A Christmas Gathering
A Christmas Gathering
Note on continuity: Yes I do know that Waldo and Zozo showed up in 2086. I’m assuming that it took a couple months to get the diplomatic ball rolling, and the Series-5s wouldn’t have been formed until several months after the events of Phoenix, as Zach was fully recovered and equipped with bionics by that time. I’m therefore assuming that the team wasn’t formed until very late 2086 or early 2087 Deal with it. ;-)
Christmas Eve, 2085
They didn’t know he could hear them. Not that that was any excuse. It wasn’t as if they’d care if they did.
“So whaddaya think, Joe? They gonna let Walsh’s pet freak out of his cage for Christmas?”
“Nah. Might eat Santa Claus.” The guards laughed raucously outside his cell, and Shane Gooseman’s lips curled in a silent snarl. It was almost absentminded, though. He was curious, as he had been about many of the things that he’d overheard his guards discussing since he’d been put into the cell.
“So what did you get for the wife, Tadashi?”
“New dress.” The man’s voice was casual and bored. “It’ll look lousy on her, and she’ll take it back and get something she likes. She’ll complain about my lack of fashion sense, but who cares? This way, she gets something she likes, and I barely gotta do any shopping at all.”
“Why not just give her some credits to go shopping instead?”
“Because then she’ll complain about how I never pay attention to her, and didn’t care enough about her to get her anything. This way, she just figures I’m clueless, and she decided that before the first year was out.” His voice was smug.
“Man, Tad, you got her pegged,” Joe said respectfully.
“After ten years, you better believe it. So you going to be getting the girlfriend something this year?”
“Naw, man. She broke up with me. Can you believe that? Two friggin’ days before Christmas she tells me she’s tired of me never having any cash...”
“I don’t think she’d have been as pissed if you weren’t always bragging about the latest upgrade on your hovercar,” Tad said mildly. “She probably figured out she’s less important to you than it is.”
“Hey, I’ve never been cheated on by my ‘car, man. Can’t say as much for my girls.”
Christmas Eve, 2085
Housing Area, Apt. 2112
“Come on, Jessica, we don’t have all night,” Zachary Foxx said, one arm around his wife’s waist.
“I just have to check my hair, Dad!” the answer came back from the bathroom where Zach’s daughter had been ensconced for the last 45 minutes. Little Zach, Zach’s son, groaned and rolled his eyes, but Eliza slipped out of her husband’s embrace and went to the bathroom.
“May I come in?” she asked, and the door was opened for her. There was a conversation inside, too quiet for the males outside the bathroom to hear, and then the two of them came out, Eliza in her pale blue dress, Jessie in her favorite pink.
Zach smiled. “I’m going to be the envy of every man at the party,” he said as he gallantly offered his arms to both of his favorite females. “I get to play escort to the two most beautiful ladies in the world.”
Eliza gave him a low, caressing laugh while Jessie giggled, blushing. Little Zach just rolled his eyes again. “Geez, Dad, could you get any cornier?”
“I don’t know, Little Zach. Did you want me to try?”
They all laughed as they left for the party.
Christmas Eve, 2085
“Really, Niko, you must concentrate better than that,” Ariel scolded fondly. “How ever you expect to improve if you won’t pay attention during your practice I don’t know.”
“I’m sorry, Ariel,” the younger psychic said. “It’s just... I really feel that I need to be doing something. I think... I think it’s time.”
“Time?” Ariel asked, startled. “Time? As in, time for you to leave?”
“Yes. I’m sorry, Ariel, but you knew it was coming, ever since I petitioned the Council to allow me to leave Xanadu. There is something... pulling at me. No, not something. Someone.” Her blue-green eyes turned purple as she focused on an image seen only in her mind. “I can’t see more than that,” she finally said, “but there is definitely someone out there who needs me, and I have to go to him.”
“It’s a man, then?” Ariel asked sharply.
“Yes and no. There is a man involved, several I think, but there’s more to it than my hormones,” she said, shooting her mentor and surrogate mother a fond glare. “There’s something I need to do, a job that has to be done and I’m the one who has to do it.”
Ariel sighed. “Very well. The Council agreed that your premonition was valid when you petitioned to go off-world, and I must admit I agree. But oh, Niko... do be careful out there! The other worlds aren’t like Xanadu, and what is different is often feared. And what is feared, they will try to destroy.”
Niko hugged Ariel. “I’ll be careful,” she said, “but I really do need to go. Now, can you find somewhere you can Gate me to where I won’t be noticed?”
“Of course, my dear,” Ariel said fondly. “I have been scanning the area near your chosen destination for some time now, and I’ve found somewhere that has a lot of activity, but only limited security. You just go get your things, dear, and I’ll open the Gate.”
“Thank you, Ariel!” Niko tossed over her shoulder as she ran to her room to collect the bag she’d packed that morning. She was back in minutes, after having made a last, quick inspection of her room before she left.
The Gate was open when she returned, a glowing tunnel of light leading into infinity. “Hurry, now, child, I can’t keep this open forever, you know.” Ariel’s voice was far softer than her words. Niko gave her a last hug and a kiss on the cheek, then stepped fearlessly into the light.
Christmas Eve, 2085
New New Orleans
“Read ‘em and weep, my friends,” Walter Hartford – “Doc” to his friends – said to the other three men around the table in the bar. “What we have here is a royal flush.”
There were an assortment of grumbles and groans as Hartford raked in his winnings. “Anot’er hand, Doc?” one of them asked. “Gimme a chance t’ win back some of de money dat y’ just took off me.”
“Not a chance Boudreux,” Doc said breezily. “I won it fair and square, and I’ve got places to go and people to see. In fact, there’s one of the people right now, and a lovely sight she is...” Doc stood and swaggered over to the lovely blonde who’d just walked in the door. “Annabelle, my sweet, are you ready for a night on the town with the Doctor?”
She giggled inanely. “Of course, Doc,” she said, and attached herself to his arm.
“Well, at least one of us is getting lucky,” one of the other gamblers said behind them.
“Only if she doesn’t bore him to death first,” another cracked, and they all laughed.
Christmas Eve, 2085
Phoenix Spaceport, BETA Mountain
Later that day
Niko appeared in the dim corridors of Phoenix Spaceport and slipped cautiously out into the crowd of holiday travelers. No one noticed her.
A few minutes later, she was walking toward the taxi stand, trying to discourage an overly-friendly man from taking her bag. “No, no, really, it’s not that heavy. I can handle it just fine.”
Her attempts at discouraging him were singularly ineffective, and she kept getting distinct and rather discomforting flashes from his mind. Finally, after a particularly strong impression of what he’d like to do with her waist-length hair slammed into her mind, she lost patience with him, and decided that a minor tampering with his mind was much less unethical – and less likely to attract unwanted attention – than an aikido kick to his groin. He went stiff as her mind touched his, then wandered off back to whatever business he’d come to Phoenix for.
“Ick,” she said quietly as he left. “I hope he never remembers me.” Then she turned and went over to one of the taxis. “Hello. I’d like a ride to BETA Mountain, please,” she said, glad that she’d done her research. It would have been rather embarrassing if she hadn’t realized that she’d need credits to pay for the taxi.
“Sure thing, sweetheart,” the robotic cab replied. “Hop in, I’ll take ya right there.”
They chatted as the taxi drove itself to the military base. “Hope ya got clearance, sweetie,” the cab said as they pulled up to the perimeter gate, guarded by a tall, fierce-looking black man.
“ID, please?” he asked in a no-nonsense voice.
“Tell Commander Walsh that Niko is here to join the Galaxy Rangers,” she said sweetly, and pushed him with her mind. It wasn’t easy. He had a strong will, but he had no training, and no reason to suspect her to be anything other than a pretty young woman. She had to bear down on him rather hard, but finally his eyes went blank and he told the cab to drive up to the main gate.
At the main gate, there were two guards. She got out to talk to them and sent the cab on its way. In a matter of seconds, she had them under her control and one of them was giving her an escort to the Commander’s office, talking amiably with her as if they were old friends.
Minutes after having announced her presence, she was in Commander Walsh’s office, sitting in the comfortable chair that her escort had courteously pulled up for her before returning to his duty. “Hello, Commander,” she said to the graying man staring at her from the other side of the desk. “I’m Niko. And I understand that you are looking for people with... unusual abilities. I fit the description.”
The Commander cleared his throat. “So I see.”
Christmas Eve, 2085
New New Orleans
1320 Rue de LeBeau, Apt. 191
Doc walked back into his apartment, shoulders slumped slightly. “Remind me not to go out with that girl again,” he moaned to himself.
“I don’t think that’s going to be a problem,” a female voice said from behind him. He whirled and saw an Amazonian woman leaning against the wall, dressed in standard police armor. With one exception: on the shoulder was, not the familiar shield of the N.N.O.P.D., but a stylized B.
On the wall to the other side of the door was a man in the same armor, and behind him someone else cleared his throat. “Don’t make this harder than it has to be, Hartford,” the man sitting in his favorite chair said.
“Hey, now, I don’t know what you people are doing here, but I really think you need to leave.”
“Oh, we intend to,” the seated man said. “And you’ll be coming with us.”
“Excuuuse me? That sounded suspiciously like a threat, mister. And I really don’t deal well with threats. They make me break out in hives. Just ask anyone.”
The previously silent man at the door snorted.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Hartford, did you feel that I was threatening you? I am merely here to offer an invitation to an interview with someone who’d like to acquire your services. A Commander Walsh, whose name I suspect you’re familiar with.” The seated man’s voice was silky-smooth.
“I’m flattered, really, but I have no clue what you’re talking about or why this Commander Welch of yours would be interested in li’l old me.”
The seated man smiled. “Of course not. And you aren’t the computer expert who hacked into certain very sensitive records at BETA Mountain after first somehow acquiring the Commander’s passwords, thereby laying a false trail back to him. It must be some other computer psychologist who refers to himself as the Computer Doctor.”
“Whoa, man, I don’t know where you get your information, but you are so very mistaken that it boggles even my mind. Are you sure that someone didn’t just lay a double trail, to make you think that I did this?”
“I don’t need to think,” the seated man said. “I need to follow my orders, which are to escort you to Commander Walsh. Convince him, not me.” He gestured at the security people bracketing the door and they left the wall, coming to stand next to him.
“Now hang on just one minute here. I don’t want to go anywhere.”
The officer in charge stood up. “Look, I don’t really care what you want. You can either come along with us and have a nice comfortable ride out to BETA Mountain, or you can refuse. In which case I will serve the warrant in my pocket and we will haul your hacker butt to the Commander in a sling. Be smart, okay? I’d really rather not beat the crap out of anyone on Christmas Eve.”
“Well, when you put it like that, how can I resist?” Doc gave him a big friendly grin, and he looked at his subordinates. They courteously escorted him to the waiting hovercar, ever alert to his comfort – and didn’t give him the slightest chance of escape.
Christmas Day, 2085
“Shane?” the familiar voice came from the doorway, waking Goose from the nap he’d fallen into out of sheer boredom. “Would you like to get out of here for a while?”
Goose was on his feet so fast that the Commander literally didn’t see him move. Even after over 20 years around Supertroopers, it still surprised him sometimes just how fast they could move, and Goose was one of the quickest. “Out, sir?” he asked, with carefully-controlled excitement.
“Out. For a ride.” He smiled at the way that Goose’s eyes lit up in suppressed excitement. “I’d have done this last night, but a certain computer hacker decided to go poking his nose into your files, and I had to decide what to do about him.”
“What did you do?” Goose asked, green eyes sparkling in anticipation of a bit of vicarious mayhem.
Walsh gave him a wicked grin from under his mustache. “I recruited him. You’ll probably be meeting him eventually if this Galaxy Ranger idea of mine goes through. Name’s Walter Hartford, but he goes by Doc. I think he’ll be a real asset if his own teammates don’t kill him first.”
Goose laughed for the first time since they’d left WolfDen. “I can’t wait to see this guy,” he said as they arrived at the cybersteed stables. As they rode out, Commander Walsh began to tell Goose the story of Christmas, of the child born in a stable who grew up to found a religion that changed the world.
Goose found it very interesting. And best of all, for a little while, he could pretend that he was free.
Christmas Eve, 2087
Goose and Triton thundered through the desert outside of BETA Mountain, hair – both natural and synthetic – blowing in the breeze raised by their speed. “Faster, Triton. We’re going to be late.”
“Might I remind you that it was your idea to go out tonight?” Triton said, teasing him a bit. For all his proud demeanor around others, the cybersteed was remarkably easygoing when Goose and he were alone together.
“Might I remind you that you were the one who didn’t remind me that I needed to recover the stuff from where I’d hidden it? I almost forgot I was supposed to get them at all. It’s just a good thing they’ve been sending me on solo missions a lot lately or I’d never have been able to buy the stuff without anyone knowing what I got.”
Triton gave a robotic sigh. “Humans are so illogical. It makes no sense to restrict you to base when on Earth and still send you on solo missions offworld, and in control of several million credits’ worth of equipment as well. Do they not realize that if you wished to, you could sell your interceptor and acquire enough money with that single transaction to keep you in comfort for the rest of your life? You wouldn’t even have to part with Alma in doing so... removing a personality module is a fairly simple procedure, after all. And the same training that allows you to be so efficient at hunting down fugitives would be equally effective in allowing you to disappear should you so desire.”
Goose gave a bitter smile. “Ah, but then I’d have to spend the rest of my life looking over my shoulder. I prefer to be the hunter, not the hunted. Besides, I think I like being a Ranger more than I ever would have liked being a Supertrooper, if the Project hadn’t gone sour.” He sighed. “And you’d better wipe this conversation from your memory banks before we get back to the stable. Somebody who was paranoid might think it was part of an escape plan, and Wheiner’d just love to throw my butt in the freezer. I’m sure he wouldn’t hesitate to have you scrapped, either.”
Triton snorted, horselike. “There are times when I wish that I were not programmed to avoid criticizing my legal superiors,” the ‘steed huffed.
Goose laughed. “Hey, at least it keeps you out of trouble. I don’t know what Walsh would do if he had to keep Wheiner off both our backs.” There was a flare of light from the blue plastic that shielded Triton’s head-mounted sensor arrays, and Goose knew that the conversation was being wiped – or at least buried under massive layers of encryption.
They slowed from their headlong gallop to a more moderate canter as they crossed the bridge that spanned the lake surrounding BETA Mountain, making sure that they kept to the posted speed limit. They’d already been pulled over twice that month for speeding and didn’t need to be fined a third time, no matter how much they enjoyed racing along the flat, unobstructed stretch of road.
The instant that they were in the cyberstable, Goose hopped down from Triton’s back and pulled the leather saddlebags from the ‘steed’s rump, slinging it over one shoulder as he headed over to the recharging area. It took perhaps five minutes for him to do a systems check on the horse and get Triton hooked up to the stable’s power station to recharge, and then he headed out, saddlebag still slung casually over his shoulder.
He was at the door to Zach’s quarters, halfway across the mountain, in less than ten minutes, which would have been impressive for anyone else. He simply walked faster than most people when he was alone.
As he reached the door, he hesitated, taking a deep breath and scolding himself for it. What are you so worried about, Gooseman? he asked himself, but he knew. He’d never done this before. He’d known about Christmas for two years now, but the first year, he had been locked up, and the second year he’d been finishing his training for the Rangers. This year, though, Zach had invited everyone over to his quarters for a Christmas Eve get-together, and he suspected that meant he should bring gifts.
Finally, after a couple deep breaths, he knocked on the door and Little Zach answered. “Hey, Goose! We were just wondering where you were!” He reached for the saddlebag, saying, “Here, let me get that. You want me to put it with the presents or is it your own stuff?”
Goose felt a surge of relief that he’d guessed right, but didn’t let it show. “With the presents,” he said with a faint smile. He’d learned over the course of his time with the team that when the host offered to take something from a guest, it was a way of being polite, not trying to get whatever-it-was away from the guest. It had taken Niko sitting him down and explaining the custom for him to relax enough to allow anyone to part him from his belongings outside his quarters.
He smiled as he saw that Doc and Niko were already there, and nodded to Jessie Foxx and Billy Sawyer, the orphaned son of the man who’d helped genetically engineer Goose. The girl smiled at him and blushed slightly, and Goose noticed that Doc grinned at that. Goose glared at him, knowing that Doc was about to start teasing them about Goose’s way with the ladies, and he subsided momentarily, but knew that he’d have to have a private word with the hacker before he started making comments about Jessie having a crush on him. Goose did not want to have a discussion with Zach on that subject.
He handed the saddlebag over to Little Zach, whose eyes went wide as he almost dropped the large bag. “Holy cow, Goose, what have you got in this? Rocks?”
Goose grinned. “Not telling.” He watched with a certain amount of amusement as the teenager made a show of staggering over to the pile of presents. He followed with his usual catlike grace and settled down next to the presents to start unpacking the gifts.
“Hey, my Gooseman, did you remember to wrap them this year?” Doc teased.
“I have never forgotten to wrap Christmas presents,” Goose said with dignity. No sense in admitting that he’d never given any before.
Doc might have read his mind. “Goose, my man, have you ever given anyone a Christmas present?”
Goose gave him an evil glare. “Have I ever mentioned how much I want to strangle you sometimes?”
“What did I say, my Goose-man?” Doc asked, with elaborately false innocence.
“You’ve never given anyone Christmas presents? Never gotten any yourself?” Jessie asked, eyes wide in surprise.
“That stinks,” Billy Sawyer said, voice sympathetic.
“Yeah. You shouldn’t tease him about it, Doc,” Little Zach said, frowning at the brown-skinned Ranger. “It’s not his fault he didn’t get to be a kid when he was growing up.”
“So he’s got to do it now,” Billy said. “C’mere, Goose.” He grabbed Goose’s hand and started dragging him over to the Christmas tree. “I loved doing this when I was a kid,” he said, and tried to pull Goose down in front of the tree.
“Uh, Billy, what are you doing?”
“Get down here, Goose. You gotta see this.”
“Billy, I’m not an expert on Christmas by any means, but even I know that’s a Christmas tree. Why do you want me to lay down to look at it when I can see it perfectly well standing up?”
“No, Goose, he wants you to look at the tree from underneath. It’s really cool that way,” Little Zach said, and flopped down. Jessie followed suit, more decorously, and Goose allowed himself to be persuaded. He lay down and slid easily under the tree, then looked up and caught his breath.
It was beautiful. The tree was lovely from the outside, but from underneath, it was magical. The twinkling lights reflected off the ornaments and illuminated the structure of the living tree that they were strung upon, creating an almost kaleidoscopic effect of ever-changing patterns of light and dark. The shifting lights and smells of living pine, dirt and peppermint candy all combined into an almost mesmerizing whole. Even after the kids got bored, he remained there, letting his senses drift, soothing in a strange way.
He vaguely noticed someone come to the door and be admitted, but didn’t pay any attention. It was obvious from the tone of Zach’s voice that it wasn’t an enemy so he dismissed it from his mind. The lights were so beautiful....
“Goose?” a familiar voice said, somewhere in the vicinity of his feet, and he almost knocked the tree over scrambling to his feet.
“Goose, what were you doing?”
As embarrassing as it suddenly seemed, the only answer to come to mind was the truth. “Looking at the lights, Commander.”
Walsh blinked for a moment. “I see. Well, I just came by because I knew I’d catch you here.” He handed Goose a small package. “Owen and I... thought you might like this,” he said awkwardly.
Goose blinked in astonishment, then smiled. “Thank you, sir. And my thanks to Dr. Nagata as well.” He turned to the saddlebags and pulled out the last two presents, the ones that hadn’t joined the others in the pile near the tree. “This one’s for you, and the other’s for Dr. Nagata,” he said, in a voice that was perilously near shyness. “Hope you like them.”
“I’m sure we will,” Walsh said gruffly. He put his hand on Goose’s shoulder and shook him lightly. “I’ve got to get back to work. Merry Christmas, Shane. Merry Christmas, all of you.”
“Merry Christmas,” came back to him, a ragged chorus in a variety of voices.
Walsh left, and Zach walked over to Goose, handing the younger man a cup of hot chocolate. “Working up your nerve to give them their presents, Goose?” Zach asked quietly.
“Nah. I heard about that Santa Claus thing and figured that I’d surprise them.” He grinned. “Would’ve been fun to see if I could still sneak in without getting caught. And their reactions would’ve been priceless.”
They all laughed at the thought, and the conversations turned to Christmases past and they times they’d had together.
At the end of the evening, when the youngsters had been sent yawning off to bed, Zach proposed a toast. “I want to thank all of you for coming,” he said quietly. “This is... it’s not the first Christmas since Eliza was captured, but it’s the first one that I’ve been well enough for her... loss to really hit me. If it hadn’t been for all of you pushing me, I would have let myself brood over what I don’t have tonight instead of being thankful for what I do have. I have my friends, I have my kids, I have hope that we will get Eliza back. I’d like to propose a toast to all those we care about who couldn’t be here.” The mugs were clicked together in salute.
“To all the people we helped, and those we couldn’t,” Niko said.
“To the ones who don’t have anyone to celebrate with,” Doc continued.
Goose hesitated when it came around to him. “To the best friends I’ve ever had,” he finally said. “And here’s to hoping that we’re all together again next year, with Eliza too.”
“Amen to that,” Zach said, and they shared a final toast before parting.
After the others had left, Zach placed all the dishes in the dishwasher. He looked in on the kids, smiling gently at their peaceful expressions, and then went to bed himself and indulged in a little Christmas Eve ritual he’d had since he was a child. “GV,” he said.
“Read me the story, GV,” he asked quietly.
“Of course, Zachary,” the AI’s soothing voice said, and began to read aloud an old poem. “Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the house, Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse....”
As he listened with half an ear, he felt himself relaxing, letting go of all the regrets that he’d been clutching to him through the holiday season, until his teammates and his children had conspired to throw this party. He missed Eliza, missed not having her warm body lying there beside him, her soft voice murmuring along with GV’s to the words of “A Visit from St. Nicholas”, but he wasn’t tearing himself up over it now.
And as he drifted off to sleep, the last thing he heard was GV saying, “Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night.”