Time: 2085-05-23 Wednesday
Phoenix Military Base
House of J. Walsh
The address was correct, precise, and had been bitten off as if the boy had slashed his fangs into it. For a moment, Walsh thought he saw the impressive muscles beneath the plain coverall quiver as the young Supertrooper leashed his temper even tighter.
"Anything else I am to do... sir?"
"No, Gooseman." Walsh hid his sigh. The boy had started being a little less formal since he'd gotten the commander's approval of his reaction to the accident, but lately that development had clearly reversed. Now he was more formal than ever. "That's all for today. I'll return at 1900."
"Sir." The boy snapped to attention, then turned on the spot to return to his desk upstairs. Joseph thought the highly polished wood of the banister creaked under the fierce grip that made Shane's knuckles appear stark white under his always pale skin.
The fine gleam of the old mahogany made him think, too, as he left the house for his staff glider. He suspected Shane used it as a slide, but he'd never caught him in the act. And the fierce, overly-controlled youth the boy was at the moment seemed not the one to be confronted with an offense Joseph had committed himself as a boy. With relish and persistence, and taking revenge when his brother Frankie had tattled on him – which had happened on a regular basis, when one of them had been forced to stay indoors for some reason and...
He looked up from starting his glider and threw a look back at the house. Maybe it was the same problem now.
Saguaro National Park (West)
Walsh pulled the glider over into a deserted parking lot and turned off the engine. He unlocked the fright compartment and activated the cybersteed container. The headpiece glowed blue as the silver-grey robotic horse scrambled onto its feet.
"Do we ride the rest of the way, sir?"
"I ride." Walsh swung himself into the saddle. And met Gooseman's eyes for the first time this evening. "You run."
"Choose. I'll follow."
"S– sir?" Hesitation, distrust. A pang of hope almost invisible.
Walsh tightened the reins. "Go!"
The next moment, a puff of whirling sand was all that remained in the field the glider's strong headlights pulled out of the night. Gods, he had forgotten how fast the boy was. Of course, he'd known his times at Wolf Den's training ground, but there in the controlled environment destined solely for the Supertroopers' training it had appeared far more natural, normal than out here in the growing desert night. No wonder the boy had had trouble with constraining that speed to merely sauntering for months after he'd been drilled five hours a day almost all his life.
Walsh was forced to drive the cybersteed into its fastest gallop to keep the boy within sight. Not an easy task when wearing night-goggles in addition and having a serious disinclination to having cactus spines embedded in your skin. Good thing that he'd chosen one of the racing cybersteeds BETA had gotten recently. A real horse would have needed too much attention to keep it from getting hurt by the cacti and sagebrushes covering the Sonora desert. And the grey mare he borrowed from Maddie once in a while wouldn't have stood for this steeplechase anyway.
If they were caught out here, Eric would have the incident he needed to have the boy frozen. Aside from the fact that they were seriously breaking the National Park rules, there wasn't a chance of pretending that he had Shane under control at the moment. Walsh knew he took a considerable risk with putting that much faith into Goose's loyalty, but there was no choice. The boy was going mad at staying inside, or walking at what must seem a snail's pace to him, being always watched, always under surveillance.
Though Walsh had tried to made it as unobtrusive as possible, he knew Goose was aware of it. That's why he had refused to insist on a transmitter, considering the surveillance as being probably part of the problem. The sender was futile anyway, should the boy really decide to disappear in the night. And there was the additional risk that someone else might catch the signal and learn about movements in the desert night far beyond the capabilities of any vehicles or animals known in this part of the world. So he had nothing to gain by it.
And then Gooseman was suddenly gone, had disappeared from his field of view in the blink of an eye. Shit! Of all things... Walsh reared the horse to a stand-still, searching frantically.
A moment later, he spotted him. It was a somehow disconcerting sight to see the young trooper twelve meters up at the swaying tip of a saguaro, investigating one of the huge blooms that filled the night's air with their heavy scent. He knew the ST couldn't fall to his death, he knew the boy was more than able to get up there without cutting his hands and feet on the spines, still...
"Gooseman!" he bellowed. "What on Earth are you doing up th–?"
The Supertrooper let go of the cactus and landed on a sandy spot close enough to trigger the warning sensors of the robotic steed. Goose grabbed the mane and looked up at him with eyes aglow. "Did you know these things have blooms the size of coffee mugs?" He spread his fingers. Nectar glittered in the vanishing light.
"Goose..." Walsh caught his temper at the sight of Shane's unconcealed excitement, masking his own emotions – relief, anger, wonder at the unexpected glimpse of closeness between them – with brittle humor, knowing full well that the boy wasn't prepared to deal with them. "When I said 'run', I meant running on the ground, not up a saguaro."
"Aye, sir." The next moment the boy was gone again, forcing Joseph to follow him at a breakneck pace as he darted back into the night, leaving only a cloud of pollen raining like fairy dust into the growing dark.
Office of Cmdr. Walsh
Joseph lowered himself into his office chair. Admittedly carefully because of the current condition of his backside – and the rest of him – which felt only slightly less raw than a steak tartar. At least it had been worth it. He'd never before seen someone so happy while picking cactus spine fragments out of his legs and feet, trousers and shoes as Goose had appeared to be on the drive home. He just hoped none of the cybersteed technicians stumbled across the saguaro nectar smeared into CS-85-RA-Triton's sensor mane.
His adjutant, Sheela McIntyre, bringing in the daily mail, tossed him a glance and asked compassionately, "Are you okay, sir?"
"Yes," he nodded, briskly, with clenched teeth. The hell if he would ask for a seat cushion! "I overdid the evening walk with my protege yesterday." More precisely: my evening marathon, three hours ago, he corrected grimly in his thoughts. "Seems I'm not as fit as I thought I am." I'm damned fitter. Otherwise, I'd have dropped dead on that ride! A hot stab of pain shot along his spine. If only the darn tin horse had been softer to sit on.
Please have a look at the Saguaro National Park website for information about the park and what is really allowed and forbidden there. :)
Thanks to S. 'Trivia' Blank for chasing the mistakes out of this story.