will you wake up now." The voice droned in his head, rushed battling with his pulse. Still dazed, Goose pried open his eyelids, looked at the physician, who grinned at him in relief.
"Thank Aesculapius. I was starting to think I was never going to get you awake." When Miyar noticed the confusion in his patient's face: "You went into anaphylactic shock – sorry, I meant to say, you didn't take well to the ice cream." The strapped-down man gave him an incredulous look. "And now if you don't mind, wake up for real. There's no excuse for sleeping for six days because of a sundae, clear?!" The physician grimaced. "My colleagues don't even allow little girls to do that!" Miyar saw the green eyes flash, the chin harden in fury; the breaths came more strongly in spite of the renewed inflammation in the chest. The rattling breath nearly drowned out the sentence but Miyar understood it anyway:
"Watch... your... fin... gers...."
Seems like his girlfriend is right: this man is a combatant. Maybe he really does have a chance...
"Your protege is awake, Commander." The nurse greeted Walsh at the intensive care unit's entrance. "Dr. Miyar is optimistic that he can move him into a normal room within the next 48 hours." She pushed the glass door open for him. "And don't excite him for any reason."
The commander walked in, studied the the nearly seated figure on the bed, belted at the shoulders and positioned against an upholstered wedge. A pain indicator hung above the bed's head; Walsh knew the thing from Wolf Den. The light-emitting bar still stood more than three-quarters up the scale, was still dark yellow. He shuddered imperceptibly: sixteen days with a level of pain at which most people would be nearly insane. And no promise yet for a speedy recovery. "Gooseman?"
"I was here a couple of times, but you weren't in any condition for visitors." The ST only looked at him and waited. Goose's skin was still nearly transparent, was taut over the bones. The pain indicator display behind his head varied slightly with the rhythm of his breathing. "Now that your unit is on duty–"
"Do... they... know... of...?"
"No. I haven't informed the S5s about your relapse."
"You're still one of my people. I have to keep track of how you're doing."
The ST's lips twitched. "I'm... a...live... sir..."
"You will likely be released from the intensive care unit the day after tomorrow. It'll still be about three weeks before your companions return. The diplomatic mission has been extended. So if you should need something..."
"Some...thing... to.... read..." That surprised him. Gooseman had never been a bookworm. "Take....s... the.... mind... off..." He stifled a cough. The pain indicator glowed brighter. Walsh grabbed for the emergency bell at the sight of the narrow bloodstain that appeared on the dry lips. "Not... nec...es...sary... it's... in... mouth..." The sound of his breathing got louder. Goose laid back his head, closed his eyes and concentrated on the breathing process. Deep regular breaths that caused the pain indicator to swing...
Walsh stood up. "I'll have something to read sent to you. I'll return if my schedule allows it."
"Recover, Gooseman. Everything else can wait."
A hand closed around his wrist, held him with more strength than he'd thought the half-dead man on the bed capable of. Furious flashing eyes caught his. "Somebody tried to kill me." The bloodstain on Shane's lips grew. The breaths that followed the sentence were irregular and rattled, but the rage in this man in front of him demanded an answer.
"Yes. But there aren't any hints who it is."
"I'll personally keep you informed, Gooseman."
Shane was asleep before he could answer.
2092-07-27 Local Time 1437
"Niko, you're so earnest all the time." Zozo, Kirwin's special envoy for agrarian matters, hopped up onto the copilot's seat next to her. "At first I thought it was just this boring job that was getting to all of you, and to you specially because Goose isn't with us, but it's more, isn't it?"
"Zozo, please!" She concentrated on the hyper shunt controls, though the automated pilot had control over the vessel.
"Have you had a quarrel with Goose?" She started. Zozo persisted. "You've known that I know since Granna–" She cringed down and sobbed faintly.
"Goose is seriously ill, Zozo. Someone tried to kill him – with gas."
"But he's going to be okay, isn't he?"
"When we had to leave they didn't know yet if he's ever going to leave MedoStation again."
"By our Mothmoose! Do you know how he is now?"
"No. They won't allow me an interstellar com contact – I don't know why."
"And they've commanded you to do this stupid mission with us?"
"Yes." She bit her lip, put on the cold, emotionless face which had so irritated him and Waldo during the last three weeks. "My request for emergency leave or to use my vacation time was rejected because the BWL insisted on my participation."
Zozo swore faintly, something about salty soils. "I'm going to talk with Waldo. Maybe we can shorten it a little." He twinkled at her, patted her knee with his paw. "And then I'm going to write a biting letter of protest to the BWL – for barbaric treatment of employees. I'll use extra-hot Kirwin pepper for this spicy note!" His hopes of getting a smile from her were disappointed. "Chin up. Goose will make it. Don't forget he's dedicated to win."
"Yes, Zozo," she said softly. "But in another kind of war."
"Now you know what's going on, Waldo."
"Yes, Zozo. And you're right, we'll shorten this mission. Suddenly I don't feel well at all." The Andorian touched his grey temples with dignified hands.
"Somehow I feel sick, too. Must be the horrible food at these receptions." Zozo twinkled cockily. "I reckon we'll have to have a full medical check at BetaMountain's MedoStat."
"Otherwise something veeeeeery awkward could happen at the next reception." He laid his pawlike hands at his throat and intimated vomiting.
"Zozo, that would be diplomatically inexcusable!" said the Andorian dryly.
"Then we should prevent it," grinned the Kiwi. "I'll tell the captain."
2092-07-29 Local Time 1253
BetaMountain – MedoStat
Goose sat upright in bed, his back propped against mountains of pillows and a readpad on a swivel arm pulled in front of him. Half a dozen datapads, notepads, and slips of paper were piled up around him on the quilt. Even leaflets and an opened notebook were scattered around. He seemed to read intensively, made notes in one of the datapads, and then started to rummage frantically in a heap of note transparencies until he found one that was covered over and over with scribbled structural formulas. He pulled it out.
"Shane?" His head flew around. "You're doing bett–" She tried to embrace him, and the just-found transparency got crumpled when he shrank back. "What..." Then she heard the faint razzling in his breath and noticed the pain indicator over the bed's head: yellow-green, about a third of the way up the scale. She gave him some room, took a seat on the edge of the bed and folded his fingers in hers. "I'm sorry." He didn't answer, just kept holding her hand. She felt the bones work as he rhythmically intensified the pressure. "I was frightened that–"
"Not." A slightly trembling finger lay down on her lips. "I–"
The door behind her was flung open. The others streamed in. The room became filled with people and laughter. Zozo jumped unconcerned onto the bed behind Niko, pushed two of the datapads aside, and started rattling wildly. Patients were bored, they had to be kept busy. "Goose, you should have seen the senator when Waldo and I told him that we were cutting the mission short because we felt soooo bad." He laughed exuberantly and then gave an exaggerated shudder. "That examination here was really disgusting."
"Yes, Gooseman." Zachary spoke up. "According to our schedule we would have been gone for eight more days. But our diplomats were of another opinion. Zozo had his stomach examined to make it plausible."
Doc grinned. "Admit it, Gooseman. You're just pretending to be sick because of all the beautiful nurses and the perfect room service. And then we turned around especially for you bec–"
"Just a moment, please. Let there be no doubt about that. We came back because our charges showed symptoms of nausea." Fox in his function as captain of the unit straightened up. "That that's exactly what we wanted to do all the time anyway has nothing to do with–"
"Gentlemen, I beg your pardon! This discussion is really improper for members of the League Force." Waldo snorted indignantly.
"Oh, don't make such a fuss, Waldo." Zozo hopped around in relief on the bed's end. "That's only our delight that he isn't in as bad a condition as we thought. And–"
"Well, my Goose man. How's it feel to be a maling–"
The clear shrill of the alarm bell interrupted them. Niko, startled, felt the grip around her hand slacken. The fingers next to hers trembled, were suddenly covered with cold sweat. Gooseman sat very erect, the head slightly laid back with closed eyes, fully concentrated on his breathing.
The pain indicator glowed orange when Dr. Miyar burst into the room. "Out!!! All of you!" Two nurses with emergency floaters forced their way past the others. "You, too, miss! – Wait outside." He read the indicators next to the bio bed. "Dammit to hell! Not again." He looked at Gooseman while he prepared the injector. "Gooseman, I already told you to give that up, didn't I?" The ST didn't answer, remained in the breathing mantra – in and out and out, in and out and out... The bronchospasmolyticum rushed into his bloodstream.
They waited for nearly twenty minutes outside in the corridor. Nobody had a thing to say. Doc was pale around his nose when the physician finally came out. "What's the matter with him?"
"He made it. But the attack has weakened him badly." Miyar turned to Niko. "Go and see him, Miss. He wants to see you. And..." He held her up briefly before she could open the door. "Distract him, ask about his research, his reading, but don't excite him. This has been the second attack today. The medicine's maximum dose for a day is limited. If he should have another one..." He shook his head, opened the door for her, and let it slide close afterwards. "And now to you. Hasn't anybody told you how to behave in a sick bay?"
"He looked pretty healthy..." Doc said uncomfortably.
"Dammit to hell! The personnel don't give the instructions for visitors to get a kick out of them," Miyar hissed. "If you haven't realized it yet: you almost killed him! These attacks are life-threatening."
"What causes the attacks, Doctor?"
The physician took a short look at Zachary's insignia. "Mainly stress, Captain. Strong emotions, too – and it doesn't make any difference whether the cause is good or bad. A Christmas present can be as dangerous as an arrest warrant – physical strain, allergenes... the list of possible reasons is pretty long."
"You mean the surprise that we returned early could have been enough?"
"Possible." The physician knotted his brows, "But the attack occured quite a while after the young lady's arrival – she was even faster than all of you. So I'm betting on breathing air rivalry."
"Pardon?" Doc pushed forward. "That doesn't make any sense."
"Unfortunately, yes. Look, for someone in Gooseman's condition, every breath is a strain, every single oxygen molecule in the air he inhales is desperately needed. But everyone present also needs oxygen. We don't notice that at all, but it looks very different for someone who has to live with the fear of suffocating for weeks on end."
"You mean he thought we would take up his air?" Zozo tugged at the doctor's coat.
"Not consciously. But his body is permanently struggling for oxygen. Something inside him feels that he would lose such a contest if it occurred, and that's enough stress to bring it up."
"My god." Fox stared at him, shocked. "How can anyone stand this?"
The physician smiled bitterly. "He's the most insufferable patient I know. And that's exactly the reason why he has a chance."
"He's rebellious and stubborn, arrogant, egoistic all the way to egocentrism. If we say to him that something will need two weeks to heal, he gives us two days – at the most. And he clings to life with as much savagery as if he'd kick the devil himself back into hell. There're days when my personnel are frightened to go into his room. You should have witnessed what went on when my head nurse wanted to take away his writing things to have him rest after one of the most serious attacks. And the only patient ever to defeat her before that was Commander Walsh!" He shook his head and lowered his voice to speak only to Fox: "When I was told that he's a combatant I didn't believe it was possible that he'd make it. Most soldiers give up eventually if every success is punished. But he... I've never before seen anyone with such a will to live."
"A readpad. Which book is loaded, then?" She sat on the edge of the bed again and massaged his cold hands. He kept his eyes closed and leaned back. Finally he smiled desperately.
"All..." He swallowed dryly. She gave him water; she had to hold the mug because his hands were still trembling too much. "Interlink... to the... lib....rary..."
"Wow." She smiled. "Who gave it to you?"
"Walsh..." His sentences were shortened, longer words still broken by breaths. "I... beg... for... it... At... the... begin...ning... only... to... take... mind... off... my–" She cut him off by pulling his hands closer to her.
"Don't. – What're you reading right now? It looks like you've pretty well covered yourself with work." The movement of her head encompassed all the notes, printouts, and transparencies that lay around. "And don't tell me any such nonsense as finishing your overdue reports."
His eyes flashed briefly even though his smile was broken by coughing. "I'm... sear...ching... for... answers..."
"Who... and... what... is res...pon...sible... for... all... this..." A harsh expression showed on his face, suddenly reminded her what he was. "It's... al...most... a... month... now... and... they... still... have... no... ans...wers..."
"You must look after yourself. Walsh and QBall are surely already after the assassins."
His furious movement gave an impression of shaking his head. "I was... the... tar...get... and I'm... used... to hunt... ing... my... prey... not... be... ing... hun...ted." His breaths deepened for a moment as rage raised the level of adrenaline and endorphines in his blood. "There're... many ways... to cor...ner the prey... I'm... a very... good... bloodhound... if I... have to..."
"Does Walsh know what you're doing?"
"Not so... far..."
"I don't think he'll be amused when he finds out."
"He should... know... Wolf Den... made... me for... it..."
"But you're more than that," she whispered faintly.
His hands were still trembling when his fingertips ran over the back of her hand. "I'm... working... on... it..."
2092-08-12 Local Time 2309
BetaMountain – MedoStat
Damn! Room 53 is empty again. Clarisse McCall, night nurse on duty, ran out into the corridor, started to search the ward, then walked out into the publicly accessible areas. In the unlighted common room she almost missed the slim silhouette standing motionless in the darkness, leaning with one arm against the big window.
"I've had enough of this, Gooseman! That Dr. Miyar allowed you to move a little doesn't mean that you're allowed to flit around here in the middle of the night!" She grabbed his arm forcefully and tried to maneuver him back into his room. "What do you want out here anyway?"
"I like... the empty... corridors... They're... comforting...ly cool." He didn't budge.
"And you should stay in temperature-controlled rooms to get your lungs healed up better. Don't be so foolish."
"I'm sick... and tired... of being... cooked... inter...nally," he snorted and pressed his feet to the ground, threw a last look out of the wide panorama glass window. "I've... had enough... of being... captured..." Darkness. Clouds. No stars. Only the lights of Phoenix down on the plains – still trapped. "Let me... go."
"I'm responsible for you during my shift, Gooseman. I have to get you safely–"
"Take your hands off me!" The flashing eyes and the growl in his wheezing breath were a serious warning.
She remembered her colleagues' remarks referring to this patient's temperament – Be careful, Clarisse, this man's desperate! – and let his arm go. "Please, don't fall down."
He didn't deign to reply, walked back with every step exactly controlled and his back very straight. From time to time he stabilized himself with one hand on the wall. She didn't understand the word with which he slid his door closed, but it definitely wasn't nice.
2092-10-07 Local Time 1024
BetaMountain – MedoStat
"You have about 60 percent of your normal breathing volume now, Gooseman." Dr. Miyar's face twitched slightly. "Better than expected. Your last attack was more than a week ago. Not bad, either. I don't like your night counts yet." He quickly looked through the diagrams on his desk again. "Your condition is too dependent on your circulation. I wish we could reduce the risks in this matter, but you don't respond to any of the circulation-stabilizing drugs." The man opposite him grimaced.
"I won't try another one. The side effects of the last one were enough for me."
"I couldn't know that your body would react the way–"
"Do you know how vomiting feels if you can't get enough air?"
Miyar decided to ignore the soft growl in his patient's voice. "Be that as it may..." Miyar shut down the monitor in front of him. "I give you permission to walk around freely between 1100 and 1500 hours. You may leave MedoStation, provided that you carry an emergency com and avoid crowded or poorly ventilated areas." The physician gave Goose a severe look. "This is an experiment. If it goes wrong, we'll have to start over from scratch. So be level-headed; then we can go over to outpatient treatment in one or two weeks."
"You can go home and only have to come here every 48 hours for check-ups. And Gooseman – pay attention to the times. I've chosen the time when your bio counts are best. No going over the time limit, no being late. If you're underway keep in mind that you can't go any faster, that you can't hurry. If I catch you even hopping down a step, this freedom is dead. The same goes for places like landing areas, the lower halls, the cafe, and so on. Don't cause problems." Miyar watched the blonde man with the hollow cheeks in concern. "And start slowly. Fifteen minutes the first day, no more."
"I understand, Doctor."
Miyar watched the expression on his patient's face. The icy determination in his voice was almost more threatening than the burning rage that put the fear of God into his nurses, though the patient never lost control of it. He remembered the few reports about the Wolf Den project that had been published in the medical journals in the times of the riot, especially a short article about genetically enhanced soldiers as perfect combatants born for war. And now I've got an ST here who's confronted with a kind of war he isn't trained for. The STs are feared for their physical abilities and strength – maybe we should be more afraid of their psychic strength. I don't want to be the enemy who has to take on this opponent when he's gotten over this.
2092-10-13 Local Time 1239
BetaMountain – Upper Promenade
"This new simulation they presented is very close to reality, Goose." Zachary had already visited the exhibition that morning with his children. "They used the data from the memory crystals that we recovered from your ship after your crash landing on Ozark. The commander is thinking about adding the entropy fall as an emergency test to the training schedules of the oldest cadets."
At his side, Niko snickered. "As a kind of 'This is what happens if you don't fly exactly where you should' exercise."
"They're still discussing whether or not it's a good idea."
"Must depend on the size of the airsickness bags they hand out."
"If they insert the effects on bio defenses, it ought to be sacks at least," Doc grinned. "Man, the shape you were in, Goose."
"I'm going to skip this sim."
"If they let you, Shane." She laughed exuberantly at that image. "Maybe all age groups will have to do it sometime."
"Then I'm going to wait for Doc."
"Don't you dare!" The hacker ran some steps forward. "I won't do you that fav– Oops, little girl. Look out." He nearly stumbled over a little girl with a sundae, who sneezed and sprinkled all of them with melted ice cream.
"Sorry." The mother ran over to them and took her child by the hand. "She's been inattentive all day today. Maybe she's catching a cold. I hope the spots come out."
"Of course, Ma'am. Don't worry. These uniforms can endure a lot." Zachary smiled briefly. "I have children myself."
Doc walked on, quickened his pace. "We have to hurry or we'll miss the sim."
"I can't go any faster."
"Hey, come on, Goose. These few steps. You're so on the ball today."
"Slower!" Shane snapped.
"Doc, you forget what he risks if it goes wrong."
"Hey, we're talking about Gooseman, about Mr. 'Risk is my middle name' Gooseman."
The ST had stopped. "Go without me."
"That's out of the question. You're a teammate! We won't leave you out."
"Captain, I can't go any further. I'm getting cold, so my circulation is decreasing. – But you and Doc could do me a final favor." Only Niko seemed to notice the malicious sparkle in his eyes.
"Of course we will. What...?"
"Doc has to go along with it."
"I'd do anything for my Goose man!"
"Thanks." His eyes already glowed emerald green. "You see, one of the things the doctor won't let me do is sports and gymnastic exercises, and that's why I can't do this myself..."
"What are we talking about?" Zachary smelled a rat but joined the game. Niko, who knew Goose much better, had to fight against laughter.
"Doc, please bend over."
"Like this? What for, Goose?" Doc asked, peering back through the space under his arm.
"Give him a kick in the backside, Zach."
Doc shot up from his bowed position. "Don't you dare, chief!"
"I promised, Doc. Please keep still..." Zach winked at Goose.
Niko laughed out loud when Doc fled some steps away, but then grew serious again. "I'll stay with Goose, Zach."
The captain accepted it with a nod. "Okay, I'll bring you back a copy crystal."
They leaned against the railing and looked down to the basement five levels below, livened up in appearance with lots of trees and fountains.
"I'm sorry about the sim, Niko."
"No need to be. I felt the entropy fall before, when we were searching for you. I have no need to repeat the experience." She giggled at the memory of the scene earlier. "Doc should learn that you're never harmless, Shane."
"Right." He sounded pretty complacent.
"Don't be so arrogant."
"Arrogance keeps me alive." The comment was harsher than intended. He listened for his breaths and swore silently. "It's going to be tight. We have to go back."
She looked at his hands clamped around the railing, at the knuckles that showed white, and said nothing. Pity only hurt.
2092-10-19 Local Time 1647
BetaMountain – MedoStat
"Sorry, the patient has a high temperature. Without the attending doctor's permission I can't let you in there. It's impossible." The nurse resolutely refused her access to Goose's room.
"Talk to the doctor if you want to know any more details. The nursing staff isn't allowed to give more information."
"Where can I find Dr. Miyar?"
"He had a temperature of over forty degrees last night. It didn't drop until midday."
"He's caught a cold, that's what's happened." Miyar paced back and forth behind his desk. "I warned you about secondary infections."
"You don't have a fever of forty degrees just from having the sniffles! Even I know that."
"Somebody with a damaged immune system like him certainly does, Miss. And if the infection spread to his lungs..." He consciously dropped the rest of the sentence.
"May I go and see him? Please."
The physician considered for a moment. "You've never excited him, and he seems to like your presence. – Yes. But be quiet. He has a terrible headache and if he has to vomit with that infected throat I can't guarantee anything."
"Can't you give him something for it?"
"No. For the same reason we couldn't medically decrease his pain level at the beginning." He looked tiredly at Niko. "Look, the human body isn't constructed very well in this regard. The receptors that control the breathing impulse within the bronchii are of exactly the same construction as those which are transmitting the pain to the brain. We couldn't block the second without interfering the first. That's no problem for a healthy person, but..."
"...for someone as ill as Goose it is," she finished the sentence bitterly.
"Beta blockers can cause bronchial spasms."
The datapads lay piled up next to a big jug of fruit juice on the little cupboard near the bed. A wastebasket filled with used tissues stood in front of it. The accompanying box lay within reach on Goose's quilt. The room was darkened, making the controls at the bed's head seem to glow brighter. She took a seat on the chair, which was almost starting to fit the contours of her body, and listened for the sound of breathing from the bed. Regular. The exhalation, a bit longer than the inhalation, was accompanied by a rattling sound. She closed her trembling hands around her elbows. The wheezing had been almost gone. And now...
...death surrounded him once again, closer this time, barely a breath away. Death waited, disdainfully laughing at the edge of perception, on the inside of orange-red and yellow-green burning eyelids. Death's laughter smouldered out the oxygen on its way into the alveoli, heated up his body, seemed to burn him... Death waved and tempted, whispered promises of peace and rest without pain in the midst of the cooling breath... No! No, I won't listen! The self threw himself against the old companion, drove silver claws of rage and pride into the melting face. No! You'll never win! Never! NEVER!!!... The laughter surrounded him, came from all around when his lungs burst into flames, when pain and fever met each other. Pain – he hugged it, drank it, welcomed it and what it meant – to be still alive, to be able to return the scorn, to survive... survive... survive... to give the old antagonist a kick once more... another voice joined the whispering at his self's borders, whispered of help and relief. He tore claws of ice through the second face, let the second figure freeze to death in the coldness of his rage...
The blood of mental wounds poured through her mind as Niko struggled to her feet and bent down, freezing. Instinctively she touched her face, searched for the deep ruptures that would correspond to the psionic injuries, until her maltreated self remembered that it was mental claws that had driven into her. She curled up in the contour seat, hid her face – physical and psychic – before the motionless figure on the bed, and thought of the wall of ice in the middle of the fire, of claws driven by icy fury... She had intended only to help and had instead become a victim in a war which she already would have lost. Tears burned in her eyes. He considered her an additional enemy... and something inside her felt that she had been that enemy. In her memory, the claws struck again...
2092-10-20 Local Time 0612
BetaMountain – MedoStat
Cold fingertips touched her cheek, rested, trembling, on the dried tears. "Please... don't cry." The voice was harsh, scratchy, penetrated into her cocoon of fear. Niko looked up. Something inside her expected the rapacious beast, but she met only clear green eyes in a terribly exhausted face. He sat upright, held himself up with his other hand on the bedstead while touching her face with his outstretched arm. The mental scars lay exactly under his hand. She couldn't suppress a shiver. He lowered his hand and only looked at her. "What happened?"
I can't tell him. "Shane, please, let me..."
"Niko, don't be evasive."
"I'm not, but–"
"I hurt you, didn't I?"
"I don't want to talk ab–"
"Have I hurt you?"
She couldn't stand his eyes. "Last night I tried to help you," she whispered finally.
The swearword was short and concise. "Don't you understood that you can't help with that?"
"I couldn't watch you dying any longer, Shane."
His eyes narrowed. Ice glowed inside them. "I won't die, Niko." His voice was dangerously cold despite the scratchiness. "But I can only fight one war at a time. This one – or yours. So don't get involved!"
She started, felt some of last night's fury return, but this time he was awake – shattered, trembling in exhaustion, but awake. This time no feverish dreams left an excuse for conflict between him and her. "I should go."
The apology she expected didn't take place. She was nearly in the corridor when she remembered: ...not at you... give strength... Deeply shocked, she leaned against the wall outside. Xanadu's Star, the fury is his weapon. The source of strength he uses when his body is already exhausted. I tried to calm him... that means to disarm him. She thought of the way Goose had of growling when anyone touched his blasters – and his life didn't depend on those. She looked back at his door. I'm lucky to still be alive... She corrected herself: ...We're lucky... and went back.
He still sat upright with the readpad pulled into position, reading, using the information as a shield against his thoughts about what had just happened.
"Shane." He looked up: cool eyes, no emotions, waiting. "I'm sorry." His breath grew uneven. When had she started to listen to it? She made a step towards him, then another, let the door slide closed behind her. "I won't do it again..." She stretched her hand out, touched his upper arm. He still didn't move. It seemed an eternity until he finally laid his hand over hers. Slowly his emotions returned. She felt the tension in his grip. His eyes rested on the readpad. He has to get back on solid ground. "What are you searching for exactly?"
"What kind of gas it was. Where it was produced and where it's being kept now."
"That would give us a hint about what the enemy had to do to get it. That would reduce the target group," she thought aloud.
"More than that, if I'm right." He waited a moment until he continued. "If this stuff – as I assume – was developed specifically to be used against STs, only people in and around Wolf Den should know about it. And not many of them are still alive." He stiffled a coughing fit. "They should be few enough to check them out one by one."
"Is... is there anything I can help with?"
After a short hesistation he dug a note out from under his pillow. "Try to get the files in these groups."
She took the list from him and looked over the titles. "Do you understand this?"
"After all this reading, yes."
"I'll do the best I can. Maybe I'll ask Doc for help."
"There'll be an ID-number request for some of them. Use the one at the bottom."
"Is it yours?"
"No. Walsh's." She knew that devilish half-smile all too well. "As commander of Wolf Den."
"You couldn't remember it. That's impossible."
"We were trained to be perfect weapons, Niko. Information is good ammunition. I never understood why they thought we would only exercise at the training ground."
"He was a little bit careless sometimes." With a malicious smile: "Maybe he just underestimated me."
"Are you sure it's still valid?"
"It's already come in handy at times. And Niko – don't use your own terminal. Some of these files may be protected with tracers – that's why I can't get them from here." He patted the readpad in the fixture in front of him.
She laughed out loud. "The commander can't be aware what kind of demon he raised with this readpad."
"He'll recognize it soon enough."
She prepared to leave. "What am I going to break into, by the way?"
"Into something that doesn't exist – if I'm right." The coughing shook him. He laid back his head and pressed his palms against the temples. His voice grew slurred. "Make hard copies of the files. Electronic documents are too easily found." She looked at him, worried, but didn't try to touch him again. "And a whole pack of idiots will be on your heels if they catch you doing this. Please, be careful."
"Get some rest. You've been through a hard night." She forced a smile. "And I'm going to need someone to explain these files to me."
"Deal." He smiled bitterly. "I survive, and you get the data."
She didn't manage an answer.
2092-11-02 Local Time 1357
BetaMountain – MedoStat
"Shane. Whatever I was searching for for you must be hotter than Granna's suns." She pulled a chair closer to the bed to avoid speaking too loudly. "Doc said afterwards, one more security program and the console would have melted."
He coughed convulsively, reached for the mug of juice on the nightstand and gathered it up. His voice sounded horrible: harsh, scratchy, and difficult to understand. "Do you have printouts?"
"We had to get around the print block. But it went well." She snickered at the memory. "There should be some technicians down at maintenance now asking themselves why their mainframe considered 'access denied' to be the same as 'print.'" She sobered. "Doc said if you hadn't mentioned the tracers, they would have caught us. Whoever protected these files would have preferred to delete them."
"He didn't have... the option." Again he was interrupted by the dry coughing. "The hard copies..."
"It's strange, Goose. These files are underlaid with a kind of code that burned a tiny structure like a watermark into the transparencies during the printing. Doc hasn't seen anything like that before, nor I – but the pattern somehow reminded me of the bar codes that used to be used for registries."
He started, grabbed for her wrist. "Did you walk through a scanner with them? Think hard, it's important."
"No. I found it frightening somehow, so we returned through the maintenance tunnel and walked directly to my quarters."
"You mustn't allow the transparencies to be scanned."
"Don't worry. I folded them into a Xeryon artifact. Even QBall with his submolecular sensor couldn't scan it successfully." She noticed the relief in his face. "Do you know what it is?"
"I have a... suspicion." He took another sip of juice. "The clothing at... Wolf Den... was made out of a special polymer... – a kind of man-made fiber –" he coughed again and almost dropped the mug, "that set off the alarms when... it was scanned elec...tronically... It was a part of the sec...urity systems, but it was also used... at battle training... for steering the... automatic firing devices." The coughing increased. "These scanners... worked... with the... reflections,... some of the struc...ture reflects... strongly, the... other part almost... not at all. Theore...tically you can... input any kind... of code in...to them... This... imprint is most... likely an all...round... alarm trigger." Gooseman pressed his hands against his aching sides. "If you'd... simply... come... into a stray...scanner field... they'd... have caught... you and... melted... down the... key to... your... cells..."
"Shane. It's okay. Please..." She touched his cramped shoulders anxiously. "Nothing happened. Get rested first."
He looked coldly at her. "Somebody... must... be hi...ding... more... than I... thought... Too much... effort... Even... for Wolf Den..."
2092-12-02 Local Time 1748
BetaMountain – MedoStation
"Your counts have been remarkably stable for the last several days. I think we can risk it." Dr. Miyar laid his fingertips together and watched the patient in front of his desk.
"That means I can get out of this slammer after all?"
The physician smiled briefly. "Yes. I'm going to register you as an outpatient tomorrow morning. And to make it absolutely clear: I'll see you here every morning at 0830." He stressed the last sentence with a growling sound. "In case you should forget – I can growl better than you at the moment!"
"Do you have fangs to bite me, too?"
Miyar preferred to ignore the question. "Come, I'll give you your medications first and explain their use. You'll take them the first time this evening in the presence of a nurse."
"I don't need a nanny!"
"But we need confirmation that you know how to use the stuff before we can let you out of here! And then I'll set you up with a medolink to let us know where you are and what your bio counts are like."
"That's out of the question!"
"You want to get out of here, don't you?"
"I won't let a roach have its eyes fixed on my private life!"
"It's for you own safety."
"No! My life is mine!"
"You might not be able to reach a sender in an emergency."
"Then give me a release form."
"The risk is significantly higher without a permanent surveillance of your bio counts."
"It's that – or you'll have to put up with me for considerably longer here!" The growl in Goose's voice became more aggressive. "And I'm really starting to hate it here!"
"All right, then." Miyar made a short note. "We'll give you an emergency transponder. They're passive. But I want to have your signature on it that I informed you of the risks and you insisted on the passive version."
"I expect that my personnel will throw a joyful celebration when they're finally rid of you."
The wolfish grin deepened. "Tell them I'll be there, too."
"The injector contains the same bronchospasmolyticum we gave you here when you were having an attack. It's secured, which means it emits a max of three shots within 24 hours, no more. Simply lay the injection field on the skin and fire, ideally over one of the large muscles, as in your upper arm or thigh. If you can't reach a large muscle you can use any other bare skin in an emergency. A set of ten thousand microneedles is used in the injector, so you shouldn't feel anything except the temperature of the cooled medicine." Dr. Miyar gave Goose a flat pen. "Carry it with you at all times, but look after it with great care. For somebody with healthy lungs, the substance is life-threatening. Usually we don't release this stuff at all, but you don't respond to any other drug."
"Okay." Goose put the injector into his shirt pocket and buttoned it. "Go on." Miyar gave him a small transparent tube with white tablets inside, each of which had a diameter of about two centimeters. The ST looked at them, nauseated. "I don't have to swallow them, do I?"
The physician laughed out loud. "Of course you do, but not till they've dissolved. Like this they wouldn't make it even through your big mouth." He grew serious again. "It's a strong expectorant. You've begun to bring up the contaminants in your lungs. It's likely that from time to time mucus will get stuck in your throat or in the upper respiratory tract. These tablets are strong enough to correct that within two hours of taking them. Take them even if you aren't sure, always with a lot of liquid and never – never at all! – on an empty stomach. Otherwise they'll eat away your stomach lining, too."
"This is a circulatory preparation–"
"I wish you'd shut up about stabilizers!"
"I know you don't take these very well, and you should take them only as necessary when your blood pressure sags. You know for yourself what comes next."
"So it's better to puke than to suffocate."
"Correct. You've got a remarkable ability for self-observation, Gooseman. Usually you react faster than the medocomps sound the alarm. That's why I can already let you out of here."
"Before this started, my daily life contained some options for which that was indispensible." He made an unconscious gesture with his now unchangeable fingers.
"I know. And I guess I can count on you to take the stabilizer in an emergency."
"Fine, then we come to the transponder..."
2092-12-03 Local Time 1024
BetaMountain – MedoStation
"Out of here after all!" He stuffed his few things into the space sac she'd brought with her and put the readpad into its protective cover. "I hope I can keep it for a while longer. I haven't finished yet."
"Will you show me your results later?"
"Of course." He tried to suppress a coughing fit.
"Are you sure that you're allowed to leave?"
"Yes." He took several deep breaths and ignored the wheezing during the last third of the exhalation. "But it'll take quite a while to get to my place." He made a nauseated face. "Snail's pace."
"I'd prefer to have Zach and Doc here." She slung the space sac over her shoulder. "We'd be there in a few minutes if we used Zach's internal glider."
"Not necessarily. Do you remember – cramped, closed rooms?"
"Ouch. Sorry. But at least they could've carried the luggage."
"Give it to me."
"Do you want Miyar to pin me to the wall?" She laughed. "Nothing of the sort, Goose. You'll go home, well-behaved as a very good, obedient little patient."
He looked questioningly around. "You talking about me?"
2092-12-03 Local Time 1151
BetaMountain – MPQ 217
Gooseman stopped in the middle of the corridor and looked through the gallery's panoramic window. Niko turned round to look at him. "Are you all right?"
"There's snow out there."
"It's December. Weather control sometimes allows even Phoenix some flakes to do the kids a favor."
"The trees were green the last time I was here."
She blinked in surprise; he'd been ill for more than five months. Even the few times he'd been allowed to leave MedoStat, the less controlled outer areas of the base had been forbidden as too far away. The common room window looked out to the north. From there it was impossible to see the natural lakeshore and the garden. For the first time, he was getting an impression of the time he had lost...
"And what did you want in my quarters?" The question came immediately and was pretty wary. They reached his living unit and she put down the space sac.
"We wanted to clean it before you came home. What did you think, then? Nobody's been in there since the security staff left. But we couldn't open the door." She smiled at the memory. "Doc worked for more than four hours with all of his programs on your lock – without success. Boy, he was pissed, I can tell you!"
Goose grinned devilishly. "Music to my ears."
She laughed out loud. "I should warn you – when he gets back, he'll squeeze the keycode out of you."
"He can try!" Goose turned for the lock, released the keyboard with a palm print... and stopped, fingers trembling some centimeters above the controls.
"Shane, what's wrong?" She noticed, worried, that he supported himself on the wall. "Everything okay?"
He tried to control the shivering of his hands, reached again for the controls, and reeled back with a gasp to the opposite wall. "I can't..."
"Can't you remember the code?"
"Not that." He breathed in heavy, loud drags which he controlled almost violently. "I can't go in there." He turned his back towards the door, propped himself with cramped hands against the wall again, and hid his face between his upper arms. "It's impossible."
"Shane..." She sensed for him, felt the twisting tension of suppressed panic inside him and searched for the roots of it...
He whirled round toward her. The sound of his breathing got louder. He seemed almost pursued. "I don't understand it. I..."
"You nearly died in there," she reminded him cautiously. "Maybe–"
"I've nearly died in other places, too, Niko. And I had no problems visiting the places again."
"And you survived in those places because you're an ST, right?" Slowly she grasped what was wrong with him. "But here you nearly died – because of what you are, an ST." He simply stared at her, refused to follow her line of thought. She slung the space sac over her shoulder again. "Come on."
"I'm solving two problems at once." She smiled at him. "Mine and yours."
"Where're we going?"
"You're coming home with me. I've never liked the idea of leaving you alone right now anyway. They still haven't got the son of a bitch who did this to you, after all."
"We can't do this. You know the regulations." His mouth twitched. "And the special feature in my papers."
"I don't give a damn about it. You're still off duty, and likely will be for quite some time to come."
"That won't simplify the disciplinary proceedings. At the least, when I change my address, all hell will break loose."
"If that's all..." Niko rummaged in her jacket pocket for a piece of note transparency and a pen and handed them to him. "Go on, write down... – Good, that should be enough." She wedged the notice behind the glass nameplate in the middle of the door where it could be easily read and shut the keyboard firmly. "Let's go."
Until further notice,
please deliver my mail to Ranger Niko in apartment 219. Thank you.
"Well, don't make such a face. We'll come to an arrangement, you'll see." Niko dropped the space sac with his things onto the bed and looked in amusement at Possessor in Goose's arms. The cat had driven its claws into shirt and trousers and squeezed its head between the two lower buttons of Shane's shirt. There was no way he'd let his feeder escape for another five months. "17798 was definitely less comfortable."
"It won't work this way." He looked uneasily at her, trying to remove the cat from his trousers at least. "I have to sleep nearly sitting."
"Oh." She looked around. "The bed is divisible. We can push your half into the corner over there; then you'll have support on two sides."
"If you're getting to your coughing at night and that you might keep me awake – forget it! I'll sleep much better when I know you're here than I would if I were brooding about you possibly dying a wretched death at that very moment!" She looked at him with flashing eyes. "Give it up! You won't get rid of me!" She prodded him in the chest with her index finger, with the result that Poss finally let Goose go and rubbed, purring, around their legs. "And you won't slip away from me, either!!"
He raised his hands disarmingly. "Who am I to run from a beautiful woman who wants to have me in her bedroom?"
"What's the ventilation look like?" He searched for the access tubes in the ceiling.
"My windows open, Shane. This apartment lies next to the outer walls. The humming of the ventilation system got on my nerves."
"These quarters are independent from the base system?"
"I can switch it on, if necessary."
"No." He looked, fascinated, at the broad window line. "It's very comforting."
She thought of the gas grenade's hiss just before... "I think so, too." She rummaged around in her bag. "From the next room you can go outside. They cut a kind of balcony into one of the ledges." When she turned to look for him, she found that he had already disappeared. She followed him, discovered him outside, clothed as he was – in the thin shirt that was far too large after his long illness and opened down to the middle of his chest because he couldn't bear the feeling of anything touching his throat. It was gathered with a broad elastic belt at his trousers – which were too large now, too – because the belt eased the pain in his sides during the coughing. He dug his hand into the snow on the balustrade. "Shane! You'll catch your death of cold. Put something on first."
"The cold's just what I need."
Your doctor says something different!"
"He doesn't know anything about it."
"Come in. Please..."
He obeyed because of her imploring voice. His hand was still wet with snow. He licked the melting water from his fingers. "Wonderful."
She slammed the door behind him. "Don't ever do that again." He didn't answer...
2092-12-07 Local Time 1038
BetaMountain – MPQ 219
"Gooseman, my Goose man. I'd just like to know how you do it." Hartford, rewiring the cables in Niko's console, shook his head theatrically. "I'm away for just five days and just like that you move in with the hottest girl at BETA." Doc grinned at Goose over his shoulder and started to hammer on the keyboard. "And not only that. No! The lady literally talked you into doing it. Lord, I'd give anything to have that much of an impact on women."
"It's simple, Doc." He was interrupted by dry coughing. "Nearly snuff it and risk suffocating every night."
"And now we're manipulating the computer system so no one will notice that you aren't where you are..." Doc grinned and pulled a wry face. "If she'd only make such an effort for me, even once."
"Then you'd have a real problem." The growl in Goose's voice was clearly audible in spite of the faint wheezing in his breath.
"Except the commander, what's this effort for, anyway? As far as I know, they gave you an emergency transponder, after all." Doc pointed at the dark grey metal band around Goose's left wrist.
"The culprit is still at large."
"And you're frightened to sleep alone where he can get you?" Doc laughed.
"She's frightened of me sleeping alone where he can get me." Doc just rolled his eyes. "And that I'm maybe not fast enough to trigger the alarm when I have an acute attack and the medicine doesn't take effect."
"You mean you could still...?"
The hacker shuddered, turned again to the computer. "Okay... Well, if you enter your ID, the system will automatically create a virtual interlink to your terminal. I didn't lay a physical circuit because any idiot of a technician can find that. For this..." with his chest puffed out, he patted the reinstalled cover, "you'd need a genius." He folded his CDU and pushed it back into his belt. "While I'm thinking of it... Zach is coming this afternoon. Get ready for a heavy bollocking; he said something about morals. And Gooseman..."
"If somebody should stumble across this here anyway – I was never here. Okay?"
"I'll pass it on."
Doc put his hand to his forehead and groaned. "I was afraid of that."
2092-12-07 Local Time 1406
BetaMountain – MPQ 219
"Are you two–" Zachary interrupted himself in the middle of his sentence when Gooseman fully opened the door, stepped back to let him in, and moved into daylight. Damn! I have to apologize to Niko. I wouldn't let him live alone the way he looks, either. Now that he's wearing his own clothing again, it's strikingly apparent how ill he really was. He must have lost at least fifteen kilograms. In those grey-white things at MedoStat everybody looks like a corpse, but...
"Forget it." Zach made a dismissive gesture and walked down the stairs to the main room. "How're you doing?"
"Not too badly." Goose choked with coughing. Zach noticed that he'd made it only halfway down the stairs so far. Gooseman actually had his hand on the railing. Fox had to squash the impulse to help him. He'd tear me to pieces in midair if I tried it.
"Eliza asked me to extend an offer to eat with us," he said finally after Goose had reached him and taken a seat in one of the chairs around the table.
"Sounds good, but I don't think it would work."
"We only live three side corridors away. If nothing else, she'll send little Zach over to you with a pot."
That's not the point. A lot of food doesn't agree with me. Could kill me."
"Because of the medicines?"
"But how? You always had an iron stomach. When I think of what you used to eat..." Zach shook his head, a bit nauseated at the memory.
"No idea. They found out when the first solid meal I got nearly killed me."
Fox swore faintly. "You didn't let any possible side effect be, did you? Do you have a list of the stuff you're allergic to?"
"I'll get it. But it's quite long."
"I doubt that Eliza will be put off by it. I've got the impression she's decided to mother you, Goose." Zachary watched the ST, who pushed himself up and walked slowly with very controlled steps to a tiny board by the wall next to the bed. "There's no holding her back then."
"I can't stand it – another one. First I don't have parents at all and now my near demise leaves me with two mothers." Goose grinned, coughing, at the stupid expression on Fox's face as he returned slowly with a compact printed transparency. "What were you thinking Niko was doing, eh?" He pushed the transparency towards Zach.
Fox skimmed through it. "Milk sugar? You're allergic to lactose? My god, and this happens to the one who ate two cream cakes with marzipan off the buffet at Eliza's rebirthing party and complained afterwards about too few servings."
"Tell her her cakes are safe for the moment."
"I do. But lactose – I don't get it. The allergy is hereditary. You can't develop it just like that."
"What do you mean?"
"My mother was allergic to lactose, Goose. My brother and I had a gentech treatment in vivo to prevent us from having it, too."
"You were genetically changed, Zach?"
"No. Only the defective gene in the DNA strand was corrected. That's why my children and I are healthy."
"That doesn't make any sense. Why should anybody build a genetic defect into the STJ? And why didn't I react to milk earlier?"
"Good questions, Goose. But–" Fox was interrupted by heavy coughing from Goose. The ST staggered to his feet and stumbled for the bathroom. Zach followed him, worried. Gooseman hung over the washbasin. The coughing seemed nearly to tear up the meager body... Finally a tiny, yellow-green drop of mucus splashed into the porcelain basin. With heavy breaths Goose straightened up, propped himself on the basin, and flushed it with lots of water. Then he felt for a bottle of disinfectant spray on top of the mirror closet above the basin. Fox fetched it down when the ST nearly collapsed again because his arms gave out, disinfected the basin, and ran water after it again while Goose sat wheezing on the edge of the bathtub. "Are you okay?"
Zachary had to tear himself away from the ST's face, covered as it was with cold sweat, and so he looked around the bathroom. It was obvious why the phials and small bottles no longer stood on the washbasin. Two cardboard boxes next to the washer were the most conspicuous change: one of them held blue-and-white clothing, the other black. A grey, shaded sock lay in front of them. Looks like Goose's housekeeping. The sock must have been in the wrong box... – That, and a big, hand-drawn sign above the toilet – definitely Niko's handwriting: SIT DOWN, OR ELSE...! The exclamation mark greatly resembled a guillotine. Involuntarily grinning, Zach asked, "Do you go along with it?"
"I think it wouldn't be my head she'd have in it if I didn't." Goose got some of his breath back; still trembling a bit, he grinned up at Zach and asked with raised brows, "Would you risk it?" He got up. "Come to the kitchen? I need to get something to drink."
Gooseman pulled a big mug out of the kitchen cupboard, filled it halfway with orange juice, and drank slowly with three fingers put through the handle. Then he took a seat opposite Zachary at the kitchen table and pushed the mug away from him with an unsteady finger. Of course, the things are less fragile than glasses.
"My goodness, Goose. Who in all the worlds gave that mug to you?" Zachary pulled the green mug with the multicolored design closer to himself and read the writing: WARNING – THE OWNER OF THIS MUG IS LESS INTELLIGENT THAN A BAARVOOLIAN SPONGEFISH UNTIL HE HAS AT LEAST TWO BUCKETS OF COFFEE...
"Niko. Yesterday, after she realized once and for all that it's easier to give up her moral principles than to get me awake enough in the morning that I'm able to keep to her bathroom schedule."
"Bathroom schedule?" Zach handed the mug back to him.
Gooseman grinned. "I have to turn up at MedoStat every morning at 0830 or Miyar triggers the general alarm, and she has to go to work at the same time."
"That's good. I still remember what happened when Eliza and I had different shifts at the beginning. We always wakened each other until we could finally start working at the same time."
"But that's the problem, Zach." Gooseman turned the mug in front of him on the table, looked at the fish slamming against the glass. "She's got a minutely detailed morning rhythm. And her schedule was like that, too." Gooseman grinned again. "I can't remember it in detail – but I know that at 0638 I had eleven and a half minutes to take a shower." The green eyes sparkled. "Unfortunately, I need an average of eight minutes to figure out what I'm supposed to do next. And three and a half minutes is just too short a time to take a shower."
Fox laughed at the top of his lungs. "Did she really count in half minutes?"
"No idea how anybody can be that awake at that time."
"And what do you two do now?" Zachary asked, still snickering.
"We use it together and ignore each other." At Fox's doubtfully raised brows: "Officially."
2092-12-14 Local Time 0442
BetaMountain – MPQ 219
The smell of coffee tickled her nose, wakened her. Strong coffee. Real coffee. Still half asleep, she raised her head and looked at the alarm clock next to her bed: 0445. What's... Shane. His bed was empty. She got up, slung the dressing gown around herself, and walked into the kitchen. He sat at the table with his back towards her. Poss lay curled up next to his elbow. She was still amazed at how quickly the cat had learned that Shane needed some distance to enjoy company now. The coffee in the glass pot was deep black. Writing transparencies and datapads were piled up around it. "What happened? Are you okay?"
He looked back at her. "My blood pressure has become irregular. It's better if I stay awake. I didn't want to wake you." He pointed at the coffee pot. "Coffee? But it's strong."
She made a face. "I already know your coffee. Is the mug still alive?"
"Then hand it over." She took a cautious sip and began to shovel sugar into the slop. "Do you think it's going to be serious?"
He felt inside himself for a moment and shook his head. "No, I reacted quickly enough. But it'll take a few hours. Looks like I'm going to sleep again after I visit Miyar." He shrugged and looked at his notes.
"Are the files Doc and I organized helpful in any way?"
"Yes. Have a look..."
She started to read, stopped short, began to read again...
...and lowered the sheet, horrified. "Shane, do you realize what this means?"
"Yeah. So now we ask, not: 'How did I nearly get killed by this stuff that didn't have any effect on you?', but: 'Why didn't it kill me?'"
"That isn't all." She looked at him, her face deathly pale. "Think of the date. Shane, this file is from December 29, 2086."
"Earth entered the League in May. The experiments for this infernal stuff must have taken place during the negotiations."
"And the BWL passed laws against genetic warfare just at the beginning of the talks – as a sign of goodwill."
"You don't see far enough," he said flatly."'...6 sec to immobilization, 28 sec to exitus of participants due to cell dissolution.' You don't describe mice as 'participants,' Niko."
"You don't mean... Shane, apart from the escapees the whereabouts of the other STs are still known. The cryocrypt is checked regularly. They couldn't have any human test subjects available."
"Yes! They had test subjects available, people nobody would ever ask about." He clamped his hands together, propped himself with his fists on the table, tipped his head back with a jerk to stare at the ceiling, and began to speak in a cynical voice without looking at her. "At the beginning it was a band of plastic tight around your wrist with a number on it. Mine was 1643453. You couldn't take it off. You had two years to prove yourself. After that a letter was added to the number – an A or a V. I got a V."
He briefly searched her eyes, then looked away again. "I left the base for the first time when they put us into an aircraft to see if we could survive the crash. It was an island with a single airfield and a landing stage. There were no other links to the outside world. During that month only three contacts occurred and none of us left the island, but I never saw those with an A again."
He looked into her ghost-white face and added faintly: "Some of us thought the V stood for victorious, but it meant viable. At Wolf Den an A meant abandon."
"But experiments on human beings?" Her voice trembled. "That close to the final entry? Shane... that's impossible."
He looked bitterly at her with a face that seemed carved of ice. "A lot of people would tell you that they weren't humans. They feared the V's, but nobody ever asked about the A's." After a moment he continued in a faltering voice. "And not before the entry. That was in May, Niko. I know Negata's working style better than I like. If these tests had occured before May, the file would also be dated before May. And on top of that, the breakout was in July 2084. It took almost 18 months to turn Negata into the brain unit. He couldn't have finished the tests before the signing of the entry agreement. And Niko..." He held her eyes fixedly. "The STP was closed at the end of July 2084."
"Negata's signature. Either the STP must have been reopened to develop chemical weapons against STs or the GTP was never closed."
"Walsh and Negata?"
"I don't think so..." He shook his head. "What happened at Wolf Den at that time... wasn't their fault. But I've got a pretty clear idea of who'd have an interest in and be in the position to carry something like that through to the end. And I'd put a year's pay on it that he's also the wirepuller behind this assassination attempt on me."
She slung her arms around herself and simply looked at him, noticed the trembling of his cramped hands on the table, his convulsively controlled breathing. She stretched her hand towards him, pushed her fingers under his. "I'm afraid, Shane," she whispered.
He didn't answer, only clenched his fist painfully around her hand. When she twitched he let her go and got up with unsteady knees. "I'll secure the transparencies in a better way. If somebody should find them here..." He left the sentence unfinished.
"What are you going to do?"
"I'll build a little 'reading block' into your artifact. If anyone opens the thing without quoting the code unsolicited within 30 seconds, the statue will blow up."
"It's irreplacable, Shane."
"So are our asses!"
2092-12-14 Local Time 0838
BetaMountain – MedoStation
"You're running late today, Gooseman." Dr. Miyar walked towards him. "I should give you a good hiding."
"My reaction would hardly do you any good."
"I think so, too. – And at risk of your growl: How are you today?"
"Liar. Your counts are an entire 5 percent worse than yesterday. Have you slept enough?" Miyar tipped off the daily checklist scrupulously.
"Why don't you make blanks to mark with crosses, Doctor?" The patient was already somewhere else with his thoughts. "Would shorten the whole thing. I'll fill in the answers during the test and then I can leave."
The physician laughed out loud. "With your love of truth regarding your personal condition? Never in life, Gooseman."
"Do you want it in death, then?" The half-smile was somehow wolfish. "I can arrange that."
"No thanks. – And I'll prescribe an enema for you if you say 'pity' now."
"You don't allow me even the simplest pleasures."
"That's my job. – Your lung counts have risen further. Your breathing volume is at 76 percent. You definitely exceed the prognosis at this point. Fine. – How are the allergies?"
"Since I've got the list I can cope with them." He hesitated and suddenly looked attentively at the physician. "Say, is it correct that lactose allergy is hereditary?"
Strictly speaking it isn't an allergy, Gooseman." The physician put the check mark behind the last item on his list. "Actually we talk about lactose intolerance. Because of a defective gene within their genetic makeup, those affected can't produce lactase, the enzyme that breaks down milk sugar – lactose – during the digestive process. Therefore milk sugar is an unusable substance for them."
"Then they are allergic to it?"
"Only with extremely high quantities or when their body system is severely destabilized like yours. Usually an adult doesn't notice the defect at all. It's only important for infants who can't drink their mother's milk and therefore are prone during their first years. That's why the defect has been corrected in vivo for the past 45 years."
"That means an adult who has it has a totally normal life?"
"Certainly. In every meal there are substances your body can't use and that just run through us. For someone with lactose intolerance it's just one more."
"So it's undetectable in an adult except with a genetic test?"
"Exactly. Though most of them have pills somewhere in case they accidentally exceed their MMM."
"'Maximum-milk-mass.'" Miyar snickered. "Sorry, that's shorthand from my student years. But, say, since when are you interested in this? It's quite unusual for a space jockey like you."
"I hate boredom! And this affair," growling, he snapped his currently non-adaptable fingers, "is absolutely, sickeningly boring. Can you show me the abnormality?"
"Sure. No problem with a gene scan." The physician smiled. "Come on, if you don't mind, we'll take yours. It's rare that a patient is interested in the background of his problems. You're quite unusual, Gooseman. Most just want me to help them. The how doesn't matter to them."
"That takes more trust than I've got."
"I believe it."
"Can I get a copy of it? As a souvenir?"
"Pretty bizarre. But why not? I've seen patients who wanted their appendix in alcohol." Miyar shrugged his shoulders. "A memory chip is surely a more pleasant reminder."
"My decoration is complete. If I need dead flesh for decoration, I'll take it from my enemies."
Miyar shuddered in horror. If only I could be sure what's his brand of humor and what's serious. He watched Gooseman putting the chip into his pocket and noticed the shifty glow in his eyes. The man is physically only a shadow of himself, but the predator within him is wide awake!
2092-12-14 Local Time 1016
BetaMountain – Outer Way
The feeling came suddenly, unexpectedly, like an old friend – antagonists. His senses leaped ahead and backwards – behind him, pursuers, three, humanoid, likely humans. The intellect grasped the surroundings, drew a raster map in his consciousness, marked every barrier, every cover – too few, escape routes too long, no options. The inner senses checked his condition: the weakened muscles, the unsteady hands, the slight burning in the lungs that showed up in the wheezing breath, and gave alarm – insufficient stamina, fit for action for about two minutes, not armed, inferior position. The training took control, searched for the best solution – supply line 38 surveillance camera twenty meters ahead, the emergency transponder at his wrist, the injector with his bronchospasmolyticum. He didn't speed up, walked consistently on – strength is too valuable. The senses vibrated, fixed on the antagonists. He was within the camera's detection area, slowed, didn't turn...
Trembling fingers pressed the transponder's double contact. Deep inside the base at MedoStat 1 the medo comps activated the alarm, located the sender, and switched the next sensors to the monitors. The picture was transmitted to the medics' room, together with the coordinates...
"We'll have an easy job of it. Whatever you heard about this guy, he's already half dead... We're just finishing it." The characteristic humming of a vibration knife mixed into the voice. Target-2, armed.
His ears were fixated on the antagonists, placed them as targets on the raster map – still too far, wait.
"Quiet now. He's around the next corner." Target-1.
"Read the scanner yourself, idiot." Target-1.
His right hand closed around the injector, slipped off the protective cap, adjusted it at acute attack – maximum dose. Wait.
He spun around, slammed his fingers through eyes and eye sockets into the brain. Target-1 eliminated. He turned 30 degrees right, pulled target-1 along by the face to bind the vibro blade; reaching along the arm fixed by the caught knife, he pressed the injector against the lower throat. The breath leaked from the healthy respiratory ways, widened by the bronchospasmolyticum so that the bronchial flags could no longer close them. He tore his hand off target-1, slammed the long bones of his lower arm as a stab blow with his palm against target-2. Target-2 on the ground, out of action. Target-3 behind, left. He dodged forward, got his foot behind target-1 and turned the corpse during his rotation. His right hand grabbed the knife in the shredded back, deactivated it, got it to waist height while he completed his rotation, thrust... kidney cut, turned the blade in the wound, pulled it out. Target-3 eliminated.
He gave way, leaned his back against the wall within the camera's focus, put down the knife, clearly visible, and pushed it away with his foot. Wait...
The first thing Miyar saw when he arrived at the location of the emergency was a medic who was vomiting by a wall. Then he got an overview. His patient stood upright, breathed regularly, though rattling. That couldn't be said of the men on the ground in front of him.
The one at the front lay on his back. The pool beside and below him was likely three-quarters of his blood volume. The stab wound lay anatomically precisely in the left kidney. Miyar's eyes jumped to the blood-covered knife that lay about two meters away from his patient.
The second body, the one it seemed that the medic he'd first seen had wanted to turn, had a cut in his back. The scanner showed no life functions. A second medic turned the corpse with a jerk and pressed his hand to his mouth. Miyar turned pale. The man no longer had a face; grey pink brain matter leaked from the eye sockets. The physician stared at his patient, who still didn't stir at all. He does well not to move, considering the security personnel around.
The third victim had already been carried away. The man had gone for eight minutes without breathing. His chances of recovering with his brain intact were one in a billion.
Miyar had to force himself to go to his patient.
"Come with me. We have to take care of you."
"SecStaff will find you at MedoStat, Gooseman."
"...won't... go... with...out... mem...ory... disk..." Shane pointed with a strongly trembling hand at the surveillance camera. "Need... wit...nes...ses... In...form... the... com...man...der..." His breathing rhythm grew rapidly worse.
"We have to treat you immediately, Gooseman. – Medic!"
No one dared to come closer. "...Disk... must...n't... be... un...guar...ded..." He bent over, coughed heavily and tasted blood. Damn hell!! Not now!!! "Walsh..." Green-black spots darkened his viewing field, squashed his lungs... The physician in front of him turned in slow motion, shouted something over his shoulder, pointed at the camera.
2092-12-14 Local Time 1213
BetaMountain – MedoStation
"Let pass me! Right now!!" The telepath shouted, irritated at the guardian with the heavy LR in front of the door. "Do you get me–"
"It's impossible for me to let you in there, Miss." The space marine wasn't at all impressed by her scene. "Ord–"
"It's my order, Ranger Niko." Walsh came towards her from the physician's office. "I also placed the order to inform you about what had happened. And if you start to behave like a civilized person, maybe I can tell you the rest of it."
He passed the guard, opened the door, and granted her a short look inside. "He's stable, but he's going to be unconscious for quite a while. And while he is, we have time to find the answers I'm going to need." He let the door slide shut again. "Soldier. Your orders are unchanged."
Walsh made a sign at Niko to come with him and walked into Miyar's office. "Sit down. We've got quite a list of things to clear up." He himself took a seat behind Miyar's desk and thoughtfully studied the young woman in front of him. "First of all – Gooseman was attacked. That's proved without a doubt. Therefore the jurisdiction is clearly self-defense. But there's still the question of appropriate force. And there lies the problem." He switched on a monitor. "See for yourself." The surveillance disk played. A time index appeared at one corner of the picture. "This defense is inappropriately violent after the standards of jurisdiction. The investigating officers are also of the opinion that the dead men also committed the first attack on him and that he took bloody revenge for it when he got the chance. That's why Gooseman is being kept under guard. Formally, he's under arrest for the time being on charges of murder, and that will be the end of it if I can't present a very convincing explanation for the deaths to the BWL. You know him best, as I see it, and his physician shares this opinion. Can you explain it?"
"Yes, sir." She swallowed dryly and concentrated on the memories of contacts with Goose. "I've been through a lot of jobs with Gooseman, and he was never unnecessarily cruel." If those men did that to him he was still far too nice to them, but those maggots could never get access to Genomtoxin. That's impossible! Even BETA isn't that sloppy! "Tough, yes, but not cruel."
"That's not enough."
"Sir, how long after the fight did he collapse?"
"According to the time index, six minutes later. He'd have had enough time for considered actions."
"That's not correct." She reset the disk index to the moment when he dropped the knife and pushed it away; then she slowly played it forward. "His hands were trembling strongly already. And pay attention to his chest movements as he breathes. I've witnessed some of those attacks, sir. In this condition he's usually so fixated on the breathing process that he doesn't notice his surroundings any longer." She stopped the disk. "It's nearly suicide that he didn't do it here. There must have been something very important to make him stay responsive for so long."
"He insisted on the memory disk being taken under guard from the camera, until the last moment, as Dr. Miyar confirmed to me. The doctor could treat him only after Miyar agreed to fetch the disk and not to let it out of his sight. It was nearly too late." Walsh looked attentively at Niko. She lowered her eyes.
"Sir, at this moment he was..." She reset the index to the moment when Goose put down the knife and pointed at the displayed time, "barely capable of acting. He had to win within two minutes, once and for all. Or he'd have lost. You know yourself what that means."
Walsh nodded. "He's an ST. Losing isn't an option. I'm not sure if that's enough for the BWL."
She jumped up. "Then tell them: Any other man in this situation would be dead! Dead! Since when is survival punished?!"
"I'll try everything I can, Ranger." Walsh got also up and continued speaking as she stretched her hand for the door opener. "There's something else, Niko. He lives with you, doesn't he?"
She spun around. "Where did you get that idea?"
"We made a routine checkup of all the people at the scene of the crime after the attack on him. Nobody's been in Ranger Gooseman's quarters for at least fourteen days. And than there's that note on the door..."
She only noticed the commander's questioningly raised brows and blushed. "We–"
"Don't say anything." His quick hand movement clearly cut her off. "I don't have to consider anything I don't know about. And disciplinary action within the Series-5 team is the last thing I need at the moment."
"You mean you won't–"
"Don't get caught, Niko."
2092-12-15 Local Time 0211
BetaMountain – MedoStation
"According to the indicators he's awake now, Commander."
"Gooseman. Do you hear me?" Walsh. A moment of silence followed... "Gooseman. Don't you dare keep me waiting any longer!"
The air was short. Every breath was a supreme effort. His worn-out muscles expanded the prison of his ribs only slowly.
"At last. You've gotten yourself into quite a bit of trouble, Gooseman."
"Don't talk such nonsense! The BWL inten–" Walsh cut himself off when he noticed the syllables hat were nearly drowned out by the wheezing breaths.
"...must... be... a...live... for... it..."
The commander had to suppress a smile of relief. "Damn, yes, you're alive. Your antagonists aren't and that's why the BWL is giving me hell." The ST's eyes fell shut. "Do you hear me?"
"The BWL is considering charges against you for excessive force and murder."
"I know. But we've got three dead men."
"...no... sec...ond... at...tem...pt..."
"You know nonlethal strategies for self-defense, Gooseman."
"...need... too... stea...dy... mo...ve...ments..." A convulsive coughing shook the recumbent figure, made the pain indicator jump into the orange. The intermittent breathing became irregular.
Walsh straightened up, nodded. "That's enough. His statement agrees with our analysis." He turned for the door. "Guard! Let Ranger Niko pass before she starts firing at the door."
"Shane." She ignored the others, gripped the waxen hand on the quilt.
"Only a short visit, Miss," warned the physician. "Sleep is nearly his only ally now."
She had a short look at Miyar. A sidelong look rushed over the commander. "I know," she snapped, still concentrating on Goose. "Shane..." The palm below her fingers twitched briefly. A thought touched her.
...in my shirt's pocket... must hide...
She suggested her understanding, felt his relief through the quakes of coughing...
"He's fainted again, Commander." Miyar checked the displays and looked up. "Some seconds longer or a little bit more physical strain – and you'd have four dead men, Commander."
"I know that, Doctor. Was long enough in the field myself. But whether I can explain that to politicians?" Walsh shrugged his shoulders. "He likely won't be able to appear in front of them for the next several days."
"You're damn right," snapped Miyar. "Actually I shouldn't have let you wake him right now. The longer he's unconscious the more the worn-out breathing muscles regenerate."
"What do you mean?"
"Imagine a sore muscle of the worst kind – usually that immobilizes you for at least a week, right?" Walsh only nodded. "So – but the chest and side muscles that perform the breathing can't be rested even for a minute."
"Ranger?" A hand was laid on her shoulder – Walsh. The touch stopped her contact with the unconscious mind. "Are you all right?"
Niko got up, pulled her perceptions back into the outside world. "Yes, I am, sir." She looked over at Goose. "You feel so useless at times like this. I wish I could help him somehow." Walsh didn't answer. "Can I get his clothes? Maybe I can wash out the blood. Or does the forensic squad need them?"
Her senses were strained to the breaking point when she took up the clothing, totally soaked as it was with dried blood. Must be hard for her. Better she's got something to do. Even if it's only laundry... – Walsh. Ha! The laundry is the last thing I'm going to do now! " Please inform me if anything changes." She sniffed faintly.
"Of course." That was Miyar.
"Would you like an escort, Niko?"
"No, sir. I feel better being on my own." I don't need a baby-sitter right now... SIR! She let the door slide shut behind her.
2092-12-15 Local Time 0537
BetaMountain – Outer Way
Niko looked around. It was quiet here at this time of day. Supply line 38 was rarely used and the nonspacefaring personnel mainly worked during the day, so it was too early for them. The place where the attack had occurred was no longer cordoned off. They had inserted a new memory disk into the camera – the light-green LED proved it – and, after all was documented, cleaned the place of all hints of what had happened. At least of all visible hints.
She took another look around – nobody was visible. Good. What she planned to do was difficult enough without disturbing presences. She closed her eyes, concentrated on the first image of the video Walsh had shown her yesterday, and touched her badge...
...the emanations of the last 19 hours rushed past her in reverse order. There it is. She faded out pain and death, the known structures of Goose's presence, wandered back into the time just before the attack. Now... she forced herself to leave the level of normal senses in the past, felt for the mental images of the attackers and searched the psionic layer every living creature left behind...
...shivering from exhaustion, she let the psionic field collapse and returned into normality. Her badge vibrated. She had almost used up the charge. But she'd gotten what she had come here for. With a furious glow in her eyes she sent the rest of the energy as a flash through the camera's memory disk. I'm sorry – but this affair isn't suitable for the security staff. With steps that started out unsteady, she was on her way.
2092-12-15 Local Time 0618
BetaMountain – MPQ 251
The three-dimensional, multicolored representation rotated slowly on the monitor. Doc, with his hair tousled from his pillow and wearing his dressing gown, looked drowsily from his terminal up to her. "There it is. BetaMountain from the inside. Just like you wanted." After a long yawn: "What are you looking for exactly, then?"
"Connections and access tunnels to the ventilation system. Can you highlight them?"
"Sure." A mass of pale, green-blue lines glowed more strongly.
"I need only those that are connected to Goose's quarters."
"Okay. That means – restrict to accesses through the ventilation system to MPQ 217."
"Can you enlarge, add the names, and make a hardcopy of it for me?"
He gave a loud, theatrical groan. "Anything else? It isn't even half past six."
"Please, Doc. It's important." She smiled sweetly at him. "I'll make coffee for you."
"Oh, in that case..." The printer in the terminal rattled on and spat out a transparency. "There you have it."
"Thanks!" She nearly tore the transparency out of his hand and almost flew out the door.
"Hey! What about my coffee!!?"
2092-12-15 Local Time 1032
BetaMountain – Maintenance Shaft 623-V
She was lucky that QBall hadn't been in his laboratory the first two times. Otherwise he would at least have started asking questions when she did the third recharge. Only one access left. The charge will just have to be enough. In the shine of her flashlight, Niko looked again at the map that Doc had printed for her. The next one...
"Ouch! Damn." She slid some meters down an uneven slope and landed, not softly, on her backside. Obviously some natural cracks within the rock had been used when the ventilation system was built. There was no other explanation for the unpredictable flow of the tubes – unless the work crew had been 99 percent composed of sloshed plagos. There it is ahead. Grille 623-V-998456.
She activated her implant, concentrated on the psionic imprints in the cover material of the tunnel, and searched for the saved psionic layers. Nothing. Then I was right: none of the attackers from yesterday was involved in the gas attack. Looks like we'll have to dig out the maggot who did this to Shane. Those idiots at SecStaff can't even find the culprit who locks himself in the safe during his robbery and wears a sign around his neck that reads 'Hi, I did it!'.
2092-12-15 Local Time 1058
BetaMountain – GRS5 Office
"You're more than two hours la–" Fox broke off ad stared, flabbergasted, at Niko when she entered the room. "For heaven's sake, what have you done?" She was covered all over with dust, partly smeared with grey oil, and her hair was a single nest of spiderwebs, dust flakes, and something that looked like graphite powder.
Niko looked down at her clothes. "I was checking up on something."
"Where? In the waste deposit?"
"Not quite. In the ventilation system. Zachary..." She looked very earnestly at the older officer. "You know that they want to charge Goose with murder, don't you?"
"Yes. Total nonsense."
She nodded only. "Walsh wanted my analysis of his behavior. During the conversation, he said something that got me thinking." She exhaled deeply. "SecStaff has closed the investigation of the gas attack. They're of the opinion that it was done by the three rats Goose defeated."
"On what did they base their decision?"
"On the memory disk, just at the beginning, there's a half-sentence from one of the attackers: '...just finishing it!' SecStaff must take that for the whole gas affair."
"And you don't believe it?"
"Believe? – I know it." She looked with burning eyes at him. "None of the thugs was ever at any of the accesses to the ventilation of Goose's quarters."
"We'll tell SecStaff about it."
She snorted disdainfully through her nose. "Wonderful! Do you remember what they said the last time?"
Zach groaned. "'This psionic mumbo-jumbo has no conclusiveness.' Hell!"
"You express yourself very nicely, Zach. But whoever it was, Goose isn't safe from him at all. And we still have no hint who our enemy is." At least none we can confess, especially not with this enemy... She shivered involuntarily. "But he's going to try again. And then he won't send the second raters."
"Who – except Doc and me and my family – knows that he lives with you?"
"Walsh." Zach produced a short hiss through his teeth. "But he says he doesn't want to know about it. Nobody else."
Zach smiled dryly. "Seems the commander has gotten very used to not seeing special things where Goose is concerned. I think we can delete him as a possible threat. Then Shane should be safe in your apartment, and we watch over him when he's elsewhere. When does he come back?"
She lowered her head, pressed her hands together as she remembered the physician's remarks. "He has to start almost all over again, Zach. – Dr. Miyar guessed at least four months, more likely five, even if he considers Goose's arrogance." She took a seat in one of the armchairs, smeared dark grey patches on the cover. "I'm afraid for him, Zach. He's so weak, has no reserves like before..."
He couldn't answer that, just put his hand consolingly on her shoulder. "Go home, Niko, and change clothes, before we have to redecorate the whole room. I'll do the cadet training for you."
"Thanks." She got up and left a dark grey impression of her silhouette on the armchair cover. "I'll come for the second round."
"Okay. And Niko – remember, they said the will to live is the most important thing in this fight. And he has it."
Chapter 4: Midnight Thunder
2093-04-28 Local Time 1753
BetaMountain – MedoStation
"The BWL dropped the charge of inappropriate violence against you, Gooseman." Walsh was accustomed by now to seeing the emaciated figure in the bed.
"But?" The wheezing in Goose's breath was clearly audible.
"During the proceedings, the question of your civilian status arose." Walsh pressed his lips together for a moment. "You know it was connected with your being on active duty."
"And that's... impossible for the time being."
"Yes. It certainly looks like it's going to be renegotiated. You're to be put under arrest until the BWL has make a decision about your status when you're able to leave MedoStation."
Gooseman's breath became fierce, the rattling within it increased. The green eyes, almost harassed, fixed on Walsh. He spoke in a choked voice. "You know how STs are arrested."
Damn, stress is one of his main triggers. Walsh continued hastily. "Calm down, Gooseman. Nobody is going to freeze you. But you aren't allowed to leave the base."
"I got it, sir."
With knotted brows Dr. Miyar watched the patient in front of him. "You surely feel it yourself, Gooseman. The attack threw you pretty far back. Your breathing capacity lies at 59 percent – under optimal conditions, and they're rare. To discharge you as an inpatient under these circumstances is totally irresponsible. And in addition, while the lawsuit at the BWL is still going, the Office of Internal Security has forbidden me to give you an injector with bronchospasmolyticum again because it's a deadly weapon in your hands." Miyar shook his head.
"Dammit! I'm an ST – the injector can't make me any more dangerous than I am already." The patient sat very upright to relieve his back and breathing muscles as far as possible. His eyes glowed coldly despite his furious words. "Doctor, I want to get out of here. I'm going mad in here!"
"Even if your breathing capacity weren't so far reduced..." Miyar rubbed his temples. "Without the bronchospasmolyticum, a discharge from inpatient treatment would be insane."
"You know what's said about us STs?" Goose's voice lacked all emotion. "We get angry and we get mad, and that's about as emotional as we ever get. I'm already angry, and I assure you, you don't want to know the second. So let me out of here."
"If I get the commander's permission for the injector, yes."
Miyar shuddered under the look. "Then get it!"
2093-06-18 Local Time 0341
BetaMountain – MPQ 219
Something patted on her bed... again. She woke immediately as the rattling breathing sound reached her mind. Goose stood very upright, propped himself up on the wall next to the monitor.
"Light." The skin of his face, nearly transparent and covered with cold sweat, and the shivering limbs told her enough: This time it's going to be serious. She noticed his indrawn breath, wanted to spare him the words with a short psionic contact and felt him drawing back at the same moment. – No.
Niko stood up, threw a worried look back at him, and ran to the kitchen. Double scoop of coffee, not decaffeinated, normal water. He used the nearly undrinkable slop to increase circulation; caffeine also slightly expanded the bronchii when the medicines failed to take effect... She consciously pushed the thoughts aside. The medicines failed too often since he'd come back. She didn't need the fear about that now. It must have been looking bad for him to wake her. For most of his attacks she woke up only because she listened instinctively for his breaths or Poss jumped onto her bed after he'd left the room. Hell! Stop brooding! She shovelled sugar into one of the octagonal mugs, easier to hold in trembling hands than the round ones, and filled it three-quarters full.
"Shane?" She didn't see him in the main room or in their bedroom. He can't be upstairs. He won't have made the stairs in his condition. A cold draft touched her bare legs under the long t-shirt she wore in the night. She went into the next room, spotted him as vague silhouette outside in the dark.
"Shane?" The shadow didn't move, propped himself on the rock and drew in the night air, wheezing. She held out her free hand for him. "Come in. The cold is dangerous for you." He didn't stir. In the rhythm with his forced breaths, the scattered light from the windows behind her reflected on his bare upper body covered with cold sweat. She felt the cold creeping under her t-shirt, making the fine hairs on her skin stand up. He's going to catch his death of cold. Even in mid-June the nights are too cold and damp just before sunrise for this. "You know what your doctor said." As he still didn't react to her, she snapped, "Dammit to hell! Do you want to die?!"
"...No..." He just looked at her, still didn't move at all. "...The cold... helps..."
"Don't talk such bloody garbage! You're going to get pneumonia."
Something moved in his face. "...Brea...thing... is... ea...sier..." He reached with a trembling hand for the mug. Shaking her head, she handed it over to him. After a few short sips: "...Feels... good... to... feel... the... air... in... my... lungs..." More deep, forced breaths followed. "...Not... so... hot..."
She came towards him and stood behind him. "Dr. Miyar said that the next infection is preprogrammed if your lungs cool down. You must go inside–"
"Forget... Miyar..." She sensed the rage inside him more than she heard the growl in his wheezing voice. "...Does...n't... know... the... first... a...bout..." His eyes flashed through the darkness. "...My... lungs... seem... to burn.... then.... The... heat... chokes... me..." Again he drew in the humid night air with icy fury, expanded the bows of his ribs that stood out alarmingly clearly under the skin and muscle of his torso. "...Ease... the pain!..."
"You should go outside during the daylight when the air is dry and warm."
"It's better... in the night."
His breathing rhythm normalized slowly. Niko watched him as he gave up the cramped, upright position and saw him wince when his side muscles released. She laid her hands on his cool, moist skin, stroked over it. She felt him twitching again under her hands but didn't let him avoid her touch. "Let me help..." She massaged the worn-out cords of muscle as he leaned forward and propped himself on the balustrade. The trembling of strain and mainly of pain made her think. She abandoned the massage, just stroked slowly along the lines of movement and felt the reactions of his cooled-down muscles to the warmth of her hands. Slowly, very slowly. Don't apply pressure... Finally she leaned against him, carefully avoided touching his chest or even his sides. Niko laid her head against his shoulder blades and listened for the breathing sound in his lungs... She wished she could hug him, hold him close to make him forget this sheer, torturous hell just for a single moment – but already she felt the vibrating tension in the body below her cheek, the instinctive repelling of another breather, of warmth, of something that could embrace him...
2093-06-18 Local Time 0836
BetaMountain – GRS5 Office
"I'm sorry I'm late, Zach. – Good morning, everybody."
"Nobody noticed, Niko," grinned Doc from behind a gigantic assembly instruction sheet for a computer system for spaceships. Finally he folded it furiously. "Illiterates! – My god! You look horrible, Niko."
Fox also looked up from the reports on his desk. "What happened?"
"Goose had another attack. Pretty bad this time." She took a seat at the common table. "I took him to MedoStat. Can one of you pick him up in an hour? I'm scheduled for a cadet excursion."
"I'll do it." Zach switched off the datapad. "But the way you're looking, you're going to frighten your cadets to death."
"Then at least they'll get an impression of what this job can really mean!" she answered bitterly.
"I don't get it." Doc came to her at the table. "He was looking pretty well yesterday evening, Niko."
"The attacks come mostly at night, Doc." She propped her head tiredly on her hands. "Between three and five o'clock in the morning, when the blood circulation slows down."
"Are there any additional factors?"
"I've started to note time and duration. Maybe something will show up." She sighed. "But I can't find the time to correlate the data. The factors could be almost anything, Doc. And for the last weeks he's gone through hell almost every night..."
"Shall I put my programs on it?"
"If you want. – Here." She pushed the notecard over to him. "The data starts with the day he returned; that means they cover about three weeks."
"And it can be almost anything?"
"Except for market rates, yes."
Doc only grimaced at her cynical joke.
"Niko." Zach joined in, put the unit's scheduler on the table in front of them. "Nobody can take over the cadet excursion for you, but Doc and I will split up the rest of the day's work between us. Go home and sleep." With a worried look at the dark shadows under her eyes: "You need the rest urgently."
2093-06-18 Local Time 1304
BetaMountain – MPQ 219
"I'm back, Shane. Zach believes I need some rest." No answer. She looked down for him from the stairs. Some letters and datacubies lay on the table. One of the transparencies was heavily crumpled. "Shane?" She heard the faint rushing of the shower. "Oh, okay." Niko hung her uniform jacket over the back of a chair and stretched. Her shoulder cartilage cracked. Hmpff. Zachary is right. I need rest. She walked into the kitchen, put some used mugs and a dish in the sink, and put some water on to boil for tea. Then she searched in the cupboard for the leaves – peppermint. Must have been lying here for ages. What is it for again? Headaches and something else... Doesn't matter. I've got a headache. She crumbled the dried leaves, hung them in a tea strainer in the mug, and scalded them with boiling water. Let stand for five minutes. She returned to the main room. The noise of pattering water was still there. "Shane?" He couldn't still be taking a shower after more than twenty minutes. Energetically she slid open the door...
Cold, damp haze came out to meet her. Gooseman sat comfortably leaned back on the toilet lid, his legs stretched out in front of him, engrossed in his readpad. The shower ran beside him – cold water. He looked up. "Back already?" He got up, laid the readpad on the tank behind him, and turned off the water. "Sorry, I didn't hear you." He pointed with his head at the readpad. "It's very interesting."
"Just for protocol, have you got a screw loose? It's ice cold in here!"
"Are you back to 'Hot and dry is good for you' again? You get internally burned out there!" He pointed with an outraged motion at the glaring midday sun and snapped, "Coughing is bad enough. But coughing and spitting ash? No, thank you!" With a visible effort he calmed down and followed her into the kitchen, took a seat at the table with her. "Happy now?"
"Yes." She took the tea strainer out off the mug, ignored his aggressive voice, and took a deep sip.
He sniffed cautiously. "What's that?"
"Peppermint tea." She held the mug towards him. "Do you want to taste it?"
He sniffed again at the dark green tea, wavered, the shrugged his shoulders and took a sip. "It isn't on the list, after all." He took another sip, rinsed it through his mouth. "Good." He pushed the mug back to her. "If I haven't keeled over within the next twenty minutes I want a pot of it, too," he grinned.
"Stop laughing about it!" She slammed the tea mug onto the table and jumped up. "I can't take any more of this!" He simply looked at her, let the emotions in his eyes die – and left. Damnation! She couldn't let him go that way...
Gooseman stood half turned away at the window front, stared with narrowed eyes out into the blinding sunlight. She went towards him. "Shane... I didn't mean it that way. Not, not like I said it... Please understand, you... you make jokes about your death! I can't stand that any longer!"
He slowly turned round toward her, looked at her with a strange light in his eyes. His voice was very cold, very controlled. "And I can't stand to be imprisoned here. All day long caught between these walls, buried inside this mountain!" His fist crashed against the window frame. "You can't stand me laughing about my death?" He made a step towards her, hesitated, trembling. "You don't know what it's like to be caught in this carcass, waiting for some screwup to give this roach its final victory!" Another step. They stood in the middle of the room. Nearly colorless eyes. "I'd welcome death!"
"No! Shane, please. You shouldn't say–" She came over to him, put her hand on his arm...
"Don't touch me!!!"
Niko didn't even see the blow coming. She felt only the impact of the back of his hand on her cheek and the dull bang when her head hit the wall. Dazed, she struggled to her feet, just stared at him with eyes wide from shock, met the colorless, burning eyes and shrank back up the stairs for the door, locked it behind her. He made no attempt to follow her. If he'd said something she hadn't heard him. She looked around the corridor. Her head and face were aching. Tears burned in her eyes. She couldn't go to MedoStat, nor to the others... too many questions would arise that she didn't want to answer – not yet. She went round the people in the corridors, hid the throbbing side of her face with her hair if she had to pass between them, and found herself a lonely place in the hangars...
2093-06-18 Local Time 2117
BetaMountain – MPQ 219
Damnation, I live here! And I won't let this get us down. Niko slid open the door and stepped in. It was dark, none of the light sources was activated, the contours gleamed only in scattered light. Green eyes glowed on her bed as Poss looked up, but the cat didn't move. Silence. Where is he? She went down the stairs in the darkness after her eyes got used to the twilight. None of the other rooms was lit. No sound anywhere... Shane? Her psionic senses began on their own to feel for him as fear seized her. "Shane?"
There he was. Outside. The door was closed behind him. A shadow in the dark. She pushed the glass door aside, stepped out soundlessly. He stood with his back half-turned to her, his hands on the balustrade. The clouds broke up and a band of moonlight rushed like a stiletto over the mountain, flashed off the battleknife in his hands.
She gasped. He didn't turn. But he had heard her, started subtly and closed his eyes. His left hand cramped around the blade. "Shane, don't–" She saw the blood pouring through his fingers onto the rock. He pressed again, harder – the flow of blood increased – and laid the knife aside. His eyes rested on the bloody stone, wandered out into the darkness again... finally flickered almost anxiously over to her.
She needed a moment to get rid of the shock, saw the pain in his flickering eyes, the fear in them. She went towards him, reached for the injured hand. "Please, don't..." His voice was barely more than a whisper as he tried to pull his arm away.
She looked at him, caught his eyes. "Let me help you." Not only with the cut... She herself didn't understand her complete meaning until she'd spoken. His look darted toward her cheek, now surely darkened, and returned uncertainly to her eyes. She sensed the horror inside him, the suppressed shivering. Xanadu's Star! He hit me, not I him! Niko realized only now that it likely would have been easier for him if she had. "Come inside. We have to take care of your wound."
Unsteady fingertips felt for her cheek, ran trembling over it and sent a thin trail of agony through her perception when they touched the bruise. "I can't..." He inhaled deeply, convulsively. "I... never want... to hurt you... again."
"You damn well better not. The next time I'll hit back, you see." She immediately regretted her snotty reaction when she felt him retreat. A half sentence floated between them.
Her left hand caught his right, forced her fingers between his. Her nails dug into the back of his hand, pressed his palm violently against hers. Her own strength glowed up... You won't run away from me, Shane. Neither from me nor from what has happened nor from what could happen... She had to suppress a mental sob. You will win this fight. We will win this fight. Don't you dare leave me alone in here... She felt how he started to return the pressure, how his fingers stroked over the back of her hand till they clung with almost painful intensity to her. It's such a thin bond that ties him to the world... And a furious voice in her soul shouted: Well, it must be enough!
Niko lay awake. Her face throbbed. She'd have to think of something for tomorrow morning when she had to appear for duty. Makeup might cover the bruise, but definitely not the swelling. Bloody mess! Anyone can fall awkwardly sometime...
She listened for his breaths in the dark – comfortingly regular except for the wheezing. He had needed too long to fall asleep. Finally she had walked over to him and held his fingers on the quilt till he had slept.
It was no use. Maybe she was ready to drop, but she was still wide awake. Quietly she got up, walked out into the night. The wind had grown stronger. It was pitch dark. Her hair was blown against her sore cheek in hard strands. The thunderstorm would break at any moment. A first bolt of lightning flashed. In its light she saw the dried blood on the stone...
...it wasn't only one cut. She'd found at least five in his palm when she treated them in the bathroom. Deep cuts, painful and bloody...
...like the wounds in their souls. Another stroke of lightning flashed, lit up the blood in black and red. She stared at it... and understood. Tears. Blood-red tears. A kind of crying that doesn't need breath. A silent attempt to cope with a pain that's starting to destroy him... The first drops of rain fell, patted heavily on the rocks, smeared the dried blood...
Their beating mixed with the thunder as the thunderstorm reached its climax. Tomorrow morning only some additional dewdrops would be left... She shivered in her soaked shirt, her hair wet. Shane would love it with his desire for cold and wet. Maybe...?
The drops grew fewer. The blood had vanished. A last peal of thunder rolled over the mountain. An idea formed in her mind. A chance...
2093-06-19 Local Time 0826
BetaMountain – GRS5 Office
She burst with a familiar vehemence into the room and rushed directly towards Doc. "Have you already correlated the data?"
"And a wonderful good morning to you, Niko. – Yes, I have. But I haven't gotten a result so f– Good Lord! What happened to you?" He stared, shocked, at her swollen and discolored face. "Who did that to you?"
"My shower," she snapped. "I slipped yesterday afternoon and smacked my head into the washbasin."
Hardford grinned wincing in sympathy. "Your bathroom, your enemy. – Be that as it may, it definitely looks like someone beat you up badly."
"The data, Doc," she brought him back to the subject. "I've got an idea... Can you check it right now?"
"Sure, why not? Fire away."
"I want you to relate times and intensities of these attacks to air temperature and humidity."
"I already did both. Didn't get me anywhere."
"Not separately, Doc. Together. He's absolutely fixated on cold and humid rooms. I think that says something."
"Yes, that he got his physician fuming again," Doc chuckled, and fell silent when he realized that he'd once again found something gigantic to put his foot in with her. "Let's have a look at it. – Holy bits! You're right." They both stared at the three-colored diagram. Doc pointed at the curves, marked the corresponding peaks. "Most of the days with attacks during the night were hot and dry."
"But not all." Niko pointed one after another on half a dozen weaker peaks. "Damn, these occured on days that had only moderate high temperatures."
"But they were dry as dust. Look, humidity under ten percent. It's coming back to me. The soup evaporated so fast that the spoon was dry before you had it in your mouth." He smiled apologetically. "Sorry, I can't help it."
"Doc – Do you know what this means?"
"That his physician should be prepared for the worst the next time he gives Goose his lecture about warm, dry air?"
"That, too. – But it also means that Arizona is killing him slowly but surely. Look at the days on which he didn't have attacks: the coldest in the whole period, and almost every one with rain or at least high humidity. Cold and humid weather almost never occurs here! Therefore he has to leave here." She jumped up. "Excuse me to Zach. I've got to go to the commander immediately!"
Flying at the door, she nearly knocked over a startled Fox, who jumped aside to let her pass. "What's–?"
She dived through under his arm, "Ask Doc," and was gone.
"What's going on here?"
"And a good morning to you, highly respectable captain," Doc smiled complacently. "Nobody's giving greetings today! And what happened here... Well, it seems she's found the primary trigger for Goose's attacks. With my help."
"Why's she tearing off as if the Crown armada were chasing her? No idea. She wants to talk with Commander Walsh."
Fox raised his brows. "What happened to her face?"
"An accident in the bathroom, she said."
2093-06-19 Local Time 0853
BetaMountain – Cmdr. Walsh's Office
"Ranger Niko." Walsh pressed his fingertips together with a sigh. "I really can't do anything. The Board of World Leaders has made its decision. As long as Gooseman isn't on active duty, his civil rights are annulled."
"He has to leave, sir. This climate is fatal to him. Can't you send him to a base in the north or at least at the shore?"
"No, I can't." Walsh looked sadly at her. "I wish I could. But he needs the signature of at least one active BWL member on a special permission, and I already had to call in all my favors to even arrange for him to stay here. Dammit – I nearly had to blackmail half a dozen people for it."
"What do you mean 'Even for him to stay'?" she asked warily, and beginning to suspect what was coming.
"STs are feared, Niko. The BWL wants to have him under control, and a not inconsiderable fraction among the senators is still voting for the cryocrypt. Especially now, when he isn't sufficiently occupied to call him controlled, as the opponents' main speaker put it."
Wheiner! "So in the end Goose has the following choices: BetaMountain military base or the cryocrypt."
"That's how it looks."
"Charming. Death or death." She snorted indignantly. "Wonderful choices indeed."
"I'm going to try everything I can, Niko." Walsh got up. "But I'll tell you right now, the chances are microscopically small." He looked thoughtfully at her face. "What...?"
"I fell, sir. Yesterday. In my bathroom." She couldn't tell from the commander's face whether he believed her or not. At least he didn't smile pityingly. It's a damn good thing for him. I'll scratch out the eyes of the next person who smiles pityingly at me!
2093-06-19 Local Time 0917
BetaMountain – Commando Area Entrance
She sat on the broad steps, propped her head in her hands, and brooded. She had expected the worst. But that? How could they deprive him of civil rights after all those missions when he risked his neck for them? I'll have to think of something. I won't sit around here and watch him dying! If only...
"Hi, Niko. Haven't seen you in a long time. How's Goose doing?" Zozo's happy voice pulled her away from her thoughts. The Kiwi sat down beside her on the step. "Is everything okay?"
"No... nothing's okay."
"I see that. Does it ache very much?"
She stopped short, then recalled the bruise on her face. "Oh that. That's nothing."
"But it doesn't look like nothing, Niko."
"But it isn't the problem."
"Come. Let's get a soda pop and then you can tell me everything. That helps sometimes." He beamed at her. "And maybe together we'll come up with an idea for it."
2093-06-19 Local Time 0952
BetaMountain – Cafeteria
"...how it looks, Zozo." She turned the half-emptied glass of lemonade in her fingers, the ice cubes in it almost melted. "I've already thought about Xanadu, but they would look for him there first, and then there isn't the climate he needs. It's true that the psionic circle could create one, but it would be an illusion in most of the details. I doubt that that's enough."
"And they really won't allow him to leave, even though he probably won't survive otherwise?" The Kiwi's voice was filled with distinct disbelief.
"They're even considering freezing him."
"Mildew and blight in their gardens! Seriously?"
"The Commander didn't say so directly, but he believed that the faction arguing for it is a strong one. If I'm correctly interpreting his thoughts during our talk this morning..." She shook her head despairingly. "Then Goose doesn't have much more time."
"And he needs cold, humid weather?"
"With the cleanest air possible. Yes."
"Would be windy a problem?"
"Probably not. – Why do you ask?"
"Because I've got an idea... Wait here, I'll be right back!"
"Niko?" Zozo climbed up next to her onto the bench at the window where she'd waited. "It may work, but we have to take care of the transport."
"What may work?"
"Listen: There's a place on Kirwin, pretty far in the north – a group of islands where we grow mostly pharmaceutical plants. Almost all air- and ground-based vehicle traffic is prohibited there – you need special permission for it. Even overflights from orbit aren't often allowed because the herbs are so sensitive and important. My brother-in-law Zeezo owns an estate there with a guest house for visitors from off-planet, and he said he'd be pleased to welcome you and Goose there."
"They'll chase us the way the devil hunts for lost souls as soon as we leave here, Zozo."
"Zeezo realizes that. And we'll have to come up with a really good idea for transport to prevent them from even searching on Kirwin. But he said," the little Kiwi grinned, eyes glowing, "he's of the opinion that we mustn't start the cultural exchange with bad habits, like leaving our people in the lurch if they're not doing well for a time."
"That sounds fantastic." She smiled briefly. "And as for the transport..." She got up. "Can we meet sometime tomorrow?"
"I could drop in after your shift. Why, do you have an idea?"
"Yes, I have. But I have to check it out first. Maybe we can cause BETA not to search at all, or on the wrong planet altogether. But if it's going to work there mustn't be com contacts between us. That's the first thing they'll check when we disappear."
"I'll come by." He chuckled. "And I'm incredibly curious about your idea. You have an expression like Goose's when they said they won't ask about laws in a mission."
She smiled grimly. "I don't plan to care about them either, Zozo. I won't let something as stupid as the law of causality stop me!"
2093-06-19 Local Time 2359
BetaMountain – MPQ 219
It had gotten later than she'd thought. She'd had to wait a long time until QBall left his laboratory so that she could use the recharging station unseen. Niko cast a quick glance at Shane as he slept, listened as usual for his slightly irregular breaths. I won't let them do this to us. She took her concentration sphere from her bedside table and went into the next room. Five candles in a circle around the sphere created the complicated, flickering refraction pattern inside it. She followed its windings to Xanadu...
...Ariel? Mentor? Are you there?... Her mental self touched the crystal border of the secret world, waited for admittance. Finally Her mentor's psychic image entered the chamber.
...you were always impatient, child...
...I'm using my implant to be here, Ariel. I have only a limited time and it's very, very important...
...who has hurt you?...
...not now. I need your help...
...your self is hiding who wounded you. I can only help if you show me who it was...
...not with that...
...then show me with what if it's not the obvious...
She exploded in a tale of pictures and pain, showed the last eleven months in rapid succession, ended with the offer from the ambassador of Kirwin, and formulated her request.
Her mentor's psychic self frowned, seemed to think about it. ...yes. I'll help you. But I hope for you that the man's worth the effort, child...
Ariel took a revealing look at Niko's face, maltreated even in her mental image. ...I hope so – for your sake...
...the smoke of the burned-down candles wavered around her as she perceived BetaMountain again. In the other room Goose coughed in his sleep. She opened the windows to prevent the candle smoke from reaching him and went back into the bedroom, put the crystal sphere next to her bed again, and looked at her chronometer: 0417. He still slept quietly in spite of the coughing. It seemed he wouldn't have an attack tonight. The cat had snuggled itself into a fur ball at the foot end of his bed. Exhausted, she crept under her quilt – she had less than two hours to sleep.
2093-06-20 Local Time 2002
BetaMountain – MPQ 219
"And you think you can do that?" Zozo looked attentively at Niko.
She nodded. "Yes, of course. But it's urgent, and we need a ship that would normally be heading for Kirwin and that won't be searched."
"What's about mine? I'll be flying back in three days."
"What about the search?" Gooseman suppressed a convulsive coughing fit.
"Hey! I'm a special envoy! If they want a diplomatic incident they can have one."
"Then that's taken care of. I'll tell Ariel the time later–"
"We have to take the hard copies with us." Goose pointed at the Xeryon artifact.
"We'll just give the statue to Zozo."
"Won't work, Niko." He shook his head, coughed again and pressed his hands against his sides. "Any idiot would recognize it. That thing appeared in at least a dozen magazines after your prof's kamikaze expedition to Tortuna."
"Since when do you read reports about archaeology and art, Gooseman?"
"During the last year I've read almost everything I could get my hands on, Zozo. Was a good way not to go insane."
"Is this thing that important?"
"Not the statue itself, Zozo. But what's inside it. And that mustn't be scanned for any reason." Niko lowered her head, brooded. "We have to find a way to get the imprinted transparencies past the scanners."
"How big are these things?" Niko and Goose both showed him with their hands. "Let's say that it's seeds. They can be terribly sensitive to radiation."
"If even the scatter field of a scanner touches your box, you'll be in for it, Zozo."
"Hey!!" The Kiwi laid his pawlike hands on the tabletop. "Have you ever seen a Kiwi get agitated about seeds? – They'd shut down all of BETA in the end to get rid of me and my 'seeds.'"
2093-06-21 Local Time 0836
BetaMountain – GRS5 Office
"Should one of us escort you to Xanadu?"
"No, Zach. Thank you." She filled in an application for emergency leave. "They'll send a ship for me. It's an internal affair that doesn't concern you in any way. I'm not allowed to say more." She looked with a frown at the form in front of her. "What's the maximum duration for immediate emergency leave?"
"Three months." He watched her suspiciously. She's cooking something up. Something's going on that it's better I don't know anything about. She wouldn't leave Goose alone for three months in his condition...
She looked up again. "Can you take Poss for the time I'm away? Shane isn't in the condition to care for him."
He nodded. "Sure. It's not the first time. I'm sure our furniture will survive another attack." Heck! It's really better I don't know the first thing about it.
2093-06-21 Local Time 1529
BetaMountain – Cmdr. Walsh's Office
"Xanadu has informed us that a ship is underway to get you, Ranger Niko. I'm granting your emergency leave, though I'm a little astonished at the request and its suddenness." Walsh signed her vacation certificate and watched her thoughtfully.
"For Xanadu'e time is a substantially more variable quantity than it is for human beings, sir. And the affair in question is developing at a frightening speed – even for us. I regret the necessity of my immediate departure more than anyone, sir."
"I understand." He handed the vacation certificate over to her. "Good luck – for all of us, Ranger."
2093-06-23 Local Time 0649
BetaMountain – MPQ 219
"Do you have everything?" He only nodded, kept concentrating on his breathing. The attack hadn't been over for long. She looked at him, worried. "Will you make it?"
"Yes." After a moment: "Somehow."
She had packed the few things they could carry themselves into a big space sac that she put next to the door. She had another short look at Goose, listened for the rattling in his breaths. Damn. That's getting too tight. "We can't afford your pride at the moment." She headed for her terminal, established a connection and sent a purposely uncoded email with an alarm call:
This damn thing has eaten my final report, Doc. I know in your opinion it's the middle of the night, but my ship has already arrived. I've got to go right now. Please come over and help me. Niko.
That was it; even if they should accuse him of being an accomplice in her plan, he could prove the contrary. "Doc will be here in a moment, Shane." She smiled as he made a face. "I know you'd prefer Zachary, but I couldn't think of an excuse for ordering my captain to my apartment at a quarter of seven. – And by the way: Doc is the better liar."
Her com buzzed. She gasped when the visual connection was established. "Commander, sir. To what do I owe the honor of so early a call?"
"Ranger. Considering the urgency of your affairs on Xanadu, I want to avoid your being late. The south corridor from your quarters to the hangar area is closed at the moment because the security staff has a mission there. You'll have to take the northern route to reach your vessel in time. Have a good flight."
"Thank you, sir." The monitor darkened. "What do you think?" She walked back to Goose. "Can we trust him?"
He reflected on it for a moment. "Yes."
The door alarm was activated: Doc. "There you are at last. What took you so long?"
"I had to make a detour. SecStaff has closed the corridor around the corner."
"What did you say?!"
"Looks like they're trying to open Goose's door. He must really have annoyed someone. What did you do, my Goose man?"
She just hissed: "He's still alive. That's enough for them. InterSec must have decided to play it safe."
Doc raised his hands in apology. "Okay, then. What's up with this ominous final report of yours?"
"Doesn't exist. I need someone who can help Shane on the way to the diplomacy hangar. I can't do it myself since I need all my concentration to deceive the surveillance systems and anyone we might pass on the way."
"So that's what you were planning!" He grinned. "Zach's been sure all day that you were up to something."
"Well? Will you help us?"
"Naturally. Where exactly should we go?"
"Northern access. And I think we should hurry. Even those SecStaff idiots will notice he isn't there when they finally get that door open. And the note about his mail is a clear hint of where to search next."
Doc grinned. "No need to hurry, Niko. That's Goose's door they're trying to open, remember?" He grabbed Goose around the waist and helped him up. "What on Earth did you do to that innocent locking system, my Goose man?"
Niko glanced along the corridor outside. "The coast is clear. Let's go."
"Okay. And on our way, you can finally tell me what you did with that door."
"I... inser...ted a... second... system, Doc... – mechanical..." Silence, punctuated by deep breaths, followed for several steps. "They're... independent... from each... other,... but... the blocks... are only... released when... both are... opened at... the same... moment..."
"How can that work when they're independent?"
"Measurement of... tension change.... One pin must... be released... at every... syllable... to... decrease... the material's... tension... Otherwise the... password won't... be accepted..."
"Damn. I thought the tension measurement was there to recognize the input of an external program code."
"Was... its original... purpose. But... I liked... this side effect..."
"That means you have to input the door code and..."
"Unlock the... mechanical safety device... at the same time.... One after... another... doesn't work..."
"What's this dang door code, then?" Doc breathed heavily. Gooseman was no lightweight, even as emaciated as he was.
The ST beside him grinned. "Drive Doc to insanity!" He coughed.
"I should've known."
"Doc. We'll walk on our own from here on." Niko stopped him.
"It doesn't matter to me–"
She shook her head. "The less you know, the better for you. If they detect your DNA code in the hangar they'll put you through the mill."
"Okay. As the lady wishes. Have a good flight, then." And with a short glance at the heavily breathing Gooseman, "And do better soon."
"And don't forget, Doc. It'd be best for you to go and search immediately for this final report."
"The nonexistent one?" He grimaced.
"Exactly. It's your backup. Bye, Doc." She let the bulkhead between them slide shut and concentrated again. "Now it's going to be difficult. There are at least a dozen people in the hangar."
Gooseman looked at his chrono. "Zozo should... be starting... his act... right now..."
"And I hope the rest works fine, too."
2093-06-23 Local Time 0706
BetaMountain – Diplomacy Hangar
"Thank you for carrying my luggage, Smitty." He didn't notice the short glance at his nametag. "Among my colleagues, real gentlemen are scarce." She sighed theatrically, threw her chestnut-red hair back with an elegant move of her head and took care that the surveillance camera got some really good pictures of her face. An open smile – so this inexperienced technician couldn't possibly forget her.
The pale blue, elegantly curved space yacht with the convoluted national emblem of Xanadu recognized her psionic signature and opened the main lock. A pale yellow beam of psionic energy took the two suitcases out of the hands of the amazed Smitty and floated them into the vessel. She turned round a second time on the gangway and sighed. "Oh yes, I'm already starting to miss BETA..." Then she vanished inside, and the lock closed soundlessly behind her. She walked onto the bridge. "Warm up the engines. Request clearance with destination unknown – when received, take off with destination Xanadu." She held her hand out. "And I'd like a cup of passion fruit juice. Thank you." She took a sip of the dark red liquid from the glass which had appeared in her hand and relaxed in one of the big, soft, upholstered bucket chairs. Rhmmpf, these physical journeys are so time-consuming – and boring.
Zozo's furious voice thundered through the hangar, grew more and more shrill, and finally threatened political consequences if Terran ground staff should have the nerve to ruin highly valuable experimental Kirwin seed with their scanner radiation.
She built up a camouflage field and slid open the other lock door. She heard Goose wheezing beside her, but he kept pace with her. They had to hurry. The camouflage field ate away her strength: she had to influence so many people, cameras, and sensors. There was the rear lock, opened in the Kiwi manner for extra ventilation of the vessel. It seemed nobody had thought about the second loading platform attached to it.
Gooseman staggered, pressed his hands to his sides. Bloody hell, must he have an attack this night of all nights? But he made it. The first cabin on the right contained the crates of seed. They were no longer visible from the hangar. Only have to block the heat sensors.
Goose propped himself against the wall, sides heaving, back and neck very upright. The room was small, with just enough space for the crates; only four, maybe five cubic meters of air. Don't cough. Not now. He bit the back of his hand. The pain distracted his attention from the narrowness. She saw the regularity of his breathing rhythm decrease. Hold on. We can get out of here when the locks are shut. He fought against the claustrophobia. The control mantra started: in and out and out... in and out and out... She sensed the pain in his burning lungs and the stitch in his sides that struggled to shorten the exhalation and increased the fear of being captured, being enclosed. Hold on...
The thunder of fired engines told of the takeoff of the vessel from Xanadu at the other end of the hangar.
A few seconds later, the locks of the Kiwi ship fell shut. The hiss of sealing fields meant safety. She let the camouflage field collapse and met Goose's eyes in relief. They had made it – so far.
He pushed himself off the wall. "Outta here..."
"Okay." She saw his careful movements, the way he occasionally propped himself up on the wall, as if he feared losing his balance. The run of fifty steps between airlock and vessel had almost drained him.
But he walked on his own two steps in front of her, and his eyes glowed challengingly when he turned towards her in the bridge lock. "You're lucky... that I'm... suspended... Otherwise... I'd have... to arrest... you..."
He grinned maliciously despite the wheezing. "Girl... you've just... swiped... material with... a security... classification... of ultraviolet... plus..."
"Hey! If you're talking about these transparencies–" She joined his game as she always had in the past.
"No,... I'm not..." The grin in those dark-green eyes grew almost provocative.
"What else?" I'm going to regret this question, I know it! But she couldn't let it be like the other times.
"Screwball!" she laughed. "UVP stuff is only stored at LongShot. Every cadet knows that!"
"I'm... the exception."
Zozo turned toward them in his pilot's seat. "Hey, the grain isn't allowed to roam around the cockpit during the flight."
"Who is grain... here?" Gooseman coughed and dropped himself into the second pressure chair.
"You are! I classified you as sweet grain. S.G. seemed to me somehow a match for Shane Gooseman!" The Kiwi twinkled roguishly. "My sister makes fantastic pancakes out of the stuff."
"Charming." He closed his eyes, exhausted. "If she's... nearsighted, I'll end up... in the pan."
"With jam?" Niko asked.
2093-06-23 Local Time 1053
BetaMountain – Cmdr. Walsh's Office
"Captain Fox. Can you form any kind of image of what's in store for you or one of your people if you have even a trace of responsibility in this affair?" Walsh laid his fingertips together and looked suspiciously at the two Rangers in front of his desk. "Perhaps you should know, Fox, I'm fascinated by the time coincidences." Walsh was threateningly formal. It looked as if he was almost exploding – seemingly. "There's sheer pandemonium around here because of this bloody business. SecStaff practically blows up the whole mountain to get into these quarters, only to find out that what they wanted isn't in there at all. Then they storm Ranger Niko's apartment two doors down and find Ranger Hartford, of all people, who's searching for a report no computer on the whole planet can remember, while the Ranger herself has just flown home because of urgent family affairs. And last and best, I received a general alarm from MedoStat because an outpatient is two hours overdue and may be in critical condition." Walsh took a deep breath. "And you're trying to tell me that you don't have even the faintest idea where Ranger Gooseman is at the moment?"
"Sir, neither I nor my people are in any way involved in Ranger Gooseman's disappearance. Ranger Hartford and I are pretty worried about him."
"Do you at least have a guess as to his location?"
"No, sir." – Hartford.
"Maybe on Xanadu, sir."
"Then take Ranger-1, check it out and if he's really there, fetch him back immediately! Maybe this chaos can still be settled somehow."
=We've enormously underestimated the boy, Joseph,= Negata greeted him when Walsh returned to the back room of his office after Fox and Hartford had left. =I've had a look at the download list of this readpad you gave him. See for yourself.=
"...'Foundations of Biotechnology,' 'Great Textbook of Genetic Technology,' 'Applied Chemistry of Molecular Structures Considering DNA Synthesis,' 'Genetic Adaptation,' 'Nerve and War Gases of the Present Day'..." Walsh gazed aghast at the brain unit. "This is the reading list from Gooseman's readpad?"
=I wrote some of those, Joseph. And considering the reading times, he studied them all in detail.=
"Knowledge is a weapon," Walsh quoted flatly. "I'd never have believed he'd put it into action like that. Do you believe he'd understood that?" The commander pointed vaguely at the book list.
=He was always bright. That set him apart from the others – and with his questions in class he reminded me awfully of somebody else.= After a short pause: =Today I finally know why. And there's something else – he's designed as a bio defense carrier, not a strategist. God knows how much background information he took with him just from Wolf Den.=
"His training differed in no way from that of the others back then."
=BDCs have subliminal eidetic memory, old friend. They're supposed to survive and bring back data to evaluate later. The boy was like a sponge for information in those days. He observed everything, witnessed everything. He may not have understood it back then, but with this,= Negata turned in the direction of the monitor with the list, =it looks pretty different. I've thrown him out of the laboratories often enough because he made me nervous.=
"He can't remember details. That's impossible."
=Are you sure about that? Look...= Negata scrolled through the list, almost to the end, and highlighted one of the titles. =You need a pretty high security clearance for this book.=
"He works together with one of the world's best hackers. It's quite possible that–"
=Then have a look at who downloaded this book.=
Walsh entered a short key code. "I don't believe it!" He stared, stunned, at the monitor:
WALSH, JOSEPH, BASE COMMANDER WOLF DEN, ID-7523459992-A663.
=You likely entered it once in his presence. 'Information is survival' – and we beat it into them.=
"The ID is five years out of date, Owen."
=But not deleted because some of the escapees are still at large.= Negata let out the electronic equivalent of a sarcastic snort. =Standard military protocol.= The brain unit focused its optical sensors on Walsh's face. =He's on the hunt, Joseph, after the culprit and the answers we couldn't give him. And he may have a better chance of finding them than either one of us really wants.=
2093-06-25 Local Time ––
They arrived sooner than I thought. She pushed her hair back over her shoulders and stood up. Looks like her estimate about the fuss caused by this action is correct. Okay then... Let's amuse ourselves. Who has been sent to us? – Zachary and Doc. That's nice.
The student led them into a wide hall with crystal walls and indicated they should wait while he informed Niko of their arrival. Doc looked uncomfortably around; Fox was calm. He'd been here before.
"Zachary, Doc. What are you doing here?" Doc started. Niko appeared out of a corner where there definitely wasn't a door. "Is something wrong with Goose?"
"We're here because of him, Niko. We have to bring him back."
"Bring him back? Zachary, don't play games with me. It was hard enough to leave him alone."
"Niko – Goose disappeared on the same day you left BETA. That's why they assume that you brought him here with you."
"Nonsense." She looked around. "Does this look like a place for Shane? But–" She interrupted herself. "He's disappeared? Xanadu's Star, he's almost dead without medical treatment!"
"That's why BETA sent us after you immediately."
...To hell with this order! – she deserves the truth!... She smiled inwardly at his thought.
"And InterSec has a confinement order against him," he looked sadly at her, "at the urging of our favorite senator. You know for yourself what that means."
He doesn't want to find him. "Zachary, Shane isn't here." She was totally earnest now. "I'd never risk his life by putting him into a spacecraft in his condition. And if he has gone into hiding, I can understand that very well, but you have to find him fast." Composed: "He won't survive it." She pressed her hands together. "If I only could leave here. I can always find him if necessary – even in hell!"
Fox looked pityingly at her. "We'll do the best we can, Niko. If he's out there somewhere we'll find him."
...She's too calm. Damn, he is here!...
"We have to report back to BETA. Then we'll start the search..." He laid his bionic hand on her arm. "We're worried about him, too, Niko."
A total success. If he had doubts, they're gone now. "I know." She sniffed sadly. I hope you appreciate that, student! "Good luck. We need it all."
"How do we get out of here again?"
Pretty uncertain behind his macho mask, this Hartford. "Follow the blue sphere of light. It will lead you back to your ship. And please..."
"We'll inform you of everything."
She watched the two men until the portals had closed behind them. This Zachary is still a charming lad after all. Light flamed up when she dropped the illusion. With an amused laugh, Ariel returned to her studies. And so captivatingly naive...
Chapter 5: Starlight
2093-07-05 Local Time 1622
Silence. Pleasant, cool silence. Pain, the old companion, grew tired, left it at short stitches at the ends of exhalations and a vague twinge during deep inhalations. The cloth around him was cool, drank the heat that threatened to suffocate him. He stretched his fingers under the cloth of the pillow till the muscles vibrated and the tendons snapped back.
The air smelled... smelled of something strong enough to penetrate the odour of illness and phlegm in his nose. Something pleasant. It tingled as the fragrant air ran coolly down into the tips of his lungs and the cold spread before the heat of his body swallowed it. Another breath, careful, deeper, with open mouth, so as not to raise the old companion... delicious cold heralded the air in his lungs, confirmed the use of the expended strength. The pain slept on.
He opened his eyes slightly. The light was blue, blue-green, with a flower pattern... curtains drawn closed. The windows behind them must be open. The cloth moved slightly with the wind... another surge of that smell – herbal, reminding him of... of Niko's tea – mint and more... salty, humid... an ocean. Kirwin.
He returned into the silence behind closed lids, savoured the air in his lungs, the breath, cool and sweet and salty and filled with promises...
"Come on, Shane. Wake up. You need to eat something." The voice was calm despite the request. Gentle fingers touched his shoulder once again. He opened his eyes, and yellow-red light blinded him before his pupils could adapt to it. The curtains were drawn back, the sun was low. He pushed himself up a little bit and noticed – frightened again as he had so often been at BETA – that his arms were trembling with the effort. Niko set the big mug of soup – vegetables and something that could be chicken or not, didn't matter – down on the nightstand. She stuffed the pillows behind his back, his and... hers? He looked to the side, realized that the other side of the bed was being used. Nice...
She noticed his look and snickered. "You weren't much in the way of entertainment, my dear. The only thing you've kept me awake with over the last ten days was your coughing."
"Hm." After a moment of disappointment, his humour won: "My repertoire is adequate for symphonies, after all." He managed a snotty snoring: "You should appreciate that."
"And now if you don't mind, you should appreciate my cookery." She held the mug out to him. "It's nearly cold. It took me more than a quarter of an hour to get you awake."
2093-07-14 Local Time 0141
"Not again!" The coughing shook him and he pressed his crossed hands against his chest. Dark yellow phlegm. The light flickered. The generator worked irregularly. In the semidarkness she saw pale-blue, glowing particles in the coughed-up stuff when she set the bowl aside and gave him a cloth soaked with cold water. He took it, cleaned his face and grabbed – slowly because of his by-now sore muscles – to the side for a mug with cold peppermint tea. He washed out his mouth and spat the tea after the slime.
She couldn't let it be. "Look." She showed him the bowl.
He turned his head away. "Please..." The coughing had already set in again. He suppressed it for a moment. "It's hard enough to spew up this stuff while having the feeling that your brain just fell after it. But there's no need to examine it further." He pressed his palms against his temples when the next retching coughing fit shook him.
She looked with pity at him, felt that it wasn't only the throbbing headaches that accompanied the nausea which tortured him, but above all the fact that she held the bowl. Oh, Shane... What are friends for then, hm? "I'm sorry, but I've never seen anything like that glowing stuff before."
"The way I'm feeling, I wouldn't wonder about ticking antitank mines." Another coughing fit made his body collapse again. She had to hurry with the bowl. This time it was green with some black-red-brown droplets in it: viscous phlegm with old blood. Niko handed him a fresh cloth, let him wash out his mouth again. "The physician who said I ought to welcome every drop of the stuff that comes out has definitely never been forced to do this for himself!" He leaned back against his pillow, exhausted, and laid his head back to relax his tense chest muscles. It was of no use: the next coughing fit announced its arrival.
She looked thoughtfully at him while she soaked the next cloth with cold water, threw the dirty one into the basket, refilled his mug with cooled-down, strong peppermint tea, and asked herself if he was aware that this torture would have killed him only ten days ago.
It was past 0300 when he finally fell into a broken sleep. She stood up, stretched herself, and wrapped the blanket closer around him, staying carefully away from his facial zone. He'd wake immediately if even one strand of her hair should reflect a part of his breath. She bowed her head. Would he ever again get used to embracing her, hugging her, burying his face in her hair so she could feel his breath on her neck? The movements of his chest were regular now and, apart from a faint wheeze, almost soundless. She couldn't sense pain in him now, only exhaustion caused by the coughing. It was time for her to sleep, too. Tiredly she crept under her blanket, curled up, and felt her senses focussing on the breathing impulse beside her... A hand felt around, seemed to search for something. She took it, crossed her fingers with his. His sleep grew quieter.
2093-07-15 Local Time 0821
Ranger-1 at the sector of Xanadu
"I can't believe it! They really put him onto the wanted list." Zachary Fox pushed the transparency away, frustrated.
He shook his head. "She's got a watertight alibi. Sure, they want to interrogate her and there are still these silly disciplinary proceedings because he lived with her, but formally they haven't got a trace of evidence against her."
"Unless he's found on Xanadu." Doc shook his head. "Or gets caught when he leaves. I thought the two of them would be smarter. It's pretty obvious that the BWL won't let the planet out of their sight now. He's an ST, after all – whatever she may feel for him."
"Well, Doc." Zach looked thoughtfully at Hartford. "Somehow this isn't like him at all."
"What? Goose and all these psychic gurus?"
"No. Just think about it. Xanadu is a hopeless position. I think Niko's capable of seeing the planet as a refuge. But Goose?"
"He's half-dead, Zach."
"He has chest trouble, not head trouble. Maybe he's wild, but he isn't stupid."
"So you're assuming they're not on Xanadu at all?"
"I'm not assuming anything." Zach grinned briefly. "We're observing Xanadu on the BWL's orders, and that's all we're doing." He gave Doc a short glance over the computer console. "But I think we should be prepared for surprises in this affair."
2093-07-22 Local Time 0301
It was cold and there was a faint draft. Niko crept deeper under her blanket, wrapped it tighter around her, and tried to close even the last gap. Then she felt the absence of something – Shane. She sat up. Her senses reached for him. Nothing. The door was open a crack: the reason for the draft.
Xanadu's Star, he slept away almost the whole month. It was a kind of art just to keep him awake long enough to eat and wash. And now he's out and about in the middle of the night?
She fished beside the bed for her boots, wrapped herself up in her blanket, and followed him. The front door was also open. Outside? "Shane?"
The silhouette at the cliff's edge was difficult to see in the moonless darkness. Should he've walked that far? Her eyes slowly got used to the starlight. He wore only the thin linen clothes in which he had slept. His feet were bare, and besides that, his shirt was open down to the waistband. She felt cold just looking at him. "Fifteen minutes..." She thought she'd misheard, but he continued, faintly, as if his voice might break. "Fifteen minutes for just under a half kilometer." He leaned into the wind that plastered his clothes to his body and set them flapping behind him, took a deep breath, and exhaled the air with force against the blowing wind. Then he looked at her, his eyes only a sparkle in the dark. "I have to change that."
His breath was wheezing when they reached the house again, and he pressed his forearm against his left side. Side stitches. Niko wanted to wrap him in the blanket as well, but he swerved aside with the old familiar panic of physical contacts, of someone too close to him in his eyes. Even in the atmosphere of a whole planet, a single breather at his side was still a rival.
The windows were still open. When she noticed the thin layer of sweat on his forehead, she pushed him into the kitchen and made black tea: Ceylon, grown on Kirwin, caffeinated. After she made him drink a big mug of it, she took a seat next to him at the kitchen table. "You've got to be careful. You can't allow yourself any relapses." He just looked at her, didn't answer. "What did you want out there, anyway?"
"Stars and storm." He took a deep sip of his second mug of tea. "Freedom." When she stared at him uncomprehending: "I've missed them, Niko." He hesitated, searched for words. "The stars and the wind. I've never paid attention to it. They were always there – somehow. Even at Wolf Den. The wind dry and dusty, the stars behind armored glass... but they were there. Do you understand me? There was nothing of it inside the mountain. Only memories..." He pushed the mug away and searched her eyes. "Do you know what it's like to dream of running?" When she remained silent: "You feel the work of the muscles, the tendons getting tense till they almost tear, the flexing of the joints cushioning the force of your feet hitting the ground... the air inside your lungs, your pulse in your veins... and finally the vibration of exhaustion and the cooling sweat. – You– you wake up and think you've run, just run, now, only a moment before – and then the memories of your dreams are replaced with reality: the pain in your sides, the wheezing, the inner heat, the narrowness..." He cramped his fingers tightly around the mug. "Back into prison."
"You will run again, Shane. – If you stop these sorts of escapades."
"I had to know that all of it still exists." His voice was faltering but less tired than she'd feared. "I was buried alive for a whole year, deeper than these gas grenades I'm searching for..."
Niko looked up, stared suddenly forcefully and fascinated at him. "That's it!"
"You and the gas grenades." She slammed her flat hand on the table. "It was right in front of our noses. Dammit! I've already said it myself."
"I don't understand a word you're saying, Niko."
"Shane, you said on the ship that except for you, all UVP material is stored at LongShot, right?"
"Yes, of course, but–"
"Think about it. You're an ST, and this gas was made to–?"
"To kill STs. Therefore it must also be UVP since it was never handed out to the regular forces."
They looked at each other. In unison: "It's at LongShot!"
"And it's damn hard to get something out of those labs."
"The place is so tightly controlled that there just have to be deviations to be found if someone was in there! When I'm back at BETA, I'm going to search for them."
2093-07-22 Local Time 0441
He was out the bedroom door with a speed she hadn't thought him capable of, with his breath wheezing from the night's strain. Sighing, she wrapped herself in her quilt again and walked after him. At BetaMountain the man is dead to the world before midday, the first weeks here he just overslept totally, and now he's developing into a night owl... what's next? Installed duvet feathers? He sat at the kitchen table and hastily scribbled long columns of letters and numbers.
"What's what, Shane?" she asked sleepily.
"How do you train a body that can't be stressed, hm?"
"Not at all. It's impossible."
"Yes! It's possible! Among other things, they trained us in a special form of close-combat gymnastics which was intended to keep us fit during flights with mass personnel carriers – you know, these sardine cans. I'd totally forgotten about that, since we never used it. And what's the main problem there...?"
"Extreme lack of space?"
"That, too. And oxygen shortage. So air must be saved, and then the gymnastics mustn't cause physical strain–"
"Since the consumption of air would rise otherwise. Does the basic education have to be right now, in the middle of the night?"
He grinned. "Absolutely. – I should be able to do these exercises. I–"
"Don't you dare do gymnastics right now. You've just missed having an attack."
"Shane! Go to bed."
2093-08-20 Local Time 1302
The solar glider stopped with whining buffer fields in front of the house. Zozo jumped out of it and rushed up the porch stairs. "Niko! Goose! Are you there?"
"Over here." Niko came around the corner, put down a basket of vegetables, and welcomed him. "Goose is doing better," she anticipated his question.
"Thank the Mothmoose! I–"
She laughed out loud. "Don't let him know that. Shane said recently that if that beast trumpeted him out of sleep just one time more it'd end up in his frying pan."
"For Heaven's sake, no! It's a holy animal."
Niko snickered. "And a loud one. How is it that you're here?"
"We've got this silly reception with the Andorians in the capital. I've fobbed the whole mess off on Zeezo and scarpered for today. Need to find out how my two favourite escapees are doing. Where's Goose now?"
"Behind the house, doing his exercises – I think."
"What? You don't know?"
"I mean I'm not sure if what he does is a kind of training. Look for yourself..."
...shift weight to right foot. Pelvis leads body. Slowly lift off relieved foot, set down a half foot-length ahead without putting weight on it. Arms follow circles of power, push against an imaginary enemy. Roll back. Shift weight to left foot...
"He takes nearly twenty minutes for thirteen of these figures, Zozo."
The Kiwi watched the slow, rounded movements in fascination. Gooseman was still alarmingly thin, but at least he appeared lifelike again. "Looks a lot like a dance in slow motion."
"That it is, Zozo." Goose broke off his exercise. "The body wants to hurry, and you force it to resist itself if you refuse it the speed. Your whole muscular system is worked through from the base after a quarter of an hour without increasing your breathing rhythm." He looked away for a second, gazed at the cliff with narrowed eyes. "That's why I can do it."
"What's it worth as a martial art form?"
"In perfect use you can come up against every hard school with it." With a short look towards Niko. "Including tae kwon do, jiujitsu, and ninjitsu. But the underlying mentality is difficult."
"STs are pretty wild, Zozo. This takes composure."
"Sounds like heavy discipline."
A shadow flow over his face. "I really need that." Only Niko received the following thought: ...I can never afford to lose control of my rage again, to hurt her again...
From the porch they watched Goose where he wandered along the mint fields towards the cliffs. "Does he go that way every day, Niko?"
"A day isn't really his scale, Zozo." Niko smiled pensively. "Goose is far too arrogant to bother with something as banal as days."
"What do you mean by that?"
"He gets up, does his exercises and marches on, every time a bit further. When he comes back he takes a shower, eats something, and falls asleep. When he wakes he starts at the beginning again. Whether we have daylight or not, whether it's raining or foggy." She shook her hair back. "He scared the hell out of me once when he walked off at two o'clock in the morning. I didn't notice until he was already gone and I was really worried about him."
"And what does he do now?"
"Since then he leaves notes on the table."
"Is he making progress?"
"He began three weeks ago with fifteen minutes; now he's gone for nearly two hours. Always at the same speed."
"I'd never have believed that Goose could wander at that leisurely pace."
"It's his only chance to make it." Niko twisted her mouth slightly. "Know the distance and ration your strength."
"Sounds like an order."
"Wolf Den." She sighed. "I hear more about it these days than I'd like."
"Don't you walk with him?"
"He prefers to be alone. I think his weakness gives him a hard time, and I remind him of it when I accompany him and have to consciously adjust my pace. He will increase the speed when he gets round the island in one go."
"That's more than ten kilometers."
"He applies the standards of Wolf Den. Everything or nothing. He doesn't consider anything else." She shook off the thought. "What's new at BETA?"
Zozo looked uncomfortably at the ground. "I don't know the details, but Zachary and Doc seem to have a dubious job at no-one-knows-where for more than a month and a half now. I've talked with Eliza. But she said she doesn't know where the two are, either."
"If I know BETA they're condemned to lurk for us near Xanadu."
"I think so, too." He chuckled. "Good thing you aren't there. But there's something else: I heard noises to the effect that SecStaff is going to bring a charge against you. I don't know for what. – But in any case, the rumour factory is working extra shifts."
"That was to be expected. Fits into this nitpicker's house."
"Sure. And while I remember: I think your problem about having to leave him alone here has been solved on its own. Little Swee's got Antarian flu. Mrs. Zee has decided to stay with the children on the estate for the next year. She said to me she'd be pleased," Zozo twinkled roguishly, "to get another child back on his feet."
Niko laughed out loud. "Goose won't like the sound of that at all. He hates to be mothered."
"Then Ma Zee's going to make him healthy at incredible speed – so that he can finally flee from her!"
2093-08-20 Local Time 2251
...he slowly turned round toward her, looked at her with a strange light in his eyes. His voice was very cold, very controlled. "And I can't stand to be imprisoned here. All day long caught between these walls, buried inside this mountain!" His fist crashed against the window frame. "You can't stand me laughing about my death?" He made a step towards her, hesitated, trembling. "You don't know what it's like to be caught in this carcass, waiting for some screwup to give this roach its final victory!" Another step. They stood in the middle of the room. Nearly colorless eyes. "I'd welcome death!"
"No! Shane, please. You shouldn't say–" She came over to him, put her hand on his arm...
"Don't touch me!!!"
Niko didn't even see the blow coming. She felt only the impact of the back of his hand on her cheek and the dull bang when her head hit the wall. Dazed, she struggled to her feet, just stared at him with eyes wide from shock, met the colorless, burning eyes and shrank back up the stairs for the door, locked it behind her...
"No!!" He jerked awake breathing heavily, pressed his hands against eyes and temples, again and again saw her shrinking back from him with a maltreated face. "No..." His voice was nearly a sob.
"Shane." The hand on his arm was warm, shockingly familiar. "It's a dream, not reality."
He looked at her with wide-open eyes from within the darkness. Fingertips felt for her cheek, touched her, trembling. So it's the same dream again... If only I could find out what's tormenting him so much. It can't only be that he struck me... "Talk to me. This dream is getting you down. If you talk I can help you..." She felt his retreat into the darkness.
"Shane," she bowed her head, formulated the next sentence very exactly, "I know what you're dreaming of. And I know also that you're walking though hell with that dream every night. I've been there. I've seen this dream with my own eyes. I got over it, over the dream and over the reason behind it, and now it's up to you to–"
"You don't understand." The voice was wan, almost without emotions. Again the wall of ice... To hell with it! But he continued. Well, it's better than nothing... "I'm an ST. I shouldn't dream. My cerebral structures were designed for simultanous memory processing, not processing that came later within REM phases, to make people like me more independent of sleeping times and duration."
"But it's a fact that you're dreaming. Even you can't deny that."
"I'm not. But do you remember what I told you about the A's?" His hands closed hard around the quilt.
Xanadu's Star, what has he got to face to give me this answer?
"Not to fulfill expectations at Wolf Den – or to differ from them – was dangerous. I... I didn't have a word for the pictures in my sleep, but I recognized fast that nobody expected me to have them. So I learned to keep my mouth shut about them..."
Gods, he's resisting fifteen years of indoctrination.
"These pictures... dreams... were wild, bloody, absurd, sometimes insane, and they made me incredibly confused. I was almost twenty when I began to dream about things I liked..."
"And what have you dreamed of?"
She blushed. And now your old dreams meddle with the few good new ones. Shane, why have you never told me this? She laid her hands on his, pressed his cramped fingers. A picture formed in her mind of a child who hid himself in bare corridors and was afraid of his dreams because nobody told him what they were and that it was normal to have them. She pushed the image aside. Nonsense! He'd never have been like that. Wolf Den didn't allow weaknesses to be shown...
"In... in these dreams back then there was a voice... false... sweet..." He shivered heavily now. "Abandon... stop... just don't fight back any longer... and it would be over. I never listened, I fought against it. I didn't want to die..."
She was coming closer to the answer. "And the voice was there again."
"Since the gas."
She crossed her fingers with his as she finally understood. What he can't concede, can't allow himself to concede, is that on that day, for a moment, he listened to that voice. The disease had eaten up the creature of Wolf Den and the boy who survived totally on his own there defended himself in the only way he ever learned: strike.
Fingertips touched her cheek in the darkness again, If this is a splinter of the child he could have been without Wolf Den... By all the Gods, Shane, what did you have to do to yourself to survive there?
A line from a Crusader poem flitted through her thoughts:
...nothing hurts more than the pain of shattered souls...
She heard the faint wheezing in his breath get louder. That's too much to bear for him!
Her powers sensed for the splinter of the self that couldn't cope with the memory.
...you didn't give up, you're still here, you have survived...
Dreams came to her: narrow, bloody, choking, full of pain... She turned her eyes away, forced her way through them, saw herself in the tan twilight on Granna... Another image appeared: blue shimmering blackness interspersed with brightly coloured jewels – a starry night seen with the enhanced senses of an ST... again blood and suffering, rage and hatred, entangled in artificial bonds – behavior-conditioning psychiatric drugs... There! She felt the wounded self beneath the rage, among ruins of ice...
...you have survived...
...no, only what hurt you is still left...
...I touch you, feel your hurt, your horror about what happened. You're still here...
Trembling fingers touched her cheek as the mental cosmos expressed his doubts.
...you've defeated it. I've seen your dreams. They are wonderful and they're still there...
The dawn's light already shone through the curtains that moved with the wind when she returned to reality and found him sleeping in her arms with his back leaning against her, his head on her shoulder... She smiled. He hated to be mothered, but the child he was never allowed to be needed just that: warmth, confidence, and answers...
2093-09-15 Local Time 0005
Ranger-1 at the sector of Xanadu
"What the hell is going on now?" Doc started out of his half-sleep at the detection console. "Oh, holy bits! – Zach!! Get out here, you won't believe this!"
The Captain appeared drowsily from the back bank. "What–"
"Ships! Xanadu is launching ships! Fifteen, sixteen... twenty-five... Shit!"
"How many are them?"
"GV said more than a hundred."
"How many?!!" Don't talk such nonsense, they don't even have that many." Zach climbed into his seat and almost caught his dressing gown on the back of the seat. "Really. Devil take me! Doc, can you track them?"
"More than a hundred vessels? You're dreaming."
"Record it. Maybe one of them is behaving a bit strangely. How long can you keep them under detection?"
"They zoomed apart in a star formation like a piece of fireworks." Doc chuckled. "Under these circumstances – I can track them for a half light-minute, but after that," he shrugged, "they've got open sky! We've really underestimated those two, Zach."
Fox grinned. "Not us... only the rest of BETA."
The circle was assembled around her, collected its energy into the matrix in the great crystal hall...
...she imagined the space ships racing through the darkness... down to the last dust molecule behind the seats, exact duplicates of her own... perfect, spherical symmetry in navigation... the circle concentrated, gave her the energy she needed... a half light-minute the student had said, the mentor decided to be safe, and gave it a full light-minute... still twenty seconds... good luck, protege...
...exhausted, Ariel let the circle stop. The ship was on its way.
2093-09-15 Local Time 2153
"Ariel's ship is on its way as arranged." Niko put her space sac next to the front door. "What should I look out for when everything at BETA has calmed down?"
"Search for connections between Wheiner, Negata, and Walsh. All of them were involved in the STP, and at least two of them were at GTP."
"You're sure about the senator?"
"LongShot – is very likely. He got high-security material out of LSL once before. As for the STP – yes, one hundred percent." Goose smiled bitterly. "I can't tell you how, but he is involved in it. And the GTP's continuation after Earth joined the League... there aren't many people within the government who have enough power and money for such actions."
"And sufficiently few scruples." Niko looked at her chronometer and dropped her shoulders. "I have to..." She sniffed. "I don't want–"
"Shhh..." He put his hand on her shoulder, pulled her close to him after a short hesitation. She felt his warmth, the regular breath in his chest below her cheek. He propped his chin on her head, held his face in the cool draft from the opened front door. But he held her, for the first time in over a year. She felt him suppressing the impulse to retreat, to keep distance, felt his victory in the silent fight: his embrace grew tighter. She felt a hand in her hair; turned-away fingernails traced the lines of her cheek. A memory flamed up... Not. She felt that day's horror catch up with him, remembered the restless dreams of the last nights.
"Maybe you should write down your dreams. Or draw them. In any case, you have to deal with them. It won't be over until you've worked them out."
His voice was merely a vibration in the throat on her temple. "I know, but..."
"I can forgive you. Why you can't forgive yourself?"
He didn't answer, but she sensed the increase of the flight impulse and his repelling of it. "Take care of yourself. They'll hunt you like a dog because they assume you know where I am."
"And? I'm living with a wolf!"
"Who's damn concerned about you." He let her go. "Remember: The best weapon against the establishment is attack." He grinned, though his expression was a touch wan. "Good luck."
Chapter 6: Dawn
2093-09-17 Local Time 2203
BetaMountain – MPQ 206
"Hello, Eliza." Niko stood in the door with her space sac over her shoulder. "Do you have a bed for me?"
"Sure." Eliza Fox held open the door and let Niko step inside. "You've just arrived, haven't you?"
"My ship landed twenty minutes ago." Niko dropped her luggage into an armchair and picked up Poss, who was rubbing up against her legs with an infernal purring. "You still remember me, do you?" She stroked him under the snout and the cat managed to increase his purring once again before she turned back to Eliza. "I come home and discover that my apartment was obviously looted by the Crown Armada!" Must have happened when one of these idiots tried to open my Xeryon artifact. Shane hadn't defused his 'reading block.'
"That's not all, Niko. You're pretty seriously in the soup because of Goose."
"He still hasn't been found?" There was a touch of fear in Niko's voice.
"No, and Zachary wants to talk to you about it as soon as possible." When Niko looked around, Eliza smiled. "Don't worry, he hasn't come home yet. – But SecStaff has collected some charges against you. Pretty big guns." They walked into the kitchen. "Tea?"
"Yes, please." Niko sighed and sunk down on a chair, with the cat still attached by all four paws to her shirt. Now I know why Shane usually left his shirt behind at O'Malley's, she thought, amused.
"This cat's name really suits him, doesn't it?" Eliza grinned.
"How did he behave?"
"Acceptably. He played with Jessie, hissed at Zachy, scratched Zach's boots, and insisted on sleeping on my quilt," she winked with a laughing eye, "which had Zach much more pissed off than the issue with the boots."
Niko snickered and removed at least the one paw whose claws were now touching her skin. "Thanks for watching him in spite of all the trouble."
Eliza smiled. "You're welcome. And as for the trouble: Zachary would have exploded if we'd given the cat away."
Niko still ran her fingers over the short grey fur of the cat that had now curled up in her lap. "What is it that SecStaff has made up, anyway?" she asked.
"As far as I heard, they're saying you helped Goose escape because you two had an – hnngh – because he lived with you for more than a year."
"What?!" Niko straightened up, which caused an annoyed hiss from Poss as he scrambled onto the kitchen table to safety. "That's too much. They're in for it tomorrow morning!" She dropped back. "Forget SecStaff." She sniffed suddenly. "I'm frightened out of my mind about Goose. He was so ill and he's been missing for so long."
"We're all worried about him, Niko." Eliza laid her hand calmingly on the younger woman's arm.
"I haven't seen him for such a long time." Almost two days.
"You still have to grapple with these charges or else..."
"I know." Niko tried without success to suppress a yawn. "Can you show me my bed now?"
"Of course." Eliza nearly pushed her into the guest room. "You're right. Before you do anything you'll need some rest first." She has to be totally tired. At first the call from Xanadu when Goose was already so ill, then the news about his disappearance, and the two cling to each other so strongly. Then she finally came home and instead of finding even an encouraging note they charge her with high treason, desertion, and immoral behavior. It's a shame to be a part of this bunch!
Niko curled up under the blanket, laid her head onto her crossed arms, and brooded. She'd reckoned on accusations, but accusations such as these ones!? Shit, if I'm not very careful I'll spend the rest of my life in the Deltoid. She had to get rid of these charges before SecStaff carved too deeply or even set up a permanent surveillance of her.
Poss jumped up on the bed and curled up next to her waist, snuggling against her with a faint purring. She stroked him unconsciously, and a piece of advice flashed through her mind: "The best weapon against the establishment is attack." What if I... She began to smile maliciously.
2093-09-18 Local Time 0823
BetaMountain – Cmdr. Walsh's Office
"You want to bring what?!" Walsh half-jumped out off his office chair and stared at the telepath as if an extra head had grown on her shoulders. "You're accused of theft of high-security material, of aiding and abetting a desertion, and of having a liaison with one of your teammates! And–" He just stood gasping.
"And I want to bring a charge against SecStaff of unlawful forcible entry into my apartment, wanton destruction of irreplacable archeological art treasures, and defamation! Yes, sir. I do." Niko flashed challengingly at the commander. "There's no excuse for the security department to ignore all fundamental rights because of a mere suspicion!"
"Are you aware what this means?"
"Yes, sir, I am. And you should be aware that SecStaff can't prove even one of these absurd accusations!"
"These absurd accusations, as you put it, aren't trivial matters, Ranger. The theft of high-security material is put on a level with planetary treason, and aiding and abetting a desertion is judged as if you've deserted yourself."
"I beg your pardon, but what am I supposed to have stolen?"
"You know that quite well."
"Oh!" She gave Walsh a black look. "All right! I must have simply packed him into my suitcase – sir." The 'sir' came pretty late. "Has he deserted or has he been stolen, then, Commander?"
"That isn't the point, Niko."
"But I feel that it is! They're accusing me and don't even know exactly what I'm supposed to have done at all! – And while we're at it: Even SecStaff should be able to get hold of enough working brain cells among their crew to recognize that Ranger Gooseman's been in no condition for sexual contacts during the last year! How am I supposed to take the insinuation of an affair with him, then?"
It took her a visible effort to calm down. "Will you forward my charge or not, sir?"
"Yes, I will." Walsh typed a note and looked up afterwards as if he had forgotten that she was still there. Wow. She's got a murderous temperament when somebody gets in her way. SecStaff had better expect the worst. "You're dismissed, Niko."
"Thank you, sir."
When the door into the corridor had closed behind her, she leaned against the wall. Phew... I nearly died of fear.
2093-09-18 Local Time 0823
"Come on. Get up! Out of the bed!" A pawlike hand banged energically on the quilt, causing the raised dust to dance in the early light. Within Gooseman's head, the whacks sounded like an attacking cohort of heavy Crown cavalry. "I've given you three days to get over your girlfriend's goodbye. But now that's the end of the moping." The drumming repeated. "Out! Breakfast is in half an hour in the kitchen. I know you've got problems with narrow rooms and crooked sitting, so that's why we're eating here." Mrs. Zee tugged vigorously at the blanket, which Goose held while giving an all-consuming, malicious growl that didn't impress the Kiwi lady at all. "Forget it, young man! You get up now whether it pleases you or not. And you can save your growl. I've got three hyperactive children, two notoriously unreliable brothers, and a husband who prefers to roam around the galaxy as ambassador instead of helping at home with the children. You won't match me! So, out of the sheets! Or do I have to tie the Mothmoose to your bed first?"
Goose shot straight up in bed. "Anything but that."
"There you are." Mrs. Zee beamed at him. "I knew I could get you awake. And now come on, we eat in twenty minutes."
When a nicely clean and clean-shaven Goose nearly crawled into the kitchen a quarter of an hour later, he was instantly surrounded by a noisy pack that proved, after a startling second, to be the Kiwi kids, who seemed terribly happy that he was really here.
"Give him some room, children!" Mrs. Zee stood upon a stool at the stove, making something that smelled like pancakes but also disgustingly like milk. "Gooseman doesn't like to have so many people hanging on him these days."
She smiled when he gave her a surprised glance. "I got Pneumox when I was a child. It didn't last for more than two weeks, but it was hard to breathe during that time. I can remember quite well how it was when my whole family visited me. And I don't want to know how it would feel if it were really life-threatening and lasted as long as what you have." She scratched about inside the pan. "I bit my brother then just because he sat too close to me. You believe everybody's taking your air away."
He sniffed when she slipped the contents of the pan onto a big dish and put it, together with a bowl of syrup, on the table.
"I'm sorry, Ma'am. Milk doesn't agree with me."
Mrs. Zee called for order in her bunch of rascals. "No milk? What a pity. Than you go behind the house and pick some zoolas. I'll use the juice to bake new pancakes for you."
"What do Zoolas look like?"
"Can I show them to him, Mom?"
"No, I do!"
"Quiet, children! You all have your food. Gooseman is a big boy. He'll find them on his own." The children settled down. "The almost square-shaped fruits. Take those that are already white and at least as big as my fist, not smaller or pink." She called after him: "The plants have yellow striped leaves!"
"Mom, why doesn't Gooseman know zoolas?"
"He's from a planet where they don't grow, Swee."
"Why is he here?" asked her older son, Buzz.
"I got wounded in an attack."
"Buzz!" Mrs. Zee was shocked.
"But where? There's nothing to see any more."
"My lungs were burned. It's hard for me to breathe."
"Ow. I'm sorry for that, Goose." Buzz looked with wide eyes at him.
"We are, too."
"It'll heal." He piled the square fruits onto the working table next to the stove. "What shall I do with them now?"
"Squeeze them, of course." Mrs. Zee took a big bite of one pancake she had dedicated to Goose and gave him an encouraging smile. "Don't worry. You're gonna love my zoola pancakes. And I'll make a kitchen pro out of you, you'll see." She reflected on Niko's letter that had awaited her at their arrival in the main house and smiled inwardly: "...please keep him busy..." Absolutely no problem!
2093-10-22 Local Time 1756
BetaMountain – GRS5 office
"Niko, do you remember those files we rustled up for Goose?"
She tensed briefly. "Yes, I do."
Doc regretted having mentioned Gooseman. All of them knew how fast his survival chances were falling with every passing day. "I'm sorry. – But these files kept nagging at me. I found out where they were really saved and," her chin rushed up, "I found a hidden mainframe partition that nobody seems to know anything about."
"Did you find more files?"
"Yes, I did. That's just the point. One of them is called 'STPOL.' You've seen these other files, too. Do you have any idea what it could be?" He pushed half a dozen milk-glass readcubies towards her – tiny cube-shaped memory crystals, each with a little holoprojector and an energy cell attached to it.
"What have you done with them?"
"I transferred them into readcuby format because that weird code for the alarm imprint seems to be embedded in them, too. In this format we'll be able to look at them. And SecStaff doesn't scan readcubies." He winked.
"I doubt they can read anyway. – 'STPOL,' you said?"
"Yeah, ST-Pol. Maybe they were planning to start an ST police unit back then. I don't know. Cuby 4."
"Let's see." She activated cuby 4, but instead of a description or explanation, endless columns of a table scrolled through the viewfield. Niko stopped scrolling and started to read. After a moment she frowned and scrolled again. "This doesn't tell me anything... Wait. There are some names in the file, pretty close to the end."
"Do you know what to do with it?"
"No." She thought about it for a moment. "But... May I take them with me? Maybe I know someone who can help us with them." Doc twitched under her cynical smile. "But it's going to take a while."
"We have plenty of time. By the way: Did you really volunteer for the security check at LSL tomorrow?" He shuddered in mock horror. "Yuck. That's always dead boring."
"Depends on what you're searching for, Doc. Depends on what you're searching for... But just out of curiosity: What would I have to consider if I wanted to cover up my visit there so nobody could prove I was there?"
"The vid archive sequences, the backup, the original tapes–"
"I found them by accident the last time they condemned me to do one of these sec checks. Was just after the armada attack. The energy supply was pretty low, and I noticed some set-aside kilowatts." Doc grinned. "LongShot is totally up-to-date, but the base itself is age-old. And you already know the military. Rearm? Sure! Reduce? Never!" He shrugged, "LongShot is probably the only lab facility in the whole League that still makes magnetic tapes of its high-security areas – in an endless loop."
Niko's hand tensed so painfully around his arm that Doc twitched. "How much time does a loop cover, Doc?"
"Two years. Why?"
"Because it may be that this old junk is going to break someone's neck." A hard glitter showed in Niko's eyes. "How do I get access to those tapes?"
2093-10-23 Local Time 0912
LongShot Laboratories – Level Sub-23
Really – there he is! Wheiner. The age-old magnetic tape was blurred, already had picture errors and stripes through the image, but it was the senator. Where's he going? Niko scrolled through the endless, automatically changed tapes. There are recordings here from rooms not even shown on the construction plans! They look like they've been unaccessed for decades. I bet it would be interesting to follow the connections of these cameras to get a complete plan of the ba– There he is again! She looked at the location inserted right in the tape: Room 277-A-3, made a note, and ran the tape onward... What's he taking out of that container? Looks like... That's it!! She stopped the tape and searched through the old, dusty manuals stored under the spiderweb-covered console for a copy procedure...
Eric Wheiner was a cautious man. Anyone who got involved in things like Genomtoxin had to be. He hadn't left the faintest trace in any of the other security systems. What an irony that of all things, something outdated before genetic warfare was even developed nailed him now! Only one question still remained: the connection between Wheiner, Negata, and the GTP.
2093-11-26 Local Time 1148
"It's really simple, Gooseman: you take three eggs, puncture them at the ends with a hole each – use the egg pricker for it, that works best – and lay them in salty water. Than you put the pot on the stove, pay attention when the water starts bubbling and ten minutes later we've got hard-cooked eggs I can dice into lunch."
So far, he'd had no problems. Puncture the eggs, into the pot with salt water on the stove, wait till it bubbles... now! He looked at the clock. Everything's fine. It got stuffy with the pot of water boiling, so he opened the windows and wedged tight the kitchen door. The wind – fresh as always – felt good, and he wouldn't have to expect surprises since the kids were at the agricultural research center on the other end of the island today...
The bang of the detonation made his body react before his mind realized what had actually happened. He flanked over the kitchen table, knocked it to its side, and felt as he fell for a usable weapon. Some part of his brain registered, satisfied, that his battle reflexes were present again and obviously worked perfectly. The next question was more alarming: What triggered them?
The peeling knife at hand and ready to throw, he peered around the table edge – only to drop to back on his backside, floored: The eggs have exploded!
Since when do hen's eggs explode? Except when they're thrown at the speaker at a demo and accidentally hit the pavement. But while cooking? He had to take a deep breath as his adrenaline level slowly went down again, and he leaned, his back very straight, against the cupboard behind him. The eggs had exploded without a doubt. Half-clotted egg whites and yolk remnants were stuck around the stove, on the walls, and even on the ceiling. He looked down himself and discovered that he himself had gotten his share of slime. He scraped a splot of white off his chest.
"What's happened?" Mrs. Zee rushed in and stood stiff as a poker at seeing the mess. "Are you injured?"
"I'm okay." He examined the place, which looked like an SS-64 had hit it. "At least I know now why hand grenades are called 'eggs,'" he grinned, still breathing heavily. "Not because of their shape, but they blow up exactly the same."
"You're allowed to laugh, young man." Mrs. Zee looked over the chaos and shook her head. "You're going to need hours to fix the kitchen."
"Laughing's still too painful," he explained dryly and got back to his feet. "I'll change to non-gluey clothes and get to work on the stuff."
"What on Kirwin did you do to those eggs?"
"No idea, Ma'am. I just followed your orders." With a wilful smile: "But I wouldn't mind trying it again!"
"Don't you dare! Near me, you touch only broken eggs!"
2093-12-30 Local Time 1332
BetaMountain – GRS5 office
"What, you're still here?" Doc took a seat beside her on the console's desktop. "You were already at work here before our shift actually started and now after lunch break you're still here. Have you moved at all?"
Niko kept concentrating on the monitor. "I can work on this project for the first time in three months, Doc." She called up another file from the archive. "I want to have this done."
He laid his hand on her forehead in pretended concern and attempted to feel for her pulse. "Oh no! I diagnose a severe case of workaholism, that needs to be treated immediately."
"Not now, Doc." Niko didn't seem to really notice him. "GV, the next file."
=The next 526 files on the list based on your specifications are recordings of Tri-D broadcasts.=
She sighed. "Play back."
"Niko, I'm really starting to worry about you."
Hartford shook his head. "You're hopeless."
"The group in your space tactics seminar may be pretty good, oh my honorable Captain, but in my applied computer psychology class, the brightest cadet in the bunch is an old tea light candle."
"You're too hard on them, Doc. We've only been teaching them for two weeks now."
"And? – I can't believe it! She's still here."
"What's the problem?"
"Niko. It's nearly 1900 hours and she's still sitting at the console."
"Continuously, since before 0800 this morning? Zach, she's going to fall off the chair."
"What's she doing?"
Fox watched the slightly slumped figure before the terminal. She looked really tired. "Niko?" He went over to her and glanced at the monitor: a BWL session, judging from the wardrobes, an old one. This can't be that important. "Finish tomorrow."
"Not now, Zach." The answer came automatically; she didn't even take her eyes off the monitor. Her hand movement seemed to wipe him to the side like a bit of fluff.
He tried it with authority. "Ranger Niko, as your commanding officer–"
"We're after office hours." Again without looking up.
"What are you still doing here, then?"
"But for what, for Heaven's sake." She's slowly getting to be as stubborn as G– No.
"Hey! I'd always thought he was for that shit!"
"Who? What?" Niko jumped, stared at Doc.
"Well, Wheiner there." He pointed on the display. "Recall the last thing he said. He's definitely talking against the Supertrooper Project. I'd always thought he was the powerhouse behind it."
"What are you say–" A metallic glitter appeared in her eyes. "GV, time index two minutes back. Play back."
–and therefore I think it is indispensable to cover our world sufficiently against the possibility of a setback, an abuse, or even a theft of these experimental weapons. Dear ladies and gentlemen, dear members of the Board of World Leaders, dear colleagues, I demand once and for all the establishment of a project for developing an operational defense weapon against genetically engineered soldiers. I'm also for using STP material for this project. We can't refuse to build up and establish a working defense against these weapon concepts–
"Massacre, that's it!" She settled back into her chair. "GV, I need a copy of this recording and a text quote of the speech – both certified."
"Have you finally found what you were searching for?" Zachary asked into the lasting silence.
Niko pushed back her sweaty hair and noticed her tiredness for the first time. "Yes, I have." She looked up at the two men. "Thank you, Doc. Without you I'd most likely have missed that."
"That's what happens when you work without breaks for more than ten hours."
"Ten hours? What's the time, then?"
"It's nearly 2030."
"Ouch. – Zachary, may I put GV on the remaining questions during the night?"
"Only if you let it work on its own."
He smiled warningly. "Eliza and I expect you for a late dinner at 2130. So don't believe you can work through the night behind my back."
"I won't do that, Zach." She turned toward the console again. "GV, search in the remaining files on the list for the following expressions, whether written or spoken, taking into consideration the possibilities of abbreviations or different spellings. In case of doubt: include it..."
The door behind her slid shut. She looked back; Zach and Doc were already gone. Good. They don't need to know exactly what I'm searching for. "Supertrooper, ST, Supertrooper Project, STP, Genomtoxin Project, GTP, genetically engineered soldiers, Negata, Owen, Walsh, Joseph Horatio, Wheiner, Eric... – report exclusively to me. If someone else tries to get access to it, delete it all: the list, the questions, the results."
=Yes, Ma'am. Even your teammates?=
"Even the Universe itself, GV."
I didn't say I wouldn't shorten the night... Niko slid the GRS5s office door shut behind her at 0100. "Results, GV?"
=Some Tri-D tapes contain allusions to the speech you already saw.=
She waved it away. "Not that important. Save it. Anything else?"
=Some tax reports belonging to Senator Wheiner dating from 2084 to 2086 including the name Negata, Owen.=
"Display!" She opened her thermal coffee pot and took a deep sip as the documents appeared on the screen. "I can't believe it..." She stared for nearly twenty minutes at the files; the coffee got cold in the mug in her hand before she collected herself enough to demand certified printouts.
Owen Negata's integration to a brain unit had been paid for by... Senator Wheiner! If that's not the connection between them, what else is? More, Negata worked at GTP, and Wheiner in LongShot knew exactly where and what he... I've got to find a way to get this to Goose!
2094-03-04 Local Time 1027
"I'm sorry, Zozo. You've missed him." Mrs. Zee stood on the stool in the guest house's kitchen, washing up.
"Why? Zee, where's Gooseman, then? It's urgent. I have to return in two hours."
"Round the island, like every morning."
Mrs. Zee shook her head, causing her big ears to flap. "As far as I know he doesn't use the paths any longer – too easy. You'll have to wait, brother, till he's back, in a good hour."
"How long has he been gone now?"
"About twenty minutes. I must say..." She dried the next dish. "Every day, in the morning and in the evening, no matter what the weather. I've never seen anyone as dogged as he is before."
"You mean he makes the island tour in one and a half hours?"
"More or less. – Here, put these away." She handed Zozo the dishes.
He obeyed. "And you get on well with him?"
"Sure. You can tell Ms. Niko when she gets him back that he wouldn't be too bad as a housekeeper."
"Of course. Who else? Cooking works, too, as long as it isn't eggs." Zee snickered at the memory. "Shane Gooseman and eggs don't get on with each other."
"What happened, then?" Zozo noticed his sister's amusement.
"It's an incredible story, I can tell you...
"...I never found out what he really did to these eggs," she closed, snickering.
Gooseman came back in a sliding trot. A nod of greeting at Zozo sitting on the porch stairs, three heavy steps and he disappeared into the house... Still too slow. Breathing frequency... okay. Pulse frequency... okay. He wrote the measurements into the table with a sigh. The time's going to be a damn sight better this evening!
"Gooseman! I have to talk to you!" – Zozo.
"Yeah?" Goose looked at the Kiwi as if he hadn't noticed him before. "Sorry, I had work to do."
"I have almost no time left, Goose. I've got to be back at the spaceport in less than two hours. Here..." Zozo gave him a tied-up package. "It's from Niko. She said the contents should surprise you."
"Do you know what's in it?"
"No. But she warned me against giving SecStaff access to it."
"Okay. Then I know. – Can you take her something?"
"Sure. – You're finally doing better now, aren't you?"
"I'm still too slow, Zozo, far too slow."
"But you can breathe easy again."
"Yes!" he snapped. "And I'm gonna be faster, too!"
2094-03-09 Local Time 1211
BetaMountain – Cafeteria
"Zach." Doc set his tray on the table and took a seat on the bench opposite his captain. "Where's Niko?"
"Over there." Zach pointed with his fork across the room. "She's waiting for someone."
"She's totally cut herself off." Doc sorted the vegetables on his dish.
Zachary nodded sadly. "She's never totally gotten over the story with Goose. Especially because everybody thought she'd know where he is."
"Even us," Doc ground his teeth.
"And so no one searched carefully enough for him, but wasted time observing her."
"Yes. Since she's so grim, maybe we should go over and cheer her up a little."
"I tried that ten minutes ago. But..." Zach shook his head and grimaced. "She actually sent me away. We can't really do anything when she doesn't want to let us help."
Doc dropped his head. "I know."
"There you are finally, Zozo."
The Kiwi hopped onto the bench next to her. "Sorry, but the hangar crew on duty today is a real imposition. Somebody must have grown them with artificial fertilizer – In any case, he's doing better. Zee told me he's already making the island tour in one and a half hours."
"Yes. But he isn't satisfied with the time."
"Naturally. He used to run ten kilometers in less than ten minutes. But how's he doing besides that?"
Zozo snickered. "Zee keeps him really busy, Niko. If I know my sister, you'll get a perfect houseman back from her – cooking abilities included."
Niko laughed out loud. "Are we really talking about–?"
"Yes, we are."
"I won't believe it till I see it."
"As long as you don't let him cook eggs..."
At Niko's laughter Fox and Doc looked up. "Who's that with her, Doc?"
"Zozo? I can't believe it. The last one who made her laugh that way was Goose."
They saw Zozo pushing a brown envelope towards her. She opened it, looked at the contents, and bright color rushed into her face. The Kiwi next to her snickered. "Zach, just say, do you think Niko and Zozo...?"
"Don't talk such nonsense. Totally impossible!"
"We used to say the same thing about her and Goose, Captain."
She pushed the drawing hastily back into the envelope and was extremely conscious of her flaming cheeks. It has obvious disadvantages to be with a man who has enhanced senses. He sees far too much in the dark! She cleared her throat, embarrassed. "Anything else?"
"He said he needs some things. Wait..." He searched through his pockets. "I've got a list."
Niko looked over it – Air Toxin Test for the breath, and DNA profiles of a good half a dozen people: Walsh, Negata, Sawyer, Drews, Atkinson, Scolary... "For heaven's sake, how am I supposed to get these?"
"I don't know, Niko. But he said it's important."
"That's it. No doubt about it." She sighed. "I'll think of something. – Will you be flying back to Kirwin in the foreseeable future?"
"No, I'm sorry, Niko. But I've got a lecture series starting next week on some of the colonial planets. We've created these varieties of vegetables for dry and salty soils..."
"Okay." She looked at the floor for a moment. "I'll find a solution for it."
2094-04-30 Local Time 0239
BetaMountain – Medical Depot 4
"Please believe me, Doc. I wouldn't drag you into this if I'd found another way to get these things." Niko stood beside Doc, who, kneeling, put two of his programs onto the depot's locking mechanism.
"Apart from our going to sort records at Pluto Base as Series-2 Rangers for the next twenty years if they catch us doing this – why don't you just ask for the stuff? All that's here is medical supplies and data that are freely dispensable."
She sighed audibly. "Because I need not only DNA data from the medical archives, but also a medical test, and all of BETA would scream if I request this test."
"DNA data and a medo test..." Hartford stiffened and looked thoughtfully at her. "You aren't pregnant, are you?" he asked after a moment.
"Pregnant, me?!" It left her speechless, almost. "How am I supposed to tak–" She interrupted herself and stared, flabbergasted, at him. "What on Earth made you think that?"
"Well, you and Zoz–"
"Don't make a fool of yourself!" she snapped at him. "And see that this door opens." She took a deep breath when he returned to his work. "Doc... I'm sorry. I didn't want to yell at you."
"It's okay. I know how you women are in this cond–"
"For the last time – I'm not pregnant!" She laid her hand on her temple. "Me and Zozo – only the necessary geometry exceeds my powers of imagination."
"What test are you looking for, then?"
"Believe me, it's better if you don't know."
"I'm helping you with a crime! At least I want to know why my lovely mom is going to have to visit her little Ranger in prison."
"All right then, Doc." She lowered her head and continued very faintly. "I need an ATT."
"An Air Toxin Test, a sensor for foreign substances in exhaled air."
"Did this infernal stuff back then have an effect on you after all?" he asked, concerned.
"The test isn't for me."
"Holy bits! So you have contact with Goose after all."
"Yes, I do. And he's doing better. Much better, Doc. But I can't remove the psionic block that eliminates his bio defenses before we are sure that all residues in his lungs are gone. That's why I need this test."
"And why must it be absolutely this very night?" He started to grin as the truth began to dawn on him. "Our job, this Series-5 presentation at the diplomatic reception... He's on Kirwin, right?" As she didn't answer, he gave a dismissive gesture. "Search me!" He laughed faintly. "But if I can help you somehow – will be pretty difficult to come back – let me know. I love to unnerve the BETA mainframe." He elegantly pushed open the depot's door.
"You may be risking far more than you think, Doc," she reminded him softly.
"Hey! Once a hacker, always a hacker! And you two were brilliant to take the League, the BWL, all of BETA in general, and Zach in particular for a ride! I just have to be in on that!"
Niko smiled. "You will, Doc. I promise."
"I only hope not in the same cell."
"So, we've got the ATT."
"Did you correct the computer's memory and the archive's administration to prevent its being missed?"
"Of course. I'm no amateur, my dear." He started another one of his programs. "Now let's get down to these DNA profiles. Whatever they're good for." He concentrated on his CDU's display. "Do you want electronic data or original batches?"
"Let's take EDs, they aren't that sensitive."
"All on one memory chip?"
"Separate chips, if possible."
"Okay... We've got access. Which ones do you want besides Zozo's?"
"All right, all right. I just can't let it be. You know me. – So which, then?"
"I'll enter them manually."
She tightened her gloves and started typing. If he reads it on his CDU, too, it's his own fault... Walsh, Joseph H.
"Saved." Doc changed the chip. "Next."
Negata, Owen... Sawyer, Maximilian...
2094-05-04 Local Time 1754
Bales of straw covered tightly with burlap skirted the path towards the guest house. While walking to the porch Niko noticed stab marks and occasional cuts in the cloth. A cork plate hung above the door. Some throwing stars were stuck halfway into it. None of them was more than an inch away from the center. The front door was open, wedged tight, like the two windows visible from her position.
A long sheet of paper was tacked to the wall inside. At the bottom were children's scribblings, but the upper two-thirds of it were covered by a table. She had a look at it: breathing frequency, pulse, hit accuracy before and after the running... At the top a lot of the notes were underlined in red; further down came more and more blue squiggles. In the fifth row from the end, all of the measurements had blue rings around them. Somebody had written an enthusiastic YEAH!!! next to the row...
She heard a rattling in the kitchen and followed the noise. Gooseman stood at the stove and stirred the contents of a big pan. The sea wind blew the steam immediately away through the also-wedged-tight kitchen door.
He spun round so fast that a fistful of noodles splashed beside the stove, and looked at her as if he were seeing a ghost. "Niko."
"I have to apologize to Zozo because I didn't believe him." She dropped her space sac on the kitchen table and breathed a kiss on his cheek. "Who expected that Mrs. Zee could even knit a houseman out of a Supertrooper?"
Shane laughed out loud. "She would transform the Queen of the Crown into a cleaner if you let her. Do you have the ATT?"
"Yes, of course. Do you think you're already that far?"
"Give it to me."
"And your noodles?"
"Can wait." He took the pan off the heat, folded out the sensor, and inhaled deeply through the apparatus insert, then exhaled strongly through it and waited five minutes in complete silence. Then...
"Yeeeehaaaa!!!" He flung his arms around her neck and whirled her through the room till they nearly collided with the cupboard. "It's over!" He looked with glowing eyes at her. "Remove the block."
"We should wait a little longer, if–"
"Remove this damn block!"
She ignored the growl in his voice, concentrated and sensed for the old barriers... "Done. But I don't know if it worked."
"Did you transfer some energy to the implant?"
"About an eighth. I can't give more."
"Will be enough!" With a jerk he slammed his hand flat on the red-hot cooking plate.
It sizzled. She felt sick at the smell. "Are you ins–?"
His bio defenses glowed and replaced the burned flesh. "Everything's fine." He moved his fingers in a short test and began to laugh wildly. "It's all over now!!!"
She came towards him with wobbling knees, suddenly leaned against him. "Never do that again! Never again! Do you hear me? You frightened me to death. What if it hadn't worked...?"
"Then I'd be entitled to a disability pension." He held her tightly, raised her chin with his hand, and looked very seriously at her. "I had to know. Now. Immediately. It was the fastest way. And injury correction is a pure reflex. If something works, then that's that."
He lowered his head, then met her eyes again. "Never forget what I am. We can't afford that."
She laid her head on his shoulder. "I know. But I can't feel differently..."
He watched her, felt the slight trembling in the body beside his and recognized that he had to distract her. He turned and grabbed with one hand for his pan. "Hey. Do you want to eat with me? But it's hot."
"Yes." She sniffed and straightened up. "I won't let a chance slip to taste something you've cooked."
He shoveled noodles covered with spice powder into a bowl and put it on the table. "How long can you stay?"
"Till tomorrow afternoon. The ambassador can't hide my absence for longer."
"At least now I understand what Mrs. Zee meant when she said it was really unlikely that I'd get bored during the two days she and her children are staying with her husband at the capital." He smiled challengingly.
Niko giggled. "Don't carry it too far, Shane. First you have to get used to your new old abilities again before I let you that close to me." Her giggling turned into laughter when he managed a half-serious offended growl. "I've got the things you asked for. Likely we won't have that much time." She helped herself to a moderate portion of noodles. "The ATT is obvious, but what do you need DNA profiles for? Have you found something out?"
"Yes. But you won't like it." He piled some slices of fresh toast and a glass pitcher of water on the table and sat down. "Later."
She took a forkful of noodles, chewed, swallowed... "Hmm, not bad at all–" She started to cough heavily.
He gave her a glass of water. "I said it's hot."
She drank and blinked the tears away. "That isn't hot. That's nearly tear gas. What do you call it?"
"The understatement of the galaxy. What's in it, exactly?"
"Fenugreek seed, cayenne pepper, ginger, cardamom, coriander, cloves, mace, hot paprika, pimento, black pepper, mustard seed, and turmeric. The vegetables are only a carrier to get the spice powder onto the noodles."
She coughed, hearing the recipe. "You should take out a patent for it as a chemical weapon."
"Maybe I'll do that." He ate with appetite. "But it tastes better than VX."
"Do you know yet what's behind this file STPOL?" They sat at the living room table, on which heaps of printouts, readcubies, and an old laptop covered with a lot of stickers above the Kirwinian labelling struggled for places. "Doc guessed a planned police unit."
Gooseman shook his head. "S-T-P-O-L: Super-Trooper-Project-Object-Listing."
"You mean this is a list of the equipment used in Wolf Den?"
"No. It's a table of the STs."
"Look here." He presented her a readcuby printout. "I've condensed the data, chosen some of the more than 1.6 million sets, and made a combined printout."
She scanned it. "That doesn't mean anything to me. What do the names stand for?"
"'Object ID' is the gene set, which is numbered continuously. 'Incept' means the date of preparation, and 'Decant'..." He hesitated for a moment, then continued coldly, "is what corresponds to birth for people like me."
"You mean all these numbers stand for..." she stared at him in amazement.
"Yes. Gene sets. Possible or real STs."
"But there were thousands," she whispered, remembering the size of the original file.
"More. At least 1,643,453."
"How do you get that?"
"ID's were numbered continuously," he said calmly. "That's mine. And only if they stopped with me, which I don't really believe."
She hid her shock by looking again at the printout. "That can't be true, Shane. You were seventeen when you joined our unit. Therefore you must have been born in 2069. After this 1,643,453 was de– decan..."
"Decanted in 2067. I know." He smiled cynically. "Look under 'Status.' – We were considered alive only when we proved ourselves. Before that, they didn't even make the effort to give us names."
His mouth twitched. "Homo sapiens sapiens only. The STJ didn't connect with the carrier-DNA in that case."
"You mean...?" She didn't dare to say it aloud.
He did it for her. "They were normal babies, Niko. Unable to survive in the project."
"Gods." She scanned the table again. "What do the letters by the dates in 'Status' mean?"
"V means 'viable.'" He snorted sarcastically. "Within the realms of the STP, that means on interstellar battlefields or in hell! A means 'abandoned' and L 'loss.'" When she only stared at him with eyes wide: "Those who were killed in the training or wounded so severely that a full recovery would be unlikely."
"You don't mean that... do you?"
"There are no invalid STs, Niko," he said flatly. "A's and L's went to GTP." He knocked with a fingernail on the printout. "It's clearly shown by 'Use.'"
She clenched her hands to suppress the trembling. "Xanadu's Star. They really used embryos for..."
"Yes." He clasped her suddenly cold fingers and held them tight. "And with completely developed babies, children, and older STs. Durhardt was transferred in May 2084. He was already eighteen then... And we both know what must have happened to him there." He gave a bitter laugh. "I've gone through a part of it."
"Wheiner took something that looked like a grenade out of LongShot." She shivered, thinking how close Goose had been to death. "I had a look at the tapes before I made the copies I sent you. But I didn't have a chance to find out whether or not it was filled with gas."
"It was." Goose pushed a still frame print over to her, pointed at the object in Wheiner's hand. "That's a carrier-3. Those things are only used for battle gases. Once they're triggered they disintegrate within five minutes after the contents have streamed out."
"And no warning in the field that a gas like Genomtoxin was released."
"I could search for his psionic image in the ventilation as I did with the thugs."
"Wheiner isn't stupid enough to do this kind of thing himself. And apart from that–" He looked forcefully at her. "Niko, I want to get Wheiner for the GTP, not only for the attack on me."
She looked up, met his eyes. "Maybe we can finish the puzzle before I have to go back."
"Let's give it a try. Here, this is the pattern I've made so far from the information."
"Then we should continue with it. Let me have a look..."
"What makes you say that date for the start of GTP?"
"The first transfer was on the fourth of November, 2066."
"Wheiner's speech before the BWL was in April of the same year. It fits."
Gooseman noted it in red on their diagram. "The question remains of why Negata went to GTP."
"Wheiner paid for the brain unit." Niko dug up the certified printout of the tax reports. "Here and here. Do you see? He even deducted it."
"You think the senator blackmailed Negata?"
"I wouldn't put it past him. Following the pattern: Either you work for me as I like or I want my hardware back."
"Fits in." Another note. The sheet was slowly filling with his handwriting.
Niko overviewed the references. "There must be a lot of dirty laundry between Walsh and Wheiner."
"Yep." The cynical half-smile was painfully familiar to her. "I guess I'm part of it." He pointed at two of the notes and then tapped on the printed GTP file. "Natural DNA sequences are the only ones this infernal stuff doesn't attack."
"Are you sure?"
"I've done almost nothing but read and learn in the last eighteen months, Niko." He grimaced. "Because it was the only thing I could do to keep me from cracking up. The file says Genomtoxin splits the standard fill sequence that's used for the inactive parts normally cluttered with evolutionary garbage in natural DNA. If I understand only a tenth of what's said in all those schoolbooks, then this SFS is nothing but continuous repetition of a short sequence of useless code. And it's that fill sequence that Genomtoxin cracks. That's why it affects STs but not normals."
"But you are an ST."
"Obviously not only – otherwise I'd be dead."
"That's why the DNA profiles?"
"Aye. There weren't many people with access to the gene sets and the ability to change them."
"Do you really reckon it's Walsh?" Niko frowned at the note.
The cynical strain around his chin increased. "It would explain a lot. Especially if Wheiner got wind of it."
"How could that have happened?"
Gooseman shrugged his shoulders. "He had Sawyer's files confiscated. And Sawyer and Walsh cooperated closely at Wolf Den." He looked to the side, avoiding her eyes. "And it would be an as-wide-ranging manipulation of a high security project as the release of the enhancer into the barracks' ventilation, and therefore the ideal contra-blackmailing."
"You really mean–?"
"It looks like there's a kind of stalemate between them, or else I'd already be in the cryocrypt."
"What did Wheiner do?"
"He caused the Wolf Den Riot."
"Are you sure?"
"Yes, I am. But I can't prove it." He laughed bitterly. "Limited civil rights."
Niko's comment was as unladylike as it was crude.
"You're damn right about that, girl. But do you really believe a man like Whining Eric would forget to cover himself?"
"According to your notes, he treated himself to a second capital crime: Here, in September 2087, the theft of Batch 22 – whatever that is – from LongShot."
"Biological weapon, absolutely lethal." He raised his hand when she opened her mouth. "Don't ask me."
"And why wasn't he called to account for that?"
"Only three people knew about it: Walsh, Negata and I. – Why Walsh and I didn't talk is clear: the same reason as with the riot. And Negata... Just have a look at the latest file Doc dug up about the GTP. It dates from...?"
"September 2087! Then Negata blackmailed Wheiner to free himself." Exhausted, she leaned back. "What a horror show."
"It's charming, isn't it?" he grinned sarcastically.
"How can you laugh about it?"
"I survived seventeen years in Wolf Den," he answered dryly.
She yawned. "Sorry, didn't get much sleep at BETA because I had to organize your stuff, and I had cockpit duty on the flight to Kirwin." She stretched. "We still have no really proven connection between Wheiner and GTP."
He snorted in disgust. "I know. And there's something else: If these natural sequences in my DNA are really from Walsh, Wheiner is going to slip right through it again."
"Because the first question from the BWL would be: Why aren't you dead? And I'd have to answer."
"You'd have to put the commander's head on the block."
"And my own, too. Walsh reached most of the arrangements for me." He added much more faintly: "And probably also saw to it that they were kept. I think we better don't ask how."
"Still, if Wheiner knows that you aren't solely an ST," she yawned again, "and he knew from the GTP that the stuff kills only STs, then why..."
"He must have hoped it would work." He saw her lay her head on her folded arms. "Was his best damn attempt so far." Her eyes had fallen shut. A strand of hair moved in the rhythm of her breath before her face. "But he didn't take into account your presence and that help would come so fast because of you," he whispered roughly and pushed the strand back without waking her. "Thank you isn't enough for a life... for no one's... not even for mine."
Somebody kissed her softly on the temple. "Thank you for a breathtaking night." She blinked and met two laughing green eyes only a few centimeters away. He lay on the quilt next to her, propped on his arms, and watched her. "I'd have let you sleep on, but it's nearly 1400."
"Why am I...?"
He frowned and got up. "I've heard before about post-orgasmic amnesia, but don't you think you're going over the top with it?"
"We–" She interrupted herself as she came fully awake and threw the pillow at him. "Bastard! Nothing happened at all!"
He only just escaped the missile and grinned. "Touchdown. You fell asleep around 0630 this morning at the table. I thought the bed would be more comfortable for you."
"Thank you. It's a long time since somebody called me that."
"What did you really do while I was asleep?"
"Make new drawings?"
She snickered. "You won't catch me again. Seriously now."
"Since Doc is in on this now I may have a solution on how to get back."
"Really? Do tell."
"Yes. But Doc would have to hack into the BETA mainframe, and I need a proper uniform – otherwise it won't work. And the ambassador has to join the ruse."
"Zeezo would be better. But he's risked so much already. I guess he won't stop at a hypercom cable now..."
"Do tell – now!"
2094-05-30 Local Time 1503
"Gooseman." Zeezo's glider came to a halt next to him as he stopped in the middle of the way. The ambassador threw a big envelope over to him. "The analysis you asked for just arrived. I thought I'd bring it over to you personally when I picked up my children." The Kiwi winked. "And I like your idea. We'll do it that way. I'll order Zozo to the seed show on Kirwin at the beginning of next month, then he can bring you the uniform." Zeezo activated the repeller field again and laughed. "I'd always thought the STs were dangerous because of their physical strength, but I don't want to see you on the Board."
Gooseman waved briskly with the envelope. "Don't worry, Ambassador. There're things even an ST won't do."
His movements were easy and fluent again. Though the implant wasn't charged, his bio defenses intervened in his body's behavior, correcting, increasing. Gooseman ran effortlessly on the path he'd find with closed eyes in the darkness by now. The memories of Wolf Den caught up with him. The knowledge began to move up on him. It was useless to speed up...
...a name: Mikhal; a face: almost-black eyes, light brown skin... He was a BDC just like me, only ten days older – counted after decantation, not the first sorting...
He remembered. The images ran next to him now.
...Killbane, who attacked Mikhal. Mikhal, who beat back in despair and dodged away. And who left the training ground without trying to start a counterattack. Mikhal, who always made only one or at most two transformations a day and most often only transformed head, chest, and a hand. Mikhal, on whose coverall stood a bright red A instead of the usual V next to the ID number, one day after the guards in their room lit up the tree with the colored lights. And who disappeared four days later...
He suppressed a shudder.
A stood for abandon. None of us knew what that A really meant. But I know it now. I got a foretaste of the death that awaited those with an A – if they were lucky. Genomtoxin is called Substance 46,652. If the labelling in the GTP was done in the same scheme as at Wolf Den, that means 46,651 substances that were dismissed for being too ineffective. 46,651 substances... if only 1 percent of those were tested with STs, that's about five hundred series of tests... How many had to die per series? How slowly? What happened to those who didn't die immediately? How many died a wretched death just during the tests for finding the optimum dose? And how does it have to be given? There wouldn't be any answers to this...
Between November 2066 and July 2084 about 40 percent of the gene sets were transferred to the GTP, starting with a nearly three-year-old girl they'd named Vampyreia. One of them was Mikhal... The file doesn't even contain his name any longer, as if he'd never existed, wiped out – erased – like Mikhal himself. 40 percent of the gene sets... Vampyreia's number was around 8,000... There had to be nearly 700,000 victims...
He stopped, pressed his hands on his sides, remembering a terrorizing feeling, and suppressed a choking. Even if most of them didn't end up in the test chambers... What happened to them? There are no cryocrypts that large... He remembered the third variant of entry in the 'Use' column, a simple line: No longer usable. He closed his eyes, his fist clenched around the envelope in his hand. I'm one of them. Somehow... The answer in here will decide whether or not someone will sit in judgement over these murders. The envelope in his fist rustled. But it's no use to die with them... It won't change anything – I'm an ST... I'm one of those they call monsters.
He had locked the door behind him and closed the windows. He didn't need any disturbances now. A decision waited in this envelope... Almost furious, he tore it open, read over the analysis: 0.49%... 1.10%... 0.09%... 0.98%... 49.9% on the last profile.
Chapter 7: Sunrise
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."