leaned back in the pilot's seat. BETA control had taken over the
landing now. He snorted and suppressed a sneeze. The scents still
stuck in his clothes and hair, though he had washed them at the
hotel. Smell, it was said, was the strongest memory sense...
Let's hope not. Smoke and dust. Burned cloth, flesh, and
fuel. Blood. Thanks, but no thanks. He knew he was going
to get in trouble for what he had done on Frontier. More
precisely: for what he had not done on Frontier.
wasn't bringing them in.
eyes burned with smoke and memories. He closed them tightly, then
blinked against the scraping feeling. The com beeped and Cmdr.
Walsh appeared on the screen.
Two CHUs are
already prepared, bring them directly to LongShot after your
landing. QBall and Prof. Negata are awaiting you.=
took a deep breath and reached for the microphone. The reprieve
was over. "CHUs aren't needed, sir. I've no passengers
There was a
moment of silence at the other end of the line, then: =Report to
my office. Immediately after you land.=
s" The line was closed.
commander awaited him, sitting behind his desk, hands folded in
front of him.
Goose stepped into
the room, saluted, and put the datapad with the first mission
report on the desk before he came to attention in front of it,
waiting motionless. The silence lengthened.
Gooseman! What on Earth made you do that?!"
didn't stir. There was nothing to say that wasn't already written
in the report.
"Do you want
to be frozen that you're giving such strong ammunition to the
senator?!" Walsh took a deep breath. "Answer
"They deserve a
his hands in disbelief. "And of all the STs it had to be
Stingray!" The commander's palms slammed on the desktop.
"The bastard's been committing crimes around the clock since
he escaped from Wolf Den! And you!!" He jumped up,
stared into the motionless face in front of him. "aren't
in the position to grant one!"
If I'm not, who else is?"
is!" Walsh snapped angrily, "and none of us is in the
position to argue about it! You'll go back there and get
sake, in the senator's eyes you'll be as responsible for every
civilian victim of theirs from now on as if you'd murdered them
yourself! You go back and" Walsh stopped.
change in the face of the ST in front of him was subtle; if the
commander didn't know Shane so well, he wouldn't have noticed it.
It wasn't the appearance of something. It was something leaving.
With very slow movements Goose reached for his badge, took it
off, and held it out to Walsh across the desk between
"I won't accept it!"
the commander snarled at him, feeling uneasy. "Don't think
you can escape that way!"
ST's fist clasped the golden badge, clenched around it with his
full strength until the hand above the desktop trembled with
motionless, stony face, Walsh sighed, knowing this wouldn't get
them anywhere now. "Dismissed! Wait for further orders at
your unit's office. Be sure: This isn't the last word on
The badge still held in his hand, Gooseman turned and left the
The door had slid shut
behind the ST before Walsh noticed, on his desk and on the
readpad holding Gooseman's report, the drops of blood.
got up when Goose entered the office. It had been quite a while
since they had had a job together, and in the last two weeks it
had seemed he'd disappeared totally. One of the missions no one
talked about, she assumed.
it's been a long time since" Seeing his face, she
interrupted herself. "Are you okay, Goose?"
didn't respond, didn't even seem to hear her as he crossed the
room and dropped himself at his desk, staring at the
asked, worried now. "What's wrong with you?"
badge clattered onto the desk next to him. Her eyes widened as
she saw the blood on it and on his fingers as he propped his
elbows on the desk and buried his face in his hands.
Do you hear me?"
is! He felt blood on his skin. Again. Blood and smoke and
sand. Weapon oil and fuel. Burned flesh. Death. He hadn't granted
Stingray a chance. But Stingray was needed for it. Goose hadn't
said that. Hadn't known how to say it. How to explain it to the
commander. Wolf Den two weeks ago mixed with Frontier mixed with
Wolf Den years ago...
be as responsible for every civilian victim of theirs from now on
as if you... Blood and dust. Burning flesh and fuel. Smoke
from blazing buildings moved across the street, camouflaging the
gunshot wounds in his right thigh ached. Blood flowed down his
leg. His childish hand pulled the trigger. The body of the
nameless boy collapsed on Frontier's main street. "Why,"
cried a voice. He hadn't an answer, as he hadn't had one three
years ago. "I don't understand," the voice continued.
He hadn't got it himself back then. But nowaday's self
understood. She'd been one of the few things that hadn't hurt him
there. There had been something. Nameless. Wordless. Between dust
and smoke and bare metal walls. It had been as much as drugs and
indoctrination allowed. His self shivered, seeing the past with
today's eyes. He'd had to grant that chance, or Wolf Den would
have won, would have defeated him in the end. His subliminal
eidetic memory recalled the events in brilliant
colors, precise sensations, burning clarity...
nameless boy collapsed on the bare metal floor outside the lab,
covered with his blood. He smelled it, tasted it, was drowned in
it, surrounded by the smoke of Frontier's burning buildings. No
indoctrination, not even drugs, excused his actions this time.
Blood trickled down his wrist. Murderer. He had to do it
or he would have broken. The scent of blood filled his nostrils.
You'll be as responsible for every civilian victim of
Do you hear me?" Niko repeated. His shoulders twitched, but
he made no sign that he had heard her. She laid her hand on his
arm and the pain of his torn self rushed through her mind like an
electric shock. She stumbled backward, leaned against his desk
and took a deep, vibrating breath. He didn't react to her
She stared at the blood
that trickled down his wrist, soaking his sleeve. At the blood on
his badge. She gathered up her strength, pulled his hands away
from his face, forced him to see her. "Shane!"
mixed into the smell of blood. A scent, a fragrance that didn't
fit in. He saw his face reflected in jade-green, worried eyes,
saw the half of his face striped with blood, as her face was with
blackness. The memory wavered, faded. He couldn't recall the
woman's black-and-white face any longer; instead his mind showed
him flowing chestnut-red hair and compelling, intense jade eyes
in a face filled with worry and Fear? For me? He
closed his eyes, didn't want to see his blood-covered self
...Shane... The mental
voice cut in, called to him inside himself. ...Shane. What
happened to you?...
away from her. Niko was never to know what he had done. But her
grip was firm. She didn't let him go. "Please. I can't tell
you," he said in a hoarse whisper, meeting her eyes with a
hunted look, so very far away from his usual arrogant, composed
She felt the shaking
inside him, had the impression of cracking glass. It was the
first time she'd sensed him without his shield of arrogance and
cynicism, and she shuddered at the deep scars in his soul that
had begun bleeding again. She'd never believed that souls could
be shattered. Until now. And now she feared he could break into a
thousand pieces right beneath her hands. She couldn't press him
any further. It wasn't important what had happened. Not now. He
had to make peace with it, but at this moment the attempt would
needs treatment," she said, feeling the blood dripping down
from his wounds onto her skin.
blinked, didn't say anything.
go and get the first aid kit." She pushed herself off the
"No need." He
took a tremulous breath and reached for his badge. The cuts in
his skin were gone in a second. "Don't forget what I am."
His voice trembled. He attached the badge to his shirt again.
"It's too dangerous."
should clean it," she said uneasily.
stared at the bloody star. "No, it fits."
the wounds in his soul, she agreed wordlessly as he rubbed the
blood off his face.
appeared on the screen. =Gooseman. You'll have to revise your
report on your last mission. It's acceptable that you were
defeated in circumstances like those, but your report sounds as
if you let them go on purpose. Correct that! I'll expect your
final report tomorrow morning.= The monitor grew dark.
clenched his hands around the edge of his desktop. "Yes,
sir." He murmured raspily.
Are you okay?" Niko asked carefully.
He shrugged. His voice was still hoarse. "I have to tell
let them go," she said, faintly but persuasively. "You
had to grant them a chance."
right," he whispered. "I had to grant me a
chance." His voice nearly broke at the last words. And I
hope Darkstar uses hers as well.