"Hey, Goose, did I ever tell you about the time I almost got stuck in this thing?"
Goose looked over his shoulder. He and Niko were sifting through the absolutely enormous pile of spare parts, half-dissected somoflanges, unidentifiable artifacts and just plain junk that most of BETA called "Q-Ball's Junkpile." He tossed another likely thingamajig into the growing pile in front of him. Before much longer I'll have enough parts to boost the output on my stereo speakers another 15 decibels, he thought, and grinned in anticipation. Beat that, Doc!
Niko stood before a scorched and blasted contraption, vaguely reminiscent of an antique autodoc.
"Huh? Isn't that that duplicator Lazarus Slade built?"
Niko nodded. "It cranked out over 25 little Buzz babies before it ran out of paper. I think it was the biggest mess I've ever seen Q-Ball's lab... and about the most upset I've seen him."
"You never told me you climbed in there."
"I didn't. I'd just done a reading for Q-Ball so he could figure out where Buzz and Little Zach were—and then they came back. Q-Ball ran off to find out what had happened, so he didn't see that some of the cables in there had grabbed me. If it hadn't been for Little Zach, who knows what would have happened?"
Goose let out a bark of laughter. "Just think of it! Hordes of little Nikos! Think they'd be babies or just little elfish critters?"
She shuddered. "I'd rather not think about it. Besides, it's more likely I'd just have gotten fried. Remember, that machine was set up to draw energy for the baby Buzzwangs by tapping into Buzz's power supply."
He shook his head and tossed a final part onto his pile. "Well, nothing happened. Help me with this?"
Goose set his tray down with a flourish. Niko and Doc stared in dismay at the contents of his plate. Niko found her voice first.
"Goose... what is that?"
He started ticking off ingredients. "Fillet of cod, anchovy paste, pesto, peanut butter, chili paste, curry powder, bread crumbs, diced onions..." He trailed off as Niko pushed her plate away from her. "You didn't finish your custard," he noted with a lopsided grin.
"I lost my appetite. Again."
"Mind if I...? Thanks!" He grabbed the mostly-full dish and set it on his tray.
"What is it with you and this stuff, my Goose man?" Doc demanded, eyes still glued to Goose's plate. "You're getting worse than Q-Ball."
Goose sat and took an experimental bite. "Hey, not bad."
Niko and Doc watched in horrified awe as he worked his way through the meal and then sat back with a sigh.
"Thanks for the custard, Niko," he said. "Hit the spot."
Goose walked alone down the corridor to work on his interceptor. This late at night the hallways of BETA Mountain were nearly deserted. On the way from his quarters to the hangar he met only a cleaning robot or two.
The door to the hangar bay slid open. Goose frowned.
Giggling? In the hangar bay?
He glanced around, unsure at first where the sound was coming from. The only person in sight was a technician, and as he watched the man racked his tools, stretched and strolled out.
There it was again... and it seemed to be coming from...
Goose broke into a trot. "Elma?" he called. "Is that you?"
He rounded a P-38 and skidded to a halt.
The interceptor's hatch was raised. And swarming all over the cockpit, the ladder, the neck of the plane, was an entire horde of... children?
"What the...?" Goose strode forward.
Their little heads turned, and he broke stride to gape in shocked dismay. Over a dozen pairs of bright green eyes stared in silence for a moment, and then—
"Goose!" one of the little girls squealed, and she scrambled down the ladder, starting a mass exodus of elfin, auburn-haired children. Goose suddenly found himself surrounded by twelve—no, fourteen—
"Niko?" But she's on Granna on assignment, he thought.
They all burst into giggles. And then the talking started.
"Goose, can I have a piggyback ride?"
"Goose, I wanna go for a ride with Elma!"
"Goose, can I wear your bandanna?"
One of them grabbed his belt and started climbing, and suddenly he was wearing a diminutive Niko on one shoulder. She was remarkably light.
Of course she's light! He howled at himself. She's blinkin' five years old!
One of them tugged at his sleeve suddenly, and he looked down. Her green eyes were filling with tears as he watched.
"What's wrong, kid?" he asked kindly, unable to quite bring himself to call her "Niko."
"I gotta go to the bathroom."
Goose broke into a cold sweat.
Gooseman sprinted for his life down the corridor. Behind him, a horde of Nikos followed.
"Still okay?" he asked the one he held.
"Ummmm... Yeah. But we gotta find a bathroom soon."
"I'm working on it, kid."
Goose burst into the lounge, trailing Nikos. With a sigh of relief he set her down in front of the ladies' room.
"There ya go."
She looked up at him, pouting.
"What's the matter? It's a bathroom, like you asked for."
"You mean I gotta go by myself?"
Goose sat slumped at a table in the lounge. On benches and in chairs, fourteen miniature Nikos slept the sleep of the innocent. One of them had her head on his lap, and his legs had long since gone numb.
How is this my life?
He glanced at his chrono again. 0630. I can get away with calling Zach now.
"Zach, this is Goose."
"What's up, Gooseman?"
"Uh... Captain, I really need to talk to you. In the lounge. Right away. Please."
Some of Goose's desperation must have come through, because Zach's voice took on an edge of tension. "You all right?"
"It's easier if you just come to the lounge, sir. It'd take too long to explain."
"On my way."
Goose sighed in relief. Zach could fix this. He'd raised two kids already.
Zach halted several meters away from Goose's table and stared.
"I'd get up, Zach, but, uh—"
"No, that's okay, Gooseman." Zach couldn't seem to stop staring around himself. "What the..."
"I think it's that thing Lazarus Slade built, Zach. That machine that copied Buzzwang."
"Talk sense, Gooseman! He's a robot! How could that thing copy a person?"
Zach's voice rose, and Goose made hushing motions. But the damage had been done. The little Niko on his lap raised her head to rub sleep out of her eyes.
From a chair across the table, a small auburn head popped up.
"Goose, I'm hungry."
A veritable chorus took up the cry. Goose turned in mute appeal to Zachary, who sighed.
"You've sure landed in it this time, haven't you, Goose?"
Zach's comm buzzed, and he answered. "Foxx here."
"Dad?" Little Zach sounded worn. "She's being sick again. Should I take her to the Medlab?" Muffled squeaks emerged from the comm, and then Little Zach spoke again. "She wants you to take her."
Zachary looked at Goose. "Can you handle this?" he asked tiredly. "Jessie's got the bug that's going around. I need to go take care of her."
Goose gulped. "Sure, Captain."
He watched in despair as Zachary strode out. The Niko in his lap tugged at his sleeve.
"Goose, I'm really hungry!"
Doc strolled in, wearing a smile that instantly struck distrust into Goose's heart.
"My Goose man! I see the rumors are true: you've opened a day-care center!"
Half of the Nikos swarmed around him, squealing.
"Doc! Tell us a story!"
"Dance with me!"
"Can I play with Pathfinder?"
Doc lifted the Niko who'd demanded a dance—Goose noticed suddenly that her hair was a little more red than the others'—and set her feet lightly on his. As he led her carefully through a waltz, his voice rose above the giggles and chatter of fourteen little girls at play.
"Once upon a time..."
Goose heaved a sigh and relaxed a little... until he felt a small hand on his sleeve and turned to regard a pouty, tearstained face, lightly freckled where the rest were pale.
"Goose, Niko pulled my hair!"
"I did not, Niko did! And she stole my paper doll!"
Goose took a deep breath and groaned inwardly.
Doc came into Goose's quarters with three Nikos in tow and a frown on his face. Goose looked up from putting his twelfth Niko to bed and wondered suddenly, Why are there still four sitting over there? I must have miscounted. I'm beat.
"Goose, correct me if I'm wrong, but didn't we start out with fourteen of these kids?"
"Because I count nineteen in this room right now, and I know I passed some in the hallway. Two or three of them ran off towards Zach's."
Goose dropped his head into his hands and muttered, "Tortuna. I'd rather be on Tortuna. Right now."
Goose looked up from the report he was trying to fill out—in vain, it was beginning to look like—to see one of the Nikos, draped in what looked like a sheet, standing in front of him. He blinked.
"What's up, kid?"
"You always call me kid," she complained, pouting.
"Me too too!"
He forced himself to ask, "What's up... Niko?"
She spun in front of him, raising her arms slightly. "I got dressed up. Does it look pretty?"
He smiled softly. She did look kind of cute with the cloth wound around her, her little face solemn. This Niko had the longest hair, though it still wasn't quite the length of the real McCoy, and she had somehow pinned up parts of it. Strands and locks escaped to dangle randomly about her childish face.
‘Yeah, Niko, it looks pretty," he said quietly.
She giggled and actually blushed a little.
There was a tug on his sleeve. He looked down at the only Niko with wavy hair. She looked up at him with eyes guaranteed to melt the hardest heart and said:
"Goose, will you marry me?"
He choked. A chorus of protests went up.
"No, he's gotta marry me!"
Twenty-three high, piercing voices rose in a cacophony of indignation. Goose clapped his hands over his ears, his heart racing in horrified denial.
This is not happening, he chanted. This is not happening.
The wavy-haired Niko at his elbow grabbed his arm and shook.
"Goose!" she said firmly. "Goose!"
Others took it up, until he was surrounded by diminutive auburn heads and hands that grabbed and shook and demanded—
"Shane! Wake up! You're having a nightmare."
Goose struggled upwards out of sleep as if caught in layers of cloth. He blinked blearily at Niko and only slowly realized he was sitting up in bed. Her hand rested lightly on his shoulder. As he came awake she withdrew it with a questioning look.
"Are you all right?"
He realized he was staring at her with something like apprehension and looked around in confusion.
Just a dream.
"Yeah," he forced out. "Just fine. Uh... a dream."
"May I ask... what it was about?"
Goose felt himself go red to the tips of his ears. Niko looked a bit startled.
"That weird machine of Slade's," he muttered, dropping his eyes. "Warped reality. It's nothing."
"All right. Well, I'll go wait for you in the lounge. We have a briefing in 15 minutes, remember?"
He nodded and surreptitiously watched her go. The door slid shut behind her, and he sagged in relief for a moment before throwing back the covers.
As Goose walked slowly into the bathroom, he told himself quite firmly: Next time, no anchovy paste.