W A R N I N G
rated  PG-13


refers to

Just A Slip of PaperHot Summer NightPossessorShattered Souls

Crusade

by
A Kniggendorf


Please note:

The German form of the saying "The pen is mightier than the sword" says literally: "The feather is mightier than the sword". It dates back from the times when pens were made of feathers. I stay with the German form throughout this story. The meaning of the two forms is the same.
The office AI Belva and the character of "Slick Liz" belong to Elizabeth Bales who claims to have no resemblance whatsoever to her "sister in name". ;) [Thank you!]
I'd like to thank Elizabeth Bales for doing a "scream test" on this story.
All remaining mistakes in it are either intentional or just my fault. ;)


crusade /kru:'seid/ n
     1 any one of the military expeditions by the European Christian countries to recover the Holy Land from the Muslims in the Middle Ages.
     2 ~ (for / against sth); ~ (to do sth) any struggle or campaign for sth believed to be good, or against sth believed to be bad: a crusade against corruption.
crusade v [I, Ipr]
       ~ (for / against sth) take part in a crusade: crusading for fairer treatment of minorities.
crusader n
       person taking part in a crusade.

[Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary of Current English, XXXIV. Edition, Oxford University Press, Earth, 2083]


2091-08-16 Thursday

Cmdr. Joseph Walsh heard about Crusader for the first time when he entered his office on a Thursday morning. His adjutant, Sheela McIntyre, sat together with Ranger Niko in front of Sheela's desk. Both women were reading something on Sheela's screen.

     "You're right, Niko," Sheela sniffled, "it's wonderful."
     "It's the fourth or fifth poem of his that has appeared in the forum," the female Galaxy Ranger said, "but it's the best so far. It... it touches me."
     Sheela rummaged in her upper desk drawer for a handkerchief without stopping her reading and blew her nose audibly. "But it's so sad."
     Walsh raised his brows at the sight. Apparently, his arrival had slipped their attention. He cleared his throat audibly. The two women turned their heads at the sound.
     Niko got up. "Sir."
     "May I ask what's up here?" the commander asked, answering her salute casually.
     "Ranger Niko called my attention to some poems that have appeared in the forum during the last weeks, sir." Sheela was all business now, like he had known her since she had worked in his office. "She's here to have her last mission report signed. Since you hadn't arrived yet, we had a look at them. The last one affected us deeply. I'm sorry for the incident, sir."
     "Don't be." Walsh waved the apology aside. "But poems? In the forum?"
     "Yes, sir." His adjutant collected the daily mail. "The one today is in the 'Staff' thread."
     "This is a military institution. Poems have no place here."
     "We know that, sir." Sheela slipped past him to put the assorted letters on his desk. "But they are still there, scattered across all threads except 'Miscellaneous'."
     "They're signed 'Crusader', sir." Niko added. "That's also the best search command for them."
     "Here is the report Ranger Niko brought." Sheela handed him the file, buzzed around him, and busied herself in the corner holding his coffee maker. "I'll bring you your cup when the coffee is done, sir."
     Walsh knew his call to work when it came. He skimmed the file briefly and signed the form for receiving it. "That's it for the moment, Ranger. You'll be called if something doesn't fit."
     "Yes, sir."
     "Dismissed." He headed for his desk. His door whooshed closed behind him. Poems. In the forum of a military base. He shook his head, tossing Niko's report into his 'To do'-box. There are things in this world... On a sudden impulse he started his console to have a look at them. The first popped up under 'Lost & Found', sub-thread 'Hangar Bay - Missing tools'...


In Exile

When the swords of my dream
slash the night
tear the flesh
drawing blood
causing my memorized enemy to scream
I yearn for the life I once had
and swear at the life I now live...
...until the silk whispers
when she moves by my side.

Silk and steel
that's what I am now.
A sword clothed in silk
to cover its purpose.
But the flowing cloth
is blown against the metal
revealing the blade
that's going to cut...
...any moment.

Silk is strong
stronger than steel
it encompasses my wrists
holds down my hands
away from the handle
and prepares me...
...to handle a different life.

Silk and steel
are protecting each other
in different worlds
neither of them would be aware of...
...without the other.

Crusader.


2091-08-23 Thursday

The trouble began a week later.
A lot of the personnel at BetaMountain had regularly begun to read the mysterious poems. They were appearing in unexpected threads and under unrelated topics. An increasing number of people were searching the forum daily in the hope of finding a new one.
The external offices and institutes became aware of the poems after one popped up in a public thread that didn't limit access to internal BETA accounts.

Office of Cmdr. Walsh

     That day, a furious Senator Wheiner awaited Walsh in his office when he came back from lunch.
     "I don't give a damn if you know what asshole produces that stuff!" the senator snapped. "I'm running for Premier, Walsh! It's election week and the last thing I need is a reminder about the summer of '84!" He paced the room, stopped, paced, stopped, and kicked Walsh's dustbin. "I expect you to pin the ass of that unpatriotic bastard to the wall!"
     "Senator." The commander fought to stay calm. "It would be easier to accomplish that task if you – at least – would tell me whom you want to have arrested!"
     "The traitor calls himself 'Crusader'!"
     "I agree that poems have no place in a military forum. But I don't see how they do any harm there or how they endanger your election. That's not the problem of BETA and the rangers."
     "You obviously haven't read the last one!" Wheiner threw a printout onto his desk. "Maybe it's not BETA's problem, but it damn well is yours!"
     Walsh grabbed the transparency and read:


Swords

Living swords
forged for the fear
of a whining man.

Feeling swords
sharpened for the pride
of a whining man.

Dangerous swords
shattered by the impatience
of the whining man.

Crusader.


     "Whoever wrote this knows a lot, Walsh. And he almost names names! Close this leak. I'm warning you!" The senator stomped toward the door and stopped before it opened. "And be careful about who you send after this hack writer. If I'm in because of that information you can be sure you and your gengineered pet are in, too!"
     Walsh leaned back in his seat and sighed after the door had closed behind the senator. Shit. Who the hell shall I send after a poet? Crusader could be anybody with access to a BETA computer... Again his eyes wandered across the few dangerous lines of text.
     I have to assign someone who will keep his mouth shut whatever information is revealed. That leaves the S5s. But one of them could be writing those things... Anyone with access to the computers... Hartford is first choice to identify any given user, but he's also the most likely candidate for hiding the origin of something on the net. That makes him a suspect. Plus, he has the highest education among them. Walsh shook his head. Hartford was out of the question. Niko...
     The words of his adjutant crossed his mind. "Ranger Niko called my attention to some poems that have appeared in the forum during the last weeks, sir." Sheela had said. So it could be Niko as well. And Fox...
     Walsh snorted. He'd never found out what Fox really knew about Goose's past but the man was a damned good observer. Odds were that he had pieced together much more than he let on. What's that saying again? Still waters run deep. Fox is a pretty high risk, too. And anyway, he's still on Kirwin with his wife. That leaves Shane.
     Joseph made a face at the thought. True, the boy was the last person he would believe to be a poet, but that also minimized his chances to track one down. Whatever. Walsh reached for the intercom. I'm not Wheiner's election manager.

Twenty minutes later...

     "I should do what!?" Goose gaped at his superior. "How the hell can I catch a poet? And in the comps? I'm glad if those things don't eat my reports, sir."
     Walsh sighed. "I know that, Gooseman. But the information used in those poems leads to an insider. The first one appeared in threads open to base personnel only. So almost everyone on this base is a likely suspect. Except you."
     "So again I get to hunt somebody I know personally." The ST seemed to gnaw on the words.
     "I'm sorry, but yes. The senator made it a prime order. And remember, almost everyone on this base is a suspect. Even your teammates. You are not to talk about this assignment with any of them."
     "But sir, I've got no idea how to hunt a poet!"
     "Start with trying to find out who placed the poetry postings in the forum," Walsh suggested.
     "And I'm not to ask Doc how to do it, right?"
     "Exactly, Gooseman."
     Walsh chose to ignore Goose's muttered "Wonderful!".
     "And why is there such a fuss over some poems, sir?"
     The commander sighed. "The senator fears for his election, Gooseman. He thinks that the poems might turn the voters against him since 'the feather is mightier than the sword.'" He ignored the incredulous look the ST gave him at the saying. "Dismissed."

The next poem appeared just a few hours later, during the first hours of the night. A lot of people were woken by alarms from their personal consoles. Even Commander Walsh was raised out of his sleep by the beeping of the home console in his house at Phoenix military base. It took him a moment to identify the symbol that had appeared on the screen. Then he was fully awake and opened the message Belva, his office AI, had copied from the 'Generic Thread' on BETA's forum...


Wolf's Soul

The wolf
forced to hunt the pack
forced to hunt himself
caught up in orders
invisible leashes.

Alone
laying back his head
he howls the pain of life
at unlistening stars.

The pack turns
listens
seeing only the man
they hate
the traitor.

The man turns
listens
seeing only the wolf
he fears
even tied down fangs.

Invisible leashes
are still leashes.

Crusader.


2091-08-24 Friday

     Gooseman left his quarters to meet Doc and Niko at the cafeteria fifteen minutes later than usual. Having breakfast together had become a habit since Zach had taken the temporary assignment on Kirwin. He yawned and fell into a light trot to make up for his late start. He'd been up and around till the wee hours of the morning. ALMA hadn't been too keen on accessing the forum and monitoring the network. There were laws in place restricting AIs from doing that, though ALMA usually didn't give a damn about them.
     The ST grinned. There were times when it came in handy that his electronic nanny was a ruthless piece of code...

Cafeteria

     The waitress behind the bar asked if he wanted cinnamon coffee instead of the usual batch. Goose nearly dropped his tray. She was smiling! At his perplexed nod, she intensified the smile by at least a thousand lumens – and gave him an extra mug!
     Shaking his head, he searched the hall for his friends.
     "Your unit is over there at the window." A service mechanic in a greasy BETA coverall pointed towards a table where Doc and Niko were already talking over steaming mugs.
     "Thanks," Goose replied, confused, and wished his ears hadn't caught the whispered "I'm so sorry..." of the tech behind him. He hurried to meet his teammates.

     Goose pushed the tray across the table and pulled a chair close. "Does anyone know what the hell's going on here?!" he asked in a low voice. "Everyone is so–" He searched for the right words "–friendly to me this morning." He sniffed at the cinnamon coffee then took a small sip.
     "Bad conscience, my Goose man," a grinning Doc answered.
     "Eh?"
     "Crusader published another poem last night, Shane," Niko explained. "Obviously, a lot of people have thought about their behavior towards you because of it."
     "A poem?" Gooseman frowned, blowing at his steaming coffee. "I don't read poems."
     "But many other people do, Goose, and this one affected them."
     "So it's not my fault that they're behaving weirder than usual?"
     "Not at all." Niko laughed faintly. "Really."
     "Phew, comforting." Goose took another sip of his cinnamon coffee and enjoyed the taste. "Do you read those poems, too?"
     "Yes," Niko admitted with a slight blush. "Some of them are really good. And it seems that the author dislikes our most hated senator as much as we do." She giggled and continued in a very low voice: "I'm sure Mr. Wheiner is not happy about those poems appearing in election week."
     "Not happy is an understatement," Goose mumbled with glee into his coffee.

BMA 217

     =Goose, I have observed the postings including the search item 'Crusader'. There were 1,998,978 accesses without a given console ID number while you were gone.=
     "Great," Goose growled and threw his key card onto his table. "Easy, pal, I'm on the way!" He managed to squeeze himself past Poss into his kitchenette. "Any idea how to reduce the number of suspects?" he asked his AI.
     =109 were without any console IP given.=
     "Better." Goose expertly opened the vac-pac of cat food and emptied it into the bowl. He watched Possessor attacking the food with a ferocious growl before he turned back to ALMA. "Any idea how to identify them without an IP?"
     =Only one private console was activated during all accesses.=
     "Wow! Do you know whose it is?"
     =Sure.= There was an odd sense of satisfaction emanating from the electronic voice.
     "Contact the commander and SecStaff and send them the data."
     =Don't you want to do it yourself? In case that the commander's disturbed. It's already 21:18.=
     "I'm not going anywhere this evening, ALMA." He sniffed and decided to tend to the litter box before thinking about anything else. "And lock the comm lines after you're done."

SecStaff interrogation room

     "One last time! I monitored those poems because I want to know myself who it is!" Doc gasped for breath after shouting the last line at the interrogating security staff officer.
     Detective Flaherty wasn't impressed. "Ease your tone, Lieutenant Hartford. We've got evidence that you – and you alone – were constantly monitoring those poems. I ask you why would you do that if you were not waiting for feedback on them? Besides, you're known to have manipulated the networks and our mainframe more than once."
     "But I'm no poet! Get that into your wooden head!" Doc yelled. "I can't write such stuff. I wish I could. It would better my chances with the ladies."
     "Don't believe me stupid, Lieutenant. You're an educated man. You–"
     "That's enough." Doc flounced back into the comfortless plastic chair. "I'm not saying another word without my lawyer!"
     "Lieutenant Hartford, it's in your own interest to cooperate with–"
     "I want my lawyer. Immediately."
     Flaherty slammed his hands on the table and got up. "As you wish!" he snapped, and headed out the door.

     Forty minutes later Doc was transferred to the base jail. He had just learned that his lawyer wasn't going to deal with him before tomorrow. The burly MP escorting him made Goose seem like an over-talkative person on speed. "I'm getting a new lawyer if I ever get outta here," Doc muttered. The walking muscle didn't respond.

BMA 217

     At the same time...
     She huddled in his warmth, enjoyed the intimacy of shared thoughts. A silent night, there weren't many of those in her life, nor in his. A long time ago she had accepted that to be here was worth the risks they were taking. Though a part of herself still asked how much of her desire, of her feelings lay in the attraction of danger.
     He laughed in her thoughts, whispered in her mind, telling her about the truths in dangers, about the simplicity that made dangers so adorably easy to understand.
     ...You aren't easy to understand,... her mind told him.
     "I hope so," he whispered audibly. She snuggled up closer to him on his narrow bed, and he soared in the rustling of silk and the fragrance of sandalwood in her hair. "I like to win." He kissed her before she could ask what he meant...


Desire

Floating scents in the night
her invading physical call
and whispering silk in the dark.

Nobody told the knight
that the trickiest weapon of all
isn't made by a smith in his yard.

Crusader.


     Her mind wandered across the memorized lines of text. She was riveted by them, attracted. ...You said you don't read Crusader's poems...
     The mental image of him sighed. ...It's a job. I've been ordered not to talk about it....
     ...You're not talking about it right now... She giggled and the impression of a fanged smile returned through their link. ...You have to identify him,... she realized, suddenly sobered.
     ...Yes. Someone fears for his political ass because of those poems...
     He grinned and stretched, catlike. She felt the flexing muscles of his chest beneath her cheek. Their legs intertwined once again and both enjoyed the gliding touch of skin on skin. It was a totally physical pleasure complementing their mental joining. ...But I don't think that I'm going to be much help...
     She opened her eyes in the dark. She knew he saw much more of her than she of him. ...I'm one of your suspects!...
     The silence lasted – in the room and in their thoughts. ...How did you come across the poems?... he asked finally, cautiously.
     She sighed at the distrust before she whispered her answer. "I was looking for some archeological texts about the Middle Ages. I didn't have that much time before work so I just entered the words and ran the search while I was away. When I came back, I found that every data resource had been scanned. One of the words was 'crusader', and that brought up some poems in the forum. That was so strange that I had a closer look, and after that I was hooked." She laid her head against his chest again, and her mental voice added. ...And some of them reminded me–...
     The tips of his fingers touched her chin when the line of thought didn't continue. He turned her face up into the glow of the LEDs bright enough for him to see her eyes wide in the dark. ...You were reminded of...?... he inquired.
     She freed her face from his hand, concentrated on the sensation of heartbeat and breaths before she admitted. ...–of you...
     ...I'm sorry... He ran his hand through her hair. Some strands of her hair were caught under sharp fingernails. ...I'm sorry for being... She felt old pain inside him, pain about being forced to hunt who he didn't want to be caught.
     ...Don't... Her breath touched him. ...We both know who we are...
     Astonishment followed and a word vibrating with... laughter?
     ...Really?...

2091-08-26 Saturday

Office of Cmdr. Walsh

     "I ordered you to stop this!" was precisely the sentence with which Cmdr. Walsh was welcomed in his office that morning. Senator Eric Wheiner hadn't given Lt. McIntyre the chance to warn her superior about him. "Tomorrow is election day and the predictions are less and less in my favor!"
     "Senator, we're doing our best," Walsh snapped, annoyed. "We aren't responsible for your public image."
     "Walsh!"
     "That's enough!" Walsh's furious bark made the senator wince. "We are working as fast as we can. If time works against you, I can't change that!" He stomped towards his office, blocking the door with his bulk in case Wheiner was stupid enough to follow him. "And now – if this is not an official visit – get lost and let me do my job!" Joseph slammed the door shut behind him.
     Hell, it's good to bark at the bastard! He called the forum onto his screen to see what had caused the senator's outbreak this time. He didn't have to search long:


Dangers

A wolf at the leash
A sword bound in its sheath
To hunt the whining man's enemy.

To erase the menace
To the senator's race
For the Prime of Mankind.

Crusader.


     He didn't make the effort to hide his grin when he opened a line to his adjutant in the outer office. "Sheela. Contact SecStaff. Tell them they ought to release Hartford. We have significant evidence that he is not the suspect."
     His adjutant on the tiny screen smiled. =Already done, sir. I just read it myself. And sir–=
     "Yes?"
     =There are some urgent requests about Crusader's identity.=
     "Who but the senator feels deadly threatened by those poems?"
     =Nobody, sir. The main editor of Earth Times is asking about him. Apparently, their political correspondent scanned the public threads of our forum and wants to reprint some of the poems in his editorial tomorrow.=
     "Tell them we have no idea who's spamming our forum, but that I am sure they won't get in trouble if they reprint the poems with proper credits." Eric will love it. Walsh's dark-brown eyes glittered maliciously. "And send them copies of the ones that aren't publicly accessible."
     =Are you sure, sir?=
     "We don't want BETA to be sued for crippling a published work, do we?"
     =No, sir.= The tiny screen showed a Sheela nodding most solemnly. =I'll prepare a dossier for them right away.=
     "Good." Leaning back, the commander allowed his malicious smile to broaden significantly. Nobody shouted at him in his own office without paying dearly for it!

BETA Mountain Base Jail
Security Staff cell block

     The fierce looking guard who released him had to be a first-degree relative of the one who'd jailed him yesterday evening. Doc was more or less shoved to the admission counter to retrieve his belongings. He had barely made a step across the marked line when the forcefield closed with a high, slightly sizzling hum.
     "And a nice day to you, too," the hacker grumbled and wondered whether the sizzle came from the forcefield itself or because the hem of his shirt had been caught in it. Then he noticed the tall figure leaning against the wall where the corridor ran into the main passage. "Goose?"
     The ST pushed himself off the wall. "Doc, you look horrible–"
     "Hey, you spend a night next to a criminal Kiwi who argued with the guards all night." He snorted. "Those idiots had nothing better to do than repeat over and over as loud as an interceptor starting up that it's forbidden to plant marihuana on Earth. Again and again and–"
     "–as always," Goose finished his sentence impassively and pointed vaguely towards the passage. "I'm told to bring you back safely."
     "I could have done with you in there." Doc nodded back towards the arrest area. "We haven't got that many friends in prison. Out here I can go without you." He headed down the corridor. Goose, impassive, strolled after him. "My apartment first. I won't go to work this–" He shuddered.
     "–smelly?" The ST completed the sentence with an innocent smile that made Hartford groan. "Honestly, Doc." His teammate's grin showed slightly too many teeth to be comforting. "I'm here because you could try to disappear on your way back to us... and Walsh would hate to do the paperwork for another renegade ranger."

     "If I ever find out who that hack writer is..." The hacker mumbled the rest under his breath. Goose raised a questioning brow at him. "That so-called poet owes me a hell night in jail!" Doc exclaimed.
     "Well..." The ST stuffed his hands into his pockets and prepared to wait outside Doc's apartment. "He's gotten you also outta jail."
     "Huh?!" Doc, already frisking for a fresh pair of trousers, asked through the door. "What do you mean?"
     "You got released because of a new poem, not because your lawyer did her job."
     "She didn't?" Doc repeated dully. Then the ST's words trickled home. The offensive, dirty clothes dropped to the floor together with the fresh ones. Doc stomped, infuriated, to his console. She didn't?! The sound escaping his nose would have made any rhino suffering from rhinitis proud. Doc considered it a snort. Hitting one of the preprogrammed keys, he established a bugproof line to his lawyer.
     It wasn't long till the well-known – and in law enforcement circles, well-feared – face of Liz Gibson, Esq. – Slick Liz to her friends – appeared on his console's screen. And he on hers, as her raised eyebrow indicated.
     =Walter, why the call?=
     "You know quite well!" Doc was practically foaming at the mouth. "I called you yesterday to deal with this irrational accusation of me writing political poems. And you didn't show up!"
     =Easy, Walter. Your talk is exceeding your breathing.=
     "I'd still be in there, if not for a new poem."
     =Exactly.= Slick Liz leaned back and her picture on his monitor watched him levelly. =So now we have a record in Security Staff's own files showing that they arrested you on insufficient grounds. That'll come in handy the next time you park yourself in the shit again.= She looked at her sharply manicured nails.
     Doc glared at his lawyer. "And what if there hadn't been a new poem?! I could–"
     =I'd have come and torn them to pieces today.= She shrugged. =So, what's your problem?=
     "A night in prison is! I–"
     The door behind him hissed open. "Doc." Goose's impatient voice cut in. "The Captain won't wait for all eternity."
     "I'm com–" Doc began.
     "And I'll take the kick, Doc," the ST said with a grin.
     "What?!" Doc whirled round.
     =Just a piece of advice from your lawyer, Walter,= Slick Liz's dry voice said from the console. =A jury might consider the line 'Kick or Kiss' on the backside of your shorts an invitation. Which prevents you from receiving any compensation for injuries suffered as a result of your "clients"= – she actually snickered – =choices.=


EARTH TIMES - EVENING ISSUE - PAGE 2

EDITORIAL: Eclectic ~ Election

Premier Kublai Dutch [For Earth, NOW!]
Senator Eric Wheiner [Honesty and Honor]
Representative Alfred Sorensen [With allies among the Stars]

Never before has Earth had three candidates with such different agendas.
Never before has the choice seemed so easy. Pre-election polls place both Premier Dutch and Mr. Sorensen in the electoral dustbin, with Senator Wheiner soaring to a prodigious 80 per cent. Still, a seemingly unrelated event has left me reconsidering my choice.
Over the last few weeks a mysterious writer calling himself 'Crusader' has posted poems in the forum of the Bureau of Extra-Terrestrial Affairs. His works...
...remind us of a rather weakly documented part of our recent history.
Maybe all of us should have a look at his poems before we head to the polls to elect the new ruler of old planet Earth tomorrow. For that reason, you'll find three of his poems in the sidebar on this page. For more, have a look at: http://www.betamountain.gov/pub/forum.cgi?item='crusader'

[Swords]––[Wolf's Soul]––[Dangers]

TW.


BMA 219

1628

     The meditation candle flickered slightly, but the soft desert evening breeze from the open windows wasn't strong enough to move her hair or the flowing silk robe she was wearing. Her eyes rested on the flame and the flickering caused ghost images on her retina. Her mind grew still and yet she was wide awake. She'd been restless during the day. Something she didn't quite recognize disturbed her.
     The flickering candle flame's ghost images formed a face, familiar, close, beloved...
     Memories of whispering thoughts rippled the surface of her mind.
     ..."I like to win."...
     ...We both know who we are...
     ...a laughed 'Really?'...
     Her self frowned at the thoughts, turned them around, wondered at them. But the disturbance was still there afterwards. They weren't the reason. Her mind drifted on. The candle flame danced.
     ...Desire...
     ...her invading physical call...
     ...Crusader....
     The candle flickered vividly. Tiny threads of soot swirled up towards a ceiling lost in darkness.
     ...Desire...
     Her eyes widened. The ghost images danced in her field of view. She hadn't seen the poem before, and she was sure she'd scanned the whole mainframe. Her mind collected itself around the flickering candle, and a flick of her powers erased the flame.
     She had found it. She loved the poems, liked the feelings and connotations they evoked. Her AI Kassie scanned the whole forum every morning before her wake-up call to see if new ones were there. A new poem had become the most wonderful way to start the day–
     Are you sure, Niko? Regarding your behavior I can't believe that. Her mind laughed at her excitement. Correction. She smiled back at her mental self. The second most wonderful way to start the day.
     But she hadn't seen 'Desire' before...
     Frowning, she got up from the woven carpet. I must have missed it...

     The melodic sound of her door bell interrupted her. She hurried to type in the new set of search commands. The bell rang again; then someone knocked at the door itself. With a sigh, she turned away from her console. "Open." It was Shane.
     The console behind her beeped. Another 'Results: 0'. It wasn't there. She recalled the memorized lines and altered the search commands again. It had to be there somewhe–
     "I love these flimsy silks you're wearing but we'll get in trouble if you go out wearing them."
     "Hm?" Her mind was still tuned to her search. She was close. She felt it.
     "Because I'd have to kill every man in the cinema if you do."
     "What?" That turned her around, and with a pang of guilt she remembered the new quadro-D flick. "Is it really that late already?"
     "We have forty minutes to make it in time."
     Her glance wandered back to her console with the blinking LEDs indicating the ongoing search. "I'm not finished yet..."
     "What are you looking for?"
     "Crusader's poems. There's something strange." She turned again at the keyboard. "It made me uneasy all day."
     "So you'd like to finish before we leave?"
     She looked up at him. "Yes, if it doesn't bother you too much. I really forgot the time during my search for 'Desire'."
     She wasn't sure what to make of the sudden flicker in his eyes. Disappointment or something else? She sensed for the residual link between them but nothing trickled through the connection. "Go on." He nudged, one of his half-smiles whizzing across a corner of his mouth. "I know you. You're like a pitbull if something's bothering you."
     "But..." She was undecided. Most of her wanted to say, Forget the damn lines of text, it's real life you desire. But there was also the probing little voice that yearned for answers.
     "Girl," Goose suddenly said with a grin. "Until you've solved your problem, you wouldn't even notice me if I were sitting on your lap. So forget about it."
     She snickered at the image. "I'm pretty sure even if I didn't notice a whole lot of other people would."
     Light glittered off his teeth. "Probably. But I'd hate to be ignored by you." He turned for the door. "Good luck."
     "Thanks." Her eyes had already returned to the screen. "And I'm sorry for–"
     The door closed on her words.

2091-08-27 Sunday – Premier Election Day

     =BETA forum scan complete. No posts found matching your search criteria.=
     The last possibility, and again no success. Niko leaned back and stretched. She could tell from the cracking in her spine that it had gotten pretty late during her efforts to find the source for 'Desire'.
     Strange. Really strange...
     The lines in his thoughts had been as clear as if they'd been written, as clear as if he had learned the poem by heart. But she couldn't find it... it wasn't anywhere in the forum. She had even e-mailed her friends and colleagues, but no one knew about that poem. The only answers she had received were a couple of requests for the new one. It wasn't on the forum nor in any of the e-mail archives, nowhere but...
     That can't be. That's impossible. Or... not?
     A certain memory showed up again: a laughed Really? at her statement We both know who we are...
     She recalled a strophe from one of the later poems:
          The wolf
          forced to hunt the pack
          forced to hunt himself
     He said it almost literally! She snorted. She had been so blind. And what incredible nerve to have me wasting our free time on searching the whole mainframe for... No wonder he was so understanding about it!
     A strophe from the first Crusader poem that had affected her crossed her mind...
          Silk and steel
          are protecting each other
          in different worlds
          neither of them would be aware of...
          ...without the other.
     Why hasn't he told me? she asked herself with a slight stitch of pain. Why doesn't he trust me with this?
     She disconnected her console.

Deep inside the main computer systems of BetaMountain, the disappearance of a certain IP number from the list of active computer stations was noticed. The AI immediately loaded itself into the network and went to work.

     Niko buttoned the collar of her blouse and closed her belt. Uncertainly, she looked at the door to the corridor. Just a few steps... She lowered her head and clenched her fist. Why can't you trust me, Shane?

BMA 217
0508

     The door opened a little and a growling voice asked: "What?"
     It opened fully when Goose recognized her and allowed her in. He threw a swift glance across the corridor before he relocked the door and turned toward her.
     "Shane..."
     "What?" He blinked, rather sleepy now that his battle reflexes had calmed down.
     She laid her hand on his upper arm, causing him to look directly at her. "Shane, you know who Crusader is, don't you?"
     "Huh?" He yawned and shook the sleep out of his head. "Do I understand right that you're coming over at 5 a.m. risking our careers – and my ass – to ask me about an investigation I'm not allowed to talk about?"
     "It is important, Goose." She was determined yet careful. Her voice was soft, unresponsive to the angry growl that had crept into his. She didn't let her eyes leave his face as she continued. "You are him, aren't you?"
     "Me? A poet?!" He almost doubled over at the idea. "Niko, are you nuts?"
     "No. That poem in your thoughts–"
     "What's up with it?"
     "It is not in the forum."
     "Sure it is. I found it on my search for the bastard." He shrugged. "Or better, ALMA found it when I had her search."
     "It's not. I spent almost all night looking for it. I searched with the text you remembered and under 'Crusader'. It's not there. And the only way you can know a poem of his that hasn't been published yet is that you are him."
     He shook his head. "I discovered that one during my search for Crusader," he persisted, earnestly, controlled – too controlled for her tastes. "I can show you if you like."
     "But–"
     He activated his console and offered her the seat. Leaning over her shoulder, he typed: 'Merchandise register'. His fingers danced across the keyboard. 'Imports'. She was very aware of his bare upper body next to her, his arms slightly touching her while he typed. He entered the search command: 'Crusader'.
     The poem appeared on the screen.
     "See?" he asked.
     Her eyes flew across the pale-blue lines. "I'm sorry..." She groaned, leaning her face against her hands. "I was so certain and yet feared that–"
     "Don't." He grinned. "I'm flattered."
     "What?!"
     "Sure. Nobody's ever believed I could write poems." He snickered. "It's a weird idea." She looked up at him and the color of his eyes suddenly deepened. "As for weird ideas... Any interest in a late breakfast with me?"
     "It's not even 0530, Shane," she reminded him. "It would be an early breakfast."
     "Already 0530?" He frowned and his smile grew rather lascivious. "It's more likely to turn into an early lunch, then."
     "Incorrigible lecher!" She laughed faintly and got up from the chair. "I need some rest, not the promise of that empty fridge of yours."
     His grin deepened. He caught her in his arms, drawing her close. "That's fine with me." She felt his unshaved chin stroking across her hair as he breathed her in. "I'm tired, too."
     She was sure they wouldn't be getting the sleep they needed any time soon.


EARTH TIMES – BREAKING NEWS

Alfons Sorensen is the new Premier!
Sorensen, who ran as an outsider in this Prime election, won with 42.3 percent of the vote.
Though last week's prognosis had placed Senator Eric Wheiner on top with a majority of almost 80 percent, the senator got less than 30 percent of the votes finally cast today. His result was nearly as bad as that of former premier Kublai Dutch, who failed to convince the voters to grand him a second period.

TW.


Office of Cmdr. Walsh

     "I'm sorry that I wasn't successful, sir." Gooseman stood at attention in front of Walsh's desk. "I did my best."
     "Nobody can expect more." Walsh took the report and flipped loosely through the two pages with a complete set of printed poems attached. Ah well, nobody could accuse the boy of being gasbag. He scribbled his signature underneath and put the file aside. "The order is set to normal importance from now on."
     "Yes, sir." The ST sighed in relief. In his job that meant he'd never have to go after that poet again. There are always prime orders, classified orders, very important– A smile flashed across a corner of his mouth. "Sir, may I speak freely?"
     "Do so, Gooseman."
     "I don't want to catch Crusader." The commander raised his brows. "I think he did me a favor." Walsh said nothing. "Eric Wheiner as a senator is a pain in the butt but as premier? Hell, spare me that!"
     Walsh suppressed a grin. "Dismissed."

     He did his best, the commander thought after Gooseman had left. He knew that was the truth after he'd shifted through the report. Goose wasn't a poet. He couldn't think like one, couldn't imagine how to track one down.
     The boy would continue his search. Of course. The order to look for the forum spammer who'd caused such major disturbances among BETA's personnel wasn't limited by time. But without the prime order label...
     Walsh shrugged.
     Whoever Crusader was, most likely he had cost Wheiner his victory.
     Walsh took out one of the poems and closed the file. He had read that one when it had first appeared in the generic thread. He wasn't a man who cared for poems, but somehow this one had touched him.
     His console beeped, indicating new e-mail. He immediately recognized the symbol that appeared: the white shield with the blood-red cross inside – Crusader. He opened the electronic message that had come through the all-personnel-mailing list and began to read...


Feathers

Feather and sword
didn't seem comparable to me
someone said
the feather is mightier than the sword
and the laughing blade cut the bird in two
in my mind.
Feather and sword
didn't seem comparable to me
until now.

Crusader.


     It left him silent.
     For a long time Walsh looked thoughtfully at the monitor with the few, light-blue lines of text on dark ground. Then a sad smile flashed across his face and was gone in an instant. He folded the printed poem he had taken from the report file some minutes ago and put it in his wallet behind a tiny yellowed drawing of a running beetle:


Survivor

I was believed dead
more than once
by my guards
by my enemies
sometimes by myself.

But life is strong
it takes, rapes, swallows
it doesn't allow you to leave
if it's not finished with you.

It isn't.
I am still here.

Crusader.


END

to be continued in "Crusade's End".


Fanfic

Bureau of Extra-Terrestrial Affairs