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Crystal Structures

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The Xeryon

 

What Do We Really Know About This Race of Spacefarers?

an essay by D. I. Morron (professor of archaeology at Earth University)

 

Soon after mankind crossed interplanetary space in the mid-twenty-first century and founded its first colonies on planets outside the Solar System, we stumbled upon the remnants of an obviously ancient and widely spread spacefaring race on many of the worlds where mankind set foot. That race was the Xeryon, who left behind few but very characteristic buildings and artifacts our scientists failed to understand at the time.

During the past two years of increased space exploration and because of our scientific exchange program with our League allies, especially the historians of Andor, our knowledge of the Xeryon improved dramatically.

If you asked one of my honored colleagues today about the Xeryon and our knowledge of them, you would most likely learn many fascinating facts, such as that

  • Traces of the Xeryon have been found on planets as far apart as Cheops (near Tarkon and the border with Tortuna) and Ozark (in the Empty Zone).
  • Their culture was highly developed and based on ideas close to the ancient Greek concepts of direct democracy, a system possible because of their sophisticated communication and information networks. The acquisition and preservation of information and knowledge was considered the most valuable aspect of culture, a value expressed not only by their worship of teachers and students, but also by the fact that the planetographical coordinates of the main library on their homeworld can be found in beautiful symbols as part of the decoration on almost all their crystal artifacts.
  • Their buildings are made of a kind of concrete our engineers so far cannot reproduce. The material appears to be a type of glass, but with a nature similar to our permacrete.

An exhaustive list of these facts would fill many issues of this journal, but more interesting is what we do not know about the ancient Xeryon.

First, “ancient Xeryon” is a misnomer. The Andorians had their last contact with them in historic times less than two hundred years ago.

Secondly, many people today believe that the Xeryon were the ancestors or at least a kind of ‘evolutionary driver’ of the Andorian evolution and development. However, that opinion is entirely incorrect. Just as we are, the Andorians are the result of a long and complicated evolutionary process on their home planet in which they went through prehistoric and historic epochs just like we did until they reached their current level of development. There is no hint that an earlier species developed before or during their evolution, and there is certainly no hint of any external factors in their development until they learned to travel the stars. Another piece of evidence for their independent evolution is that there are no connections between Andorian and Xeryon technology. The Andorian scientists do not understand Xeryon crystal technology any better than our human scientists do.

Thirdly, the Xeryon disappeared suddenly about two hundred years ago. Even the Andorians, who during that era had sporadic contacts with them in space, never learned what happened to them.

Finally, and most importantly, we still do not know their homeworld. We learned a great deal about their technology from the remnants, artifacts, inscriptions, and frescoes they left behind on their various colony worlds, but the coordinates of their homeworld with its glorious library in the middle of the huge capital were never found. It is widely believed among my honored colleagues that the Xeryon considered their homeworld so well known that they never thought of writing its coordinates down anywhere. A rumor still circulates that they are an extragalactic species, but again no hint or proof of that theory is available.... [...]

[League Scientific, 2087-10-28, pp. 129876]


 

2088

 

 

University of Earth

Archaeological Faculty

Room 313

 

“Please, let it be the same result… the same result…” The small, almost delicate-looking elderly man clasped his hands together frantically then shoved them through the white hair around the bald patch on the back of his head. If the astronomical coordinates based on the maps from the second artifact matched the first set of coordinates, he’d be able to raise the funds for an expedition to the lost homeworld of the Xeryon for which he’d been looking for so long.

The console beeped. A row of numbers blinked in honey-colored yellow. He stared at them then compared them with the set from the last calculations. He almost couldn’t believe it: the same!

All he had to do now was enter this set of coordinates with appropriate error tolerances into the program he’d written to translate Xeryon coordinates into the current system. He typed fast, yet double-checking every keystroke. His pointer finger wavered slightly above the Enter key. One last keystroke and he would know the planet where he had to search for the remnants of the glorious ancient spacefarer race to which he’d dedicated his scientific career. He tapped the key. It was…

He froze as he read the name that blinked to the right of the six numbers. His assistant, looking over his shoulder, finally said aloud what Prof. Morron only dared to think:

“Holy shit!”

 

 

2088-07-18

 

 

BetaMountain

Cmdr. Walsh’s Office

 

“Thank you for sparing the time for me on short notice, Commander.” The president of the University of Earth, Dr. Paul Aubéry, took a seat in the chair in front of Walsh’s desk. “I don’t want to make more out of this affair than absolutely necessary, but I fear that one of our most respected professors, Dorian Immanuel Morron, has done something really stupid.”

“What’s his specialty?”

“He’s an archaeologist. Brilliant in his field, and his lectures on the Xeryon space race are among the most popular at our institute. But he lives in an ivory tower regarding anything but his research.”

“And why are you here?”

Aubéry sighed. “Morron organized an expedition to an unimportant site on Cheops. Two weeks ago, he left Earth together with sixteen final-year students in one of the university’s vessels, but they never arrived on Cheops.”

“There could have been an engine malfunction or some other problem. Your vessels aren’t among the newest, Doctor.”

“We’ve already thought of that, Commander. We checked their route thoroughly according to the flight plan they handed in. It looks as if Morron’s expedition wasn’t actually headed for Cheops.” Aubéry laid his hands on the edge of Walsh’s desk. “For that reason, I had Morron’s office and lab opened up and his computer scanned. I’m here because we discovered a set of coordinates that belongs to a world beyond Cheops.”

“Cheops is almost on the border.” Walsh frowned. “What coordinates did your people find?”

Aubéry handed him a small printout.

Walsh didn’t have to check the coordinates. These he would recognize even drunk and sound asleep. “All right, Doctor. They are in trouble.” Walsh laid the note aside and stood up. “I’ll see to it, immediately.”

“That’s what I hoped for.” Aubéry shook hands with him. “Thank you.”

 

 

2088-07-22

 

 

Planet Nebraska

Public Landing Field

Bay 11

 

Niko slung her bag over her shoulder. The pedulont vessel was already waiting.

This was an unpleasant job and the first mission after her return from 17798[1]. A solo mission no less: her colleagues had all been sent to different locations. Goose had been the last to go. He’d gotten a mission on an outskirts planet with a name she couldn’t recall. She had the strong feeling that Walsh had given her this job mostly because she was the only Series-5 Ranger available, and not, as he’d said, because she knew the initiator of this nonsense personally.

Professor… What on Earth made you do this? She shook her head and looked ahead at the battered ship. Its captain was waiting for her next to the main lock. She sighed.

After the Battle of Tarkon, BETA had been ordered not to provoke the Queen under any circumstances because the BWL, supported by the superior League Council, wanted to rebuild the lost ships before they ended up in another quarrel with the Tortunian armada. As if the Queen would have any regard for what we do or don’t do. All that counts for her are victims for her Psychocrypt to keep her supplied with slaverlords. But the order had been given, and it took a lot of administrative work — and luck — for Commander Walsh to get official permission for jobs on Tortuna these days.

And that was why Niko had to take a smelly pedulont vessel with a bad-tempered captain to go and bring her old archaeology professor and sixteen of his students back into League space, hopefully in their own vessel. “Don’t you dare leave evidence or an Andorian hyperdrive behind” had been the exact words with which the commander dismissed her.

She had had almost no time to prepare for this mission: just fifteen minutes to leave a note for Shane, telling him they’d have to reschedule their plans for the weekend. Tightening her fingers around the shoulder strap of her bag, she wished she’d had time to deal with the frightening feelings he’d begun to trigger in her.

Her cheeks still flamed at the memory of their last encounter[2]. She still didn’t understand what had driven her to do what she’d done. She’d been thinking about how her life should go on from now on and had ended up in his arms, playing with his claws, his fangs, tempting the wolf within, outside where anybody could see…

She knew desire, even lust. Her psionic powers had ensured that. You couldn’t be a telepath as strong as she was without being confronted with these strongest of emotions. But this…

She felt helpless. Niko ground her teeth and grimly expelled the thoughts from her mind, increasing her pace. The pedulont captain seemed pretty impatient by now.

 

 

Planet Tortuna

Capital Space Port

Landing Platform 3

 

Niko sat in the rear freight bay and checked her equipment one last time. As if I could change anything if something were wrong now. Weapons; supplies of food and water; sun protection; money for bribes in case she’d come too late and the archaeologists were already psychocrystallized, in which case she’d need their pedulont contacts in Tortuna City to leave the planet; her parachute... Everything’s okay.

“Touchdown in less than five standard minutes,” came the rough voice of the pedulont freighter captain, Prodush, via intercom. “I’ll open both freight bay locks. You’ll have about two minutes to disappear. How you manage not to get caught by Her Majesty’s soldiers isn’t my business. If you’re seen I shoot you as a stowaway. Clear?”

“Clear, Prodush,” Niko answered. She put on her parachute and tightened the straps, then attached her bag with the snaplinks and waited.

A screeching bump rolled through the ship as the vessel touched ground. The lock mechanism began to hum. The pedulont’s final sentence surprised her: “Good luck, humming.”

 

I must be insane. She jumped down the three meters from the second rear lock to the permacrete. From the side of the vessel facing the city dome, the heavy footsteps of armored crowntroopers approached. There were about ten meters crumbling concrete between Prodush’s ship and the huge pit swallowing most of Tortuna City’s effluent.

“Somethin’ aboard Her Majesty’d like?” grumbled an electronically distorted voice on the other side of the ship.

“Nope, nothin’ but the order’d scrap metal,” came Prodush’s rasping answer.

Niko rolled to her feet and ran for the edge, diving in a long jump into the abyss. BASE jumping on Tortuna. Wonder if it’s as illegal here as it would be on Earth.

She pulled the ripcord, and prayed for an updraft to carry her closer to the opposite shore when the unfolding parachute cut her free fall. She’d have to climb up the steep rock face, and swimming half of the lake first wouldn’t help with that.

The surprisingly warm updraft came.

And she wished it hadn’t. Its smell seemed designed to work as tear gas, meat tenderizer, and anesthetic gas all at once. When her eyes cleared she saw why: the lake below her glittered in silver and brown — not because of its clear water and muddy ground, but because of mercury and the collected sewage and effluents of the metropolis above. Huge pipes ended in the rock face below Tortuna City and no wastewater treatment plant was in sight.

Tortuna sewage disposal plant number one, Niko thought grimly, readjusting the lines of her parachute while coughing. Hitting the wall on the other side would be better than dropping into that. Throw it in and forget about it!

 

She landed smoothly on the narrow strip of dry land at the foot of the opposite face, almost breathless because of the stink, and counted herself lucky not to have to roll. The level of the disposal lake was obviously higher at times — the ground was covered with things she didn’t want to examine too closely. The last of her momentum slammed her against the rocks. Niko felt the skin at her elbows and on one knee abrade. She ignored it.

Her parachute had splashed into the poisoned water behind her. She cut the lines and began pulling it out when she noticed that the slop had started to dissolve the silk. Okay, then. She shrugged and threw it back in, shoving the last parts in with her boot. Best way to leave no evidence. She shuddered slightly — it was not a pleasant thought that she’d almost fallen into that soup — and looked up the cliff she had to climb, preferably immediately. She didn’t want to know what the gases evaporating from the effluent next to her would do to her lungs if she breathed them for too long.

Unpleasant mission doesn’t fit, Commander, she thought grimly, recalling her briefing. Shit mission is better! She ground her teeth as she chalked her hands and prepared to climb into the cliff. First BASE jumping, now free climbing... I’m becoming a specialist in extreme sports.

 

 

Planet Tortuna

a five-hour walk from the city

 

Niko looked at her compass and rechecked the coordinates where the university vessel was supposed to be. She looked ahead, screening her eyes against the brilliant, burning bright light of Tortuun, a star more powerful than Sol above a planet with a thinner ozone layer than Earth.

Another plain of glassy concrete that had melted and solidified again was lying ahead, waiting to be crossed. These bowls, as the few natives who dared to travel the area called them because of their almost perfectly round shape, had once been the streets, plazas, and buildings of the capital of a huge star empire, bigger than the Crown Empire or the League. But heavy orbital plasma bombardment had turned the metropolis into a glass desert with flat plains disrupted only by the circular walls of impact craters.

Nobody knew how much time had passed since the bombardment. The scars of plasma fire lasted for eternity and would be erased only together with the planet bearing them. The bombardment could have happened a hundred or a thousand years ago; the place would look the same today: bowls of glass, surrounded by ridges of less-melted material where sometimes the ruins of ancient buildings were almost recognizable. Sometimes the glass even carried the shadow of a person unfortunate enough to be around at the time that specific bomb had struck: burned into the glass, a witness to eternities…

Niko slid down into the next bowl. This one was even deeper and the glass walls on the other side seemed to rise higher into the sky. The bomb must have hit at a deeper point, concentrating its energy and creating a deeper, more compact crater. But it wasn’t deep enough to provide shade for a sunburned wanderer, and the glassy surface of the ground, polished by wind-driven glass sand, reflected the sunlight, almost doubling the amount of radiation that hit her.

Niko wiped the sweat off her forehead and pulled her hat with its thick, muffling veil further over her face. A glance at her watch told her that she still had half an hour to walk before her next mouthful of water. She’d been to Tortuna often enough to know that thirst was as dangerous out here as the Crown troopers were. And it was possible that she’d have to return to the capital the same way, in case the expedition members were caught and psychocrystallized already.

She ground her teeth and felt sand grains between them. Even the thick Zangwell mufti didn’t protect enough against the glass sand that — together with the silhouettes melted into the glass walls — had given this part of the desert its name: Glassy Graves.

 

Cautiously Niko continued toward the far side of the bowl. She was close to the target coordinates discovered in Morron’s university office now. Something reached her ears. She frowned, listened carefully and went on, slowly climbing across the glassy rubble. Reaching the next ridge, she hesitated. Listened. Couldn’t believe what she heard.

 

…I got it one piece at a time

and it didn’t cost me a dime…

 

Johnny Cash?! On Tortuna?! At that volume?! They wouldn’t be insane enough to— Niko snorted and increased her speed. What was she thinking? They were insane enough for it! They had been insane enough to go on an archaeological expedition to Tortuna!

“Okay, folks. Galaxy Ranger! This folly is over!”

A few of the people, brushing dust off small artifacts and sorting lots of blue crystal tubes marked with tiny symbols, looked up. She recognized some of the faces from Morron’s lectures; some of them, she thought of almost as friends. Her eyes narrowed when she recognized Ayse Attalan and Katsumi Nakawa. Together with Jamie[3], the four of them had been a close-knit group, staying in contact with her even after she had joined the Ranger Academy. Their contact had lessened only after Niko had become a Series-5 ranger and had been more and more off planet. And Sven Masterson, who’d flirted with her most of the final year of her archaeological studies, Mike, Leonora, Nikita…

She shook her head. She’d believed all of them smart enough to know better than this! The rest were younger, likely final-year students from Morron’s current class, but still—

“Niko. Is that you?” The professor, eager as usual, approached her from one side and smiled broadly. “Good that you’re here. I hoped that they’d send you.”

“Professor, you are subject to arrest for violating the League Law, paragraph 58 and additions,” Niko told him coldly. “This is a prohibited planet.” She turned around and shouted at the student nearest the screaming music player: “TURN THAT OFF! NOW!! — And a more-than-dangerous planet,” she said into the following silence.

“Oh sure, Niko. Sure…” Morron patted her arm and shuffled past her towards one of the tables, which held an assortment of various artifacts, meticulously numbered and tagged with small RFIDs. “But you have to have a look at this.”

“All of you are risking not only your own lives but those of millions of others. If the Queen gets to you, you’ll be put in the psychocrypt and your life force will be transferred into a holographic warrior to be used against the League. Against your homeworlds. And—”

The professor clapped his hands and looked sternly at his students. “Please, people. Don’t waste precious daylight. We have supplies for only three months and there’s a lot of work to be done.”

Flabbergasted, Niko watched the other members of the expedition going back to their work. Some of them giving her apologetic smiles first, but they still turned their backs. “As an official representative of the League Force I have to bring you and your expedition back into League space. Immediately.”

             “Oh…” Morron looked up and blinked at her through his dust-covered glasses. “But we won’t leave, Niko. This is far too important to—”

“I am authorized to use appropriate force to fulfill my order, Professor. And I will do it. So stop this nonsense and pack up. We are leaving as soon as possible.”

“Niko… Niko… Niko…” Morron shook his head. “You should really have a look at the discoveries—”

“That includes the application of physical force—”

“You’ll need at least two of us to get this baby off the ground.” Sven —blond, in his twenties but not grown up— interrupted her, grinned, and patted the hull of the ship that formed one side of the excavation camp. Niko ground her teeth. “So you can’t stun us all. And you obviously need the ship to bring us away from here. So you can’t blow it up either.”

“Sven’s completely right about that.” Morron continued his work as if she hadn’t said anything, entering descriptions and registration codes for the blue crystalline artifacts aligned on the table into the datapadd he used to scan the ID tags attached to them.

“That doesn’t apply to the excavation site itself.” Niko unclipped a thermal detonator from her belt. “If you don’t follow my orders I’ll be forced to—” She unlocked the safety latch and showed the activated LEDs.

“Niko.” Professor Morron looked up from his work and smiled warmly. None of the others took any notice of her. “We all know as well as you do that you’d never be able to do that — to destroy one of the most important findings about the Xeryon ever made. So stop this nonsense, and have a look at these crys—”

“Professor, you already have to face trial for entering enemy territory and bringing others into danger. Please, be sensible and don’t add resisting arrest to the charges.”

“Niko.” Morron finally came around the table and answered her in a very calm and serious voice: “We don’t care about political or military regulations, but we are not stupid. All of us know that by coming here and staying we have committed a criminal offense according to the laws of the League. I know that I will face at least five years in prison for what I’ve done and my students know that as well. All of us have heard about Tortuna in the news, and we were pretty frightened when we realized where we’d have to go. But this is the main library of the ancient Xeryon. I’m sure of it. We already discovered some of the lobbies and we are close to entering the great hall, where we expect to find the main data banks containing invaluable information about Xeryon culture, technology, and maybe even about their mysterious disappearance. We all have decided to accept our punishment. Later.” He grinned at her, almost like a schoolboy. “Once we are done, you can arrest us. We will be very well-behaved little prisoners then.”

“Professor! This isn’t a joke!”

“We know that.” Ayse, Morron’s second lab assistant and the closest friend Niko saw among the members of this tactical nightmare, joined them. “And I know that you and a lot of people at home are very, very worried and concerned about us.” Her brown eyes held Niko’s, despite knowing about Niko’s abilities. “But we have to do this. And I’m sorry that we drag you into this, but there’s no choice. You, being an archaeologist and a student of the Xeryon culture yourself, should know that better than anyone.”

Niko put her hand to her forehead in disbelief. What should she do? What could she do? She still held the thermal detonator. It seemed to vibrate in her hand. Her fingers twitched on the trigger. She was ready to throw it into the entrance to the underground library…

…and was painfully aware that Professor Morron was right: she couldn’t do it. Her job, her career, her reputation as a Ranger, and most likely her freedom — disobeying an order was a major offense, allowing civilians in Crown controlled space even more so — depended on it. But she couldn’t do it. She couldn’t destroy the Xeryon equivalent of the ancient Egyptian library of Alexandria. She simply could not. With a sigh of despair, she secured the detonator.

I’m insane, she thought — not for the first time during this mission. “I need some water and bandages, if possible. And then we have to talk about safety measures. You can’t continue like this. You are less than a hundred kilometers away from Tortuna City. It’s a miracle that you weren’t discovered and psychocrystallized by now.”

Morron accepted that with a nod. “That’s fine. Any suggestions?”

“Stop the loud music. Be silent. No lights, lasers or other energy systems outside the ship or the underground site. Especially not at night. Cover the bright areas. It’s pure luck that the ship’s hull is almost the same color as the underground. So we don’t need to add camouflage. And for heaven’s sake, put on hats and thick shirts. Tortuun is a much stronger star than Sol! Let me see your weaponry and I have to conscript some of you as guards. They’ll have to be alert around the clock, and—”

Ayse laid her hand on Niko’s shoulder. “Come into the ship, first,” she said. “You look horrible. You have to get out of the sun and get a cool shower, fresh clothes, and something to eat. And then we’ll find you a place to rest. There’s a bed in the clothes storeroom. And some sleep…”

Niko didn’t pay attention any more. She was stunned. She ached all over. She was — in more than one way — shocked. And she was horribly tired, with a throbbing headache from heat and stress and dehydration. She urgently needs a vocal cord extraction.

Niko started at her own thought.

 

 

2088-07-23

 

 

Niko woke from persistent knocking that bordered on thumping on the door. Her head still throbbed. A throbbing that increased when she remembered where she was, what she were doing, and what she had failed to do.

“Niko-san?” Katsumi asked through the door. “Would you like to join us in the mess?”

“No,” Niko answered honestly when she sat up to close the few shirt buttons she’d opened to ease her sleep. “I don’t even want to be on this planet.”

“May I come in?”

“Yes.”

The door opened into the room. The already blindingly bright early morning light of Tortuun filling the corridor revealed a big, handwritten sign taped to the door. In Ayse’s slightly curled capitals it read: “PRIVATE CABIN. RANGER. KNOCK OR GET SHOT.” Niko groaned. Whether about the sign or about the airlock being left open, she wasn’t sure.

“Are you in a better mood than yesterday?” Katsumi asked, placing a small tray with traditional green tea in small cups on the crate that served as a table.

“Does your team have a better idea of camp security than yesterday?” Niko replied caustically, before wincing at her lack of manners.

Katsumi looked back at the wide-open airlock and smiled. “I guess not.”

“Then, no, I don’t.” Niko accepted the small cup of green tea with a graceful nod.

“But we’re getting better at it,” Katsumi replied, raising her own cup. “And we’ll be done soon. The seismic analysis—”

“Seismic analysis!?” The tea cup clacked onto the tray. “Don’t tell me you used a thumper out here!”

“We had to.” Katsumi shrugged and took a sip. “We can’t drill without knowing the layout of the library. Why do you think the professor took both Mike and Leonora on this expedition? Their second field is geology. They know how to do SAs. And out here, nobody will be disturbed—”

“Nobody but the Queen,” Niko interrupted her. “I have to talk to the professor. Now. They’ll know where we are. We have to leave immediately. We—”

“I doubt they have located us,” a deep voice said from the open door, and Mike weaseled into the room. His small stature in no way matched his deep rumbling voice. “The ground is almost like a solid shell. It rang like a big saucer being pinged. Took up all our computer power and Leo’s skills to calculate the library’s structure from all that background.”

“When did you thump?” Niko asked uncomfortably.

“Yesterday, after you went to sleep.”

“They would be here already if they knew about us,” Katsumi added.

“Not necessarily,” Niko bit off. “Their chain of command isn’t the fastest. Their computers are probably slower…” She squeezed herself past the two archeologists to go and search for the professor. “You are all nuts.”

“Niko,” Mike reminded her calmly, “we are professionals. We know this is a dangerous excavation site. We aren’t insane. The geological structures kept us from being located, believe me.”

“And did you know that before you set up the thumper?” Niko looked back at him.

“No, but—”

“That’s what I thought!”

 

 

2088-07-30

 

 

BetaMountain

Cmdr. Walsh’s Office

 

“Ranger Niko is on a rescue mission for an archaeological expedition to Tortuna, Gooseman,” the commander said without any prelude when Goose came to attention in front of Walsh’s desk. “They’re six days overdue.”

Gooseman narrowed his eyes at that information. “On Tortuna, sir?”

Walsh sighed. "Yes. Go out there and find them. Bring them back, if possible; if not…”

Walsh’s face told him enough. Damage control. He ground his teeth at the unspoken order. It meant liquidating the new slaverlords and destroying captured Andorian technology. Their— Niko’s chances weren’t good.

“There’s more,” Walsh continued. “The mission’s semi-official.”

“Meaning?”

“Ranger Niko’s mission got the okay from the Board, but there’s no chance to get the approval for another Ranger on Tortuna. Your job is officially listed as part of her mission, which means no additional funds or outside channels. You’ll have to find your own way onto that planet. Ideas?”

He didn’t hesitate. “Code Meteor, sir. With one of the damaged ships.”

“Are you sure, Gooseman? It was never your specialty.”

“It’s the fastest way, sir. She’s twelve days gone, meaning ten days on Tortuna. I can do it with a fully charged implant and a good AI on the ship to maintain control till the very last moment.” He propped himself with a clenched fist on Walsh’s desk and added, “I didn’t get her through 17798 to lose her now!”

“You know that most likely you can’t do anything else but ending her slaverlord existence?”

Goose straightened. “I am aware of that, sir.”

“You’ll start immediately. Dismissed.”

He felt Walsh’s thoughtful look at his back as he left the office.

 

 

Planet Tortuna

 

“Professor, you just have to see that—” Niko clenched her hands into fists on the small table in the mess of the university vessel.

“Niko, I do understand that you want to leave here at all costs. But the opening of the great library is coming up. It’s impossible for us to leave here now.” He shrugged. “But you can go without us. Don’t let us keep you.”

Professor!!!” She slammed her fists on the table and jumped up. “That’s not the problem and you know it! You’re not just dense, you’re moronic!” She threw her hands up. “This is ridiculous! I need to get out of here!” She shoved the person behind her aside and stormed out of the room.

“Wow,” the tall man said, impressed, and looked after her with a smile, growing more and more interested. “I didn’t know that Nikki had such a temper. — Ayse, you think I’d have a chance with her now?”

“Not if you want to keep your head on your shoulders, Sven,” the second lab assistant answered dryly. “This is likely going to cost Niko the job she loves, and you are part of the problem. She’s not in the mood to see your positive features right now." After a moment, she added with a grin, “After all, she didn’t see them four years ago, so they aren’t that easy to find. If there are any, that is.”

 

 

2088-07-31

 

 

“Tell me when they come, ALMA. Continuous scan. Keep the extrapolated point of impact as close as possible to the given coordinates.” Goose ground his teeth, concentrating for the transformation. He hated Code Meteor. Hated it deeply. Had hated it at Wolf Den: whenever Meteor was on the training schedule he’d known he was in trouble.

=Coordinates checked. Point of impact localized, Goose,= ALMA’s calm electronic voice said. =Crown fighters approaching.=

“Thanks. See you when you’re reprogrammed.”

=I’m only a copy, Goose. Luck.=

“Luck.” He took a deep breath, pressed the small titanium case with his light replacement clothes to his stomach, and reached for his badge.

Code Meteor.

The protective cocoon of energy enclosed him. He transformed his body into a ball, enclosed the case in his center, working frantically at the layers necessary to protect him. He didn’t have much time: the protective energy cocoon lasted up to thirty seconds. The transformation had to be complete when it collapsed — or else…

The surface: a thin layer of Neutronium, using up most of his body tissue, so even a direct collision wouldn’t crack the ball. The second layer he formed out of a titanium-ceramics, protecting him against heat and deformation during fall and impact. The rest became the life-supporting parts: heart, lungs, brain, bloodstream… all intertwined with titanium struts to further stabilize the ball and keep the case enclosed in it in a steady position. It wouldn’t do to have his innards crushed by his luggage!

The explosion ripped the ship apart and threw him down toward the planet.

 

“Hey, people, look at this!” One of the sentries called out pointing away from the camp.

Expecting the Crown attack she’d been waiting for, Niko grabbed her blasters and ran, looking for the danger in the direction Mike indicated. She stared with narrowed eyes at the landscape, searching for the approaching deathsteeds, and saw nothing. She was just about to ask when she finally discovered what Mike meant: a shower of shooting stars high up in the still-bluish morning sky. Before long, Tortuun would bleach the blue with its heat into burning white and the color of molten metal. “And for this you call an emergency?” she hissed furiously at him. “You idiot!” She turned on her heel and marched back into camp.

Ayse and the professor had asked her early this morning if she would help position the lasers for cutting the final entrance into the great hall. Their scatterbrained seismic analysis had detected it behind the opposite wall of the small lobby they had already excavated before she’d arrived.

Niko sighed deeply. Furious about the situation as she was, it was better to do something, or it wouldn’t take long and she’d be a bigger danger than the Queen for these fools. She’d almost pistol-whipped Mike with her blaster for his mistake. At least, the earlier they had access to the actual library, the earlier she would get them off Tortuna.

 

Shane woke with the bright midday sun burning on his bare back. His charge had run out while he was still unconscious. His head throbbed and his throat felt as if he’d chewed sand. That and the sensation of severe sunburn on his back and legs told him, he’d been out for quite a while. He propped his arms on the ground and pushed himself into a sitting position. His eyes narrowed to mere slits against the scorching sun as he searched for the titanium case. It lay only a half meter away. He pulled it close and swore as the sun-heated metal burned his palms when he opened it. He swallowed the small amount of water in the case and pulled on his clothes, grinding his teeth when the rough UV-blocking cloth touched his burned skin.

Wonderful, Shane, he thought sarcastically. Of all transformations, you had to volunteer for the  only one that Ryker really does better than you!

He slung his weapon belt around his hips, pulled on the light boots, and staggered to his feet, ignoring the intensified heat-induced headache. If his sense of direction was right, he had a march of about an hour ahead.

 

Hell, that was a close shave! If he hadn’t spotted the sentry on the opposite wall as he prepared to climb down into the bowl, he’d have crossed the wide bowl instead of circling it around the ridge — and the Crown trooper patrol would have surprised either him or the group to which the guard belonged. Goose tucked the severed head of one of the Crown soldiers under his arm, and marched on. Maybe he could finagle the current com frequency of the Crown soldiers out of the helmet systems.

 

Ayse released her held breath silently. She’d watched the fierce fight down at the edge of the plain, but hadn’t dared to call the camp. Any sound could draw attention to them — Niko had been adamant about that — and there’d been no way to leave her post without being in plain sight of the fighters: Crown soldiers and a single man on foot.

She frowned. The dust whirling up in huge clouds cut off her vision. A breeze cleared it a moment later and the lone wanderer had disappeared, leaving all the soldiers dead on the ground. If not for the corpses, she’d believe she’d dreamt the whole thing, but—

 

The guard turned out to be a human woman, at least as far as he could tell: she wore a huge straw hat, and a dark shawl covered her face. Her red blouse had given her away. The color almost glowed in Tortuun’s brilliant light.

A tiny shard skidded under his boots. She started and grabbed for a blaster in her lap.

“No need,” Goose said dryly in a voice rasping from thirst. “If I were your enemy you’d be dead by now.” He noticed that she stared at the head under his arm and grinned cruelly. “Friend of mine. And speaking of friends,” he growled, growing dead-serious, “where are the idiots?”

“What— Who—”

“Where?!” he snapped, running out of patience. She simply pointed down into the next bowl. Goose tapped at his temple as if laying a finger on the brim of a hat in an ironical gesture of greeting, and stalked past her.

 

“Oh, you mean Niko.” The old guy he’d grabbed by the sleeve to get his full attention smiled warmly at him. “She’s at the excavation site. In the great Xeryon library. Really!” The dodderer pointed at the opening in the slope behind them. “She’s a great help with her powers, Mr.—?”

Ranger Gooseman,” he growled.

“You see,” the professor continued, following him, “without your colleague’s help we wouldn’t have come half as far as we—”

“All that’s here are wannabe-slaverlords!” Gooseman interrupted him with a clearly audible click of fangs. “And if you don’t pack your shit to get the hell out of Dodge, I’ll blow your damn X-library to orbit!” He left the annoying idiot behind and headed with long furious strides for the entrance to the underground site.

 

The first few meters were the characteristic round tunnel left behind by a laser ablation driller. What followed were narrow, interconnected corridors and small chambers filled with rubble. Whatever they contained at the time the plasma bombs fell from the sky had been destroyed by the heat or shattered by the seismic shocks. Nevertheless, the expedition team had meticulously marked and mapped all of it. Small position markers stuck everywhere, allowing for precise, one-to-one holographic rendering of the location once the raw data had been processed. The round, barrel-like holo-droid with “R2D2” written in bright pink lacquer on its bulk and a note “look but don’t touch” taped to its top, slowly wheeled around recording everything.

The library itself had been partially underground and thus suffered less damage than the upstairs facilities. Its cavernous hall slowly filled with an increasingly detailed color holograph… of itself. The archeologists moved like ghosts through it, placing notes and markers, sticking RFIDs to artifacts they were going to wrap up and take with them. Not before marking their position in the hologram, not before expanding the hologram to the place where the artifact had previously been, incorporating the information of the artifacts’ interiors into the main hologram. Thus, the countless lots of crystal holders placed into neat shelves — where those shelves hadn’t been shattered, that was — were slowly but surely added to the database, each crystal getting a unique RFID and its ID number, description, and location being marked both in the hologram and in the corresponding database.

Later, they would recreate the whole site in one of the holographic chambers at the University of Earth — after they got out of jail that was. Then she’d be able to tour the site without looking over her shoulder for slaverlords. If she was still welcome on Earth, that was.

Niko wasn’t too sure about the latter. She carefully extricated another lot out of a hexagonal shelf place and attached small, orange RFIDs to each of its six blue crystal poles. Numbers 578 to 584. She studied their end faces briefly, then knelt to take detail holos of the engraved symbols—

“Do you have any idea what you’re doing?”

The calm voice, carrying only a slight hint of suppressed anger, made her jump. “Shane?” she asked warily, her hand at her weapon. The other archeologists around her had frozen.

“If it weren’t me it would have been this thug!" The severed head of a Crown trooper, helmet still attached, landed next to her with a thump. “In case you forgot: this is Tortuna.”

“Crown troopers!” Niko jumped to her feet, scrambling over the countless hologram projector-recorders that marked the actual front line like a surreal robot army, as Goose came out of the colored veils of the hologram. “Where?”

“No five minutes from here.” He stopped her with a hard arm around her waist. “Don’t worry. I did a very thorough job of it.”

She tried to push herself off him. “Did they send a message?”

“Unlikely. It was a very deep bowl and we were close to the walls.” He grinned cynically. “And there was a hyperdrive explosion in orbit that should jam Queenie’s comm satellites for twenty-four hours.”

“A hyperdrive explosion…,” she repeated slowly then stared at him in shock. “The meteor shower this morning. That was you, wasn’t it?”

“Let’s say, me — and the sad remnants of Explorer-38.” He pulled her close. “So now, if you don’t mind, I’d like an explanation for what’s going on here.” There was a faint growl in his voice that she felt almost as a vibration in her bones. “You know, it’s always great fun to fall flat on your face — from orbit.”

Niko sighed, straightening out of his hold. “I failed to force the professor and his students to leave.” She said it plainly. “I tried everything short of blowing up the site itself.” She lowered her head, admitting defeat. “I— I couldn’t do it. I wish I could have.”

He nodded. “We are taking off tomorrow when Tortuun is behind us from the capital.”

“What do you plan?”

“To blow this shit up if we aren’t gone by midday.”

“Shane, these findings are among the greatest—”

“These findings are on Tortuna,” he snarled at her, “and what’s not packed up when we leave will stay on Tortuna! The Queen will miss that decommissioned patrol and we’re sitting ducks out here with a bunch of loonies.” Grabbing the trooper’s head off the ground, he headed back through the tunnel with her. “Are there tools in that wreck they call a ship?” he asked. “I want Queenie’s com frequency in case we have to haul ass early.”

 

“Whoa.” Sven snatched the Crown trooper helmet off the table after Shane had gone to adjust their communicator to the Crown frequency. “After reading that documentary in Roving Stars I always wondered what it’s like to wear one!” He held it up with both hands.

“There’s only a small problem with that,” Goose’s dry voice came from behind. He emerged from the ship with a mug of water and a shovel.

Niko looked up from aligning blue crystals on one of the long tables and packing them into narrow boxes. “I thought you got the frequency already.”

“What problem?” Sven started to put it on. “It looks to be just my siz—” He screamed and dropped it.

“Its original owner is still using it.” Goose swished another sip of water around in his dry mouth.

“You mean you didn’t…?” Niko began to snicker helplessly.

“Nope. — Hey, beachboy!” Goose tossed the shovel over to where Sven was heaving. “Since you guys like digging so much, you bury it.”

“Shane, you’re impossible,” Niko whispered when he joined her, watching Sven picking up the head — together with its helmet — with a lot less enthusiasm than before to bury it outside the camp. She giggled.

Goose watched her silently in the growing darkness. Niko, laughing about a severed head, about the nausea someone weaker than them felt about touching it? He frowned and almost jumped when she suddenly took his arm, leaning into him. He felt her breath on his cheek as she whispered, “You’re so serious. We can’t do anything now. Whatever we do, we can only do it tomorrow.” Her scent found its way into his perception a second before he felt her lips touching his. Her arms slipped up around his neck. “We can do nothing in the darkness during the night.” She breathed it against his lips. It felt as if she was smiling. Or was he? He didn’t know for sure any longer. Her body touched his full length. Her words weren’t true. There was something to… had been something to…

“Or at least almost nothing.”

The nature of her scent changed, became intimate… inviting… Her lips closed again over his, signing the promise. She made a small, dancing step back, luring, tempting him into the ship, into the cabin with the note on the door. He recognized the smell of her in it, on the clothes in the open locker, on the sheets. Her hands slipped under his shirt, onto his skin, opened the magnetic clasps slowly, one by one. Her lips touched the skin of his chest. What was with her? This—

…Shhhhh… her thoughts whispered in his mind. …Don’t you know? The desire that comes from danger. No one can resist it all the time, it’s too strong…

Mental tendrils soothed his wariness, erased his alarm at the unasked mental contact and his already weakened resistance against the sensual attraction of her as she glided out of her clothes in front of him. She touched him again. Her hands pushed his shirt down his arms, whisking across the last remnants of sunburn on his back before slipping it down and tugging at his pants. She leaned back, sank down onto the narrow bed. He followed her, his hand on her spine, fingertips vibrating on her skin. He breathed her in, soaring in her presence beneath him—

Her nails tore across his back, making him arch back in reflex. He saw his face reflected in the violet darkness of her eyes, widened at the choked sound of pain coming from deep in his throat.

 

 

2088-08-01

 

 

The sounds of the archaeological team going about their morning routine echoed through the crowded vessel, waking Niko. Her body throbbed with the dull exhaustion of exaggerated physical satisfaction. Her hair was tangled beneath her, some strands caught in the buttons of the pillow. She freed her hands from the twisted sheet to untangle her hair and froze, staring at the dark marks around her wrists. It looked like she’d been held down violently by a vise clamped far too tightly around her wrists. The soft sheet whispered down her bare skin, revealing more dark marks on her ribs below her breasts and on her inner thighs when she sat up.

What happened?

She shivered, dizzy and shocked. She was alone.

Glimpses of memory arose in her mind: hands on her skin, fangs flashing in the darkness above her face; her body tense, her hands on his wet back, her teeth at his throat. He had caught her wrists in one hand and pressed them to the bed high above her head, forcing her to stretch beneath him, writhing against him, her legs finding no hold on the smooth cloth…

It was the first time he’d used his strength against her.

She pulled her legs close, slung her arms around them, hid her face against her knees, and cowered shivering in the middle of the rumpled bed.

Shane. Why?

Then she noticed the blood.

Long, dark streaks on the sheet, nearly drawing her silhouette.

And remembered.

His.

She had wounded him. Had left him no chance to resist, but to give in.

And he was the one with the fangs.

She erased the light, not wanting to see the results of her excesses. Darkness wouldn’t help, but it would cover until she regained her balance, until—

The narrow door to the corridor opened. She would always recognize his silhouette. He moved soundlessly into the room, warily. It seemed he didn’t want to disturb her. As if there were anything left of her that wasn’t already disturbed. “Shane, I’m sorry,” she whispered into the darkness after the door had closed, erasing the light again.

“It doesn’t matter,” came the calm answer.

“It does matter. I hurt you.” She clenched her hands around the sheet, suppressing a sob. “Shane. I— I don’t know what happened.”

“You lost control.” He said it patiently, as if she were a child who didn’t understand.

Cloth rustled in the dark. A choked sound from him eroded her nerves. “Light!” she ordered harshly — and pressed her hand to her mouth in shock. The cold white light of the diodes revealed long, bloody gashes in his back, still dark red despite his bio defenses working on them. The wounds matched the dark streaks on the shirt in his hands. “I’m so sorry,” she whispered, choked.

“I said it doesn’t matter.” Standing in front of the lockers, he looked briefly over his shoulder at her, before he pulled a new shirt from the locker, wincing slightly as he pulled it on. “It’s healing.” He closed the locker and turned back for the door. “I wouldn’t have come, but the shirts are all here.”

“But your back—!”

He turned at her cry — and her eyes widened at the sight of four deep scratches across his left cheek. Her lips trembled, but no words came.

He saw it. “It doesn’t matter,” he repeated and added quietly with his hand already lying on the door lock, “You’ve got a problem, girl, but I’m not it.” The door closed behind him.

 

Niko felt more than uncomfortable when she joined the archaeologists in the mess hall. She’d buttoned her uniform shirt tightly, had pulled the sleeves as far down as possible to hide the bruises at her wrists, but she still felt exposed. Guilty. Because she was.

But she couldn’t hide any longer. They would take off in the early afternoon when Tortuun stood in contra-direction to Tortuna City, hopefully blinding the Crown sensors during the first part of their ascension through atmosphere. She had to make sure that the professor and the others had their findings packed by then. Shane would do anything to get them off planet, no discussions. She dug her nails into her palms. He was right: it was pure luck that they hadn’t been discovered so far.

The room was crowded. Usually she was among the first here, to get her morning tea and save herself a comfortable chair before all the others gathered in the narrow room. “Good morning, Niko,” Professor Morron greeted her, pointing at the empty stool at the bar next to him.

She shoved herself past Mike, Lawrence, and Katsumi and sat, careful that her sleeves didn’t show her wrists. She managed a smile for her old teacher. “Professor.”

“Niko, it’s great. We just scanned the second side tunnel and discov—”

“Professor.”

“—ered that there’s another room — most likely a second archive cabinet! If we finish the mapping of the anterooms today, we’ll be able to move the holo—”

“Professor!” Niko raised her voice to cut in. She was aware that everyone else in the room stared at her. “Professor, I’m sorry. But we must do what we should have done fourteen days ago: pack up and leave. My colleague is right when he says we’ve pushed our luck already!”

“But I thought you’d talk with him about—”

She shook her head impatiently. “Professor, he wants us to leave. He won’t accept any argument for staying. And I won’t either.

Morron gave her a soft smile. “And? He wouldn’t destroy the most important archeological discovery of the Millennium, would he?”

Niko stared at him. “Professor, I’m the one who couldn’t do that — and I should have done it two weeks ago — but he will do it without a doubt.”

The professor looked at her closely, obviously seeing the truth in her face, because he started and leaped to his feet, clapping his hands. “People, we have to wrap the second row of crystals, then, if we…” He shushed a group of chewing students out of the mess hall, scrambling after them muttering to himself.

“You don’t mean that seriously, do you, Nikki?” Sven took the professor’s vacated stool. “It’s an irreplaceable site and—” He reached for the milk pitcher and knocked against her glass of instant juice. She caught it hastily to prevent it from falling. He winked at her, grinning knowingly. “I saw you two yesterday. Don’t tell me that you can’t convince him to—”

“Sven, please—”

“Gods, Nikki!” He jumped up and stared at her hand on the juice glass. “What has the bastard done to you?!”

She followed his look. Her sleeve had slipped up her arm as she caught the glass. “Nothing. Don’t—” she stuttered hastily, pulling it back down.

“I’ll tear him to pieces!”

“It’s none of your business!” Niko determinedly blocked his way.

That assh—”

“Sven Masterson! Watch your language and stop making a fool of yourself!” Ayse pushed herself past him and took her stand next to Niko. “She’s right. It’s none of your business if she doesn’t want to make it your business.”

“You haven’t seen her arm. It looks as if—”

“As if it’s none of your business,” Ayse laid a protective arm around Niko, who twitched at the sudden contact. “She’s like my sister. And my family is very important to me. You don’t want to bother my sister by choice, do you?” She raised a questioning brow. “If that man hurt her, I’ll hand him his balls on a platter, but you,” her brown eyes glared at him, “get out of our way. Now!” She pushed Niko out towards the cabin she used as her workspace and slammed the door shut, before urging Niko down on the chair at the small table. “Sven can be such an idiot.” She said into the awkward silence, then pulled Niko’s hands over to her. “Let me see.”

“You mustn’t—”

“Shhh.” Ayse examined Niko’s wrists quickly. “That’s not as bad as it looks. Do you have other injuries?”

“No.” Niko pulled her sleeves back down. “Please. You mustn’t think that he—”

“What I think isn’t important,” Ayse said firmly. “Whatever happened between the two of you, I’m sure he isn’t alone responsible for it” Niko stared at her. “I saw your colleague’s face this morning,” Ayse explained wryly. “He sure as hell wasn’t in the mood to talk, but I was on guard when he arrived yesterday, and I saw him tearing off the head of deathhorse and slapping the rider to the ground with it.” She snorted. “If that man lost his temper with you, you wouldn’t be at breakfast the next day.” She sat back, watching Niko earnestly. “It was you who lost her self-control, am I right?” she asked.

Niko looked down at her wrists. The bruises were almost black next to the white uniform sleeve. “I— I don’t know why,” she answered finally. “This is such a big mess,” she shook her head helplessly, “and I hurt him. I never once—”

“Then take responsibility for it. Make sure it doesn’t happen again. Apologize.” She put a consoling hand on Niko’s shoulder. "Talk with your colleague once he’s calmed down, choose a place safe to him. If he isn’t a complete idiot, he’ll at least hear you out. After all, in the beginning there were both of you into it, weren’t you?”

Niko swallowed. If only it were that easy…

 

Niko wrapped her hands around the steaming cup of tea. The porcelain was thin, the tea still hot, and the heat began to burn her palms. Closing her hands firmer around the cup, she welcomed the pain — and began to shiver as she noticed it.

This wasn’t her. But who was this?

“Niko,” Goose’s voice came out of the intercom. “I need you on bridge for the startup check.”

 

The cockpit was dimly lit when Niko entered it. The phototropic layer of the front screen had already reacted to Tortuun’s growing intensity. Gooseman sat in the pilot seat, working on the startup checklist displayed on a small monitor in front of him. The orange-and-gold ball of an AI danced on the larger monitor between the pilot and copilot seats. It wore the rendition of a white headscarf with the snake ornament of a stereotypical pharaoh and the two eyes between the halves of the ball were outlined in the style of ancient Egyptian eye makeup. Niko shook her head. Crazy.

Gooseman nodded at her arrival without looking up. “I need your help. This corrupted heap of bytes—” he made an impatient motion with his head towards the monitor with the bopping ‘Egyptian’ AI— “calls itself ‘Ramses’, as in completely useless.”

=Hey!= The AI squeaked. =I’m named after one of the most famous—=

“Shut up or I’ll delete you!” Goose snapped and continued to Niko, “And I don’t trust these academics enough to let them have a go at the startup routines.”

“Okay. Where do you need me?”

“Engineering console. I can do pilot and copilot together, but this cockpit was designed to stay grounded.” He snorted.

She climbed into the chair behind the two pilot seats and powered up the console. With a loud beeping and flashing green and yellow lights the sticker-plastered thing came to life. “I’m online.”

“Hypershunt regulator backup systems?”

She searched for the display and made out the data in the scratched LCD screen. “Not good, but check.”

“Energy flux overflow valves?”

“Check.”

“Engine overheat warning sensor?”

“Wait a moment I’ve got to scrape off the sticker on the display.” She scratched at it with her fingernail and — after a moment — pulled out her boot knife. The way the glue had set, ‘Desperately trying to figure out why kamikaze pilots wore helmets’ had covered the display for more than a year.

“Niko.” Shane kept his voice low. He didn’t look up from the checklist. Her blade stilled on the display. “Yesterday, did you use your powers against me?” The beeping and humming of the cockpit systems only seemed to emphasize the silence between them. “I need to know. I was… trained to stay focused on the mission. On Granna I didn’t know what was coming, but this time…” She saw him shaking his head before adding quietly, “There’s no excuse for my failure.”

“I did,” she answered in a choked whisper, her hand cramping around the knife’s hilt so that her knuckles turned white. “You didn’t fail.” Goose didn’t move. The silence lengthened, seemed to slowly drain the oxygen from the room. Then it broke out of her, faint, choked, distraught, frightened: “I don’t know what happened to me, what changed my powers that much. I— I invaded your mind. I violated rules I defended all my life, rules as fundamental to my existence as breathing. On Xanadu, I’d be locked up for it, would be kept under permanent watch, maybe for the rest of my life. My powers are corrupted—”

“They don’t have to know about it,” he said with a shrug.

I violated your mental integrity, Shane!” She slumped down in her seat, defeated by her outburst. “I abused my gift. That’s unforgivable.”

He snorted. “Mustn’t be your gift, can be you.” He paused, seemed to be collecting his thoughts. “Not quite. But that shit on 17798 made stuff necessary that wasn’t part of your life before.”

“Ability and self can’t be divided,” she told him firmly. “That’s one of the biggest mistakes a telepath can make.”

 “You’d never been a hunter, yet you killed. Hunting isn’t self-defense; it’s preying on the weak, taking what you need.” He didn’t look at her, hadn’t looked at her the whole time. “What you want. It’s exhilarating to know you can win. I should know.” He snorted. “You just have to learn when it’s okay and when it isn’t.” He returned his attention to the console in front of him. “Engine overheat warning sensor?” he repeated.

“Check.” Her voice wobbled at the word.

“Coolant pressure?”

 

“Checklist complete.” Goose got up. "Keep an eye on the systems while I round up our academics and call the registered pilot for take-off. Tortuun’s almost in the perfect spot now.”

Niko stood, too. “I’ll fetch the pilot. Sven—”

Beachboy? Shit. Can’t we leave him dirtside?”

“—afraid not. The situation is bad enough without more offenses on my tab.” She swallowed. “I’ll try to talk to him. He saw my wrists and… jumped to conclusions.”

Goose replied nothing.

 

Goose found the archaeologists outside, straining to close the drill tunnel into the excavation site with rubble. “Please,” the professor blocked his path, “we know we must leave, but there’s so much left. We can’t leave it in the open. The local barbarians—”

“—will have your hide if we stay,” Goose snapped. “Now get into that ship, or—”

The old man didn’t move. “We have to seal the tunnel, ranger!”

Fuck! Goose threw a glance at Tortuun. They had to take off now or they’d be in plain sight from the city. He pushed past the professor and threw his weight against the pile of dug-out material next to the drill hole, the archeologists had begun to put shard by shard back into the tunnel. The pile wobbled, began to slip. Smaller pieces rolled into the entrance. “Move it!” he snapped, throwing himself against the heap again. Zach’s never around when his bionics are needed! He ground his teeth at pain and pushed more, the heels of his boots skidded over the ground. The pile shifted, scattered into the hole.

“Okay, that should do it.” Goose dusted off his hands. “And now get into the ship! Dammit!

“But it’s barely closed. A kid could open it again and—” one of them protested.

“I won’t shield the exhausts at take-off. You’ll need heavy equipment to get through afterwards, and Crown troopers aren’t diggers! Now move your arse or I remove it!” He tapped his wristcom the moment the ramp began to rise behind them. “I’ve got fifteen academics and a fool. You got the pilot?”

=Affirmative. The Crown channels are quiet.=

“They won’t stay that way once our engines fire up. On my way.”

 

“Leaving atmosphere.” Goose initialized the space maneuver controls and let out a deep breath. So far, so good. “Crown channels?”

“Still quiet.” Niko checked the engineering displays. “Engines are coming along. Number two is getting hot, though.”

“Ignore that. It’ll go over 200 and be fine,” Masterson told her from his position in the copilot chair. “The sensor’s been funky even before we left Earth.”

“The sensor or the engine it watches?” Goose asked grimly.

“We’re here, aren’t we?” Masterson shrugged.

“Don’t remind me.”

The old university vessel was fit for space, though about as maneuverable as a stubborn BOVO-9, and slower. Not the transport to choose when playing cat-and-mouse with the Crown. The best they could hope for was sneaking out of the Queen’s space as quietly as—

 

MY BABY, BABY, BALLA, BALLA—

 

Niko winced at the screaming music filling the cockpit.

“OFF!” Goose shouted, fangs bared, at the AI bouncing happily all over the main screen.

=We always fly with good music,= Ramses quirked indignantly, ruffling its white headscarf and re-rendering the snake ornament. =I want my passengers to be happy and—=

“That’s right, Ranger-boy,” Masterson stated smugly beside him. “Normal people prefer nicer entertainment than beating women!”

“What makes you think, I’d limit myself to women?” Goose asked, voice threateningly calm.

“Sven. Can it!” Niko snapped.

=I’m programmed to entertain—= Ramses interrupted her.

“That AI’s got to face a reprogramming with an axe,” Goose muttered, “fast and ugl—”

“Goose! Lots of talk on the Crown channels!” Niko cut in. “We’ve been spotted.”

“Shit. Tactical overlay?”

“Doesn’t exist.”

“Just great.” Goose switched the main screen to location display. Assault scanners locking in one them would cause diffuse blips on it, telling him when to dodge. “Get that fuckin’ AI of yours off the screen, dammit!” he snarled at Masterson. “How long till this bucket reaches shunt velocity?”

“Approximately twelve minutes.”

Twelve!?! Is this one of your artefacts?” His eyes darted across the front screen, filling agonizingly slow with lines marking the asteroids forming a chaotic belt between Tortuna and its star – and a dozen diffuse blips closing in on them. “Niko, strip the stabilizers and kill the safety protocols. I’ve got to fly this junk beyond all limits or we’ll see the inside of a psychocrystal.” He jammed his safety harness shut and switched on intercom. “Attach yourself to the walls, people. It’s getting exciting!”

Metal screamed just a breath later. The old university ship turned almost upside down, the old gravity generators not able to cope with the sudden change in direction as Goose forced it into a sharp turn using the nearest asteroid for a fly-by maneuver not part of any manual ever written. The straps of his harness creaked as his weight was thrown against it. The engines whined. He ignored it, flooring the pedals as far as possible, firing directional engines along with the main ones.

“Stop it!” Masterson beside him gagged. “The reactor’s gonna blow! You’ll kill us all—” He reached for the main controls. Goose’s backhand threw him back into his seat.

“How long till shunt velocity?”

“Less than a minute at our current rate of acceleration.”

“Music to my ears.” A grazing shot screamed over the starboard hull. Goose cursed and forced the old freighter into a barrel roll, preventing repeat shots. “Coordinates?”

“Calculated and set.” Niko answered. On the screen, the next asteroid came threateningly close. “We’re not jumping before hitting that one, though.”

“Nope.” Goose grinned. “But—” He fired the maneuver engines again at full throttle and the creaking ship screamed over the rough surface. Behind them, two explosions marked the pursuing Crown fighters having missed the turn. “—neither will they.”

The screen flickered, and the red streaks of hyperspace replaced the standard continuum. They’d made it. Goose flopped back in his seat, releasing the joystick and stretched. “That was fun.”

Niko opened the inter com. “We successfully entered hyperspace and are now on the way back to Earth.” She glanced at Goose and the unconscious Masterson hanging by his safety harness in the copilot seat. “You can unfasten your safety belts now.” She closed the line, and got up to check on him. “He’s going to be all right,” she said after a moment, straightening. “But we better monitor for concussion.”

Goose snorted. “Don’t you need a brain for concussions?”

“Those are in short supply around here. At least, the working ones.” She sighed and headed for the lock. “I’ll get Katsumi to watch him. She’s got first aid training, and we have to prepare a report.” She looked aside. “Likely my last one.”

 

 

2088-08-02

 

 

BetaMountain
hangar bay 12

 

=Gooseman, bring the detainees to the holding block. Ranger Niko, report to commander Walsh immediately. BETA Control, over.=

“Confirmed. Over.” Gooseman closed the line and checked the displays. They were right on track, at least as much on track as the old bucket could be. He looked over at Niko, holding copilot now that Masterson had been removed to one of the bunks. “Head up,” he told her. “Don’t waste your time fretting before Walsh had a chance to holler at you.” He gave her a crooked smile. “He hates to waste his efforts.”

“Don’t laugh,” she sighed. “I’m probably bound for Deltoid,” looking down at her lap, she added quietly, “and rightfully so. I allowed civilians to stay on Tortuna, Goose, and what I did to you…” her voice trailed off.

“—is none of his bloody business. Get a grip on yourself and we’re green.” He unbuckled and left the cockpit without looking back.

The archaeologists waited at the ramp. Goose checked them for weaponry, confiscating a multitool and a Swiss army knife, before lowering the ramp. “Don’t even think about making trouble again,” he warned them as they walked down the dusty ramp. “You wouldn’t like my answer.” Masterson, holding a cool pack to his face, glowered at him. Gooseman ignored it. “The transport cabin over there.

“What’s going to happen with Niko, Gooseman-san?” Katsumi Nakawa asked quietly after the cabin had taken off. “I already reported that we forced her to stay with us, but—”

Gooseman snorted. “That might take the criminal charges off her plate, but the disciplinary action still stands.”

“Criminal charges?” Nakawa inquired. “Surely not. She—”

“She allowed civilians to stay on Tortuna and kept a functional—” he checked himself and corrected, “—barely functional Andorian hyperdrive in Crown space, despite being physically able to remove both.”

“But we forced her to stay.”

“Yes,” he answered grimly, “and that will cost her.”

 

 

Holding block

2 hours later

 

“Keep a close eye on them, Igor.” Goose filled out the arrest forms and handed them to the officer on duty for the second signature. “They’re more dangerous than you usual customers.”

“Dangerous?” Igor’s eyes wandered across Morron and his group of students. “These brainiacs with the old stay-at-home? They couldn’t harm a garden gnome.”

“Be careful, Igor.” Goose pushed the forms over the counter. “They spent three weeks on Tortuna without being psychocrystallized.” He winked. “Be seeing you.”

“Three weeks?!” Igor sucked air through his teeth. “I’ll free cells in the high-security wing.”

Goose’s wristcom beeped as he left the block. He pushed up his sleeve to answer, but it wasn’t a call, merely a text:

 

 [TRANSFERRED TO PLUTO BASE UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE. I’M SORRY. N.]

 

 

Cmdr. Walsh’s Office

20 minutes later

 

=Ranger Gooseman for you, sir,= Sheela announced over the intercom. =He insists it’s urgent.=

Walsh sighed and saved the monthly report for the BWL. “Send him in.” Gooseman pushed through the door while his hand was still touching the intercom.

“Sir.” The salute was brief enough to border on omitted. “Was the classification of my last mission to Tortuna changed?”

“No, it wasn’t. Report accordingly. Dism—”

“My report will cause an inquiry.” Gooseman remained at attention. “It won’t add up that Ranger Niko was transferred off base for disciplinary reasons and I’m not despite having been part of the failed mission from day one.” A breath. Goose looked pointedly over his head. “Sir.”

“Are you trying to blackmail me, Ranger?” Walsh asked threateningly calm.

“No, sir.” Goose inclined his head. “I am concerned about my report.”

Walsh cursed inwardly. Transferring Goose was unacceptable, the BWL would immediately order his hibernation. They both knew it. He called up Niko’s transfer forms again and changed the destination to BETA Laboratories. He studied the ST still standing motionless in front of his desk.

Unacceptable risk. Perfect deniability. Walsh knew full well where Goose had learned how to blackmail, now it was coming back home. He sighed and signed the form swiftly. “Tell Niko I changed my mind. And Gooseman—” He waited for the ST to meet his eyes. “This will have consequences. For you.”

 

 

 

 

[1] See „Lost“ (fan fiction by A. Kniggendorf)

[2] See „Hot Summer Night“ (fan fiction by A. Kniggendorf)

[3] See „Starwynd Theta“ (fan fiction by A. Kniggendorf)

Chapter Text

2088-08-04

 

 

BetaMountain

 

I don’t believe this. Captain Zachary Fox stared at his screen. He and Doc had returned yesterday late at night from a mission that had been equally long and uneventful. He hadn’t checked his inbox until this morning when he sat down to write his report, expecting everything to be okay. It wasn’t.

Niko’s S&R mission to Tortuna had been red-flagged, indicating disciplinary measures already in effect. The command synopsis noted her transfer to the BETA labs and the revocation of her deep space clearance, no explanation given. Zach knew it had been a single mission, but now Gooseman was listed as ‘assigned personnel’ as well and—

The screen flashed. The file was updated while he read it. He returned to the front page. Now the synopsis included a summary punishment for Gooseman as well: The ST was ordered to rename the archive files in the new filing system the BWL had enacted two years ago. Manually.

Zachary frowned and looked up. Goose was already in, sitting at his console working silently. “Gooseman, there’s a punishment order regarding you.”

“Already working on it.” Gooseman didn’t even look up from his screen.

“You are taking this very calmly.”

“I expected it, sir.” The ST continued typing.

“Gooseman, as your commanding officer I want to be informed,” Zach fixed the ST sternly and specified, “before the shit hits the fan.”

Goose snorted and resumed typing.

“I expect an answer, lieutenant!”

Goose looked up, leashed anger clear on his face. “One of the archeologists objected to my evasive maneuvers when dodging Crown fighters. I removed him from the cockpit. Physically. Sir.

“You want to tell me Niko’s transferred to the labs because you K.O.-ed an archaeologist?” Zach asked coolly. “You expect me to buy that?”

Silence.

Zach reined in his temper. “What got her that deep into trouble?” he asked. “I can’t help her if I don’t know the details and this—” he indicated his screen still holding the red-flagged report, “—tells me nothing.”

The ST looked past him, avoiding eye contact again and obviously considered what to tell him. Zach knew he wouldn’t get the full story even before Goose finally said, “It was a fucking mistake to give her that mission. Those people knew her, knew she would care enough about their findings not to destroy the site and arresting all of them wasn’t an option. They used that against her.”

“They didn’t use that against you?” Zach inquired.

“They tried.” Gooseman shrugged. “But I’m not civilized enough to give a shit about alien history.” He snorted. “Or archies pawing my controls in a fight.” He nodded at his console. “May I continue? Walsh’s pissed enough as it is.”

 

 

BetaLabs

 

Officially, the BETA Laboratories was a field office of LongShot, established to cope with the increasing amount of forensic evidence and deep space artifacts that BETA’s day-to-day operations produced. That, or the generous allocation of sub-surface floor space at BetaMountain was the result of QBall’s successful ploy for more lab space.

Zach assumed the latter. Indicating his badge, he nodded at the officer on duty and headed past the counter for filing forensic evidence to QBall’s local office. The room was every bit as cramped as the large one at LongShot.

“I expected you earlier,” QBall greeted him. “Do you know why Niko’s here?”

“No idea.” Zach shook his head. “The file is virtually blank. I’m here to ask her.”

“Good luck with that,” QBall said fatalistically. “She’s taking inventory in storage room 4. Out the door, right hand side, three intersections down and then follow the signs. And Captain—” The head scientist seemed uncomfortable. “I asked for more personnel with high security clearance, but I never expected them to be taken off active units like yours.”

Zach stopped at the door and looked back. “I don’t think this has anything to do with your request, but I don’t have enough clues to warrant a guess about what does.”

 

Storage room 4 was one of those long narrow tunnels drilled into the bedrock to hold forensic evidence until it was needed in court or deemed unimportant enough to be discarded. The warning signs flashing at its entrance marked it as an LHHS zone — Low Hazard, High Security — about as safe as you could get in the labs. Zach spotted Niko at the far end of the room.

So QBall is worried, he concluded as he headed down the long aisle of shelves towards her. A moment later, he knew why. The telepath looked like death warmed over twice.

“I’m fine, Zachary. Really,” Niko said after he’d told her as much. She scanned the ID tag of another item and checked it against the list on her pad. “I didn’t sleep well last night, that’s all.”

“You mean for the last week, don’t you?” Zach countered. She ignored him, proceeding with the next item on the shelf. “What’s wrong with you?”

“Zachary, please.” She marked the item on her list without looking at him. “I failed at the first mission I was given since—” She didn’t name 17798. She didn’t have to. “I endangered the League. I endangered people I consider my friends since— since before I became a ranger. Don’t you think it would be more worrisome if it didn’t affect me?” Some strands had escaped her rough ponytail and she shoved them back behind her ear.

Zachary frowned at the broad elastic bandage covering her wrist. The report hadn’t mentioned any injuries besides Masterson’s, who’d been introduced to Goose’s patience. “Niko, what happened on that mission?”

Her jaw worked. “You got the report.”

“That says nothing,” he retorted. “And you know it. Tell me off the book, if that’s better for you, but tell me. I have to know what’s going on in my unit.”

“I am no longer in your unit!” Niko slammed the notepad down on the shelf beside her. “I’m a lab assistant! Like it or not, there’s nothing you can do!

“I understand,” he said stonily; formality keeping him from answering her in kind. “If you change your mind, call me. You are still one of my friends.”

 

Niko watched Zach leave. Crisp, efficient movements betrayed determination, possibly anger about the situation and about her. Likely about her. The double set of transparent doors opened and closed automatically as he left the room. A faint hiss indicated the reestablished seal. The notepad clattered to the floor after he was gone. She buried her face in her hands.

 

 

GRS5 office

 

Zach returned to the office none the wiser about the reasons behind Niko’s transfer. Nothing made sense. Not the order. Not her behavior. Nothing. And regarding the rest of his unit—

“Welcome back, oh captain mine!” Doc called out the moment Zach opened the door. “Care to tell me what’s up here? The Goose-man turned taciturnity into an art form. He didn’t even growl at me! And I haven’t seen Niko at all.”

“Niko’s in punishment transfer,” Zach answered grimly, sobering Doc instantly. “Her mission to Tortuna was a disaster and Goose’s somehow involved in it, but there are no details to be had. Their mission report is one of Goose’s finest I-won’t-tell-you-shit texts, the transfer order is a copy thereof, and Niko doesn’t say anything, either.” He sat down at his console, not bothering to prevent the office chair from creaking under the bionics’ full weight.

“Where is she? Did you see her?” Doc asked. “For how long is she transferred?”

Zach sighed. “She’s assigned to the labs for a year. Final decision pending.”

A year!?” Doc gaped. “Did she invite the Queen for tea?”

“And Goose served the teacakes?” Zach returned, frustrated. “Whatever it is, Doc. It messed her up, and I don’t know enough to do anything about it.”

 

 

2088-08-05

 

 

It was past midnight when Goose turned off his workstation, effectively reducing the office illumination to three red standby LEDs and the yellow-green glow of the emergency exit sign over the door. He stretched. Damn, but Walsh had found the perfect payback for him. He’d spend weeks glued to the fucking console, renaming files nobody ever bothered to search for by filename. He’d considered taking shortcuts, but ALMA had warned him about the monitoring routine installed to track his progress and he knew better than pissing off the commander any more than he already had.

There was already too much on his plate as it was. He had expected trouble after 17798, but that was nothing compared to what would happen if the brass learned about the bruises on Niko’s wrists. If she didn’t get a grip on herself soon—

He stood abruptly. “ALMA, where’s Niko right now?”

=BetaLabs, storage room 4, Goose,= the AI’s smoky voice answered through his wrist com. =Do you want untracked access?=

 

This late at night, the labs were deserted. The only staffed position was the forensics counter doubling as a night guard at the main entrance. Goose used one of the service exits three corridors down from it. He navigated the unlit halls deftly, with ALMA bypassing door sensors and security cameras alike. It made him wish his AI would agree to these ventures under less troublesome circumstances.

The double doors to storage room 4 opened and closed without the control panel for the door seal ever changing its color. Niko, only a few steps down the main aisle, didn’t seem to notice. Too exhausted to pay attention, Goose concluded. She’s going to end up in MedoStat that way. “You gotta sleep,” he told her, snatching the pad away from her.

“Give that back!”

He shook his head and put it out of her reach. “You can’t go on like this.”

“That’s none of your business!” Her eyes flared, a violet veil covered their green and the pad flew back to into her hand. “Now go.”

He didn’t move. Pressure build in his head as she glared at him, but a glance at her bandaged wrists reminded him that he couldn’t afford leaving. “If you keel over, we’re both in for it.”

“Nonsense! You—”

“Do you think anybody will believe the truth when your injuries are all that’s left?” he snapped, ignoring the pain throbbing behind his eyes since her outburst. “The bio defenses work flawlessly. There’s no proof that the alternative would have been you, triggering defenses you have no hope to survive!”

She stared at him, her face ashen.

“Please,” he begged, swallowing his pride. “Go home. Sleep.”

She deflated, put a hand on the shelf beside her. “You don’t know what you’re asking, Shane,” she whispered. “I keep seeing you bleeding—” Her gaze flitted to his face as if confirm the lack of blood even now. “I—”

“You have to sleep,” he repeated softly. “There’s no choice.”

 

Goose watched her leave. The light went out in storage 4 after the doors closed behind her. For the base sensors, he wasn’t here. Through the clear door panels, he observed the wandering field of light marking her progress through the deserted labs towards the main entrance. Gooseman sighed after the last one winked out. He knew exactly what he was asking.

 

 

MPQ 217

90 minutes later

 

Admit it Gooseman, he thought wearily after the second attempt to use his bio defenses against the obnoxious headaches. It won’t work. Challenging her like that was stupid. Unprofessional and—

ALMA appeared on his console, her usual bright pink turned pale by the screen he’d dimmed to ease his eyes. =Positive, Goose,= the AI confirmed after a brief flicker running over her eyeball told him that nothing said right now would go on record. =KASSANDRA detects disturbed REM sleep.=

Gooseman pressed a palm against his throbbing temple and stood. “Can you get me across the corridor without anyone being the wiser?”

 

 

MPQ 219

 

The door closed right on his heels, its hiss mingling with the electronic squabbling of KASSANDRA objecting to ALMA overwriting her directives. Goose ignored it. The room was dark as expected, smelling of flowers and silk and… her. A choked sound brought him down the stairs in three strides. Cold sweat mixed into her scent as he approached the bed.

“Lights!” he ordered and studied her, squinting against the glare still failing to wake her. Struggling against instincts telling him to get the Hell out of here, he sat down on the edge of the bed and shook her shoulder. “Niko, wake up. You’re dreaming.”

She jerked awake with a cry, buried her head in her hands. “I’m so sorry…”

“It was a dream.” He pulled her hands away from her face, forced her to look at him. “See yourself.” She blinked in the bright light, freed one of her hands to run trembling fingertips across his cheek. His breath caught when she brushed first stubbles against the grain. Don’t go there, idiot. Don’t ever go there again, an ugly little voice added, unasked — or she’ll have my head before they put me in the freezer and

Her head sank against his arm. He sighed when her slowing breaths told him she was out cold again despite the bright glare wreaking havoc with his headaches. The lights dimmed, unasked. ALMA had noticed his pain. He glanced at the clock. 2 a.m. too early to leave. She needed a few hours of sleep and this wouldn’t be the last nightmare. He’d have to come up with a solution that didn’t involve him being here. Goose ground his teeth. Being here was a recipe for disaster, whether or not he was caught.

 

 

6 hours later

 

=…ake up! You’re running late!= the sharp electronic voice penetrated Niko’s sleep. In the next moment, a blaring bugle call had her stumble to her feet.

“KASSIE, what on Earth—”

=Good morning, Ranger Niko.= ALMA’s pink eyeball appeared on the screen of the com unit above her bed. =I activated your coffee maker and took the liberty to order a cream-and-cereal breakfast from base service for you.=

“ALMA?!” Niko blinked, stupidly. “What are you doing in my systems?”

=Goose wants me to help you cope with your nightmares.=

“My nightmares—” Glimpses of a face marked with the blood she’d drawn and again flawless, untouched, flashed through Niko’s mind. She’d slept. And Goose had been here. The bloodied face had been in her dreams and he’d left his AI to— “ALMA, where’s KASSIE?”

=Your AI is deactivated. She was uncooperative and I need access to your schedule and its visual configuration files for answering the door and taking external calls.=

“Access to my—” Niko pressed a hand to her suddenly aching head. “ALMA, that’s unacceptable! I want you to restore KASSIE and return to Goose. Now.”

=I’m sorry, I can’t do that. Goose was very explicit with what he’d do if I did that.=

Niko blinked, forcing herself to remain calm. “What does he hope to achieve by having you invade my systems?” she asked.

=He believes I’ll be more useful to you since I’m not programmed to obey you.=

“Do you know how many laws you and your owner broke just by you being here?” she snapped, exasperated. “I could have him arrested and you deleted just for violating—”

=Ranger Niko.= ALMA cut in, the AI’s voice suddenly ice-cold. =You endangered my ward. I suggest you do your damnedest to resolve whatever made you do that in a very timely fashion, or I will ignore his commands and take appropriate action against you. I am not programmed to follow his every whim. Have your breakfast. You are expected at work in less than an hour.= The screen went abruptly dark. In the following silence the happy bubbling of her coffee maker filling a cup was eerily loud.

 

 

BetaLabs

 

Niko arrived at the labs right on time, though mentally still very occupied with inventing appropriate descriptions for invasive AIs and their ‘wards’ in half a dozen languages, not all of them spoken on Earth. ALMA refusing to open her apartment door until she’d emptied the cereal bowl had not improved her mood, though Niko grudgingly admitted that ranting with a full stomach did feel better.

Crossing the last corner almost at a run, she nearly collided with a hip-high crate covered in ‘this-side-up’, ‘breakable’, and ‘warning – non-League origin’ stamps. Recovering from the near accident, she saw the rest of the corridor stacked with crates of all forms and sizes. Yellow freight tags glowed. The one on the crate she’d almost run over suddenly beeped and flashed red.

“There it is!” QBall, white lab coat flying, appeared from behind a stack of crates that almost touched the ceiling. “Good morning, Niko,” he greeted her without looking up from his datapad and called back towards whoever was working down the corridor. “We’ll have to move the others first. No chance to get No. 56 past them!” He started making extensive notes on his pad while telling Niko, “As you can see, we just got a delivery via one of the most incompetent delivery services I ever—” He stopped, cleared his throat fussily, and continued, “These are the complete findings of that imbecilic expedition to Tortuna. Since Earth University isn’t cleared for handling artifacts from hostile territories, the work will fall to us.” He finally looked up. “Or more precisely: to you, since you’re familiar with the matter.” Niko found the pad put into her hands and QBall heading past her towards the exit without waiting for a reply. “Get this chaos into some semblance of order and begin reviewing the contents. Hall 26 and the adjacent rooms should be sufficient. I’ll be in my office.”

 

 

Sublevel 3, Hall 26

6 hours later

 

The wall-mounted terminal providing computer and network access in Hall 26 beeped faintly, while the input mask for requesting laboratory supplies and furniture appeared on its screen: line by line, with noticeable stops in between. After the better part of an hour, Niko assumed that the terminal predated BetaMountain as a military installation — or as a mountain in general. No, it was not permitted to fill out the first fields while the rest loaded in the background.

She’d spent most of the day with sorting and stacking 386 crates and boxes of various sizes and dimensions into the allocated lab space. Stacking being the operative word, since the only thing Hall 26 sported besides this alibi of a computer terminal was a paint job. Unpacking the crates meant that she first had to acquire a work table to do the unpacking on and laboratory closets for storing the contents of the crates. She’d estimated it would take the better part of the afternoon, only to learn that it would probably take the better part of the week for the input mask to open. Resigned, she decided not to think about how long it would take to send the order, and getting it fulfilled—

She seriously considered sitting on the floor by now.

“Hello, dearest delinquent!” She winced at Doc’s cheerful voice coming from the door still partially blocked by a long crate that didn’t fit fully into the room. “How about a good friend’s visit to cheer you up?”

“How about a good supply manager to get a table, a chair, and some shelves down here?” Niko groaned when the form on screen froze again and slapped the console in frustration. “I’d even settle for a working terminal to get the requests out before I’m retired and erosion creates a skylight!”

Doc arched a brow at her outburst and unclipped his CDU with a dignified flourish. “Dearest damsel in distress, the Doctor may not be qualified to assist you with your furnishing needs, but the last item on your list of duress is just within my expertise.” He touched his badge and the holographic display of the CDU unfolded. “Pathfinder, Lifeline. Get your electronic butts out here. I need this work station responsive and functional as of now.”

=Eew,= Pathfinder squeaked. =Did you rob a museum?=

=I want an ABC suit. This slow-mo might be infectious!= Lifeline hovered above the still slowly filling screen. =I haven’t seen such a clogged system since you had me check your washing machine.= It vanished inside with a faint sizzle.

=That was probably high-tech compared to this—= Pathfinder flashed and plunged in after its fellow program.

“Not quite what you’re used to, eh?” Doc asked, apologetically, looking around in the crate filled hall.

Niko sighed. “I had no idea just how privileged we were.”

Lifeline flashed out of the console between them. =Network access rate is sped up to what’s available down here, not that that’s much. And there’s a second graphics driver blocking most of what goes for main memory in this antiquity. =

=Yeah, that piece of code is ugly like Doc’s mug shot on Saturday mornings.= Pathfinder beeped without emerging from the console. =…deleted it looks much better!= The blue sparkle flitted over to the CDU. =You owe us, Doc!= It declared, circling above it.

Lifeline appeared in the holocube. =Yup! I’ll need a week playing Tron to get that filth off my code!=

=You just want to ogle young Boxleitner in his sleek program’s outfit again!= Pathfinder remarked.

=And if—?=

Doc shut them up by closing the CDU. “Try it now,” he suggested, nodding at the console. “I’m afraid that’s the best I can do with hardware as outdated as this one.” He gave her a crooked smile. “And don’t believe a word these loudmouthed bits say about my Saturdays.”

Niko was already filling out the first fields. “This is worlds better than before, Doc,” she said, rapidly typing. “Thank you.”

He clipped his CDU back to his belt. “You know such ancient hardware often has the weirdest glitches. It might well add flags like ‘urgent, fill immediately’ to all requests filed from here.”

“Really?” Niko looked over her shoulder at him. “I wouldn’t notice.”

“That’s what I hoped for.”

Niko continued filling out the form. Now that she could work at normal speed, her wrapped wrists were hindering her, making her miss keys, chafing— inconspicuously, she rubbed her right bandage against the edge of the terminal. Doc, next to her, sucked in a breath. “I didn’t know you got hurt,” he said, suddenly atypically serious. “What happened? Are you—”

“"That’s none of your business!” Niko hit Enter to hurl the request across the network without Doc having a chance to see it.

“Whoa!” he stopped dead and held up his hands in plain sight at her growl. “Our ST seems to be infectious. Maybe we all better ask for an immunization shot—”

Niko froze, felt her face warming. “I’m sorry. I didn’t want—” She shook her head. “I’m not myself right now.”

“Like your AI.” Doc propped himself against the wall beside the terminal. “You know, I had the strangest of encounters with her. When I called your place earlier, KASSIE was all green and yellow as usual, but she answered my question with three words and a disconnection, as if she learned com etiquette from ALMA.” He made a theatrically shocked face. “And your AI was always so nice and well-mannered. Maybe she’s caught the e-flu.”

“The what?”

“The electronic flu, of course,” Doc proclaimed. “A virus. Or it’s a horsey— I mean a Trojan. Maybe she even has worms—”

“Doc,” Niko groaned. “If you don’t mind, I’d like to go on with my work. My file has an entry for disobedience already. I don’t need another one for laziness.”

“I promise that the examination won’t take long—”

“That’s enough!” Niko threw her hands up. “Why do you care that my AI is strange? I’m strange, too! Do you want to examine me as well? Forget it right there! And now — if you don’t mind — Leave. Me. Alone!

 

 

MPQ 219

18:17

 

“Leave me alone!” she had yelled. At Doc who’d just tried to be helpful, who was concerned about her, who—

Niko lowered her head in shame, relieved when her apartment door closed behind her without another incident. And locked. She winced. She could have asked Doc to get ALMA out of her systems, but that meant telling him why ALMA was there in the first place, and she couldn’t do that to Goose. Resigned, Niko left her boots by the door and continued in socks. She was halfway down the stairs when she realized that the AI, instead of greeting her, had dimmed the lighting.

“ALMA, I didn’t ask for lower lights.”

=Your movements indicate a headache. Soft light and silence may ease that.=

Astonished, Niko halted in mid-step. “Do you do that for Goose, too?”

=He seldom has headaches. And he prefers darkness, if he has.= A moment of silence followed, then ALMA added, =I’m not your enemy. I’m here to help.=

Niko sighed. “But this cannot continue. Doc’s already suspicious.”

=I will work on my adaptation of KASSANDRA’s behavior.=

“But that won’t do!” Frustrated, Niko slapped her palm against the bannister. First Doc. Now ALMA preparing to take on Doc— It was all too much. She stomped to the comp on socked feet. “Call MPQ 217!”

=As you wish, Ma’am.= The screen lit up and flickered. =Scrambled line in effect. Two-end-surveillance check in progress.=

“Surv—!?” Niko gaped. “I want to talk with Goose not the chief of staff!”

=Surveillance check in progress,= ALMA repeated, unperturbed. =Communication will be engaged once connection and environment are secure.=

“Are you out of—?”

The screen cleared, showing Goose in a rumpled uniform surrounded by a wide green frame with flashing indicators for encryption depth and monitoring activity at the bottom. “Yes?” he asked, without interrupting his work.

“We’ve got to talk. ALMA can’t—” she stopped, noticing the room behind him. “You aren’t at home, are you?”

“I’m still at the office.”

Niko frowned. “I had ALMA call your place. Why—?”

“There are some advantages to having an independent high-class AI on your side,” Goose answered dryly. ALMA huffed indignantly in the background. “Even if you curse her. She tried the next likely location.”

“She is not ‘on my side’!” Niko protested. “She locked me up over breakfast! She—” She stopped when she felt his amusement. Felt. The lapse sobered her instantly. “I’m not a child to be mothered, Shane.”

“I wouldn’t know how to do that.” He finally stopped typing and looked up. “But ALMA knows how to deal with nightmares and stress. She’ll wake you before it gets bad.”

“But it doesn’t work!” Niko argued vehemently. “It can’t work! Doc’s on her case already. Today, he told me that KASSIE’s behaving like ALMA. If you don’t want to call her back, then at least install KASSIE’s personality files.”

“So you can talk her into obedience?” This time he did laugh out loud. “Forget it.”

“She threatened me, Shane.”

He lowered his head and said nothing.

“You don’t seem surprised,” Niko observed.

He sighed. “I expected as much. What happened on Tortuna between us—” He shook his head. “If that ever comes out, I’m done for. That’s exactly what they need to have me frozen.”

She stared at him. “But it wasn’t your fault. I will explain—”

“They don’t care for explanations, Niko,” he said tiredly. “When it comes to me they’ll happily use an excuse. Any excuse. ALMA’s here to make sure they don’t get one.”

“And you told her what happened.”

“She’s programmed to protect me, not to obey me, Niko. I have to give her a very good reason for violating my permissions if I want her to fool the surveillance.” A muscle in his jaw worked. “And a stroll in the woods or an afternoon sundae doesn’t count for a visit that by itself could land me in the freezer.”

“You’ve been at my place before,” she reminded him. “I was at yours. Why—?”

“The Board tightened the screws after 17798.” She stared at him, knew she was staring when he arched a brow at her and asked cynically, “What? Did you think they’d like me to sleep around?”

She didn’t know what to say to that. Suddenly, ALMA’s insisting on a scrambled connection made an awful lot of sense. Niko swallowed, embarrassed, trying to find something to say that didn’t hurt. “Why are you still at the office this late?”

One of his cynical half grins flashed across his face. “My punishment job for backhanding beach boy. We’re bound for Andor first thing tomorrow and I doubt Walsh’s inclined to wait this time. I used the big guns to change his mind regarding your exile. I better pay for that without trying his patience.” He reached for the com controls. “Get some rest. You can’t stay dead tired for the rest of your life. It doesn’t work. Good night.”

She stared at the suddenly blank screen.

 

 

2088-08-06

 

 

onboard Ranger-1

 

“You’re right,” Doc said from the copilot’s seat after Zach closed the com link to Earth Orbit Station 4, monitoring their vector through Earth’s busy space. GV rotated slowly on the small screen in the console between them, calculating their hyperspace transit to Andor.

“Context?” Zach inquired dryly, “Or do you concede to my wisdom in general?”

“Niko. I passed by the labs yesterday. Did you know that QBall has her working on the stuff they brought back from Tortuna?” Doc shook his head. “Now, if there’s a ridiculous assignment—”

“I’m not worried about her work, Doc,” Zach said quietly. “I’m worried about her.”

“I got that, Zach, but whatever’s wrong with her, she doesn’t want to talk about it, emphatically so.” Doc checked his displays as he spoke. “The way she growled at me for asking about her wrists, she’d win any Goose impersonator contest hands down.”

“Something happened on that mission,” Zachary said grimly. “Something she doesn’t know how to cope with and that report isn’t worth the storage chip holding its copy. I know for a fact that Goose wasn’t assigned to her mission when she took off.”

“Maybe Walsh attached him later when it became obvious she wouldn’t get the archaeologists back on her own.” Doc shrugged. “You know what it takes to get the okay for Tortuna these days.”

“Probably. But the report doesn’t even hold that.”

GV beeped. =Course to Andor set, sir.=

Zach opened a com channel. “EOS 4. This is Galaxy Rangers ship Ranger-1 bound for Andor. We’re leaving standard continuum in ten. Good bye.” He cut the connection and told the ship’s AI to proceed.

=Yes, sir.= GV switched to intercom. =All hands. Leaving standard continuum in five, four—=

Goose’s all clear from the rear bay was a plain green light, flashing up mere seconds before the ship shivered around them and the red streaks of hyperspace replaced the stars on the main screen.

“GV, how long till Andor?” Zach inquired.

=14 hours 26 minutes, sir.= GV bounced slightly on the small console screen.

Doc unbuckled his safety harness and stood. “I’m going to have another look at the case file. The Andorians attached a lot of auxiliary data.”

“Prepare a summary for us,” Zach told him. “The Andorians are up in arms about this. You know the League’s policy regarding AILs[1]. And Doc—” Zach’s mouth set in a stubborn line. “Send Gooseman to me when you head aft.”

 

When the hatch had closed behind Doc, Zach stared out into the emptiness of hyperspace displayed on the main screen. Gooseman being on this mission had been set before they’d even been given the case file detailing a possible rape[2] involving at least one augmented human.

Given the undercurrents in his disrupted unit right now, Zach seriously wished to have had a say in the matter. Something was wrong with Niko and — less obviously — with Gooseman. The ST just covered it better.

Zach pressed his head against the headrest. I’m trying to solve a puzzle with too many pieces missing, he thought. Way too many pieces missing. Niko’s mission to Tortuna, her disciplinary transfer, her injuries—

What happened on a straightforward S&R mission that had one of his most conscientious officers end up in long term disciplinary transfer? A university professor and his students were hardly the kind of villains to get the better of Niko. And Gooseman—

How did he become part of that mission anyway? Or would ‘why’ be the better question?

What happened on Tortuna that called for Goose to be sent there under the BWL’s radar?

And what got that much to Niko? There’s nothing in their report that explained her injured wrists. Both wrists. As if she’d been tied up. By academics!? Zach raised his brows at that thought. And even if, embarrassment was no reason not to report it. So back to the first question: What happened on Tortuna? As usual the red streaks of hyperspace provided no answer.

The cockpit hatch cycled, the steps in between too long, too balanced to be Doc’s. Sound enhancers confirmed that Goose had come alone. Zachary didn’t wait for the salute. “Why were you sent to Tortuna, Gooseman?” There was a short freeze in the ST’s movements as he headed towards copilot. “And no, ‘you got the report’ is not an acceptable answer.”

Goose did not attempt to sit down. “Niko and the Morron expedition were six days overdue when I returned from Purdue. Walsh expected… slaverlords and an Andorian hyperdrive in Crown possession by then.”

Damage control. Zachary thought grimly. Not an easy order after surviving five months in the wilderness with her. “Go on.”

“Walsh’s expectation… proved incorrect, but the situation was not under control. I— We needed a day to make what Earth University calls a ship ready for takeoff, after I convinced the expedition that further delays were not an option. We returned to Earth as soon as we reached shunt velocity.”

“Gooseman.” Zach met the green eyes as their dull reflections in the main screen. “Sit down.” There was tension, a lot of tension, but Gooseman did as he was told. “That was the long version of ‘you got the report’,” Zach told him calmly. “And it still doesn’t answer my question.”

“I was sent to bring them back if possible,” Goose replied flatly. “I did.”

And now you’re giving me the short version! Zach clamped down on his temper. “That doesn’t account for Niko’s injuries, or the extent of her punishment—” He glanced at Goose, who’d become dead-still at the first sentence. “—or yours.” Which you take way too composed for your temper. “We are on a diplomatically difficult mission and my most diplomatic officer was transferred for disciplinary reasons that amount to an empty screen. I need to know what’s going on here, and that report isn’t cutting it.”

“It is as much as I can tell you.” Goose’s reply was flat, overly controlled. “Do you want to know more?”

The emphasis had Zach pause. One of his— He stopped. The ST beside him said nothing, waited, obviously wishing very much to be elsewhere. If one of the renegades is responsible for…

Zach wiped his face with his hand, struggling with the implications. He drew a deep breath and threw the switch of the cockpit monitoring. “Gooseman, off the record, did a Supertrooper hurt Niko?”

It took a very long time before Goose finally answered. “Yes.”

 

 

2088-08-07

 

 

“I already said too much.” Goose’s inflectionless statement replayed in Zach’s head long after they’d set down on Andor. “If they ever learn that I told you—” The ST hadn’t finished the sentence.

Lying in bed in a darkened hotel room, Zach rubbed his eyes with his natural hand, recalling Goose’s expression; no face that young should look so haunted. And all he did was confirming that an ST was involved. Zachary sighed, thinking of the immediate briefing the Andorian authorities had arranged for them after landing…

 

“…the human woman, Miss Denise O’Rourke, claims that the fetus is the child of a friend, a non-League resident, recently deceased.” The Andorian forensic expert, Dr. Pelkar, consulted her notes. “However, the standardized tests required in cases of premature abort revealed extended genetic modifications in the paternal components of the fetal DNA; augmenting modifications based on the human genome,” she added pointedly. “In addition, the admission scans of the patient show scars indicating extensive vaginal and oral injuries that date back to around the calculated date of conception.”

“Oral?” Doc frowned. “You mean—?”

“Someone cut open her lips. Here and here.” The physician indicated two vertical lines near the eyeteeth. “The injury had time to heal over, but was ruptured again during the strain of the abort. The ER meds initially assumed she’d bit herself when the cramps set in, but the tissue was punctured above the labium superius oris, indicating a foreign set of canines responsible for the initial injury.” She glanced suspiciously at Gooseman. “A set of canines not matching any known species.”

“Can you confirm that the injuries and the pregnancy occurred at the same time?” Zachary asked. “Without the victim’s testimony?”

“Only by temporal coincidence, Captain,” Dr. Pelkar admitted. “On its own, the evidence won’t hold in court, but we hoped to reduce the number of suspects. That fetus was fully viable.”

Gooseman flinched. “Canines aren’t sufficient for reliable identification,” he stated hoarsely. “Even some of the minors have them. The size excludes two or three from the list of those still at large, but that’s it.”

“Do you have a suggestion, Lieutenant?” Zach asked him sternly, reminding Goose as much as the Andorians that his Ranger wasn’t the culprit here.

“Are you sure those mods weren’t a new experiment?” Gooseman asked.

“Absolutely!” The Andorian confirmed icily. “We’re looking at a fecundation involving post-meiotic unnatural DNA.”

“Then send a digital copy of the gen code to BETA. If Negata can tell which type it was, it narrows the list down to four or five suspects, probably less depending on the which code it is.” At the surprised looks around the conference table, Gooseman snorted. “What? The renegades are a rather varied bunch. Some are even unique—” Zach saw his hand curling into a tight fist beneath the table. “—by now.”

My team will prepare the digicopy overnight,” Dr. Pelkar said briskly. “It is in our own interest that you get it as soon as possible. If not for the substance induced abort, that fetus would have developed into a healthy child. If we don’t put a stop to this now, we’re going to look at uncontrolled proliferation soon.”

 

Gooseman looked positively sick in that briefing, Zach thought, pinching the bridge of his nose in the dark. Not that he himself was comfortable with the topic, but this case got way deeper under the ST’s skin than he’d anticipated. Probably too deep. He was missing something…

Off the record, did a Supertrooper hurt Niko?”

“Yes.” And “I already said too much.”

What if—? Zach just hoped he was wrong and that Niko’s injuries were truly limited to her wrists and not— He thought of the tattered booklet Gooseman had left at his place after the Queen[3]What if he did the same for Niko? Told her how to hide—? But he’d seen her the day after their return and she’d been upset, yes; traumatized, maybe; but not devastated like that. He should know…

Keep it together, Zachary, he berated himself. It will be difficult enough to keep Gooseman in check through this without you worrying yourself sick. This case was entirely too close to home, not only for Goose.

 

Zach gave up on sleeping when the bedside chrono showed 04:30 local time. In less than three hours, they would meet their Andorian colleagues and Dr. Pelkar at the Medical Center to receive the digitized DNA code for transmission to BETA and make a first assessment of the victim.

Regulations demanded that always two officers were present at the questioning of a sexual assault victim, and the Andorian jurisdiction required the presence of the victim’s physician, who had the power to stop the process at any given time. Gooseman was always a wild card when it came to interrogations — special or not, so that left him and Doc for that task.

Still, having Goose, being an ST himself, solely responsible for evidence of augmented DNA wasn’t an ideal choice, either. Not with the BWL’s recent attitude towards the ST. On the other hand, a digital copy was basically a program for the 3D molecular printing system at BETA to make an exact duplicate of the sample. Surely not even the most paranoid Board member would accuse Goose to have that skill for hacking…

 

Coming into the breakfast lounge, Zach wasn’t really surprised to see the ST already there at one of the small tables pushed against the window front overlooking the space port. “Where’s Doc?” he asked, pulling the second chair out.

“Spent the remainder of the night hacking into the hotel’s adult tri-D service.” Goose didn’t bother to look at him.

“Adult Tri—?” Zach felt not fully awake yet. “We are on duty. We don’t have—”

Gooseman snorted. “Doc does. Now.” He took a gulp from what looked to be a rather often refilled coffee cup. “I preferred not to share it.”

Zach sat, ignoring the ominous creak of the furniture, and contemplated giving Doc an infusion about proper conduct on duty and common sense — though the latter was probably a hopeless case. I wouldn’t wonder if Miss Abercrombie’s Charm School is a Letterbox company in Sorry End—

The sound of cracking china interrupted his thoughts. Startled, he saw the cup in Gooseman’s hand sporting cracks. Black coffee mingled with blood sloshed onto the tablecloth. The ST showed no sign that he’d even noticed the injury.

“Gooseman!” Zach stood and used their combined napkins to soak up the spreading stain. “Get a grip on yourself. This case—”

“This case?” The ST’s voice was very quiet. “This is no case. This is— uncontrolled proliferation.” His fingers tightened around the cracked cup. More blood dripped onto the napkins. “Don’t you understand? One of Negata’s safety catches failed. For real.” He studied the coffee and blood-stained cup in his cut hand as if he saw it for the first time and very pointedly put it down onto the soaked napkins. “They don’t want that code out there; not in the renegades, not in their k—” His voice caught. “Can you imagine what they’ll order me to do next?” He stilled, staring down at his bloodied hand. “And what will happen if— when I can’t do it?”

Zach stared at him, shaken at the hopelessness. “Nobody would have you hunt children, Gooseman,” he assured him softly, in a voice normally reserved for easing bad dreams at home. “And now heal your hand before our hosts insist on hospitalizing you.”

The ST’s answering look spoke volumes. “You have a higher opinion of our government than I.” But he tapped his badge.

Zach didn’t know what to say. “I’m going to the buffet. Do you want something, too?”

“Not hungry.” Goose turned back to the window, an elbow resting on the stained tablecloth. A first gleam of dawn lit the sky above the far end of the landing field.

“Eat something,” Zach insisted. “It takes the edge off things.” When Goose didn’t move, he added, “That’s an order, Lieutenant.” The ST glanced up at him. Amused?! “Is something the matter?”

“Nothing.” Goose shook his head, unfolding his large frame from the chair. Somehow his crumpled uniform had escaped most of the stains. “You just reminded me of someone.”

 

 

BetaMountain

MPQ 219

 

=You failed to consume your daily amount of necessary nutrients.= ALMA’s pink eyeball appeared on the small screen of the door panel after the door locked. =Again.=

“I had lunch at the cafeteria,” Niko told her off-handedly, kicking off her shoes.

=The only substance you consumed since you left here at 08:47 was water, at 11:39, 14:51, and 16:04,= the AI corrected. =Shall I make a neurologist appointment regarding your memory lapses?=

“A neuro—” Niko found herself gaping when ALMA’s words caught up with her. “You tracked me?!” she flared. “How dare you to—?”

=I did not,= the AI huffed. =I merely told the mainframe. It’s much more efficient to have RHONDDA contact the sub-AIs responsible for nutrient donations on base.=

“It didn’t occur to you that I might have eaten something they didn’t provide?” Niko asked, exasperated, as she headed down the stairs.

=You didn’t leave the base to get it,= ALMA replied, unperturbed, changing location from the door panel to the wide screen of the com unit above her bed. =You still require 747 calories to reach the minimum amount of nutrients for a person of your weight and current profession.= There was an electronic sizzle that suspiciously sounded like a derisive snort. =And next time, document your snacks of potted palms if you want me to consider them in your diet plan.=

“Stars!” Niko threw up her hands. “I should delete you!”

=You don’t have administrator rights for my files.=

The screen went dark with a blip, leaving her staring at blank glass. Her wrists itched. Resigned, Niko went into the bathroom, undid the elastic bandages she’d worn all day, and had a look at the bruises they hid: Still visible, though by now they were more pale brown and green than dark-red and blue. They’d be gone by the time her unit returned from Andor…

…by the time her former unit returned from Andor, while she’d directed a hyperactive worker crew installing laboratory equipment in a sub-surface hall that never saw the sun so that she could unpack dusty crates she wished wouldn’t exist. It hurt. It hurt more than she dared to admit.

Niko stared, disillusioned, into the mirror, seeing a harrowed face with deep shadowed eyes and, superimposed, another face, strong, with bleeding gashes in the cheek. She swallowed. Shane is right, she thought wearily. Hell, ALMA is right. I have to find out what’s wrong with me. She shuddered, thinking of the AI’s warning. I have to find out fast.

 

 

2088-08-08

 

 

Andor

Medical Center

 

Two liaison officers from Andorian law enforcement drove them downtown through dense but perfectly regulated morning traffic. The Medical Center was a vast building complex of several interconnected high-rises interspersed with meticulously arranged gardens and walkways. Zach couldn’t help but wonder if there had been a joint venture with the Kiwis about geometrically perfected park plants. Seeing these gardens, he wouldn’t put it past them. They entered the central building, passing directly through a busy lobby towards a row of lift cabins. Their LEO escorts stayed behind when they entered the waiting cabin, which immediately started upwards, a colorful display of racing fractals playing on its walls.

Zach blinked. No, the psychedelic color swirls were not fancy projections on the interior walls of the lift cabin but part of the transport tube walls illuminated by the light from the see-through cabin rushing past. Even with his extensive deep space experience, the realization was slightly dizzying. He concentrated on what little they knew about their case and the victim so far…

Miss Denise O’Rourke, a human woman in her late twenties or early thirties, a licensed trader in out-of-League goods, had been brought in with severe complications of what the Andorian doctors assumed to be an accidental abortion due to impurities in her diet. From what he’d read about the topic in his sleepless night, he at least doubted the ‘accidental’ in that sentence. Luckily, that wasn’t his responsibility. He and his team had been called in, because…

…the aborted fetus tested positive for artificial DNA on the paternal side, proving the father to be an augmented human. However, Ms. O’Rourke stated his identity as a deceased non-League-citizen and the Andorians found scarring on her body that indicated she suffered a severe physical trauma around the projected time of conception. Yet, she made no mention of an assault whatsoever. Why? Zach frowned, wondering how to put these questions to a traumatized woman—

“Really, have a look at these things, Zach,” Doc said dreamily beside him. “It’s amazing what a nicely filled Julia set can do for your relaxation when paired off with a well-endowed Mandelbrot—”

“Doc,” Goose cut in, annoyed. “A Mandelbrot set[4] has no noticeable dong on any fractal plane. It looks like an ass. So, shut up!”

“Gentlemen,” Zach snapped. “Recall the nature of this case and adjust your topic, right now.” The lift doors opened into a wide lobby and he answered the greeting nod of the waiting Andorians.

The delegation was larger than Zach had expected. Besides Dr. Pelkar as the responsible forensics expert, there were several high-ranking law enforcement officers, someone clearly belonging to the Andorian fleet who took pains not to declare her actual rank, two representatives of the Andorian planetary council, and several physicians, among them a trauma specialist, a xeno-biologist, and Ms. O’Rourke’s clinician, who appeared to be very nervous about being part of this group. Zach had sympathy for the man. Twenty minutes later, he was tempted to kill him.

“We are very sorry to touch such hurtful memories of your patient,” Doc in the seat beside him was saying at his most serious. “But if we want to accost the AIL responsible for fathering Ms. O’Rourke’s aborted child, we need information about the assault. Where it happened, when, what—” Doc’s forehead creased into sad wrinkles. “Almost anything about the circumstances will help us with tracking him down, but right now we have nothing, doctor.”

The clinician huffed and looked with distaste at the assembled Andorian dignitaries. “You already violated my patient’s rights by extracting fetal DNA samples without her consent. Something I only agreed upon because you—” This time he singled out Zach. “—said that it would lead to the arrest of the creature who did that to her. Now, you insist that’s not enough and you still have to aggravate her mental trauma by interrogating her. I will not stand for that! My patient declined being questioned about her indignity and I will respect her wishes, even if I — as a reasonable person — would do otherwise to make sure the perpetrator sees justice.”

At least Goose had already left with the digicopy for Ranger-1. Zach doubted he’d be successful in keeping the ST from strangling O’Rourke’s clinicians otherwise. In fact, he doubted he would want to be successful…

 

 

Andorian capital space port

Landing Zone 2, reserved for diplomatic and law enforcement vessels

 

Gooseman left the pair of Andorian law enforcement officers behind as he crossed the open landing field towards Ranger-1, the data crystal with the digicopy of the incriminating DNA weighing heavily in his shirt pocket. They are only doing their job, he berated himself. Hell, they do you a favor by making sure you couldn’t have your paws on the sample during transport. He snorted. As if I had anything to gain by adding augmented code to the evidence!

He tapped his wrist com. “Open the lock, GV. Entry code: Gooseman, Shane. Voice ident: sufficient rubbish.” He didn’t wait for the landing platform to lower down and instead leaped smoothly onboard in mid-stride. Should give them something to fret about. “Seal the ship, GV. Initialize maximum security,” he ordered, already on the way to the bridge.

His enhanced hearing immediately picked up the changes in the engine and power patterns as the system moved from idle to alert and the hiss with which the main lock and the escape pod holds were sealed. By the time he reached the bridge, Ranger-1 was completely independent from the planet on which it parked.

The cockpit hatch opened in front of him. Communications, pilot and weapon controls glowed in bright activity, waiting for his input. Communications… He contemplated sending a piggy back signal to ask how Niko was doing, but there was the Andorian monitoring phalanx, the EOS network at home, BETA command and communications… Way too many interim stations as that even ALMA could guarantee a safe line, at least not without being the one to initialize it and if he was caught asking for a secured line— Gooseman suppressed a sigh as he sat down in the pilot’s seat. “GV. Initialize ship-wide security check class A.”

=Understood. Security check in progress.= The green-and-blue eyeball bopped slowly on the main screen.

Goose watched the results of the ship-wide scan trailing over the screen. A few flying insects were reported in the immediate vicinity of the lock. Ignoring Andorian pacifist sensitivities, he flooded the area with hard UV until the life signs vanished and waited for the repeat scan to complete. All clear.

Gooseman drew a deep breath and flipped the com switch. “GV, initialize top security communication with BETA, limited to Commander Joseph Walsh in verified person, flag the security classification flag as classified and set the actual security classification to UVP.” He felt the muscles along his jaw tighten. “Prepare for simultaneous data transmission under the same conditions.”

 

=Say that again!= Walsh stared at him.

“We have evidence of successful sexual reproduction of Supertroopers, sir,” Gooseman repeated very formally. “I am transmitting a digital copy of the fetal DNA for identification as we speak.”

=Any chance that it’s a rogue geneticist running amok?=

“According to the Andorian forensics experts, no sir. — I already asked that.”

=Gods, boy,= Walsh was clearly rattled. =Do you know what that means?=

That the shit hit the fan so high, we’re going to need a shovel before we even enter Solar Sys, Goose thought grimly. Aloud he said, “That we can’t cover this up, sir. The Andorians have the data and I doubt we can discredit their expertise. We need Prof. Negata’s input about the extent of the breach as soon as possible. The number of suspects at large is still too high to go after them simultaneously. We have to prioritize.”

=I meant for you,= the commander said quietly.

Goose forcefully suppressed a shiver. “I won’t go after second generations, sir.” He glanced at the indicator for the data transmission. Completed. Finally. “Gooseman end.”

 

 

BetaMountain

BetaLabs, Sublevel 3, Hall 26

 

“—xual activity isn’t the problem! Reproductive ability is! They weren’t supposed to be fertile—”

Professor Negata? Niko, wiping down the last lab closet, stilled.

“Owen!” The commander’s sharp voice cut in. “This is a public corridor!”

“You don’t get it, do you?” Negata’s electronic voice shrilled. Slightly irregular steps passed by the door. “If the Andorians are right — and tell me, when were they ever wrong?! — They escaped four years ago, four years! Even if we assume their fertility to be significantly lower than standard homo sapiens—” Voice and steps receded in the distance, out of Niko’s hearing range just as the door slid back into the wall and QBall blinked owlishly into the transformed hall.

“Impressive,” BETA’s chief scientist commented at the transparent fronted laboratory cabinets now forming impeccable rows along the walls. A large examination table, complete with a protective force field and robotic arms for heavy lifting took up the hall’s center, and smaller work places with computer terminals were set left and right of the entrance to the side room where Niko had decided to set up the holographic display of the excavation site. “How did you get that installed in less than three days?”

“I don’t know, QBall.” Niko shrugged. “I just filed a request for a standard laboratory fitting and this was what showed up. The work crew was really dedicated, too.”

QBall glanced at his data pad. “Dedicated is one way to put it. They spent two nightshifts on this. Let me guess, you even got a functional network access for these terminals?”

“Only extensions from the wall console, I’m afraid,” she smiled apologetically. “Thought network maintenance told me they’d be working on getting a T-00 line down to the sublevels.”

QBall shook his head. “Do you have any idea how often I applied for a fast line down here?” When Niko said nothing, he grunted. “Let’s hope the installation is complete before they notice what’s going on there.” He plopped his data pad down on the exam table. “And now let’s have a look at these ominous findings of theirs. Any idea where to start?”

Niko nodded. “Professor Morron’s team was very organized. The crates are numbered in order of expected relevance and ID tagged.” She called the correspondent data onto her pad as she spoke and proceeded to enter the respective code into the transportation service of the work table. The panel in the front socket folded back and a rotund robot trundled out. A small antenna on its flat head expanded, rotated, and locked visibly vibrating on a stack of crates. With a happy beep the robot whizzed towards the crates and began attaching agrav pads around the biggest one.

“An integrated Brownie?” QBall queried, watching the crate rise ten centimeters off the ground as the droid activated the pads.

“Lab Tech Incorporated cooperates with SHoD[5],” Niko answered, while the bot directed the crate within reach of the robotic arms of the work table. “Apparently, someone called and told them, a lab certified Brownie would be a great help here.”

They both observed the hydraulic steel arms latch onto the crate and carefully lift it up towards the work tabletop. “It will spare quite some personnel hours,” QBall commented. “With this system, you’ll manage the unpacking on your own.” He studied the crate now resting in the middle of the table. The robotic arms had returned to their waiting position, the Brownie bot was back in the table socket. “The material comes from Tortuna, so it’s the strict security protocol.”

“Weren’t the crates examined before being stored here?” Niko frowned.

“They were, but unpacking might spring traps missed in the previous scans. We—”

=Dr. QBall. Report to S4 genetics laboratory immediately.= RHONDDA’s efficient voice came out of the wall-mounted console. =Dr. QBall. Report to S4 genetics laboratory immediately.=

“The protocol is LS4-subsection Tortuna. It’s on the lab pad,” QBall said hurriedly, before almost running for the door. “Excuse me.”

=Dr. QBall,= RHONDDA started again. =Report to—=

“I’m on my way!” he shouted just as the door closed behind him, leaving Niko alone with the crate and the protocols.

 

Four hours and a missed lunch later, Niko stared at the content of the now dismantled crate no. 1. Hidden in layers of shock absorbing foam and extra padding had been a pyramidal device, which now rested on the polished surface of the work table. The bluish glow of the protective force field still at full strength made it difficult to be sure, but it seemed to be made of black glass engraved with tightly set Xeryon symbols along the edges. Of the three hexagonal openings near its base, the middle one was large enough for one of the blue crystals to fit snugly, while the two left and right of it were about half that size.

A note pad, packed into the crate together with the device, was what held Niko’s attention, though. Ayse and Sven had done a rough field translation of the writing flowing down the frame of the device, identifying it as a Xeryon crystal reader.

Once they managed to power it up, they would be able to read the library.

Once…

A second note on the pad was from Katsumi, Morron’s specialist in Xeryon technology. She had estimated the type and amount of power required to operate it. The numbers didn’t tell Niko much, but it seemed to be operated with light rather than electricity. Katsumi had even noted the required wavelength: 697.4±0.2 nanometers. QBall’s got to see this! If we can get this to work

 

 

2088-08-09

 

 

Andor

 

=Contrary to the Andorian assumptions,= the synthesized voice of Prof. Negata, further distorted by a heavily scrambled connection through deep space, reverberated in the secured communications room currently occupied by the S5. =The sexual proliferation of Supertrooper code is limited to alpha-BDC. No other gene set contains the components responsible for bypassing the reproductive restrictions of the code. Negata end.=

The connected ended with a smooth blip as the large screen went dark.

“So, not all the Supertroopers at large are spreading their seeds,” Doc commented at last into the following silence. “But— phew…” He glanced at Goose. “Does that mean you can’t—?”

“To the case, gentlemen!” Zach cut in. “Gooseman, what does alpha-BDC mean with respect to the number of suspects at large. How many troopers are we speaking about?”

The ST was still staring at the empty screen. “Only two alpha-BDC made it through the project until the very end,” he said flatly. “We’re searching Killbane.”

“You said there were two.”

“Yes.” Doc frowned. “What about the other? How can you be sure it’s Killbane when—”

“The other is me.” Goose fixed Doc squarely. “I guess being stuck shipless on a dirt ball for five months qualifies as an alibi even for me.”

Doc gaped and slowly started to beam. “Now that’s what I’m calling good news, Goose-my-man! You’re shooting live rounds like the rest of us. Congratulations!” He fumbled something out of his pocket. “Here. And if you have any questions, go ahead. Ask the Doc!” He patted Goose’s shoulder. “Now, where to find Kill—” He stopped when Gooseman very slowly crumpled the small plastic package he’d been given into a tight ball and let it pointedly fall to the floor before turning on his heel to leave the room without as much as a “By your leave” for Zach.

“Doc,” Zachary snapped after confirming that the com was indeed turned off. “Please tell me that you didn’t just try to give him condoms.”

“What? You want him to get in trouble that young? He—” Doc stopped, seeing Zach’s face.

“Are you really unaware about the restrictions the Board put on him for being allowed to serve as a Ranger?” Zach asked very quietly. “Do you know that I have a standing order from the Board to report — and I quote verbatim — ‘any indication that Gooseman encourages the other sex to associate’?”

“Encourages…?” Doc gaped. “Did nobody send the Board a decent holo of him? He doesn’t have to encourage them! If looks removed clothes, we’d need the Laredo to carry replacement pants! That’s my point!”

“And it’s exactly why I didn’t see anything to report so far,” Zach told him. “Now, do you think he should carry items that if found in his possession will be considered ‘preparatory’?” He stood. “I’m going to find out what we’ll do about Killbane.”

 

The communication room’s door closed with the usual Andorian efficiency behind Gooseman as he strode through the anteroom and out into the wider conference hall. Battle reflexes noted several Andorians turning for him, one starting to speak as he passed, but he didn’t bother to stop and answer.

“Alpha-BDC bypasses the reproductive restrictions,” Negata’s electronically distorted voice kept saying in his thoughts as he headed out the hall. Damn! He hadn’t even considered the possibility! It made sense, though. BDC was designed to overcome limitations, physical boundaries… Apparently, Negata had done that last part a little too well, and now— Proceeding from bounty-hunting to baby-killing, Gooseman? He shuddered. Children— He stopped dead.

Niko. Tortuna. What if—!?

He hadn’t even considered it.

“Gooseman?” He winced at Zachary’s voice coming from behind and pulled himself together, dragged anger and hate for Killbane fucking up his life even from the other side of the galaxy over his fears before turning around to face a probably rightfully irate captain. “Yes?”

Zach mustered him from head to boots. “Care to explain your behavior?”

“I’m sorry, sir. I—” He managed to look contrite. “Keeping professional distance in a case that’s literally inside my skin—” He shook his head and fervently wished that to be the only place where ‘it’ was, while waiting for the reprimand to come.

Apparently, he’d hit the right tone, though. Zach’s expression softened a little. “I won’t pretend to understand what this mess means for you, Gooseman, but I need you to do your job. This case upsets everyone, not the least the authorities here and on Earth. When it comes down to it, we still have to bring in the suspect—”

“—of a rape the victim denies even happened,” Goose returned bluntly. “And for the record: No, Killbane is not adaptable enough to pull off Mr. Perfect Boyfriend. That story’s a piece of crap!”

“That story is what we have to accept while operating under Andorian jurisdiction,” Zach returned firmly, but he added in a low voice, “though we don’t have to like it.”

“Can’t we separate it?”

Zach frowned. “Meaning, lieutenant?”

“The Andorians forbid us to query a rape victim, right, but that woman says she isn’t one. So why do we treat the case as if she is?”

“Because the Andorians treat it as a rape and that defines our M.O. on Andor.”

“And if you ask only about the assault, about where it happened? She was bitten[6], Zach. She wouldn’t ascribe that to her boyfriend.” Goose drew quotation marks in the air around ‘boyfriend’. “Killbane’s a wanted criminal. He’ll be on ice before you even get to open the arrest form. Hell! If the lady says anything that leads to his arrest, I sign for her to get the reward just to have the scumbag be worth something!”

“You’re serious about that, aren’t you?” his captain asked dryly.

Goose shrugged. “You gotta be pragmatic when it comes to STs.”

Zachary sighed and ran a hand through his hair. “I’ll think about it. And now move. We have to inform the Andorians about Prof. Negata’s results and what we plan to do about it.”

“Zach.” Goose stopped him again in a low voice. “We better keep the wraps over the details on this one. Killbane works on and off for the Queen. We don’t want the old bitch to get ideas about breeding him.”

“Noted,” his captain said grimly, looking every bit as nauseated as Goose felt.

 

 

BetaMountain

MPQ 219

 

The lighting was dimmed to a soft glow. Com screen and door were locked. ALMA would handle any incoming messages. Niko placed the last of the meditation balls, fist-sized crystal spheres to reflect the flame of the candle and her face, completing the circle on her living room carpet.

It had been a long time since she’d set up a full meditation circle. Normally, focusing came naturally to her, allowing her to reach the clarity of thought and purity of mind required of her without any paraphernalia, but maybe that had been arrogance.

Breathing deeply, she lit the candle in front of her crossed legs. The scents of burning wick and warming beeswax arose and she strived to calm her mind like the flame calmed from the ignition. Ignited was very much like she felt, burning, disquieted, flickering on resources consumed by her heat…

…be it her body — she had skipped meals again, prompting ALMA to seal her door and double the size of her breakfast dish — or her soul. Shane’s blood shone on pale skin and paler sheets, marking a body made for a different kind of heat—

Niko shuddered, shrank back from the thought and the candle flame flickered, mimicking her unease, melting more wax, blocking her way…

…like the MPs in front of the S4 lab when QBall hadn’t answered her calls. Armed guards denying her entry, until the commander had had enough of the commotion and reminded her that she was

—not cleared for this area! Get back to your station or face trial for insubordination. QBall will come over once he is done here.” The cold words had been like a slap to the face. “Dismissed!”

A slap she’d deserved. You are not cleared any more. You are not— You—

“—have to fill out every single permit ever invented if you want to get that crystal reader of yours powered up!” A hollow-eyed QBall had said as much the next morning when he threw a single glance at Katsumi’s notes and mumbled, “Starstones,” before leaving her with a to do list that took two minutes just to scroll down.

It would be only her and QBall in that lab. Together, they worked out most of the regulations for safely operating star stone devices, and yet she had to fill out the clearance request for hazardous materials in a scientific facility (FL-48.H-3/BA), the request for a permit regarding the storage, handling, and operation of a possibly explosive device on base (BMB-D75-SHO/E), the application to base engineering for certification of the facility to operate a device listed under D75-SHO/E (BME-CFL/C), the form for informing the chief medical officer and obtaining a medical clearance for all personnel who might come in contact with the device (CMO-A35C/psi), the request for personnel safety instructions regarding the handling of psycho-active and/or explosive devices (BME-A35C/psi), and a set of no less than five forms required for transporting hazardous goods type A35C/psi—

The candle flame hissed. Her twisted face reflected, distorted, among the crystal balls around her. Horrified, she noticed that her meditation had gone off-topic.

Again.

 

 

2088-08-10

 

 

Andor

 

“Captain,” Dr. Pelkar said with utmost politeness and as much frost. “It is not the Andorian way to interpret the evidence and statements against the interests of the victim. Ms. O’Rourke already declined being questioned. We will not allow you to split cases so that you can question her by the — how’s this saying of yours? — backside.” The two representatives of the Andorian planetary council and the still unnamed fleet representative beside her nodded solemnly.

“Dr. Pelkar, honored deputies,” Zachary said cautiously. “We don’t intend to question Ms. O’Rourke on anything regarding her ordeal — or ordeals. However, we do believe that it is in her best interest to have her assailant brought to justice. Based on the genetic evidence you collected, we were able to narrow the list of suspects down to a single individual—”

The announcement caused a stir around the conference table and Zachary hurried to continue before any questions could be voiced. “—who also matches the physical parameters you deducted from the scarring on Ms. O’Rourke’s face.” Dr. Pelkar frowned and Zach raised his hand to keep her from interrupting. “Since he is already among the League’s Most Wanted, we will not require her statement or appearance in court to bring him to justice. However, we do need information about his whereabouts. If you—” He steadfastly looked at the Andorian clinician. “—would ask Ms. O’Rourke about the coordinates where she was assaulted, it would be an invaluable help to bring him to justice.”

“If it is too painful for her,” Doc said quietly on the other side of the table. “Granting us limited access to her navigational records for the respective timeframe also suffices.”

“Frankly,” Gooseman added grimly, tapping his light pen against the data pad in front of him. “This is the first time in almost a year that he shows up on the radar. It would be a shame not to—”

The holo cube above the center of the conference table lit up, showing a rather young Andorian face in communications gear. =Please excuse this interruption,= he said. =We’re receiving an urgent transmission from the Board of World Leaders. Senator Eric Wheiner of Earth wants to speak with the Galaxy Rangers. Right now.=

The Andorian fleet representative raised her brows at that. “Do you wish us to leave, Captain?” she asked perfunctory.

“Thank you for asking,” Zach answered with a polite nod, “but I do not wish to add to your inconvenience. Please stay.” He glanced briefly at Doc who busied himself with the CDU before signaling him subtly to ‘go on’. Zach nodded grimly at the com tech in the holo cube. “Put him through, please.”

The embarrassed com tech was immediately replaced by Wheiner’s red-faced visage filling most of the holo cube. =Fox,= he snarled without any preamble. =Is it true that the Supertroopers are breeding!?=

Zachary stood. “Senator, with all due respect, this is an ongoing investigation—”

=Are they breeding or not, Fox?= the senator cut him off and, zeroing in on Gooseman, =Are you?!=

Zachary felt his face grow hot. “We have confirmed evidence that only one of the escaped Supertroopers is fertile, senator,” he stated coldly. “I do not see how that concerns Gooseman except that he’ll be the one to bring him in at the earliest possible time.” He recalled a bloodied coffee cup and a promise of not having to hunt children. “The individual in question currently resides on Tortuna. We require unlimited clearance for Tortuna to bring him in.”

Wheiner gaped. =Out of the question!=

The holo cube changed abruptly back to the nervous com tech. Zach released a slow breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding. Gooseman stirred, slowly putting the light pen he’d been holding down onto the tabletop. “Thank you,” he breathed.

“I do not provide information about my people outside the proper chain of command on principle, Gooseman,” Zach retorted, thinking of ‘You have a higher opinion of our government than I’. He signaled the Andorian com tech in the holo cube. “I need to contact my superior officer immediately. Please establish a secure connection from this location to BetaMountain, office of Cmdr. Walsh.”

 

“Sir,” Zach stated the moment the image cleared less than thirty seconds later. “I have to report a violation of the chain of command regarding my unit’s ongoing case on Andor. A member of the Board of World Leaders called me directly to demand information about ST fertility.”

=Noted,= Walsh replied grimly. =What did you tell him?=

“The truth, sir. We have irrefutable proof that only one escaped trooper is fertile.” Zach held Walsh’s gaze steadily. “I requested unlimited clearance for Tortuna in order to bring him in.”

Walsh arched a brow at that. =Was it granted?=

“No, sir.” Zach allowed a tiny smile to escape onto his stony expression. “But I have a CDU recording of the vid call and four Andorian dignitaries as witnesses.”

Walsh nodded gravely. =I expect your full report upon your return. And Fox— Good work.=

“Thank you, sir.” He saluted and signaled to end the call.

 

 

BetaMountain

BetaLabs, Sublevel 3, Hall 26

 

Maximum force fields shielded the reinforced duranium steel box in the middle of the agrav platform, secured by armed MPs in heavy protection gear. Warning lights flashed — on the agrav and above each door — as the platform slowly moved down the corridors of sublevel 3 towards hall 26.

“They’re really going over the top with this,” Niko commented under her breath. “Those star stones have only half a charge and their combined mass won’t do more than yellow the paint should they blast.”

“Starstones are explosive, psionically active devices, Niko,” QBall reminded her. “Exposed to the ceiling lights, the half-charge would soon turn into a full charge and that would do a lot more than ‘yellow the paint’ as you so aptly put it.”

She sighed, exasperated. “And it would still be a flash I can contain easily.”

“If you were an S5 Ranger and not a mere lab assistant.” QBall shrugged and waved at the MPs to speed things up. They needed those starstones installed and the room lighting back to normal, or BetaLabs’ schedule would be in chaos for days.

 

 

2088-08-11

 

 

Andor

 

The call came while he was preparing a dossier for the Andorian law enforcers regarding the identified subject, the quality of the evidence, and the actions their unit would take to bring him in. It warrants one of Goose’s one-word-reports, Zach thought sourly. ‘Nothing!’ sums it up nicely. He sighed. No, diplomatic relations weren’t strained between the Rangers and Andor, though he wouldn’t dare saying the same about Andorian authorities and Earths. He—

The melodious tune of the hotel com doubtlessly signified an important mathematical theorem totally eluding him. He tapped the screen. “Fox here.” He recognized the woman immediately, though Denise O’Rourke had suffered since the holograms for her trader’s license included in the victim’s dossier had been taken. “Ms. O’Rourke. How may I help you?”

“I released myself from hospital, Captain,” she stated brusquely. “Andorian sensibilities do not prevent me from speaking to you any longer. Let’s meet.”

But ‘Andorian sensibilities’ will keep us from questioning you, Zach amended in his thoughts and acknowledged, Smart move. “We’re leaving Andor in four hours.”

“Your hotel has an acceptable restaurant. I’ll be there in two hours. Bring your team.”

She cut the line without waiting for his reply.

 

The restaurant of a space port hotel — even an expensive one like that serving the diplomat landing field in the Andorian capital — was never empty. Though the wide hall with views of either the space port or Andoran’s illuminated skyline wasn’t crowded, there certainly were enough guests and waiting droids around to ensure that nothing happening here would go unnoticed or unrecorded, even if the widely-spaced tables allowed private conversations…

…at least for normal hearing, Goose decided as he followed Zach and Doc towards a table shielded by a potted plant and a glittering partition made of multiple layers of fractal filigree in glass. Zach had briefed them both on proper behavior towards traumatized victims, including an ‘I expect you in uniform, Gooseman, not your black casuals, clear?’, but Goose was determined to leave this talk to Zach and Doc. He was better at extorting information from suspects not victims.

She’s taller than the license holo makes her look, Goose thought when Denise O’Rourke stood at their approach. He tensed when her hand moved to her belt as if she expected a weapon there. She obviously struggled to relax from the posture, but the handshake she exchanged with Zach appeared firm. “Thank you for coming,” she said.

Zachary took the seat opposite her when they sat, leaving him and Doc the places to either side.  Something in her face doesn’t fit, Gooseman noticed as he pulled out his chair to sit down. He knew Denise O’Rourke’s dossier: Caucasian, black hair, dark brown eyes, skin type I… vague descriptions and a holo made for normal sight usually didn’t mean shit for him. There was coloring in her hair, but a lot of women did that for whatever reason. The iris coloring was unusual though. What color do you hide with that dull brown, Lady? he thought, while Zach covered the legalities and summed up what little they could share with her.

Oddly, she shifted closer to him than to Doc. Gooseman frowned. Something in her scent seemed oddly familiar, but he couldn’t place it. The acridity of antibiotics permeated everything. Whatever she’d been given had been damn strong stuff.

She demanded explanations, asked for details, her lips straining against the double scars trisecting them, the result of fangs not in check.

Goose remembered Killbane’s fangs, digging into his neck when he’d been a kid, grinding down on his vertebrae as claws shredded his uniform and the skin underneath to— He stopped that thought. There were memories better left untouched. And it had cost Killbane his eye[7]. For good.

There. That was better than thinking about what those claws had done to the woman’s body elsewhere. Goose swallowed. What his claws could have done to Niko, if—

Denise O’Rourke’s hands slammed down onto the tabletop, making the cups dance on the saucers. “You’re telling me, Ryker Killbane isn’t your business?!”

Goose froze. He recognized the voice, the anger in it, the temper, and they hadn’t identified Killbane by name to the Andorians.

“The League’s safety from the Crown comes first,” Zach was saying.

“So you won’t do anything, is that it?” She glared at them, brown eyes flashing green. “I’m not working for the League,” she declared, jaw set in a stubborn line. “Tell me how to kill him!”

Zach was caught cold by that statement. “You aren’t serious, are you?”

No, Zach, she is serious, Goose corrected mentally. Denise O’Rourke might be frightened, but Daisy O’Mega will go after Killbane, if we don’t arrest her. I ought to tell

“You can’t assault a Supertrooper!” his captain argued, oblivious.

He was a goddamn man when he—” Daisy cut herself off, looked aside unable to meet their eyes and Goose kept silent. He knew what being prey meant, feeling like prey was crippling. The Daisy O’Mega he knew from the Cheyenne would survive a roundtrip to Deltoid and back, would come out kicking in the end, but this one—

“Ms. O’Rourke,” Zach was saying. “You have no idea what an ST can do. What you have to expect.”

—in her profession, if she doesn’t fight back and wins, she’s dead. He didn’t want that. He wouldn’t stand for that. You’re getting yourself in trouble, Gooseman, he thought in mocked self-observation and interrupted his captain, “Expect someone who’s able to jump fifteen meters from a resting position, make the hundred meters from stand-still in less than thirty seconds.” He spoke fast, just loud enough that any interruption would have to be shouted. He didn’t think Zach would do that in a busy restaurant given the topic.

“Killbane’s got a reaction time of under .2 seconds and adapts instantaneously to any weapon that doesn’t take out his head and half his spinal marrow at the first shot. If you don’t eliminate at least half his body, including head and spinal marrow, within his reaction time, you’ll be dead.” Okay, time for the hanging. “If you are lucky.”

“Gooseman!” Zach snapped the moment Goose closed his mouth. “That information is—”

Classified, I know. “I want to deter Ms. O’Rourke from her plan, Captain,” he looked at his pissed commanding officer with as much innocence as he could muster while hoping that Daisy would put the information he’d given her to good use. “Is something wrong with that?”

Is there? he asked himself, playing with the menu card, waiting for the rebuke. You’ve got to be pragmatic when it comes to STs. His own words, mocking him.

“Not wrong, Gooseman, but the wrong method.” Surprised, Goose realized that Zach sounded more resigned than angry. Somehow that made it worse.

 

 

BetaMountain
BetaLabs, Sublevel 3, Hall 26

 

The starstones sat snugly in the socket of the alien device, though it had taken some careful polishing in inconveniently dim light to make them fit. Relieved, QBall fastened the protective caps over them, making sure the room lighting couldn’t add to their charge. Once the crystal reader worked and they determined its energy consumption, he’d exchange the black caps for dark filters, allowing just enough light through to keep the charge constant. “Lights,” he demanded once the last cap was fixed in place. Beside him, Niko blinked in the sudden brightness. “Do you know how it’s turned on?” he asked her.

She shook her head. “No. It’ll have to be trial and error.” At QBall’s frown, she added, “It’s a reading device for a public library. Professor Morron’s studies showed clearly that it was open to the public, not all of them Xeryon natives.”

QBall nodded slowly. “So, either it’s very simple or intended to be handled by skilled personnel on demand.” He studied that black pyramid on the table, its smooth lines partially broken by the protruding caps shielding the inserted starstones. “Anything in those notes Morron’s people sent along with it?”

“I’m afraid not,” Niko tapped onto the read pad. “Katsumi Nakawa’s the technician among them and she focused on the power supply.”

QBall looked at the inactive crystal reader again. “Let’s try the obvious and if it doesn’t work, I’ll send one of the techs over to x-ray it.” He adjusted his glasses, squinted at the glass pyramid, at the symbols engraved along its edges. “There are no obvious switches or contact fields,” he noted. “I assume, asking for a psionic reading would be futile?”

Niko sighed. “The sensations of the archaeologists finding and studying it will have erased any imprint dating back to its last regular use.”

“Anything in that writing?” QBall pointed at the symbols in the glass.

“The usual praises of universal knowledge,” Niko told him, recognizing the set of symbols along the first edge of the pyramid immediately. “They’re a universal header on almost any written Xeryon missive. The next—” she frowned. “It seems to be a name plaque.” She blinked. “Somebody sponsored this device for public use.” She went around the table to look at the remaining two edges. One was blank, the other— “I’m sorry, but that’s a reminder to return the crystal afterwards.”

QBall raised his head. “That means the crystals were handled by the customers!” He tapped against his reading aid. “Making extra personnel a lot less likely. Could it be as simple as—?” He mumbled. “Give me one of those crystals.”

Putting on lab gloves, Niko fetched one of the crystals from the first box and handed it to him. QBall turned it around thoughtfully. It was carved irregularly, its facets not fully symmetrical. If it really fit into the crystal reader, there would only be one way to do so.

“If it explodes we deny we did anything!” QBall declared with a grin as he pushed the blue crystal into the opening between the two capped starstones. “If it doesn’t—” The four sides of the device lit up. Pale blue symbols began flowing down from the top, forming a menu of sorts and a densely-set text underneath. “Eureka’s dog on speed,” QBall whispered. “It really works.”

Niko beside him just stared.

 

 

2088-08-12

 

 

BetaMountain hangars

 

Ranger-1 entered the hangar tunnel precisely on their assigned vector, after EOS-3 had handed their signal over to BMC — not without a friendly “Welcome home”. In times of increased space traffic, the computerized directional and communications systems provided by the six Earth Orbit Stations were a welcome service, though Zach still wondered why all their computer voices had to be distinctly feminine, soft, and slightly sultry. In contrast, the voice of BetaMountain Control was male, scratchy as a chain smoker with chronic bronchitis, and about as welcoming as a pissed off dock hand on third shift. Maybe Goose had ignored BMC’s orders one time too often for even an AI to remain friendly.

=Landing performed. Clear the vicinity after shutting down ship.= BMC rasped out. =Ranger Gooseman, report to commander Walsh ASAP.=

An expression of utter dread rushed over the ST’s face at that order.

Zach unstrapped and got out of his seat, tapping briefly on the back of Goose’s chair. “Your turn to shut down, Lieutenant.”

Goose threw him a look of surprise, but wisely said only, “Aye, sir.”

 

“What was that for?” Doc asked after he and Zach had cleared the landing platform. “I was scheduled to power her down, since Niko’s no longer on the roster.”

“I know, Doc,” Zach looked back at the ship. Goose was visible as a dark shadow in the lit cockpit. “But it’ll give him a few minutes to sort his thoughts before he has to face Walsh. I don’t think that’s going to be an easy talk.”

Doc snorted. “Hell, yeah. Spilling classifieds in a restaurant…” he shook his head. “I mean, it sucks to sit around and do nothing and I got the impression that Killy’s a rather personal enemy of his.”

Killy?” Zach frowned but let it go. “I don’t know. He’s been in a strange mood ever since that mission to Tortuna.”

“Goose’s always strange,” Doc reminded him. “That’s his style.”

“I mean ‘strange’ for Goose’s way of strangeness,” Zach specified and winced slightly at the sentence he’d come up with. “And this case certainly didn’t help. Or would you feel comfortable discussing with your chief commanding officer what he learned about himself during a case of rape committed by his genetic twin?”

“You think Walsh will bring that up?”

The transport cabin set down and Zach entered his clearance before answering grimly, “I think that’s a given.” He started the cabin. “And Goose knows that.” He sighed, watching the cavernous underground hangar slip by as the transport cabin rose and accelerated towards the inner areas holding offices and quarters. God, he wanted to see his children, wanted to face problems like scraped knees or too much ice cream, something he had a fighting chance to solve. It would be such a nice change.

 

 

Office of Cmdr. Walsh

30 minutes later

 

“The BWL won’t lessen my restrictions any time soon,” Goose stated matter-of-factly. “As long as they don’t, it will be of no concern regarding my person, and as for my duties—” He met Walsh’s eyes on this. “Tortuna lacks a functional crime registry. There’s no workable solution for finding…” He swallowed. “…possible results of Killbane’s behavior — or lack thereof,” he added uncomfortably.

“Except if you apprehend and question him,” Walsh reminded him. “And he is top priority, now more than ever.”

“Apparently not top enough, sir,” Goose returned. “I have no clearance for Tortuna.”

“A fact for which you should thank Captain Fox,” Walsh told him. “And for preventing the Board to inquire about any more details regarding ST—” He stopped, obviously reconsidered his words. “—regarding your fertility.”

Gooseman winced.

“It will affect you, do you realize that?” Walsh tented his hands. “Right now, we know that alpha-BDC bypasses the restrictions on gametes production, but there are no data regarding the efficacy of the gametes at fecundation. Frankly, we don’t know if that fetus was an aberration—” This time Walsh waited for him to look up, “—or the rule,” and waited for that to sink in.

It took several moments. “What kind of tests?” was all Goose asked hoarsely.

Walsh sighed. “No tests, Gooseman, but I want you to be careful. There are too many unknowns here.”

“Understood.” No relief. The boy didn’t trust him that much.

“There’s a difference between ability and permission. Don’t learn that the hard way.” Walsh studied him calmly, for once allowed some of his concern to show on his face. “We can’t afford that.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Before you leave,” Walsh glanced at the screen set into his desk. “The Andorians already forwarded the diplomatic costs of your unit’s stay on Andor. There’s an item on the hotel bill concerning your and Dr. Hartford’s room, which I would like to discuss.” He arched a brow at Goose. “Five days of adult Tri-D service?”

 

 

GRS5 office

 

It was almost three hours after landing when Goose finally reported back from Walsh, entering their office in what could almost be considered a weary slouch. “Doc,” he said, indicating the way he’d come with a nod. “He wants to talk to you, too.”

Doc gaped. “With me? Are you sure?”

“Yeah.” Goose flopped down at his console. “You better hurry,” he added. “He’s not in a good mood.”

“Do you know what’s wrong?” Zach asked after Doc had left. Doc had kept a rather low profile on Andor, so what—?

“I guess he’s got to explain the billing of five days adult Tri-D service for our room.” Goose shrugged. “He’ll survive that.”

“The Andorians caught him?” Zachary asked surprised.

“Na. I told the concierge that the service was somehow accessible in our room.” Gooseman corrected with a grin showing fangs. “And since it was used, it better be billed properly to avoid diplomatic hassles, isn’t it?”

Zach frowned. “You tattled on Doc?”

“Nope, but he’s been so keen on teaching me how to ‘move in his world’, as he put it—” The ST snorted. “—that I decided to return the favor. Explaining private matters to the commander is unavoidable in mine.” Goose smiled grimly. “And from experience: ‘It was a misunderstanding’, ‘it wasn’t my fault’, ‘it just happened’, ‘it wasn’t me’, and ‘who, me?’ won’t get him out of there.”

 

 

2088-08-13

 

 

MPQ 219

 

It was after midnight by the time the corridors had quieted enough for Goose to leave his flat unseen. ALMA sent the surveillance cams outside in a jittered loop, making sure not even the random noise speckles showed any treacherous repetition. Even breathing and an occasional rustle of bed clothes would cover his absence for the listening devices placed in his walls.

Advantage of late night adventures, Gooseman, he mocked himself in his thoughts. Your AI doesn’t pretend you’re watching 7th Heaven reruns to cover your absence.

Also courtesy of ALMA, Niko’s door opened just wide enough for him to slip through. No telltale light to emerge into the corridor, not even the unexpected scent of warm beeswax wafting up from her living room area. He stopped halfway down the stairs, spotting the source of the scent. Niko sat on the floor of her living room, a thick candle standing before her. The flame reflected in a ring of large glass balls set around her, but the golden light surrounding her wasn’t from the candle. Her hair seemed to float in it, as if following the reflections of the flame. She looked serene, at peace with herself. Silently he sat down on the stairs. He didn’t want to destroy that, if he hadn’t already…

“There’s a difference between ability and permission. Don’t learn that the hard way,” Walsh’s voice said in his thoughts, and, “It will affect you.” Goose desperately hoped it would be only him it affected. The Board wouldn’t accept an ‘I didn’t know’ any more than Walsh did…

 

The candle flame flickered and danced, as did its reflections in the crystals balls, as did the ghost flames on Niko’s retinas and the thoughts in her mind. It was late, but she had to find out what was going on within her. She could no longer pretend that it would heal on its own, that it was only because she hadn’t had time to cope with her experiences on 17798…

“You’ve got a problem, girl, but I’m not it.”

He’d told her that after… She shrank away from the image, from the moment of—

She drove her nails into her palms, used the physical pain to remind herself of her violence.

You’d never been a hunter, yet you killed. Hunting is taking what you need,” she heard his voice in his thoughts, faint, tender and cruel, “taking what you want. I should know.”

             She remembered the pain in that last statement. His pain, not hers, though she’d failed to grasp that back then. She had no right to feel that close to him. Not now, not after Tortuna, and yet, it was as if he was right behind—

 

—she leaped to her feet, startled. “It’s me,” Shane said, staying motionless where he was.

“Why are you—” She frowned. “—sitting on my stairs?”

“I didn’t want to interrupt,” he said sheepishly. “ALMA let me in.”

Niko huffed, exasperated. “This electronic crit—”

=Please watch your manners!= The AI cut in, setting the ambient lights to half-bright now that the meditation was over.

“—electronic critic better stops letting people into my apartment without asking me first!” Niko finished.

=I believed it in your and Goose’s best interest. Releasing Somnia-3 in the corridors to give him time for ringing the bell causes too much attention.=

Niko groaned, hearing Goose echoing the sound. “Why are you here?” she asked, realizing the mentioned sleeping gas was also a reminder that his time here was limited. It was past midnight, by four AM, the corridors would become lively with the early shift.

“I don’t want to hurt you, but—” He was radiating distress. It didn’t take a lapse in her psionic shielding to detect that. “Maybe I already have.”

“You didn’t hurt me,” she reassured him. “You just startled me. I—” She stopped when he shook his head.

“On Tortuna,” he specified. “We were lucky on Granna, but maybe there’s a time window or the gen code needs to be triggered and if it’s the latter then Granna definitely did that and—”

Niko gave up trying to follow that. “What are you talking about?” she cut in. “I don’t get you.”

Silence. She waited.

“Are you pregnant?” he blurted.

“What?” The question was out before she even realized it.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t know. It—”

“That pregnancy is a possible side-effect of sex?” she asked, exasperated.

“It shouldn’t be with me,” he looked aside.

She froze. ‘They weren’t supposed to be fertile.’ Negata had raved outside her lab. Stars! That was about…? And it’s been days ago! No wonder, he’s freaked out. “I’m not pregnant,” she told him calmly.

“Are you sure?” he asked. “I mean… how can you know—?”

“I’m a telepath,” she reminded him, heading up the stairs. “Believe me, I would know. And I took precautions.” She sat down on the step below him and gave him a crooked smile. “I didn’t know you were supposed to be sterile.” He slumped in relief. “You were that worried?” she asked quietly. “You shouldn’t have been. Even without the protection… my kind doesn’t conceive easily.”

“We don’t know what my kind” —the expression was a curse in his tone — “is in that regard, Niko. I—” He drew a deep, shaky breath, resting his elbows on his knees before pushing himself to his feet. “I better get going.” I don’t want to see you wounded like that.

She shouldn’t have caught that thought. She was glad, she had. Like that, unspecific as it was, indicated something specific, something known. Shane, what did you see on that mission? She wondered, knowing she — being no longer part of his unit — couldn’t ask him about it. And so she watched him leaving and worried about… herself. Horrified, she hid her face in her hands.

             Herself. And she’d thought she made progress.

 

 

Office of Cmdr. Walsh

09:15

 

“Earth University will not continue Morron’s research, QBall,” Walsh said bluntly. “They closed his institute, sold the equipment, and won’t touch whatever he brought back from Tortuna even with a very long pole.”

“Morons.” QBall thrummed an annoyed rhythm on his folder. “Commander, we have to continue this project. Those crystals contain the equivalent of several yotta[8]-bytes of information on a culture that as far as we know existed on the home world of our most dangerous enemy. With access to Tortuna being denied, it might well be our sole resource for information at the moment.”

“Information that’s at least two hundred years old, if not older.” Walsh snorted. “Do you know what was cutting edge technology two hundred years ago? The first car running on gasoline, coca cola, and—”

“—Heinrich Hertz’s discovery of electromagnetic waves[9],” QBall finished dryly. “I know. But we’re a young civilization. The speed of fundamental innovation decreases with increasing complexity. Do you know the cutting edge of Andorian technology at that time?”

“Care to enlighten me?” Walsh raised a brow, daring him to continue.

“The first crystal-based hyperdrive and initial calculations about planetary shields.” QBall cocked his head. “Sounds interesting, doesn’t it?”

Walsh tapped on his desk. “That’s still assuming Tortuna to be an old civilization.”

“I know,” QBall admitted. “But can we afford not to assume it? Right now, it costs us a lab hall and three chairs for the translators, hardly an expensive project considering the gain if I’m right.”

“You want three people translating several yottabytes?” Walsh asked, bemused. “Just for how long do you intend to chain them there?”

QBall sighed. “The operational crystal reader allows for three people to work simultaneously. Not more. I already made a precision scan of the device and ordered one of my best technicians to build a duplicate, preferably one not powered by starstones. But I want those translations started. Those people don’t have to read everything. You don’t read scientific texts like a novel when you’re searching for information. You’re scanning through, only slowing down when something seems promising.”

Walsh nodded. “You’ll need fluent readers for that. The average student won’t do.”

“Indeed,” QBall agreed. “And that’s the second reason why I’m here. Currently all people but one fluent enough for that task are at Deltoid.”

“So, you want military base clearance for convicted criminals?”

“I want two chipped minor offenders working off their debts to the general public here in a highly-secured laboratory,” QBall confirmed.

“A laboratory containing starstones,” Walsh challenged.

“Sealed and covered starstones in a protected reading device.”

“A device which they have to use.”

“Together with a highly trained former Galaxy Ranger.”

“Who failed to contain them before.”

“Commander!” QBall threw up his hands, exasperated. “You’re difficult on purpose!”

Walsh smirked. “I’m doing my best, Q.”

 

 

 

[1] AIL: augmented intelligent life form

[2] see: "Rape" (fan fiction by A. Kniggendorf)

[3] see: "Psychocrypt" (TV-E) and "The Lie" (fan fiction by A. Kniggendorf)

[4]  << this is a Mandelbrot set.  << this is a Julia set. Now do the math!

[5] see: "Droidal Affairs" (fan fiction by A. Kniggendorf)

[6] Yes, Goose is a tad naïve here.

[7] see: "Shattered Souls: For an Eye" (fan fiction by A. Kniggendorf)

[8] Yotta denotes a factor of 1024 or 1.000.000.000.000.000.000.000.000. Its SI unit symbol is Y.

[9] In 1886 Karl Benz patents Benz Patent Motorwagen as the first successful gasoline-driven automobile on January 29 and unveils it on July 3, pharmacist Dr. John Pemberton invents the carbonated drink later named coca-cola on May 8 of the same year, and the experiment of Herrn Hertz took place on November 11 at the University of Karlsruhe, Germany.

Chapter Text

2088-09-16

 

BetaLabs

13:48

 

“It is evidence of aggressive force used against uniformed Galaxy Rangers in the field, who identified themselves correctly to the suspect. I don’t give a shit what you call it as long as it nixes the scumbag’s chance to waltz away snot-free!”

Niko stopped at the irritated voice coming from the entrance. Shane? He was standing in front of the forensics reception, an orange plastic pan for evidence and a notepad with forms for documenting evidence on the counter in front of him.

“You can list it as shrapnel, but not as a projectile.” The forensics clerk held her ground. “This is clearly not ammunition.”

“Lady, I dug that piece outta my side. You can damn well believe it was shot at us!” Goose growled at the end of his tether.

Reaching the reception, Niko spotted a fist-sized hole in the side of his shirt, revealing suspiciously unblemished skin surrounded by dark-stained cloth. “Shane?” She met his eyes across the counter. “What happened?”

“One of the crooks used an old blunderbuss against us,” he answered. “I didn’t think such antiquities were even built in this millennium, much less carried into space. You know these wide muzzles that almost shoot around the corner?” He grinned. “This one literally did.”

“And hit you,” she concluded with a glance at his torn, blood-stained shirt. No replacements on that flight. Interceptor?

“Actually, the scumbag hit Zach.” Goose shrugged with a nod at the evidence. “That load ricocheted off the bionics and tagged me.”

“Is Zach alright?” Niko worried at the sight of a handful of bent, rusty nails and pins on the evidence tray.

“He’s over at Electronics and Med to have his synthoskin replaced and the circuitry checked, but he moved normal enough.” He gave her a crooked smile. “Better Zach and me than Doc and his progs. The CDU’s not that good at deflecting hardware.”

The receptionist, having overheard the story, looked uncomfortably at them. “I’ll enter it as ‘projectile’,” she stated, “with a ‘may require reclassification’ remark. Is that acceptable to you, Ranger Gooseman?”

Niko gave him a minuscule nod, knowing he wouldn’t get better conditions.

Goose signed the form and pushed it over the counter with a grunted “Whatever.” He looked at her. “How about a coffee before I fizzle that into a report?”

“You want to hit the cafeteria like this?” Niko looked pointedly at his torn shirt. “Didn’t Walsh say something about that?”

“Actually, he said something about showing my butt[1],” he corrected. “But last time I checked, the pants were still okay.” He patted himself down. “Yup, no additional holes.”

“I don’t think he meant it that specific, Goose,” Niko warned him, fighting a laugh.

“Ah shit!” He leaned over the counter and grabbed one of the spare lab coats, pulling it over his shirt. “Now it’s fine. Let’s go.”

 

 

Cafeteria

 

“Walsh and QBall want me to translate any and all technical or scientific information in the archive,” Niko told him, stirring whipped cream into her coffee, a change of taste she had ALMA to thank for. “But I’m specialized in Xeryon history.” She sighed and sipped from her makeshift latte. “Besides, Xeryon and Tortuna are hardly one and the same.”

“That sucks.” Goose slurped on his second mug of coffee. “You really have to read that gazillion crystals?”

“Kind of. The commander worked out a deal with the Department of Corrections. Morron’s research assistants have been cleared to work here instead of at the assembly lines on Deltoid.”

Shane snorted. “So, they’re reunited with their findings. Charming.”

“I wish.” Niko snorted. “The device for reading the crystals is one of the artifacts they found, and QBall couldn’t reproduce it. So only three people can access one crystal at the same time. Guess who’s fixed on that list.”

“Saves money,” Goose commented. “Disciplinary transfer or not, you can still double as a guard for the crooks.” He pointed at the carafe with iced water beside her elbow. “You still drink that?”

She remembered his thirst after being shot. “No, you can have it.”

The seams of his borrowed lab coat creaked when he poured himself a glass. “So, who did they send?”

“Ayse and Sven.”

“Beachboy!? Man, the guy’s like headlice, when you think you’re rid of him—”

Niko sighed. “I’m relieved that Ayse is out of Deltoid. She helped me a lot when— It’s just that the professor and Katsumi would have been a lot more help with the scientific information.”

“As instigator of crime cruises, Morron’s out of the question, but what kept Nakawa?”

“Katsumi refused to be ‘chipped like a pet’ – her words,” Niko said with regret. “And without a subcutaneous implant[2], the DoC refused to let her go.”

“Makes sense,” Goose said wryly. “They’re a tad paranoid in that regard.”

Niko looked up. “Was something like that done to you, too?” she asked. “Did they chip you?”

He gave her a lopsided grin. “They would have, if there were a way to inject me with anything.” At her confused look, he explained, “The bio defenses do have some advantages, girl.” He tabbed against his temple. “For the implant to stay put, I had to be awake and fully focused during the operation. Anything injected without that much cooperation on my part would hit them in the arse even before they put away their toys.” He grew earnest, stirring more sugar into his cooled coffee. “But they can – and do – scan for the ST genome. That’s why the alarm in the administrative area sometimes hiccups when we’re there. My clearance registers slower than ‘Supertrooper on the premises’.”

“And I prefer you off the premises and registered at your desk ASAP,” Zach said good-humoredly behind them. “I need your report by the end of this shift.” He nodded at Niko. “How do you do?”

She winced at the formality, but there was true concern behind it. He was—had been her direct superior and she had yelled at him. She hadn’t forgotten that, and neither had Zach. “I’m better. Thank you for asking,” she said honestly. “Not well yet, but I’m working toward it.”

Zach studied her, seemed to consider saying more. “I expect you fit and back on the team by the end of your transfer, Lieutenant,” was all he finally said before patting Goose on the lab-coated shoulder. “Get going. I want that report of yours early enough for handing in prior off-shift, and you still have to clean up and return that lab coat before QBall accuses you of theft.”

Goose grinned. “Then I’ll keep it. No writing reports in arrest.”

“You wish,” Zach retorted dryly. “I’ll make sure pad and pen are waiting for you in the cell.”

“Ouch.” Gooseman stood, chuckling. “Be seeing you, Niko.”

“Yes.” She smiled. “Be seeing you.”

 

 

BetaMountain

BetaLabs, Sublevel 3, Hall 26

16:23

 

In ancient times, the Empire of Xeryon, at first only our beautiful planet together with its sister world of Xerya, later on including worlds as far apart as Woggollong and Tarkon, and with allies such as the fascinating world of Andor, was a nation of prosperity and freedom, of widespread democratic rights and tolerance, ruled by a dynasty of kings and queens who were aware that they were nothing but the representatives of our beauty and power, the figures to express our – the people of Xeryon – decisions to our civilians and allies. After our first hundred years in space, we no longer needed to conquer other planets as we could convince them diplomatically of the fortunes of alliance. And the lack of wars brought prosperity as our internal system profited from both peace and contemplation. But during these years of contemplation, the ruling Xer-dynasty forgot whom they had to thank for their wealth and power. And most unfortunately, our current king is not only the heir of the Xer-dynasty, but also embodies their bad habits perfectly: during his reign, the popularity and winning of elections is no longer the primary aim of our representatives…”

Sven Masterson put down the data pad holding his translation and stretched. “You know,” he drawled, “I was really annoyed when they told us to stick to the most recent parts of the archive, but this—this is almost fun!” At Niko’s and Ayse’s disbelieving looks, he explained, “Remember Dimdim’s[3] lecture about Xeryon being a direct democracy with a kingdom solely for representation?” He snickered. “Looks like our professor was pretty naïve about that. “According to this, the last king was a scalawag called Xerod DIVI and the most powerful person of state wasn’t some elected representative but his mistress Xully.” He shook his head, blond hair flying. “Really, you can’t make up those names! Ayse, we’ve got to publish this after we’re unchipped! It’ll make millions as a schmaltzy novel!”

“I’m sorry to curb your enthusiasm,” Niko cut in, “but these crystals and their data content are now property of BETA. Selling anything is out of the question, if you don’t want to get rechipped.” She nodded firmly at his left upper arm where the DoC’s subcutaneous implant listing ID, committed crime, sentence, restrictions, and conditions of movement sat. “Xerod’s mistress and their naming practices hardly qualify as recent technical data.”

“Depends, Nikki!” Sven laughed. “This Xully had real power and fostered quite a few popular tech projects. The text I just read to you ends abruptly with a short note written by the author’s daughter: My honored father was arrested this morning on behalf of Her Highness Transient Xully, the most revered patron of the dream traveling arts. We were informed of his death in the subsequent questioning regarding his objections to the dream traveling arcades now being offered for free and have been warned to leave Xeryon as quickly and quietly as possible. This was written by Ariella, daughter of Sorad, in the 3726th year of the Xeryon Empire.” Sven glanced at his notepad. “That makes it very recent and involves technology. Barring my usual sucktitude at math, XE 3726 equals AD 1920.”

“And Xully-transient would still be dead for 150 years,” Niko said dryly. “Focus on the technology. We don’t need any more trouble than we— than I already have.”

 

 

MPQ 219

21:17

 

The high room of Niko’s two-floor apartment was silent and dark save for a single thick candle lit on the floor of the lower level. Its flame flickered and danced in front of her, creating an ever-changing twilight. Ghosts of the flame wandered across Niko’s retinas, luring her away from the here and now and into the recesses of her mind…

…she returned to Tortuna, to the night in the derelict university ship, and studied the streaks of blood lining the sheets where she and Goose had lain together, before allowing his bleeding back to appear in her mind. Using the dreaded memory as a pivot, she studied the emotions wrapped around it. Yes. She wanted him, had wanted him for a long time, but her desire—her lust had been turned into something to be satisfied at all costs no matter the consequences – or him. She thought of Shane snatching a lab coat this morning to cover another blood-stained shirt for sharing a coffee and listening to her complains about work and knew he deserved better. Any sensate being deserved better.

With a deep breath, she focused, seeking the changes in her mental landscape. Where the exact boundaries of Ariel’s teaching were supposed to be, she found a jumble of shards instead. An ever-shifting veil of fog swirling around them. A shadow of almost human shape lurked there, waiting for her. She approached, careful not to cross the shattered boundary, and saw…

…a face that was her own and yet not, staring at her while it shifted, changed, became androgynous, almost masculine in the end, with pale blue eyes under narrow, daringly curved brows studying her icily; smooth hair, now dark brown instead of auburn, floated on the spiritual power filling the place. Sensuous lips formed a single syllable[4]:

I.

She wanted to flee, and forced herself to stay while that foreign part of her continued.

I am all that matters.

She reeled, recognizing it. Egoism. A fundamental feature, ancient in spiritual evolution, necessary for survival, yet a fundamental bane in a mentally linked society like Xanadu, where it was barred from the very beginning. No wonder she hadn’t recognized it. Years of meditation and exercise had firmly excluded it from her decision process. She swallowed. Shane had been right, it had happened on 17798[5]. Egoism had allowed her to kill that first gazelle; she didn’t have to take just that tiny, innocent life, trusting enough to come close— stupid enough, the deceptively charming voice in her mind corrected, but she refused to be derailed by it. They had needed the meat or they would have starved eventually, but not immediately. The gazelle had been the first animal to be lured in by her powers, the first of many she had killed in the name of survival…

…and more. Convenience, ease, feeling helpful, feeling powerful even with a depleted implant that slowed Shane’s self-healing process to a crawl. Recalling a night after their return, she remembered claws wandering over her skin, fangs teasing her lips. Her nails had scored his back even then[6]… but on Tortuna, she’d drawn blood after he gave in.

Niko drew a sharp breath and forced herself to admit it when she opened her eyes and extinguished the candle. She had killed, had taken an innocent life, had taken him…

…because she could. And she would do it again, all of it and more, if she didn’t watch it.

 

 

2088-09-18

 

 

BetaLabs

 

The labs were deserted at lunch time. Goose’s steps almost echoed in the corridor after he’d cleared the reception. It was a rare event that he was on Earth with free time around midday. Today’s lunchbreak was owed to inflexible maneuver plans and a defect in the Apache’s atmosphere sensors, and he planned to make the most of it. Deserted or not, the labs and the cafeteria were still public territory and disciplinary transfer or not, Niko was a colleague. He’d get away with eating together.

The door to hall 26 opened at his approach. “Niko?”

The smell stopped him dead. Guts. Excrement. Blood. Death.

His hand fell on his blaster, safety strap and catch released at the same time. He moved soundlessly deeper into the lab. The pungent odor was easy to follow, past the rows of cabinets and shelves to the round table holding the crystal reader and stacks of data pads. The body was on the floor behind it. Battle senses on high alert, Goose crossed the empty space between the last shelves and the table, cautious not to destroy possible evidence.

It was a man, partially naked. A fear the battle senses hadn’t allowed to form fully disappeared from the back of his mind as he took in the details. The body was bound into an unnatural position with the arms tied to the lower legs and the hands resting in the hollows of the knees. The vic’s clothes had been ripped down arms and legs, the exposed belly was covered in blood, the head hidden by a flap of the shirt.

Goose crouched, carefully avoiding the puddle of blood and excrement at the base of the victim’s spine, and pushed the shirt aside to get a look at the face—

Masterson. Fuck!

Regular cuts in the belly from a combat knife or a large scalpel, Goose observed grimly upon closer examination. One of the cuts had opened the abdominal cavity. That was the reason for the stink of guts. Beachboy was lucky, Goose thought grimly, spotting the unintentionally severed artery. Dying early in what can take hours. Stun marks showed where a sleeve had been torn down. The correctional implant had been fried. As if the thing would sound an alarm without the body leaving Masterson’s permitted area. Gooseman frowned. There was a second set of stun marks at the side of Masterson’s throat—

Someone screamed.

 

 

MedoStat

A few minutes later

 

“Are you sure it’s okay to be here?” Ayse asked, looking uneasily at the large ‘military personnel only’ sign on the wall opposite the plastic chairs she and Niko were occupying. “What if I get in trouble for trespassing—”

“This is the medical facility closest to your work place,” Niko said firmly. “They won’t turn you away in an emergency, and your arm—” She nodded firmly at the angry red swelling. “—sure looks like one. It’s a disgrace that the DoC’s certified physician gave you an appointment that late. You have to report her!”

Ayse shook her head. “To whom? I—”

“Report it to me,” a male voice said beside them. “I’m Dr. Miyar.” He glanced at his data pad and looked at Niko. “You specifically asked for me?”

“I wanted a known face,” Niko confirmed. “My colleague isn’t part of BETA’s workforce or the personnel stationed here, but she’s in pain and her arm doesn’t look as if she can wait for an appointment in six days.”

Miyar gave her an owlish look. “Let’s have a look at that arm,” he stated, waving them through towards the examination rooms. “We’ll see about the formalities after—”

=Niko and Attalan, Ayse, immediately report to your place of work!= an electronic voice snarled out of the room speakers. =Failure to do so will result in—=

Patient Attalan will continue to exam room 5,” Miyar snapped, annoyed, “identify yourself and reduce your volume to one befitting a hospital.”

=Correctional AI 46. Your suggestion is unacceptable,= the AI stated decidedly quieter now. =Niko and Attalan, Ayse, are required for—=

“Order revoked for patient Attalan,” Miyar barked. “Clearance: Miyar, Roland, CMO BETA. Tell your superiors that a chief medical officer’s suggestion is a command by default! Now get lost. I will release the patient once I’m convinced it won’t be detrimental to her health.” He snorted and told Niko, “You better go now. I’ll take care of things here.”

“Thank you.” Niko gave Ayse an encouraging nod and hurried back towards the labs.

 

 

Holding Block 11

 

Gooseman sat on the narrow bunk, hands resting motionless on his knees, and waited. There wasn’t much he could do that wouldn’t make things worse. Admit it, Shane, he thought mockingly. This time you won the cesspit. Or was that the jackpot? Doesn’t matter. You’re done for.

“Don’t make a fool of yourself, O’Leary!” Walsh’s furious voice came from outside. “Damnation! He’s a Galaxy Ranger!”

“Commander,” the SecStaff Lieutenant cut in. “He was found squatting comfortably next to a still-warm corpse. And the witness said, it didn’t look as if he was in a hurry to call authorities!”

“Because he is authority!” Walsh snapped. “He’s a Galaxy Ranger! You know damn well that any Ranger would make a first assessment of the situation before calling anyone else to a scene of crime. And he’s an S5!”

“I can see that, commander, but he’s a supertr—”

He is a Galaxy Ranger, O’Leary!” Walsh drowned him out. “Get that into your head or I’ll hand you your skull on a platter together with your badge!” O’Leary valued either his head or his badge enough to reconsider his stance, because the locking mechanism clicked and the forcefield surrounding Goose’s cell quieted at the same time the door to the corridor opened, admitting Walsh. “Get out of there, Gooseman. It’s over.”

He rose from the narrow bunk, mindful not to stretch or do anything else that might look threatening to O’Leary. The security officer was scared shitless just by him being here anyway. “Sir.” Goose saluted briefly. “You know damn well that it isn’t.”

“My office, Gooseman.”

“Yes, sir.”

 

 

Cmdr. Walsh’s office

 

“I’m sorry, Captain Fox. I don’t know when the commander will return.” Sheela’s voice had taken on the slightly annoyed timbre of a parent repeatedly being asked ‘are we there yet?’. “He said you should wait for him.” She looked up from her work to zero in on Doc. “You can have Dr. Hartford confirm it via the security feeds if he prefers to admit he’s got unapproved access to them.”

“Me?” Doc’s eyes widened to what Zach privately called ‘dishes-of-innocence’. “Little innocent moi?” The hacker put his hands over his heart. “What makes you believe I’d be capable of such dastardly villainous—”

“This conversation,” Sheela dead-panned, returning her attention back to her work.

Zach bit back an unprofessional laugh and covertly glanced at the time displayed on his wrist com. They’d been summoned forty-five minutes ago, and had been waiting since. Unusual, given the commander’s efficiency. Zach sobered, remembering that Gooseman hadn’t answered his summons at all. If this was related—

The door to the corridor opened, admitting Walsh with Goose in tow. A sharp nod sent the ST into the inner office. “Fox, Hartford, in there. Sheela, no disturbances.”

“Yes, sir.”

From what Zach knew of Walsh’s secretary that meant she’d use live rounds to keep people from even using the buzzer. He saluted sharply the moment the door closed behind Walsh.

“At ease,” the commander said gruffly, relaxing, now that the lock had clicked into place. He wearily sat down behind his desk. “Captain Fox, less than two hours ago, a man working with Niko on Tortunian artifacts was tortured and eventually killed in the labs. Ranger Gooseman was on location and there are reports of prior enmity between him and the victim, both facts rendering him prime suspect for the crime.”

Torture and murder? Zach thought. Yes, Gooseman had knowledge of the former, but—

Next to him Doc blurted, “Sir, that’s bull—”

“I don’t believe for one moment that Gooseman’s stupid enough for it,” Walsh cut him off, “but SecStaff and the BWL are another matter.” He looked pointedly at the ST who stood motionless as far away as protocol allowed. “Fox, I want you and Hartford to clear him before the Board gets wind of this. I don’t give a damn about whose turf you’ll have to break up to do so. The Board doesn’t wait for trials when it comes to him.”

“Understood, sir.”

“Given the overall distrust of Ranger Gooseman, we will need irrefutable evidence that he wasn’t on location.”

“On it, sir.” Doc whipped out his CDU, already powering up and shushing at the flitting program sparkles emerging from the holosphere.

“Gooseman, you’re grounded until this mess is sorted out,” the commander’s order was sharp. “And with grounded I mean within my sight, got that?”

“Yes, sir.”

Any less inflection and he’d be speaking in Morse code, Zach thought. “Sir.” He took a step forward. “We also have to catch the killer, given that SecStaff wastes their efforts on Gooseman. I’d like to get his witness report before we head out.”

“A good point, captain,” Walsh conceded. “So, what were you doing next to a tortured corpse, Gooseman? And why were you in the labs at all?”

“I had unexpected downtime at midday. Since Niko’s current assignment has regular working hours, I expected to find her for lunch break.” At the commander’s unspoken ‘why?’ he added, “Teaming up means the cafeteria doesn’t have to clear two tables for the pariahs.”

Walsh didn’t react to the outburst. “So, you arrived at the labs and saw the corpse?”

“Smelled it,” Gooseman corrected. “Right when the door opened. I thought it was—” he stopped. “The clothing obscured the identity. I didn’t know it was Masterson until I crouched and removed the shirt from his face. The lab assistant screamed before I could call base security.”

“But you did call them?” Zach asked immediately. If SecStaff had that call in their logs—

Gooseman shook his head. “I didn’t get the chance, captain.”

Doc beside him cursed, whether at Goose’s admission or something on his CDU Zach didn’t know. Walsh sighed. “So, what did you find out about the crime?” When Gooseman nodded questioningly at Zach and Doc, he added, “Forget the secrecy, Gooseman, that murder is already as public as they come.”

“Masterson was interrogated not murdered.”

“Doesn’t matter.” Walsh waved the remark aside. “Evidenced by?”

“The body was partially stripped and bound round with abdomen and genitals exposed for treatment. The RFID tracker in his arm was fried, likely with a heavy stunner. I didn’t spot any indications for physical coercion, so the same weapon probably got his cooperation in the beginning.” He snorted. “I counted three belly cuts in regular intervals. The lowest one was too deep, opening the abdominal cavity and severing a major artery. Masterson bled to death in a few minutes.” The muscles in Goose’s cheek worked as he added, “That’s a rookie mistake, sir.”

“So, we’re searching an amateur torturer,” Walsh summarized. Zach noticed that the commander didn’t take his eyes off the ST as he said that.

Gooseman stared down at his boots. “No, sir. I don’t think so.”

“More precise, Gooseman.”

“There’s a detail that doesn’t fit.”

Walsh sighed audibly. “And that is?”

“Gooseman—” Zach stopped when the commander raised a hand, quietly shaking his head. They both waited for the ST to answer.

“Masterson’s vocal cords were partially paralyzed.”

Walsh swore, sitting back in his chair.

“What—?” Zach gave up on getting that.

“It’s a technique to keep the victim from screaming,” Walsh explained grimly. “Way outside the expertise of a self-trained sadist.”

“It’s the work of a pro,” Gooseman added in a voice barren of emotion. “Like me.”

No, Zach corrected mentally. Not like you. You were freaked out when you staged that coffee party for Nimrod last year[7]. But the knowledge would seal the case for the Board and SecStaff. Seal and freeze. “Any idea of how that fits with an accident?”

“Well taught but unfamiliar with the human anatomy,” Gooseman answered without looking up. “Maybe alien. At least somebody who doesn’t know humans inside out.” Zach noticed that the ST didn’t even try to say ‘us’. “Or the scumbag’s been just unlucky.” Gooseman ran a hand through his hair. “I doubt that he got what he came for. Masterson died too early. Three cuts in—” He shook his head. “He wasn’t past the initial shock when he died.”

Walsh tapped his intercom. “Sheela. Have armed MPs stationed in the labs.” He closed the line and told the rangers, “They won’t better their technique for humans on our people.”

“And what did Masterson know that’s worth risking a bloody interrogation in public?” Goose asked no one in particular.

“Good question,” Walsh said grimly. “You’ll answer it once you’re no longer considered knowing the answer.”

 

 

BetaMountain

BetaLabs, Sublevel 3

 

“No, detective!” Niko stated, clipped, every word bitten off. This was probably the tenth time that she answered this specific set of questions. “I do not know why anyone would want Sven Masterson dead. We’re translating archaeological texts from an alien archive last accessed over two-hundred years ago, there’s no cutting edge with these data if you don’t scribble on paper!”

“Yet your fellow ‘translator’–” Detective Wang said ‘translator’ as if it were synonymous to ‘drug dealer’ “—was cut to pieces while his colleagues were conveniently absent and—”

“The implant in my colleague’s arm caused an infection!” Niko flared. “She needed a doctor. We—”

“As I said: convenient,” Wang drawled. “And where’s that colleague of yours?”

Niko’s “Ask at MedoStat!” mingled with Zachary’s firm, “He’s here. And I want to know what you learned about the case besides the confirmed alibi of the victim’s co-workers.”

 

Niko slumped, burying her head in her hands after the door had closed behind the angry detective. “I didn’t know what it’s like to be in a biased questioning,” she said tiredly. “I—”

“Biased?” Zach asked, pulling out the chair Wang had eschewed in favor of towering over her. Zach sat. “How so?”

Niko sighed. “SecStaff seems fixed on me arranging for someone to kill Sven.” She stopped, startled. “I didn’t even realize he’s dead. I…” She shook her head. “It doesn’t make sense.”

“Goose found the body,” Zach told her. “They’re trying to pin it to him.”

“But that’s nonsense! Shane would never—” She looked aside, tried to rebuild her composure. “I mean, why would Goose do that?”

“You tell me,” Zach retorted. “He came here to see you.”

Niko was spared an immediate answer when the door burst open, admitting Doc in flurry of program sparks. “Goose’s off the hook!” he proclaimed. “ALMA provided me with a really good time frame for his lab trip, and either our Gooseman’s not as keen about avoiding surveillance as he claims to be or he’s getting lazy in his old age, but there’s half a dozen cams marking his way down here before he enters the ‘circle of malfunction’ as I’d like to call it. The closest functioning cam is at the forensics counter, and it caught him less than eight minutes before the alarm.”

“Good.” Zach appeared satisfied. “Coroner’s scan reports Masterson’s death at least thirty minutes before the alarm. Prepare a time-frame report, three copies. I’ll inform Walsh and then we can finally work on catching the killer. And Doc, have Ms. Attalan brought to our office. There’s no need to question her on location.”

“Aye, aye, Capt’n! And then I’ll have an in-depth look at the surveillance feeds. If they caught Goose, they caught everyone. Let’s see if big data can weed out the killer!”

“I don’t want to know,” Zach stated dryly. “And don’t get caught.”

“Me?” Doc looked aghast. “This is The Doc you’re speaking with, remember?”

“I remember five days of adult Tri-D service on your hotel bill from Andor.”

 

“You still owe me an answer,” Zach said the moment the door had closed again. “What’s going on between you and Gooseman?”

“We just have lunch together when his schedule permits it,” Niko answered, exasperated. “The two of us aren’t especially welcome among BETA’s personnel these days.” She squared her shoulders., meeting Zach inquiry head-on. “It makes being ostracized a less solitary affair.”

Zach held her eyes for quite a while. “Since I’m obviously not getting the real story here,” he said finally, allowing none of his annoyance to show in his voice, “What did Masterson work on that’s worth risking murder in a public lab hall?”

Niko winced barely perceptible. “I don’t know, Zach,” she said tiredly. “Walsh wants us to search for technical and military information, but the archive wasn’t built – or retrieved – with that goal in mind. Most of what Sven worked on was just social gossip. He joked about publishing it as schmaltzy novels after—” She stopped, wiping her eye.

“Hardly something to kill for, two-hundred years later,” Zach concluded. “There really wasn’t anything else?”

“There’s quite a lot about what seems to have been a popular pastime for the Xeryons. It’s called dream travelling, but the information is very fragmented and doesn’t make sense to us yet.”

Zach frowned. “Anything Masterson worked on exclusively?”

“No, translations were always teamwork. Between the three of us, we covered a wide range of Xeryon culture, necessary to make sense of the texts.” Niko sighed. “And even if, how would the killer know that? Our work isn’t top secret, but we don’t publish scientific papers about our results, either.”

“So, Masterson was likely a target of convenience,” Zach concluded aloud, drawing her attention away from the fresh pain. “It could have been anyone being alone in the labs.”

“Makes me wish my implant were charged,” Niko muttered uncomfortably.

“I’ll talk with the commander.” Zach stood. “The MPs he sent should suffice till then.” He stopped at the door, looking back. “Did anything happen between Gooseman and Masterson on Tortuna besides that slap in the cockpit?”

The look she gave him was clearly startled but her answer defiant. “Nothing of consequence.”

Zach inclined his head and left. ‘Nothing of consequence’ wasn’t the same as ‘nothing at all’. He was getting closer.

 

 

GRS5 office

20 minutes later

 

“Where’s Goose?” Zach asked at the sight of the empty desk beside Doc’s.

“The commander keeps him until report and proofs are filed and confirmed,” Doc told him without any of his usual cheerfulness. “When it comes to the establishment and our resident ST, he doesn’t take chances.” His hands continued whizzing over the keyboard. “The files will hit the net in a few minutes.”

“Keep local copies.”

“With me and my lawyer,” Doc told him. “Ms. Attalan is waiting for you.”

 

“Ms. Attalan,” Zach began innocuously. “You knew Mr. Masterson even before your expedition to Tortuna, didn’t you?”

“Yes.” Ayse looked down at her hands, folded on the table in front of her. One of her overall’s sleeves was rolled up to allow for a bandage around her biceps, the white material a stark contrast to her natural dark tan. “We both studied xeno-archaeology at the UE and worked as assistants for professor Morron.” She swallowed. “Sven—Mr. Masterson,” she corrected herself, “seldom worked with real artifacts. His interests are—were the social systems.”

“Is that important for the work you’re doing for BETA?”

“It provides context for interpreting the texts.”

“So, his death will halt your work?” Zach inquired.

“No, sir, but it will slow us down. Context doesn’t come as easily to Niko or me.”

“I see. Do you know if anything happened to him during that expedition?”

She blinked. “What do you mean with ‘happened’? He was our pilot. He stayed out of the library most of the time, but he made up for it with doing most of the cataloging. He—” She shrugged helplessly.

“Did he ever disappear from the camp?” Zach specified. If a previous involvement with the Crown was possible—

“Shouldn’t you be hunting Sven’s murderer, not him?”

“That’s what I’m doing, Ms. Attalan. To deduce what lead to the crime, I must understand the victim. I need to know what happened before the crime. Did his behavior change? Did he do something out of character for him? Something like that.”

“He sought quarrels with Ranger Gooseman after—” She fell silent, frowning.

Masterson did what!? Zach almost blurted that out, instead he prompted calmly, “After?”

“After he spotted Niko’s bruises.” She looked aside, clearly uncomfortable now. “Sven usually knew better than involving himself in matters he’s been told aren’t his business. And Niko said so in very certain terms, but Sven—” She shook her head. “It’s good your Ranger didn’t take the bait.”

…didn’t take the bait. Zach felt a muscle in his jaw twitch. On the flight to Andor, he’d asked ‘Off the record, Gooseman. Did an ST hurt Niko?’ and the answer had been a very reluctant ‘Yes’. What if—but an ST wouldn’t get past BETA’s security. No chance. Except one. And ALMA provided Goose’s time frame for the labs— Zach suddenly felt cold. “Ms. Attalan,” he heard himself asking, “Did Gooseman hurt Niko?”

“I believe she hurt him first.”

 

Gooseman, entering the office stopped in his tracks. The cat was out of the bag, and it wasn’t as harmless as Poss. Squaring his shoulders, he went straight past his desk toward Zach’s office.

“He’s still talking with Ms. Attalan,” Doc warned him.

“I know. There’s no mistaking it for my ears,” Goose said grimly. This wasn’t the time to pretend being normal. He knocked and entered without waiting for an acknowledgment. “Captain, we’ve got to talk. Now.” With a glance at Ayse, “Alone.”

Zach stared at him long and hard before asking Ms. Attalan to wait outside. “You better have a very good reason for interrupting an interrogation, Lieutenant,” he said after the door had closed behind her.

Goose felt the familiar stiffness enter his spine under scrutiny. Zach and Walsh both had the same effect on him in that regard. He met the disapproving stare head-on and said, “Niko and I violated paragraph 175d on Tortuna.”

 

175d – intercourse on duty. Zach froze. “Repeat that.”

“Niko and I violated paragraph—”

Zach lost it. “What on Earth were you thinking?!”

“I wasn’t thinking much, Captain,” Gooseman said dryly. “And I know that’s not okay, but regulations were probably the last thing on my mind once she made contact.”

She made contact?” Zach narrowed his eyes. “Niko initiated it?”

“I don’t think she was thinking either.”

I believe she hurt him first. Zach closed his eyes, trying to clear the maze. “Sit down. I’m getting a crick in my neck.” Goose sat stiffly on the edge of the chair Ms. Attalan had vacated earlier. “Do you know what that means for you?” Zach asked quietly.

“That I’m deep in the shit if it gets out.”

That was putting it mildly. “Tell me what happened.”

 

 

Fifteen minutes later

 

“I believe she’d have flipped sooner or later anyway. Me being there was probably the reason for the form it took, though.” Goose wiped his face. “I—won’t deny there’s attraction between us, but we wouldn’t have acted on it. We—” He shook his head, apparently giving up trying to explain something that didn’t make sense to him. “The two of you taught me better than that.”

“Who taught you what?” Zach asked at the non-sequitur.

“You and Walsh. You taught me better than to give up on a colleague having issues.”

“This is more than ‘issues’,” Zach corrected him calmly. “And Niko’s more than a colleague to you, isn’t she?”

Fuck! This isn’t about what she is to me, Zach,” Goose exploded. “This is all about that freezing dirtball of a planet we were stuck on all winter! – and no, I did not touch her there, ‘k? – but she’s got to learn dealing with what surviving there taught her and she can’t do that on Pluto or where she came from. If that worked, she’d know that shit already, and she clearly doesn’t!”

Zach remained calm. “But you do?”

Gooseman sighed. “I know what I do for survival. I don’t know about all the rest.”

Zach was silent. He’d gotten a glimpse past the iron façade and realized that the ST was navigating a minefield the man barely understood. “What did you tell the commander?” he asked quietly.

“Walsh got the same story as you.” Goose slumped. “And was equally happy about it, remember? Can’t we leave it at that?”

“Leave it?” Zach shook his head. “Gooseman, I can’t do that. I—”

“Don’t forget what I am,” Goose interrupted him coldly. “The Board doesn’t give a damn about me. All they want is an excuse – any excuse – to put me on ice for good. Reveal the truth, especially now after that shit on Andor and it might be Niko’s dismissal, but it will be me on the rocks!” He caught himself and added calmer, “And don’t make me a saint, Zach. I didn’t say no.”

“You didn’t say yes, either,” Zach reminded him. When Goose replied nothing, he pressed on, “Could you have stopped it?”

“Not without hurting her more than I already had.”

“Would you have stopped it if she hadn’t been in your head?”

Silence.

Zach sighed. “I’ll have to talk with Niko,” he said finally. “I’ll decide afterwards what to do about this mess.”

“Captain—”

“Afterwards!” he snapped. “In the meantime, check Masterson’s records, then get down to the labs. The commander didn’t retract his order to review his work, right?”

“No, sir. I’m on my way.”

 

=Niko. To my office.= Zach’s summons had been sharp and concise. It made her hurry on her way up to the LEO area. She had to show her ID and her lab card, had the chip in the card checked against the list of clearances downloaded into the security port, confirming that she’d really been called in. Niko tried not to scowl at the stern reminder not to abscond from the direct path to her destination. If she knew where it was—

—broke the camel’s back. “Yes, sergeant. I know exactly where Captain Fox’s office is located. I worked there for the last three years.”

“You aren’t working there now,” was the cold reply. “You may pass.”

 

The Series-5 office was the usual organized chaos when she got there. The room smelled of weapon oil and Goose’s acidic coffee. Doc’s desk was covered in miniaturized or even holographic devices, Zach’s in neatly arranged stacks of hard copy reports – she knew despite the appearance of meticulous order that he usually had to search five minutes or more for a specific file –, the emptiness of her own desk felt like a void in all the familiarity.

“Hi,” she said with forced liveliness. “Zach asked for me.”

Doc gave her a distracted wave amidst a multilayer holocube displaying who knew how many desktops simultaneously. “Zach’s in the back office, playing boss-man.”

“He’s not playing boss-man, Doc. He is boss-man, remember?” Goose got up from his desk, heading for the door. Passing her by, he whispered, “Zach knows.”

Niko swallowed, crossed the last meters, and knocked. “Zachary, I—”

“Close the door behind you,” he interrupted her. “GV is recording this meeting encrypted to my private key in case I have an inexplicable change of mind in it.”

She winced. “Zachary, I would never—”

“That’s what I thought and was proven wrong about,” he said coolly. “I wouldn’t have believed you capable of such despicable behavior before.” He sat back in his chair, watching her icily. Zachary had never avoided her eyes like so many others did for fear of her powers. He didn’t do it now, either. “Sit down and tell me what happened,” he ordered. “And don’t restrict yourself to Tortuna.”

 

 

BetaLabs, Sublevel 3, Hall 26

 

Goose made a step forward into the lab, allowing the automated door to close and cut off the dissing whispers behind him. “Engage lock!” The clicks of the bolts falling into place were almost a relief. Nobody would barge in, screaming.

Apparently, his hearing range wasn’t part of the rumor mill, yet. He kind of wished it were. ‘Should have been frozen’ had been among the nicer comments he caught on the way down here. ‘I warned my kids about that killer being given free rein’ was among the more insidious – and ridiculous – ones. ‘When I thought they finally had him—’

He shuddered and firmly turned his attention to the task at hand. What had Masterson known worth risking a bloody interrogation within BETA? He studied the once again deserted lab hall and sniffed. Forensics and the crime scene cleaners had been here already, removing the body and its effluents and adding bleach and disinfectant to the mix of smells. Shit and blood, the weak ozone stemming from UV sterilization, Tortunian sands, cargo bay, several people, Niko. He shook his head. Masterson’s. Work. Slowly, he went over towards the work table and the crystal reader platform, remembering…

…Masterson’s implant had been fried. Gooseman frowned. The things weren’t visible, so whoever had cut up Beachboy must have known about it. But why fry it then? DoC chips checked only location and if they were still inside a body, not the condition of said body. So, it was somebody who knew about the implants, but not how they worked.

And why cutting in the first place? It was blunt and messy and not very reliable. Cutting was done for two reasons, either you were a sadist or you were short on time. The latter was probably a given, but was it only the location or also the information sought?

And civilian personnel or not, this was a security sensitive area. The was Sublevel 3, dammit. You couldn’t get much deeper into BETA’s bowels than here. Nobody with a visitor’s badge would get this far. They were searching an insider. Somebody with a valid clearance. Goose looked back at the door he’d locked. What if that somebody also had locked the door for a more private bloodying? He tapped his wristcom to call Doc.

 

 

GRS5 office

 

“I didn’t recognize it at first. I noticed a shift in my feelings but ascribed it to the stress of surviving on 17798.” She swallowed. “It’s not that telepaths don’t dream of what we can’t have, but we’re taught from a very young age that we cannot obtain it with our abilities. Our abilities are the foundation of our society. Abusing our gifts for personal gain… is an unspeakable crime in that context.” Niko drew a deep breath, admitting to that. “I have no excuse that I failed to spot the egoism taking root in my decision process after I hunted—no, I killed innocent life—selfishly using my gift to cloud my prey’s judgment.”

“For survival,” Zach corrected her calmly. “That’s a difference.”

“Not in psionics,” Niko said quietly. “I needed meat to survive. I used my gift to obtain it. I got what I wanted, no matter the alternatives. Think of it as breaking a dam. Hunting made the initial crack in the wall, the chaos of the archeological expedition weakened the structure, and Goose—” She wrapped her arms around herself. “I’ve been struggling to rebuild it ever since.”

“What would Xanadu do about it?”

“I violated Goose’s mental integrity by not giving him free choice,” she swallowed. “I’m a dangerous aberration.”

“You’d be banned?”

“No, Xanadu would never endanger others by expelling their criminals.” She couldn’t keep the disgust at herself out of her voice. “I’ll be locked up, secured like the Megamind to protect the world from me.”

“They wouldn’t give you a chance to rehabilitate yourself?” he asked incredulously.

She looked down at her lap, consciously stopped hugging herself. “A broken dam offers no protection.”

“A dam can be rebuilt knowing the waters,” Zachary said firmly. “Do it.” He leaned back in his seat, studying her. His face was a mask, she didn’t know what was going on behind it, and knew that she’d already struggle staying separated like this from Goose. The realization scared her. She nodded meekly. “Don’t get me wrong,” Zach continued. “You’re on probation until further notice. Forget about getting your implant recharged. You’re lethal in hand-to-hand combat, something Masterson never was. Don’t believe I don’t know about your training sessions with Goose. And speaking of Goose…” Zach’s eyes grew icy. “I’m as much responsible for him as I am for you. If I get the impression that your self-control is slipping again, I will inform Lady Ariel that her ambassador to Earth mind-raped a comrade!”

“I didn’t!” Niko jerked up at the verbal slap, staring at him, horrified. “Goose would have—”

Don’t blame your victim!” Zach snapped, disgust apparent in his tone. “You admitted to clouding his judgment to get what you wanted. What he might have done had he been free to make that decision is not relevant for your crime.” He fixed her hard. “When it comes to your abilities, we have to trust you. You violated that trust. I’m risking my career here, because Goose made a very strong case. For you. Don’t make me regret the decision that the two of you deserve better than a death sentence based on paragraph 175.”

 

 

GRS5 office

 

Outside, Doc frowned at the displayed data, then called up a three-dimensional map of Beta Mountain. Marking the data sets to be used, he added the movements of all people registered in or near the lab during the three hours before Masterson’s death. The schematic base filled up with a chaotic whirl of lines. He studied the chaos briefly, then eliminated anybody showing the same behavior on the day before. Still more than a hundred lines remained…

Not good enough.

He clucked his tongue, eliminated all people whose clearance wasn’t high enough to lock doors in the lab, and saw the pool of candidates reduced to one.

“Goose-my-man,” Doc muttered, “sometimes you’re too smart for your own good.”

He deleted the last step. And stopped…

It’s a local voice command. It could have been recorded.

Out of BETA’s 78,391 personnel, 247 people had a valid clearance to seal lab doors. How many of the folks abnormally around at Masterson’s death had been close enough to one of those 247 to record their lock command?

With renewed zeal, Doc began frisking the data.

 

 

MPQ 217

19:27

 

The corridors in the military personnel tract weren’t deserted this early in the evening, though they were suspiciously empty when Goose headed towards his quarters. His passing through the mountain was marked by an echoing shell of hastening footsteps and swiftly closed doors. Sounds that played in reverse once he’d crossed around the next corner. Base service had left the bag with the laundry in front of his door. A note fluttered to the floor when he picked it up. He caught it and unlocked his door. Poss wound around his boots while he read,

Ranger Gooseman. Base Laundry wants to provide the best possible service for you, therefore it is necessary for you to separate your red clothes strictly from your whites. Sincerely…

Goose crumpled the note and tossed it to the floor, watching Poss leaping at the ball of paper, sending it with a swift paw across the room and darting after it. Goose emptied the laundry bag onto his bed. Uniform shirts and pants looked okay. His underwear was black anyway. The socks… Shit! A red bandanna had slipped between the socks. Great. Just great.

He tossed the empty bag on top of the clothes, sat down on the single chair at his table, and – propping his elbows on the table – buried his face in his hands.

Should have been frozen...

I thought they finally had him…

I warned my kids about him…

What were you doing next to a tortured corpse?

From him ‘My job’ wasn’t a believable answer, despite his watertight alibi and filed reports declaring his innocence. He snorted mockingly at himself. When had innocence ever been a valid description for him? Soldier. Murderer. Torturer. He pressed his palms against his eyes. Atrocity. ST.

Poss meowed under the table, rubbing against his legs, demanding his dinner.

Intestines and blood. Shit, death, and fear.

Antiseptics, bleach, and disinfectant.

Torture… no, information procurement[8]. Goose leaned back to stare at the ceiling. Of all the shit, it had to be that.

The lights dimmed, unasked. He smelled a whiff of salt and a higher humidity in the air. ALMA subtly adjusted the climate controls to make him more comfortable. He ought to thank her for it, and knew that all he would get for it were a rough reprimand that ‘normals wouldn’t notice’.

Forlorn, he looked at the laundry pile on his bed. He was rather sure, even normals would notice pink socks.

 

 

MPQ 219

23:17

 

…mind-raped a comrade.

The memory of Zachary’s cold voice battered against Niko’s mind, filling the meditation circle, forcing her to see what she’d done from the physical perspective. It brought the reality of her actions into sync with the termini of her profession.

Don’t blame your victim!

The candle flames seemed to flicker. Molten wax dripped loudly onto the floor, each splash a reminder that she had failed to consider her actions in that context, too. Among her people, the psyche was all that matter, only the mental pain, the sensation of anguish and devastation was considered, and there had been nothing like that coming from Shane.

He didn’t perceive what had happened as abuse.

Didn’t. Couldn’t. He knew only the violence.

It made what she’d done so much worse. Like a real predator, she’d gone after the weakest, the least protected prey.

 

 

2088-09-19

 

 

Office of Cmdr. Walsh

09:02

 

“Your reasoning behind this?” Walsh studied the remaining S5s lined up in front of his desk. Fox was angry, but too experienced an officer to let that anger get in his way. Hartford focused on his tasks, likely avoided thinking about the details of the case at all.

Yet, it was Gooseman who answered, “The M.O., sir. Cutting is messy and not very reliable. It’s used because the interrogator is either a sadist or short on time.”

“In the labs, the latter is a given,” Walsh agreed grimly.

“Yes, sir.” Goose continued, “and cutting can’t be concealed. You can’t pretend it’s something else. If somebody walks in, you’re in for it. It makes sense to lock the door.”

“And not many people in BETA are high enough in the proverbial food chain to lock lab doors without triggering an alarm,” Hartford added. “It’s none of them directly, but a cross-check with the people registered near the scene of crime who are not normally in the labs returned only five who got into close enough contact with one of them for recording a door lock command.”

Walsh narrowed his eyes. “Five?”

“Five,” Fox confirmed. “External personnel. Civilian contractors.”

“You excluded military on purpose?” Walsh inquired.

“No, sir.” – Hartford.

“Good. Fox, Hartford. Question them.” Goose winced. “Verbally,” Walsh specified. “Gooseman, back to the labs. Take Niko and find out what’s in those crystals that’s worth a bloody interrogation on my base. Locked door or not.” Walsh watched him sharply. “And Gooseman. I do not want you anywhere near the practical side of this case, got it?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Dismissed.”

 

 

43 minutes later

 

“Really, Doc. An admissions officer, two janitors, a laundry clerk, and a librarian?!” Zach looked up from checking the list Doc had sent him.

“The librarian was actually my top guess. She had contact with at least four people having a suitable clearance.”

“And that she’s responsible for tracking down missing documents didn’t enter in your equation?” Zach asked sardonically.

“It did. It made her position more useful for a possible spy. Besides—” Doc shuddered. “Did you ever face a librarian when your borrowed media is six months overdue?”

Zach rolled his eyes. “Well, you can take Mrs. Kwon off your list. Ditto officer McCarthy. His alibi is rock-solid. Buzzwang was on his heels for the whole time he was in the labs. Both, McCarthy and QBall complained about it.”

“That leaves the janitors and the laundry guy.” Doc sighed. “I’d say it’s the laundry.”

“Like you said it’s Mrs. Kwon?” Zach snorted. “How many cleared people did he come across?”

“One.” Doc shrugged. “But he’d know how to get the blood off his clothes.”

“Still, the janitors are first. GV, send a request to RHONDDA for pinpointing their current locations.”

 

 

BetaLabs, Sublevel 3, Hall 26

 

“So, what are we looking for?” Niko asked as the door opened in front of them. She drew a deep breath before going inside.

For Goose, the place still smelled of disinfectant, blood, guts, and Tortuna. It made him wonder just how well crime scene cleaners removed the gore. Or was that just him remembering things too well? “Don’t try to read here,” he warned her, “or me. Believe me, you don’t want that in your head.”

Niko said nothing, but the hurt on her face made him want to kick himself as they headed deeper into the room. “Beachboy had an ugly death,” he explained roughly. “One that can’t happen by accident. Someone was desperate enough to do that down here and not at his place after work where being caught is a lot less likely. That doesn’t make sense, unless what they want is here.”

“All we have is an old archive,” Niko said quietly. “The youngest information in these crystals is some hundred-fifty years old.”

“But it was on Tortuna.” Goose shrugged. “Let’s start with that.”

“Tortuna and Xeryon are totally different societies,” she reminded him.

“But on the same planet. Maybe the Queen just moved in and raided the attic.”

“I don’t think it works that way,” Niko answered dryly. “But let’s see what we have.”

 

 

Base Laundry

13:38

 

“—luckily the customer didn’t complain—” the manager of BETA’s outsourced laundry department stopped, her eyes darting uneasily from Zach to Doc and back. “Or is that why you’re here?” she asked. “I know he’s one of the rangers, but I assure you the pink socks were an accident. Phil’s new on the job and didn’t do that on purpose. He—”

“Pink socks?” Doc inquired. “As in Barbie—?”

“Mrs. Margiszaw,” Zach said before Doc could derail them, “I’m afraid we aren’t free to discuss the reason for our presence with anybody but Mr. Okalpa himself.”

“Of course, of course. He’s in the Whites room. If you follow me—” Mrs. Margiszaw dusted her hands and headed down the aisle between several two-level high washing machines. “Just be careful about the linens, please. We don’t need another pink incident—” She almost walked into the door when it failed to open for her. She frowned and muttered. “That’s weird. This door shouldn’t be locked. The safety regulations—” She slammed her flat hand against the metal frame, shouting, “PHIL! IF YOU LOCKED THE BLEACH ROOM AGAIN, I HAVE YOUR SCRAWNY ASS FIRED IN NO TI—”

The distinct sound of a blaster firing had Zach push her behind a heavy laundry machine. “Door lock override,” he ordered, signaling Doc who already covered the other side of the door way, blaster drawn. “Authorization: Galaxy Rangers, Captain Zachary Fox.”

A blast of steamy air whooshed out as the door opened. The pungent odor of soap and bleach masked the underlying smell of blood only briefly. Inside, white stacks of linen were splattered with blood and brain. “I don’t think we’ll get our answers,” Doc commented, blocking access – and sight – from the assembling laundry personnel and a pale-faced Mrs. Margiszaw.

Zach cautiously crossed into the room, studying the mess that had once been the head of Phil Okalpa more closely. A purple crystal stuck between the torn skin and the jawbone. “You’re wrong,” he said grimly. “Mr. Okalpa is our answer. Dim the lights to minimum and tell forensics there’s a starstone and a psychocrystal to secure here.”

 

 

BetaLabs, Sublevel 3, Hall 26

 

“Beachboy’s labeled a lot of stuff with ‘D.T.’.” Goose pushed back from the console and stretched. “Any idea what it is?”

“A popular pastime in the late Xeryon empire,” Niko answered. “We call it dream traveling.”

“Wait a sec,” Goose asked in disbelief. “The guy filled twenty-something storage units with the Xeryon version of Tri-D?”

Niko shrugged. “It was a very popular pastime. Dream travels were realistic enough to tour other worlds without going there at all. Wouldn’t you be tempted to explore places you’d never be able to visit in person?”

“Nope. Interstellar couch surfing sounds boring.”

“It wasn’t exactly ‘couch surfing’, more like a mental cruise trip. People stayed at so-called dream travel agencies during their journeys in case something went wrong.”

Goose frowned at her. “What can go wrong on a dreamed tour? You can just call it a day when your avatar hits the Psychocrypt.”

Niko sighed. “Apparently, a rare malfunction occasionally trapped travelers in their dreams, requiring an operator to bring them back to reality.”

“Charming.” Goose returned to his keyboard. “Were there any serious applications? Something like remote reconnaissance, spying, stuff like that?”

“Not that I’d know.” Niko frowned. “Though, now that you said it… could be, but the library may not hold that type of data. It was for general audiences.” She hesitated. “Although, there’s fiction. The Xeryons weren’t that different from us in their reading habits.” She looked at Goose. “Think of those old James Bond and NSA spy novels—”

“—and the Konsortium[9] thrillers published after the KTF took over in the thirties.”

“Exactly.” Niko nodded. “Overblown, but you could get an idea of available technologies – albeit with a grain of salt.”

“A grain?” Goose snorted. “A block’s more like it, but yeah, that’s better than nothing.”

“I look into it if our review doesn’t yield anything more promising.”

 

 

LongShot Laboratories

Cryocrypt

21:36

 

This late in the evening, LongShot’s corridors were deserted. Zachary’s steps echoed between the bare walls only bearing the level and section numbers painted on in regular intervals. Level 14, section 58, cryogenic containment, less formally called ‘the Cryocrypt’, but he refused to be informal here. Crypt was a word entirely too close to ‘grave’. Eliza wasn’t dead. He rigorously squelched the ‘yet’ his treacherous mind was about to add.

No guards down here, but the entrance was guarded 24/7, and the access to the various units was strictly limited. Zachary removed his right glove and placed his biological palm on the scanner, waiting for the unit to identify his hand- and fingerprints along with his DNA. It took time. The system scanned for modified DNA as well, now that some of the renegade supertroopers were here as well. Frozen. On the rocks.

Zachary suppressed a shiver, remembering Goose’s choice of words.

=Access granted,= the melodious voice of LSL’s new AI said as the door finally opened for him. =Welcome back, Captain Fox.= Politeness had never been so cruel.

The room lit up as he entered. A set of LEDs embedded in the seams of the hibernation unit illuminated Eliza as well. The light wasn’t stark white, yet she looked pale, ashen…

He’d come after their children went to bed, after he’d double-checked their apartment’s security systems. Their apartment—

—as if Eliza had ever lived there. He’d taken base quarters despite the hit to his paycheck, because he’d known with him as a single parent their children would be alone too often, and Tortuna had come too close to his family already. Threatening their children, taking their mother, and their father’s humanity. Sort of. His bionic hand balled into a fist against the glass. He’d sworn the Queen wouldn’t get another chance, and now a Tortunian spy had roamed BetaMountain, had collected and delivered laundry for weeks, also to their quarters while he’d been away on missions and his team was falling apart. A spy desperate enough to cut open a man in broad daylight. For answers, he didn’t get and the victim probably never had.

His other, his biological hand, pressed against the glass next to her face, cramped into a fist as well. Eliza, I need you. He didn’t say it out loud. Not here, not while that crystal sat on her chest, listening in. He’d become cautious after his experience in the Psychocrypt[10]. Wary. Eliza…

 

 

MPQ 219

23:35

 

=Niko.= She blinked sleepily, sitting up when ALMA’s urgent voice coming from the flashing screen above her bed cut into her dreams. The ceiling lights had come on as well, albeit in a soft, non-blinding glow. =Goose needs your help. He’s got a nightmare. One of the bad ones.=

One of— Niko caught herself staring at the screen.

=You have to come. I can’t wake him.=

Niko’s anger at the intrusion died. “I don’t think that’s a good idea,” she cautioned. “I’m probably the last person—

=The commander is at Phoenix MB. I called him, but he might be too late.= ALMA sounded desperate. = Masterson’s death triggered this episode,= the AI hurried to explain. =The events on Andor may also play into the exacerbation. I expected it and was extra-careful, but he descended too fast for the counter-measures to grasp. Now go, please.=

The plea coming from the normally stern AI had Niko leap out of bed. She hastily threw on her uniform, closing the last snaps while she was already running up the stairs. Her door opened in front of her, the corridor outside was suspiciously empty. A commotion with knocks and calls around the next corner indicated a suspiciously convenient lift malfunction. Niko decided there and then not to piss off Goose’s AI ever again.

The door to MPQ 217 opened soundlessly as well. The room inside was lit painfully bright. She knew the routine – ALMA had used it on her as well – but this time it had failed. Had to fail—

Niko stumbled under the wave of unconscious distress slamming into her. She tried to steel herself against what she’d face on the mental plane, but the moment she opened her eyes in Goose’s reality, she knew how terribly naïve she’d been…

 

Goose’s hands were covered in blood. Bright-red, it reached up to his elbows. Fingernails had transformed into claws, peeling the skin off a crying infants belly.

“No sign of active adaptation, sir.”

“Discard. The next. And hurry, there are many children waiting to be tested—”

 

The telepath stumbled when Joseph pulled her away from the bed, out of reach of the claws. Disoriented, she held tight until she recognized him and straightened with a start. “Sir. I’m sorry, I—

“What are you doing here, Niko?”

“ALMA called me. She believed you’d take too long and—”

“Phoenix MB has an Interceptor on stand-by,” Walsh told her gruffly. “It’s fifteen minutes via orbit if you skip the formalities. How is he?”

“I—” Niko looked over her shoulder at the boy. “Sir. I’ve never seen anything like that. It may have begun as a normal nightmare, composed of elements he saw mixed with fears, but by now it’s self-fueling, taking its own features and twisting it further and further.” She shuddered.

“A nightmare of a nightmare?” Joseph tried to make sense of her words.

“In a way, yes.” She nodded. “Normal dreams have a certain quality separating them from reality, but that’s fading fast. We have to disentangle him, but he’s too far in for me to reach him without a charge, and—”

“ALMA. Use my personal key to give Niko access to the charging platform. Now.” Walsh ordered, to Niko he added, “Hurry. I’ll keep him while you’re gone.”

“There’s still some response to touch and voice.”

“I know,” Joseph said grimly. “Now go.”

She ran.

Joseph had discarded his uniform jacket and rolled up his sleeves by the time Niko returned. Sitting behind the boy’s head outside immediate striking range, he talked calmly, persistently. At her surprised stop, he gave her a wry smile. “I’ve had practice.” If she noticed the four parallel scars diagonally crossing his arm where the boy’s claws had once caught him[11], she didn’t let on. “Do you need contact?”

She shook her head. “Not with a full charge, but it will help if you continue talking to him. The connection to the here-and-now will make it easier, though even with that it will take time.”

“Understood. Proceed.”

Joseph watched Niko activating her implant. Purple veils filled her eyes and a golden glow emanated from her skin, connecting her with the boy. Goose’s forehead creased, turning away, he twisted in his sheets. Joseph knew better than trying to hold him in place. “Gooseman. This is no threat. We’re here to help you. You’re dreaming. It isn’t real. It’s like in the sims[12]. Keep calm. Listen. We have you. You won’t be abandoned…”

 

Joseph was hoarse by the time the glow faded. He caught Niko’s arm, preventing her from stumbling into the bed while she reoriented herself. “Easy there,” he rasped. “Were you able to help him?”

“Yes,” she nodded, shivering from exhaustion. “He’s sleeping.” Now that it was safe, she sat down on the edge of the bed. “I don’t know what was memory and what imagination,” she said, “but whatever he’s seen, he saw too much of it.”

Joseph said nothing. There was nothing he could tell her that wouldn’t get them in trouble. Looking around the boy’s bare room, he spotted the coffee maker on the kitchenette. “I could use a coffee, Lieutenant. How about you?”

Niko blinked, surprised by the non-sequitur? “Yes, sir. I’d like one.” She managed a wan smile. “But I’m not too sure about using Goose’s coffee.”

Joseph snorted. “He sneaks it out of my office, he can damn well share it!”

The boy wasn’t equipped for guests, so he poured Niko’s coffee into a water glass and handed it to her with a hanky. She still looked worse for wear. He filled Goose’s iso-steel mug for himself and sat down at the table, studying the bare room while sipping his coffee. It looked solely functional to the inexperienced eye, but there was symmetry in the way the storage boxes were aligned, and harmony in the colors of the paperbacks as they were stacked on the shelf by the bed. The crystal beetle he’d slipped into the boy’s luggage[13] sat on a black pocket book, but it was polished and the books were tattered. The boy seemed to read more than those manuals tagged to his account. And Joseph was sure that pile of military scifi novels hadn’t been among the books he’d forced the boy to take along, either. Very subtly, there was personality here.

This was Goose’s place, not just where he slept and his cat’s toys littered the floor. A cat that only now left his hiding spot under the bed to saunter over and demand a seat on his owner’s single chair that Joseph had just taken for himself. With a self-deprecating smile, he scooted over. Brushing over Possessor’s grey fur, he earned himself a faint purring as the cat snuggled against his thigh, driving deceptively tiny claws into upholstery that looked as if this wasn’t its first experience with cat claws.

“Remember, he’ll never do anything if you watch him.” Max had told him. Was that really just six years ago?[14] Joseph had another sip of his coffee. Apparently, the warning still held.

2088-09-20

 

 

Goose felt warmth against his cheek, and a calm, very regular vibration. Breathing. It’s faint whispering accompanied by the rhythm of the beating heart his hearing was fixed on. The scents filling his perception were familiar. Niko ran her fingers through the hair at his temple. He still refused to wake, stretched to snuggle his morning-stubbled cheek against the cloth of her uniform. “I love waking up like this,” he murmured sleepily.

The hand in his hair froze. A mug banged onto the table. He flew up at the unexpected noise. Battle reflexes prepared for the leap—

“Good morning,” Walsh said. “Slept well?”

Niko’s hand came to rest on Goose’s arm. “It’s okay, Shane. Everything’s okay now.”

Goose shook his head, pressing fingertips against his forehead and temple. “You did something.” She winced at his wariness, but the commander— “Sir?”

“You had a nightmare,” Walsh told him bluntly. “ALMA couldn’t wake you. Ranger Niko will tell you the details.” Getting up, he rolled down his sleeves and took his discarded jacket from the back of the chair. “ALMA. Is the corridor clear?”

=Tenant 218 is still waiting at the lift. A cabin will arrive in 90 seconds.=

Walsh nodded. “Any consequences of yesterday’s transport malfunction?”

=A disgruntled lift tech filed a complaint about misfiring fire protection sensors,= the AI replied smugly as she opened the door. =I suggest to ignore it.=

 

“Looks like you’re going to get your job back,” Goose said after the door had closed after Walsh.

“What?” Niko asked, uncomprehending.

Ranger Niko,” Goose repeated, adding emphasis. “He doesn’t make that kind of mistake.”

She avoided his eyes, busying herself putting the mug and a used glass into the sink. “Any chance he’d missed that you— we—?” She quieted, embarrassed.

“No,” Goose stated bluntly. “But he decided not to notice.” His voice cooled over the last sentence. “And now tell me what’s going on here. I’m not used to waking up and finding my room littered with people!”

 

 

BetaLabs, Sublevel 3, Hall 26

11:34

 

“You didn’t get much sleep last night, did you?” Ayse asked after Niko suppressed yet another yawn and blinked rapidly to get the Xeryon characters filling her side of the crystal reader back into focus.

“What makes you think that?” Niko asked irritably.

“Aside from your constant yawning?” Ayse returned. “I’m quite sure D.T. crystals aren’t ‘hexapodous’. Or do they look like purple creepy-crawlies hopping onto people’s chest to you?”

“Creepy-craw—” Niko stopped. “Hexagonal,” she sighed, defeated. “I’m sorry, I—” She froze. “Say that again.”

“What? The creepy-crawlies?”

“Not that. The other part.” Niko fixed her, suddenly wide awake. “Why ‘hopping on chests’?”

“I was joking,” Ayse laughed defensively. “Dream travelers wore them on their chest during their trips. This text here is a visitor’s account of the procedure.” She pointed at her screen. “Look for yourself—”

But Niko was already running for the door.

 

[1] See “The Geist of the Goose” (fan fiction by A. Kniggendorf)

[2] Inspired by Donald E. Westlake’s short story The Winner; first published in Nova 1 by Harry Harrison, ed., Delacorte Press, New York 1970, and reprinted with permission of Andrew Nurnberg Associates Ltd., London, in Great Science Fiction Stories by Peter Bruck, ed., Ernst Klett Verlag, Stuttgart 1991.

[3] Dimdim: nickname for Dorian Immanuel Morron, former professor for Xeryon astro archaeology.

[4] If you are curious about the origin of this mental feature of Niko’s and why it takes specifically this form, have a look at Ivan Dimitrievich Ilianov [b.: ~ 2037 – d.: 2065-06-08].
See “Victoria” (fan fiction by A. Kniggendorf) for the story behind it.
See my “Original Characters Gallery” at http://www.annkniggendorf.de/gr/origchar.html for a portrait with a better resolution.

 

[5] See “Lost” (fan fiction by A. Kniggendorf)

[6] See “Hot Summer Night” (fan fiction by A. Kniggendorf)

[7] See “Droidal Affairs” (fan fiction by A. Kniggendorf)

[8] See “IP” (fan fiction by A. Kniggendorf)

[9] See “Revenge-2 – Jonathon” (fan fiction by A. Kniggendorf, to be published)

[10] See “Psychocrypt” (TV episode) and “The Lie” (fan fiction by A. Kniggendorf)

[11] See “Beyond the Frontier” (fan fiction by A. Kniggendorf)

[12] See “IP” (fan fiction by A. Kniggendorf)

[13] See “Hedgehog and Beetle” (fan fiction by A. Kniggendorf)

[14] See “Natural Selection” (fan fiction by A. Kniggendorf). This is also the reason for the paper books instead of an electronic reading device. Reading them can’t be monitored.

Chapter Text

2088-09-20

 

 

BetaMountain
Office of Cmdr. Walsh

11:55

 

“Repeat that!” Goose’s response – tone, words, even posture – was a one-on-one repetition of Walsh a few minutes earlier. Between this and the night before, Niko wondered just how much influence the commander had had in Goose’s development.

“The Xeryon dream traveling technology is the precursor to the psychocrystals the Queen uses for her slaverlords,” she repeated. “The malfunction that trapped a small number of dream travelers on their tours apparently became their main function.”

Goose snorted. “Kinda too useful to be an accident.”

“You think Tortuna conquered the Xeryons by trapping them?”

“Nope. I think Tortuna is Xeryon after the Crown got rid of the disloyal opposition.”

“Beside the point,” the commander cut in, drawing their attention back to the briefing. “We have a tactical nightmare at our hands! The slaverlords aren’t just a weapons system. They’re the Queen’s eyes and ears and her means to control armada and empire! She’ll do anything to contain this information!”

“Well, we know the result of her last invasion.” Doc laughed uneasily. “Defeat by Buzzwang and coffee automatons[1].”

“She won’t invade.” Goose’s flat statement sent a chill of dread down Niko’s spine. “She won’t bother with fighters or ground troops. This is about erasing critical information, not more slaverlords and resources. She won’t keep the planet.”

“Hauling the amount of ammunition necessary for planet-wide destruction will take a lot of resources,” Zach said. “If we set up an orbital shield—”

“She doesn’t have to bring ammunition,” Goose corrected. “It’s conveniently waiting for her between Jupiter and Mars.”

“But an Andorian shield—”

“—only means she has to use bigger stones.” Goose mimicked tossing something into Walsh’s dustbin. “Got it? Fucking gravity ’s on her side!”

“Language, Gooseman!” Walsh snapped. “Fox, shields work on the assumption that the assailant is interested in the planet or its inhabitants. The Queen must contain information that threatens the foundation of her power. Gooseman’s right. Annihilation is the most reliable way to do that.”

“An unwanted planet is impossible to defend.” Goose sounded as if quoting a lecture book.

Walsh ignored him. “QBall’s not done analyzing the device you seized from the dead spy yesterday, but given the combination of starstone and psychocrystal, we better assume the Queen was informed in real-time.”

“That means she knows we have a significant portion of the ancient Xeryon library and a working crystal reader to access it,” Niko summed it up. “But not that we already made the connection between the dream traveling and the psychocrystallization process. It might give us time.”

“Not much,” Goose said grimly. “She sent a wired spy right after discovering where Morron dug.”

“Indeed.” Walsh straightened. “A restraint likely owed to the armada’s significant losses over Tarkon. Nevertheless, we need firepower in orbit and near the asteroid belt. Any ship and personnel caught on the surface will be useless when the armada arrives. – Niko, I need a dossier detailing your findings for the Board within two hours. It’s to convince politicians, so forget about academic uncertainty and include pictures!” He opened the intercom. “Sheela. Get me QBall on a secure line, then prepare a video conference with Blake and Subadar, and arrange for an emergency Board appointment.”

=Time frame for the appointment, sir?= came Sheela’s unperturbed voice from the speakers, accentuated by rapid typing on a keyboard.

“Today. Minimum in three hours.”

=Dr. QBall on line two, sir.=

 

=We couldn’t reproduce the crystal reader yet,= QBall answered Walsh’s first question decisively. =We can’t even give you an estimate how long it’ll take.=

“And if we spread the archive itself?” Niko suggested. “If we send digicopies of the crystals to Andor and Kirwin—”

QBall on the screen shook his head. =The data is linked to the carrier material via exotic quantum states. We can duplicate the matter, but not the quantum states. That’s the same feature—= He sounded truly annoyed. =—that’s keeping us from copying the reader. My techs consider it a kind of digital rights management.=

“What about analog copies?” Doc chimed in, raising his hand as if sitting in class. “Translation takes way longer than displaying the text, doesn’t it? Have some assistants or bots – not Buzzwang, I beg you! – handle the reader and take snapshots of each displayed page.”

=Do you suggest digital piracy?= QBall frowned.

“Do you prefer death-by-DRM? Literally?” Doc shot back. “Besides, it’s not as if a lost empire will sue us for copyright infringement even when you extract content in 24/7 shifts!”

QBall tilted his head. =It might work. We’ll need room for the other translators.=

“And tight security.” Goose looked at Walsh. “If Okalpa transmitted real-time, the Queen knows that there aren’t many able to read that stuff.”

“Worse.” Zach cut in. “The trial of Morron and his students was public. She knows where they are.”

Walsh cursed. “Fox, Hartford. Take Ranger-1 and bring the translators to Earth. Gooseman – Interceptor escort. The transfer papers will be waiting when you arrive at Deltoid. Go.” The men left at a run, while the commander returned his attention to Niko and QBall. “Niko, you have one and a half hours left to get me that dossier, afterwards help QBall prioritizing the information related to the psychocrystals for data extraction.” He nodded at QBall and disconnected the line before tossing Niko her badge. “Consider your disciplinary transfer ended. Have Sheela give you one of her weapons before leaving. I do not want you unarmed or Ms. Attalan alone on this base until we had time to do a complete sweep. Dismissed.”

When Niko left Walsh’s office, Sheela without looking at her held out a fully charged laser assault rifle, while speaking into the intercom, “Conference with Commander Blake and Admiral Subadar waiting for you on line 5, sir.”

 

 

Ranger-1 / Interceptor-7

approaching Deltoid

 

“Deltoid control. This is Galaxy Rangers Ship Ranger-1 and escort on approach vector 42. Requiring permission to land.”

=Ranger-1. This is Deltoid control. You are cleared for docking bay 3. Follow the guide lines. Director Locklear is expecting you. Deltoid control end.=

“Any idea what Lock-me-up expects from us?” Doc quipped from the copilot seat.

“Possibly a talk with you regarding her new nickname,” Zach returned dryly and opened a channel to the escorting Interceptor. “Goose, did you catch that?”

=Yes, Captain. Clearance for bay 3. Do you want me to land?=

“Yes. The archeologists are no threat until they have access to the archive and the Queen won’t waste firepower on a fortified prison station when she can accost us in transit. Deltoids other inmates may be an issue, though. We don’t know how firm director Locklear’s control over them is.”

=Understood. See you in dock, Gooseman end.=

 

 

Deltoid space station

League correction facility

 

“Don’t worry about the belated papers, Captain Fox.” Selma Locklear’s heels made a firm staccato on Deltoids newly sealed floors. The station had seen some drastic improvements since she’d become director after the revolt, resulting in stricter security, better manageability, and absolute cleanliness. Even Goose’s enhanced sense of smell didn’t detect anything but steel polish, soap, and the slight tang of disinfectant and chlorophyll indicative of a closed-loop air recycling system. A vast improvement to his last visit here[2].

“You don’t seem worried about the illness spreading to other inmates,” Zach observed, playing along with the cover the commander had cobbled together while they were on their way.

“Frankly, Captain,” director Locklear said dryly, “even if I bought that contamination bullshit – and that’s a big ‘if’! – I’m happy to have them off my responsibility.”

“Did they cause trouble?” Doc asked, surprised.

“No, they are trouble, Ranger.” Director Locklear snorted unladylike. “I’m responsible to keep the League safe from my delinquents and my delinquents safe from each other. And that group of brain trollops for sure isn’t fit to mingle with the rest of my ‘guests’!” She laughed humorlessly. “Finding separated accommodations and work for all of them without violating their rights and our security protocols is a nightmare. It’s not as if I can keep them in single detention 24/7 or put them in my office to keep the books.”

She stopped at a thick double lock, separating the cell blocks from the administration area and the docking bays. It opened only after she’d entered a long access code and performed a blinking iris scan, the latter was one of the changes she was famous for: it reduced the risk of personnel losing eyes and limbs in case of trouble. Then she radioed for one of the force field shielded doors to be opened.

“Here they are, rangers. Fourteen academics. All yours.”

“Director Locklear.” An elderly gentleman, whose orange prison suit hung loosely from his bony frame, stood when they entered the sealed wing. “Did something happen?”

“You’re being relocated to Earth for medicinal purposes,” Locklear stated coldly. “The Galaxy Rangers are responsible for the transport.”

The old man’s mouth formed a startled ‘oh’. “I apologize for any inconveniences we may have caused, director. It wasn’t our intention to—”

“You’re their problem now, Morron. Not mine.” She nodded at Zach to take over.

“Form a row and follow me,” he ordered. “Goose, sideline. Doc, take the rear. The faster we’re back on Earth, the better.”

Director Locklear arched a brow. “You don’t seem too concerned about getting infected, either, Captain.”

“We’ve been to Tortuna often enough not to worry about some second-hand imports,” Zach returned dryly. He made a circular movement at the flustered academics. “Move out.”

 

“Gooseman-san.” The quiet voice had him glance sideways at the petite woman as she crossed through the lock into the hallway between the forcefield-locked cells of the common block. “Is Niko on this flight as well?”

Katsumi Nakawa, who’d refused the implant. Goose growled. “No, she’s in disciplinary transfer for the shit you pulled.”

Nakawa lowered her head. “I’m sorry. We only sought scientific—”

“Don’t get me started on that idiotic expedition of yours,” he bit off. “You’ll hear about that early enough.”

“Hey, Ranger-boy!” Macross’s leery drawl came from one of the cells. “Nice tart! An improvement over the redheads! Care to share? Too bad you’re out there and—”

“Hey, scumbag.” Goose growled, casually sticking his fist through the sizzling forcefield into Macross’s cell. “This keeps you in, but it doesn’t keep me out. So, shut up or I’ll do it for you.” Nakawa had shrunk in on herself at the taunt, and now stared, frightened, at the white-hot fire dancing around his wrist. “Don’t worry,” Goose told her grimly. “I’m flying escort. You’re going to spend the flight with the nice guys.”

“Gooseman,” Zach warned over his shoulder. “Stop dawdling.”

“Coming, Captain.”

 

 

Ranger-1 / Interceptor-7

approaching Earth

 

=Shields up! Looks like the party started without us!= Gooseman commed the moment their tiny formation returned to the standard continuum. =If your cargo needs convincing, tie’em up and let them have a look at the screens.=

“GV, tactical display.” Zach frowned. The number of blips on the screen didn’t bode well. Ship IDs started showing up in blue as the AI picked up transmissions, but too many stayed red – enemy vessel. “There are three large cruisers in outer system orbit,” he noted, surprise warring with relief. “Blake’s Laredo, the Comanche, and the Kiowa. How on Earth did the Board get in motion that fast?”

=What’s the difference between a maneuver and a battle formation?= Goose laughed. =The position of the comma on the power display. Hard to see from the Hall of Earth.=

“You mean, the commander—?”

=—had the other brasses on speed dial for such a case.=

“We’re lucky. The other standard reentry points are monitored,” Doc reported from copilot, adding orange flags to a few dozen red blips. “The Queen doesn’t like surprise guests.”

=Correction.= The interceptor suddenly rolled away from Ranger-1, escaping a purple double blast scattering off its wing. = All SRPs are monitored. Ranger-1, ignore collision alert.=

“Goose—” was as far as  Zach came before the screaming proximity alarms drowned him out. GV’s blue-green eyeball pinpointed in fright as the interceptor whizzed, guns blazing, across the front section of Ranger-1 with less than an arms’ length between the two cockpits. A breath later, debris prattled against the aft shields. The back screen showed the Interceptor diving through two expanding clouds of what had been two Crown fighters who’d used the hyperspace bleed from their reentry to cover their approach.

=More bogeys coming at 1800,= Goose stated over the comm. =Full wing.=

“Noted,” Zach confirmed grimly. “Prepare for intra-system jump in close formation. Coordinates come once BETA and the carriers cleared a re-entry location in near orbit.”

=Outer atmosphere?= the ST queried, sounding almost excited.

Zach’s jaw worked at the suggestion. “Sub-geosynchronous orbit will do. Let’s keep the binding of the book, if not its letters.”

“BETA transmits coordinates,” Doc announced, “relaying to Interceptor.” He switched to intra-ship comm and announced cheerfully, “Dear convicted passengers, tighten your seat belts, take a protective position with your head between your knees, and kiss your gluteus maximus goodbye for an emergency hyperjump in three… two…”

 

Planet Earth

1.648 km above ground

Low Earth Orbit

 

“…oops, already done!” Doc’s voice mingled with the screeching of an atmosphere contact close to shunt velocity. Beside him, Zach rapidly worked the controls, slowing them down while confirming that Goose’s interceptor was still beside them. Satisfied, he noted that the smaller ship held its relative position as if they’d never left standard continuum. From the surface, they’d appear white-hot glowing, resembling nothing so much as the very thing Earth Force was working hard to prevent.

=Looks like Planetary Defense was told in time,= Goose commented once their speed had slowed to acceptable limits. =No deflector missiles—=

=Ranger-1 and Interceptor-7, this is BETA control. You’re cleared for direct approach to hangar bay 1.= An electronic bleep followed. =A reproach for exceeding entry speed limits was added to your personnel files.=

=Just copy the other two-hundred,= Goose muttered.

“I wasn’t even at the controls!” Doc protested.

Zach ignored it all. “Doc, take care of our passengers. We’re setting down in five.”

 

 

BetaMountain

Landing Platform, Bay 1

 

Walsh was waiting for Zach as he left Ranger-1 after putting the ship on stand-by. The ship, even if not with him on board, would be back in action soon. Zach saluted sharply. “The remaining members of the Morron expedition are all on board, sir. I didn’t waste time finding the fluent speakers among them and just brought the whole group.” He threw a glance back at the ship. “Judging from their behavior at Deltoid and on the flight home, they either learned their lesson well or the situation on Tortuna had severe disadvantages for Niko.”

Walsh accepted his assessment with a brisk nod. “Ranger Niko’s rank and position on your team have been restored, Fox, but for the time being her translation duty takes precedence.”

In the next lot, Goose jumped down from the interceptor and immediately made a bee-line for them. Eyes trained on Walsh, he snapped at attention in front of them. “Request permission to join the fray, sir.”

The commander considered that quite a while, making Zach believe the request would be denied, but “Permission granted. Report to the Kiowa. Not all of Subadar’s squadrons made it to orbit. And Gooseman—” Walsh stopped the ST in his tracks. “Four to one. At most. If I learn that you made more than four shifts in a row, the armada up there will be the least of your problems!”

A broad grin. “Yes, sir!”

“Four shifts, sir?” Zach inquired quietly after the roar of the interceptor lifting off had ceased.

“He’s an ST.” Walsh shrugged. “I’d be surprised if he doesn’t try to extend even that limit.”

“Shall I inform the admiral that we’re sending him a wild card?”

“Do so.” Walsh took a deep breath. “I don’t want to sugarcoat it, Fox,” he said in a low voice, watching the landing platform of Ranger-1 descend with Doc and the lined-up archeologists in their orange prison garb. “We’re buying time, and it’s already damned expensive.”

“What if the archive doesn’t yield information we can use against the slaverlords?” Zach asked quietly, thinking of his children, of Eliza. “Will there be an evacuation?”

“Any planet accepting refugees would become the next target,” Walsh replied. His firm voice leaving no room for negotiation. “But it will suffice to transmit the content of the archive independent of use. Earth is an original planet, a population center. Eradicating it has a high terror value and might well lead to the independent worlds uniting against Tortuna. The Queen won’t risk that if she’s got nothing to gain from it.

“A large ‘if’,” Zach said grimly.

“A tactical ‘if’,” Walsh corrected, watching the prisoners. “One that might save our asses once these fools get their thing together.” He tapped his walking stick against the hangar concrete. “Help Niko settle in the translators then report back to me. I need every pair of eyes I can get. The Queen’s got way too many options against us.”

 

 

BetaLabs, Sublevel 3

One hour later

 

“Are all these MPs really necessary, Niko?” Professor Morron pulled out the chair beside hers and sat slowly, betraying his age. “And even you are armed to the teeth.” He indicated her sidearm and the knife strapped to her boot, before again looking at the MPs lining the walls. “Certainly, we aren’t deemed so dangerous as to require that much intimidation.”

“Professor,” Niko answered, struggling to remain calm while watching the other members of Morron’s ill-begotten expedition finding their places around the table together with QBall and the technicians who’d worked on the reverse engineering the crystal reader. “The MPs are here to us safe. The Queen of Tortuna wants to get rid of whatever is recorded in the Xeryon archive, and she won’t stop at anything to achieve that. We already caught one of her spies within BETA, but only after he killed Sven in a room on this very level.”

The professor’s face fell. “Sven’s dead?” he asked.

“Yes,” Niko confirmed. “And we don’t have time to mourn. Since we can’t be sure that the spy we caught was the only one, I’m not going unarmed, and I’m not asking the MPs to leave. Be happy to have them. Sven wasn’t that lucky.” One of the technicians powered up the holosphere in the center of the table. “None of us will be alone at any given time until this is resolved. Not for a single moment,” she stressed.

“Not even in the restroom?”

“Not even there. We’re working against time.” She caught his eyes, making sure he understood. “We need to know what the archive contains about dream traveling devices, the malfunction, and – most importantly – the countermeasures. If we spread that information, the Queen has no longer anything to gain by destroying Earth.”

“Can she do that?” Morron asked quietly.

“Yes, without a doubt.” Niko squared her shoulders. “Right now, my colleagues, my friends are fighting, dying to delay her so that we have time to find the information. So please, don’t let their sacrifice be in vain.”

 

 

2088-09-22

 

 

Two days later

 

“—the dream traveler wearing the first crystal had control over the movements of the second crystal. Sensual perception was channeled through the entangled crystals, resulting in the dream traveler being able to see, hear, and smell the environment in which the twin crystal resided. The texts are very specific in that regard.” Professor Morron sounded excited. “The technology is a marvelous achievement, explaining a lot of Xeryons’ exploration prowess, and—”

“Professor,” Niko cut in. “We already know that it was not always in the jurisdiction of the dream travelers to end their tours and that the Xeryon authorities were aware of that risk. Otherwise, dream traveling agencies and mandatory medical observation wouldn’t have happened. Did you find anything related to these?”

“Yes.” Morron nodded repeatedly. “It appears the problem is the limited storage capacity of the brain. The information gathered by the second crystal in the distance is stored as memories, and there are very strict warnings not to exceed the maximum time for a dream travel because otherwise the brain would suffer serious information overflow, resulting in a severe stroke.”

QBall tossed his light pen onto the table. “That’s close to what we see happening to those dying in the Psychocrypt, but it doesn’t help us in the current situation. Is there anything about how the traveling process is monitored and interrupted in case of malfunction?”

 

 

BETA command center

 

“Sir, we have orbital changes in the Hungaria asteroid group[3].” The operator called the monitoring diagram of the asteroid belt onto the main screen, marking the atypically moving celestial bodies in bright red. “64 Angelina[4] and 55 Pandora[5] are definitely on a new trajectory into the inner system.” She marked the two bodies in the 3D star chart and added directional vectors. “We also have smaller changes in orbits even further into the belt.”

“Magnitude of acceleration?” Zach studied the display with narrowed eyes. The armada had arrived less than three days ago, for the orbital changes to be detectable already—

“Not enough data yet, sir.”

“Transmit the coordinates to the carriers,” Zach ordered. “They have to intercept the bodies before they enter an earth-bound trajectory and are sped up with a weak hyperfield.” He stilled frowned at the tactical display. Something was off, but he couldn’t put his finger on it. The Hungaria asteroids were among the innermost asteroids in the main belt, so it made sense to use them rather than something deeper inside the turbulent region, but still they were past Mars. “Any activities among the Amors[6] or the Earth-crossers[7]?” he asked.

“No, sir.” The operator shook her head. “But EAS 1 to 4 keep track of them, as does the Spaceguard[8].”

 

 

Asteroid Belt

64 Angelina

 

Goose watched the twisted surface rushing past his interceptor. Even this far out from the sun, black shadows marked every sun-side rock protruding from what was cataloged as 64-Angelina since the 19th Century. Three purple flares regularly firing on its dark side marked the position of the engines, pushing the fast rotating, irregular shaped body sunwards toward Earth.

“This stinks,” he growled into the comm and turned over his wing towards the twisted surface. “I’ll take a closer look.”

=Negative, Wildcard!= His wing leader’s sharp command cut through the com static. =We’re to take out the engines and not risk their ack-ack until the carriers arrive—=

Goose entered the narrow cone of radio silence below the horizon and shrugged. Angelina’s pale surface rushed past overhead, the change to night instantaneous without an atmosphere. Silicate-rich rock glittered white in the search beams of the interceptor. The enemy engines whizzed past, lined out with black shadows in the bright light reflected from the surface.

Heavy-duty machines. Sub-light only. Gooseman cursed. He didn’t even bother to shoot at them before he activated his Hypercom, ignoring the chain of command, radio-silence, and likely a gazillion Space Navy rules he’d never bothered to learn in the first place. “Wildcard to Kiowa!” he barked the moment the carrier channel signaled contact. “Decoy! I repeat: Decoy! Angelina’s bait!”

 

 

LSS Kiowa

heading away from Earth

 

“Wildcard? Who’s that?” Admiral Frederic Subadar, hands folded behind his back, asked the flustered communications officer.

His first officer answered instead, “a transfer from BETA. One of Walsh’s specialists.”

“I want fly-overs of the other targets,” Subadar ordered without looking away from the tactical overlay on the main screen, showing position and vectors of the critical objects. “Query Comanche and Laredo for the closest teams.”

=Reaching shunt velocity,= KIOWA announced ship-wide. =Prepare for hyperspace in ten after signal.= The ascending cadence of the hyperjump countdown filled the wide bridge along with every room and corridor on the large carrier as the AI began counting down. =Ten… nine…=

LSS Kiowa was of the same class as the Laredo. 12.000 men and women served on her, although she was now operating with a skeleton crew of a thousand due to the emergency departure.

=Eight… seven… six…=

“Decoy!” Frederic Subadar felt himself gnawing on his back teeth. “Repeat: Decoy!”

=Five… four… three…=

“Angelina’s bait!” Angelina was a bright E-type asteroid on the inner edge of the main belt. All asteroids moving toward Earth were E-types…

=Two… one…=

“Abort jump!” he barked, giving in to his hunch.

“Hyperjump abandoned, sir.”

Satisfied, Subadar noted that his first officer’s expression did not show her surprise over her admiral’s irrational behavior. “Inform Blake and Antonova that we’re staying put. And get me Wildcard on the com.”

 

 

Interceptor-7

above 64 Angelina, asteroid main belt

 

“Sir, those engines have no hyperspace capability,” Goose answered the admiral’s inquiry briskly, “and no capacity to add it. Hell, they didn’t even bother to stop the rotation. They just timed the engine bursts to push the damned rocked on course towards Earth.” He snorted. “It’ll take more than a year for Angelina to drop on our heads. The Queen isn’t that patient!”

=You are very confident to know the enemy’s M.O., Lieutenant, to break radio silence on such a hunch.= Subadar’s dark frown was somewhat diminished by the tiny dashboard screen, reducing his red-brown mustache to a blurred caterpillar.

“I was there when the information was discovered, sir. It’s not in the Queen’s interest to give us a year to decode it.” Goose knew better than to budge. “Angeline practically sparkles! All E-types do. If they wanted us not to spot them, they’d have used C-types[9]!” He drew a deep breath and risked it. “Sir, whatever’s going to happen, it’ll happen a lot closer to Earth. And all our heavy firepower was heading away from it. That couldn’t be good.”

The admiral on the tiny screen considered him calmly. =Who’s your wing leader, Wildcard?=

“Guardian. Lieutenant Rosharraf, that is.” Goose glanced at his controls. “But he doesn’t like me much. Wing leaders take offense when being ignored.”

=That’s one way to put it,= Subadar commented dryly. =Consider yourself warned. If—= The bridge sirens and alarms going off on the Kiowa cut him off.

Twenty-seven minutes later[10], Goose saw a brilliant white flare light up the vicinity of Earth.

 

 

BetaLabs, Sublevel 3

 

“—results in the formation of two spatially separate but quantum entangled crystals[11], the one in contact with the skin of the dream traveler—” Professor Morron blinked when Niko and several of QBall’s people around the conference table winced. “Is something the matter?”

“No, professor. Reality just caught up with us,” Niko said quietly. “Please, do continue.”

“This is where the text becomes more confusing.” Morron highlighted a group of symbols, floating in the holosphere above the table, and translated, “Of the pair of entangled crystals, the crystal touching a living body first will form a reversible connection via crystallization along… Kastumi, do you know these glyphs?”

Nakawa frowned, and briefly consulted her notes. “M~aricq~tuoah,” she said. “Electric lines… if that makes sense?”

“Nerves.” QBall looked up. “The nervous system,” he specified. “Actually, that fits to a T what we know from the scans of a psychocrystallization victim. AL-JAZ[12],” he called his AI, “display the data, please.”

The floating Xeryon glyphs was replaced by Eliza Fox’s medical file. QBall swiftly marked and enlarged a 3D model, zooming in on her chest and torso. “As you can see the psychocrystal connected itself with the spinal marrow and through it with the brain via hyphen-like crystal threads tracing and partially replacing neural pathways—”

“Niko.” Ayse bent towards her and nodded at the door. “You’ve got a visitor.”

Zachary. Waiting with a drawn expression that—

With dread, Niko excused herself from the table.

Something was wrong. Very, very wrong.

 

“The Queen sent a Mega-Star Destroyer, packed to the brim with explosives and rocks through hyperspace on a collision course with Earth,” Zach told her in a low voice after they’d moved out of earshot of the guards posted at the door to the translator room. “Admiral Subadar rammed it with the Kiowa, triggering the explosion in exosphere rather than atmosphere. I thought you shouldn’t get that by news feed.”

“The Kiowa?” Niko mouthed, feeling cold. “Survivors?”

“Unknown. The ship’s totaled.” Zach answered quietly. “They’re collecting the rescue capsules as we speak. We don’t know about G—”

“Goose is okay,” Niko told him firmly. “He was nowhere near the ship. I’d know otherwise—” At his sad expression, she shook her head and emphasized, “no, Zach. I’d know.

“At such a distance?” he asked warily.

“At any distance.”

His frown deepened at the conviction in her voice. “Any progress?” he asked with an uneasy look back at the guarded door.

“A little. The archive contains a lot more technological specifications than we expected. Once we identified the critical features, we will prepare a broadcast that should enable our tech-savvy allies to keep the Queen on her toes.” Niko look up and down the corridor before adding, “QBall even hopes to put some of it to use right here.”

“Just hurry.” For once, Zach’s weariness and tension showed on his face. “Keep it to yourself, but it doesn’t look good. We stopped this attack, but the Queen took out a third of our firepower in it. And we didn’t have equal numbers to begin with.”

 

 

2088-09-23

 

 

Office of Cmdr. Walsh

 

“…made it impossible for the dream travelers to control the second crystal generating their holographic entity or to return their perception to their body on their own volition. If their condition wasn’t detected in time, the information loaded into their brain would exceed their brain capacity resulting in a fatal stroke.”

Niko shifted her weight when QBall took a deep breath. Was it really only three days ago when she’d stood in this very spot, informing the commander and then her team what the crystal archive likely contained? Three days. And now Goose was missing, a carrier had exploded in orbit, and the commander looked as if he hadn’t slept – or changed his uniform – since she’d been here the last time. Niko suppressed a shiver, forcing herself to listen to QBall summarizing the translation team’s results.

“The crystal traps the dream traveler when there’s a small amount of excess energy during the formation, causing additional excited quantum states that bypass the user control and keep the crystal connection alive even when the user tries to log off.” QBall swallowed. “We believe that the Queen uses excessive energy in the process for creating her slaverlords.”

“How are the slaverlords controlled then?” Walsh’s voice sounded rough.

“The Xeryon implemented features to monitor and manipulate the dream travelers’ experience,” Niko added. “Officially, to detect trapped travelers in time and to prevent traumatic experiences.” She drew a face. “Sure backfired, sir.”

“Yes, but with zero strategical value for getting the Queen off our backs!” Walsh snarled. “Do you have anything useful?”

“They also constructed a disentangler for freeing trapped travelers, sir,” Niko said. “Usable on both, the slaverlord or the cryptee, without having to connect the original crystals.”

“What about the self in the slaverlord crystal?” Walsh inquired.

“We are talking about a pair of quantum entangled crystals, commander,” QBall reminded him. “The content of these two crystals may be spatially separated, but quantum mechanically it’s just one.”

“Can you build such a release device or do you run into the same problem you had with duplicating the archive and the reader?”

“We can build it,” QBall stated with emphasis. “That’s the beauty of it. The disentangler merely measures all quantum states in the accessible crystal, thus collapsing the wave functions of both crystals into defined states and thus decoheres the entanglement of the crystal pair, eliminating the slaverlord and freeing the victim.” QBall beamed. “No exotic quantum states to worry about!”

“How long?”

“Forty-eight hours,” QBall said, “barring unpleasant surprises with the equipment. Replication on the sub-atomic scale isn’t a fast process.”

“Also, prepare transmitting the blueprints and a digicopy of the device to be send along,” Walsh ordered grimly. “We have to convince the Queen once and for all that eliminating Earth won’t achieve her goal of containing this information. We won’t win against the armada by decohering one slaverlord at a time. Dismissed.”

 

 

Inner Solar System

Intercepter-7

 

Goose cursed and rolled into a sharp turn. The Crown Destroyer’s aft battery harked the shields of his interceptor, the resulting glare blinding him and his sensors alike. The stronger shields of the Crown ship didn’t so much as flicker from his fire.

He avoided crashing into the dragged asteroid by a hair’s width, calculating its relative position from memory and instinct. Not a second too early, given that he saw the ragged stone surface rush past his right wing by the time the shield glare subsided to a level that allowed reliable sensor data and direct visuals again.

=A close shave, Goose.= ALMA’s only comment. =Shields reduced to 48 per cent. Avoid further hits or your ass is toast.=

“Did you get the data on how close they draw their shields around the drag beams?”

=Data imprecise, but less than two meters.=

Too narrow. He might make it through the Destroyer’s fire and hit the emitters, but nobody with normal reflexes would, and a dozen drag beams were pulling the unnamed NEO[13]. And the closer they got towards the point after which they’d have to drag the stone actively back to avoid impact, the more Crown fighters protected the main ship. A low ping arose, speeding up by the minute. The alert of the no-return-point approaching. Frustrated, he hit his flat hand against the dashboard.

=Hitting me won’t solve your problem,= ALMA, fucking smart-alecky AI that she was, reminded him. As if his ‘problem’ wasn’t just a fucking asteroid being dragged to Earth by a Crown Destroyer with shields protecting its drag beam emitters that were way too good for their small pack of interceptors to penetrate. He stopped. The Destroyer had shields, the asteroid…

Circling back, he activated radio. “We’re hitting the wrong end of the tether. Target the contact points of the drags on the surface. Let’s unhitch a few million tons from their pull!”

His blasters carved a deep groove into the space rock. He immediately turned, fired again, cutting deeper, angling to get under the area where the drag beams made contact. Dust shot up, spiraled along the drag beams. An ice deposit under the surface evaporated—

Goose floored the pedal, but the acceleration wasn’t enough. The NEO was bursting, expelling rocks the size of ships. The obnoxiously nervous collision alert blared, for once being right as ALMA also screamed a warning. The impact on his left wing threw him into the safety harness as it turned the interceptor into a wild spin, trailing a stream of scrap metal and engine fuel.

 

 

BetaMountain

Communications Center

 

“No, Tripwire!” Doc told the bright-red cogwheel rotating beside the prepared message text scrolling over the screen. “We do not encrypt this transmission!” Anger had crept into his voice. He’d repeated his order often enough now that he considered sitting down and hard-coding it into his programs. Security consciousness was one thing but—

“Keep calm,” Niko reminded him, “or do you want our next mission report to go clear-text to the Queen, too?”

=So this isn’t a permanent insanity of his?= the program sparkle bleeped in.

“No, Tripwire,” Niko told it, “this is us spreading the information the Queen wants to keep secret at all costs as far and as wide as possible.”

=And why didn’t you tell us that?= the program huffed at Doc before disappearing back into the console.

“Since when do you know my programs better than I do?” Doc asked exasperated.

“Since you tried to talk my AI into baring its personality files to you?” Niko returned sweetly.

Remembering the AI’s reply, Doc grumbled, “if that was your AI I’m eating Goose’s boots.”

“With ketchup or mayo?” Niko dead-panned.

“As if KASSIE would ever—”

“Is the transmission prepared?” Zach entering the com center interrupted their banter.

“Yes, mon capitaine.” Doc slapped his hand over his heart. “We’re just waiting for QBall’s digicopy.” He blinked innocently. “And the digicopy of the disentangler, of course.”

“Doc, this is hardly the time to—” Zach stopped when Niko grabbed the edge of the console for support, reeling. “Niko, are you all right?”

She pressed a hand to her temple. “Goose,” she whispered. “Something happened to Goose.”

 

 

Inner Solar System

Interceptor-7

 

A bout of static spilled from the speakers, but the tiny screen in the smoke-filled cockpit didn’t so much as flicker. A voice became understandable. =—redo. I repeat. This is LSS Laredo for Wildcard. We register severe engine damage on your vessel. You’re cleared for starboard bay 5. Can you follow the beacons?=

“Negative, Laredo,” Goose answered immediately. “You risk critical infrastructure when admitting me. I’m preparing for planetfall. Wildcard end.”

=Negative, Wildcard!= the operator ordered. =Your ship doesn’t stand for planetfall. We’re bringing you in on starboard 5. Follow—=

Goose cut the comm. “No, you won’t,” he muttered, checking his controls. “ALMA, are we still on track for BETA?”

=Positive, Goose.= The AI’s calm voice was a relieve. =LAREDO is trying to log into our flight controls. Shall I continue to block them?=

“Yeah,” he said grimly. “We’d be coming in hot as hell and they need that runway for the normals requiring their beauty sleep.”

 

 

2088-09-24

 

 

BetaMountain

Office of Cmdr. Walsh

 

“They had to fish me out of the ocean!” Admiral Frederic Subadar raged. “The jacklegs didn’t catch my capsule before re-entry!” He stuffed his hands into the pockets of the orange-and-yellow rescue coverall, he hadn’t changed into a uniform yet. “I could have been half across the galaxy in the time it took them to get me to shore! And they call themselves Navy! Idiots!”

“The Pacific isn’t exactly a puddle,” Joseph replied dryly, “and the Board expects you to make your trips with your own ship.”

Frederic snorted. “So, where are we in that mess?”

“Up to the insignia and then some. So far, the interceptors managed to unhinge any stone the armada drags toward Earth, but we have considerable losses in the ranks.”

“How long?”

“The scientists say another day. If we have that—” Walsh shrugged. “Blake and Antonova have a hard time covering Earth with two ships.”

Frederic studied the tactical display in the holotank on Walsh’s desk. “Innovative use of the tugs at BETA Space Station,” he commented after a moment. “Can’t be as maneuverable as a carrier, but—” He whistled.

“Antonova’s idea. Not a heavyweight, but it reduces the gap. Without that—”

=Sir?= Sheela interrupted them via the intercom. =Interceptor-7 is reported on course for BETA with severe engine damage. ETA on ER 1 in eight minutes.=

“Any direct contact?”

=No, sir.=

Walsh cursed. “I’ll be there. Admiral Subadar will cover for me in the meantime.”

“Interceptor-7? Is that still the pilot you sent me?” Subadar asked, after Walsh closed the line. “Wildcard?”

“Yes,” Walsh answered grimly, already heading out. “I’ll be back ASAP.”

“You shouldn’t give him special treatment like this,” Frederic warned. “Special snowflakes get burned. You know that.”

Joseph sighed. “How do you treat a special snowflake that is special?” he asked, looking back from the door.

Frederic’s attention was already back on the tactics. “Depends on how special ‘special’ is.”

“How much do you know about supertroopers, Freddy?”

Subadar froze.

 

 

BetaMountain

Emergency Runway 1

 

Sirens howled. The burning interceptor screeched into the protective gel foam, careening, and – engines still red-hot – came to a standstill in the middle of the emergency runway. Fire extinguishing foam, cooling gel, and shock absorbent in case of a belated explosion was sprayed onto it. Environmental parameters were constantly monitored, reported to the controllers, and adjusted—

Goose opened the cockpit seal the moment he got green and leaped down to the slippery concrete. A glance at the interceptor’s engines told him it had been nothing short of a miracle that he’d reached Earth – burning –, made planetfall – burning –, and landed – burning – on the ER in one piece. Without exploding. Cool. Although the gel foam coating everything around him and his boots up to his knees smelled like pissed-on plankton.

“You look a disgrace,” Walsh said behind him.

A correct assessment, Goose gave him that. He hadn’t exactly taken time off to shower, shave, change clothes, and take a nap since the armada was clogging the neighborhood. “Nothing that ten minutes in a sani-cell won’t fix, sir.” He turned, saluted snappily, and kept his surprise about the commander’s own worn appearance from his face.

“Then by all means, do so,” Walsh snapped, “before you get contained as a biohazard.”

“Sir, I was hoping to be off in—”

“You will leave this base once O’Malley’s team has this ship—” Walsh cut him off, indicating the almost burned wreck of the interceptor in Goose’s back, “—fit for space again.”

Goose shifted uncomfortably at that, but if he—

“Nobody but O’Malley’s team.”

Fuck. Not for the first time, Goose wondered if the man had undisclosed mind-reading abilities.

“Clean up. Get some food, and the sleep you eschewed up there. You are grounded.” Walsh turned, not waiting for his reply or salute.

Goose sighed and fought a yawn. Damn.

 

 

Digital Copier Station

 

“Another fourteen hours, at least!” QBall snapped, annoyed, at the com screen showing not one but two commanding officers demanding he be done by now. “We’re printing molecular layers! Do you know how many there are in a specimen of the required size!?”

Niko checking and double-checking the translation of the instruction files for accuracy and possible double-meanings was glad that her tightened shields prevented her from picking up that ire at all. She lowered her head, focusing on the double display showing the Xeryon hieroglyphs on the left and their translation on the right side. She was worried. She wanted to lower her shields, reach out, verify that Goose—

But she also remembered Zach’s warning glance when the first shock had reached her in the communications center, his frown when she’d admitted earlier just how aware she was of Goose’s presence. It made her wonder how much Zach knew about telepaths.

QBall’s com screen went dark and he immediately called up the interface of the molecular printer, checking the progress on the disentangler. Niko’s wristcom vibrated. A glance at the display revealed a plain text message, two words, from the commander who’d just been on the screen.

“Cafeteria. Now.”

 

 

Personnel Lounge

a.k.a. The Cafeteria

 

“Thanks for coming over.” Susan, the waitress on duty, rushed over the moment Niko set foot into the cafeteria. “We’re close to shift change and really need that table.” Niko’s lack of comprehension must have shown on her face, because Susan explained, unasked, “I know better than to wake a soldier by shaking him, but calling didn’t help and he isn’t the most popular of our regulars.” She sighed. “Especially now that he blocks a table at lunch time. I—”

“Susan,” Niko interrupted her, short-tempered from lack of psionic input. “Just who are you talking about? I got a cryptic message telling me to come here and that’s it. I have no clue.”

“There.” Susan simply pointed at one of the large corner tables. Normally fit for seating ten guests, it currently held only two empty trays and a man in the white-and-grey of an unmarked pilot’s combat suit, sleeping with his back to them, head pillowed on his crossed arms—

Shane.

She’d kept her shields that tight and he’d been right here—Susan forgotten, Niko circled the table to approach him within his field of view. “Goose?” No response. Since when was he so careless as to sleep in a public, unsecured place? “Goose,” she repeated. “Are you all right?” Again, no response.

Warring briefly with herself if this was acceptable or not, Niko tapped her badge and strengthened her next call telepathically. Undeserved relief flowed through her at the mental contact. “…Goose…” That got her a murmur that sounded suspiciously like ‘five more minutes’. “…No more minutes. This is the cafeteria, Goose…”

“And?” He raised his head from his arms. “Did the muffins come alive and stage a revolt?”

Laughter bubbled at that. “No, but Susan needs the table for the guests.”

“And what am I? Chopped liver?”

“Done eating,” Niko corrected with a nod at the empty trays.

“H-hm.” Goose rested his head on his crossed arms again, looking for all it took as if he planned to go back to sleep. Niko didn’t remember having seen him that tired before. “Shane,” she asked quietly, “when was the last time you slept?”

“Not sure,” he mumbled into his sleeve. “When you and Walsh woke me…”

She and Walsh?! Niko froze. “That was more than four days ago!”

“Eight shifts, a planetfall, and a trip to Deltoid,” he corrected sleepily. “What’s wrong? Walsh said four-to-one shifts, and Subadar’s pilots did double, makes eight.” He shrugged, yawned, and grumbled, “Should have crashed the damn thing in the desert. Would have spared me the glibber and being grounded until O’Malley has time to fix the burned carcass.” Niko giggled, and he shot her a dark look over his sleeve. “Not funny. Do you know how the stuff smells?”

“Can’t be worse than your pants after a four-days shift,” she shot back, and blushed when realizing the implications. “Uhm, I mean—”

“Yeah, that’s the reason for short shifts.” He yawned.

“I think there’s another one, Shane,” she commented dryly. “How about you go sleeping in your bed instead of on a cafeteria table?”

“I’m a supertrooper,” he mumbled, “don’t you know that we’re the most frugal?”

“If you’re awake enough for that word, you’re awake enough to seek your own bed,” Niko declared, finally patting his arm. “Now move. They need the table to feed people.”

“The poor sods.” Goose yawned and came to his feet, searched his pockets, and left a hefty tip on his empty dish. At Niko’s surprise, he grinned. “Their tables are a lot comfier than they look.”

 

Niko left together with him. “How’s it really looking up there?” she asked once they’d cleared the busy cafeteria vicinity.

Goose’s expression became instantly guarded. “Very bad,” he said finally, without looking at her. “Subadar going kamikaze on her thwarted the Queen’s initial plan, but now they turned to the obvious solution: dragging small and medium sized NEOs to Earth.”

They stopped in front of the lift doors and waited for a cabin to arrive.

“So far, we caught them, but the Queen has more fighters than we and large ships for hauling meteoroids and even small asteroids at speed sufficient for causing a global event if one slips through.” A muscle in his cheek worked as he kept staring at the closed lift. “Sooner or later one of them will escape us. And one’s enough.”

Goose looked down at his boots, when the lift pinged, and added quietly, “You don’t have to come along. I promise I’ll go to bed now.” He gave her twisted smile. “With a detour to refill Poss’s food dispenser, or my cat will eat me while I’m out cold.”

“Shane…” Her trembling voice stopped him.

 

“Get some rest. See your family. I expect you back in ten hours.” The commander’s gruff order, given after receiving QBall’s annoyed reply on the com, was still playing back in Zach’s mind when he headed to the lounge to get some take out. He didn’t want to spend the few hours he had with his children on his mediocre attempts at cooking.

Crossing the corner, he was surprised to spot Goose and Niko waiting for a lift cabin. The ST had flown non-stop against the armada and Zach had caught enough of the emergency codes accompanying his return to know that nobody else would have walked away from that landing. They stood close with merely a hand’s width between them, talking quietly. He noticed that Goose avoided looking at her, the tension in his tall frame even visible from this distance. Zach frowned. Was Niko again—

Just when he was about to hail them, a lift cabin arrived. Niko raised her hand uncertainly, not making contact until Gooseman leaned into her touch, allowing tension and wariness to seep away for a stolen moment while her hand touched his cheek, before he visibly straightened and entered the lift. Without her. Niko’s still raised hand closed slowly, as if holding on to the fleeting contact while the doors shut between them.

Zach drew a quiet breath, ashamed about his suspicions. He felt like having intruded on a very private moment – at least as private as possible between two members of the same unit and Gooseman’s restraints. It made him wonder if he would have had the strength to walk away. He remembered how isolation felt, especially isolation by court – or Board – order, and realized, the answer was ‘no’. His children were proof of that.

 

 

2088-09-25

 

 

MPQ 206

 

Breakfast was a somber affair in the Fox household today. The news feed running on the kitchen monitor showed long distance images of the hovering Crown armada and, repeatedly, the brilliant flash of the Kiowa exploding only a few thousand kilometers outside atmosphere, taking one of the armada’s heavyweights and a quarter of its crew with it.

Various news anchors gave their best to give everything a positive spin, but the facts looked grim and were within reach of hobby astronomers’ telescopes, so no chance for outright lies. One of the spin doctors even claimed the danger to be negligible because no senator had bothered to go off-planet this time, as if any planet would accept them with the armada hot on their heels. Zach believed that one to be out of a job once somebody from the Board reviewed the news feeds. He allowed himself a dark chuckle into his coffee.

“Mrs. Bogdanovich scheduled a class test for today,” Jessie mumbled around a large spoonful of cereals soaked in soy milk and cocoa. “And the electronics fair is next week.” She snuffled. “If those rusty tin cans don’t go home soon, it’ll get all cramped into the same week.”

“Hey, look on the bright side, little sister!” Zach Jr. nudged her elbow and winked. “Once Dad’s back at work they’re done for.” But the look he gave his father behind her back told Zach that his son knew exactly how grim things looked and tried to shield his sister. “And until then it’s free Tri-D—”

“—until your schools transmitted your homework,” Zach stated dryly, helping himself to another toast.

“Daaad!” Zachy protested. “We don’t have to ask for—”

The doorbell chimed and Zach put his napkin down beside his dish and went to answer the door. He stopped dead-still at the sight of their visitor. “Sir? To what do I owe this—” He interrupted himself, inquiring, “did something happen?”

“May I come in first?” Walsh asked. “This is a public hallway.”

“Yes, of course.” Zach stepped aside, letting him in. “The living room’s over there, sir.” A sharp turn brought him back towards the kitchen. “Junior, take Jessie and your breakfasts and wait in your room.”

“Dad?”

“No discussion, son.” He nodded in the direction of their bed rooms. “Please.” A moment later, Zach sat on his couch in front of the commander, who’d claimed the armchair, awkwardly stretching out his injured leg. “They’re out of earshot, sir,” Zach said after the click of Zachy’s door registered in his sound enhancers. “May I ask now what this is all about? This is hardly a social call given the current situation.”

“Indeed not.” Walsh sighed. “We need your permission to use the disentangler on your wife.”

“What?” Zach shrank back. “Why—?”

“You know how it looked up there when I sent you home,” Walsh told him. “Believe me, things haven’t improved in your absence. We have to prove once and for all that the disentangler works, or we’re done for.”

“Then give me a ship and I get you a dozen slaverlords within the hour,” Zach bit off.

“We still wouldn’t know what the disentanglement does to the cryptee,” Walsh reminded him. “Frankly, aside from Andor and maybe Kirwin, few of our allies have the technological means to build a disentangler. They may disseminate the information, but they can’t put it to use.” Walsh shook his head, dismissing them. “Can you see the Andorians or the Kiwis using a disentangler when there’s doubt about what happens to the cryptee?”

“No.” Zach felt bile on his tongue. “But I can see the Board forcing a disentanglement.” Almost as an afterthought, he added, “sir.”

Walsh sighed. “Exactly.”

“So, if I deny your request—?”

“It will become a Board order within the hour,” the commander confirmed. “I’d prefer if it didn’t.”

Zach’s throat constricted at the thought. “I want the best possible treatment for her,” he forced himself to say. “Before, during, and afterwards.”

“On one condition.”

 

 

Later

 

The lid of the CHU was completely frost-free. The temperature inside, listed together with other vital parameters, equaled the body temperature of a normal human being. Robotic arms in pristine white and chrome grabbed the lid. A sharp hiss marked the moment the sterile atmosphere inside merged with that of the intensive care operation room. The lid moved steadily upwards, revealing the motionless body of the woman inside.

She wore a white tunic. IVs and other wires were retracted automatically. Light scattered off the facets of the purple hexagonal crystal in the center of her chest as self-stimulated respiration set in. A third robotic arm descended, placing a dark blue crystal on top of the purple one.

Light erupted between the two crystals, too bright for the cameras. The vital signs continued scrolling over the whitened screen. Temperature, heartbeat, oxygen concentration, awareness… More general indicators beside the scientific values began turning from yellow – at risk – to green. All fine. The white light subsided. The microphones caught a voice hoarse from disuse. “Zachary?”

 

In BETA’s main control room, Zach formed a tight fist behind his back. He knew how much the vital signs, the voice at the end had been tweaked. Faked. He tried not to think about the unencrypted broadcast showing his wife to an unsympathetic galaxy, to his nemesis; a nemesis a lot more personal than the brass knew…[14]

The Queen’s equally unencrypted answering broadcast filled the main screen, warning all recipients to face her wrath in case they perpetuate the falsehoods, like Earth faced it for its lies.

Outside the two-way screen’s focus, Niko was waiting with Goose and Doc. The tiny screen of the hacker’s CDU glowed, displaying a hologram Zach had taken just before his family’s fatal deployment to Kirwin.

“Sir,” the communications operator addressed the commander, “the flagship of the armada is hailing us on an open channel.”

Niko straightened her shoulders at the announcement. Walsh threw Zach a brief glance, then nodded grimly at the operator. Showtime. “Make it a multi-broadcast. We have nothing to hide.”

We have everything to hide, Zach corrected, keeping that desperate thought off his face. We’re playing this farce for the whole galaxy to watch.

The content of the main screen changed to the Queen of the Crown staring down at them. =Admit your sham, and you may beg for your lives!=

“I beg your pardon,” Walsh replied dryly, “but facts only shame frauds.”

The Queen ignored him. =And Zachary. Really, you ought to know better. You aren’t so entertaining as that I’d put up with this.=

Zach’s nails dug through his glove into the synthoskin of his artificial hand. “Her return was always my goal,” he stated firmly. “I never claimed otherwise.”

=Yet you never write, you never call…=

“That might be because he’s married, my Queen,” a quiet, no longer hoarse voice said. Eliza entered the focus of the two-way screen, breathing a kiss on Zach’s cheek before glaring at the Queen, “and I don’t share!”

=Pah!= The Queen made a dismissive gesture. =Another piece of trickery, easily disproved!= She took a silver chain from her neck, holding it into focus. =This is the Eliza Fox crystal! And this—= She touched opposing facets. =—is its slaverl—=

Purple dust erupted in her hand, flowed over her fingers and rained onto her robe and to the floor. The Queen stared at her empty hand. The screen went abruptly dark.

“Crown transmission end,” the comm operator stated unnecessarily. “We’re still broadcasting for our allies.” On the main screen, the tactical display again showed a schematic of the solar system filled with a swarm of angry red dots and far too few blue sparks centered around the third planet. A small screen inset still showed Eliza leaning against Zach’s arm. He threw her a worried glance, feeling the tremor in her slender frame. It’s been almost an hour, since—

“Sir, Andor and Kirwin confirm reception of the initial broadcast,” the operator reported, “included digicopy is being processed.”

“Did the Queen catch that?” Walsh inquired.

“Both messages were in the clear with significant signal strength, sir.”

On the screen, a red dot flashed and disappeared, then another one, and another, and—

“Sir, large ships are entering hyperspace in high numbers. Vector…” the operator checked his display. “Tortuna, sir. The armada retreats!”

Cheers erupted all over the hall. In the sudden noise, Goose tensed and frantically signaled to cut the broadcast. Zach fervently wished for the same. He had to get back and make sure she wasn’t alone when—

“End transmission,” Walsh ordered and frowned. “What’s—?”

“Permission to leave,” Zach requested immediately. His attention on the commander, he almost missed Niko fainting beside him.

Goose caught her, deftly keeping Zach from touching her. “Go,” he told him with a firm nod towards the exit. “I have her. Make sure we didn’t tell too big a lie to our allies.”

 

[1] See “Buzzwang’s Folly” (TV episode)

[2] See “Changeling” (TV episode)

[3] Hungaria asteroid family. A group of asteroids orbiting the Sun between 1.78 and 2 AU with low eccentricity (< 0.18) and inclinations between 16 and 34°. They are E-type asteroids, having atypically bright surfaces with a high content of MgSiO3 (Enstatite; hence “E-type”), which led to the assumption that they originate from the mantle rather than the core of a differentiated astronomical body, such as a large asteroid.

[4] 64 Angelina. Main-belt asteroid, E-type, irregular shaped 60 x 53 x 45 km (based on Shepard et al., doi: 10.1016/j.icarus.2011.07.027).

[5] 55 Pandora. Main-belt asteroid, E-type, diameter 66.7 km, rotation period 4.8040 h.

[6] Amor asteroids. Near-Earth asteroids with orbits that approach Earth from beyond but do not cross Earth orbit into the inner solar system. 3.729 Amor asteroids are listed by the JPL Small-Body Database as of June 2013.

[7] Earth-crossers. Near-Earth asteroids with orbits that cross Earth orbit. These include the Aten and Apollo asteroids, the latter of which are thought to be the origin of the Chelyabinsk meteor on Feb 15, 2013.

[8] Spaceguard Foundation. See http://spaceguard.iasf-roma.inaf.it//

[9] C-type asteroids are dark, carbonaceous objects. 75 % of the known asteroids are C-types.

[10] Average distance of 64 Angelina to Earth: 2.684 AU (light takes 22.32 minutes to travel that distance).

[11] When I wrote the first draft of this story in the y2k, quantum entangled crystals were still considered fiction, but in 2011 Lee et al. reported the successful entanglement of two spatially separated diamonds (crystalline carbon!) at room temperature (Lee et al., Science 2011, doi: 10.1126/science/1211914). A summary for lay persons can be found at http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=room-temperature-entanglement

[12] Al-Jazari (1136 – 1206) wrote “The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices” in 1206, a popular D-I-Y book detailing water-powered automata, pumps, and clocks, predating Leonardo da Vinci by more than 250 years.

[13] NEO. Near Earth Object.

[14] See “Psychocrypt” (TV episode) and “The Lie” (fan fiction by A. Kniggendorf)

Chapter Text

Board of World Leaders

special session in progress

 

“—committed an unspeakable act of aggression, trying to literally obliterate the origin of the human species!” The center-piece hologram of Senator Friederike Strauching pierced the air with a pointer finger stabbed upwards, slightly wavering in the hologram because of the rapid movement outside the focal area. “Aggressors such as these cannot be trusted not to try again once the attention of our forces is elsewhere, spread thin as they are in attempting to please every whim of the League.

“A League, I may add, my fellow senators,” – another finger stab – “which failed to even send a single ship in our time of need!” The senator’s hologram circled on its platform, as she sought the eyes of each of the other representatives of Earth assembled, directly or like herself in holographic form, for the emergency session immediately called after the Crown armada had begun to retreat. “In fact, in the face of this apparent cowardice from our so-called allies, Earth has to defend itself preemptively against an enemy proven to plan the elimination of Mankind!”

The rotund woman wearing the traditional garb of her hometown Linz drew a deep breath before her final statement. “I therefore call for a preemptive defense of Earth in the form of an immediate decisive strike with our armed forces against the Crown Empire to prevent any further aggression against Earth!”

She studied the other representatives once more. “And I urge the assembly to vote in its favor. Thank you.” Her hologram wavered slightly and was replaced by text floating in the milky cloud for a few seconds, announcing the next speaker as Senator Alphonse Djobenji, representative of the South Cape Trust. The SCT united corporations spanning the southern ends of both Africa and America, as well as several interest groups on behalf of the Antarctican mining operations, and was known for its more moderate politics in respect to Earths interstellar obligations.

“Dear colleagues,” he began, “with the utmost respect for my colleague from the Montalpine Agenturate, I have to disagree and remind the assembled gentlebeings that Earths part in the League, as stated in the first treaty and several additional agreements, is that of law enforcement and, yes, military force. Our obligation to our allies is providing strength and military might to protect us and them. In this case, the threat was directed against our own world, and our men and women in uniform had to struggle heroically to deflect it in time. Many of them made the ultimate sacrifice to save Earth. To demand military protection of our pacifistic allies, who provide us with sophisticated technology and agriculture in exchange for our protection is nothing short of disdain for the terms of the treaty from which we gained unprecedented benefits over the years.

“Moreover, sly rhetoric aside, a preemptive defense is an effective assault, explicitly forbidden by the treaty from which Earth, represented by this fine assembly of honorable beings, indubitably benefited! I therefore urge my fellow senators to vote nay on the proposed attack on the Crown Empire. Thank you.”

“Nevertheless, a defense it would be.” Senator Eric Wheiner took the stage. “However, I suggest that the assembly stops worrying about the would-have-beens of the past attack and instead starts thinking of the advantages it brought about. Ladies and gentlebeings, we’re overlooking the most important detail of the whole affair.” The stocky, brown-clad figure made a dramatic pause. “For the first time, Earth has the technological means to counter the atrocity that bereaves not only our ships and colonies, but those of our allies as well. I’m speaking of course, of the very power foundation of the Crown Empire: the Psychocrypt with its countless number of victims whose very life is used against their home worlds! For the first time, we are capable of freeing a cryptee independent from the corresponding psychocrystal being found. Using this technological break-through for freeing the hapless cryptees currently entombed in the Psychocrypt would be utmost humane and certainly be seen most favorably by our allies, who all lost loved ones to the Crown Empire’s nefarious practices!”

Wheiner studied the assembly briefly, allowing a small, satisfied smirk to appear on his face before he continued,” And any damage rendered upon the Crown’s installations and forces during the process of rescuing the cryptees would surely be seen by all powers that matter as an acceptable price for their freedom. Thank you.” He bowed to the rising applause following his words.

Senator Irya LeFebvre took the stage after him. “I think we all agree that Senator Wheiner’s proposal is the most favorable,” she said with a voice much stronger than would be expected from her dainty figure. “However, we ought to consider the condition of our forces in the matter. Our brave men and women in uniform deserve a day’s rest after the restless exertions they took upon themselves to see us all safely through the past crisis—”

 

 

2088-09-26

 

 

Phoenix Military Base

House of J. Walsh

00:17

 

Joseph got out of the armored military glider, suppressing a wince when he had to put weight on his injured knee after way too long a day—week? It felt like it. Tiredly, he answered the snappy salute of the driver and opened his garden gate.

Normally, he drove himself, preferring the solitude of the dark between BETA and Phoenix MB, but tonight he would have risked dozing off behind the controls and he was too cautious to have an AI pilot him. ‘Unfortunate malfunctions are too easily programmed’, a lecture his father-in-law had been adamant about, just before insisting on Leana’s AI[1], pink and no-nonsense, to be installed in their house. The door opened in front of him, admitting him to well-aired rooms with dimmed lighting and a made bed on the first floor. As empty as the rest of the house.

He slowly bested the stairs, using the banister to ease the strain on his leg and decided for a pain patch before lying down. He checked his service weapon and put it under his pillow, then dropped the uniform on to the floor beside the bed, not caring about creases. After the last days, it was as worse for wear as its wearer. He padded into the bath for a quick shower to remove the worst grime, applied the patch, and fell into bed, into oblivion…

…he wished. How on Earth had the boy known that Niko was going to collapse? He’d been on the other side of the room. A change in scent wouldn’t have traveled that far through the chaos of full staff, and surely, she hadn’t wasted her waning strength on sending him a message. In the dark, Joseph pinched the bridge of his nose, trying to ward off what felt like a major reminder of his once cracked skull coming up[2].

 

 

BetaMountain

MedoStat – VIP med room 2

7:47

 

Sunshine filtered through the fake window draped with white gauze curtains moving in an artificial, lime-scented breeze generated by expensive air conditioning. White medical furniture, white bed cloths… A delicate watercolor of snowdrops and forget-me-nots framed in linden green eased the sterility of the room on the wall the patient faced. Would face.

Eliza was still unconscious.

We can’t tell when she’ll wake up again, they’d said, carefully omitting the possibility that ‘when’ included ‘never’. Since then Zachary was beside her, watching her breathe. Standing at first, because he knew from experience that hospital chairs didn’t deal well with the weight of his bionics, then sitting after one of the medics thought to bring a metal chair that would carry his weight. He doubted that the commander’s ‘all costs covered’ would include replacing broken chairs, which in this place likely cost the better part of their savings for Zachy’s college tuition.

He tried to think of what to tell Zachy and Jessie, but Eliza’s next breath involuntarily locked up his mind. Experiment. Untested. No choice but to comply or be forced. He closed his eyes in pain. He didn’t want his children to grow up with that on their minds—

You have a higher opinion of our government than me.

Not anymore.

The com panel beside the door came to light. AESCULAPIUS bounced meditatively on its screen. =Captain Fox. You are expected at the reception desk. You have visitors.= The medical AI vanished before he could deny the request.

 

 

MedoStat – Reception

 

“They were about to break down the door, I swear!” Doc’s broad smile didn’t hide his concern. “At least, GV would have suffered serious damage to his code if Jessie had another five minutes with him.” He sobered, looking over to the view port where Jessie and her brother crowded to look at their mother. “Seriously, Zach. They caught the broadcast rerun on the morning news. GV called me when they prepared to search for her on their own.”

“I should have told them.” Zach sighed, inwardly torn. “I—”

“When?” Doc asked dryly. “Gag order beforehand, full mayhem afterwards. By the way, you missed one helluva victory party! Didn’t know dead-tired militaries could riot that much! But nobody sane would have kids out in that!”

“Goose? Niko?”

“Not part of the party,” Doc told him. “The lady was out cold after the show, and Goose isn’t a party person to begin with.” With a glance towards Zachy and Jessie, he added, “they don’t know that detail, though, and Walsh hasn’t lifted the gag order, probably never will, given the circumstances, so you better keep it that way.” He smirked. “There’s only so much I can sneak past the censors.”

“I didn’t hear that,” Zach snapped, and quieter, “thank you.”

“Don’t sweat it. I need a hangover cure anyway.” Doc snickered. “There are places on this base with enough party fumes to light a fire!”

“I didn’t hear that either.”

“Maybe you should have your acoustics module checked while you’re here, captain. Be seeing you. And if you need anything… just give me a call, okay?”

 

 

MedoStat – VIP med room 2

 

Awareness came suddenly, from one heartbeat to the next. The purple lid of the alien machinery closed over her head and a white-and-chrome robotic arm raised a blue crystal from her chest. In between had been the dreams, nightmares. At first, she’d thought of them as attempts at communication, but the nonsensical content soon taught her otherwise. The events were bizarre, featuring Zachary, an altered, hardened apparition of Zachary with robotic weapon limbs, and a group of…

Eliza had no name for what they were. A blond baby-hulk of a shapeshifter complete with the proverbial attitude, a green-eyed red-haired mindreader – talked about witch stereotypes much, did you? – and a techno-mage with flying programs. It didn’t make sense. Not even if the aliens caught way too many 20th century entertainment broadcasts during their observation of Earth.

Eliza shivered and sat up, frowning at the white medical bracelet spanning her left wrist. A quick examination yielded antimicrobial plastics and no less than five velvety sensor-spots brushing against her skin underneath. Her waking wouldn’t go unnoticed for long. She’d have to be fast. A swift scan of the room yielded a pen, clipped to a pad for medical notes within reach on the bedside table. A sharp twist neatly separated the metal clip from the pen, readying it to be repurposed as a miniature cutting tool. She positioned the broken clip and deftly cut along the edge of the antibacterial plastic band revealing standard circuitry. Now, that wouldn’t be too difficult.

 

Leaving the dysfunctional bracelet underneath the cover, Eliza pushed herself out of bed, hoping its malfunction would give her enough time to get herself out of this. The floor was cold under her bare feet. No slippers. But at least she wasn’t wearing one of those half-open hospital gowns. If she moved inconspicuous enough, pants and tunic might pass as very unimaginative leisure wear. If the outside was anything like Earth, that was. No choice. She drew a deep breath. She’d have only one try in any case; the opening of the door wouldn’t go undetected.

She checked the contact field, listened to the footfalls of lifeforms passing by. Nobody hurried in either direction. No preferences. She’d have to decide spontaneously. Another deep breath. She slammed her hand against the sensor and ran—

 

 

MedoStat – Visitor’s Lounge

 

“—asleep. The doctors don’t know when—” Zach was explaining to his anxious children when the doors behind him closed with a bang and sealed. His hand went for his service weapon, then the blue flashing lights registered and he relaxed. The lounge seal would protect them better than any weapon from the reason for a medical alarm. They’d just have to wait.

“Jessie.” His daughter was busy pressing her nose flat against the clear pane of the door, trying to see what was going on outside and his son wasn’t much better. “Junior, you’re old enough to know better than—

“There’s mom!” Jessie shrieked, banging against the door. “Mom!

Eli? Zach rushed to the door in time to see Eliza, hurrying bare-footed in pastel-colored patients wear towards the exit. What—?

“Door lock override! Authorization Galaxy Rangers, Captain Zachary Fox!”

=Sir, a medical emergency lock-down surpasses your auth—= the AI ended in a squeak when Zach made short work of the door seal.

“Eliza!”

She stopped at his call, threw a panicked look back over her shoulder. For a moment, she relaxed, relief washing over her face, only to be replaced by dread when she saw his hand still buried in the torn door mechanism. “No…”

“Eli, please.” Zach reached out to her and she made a step back, desperately seeking an escape path when Jessie darted past him.

“Mommy!”

“Don’t,” Zach called out, but Eliza already stumbled under the impact of their teen-aged daughter, hugging her tightly. Her panicked expression cut to the bone. She doesn’t recognize her, he realized, startled. “Eliza.” He forced himself to stay calm. “Love, that’s Jessie. You slept for three years.”

“Dad?” Zachy asked at his side, but Zach shook his head. He didn’t have time for him.

“Three years?” Eliza repeated in clear disbelief. “I didn’t sleep and—”

“The psychocrystal entrapped your mind. Your body was frozen to minimize the damage.”

“So, now I’m damaged?” she flared, lowering Jessie’s arms from her waist and pushing her behind her.

Protecting her, Zach thought with a short-lived pang of relief, from me.

“You and your mistress—” she spat the word at him, “—tearing through way more than just doors and I’m damaged?!” Eliza pressed forward, challenging yet making sure she stayed between him and Jessie. “And now you dare to bring my children into this—this atrocity!?” Her gesture covered him, the wrecked door, Zachy, the medical personnel gathering at the far end of the hallway, everything.

“Eliza, we—”

She cut him off. “What are you doing with my children!?”

“I took care of them while you were a Crown captive,” he told her, struggling not to panic and covertly signaling CMO Miyar not to interfere. “I’m their father, do you remember?”

“You’re not!” Eliza snapped, glaring at the torn door seal. “My Zach isn’t some Terminator!

“Dad isn’t—” Zachy protested.

Zach shook his head slightly, compelling his son not to get involved. “I was wounded,” he told Eliza. The short sentence seemed to rattle her. “BETA didn’t want to lose a qualified field officer, so I got medical bionics.”

“What you have isn’t medical!” she growled.

“No, it’s not,” he conceded, the muscles in his cheek working as he squelched the pain of her rejection. “It’s military grade weaponry. You were a captive of the Crown Empire and I wanted you back. I volunteered to lead a team of specialists to defend Earth and our allies against it.” Zach drew a deep breath, balling his fist at his side when the words seemed to choke him. “I wanted you back,” he repeated. “Standard prosthetics wouldn’t have sufficed!”

He saw her mulling that over, tilting her head in that painfully familiar gesture. “You volunteered?”

Leave it to Eliza to question the one detail he’d never questioned himself. “Yes,” he affirmed grimly. “And I didn’t regret that decision.”

“Until now,” she asked sardonically.

“No,” he said wearily, “not even now.” And quietly, aware that they were in a public corridor, in front of assembled medical personnel and their scared children, “because whatever you do, you are here—” He laid his bionic hand on Zachy’s arm, reached for Jessie behind her. “—with us.”

“So, I can go home?” she asked, expecting to be denied.

“Just let me talk to the commander,” Zach conceded, “and then we leave.”

Jessie whooped at the prospect, while CMO Miyar protested, “Fox! You can’t possibly—”

“I can and I will,” Zach told him curtly and wished Eliza hadn’t snorted in disbelief. No, this was far from over. “Please stay,” he begged her and tapped his wristcom.

 

 

Phoenix Military Base

House of J. Walsh

 

The wristcom on the counter next to the coffee machine vibrated. By the time Joseph had taken the pan with the frying bacon off the stove, it had switched to audio alarm, filling the kitchen – and his ears – with increasingly infernal beeps. We should throw those things at the enemy instead of shooting, he grumbled, but that’s likely a war crime. He tapped the screen. “Walsh here.”

 

=Eliza has no recollection of the hibernation, sir, but she seems to remember the events in which the slaverlord connected to her was involved. She likely figured that to be an attempt to break her.= There was a pause, then Fox added, =Sir, if we continue to keep her locked up and deny her basic rights, she’ll never consider us any differently.=

“So, why do you call?”

=Because CMO Miyar objects to me taking her home.=

“Why?”

A deep breath was audible even through the tiny wristcom speakers. =Eliza’s been trained as a TacOp.=

A tactical operative considering them part of an enemy scheme. No wonder Miyar was up in arms. Now it was Joseph’s turn to draw a deep breath, smelling burned bacon – so much for his breakfast. “What’s her rank, Fox?”

=Corporal, sir. She’s worked in astrography and communication since my son’s birth.=

He considered that, also considered the risks of an enemy TacOp free on his base, and what he’d promised Fox for the public decrystallization. Joseph sighed. “Tell Miyar his protest is noted and take her home. And Fox—” He put the pan with the burned bacon in the sink. “Keep her out of trouble. There’s nothing I can do if she disrupts base operations and it goes on file.”

=Understood, sir. And… Thank you.=

“Dismissed.” Joseph disconnected the call and glared at his burned breakfast.

 

 

BetaMountain

GRS5 office

 

Her badge brightly polished on her belt, Niko tried not to feel smug when she swished past the very guard sergeant who’d stopped her the last time she’d been to the LEO floor. She also tried not to wince remembering the – deserved – reprimand Zach had dealt her that day. Squaring her shoulders, she stepped into the detection range of the door sensor. She was early. The others weren’t in yet. Zach’s desk was still orderly to a fault, Doc’s cluttered, Goose’s—

She knew she owed it to him that she was already back on her feet today, and reasonably sane. If he hadn’t given up the privacy of his mind when her shields collapsed yesterday… Niko preferred not to think of the alternative. Still, she was acutely aware of him now. It was probably not a good thing that he was just passing the checkpoint. She went to her desk and took stock of the heap of case records and hard copy forms that had materialized there since her last visit. She frowned at the top-most. Purdue?

“Morning.” Goose strolled in, coffee in hand. He arched a brow at her desk. “Backlogged?” He pulled his chair out and leaped back when Niko dropped the heap of hard copies, data sticks, and memory crystals telekinetically onto his desk.

“Nice try, but I haven’t been to Purdue in over a year. So, back to sender. Write your own reports!”

He snorted, fished a data stick out of the pile, and read the label. “Tarkon risk assessment is yours.” He tossed it at her.

She stopped the data stick effortlessly, hovering it in the middle of the room between their desks, rotating it slowly. “What makes you think so?”

“Mine already came back. No idea what’s not to get in ‘What risk?’”

She laughed and plucked the stick out of the empty air. “Thank you,” she said quietly, meaning so much more than the easy banter just now.

“Don’t sweat it.” The laughter died. She knew he wanted to say more, knew also why she knew that and that she shouldn’t be aware of it in the first place. And then the door hissed open and Goose’s wristcom shrilled, and everything remained unsaid.

By the time the door had closed after admitting Doc, Goose already stood, face unreadable. “Yes, sir. Understood. I’m on my way. Gooseman end.”

“Good morning, everybody,” Doc beamed, somehow managing to unload another bag of clutter onto his overflowing desk without spilling anything to the floor. “Zach just called. He’s not coming in today. His wife was released early.”

“I know,” Goose said on his way out. “I’m back in twenty.

 

 

BMQ 206

 

The apartment was believable, Eliza decided, after having been dragged through all rooms by two enthusiastic – and in Jessie’s case – chatty children. She recognized most of the furniture, except for several chairs, the couch, and the double bed in the parents’ bedroom. The place was even the familiar mix of kids’ chaos and Zachary’s neatness, the latter as usual in retreat.

Eliza observed, listened, and watched ‘Zachary’ watching her, assessing her as much as she assessed him. The proclaimed three years of hibernation were a smart move, she gave them that. It allowed for a lot of leeway in impersonations they had to have retrieved from her mind during those nonsensical nightmares of combat and torture—

The door chime interrupted with the same cadence like in their old home. And the same chronically nervous AI, now announced a ‘Ranger Gooseman’, who turned out to be the shapeshifter, even taller than Eliza recalled him. Or had the slaverlord just been taller than she? The kids swarmed toward him, only to be stopped with a “Sorry, this is official.” before he saluted and held a clipboard with pen out to ‘Zach’. “The commander wants you to sign these, sir.” He nodded politely at her. “Ma’am.”

‘Zach’ frowned, skimming over the content. “You could have sent these to my home console.”

“No, I could not, sir,” Gooseman corrected and, turning briskly, addressed Eliza directly. “Commander Walsh wants me to have your scent. If you run, I bring you back.”

She refused to make a step back, a reminder about her situation in this farce was only to be expected. ‘Zach’ immediately blocked Gooseman’s path to her, staying within his role, but she remembered the shapeshifter in combat. No deceit there, but probably capable to take out bionic ‘Zach’.

“Finding,” he stressed towards his captain, “not hunting. You know that I’m the best bet to track her fast and keep it off the books.”

Because anybody from security would be obliged to report it. Consistent, the observant part of her mind decided. Where did the Crown gather enough information to pull that off?

“Were you supposed to tell me that?” ‘Zach’ asked without relaxing.

“Yes.” And after a glance at Eliza over ‘Zach’s’ shoulder, “all of it.”

Interesting.

 

“I’ve never been here,” Eliza stated with finality, after the supertrooper had left and the children were finally occupied with their delayed schoolwork. “We’re on a base.” She shuddered, looking around the unfamiliar living room with the familiar furniture. “And underground.”

“Family quarters are in the most secure part of the mountain,” Zach explained. “Listed as shelters.” At her doubtful look, he added, “Parents may be on duty during an alarm.”

“We didn’t want to live on base again,” she reminded him coolly, “not after Hiiumaa[3].”

“I was a single parent,” he explained tiredly. “And after what happened on our flight—” He shook his head. “It was the safest solution I could think of.”

“You could have brought them to their grandparents!”

You could have brought them to their grandparents. The sentence rattled him.

As if any of their parents had been an option. Eliza’s family had eventually accepted him… as long as he did well by her – and in Zach’s books, that didn’t include losing their daughter in space and dropping their grandchildren off on their doorstep afterwards. And even if he’d been on speaking terms with his own parents after he put Karl Schiesser’s[4] name on a police file for attempted murder, he’d never risk sending his kids to Chicago for that very reason. He shivered. Eliza had to know that. Was she—?

“Give me some credit,” he said. “I’d never give up our children.” His voice caught. “Or you.” Three years. Three years of watching her through the glass. Three years of— He closed his eyes, struggled not to break down there and then.

Her hand came to rest on his sleeve. “Give me time,” she said. “I—” She shook her head. “I don’t know you. This. Them. There’s so much that doesn’t make sense.”

Begged? The idea of her begging startled him. “It’s okay,” he heard himself saying. “I’m going to sleep on the couch.”

 

 

Late that night

 

The room was dim, but not fully dark. He couldn’t stand sleeping in full darkness outside his own bed since—

Zach sighed. It was a weakness he’d kind of given up on correcting. Full darkness allowed too much of what he’d left unreported about the Psychocrypt[5] to reappear in front of his mind’s eye. Even here in his own living room. Even now with Eliza back, sound asleep next door in their bed. He shivered. How much did she know? Would that stand between them as much as the bionics?

Terminator.

He closed his eyes in pain, only to open them again and stare at their graduation certificates that begun what they’d dubbed “the Fox family’s achievements wall” next to the Tri-D set. Eliza’s was stamped for excellent technical aptitude, while his held the red band marking the top ten per cent of the graduation class, despite having been sent there as part of a court deal.

He wouldn’t have made it without Eliza. The Ranger Academy was an elite school, its cadets handpicked from the best military schools across the world. And him. He’d been nicknamed him ‘the Reso’ within hours of his arrival; Reso, short for “resocialization whack”, and his fellow cadets had craned their necks at their first swim training to see if he really had the ‘Romulan Warbird’ tattooed across his pecs, marking him a full member of the by then notorious Chicago Romulans.

He had. And the rest of the school had known before he’d completed the lane. What they hadn’t known was that he had to graduate among the top ten percent of his class, or the original sentence would take effect: ten years in state penitentiary without the option for parole, because he and a dozen others of Schiesser’s gang had mugged a pedestrian at the fashionable Chicago docks. After taking cash cards and jewelry, Karl had tossed their victim into the harbor. Zach had pulled the drowning man out of the freezing water. Half-frozen himself, he’d been the only gang member still at the scene of crime when the police arrived. He’d accepted the offered deal, mostly because Phoenix seemed a world away from Chicago – a major selling point after putting Karl’s name on a police file! – and anything was better than ten years in prison when you were eighteen, but being an ex-gang member at a prestigious military academy had come close to teaching him otherwise.

He didn’t want to think about what would have happened had Eliza not recognized him coming up the stairs with that fierce ‘don’t you dare mess with me’-look on his face. At least that was what she’d called it before reminding him about their time in Chicago. They’d attended the same kindergarten, had even proceeded to the same elementary school[6] in a middle-class neighborhood, but then Zach’s father had lost his job forcing them to move to a seedier part of town and her mother had scored a position in engineering on the Moon base, and—

She hadn’t stopped talking until the next class had been underway and the instructor on their case for disturbing his class about quasar navigation[7]. Not that the hazing had stopped afterwards, but it paled in comparison to the gift she made him. By trusting – and believing – in him, despite all the remarks about ‘that thug not being good for her’, she made him struggle for a chance, a future. With her. Only with her.

In the dimmed room, Zach’s shaky breath at the memory sounded suspiciously like a sob to his ears.

 

2088-09-27

 

 

BetaMountain

Office of Cmdr. Walsh

09:17

 

“They found what on the flight deck?!” Walsh asked incredulously.

“You heard correctly, sir. O’Malley’s up in arms about it. She personally brought the incriminating evidence to forensics.” Sheela kept a straight face as she handed him the important forms to sign and continued, “For fingerprinting.”

“Confetti.” He shook his head, signing off the report of the repair crew responsible for Gooseman’s interceptor. “One day out of office and my chief engineer is fingerprinting confetti. Let’s hope there’s not enough evidence to incriminate one of her usual suspects or we have a full-blown war down there.”

“Not yet,” a grim voice said from the door. Admiral Frederic Subadar, back into proper uniform, strolled in and tossed his admiral’s hat onto Walsh’s desk. “Grim news.”

Walsh straightened. “The Crown?”

 “Worse. The Board.”

Walsh signaled for Sheela to leave the room and seal the office. “BELVA, keep this private.”

=Yes, sir.= The AI rotated briefly. =Privacy mode engaged. Scanning for eavesdroppers.=

“We’re going to strike the Psychocrypt three days from now,” Subadar said after the AI disappeared from the now green-framed screen. “I want your specialists to lead the assault teams.”

 

 

MPQ 206

 

“Dad, my shuttle leaves in twenty minutes and I can’t eat stirred eggs on the go!” Jessie reached for a pall with orange juice. “Mr. Haversham always has a fit when we take lose foodstuffs on the flight.”

“Jess,” her brother said, grinning, “you shouldn’t rush him, or it ends up in smoke again and we don’t get any breakfast at all.”

“Phrbbb.” Jessie showed him her tongue.

“Junior, it’s considered impolite to speak about someone being around as if he isn’t there,” Zach reminded his son while standing at the stove with the sleeves of his uniform shirt rolled up. “And wasn’t it your turn to make breakfast?”

“Uh, Dad… I was that happy about mom’s return that it slipped my mind.”

“That’s the best you can think of?” Zach shook his head. “You’ll do the dishes tonight in return for me scrambling these eggs.”

“Okay.” His son shrugged.

“Don’t believe we’ll forget that until then, brother dear!” Jess giggled. “I’m sure we’ll get something really sticky for lunch.”

Zach threw his daughter a dark look. “It’s veggie day, Jessica, don’t you forget that.”

“Ugh.” She drew a face. “I think I’ll eat at school then.”

Her brother laughed. “What about vegetable pizza?” he suggested.

“It can be raw, baked, steamed, cooked, and used for soup,” Zach listed, “why do you want to put everything you hear of on a pizza?”

“I like pizza!”

“Yes, Dad.” Jessie laughed. “Zachy would like even pizza with toothpaste—”

“Don’t call me Zachy!”

Zach frowned at the first black spots appearing in the pan and hurried to take it off the heat. “Stop it, kids. The eggs are done. Hand me your dishes.”

 

Eliza observed the scene in the kitchen with a mix of dread and curiosity. It looked so normal. It even smelled normal. Zach had never managed anything in a pan without burning something. Yellow sunlight fell through the kitchen window, highlighting the freckles on Zachy’s arms and Jessie’s blond hair. Her daughter was the only family member inheriting Eliza’s mother’s pale hair—

Only that was no kitchen window. It was a man-sized light panel giving the illusion of daylight to those being stuck underground. Family quarters are shelters, ‘Zach’ had told her yesterday. But she wasn’t sheltered, she was trapped in an illusion with one of the Queen’s machinations posing as her husband feeding her children with over-fried eggs and—

In the kitchen, Jessie leaped up from her chair. “My shuttle! Sorry, Dad, gotta run.”

“Wait for me. I take the same—” Zach Junior followed. Their schoolbags were stacked beside the kitchen door, just as it had been in their old flat, just like—

“Mom!” Jessie had spotted her and Eliza found herself squeezed in a rush, her elbow connecting painfully with the kitchen door.

“Careful!” Her son kept her from falling. “Jess, stop flattening mom or you have a cardboard cutout again.”

“What—?” Eliza started to say.

“My shuttle!” Jessie squeaked. “I’m going to miss Ms. Fairchild’s QED[8]!” She and her brother darted for the door.

“Dad! There’s an officer for you!” Zachy called from the door. “Gotta go! Bye.”

Eliza straightened and rubbed her elbow.

“You okay?” ‘Zach’ asked, appearing relieved when she nodded. “I better go get that,” he said with a nod towards the kitchen screen where GV showed a young officer in crisp Navy uniform.

“Yes,” she told him, “you better do.” And blocked GV from deactivating the screen.

On it, the Navy officer at their door saluted sharply even before ‘Zach’ entered the view. “Captain Zachary Fox, Galaxy Rangers?” he inquired.

“Yes,” ‘Zach’ answered gruffly. “What’s the matter?”

 “You are expected at 2200 on Navy dock IV for boarding the LSS Comanche.” A document pad was presented for ‘Zach’. “Your orders in writing, sir.”

Watching it all on the kitchen screen, Eliza felt herself frowning. It made sense for the enemy to remove ‘Zach’ from her immediate vicinity, if she’d gotten too close to topics about which they didn’t have enough information. If—

Still, the horrified expression on ‘Zach’s face was believable. She heard him in the hallway, using his wristcom to call his commander, begging—  She almost forgot to deactivate the screen in time. Almost.

 

 

BETA Space Station

Space Navy Dock IV

LSS Comanche

 

Embarkation was proceeding fast. Apparently, the troops commissioned to Subadar knew better than to cause trouble under the admiral’s command. That, or the memory of the Queen’s assault was still too fresh.

“There might be a whiff of leftover-hangover involved, too,” Doc mumbled beside him, making Zach realize that he’d said that last thought aloud.

“After three days!?”

“That was one hell of a party!” Doc grinned, but Zach’s thoughts were already elsewhere. He knew that the admiral had requested his whole team, yet the transfer orders had covered only him, Doc, and Niko. Gooseman hadn’t been listed. And Niko was late.

Zach caught himself looking back. Eliza hadn’t come to say farewell. Zachy had wanted to go, but he’d convinced his son to stay with his mother instead…

“Watch over her,” he’d told the boy. “She’s still not well. You know she’s halfway convinced we’re not we.” It was too much of a responsibility for a fifteen-year-old, but there’d been no other way safe of confining her, and he wouldn’t do that. He—

“Your orders, sir,” a stern voice cut into his thoughts with the obnoxious tone that indicated he hadn’t been asked the first time. Zach hurried to produce ID and papers. Doc behind him was already waving his flamboyantly. Running steps approached from behind, Zach glanced back, saw annoyed personnel moving aside to let Niko cut in line behind them.

“Sorry for being late,” she panted, out of breath from running full-out with her space bag over her shoulder. “I got a message from Goose and had to rush it.” She held up ID and papers for the embarkation officer.

“Where is he?” Zach asked after they’d entered the shuttle. “Did you speak with him?”

“No.” Niko held up her wristcom. The message was still on the display: DISPATCHED. POSS 2 OMALLEY. SG.

“Dispatched?” Doc blinked. “Not deployed?”

“No, Doc. Dispatched,” Zach said grimly, staring at the tiny screen, then asked Niko outright what she shouldn’t know. “Where is he?”

She swallowed, and nodded in the direction of their flight. “On the Comanche.”

 

 

LSS Comanche

23:07 LST

 

Goose stared at the blank steel sheet less than half an arms’ length above his face. The still empty troop quarters smelled faintly of new metal, disinfectant, and recently applied anti-corrosive lacquer. The faint hum of engines providing the basic functions required on a ship still in grav dock vibrated through his bones. It had been habit that had him close the safety net securing him in his bunk.

Comanche had standard troop quarters. Narrow tunnels along the ship’s axis with bunks in stacks of four along the outer wall, the inner wall formed by the smooth duranium of the ship’s stability core. Safety locks cut the place into bunk-length sections of four beds.

The faint clunk of a shuttle docking aft reverberated through the hull. Goose’s ears twitched. It would get much noisier soon. And crowded. He had been sent to report to Subadar in person, and hadn’t been allowed to return to BETA to settle his affairs. The request had been flat-out denied. At least, he’d managed to send a message; and even that had cost him.

He shifted on his bunk, trying to find a position in which he didn’t want to punch a hole into the bed above him. Subadar had dealt him one hell of a reminder: This was a military operation. Unlike Zach, Doc, and Niko, he wasn’t deployed as personnel. He’d been dispatched as property.

Package content:

1 ST, type BDC, ID 1643453, self-ambulatory, armed.

Ammunition and spare pants not included.

Gooseman snorted.

Consider yourself warned, Subadar had told him at his breach of radio silence over Angelina.

If he didn’t know better, he’d say the admiral was holding a grudge.

 

 

2088-09-28

 

 

LSS Comanche

Temporary troop quarters

 

“No officer quarters for you, Captain?” Doc raised his brows. “Certainly, at least you qualify for some comfort.”

Zach snorted. “No getting rid of me, Doc.” He studied the stack of four bunk beds. “I take the bottom shelf, better not risk crushing somebody if the things aren’t as sturdy as the rest of the ship. Doc, you take second, Niko, third.”

“Who’s got the top?” Niko asked, putting her bag in the cabinet belonging to her bunk.

“It’s not assigned,” Zach answered after a glance at the screen by the door. “Briefing is in two hours on the flight deck.”

Doc sighed. “Too long not to get bored, too short to get some zees. What is it with these military types and reasonable schedules?”

 “Our problem,” Niko told him. “They can get usable sleep in under two hours. Goose can nap fifteen minutes and be alert afterwards.”

Doc snorted. “He’s a supertrooper, that doesn’t count.”

“Major Carmichael isn’t and it goes for her, too.” Niko shrugged. “Any chance to get the forth bunk assigned to Goose?”

“No.” Zach shook his head. “We’re not even supposed to contact him.”

Niko froze. “Why on Earth—”

“I don’t know,” Zach said grimly, “but I plan to find out.”

 

 

LSS Comanche

Briefing

 

“Live feed of each suit will be monitored at the command center. Command will alert critical personnel about changed situations as required. Squad leaders will be able to tap into the feed on demand. Audio, video, and vitals will be recorded for evidence. In case of interrupted bridge link proceed as the situation demands.”

Admiral Subadar stood in brisk posture in front of the assembled troops on the main flight deck of the Comanche. A bluish hologram of the asteroid holding the Psychocrypt was slowly rotating behind and above him. His white admiral’s uniform almost blinded in the stark lights of the cavernous hall holding freight and the rows of sleek interceptors. Six squadrons were ready to defend the carrier against Crown fighters while the ground troops would storm the Psychocrypt.

Zach suppressed a shiver, forcing his attention back to the admiral.

“—five squads in gecko suits[9] in four teams, each led by a specialist with knowledge of the terrain will proceed fast into the interior along the axis corridors and seize control of the installation, including main control and the crypt itself. Further space marine contingents will secure the access points and locks. You will spend the next 18 hours informing yourself about the installation and the additional safety gear.”

Having his team separated didn’t sit well with Zach, but he accepted that Subadar made the best use of their knowledge about the Psychocrypt, covering four of the six direct access corridors leading to the crypt and the main control room underneath. Doc would take two squads to the main control room, hopefully deactivating base defense systems targeting the Comanche and the pitfalls. Zach, Niko, and Goose would each led a squad through the other axis corridors, providing at first a distraction to Doc’s operation and then continue to secure the actual crypt for the medics to proceed and free the cryptees.

However, the timing was crucial and the approach would be coordinated by command, not by the individual units, not by them. And while Doc and Niko stood beside him, Goose was a shadow in an unmarked, dark gray Navy coverall behind the admiral. The supertrooper either hadn’t received his gear or hadn’t had time to change into his proper uniform. Secret orders and legal status notwithstanding, Goose was one of his people and had a right to the white-and-blues! Zach didn’t like the implications one little bit, but if he were to do anything about it, he had to be fast. “Doc,” he hissed under his breath, looking pointedly at the spot right at his side to make the hacker inch closer as if not quite standing still at attention. “Can you get us access to our team’s feeds?”

Doc tilted his head, appearing to listen even more attentively to the admiral while obscuring his, “and an OTR com link bypassing the bridge?”

Zach nodded grimly.

Doc waited for another statement from the admiral before nodding. “I’ll need access to the suits, including Goose’s.”

“’k.”

 

“Suit 381. Tell Doc to use the collar systems in case I discard the helmet,” Goose said without looking up from adjusting the heavy assault rifle to his specifications. Loud thuds in the access tube outside indicated the training of the squad assigned to the ST. Expansion sticks[10]?

“Understood,” Zach confirmed. “You don’t rely on gecko suits for your squad?”

“Gecko works well enough.” The ST snorted. “Except when it doesn’t. They can’t claw into the walls like me, so they damn well carry a work-around in case the Queen uses ultrasound on her walls.” He snapped the bayonet on, clipped the recharger back into the rifle, and stood. “Anything else, Captain?”

“You’re a Galaxy Ranger, Lieutenant.” Zach used Goose’s rank on purpose. “No matter the insignia on your uniform. Keep that in mind.”

Goose’s jaw clenched before he answered, “This is what I was made for. You might not like the difference.”

 

 

LSS Comanche

Crown Space

15 hours later

 

The deck of the boarding hangar bucked and bumped under their feet. Zach attached the adhesive glove of his gecko-enabled spacesuit tighter around the safety pillar. The Comanche groaned under the strain of heavy fire. Alarm sirens indicated a hull break closer to the rear of the carrier.

Two squads of space marines were waiting to board the heavily armored landers, once the interceptors had cleared the immediate vicinity of the Psychocrypt enough for the landers to depart. Afterwards, it was their job to conquer the Psychocrypt and the admiral’s to keep the Crown fighters at bay, ensuring there was a carrier to bring the freed cryptees back to Earth.

Given the screaming of steel and the whine of strained shields audible even here in the hangar with already fastened helmet and damped external audios, Zach wasn’t sure about either part of the plan being feasible. Niko and Doc’s teams would depart from the second hangar. A brief glance at their feeds showed the signal strong, the vital signs calm. Still onboard. Goose and his team would depart from this hangar in the other lander. Zach didn’t need the feed to know the supertrooper was waiting in the front row, helmet still pushed back. Goose’s expression was almost bored as he balanced the blows of the deck with springy knees while surveying the soldiers assigned to him.

This is what I was made for, Goose had warned him. You might not like the difference.

=Captain,= Goose said over the private link Doc had established. =Keep your mind on the battle or you’ll lose your head in it.= A faint crackle indicated that the supertrooper had disconnected the channel without waiting for his reply.

The bumps of the deck ceased. Goose had closed and sealed his helmet even before Subadar’s voice said, =Landing area cleared. Ground troops to the landers. Good luck, people!=

 

 

Psychocrypt asteroid base

 

The whine of energy shields being brought to their limits was deafening. The defense systems of the Psychocrypt lay heavily into the armored lander. Inside the battered vessel, safety harnesses attached to the walls kept the troops from being thrown around as it tossed and turned under the heavy fire. Zach inconspicuously checked the straps holding him. The additional weight of the bionics was an issue on this assignment. It put additional strain on the gear and he knew better than to trust the gecko suit with it. He’d spent hours training with the expansion sticks instead. And trying to call Eliza, ending up recording a message GV was to deliver in case the mission went south and—

Something solid collided with the hull, making even the most jaded soldiers eyeing the featureless grey walls around them with suspicion.

Keep your mind on the battle or you’ll lose your head in it.

Zach recalled what he knew of the Psychocrypt base. It was a nearly symmetrical structure drilled into a natural asteroid as far as they knew. The inner facility with the psychochambers for the slaverlord feeders had the shape of a flat torus around the vast hall at the core with a control interface built directly into the Queen’s throne. He himself could account for further rooms above and below the core, holding the psychocrystallization machinery and other… facilities, including the Queen’s ‘personal amenities’[11]. He ground his teeth at that. He’d waste a grenade on that room if he got the chance. Or two. Still, before that they had first to succeed with the planned invasion. Doc’s team was the most important player in the first phase. They had to secure the computer in the main control room underneath the great hall and seize control of the base, hopefully disarming the automated defense systems, while the other three teams advanced rapidly on the Psychocrypt itself. Their objective was to bring the Crown forces stationed in the crypt itself under control to allow for safe passage of the med techs, who’d finally free the cryptees kept in rows upon rows of glass coffins in the very walls of the crypt. Psychochambers, sometimes lit as macabre pieces of art for the Queen to gloat at from her throne. As she had gloated at Eliza, at him—

Keep your mind on the battle or you’ll lose your head in it. Zach balled his bionic fist.

The lander came to an abrupt halt. Engines screamed. Something hissed. =CONTACT. SEALING IN PROGRESS.= The gear projected the text right onto Zach’s retinas, making sure the information wasn’t distorted. Outside, yellow sealing foam formed a buffer around the clamps and the lock. The whine of the shields died down, now that they were too close to the asteroid for the heavy batteries to hit them. Zach’s helmet dimmed as magnesium flares began cutting through the locks. It took less than a minute. It felt like eons. A thermal sealed ramp extended, forming a bridge across the still red-hot gleaming steal. =PRESSURE ESTABLISHED. GO!=

 

Blaster fire rang out the moment they passed the lock, scattered off combat armor and the still glowing steel of the airlock. The room beyond was small, but the four Crown troopers inside took a heavy toll out of them. Two fired, two recharged, and they could cross the lock only in single file.

Emergency sensors screamed. Two bolts hit Zach in rapid succession as he passed through, luckily on his bionic side. The systems absorbed the energy, reported the impact as thermal damage. He turned, shot twice fast, was rewarded with two screams and the clamor of rifles hitting the floor. The space marine behind him took on the third trooper, fell, was replaced by a comrade—

Sudden silence, as the last opponent was taken down.

=ACCESS A CLEAR. TRANSPORT SYSTEM DEACTIVATED.=

Zach checked the small chart of the base in his display. Doc’s team was about to enter access C closest to the control room, while Niko’s was just passing the lock at B, and Goose’s was already on their way to the core along tunnel D. They’d draw the most fire.

“Follow!” Zach ordered, and – switching to the private link – called the ST to slow down for the other teams to catch up.

 

 

Psychocrypt asteroid base

access to main control room

 

“Proceed.” The leader of Zeta squad signaled the next tunnel segment to be clear. Smoke was wafting from a set of grenades providing cover for their advance in an otherwise bare tunnel only interrupted by pressure locks in regular intervals. Pressure locks that had been suspiciously open and unlocked so far. Not that Doc minded that. Much. He didn’t see much of it anyways, stuck behind the backs of no less than six space marines of Goose’s size. Where did they find that many of them? He mused as they advanced toward what hopefully was the last lock between them and the computer core. Growth hormones? He snorted. At least, it was obvious that he admiral wanted him to get to that core in one piece and ‘healthy to hack’.

This time, the lock did not open in front of them.

“Anything you can tell us about the other side of those doors, Ranger?” Sergeant Michaels asked, while her teams secured the tunnel behind them and took position left and right of the lock.

“Gimme a sec.”  Doc tapped his CDU. “Pathfinder, Lifeline. Squeeze yourself in there and find out where the precious stuff and the unfriendlies are.”

=Okay-dokay, Docco,= Pathfinder’s green manifestation chirped and flitted with the white one towards the lock panel. =Believe me. He’s just shitting his pants. Again!=

=Seems that way—= The lock control panel lit up briefly as the sparkles disappeared into it.

“Don’t make me deactivate your voice outputs,” Doc growled as the marines surrounding him sniggered.

Pathfinder popped back out. =Are we on the authoritarian channel again, Docco? Do you remember what happened last time?=

“I cut your memory allocation in half and fed it to the coffee automaton,” Doc warned the sparkle, to the sniggering of the surrounding marines.

“Stay alert,” sergeant Michaels ordered them. “I don’t like this. It’s been way too easy so far.”

 

=Eight crown troopers, Doc!= Pathfinder and Lifeline whizzed out of the door panel. =No slaverlords.=

“No slaverlords?” Doc frowned. “Are you sure?”

=Sure, I’m sure.= Lifeline rerendered its holographic manifestation. =I’m perfectly programmed. Sometimes I really wonder how you managed to do that.=

“Shut up and give us the room schematics!” Doc waved with the CDU, already turning for sergeant Michaels. “You heard yourself,” he told her and held up the holographic plan for the marines to see. A group of three consoles in the center of the room was highlighted. A swarm of eight red dots surrounded it. “That’s the main interface and the crown troopers inside. We need those consoles intact at any cost, ok?”

“Understood, Ranger,” Michaels said grimly, while Zeta squad was already moving into position. “Ready to open those doors?”

“I’m just waiting for you, dearest lady!” Doc placed his fingers with flourish on the CDU contact. The prepared trigger had the doors haul back into the walls at top speed and half a dozen blinding grenades followed by combat squad Zeta exploded into the Psychocrypt’s main control room.

 

 

At the same time

 

Impressions of impending doom slammed into Niko’s mind. Yelling “Attach to the walls!” aloud, over the com, over their private channel, and along her link to Goose, she pressed her badge and levitated herself while closing a protective shield around her squad, scrambling onto the walls in their gecko gear. A solid block crashed down from the ceiling, barely missing her people and sealing the tunnel ahead of them just as the floor fell away. Someone cursed. A canteen fell into the void and disintegrated in a menacingly red flash and a cloud of steam.

Niko took it all in, felt the massiveness of the stone ahead, the adrenaline rushing through Goose. She forcefully cut the impression. “We’re blocked,” she reported over the com. “Massive stone ahead and the Queen equipped the pitfalls with incineration lasers. No upward fire so far. Proceeding with explosives.”

 

“Copy that,” Zach answered grimly, omitting that two of his squad hadn’t been fast enough and had learned about the incinerators the hard way. “Same here.” He set a second expansion stick to secure his weight and ordered the explosives brought forward.

=Regroup,= Subadar’s command scrolled through his sight, =proceed with caution.= Zach checked the position of the teams on the helmet display. Niko’s team was about as far ahead as his. Same situation. Doc had just entered the control room. Likely the trigger. Goose—

 

Goose drove iridium claws through his gloves into the wall beside him and hauled himself halfway up the wall and forward, ordering the soldiers behind him to get their asses up and glued to the walls as well. By the time Niko’s voice over the com followed her wordless warning in his head, he and the rest of the squad were safely anchored halfway up towards the ceiling.

Behind him, a wall of rock crashed down, followed by the screams of the troops in its path. Three. Goose noted grimly. Their medic scrambled down the wall towards them. Two were trapped with legs that were now pulp, yet might make it, the third was flattened to the pelvis. Alive now, but dead soon.

=We’re blocked,= Niko said on the com. =Massive stone ahead—= A trap on all corridors, Goose concluded. =—pitfalls with incineration lasers—=

Augmented traps barring access, but the floor’s solid on this side. The Queen waited for us, but didn’t think we’d get this far.

=Copy that.= The captain replied. =Same here.=

Correction. Just this team’s fucked!

=Regroup.= Command ordered in text. =Proceed with caution.=

Goose’s eyes narrowed. Half his squad was on this side, the entrance to the crypt ahead was still open. Bare walls. No cover before that. Caution would kill them!

“Charge!” he barked. Retracting his claws and pushing off the wall, he tossed off his helmet in favor of unhindered senses, and did as he ordered.

 

 

Main control room

 

“Get down!” somebody yelled, “You’re in my line of fire!” A heavy body slammed into Doc, throwing him against the console. Without the armor, his spine would have been dust. Armored hands clamped around his throat. The largest crown trooper in existence used him as a shield and tried to cut off his air supply even through the combat suit. Doc struggled, kicked, clawed for the CDU clipped to his belt, gasped. “All progs active—”

=Where’s your politeness, Doc?= Firefly whizzed around his head from the console tormenting his spine.

=In his pants – as usual.= Tripwire emerged from around his belt.

=No one uses the word ‘please’ nowadays...= – Pathfinder.

=Brp – Blip – Brp – Blip – Brp…=

=Pixel, stop behaving like a BASIC-DOS compilation!= – Firefly.

“Retina sca—!!!” The crown trooper had found the angle to compress his windpipe through the suit. Doc saw a marine running towards him in slow motion.

=Retina scan? But we aren’t hardware— YIKES!= Pathfinder squeaked.

=Into that ugly face, people!= Firefly blipped and four rainbow-colored holographic sparkles whizzed towards the openings in the crown troopers helmet. The fifth— =This one, Pixel! Not the marine!= Lifeline beeped, annoyed.

Dark spots were dancing in front of Doc’s eyes, together with =Proceed with caution.= projected on his retinas. Two of his neck vertebrae would be unaligned soon, and— The pressure around his neck was gone. He coughed. The crown soldier in front of him was still beating at the rainbow-colored cloud filling his vision when Doc shot him point blank. Twice. Just to be sure.

“Thank you, pals,” he rasped, waving at the marines that he was all right. Mostly. “You earned a memory upgrade.”

=As if you hadn’t planned that anyway!= Firefly squeaked indignantly, vanishing back into the CDU. =By the way, that console your butt’s hugging is cleaner than your pants now.=

=Nope!= Pathfinder zipped through between Doc’s legs. =He didn’t wet himself this time.=

=Hey, Life!= Tripwire rotated, sparkling. =You lost. When do I get my ten Gigs of your allocated memory?=

=You just can’t rely on programmers,= the green sparkle beeped sadly and disappeared together with Tripwire into the CDU.

With a satisfied blrrrp Doc caught the last one – Pixel – with the holographic trapezoid of the CDU without any commentary, patted imaginary dust off his battered combat suit, and nodded at the stunned marines. “I’m fine, ladies and gents. Please relocate the spectators to the outside before they become any smellier than they already are.” He indicated the dead crown trooper in front of him. “Thank you.”

=–are blocked,= Zach’s voice came over the com. =Explosives were ineffective. Doc, we need the lock-down lifted ASAP or we’re toast! Goose’s team is the only one on the other side.=

 “Working on it,” Doc rasped and hastened to confirm Firefly’s report of the central console being clean, before focusing on getting past the Queen’s password parameters, various lurking crown viruses, and a hundred-strong contingent of rather nasty deletion programs. The security lacking in the tunnel was sure-fire installed here instead! But they hadn’t counted on ‘The Doc’ – with a capital-T – operating! He got past them all, found the command sequence for the pitfalls. Most of the lock indicators immediately changed to green. Most.

Doc cursed and tapped his com. “Pitfalls deactivated. Tunnel seals are manually controlled,” he drew a deep breath, “from inside the Psychocrypt.”

 

 

Psychocrypt

 

Senses, even under normal conditions of crystalline sharpness and almost painful intensity, were readjusted. Information sorted for relevance – position, movement, armor, insignia since others were behind him – when fifteen years of training took over, resetting the objective with unquestioned clarity: Success. Survival.

He left the access tunnel at top speed, breaking through the front row of enemy soldiers before the first return shot was even fired. Five bolts cleared the path to the enemy commander. Extensive scattering armor. He didn’t slow down, used his momentum for the bayonet, driving it through armor and intestines underneath. A turn. The butt of the assault rifle connected with the prime target’s helmet, shattering the plate and the skull underneath. A gash of hot, steaming blood hit his face. He dismissed it. His senses were clear. His body was functioning.

The next target approached. Eliminated.

The next…

Ozone. Blood. Guts. The hiss of energy weapons. The moaning of the dying. The stink of fear.

Known field. Hated field. Familiar field.

Certainty.

Next target. A somersault over the rifle ending at ground level. The bayonet struck upwards at the opening between the legs, the armor there weaker for better agility. The blade circled, cutting the body inside its hardened shell.

He rolled onto his feet, claws providing traction despite blood and slime.

Proceed.

 

 

Tunnel B

in front of the blockade

 

=Gooseman?= Niko heard Zach asking over the com, then even on the private channel Doc had established just for their team, =Goose!=

No reply.

She knew instinctively that he was physically sound, yet… something was wrong. She felt the satisfaction of a predator, almost feral reflexes taking life without thought. That wasn’t their comrade in the Psychocrypt, but a supertrooper in battle. She didn’t dare to reach out, didn’t know how to tell Zach what she sensed, only—

“We have to get to him,” she urged over the private channel, “fast, or we’ll lose him. He’s—” She shook her head, didn’t know how to put it in words.

=I try to burn through,= Zach replied grimly, =if he doesn’t open the seals. Circle back and—=

“He won’t,” Niko cut in, “and the thunderbolt will fry everyone on the other side.” Not to speak of the attack that would follow if Goose reacted to Zach’s beam. She swallowed. She’d seen Goose in combat once. Zach wouldn’t leave that battlefield alive. She had to prevent that. “Let me try—”

She focused along the link, shivered at the cold predator on the other end, the sensation of blood and carnage and death, ignored it, turned her attention for the inanimate substance beyond the gore. She had to get in there. Now. Or—

‘Or’ wasn’t bearable. She scattered her attention even wider, searched along the walls, painstakingly ignored the flickering life signals of those trapped behind the glass, and those being ripped apart in the hall the glass surrounded. There was the Queen’s throne overseeing coffins and carnage. Her badge vibrated. A warning that her charge was about to run out. She ignored it, centered on the throne, focused on the symbols engraved on keys over two hundred meters away behind massive walls of steel and worse, the continuously waning lives of the cryptees. There were the controls for the weaponry and the mechanical defenses. She didn’t know the codes, but the system underneath knew its settings. On and off. Closed and—

Open.

In front of her, the massive stone slab vibrated and began moving back up towards the ceiling. The gap at the floor was barely hip-wide, when Niko ignored all warnings of her suit and squad and squeezed through it.

 

 

Psychocrypt

 

Gas hissed. Ears twitched, locating the points of release. He fired in rapid succession, melted and sealed valves around the hall faster than the rifle could recharge. The barrel grew hot, its muzzle glowing dark red when it shut down. Discard.

A target took aim, too slow. He leaped. Iridium claws pierced the carotid. He used the rifle of the dead target to seal the remaining valves.

A target approached. He drew the battle knife from his left sleeve.

The target stopped. Insignia identical to his own.

No other movement. The blade stilled.

Assessing.

 

 

Tunnel A

 

With the grating sound of crushed stone, the stone slap crawled at glacial speed back into the ceiling. Zach forced himself not to use his bionics to give it ‘a helping hand’ so to speak. When the gap was finally wide enough for him to squeeze through, his suit systems reported elevated levels of ozone and… biological matter? in the airflow. What the—

 “Niko?” he inquired OTR.

=Stay back!= came the sharp reply, followed by the distinct click of her closing the channel.

In front of him, the tunnel opened into the Psychocrypt covered in—

Blood. The floor was slick with it. A crown trooper lay on the ground near the tunnel entrance. Armor and body underneath slashed open, guts spilling onto the ground beside the body. More bodies beyond it, some torn apart, some strangely unharmed aside from blood pooling beside their throats. Scorch marks from rapid blaster fire marked most helmets. The troopers had been blinded before being cut down.

A group of grey uniformed soldiers huddled at the opposite tunnel. The remnants of the squad trapped on this side of the barrier, all staring towards the central dais where Gooseman, untransformed in a blood-soaked combat suit, was pointing a knife at Niko.

Blasters and knifes. Zach felt bile in his throat as he entered the eerily silent hall. He’d been warned about Goose’s bio defenses[12]. He hadn’t realized what the man could do just with standard weaponry. This is what I was made for. You might not like the difference. He held his breath when Niko slowly unfastened her helmet despite the carnage—

 

 

LSS Comanche

16 hours later

 

A short tap froze the image on screen, giving time to observe details. The combat suit, torn and bloodstained at sleeves and boots. A single red splash of dark-red blood crossed one cheek of an otherwise unmarked, unmarred face. Cold perfection, an archangel, with eyes as grey as the combat knife he’d raised at his comrade. A knife too sharp to hold the blood of its victims covering the floor around him. Yet…

Subadar laid a finger against his cheek, considered what he’d observed. The first kills had been messy, inflicting as much damage as possible, but with each enemy the strikes had become more precise. The ST had learned in combat what worked best, what was efficient. The last trooper had died from a single stab between armored torso and helmet. The rapid fire at the gas emitters…

The admiral considered that as well as he allowed the recordings from several soldiers to proceed simultaneously, showing the events from multiple angles.

Ranger Niko running into the blood-splattered hall, then slowly approaching a weapon with the face of her teammate pointing a knife at her.

Subadar noticed that none of the soldiers around called out. Neither did the captain who’d arrived only seconds after her. The silence in the hall had been absolute, to the point where the squishy sound of her boot finding a bloody spot on the floor was audible.

Despite gas and blood, she’d opened her helmet.

=Shane.= A quiet voice, no threat, no gesture. =It’s over.= She hadn’t reached for the weapon, had waited for recognition.

More than one of the recordings wobbled when it had come, a collective slump of relieve at a roughened “Seal up. There’s gas.” And a deadly blade being sheathed?

Probably. Although, they hadn’t lost anybody in the Psychocrypt itself. In fact, Gamma squad had lost only one, the soldier severed by the falling stone. Two more had been injured in the same incident and would make it. An incident, that couldn’t be construed as the ST’s fault. On the contrary.

Subadar sighed, rubbed eyes that he knew were red from too much tension and serious lack of sleep now that the reports were coming in.

Casualties in combat. Civilian casualties. Severely – as in irreversibly – injured personnel. Injured – as in ‘will heal’ eventually – personnel. Injured – either case – civilian within combat operations. Injured civilians outside combat operations. That last one was the biggest number, because being a cryptee counted as injured, and by default every cryptee was a civilian during this operation.

In total, they’d lost sixteen soldiers in the operation. A ridiculously low number in absolute terms, given the layout of the enemy stronghold and the time the Queen has had to prepare for them. But it amounted to 15 per cent of the troops sent in, and that was the number the BWL would see. That – and the loss of a third of the cryptees due to the cyanide gas released when the blockade had been forced open. A third. It would have been all and the soldiers in the hall had the ST not melted most of the gas emitters.

Subadar knew he had to tread carefully there, very carefully. Frowning, he studied the various body camera recordings of the operation again, screening through them, mentally preparing his report for the BWL. It had to be done by the time they reached Earth. His troops’ battle was over, his own was about to begin. He snorted, watching the events unfurl again on the screen in several perspectives, finally focusing on the record from the female Ranger and allowed it to fill the whole screen.

Stopping the record abruptly, Subadar studied the haunted green eyes filling his screen. “So that’s what you’re protecting, Joe,” he said quietly.

 

[1] See “Grandson” (fan fiction by A. Kniggendorf)

[2] See “Geese Bring Luck” (fan fiction by A. Kniggendorf)

[3] See “An Officer with a Past” (fan fiction by A. Kniggendorf; to be published)

[4] ‘Schiesser Feinripp’ is a well-known line of men’s underwear, (in)famous for “looking comfortable”.

[5] See “The Lie” (fan fiction by A. Kniggendorf)

[6] See “That Was a Close Shave!” (fan fiction by A. Kniggendorf)

[7] See http://www.esa.int/Our_Activities/Operations/Highlights/Brightest_beacons

[8] Quantum Electro-Dynamics

[9] Gecko suits were inspired by gecko gloves: see “Human climbing with efficiently scaled gecko-inspired dry adhesives” by Elliot W. Hawkes, Eric V. Eason, David L. Christensen, and Mark R. Cutkosky (DOI: 10.1098/rsif.2014.0675) published 2014.

A more accessible article including a youtube movie (http://youtu.be/Mw-tol5ur84) can be found at Popular Mechanics: http://www.popularmechanics.com/how-to/blog/scientists-have-created-gecko-inspired-spider-man-gloves-17448448

[10] Mechanical expansion sticks powered by gas cartridge for anchoring from wall-to-wall. Imagine them somewhat like Minbari battle sticks from Babylon-5.

[11] See “The Lie” (fan fiction by A. Kniggendorf)

[12] see “A Difficult Beginning” (fan fiction by A. Kniggendorf)

Chapter Text

2088-10-03

 

 

LSS Comanche

returning to Earth

 

A combat knife above a sea of blood. White hands reaching, grabbing, tearing at boots. Screams reverberated in an empty hall and empty eyes. The blade didn’t waver as its victims rose beside them, circling them, pressing in on them. No recognition and the knife struck, was torn free, struck again, was thrown, and buried to the hilt in Zachary’s chest—

 

Niko jerked awake and stared at the blank steel of the bunk above hers, waiting for her racing pulse to calm down. The room was dimly lit from the green light on the communication panel beside the door, indicating normal ship function in transit, and the magnetic night light that Zach had attached to a corner of his bunk. The captain never slept in the dark, but the silence likely meant he was sound asleep now, despite how close that nightmare of hers had come to reality.

Niko drew a deep breath, struggling to keep her tattered shields closed tight against the memories. Blood on the ground. Bodies... body parts lying around. Goose’s sleeves soaked with blood, the toe caps of his combat boots pierced. Claws for traction – the only transformation apparent. Grey eyes above a black combat knife—

She’d seen before what Goose could do in combat[1], but against other super troopers it had been almost innocuous compared to the Psychocrypt. The contingent of Crown troopers had been ‘sheep for the wolf’ – Zach’s thought in its acridity had pierced her shields even then. The captain had covered his outward reaction well, but she knew that Goose had picked it up. In the debriefing, he’d been a silent shadow at the admiral’s back, hadn’t said anything, hadn’t been asked anything, either. A feeling of tired resignation had flooded her when she’d tried to make contact.

In the semi-darkness of her bunk Niko thought of Goose holding on to her after the skirmish on Scarred[2]. ‘I wasn’t trained to kill. I was trained to kill efficiently. There’s a difference.’

There were no names for him on a battle field. No faces. Only insignia to tell friend from foe with ‘foe’ being the default, so that a mistake didn’t destroy the living weapon that had cost Earth a fortune to raise. Desolation. A weapon had no place outside combat. A useful weapon wouldn’t be send home—

Niko pushed the blanket back and, using a fraction of her telekinetic power, lowered herself silently to the ground. Like the men, she slept in her board uniform. All she had to grab was her jacket, badge, and boots—

 “Where are you going?” The captain’s voice stopped her in her tracks. Zach sat up. The blue eyes studying her coolly were alert and wide-awake. Obviously, he hadn’t slept at all. Niko stood still under scrutiny. “I asked you something, lieutenant.”

She swallowed. “Please don’t. I don’t want to lie to you.”

“Then don’t,” he said, matter-of-fact. “What are you up to?”

“Setting the record straight.” Niko answered. “Goose is here without papers. He knows that.”

“And you don’t trust me and the admiral to do right by him?” Zach asked her grimly.

“This isn’t about do’s and don’ts, Zach,” Niko said desperately. “This is about Goose and today’s consequences for him.”

Zach considered that. “You’ve seen such a fight before?”

“Yes. And I know what it does to him.” She met his eyes, imploring. “I won’t let him face that alone.”

 

“You should have given her curfew.” Doc stuck his head over the edge of the bunk above Zach’s after the door had closed behind Niko.

“And she would break it.” Zach sighed. “This way, I can pretend not to know.”

Doc arched a brow at that. “What made you that lenient, oh-captain-mine?”

Right, Doc hadn’t been in the Psychocrypt, hadn’t seen Niko walk through blood and intestines to call Goose back from… wherever he’d been in that battle. “Not lenient,” he said finally. “Realistic.” 

 

 

BetaMountain

BMQ 206

 

Eliza studied the sun-filled kitchen with a mixture of dread and curiosity. It looked so normal. Even smelled normal of slightly burned eggs – apparently, their son had Zach’s talent for cooking. Yellow sunlight fell through the kitchen window onto the remnants of a hastily made and even more hastily devoured breakfast of toast, scrambled eggs, and orange juice. Left behind by two teenagers, who’d run for the school shuttle only a minute ago.

“Sorry, Mom! We’re so going to be late—” A circumspect GV had closed the apartment door after them before the sentence had been complete.

This was the second day that Eliza was left ‘on her own’, if she discounted GV. She’d come to accept the AI as either being the nervous, fastidious original or a direct copy thereof. As she’d begun to think of the children as Zachy and Jessie…

She startled. She shouldn’t do that. And that wasn’t a kitchen window. It was a man-sized light panel giving the illusion of daylight to those being stuck underground. Family quarters are shelters, ‘Zach’ had told her before he’d left. But she wasn’t sheltered. She was trapped in an illusion with one of the Queen’s machinations posing as her husband being sent off to destroy the Psychocrypt as if—

“GV,” she ordered. “Tri-D broadcast. Find me some news about the ongoing fleet campaign.” Let’s see, how far they intend to take this charade!

 

 

LSS Comanche

returning to Earth

 

Booted steps echoed in the hallway outside. Gooseman recognized the gait long before Niko stopped in front of the door to the four-bunk section he had – as expected – all for himself. A faint scratch on steel rather than an audible knock or electronic buzz that could be recorded and she slipped inside. “You shouldn’t be here,” he said once the door had closed. “I am not safe.”

“I know. You pointed a blade at me.” She shrugged.

The small movement brought her scents to him. “You’re afraid,” he stated, sitting up, putting his bare feet on the floor.

“I can’t sleep,” she said with a nonchalance her scent didn’t support, “and I don’t want to lose you.”

“Lose me?” he laughed out without mirth. “You never had me. I’m military property, useful property. They won’t let me go back.”

“And you think that I will accept that?”

Still sitting on the lowest bunk, it was his time to shrug. “There’s only so much you can do against an admiral’s orders.”

“I don’t care about admirals.” Violet sparkles ran over her skin. “I care about you.”

“Care about yourself.” His senses were still acute, geared for combat. He smelled her fear, heard her heart racing underneath her bravado. He stood abruptly, felt his spine stiffen as his body went on high alert. The predator was too close to the surface for this. “Niko, for your own sake,” he warned her again. “I am not safe.

“Neither am I.” She snapped, angrily pushing in on him. “Yes, I’ve seen what you can do. And I’ve seen the people you protected with it. Your squad. The cryptees. Me. I saw it on Scarred and still took the skin off your back on Tortuna!” Her powers flared. Violet sparkles, no longer confined to her skin, danced around her. “Admit it!” He found himself retreating. The edges of the bunk stack suddenly pressed against his back. “I’m as much a freak as you!” She got right into his face with it. “And I won’t give you up!”

“So, what?!” he growled, bared fangs a mere breath from her face. “You want to get scraped off the deck plates?”

“You can try!” she shot back, sparkles intensifying, closing around him. “But do you want that?”

“Scraping off? No. Screwing to? Damn yes, but—” He broke off, reeling. “Fuck!”

“Exactly,” Niko snapped. “We’re both capable of atrocities!” …Mine just don’t leave visible traces…

He couldn’t care less that he didn’t hear that last sentence with his ears, or felt her guilt along his own. He consciously sniffed now, tracking, assessing… Her. And him. Them.

“Last chance,” he growled. “Go.”

…No chance… Her fingers clawed into his shirt. He stopped caring. She was long past his skin. His mouth came down hard.

 

 

BetaMountain

BMQ 206

 

…despite horrible losses of almost 25 per cent of deployed personnel, our troops were victorious in freeing a majority of the captives held in the Psychocrypt, rendering the nefarious installation unusable in the process.

The flagship Comanche under fleet-admiral Frederic Subadar will arrive at BETA Space Station within the day…

 

Eliza manually switched off the receiver, causing a startled blink from GV bobbing on the kitchen display. She wiped her hands on her comfortably worn sweatpants. Within the day. She swallowed. She’d been complacent too long. If she were to do anything, she had to act now.

 

 

LSS Comanche

BETA Space Station
Space Navy Dock IV

 

The top bunk. Niko reached up, pressed her flat hand against the cold metal above her head. The clamor of debarking troops reverberated through the corridors outside. Shane’s quiet breath fanned over her shoulder. Zach will have me deported, she thought and, Zach isn’t here. Goose was, a silent source of warmth between her, the edge of the bunk, and a three-meters-fall to the deck. For him, the top bunk was a vantage point above the plane of sight to curl up with her. Not that they’d reached it fast. Or had stopped afterwards. Niko smiled at the memory of what they’d done in a space so low she’d bumped her hip against the ceiling when turning over.

She hadn’t known how he hungered for contact and had been shocked when she realized even his thoughts couldn’t tell her what he liked, because he himself hadn’t known. It hadn’t been an issue on Granna[3] and she hadn’t cared after 17798[4], now she did. For him it was touch and scent. Skin on skin. There was a spot right beneath his shoulder blades that nearly sent him over the edge when she ran her fingers over it, and a faint web of scar tissue in his nape[5] that when touched raised memories nobody would want in their bed. She would do her utmost not to trigger that ever again. She remembered him consciously breathing her in, repeatedly brushing his cheek over her shoulder like a cat marking what’s his with his scent, anchoring himself with her. Even now their legs were entangled, his weight tugged at her hair. She took her hand off the ceiling, slipped her arm over his side, fingers spread wide on his lower back. Egoist, her mind warned her. This doesn’t change anything

Someone’s coming. The thought cut in in its alertness. They were in full rapport now. The link undeniably active. Sensorial impressions not her own followed, isolated approaching footsteps from the general ruckus outside, identified standard navy ship boots as footwear, drawing conclusions with absolute certainty. ADC. Two. Headed for us.

Goose rolled over, facing the door. Niko reached for her badge, froze. It was still attached to her uniform. Her white-and-blue uniform lying tangled with his gray Navy slacks on the lowest bunk. In plain sight. And her means to obfuscate their attention was still attached to it. They—

A sharp buzz preceded the sound of the door being opened. “Specialist. The admiral wants to see you.”

“And he didn’t know how the comm works?” Goose growled, propping up on one elbow, effectively blocking any sight past him.

“Right now, specialist.” The second ordinance insisted disapprovingly.

Pressed into the shadows against the back wall, Niko more felt than heard Goose’s snort as he threw the cover back over her. Stay put. Ventilation system’s good. They won’t smell anything. Then the space beside her was empty. Goose had rolled out of bed, dropped nude as he was to a smooth stand in front of two now very rattled ordinances. “Like this?” he asked.

Peering at them from under the ruffled blanket, Niko saw heat flashing across the female officer’s face. The muscles in her partner’s face worked angrily. “In proper attire,” the man bit off. “Five minutes.”

Goose indicated the door and growled. “Get lost. Or are you here for inspections, too?”

“No. We saw enough.”

Niko released a breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding when the door closed behind them. “That was close,” she whispered, unsure how far the ordinances had retreated. She pushed back the cover and climbed down. It seemed a miracle that they hadn’t spotted her white-and-blue among the grays, though she’d be first to admit that Goose shirtless—clothesless—was a near perfect distraction.

He was already sorting their uniforms, donning his own. She felt self-conscious when he tossed her her underwear, wondering aloud, “What would you have done if they hadn’t budged?”

Goose, pulling up his pants, shrugged. “Gone.”

 

“Stay safe,” Goose said quietly, closing the last clasps of the Navy greys as he turned for the door. “We’ve been reckless.” In more ways than one. ‘There’s a difference between ability and permission. Don’t learn that the hard way.’ Eight weeks ago, Walsh’s warning had come too late. This time, he’d just ignored it.

As if I’d given you much choice, Niko told him, pulling his head down for a kiss. Don’t worry. “Any idea what the admiral wants?” she asked out loud.

“Probably telling me where they plan to store me until the next massacre’s due.” She winced, making him regret his choice of words. “I didn’t get deployment papers. They can do whatever they want.”

“No, they can’t!” she declared angrily – at him? at the Navy? he didn’t know unclasped her badge and pinned it to his shirt. “Here,” she stated fiercely. “Remind them what you are!”

The shining gold star on the Navy grays implied a defiance he wasn’t sure was wise given Subadar’s temper, but removing it was out of the question. Instead, he arched a brow at her. “Yours?”

“A Galaxy Ranger. Law enforcement,” she corrected, patting the badge on his shirt firmly. “And that there are people who will enforce it for you!”

He was already on his way to the admiral when he realized that her fiery statement did not deny his joked suggestion.

 

For a ship already docked the corridors around the bridge were sure busy, but the personnel still managed to give Goose a wide berth as he passed with his escort. These people hadn’t been in the Psychocrypt, but tales traveled faster than light – even on a moored ship. More than one of the glances zipped from his face to the Ranger badge pinned to his chest, the polished gold an odd contrast to the gray cloth…

 

The admiral awaiting him with a stern expression behind his desk wasn’t a surprise, Zach in front of the desk was. Goose saluted and stood at attention. Subadar studied him thoughtfully. A rustle of cloth indicated Zach moving, but Goose knew better than to divert his attention under scrutiny. Finally, the admiral said, “at ease,” allowing for parade rest.

“There was a mix-up regarding your papers, Ranger.” Subadar indicated a sealed blue envelope on his desk. “It has been corrected. Your captain has the details. It would be prudent to disembark in correct uniform alongside your unit.” Goose blinked, but said nothing. “You’re also expected at the post mission events. Dismissed.”

 

“I see Niko found you,” Zach said after Subadar’s door had closed behind them. He nodded at the badge pinned to Goose’s shirt.

“Yes, sir.” No reason to deny it.

“You know that Niko can track you?”

“Yeah.” Goose drew a deep breath. “It’s called a resonance[6]. We tried to separate it, but I can’t do my part of the bargain. Those receptors control my bio defenses, Zach. After Deltoid I know better than to tamper with them.” He looked aside. “We decided just to keep it. It’s not that distracting and knowing the other’s sound is kinda useful on missions.”

“And you didn’t tell me,” Zach remarked none too pleased.

“We didn’t tell anybody,” Goose clarified with a snort. “It’s embarrassing. Like pink socks!” Only that he’d come to like pink socks. It made them easy to spot in the laundry and— He shook his head. “Do you know what this was all about?” He distracted, waving the envelope.

“I assume the results in the Psychocrypt cannot be explained without admitting that you were there,” Zach said grimly, “so they filed your deployment post factum.” After a few steps, he added, “You were right. I don’t like the difference in your M.O.” Goose nodded, tense. “But then, neither do you.” Zach sighed. “Let’s get your gear and leave this pot, Lieutenant.”

“Yes, sir.”

 

 

BetaMountain

 

A cheer went up in the crowd gathered in front of the wall-mounted screen in the hall. On screen, the first soldiers were leaving the Comanche, walking in orderly rows across the dock cordoned off by MP against media and spectators on site to the waiting shuttles to Earth.

Eliza, staying near the far wall as she made her way towards the maintenance access tunnel she’d memorized on one of the “base tours” the kids had given her, snorted inwardly. In formation. Still, she watched the rows of Navy grays interspersed with a few technician khakis streaming past the cameras, putting the scene up on screens planet-wide in different angles with breathless commentary drowned out by the excited crowd in the hall. That’s one way to make sure they didn’t have to come up with believable broadcast stupidity, she thought. Still, then why make a broadcast at all? Distracting the people made it a lot easier to execute her plans. Did they want her to do it? Telling them how to sabotage BETA? But for that to work this would have to be a real copy of the base and if they had that they wouldn’t need the knowledge how to—

Stop it! Eliza shook her head. The Queen had messed with her head often enough.

Something white flashed at the edge of her vision. A row of white-and-blue Ranger uniforms filled the screen on the opposite wall. She stopped, watched.

‘Zachary’, flanked by the shapeshifter on the left and the witch next to the techno-mage on the right. One of the cameras caught him in profile, making her heart clench at how close the Queen’s machination had come to impersonate her love. Or—?

Angrily, she quenched the nagging doubt, and began working on the control panel to the maintenance tunnel. She’d been trained to withstand psychological influence, but her instructors hadn’t imagined alien mindtech going as far as the Queen’s had. Eliza drew a quivering breath. She was running out of time, now and in her head. She couldn’t hope to stay off the grid for long, and she was sliding towards their trap even now.

 

Eliza was closing the entrance cover when the hall fell silent. The last image she caught on screen while putting the cover screws back in were a line of flag-covered coffins floating on the heels of the last row of returning personnel. Not everybody had a made it back alive.

 

 

BetaMountain Hangars

 

“O’Malley must be foaming from the mouth,” Goose said under his breath as the transport cabin finally left the ground and raised them high above the milling crowd of reporters, news teams, camera teams, and local representatives. The crowd filled the cavernous hangar from wall to wall save for a narrow corridor cordoned off by an impressive amount of – armed – MPs.

“How so?” Zachary frowned at him.

“She got into a funk because of confetti. What do you think she does about chewing gum on her runways?”

Zachary blinked. “Chewing gum? Are you sure?”

Goose sniffed briefly. “I am sure.”

Doc beside them sniggered. “Then those MPs have to turn around and save the masses from her wrath.”

“And us from scraping duty,” Niko sighed.

“Can’t you just levitate it away, dearest maiden?”

“Would you want to learn that much about somebody else’s dental status?”

“No, but—”

His vibrating wristcom distracted Zach from the ongoing banter. He tapped the screen. “Fox here.” Immediately, the tiny screen filled with his son’s panicked face.

=Dad. Mom’s gone. We just came back from school and GV doesn’t know where she went and—=

“When did she leave?” Zach interrupted him, already calculating how long it would take them to get there and—

 “Captain,” Goose said quietly beside him. “I can leave now, if you cover for me at arrival.” He indicated the dark ground rushing past far below them. “There’s a supply access up ahead that’ll get me past the media.”

“Will do.” Zach nodded grimly at him, silencing the wristcom as he met the green eyes firmly. “And remember, my wife is no enemy.”

“Understood, sir.” The ST leaped from the transport cabin, disappearing in the dark underneath.

“That wasn’t necessary,” Niko told Zach angrily. “He didn’t deserve that. And you know it.”

Did he? Zach wiped a hand over his face. Not now. He raised the wristcom again. “Zachy, Goose’s on his way to find her. The two of you stay out of his way.”

=Yes, Dad. But mom’s—=

“It’s going to be alright, Zachy.” It had to be. Anything else wasn’t bearable. “I’ll be there as fast as I can. Dad end.” He immediately tapped the emergency line to Walsh. “Sir, my wife’s reported missing. Ranger Gooseman is already looking for her.”

=Understood.= Walsh replied gruffly. =Is he aware of the media clogging the public areas of the base?=

“He went via the supply network, sir.” Zach reported.

=Good. All of you are public faces right now. I don’t want him in that press unsupervised.= A brief pause. =Critical infrastructure is already guarded because of the media ruckus. I’ll make sure the guards also expect less civil intervention.=

“Sir, my wife isn’t—”

=—is a tactical operative gone rogue, Fox. Walsh end.=

“Zach,” Niko asked cautiously into the lasting silence filled only by the noise of the transport cabin rattling along. “Just what is going on here?”

“Yes,” Doc chimed in, “and why is our über-boss considering your wife a threat warranting our resident ST on her heels despite the press-press?”

Zach winced. Their questions made him wish for an Andorian pressure tube system cutting the transport time to a few seconds, instead of the twenty minutes the long route up to the command level took. He drew a deep breath. And told them.

 

 

Personnel Quarters Level

 

Gooseman didn’t so much as stop in front of Zach’s door, but jogged past it. Eliza Fox’ scent clear in his nose. She’d left less than two hours ago, probably only minutes before Zachy and his sister had been sent home from school. This was a quiet, residential area without many passersby on normal days, and luckily the press people swarmed elsewhere. He inhaled deeply, getting a fresh imprint of her scent.

My wife is no enemy.

Yet, she still smelled exactly the same as last time, no mingling with Zach’s scent, as if—

Gooseman shook his head. It wasn’t his business. It didn’t feel right to focus that much on Mrs. Fox. Still… It was strange. Niko smelled of him now, and his own scent held traces of hers. No ST worth their rations would miss that. At least, most of the others knew better than pissing him off in earnest. And Stingray was dead, Gravestone and Jackhammer wouldn’t bother. Killbane was another matter. If Killbane smelled Niko on him, or worse, him on Niko—

He stopped dead. Mrs. Fox’ scent was gone.

 

 

Transport Cabin

 

“So, you’re married to a TacOp?!” Doc whistled. “Mon Capitan, those waters of yours are unexpectedly deep.”

“Nonsense.” Zach snapped. “Eliza worked in astrography before we were redeployed for Kirwin. She hasn’t been in the field as an operative after contact.”

“But she was taught to inflict serious damage behind enemy lines if necessary,” Niko cautioned. “And it’s likely that is where she believes she is.”

“Just what do you want to imply here?” Zach returned sharply.

“That Walsh might have good reason to send Goose after her.” She avoided his eyes. “And that Goose might not be able to talk her out of it.”

 

 

Elsewhere in BetaMountain

 

FairBreathe[7]. Goose sniffed again, then wrinkled his nose and sneezed. Someone had emptied a family pack of the stuff in this section. Maybe more. Who would–? Damn. He grinned. The lady had brains. It would have worked like a charm – against a bloodhound. Too bad for her that he wasn’t a dog and could conclude from the end of one stink to the beginning of the next. Another sneeze. Too bad for him that he now had to follow a trail of FairBlech. Yuck.

 

 

Transport Cabin

 

“There are two common tropes in Xeryon fiction,” Niko explained. At Zach and Doc’s incredulous stares she rapidly added, “we translated a lot more than mere technical manuals before we figured what we were dealing with.

“Trope one is a trapped dream traveler being made believe to have woken up only to realize later that he or she never stopped traveling. The second trope is almost the opposite, somebody already woke from the dream tour, but believes to be still traveling. From what you told me, Eliza believes to be in the first condition, whereas it’s the second.”

“Did the books have solutions for that?” Doc asked. “Or were the Xeryons all into drama?”

“It was usually corrected by a loved one using a common secret the dream traveler hadn’t thought of in ages, so that it couldn’t be part of the dream tour.” Niko swallowed.

“And you believe that will work?” Zach asked dubiously.

“It’s a plot device in pulp fiction, Zach. I have no way to know the validity of those books.” Niko looked down at her boots. “Or the accuracy of Sven’s translation of them.”

 

 

Elsewhere in the Mountain

 

Goose closed the maintenance exit soundlessly behind him, glad to have escaped the hall without being spotted. A miracle in his books, given that some of the screens had showed his very face in reruns. At least, the white-and-blues were a common enough sight within BetaMountain not to draw attention. He turned his back to the entrance and sniffed, sorting through the musky scents of dust, electronics, stagnant air… and a biting whiff of odor-trapping chemicals. Right track. Mrs. Fox had come past here not too long ago. The maintenance tunnels were a maze parallel the lower levels of BetaMountain, housing network, water, electricity, and aeration lines, and connecting storage rooms and emergency facilities and—

Tracing her here would take time he didn’t think Mrs. Fox would give him. Think, Gooseman, he berated himself. Where would you go from here to cause the most damage?

He fell into a run.

 

Eliza heard the heavy-duty safety door at the entrance of the server hall scratch over the rough permacrete floor. She stilled. It was likely a technician or one of the ubiquitous guards doing his or her duty. It couldn’t be the shapeshifter, who’d promised to come after her should she run.

Even if he’d followed her trail, she’d come through one of the emergency access locks in the back of the hall, basically opposite the door that had opened – and closed again – just now. So, a guard doing his round; a technician wouldn’t be done already. She still didn’t move, waited to be sure to be on her own again, before—

“You can come out now,” the shapeshifter called out. “I know you’re here.” His voice carried well through the cavernous hall. Echoing between the chaotic rows of servers, data links, and the crystal loci linking Andorian and human technology, it seemed to come from all directions at once.

“How did you find me?” Eliza called back, knowing the echo would obscure her location as well.

“It’s where I’d go to disrupt base operations as much as possible without hitting the ammunitions depot. Besides, FairBreathe stinks. Come out now.”

Eliza huffed. “Make me!” she challenged, working frantically on dismantling the isolation from the main power line to the crystal loci feeding the mainframe.

“Please. Do you know what Zach does to me, if I get you out by force?”

“Tell that Queen bitch of yours, I don’t fall for her fakes!”

Dead silence, slowly filling with the blips and beeps of the electronics surrounding her.

“You think we’re something the Queen made up to get to you?” There was clear disbelieve in his voice. She didn’t deign that with an answer. “Then why do you give her what she wants?”

What? Eliza froze.

“If this is a sim, then you’re showing that bitch how to hurt us,” he summarized the situation. “In your shoes I’d be playing along, have some fun, and force her to sit an eternity on her scrawny ass without getting anything.”

W—What!?

“Please,” he repeated. “I don’t want to end up in the cryocrypt because of this shit.”

She snorted. “As if they’d freeze a Galaxy Ranger.”

“They’d freeze a supertrooper.”

Supertrooper? He was a…? She recalled news broadcasts about a military project gone wrong, about genetically engineered soldiers rioting. It had made her secretly glad that they were bound for Kirwin with Jessie and Little Zach. But they hadn’t arrived there, instead— She swallowed. The shapeshifter being a supertrooper would explain another facet of her nightmares, rationalize them. Bionics were possible, also that Zach did something desperate to rescue her. And yet—

“Please, ma’am.”

It was the desperation in his voice that had her close the network link without directly connecting the crystal locus with the power source. “Let me guess,” she said as she climbed down from her vantage point on top of the third tier of servers. “You were the baby face of the litter.”

“Something like that, ma’am. And no, I wasn’t used for PR.” He activated his wristcom, once she’d made a step away from the ladder. “I have her, Captain. Shall I return her to your quarters?”

=Negative,= came the voice that sounded so much like Zach from the small receiver. =Bring Eli Connery to Walsh’s office. Fox end.=

“Who is—?” Gooseman began, but the connection was already closed. He scratched his head. “Who the fuck is Eli Connery?”

“That’s me,” Eliza said, her thoughts racing. “I’m Eli Connery.”

 

Eli. Short for Eliza or Eli Connery. Eliza’s thoughts were in tumbles as she followed Gooseman through the maze of BETA mountain’s service tunnels almost on autopilot. How on Earth can they know that!?

Mr. Eli Connery had been their ruse for dating in their academy times. Zach’s parole conditions hadn’t allowed him to leave the campus for non-educational purposes, and fraternization on campus was strictly prohibited. However, meeting a tutor from the JoSIS[8] Observatory for astrography and stellar navigation had been grudgingly granted. Not that star systems and navigation had been a top priority on their minds—

“Ma’am?” the supertrooper had stopped in front of a safety door labelled “Administration” and gave her a wary look. “Is everything alright?”

Eliza forced a deep breath. If ‘Zach’ was Zach, then— The realization was painful. “No,” she admitted, squaring her shoulders. “But it will be.”

 

 

Cmdr. Walsh’s Office

 

“Sir, I am aware that my actions will have consequences. I am prepared to accept them.” Eliza stood rod-straight at attention. “Including but not limited to a localization bracelet.”

The commander in front of her laughed humorlessly. “I received the report regarding your med band, corporal. An external tag would be identical to accepting your word.”

“Which I will give, sir,” she replied firmly.

“Which you would also give if you considered us an enemy to be deceived. Catch-22. We’re talking about an implant.”

“No!” Zach broke protocol. “You won’t chip my wife like a common criminal!”

“This isn’t about your wife but about my base!” Walsh snapped icily.

Gooseman near the door shifted. “Permission to speak, sir,” he addressed the commander, waiting for a grudgingly given ‘granted’ before continuing. “Mrs. Fox gave me a run for my money. If you don’t go for a maiming placement[9], a chip for her will only result in a bloodier escape.”

Eliza froze. Everybody stared at the shapeshifter

“That’s illegal even in times of war, Gooseman.”

Calmly, “That’s why I brought it up, sir. She’s come down from the network racks voluntarily and we’re still online.”

“Did you check for timers?” the commander didn’t let her out of his eyes as he asked that.

“There’s a stripped powerline. No way to time that.” Gooseman sounded casually. “ALMA already called the techs and told RHONDDA.”

 

“Thank you,” Eliza said quietly after they’d cleared the office. A group of armed MPs were waiting to escort her home. “I owe you.”

“Just did my job, ma’am.” Gooseman shrugged. “Use bleach to mask your scent next time and we’re even.”

 “There won’t be a next time,” Zach warned her with a glance towards the waiting MPs. “In case you didn’t notice, that was a close shave. I’ll be home right after debriefing. We’ve got to talk.”

“No, Zachary,” Eliza said firmly, closing her hand around the tracking bracelet on her left wrist. “If you are who you claim to be, you know that ‘talking’ isn’t going to cut it.” She looked back at Gooseman and inquired, unfazed, “would bleach work better?”

“No, ma’am.” The shapeshifter—no, the supertrooper’s grin revealed fangs. “But it doesn’t stink that awful.”

 

 

Hall of Earth

Applicants waiting room B

 

It was dark outside. In the distance, the artificially snowcapped massif of the Kilimanjaro glowed in the night. Strong, stark white floodlights took care that this symbol of power dominated the landscape even after dark. Fleet-admiral Frederic Subadar tugged at the tight collar of his white dress uniform and watched his mirror image next to the powerful mountain in the black window pane do the same, while he waited for the assembly to call him in.

He recalled the events leading up to the loss of his ship and the subsequent Psychocrypt campaign. This report would decide if he got another ship or was grounded indefinitely…

Decoy! I repeat: Decoy! Angelina’s bait!

A broken radio silence and ignored orders…

“Your orders were straight forward, Lieutenant.”

“Sir, I knew I’d come in hot and wouldn’t take off again anytime soon. The Laredo had no space to spare for a burned wreck like mine.”

“The Laredo’s spare space was not your concern, your orders were.”

“With all due respect, sir,” the ST returned. “Two months ago, I did a planetfall without a ship and walked away from it!”

“And if you hadn’t walked away from it this time?”

“You'd get a medal for solving the Board’s problem, sir.”

No, Frederic decided, he wouldn’t get a medal for this. He probably wouldn’t even get a new ship if he pulled this off. He snorted. The green light over the door to the assembly hall went on. He stood and straightened his shoulders. Showtime.

 

 

BetaMountain

MPQ 206

 

Eliza closed the bedroom door firmly between her and her children. Zachy had eyed her warily when the MP had delivered her home and Jessie’s eyes had seemed enormous at the sight of the open-carried military pistols her ‘escort’ had had at the ready, at least until the front door had closed. She didn’t know if there was a guard in front of the apartment now. It hadn’t seemed prudent to check.

If this was real, if the commander was who they said he was, then she’d maxed out his leniency today. And if he wasn’t—if Zach wasn’t—if—

Eli Connery. She clasped her elbows. Her being Mr. Connery wasn’t on file. Couldn’t be on file, or they’d have been cashiered for fraternization. That tutoring for astrography hadn’t involved more navigation than making sure to get close enough to the observatory above the Joaquin inland sea for Zach’s electronic ID to register there, and then they’d swerved off, hiking along the slope among the sequoias in the dusk—

She still recalled his hands on her skin, the bark of a huge redwood pressing into her back through the thin shirt as he pinned her to the living wall of the tree. A storm of sensations rushed through her when she’d lost the ground under her feet, held upright only by his hands under her buttocks and the rough bark against her back. She closed her eyes at the memory. It had been good… so good…

 

“My Dad is going to kill us, you know?” she panted breathlessly against his muscular shoulder as they stood with her legs still slung around his hips, the cloth of his cadet uniform chafing at her inner thighs, trembling with exhaustion in the warm night's air.

“No…” he returned in a husky whisper, breathing heavily himself, “your Dad's gonna kill me. Mr. Connery is just going to be grounded for the rest of his life.”

She laughed so hard, they lost balance and tumbled to the thick cover of dried needles…

 

It had been difficult to sneak back on to base without having to explain the pieces of bark and resin in her hair and on the back of her blouse, and a dress uniform skirt crumpled beyond recognition. The risk to sneak back between curfew end and morning roll call had been a titillating addition to that night. There’d still been sequoia needles pricking in her underwear. Luckily, staff sergeants didn’t strip search at roll call—

 

The opening of the front door called her from the memory. Eliza heard quiet steps in the hallway and even quieter words to her son who’d likely lurked there since she’d been brought home. She was glad the kids had resisted the urge to cling to her in person – or maybe they were too old to be that childish by now. She didn’t know, but she knew who’d arrived. And feared it—him. No. She shook her head. Fear wouldn’t do. She turned at the sound of the bedroom door.

“Good, you’re still here.” There was obvious relief in his oh-so-familiar face. He hadn’t been sure she’d stay.

Eliza’s closed her hand over the tracking bracelet spanning her left wrist. “Where would I have gone,” she asked, “without breaking my word?”

He replied nothing, closed the door behind him and she expected the hiss of a seal. It didn’t come. He crossed the room, put his service weapon in the weapons safe; their routine ever since Zachy’s birth. But now there were finger-sized dents in the reinforced door frame, reminding her that his real weaponry couldn’t be locked away safely. The thought gave her pause.

“How much?” she asked after the safe’s lock engaged. “How much of you is still you?”

He winced at the question. “Approximately 55 per cent, discounting the ceramic laminae reinforcing the natural bone,” he answered, matter-of-fact, as if the question hadn’t hurt. When she said nothing, he explained, “My left side was fried. It was pure luck that the shot missed the brain.”

She studied him curiously, weighed the straight answer against the wince, his actions against her fears, her memories against her nightmares. “And your…?” She arched a brow at him.

“My—?” he asked, uncomprehending.

“I’m your wife,” she reminded him dryly. “I’m supposed to have a certain interest in that part of your anatomy.”

Heat flooded his face as he got it.

“You’re blushing,” Eliza noted, surprised. She went closer, allowed her fingertips to ghost over his cheek that even after what had to be long day without rest, appeared clean shaven. “On both sides.” She looked up, studied his face. “Your eyes are your own.”

“The head was spared,” he rasped, holding dead-still under her scrutiny. “Mostly,” he amended. “There are some plates in the jaw and the implant to control everything.”

“It must have hurt like hell,” she whispered, transfixed. The skin under her hand felt warm, natural. A muscle in his cheek worked as he fought for composure and said,

“I was out of it, most of the time.”

“But not all of the time.”

“They can’t set the interface if there’s no response from the nerves.” He shook his head. “You’re trying to derail me,” he accused her almost plaintively. “This has to be about you, not me.”

“No, this has to be about us,” she corrected more brazen than she felt. “And whether or not there is a redwood tree in our past.”

This time, he got it immediately.

 

 

Hall of Earth

 

Admiral Frederic Subadar studied the row of faces along the wide table who’d just accepted the set of medals he’d bestowed on the Kiowa’s pilots, a sad number of which would be awarded posthumously. He abstained from tugging at his obnoxiously tight collar and cuffs and, squaring his shoulders, determinedly switched off the presentation showing the collar cam recordings of the personnel to be honored. As expected, the suddenly empty screen caused a stir and a wave of frowns among the politicians, assembled in person or via holoscreen.

             “Ladies and gentlebeings of the board,” he said into the disquiet. “I will not keep these data and the ugly reality of close combat from you, but first, allow me to tell you about a young soldier without whom both — the battle for Earth and the battle for the Psychocrypt — would have been lost, the battle for Earth devastatingly so…”

BetaMountain

MPQ 206

 

In the wee hours of the morning, Eliza lay awake. False moonlight filtered through a screen she could pretend was a terrace window, along with a soft breeze smelling of desert night that came from the air conditioning set above it, mimicking normal life. Mimicking. Pretending. Was she pretending normalcy as well? Were they?

She glanced over at the other side of the bed, where Zach was sound asleep on his back. For as long as she knew him, he’d always slept on his side, but maybe the bionics played a role in that change. Weight certainly was an issue, certified by the reinforced bedframe and the caution with which he had touched her. Or maybe that had been his wariness.

He hadn’t said anything, but she knew her reaction had hurt him, she had hurt him, and he clearly didn’t want to hurt her. He’d taken her as cautiously as if she were made of woven glass, slowly and tenderly, making her forget her own wariness. His artificial skin had felt warm and natural, but then she’d held on just a little firmer and there’d been no bones underneath but a smooth metal structure, reminding her that there beside her was enough power to bring down a combat spacecraft.

She suppressed a shiver, recalling piloting one he’d shot down. No, that had to have been the slaverlord she’d powered. She recalled being collected off the battlefield later without so much as a scratch – and that ship had been blown apart around her. Still—

Her hand ghosted towards his chest, feeling for his warmth, tracing the inked Romulan warbird. She’d been surprised that they’d bothered to restore the elaborate ink, when removing it would have sufficed, as they’d done with his beard. Zach always had had a hard time staying clean shaven over the course of a shift. Not anymore.

Maybe that was why he had kept the tattoo, symbol of the one thing that had turned his life around. She was loath calling it a mistake. Without it, he wouldn’t have been at the academy when she enrolled, and they’d never have met again under different circumstances. Her parents had had a hard time accepting him even when the uniform covered the ink—

She was glad that they had, not that their disapproval would have changed her choice. Closing her eyes, Eliza felt for his heartbeat against her fingertips and made a silent vow that fifty-five per cent would be enough.

 

 

2088-10-10

 

 

BETA Space Station
Space Navy

 

The main docking bay had been cordoned off and decorated with flags, a raised dais, and rows of white-laid tables. Navy personnel, decked out in dress blues, formed an honor guard behind and to the left and right of the area holding the tables. A broad swath along the opposite wall had been handed over to the press. Tri-D drones whirred overhead, kept at bay by the safety netting still stretched overhead across the dock despite neither this nor the two adjacent bays being in use.

Safety in more than one aspect, Gooseman thought when more than a dozen of the drones tried to zoom in on their table – and him specifically – despite the net. At least, the fucking buzzers won’t splash into the coffee. This felt less like a military ceremony and more like Mrs. Hays’ madhouse[10]. He suppressed a shudder, feeling as if a dozen target designators had a fix on him.

Relax, this isn’t a battle field, Niko soft voice said in his head.

No, this is worse, he replied in his thoughts without looking at her. There I can shoot back.

They are just taking pictures, Shane, she reminded him.

Yeah, because the media lacks footage of BETA’s pet monster.

Maybe they just want footage of a very handsome ranger for once out in dress uniform, Niko suggested, daintily adding sugar to her cup.

And maybe you’re biased.

Laughter trickled back over the link, along with unexpected warmth. Not ‘maybe’.

They were five at the table. Mrs. Fox, in civilian attire, had accompanied the captain. She was sitting very straight, very composed between Zach and Doc. The tracking bracelet on her left wrist was dainty enough to look like steel jewelry – there were limits as to what the commander accepted regarding risks to his base. Though BETA space station technically wasn’t his base, and Mrs. Fox smelled of Zach now, so maybe it was something else and—

Gooseman firmly turned his attention to the coffee in front of him, trying to discern the brand of the beans instead. Acidic. Volcanic soil. Nothing of the leafy green and loam notes typical for South America. He sniffed consciously. African blend, he decided, not even laced. Somebody had paid for the good stuff. He glanced at the officers’ table where Antonova, Blake, Subadar and Walsh seemed to discuss something, and wondered who’d done it as he took the first sip. Nope, this was nothing like the dishwater Supplies handed out. It almost made this thing bearable—

 

The ceremony went on for hours. Awarded medals and recommendations were announced in increasing importance not only for the Psychocrypt Campaign but also for what had been labeled the Defense of Earth before that. Post-mortem awards to be handed to the next of kin in a private ceremony afterwards were announced and laid out on a long table covered in black cloth. It was a solemn display, reminder of the staggering losses suffered especially in the DoE.

Zach knew he was supposed to give a good example, but even his attention was waning by now. Doc had received a badge for taking control of the Psychocrypt’s computer system ahead of schedule, deactivating the automated laser batteries pinning the Comanche, and Niko had been recommended for her translation work and leading the only combat team without casualties. Zach sighed inwardly. His recommendation of Gooseman had been rejected – as usual – and he himself hadn’t distinguished himself in battle, so as far as the ceremony was concerned, his unit was off the hook. He could allow his thoughts to drift now…

Eliza seemed relaxed, even happy here among his team. He noticed that she hadn’t even tried to hide the tracking bracelet. No, she’d polished it to gleam and added a matching steel buckle to her belt, turning it into a fashion statement. It had been a week since her change of mind, and he still found himself reeling occasionally, not quite sure if he believed in it and—

“…the Nova Star in Gold…” the master of ceremony’s voice cut into his thoughts. Tension raced through the assembled personnel, followed by hushed whispers. “…proposed by Fleet-Admiral Frederic Subadar…” The whispers swelled to a deafening rumble, forcing the speaker to wait for silence. Subadar was notoriously stringent when it came to decorations, and the Nova Star… the last time Earth Force awarded its highest medal had been in the Colonial Wars almost thirty years ago. Who had—

“…and granted by the Board of World Leaders with only one No for…”

Now say it, dammit! Zach felt Eliza resting her hand on his suddenly clenched fist, calming him.

“…Galaxy Ranger Lieutenant Shane Gooseman.”

Goose froze in mid motion. Niko’s elbow hit his side, strong enough to almost slosh the coffee out of the cup. “Go,” she hissed frantically. “Get it. A war hero’s harder to freeze than a supertrooper!

 

The hangar was dead silent, the only sound coming from the buzzing camera drones overhead, when the ST shoved his chair back, squared his shoulders and headed for the dais to come to attention in front of the master of ceremony.

“Because of the admiral’s strict wish, we skip the reading of the dedication.” The speaker handed Gooseman the opened box with the gleaming gold medal on dark-blue velvet and saluted respectfully. “It is an honor to serve with you, lieutenant.”

The ST returned the salute, turned sharply on his heel to return to their table, his steps echoing in the silence.

A single pair of hands began to clap. Niko had stood up, looked with flashing eyes at them.

Zach jumped to his feet after Eliza kicked his shin under the table. She and Doc both stood by now. More and more hands fell in. Zach recognized the first people as those who’d been trapped with the ST in the Psychocrypt. By the time Goose reached his place, the applause was a deafening noise. Zach only wished the ST wouldn’t look so haunted when he placed the now closed box next to his abandoned cup, after they all took a seat again. Niko reached over, ran her fingertips over his sleeve.

“Don’t,” Goose hissed with a tense look towards the brass.

“What does the justification say?” Doc asked, breaking the awkwardness.

“No idea.”

“Then have a look at it,” Zach suggested. “It’s not as if they can classify that.”

“You’d be surprised what can be classified if they want it,” the ST returned dryly, but he opened the box and reached for the small parchment in the lid, traditionally holding the handwritten justification, when a small camera drone the size of a five credits coin flitted across the table at him, rapidly turning to circle them again - apparently trying to get good facials and a scan of the card before its foray into forbidden space ended. Goose snapped the medal case shut reflexively, but stopped himself from reaching for his blaster. Niko beside him scowled openly at the invasion.

Annoyed, Zach took the white cozy prominently sporting the Space Navy’s emblem off the coffee pot and plopped the cover unerringly over the offending drone. "Do you take cream?" he asked his wife, drowning out the angry buzz beneath the thick padding, while meticulously refilling first her than his own cup.

Eliza hid a smile behind her hand, her eyes sparkling with laughter as she shook her head.

Doc had his CDU out, bluish sparks reflected on his face. A moment later, he smirked. "Captain, would you please pass me the coffee cozy?"

The tiny drone buzzed away and bee-lined to the line of honor guards, precisely hovering a hands-length below belt-line behind the first of them. Zach blinked.

"I corrected the face recognition," Doc dead-panned.

Eliza arched a brow at that. “You didn’t make butt-cognition infectious to media drones, did you?” she asked.

“No,” Doc looked curious, glancing at his CDU. “Should I?”

“It would probably improve Tri-D news these days.”

Zach groaned. “Eli, please don’t give him ideas.”

Meanwhile, Goose had opened the justification, read it, and laughed. At the incredulous stares of the others, he turned the card over, showing it to them. “Not even Wheiner’s sharks could twist this into a breach of secrecy.”

The gold-framed, crème-colored sheet carried a single word above Subadar’s signature:

Deserved.

            

 

Six hours later

 

The bar with the viewport overlooking the docks was nearly empty. The Navy personnel usually frequenting it were still at the festivities following the ceremony. Frederic Subadar sighed. He looked out at the wide dark-gray hulls of the two carriers currently in dock. Black scorch marks still marred both ships, and countless workers and repair droids swarmed over them like ants. It wasn’t likely for him to see them restored to their shining glory, at least not outside a Tri-D news flash. He emptied his glass, and signaled the bartender for a refill.

“Thought to find you here.” Joe’s gruff voice interrupted his misery. Unasked, he pulled out the stool beside him and sat.

Subadar snorted. “What brings you here?”

“You have to ask that?” Walsh returned. “You made a lot of powerful enemies today, Freddy.”

“I know.” Subadar turned the new glass with the golden liquid between his hands. “Might well have cost me my ship.” At Walsh’s surprised look, he added, “They were still debating it when I left for the ceremony.”

For a moment, Walsh studied the knob on his walking stick. “Then why risk it?”

Subadar sighed, gulped down his whiskey. He was done wallowing in misery. “Because that’s what you do with special snowflakes.” He stood. “You don’t treat them special, but you make sure they’re treated right.” He stood. “I assume you have a glider nearby. Care to give me a planetfall?”

 

“Your chances of staying grounded might be slimmer than you assume,” Joseph told him once the cockpit had sealed and they’d cleared the station vicinity. “The Queen’s still at large.”

“She lost the Psychocrypt,” Subadar shrugged. “That’s a major blow to her operations.”

“A severe one,” Walsh agreed, “but would you have such a crucial piece of infrastructure without at least one full backup plan?”

“One?” Subadar laughed mirthlessly. “A dozen, if I had the resources.”

“She’s got an empire.” Walsh didn’t laugh. “And doesn’t give a damn about her subjects.”

 

 

BetaMountain

MPQ 206

 

“What did you tell Gooseman about our Academy times?” Zach asked once the lift had closed and was on its way towards their quarters.

“Nothing.” Eliza pointedly didn’t look in his direction. “Why? Are you worried I’d undermine your authority?”

“Concerned,” Zach corrected. “He’s a complicated case. The gov’t really pulls a number on him. Compared to his, my academy restrictions were a summer camp in Hawaii.”

Eliza laughed faintly. “That boy was scared shitless when he found me in the network station.”

Zach threw her a sideways glance. “He should be. You’re downright scary.”

“And yet you trust him well enough to have him sent after me,” she concluded, preceding him out of the cabin.

“It wasn’t as if I had a choice,” Zach answered grimly, following her. “If it had gone on file, the gov’t would have been after you.” He closed his eyes briefly. “Do you believe in us now?” he asked just as they were approaching their place.

 “Enough to give you the benefit of the doubt,” she answered just as GV opened the door and she pushed inside. It was an honest answer. Not the one he had hoped for, but one they could work with.

 

 

Epilogue

 

The parcel lay in front of his door, covered in the typical ugly brown wrapping used for interstellar mail. It was covered with the rainbow-colored tape that designated it had been mailed with IPS on one of the border planets, near the Empty Zone.

             Gooseman sighed and picked it up before opening his door. The IPS people already knew that—aside from Niko—none of his neighbors would accept a parcel for him. At least, being an ST also made sure that parcel was still there and left untouched whenever he came back to it.

             Poss rubbed up against his legs, almost tripping him. He laughed, and brushed the cat in a quick movement across the back, while pushing the door shut behind him with his foot. “At least you’re happy that I come home.”

             He put the parcel onto the table. The cat immediately jumped up and sniffed at it, then touched it with one daring paw. “I’ll look at it later, pal,” he assured. Poss slashed his claws across the paper, tearing it and meowing. “Hey!” Goose grabbed his cat. “That’s my mail and I’ll open it when I want. Let’s get you your food, first.” Poss head-bumped against his chin.

 

He turned the parcel in his hands. It was small and very light. The high postage the tape indicated had been due to the long distance. No sender. He shrugged and tore off the ruptured wrapping. The content almost made him laugh. A data crystal. Again.

 

The image went white when the tiny forcefield generator couldn’t maintain a field strong enough to withstand the annihilation energy of the recombining matter-antimatter-explosion. The images Goose had just seen repeated before his inner eye. He still stared at the screen when the white was replaced by a screenshot of the recording he’d just seen: Ryker Killbane in midst of his disintegration arching in the sudden agony of annihilation. A line of text appeared below it: “Thanks. I owe you.”

             The line was still on the screen when he took out the data crystal. “You owe me nothing, Daisy.” Goose clenched his fist around the crystal. “Nothing at all.”

 

 

~*~*~*~

 

Elsewhere…

 

The suns burned hot from a sky tinted red by the dust kicked up by a storm this morning, coloring it almost the same as the burned earth and the low adobe dwellings made of it. Doon was at the edge of what the Queen controlled, far enough from Tortuna that occasionally some strands of the empire’s fabric escaped even her iron fist. At least, that was what Marna had told herself when she ran after a brilliant white explosion had consumed the streets of the neighborhood she’d worked. Finding a stowaway’s place on an old freighter touring the edge had had the usual price, despite two-year-old Silarya sleeping in her arms. Not that it mattered…

 

Outside, Silarya’s grey eyes narrowed, predatory intend transformed her sharp-edged, angular face. Marna followed her gaze and spotted a lizard scorpion clinging to one of the succulents framing the yard. A large lizard scorpion, the venom bags along its curled tail filled bright red. Frolly at Silarya’s side yipped excitedly, darting towards it, but her daughter beat the donkey rat effortlessly to her prey, snatching the lizard scorpion away before Frolly’s long whiskered snout could come close to it. The lizard scorpion twitched, trying to apply the venom bloating its tail. With a sharp crack, Silarya broke its spine. “You won’t eat Frolly,” she declared. “Or me.”

 

Marna watched her scruffy, dark-haired daughter bury her venomous prey in the hard-baked earth and holding a stern lecture to their pet rat not to go after something that dangerous. She sighed. No, her daughter would never be a dainty beauty like the customers preferred. Silarya was strong, not pretty. And like the feared, one-eyed customer Marna believed to be her father, she was a predator…

 

[1] See “Weaknesses Are to Be Erased” (fan fiction by A. Kniggendorf)

[2] See “Weaknesses Are to Be Erased” (fan fiction by A. Kniggendorf)

[3] See “Initiation” (fan fiction by A. Kniggendorf)

[4] See “Lost” and “Hot Summer Night” (fan fictions by A. Kniggendorf)

[5] See “Shattered Souls: For an Eye” (fan fiction by A. Kniggendorf)

[6] see “Silence” (fan fiction by A. Kniggendorf)

[7] An earlier version was marketed as “Febreze”.

[8] Joaquin Sacramento Inland Sea Observatory, established in 2078, ten years after rising sea levels had finally flooded the Sacramento and Joaquin Valley.

[9] A “maiming placement” refers to a tracking chip implanted so that removing it outside a qualified surgical setting results in incapacitating damage; usually by inserting it into a vital organ – such as the heart wall or the liver – or coupling it with a small detonation device and placing it near the spinal column. The Treaty of Gweta, Botswana, ratified in 2061, defined tracking devices placed to maim as a 2nd degree war crime.

[10] see “Beyond the Frontier” (fan fiction by A. Kniggendorf)