Geist /gaist/ n – [German]
1 mind, intellect, spirit, awareness, morale, wit, attitude, outlook
2 ghost, haunting, apparition, demon, the Evil One
The armored military shuttle undocked smoothly from the large Space Navy vessel and headed back toward the planet's surface, shimmering blue and green – and at the moment also black and brown from the Crown Armada's bombardment – below.
Gooseman's mouth twitched cynically. Usually, he was the last pilot on Earth who'd be ordered to transport valuable or breakable goods. But right now, he was also the only one they trusted to bring a sensitive freight through the rubble the destruction of the Armada had left behind in orbit.
Currently, they were cleaning the main trajectories as frantically as they cleaned up the destruction on the surface. Unfortunately, they weren't done with anything yet.
Goose snorted. He hated these boring 'taxi-jobs.' Navigation through rubble was not much more than a slow 4D puzzle game. And when it came to him, he could have done it when he was five years old.
A faint creaking and the hint of a sizzle were the only warnings he got before the shuttle with the promising name of 'GRS-42 Possibility' reached the lower atmosphere and exploded into a ball of purple-streaked fire.
Geist blinked for the first time in an uncounted number of years and cursed inwardly when he felt the shards and metal fragments of the shattered hibernation unit penetrating his unprotected skin. The damned assholes could – at least – have frozen him with his clothes on! But that was nothing he could change now. As for his exposed, uncomfortably sprawling position...
In a smooth, rolling movement he came to his feet, on a floor that was supposed to be a ceiling, ignored the cuts it caused in his feet, and sucked in the air, filled with the smoke curling through the extensively destroyed facility that had been built to imprison and hibernate the most dangerous ones. Especially him.
He snorted and his lips curled into a cruel smile. Now, obviously somebody had fucked things up.
Goose scrambled to his feet and cursed at the bleeding cuts sharp-edged metal left in his skin. A short glance across the wrecked interior told him that this hadn't been one of his better landings. "Great," he muttered. Not only did he run the risk of another ship coming off his paycheck, now he was going to have – in addition – a pissed QBall at his heels screaming about the lost freight. Something burned in his nostrils.
He snorted heavily. He'd better get out of here quickly.
The already shattered lock didn't stand more than two of his furious kicks, which left bloody prints of a bare right foot on the metal. Then he was rewarded with fresh, humid air sweeping over his skin as he jumped down the six meters to the ground.
Thunder rolled in the distance. Lightning partially erased the darkness, but it wasn't raining. Yet. The wind was growing colder as it touched the bare skin of his back when he turned to look up at the torn corpse of the shuttle, causing a chill along his spine. With a faint curse at the reason for it, he began searching the area surrounding the wreck. If any poisonous stuff had been spilled, or traces of what happened were to be found outside, he'd better find them before the rain washed everything away.
Geist's fist closed around the burned watch as he picked it up out of the dust, clasped around it, and its ashes raining through spread fingers back to the ground. "Apparently, somebody here played...
...with fire." Goose watched the starstone fragment evaporating in his palm. He turned at the sound of spaceship engines and wordlessly watched Ranger-1 coming down next to the crater the impact of his shuttle had caused.
Shit... and the commander's always so happy when I lose my clothes in front of an audience. Especially when I'm on Earth. "It's a goddamned waste of uniforms, Gooseman!" Walsh had barked the last time. "And people become upset when you show your bare butt to the public! Did you get that by now?" – "Yes, sir," he'd sighed. "I did."
At least, part one. As for part two...
At the moment he was just too damn happy that he still had a butt to show to the public to worry about it. Considering his discovery from a moment ago that hadn't been too likely an outcome. Not even with his black hole-proved abilities.
Zachary, wrapped in contamination protective gear appeared at the rim of the crater. "Goose's on his feet," he shouted back towards where the ship must be. "There's no radiation within viewing range."
"I could have told you if you asked!" Gooseman called up at him.
"Can you make it up to here by yourself?" Zach studied the shuttle's remnants briefly. "This is a job for the wrecking crew anyway."
"Sure," he ground his teeth.
"Are you all right?" Zach asked at Goose's choked tone.
"Implant's discharged. Some cuts from after the crash. Nothing important but–"
Niko appeared behind the Captain. Her head bent in psychic concentration. "You're right, Zachary," she said in a voice softened from her mental efforts. "No radiative contamination or other pollution anywhere near." She had her shield collapse. "But there's a strange signature I can't wholly classify."
"No. It's more... like a memory of something very powerful. And an entity identical but different than–" she followed the Captain's line of sight down into the crater just a second before Goose reached the rim. Her eyes widened.
"What?" Shane raised a mocking brow at her burning face as he stalked past her to Ranger-1. "It's nothing you haven't seen before."
For a moment Goose felt his hair brushing over his back when it flew in the wind as he climbed up the landing ramp. Inwardly, he cursed at the reflex that had him feel for the short-cropped stubbles in his neck – a militarily correct hair style. He caught his reflection on the polished hull of Ranger-1 and blue eyes laughed mockingly back at him.
:::Unfocussed baby::: whispered the... Ghost?! in his mind, causing the long-flowing-short-cropped strands to stand on end. :::Goosey : You've got to find out what asshole did that to us:::
Did what?! he asked growling in his thoughts ignoring for a moment the impossibility of such a disembodied voice.
:::Blew us up with starstones:::
LongShotLaboratories – Level Sub-15 – Storage room 156
"Where's your sleeping bag, Gooseman?"
"Don't need one, Captain." The ST dropped his bundle on the camp bed and pushed it away into a corner of the storage room. "It's only a trap in case of trouble."
"That's our Goose." Doc shook his head. He'd connected the CDU with his toaster and the pretimed coffee machine he'd put up on a crate next to his camp bed and was now searching along his high-tech – pardon, the 'Heated Comfort for the Happy Camper™' – sleeping bag for the serial port to connect it as well. "He's stored in the best secured institution on the planet and believes he's gonna get raped while sleeping."
"It happens always when you don't expect it, Doc." Zach stated grimly and wondered for a brief moment why Niko had just winced for no apparent reason. Then he returned his attention back to Doc's complicated preparations for the night. "I expect you're preparing breakfast for all of us, Doc."
"What, me?!" The hacker stared at him. "But I'm no cook. This is just my poor attempt to survive this."
Fox snorted. "Be happy that we are allowed to stay at the LSL tonight."
"Mostly because we're supposed to work here tomorrow anyway." Doc drew a face. "And this way QBall can chase us around right from the start."
"Otherwise it would have been the great hall at BETA for us, would you have preferred that?"
"Again?! What have they blown up this time?"
"Nothing. They're adjusting the defense shield tonight. All outer levels are closed. And that includes the personnel apartments."
"Where are your kids staying, Zach?" Niko asked.
"With their grandparents. Their house wasn't hit."
"Why don't you stay with them?"
He sighed. "I didn't get leave from base."
"Are you done with the chatter?" A growling voice asked. "There are people preferring sleep over small talk here."
Goose had slung the blanket around him, rested his head on the bundle with the fresh uniform for the morning. Not that he expected to sleep. Not because of the camp bed, that wasn't the problem. He could sleep on the bare floor as well – Hell! He'd slept on frozen rubble fields when necessary – but it was something different... with her that close, when her scents slowly invaded the room. His hearing involuntarily began to focus on her breathing...
Damnation. He could never manage to ignore her. And the others...
The cluttered tent was dimly lit by a flickering candle that stuck in the bullet hole in the cranium of a non-human skull. Non-human, for it was too small and bore curved horns and tusks like no human being – or any other animal he'd seen yet – did. Geist sprawled, lying flat on his back, on an obscenely comfortable bed.
The partially shattered metal dome above creaked faintly as it cooled down in the night. The position of the camp was chosen wisely, he admitted ungrudgingly. The metal and the wiring likely still being in the structure was a good shield against most kinds of sensors sweeping the area, still there was a great number of escape paths if needed.
The woman was annoyingly attaching, but she had – at least – a brain. And the knowledge he needed. The knowledge of the world as it was now. A world that had garbled up almost everything, even its name. Jerra! he snorted inwardly, as if Terra was hard to remember.
The distrustful gangmen whispered outside, fairly away from the tent, but their voices still reached him. Across the distance, through the cloth of the tent, over the voice of the woman close to his cheek.
"–the Negusrom fighting tex battle armor. Their power suits are the best. The regular army is all but gone."
He'd have to keep a close eye upon them when he was going to alter the picture the woman's voice was painting. He'd use his subconscience during sleep to draw up the plan about this.
She leaned closer. "But another thing, I bet you haven't made love to a real woman in a long time" Too close. He narrowed his eyes in her direction to assess her assault abilities. Nothing relevant, no reason to delay sleep and planning. Good. "Why are you looking at me like that?" She dared to touch his chest, to reach for the badge. "Is that your name on this tag?" She brushed across it, spelling the name imprinted on it. "G - E - I - S - T. It sounds so strong." She turned away, cloth rustled, leather hit the floor.
He ignored it. "The regular army, can you tell me exactly where they are based?"
"Who cares about a little thing like that." The candle was blown out, filling the room with darkness and a whiff of smoke. "Geist..." She turned back to him, wearing but skimpy panties.
Seemed her assumptions were to be dealt with first. "You're so wrong. All I want from you is the information that's in your head. I can't care less about the rest."
"Don't say that to me," she breathed, coming even closer. "You make me feel so ashamed." Which obviously didn't hinder her, since her body touched him, her lips closed over his mouth, hands caressed the hair at his temples...
The room had grown quickly silent. They all had a tough day ahead, despite their different assignments across the labs. Niko looked over at the motionless figure covered only by a light blanket. She was freezing just at the sight of it, still she hadn't expected him to sleep at all. He seemed to prefer strict solitude to relax. But... he slept. Maybe the crash had exhausted him more than he had admitted this morning. Maybe he pretended...?
She reached for her badge, used a fraction of her implant's charge for her abilities to increase her eyesight psionically.
No, he really slept... peacefully? Was that the right word for the unusually tranquil face? Still, there was movement behind his closed lids. Was he dreaming? If so, of what? The laws of her world didn't allow her to fulfill her curiosity's demands...
Niko laid down herself, snuggled into the warmth of her own sleeping bag, and reminded her restless mind that recently she was thinking improperly often about Gooseman. Almost three months had gone by and she still... three weeks ago she'd wanted to kill O'Mega on– Stop that, Niko! she snapped annoyed at herself again.
...he gasped. She kissed him with considerable intensity. Her tongue forced her way between his lips, touching his teeth, his palate, getting caught with his own. Her hands burned on his chest. She flung an arm around his neck, pulled him down to her, while the other hand fumbled for the fastenings of his trousers. He managed to slow down his fall, felt her hand on his thigh. He couldn't, wouldn't fight against her. Following her almost insane passion, he gave in, burying his face in her chestnut-red hair...
Geist blinked once at the eerie sensation of... what?!...
Abruptly wide awake again, he narrowed his eyes to merely slits. Red?! He freed his arm from Vaiya's weight and drove his hand hard into her thick, black mane, jerking her off his chest. "Go away. I'm done with you now." She hit the ground with a hard thump–
Goose jerked out of sleep, gasping. Pain rushed through his eyes, falsely adapted to pitch-black darkness, as he searched the room, dimly lit because LongShot being a high security area demanded that, for her shattered body.
"Are you hurt?" he asked, rather choked.
"Hmmm...?" Niko huddling in the warmth of her thickly padded sleeping bag whispered sleepily before she even opened her eyes. "What's wrong...?"
"Could your conversation wait until daylight hours?" Zach raised his head and threw them a dark look. "We've only got three hours of sleep left and I for one would love to get them."
"I'm sorry," Goose squeezed through clenched teeth. "It won't happen again." He laid down again, turned his back towards the others in the far too brightly lit room.
Never show weakness.
:::Never show weakness:::
Hearing the Ghost saying his own thoughts at the very same moment chilled him to the bone.
Soot particles. Each between a hundred and a thousand Angstrom in diameter. Each containing carbon and aromatic compounds, partially toxic. Each more or less of the same origin were sucked in the rhythm of his breathing into his nostrils, onto the mucous membrane there that was the first filter between his body system and the outer world. Also the first sensor.
Geist's nose crinkled at the amount of them. He sneezed.
Something was burning. Nearby. He was in a tent on a flammable bed.
The next moment he was on his feet, weapon drawn, knife at hand. Eyes shielded against smoke and adapted to darkness to see...
The tent was untouched, even a little chilly.
:::Goose : Goosey : Goose-a-Lilo::: The Ghost shouted in his mind. :::Get your petty arse out of bed : We're getting toasted:::
Shut up, he groaned. Let me sleep. Then his sleepy mind noticed the distinctive smell as well. Carbonics. Soot... Smoke! –
"FIRE!" Goose's bark raised them all in it's sheer volume. His blanket was still fluttering to the floor when he hit the light switch next to the door and reached for the manual sprinkler system trigger behind a glass plate next to it.
"Don't!" The Captain had come to his feet in a more fortunate position than the ST to make out the source of the smoke: Doc's toaster. "The sprinkler's not necessary." Somewhere in the back of his mind, Zachary noticed that the ST seemed to draw his weapons at any threat first and then considered whether or not they were the appropriate response. The rest of his mind noticed with relief that it wasn't actually open fire, but overdone toast that had black smoke wavering through the room.
Gooseman seemed to notice, too, for he secured his blasters and stuffed them back into his weapon belt. "Doc–"
"Holy bytes!" The hacker shot up from his camp bed. "The STT failed–" Doc waved frantically to clear the black smoke billowing above his toaster away before the sprinkler system activated. "And of all mornings..."
"STT?" Goose growled. Obviously the adrenaline set free by this kind of wake-up call hadn't worn off yet. "Is that supposed to be a crack?"
"Of course not, my Goose man," Doc replied hastily. "It's just an abbreviation for the 'stop-toasting-trigger' in my breakfast subroutine and–"
At that cue his toaster's personality chip came to life, introducing itself in a cheerful voice, totally ignoring the smoke still curling up from its slits. =Howdy doodly do! How's it going? I'm Talkie – Talkie Toaster, your chirpy breakfast companion. Talkie's the name, toasting's the game. Anyone like any toast?=
Doc, ninety-nine percent of his mental capabilities busy with ignoring the three death-dark looks penetrating his sternum at that, replied: "Not anymore."
=Hey, I'm a toaster, you bought me, you connected me, so you want toast! Would you like it fresh and crispy, medium, or just like the last dish: well done?=
Doc's sigh was almost loud enough to hide Gooseman's growl. Almost. "Look, I don't want any toast, and he," he actually dared to indicate Shane at that moment, "doesn't want any toast. In fact, no one here wants any toast. Not now, not ever. No toast."
=How 'bout a muffin?=
"Or muffins! We don't like muffins around here! We want no muffins, no toast, no teacakes, no buns, baguettes or bagels, no croissants, no crumpets, no pancakes, no potato cakes and no hot-cross buns and definitely no flapjacks!"
=Aah, so you're a waffle man!=
Doc would have to shout at the top of his lungs to drown out Shane's growl now. Instead, he ignored Goose and the toaster, and studied the two coal leaves he'd rescued from said toaster instead. "Anyone want some toast? It's a little well-done."
"Uhm, Doc..." Niko said in a low voice, "maybe you should rethink that offer a little–"
=Can I ask just one question?= The toaster bleeped in between.
"Of course," Doc answered before realizing who asked.
Zachary in the background groaned.
=Would anyone like any toast?=
"Didn't you hear what I just said?!"
=Yes, but I thought you might have changed your mind in the meantime.=
Zachary, at the sight of Goose already checking his blasters again, asked threateningly calm. "Doc, you are to work with Bubblehead today, aren't you?"
"Yes, Captain. QBall wants me to find out how the memory birds' input / output system works."
"You mean, how it doesn't work," Niko corrected dryly.
"In that case, Doc. You might want to check whether or not your toaster is a first cousin to that bird!"
=Does anyone want any–?=
"No!" Zachary whirled round. "Gooseman, you do not fire a blaster in here!"
Goose scowled with obvious distaste at the tray he'd just received.
Now, Doc couldn't blame him for it. LongShot's cafeteria ranked within the top ten of the planet's toxic waste disposals. The bacon and the eggs were green, the salad wasn't, and the tomatoes were close to writing their Bill of Rights. Still–
Both he and Niko started when the tray clattered onto the table, splattering its contents across the table top, other dishes, the bench, and part of the floor. Heavens, the ST had dropped it from shoulder height and–
"Goose, you can't–" Niko stopped.
"What?!" Icy blue-grey eyes burned into her face.
"I–" she stopped. Blue?! But he'd already stalked out, followed by the increasingly joyous applause of the remaining cafeteria guests.
"I've never seen Goose that angry," Doc whispered after the door had closed behind him.
"We better call Zach."
"Let's hope he's close."
"This is LongShot and he's not officially on duty yet. Where do you think where he is?" Niko sighed.
Doc nodded. "In the cryocrypt with his wife. That should be close enough."
He sniffed thoughtfully after the filth lay behind him, admitting for a moment that these increased senses were of some good. There was just the touch of a smell... :::Nutrient::: Some doors on. To the right...
"Ranger Gooseman, what on Earth–?" The skinny scientist in the high-tech lab looked up, astonished. "May I help you with–?"
"No need." :::I found it already::: Gooseman pulled a chair over and dropped himself without preamble opposite QBall. The scientist gaped when the ST snatched the dish away from him, unanimously beginning to eat. :::Yea, that's food:::
"Hey! That's mine! Gooseman, you can't–"
Bared fangs that dug with obvious enthusiasm into the breakfast bacon shut him up. This addition of eyeteeth was really useful. He watched, uncaring, as QBall used his comm to call for the captain. :::As if the man's able to make me spit it out again::: The sizzling bacon almost dissolved on his tongue. For a brief moment he enjoyed not only the taste but also the sensation of fresh, well-prepared meat. It had been eons since he had–
Rubbish. I had a steak yesterday. Goose frowned confused as he dug his fangs again into the bacon before he continued with the scrambled eggs. He knew he had a steak yesterday. A well done, finely scented steak. And he also knew that the last time he had good flesh between his teeth had been before the hibernation... Wait a moment, what hibernation?!
"Gooseman! What on Earth do you think you're doing here?!" Zachary's angry voice came from the door.
:::I'm–::: "–eating, Captain."
"You can't just go in and plunder QBall's breakfast table."
:::I did::: "It was the only edible stuff I could smell in here, sir." He pushed one of the plates over. "Did you want some, too?" :::You're wasting food : Goosey::: the Ghost scolded. Goose ignored him.
"No, I have to look after my cholesterol level," Zach said dryly. "And you–"
"Captain Fox, you can't let Ranger Gooseman eat my breakfast!"
As a reply Goose swallowed the last piece of bacon and eggs, then blinked sheepishly at the empty food plate in front of him and at the lab he was in. Noticed his none-too-pleased Captain and a definitely pissed chief-scientist whose breakfast was now on its way to Shane's belly. Complicated.
Freshness wins... He finished his breakfast with demonstratively gulping down QBall's glass of orange juice. "Excellent meal," he stated with a toothsome smile at the scientist. "And well-served in addition. Marvelous!"
"Ye– yes, thank you," QBall stuttered astonished.
"No, thank you." Gooseman was gone before the sentence was fully spoken.
Zachary, hurrying to catch up with the ST in the corridor, shook his head. From what he knew about the issue now, Gooseman practically took the dish from QBall – and the bite out of the scientist's mouth – sat down in front of him, and devoured the food.
Okay, QBall wasn't directly responsible for the garbage sold in the cafeteria, but on the other hand, he was also the most likely individual within LongShot to actually change it. If he took action, that is.
Judging by the faint rumbling his sound enhancers had registered in his teammates' bellies when they'd called him about Goose, he had a pretty clear idea of how much attention the chief scientist had paid the food served there.
Plus, if he thought of the past day, the ugly crash, and that they had headed to LongShot directly from the crash site, he had to consider that the ST was possibly in a condition in which he couldn't skip another meal. There were things the implant's charge couldn't handle. That much he knew from experience, as he knew that enhanced senses weren't always favorable. His sound enhancers had taught him that. And he could switch them off if suitable or necessary. The ST had five senses of that style. And no "I need a break from it"-button available.
Beside all that... the exit the Goose had made was somewhat brilliant. Heavens, he wished he'd had such audacity when he was lieutenant. It would have made things easier. At least, it made serious scolding pretty difficult. He smiled in dark humor.
"What do you know about starstones?" The ST asked casually when he reached him. Fox threw a brief glance at the younger man, who walked relaxed beside him, just as if he had accompanied him right from QBall's lab. Goose didn't look in his direction.
"Not much," he shrugged, accepting the other one's refusal to deal with the previous issue. "They're about as hard as glass. Their color range from bright pink to light purple, depending on the amount of energy they absorb. They dissolve by radiation when exposed to sunlight or an atmosphere containing oxygen. The Queen needs them for her starships, and they are supposed to have or strengthen psionic powers. Though I'm sure Niko could tell you more about that. Why do you ask?"
He saw an edge of the ST's mouth twitching cynically. "Mogul's castle. The darn things exploded. I wonder if they can be triggered more precisely to do that."
"No idea. But check it at the LDL. LongShot's data library is the biggest on the planet. If the answer isn't in there, we just don't have it."
For the first time since this talk began, the ST looked at him. And he appeared rather unhappy. "The LDL isn't easy to search."
"Doc's currently working there. Go over and ask him. I'm sure he'll help you to formulate a working database request."
Goose made a face. "I wouldn't be so sure about that. He's not too happy about me at the moment."
Zach raised an eyebrow. "What did you do to deserve that?"
"I shut up his toaster."
Zachary grunted. "What likely earns you eternal gratitude of all sensible people. Why do you think Doc isn't one of them?"
"I didn't destroy the toaster, I frightened it."
"You frightened a toaster?"
"I told him I'd want some toaster."
"You meant some toast."
"I meant some toaster, Zach. Some fresh, hot, crispy, crunchy, crackly metal toaster with just enough wiring and an obstinate personality chip for spice. Since then, it doesn't say a word and bakes only iced waffles."
"Ouch." Zach had to suppress a snicker. "I'll come with you. We'd better sort that out before Doc's tolerance of waffles has worn out."
LongShot Data Library
Two service men in the typical pale-blue clothes of civilian personnel pushed a flat service floater out of the LDL. The front swivel arm of the float controller almost hit Zachary's belly. "Watch it." None of the service men reacted to him.
"Everybody's in a hurry today."
:::Except you::: the Ghost reappeared, grumbling, in the back of Shane's mind, as they passed the door to the hall with the storage banks and the request terminals. :::This shit better get us somewhere, or–:::
The sudden silence in his mind, vibrating with barely sheathed expectation, called Goose's attention briskly away from his interior to the surrounding. "Zach!" Grabbing his captain's arm, he pointed at the slumped figure lying over one of the master terminals.
:::Safe::: the Ghost confirmed the safety of the immediate surrounding. :::Failed drop-off:::
"Doc, are you alright?"
With a pain-distorted face, the hacker stretched slowly back into an upright position, rubbing the back of his head. "Yea, I think so. Somebody zapped me."
"What happened here?"
:::Kiddy stuff, Mecha-boy::: the Ghost snorted.
"The memory bird. It's gone!" Hartford hastily checked the terminal. "A file has been accessed."
:::No. 18 active. Content?::: "Doc." He pointed at the highlighted access field on the floor-to-ceiling data wall. "What's in file 18?"
"The SuperTrooper Juice formula."
Zach stated, grimly, the obvious: "The formula has been loaded into the bird."
"Bubblehead? He can't memorize two plus two."
"We can't take any chances." Goose's face had closed by now, keeping his thoughts well by themselves.
"I'm on it."
:::Let's go::: the Ghost snapped. :::They've got to be still inside this facility:::
"It's big, Geist. You're good luck," the woman, Vaiya, lowered the binoculars and turned for him. "Really lucky. But you'll get nowhere helping that pathetic regular army."
Not that he cared about that. The fight wasn't a matter 'to get anywhere' as she put it, it was a matter of cause and duty. And of an order to be fulfilled. But if she needed a reason to do what was necessary... He shrugged inwardly.
"The Negusrom army wouldn't be chasing the tank unless it's significantly undermanned. So their crew is desperate and scared. They'll pay more for the right help."
"Geist, you forgot one thing: what if they don't happen to have any money at all? The Negusrom army is too strong. We can't possibly beat them..."
He cut her nonsensical gibberish by driving his heavy trike over the edge to chase the tank down in the broad valley which tried to out-speed the pack of Negusrom soldiers in power suits at its tail. Not that it had any chance to achieve that. It lay under heavy fire already.
His mouth became a grim line in anticipation of the fight to come. It was going to be exciting.
Their glider raced out of LongShot's main gate. Goose's narrowed eyes searched the road ahead, the dust whirled up by the other vehicle was already settling down again. "They've got a five-minute jump on us."
"We'll catch them," Zach replied grimly, gaining speed rapidly.
:::Doubt that, if these pathetic guards are any measurement of the local forces:::
The villain's van appeared in front of them, though the road necessarily following the wound canyon walls brought the van once and again out of view. They were catching up, but slowly. The enemies' vehicle disappeared in the first pass tunnel. :::Mistake!::: "Head them off at the pass." It was more an order than a suggestion.
At least the captain didn't take offense. He left the road and bypassed the wide-swung curve the tunnel made inside the mountain in straight flight along the canyon. Unfortunately, his overall speed wasn't fast enough. They reached the road just after the crooks had passed.
:::Air support::: the Ghost barked in Goose's mind. :::At this snail speed you'll never get 'em anytime soon::: "Ranger Gooseman to LongShot wing command. Hit them where it hurts. Do you copy?"
=Roger, Ranger. We're going in.=
:::Into the cafeteria maybe::: Shut up, that needs more bravery than you possessed this morning! Goose mentally retorted, for once earning something like an amused grin from the Ghost. :::Bravo, Goosey. You're almost growing into a duckling now:::
The laserfire rained down on the fleeing glider in front of them. No hits.
Just before the second tunnel a ground-to-air missile hit the first heli.
:::Looks like we're going to have some fun:::
A devilish smile stole upon Geist's face. Things were getting better and better. He aimed at the weak spot of the connective link between right arm and the corpse of the power suit and separated it with three rapid shots. The airstream and a well-timed swivel of the cannon tower did the rest: the power suit lost its grip and fell over board to be smashed by the heavy tracks.
Geist thrust the trike forward alongside the armored vehicle to come within eyesight of the cannoneer. Well, now, what do you know? An old friend... sort of. The smile on his face became more satisfied. Things were just getting better...
He overtook the next power suit, then tore round to use the additional relative speed against the remaining aggressor. The combatant he'd just passed ignored him after a brief moment of irritation and sped after the tank. Stupid. Geist fired to regain its attention and pulled free the lance he'd lashed to the chassis this morning.
Lances were a rather old-fashioned kind of weapon.
Lances against manned power suits were somewhat... useful.
The pilot rotated again to face the shooter. He drove straight up against it, had the trike shattering against the armor of the fighter, knowing, the heavy motorbike wouldn't have enough impact for the power suit to sway. As for the lance...
That brought it to the point. Exactly. The non-energetic weapon, unhindered by the protective force fields and driven by the enhanced muscles of an M.D.S., shattered the clearsteel windscreen of the power suit and pinned the pilot's skull to the back wall of his cockpit. Effortlessly.
A swift leap catapulted Geist off the doomed machine....
Goose retracted the windscreen and fired. Multiple blasterbolts hit the rear end of the van, failing to cause serious damage. He cursed under his breath.
:::Closer : A few more meters and then ram the lance up their arse:::
Lance? What lance?! He leaned forward, felt the tension needed for a leap building up in his body, his eyes fixed on the enemy van. Wolf Den's trained creature tugged harder than usual on its leash. If– :::Now : Before they can take countermeas–:::
"Try to hit their stabilizers." The captain's sharp voice pulled him out of the half-trance. Already firing, he ground his teeth, the stabilizers were shielded by the chassis. He'd never been so close to slipping into full battle mode involuntarily. But there was this urge to slam his steel claws into their control center and strangle them with the torn out circuitry, before cramming the damned bird down their throats.
"Two more meters, and I'll pay them a visit." Green eyes glittering blue kept fixed on the van.
"Are you crazy?" the captain shouted across the airstream's roar. "We're at 150 mph!"
"Not in the least." Steel claws had dug into the windshield framing. Another meter and–
The missile, fired at bumper height from the van's rear end, hit them head-on. Despite stabilizers, repulsor fields, and emergency accus the glider overturned and plowed its right side through the hard desert soil before it came to rest in the roadside ditch.
Goose, in the passenger seat, came to his feet. "You alright?"
"Yeah." Zach's gaze followed the van of their fugitives disappearing in the distance. "They're heading for Phoenix Spaceport."
"All channels: van last seen on Highway 6, headed for Phoenix Spaceport." He jumped off the grounded vessel after he'd placed the message, prowling the place like a caged panther, unable to keep still with the amount of adrenaline in his veins, and the unaccountable taste of iridium steel on his tongue. Behind him, he heard Zach calling for a chopper to collect them, and almost hoped that none was available. Though he feared that even a march back through the desert wouldn't be enough to ease his body from the trembling tension of a battle not fought and the icy frustration that came with it.
A grenade took care of the next power suit's windscreen. Hanging down from the top bow, Geist thrust his battle knife through the nasal cavity of the pilot while the man was still blinded from the fragments that hit his face. Scrambling over the back of the machine, Geist left before the automated self destruction cycle registered the death of its pilot and triggered itself.
Now on foot, Geist noticed the remaining power suits attempting to come through the heavy bridge armor of the vessel ahead. He snorted. Humans! They should have disembarked the remaining fighttex forces the moment they lost speed.
A single armed fighttex officer blasted the one closest to the bridge to the ground, then attacked the second on the foreship under heavy enemy fire.
A smile whizzed over Geist's face. That style he knew all too well...
Also the stupidity to align a fight in a way that the defender shielded the enemy from the tank, while running up to destroy the control segment and the cockpit to kill the pilot.
Geist waited till the soldier in heavy fighttex armor took to the ground, At the sight of his approach, the other one unlatched his vizor. But he'd recognized him already before. Wordlessly taking aim, Geist shot the remaining Negusrom behind him to pieces.
Well aware that Kurz had every reason to believe he'd take a very different aim.
"We've been ordered to the security staff's office for a briefing," Zach said grimly after a glance at his wrist comm when they left the chopper that had flown them back.
"To be expected." The ST ground his teeth. There was quite a bit more to be expected, but Zachary wasn't to know about that. So the slight vibration of his wrist comm didn't come unexpected. The message was short: =EXPERIMENTAL ROOM 29. NOW.=
"I'll be there in five minutes, Captain."
"Nature calls." He snorted inwardly. Nature wasn't exactly what called.
"Hurry. The commander won't want to wait for you in this situation."
"Aye. But he also wants me to be house-trained." Goose managed to keep his expression blank. That briefing wouldn't start without the commander anyway.
"The pleasure is mine." Kurz still had a firm handshake, destined to evoke trust into the man's strength. Geist knew he could snap it without much more than a flexing of his muscles, could even have done it before the man in front of him had grown old. "I have to thank you, Mr. Geist. You helped the Noagarudos out of a tight spot."
"I originally served in the regular army. It's an honor to be fighting for a cause again." The best lie was the truth. Always.
What had the long-deceased training officer told him once? "You're an M.D.S, Geist. Once your abilities are awakened, they will keep you from aging. You will measure your age with your old-growing enemies." And a still beardless youth, who had had no respect for their decision to at least allow him to grow into an adult first, had replied: "None of my enemies will grow old, sir." Except one. And that had been forced...
"I don't have to tell you what the theft of the STJ formula means for you and your modus operandi, do I?" Walsh said without preamble after the unsuspicious door in the depths of LongShot had closed behind Goose.
"No, sir." He avoided the commander's face, felt the usual thrill of obedience mixed with disgust about it. Only this time the obedience was stronger and filtered with a cold anticipation he did not want to possess.
"Do whatever you have to to keep the formula from being used. That includes unequivocally the possibilities under the secrecy ban on Wolf Den."
"Yes, sir." After a moment: "What about witnesses?"
"Irrelevant. The formula must not be traded or used under any circumstances. You of all people know best what that would mean."
He did. In more than one way.
"Did I make myself clear?"
"–what's wrong, Geist?"
He didn't move, stood as if carved out of the metal of the ship, ignoring her tug at his arm completely. It was time to inform the opponent. In a low, unadmitting voice he began to list the members of his last mission's unit: "Kurz, Orwell, Vogeleyn, Stein..."
All dead except the first. And himself.
"Here's what the security cameras got." Walsh called the recordings onto the screen embedded in the console behind him and displayed the results of the recognition process for the rangers gathered in front of him. "Miller and Moxie. Our latest information has them working for Jackie Subtract's mob."
Zachary frowned slightly. "Is Subtract's headquarters still located in New Pigalle on Mars?"
"Right. You and Goose will begin a stakeout."
"Got it." The ST's face revealed nothing.
"Doc, you and Niko try to isolate the data. See exactly what they got."
"Yes, sir." Both rangers answered.
"All right, let's move. I don't want that Supertrooper juice changing hands."
After he'd watched them go, the commander wasn't sure if he heard right that Goose muttered, "Literally."
Kurz opened the briefing as bluntly as Geist remembered him always to be. "This mission is top secret. I won't repeat it, so listen closely." He displayed on the screen high above their heads the position and surroundings of a fortress built deep into the rocks of a mountain. "This is our strategic headquarters. Brain Palace. As the war turned against us we prepared a final program. Our mission is to invade the Brain Palace and deactivate this program. Its name: The Death Force." The screen changed from showing surveillance data to displaying plans and data sheets of the battle droids the Brain Palace would create in case the program was executed.
"Death Force was to be our final retaliation. A doomsday device. It reacts to all lifeforms, attacking indiscriminately. At activation, millions of robotic soldiers will cover Jerra." Immediately afterwards, the recording from a scene of crime appeared on the screen. "Ten days ago, president Ryan was assassinated in Sandoria Garden. At that point, Brain Palace entered the final phase." His stern glance swept across the few remaining personnel gathered in the briefing room before he returned his attention back to the screen now showing a plan of the fortress itself. " We have 11 hours and 45 minutes before the program is enacted."
A red light appeared among the green lines of the plan, indicating their planned way of advance into the building and down it's main shaft. "The Noagarudos will attack head-on. We have Fighttex for Hans, Raster, Jack, Sakamoto, Mr. Geist and me. The six of us will head for the control room."
A bright yellow crossed circle symbol began to flash. "Our final target is here!"
Literally. Without taking his gaze from Kurz, Geist narrowed his eyes in a thrill of anticipation and...
In the shadow of Mars
5 hours later
"Zach, you'd better look the other way now." The ST's voice was detached, impersonal.
"I'm going to use some gadgets on Subtract's comm which exist only because the theft of the STJ formula has altered the rules. But I doubt they'll stay altered when this shit's done."
Zach frowned briefly and turned ostentatiously away from him to stare out of the cockpit. After a moment the faint sizzle of an intercepted comm line appeared and cleared quickly into the harmonic humming of a properly descrambled line.
Goose leaned back in his seat, watched for a moment the dancing LED bars. The quantum descrambler was nowhere near its limits. Cynically, he noted that Subtract had no idea against whom he was playing.
Or what. Mostly what.
He stretched his fingers, made a fist, stretched them again, and watched the sinews flex beneath his skin.
Earth Force protected its toys. Nobody was allowed to play with their toys. Certainly not with the toys they wanted destroyed.
He thought about the weapon he was made to be, watched his hand repeating the movement, knowing that he was allowed to live in spite of what he could do – no, had done – because he wasn't exactly what they had wanted to create. How ironic. The ultimate weapon was still alive because it refused to be ultimate...
...so that he had control. He ground his teeth. But if he ever lost it...
A shiver crept down his spine. QBall's breakfast. This morning. It hadn't been his decision. It had...
His thoughts shrank away from it. He forced himself to face it. He had been out of control. If he thought clearly, he couldn't be sure about having control since the crash. He didn't have a grip on whatever it was that was happening with him. And the effect was rapidly increasing whenever he tried to find out what the heck had happened to him in the crash. Yet, if he didn't... He nearly shook his head. He couldn't go on like this.
But who could he ask for help without risking to be turned into a glacier on the spot?
Niko? With a bone-deep chill he rejected the possibility immediately, remembering the violent dream last night. No. If the dream was part of the alteration, it was too likely that... the Ghost would violate her.
Walsh? Too risky.
Doc? This wasn't a comp problem. Besides that, the hacker was best at driving him up the wall. And with thinned controls the mere attempt might have Doc ending up below the deck plates. No, better not.
Zach? How were the possibilities of the bionics to be assessed in comparison with the bio defenses? Would the Captain have a chance in case–?
He stared down at his hand, at strong tendons, moving clawed fingers to form a fist and relax from it. Again and again. Could this fist rip through bionics? A silent cold crept over his skin like a premonitory sensation of the hibernation in his near future. These tendons needed adjustments...
The cockpit lights were dimmed, both to save energy and to reduce the chance of discovery. They were lurking up here in Mars' shadow after all.
The cockpit screen pointed away from Mars. The position relative to the planet was purely coincidental, they'd tapped into Subtract's communication channels anyway. Zach had preferred not to ask what routine Gooseman had applied, unasked, that overran a quantum scrambling within the snap of two fingers, he'd feared the answer would be again 'I can tell you but then I have to shoot you' and had kept silent.
Zach looked at the slow, silent dance of the stars and – in an odd moment – wondered, what the ST would see in them. Colored lights? Star catalogue numbers and classification codes? Possible battlefields?
After a short glance over he wasn't sure the other one saw them at all. The ST looked down at his lower right arm, studying, almost transfixed, the movement of tendons in his hand as he formed a fist, relaxed it, formed it again. Then brushed with his left hand over the back of his right as if checking the tendons' tension.
Zachary frowned. "Goose? Is something wrong?"
The secret of Fighttex gear was precision. Five percent in the battle, ninety-five percent in adjusting it. It had been years ago that he'd worn the gear, longer since he'd adjusted one to his body. He forgot nothing.
Every M.D.S learned how to fit FT gear onto his body. And how to construct an improved version of it out of the standard components by being even more precise.
Geist tightened the muscles in his biceps, pulled the arm close, and simulated a straight blow with the fist. Satisfied, he felt the strength increased by the servos, and watched the small cogwheel below the crook of his arm rotating rapidly. Good. It would be the main synapsis of his right arm with the FT armor.
The woman, Vaiya, entered the room in the depths of the regular army's tank, coming towards him, babbling about completed work, money, and shared future. Unimportant.
The shadow of a smile appeared on his face as he thought of the treasure he'd found in the weapons depot: an energy control crystal.
By now it was plugged into an ad hoc-charger connected with the main engine of the tank. It would be fully charged when they reached the Brain Palace - doubling if not tripling his possibilities...
"Hey! You could stand to listen a little, dammit!"
Instead of an answer the ST mimicked using imaginary tongs at the back of his hand as if to tighten the tendons. Again the make-a-fist-and-relax-movement.
"Gooseman." The man seemed mentally very far away from the small Explorer they were in. Though that wasn't necessary a breach of duty. The subconscious features Goose showed sometimes were... somewhere between astonishing and frightening. To put it mildly. Asleep. In trance... Knocked down. The man next to him still registered changes in his surroundings faster than any sensor system. But this concentration on one hand was somewhat disconcerting. "Gooseman! Listen to me, will you?!"
Shane winced at the barking, blinked twice, and looked, seemingly confused for a brief moment, at his captain. "Yes, sir?"
"Is something wrong with your hand?"
"My hand?" Gooseman threw him a curious look as if the ST believed him odd. "Nothing."
With my hand. Everything with me. Shane ground his teeth. Damnation, it had caught him again. And the captain was already suspicious. There was no real chance to keep that away from Zach, they were too close in the cockpit. And...
There was no way around it. He needed help. At least to find out what caused this shit. If he knew what happened he might be able to wriggle out of it again. But like this... No, he couldn't go on like this. And if he lost control... then Zach would at least have gotten the warning he deserved.
He muttered through clenched teeth as he checked the comm-console quickly. "All outgoing channels closed, no cockpit recording."
He refused to look at his direct superior officer. Instead, looked straight ahead through the main screen. "I doubt that the crash was an accident. What blew it up was a load of starstones."
"Starstones!?" Zachary stiffened in his seat. Starstones were rare. And unpredictable. "Are you sure?"
"I felt their energy signature penetrating into my transformation cocoon." The ST's tone left no doubt about that. "And I found a fragment outside the wreck. But it dissolved before you arrived."
"You were lucky." Zach noticed the other one wincing briefly at that, but dismissed the thought as he dealt on with the puzzle. "Maybe they were part of the freight."
"I doubt that. It must have been a very powerful one or a whole bunch of them. I have a pretty good idea how much energy is necessary to overcome the protective energy shell during a transformation, Zach. That was no small load. And I ran scientific samples and badges for LongShot, according to the freight papers. That would cover only a single stone."
"Not even that. Starstones are on the list of hazardous materials. They have to be listed in whatever quantity they're shipped."
"They weren't listed."
"That stinks." Zach looked over at his lieutenant. "Do you know who placed that order? Was it Walsh?"
"No. The order came to BETA from the LSL. They demanded a skilled pilot to bring a sensitive freight from a Space Navy vessel safely down through the orbital rubble. It was pure chance that I got the job."
"Hm... I don't like the picture that calls up."
"I don't like it much, either. But–" :::If that scum has always this kind of timing it's a miracle that we're still bothered with their existence::: "Stop! The comm. Listen."
=Boss, we'll contact you from Entropy's Edge.=
The ST next to him triggered the engines and accelerated without preamble. "System's on. Let's get them."
"Easy. We'll trail them."
The sleek explorer disappeared into hyperspace.
Reality materialized around the ship as it warped back into Einsteinian space. Goose looked briefly at Zach. "Entropy's Edge always amazes me."
:::It better should : You two have quite of a history::: As if he needed a reminder of that.
"Let's take a look around." Zach cut into the uneasiness the Ghost's voice caused him. An edge of Goose's mouth twitched as he meticulously rechecked the engines, making sure the Explorer kept its position against the steady gravity pull, before he concentrated upon the sensory systems.
Ahead, the mealstream of the Galaxy Core's singularity threatened as a bluish-white accretion disk, a miniature spiral galaxy of its own, expanded by the doomed matter the beast at its center was constantly swallowing. The light here belonged mostly to the high energy end of the spectrum, was composed of blue, violet, and beyond, though the Explorer's strong radiation filters erased the trans-visual components to protect both their eyes and their DNA. Goose knew from experience that the radiation around here reached deeply into the Gamma rays, far beyond even his expanded visual spectrum with a blinding intensity that – when unfiltered – exceeded even his options. One of the few memories left from the entropy slide he unwillingly performed not too long ago.
He had been lucky. It hadn't been an entropy dive – as some over-enthusiastic crony of BETA's had put it once, but... For a moment, he ground his teeth, looking at the old antagonist, swirling majestically in front of him.
He had survived this enemy's attack with the most reckless maneuver he'd ever performed: when it had become clear that he wouldn't escape the gravity, he'd slammed the fighter into the highest gear, put all energy left in his systems into engines and inertial compensators, hit his badge and did what came closest to praying for an ST: swore that Hell would freeze over before this was his end.
Now, the devil's ass was still warm – and he was still here. With some memories he wished to trade for the impossible opportunity of getting dead drunk once in his life and a grim determination never to risk that again; a flyby maneuver around a singularity whose event horizon he'd avoided by slipping into hyperspace, proving two things: a) that it was possible to enter hyperspace near extreme gravity sources and b) that it was a really bad idea to do so.
He pulled his gaze off the black hole and focused onto the asteroid just far enough away from the singularity not to be visibly moving towards it. He knew that was an illusion. That it would change within years, when the gravity accelerated the jagged rock more and more towards its annihilation. And the asteroid definitely wouldn't be capable of a maneuver such as his. He snorted. Here, he wasn't the only one in the universe living on borrowed time. He noticed a couple of vessels in the strapped landing booths drilled into the scratched surface between the few clear steel openings emanating yellow light too weak to compete with the blue-white of their powerful neighbor.
A ship with the reddish purple energy signature of an engine of mainly Tortunian origin crossed before the bluish spiral of the accretion disk. He snorted as he mentally snapped back at attention. "What is this, a convention? That's Kidd's ship."
"Let's move in."
Ignoring the Ghost's comment, Goose nudged the ship into movement, heading toward the ragged stone body in front of them in a wide curve, using the mass of Entropy's Edge itself as a shield to maintain an acceptable amount of maneuverability without risking another BH-tour. A precaution that proved useful soon, when the group of strategically placed battle satellites came within sensor range.
"Toll booths up ahead," Zach commented dryly as they begun battering their hull with laser bolts.
:::Target practice::: "Targets locked," he pulled the Explorer into a double loop. The first sat exploded before the turn was finished, the second followed only a breath later.
The Explorer swept in a low vector by the asteroid post that spat out a hodgepodge of spaceships as Goose laid a double line of laser fire across the surface. Collateral damage mattered as much as witnesses when it came to STJ. Better the crooks down there learned that quickly. As for Zach...
:::Mecha better take care of his own business::: Shane ground his teeth, sweeping the Explorer into a wide swing towards the shadow of the asteroid. Zach, he corrected briskly, had better. For his own sake. In his wake, one of the fuel depots sheltered in the depths of a ragged crater ceased to exist in a plume of fire. :::We're getting live prey : You–:::
The ST's eyes zeroed in on the two approaching blips on the tactics display...
The sounds reverberating through the tank had changed, telling Geist that they were reaching the mountainous area their aim lay in. The heavy plates forming the outmost armor layer of the enhanced fighttex gear clicked piece for piece into place. No swift moves any longer. Not yet. Now the energy loaded into crystal, batteries, and servos must be conserved.
He knew Kurz would strike. He was expecting it. After, or maybe during the operation. Not even the ghost of a cynical smile whizzed over his mouth when he decided it would be a 'during' – as it had been uncounted years before.
The body gear was adjusted. Geist's long-trained, deft fingers flanged spiked joint-and-groove coverings on the few remaining spots to protect before he began attaching the vizor and face shield onto the helmet. Slow movements. At this stage more natural to him than breathing. His mind already set on the battle to come, on the layout of the battle field ahead. The flat, leveled entrance zone...
Two lines of laser fire burned over a torn surface above his head.
Geist blinked. The heavy vibrations from the tracks rumbling over uneven rocky ground shook his bones. What the–?
The plume of fire expanding into space behind them filled him with grim satisfaction. His sleek ship accelerated while taking the first real pursuers under fire. Adrenalin chased through his system. A four-dimensional pattern of moves and strikes in a queerly distorted cube appeared in his mind, making him dizzy at the very idea of it. He shook his head so that the skull straps, already closed and tightened, hummed against the metal of the neck harness, somehow succeeding in drumming the hallucination out of his head.
"Two on our tail, Goose."
"Not for long." Battle reflexes had kicked in at the sight of real opponents, adjusted the onboard cannons with uncanny precision. Single shots cleared the Explorer of the two closest antagonists within firing range. The four dimensional pattern of a space fight formed in his mind as vectors and targets in a cube deformed by the gravitational pull of the most dangerous enemy near by: the singularity.
"So what else is new?" He couldn't care less at the moment, forcing the ship into a narrow side-to-side swing and returning fire. The stressed material of the ship creaked all about them.
"Maybe we should revise our plan?"
"Naah." The pattern was perfect. To break out of it would be plain stupid. And... A thought sneaked past the battle reflexes' protection: If I allow that, you'll be shot and what they'll do to me is a question better left unanswered. He had no doubts, Earth didn't want to face its own weapons on the battlefield. And it would do whatever was possible to prevent that. He didn't matter. He never did. And in this case Zach would matter even less. The battle reflexes squelched the thought.
Aligning. Aiming. Fire. Two more enemy drones exploded behind them.
=Galaxy Rangers yo, baby!= To Zach's obvious relief, Doc's enthusiastic voice crackled out of the receiver.
"Just in time, Doc."
=Your backup call helped.=
Niko? Shit, he didn't want to have her out here in this mess! She deserved so much better th– :::Align your privates at getting going, Goosey::: The Ghost suddenly barked at him. :::Prey's dodging::: Shane startled back to attention. "Zach. Someone's making an end run."
"Kidd." The bright flickering circle of a hyperspace transition illuminated the cockpit.
:::Prey's gone::: The Ghost commented unasked.
=Rangers, this is Macross. We don't want any more trouble.=
"We want that memory bird, Macross." :::And your ass as a greeting card, MacRose::: The Ghost was back at his best. With an inward groan Goose accepted that fact. Not that it changed much at the moment.
=You're too late. Kidd has taken it and he's headed for Tortuna.=
Fucking shit! Zach's never going to hear the end of this if we can't catch the old rooster before touch down. And if he calls off the hunt... The ST ground his teeth. Battle reflexes or not, he didn't want to finish that line of thought, let alone execute it. Yet, he feared he would if–
"Galaxy Rangers, let's move out."
=Right behind you.=
Around them, reality was replaced by the red-streaked chaos of hyperspace.
Hypercomm signals traveled without loss during warp, because they needn't cross reality planes. But even if the signal had been noised beyond recognition, these news of Doc would have been music to Goose's ears. =What Moxie and Miller got was one of the early experimental formulas.= The ST stiffened his spine not to slump over the controls in relief, allowing the rest of the talk to sweep past him.
"But even these early formulas were potent."
I'm ordered to keep the STJ formula from being used at all costs. Its predecessors aren't necessarily covered by that.
=Bubblehead won't be able to handle it. Half his circuitry was filled with plumbing information.=
The bosses might see that differently... But the uncertainty is enough to refuse killing my captain.
"There has been a breach in security nevertheless."
:::Hey, Goosey : The dot of our prey disappeared from the screen::: That caught his attention. "Cut the chatter," he snapped. "Warping out."
Reality took shape around them. After the blinding shock wave of reentering Einsteinian space had faded, Goose narrowed his eyes at the readings. "Kidd's changing course."
"Trouble." Zach sounded less than happy with the developments. The numerous shapes on the display were unmistakable.
"Slaver transports." The Goose named them with obvious contempt.
The speakers of the Noagarudos announced the second combat phase, with the Brain Palace being less than five minutes away. With a determined snap, Geist fixed the last clamp of his gear and went to see what leftovers of the regular forces were available under Kurz' command.
More than he expected, less than he wanted. Not that it mattered. At the end of the battle the counts would be different anyway.
"Let's go." He closed the vizor grille. There was no need for more talking to dead people.
Zach settled back in his seat after it became clear that no Crown fighters were trailing them. "You think the Queen will reward Kidd for bringing her bird home, Goose?"
"I don't know about a reward, but I'm sure he'll get what he deserves."
The ST clenched his teeth, the ringing of severe ground-to-ground fire reverberated in his ears. And that damned well doesn't make any sense in the cockpit of an Explorer in the middle of nowhere! Admit it, Goose. You're in till the hairline this time. "Vectors to BETA set. Autopilot activated." He hid the tremor in his hands by applying more pressure than needed to the controls. If only he wouldn't have this dangerous urge to push open the lock. "Let's go."
Heavy fire battered the Noagarudos as it forced its way through the narrow cleft that had once hold the feeder road to the mountain fortress. A heavy impact shook the battered vessel as it crashed head-first through the outer walls and came to a screeching halt in the flat, metal- and permacrete sealed entrance area, already swarmed by flying combat drones, 'flies'.
Time to move out. Geist's armored fist fell onto the lock release without waiting for Kurz' command. He hit the ground already running, well before the following arrowhead of the remaining FT fighters. The flies were a minor problem, their armor not designed to withstood the heavy assault laser he used with uncanny precision.
"Get to the central tower!" Kurz barked behind him. Geist snorted inwardly at the order to do the obvious, taking another row of droids out of the game. When a quarter of the involved soldiers survived that order, it would be a violation of chance. Even the assault flies took a damned high toll among them.
Geist narrowed his eyes behind his vizor. A couple of them had to reach the tower with him. He wanted at least one besides Kurz alive. In case the control room held some protection devices the colonel hadn't mentioned, an additional soldier present would reduce Kurz' options to direct them at him. Behind them, the bridge of the Noagarudos was torn open as ground bots swarmed the doomed tank. No more backup from their batteries from now on.
One of the ground bots reached the soldiers. Unswayed by their fire, it methodically maimed the lower body of the first fighttex officer with one of its three feet, then shot at the others. Kurz dragged a wounded one along with him. Geist turned and returned fire...
Adrenaline rushed into Goose's veins as he stepped down onto the hangar ground. He felt the tremors of heavy explosions running through his legs, though the team seemed not to be affected yet. None of the laser batteries were active. Yet. No flies approached. Yet. Ground bots... :::Watch out!:::
=Ranger Gooseman, sir. Do you mind–?= Buzzwang approached them eagerly waving something like a questionnaire clip board just as they were leaving the hangar. =Ranger Goo– BLEEEEP=
Goose's leap was too quick for the normal eye to follow, tearing an already transformed iridium steel hand through the bot's face, while the other one sliced through the main chassis, groping for the computer core of the now screaming bot.
=HELP - HELP - HELP - Malfunction of visual compon–=
He disassembled the deadly killer droid precisely, step by step, laid open the wiring that went from the sensory systems in the droid's head piece to the memory and computer core in it's body's center.
=HELP - BLEEEP – BLEEeee......p....=
The next blow catapulted the disheveled, stunned bot into the coffee automat. Stripped head first.
"Goose! You can't– Ouch!" Doc screamed as Zach caught his arm and jerked him back around the corner before throwing another look at Shane, glad to find the ST still concentrated solely on disassembling Buzzwang. A black camera eye bounced across the floor, collided with the side panel and came to rest mere inches from the tips of Zach's boots, revealing the twisted stubs of wiring where it had been torn from its socket.
"Niko, call Walsh," he ordered her over his shoulder. "Tell him what's wrong here, and none of you approaches Goose, clear!?"
"Zach, maybe I–"
"No!" The Captain shook his head with emphasis. "When we were above Mars he said starstones were involved in the crash he had the day before the formula was stolen. I thought he'd been lucky, but now I'm not so sure." Niko's widened eyes told him that she understood the implications when she reached for her wristcomm.
"But that's Goose over there," Doc protested. "Ripping Buzz to confetti!"
"Yes, and better the bot than you."
"Exactly. We can't. None of us can. He's an ST in full battle mode. None of us has a chance against him at the moment."
"The commander is on the way," Niko confirmed a moment later, slightly pale. She threw a brief glance around the corner and shuddered at the tableau that expanded in front of her: Buzz stuck head-first in the hangar area's main coffee automat. Aside from a protesting twitch of his left foot and some sizzling along the wiring that tangled out of his neck and back where the best available alloys were ripped apart like tin foil he didn't show any more signs of function.
"What's this black oily stuff leaking all over Buzzwang?" she asked with a slight shudder. "Motor oil?"
"Instant coffee melange." Zach, stepping beside her, drew a face. "Precooked and thickened coffee. When a paper mug is prepared, the stuff is thinned with boiling water."
"Ugh..." she shuddered. "Am I seeing right? Are Buzz's alloys crinkling beneath it?"
"Likely." Zach said dryly, without taking his eyes from Goose.
"I may never have another automat coffee."
"Yeah. I wonder how Goose stands that with his daily coffee consumption."
"Easy." Niko shrugged. "He's not having automat coffee."
"No? Where does he get it from?"
"He sneaks it out of Walsh's office."
"I can't believe our commander drinks the same stuff as Goose!"
"He doesn't. It's his coffee but Goose brews it." She spread her hands. "Any questions?" A loud sputtering made her twitch, peeking around him and the corner again: "The commander better hurry. At this rate, Buzz won't occupy him for long."
"Trooper! At attention!" To the remaining S5's surprise Gooseman reacted unhesitatingly to the commander's barked order. "Explain your actions!"
"Droid assault stopped, sir."
Walsh threw a look at the fully destroyed Buzzwang lying in a pool of glide oil, servo fluids, and coffee melange – the last was the worst – and agreed wordlessly. A questionnaire clipboard lay not too far away under a potted palm. Guess that's 'the assault', Walsh noticed grimly. At least Gooseman still responded to command voice, so he wasn't fully off the hook, still... If I don't realign him fast, there won't be any chance to keep him out of the cryocrypt. Shit! First, get him out of the public...
"Trooper. To lab hall A. Moderate speed. Now."
"Fox," Walsh ordered without leaving the ST out of his eyes. "I trust you to clean up this mess. Call QBall to set the separation forcefields in lab A to their max. I expect Niko there once the fields are strengthened."
Two of the soldiers had made it inside into the lift chute. One of them seriously injured. The other one was Kurz. Again. Geist watched, unmoved, how Kurz touched the young soldier's shoulder compassionately.
"Hold on, you'll make it. It doesn't look that bad."
"Colonel, you... and Mr. Geist... have to get to.... the control room.... quickly." The soldier's voice died together with him, fulfilling what Geist had known since he'd seen the younger one's face after Kurz had pulled off the helmet.
Kurz' furious stare slid off Geist's conscience like rain ran off a window pane. The man had never been good at 'live death', he preferred 'killing in absence'. "They're all dead again. Because of you!"
Geist's corrective answer was calm. "No. You killed them." With your betrayal back then.
Kurz had been the second in command, after Orwell, and before Stein and Geist himself in the mission considered the most important to drive the Negusrom off the main world. Important enough to align an M.D.S with the normal kind of special forces: him, Geist.
The task in itself was quite simple: take the bridgehead the invading Negusrom forces had built in the vast steppes of Mongolia, eliminate their local command, and release an assortment of virus programs into their computer network as preparation for the final strike to end the Negusrom's presence on Terra.
Then they had learned the hard way that the Negusrom had gained partial control of the battle satellite belt that was meant to protect the near space trajectories, and had repositioned it to give orbital cover to their ground base and its main vectors. Stein was killed on the first strike. Elinda Vogeleyn, his direct partner in combat though he'd requested to be spared being burdened with a normal female, wounded. She went on to gain his respect with her neglect of pain. Commander Orwell had ordered their separation so their group gave no single target. Each of them had been sworn in to fulfill their order: eliminate the Negusrom invasion force. They'd vanished like ghosts in the dark, searching their target, waiting for a moment to strike, watching their comrades die when discovered.
Orwell made a mistake. Vogeleyn had been unlucky, some sniffer bots caught the scent of her spilled blood and tracked it down. Kurz...
Geist had the chance to strike within the power plant of the base, blowing eighty percent of it to pieces in the final blast. And then the signal for return to base had rung through the comm implanted next to his left ear. Being a soldier all his life he had obeyed...
...only to learn that Kurz had filed a report talking of unnecessary man slaughter and unspeakable war crimes, and putting the blame for it solely at Geist's feet, including the reassurance that he, Geist, had singlehandedly slain the remaining Negusrom troops, feeding off their corpses. And that – just was not true.
Kurz was elevated to Colonel, Geist was elevated to orbit – in form of an oversized icecube in a high-security hibernation prison. And the remaining unattended Negusrom troops had regrouped and led a strike against the important deposits of fuel and raw materials in the Siberian industrial belt, gaining all the supplies they needed for their later success...
Geist's face still showed nothing as this elevator reached the ground level with the control center. He knew Kurz expected him to take revenge on him. But he was an M.D.S. First, he had to fulfill his order, then he was free to take care of Kurz. Or maybe – a disconcerting smile played around his lips, well hidden inside his Fighttex helmet – maybe while he fulfilled his order. While was just within the parameters.
High Security Forcefield Lab A
"Once again, Gooseman. Why did you disassemble the droid commonly known as Buzzwang?" Walsh sighed inwardly, cursing at the fact that the ST had shunned Niko completely, demanding she leave despite Walsh ordering differently. In the end Walsh had given in, because he – as well as Niko herself – had feared they would drive him too far out of control. For some strange reason, the boy had seemed relieved after the heavy doors had closed behind her. Interrogating Shane was never easy. Now, being limited to direct orders made it even worse, but the Supertrooper didn't respond to anything else. "Answer!"
"The droid assaulted. It had to be stopped."
Assaulted? With a questionnaire? Walsh refused to shake his head in despair not to break out of the interrogation routine. Sure, the boy ate the form of the last questionnaire about officers' private lives to the horror of the cadet who ran it, but this... "Why did the droid assault, Gooseman?"
:::Hatred. He stinks of it::: The soft voice whispering in the back of Geist's mind chilled him more than the prospect of depending on Kurz' deactivation of the control room's protections now that only the two of them were left. :::He will strike::: Geist didn't know where the ghostly voice came from, but he took the Ghost's information without resistance. As will I.
The door was held by a huge guard bot in front of which Kurz turned. "Farewell, Mr. Geist. Or should I say M.D.S.? You're a bloody war machine. This place will be a fitting tomb for you."
Geist retorted almost soft. "You said that when you left me on the satellite, too."
"It's no coincidence that you appeared on the Noagarudos." The power cables connecting the guard bot with the base system fell off. "It's the will of God that evil should be destroyed."
:::Religious fanatics are so much fun, aren't they?::: The Ghost voice commented cynically. The command center door closed behind the colonel before the guard bot armed with the traditional axe left its stance, approaching Geist.
:::Now::: Geist instinctively positioned the laser. The impact of the first bolt shot at closest range and directed at the front armor threw the bot back against the door it guarded. The next shots rained off its front plates without much effect. Damn. It adjusts. :::Wouldn't you?::: the Ghost sounded really surprised. Geist frowned at the foreign image of an unarmed, naked body morphing into an iridium steel frame capable of tearing such a defender bot to pieces.
:::Watch out::: He threw himself back at the yell in his mind, avoided the first strike of the droid's axe, but he took too long to react to the backstroke. The axe's pike pierced him mid-body. The Ghost gagged at the sensation of it cutting through his stomach, of his blood streaming onto the polished black floor, of...
Damnation, he couldn't waste his time dealing with a Ghost's feelings now. He drove his fingers through the hole the axe had torn in his armor and squeezed the wound close. The body system would take care of the rest. The FT servos whirred to provide the strength he ordered as he caught the next strike head-on, snapping the handle. He launched the separated axe head at the bot, and missed. :::Precision, dude::: Don't get on my nerves! he snapped mentally, flicking strike blades in front of his fists out of his lower arms gear, already running up the antagonist.
:::Sensor system needs direct connection with the control core. Best target::: Geist reacted to the order without even thinking. Damnation. That Ghost knew what it was talking about! :::Finish him off::: No need to tell me! His reinforced blows rained down on the bot who failed to gain his feet again. The electric sparkle in the visual system began to dim. Geist narrowed his eyes. :::Done in::: The Ghost confirmed unasked. The shattered white armor of the destroyed bot melted, flowed down the wrecked chassis.
Shell bots. Geist cursed and narrowed his eyes as dark red hardened armor appeared beneath the squishy white mess. He shifted his weight to a better stance. I should have known the HQ wasn't kept by a simple Defender.
The red bot reacted faster than the previous shell. Lights glowed up between its skull segments that began to move like bellows under hissing sounds of compressed air. Pointed fingertips struck, nearly shattering Geist's body armor, then gripped his throat before he could retreat.
A sickening crack rang in his ears, something in his jaw had given way. He smelled blood. And got again a weird impression of his body morphing into a form able to withstand the attacking droid effortlessly. As if that were possible. Damn. The whole idea made him dizzy!
:::Reinforces its strength with a gas compression system::: The Ghost barked in his mind. :::Block the pump mechanism:::
Anything else?! Geist reached one of the battle knifes, drove it in the pulsing vertical slit in the center of the bot's head segment. Moving almost without his intention his armored leg crashed against the bot's main bulk, tearing him free. Leaping, he slung his legs around the sparkling head segment and drove the battle knife back into the gap his – their?! he was no longer sure – first strike had torn.
The bot stumbled and tore Geist off its back by his leg armor. A part of his chest armor clattered to the ground as he tumbled: the protective casket of the energy crystal. Damned. Smoke billowed up from the bot. He watched it, prepared for the next strike. :::Off::: The Ghost bellowed in his head. :::Thing's detonating:::
Noticed, Geist growled as lightning from the bot's explosion battered against his armor. He felt the sickening impact of the light being absorbed unfiltered by the crystal. Blinding yellow smoke encompassed him and he only barely escaped dark grey steel hands rushing past him on both sides. A third hand coming from behind knocked him over, a fourth hit his back and slammed him into the floor. :::It grows unimaginative::: the Ghost commented dryly as the compound bot assembled itself behind Geist, waiting only for the leg that currently pressed Geist to the ground. :::Do you want to keep it? Give it back:::
Straining his joints to their limits, Geist clamped his fingers around the metallic wrist at his neck and dove for cover as the bot shot its limbs again against at him. :::Disrupt their attack scheme. Hug the ceiling instead of the floor:::
He turned over, the servos whined as he leaped at the next deep-flying strike of the robot limbs and shot the catch chain into the ceiling. It wouldn't carry his weight long. The claws wouldn't find enough hold in the solid steel. But the idea was worth a try.
Clinging to one of the safety handles meant to secure maintenance troops, Geist pressed himself against metal. Blood trickled from his chin up beneath his vizor as the attack limbs whizzed past beneath him, missing him only barely. The vibration in his chest increased as the servos demanded more energy from the crystal. Geist ground his teeth beneath his helmet's vizor. He had to be careful. These defense droids were constructed by the same people who brought the Fighttex gear on his body to precision, and they were preprogrammed to react to enforced battle armor.
Briefly he wondered if that annoying, disembodied voice was part of a defense system he had no knowledge of. Dammit. He had no doubt Kurz had adapted the programming to the current state of enhanced energy control crystals when activating them. But the voice was a different matter. He saw no way how Kurz could have caused that. Narrowing his eyes to mere slits, he watched the compound bots recombining. If any more energy blasts hit the crystal directly he'd be blown up by his own gear.
:::The unflying bulk is the center of their attack scheme::: The control unit. Main target. :::Exactly::: He ground his teeth, felt his fingers slipping on the hook. The main power supply was directly beneath him. If–
He shattered the floor seal with his reinforced back armor as he fell, rolled over, and leaped, tearing one of the cables off its shielding, at the bulk, ramming the cable against it's armor. Blue high energy sparkles flashed all around over walls, floor, and ceiling, sizzled all around Geist and over the no longer shielded crystal even as the bot burst into flames.
A violet flash ran over the blood-colored crystal as it soaked in the deadly amount of energy. Geist felt the stabilizing wiring melt under the storm of energy and–
High Security Forcefield Lab A
"Gooseman, you are aware that Buzzwang ran a simple questionnaire regarding the living conditions within the mountain, aren't you?"
"It fulfilled the assault parameters, sir. Was I to risk becoming invalid before the battle, then?" the ST asked unwaveringly.
Shit! He doesn't break out of his hallucination. Walsh sighed in despair again. What shall I do, dammit? I'm no shrink. "A clipboard is hardly a dangerous weapon, Gooseman."
"The droid forces are well versatile in camouflage, sir. It was my intention to protect my unit and minimize collateral damage. Was that wrong?"
Damnation! He got me. If I disagree I render him uncaring regarding civilians and his teammates, else I confirm his paranoia. How on Earth–? he studied the ST standing at attention behind the reinforced forcefield and a laser grille, both working at energy levels suitable to desintegrate matter on large scales. "Gooseman, you–"
"DON'T–" Shane yelled, grabbing his head. In front of Walsh's horrified eyes, he collapsed into a shivering heap, muscles seizing as if suffering from severe electric shocks, screaming...
It could be a trick, Walsh thought, torn between cautious hesitation and the desperate urge to help his son. He knew Goose too well capable of performing such a stunt to break free from a forcefield detention, still...
The faint whimpering, muffled by tears, decided it. Walsh's hand fell onto the emergency shut down of the forcefields...
..."Soldiers!" He snapped at attention at the barked, obedience demanding order. "Your day has finally come! For years now, we received deep space signals of alien foes, trying to contact, to enslave us. Six months ago, two of them appeared in one of their vessels giving us the first impression of their technological possibilities. They asked, under the banner of diplomacy, for our help, but – without a doubt – meant us to be the cannon fodder in their unholy interstellar wars." General Class made a pause for dramatic effects.
"Of course, the Board of World Leaders rejected it. But now it seems our foes have teamed up with a group of rebellious deep space colony planets which call themselves the Negusrom under the condition of being freed from Terra's justice first. Now a fleet of alien ships manned with colonists out to conquer Terra is approaching Solar System." Another dramatic pause.
"You are Terra's first and best line of defense against them. Martial law is declared. Your orders are issued. Before you are shipped off to your battle grounds, Dr. Breston will give you the latest information we have about our alien foes." He pressed a button on his remote and the huge information screen floating over the parade ground lit up, then he stepped back and the brown-haired scientist took his place.
"These are specimen of our main enemy species. As you can see by the tooth structures and the intestinal system, only the large one is a predator. This species calls itself Andorians. The small creature with the pointy ears, fur, and flat teeth is clearly a herbivore. They call themselves Kiwis–"
A sneering snicker ran through the lines of soldiers aligned precisely on the ground below him. "My favorite fruits!" a malicious voice called from the back. Breston ignored it.
"The autopsy revealed that the four stomachs have roughly the function of a cow's, though the cud chewing is done with a meal ring in the first stomach and not with the mouth as Terran ruminants do. A system that involves sharp bone structures embedded in the wall of an acid-holding intestine. So the best target aside brain and heart is likely this area." He displayed an picture of the creature before it was cut open and indicated the corresponding zone with his laser pointer.
"The analysis also revealed that the two species didn't originate on the same planet. Their possible adaption ability to Terran conditions might vary. In addition, the taller creature carried a couple of high tech gadgets and had a set of fangs hidden inside its jaw. It seems distress and imprisonment trigger a hormonal feedback that extends them, revealing the true nature of the beast. You'll find hypno-schooling recordings about technology, anatomy and language of both species in the packs with your fighting gear. You are expected to take the hypno-courses during your transport. Remember: you will fight against the Negusrom, but these are the true foes, gather whatever information about them is available to you."
Class stepped next to him. "SOLDIERS!" he barked. "MOVE!"...
Tears, forcing their way past lashes pressed tight shut, streaked the ashen face, wetting the commander's hand. Joseph was at a loss what to do next. The convulsive tremors had stopped the moment his hands had touched the boy's face, but Goose was still shivering and he didn't respond otherwise. Damnation. He'd never seen him like this. Not even after PTS.
...I don't wanna– he shuddered inwardly in the combat cell.
=Disable your enemy!= The general's voice boomed out of the hidden speakers.
=Use the gifts I've given you!= Breston's voice added no less loud.
Killbane approached again, slammed his fist against Goose's breastbone. "Green-eyed bastard," he sneered. Suddenly, there wasn't any air left to breathe. "Your petting friend's no longer the boss, you know?" Goose wanted to gasp, but his chest didn't obey. The circle of Ryker's minions assembled around them began to blur in his vision. Black-and-green sparkles began to dance in his vision. He saw Killbane launching himself against his fallen body. The impact of the tall trooper's frame would crush him–
An enemy deserves no mercy: Mercy is an illusion.
His hand jerked up, fingertips pointed to a narrow line. He felt skin tearing, flesh giving way, bones breaking beneath the impact of his nails reinforced with the momentum of the leaping enemy himself. Sharp bones cut into his hand as he used the enemy's momentum to heave the weight from him and twist to his feet. He didn't care. Soft, sucking tissue enveloped his hand. Lung flesh. He pressed on, clawed around the pulsing thing in the middle of the dying trooper, tore it out in a gush of blood, noticing with amusement that a heart indeed didn't stop beating the moment it was torn from its host...
He crushed it deliberately, causing another rain of blood to splatter across the dead trooper and the bystanders while his icy gaze wandered their lines.
"Hey, you made quite a show...." Stingray babbled, uneasy about the outcome of this fight. "You were never the bloody sort before, R– errr... Goose–" he stumbled backward as cold blue eyes fixated on his throat.
An enemy deserves no mercy. Mercy is an illusion.
"Did you call me a goose?" The question was frighteningly calm as he dropped the smushed piece of flesh to the ground, stepping deliberately onto it.
Another staggering step backward. "What shall we call you then?" a female he didn't care to gratify with a look asked.
"Call me Geist," he snapped, his icy eyes still fixed at Stingray. "Consider yourself haunted for the rest of your brief existence."...
It seemed to take an eternity before Shane moved on his own impulse, hiding his face in the commander's uniformed chest, giving Joseph the distinct feeling the boy didn't realize what he was doing while snuggling deeper into his arms, seeking comfort like a small child.
Walsh was bitterly aware that he'd likely be injured the moment Shane grew aware of it. He shifted the weight and reached for his com.
...Goose was five years old, had been raised out of his sleeping cubicle well before dawn, and stood freezing though refusing to shiver in the cold night's air on the parade ground listening to a strange officer's speech: "Troopers! I'm General Class, your superior commander. Your former commanding officer has been transferred. I'm going to run this project myself now." He made a gesture and a bulky, brown-bearded man in a lab coat came forward to stand next to him. "And this is Doctor Breston. Your further physical welfare from now on will depend solely on his skills and your performance." He drew a deep breath and bellowed: "I'm going to drive this project into a success!"...
Shane pressed his face closer against the slightly rough uniform cloth, wrapped up in the sensation of the heartbeat beneath it and a scent he failed to recognize through his sobbing in the slightly hesitating embrace of someone trying to comfort him while he cried helplessly about the child he hadn't been allowed to be, about billions of deaths in a war he'd been meant to fight, about the weapon he had almost become.
He didn't want to think, to recognize, only to feel protected this once in his life while a – the!? – world slowly regained focus around him. He was so very tired...
Niko concentrated on the disturbed mind whispering beneath her fingertips lying on Shane's tear-streaked cheek, more than thankful that the commander had refused to comment on her ferocious blush when she'd broke into the room and came to a staggering halt at seeing her superior on the floor holding Goose in his arms.
She had to be careful with this. She and Gooseman had kind of a past and there was the resonance left behind by it that now allowed her entry but also granted involuntary access to things she instinctively knew he didn't want to share. "There's a full set of additional memories..." Sweat tickled on her forehead at the effort to brush only over the surfaces instead of reaching deeper inside. "It's strange. I can't really read the second set as if..." she made a helpless gesture and swallowed dryly. "As if it's encoded with a different key than the regular one." She knelt down next to Goose and looked at the commander. "I have no access, but Shane doubtlessly has. The two sets are linked by... by something like a spider web of thoughts, and he's suffering from it."
"Could that be the reason for his hallucinations?"
"I think so. He likely responded to the second memory set instead of his own then." Niko hesitated. "Or maybe to a combination of both. The thought threads run in both directions. No idea how he got the second set or how that's possible at all. I've never seen something like that before." She made a helpless gesture, her worried look rested on Goose's face. "The second set seems to have been cut some minutes ago, though."
"That was the initial seizure, I think."
Niko nodded. "We have to make sure he continues with his own instead of the foreign one." She sighed. "For once, forget about security. Get him to talk. We have to find out what's going on in him."
"Shane..." Awkwardly, Walsh brushed humid strands of pale hair off the ST's face. "What's wrong with you, eh? Talk to me."
"It began when you were transferred..." It was the voice of a frightened little boy that answered. "Class put Breston in Negata's place and..." the sobbing choked.
"That's nonsense," Walsh mouthed. "I was never transferred, and Negata wasn't replaced."
"Still, those are true memories for him, sir," she said softly. "As real as his own. The way the information is linked in his mind is unmistakably memorious. He can't distinguish between the sets right now." She looked down at her knees, frowned, before she faced the commander straight. "Sir, was there ever a time when it was possible, that you could be transferred?"
"One, but I wasn't in the end." He didn't mention that he'd moved Heaven and Hell to prevent his transfer away from the boy back then. He shook his head. "And how on Earth can he know about Breston?! The felon was jailed when it was discovered, that he experimented with an orphan, Thommy Krauser, using samples of Negata's work. Shane never met him."
Niko's sad eyes rested on Goose's tear-streaked cheek. "I think the second set are memories of a reality in which your transfer took place," she said slowly. "And Breston's crimes weren't discovered."
"But that doesn't make any sense."
She frowned. "Maybe it does... Zachary mentioned that Goose told him, starstones were involved in the crash he had recently. Starstone effects are unpredictable. It is possible, that Shane's access to memories of an alternate reality is the result of his exposition to their powers."
"But alternate realities!?"
She shrugged. "I know it sounds ridiculous, but..."
Walsh involuntarily tightened the embrace as his thoughts returned to the other end of the topic. "Unthinkable what could have happened had someone as unscrupulous as Breston gained control over the STP."
"I think he knows..." Niko said faintly with a nod at Goose's shivering frame in the commander's arms. "And he knows it too well." Her hands clasped in her lap. "You did the right thing with holding him. You are the main difference between the sets. Keep contact. Force him to acknowledge that this can't be the world he remembers." She touched Shane's cheek again. "He probably won't even remember these things when it's over. At least I hope so." There was a lasting moment of awkward silence. "It's working, sir. He's calming."
"Then leave." The commander said in a rough voice. "Spare him the knowledge that you've seen him like this."
"We can't leave him alone till he's really through with this, sir," she protested.
"I'll stay. I was present often enough when he was hurt that one more time shouldn't matter much. You go, get the rest of your unit and QBall, and find out how the hell charged starstones got onto that shuttle." She threw him a disconcerted look close to disobedience, before she saluted briskly and closed the door behind her.
"Come on, boy." Walsh, growing more and more aware of the aching throbs in his once wounded knee as well as the awkwardness of the situation as a whole, nudged the ST cautiously. "I'm too old to sit on the floor and you're better off in a chair, too."
It took a long time till the young trooper finally dragged himself up and dropped with slow, clumsy movements into a contour chair, burying his face in his arms lying crossed on the table.
"Gooseman?" The commander inquired with hesitation as he took the chair opposite the unmoving Supertrooper. "Goose?" A tremor ran through the boy at the soubriquet. "Shane? Are you–?"
The boy looked up and this one time Joseph didn't face the ST but... He swallowed at the sight of this totally unguarded, unprotected eyes, speaking only of confusion... and fear. All of a sudden, Shane's hand flitted forward, his fingertips touching the back of Walsh's hand, and twitched back again. Green eyes widened, showing relief that would have been funny in any situation but this.
He always touches when he's disoriented... or distressed. The thought whizzed through the commander's mind, searched for an obvious connection Joseph knew was there, but failed to register. I wonder–
Walsh could tell the exact moment, the boy's defenses kicked in again, replacing confusion with a startled wariness that grew quickly into carefully hidden distrust born from years of abuse. "Sir." The single syllable erected the familiar wall between them. Joseph sighed inwardly. At least Gooseman was back to his normal self.
"Which ship did Goose pick up the freight on, Captain?"
Zach checked the papers. "EFSN Lakota, according to his schedule."
"She's in dock now." Like them, Doc was all business. Their way of dealing with the uneasiness the events had left behind. It was disconcerting to be reminded like that what their youngest teammate was capable of if unleashed. "I'll check for any additional data of the freight Goose had to transport."
"QBall, do you have a detailed list of what was on board Ranger Gooseman's shuttle that day?"
"Of course, it's in the comps, but–"
"Got it." Doc made a theatrical movement towards the holo-display. "Et voila." He presented the freight list including thumbnails and brief descriptions of the items scrolling through in slow, continuous succession...
"......., a heavy armor of unknown origin, two Xeryon–"
"Stop!" Niko's head jerked up. "Can I have the full-size holos from this one?"
"The armor? Sure." He loaded the thumbnails. "All yours, lady."
"GV, slow rotation please." Niko watched intently. "Stop.." Her face had gone ghostly pale as she stared wordlessly at the statue of light rotating slowly above the table, at the black, dark-grey armor, framed with gold, at the deep red, blood-colored, rectangular crystal in the center of the chest plate. "It's this one, isn't it?" she asked flatly.
"Yes, why?" QBall fussed with his reading aids. "We found it at–"
"That is a completely charged starstone!" she interrupted QBall in a harsh voice.
"Impossible. Starstones don't get that dark and they are hexagonal!"
"They can be carved to all forms, QBall," she snapped. "And they can get that dark! Under the right conditions that balance their energy fluctuations. Let me guess: it's connected with some inner wiring or so in the armor, right?" she pointed vaguely at the displayed crystal. "That thing is big and charged enough to blast BetaMountain straight through the planet and into orbit via China!" She dropped back onto her seat. "Lord knows how Shane's bio defenses channeled that amount of energy."
Standing in the doorway, Gooseman swallowed dryly, clenching his fist just short of drawing blood from his palms. He definitely had an idea about that.
"At least, we now know it wasn't an assassination attempt," Zach concluded with a sigh.
"But it makes me wonder about our science department. I mean," Doc tossed QBall one of his apologetic smiles, "no offense, Q. But if I get our mystic colleague right, you almost finished the Queen's business accidentally, didn't you?"
"Now wait a moment, Ranger Hartford!" QBall protested. "You can't put it that way. We–"
Zach raised his hand to end the quarrel. "Now hold on, accusations won't get us anywhere."
In the silence that followed after his calm reprimand, all of them heard the faint hiss of the door closing. But only Niko caught a glimpse of Goose merging back into the darkness of the corridor outside. "Excuse me, Zach." She pushed her chair back.
Her voice made him stop. Hurried steps closed in from behind. He frowned at her approach, felt forced to say something about it, to stop her being so easy, so close around him. An hour ago, that would have gotten her killed. He suppressed the shiver that caused as he turned to face her intently. "Niko, at the crash site... you did know that something wasn't quite right when you scanned there psionically, didn't you?"
Her nod wasn't much more than a twitch of her chin as she came to a halt in front of him. "But then I was distracted by your–"
Her hands fluttered. Goose ignored it. This was too important now. He gripped her shoulders, practically forced her to look at him. "If something like that..." – damn. If only he had a name for it! – "ever happens again. Or you just think it might happen. I want you to give me a wide berth, a really wide berth. Do you read me? Stay as far away from me as you can."
"Shane, just because you were taught to kill doesn't mean that you–" she protested.
He shook his head, rather violent. "Niko, I wasn't trained to kill, I was trained to kill efficiently. There's a difference." He ground his teeth. "Promise me that you'll do it."
"Promise!" he barked it, harsher than he'd intended.
She nodded, hesitantly, her wide eyes locked in his. And he just hoped she saw what he felt now, because he didn't have the faintest idea how to tell her so she understood. He watched her lower lip beginning to tremble, saw these impossible eyes growing wet with tears. It took him a moment before he understood her choked, "You're hurting me."
His hands dropped away from her, he retreated, swallowed the 'That's why,' that hovered on his tongue. "I'm sorry. I– I–" he blinked dully and forced the words through his lips. "I wasn't myself."
You were. he almost jumped at the words popping up in his mind. But it wasn't the Ghost, it was... the knowledge he'd left behind. I am you. The you after your mental pet wolf gave up protecting your petty ass at Wolf Den!
No! he froze, physically and mentally. No. I. Did. Not. Lose.
Here. The There is different, Goosey.
There was the memory of cruel laughter and... nothing. The Ghost was gone, leaving him to deal alone with the mess he caused. "I wasn't," he whispered, expecting the cruel laughter to start all over again, but it remained silent. "I wasn't," he repeated with more strength than before in his voice.
"I know," Niko said softly, startling him with her seemingly perception of his inner fight. "We all have days in which we aren't ourselves."
Not like that, girl. Never like that. Pray to whoever listens that you never have to spend days in the company of the weapon you could have become... Her hand lay on his sleeve. He took tremendous effort not to twitch away from under it.
"Even I," she said with a faint smile and a whiff of the scent that was only hers. Sometimes he clearly hated the amount of information his enhanced senses provided him with. There was an apologetic note in it. "Do you recall the day when I really told the commander where he could file that report?"
"Actually..." he frowned. "I considered you fairly polite."
She shrugged dismissively. "Remember that I don't have your... verbal experience."
He raised a wheat blond brow. "I think with 'up your arm' it's more a matter of anatomy."
"You!" she warned him.
Yes me, he answered in his thoughts. This me. Not that me. He groaned at that. "I need a break. This is all too damned complicated for the likes of me."
"Have some coffee with me in the cafeteria?" she asked and added with a teasing smile: "As long as you are not possessed..."
He twitched. "Never again!"
She blinked. "No coffee?"
"No being possessed. Coffee is fine."
In the year 21781 Andorian calendar [about 1500 Earth calendar],
the diplomat-philosopher Wonko Al-c-now of Andor wrote:
Alternative universes [...] the theory that every decision, willingly or unwillingly made, causes two universes. One in which the answer is yes, and one in which it is no. Each non-yes/no question can be divided into an assembly of yes/no-questions, causing even more universes. The poetry guild formed the name 'parallel universe' for the phenomenon, unfortunately camouflaging the truth: Each universe is but a possibility from the next.
For nearly 600 years his theories were considered ridiculous...
42 hours earlier and 42 possibility planes away from the two Galaxy Rangers having a coffee in BETA's cafeteria...
Geist spent no attention to his inner chill, it wasn't important, though the fact that the detonating energy control crystal had failed to disintegrate his chest together with half of the mountain was somewhat interesting. He'd think about it later. As well as about the ghost-voice that hadn't spoken again after the blast. But first, the mission was to be completed.
His gloved fingers flew over the keyboard, correcting settings, entering code, undoing the deactivation work admittedly properly done by Kurz before Geist had rid himself and the sad remains of Terra of that very personal foe. It was just that he, Geist, needed the program active to fulfill the order given an unknown number of years ago.
The Negusrom invaders were to leave Terra.
They would leave.
Ironically in exactly the way Kurz had frozen him for.
He wasn't going to risk further complications with that, though it bothered him briefly that he would never learn why Kurz had done what he did. The man had never been overly responsive.
Faint, rapid footfalls closed in. The woman called out to him, stating the obvious. Geist snorted inwardly. So much for avoiding further complications. He ignored her, concentrated on entering the final sequence.
The countdown on the main screen reactivated, counting back from 10.
"Hey Geist, what're you doing?"
He ignored her, watching calmly how the countdown finished.
"Geist, what do you think you're doing? The damn battle is over." She tugged at his arm.
=Program D now active. Code 303 begin Death Force.=
Grabbing her shirt, he pulled her close, eyeing her coldly. It didn't matter what she knew or not, but for once he was content on correcting her assumptions.
"The game's not over yet. It's just beginning."
Some entities consider it kind of an irony, that on this possibility plane Wonko was the victim of a skateboard accident with seven and died 42 days before his eighteenth birthday without regaining consciousness.
Said entities prefer to stay anonymous.
Special Thanks to S. 'Trivia' Blank for editing this.