set about one month after "Heartbeat".
The ship approached the planet at a dreadful speed. Security systems blared a mixture of collision and overload alarms. But it didn't help. The battle with the outlaws had done too much damage to the interceptor. Niko hoped that the hyperspace beacon she had dropped at the last second marked at least approximately the sector where the others would have to look for them. Of course, she and Goose would have to survive their forced landing on planet 17798 first...
=Five standard minutes till impact.= The automatic countdown until impact blasted through the cockpit. Niko noticed Goose pressing buttons hurriedly. She made sure her safety harness was securely fastened and raised the impact shields to the max, wondering in a strangely long-lasting moment if the stellar cartographer who had added this world to the list of planets supporting carbon-based life had known what he was doing. They would find out all too soon.
=One standard minute till impact.= Niko closed her eyes and gripped the armrests of her seat.
"Luck," Goose said in a tight voice.
"Luck," Niko replied, her voice just as tight. The surface of 17798 came rushing towards them. The plotter next to her started to rattle. "What..."
The howling pain in Niko's right arm roused her from darkness. Slowly she realized that her seat had been adjusted into a reclining position and that her safety harness was no longer around her. "Shane?"
"Yes." She heard Gooseman rummaging in the rear cargo bay. He climbed back to the wrecked cockpit. "Everything ok?"
"No – my arm." She gasped as she tried to move it. With knitted brows he climbed over to her, cut open her sleeve and palpated her arm.
"Broken." Blood trickled down his face. Ignoring it, he looked around. "Nothing available for splinting. The first aid kid is trashed, as are the transmitter and the engines. Let's hope you dropped that beacon in the right place. Nothing works but the automated distress signal, and that only emits radio waves." As he spoke, Goose began cutting long strips out of the upholstery of his seat. "Keep still. I'm going to bandage your arm. It'll have to hold till we can find something to use as a splint. We have to get away from here."
"Goose, according to emergency procedures, we have to stay near the ship so the rescue team can find us."
"I got a good look at the area when we came down." He pushed her sleeve up her arm. "We're right in the middle of a desert zone. The mountains east of us are our only chance to find water and shelter. Without them we won't last five days in this place."
Niko heard the unyielding tone in his voice and knew he wouldn't listen to arguments. A searing pain ran through her arm as he bandaged it, and only his hand over her mouth stifled her cry.
"Shhh... Try not to cry out. I don't know what's out there. And I don't want it to find us until I know how to deal with it." He released her mouth and tied off the bandage. "Move it as little as possible. It's not a substitute for a splint, but it'll hurt less during the march. Come on," he said, taking her intact arm and helping her to her feet. Gritting her teeth, she clambered out of the vessel.
"We have to leave a message behind," Niko pointed out.
"Your blaster intact?" He took the weapon from her and disappeared back into the ship. Niko heard the hiss of vaporized metal, and smoke leaked through the breaks in the hull. "Keep an eye on it," he said when he returned and handed it back to her. "It's the only energy weapon we have."
"What did you do?"
"Destroyed the weapons compartment and weapon controls, and burned a coded message about our heading into the cockpit wall."
"You've destroyed the weapon systems? But..."
"The computer is crashed. We can't use it for survival anyway. And if the first one who picks us up is one of those scumbags who caused all this trouble, I don't want him to have the latest advances in weapons technology to use against us. I'm stacking the odds in our favor, just in case. Let's go." Goose bundled up the gear he had collected and slung it over his shoulder. Then they headed out.
Their goal was blurred in the heat like a mirage floating high above the ground. They had lost sight of the wreck hours ago. Niko felt as if the broken bones in her arm were grinding against each other with every step she took. What if the terrain gets even worse?
Goose turned to look back at her. "Everything okay?"
"Yes," she said through gritted teeth. "If only we had some cold pineapple juice, it'd be like one of those walking tours in Tunisia." She tapped the canteen at her belt. "We've got to ration."
The sand got deeper, built up dunes of rich yellow and blinding white with deep black shadows in between. She should have kept her mouth shut about Tunisia. At least I didn't say anything about Tortuna. This planet seemed to listen in a way she found unpleasant. The drifts grew to regular sand dunes... They made their way to the crest of the dunes and scanned the surrounding terrain. Finally, she set a psi-mark so they could keep their bearings while walking through the shaded valleys. Here they moved much faster. A shiver ran through her mind.
"Something's coming," she warned him. "We're sitting ducks out here."
Gooseman pointed at the steep walls of sand near them. "That's the alternative."
"Charming. Let's see if it's worth the effort." Activating her badge, she put out her psychic feelers...
...a wave of life charged towards her, then... hunger, greed. She had the impression of wide-spread toes, trotting through the sand. Nose slits picked up the scent of prey from the sand as it passed by. In anticipation of a meal, it bared fangs covered with viscous slaver. Soon...
"A predator is chasing prey animals toward us. Quite a few, Goose."
"Hard to say. Definitely not lit–" She broke off. "Like little Bovos."
The creatures racing into the valley were sandy-colored with striped bristles and closing fast. As the first animals reached Niko and Goose, they pressed back to back to make room.
Beside her Goose hissed. "Watch out! They're like porcupines." He pulled two long quills out of his side.
The main body of the herd passed by, denser than the lead pack. Niko generated a protective field and covered them both. Some of the animals banged into it. The sand at their feet was covered with quills. Suddenly, it was silent. She let the field collapse. "The predator's still missing."
"Where is it?"
"It's coming. It's close, Goose."
The next thing they knew, a cascade of sand fell from above as a huge creature dropped from the top of the dune. Goose was trapped, buried beneath two giant paws. The creature roared and snapped at Niko. She fell back, her shield forming a protective brace around the broken bone, then strengthening as she pulled her boot knife free. A surge of green and yellow entrails poured into the sand as the blade cut through the body. The creature writhed, lashing out in agony, mixing its innards with the bloody sand to form a horrible pulp. The back paws lost their grip. Gooseman, thrown to the side, went head over heels and came to his feet some meters away. Automatically he reached for his badge, then let his hand drop and simply walked over to her.
"Take too long to die like that," he said.
"Yes." She maintained a thin, flickering field to keep the emanations of death away. Then she adjusted to the creature's movements and drove her knife with one quick stroke through a yellow eye deep into the brain. Finally it lay still. She opened her shield a little. Silence. With a short jerk she pulled her knife out. As she expected, the blade was broken. She shoved the stump back into the sheath at her boot. You never know, she thought. "We've got to go on. We're running out of water." She dropped the shield, keeping only the telekinetic cuff around her arm to fight the pain. She felt her badge vibrating and knew the charge was already reduced.
They had reached the mountains. The terrain was precipitous. From time to time Gooseman tore a splinter out of one of the stunted trees that grew sparsely on the detritus-covered slopes. They skirted the lower slopes of the range, walking halfway between massif and desert plain. By now Niko was worn out from the heat. They hadn't rested the night before because the temperature had fallen too fast, and now it was too hot. She wheezed as she bumped into Goose, who had stopped abruptly. "Water." His voice left no room for doubt. They stood at the edge of a valley deeply carved into the rocks. The vegetation was thicker down there. The walls, though steep, were covered with plants. With a skilled eye he searched for a way to descend safely. "We have to go down there. Can you make it?"
"I don't have another choice, do I?"
The claw prints led from the edge of the river up the slope to the rocks. Niko noticed the trail when she moistened a rag in the water to cool her arm and ease the pain, which had been growing stronger and stronger since the telepathic cuff broke down. "We should make ourselves scarce. If this creature is like the one two days ago..."
"I hope so," he said in a grim voice. "It's easier to defeat something you know."
"I can't take another battle."
"I know. That's why I'm going to take care of it myself."
He put the supplies down and turned to her. "Look around. There isn't enough prey here for more than one big predator." He looked down the trail, his mind already fixated on the hunt. "Do you feel anything?"
"My charge is almost gone, Goose."
"Save your strength." He turned his attention back to the trail. "We'll do it the old-fashioned way."
The massive creature in front of the cave was obviously a carnivore, heavy but definitely not sluggish, like the one in the desert. It reminded her of a cross between a bear and a musk ox. Keeping the blaster ready to fire in her unwounded hand, Niko hid behind some scrub and watched Gooseman creep up on the animal, the naked knife in his right hand. She felt the tension build up in his body, felt the motion of his muscles as he collected himself for the jump...
She bit her lip and concentrated on her shields. She had never before dropped them accidentally. A golden glow told her his bio defenses had activated. Red blood sprayed out of the animal's throat as it collapsed on top of Shane. He struggled to free himself and checked to be sure it was dead, staying carefully out of reach of fangs and claws. Finally he signalled Niko to come over.
"And now?" She kept as much distance as possible. Her fluctuating shield wasn't protecting her from death emanations and his emotions. I'm injured, stranded, and losing control of my abilities, she thought in exhaustion. None of my training at BETA covered this.
"We have to skin this thing, scrape the hide and throw the carcass into the river to avoid attracting scavengers. Then we'll clean out the den. The hide should cover the entrance quite well."
She shuddered at the thought of the lair. "Do we have to?"
"This guy must have been the boss of this valley. With some luck nothing around here will come looking for trouble with him. And we're going to take advantage of this when we take his place as top critter around here. We should be safe – at least for a while."
"Is that why you used the knife?"
"The blaster would have erased its scent." He looked at her, noticing her wan face and the trembling she suppressed only with effort. This was more than exhaustion. Goose began to worry...
Niko trembled all over. The exhaustion, the shock of her injury and the experiences of the last 48 hours drained her of every ounce of strength. The pain in her broken arm kept her awake. The emergency bandage was no substitute for a splint and a MediLight to mend the broken bone. The hunger did the rest.
She kept the blaster at hand beside her, since Goose had gone to check out the surrounding area and to wash away the dirt and blood. But the extreme strain diminished her alertness and her psionic powers. Again and again her chin sank to her chest.
It was dark in the cave. Goose had pinned the scraped hide with sharpened stakes across the entrance. The lair still stank of carnivore and worse, though they had removed as much of the muck as possible. As they carried out splintered bones, rotting meat and worse, Niko had felt more and more lightheaded, until Goose had made her rest while he finished. She noticed the cold creeping slowly deeper into her body. Evening must have started. The nights on this damn rock were marked by biting frost...
She startled awake, heart pounding, as something gripped her shoulder. "Shhh. It's me, Goose." He squatted down beside her. "Let me see your arm." He took off the bandage. With knitted brows he examined the point of fracture in the flickering light of a tiny fire and ran his hand over it, feeling the fracture through her skin. "Okay..."
She looked skeptically at him. Her arm ached continuously, the hurt increasing with every throb of her pulse. Her psionic powers seemed to shrink back from the injury. "Are you sure? It doesn't feel..." Burning pain erased her senses as he set the bone with a short jerk.
As she regained consciousness she realized she was wrapped in the only survival blanket still intact after the crash. Her arm throbbed, but the burning pain had vanished. Goose leaned his back against the opposite wall and stared with half-closed eyes into the flames. She watched him. The wound on his temple and the bruises caused by his safety harness during the crash and by the desert animal had disappeared when he activated his bio defenses. But he was changed, colder, more tense. Images whispered through her mind. She tried to stop them, but again and again her barriers were broken...
He looked over at her. His eyes, still narrowed, glistened like steel. "I had to fix the fracture." Naked necessity – survival.
"I know." She sat up cautiously, trying to keep the arm steady, and recognized, astonished, the solid tie around it.
"Bark," he said harshly. "This kind gets malleable when soaked. Better than bandages." He threw some stringy fruits over to her. "Edible."
"How do you know?"
"Biosphere-scan." He pointed at a stack of all-weather transparencies, which were welded together at one side. "We're going to be stuck here quite a while. I wanted data."
Of course - the hard copies just before the impact. She understood... He was prepared to survive on this planet for years. The sensations of animals, unreasoned and chaotic, rushed again through her mind. She hid her face behind her drawn-up legs, tried not to show the tears of despair and fear. Be a ranger, not a crybaby! she berated herself. But she knew the statistics far too well not to know how poor were the chances that they'd be found in the foreseeable future...
Suddenly he was near, embracing her from behind. The voice at her ear was faint but firm. "We'll make it."
She leaned backward, filled her mind with the conscious whispering of his presence to push the animal sensations aside. She fought her fear, fought to lock it deep inside her soul. He couldn't help her. He didn't even know...
Niko watched Goose from the slope above him. She felt she should help him, but when she had tried to test her broken knife she had broken down screaming because of the emanations of death that clung to it. He had taken the knife from her cramped hand and thrown it away. Then he had helped her to her feet again without a word. Her hands were still trembling...
He lay in wait for a group of gazelles to come closer to the high dry grass where he hid. Two narrow knives were stuck in his belt. There was something wild about him with his bare chest. The creatures came closer. Niko observed how he collected himself, how his muscles grew tense...
Gooseman leaped at the creatures, sprinted next to a fleeing gazelle. His hands reached for the tiny throat. Niko almost believed she could hear bones cracking when the creature fell, its neck broken...
...her arm pulsated. He had taken off the cuff of bark today and also had palpated the bone. She shuddered. It was far too easy to forget what he was...
She sat cross-legged, motionless. The wind of late autumn blew colored leaves around her. The blades of dry grass carried ice on their tips. Niko used a fraction of her psionic powers to prevent the cold from creeping into her body. The wind blew some strands of her chestnut-red hair in front of her eyes. She didn't stir, didn't try to push them away. Goose's instructions crossed her mind...
...don't move, be a part of the world as if it had never been any other way. You're telepathic – that means you can hunt differently than I. Promise peace, persuade the prey of peace, shelter, warmth. It'll come closer and closer. Don't stir. Wait till it's less than half of your arm length away. Then use the knife as if it were part of your body. Keep your thoughts away from what the knife is for. It's part of you and you're peaceful. Don't block your abilities before the blade is at the prey's throat. Remember: it's not a victim, it's life. Our life!...
The gazelle-like creature came closer. Nostrils stretched towards her, timorously sniffing the air. A step. Another step. The thin, fragile-looking legs moved carefully through the dry grass, irresistibly attracted by the promise of safety. Niko bit her lips. A telepath feared death, the panic in the moment before, the chaos in the fading mind which can pull a telepath down with it into the void. If she didn't block in time. If...
The little gazelle had stopped, the bunch of fur at its back already raised, signaling the readiness to flee. Hurriedly, she reestablished the field that had almost slipped her mind. Safety... a promise impossible to keep.
The little creature came closer and closer, stretched its neck towards her, dipped its head into the peace that she promised...
Her hand, motionless until now in her lap, slashed up. Goose's second knife slid terrifyingly easily through the animal's throat. Blood poured over her hand and her arm. The chaos of death hammered against her shields, tried to pull her into the void... finally silence. The little gazelle lay dead before her knees. The tension dropped away from her. The knife slipped from her hand and fell next to the carcass. She stared at the blood that covered her arm, her shoulder, parts of her chest and abdomen. Living blood.
Suddenly Goose was beside her. She looked at the tight straps around his ankle, the reason she had to learn hunting again. He checked to be sure the prey was dead. His other knife was stuck through his belt. He took up the first one, cleaned it on the fur of the gazelle and held it out to her.
She didn't dare to take it.
"You hunted. You killed, Niko. Therefore you can use the knife." When she took it back hesitantly, he grinned in relief. "I'll take care of the prey."
She swallowed when he knelt down next to the gazelle, watched, horrified, as he laid his mouth on the still-bleeding wound and drank. Food was scarce. They couldn't afford to waste anything. She was riveted by the flexing of his shoulder muscles below the torn shirt, the movements of his throat. A thread of blood ran from the corner of his mouth down to his chin...
Her hands drove into his hair. She tasted blood in his mouth, felt it on his lips. She wanted his arms around her and a fall backwards into the dry grass, seeing his eyes as a whirl of silvery steel and smaragdine desire...
"No!" His voice was muffled and choked. "Not here! Not now!" His forearm pushed her head back. He was breathing heavily. The tips of his eyeteeth showed between his lips. He held her away from him until the glowing in her eyes turned to bewilderment and shame. She trembled all over. Her teeth dug into her lips at the thought that she had almost combined desire and death. He held her as she reeled.
"Shane..." She hid her face against his chest, remembering the overpowering dark desire that had almost burned her. "What's happening to me...?"
They lay curled up in the den's semidarkness. The dying flames of the tiny fire near the entrance flickered. The icy storm erased the world's warmth. Snow gusts and hail pattered against the hide that covered the entrance. They had stuffed the gaps with dry grass but it was still bitterly cold, too cold...
She was afraid to touch him, remembered too well the black fever that had seized her. But not to touch him, not to nestle into his warmth meant to die. The survival blanket was wrapped around them. They lay on a heap of straw. Dry grass tied into rough bundles covered the walls around them. Niko felt his breath on her face, cursed and welcomed it, at once a regular reminder of what had almost happened and a source of life-supporting warmth.
She had drawn up her legs. Her knees touched his thighs. Her head rested on his arm, curled around her shoulders to warm them. She wanted to talk, to express what had happened to her, the mistake she'd made when she tried to regain control over her powers and forgot to keep control of her physical existence... She had forgotten that her body and her powers were a unity, not things that could be separated.
But if they started talking...
His voice would be too close, too near to her. Her shields were so horribly weak without her badge. Right now his thoughts whispered in her mind. And without shields...
Ariel would never agree to this kind of intimacy...
"What're you thinking about?"
"My mentor. What she'd say about this." She changed her voice, tried to imitate Ariel's scratchy tones: "Shimmering Star! Shimmering Star of Xanadu!! Niko, how can you do this? You're a telepath of the highest degree. Do you get me, student? Of the highest degree! So don't behave like that! Your affinity for the plain body will cost you your sanity in the end!" Niko grinned in the darkness. "You should have seen what happened when I first mentioned that I wanted to go to BETA. She couldn't believe that her best pupil could stray that far from the straight and narrow!"
"I guess Negata wouldn't be too pleased about this change in of his project either."
"It's necessary right now."
He grinned. "Yes."
Fox and Hartford were on their way with the bio scanner at the ready. Doc cursed at the crusted snowfields they had to cross: remnants of the last winter. But the note on the wall of the wreck was clear: "Go round halfway up the next mountains, watch for marks." Zachary turned up the collar of his coat and knitted his brows.
"What's up, Zach?" Doc urged Voyager closer to Brutus. "You got mighty worried just now."
"Do you see what season it is here?" Determined, Zach drove his horse on over the snowfield.
"It's late winter." Doc checked the scanner display. "And?"
"Late winter, Doc. Just think hard! They've been missing for five months. That means they got here in autumn!"
"Shit! Then they'd have to..." He preferred not to finish the sentence and just followed his captain in silence.
"Exactly." Zach pulled his rain coat closer around him. It was bitterly cold. He hadn't told Doc about the remnants of blood in the cockpit or about the hints of emergency treatment of an injured person. But there was no grave near the wreck. Therefore both of them had at least survived the crash...
"Zach!" Doc's shout startled him. "I've got a signal."
Zachary barely recognized her at first. He studied the camp through his binoculars. The woman who watched the fire was thinner than he remembered Niko being. Her long hair was gathered by some strips of cloth at her neck. She wore a knife at her hip and watched the surrounding bushes as attentively as she did the frying strips of meat on the fire. Fast, certain movements. No hurry. No slowness. She was somehow catlike. He almost whistled...
A rustle of dry leaves from last year alarmed her. She grabbed for the knife as she turned...
Zach took down the binoculars. "It's her." Doc sighed in relief. "But Goose is nowhere to be seen... Come on!" Determined, Fox started to climb down into the valley.
"Down the river," Niko's answer on Fox' carefully worded question about Gooseman was brusque. "We need... needed food," she corrected herself quickly, laughed in relief and grew earnest again when Doc stumbled out of the den and shook his head.
"Incredible." The shock was written on his face. "In circumstances like these–"
"The winter was hard," she said. "We didn't have any choice."
"I'd be dead without him, Doc. Dead! Do you get me?!"
Slowly understanding crossed the hacker's face. He's a typical child of the era. A genius at the computer, but... Faint steps came up from the river's edge. She jumped up, ran to meet him and flung her arms around Gooseman's neck without taking any notice of the bloody bundle on his shoulder. "It's over, Shane. Over after all!"
He briefly returned her embrace and walked on to the fire. "Captain. Doc." His nod was as short as if he had just returned from two days of shore leave. "We'll be ready to go in a minute." He put down the bundle – which proved to be two arrow-shot rodents – next to the fire and disappeared into the den behind the huge hide.
Doc watched, shuddering, as Niko took two pieces of frying meat from the stick and chewed on them while she destroyed the fireplace, scattered the stones and threw the remnants, including the fresh prey, into the river. Gooseman reappeared, some things bundled in a fringed survival blanket slung over his shoulder. He pulled the stakes out and threw the hide into the cave.
Zachary watched his two long-losts thoughtfully. They were a perfect team now. A whole winter's camp broken down in less than half an hour without a single word...
Niko, wearing a new uniform, sat at the table in Ranger-1's main cabin and reread the short report she'd written over the last thirty minutes. Ranger-1 had already entered hyperspace, with Doc at the controls. They would reach BETA Mountain in some hours. And then the tumult would really break out...
Zachary pushed a mug over to her when she looked up from the datapad, finally satisfied with her draft. She wrapped her hands around the hot mug and inhaled the smell of coffee. Her skin still tingled from the hygiene unit's supersonic shower. She'd had a couple of preventive vaccinations and her scrapes and scars had been treated medically. Now it was Goose's turn.
After a deep sip of coffee she signed her report and handed it to Zach for countersigning. Lost in her thoughts, she massaged her neck. It's over. Finally over. She repeated the words like a mantra. Slowly the permanent tension that had kept her alive on 17798 eased away. The exhaustion stirred. She tightened her shoulders.
"Take the bed." Fox pointed with his head at the single bunk in the back of the cabin. "You need the sleep more than the rest of us." He looked over the report and compared it with the one Goose had made during Niko's medical treatment. By the time he finally signed the two reports, Niko had already crept under the thin blanket.
Goose reappeared, his hair cut militarily short again. He stared through the window into the red, fibrous blurring of hyperspace. "Your report is okay, Goose." Zach laid both datapads on the table and watched the ST, who stood at the window with his back towards his captain. Am I ever going to understand this man? Niko was right when she said that she wouldn't have made it without him. But what has this whole thing cost him? "There's going to be a lot of trouble when we reach BETA."
Fox walked over to Gooseman, scrutinized him. Shane had always been taciturn, but this time his voice hid more: tiredness, exhaustion... Zachary noticed that the ST leaned his head against the window. Five months. The responsibility while she was wounded... He's as worn out as she is. But he'll never let on. "You should get some sleep, too. When the BWL starts its inquiry there'll be little chance for rest..." Goose looked at him without a word. "We've got a sleeping bag for you."
"That's out of the question!" Niko's furious voice turned Fox and Goose from the window. "This bed is wide enough. And he deserves it just as much as I do." Determined, she moved closer to the wall to make room for him.
"That's against regula–" Zachary began.
Doc heard the last loud words from the cockpit. "But my Goose man. You wouldn't compromise a lady in our presence, would you?"
"Nonsense!" Niko interrupted him. "I lived with him for more than a quarter. Dammit. We had to share our warmth to keep from dying of cold. And now he should sleep on the floor?!! Forget it! – Come on, Shane. This is ridiculous!"
"Captain, don't you have anything to say about this?" Doc asked.
"Seems I don't." Zachary shrugged towards the cockpit and watched Niko, huddled next to Goose. She's gotten wilder. Somehow he doubted that the commander or the BWL would like that.
Niko waited until nobody was in the corridor before she slipped out of her apartment and activated Goose's doorbell.
She hurried into the room, let the door slide closed behind her and leaned with her back against it. He sat at his terminal and turned his swivel chair towards her.
"Can I stay for a few minutes or is half of BETA visiting you, too?"
"Sure. But... just a moment... Zach, Walsh, QBall... Doc isn't likely to come... No. Everybody who dares to enter the predator's cage has already been here. Including Moira."
"Moira!" Niko snorted. "What did she want of you?"
"To bring me Poss." He ran his hands through the fur of his tiny grey cat that clinged to his wrist as if he was going to disappear again every moment. "And to bawl me out, because I wrecked another one of her darlings." He grinned provocatively at her. "What did you think?"
He freed his hand of his cat's grip. "Something to drink? Juice?" When she nodded he got up. The top two buttons of his uniform shirt were open. He was in socks and his hair looked somehow scruffy. "Here." He gave her a glass and pointed at the edge of the bed. "I'm not used to visitors." She took a seat on his quilt and sighed theatrically. "That bad?"
"It's like Piccadilly Circus around me since half past six this morning!" She laid her head back against the wall. "It's nice to be popular. But I can't stand it any longer." She gave him a smile of complicity. "I need a break."
"Stay as long as you want."
She looked around while sitting on his bed. It was the first time she'd been in his apartment and had time to look around. Most of his furniture was military standard equipment: the desk with the terminal, a bed, a simple wardrobe. What stuck out was an overloaded bookshelf. A wild assortment of books were piled up on it: Edgar Allen Poe, SF stories from Arthur C. Clarke, a fantasy novel by Cherryh... But also tattered reprints of Ovid's works, some technical reports and a bound edition of Popper's Objective Knowledge. It seemed that Goose read more than people imagined he would. His blaster hung on the bedstead to be always within reach. Next to the console on the floor stood an old chess board. "Do you play?"
"Sometimes. I prefer live action." Nevertheless, he took the board and set up the pieces.
He made his first move without thinking about it. "Where did you learn to play chess?"
"Wolf Den." When she looked at him, astonished: "They thought it would increase our strategic abilities."
The buzzer interrupted them – Zachary Fox and Doc Hartford. "Goose, we have to look for– Here you are!"
Niko and Goose sat on the floor in front of a chess board on which a heated battle seemed to be taking place. "Captain."
As the ST looked up at him, Fox noticed that Niko changed Goose's castle into a less advantageous position. Fox greeted him shortly. "Niko. Half of the staff is searching for you."
"I know, Zach. They were visiting me continuously." She smiled apologetically. "I asked for asylum."
Doc squeezed past Zach and studied the game field. "Seems we've arrived at the right moment to prevent Goose from suffering a bad setback. – Your king stands in mate."
Goose glanced at the board. "Niko, you're cheating."
"I don't cheat."
"Of course you do."
"Prove it." She looked at him with flashing eyes and hesitated. "You've replaced my queen."
"Have I?" Goose seemed to wear a halo.
"Stop it, now." Zachary laughed faintly. "Niko, we've searched half of the mountain for you. I wanted to recruit Goose for it, too. Walsh and two senators want to talk to you immediately. And you two are acting like schoolkids in here!" He shook his head. As Niko rose to leave he added quietly: "Be warned. One of the senators is Wheiner."
"No, Senator! He did NOT touch me against my will! If that's what you want to know." In her memories Niko once again saw Wheiner stepping back in the face of her fury. Two hours! For two hours they beat about the bush because they wanted to know something that doesn't concern them at all! She leaned back into her armchair, pushed her hair back and snorted, still furious. The Board's distrust of Gooseman had dictated most of the questions. They didn't want to hear anything about the reasons for the crash but... She energetically shoved the memories out of her mind. The questioning is over!
On the table next to her were piled presents and congratulatory cards from her friends and colleagues, remnants of the pleasant but endless turmoil of the day. Next week she had regular duty on her schedule. Normality would reestablish itself soon, as the astonishing events she'd experienced were overwhelmed by new adventures of other people at BETA. Soon, at least, for the others. She doubted that she could cope so quickly with the past. Too much had happened. Too much of her nature was changed. Her implant was loaded again, but... She remembered, shuddering, the dark desire...
The buzzer. Hasn't all of BETA been already here? "Open," she said wearily.
Gooseman leaned against the doorframe. The corridors outside were already silent. "Stars." The traditional spacefarer greeting was somehow odd coming from him. "Survived the whole mess?"
"Yes." She forced a laugh. "I wonder what's more difficult – to survive on 17798 or to survive the return from it?" She noticed his questioning look. "And what happened to you? Were you put to the question, too?"
"Walsh. Not Wheiner. Took the report and that was it."
"I wish it had been the same with me." She groaned.
"Niko." Faint. No grinning or cynical sound in his voice. She looked up. He held something towards her. She couldn't recognize it against the light from the opened door. She rose, came closer to him and grew still as she recognized the knife...
...the throat of a gazelle. "Shane..."
"Yes," he said softly. "Here. Now."
He made a step into the room. The door fell shut behind him, locked out the rest of the world. And the present. Past, desire, demands... and different answers.
Hyperspace beacon: tiny hyperspace probe with an extremely strong accumulator that sends position coordinates for three standard days when dropped in hyperspace. Afterwards it falls back to standard space as a piece of space scrap. (A modern equivalent to the SOS buoys of seafaring vessels at the end of the 20th century.)
Sector (sct): stellar cartography unit. On galactic average, a sct includes about 150 stars at distances between 1 and 15 parsecs (1 pc = 3,14 light years) to each other.
(Additional data: A star has on average 5 planets, 10 moons, 90 asteroids, of which 1% supports carbon-based life. On average, it takes two days for approach and surface scan (not including possible mistakes with time-consuming searches, and return to BETA in between for checkups, recharging, etc.) It follows that there are more than 100 astronomical bodies in a sct on which survival is possible. To search them will cost about 6 months 20 days, since BETA after the battle of Tarkon is short of vessels. And it's not quite sure, that the marked sct is correct, since leaving hyperspace accidentally carries a considerable factor of uncertainty regarding real space coordinates.)
Automated Distress Signal: remnant of spacefaring before the Andorian engine. It sends a standard SOS message within radio frequency range. The ADS is build in mostly for the sake of tradition, not for practical use. See also: Radio waves.
Radio Waves: part of the electromagnetic spectrum. Has no hyperspace component; therefore propagation velocity is light speed (299,79 *10^6 m/s). A signal emitted on 17798 will reach Earth in 935 years (distance: 286,6 pc), and the next star in three or four years... (assumption of an average distance between stars of 1 - 1.5 pc).
Moira O'Malley: Chief Engineer for spacecraft at BETA. She is a little bit dumpy and has a snub nose, a lot of freckles, red-blond hair, grey-green eyes, and a notorious temper which always turns life threatening when one of her passionately loved "special babies" gets a scratch. (This happens often enough to the S5s that they usually try to avoid a meeting with Moira when they're unarmed.)
She's also the owner of Possessor's mom.