Captain Zachary Fox looked up when Lt. Sheela McIntyre entered the GRS5 office and headed directly towards Gooseman's desk. It was unusual for Commander Walsh's first adjutant to roam around BETA. She exchanged some very urgent words with the ST.
"His wristcom is lying on the desk in his office. I can't hide his absence from duty much longer. Eventually somebody who's allowed to disturb conferences will come and then..." She let her words trail off.
"What do you expect from me?" Gooseman asked, frowning.
"I thought that if anyone could find him and keep silent about it, it would be you."
"How long's he been gone?"
"He left shortly after he went on duty today and didn't come back."
Gooseman glanced at the wall chrono. "That would be about five hours." He frowned again. "Keep it secret. I'll do my best."
Gooseman reined in Triton in front of the pale yellow house where he had lived for almost two years and dismounted. The cybersteed seemed to sense that he wasn't in the mood for talking, for it had kept silent since they left the mountain. Hope Mrs. Santiago has already arrived for her cleaning tour, he thought as he pressed the buzzer. "It's Shane Gooseman," he said into the receiver. "Mrs. Santiago, I need–"
=Identity confirmed. Clearance granted.= The door slid open in front of him.
My clearance is still valid? Astonished, he entered the house. The commander had refused to have a visual display built in. Communication with the house AI was strictly verbal. "CINC, where's Mrs. Santiago?"
=Mrs. Santiago hasn't arrived yet.=
"Has Commander Walsh been here after he left this morning for duty?"
"Is he still here?"
=No. He left three hours ago.=
No more information was available from CINC. The AI wasn't programmed to watch the interior. Warily, Gooseman went deeper into the house, feeling uneasy.
One of the photographs in the living room was missing. After a moment he discovered it on the table next to a glass of brandy. Only one or two sips could have been drunk out of it. As if someone had taken it off the wall, looked at it for a while and refused to hang it back. It was one of the portraits. He looked at it thoughtfully, noticing the contrast between her long, pale blond hair and the huge tree behind her crowned with the dark, full leafage of midsummer. Whoever this is, she's a beautiful woman. His gaze wandered to the other photos on the wall. Most of them were taken at that place...
He grew more and more uneasy: this wasn't his place, he wasn't supposed to be there, and he was searching through the life of a man he didn't know at all. But the man he knew had to be found soon – and brought back. And Walsh could order him not to do exactly that. Shane got a strong feeling that this was clearly beyond his skills.
He went outside again, sealed the house carefully, and remounted for his ride back to the mountain. If he guessed right, he would need an official permission from Zach for the rest of his search.
Dry leaves whispered under the hooves of a halted steed at the end of the trees. Leather squeaked as the rider dismounted. He couldn't hear the steps that had to follow.
Walsh didn't turn. "How did you find me?"
He heard Shane stopping in his tracks for a moment. "I remembered the photographs in your house, Sir." The ST crossed the last meters between them. "Most of them were taken at the same place, and there aren't many reservoirs around Phoenix old enough for trees that big."
Walsh snorted. "You're a damned good tracker."
"You were my teacher." The boy took a seat at the other end of the moss-covered trunk. "Nice place."
Your mother had a feeling for places. That was one of those things no one expected from a woman like her.
"Strange. It's as if I know it."
You've been here once. On the last day of an unwounded world when you were still within your mother.
"I know that thoughts sometimes need places. Or at least space."
"The difference is, if I do that the Fifth Fleet will hunt for me; if you do it, it's only me who comes looking." After a moment of lasting silence: "Hell, I wish Niko were here. She's much better with these shrink things than I am."
"She wouldn't have come half as far with me as you already have, Shane."
Walsh knew that the boy didn't understand, but there were too many things he wasn't willing to tell. With a sigh the commander got up and straightened. "Mission accomplished, Gooseman. I'll return to base and I won't come back here."
"Why not, Sir?"
He nodded at Triton under the trees at the edge of the surrounding park forest. "'Cause the brass know the place now."
"Your glider includes the GPS functions, too, Sir. So your position here's already been recorded."
Walsh smirked sadly. "No way, boy." He pointed with his head at some bushes some distance away. "Army doesn't come with a GPS." The dark grey horse raised its ears at its name and pulled off some more grass. "But now... it won't be the same with them able to find me here."
Goose seemed to think about that a moment and then pulled a tiny, gold-plated chip out of his shirt pocket. "I don't think they can, Sir."
Joseph recognized it immediately: A cybersteed transmitter. "How long have you been doing this? Disabling your steed's transmitter after leaving the base?"
"I hate to be controlled, Sir." Gooseman grinned slightly and walked over to the grey mare. "No transmitter, no control signal, no GPS recording." He brought Walsh's horse over to him. "Sir, Lieutenant McIntyre can't hide your absence from duty much longer."
"I know." Walsh took Army's reins and remounted. "Time for reality again." He spurred the mare into a trot away from the lake.
Triton joined the horse on the way back through the forest. "Why did you leave, Sir?"
Walsh looked over at the ST riding at his side and made a decision. "Today would have been my silver wedding anniversary." He turned his horse and looked back at the dark green water surrounded by early autumn-colored trees. "Leana loved this place."
"She's the woman in the photographs in your house, right?" Goose asked when the commander forced his horse to a faster trot on the way back to the base.
"Yes." A harsh note in Walsh's voice indicated clearly that he didn't want to go on with this topic. Your mother, boy.
"Your wedding anni... Then you're going to do this next year, too?"
"Not while I'm on duty," Walsh snapped.
"Good. I hate to hunt people I know."
I can't do anything about your bounty hunter duty, boy. I wish I could.
Walsh dismounted near an unmanned emergency entrance of Beta Mountain. From here a tunnel below the lake ran to the base.
"Can you slip in without being noticed, Sir? Lieutenant McIntyre is keeping you in conference right now."
A bitter grin flashed across Walsh's mouth. "There are no codes at this base I don't know. I'm going to work – you get Army back to the Hays estate."
"Sir," Goose looked uncomfortably around and rummaged in his pockets. "My permission is limited to the Park range."
"You were pretty sure to find me there." Walsh took the severely crumpled paper from him. "How much did you tell Captain Fox?"
"The Captain and I have kind of a deal regarding this permission thing the Board insists on. I don't cause trouble outside and he doesn't ask for too many details." He grinned. "Works pretty well."
Looks like I made a good choice for your commanding officer. Walsh got a pen out of his pocket, scribbled something below Fox's note, signed it and handed it back. "That does it. If you should meet Lady Prime Senator Hays at the estate," he put the pen back into his pocket and turned for the security locks keyboard, "tell her both old horses are safely back in their stables."
"Don't worry, Gooseman. She'll understand." The lock clicked shut behind him.
CINC [C-in-C]: (milit. abbr.) Commander-in-Chief = commander of all the armed forces of a country