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Summary: The shadows of Goose’s past come back to haunt his present. Will he be able to cope with the memories now returning to his mind?
Captain Zachary Foxx walked into Commander Walsh's office for a debriefing after a successful but very nasty mission. He'd only returned a half-hour ago, and had transferred his prisoner over to the custody of several law-enforcement agencies who would undoubtedly be squabbling for weeks over who had jurisdiction over that piece of scum.
Zach didn't really care who got him, as long as *someone* locked him up and threw away the key. He flexed his shoulders slightly, trying to ease a bit of the tension. He was looking forward to getting home and into a hot bath. And maybe getting a backrub from his wife. She was good at those, she had just the right touch to get him to relax and let go of the stresses of the job.
He waited until the commander had finished reading the written report he'd made on the way back to Earth, then launched into a succinct report of the incidents on Texarcota and how he'd tracked down the serial killer who'd perpetrated them. He'd reviewed the cases enough times to have lost the nausea that they'd caused when he first found out about them, although certain portions still made his stomach a little uneasy. It was always harder when the victims were children. He kept thinking about how he'd feel if anything like that happened to *his* kids.
Commander Walsh asked him to clarify a few details, then nodded. "Brief and to-the-point as usual, Captain. Thank you."
Zach hesitated for a moment, then asked the question that had been bothering him since he'd gotten the mission. "Commander? Might I ask why you assigned this case to me instead of Goose? He was next up on the mission roster, and he could have done the job just as well."
Walsh considered for a moment, then obviously decided to tell him. "If I had sent Gooseman on a case like this, he would undoubtedly have found the killer, if he had to turn the entire planet upside down to do it. We would not, however, have a suspect to try for the murders. Shane has some... rather strong feelings about such things, a fact that you might want to recall if you ever find yourself investigating such a case with him."
Zach frowned. "You think he'd just kill him out of hand? That doesn't sound much like Goose, sir. He usually goes out of his way to avoid unnecessary killing."
"Usually, yes. That's one of the reasons I trusted him to be a Ranger. But he's had some... personal experience with such deviant personalities," Walsh said, lips thinning under his luxuriant moustache. "It was extremely disturbing for everyone in the STP, but especially for him." His eyes were dark for a moment as he recalled something unpleasant, then he shook off the memories. "Was there something else you needed, Captain?" Walsh asked formally.
"No, sir," Zach said, and left.
* * * * * * * *
Shane Gooseman was alone in the Rangers' off-duty lounge when Zach came in. The Ranger captain sat down in the overstuffed chair near the sofa Goose had chosen to sprawl on and watched tri-D with him for a while. About fifteen minutes later, Goose got tired of ignoring the curious looks that Zach kept darting his direction. "Spit it out, Zach."
Zach shook his head slightly. "Was I being that obvious?" he asked in a kind of amusement.
"Only to anyone who's known you more than 5 minutes," Goose returned dryly. "Whatever you're curious about, ask and get it over with."
"I asked Commander Walsh why he hadn't sent you after that serial killer on Texarcota. He said that he didn't want to send you after him because you'd had some kind of experience with someone like that back on WolfDen."
Goose's slightly amused expression shut down completely. "I did," he said flatly. "Back when I was about six or seven. One of the other Supertroopers went crazy, started killing us. The brass wouldn't let Walsh just get rid of him, so we had to handle it ourselves." His green eyes went dark and cold in an expression that Zach had rarely seen, a bitter rage that reminded the captain that this man had literally been born and bred to kill.
Then he shook off that old anger and his mouth twitched into a cynical smile. "That was the only thing that Ryker Killbane and I ever agreed on, actually. And some good did come out of it... if it weren't for the Nameless One, we'd have never made the Barracks Rules, and there would have been more killings, and other things too."
"Barracks Rules?" Zach asked. Goose rarely talked about his time with the Supertroopers, and he'd never mentioned anything like that.
"Yeah. They weren't much, but they kept things relatively civilized in the barracks. We kind of decided after that incident that we couldn't put up with things the way they had been before, that we needed to come up with some rules that everyone had to abide by. Any time that three or more Supertroopers were killed or seriously injured outside of training for the same reason, we'd make a rule about it. There's only three: You don't try to kill or permanently maim another Supertrooper. You don't take what isn't yours. And 'no' means 'no.'" His mouth twisted wryly. "That last one became *real* important when the older ones hit puberty."
Zach winced. "I bet. But weren't there already rules to that effect?"
Goose gave a wintry smile. "Yes, of course there were. But they were *human* rules, with *human* punishments. Walsh and Nagata had to get rather creative to find punishments nasty enough that Supertroopers wouldn't just laugh them off, but not so nasty they'd do us permanent damage, and they hadn't quite figured out how by the time that the Barracks Rules were created. We had a simpler way. Anyone broke the rules, *everyone* would jump them. Even Killbane couldn't stand against *all* of us at once. So even he obeyed those rules, or got his ass kicked from here to Tortuna."
It was about then that Zach realized that Goose had deftly changed the subject away from the incidents that Walsh had told him about. He didn't try to shift things back, however. Goose was an intensely private man, and any attempt to pry would be unwelcome. And really, it wasn't something that Zach actually needed to know the details of. Just the fact that something very bad had happened, that it was something that Goose still didn't like to talk about, was enough.
* * * * * * * * *
Goose left the lounge shortly afterward. He'd waited long enough to keep Zach from feeling that the captain's curiosity had chased him off, but he didn't want to stay inside now that he'd been reminded. He needed to get out, away from people, out where he could think and settle himself down.
"Triton," he said as he entered BETA Mountain's cyberstables, "you up for a good run?"
The cybersteed's silvery head lifted. "Of course, my friend." He moved over to the tack area and stood patiently while Goose placed his saddle on his back. They thundered out of the cyberstables and down the long bridge across the lake that surrounded BETA Mountain at a full gallop, Goose crouched down low over the cybersteed's neck to cut the wind resistance. The synthetic horsehair of the 'steed's ornamental mane whipped in his face as they raced into the desert at well over a hundred miles an hour, and the force of the wind blowing in his face tried to steal Goose's breath and knock him out of the saddle.
Goose grinned. Times like this, when he was going full-bore, just tearing along, speed for the sake of speed, eyes darting here and there, looking for obstacles in the horse's path and guiding him around them or shifting his balance with Triton's maneuvers, these were the times he felt the most alive.
Finally, he pulled up on Triton's reins and the cybersteed slowed to a walk. They wandered down a canyon to a small natural spring that gave off a tiny stream that wandered down the canyon floor and disappeared into the desert sands. He got off and drank deeply, then lay down on a flat, sunbaked rock, hands behind his head.
"Do you wish to talk about it, friend Goose?" Triton asked.
"Very well." The cybersteed settled himself down to wait, knowing that Goose would deal with whatever was bothering him in his own way.
* * * * * * * *
Goose waited for his roommates to fall asleep before he pulled the cover off the ventilation grille above his bunk. He slipped into the narrow duct and positioned the cover back on behind him. It was a tight squeeze, much tighter than it had been when he'd first realized that the complex of ventilation ducts were his way out of the barracks. He didn't like the tightness in this portion of the vent system, but he got past the actual barracks area soon enough, and into areas where he could move more freely.
From creeping along on his belly, he soon went to hands and knees, then he reached his destination, stood, and stretched luxuriantly. The main air exchange area for the whole WolfDen complex. Above him was a shaft that led to the roof. If it hadn't been for the cover on the top, he'd have been able to see the sky. But that cover meant that the rain didn't come down on his little refuge here, so he wasn't going to complain about the lack of a view.
He pulled the blankets he'd "borrowed" from a storeroom out from behind the maintenance hatch where he'd hidden them and arranged them into a comfortable nest, pulled some ration bars and a canteen from the toolbox which had been the reason for creating that maintenance hatch, and settled down for the night.
He munched contentedly, interspersing the rather sticky ration bars with gulps of water, licked the crumbs off his hands, and lay back with a sigh. This was his own private spot, one that none of the other Supertroopers could get to. There were advantages to being the Runt, after all, and being smaller than any of the others meant that he could get into places that none of the others could fit. Only Brainchild was smaller than he was, and Brainchild wasn't strong enough to make the climb up through the vertical shafts that he'd come through.
He frowned, remembering the tightness of the air ducts he'd come through. He needed to find a new spot to hide, or a different route here. Most of the shafts were wide enough, but the ones that led into the individual rooms would be a problem soon. Before long, there'd be a chance of getting stuck. And if he was discovered crawling through the air ducts, he'd get into some real trouble with Commander Walsh. *Nobody* wanted to be on the Commander's bad side. Nobody but Blackheart, that was.
Goose shivered. The big ST was the reason that Goose had taken to sleeping here in his secret spot, instead of just coming here when one of the others was picking on him. He'd hurt Bullseye, bad enough that the boy had been A-listed. Then he'd killed Luis. And Goose knew that he was on the older ST's list. He'd given Goose that look like he'd given Luis, that little smile. That was when Goose had decided to hide any time that they weren't in training. Blackheart had been thrown in the brig after Luis had died, but Goose was feeling paranoid. He wasn't going to come out until Blackheart was dead or gone.
He hugged a blanket around himself. What Blackheart had done to Luis wasn't what they'd been trained to do. Supertroopers had been created to be soldiers, not torturers. Blackheart hadn't just killed Luis, he'd gone to considerable effort to make it a slow and agonizing death. Finally, Goose put those disturbing thoughts out of his mind, relaxed and drifted off to sleep.
He woke a little while later, and listened hard. He'd thought he'd heard something. He'd just about decided that it was his imagination when he heard it again. He tried to place the sound. He knew every sound this ventilation system made. None of those would have disturbed his sleep.
The sound came again. Definitely not mechanical. Sounded human. He began to crawl toward it. Sound was confusing in these ventilation ducts, and he took several wrong turns, misled by echoes and the distorted acoustics of the shafts. It was frustrating, to say the least, and becoming more so the more clearly he could hear the sounds. They were screams, terrified, agonized, and they made his gut clench just hearing them. He had to focus tightly on what he was doing and shut out the effects those horrifying screams were having on his emotions. Several times, he almost fell down vertical shafts as the cries startled him, causing him to loosen the pressure he was using to control his descent, a job made considerably more precarious because of the sweatiness of his palms.
He had a horrible feeling he knew what he was going to find when he got there. The voice sounded suspiciously young, although even a Supertrooper's hearing couldn't distinguish between a girl's soprano and a boy's high treble under these conditions. As he approached, the screams became fainter. It wasn't that they weren't just as heartfelt, but that the person screaming was losing strength. He tried to hurry, but he didn't dare let anyone hear him.
He finally pinpointed where the sounds were coming from. They'd continued to drop in volume, becoming little more than whimpers of pain. He came to the end of the ventilation shaft and looked out through the grate. It was Blackheart, all right. And Jen, or what was left of her. Her face was mostly intact, if covered in blood, but the rest of her...
He clenched his eyes shut and placed both hands hastily over his mouth, invoking his biodefenses to control the nausea he was feeling. It worked, barely. His biodefenses weren't fully active yet, and the smell of blood and shit and vomit, worse than anything he'd smelled on the training field, made things even harder. Finally, he got to the point where he could force his eyes open and take another look.
There were bits of skin and muscle, and what seemed like miles of guts, strewn over the corner of the basement that Blackheart had made into his latest charnel house. Goose tensed, preparing to scramble back through the shafts to a safe section of hall. Jen was a BDC, like him. If he could get to Commander Walsh, maybe she could be saved. But as he began to turn, he heard Blackheart laugh and turned his head, just in time to see Blackheart draw his knife across the girl's throat, pick up her decapitated head, and kiss it in the mouth. The big ST's hair looked as red as the dripping blood in the dim light of the basement area.
Goose scrambled away. The first bathroom he came to, he dropped out of the ventilation system and lost the contents of his stomach into the nearest basin, sobbing between retches.
Jen had been his friend. She'd helped protect him from Killbane when the older BDC had been in one of his dark moods. Goose started. She'd stopped Killbane. Not by threats or even muscle, but just because she was who she was. She'd been the only person that Killbane really liked. The only person who liked him, for that matter. Even the other STs were wary of Killbane.
"The enemy of my enemy is my ally," Goose said thickly.
He washed his mouth out thoroughly and then clambered up and into the ventilation shaft. Walsh couldn't do a damned thing for Jen now. No one could. And all he'd done after Luis was killed was toss Blackheart into the brig. The brig couldn't hold Blackheart. He had to be stopped dead, or he'd kill again. And Killbane was the most powerful of the STs.
Killbane muttered annoyance from where he lay, then rolled over.
"Killbane! Wake up!"
"Fuck off, Runt..." the older ST growled. At least, Goose assumed that was what he'd said. The dark-haired boy wasn't particularly coherent. Then he seemed to connect a little more. "What th' hell are you doing here? And where are you?"
"Wake up, will you?" Goose urged. "It's about Jen."
There were mutters from the others in the room, complaints about the noise. "Wake up, dammit," Goose hissed to them. "This is important. Ray, loosen this grill, will you? I gotta talk to Killbane, *right now*."
Ray yawned and sat up. "Fine, Runt, oughta be fun watching Killbane kick your bloody ass for waking us up like this." The blond boy clenched his fist and scowled at the offending grill, and Goose backed up hastily as a flash of light hit the grill.
"I said loosen it, not blow it to bits!" Goose yelped as softly as he could. "Let's hope the monitors didn't notice that," he said in a quieter voice.
"Wouldn't be the first time that idiot's blasted something by accident," Brainchild said snidely from his bed. As usual, he was sharing it with Rand, "Gravestone" as everyone had taken to calling him since he'd developed the ability to turn to rock. The two STs were constantly together, a defensive alliance that had served both of them well. Gravestone protected the smallest ST from physical attacks, and Brainchild kept him from getting suckered into things.
"Would you all just shut up? We've got a real problem here," Goose said as he climbed out of the vent.
"You said something about Jen," Killbane whispered. He didn't want to attract any official attention either. "Is she all right?" He undoubtedly could tell she wasn't, his senses were just as acute as Goose's and the youngest ST could still smell traces of bloodstink and vomit on himself.
"She's dead," Goose said flatly. "Blackheart killed her. I found them just as he finished her off. We have to stop him before he kills anybody else."
Killbane's head snapped back, and for just an instant, his face was vulnerable and filled with pain. Then his eyes narrowed, and he gave a low, feral snarl. "I'll kill him...."
"Maybe. Or maybe he'll kill you. He's killed two BDCs already, after all," Goose said. He was crouched on Ray's bunk, ready to make a dive into the vent if Killbane decided to take offense.
"I hate to admit it, but the Runt's got a point," Brainchild said from behind the black-haired boy.
"He's a tough customer, and he's proven he knows how to counter your powers by killing Luis and Jen. He may have picked Jen specifically to get you to come after him, figuring he'll be able to take you. And if you go down, nobody else'll have the nerve to fight him."
"So I'm supposed to just sit back and wait for Walsh to get off his ass and kill the bastard?!?" Killbane roared. Goose winced at the volume.
"Keep it down, Killbane," Gravestone said, looking nervously at the door. "You make too much noise, we all get in trouble, remember?"
"I don't...mmph!" Killbane's bellow was cut off as Goose dropped down and shoved Ray's pillow into Killbane's face. The older boy snarled and batted it aside, but Goose had climbed up to the unoccupied bunk across the room from Ray's before Killbane's badly-aimed blow could connect.
"Stow it, you fathead, or we'll get locked down before we can stop him!" Goose said. Killbane glared at him, but wasn't quite stupid enough to come after Goose while the youngest boy had the high ground.
"'We?'" Brainchild asked contemptuously. "What can a runt like *you* possibly do to stop Blackheart?" Killbane growled an agreement, flexing his hands ominously.
"Look, Blackheart's tough. Even Killbane'll have trouble taking him down alone. But if he's not alone, if he's got maybe a couple of others to back him up," Goose looked at Ray and Gravestone, "and he's got a plan that'll let him trap Blackheart, then he can take him down easy." At that, he looked at Brainchild, who nodded. "As for me... well, every trap needs bait. And Blackheart wants me, wants me bad. I can lead him right into an ambush for you."
Brainchild blinked and cursed. "He's right again, Killbane. It'd be a lot better to have him come to us than for us to go looking for him." He looked up at the boy perched on the bunk above his and his mouth twisted. "You might have a brain after all, Runt."
"Then let's do it," Killbane said, face a mask of rage. "That bastard should never have hurt Jen...." His words degenerated into rough curses.
The five conferred for a few minutes, but they needed to hurry before Blackheart finished playing with the remains of his latest victim and returned to the brig. He'd been claiming that someone else had done it, and he'd return there so that everyone would think he'd been there the whole time.
An alibi, made possible by his cyberpathic abilities. The computer would undoubtedly show him as being present the whole time he'd been killing Jen, but he had to get back before shift change, when a live guard would take over from the robotic ones that worked the night shift.
Goose slipped through the halls of WolfDen, pretending to be sneaking into the kitchen. He was crossing one of the main corridors when Blackheart spotted him. The big ST cut him off from the barracks, and Goose headed for the firing range at a dead run with Blackheart chasing him. There was only one entrance to the firing range, a safety precaution. But it also meant that, big as the room was, it was still a dead end. And it was just as isolated at this hour of the night as the corner of the basement where Blackheart had killed Jen.
Blackheart grinned as Goose ran into the firing range, and his mind reached out to the computerized door control and locked it behind him. "Hello, Runt," he said in a caressing voice. "I thought you'd never come out of whatever rock you've been hiding under...." He pulled out his knife, still dull with Jen's blood. He took a step into the room, another, and Goose swallowed, backing up, luring him further into the room.
"And I thought you'd never get here," Killbane grated behind him. He, Ray, and Gravestone had been pressed up against the wall, counting on the shadows to keep Blackheart from spotting them until it was too late. "You're dead meat," he said grimly as he moved to block the killer's exit.
Blackheart's eyes darted around as he assessed the odds against him. He didn't like them. "What's the matter, Killbane? Too chicken to face me alone?" he mocked. Big as he was,
Gravestone was even bigger, and Ray might not be all that tough in a brawl, but an attacker would have to get close enough to hit him to find that out, and even Blackheart would have trouble doing that while Ray's eyes glowed white-hot.
Killbane gave an ugly laugh. "What's the matter, Blackheart? Too chicken to take on someone your own size? Bullseye, Luis, Jen... they were all smaller than you, all pretty underpowered." He snarled. "You shouldn't have killed Jen, Blackheart. I'm going to rip your heart out for that."
Blackheart moved, arm a blur as he threw the knife at Ray, who ducked hastily and lost control of his eye-blasts for a moment. Fortunately, Killbane had dodged out of Ray's line of fire and the blast simply tore a furrow out of the floor. But when Ray looked up, Blackheart was right on top of him, and he didn't have time to use his energy blast to knock the redheaded ST back.
Gravestone saved him, grabbing the killer's arm and hauling him off his feet with inhuman strength. The biggest ST's brain might have been slow, but his reflexes were anything but. He slammed the murderer into the wall, hard, and Killbane came in while Gravestone had him pinned.
Goose pulled Ray back out of range of the brawl. The blond boy hadn't gotten much in the way of physical enhancements, and a blow from any of the three fighters could seriously injure him. For that matter, Goose didn't particularly want to be on the receiving end of any of those kicks or punches either. He'd be as strong as Killbane when he grew up, but for now, the four-year age difference between them translated to a major disparity in their power levels.
Goose saw a break in the fighting, and a gleam of metal on the floor, and dove in to grab the knife. Ray'd gotten a pretty serious knock on the head when Blackheart had rushed him, and Goose felt better as soon as he got his hands on a weapon. He might not have much strength yet, or fully-activated biodefenses, but he was faster than any of the others, and he knew how to use the knife. Blackheart'd get a nasty surprise if he tried coming after Goose or Ray now.
Blackheart managed to knock Killbane into Gravestone, bowling both of them off their feet. For just a moment, he was standing alone, with his back to Goose. The youngest ST jumped up, slipped his left arm under the killer's chin, and drew his right hand, and the knife in it, across the redhead's throat.
* * * * * * * *
Goose sighed, coming out of the grip of old, bitter memories. He could still feel the hot wetness of the blood, the smell of the older ST's bowels releasing, the shuddering death-throes. It had always confused people that a Supertrooper, a born and bred killer, could hate killing. But every time he saw someone go down he remembered Jen, and Blackheart's death. He'd been able to sense it somehow, to feel the life-force leave the killer's body. He'd hated that feeling. But he'd hated seeing Jen's dismembered body far more.
Sometimes, there just wasn't any other way to stop the killing.