Goose Saves Terra
Goose Saves Terra
Part I - The Tournament Returns
by Perrin Rynning
It was that time of year again.
Shane Gooseman, 'Goose' to his friends, now had to spend two weeks at least a hundred kilometers away from BETA.
Not for anything as simple as a misunderstanding or a necessary act of temporary mutiny. No, Goose had to go on vacation.
"Psychological well-being," was the phrase he read most often in the evaluations, along with "stress-reduction" and "growing as a citizen of Terra, not just as an officer of the peace". Commander Walsh put it more succinctly: "If you report back to Longshot in two weeks without a tan, frostbite, or one heck of a yarn, Goose, I will assign you to patrol duty on Tortuna for two weeks as fast as I can shove the paperwork through channels." It had taken five of his seven years in the Rangers to grasp the idea that he actually could have fun while off-duty; Niko liked to joke that he was in the greatest danger of laughing out loud while in the middle of a firefight with Crown troopers.
This year, he actually had something to do, other than find some dull, sandy little piece of paradise out in the South Pacific and smear himself with sunblock every hour. Three days before his vacation time kicked in, he had received a letter. It was an actual, physical letter, beautifully painted by hand on a strange kind of paper that Q-Ball told him was called 'parchment'. The ink was a shiny black, and reading the message gave him an odd thrill; it addressed him by full name, including his old SuperTrooper i.d. code, and invited him to partake in a 'private exposition of physical and mental skill'. There was a date, time, and address, which turned out to be a three-hundred-year-old wooden boat dock in Kowloon, which had been known as Hong Kong for 99 years.
Goose was standing on the dock at the appointed time, wearing tough travelling clothes and a traveller's kit on his back; his Badge was hidden under a rugged wristwatch. He had also clipped a small Global Positioning Unit on his belt, to track the boat-ride. If this 'exposition' was worth it, he might want to come back next year. There were about a dozen other people in the area; men and women who all shared lean, athletic builds and utter ignorance about why they had been invited and what this 'exposition' was all about.
A young blonde who called herself 'Carlton' set up a quick game of Borealis Baccarat on a shipping crate with three or four others, playing for whatever stakes were available. Goose smiled as he heard a skinny fellow proclaim, "I'll be seein' ya t'ree sticks o' gum an' raise ya two pepah-clips, mon."
Just as Goose was seriously considering joining in and wondering what three spent shell-casings from the guns of Daisy O'Mega herself would be worth in the game (and certain that he was in no danger of losing them permanently), an ancient wooden boat pulled up to the docks; Goose remembered that this class of ship was called a 'junk'. Eight silent, swarthy men bounced with sure motions from the gunwale of the junk to the wooden planks of the dock and began securing the mooring lines. Soon, ten more nearly identical men trooped down the gangplank and began loading the other contestant's luggage.
Carlton's game ended, the players accusing each other of being hustlers and collecting their winnings. The blonde woman stepped over to Goose, slinging a single bag over her shoulder.
"Not a gambler?" she asked, as they made their way up the gangplank with the rest of the contestants.
"I wouldn't be here if I wasn't," he smiled back. "Truth to tell, I was just about to join you."
"Just as well you didn't, I guess. It's always a pain to try and re-start a game in the middle of a hand."
"Feel like starting up a new game?"
"Maybe. What've you got to put in the pot?"
"Let me check to see how long this little trip is going to take, first."
He turned to one of the silent men. "When's dinner going to be served?"
The man ignored him, but a voice from behind him said, "We will be travelling for three hours, Mister Gooseman."
Goose turned to face the speaker. It was a tall man, just under two meters, wearing dark green clothes with yellow piping. His brown eyes regarded him, one eyebrow raised. "There were those who did not expect you to accept the invitation, Mister Gooseman. Did it not strike you as somewhat... hazardous?"
"What, accepting strange invitations? Maybe. Then again, I've got nothing better to do for the next two weeks." He shrugged.
The other smiled. The expression struck Goose as rather odd until he realized that the man's lips were so thin as to be almost absent. "Indeed. Well, we will try to keep your vacation... interesting. Win with honor, Mister Gooseman."
The man turned with a swirl of his long coat and stepped up a ladder to the steering platform. It took Goose a few moments to realize that he hadn't managed to catch the other man's name. Nor, he though a minute later, had he actually said that he was on vacation. And what was that about 'win with honor'?
An hour and a half later, Goose had won half a dozen chocolate-chip cookies and a foot-long strip of Bovo jerky from the other gamblers. He chewed on the dried meat, sitting out the hand and watching the dynamics the other players' styles depended on. One of them, a pale fellow with somewhat sunken eyes who introduced himself as 'Hahz', was also sitting out; Goose was leaning over to ask him about his interesting slate-grey duster-coat when a wave of nausea and discontinuity rushed through him, and the shelter of the hold faded to black.
When he came to, he was on the wooden deck, a someone's folded jacket under his head and he sunken-eyed man's index finger on his throat. Goose's hand blurred, wrapping around Hahz's wrist.
Hahz looked at Goose's hand, then back to his face. "You've been unconscious for five minutes, friend," he said in an even voice. "If I wanted you dead, you wouldn't be waking up."
Goose considered this. "Fair enough," he grated through a mouth that felt like fifty miles of Tortuna desert, releasing the other man's hand. He levered himself up to a sitting position, head swimming.
Hahz put a hand on Goose's chest and eased him back down. "You aren't ready to stand up, yet," he said. "Give yourself another minute or two. I'll get you some water."
Goose's eyebrow rose as he thought about this. One of the minor benefits of the SuperTrooper program was that theoretically he was immune to sea-, air-, space-, and warp-sickness, among most other known conditions and diseases. Whatever had knocked him for a loop was nothing to sneeze at. When Hahz returned with a tin cup and a bucket full of cool water, Goose sipped it with a dry tongue. Hahz refilled the cup once, then Goose felt he could speak again.
"What happened back there?"
Hahz spread his hands. "I was hoping you could tell me. You're the first... uh, *veteran* I've ever had the priveledge of watching cross the border."
The way he said the word 'veteran' made an icy chill run down Goose's spine. Did Hahz know that Goose was a... ?
"You've got a bit of a reputation in certain parts, Mister Gooseman."
"I suppose some of my official duties may have wound up spread around the galaxy," Goose allowed, rising again. His head stayed clear, and he slowly tucked one leg under his hips; now he'd be able to spring in any direction in a heartbeat if needed. "And yourself?"
"I'm here for similar reasons," Hahz said, turning to look at the surroundings. Goose realized that he was at least four meters away from the gaming area, in a clear space on the deck by the hull of the ship. It was as close to private as he could expect. "Y'see, I'm here to make sure that the tournament goes off reasonably fair and square."
"'Tournament'?" Goose repeated. "I thought it was just an exposition of physical and mental skill, or something like that." He glanced down at the GPS unit on his belt and frowned. The display was dark. He thumped it with the heel of the hand that wasn't holding the cup of water; nothing happened.
"Your GPS won't work, I'm afraid," Hahz sighed. "Gadgets that aren't a part of you generally don't do well here in the Outlands."
Goose sipped more water, letting the other continue.
"You, and all the other invitees on this ship, have been chosen to take part in a sacred tournament, to defend the Realm of Earth," Hahz said, his tone somewhere between an instructor and something more... ominous. "Every ten years, champions of the Earth Realm are pitted against those who would conquer our world and enslave its people."
Goose frowned. His thoughts considered BETA, the Ranger garrisons spread around the planet on the surface and in orbit, not to mention the Lunar base...
"Stop thinking like a SuperTrooper," Hahz snapped. "You Rangers are ignoring entire facets of the universe in your current viewpoint. These would-be invaders I'm speaking of are from a different plane than your 'old friends' such as Slade or the Black Hole Gang."
"You forgot the Queen of the Crown," Goose said.
"But the Queen has not forgotten you, Galaxy Ranger," came a voice from one side.
Goose jumped to his feet and faced the newcomer. It was a Crown Trooper, in armor that was the same configuration as countless others Goose had demolished on his official duties, but it seemed to be made of smoky, translucent glass. There was no way to really see who or what was inside it, though.
The Trooper was standing on the other side of a cleared space that Goose realized was the perfect place for a little pre-tournament 'thinning of the ranks'. However, before either he or the Trooper could take more than a single step, a streak of black whipped past Goose to stand between the two fighters.
It was Hahz, but he had produced a weapon from somewhere. It was a staff, about fifteen centimeters longer than Hahz was tall, with a curving blade of light and dark steel melding together like ripples on a lake at right angles to the staff; the razor-sharp cutting edge bisected the distance between Goose and the Trooper. Hahz's left hand was protected by some sort of metal basket in the middle of the staff, and the right was wrapped around the bare wood a hand'sbreadth higher.
"There will be no violence before the tournament," Hahz said, a weird echo in his voice. A black hat with a wide brim shadowed his face, but his Goose had no trouble finding his eyes, as they were now glowing with a greyish light.. They looked into Goose's eyes for a moment, and for the first time in his life, true Fear clutched at Goose's heart. Hahz broke the stare and sent something similar to the Trooper, whose blank yellow eyes glanced away as soon as Hahz's released him.
The glow faded from Hahz's eyes and he spoke again, this time in the more normal-sounding tones Goose had heard earlier. "Shane Gooseman, this is Commander Quartzite, of the Queen's Own Regiment, Fifth Battalion. He won the honor of a name and a Mark in the battle of Cubanate, eight years ago. Commander Quartzite, this is Shane Gooseman, L-5 Series Galaxy Ranger and the only member of the SuperTrooper program to join the Rangers."
Commander Quartzite managed to put a sneer into his flat voice as he pointed at Goose's chest. "Your pitiful SuperTrooper powers will not save you from me, Shane Gooseman. Your planet is as good as conquered." With that, he spun on one translucent heel and left.
"What was that all about?" Goose asked, relaxing a little. He flicked his eyes at the weapon Hahz was now holding more casually. "And where did that... thing come from?"
Hahz regarded his weapon. "It is called a 'scythe'. Originally it was a farming implement, but since there hasn't been any real hands-to-the-soil farming on Terra for decades, it's mostly just a weapon and symbol of my station. I am a Knight of Ghosts and Shadows, and I am the appointed guide to Terra's champions in the Tournament."
He nodded in the direction that the Crown Trooper had left in. "Commander Quartzite is here under orders from the Queen of the Crown herself," Hahz explained, leaning against a convenient barrel. "The Queen has been dabbling in many things that Terra has forgotten to call 'sciences', and she expressed interest in invading the planet using them. Fortunately, there are rules in that arena as well as the ones you are familiar with, and the Queen must abide by them."
"What are you talking about?" Goose said, feeling a little like he was being set up for some kind of practical joke.
"I mean that Terra has defenses that you Rangers know nothing about, but they are not perfect, nor foolproof. You, and the others here, will have to face the Crown's champions in one-on-one combat. At the end of the tournament, the champion will have the power to maintain Terra's other defenses for another ten years, or to destroy them and let the Queen's forces attack the planet with no hope of the Rangers being able to stop them."
"That sounds like a load of Bovo droppings," Goose said, after a moment. "But the Commander seems to take something seriously. What's his story, anyway?"
"The Queen has special honors for the few Troopers who have the capacity to distinguish themselves in battle. A name is the most common, a Mark is rather rare. There are currently fewer than a hundred Troopers with a Mark, and they all have certain... advantages that could put them on a level with your SuperTrooper enhancements."
"What kind of 'advantages'?"
"Commander Quartzite was transformed from his previous state to what amounts to semi-solid glass. He is now practically immune to lasers, tasers, and sonic weapons, and fully immune to gas or other atmospheric effects, as are all Troopers. You will likely face him in the second half of the tournament."
Goose smiled. "If I only had a bottle opener..."