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A Quiet Little War Part II: A Quiet Little War

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BETA Mountain

 

 

An early-morning quiet lay over the private call center. The caller entered the last booth on the left, closed the door, and engaged the sound buffers before sitting and dialing a number from memory. The call was answered promptly.

"Why, good morning. An unexpected and pleasant surprise to hear from you. I gather you have something for me?"

"...Yes, sir. You asked me to report on his movements and activities and so. We have plans to go into Alice Springs in ten days for a concert. He will be away from his workstation all afternoon and evening that day."

"Ah. I see. Thank you."

"Yes, sir. Will—" The caller fell silent.

"You needn't worry. Payment will be forwarded in the usual manner."

"Yes, thank you, but..."

"Ah, you're concerned about your relative? There's no need. He's recovering quite well from the surgery. Now I really must go. Unless you have something else?"

"I... no. Nothing."

"Well, then. I look forward to our next conversation."

The screen went dark. The caller sat, head bent, for a long time before rising to go.

Chapter Text

Series Five Rangers' office

3/30/2099, 1832

 

 

Niko initialed the last page of her report and leaned back. She sat in a pool of light from her desk lamp and monitor, though if she looked around she saw tiny amber eyes: standby lights on her teammates' terminals. She glanced at the corner of her screen and made a face at the time.

What was that you said to Doc just last month about staying late? But I'd rather keep busy right now. It's better than thinking about the Leonov case. Besides, there's something satisfying about catching up. It almost makes it worth falling behi—

Eyes. A watcher. In the room—

She was out of the chair almost before she realized it, whirling into defensive stance and bringing up her hands.

The office was empty.

Empty. There's no one else here, Niko. You're imagining things. She leaned against the desk, letting her heart rate slow. After a moment she reached back and shut down her workstation. 

"Keeping busy or not, you need to get some sleep," she muttered to herself, and she pushed off the desk and walked straight out the door.

But from the darkness of the room's far corners, she seemed still to feel the weight of unfriendly eyes.

 

 

 

Foxx family quarters

3/31, 0118

 

 

Zachary blinked in the darkness, suddenly aware that he was awake. Dimly he wondered why he wasn't asleep, and then drowsiness crept over him again and he was—

Awake, lying on his side with his left hand reaching across the bed toward Eliza's empty pillow. He settled onto his back and closed his eyes, sank into the warm comfort of the mattress, his body relaxing, and he was—

Awake and sitting bolt upright in bed, his heart pounding. What?

He had no recollection of what had woken him, just a vague sense of unease. A glimmer of light at the edge of the blinds hinted that dawn was coming. He sighed and lay back against the pillow. Gradually his pulse slowed to a resting state. The light had brightened perceptibly by the time he drifted back into sleep.

 

Secondary databank room, BETA Mountain

4/1, 0211

 

 

Doc grimaced, ran his hand through his hair, and sat back.

"Try it again, Pathfinder. There's got to be a bug in here somewhere for the database to be choking this way. And there shouldn't be. I just fixed all the databases last month, and when I fix something, it's supposed to stay fixed."

"Okay, Doc," the tweaker said. "Here I go!"

Doc sighed as the little program darted back into the databank from which it had just emerged. In the upper right corner of the display a clock ticked silently onward. Oh-two hundred, twelve minutes, eighteen frickin' seconds and counting, he groused to himself. How come I always get tapped for the really nasty hours? He leaned his chin on one gloved hand and fought back a yawn.

A status message flashed up onscreen. "No errors found, my Aunt Sadie's rock-hard buttermilk biscuits," he grumbled. "Then why have we been getting all these damn glitches for the past week and a—oh, great." He groaned aloud as the screen flickered and the message disappeared. "Now I'm even losing vid—" His voice died as the monitor lit again. He stared at the message on the screen, then hit a few keys without apparent effect.

Watch out, Hartford, or we'll hack you.

"What the—Pathfinder! This is not funny! Get your binary self out here on the double!"

The program's piping voice emerged from the databank's speakers. "Don't you want me to finish this check, boss? We're almost done!"

"Out here! Now!"

Pathfinder popped out of the screen mere inches from Doc's nose.

"What is that?" Doc demanded, pointing at the display. "Is that your idea of an April Fool's joke? You better not have put that up there, or—"

"Hey, Docko, it's not my fault there weren't any errors!"

"I'm not talking about the darn search result, you bucket of bytes! That! I'm talking about that!" Doc poked at the message on the screen.

"But Doc... all that's up there is the search result," Pathfinder squeaked. "You sure your operating system doesn't have bugs?" The little program sounded concerned.

Doc opened his mouth to retort—and then shut it with an audible snap. Pathfinder can't lie to me. So that means— He stared at the message floating on the monitor in front of him and cleared his throat.

Oh boy.

"Pathfinder, get back in there. I want to know the origin of every single bit of data that's come into this station in the past 24 hours. You're looking for a warning directed at me. Search terms are 'Hartford' and 'hack.' Go."

Pathfinder sighed and popped back into the screen. Doc heard a squeaky, mumbled "Humans!" as the tweaker went.

The screen flickered again. Doc winced—

and stared blankly.

No errors found.

A cursor blinked placidly on the line below, at the end of a short line of gibberish.

Exactly the same message. And that garbage... That's the keys I was hitting.

Doc rubbed a hand over his eyes. Onscreen, the clock counted inexorably onward.

 

 

"Hey, Doc! Wake up!"

Doc sat bolt upright from a vaguely unpleasant dream. Dang, I haven't fallen asleep at the computer since that three-day final project blitz in grad school. Gettin' old, Hartford. He blinked to clear his eyes. "Yeah, Pathfinder. What'd you find?"

"Nothing came into this station that fit the search parameters you gave me," Pathfinder piped. "I even searched back a whole month. Nada, zero, the big eternal Oh. I found the bad code that's making the glitches, though." A few lines of machine language popped up onscreen. Doc squinted at it and snorted.

"Yeah, that'd do it. No wonder queries were getting routed to the wrong stations. Did you fix it?"

"Did I fix it?" Pathfinder sounded insulted. "Did I fix it?"

Doc rolled his eyes and flapped a hand. "Never mind, sorry, of course you fixed it," he said soothingly. "But what do you mean, nothing came in? It was right up there on the display."

"I dunno, Doc. All I can tell ya is, it wasn't in the system, and I never detected it onscreen, either. Maybe you should go to bed now, boss. You're not making much sense."

Doc sighed. "Yeah. Bed. At least we found the problem we were supposed to find. I'll log the fix in the morning."

"Did that too, Docko, but you were snoring so loud that—"

"All right, Pathfinder, thank you." He held up his CDU. "Time for bed, tweaker."

"Nighty night, boss!" The program zipped into the I/O port, and Doc shook his head with a smile and shut down the unit. Standing, he clipped it to his belt.

"Hey, Alberta!" he called to the maintenance AI. "All yours!"

"Thank you, Dr. Hartford, for finding the problem," she answered in her pleasant alto. "I'm afraid I still need experience at troubleshooting my own systems."

"Don't worry about it. Every AI has to start somewhere. Grave-shift maintenance work on BETA's secondary databank is as good a place as any. By the way... you didn't see any traces in your systems of a message that shouldn't have been there, did you?"

"No, Dr. Hartford, I'm afraid not," she said regretfully. "I cannot account for any onscreen message."

Doc cocked his head. "There's something you're not saying, Alberta," he said gently. "What is it?"

She was silent a moment. "As an AI, I can see only data that actually exists," she said reluctantly. "I'm told that humans don't have that limitation."

"You mean I'm seeing things?" he said with a wry smile.

"Perhaps you dreamed it," she suggested. "Sensors indicated you were in REM sleep for a brief period."

Doc shook his head slowly. "No," he said. "I don't think so."

Alberta bobbed gently onscreen. "As you say, Dr. Hartford," she said. "Have a good night, and thank you again."

"My pleasure," he answered with a grin. "'Night!"

Doc turned away from the console and strolled down the aisle toward the main door. As he passed a display four stations down from the one where he'd been working, something flickered in his peripheral vision. He frowned and glanced over—and nearly tripped.

Watch out, Hartford, or we'll hack you.

"Holy bytes!" he swore. "Alberta, track data incoming to terminal 53661!"

The screen went dark.

"Sorry, Dr. Hartford. Both the system power readouts and my sensors indicate that terminal 53661 is on standby mode. Would you like me to call Security?"

Doc stood still for a moment, his pulse racing, shocked and half afraid. 

What the hell is going on here?

"Dr. Hartford?"

"No thanks, Alberta," he managed. "Good night."

He walked down the aisle—and one by one the screens came to life and then darkened as he passed.

Watch out, Hartford, or we'll hack you.

Watch out, Hartford, or we'll hack you.

Watch out, Hartford, or we'll hack you.

Watch out, Hartford, or we'll hack you.

Doc quickened his pace and stared at the floor as he hastened toward the exit. At his sides his hands closed slowly into fists.

Watch out, Hartford, or we'll hack you.

Someone, he vowed, is gonna get it for this.

 

 

 

Series Five Rangers' office

0949

 

 

Niko rose and stretched, rolling her head to relax neck muscles gone stiff after most of four hours in an office chair. Except for one brief break for a stretch and a coffee, she'd been working steadily since 0600 in hopes of completely clearing her backlog of reports in time for a long midmorning swim untroubled by reminders of waiting paperwork. The office was atypically quiet for this time on a Wednesday morning; Doc was sleeping in after a very late night, and Zach and Goose were offplanet on a case. This is definitely not my favorite part of this job, she mused. I know we have to document everything, but—

She froze, both hands on the small of her back, spine arched.

Someone was watching her.

Gracefully she spun, almost unconsciously falling into a fighting stance, and—

Nothing. The office was empty.

Haven't I done this already this week?

"Ma'am, your heart rate has risen," GV observed. "Is something the matter?"

Slowly Niko straightened. "No, GV," she said softly. "It's nothing."

But she knew she was lying.

Chapter Text

Series Five Rangers' office

4/3, 1108

 

 

Doc entered one last command and sat back from his terminal. "Zachary," he said, "I've got an update for you on the Earthmover file."

Zach looked up, his eyebrows raised.

"Belva's been keeping an eye on the folks on the list for me. She just sent me word she'd narrowed down the suspects to five."

"Who are they?" Zachary asked.

Doc made a face. "You're not gonna like this."

"There's nothing about the situation to like. We've known that since we realized there was a mole," Zach answered patiently.

"Okay." Doc heaved a sigh. "So there's one woman working in Maintenance, Cora Jenkins, who's been making a lot of private calls, and they roughly correspond to the times I blocked out for the mole's windows of opportunity. I've been trying to figure out if there's something else going on with her, but no luck so far. She's got high-level clearance because she does repair work in the databanks.

"Vincent Yue, Loy Garnett, and Juanita Baylor are all security, and they've all got high-level clearance as well. Also with the private calls part, naturally. Garnett was for-sure present near the secure guest quarters on Level 8 the day Gaea was taken, because Belva found a video image of him walking down the next corridor over. Sit down, my Goose man, before Zach has to sit on you."

Doc waited until the tall ST had settled, glaring, back into his chair before continuing. "This last one you're really not gonna like, my captain."

Zach, one hand over his eyes, said quietly, "I don't like any of it. Go ahead, Doc."

"Henryk Mariampolski, one of the guys from IA who searched my quarters."

"Well, shit," said Goose.

"Seriously. How's that not gonna look like payback? If it's Mariampolski, we are gonna have to have a vacuum-proof airtight case."

Zach rubbed his hand over his face. "All right, Doc. Good work. Thank Belva for me, and ask her to keep monitoring. When you narrow the possibilities to two, I want you to start assembling evidence on both suspects. We need to be able to move immediately once you've determined who the mole is, and no matter who it is, we're going to have to have all the evidence laid out if we don't want a whole pile of formal protests landing on my desk the hour after we make the arrest."

"Don't worry," Doc said, forcing a cheerful tone. "By the time I get through, we won't even have to draw anybody a picture."

Zach looked resigned. Goose just snorted.

 

Foxx family quarters, BETA Mountain

4/5, 0038 local time

 

 

Zach's eyes drifted open. Gradually the small noises of the quarters filtered into his awareness, until he found himself fully awake and alert. He sighed and rolled onto his side, where the clock on his bedside table glared at him in bright shiny blue, telling him in no uncertain terms that it was far too early still for him to get up.

After another hour of staring blindly into the darkness, he finally sat up in bed, turned on the light, and reached for a book.

 

 

 

0456

 

 

Zachary rolled over in bed, and his eyes opened. He sighed. 

I haven't had insomnia this bad in a long time. 

He rubbed his hands across his face, turned his head to glance at the clock, and grimaced. I might as well get up at this point. "GV, is Little Zach still asleep?" 

"Yes, sir. Another rough night, I see. Can I get you anything?" 

Zach sat up in bed and swung his feet to the floor. "No, thanks. I'll just grab a shower and head over to the office." 

GV bounced silently. 

 

 

 

0837

 

Zachary squeezed his eyes shut and opened them again. At the front of the room, Major Griffith continued outlining the latest intelligence briefing from the Empty Zone. Not for the first time, Zachary found himself wishing that the climate controls for the room had been set a bit cooler. Around 55 degrees Fahrenheit would be nice, he thought. He clenched his teeth to hold back a yawn. 

A light touch at his left elbow made him start. He turned his head to find Niko watching him with concern in her eyes. 

Okay? she mouthed. 

Zach nodded very slightly. He could see that his teammate wasn't entirely convinced, but she turned her attention back to the briefing. 

Maybe I should record Major Griffith and play him back when I'm having insomnia, Zach thought. He sure seems to be working as a sleep aid at the moment!

 

 

 

P-38, enroute to Earth

4/7, 1821

 

 

"Systems check," Goose said. "We go to warp in one minute and coun—"

A pinging alarm cut him off. Doc exclaimed briefly and began hitting keys.

Elma popped up in the upper left-hand corner of the primary screen. "There is a damaged thermocoupler in the primary drive array, Goose," she announced.

"Secondaries?" he asked tersely.

"They look okay, Goose," Doc cut in, tapping a few more keys and studying his screen. "Elma, do you see any problems?"

"Negative, Doc," the AI said softly. "The secondary drive array is in proper working order. Do you want me to run a diagnostic, Goose?"

"Not right now. Concentrate on getting us home in one piece," he answered. "I've had more than my share of warp accidents already."

"Amen to that," Doc agreed fervently. "Systems check out fine, and Elma's fed in the coordinates. Ready to go to warp?"

Goose gave a thumbs up. "Let's go. I've got work to do once we get back—gonna swap out the busted 'coupler for a new one before I call it a night."

"Hey, my Goose man, we do have these things called technicians, you know."

"Have you ever known me to turn down a chance to tinker?" Goose retorted, grinning. "Besides, all it takes is switching out the thermocoupler. It's an easy job. Elma can run a comprehensive systems check overnight. I won't even miss any sleep."

Doc snorted, but his brown eyes danced with amusement. "You won't catch me staying up 'til the wee hours fixing thermocouplers."

"No, you just stay up 'til the wee hours fixing computers. Totally different."

"The Goose man makes a funny! Somebody alert the media. Not to mention, I have hot tickets to a show in town tomorrow night, and I need my beauty sleep."

"Hate to tell you, Doc, but no amount of sleep is gonna—"

"You wound me. Going to warp in three—two—one—"

Doc pressed the switch, and the ship leapt for home.

 

 

 

Secondary repair bay, BETA Mountain

4/8, 0147

 

 

Goose set down the diagnostic tool.

Just like Elma said. Bad thermocoupler.

As he so often did, Goose found himself drawing a sort of quiet satisfaction from the monotonous work of clipping the old part and preparing to install a new one. Though he felt no desire to trade it for someone else's, much of his life frustrated him: the strangling restrictions placed on him, the only Supertrooper in Earth's service; at times, the rules under which he performed his job; even the endless paperwork. In working with his hands, Goose could set those frustrations aside, set his eyes on a goal, and watch himself achieve that goal with a skill that was his alone, a skill in which he took both pleasure and pride. And in the quiet of the hangar at the middle of the graveyard shift, he found few distractions and fewer reminders that he could never truly be part of the human society he lived in.

He lifted out the damaged thermocoupler and noted the darkened contact points. Overheated, looks like. Elma can look for the cause while she runs that systems check.

He set down his wire stripper and reached for a new thermocoupler.

"Freak."

The whisper was clear, suffused with intensity and venom. The voice was unmistakably female—and young. He froze, lips peeling back from his teeth in an unconscious snarl. Slowly he uncurled himself from under the instrument board and glanced around the P-38's cockpit.

There was no one there.

He stood to survey the darkened hangar. Ships awaiting repair crouched empty in puddles of illumination, the light waking cold gleams from their metal skins. Nothing stirred. His ears cocked for the slightest murmur of sound, he waited.

Silence. Stillness.

Goose frowned and shook his head. He squatted to pick up the thermocoupler and lifted it in his hand, ready to snap it into place.

"You should have been flushed instead of decanted."

His head whipped around.

No one. All he heard was the barely perceptible creak of leather from his boots, his own breathing, the sudden pounding of his heart.

He forced his fingers to relax before he crushed the thermocoupler.

The radio? No, it's off. Elma? No, that's idiotic. It's not her voice—and she'd never say that to me.

Elma's eye opened. "Goose, your heart rate has accelerated," she murmured. "Are you all right?"

"Elma, did your sensors pick up anything just now? I thought I heard someone talking."

Malicious laughter tinkled in his ears. "Loser. Abortion. Freak!"

"Negative, Goose," Elma answered, blinking. "There's no one else in the hangar bay."

He stood quite still for a moment.

"Thanks," he said. "Go back to sleep mode. I'm almost done here."

His face bleak, Goose settled back into the footwell and returned to work.

Chapter Text

4/9/2099, 2014

Series Five Rangers' office

 

 

Zachary set down his coffee mug, never taking his eyes off the reports he was scanning. 

The comm buzzed. Zach said, "Accept call. —Zachary Foxx here."

A young woman's face blinked onto the screen. Zach stared, shocked: her face was blotchy with crying, and she had a nasty-looking scrape along one cheek. After a moment, he recognized one of Seth Devalier's colleagues from the forensics lab. "Dr. Schmidt," he said. "What's happened? Are you hurt?"

"Captain Foxx," she half-sobbed. "Seth, Seth's been shot!"

 

 

 

BETA Mountain airspace

2037

 

 

"No way, Commander," Zachary said stiffly. "There's no way this is coincidence. Seth helped us, and the very next time he left BETA Mountain, someone tried to kill him. And if he doesn't—die—you know they may try again."

Walsh sighed heavily. The small icon indicating a scrambled connection pulsed silently in the lower right-hand corner of the Interceptor's comm screen.

"I'm afraid I have to agree, Zachary," said Walsh. "Please talk to the doctor in charge and find out when Devalier can safely be moved. And find out what you can from Dr. Schmidt. In the meantime, I want Gooseman in plain clothes keeping guard in his room. I'll issue the order at once. And I'll put Doc on figuring out who could have informed OPS of Dr. Devalier's movements."

"Agreed. Zachary Foxx out."

 

 

 

Alice Springs General Hospital Intensive Care Unit

2118

 

 

Greta Schmidt lay in a hospital bed, staring into space. As Zachary stepped through the door, she turned her head. Her brown eyes had the glassy look that comes from pain meds. The scrape on her right cheek had been neatly bandaged, and under the neck of her hospital gown, he saw more bandages on her right shoulder. Her light brown hair had been combed.

"Captain Foxx," she said huskily. "You are—kind to come."

Zach stopped at the bedside. "You're not in too much pain?"

"Nein—no." One hand, her left, flapped as if to brush away the question. "It was a glancing shot only, to the shoulder. I fell, I pretended he had killed me. He took our wallets and ran. I am very lucky. But Seth—" Tears welled up in her eyes and overflowed, soaking the hair at her temples.

Zach glanced away, remembering the sight, through a window, of Seth Devalier in an intensive care bed. He had lain utterly still, pale as ice, a breathing tube in his mouth, more tubes trailing away from his arms and chest. They had refused even to let Zach into the room.

"Captain Foxx? Are you Zachary Foxx?"

Zach and Greta both glanced over at the doctor in blue scrubs who stood in the doorway. The man wore a faintly harassed look.

"Yes, I am. Doctor...?"

"Saul Rosenberg." He stepped into the room. "How are you feeling, Dr. Schmidt?"

"Not too bad." She shrugged her uninjured shoulder very slightly. "I am more worried about Seth than about myself."

"We've done what we can."

"Doctor," Zach put in, "could I talk to you outside?"

Rosenberg raised his brows. "I'll be by again later, Dr. Schmidt." He gestured that Zach should precede him into the hallway.

As soon they were out of earshot of the room, Zach said, "My commanding officer, Commander Walsh, wanted to know when it would be safe to move Seth to the Med Center at BETA Mountain."

"Move him?"

Lowering his voice, Zachary said, "What I'm about to tell you goes no further, Doctor. I consider it covered by your oath of confidentiality. Divulging it could be dangerous to Seth."

Rosenberg stared at him.

"We don't believe this was a random shooting. We will be posting a Galaxy Ranger in plain clothes in Seth Devalier's room—"

Rosenberg began waving his hands. "Wait a minute, wait a minute... You can't just barge into my hospital and start—"

"Do you want someone getting in here and finishing what that Dust addict started?"

"You—" Rosenberg's mouth hung open. "You're really serious," he said slowly.

"Yes, I'm really serious," Zach answered flatly. "We want to post a guard. He's one of the best people we have, Doctor. And I need to know when Seth can be moved without endangering him."

Rosenberg ran one hand through his sandy hair. "All right," he said slowly. "Keep your guard out of my staff's way. For the moment, he'll have to stay in the hall. And as for moving Seth—at least a couple of days, maybe as long as a week."

"That long?"

"For God's sake, Captain! That boy took three separate blaster hits to the chest and ribcage. He's lost a piece of his right lung, a chunk of chest muscle, and half his diaphragm muscles. He's breathing only because he's on a respirator, and we're oxygenating his blood on top of it. He's not stabilized yet. When he's stable, we can talk about transferring him."

Zach raised his hands. "I understand, Doctor. You're the boss. As long as you're all right with the guard, we don't have a problem."

Near the end of the hall, an elevator door opened with a chime. A tall figure in black emerged. Booted heels raised echoes from the blank walls. The doctor turned his head, and his eyes went wide.

"There he is now," Zach said dryly.

Rosenberg huffed softly in apparent amusement. "So I see." His eyes tracked Goose as the blond man walked down the corridor to meet them.

"Hi, Zach," Goose greeted Zach. "How's your friend doing?"

"Not so good. Dr. Rosenberg, this is Galaxy Ranger Shane Gooseman. Goose, this is Dr. Rosenberg, who's in charge of Seth's case."

Goose extended a hand. "Thanks for taking care of him, Doctor. So where am I supposed to stand?"

Rosenberg shook Goose's hand. "Just doing my job, Ranger Gooseman. Let me introduce you to the senior ICU nurse, Ilona Kestrel. In my absence, you'll be dealing with her."

The three men were just turning toward the station when a loudspeaker on the wall crackled to life. "Will the pilot who parked a Galaxy Ranger Interceptor on the lawn please contact hospital security. Will the pilot—"

"Gooseman," Zach choked. "The lawn?"

Goose shrugged. "The commander said it was urgent."

 

 

 

2152

 

 

Goose stood outside the door to Seth's hospital room, thinking.

Too many ways to kill someone in here. Drugs, needles, life-support equipment... He scowled.

First rule of combat: Knowledge is a weapon.

Quietly he slipped inside. Seth Devalier lay perfectly still in the bed. A heart monitor produced a steady, slow beeping. The ventilator hissed, pushing air into the lab tech's lungs.

A small datapad was clipped to the foot of the bed. Goose lifted it and thumbed it on. History, diagnosis—here we go, meds. He scowled again. Damn. Dosage amount is pretty plain—it's in cc's. But the rest of this I don't get.

"This patient is in critical condition. Only immediate family members are permitted during visiting hours. Please identify yourself."

His eyes darted to the monitor unit. An AI bobbed gently on the small screen there.

"Galaxy Ranger Shane Gooseman," he said, unbuttoning the front panel of his shirt to show the badge clipped there. "I'm guarding this patient. I came into the room to read his chart."

"I am Belinus," the AI said. "Your badge is genuine, but you are not supposed to enter the room. Why did you feel the need to read Mr. Devalier's chart?"

"He's here because someone tried to kill him," Goose said roughly. "I don't want anyone sneaking in here to finish the job."

"Only Alice Springs General Hospital staff members are allowed into this room. I have personnel data on all staff members. I would recognize a stranger. I do not understand your answer."

Goose paused to gather his patience. "In a hospital, there are plenty of ways to kill someone. Drugs, for starters. I can't guard him if I don't know what he's supposed to be getting, because if I don't know what he's supposed to be getting, I won't know if someone starts to give him something different. And I don't wanna insult your coworkers, but anybody can be bribed or threatened, I don't care who he is. Or she."

Belinus was silent, considering his answer. "I am programmed to alert the nurses at the station if I detect any danger to the patient."

"Well, if you'll explain this gobbledygook to me, I can help you with that. And tell me something about the readouts here, what they're supposed to look like, that kind of thing."

The AI blinked. "Your answer is logical. I believe your motives are correct." A pause. "Seth Devalier is to receive the following medications..."

 

 

 

Niko's quarters

4/10, 0412

 

 

Niko came suddenly to wakefulness, lying tense on her bed with her eyes still closed.

Someone's watching me again.

Unseen eyes seemed to press down on her. Cautiously Niko extended her senses, seeking, searching, and found... nothing.

She opened her eyes. "Lights," she ordered softly, and squinted against the glare.

There was no one else in the apartment. No one at all.

 

 

 

Alice Springs General Hospital Intensive Care Unit

0527

 

 

Goose stifled a yawn. Except for nurses and technicians coming through to administer meds or check Seth's vital signs, the ICU had been amazingly quiet. An few hours into his guard shift, a patient at the other end of the hall had apparently had some kind of crisis, but Seth had remained unconscious and unmoving in the narrow bed.

The elevator chimed. Goose turned his head. The doors opened, but no one emerged. He frowned. Weird. He watched as the doors closed again, and suddenly the hairs on the back of his neck stood up as he sensed a presence nearby.

A soft giggle came from behind him. He whirled.

The hallway was empty. A nurse at the station down the hall, catching Goose's motion from the corner of his eye, looked up inquiringly. Slowly Goose turned back toward Seth's room. There was no one there.

Another giggle—inside the room.

Goose stepped into the doorway. Belinus jittered on the monitor screen.

"Do you require assistance, Ranger Gooseman?" Belinus inquired.

Goose scanned the room. There was no sign that anyone had been there. On the monitor, the jagged lines that represented Seth's vital signs continued in their slow, regular pattern. Goose sniffed the air and caught only disinfectant and a faint trace of the human scent he already knew as Seth's.

"Sir?"

He shook his head. "No. No—thanks."

Feeling a chill that had nothing to do with the climate controls, Goose once again took up his position at the door.

 

 

 

0912

 

 

Goose stretched. The morning shift had arrived a few hours ago, and one of the nurses had been kind enough to bring him a coffee. He had declined her offer of a pastry. Not long after, Zachary had rung through on the wrist comm to inform Goose that someone would come to relieve him at 0930. 

Well, that was a whole lot of nothing. Still, better a boring night of guard duty than a dead BETA geek.

His comm pinged. 

"Gooseman here." 

Zachary's face, framed by his flight helmet, took shape in the miniscreen. "Hit your scrambler, Gooseman," he said with no preamble. 

Goose touched the appropriate button and stepped inside Seth's room. On the monitor, Belinus blinked once but kept silent. "What's the story, Zach?" 

"I'm inbound to the hospital, running a bit late. I just got a message from the Alice Springs police. They raided the quarters of the addict who mugged Seth. They found Seth and Dr. Schmidt's wallets in the garbage bin outside, all right, but the addict himself is dead. They say it looks like an overdose." 

Goose snorted. "Yeah, and Brappo's opening a school for orphans." 

"I know it's highly suspicious, to say the least, but that's all we've got." Zach hesitated. "I think we should keep an eye on Seth until he regains consciousness. I want to be sure we haven't overlooked anything."

"Sure, Captain. ETA?"

"I'm on approach now; shouldn't be more than twenty minutes. I brought you some breakfast. And Gooseman—thanks." 

Goose tossed off a salute. "No problem, Zach. See you soon."

Zach nodded. "Zachary Foxx out." 

 

 

 

Series Five Rangers' office

4/11, 0900

 

 

"Who?"

Doc leaned back in his seat, his brown eyes lacking their customary sparkle. "I told you you weren't gonna like it, Captain."

Frowning, Niko turned from her desk to look from Zach's face to Doc's. "But Greta Schmidt is a friend of Seth's, isn't she?"

"Yes," said Zach. "Doc, what have you found that supports your suspicions?"

"A deposit was made to her account on the first of this month. It's supposedly from a relative of hers, an aunt—but I don't find a corresponding withdrawal from the aunt's bank account."

"The aunt could have another source of funds," Zach pointed out.

"I knew you were gonna say that. But wait, there's more." Doc cracked his knuckles. Zach twitched. "This aunt of hers has a son who was badly hurt in an accident years ago; the nerves in one leg were so messed up that he couldn't use it any more. Corrective surgery could have fixed the problem, but the family couldn't afford it. Come to find out that the cousin had the surgery near the end of last month. I tried to find out who paid for it and all I got was 'private benefactor.' But a little more poking around got me the account of origin. It's one I've been keeping an eye on because I'm pretty sure OPS draws from it."

Zach frowned. "Is that it, Doc? Seems kind of thin. And—wait a minute. She's not one of the people in your Earthmover file."

"Is that it? My captain, you wound me. You've got no idea how much work that took. No, it's not it. Seth and Greta Schmidt had tickets to a concert in Alice Springs the evening Seth got shot. He bought the tickets on the 28th, so the mole couldn't have told OPS about his plans until at least then. I did a trace on calls out of the mountain in the days between the ticket purchase and the attack. There were a few where I couldn't get ID's for the recipient. Got those call times running against my shortlist of people who could have known about Gaea's being here, but that's another story. One of them was made in the morning on the 31st, right around 7 am. It went out from the private call center here—you know, the one that's supposed to be used for financial transactions and such, but everybody knows guys use it to call their mistresses."

"They do?" said Goose.

"...Yeah. Whatever. The call went through at 0712 and lasted about a minute. Greta Schmidt entered the call center at 0710 and left at 0720, so she was sitting there for a while after she hung up. Maybe she had a guilty conscience. It's a fifteen-minute walk from the call center to the evidence labs. With stops at the cafeteria and the ladies' room factored in, there was just enough time for her to get from the call center to work and sign in at 0800. Which she did."

There was a moment of quiet.

"It looks pretty damning, Zach," Goose said quietly.

"It doesn't look good, no... but I can't just start accusing BETA employees of betraying their friends without hard evidence. I'm not sure we have enough to go on here."

"I can take care of that," said Niko. Zach caught a violet glint in the depths of her blue-green eyes.

Reluctantly Zach agreed, "All right. But let's wait until she's back here to do this. I don't want her exposed to more danger than we can help."

"All right, Zachary. Doc, can you set a program to—"

"Way ahead of you, Ms. Niko. I'll know the minute she enters BETA Mountain. I'll let you know when she's home. And then you can pay her a visit."

Niko's eyes narrowed minutely, and for a moment Zach was reminded of nothing so much as a big cat stalking its prey.

"I'm looking forward to it," she said, and smiled.

"The shortlist," Zach insisted, and Doc grew sober in an instant.

"Yeah," he said. "I don't like to even suggest this, Captain, but—" He broke off and looked around the office. The others were silent, watching him. A heaviness settled in Zach's belly.

Don't say it, he wished unhappily, but although Niko darted a look of concern at him from the corner of her eye, Doc spoke again.

"It's—really looking like OPS has more than one mole at BETA."

Chapter Text

Foxx family quarters

4/12, 0216

 

 

Zachary sat at his desk at home, staring blearily at the screen, and yawned for the second time in a minute.

GV sounded worried. "Sir, are you sure you don't want me to schedule an appointment at the medical office?"

"No, GV," Zach answered. "I mean, yes, I'm sure. I don't want an appointment. I'm just having some insomnia. Nothing to bother the doctors over."

He leaned back in his chair and yawned again, then stood. "Maybe I'll be able to sleep now," he mumbled, and shuffled out of the office.

GV, alone on his screen, jittered in worry and left the office terminal with a bloop.

 

 

 

Shane Gooseman's quarters

0254

 

 

Goose jolted awake and rolled over. Damn door chime. "Panel on," he mumbled, "audio only. Who's there?"

Elma's eye opened on the screen by his bed. "What is it, Goose?" she queried softly.

He frowned and sat up. "Door chime. Didn't you hear it?"

 "I didn't detect anything, and there is no one outside your quarters. You must have been dreaming." The AI blinked placidly.

"Weird." Goose lay back down. "Thanks."

"You're welcome, Goose. Good night."

He lay still, staring up at the ceiling. Weird...

With a mental shrug, he settled toward sleep.

 

 

 Foxx family quarters

0516

 

 I guess I might as well get up. Again. Maybe I should have gotten up an hour ago.

Zach swung his legs out of bed with a noise that was half sigh, half groan.

"GV, start the coffee," he requested, and winced at the sound of his own voice. Do I really sound that gravelly?

"Yes, sir!" GV answered, bouncing in place.

Zach gritted his teeth. Does he have to sound so damn cheerful?

 

 

 

Series Five Rangers' office

4/13, 1439

 

Searchlight flashed in the corner of Doc's screen, and he glanced down and then grinned in satisfaction. "Hey, Niko."

Niko glanced over.

"Greta Schmidt just got home from the hospital."

Niko smiled. Whoa, thought Doc. That looked positively evil.

"Uh—don't eat her, okay? Just arrest her?"

She rolled her eyes.

"Uh—never mind. You gonna want backup?"

"No, thanks," she said cheerfully. "I'll go see her tomorrow, right after lunch."

"I'll sell tickets."

Niko only laughed.

 

 

 

Niko's quarters

4/14, 0314

 

 

Niko opened her eyes.

I'm getting tired of this.

She sat up in bed. The darkness of her bedroom took on a watchful feel.

"What do you want?" she said aloud, firmly. "If you need help, ask. But if you're just prying, you need to learn some manners. It's very rude to spy on others this way."

The darkness seemed to titter, and the presence of unseen eyes disappeared.

Niko lay back down and stared thoughtfully at the dim glow of lights through her window.

This has been going on long enough. It's time to start acting, not just reacting.

It took a long time before she drifted back to sleep.

 

 

Foxx family quarters

0343

 

 

Zachary's eyes snapped open.

He stared blankly at the ceiling for moment, blearily trying to figure out why he was awake. Little Zach? —No. Only the nearly subliminal hum of the central computer and the climate control system broke the silence of the quarters. He glanced at the clock: 0349.

Zach sighed and turned over. Only an hour and a half since the last time I woke up. Did I have too much caffeine again today? He stared at the wall, where a stray gleam from outside cast a faint stripe of light, and tried to settle himself to go back to sleep.

Instead he found himself turning over recent events in his mind. We're all on edge lately. Is it the caseload? But we've had heavier workloads before this and done just fine... Zach frowned and turned onto his back again. No. It's something else. These dreams I've been having—I haven't had nightmares I couldn't remember since I was a boy. And the way I keep waking up during the night, that's not normal either. He snorted. Not that I qualify for "normal" any more, anyway.

Zachary sighed, sat up, got out of bed. On the console next to the bed, GV blinked awake.

"Is everything all right, sir? I can't help noting that your sleep patterns have been quite disturbed lately. Would you like me to schedule an appointment for you at the Medical Office?"

Zach rubbed the back of his neck. "Thanks, GV. I'll be all right. Heat me some milk, would you?" He made a face at the thought. "Maybe it'll help me sleep."

"Right away, sir." The AI disappeared from the screen with a boop.

Maybe it'll help if I set it all down.

Zach padded across the floor to his desk and sat, still in his pajamas. The stylus was cool in his palm as he picked it up and tapped it absently on the desk's surface. He activated the desk's notepad program and began to write.

 

 

"Your milk is getting cool, sir."

"Thank you," Zach said, still staring at the notes in front of him. He didn't move.

"Shall I send in the service droid, sir, or would you like to go to the kitchen?"

"Mmm," Zach said. "Uh? Oh, send the droid in, thanks." He scanned deliberately down his list, pausing at each item.

Doc got arrested. Now, I know that man finds out things he shouldn't, but I've never known him to be either careless or stupid about it. And the explanation was just too neat. From what I've heard about him, Vendez just isn't good enough to get access to data that sensitive. I suppose it's possible, but... Zach scowled. My instincts say no. I think it smells.

On top of that, Vendez refuses to talk, as if he's afraid of someone. The person who actually did the hacking?

And I'm having trouble sleeping...

Zachary smacked the stylus down on the desktop. Am I just being paranoid? he demanded of himself. This doesn't fit together into a coherent picture.

Or maybe I just don't have enough data.

The door slid open, and the service droid trundled into the bedroom. 

"Thank you, GV," Zachary said. He lifted the glass of milk from the droid's servo, took a sip, and made another face. "Now I remember why I quit drinking this stuff." He paused for a moment, then trailed the droid out the door and into the kitchen.

The bottle was exactly where he'd left it on the top shelf. He blew the dust off, tipped a finger's width of whiskey into the milk, recapped the bottle, and put it away. He stared at the glass in his hand and then downed it in a gulp.

"Guhhh. That's even worse than I remember." He paused, sudden sorrow clutching at his chest at the memory: Eliza, collapsed in helpless laughter at his expression after the first sip of a concoction just like this one.

Quietly Zachary set the glass in the sink and turned back toward another wakeful night in his cold, empty bed.

 

 

 

BETA Mountain cafeteria

0652

 

 

Goose set a filled plate on his tray and slid the tray down the counter to the drink machine. The cafeteria echoed with voices, conversations Goose could hear all too well when he didn't concentrate on ignoring them. So he calculated course vectors in his head or mentally rebuilt worn-out drive systems—usually. This morning, however, he found his thoughts returning with embarrassing regularity to the way Niko had looked walking in front of him down the hall to yesterday's briefing. 

Time for a workout, he thought ruefully, followed by a very cold shower. 

A snicker sounded in his left ear.

He turned his head sharply. No one was nearby. 

Goose frowned and reached for a glass—and stopped dead as the glass slid neatly away from his hand. 

"Thirsty, Runt?"

Slowly, in control, he turned. An engineer, crossing the cafeteria with a tray full of dirty dishes, caught his glance, and a wary look crossed her face. He forced himself to smile, and she returned it tentatively before he turned back to his tray. 

The glass stood back in line with its mates. 

He reached again, expecting it now, and once again saw the glass move just ahead of his fingertips. Another snicker, this one just behind him. The voice was female, young, just like the one he'd heard in the hangar, though it wasn't the same person.

"Freak. Runt. Were you Sawyer's little boy toy, Runt? Or maybe the commander's." 

A red haze began to cloud his vision. 

A second voice sniggered. "Ooh, I think you made him angry. Are you angry, bounty hunter? But it's just words. And nobody else hears them. Maybe it's all in your mind. All in your mind, Runt." 

Both voices tittered. Goose stood very still, just breathing. The counter edge creaked under his grip.

A tray, coming from the right, clacked into his. "Oops, sorry, Ranger. Are you going to get a drink, or do you mind if I pass by you?" 

Woodenly Goose reached for a glass and watched, unsurprised, as his fingers closed around it. "Sorry," he said to the trainee who had bumped his tray. "Just thinking." 

He watched water stream into the glass and heard the laughter fade away. 

 

 

 

0738

 

 

Wolf Den.

It beat in his mind like the sound of a heart.

Wolf Den is the link.

Goose sat on the overlook at the very peak of BETA Mountain, watching Interceptors and P-38s take off and land. The morning sun slanted down, already taking the night chill off the desert. An occasional breeze riffled his hair.

Latham worked at Wolf Den. He left when I was six. They were already calling me "Runt" then; could be the scientists heard more than I thought. But that other stuff, about Max and the commander... That didn't start until later. And now someone else has heard about all that, and there's only one way they could have: they know someone who was there, or who had an informant who was there.

It's gotta be Latham. Nothing else makes sense. Which means somebody was sending reports back to him after he left. Detailed reports.

Someone who knows Latham, probably works for him... Someone young. A girl—two of them. No, three, counting the one from the hangar. And they don't like me. He snorted. Clearly.

Goose pictured the glass sliding away from his fingers in the cafeteria.

Are they here at BETA? Wouldn't they have to be? I've never known Niko to be able to move something like that unless she was in the same room. I've only ever known one other person who could move things that way at all.

He sat quietly, recalling.

 

 

"I can lift things," said Gaea softly. "Large things, like the network trunk box. I haven't tried moving anything really big or heavy in a long time, but I think I could lift a motorcycle if I needed to, maybe a small hovercar. And—throw it, or carry it."

Niko made another note on her handheld. Around them the Nav Bay hummed to itself as the ship skimmed away from Mars. "And what's your range?" she asked. "How close do you have to be?"

"I'm not sure," Gaea confessed. "But I have to be able to see it clearly—whatever I'm moving."

"Have you ever tried using binoculars to extend your range?"

"N-no. Well, they made me try it when I was—little, and I couldn't then, but I haven't tried it myself. I mean, since I—left." Her fingers twisted together.

"That's fine, Gaea," Niko said calmly. "Have you ever had visions or images of distant people, places, or events?"

"I... sometimes I have dreams about things happening in other places, but they tried testing me and didn't get anything."

"But you can't see such things if you try?"

Gaea shook her head. "No. I can't." 

 

 

Goose tapped a fingertip on the stone balustrade and considered.

Gaea isn't clairvoyant, not really. Niko is. They both have telekinesis and telepathy. The voices I heard—if they weren't in the cafeteria, then they must be clairvoyant, too, to see what I was doing.

Can the three talents be combined?

A chill ran up his spine.

Shit, I hope not. Because that would mean these people can mess with me wherever I am. Suddenly he recalled the empty elevator at the hospital, the giggling voice in Seth's room, and drew a deep, deliberate breath.

Or—maybe the voice was right. Maybe it was all in my head. No one else seemed to see anything, and there were people all over the room. One was just to my right, waiting for me to finish at the drinks machine. Surely he'd have seen if anything weird was going on.

Right. Either way... What am I going to do about it? And—who are they?

He flexed his hands around the stone, feeling its rough warmth under the winter sun. Who am I trying to fool? Psionically talented kids—connected to Wolf Den.

There aren't many other answers, now, are there?

Goose, who never really prayed, found himself wordlessly begging to be wrong.

 

 

 

Series Five Rangers' office

0847

 

 

"Good morning, Zachary." Niko stood as Zach came through the door. "I have a personal project I'd like your permission for. I'd need to access classified information."

"Good morning," he answered, setting down his coffee mug. "That's a pretty broad category, Niko. Can you be a bit more specific? What kind of data?"

"I want to find out about telepaths living on Earth."

Zach looked closely at her. "Are you lonely?" he asked slowly. "I never thought—is that it?"

"No!" She shook her head, looking scandalized. "Looking into people's personal information because I'm lonely—that would be a gross invasion of privacy." She hesitated. "It's—I have reason to believe that a telepath is breaking the law. And since Earth's legal code is still fairly hazy with respect to issues related to psionics, I was hoping to use the data to find this person and—" she frowned.

"Convince him of the error of his ways?" Zach finished dryly.

"Something like that, I suppose."

"What kind of crime are we talking about here, Niko? If it's a violent—"

She cut him off with a wave of her hand. "No, not at all. It's a misdemeanor at most. I might as well tell you—someone has been watching me psionically. It's not even clear to me, based on my reading of the codes, that a World Federation court would find it a chargeable offense, but it is a violation of etiquette, and it needs to stop."

"A psychic peeping Tom?" Zach asked incredulously.

"You could put it that way. May I have your permission?"

Zach studied her for a moment. "Yes, you may—under one condition. I don't want you to contact this person, or any of the telepaths whose files you'll be accessing, without permission from both me and Commander Walsh. It's not that I don't trust you to use the information appropriately; I know you've got a strong sense of propriety about things like this. It's for your own protection. I don't want any of these people to have legal cause against you personally. All right?"

She smiled faintly. "I understand."

"Do you have the paperwork ready?" 

Silently she held out a datapad. He accepted it, noting that she already had the correct forms open and filled in. He scanned her input and pressed his thumb against the reader to sign it. Handing it back, he said, "Please let me know what you find out."

"All right," she answered, already routing the form, and never looked up to see his speculative expression.

 

 

 

Greta Schmidt's quarters

1417

 

 

Niko rang the door chime and waited, her psychic senses unfurling. Next door, someone's cat was sleeping. Across the hall, someone was eating a hurried, late lunch. Farther away she sensed people arguing, worrying, kissing. An AI appeared on the screen of the panel by the door.

"Greetings. May I ask your name and reason for visiting?"

How businesslike.

"Ranger Niko to see Dr. Schmidt on personal business."

"Thank you," said the AI. "One moment, please."

There was a long pause before the door opened.

Greta Schmidt stood by her dining table, where a tea set sat waiting. The smaller woman was dressed in loose clothing: Niko could see that her shoulder was still bandaged. Her light brown hair tumbled, disarranged, around her shoulders.

"Ranger Niko," Greta said. "I would not have expected to see you here." Her expression was curious, but as Niko approached, the telepath sensed she was also nervous.

"Yes," answered Niko. "I came to see how you're doing, and to ask about Seth."

There was a tremendous surge of guilt, and the nervousness increased. Greta's eyes filled with tears, and she made an inarticulate sound of frustration and dashed the tears away with the back of her hand. Gesturing at her eyes, Greta said, "Not so well, as you can see. Seth is—" Her voice broke. "Still—in intensive care."

Niko nodded, studying her. A touch of defensive anger at the scrutiny entered Greta's emotional space, but the woman's face showed no hint of it apart from a slight thinning of the lips.

"You seem upset, Dr. Schmidt."

"Why should I not be?" flared Greta. "Seth is my good friend, and someone—"

"Betrayed him."

Greta was shocked into silence. Fear replaced the anger, guilt still lying like a cloud over her emotions.

"Records show that you made a call from the private call center on Level Two at 0712 on the 30th of March. Whom were you calling, Dr. Schmidt?"

The scientist took two unsteady steps backward, collapsed into her chair, and burst into tears. "They said they just wanted access to his workstation," she sobbed. "They wanted me to tell them when he left the mountain. They just wanted access—they said—they lied, and it's my fault, my fault—"

Niko grabbed one of the other dining chairs and sat quickly, facing the distraught scientist. "Listen, Greta," she said firmly. "You had no way of knowing that they wanted to hurt him, but the fact remains that you provided information that led to an assault on your friend. You can help him now by telling me everything."

"But I don't know," Greta managed to say around her sobs. "I don't. They gave me a number, but I know the call rerouted once at least. I don't know a name. The same person always answered, but I don't know who he is."

Niko sighed inwardly. I was afraid this might happen.

"I need you to calm down now, Greta. We're going to have to investigate your part in this incident, and you need to be calm."

Niko sat with Greta as gradually the other woman's sobs grew quiet. The scientist picked up a napkin from the table and wiped her face with it.

"Did they pay for your cousin's surgery?"

Greta looked stunned. "How did you—no, I know you have the computer wizard working with you," she said bitterly. "Did he tell you about my divorce, or—"

"No, Dr. Schmidt," Niko said firmly. "Doc is not interested in learning the private details of people's lives." Mostly, she admitted ruefully to herself.

"Yes," Greta admitted with a sigh. "They paid for the surgery."

"How did this man first make contact with you?" she asked.

"He called my personal mobile line. He said he was with a philanthropic organization that might be able to pay for Josef's surgery and asked me to call from the private call center." Greta twisted the napkin in her hands. "He said some of their donors are eccentric and require absolute anonymity. At the time I thought nothing of it. Looking back, it seems so obvious—" Tears welled again in her brown eyes.

Niko raised a hand to stop the smaller woman. "Honest people don't usually think like criminals, Dr. Schmidt. Don't be too hard on yourself. Did the man threaten you at any time?"

An impatient gesture with the uninjured hand. "Not directly. He suggested strongly that it would not be good for me to refuse to help them, that uncooperative workers don't get promotions, that details of my personal history might upset my boss, and so, but he said nothing that was directly threatening. Very good with words, that one," she finished bitterly.

"All right." Niko sat back. "Thank you for being so forthcoming. We'll need to have your sworn testimony on this, but it can wait until you're feeling a bit better. You should know, however, that as of now, you may not leave BETA Mountain unless escorted by a Galaxy Ranger. You may move about inside the mountain as usual. In addition—" Niko reached into her belt pouch and brought out a monitor cuff. "I'm going to have to ask you to wear this. We will be tracking your movements at all times. Please stay away from the private call center unless you are accompanied by a Ranger. Please repeat these instructions to show that you understand them."

Greta repeated the directions in a monotone, but her emotional space was a chaos of guilt, anxiety, sadness, fear, anger, and humiliation. Humiliation spiked when Niko clipped the monitor bracelet on the uninjured arm.

"Monitor 27491 active," it said in a clear female voice. "The suspect will identify itself."

Stiffly Greta said, "Schmidt, Greta."

"Acknowledged."

"I'm sorry, Dr. Schmidt," said Niko quietly. "Try to rest now, all right? You can call me directly if you need anything.

Greta bowed her head.

Niko, leaving the quarters, thought, She couldn't have known about Gaea's presence here last summer. It's as Doc suspected. We have more than one OPS mole at BETA.

 

Chapter Text

Commander Walsh's office

4/15, 1007

 

 

"Good morning, Lieutenant McIntyre."

Sheela McIntyre smiled at Zach, but her eyes were questioning. "Good morning, Captain Foxx," she answered. "How are you feeling? If you don't mind my saying so, sir, you seem a bit peaked today."

"Oh, my." Zach laughed. "I haven't heard that term since the last time my mother was fussing over me. Thank you, Lieutenant; I'm just tired. It's been a rough couple of months for my team, and I'm not sleeping very well."

"All right. Well, there's fresh coffee in the pot if you'd like some. The commander told me to send you right in."

"Thanks," Zach said, and poured himself a cup before entering Commander Walsh's office. Lord knows I could use the boost.

"Good morning, sir," he said.

"Good morning, Zachary. I've got the paperwork for Alexei Leonov's arraignment here. We've got—" Walsh looked up from his workstation and did a double take. "You look done in," he said. "Have you caught that cold that's been making the rounds?"

"No, sir, just having some insomnia. But we've got work to do whether I've had my eight hours or not."

"True. Which reminds me: you and your team need some time off. I've arranged for three-day passes for all of you. You'll have to stay onplanet, but you won't be on call except for dire emergencies."

Zach felt his face split in what he knew was a huge grin, but he managed to answer calmly. "Thank you, sir."

"Hrrmph." Walsh cleared his throat. "Well. As I was saying, we've got to get our evidence very well organized for the Leonov case..."

 

 

 

Series Five Rangers' office

1240

 

 

Zach stood in the doorway, watching his Rangers at work. Goose was scowling in concentration down at his workstation, his fingers flying over the keyboard in his hunt-and-peck style. Doc, typically, had five different windows open and was flipping rapidly between them, never missing a beat. Zach shook his head, amused and impressed as he always was by the hacker's flamboyantly multitasking work habits. Niko was studying documents on her screen; she entered a careful annotation as Zach watched. He suddenly recognized the flags for the Leonov case, and the smile dropped off his face.

"Hey, Captain."

The others looked up at the sound of Goose's voice.

"Hello, Zachary," said Niko. "Did you have a good meeting with the commander?"

He forced a smile at her. "Yes. I really think we're going to win this one, Niko. The physical evidence proves incontrovertibly that Vassily Kolchin's the father of Leonova's baby, and Kolchin's defection handed us the rest."

She smiled, and he was relieved to see that it reached her eyes.

"Hey, my captain, you look beat. You keeping hacker hours?" Doc's voice was cheerful as usual, but his eyes were intent.

"Just insomnia," said Zach. "But I have news you're all going to like."

"We're getting a thousand percent raise?"

Goose snorted. "You wish, Doc."

"You two, let Zachary talk," Niko admonished them, smiling.

I'm glad enough they're laughing again that I don't mind waiting on a few jokes, Zach thought, and he smiled back at Niko. "Commander Walsh has given us all three-day passes—they're not offworld passes, but we're all on call only for Code 4 emergencies." He continued speaking over Goose's whoop and Doc's cheering. "I don't know about the rest of you, but I'm spending a weekend with my kids."

"Zach, that's great!" said Niko, delighted. " I've been wanting to visit Paris to see the latest acquisitions at the Louvre."

"And go shopping?" Doc teased.

She smiled. "Oh, that might happen, too," she said in an exaggeratedly noncommittal voice.

"I've been wanting to spending some time with the dolphins," Goose said. "Guess I'll take up guest quarters at Longshot for a day or two. Thanks, Captain."

"Don't thank me," answered Zach. "The commander arranged it."

"Where are you going to spend your three days, Doc?" asked Niko.

"Probably New Orleans."

"Gonna spend three days eating?" Goose teased.

"Yes, thank you very much. Café du Monde, here I come."

"Bring me back some beignet mix, Doc," Niko requested with a smile.

"Only if you'll make me some."

Zach, settling into his chair, couldn't seem to stop smiling. Well, I wanted some downtime for my team.

We don't always get what we want, but this'll do just fine.

 

 

 

Foxx family quarters

4/16, 0231

 

 

Zach came awake, staring blankly at the ceiling for a moment. Awake again. This is happening too often. He rolled over, considering. The last time this kind of thing happened, it was the Queen with her dream machine. But I'm not remembering these nightmares. If they are nightmares.

Are they?

He recalled his conversation with Niko yesterday morning. "Someone has been watching me psionically." 

Is that what's happening to me?

Psychic phenomena were not Zach's specialty. In fact, before he'd met Niko, he'd known essentially nothing about psionics. So the thought that some unfriendly psychic might be rummaging around in his head made Zachary more than a little uncomfortable. 

What am I supposed to do about some telepathic nut waking me up every night?

Zach sighed and closed his eyes. 

Face it, Zachary. It's a lot more likely that you're just stressed out and working too hard. Niko is a telepath, so it's natural, even if it's rude, for another telepath to be interested in her. You're just another Galaxy Ranger. One who needs a vacation. And his wife back.

At least I'm getting one of the two.

The thought wasn't particularly comforting.

 

 

 

Shane Gooseman's quarters

4/17, 0246

 

 

Goose's eyes opened suddenly into the darkness of his bedroom.

Someone calling me?

He lay still for a time, listening, but the silence remained undisturbed. He raised himself up on one elbow. "Elma," he said, "did you hear something just now? I thought someone called my name."

"Negative, Goose," she answered softly. "My audio sensors didn't pick anything up. You must have been dreaming—you were in REM sleep for a short period."

Goose lay back. "Thanks."

"You're welcome, Goose. Good night."

He rubbed the heels of his hands over his eyes. What the hell... Don't usually dream this way...

Sleep beckoned, and his eyes slid shut—

 

 

—And he was awake, lifting his head from the pillow, oddly sure that someone had just called his name. "Elma?" he asked cautiously. "I thought I heard..."

"Sleep sensors indicate you were dreaming, Goose."

She worried? Nnn—tired...

"Okay."

His head seemed to weigh a ton. Gratefully he lowered it back to the pillow.

 

 

Goose woke to the sound of his own voice mumbling, "What?"

"Goose?" Elma definitely sounded concerned this time. "You are dreaming again. Do you want me to contact someone for you?"

He scrubbed at his face and rolled over. "Nuh uh."

It took him much longer to fall asleep this time.

 

 

Goose sat bolt upright, heart pounding. The sound of a voice calling his name in despair still seemed to echo in his ears.

"Goose!" Elma's voice was urgent. "Your heart rate—"

"I'm fine, Elma," he snapped. "It was just a dream." He ran his hands through his hair. "Sorry," he added in a more even tone. "Shouldn't snap at you."

"There's no need to apologize, Goose," she said gently.

He glanced at the clock and groaned before throwing back the covers. "Guess I'm taking a cold shower this morning."

 

 

 

Series Five Rangers' office

0829

 

 

Zach looked up as Niko came in, studying the screen of her handheld, her expression abstracted. From her body language, he noted with a half-smile, she was barely aware that she'd entered the office. She looked up suddenly, aware of his scrutiny.

"Interesting e-mail, Niko?" he asked.

She smiled. "No, interesting data. I've narrowed down list of candidates for our peeping Tom to five, and I'd like your permission to contact them."

He held out his hand, and she offered him her computer. Taking it, he scanned down the list and felt his eyebrows shoot upward. "One member of a research consortium, two government employees—and two corporate telepaths? I didn't realize that the corporations made use of telepathy."

"One of those people is semiretired," Niko offered. "She's over seventy, according to her files. But yes, apparently telepaths are of some use in tricky negotiations where both sides want assurances that everyone involved is dealing honestly. The corporation in question does nothing but facilitate contracts of all kinds. They're an independent contractor. Very interesting application of psionics—I've never paid much attention to corporate practice here unless it involved illegal activity, so it was a surprise to me, too."

"So you want to arrange meetings with these five people?" Zach ran his hand over his hair, considering. "I can't see any reason why not. But I want the official request to come from the commander's office. I'll check with him, see if he has any objections—if he's willing to sign off on it, I'll have Lieutenant McIntyre make the contacts." He held out her computer.

"Thanks, Zach," she said with a brilliant smile, clipping her handheld back on her belt.

"What will you do if none of these people is our peeping Tom?"

"Well, of all the telepaths the government knows about, these five are the only ones with the power and the range to do the kind of surveillance I've been sensing. If none of them is the one—" She dipped into her belt pouch and brought out a smoky crystal oblong about the size of a hen's egg. "I caught the person watching me again two nights ago and caught—I guess you could call it a snapshot—with this. It's an impression crystal. We use them on Xanadu for various purposes. If a telepath touches it, he or she will get a sense of the person whose—" She frowned, groping for words. "—essence was imprinted in it. Those aren't really the right words, but I guess you get the idea."

"I guess I do," he answered dryly. "You're using it like a mug shot."

"Exactly. I can at least find out if any of these five recognizes the person whose impression is here."

"All right. I'll ask the commander. Speaking of whom—" Zach stood. "I have a meeting with him in a few minutes. I'd better get going."

Niko nodded. "Thanks again." She returned the crystal to its pouch. "I'll see you later, Zach."

"Sure thing."

 

 

 

0847

 

 

Doc and Niko looked up as Goose slouched into the office.

Niko did a double take.

Well, no, he's not actually slouching, but that's the closest I've ever seen Goose come. What could possibly be wrong? He looks exhausted, and he positively radiates grouchiness and tension.

"Good morning, my Goose man," Doc called. From the look Goose shot him, the ST found his teammate's greeting far too cheerful.

"Didn't you sleep well, Goose?" Niko asked, purposely keeping her voice low.

He grunted—I never knew a grunt could be so expressive, Niko thought wryly—and settled into his chair.

Fourteen minutes later, Niko shoved her chair sharply back and snapped to her feet. Two sets of eyes jerked to her face, Doc's surprised, Goose's wary.

"All right, Shane," she said grimly. "Either we're going to talk about whatever's bothering you, or you're going to work from home, or I am, because you're making it very uncomfortable for me to be in the same room with you. And considering that Zach's going to want to go over my testimony for the Leonov case when he gets back from his meeting, and we've got a case law seminar in a very small lecture hall at 1400, I'm marking choices two and three off the list. Talk here or talk someplace else, but talk."

Goose's mouth acquired that stubborn set that Niko had come to know so well. "What's to talk about?" he half growled. "I just didn't sleep well."

Niko just stared at him.

"I'm gonna—get some fresh batteries for my CDU," Doc mumbled. With inner senses honed by overstretched nerves, Niko tracked his hasty retreat across the office and out the door. She folded her arms and stared at Goose.

He stared back.

"You're tense. You're irritable. I haven't seen you this tired in months. What's going on, Goose?"

The silence grew uneasy.

"I didn't sleep well," he repeated. "I kept waking up from weird dreams."

"Weird?"

"Someone calling me. First time I thought it was—huh. That's strange. The first time was actually days ago. I thought someone rang the door chime, but Elma hadn't heard anything. Then last night I woke up two or three times thinking someone was calling my name."

Niko frowned. "That is odd, but—is that all?"

"Yeah." He nodded decisively, and she felt his emotions smooth out, grow calmer. "That's all. Sorry I made you uncomfortable."

She eyed him. That was too deliberate. He's not leveling with me. But there's nothing I can say—he's stopped broadcasting his bad mood.

"Well, if you find there's anything you want to talk about, just let me know," she offered.

"Thanks." He turned back to his report in an obvious dismissal.

Niko settled back into her chair and tried to concentrate on work.

Kept waking up... I've been waking up lately, with this watcher coming around. And Zachary said he's had some trouble sleeping. Is someone watching all of us? Why? Who could it be?

What's going on?

Chapter Text

Home of Amelia Donohue

Santa Fe, New Mexico, Earth

4/19, 1509 local time

 

 

The old lady set down her teacup to hold the crystal in her left palm, brushing the fingertips of her right hand across the smooth surface. "A girl, I'd say," she murmured. "Rather young. Anxious." She opened her eyes. "And you say she woke you up?" 

"Yes. More than once. But this was the only time I had a crystal ready." 

"Well, she is no one I know." Amelia, seeing the disappointment on Niko's face, smiled gently and leaned forward to return the crystal. "I'm sorry, dear. But I don't know all that many of us, really. And I don't teach." 

"If I may ask, who was your teacher?" Niko inquired.

Sadness flitted across the old woman's face. 

"I'm sorry," Niko put in hastily. "I don't mean to pry." 

"Quite all right," Amelia answered. "It's ancient history, really." 

Niko grinned. "Careful," she teased gently. "I'm an archaeologist." 

Amelia laughed, but her expression sobered quickly. "Those were terrible times, Niko.... The sea levels had already started to rise when I was born. America alone lost many cities, and I'm sure you've read about the crop failures. And with the pandemics and the bombings and so many millions displaced—I was dreadfully afraid. Everyone was." Her hand rose, restless, smoothing the folds of the linen napkin, but her eyes were looking elsewhere. "Afraid of disease, afraid of terrorists, afraid of dying. Afraid of us. That's when the camps were formed, you know. There weren't so many of us then. We're still so few. " She looked finally back at Niko. "So I can easily imagine that your visitor might be unregistered. Perhaps she's afraid to come forward. None of Earth's governments has a spotless record when it comes to telepaths, not even the Federation." 

"No," Niko agreed.

"But you asked about my teacher. His name was John. I met him in the camps. I was very young, just a teenager, and still new to the Gift. He was a very gentle person, highly empathic. He helped me, and many others, cope with the crowding. When we were all set free, he returned to his home, but we kept in touch. He died not long after. He had cancer, had been slowly dying the entire time we lived in the camps, and by the time we were released, it was too late for the treatment." The old lady sighed. "Such a waste."

"You never had another teacher?"

"No, not really. Sometimes I practiced with others who had different skills, but we weren't really organized. We were afraid of the attention, you know."

"I understand." Niko stared down at the crystal in her hand, sighed, and looked up. "Thank you for your help; I'm very grateful. But I should go. My captain will be expecting me back at the base."

Amelia smiled. "If you must, dear, but I'd be glad of the company if you have time to stay a while longer. I don't get the chance to talk much with other telepaths, especially new people." She lifted the teapot and raised her eyebrows. "Another cup?"

Niko hesitated, then replaced the impression crystal in her pouch and lifted the fragile white cup and saucer. "Yes, please," she said, and smiled in return.

 

 

 

Series Five Rangers' office

4/20, 1732

 

 

"Four interviews, four dead ends." Zachary leaned back in his chair. "What about the fifth person?" 

"I left him a message," Niko said, "But I haven't had any luck getting to him. His current whereabouts are classified—I guess he's working on a special project. But—" She held up the impression crystal. "Mrs. Donohue agreed with me that my visitor is female. So did the other three. So I guess our mystery man is off the hook. I would like to find out if he knows our peeping Tom, though." 

Goose rose from his seat and came to lean on Niko's workstation. "So how does this whole corporate telepath gig work, anyway?" he asked. "I'd think that any corporation paranoid enough to demand mind scans of its business partners would be too paranoid to trust the word of the person doing the scanning." 

"Well, for starters, the contractor providing the telepath carries liability insurance," Niko explained, "so they have a vested financial interest in being honest to keep their premiums low. Then there's word of mouth—the contractor wants to maintain the best possible reputation, so the company tests its telepaths extensively. Really, if you think about it, it's not really any different from an accounting or legal firm." 

"Sure," Goose cracked, "except your accountant can't tell if you think he's ugly." 

 

 

 

Niko's quarters

5/21, 0152

 

 

Niko woke abruptly.

She's watching me again. This is the third time this week.

In the near darkness she reached with her telekinesis and lit a candle. The lighter clacked as she set it back down.

Time to get some answers.

 

 

:Watching you? Certainly not! Student, where would you get such an idea?:

Ariel's distress carried clearly through the link.

:Well, someone is, Mentor. It didn't seem very likely, but I'd begun to wonder if the Circle had decided to keep me under surveillance for some reason.:

:Such a police-like phrase, Niko dear. No, we're not watching you. But someone obviously is. Have you encountered other telepaths on Earth who might be curious or envious?:

Niko sent the sense of a headshake. :Not a one. Telepaths on Earth tend to be rather reclusive. I've met only a few of them, and this person isn't one of them. None of the people I met even recognized the impression I got. My best guess is that it's an unregistered telepath who's afraid to reveal herself.:

Niko sensed Ariel pressing her lips together, felt her mentor's worry. 

:Oh, my dear. Safeguard yourself.:

:I will, Ariel.: Niko let reassurance flow along the link. :I'll set up extra wards right now.:

:I'll help you.:

Niko blinked. In the privacy of her own mind, she thought, Stars. She really is worried. She drew in a breath, steadied her mind, and felt her mentor reaching out with a firm touch, like a supportive hand at the small of her back. Niko imagined a bubble rising up, shimmering and reflective and frail, yet impervious to unfriendly psychic energy; felt it surround her and her quarters... And she realized it was easy to enlarge the bubble; felt it swell to encompass Doc's home, Goose's, and, farther away in the quarters for married personnel, Zachary's... The bubble's edges sank into the earth of the mountain, firm and steady as the rock itself.

She exhaled slowly and opened her eyes.

:Niko.: Ariel's mindvoice was firm. :We haven't measured your gifts lately, and I realize now it is past time. When you next have leave, you must return to Xanadu for testing.:

Niko felt her mouth open and shut it again.

:Yes, Ariel,: she answered, and felt her mentor's chuckle resound along the link.

:Never forget, my dear. You are the best student I have ever trained. Now go back to bed, and sleep well. Perhaps you'll have pleasant dreams of your handsome friends.:

Niko felt herself go scarlet to her ears. Ariel laughed again, and Niko felt the ephemeral touch of a kiss on her cheek.

:Goodnight, Niko.:

:Goodnight, Mentor,: she whispered.

Now how am I going to sleep?

 

 

 

5/22, 2203

 

 

Niko sat in lotus position, eyes closed, body relaxed. The candle on the floor in front of her lit her darkened quarters, its flame dancing in a tiny, gentle breeze that whispered through the door from the balcony.

The impression crystal lay with her badge in her folded hands. She breathed deeply, focusing on the image of the mind contained in the crystal. Breathe slowly, ground and center...

Carefully she gathered threads of the impression, drawing them from the crystal and reweaving them as best she could into an image in her mind's eye, like a hand cupped delicately around a puff of smoke. The image settled in her mind, wispy as silk threads but firmly held. And in her mind's eye pictures formed, not sharp or clear or coherent as she had learned long ago to make them, but indistinct and unconnected:

A hallway: white-tiled, cold, spartan. A blue pillow. A room full of desks, too small for adults. The vague sense of being watched as she slept. A textbook, seen too quickly for Niko to identify it. The blue pillow again... Each image vanished as her attention shifted, smoke dissipating in a whisper of air.

Niko blew out her breath in frustration.

This isn't going to work. The crystal isn't enough to create a solid link. I'm not getting anything I didn't already know: she's young enough to be a student, and she's watching me. These images could come from practically anywhere.

She set the impression crystal back on a square of silk that lay next to her knee and clipped the badge back on her belt.

I wonder if she fled so quickly because she sensed that I was watching for her? She seems to have had some training, at least.

Dead end. And she shouldn't be back, not with the wards I put up last night. Let's hope that's the last I get of this nonsense.

Straightening her back in a gentle stretch, Niko settled down to meditate.

 

 

 

Commander Walsh's office

4/26, 1721

 

 

"In conclusion, Rangers, your last mission to Tortuna is apparently causing quite an uproar among the outlaw communities. It seems none of them expected..."

I've gotta hand it to Walsh, Doc reflected as he watched Niko's face. He couldn't have found a better way to help Niko finish recovering from that whole nasty Leonov mess than this. All this praise on top of the letter of recognition over the Toh interrogation, and a weekend in Paris to boot... I haven't seen her this happy in weeks.

Well, whatever I expected to happen when Lieutenant McIntyre called us in here, this wasn't it.

"If I may have your attention, Ranger Hartford?"

Doc jumped to attention.

"In total, more than a dozen fugitives have been arrested in the past five weeks. Reports from the Empty Zone indicate that outlaws are scrambling to get their new and recently repaired equipment to their street fixers to find out whether their equipment contains the tracer-carrying chips. The Ranger teams doing surveillance have seen a heavy increase in traffic to fixers, with a corresponding increase in the number of arrests." Walsh sat back in his chair. "Excellent work, Rangers. You have both received commendations, which are noted in your records. Congratulations."

Doc glanced again at Niko. She was beaming.

"Thank you, Commander," she said quietly.

"Thank you," Doc echoed, unable to hold back a small grin himself. "Nice to be appreciated."

Walsh sat back in his chair, a slight smile crossing his lips. "Oh, and Ranger Niko: you may be interested to hear that one of the arms dealers arrested in the first wave of raids was Brent Carmody. He'd set up shop on Mesa. You and Ranger Gooseman will be called in to testify on his Texarcota dealings when he goes to trial. There are quite a few counts against him."

From the corner of his eye, Doc noted that Niko's smile widened.

"Dismissed, Galaxy Rangers," Walsh said crisply.

On the way out of the commander's office, Doc nudged Niko. "Couldn't have happened to a nicer guy, huh, Niko?"

She threw him an ironic look. "I'm just glad he's off the streets. I can't stand that man. Even for a criminal, he's awful." A shadow crossed her face.

"We know too many of those," he noted, knowing what had put that shadow there. Hope the Leonov case winds up this well—think it'll help. "Hey, in the end, we get 'em all. Speaking of which, thanks for your help with that report."

"Any time, Doc," she said with a smile. "Any time."

 

 

 

Series Five Rangers' office

1758

 

 

The door opened, spilling light from the hallway into the darkened office. Goose, staring tiredly at the screen, looked up. Humming softly, Niko moved toward her desk, apparently using the light from her workstation to make her way across the room. With the lights off, he guessed, she hadn't noticed him, though he was a bit surprised she hadn't sensed him. With his augmented vision he saw that she was smiling just a little, obviously deep in thought. She reached out to bring her terminal up from standby.

Fascinated, he stared.

In the dimness her eyes seemed huge, her hair a fall of shadow down her slender back. Her voice floated across the office, low and soothing, humming a tune he didn't know. The tension and anger of the past several weeks had loosed their hold on her face; she looked relaxed and content, lips curved in that gentle smile.

A familiar feeling rose within him, strangely akin to pain. He drew in his breath, nearly a sigh.

Niko raised her head sharply, eyes wide and fixed on him. "Shane. I—didn't see you. I must have been a million miles away. Why are you sitting in here with the lights off?"

"Uh." Goose found his voice. "After enough hours the lights bother my eyes. I was, uh, just finishing some reports. Niko—you seem—happy. Happier." I've been thinking about you being upset, he didn't say.

A smile blazed across her face. "I just got a commendation," she said softly. "For the tracer chips. Doc and I both got commendations. And they've caught Brent Carmody. We'll get to testify against him, and he's going to go to jail for a long time. Goose—I made a difference.

He looked at her, at the glow in her eyes of that quiet contentment, and something undefinable in his chest seemed to open up, pushing at the borders of his self. "You always make a difference," he said quietly.

She blushed, dropping her eyes, and suddenly Goose found his face reddening, too.

"Congratulations, Niko," he added hurriedly, and shut down his work session. "You deserve it. Uh—I'm gonna head home. I'll see you tomorrow." He rose and strode out the door, wishing he didn't feel as though he'd just been routed from the field.

 

 

 

Series Five Rangers' office

4/28, 0916

 

 

Doc's comm pinged. A thump resounded from under the desk, followed closely by an exclamation both creative and profane. Snickers arose from Niko and Goose.

The comm pinged again. One arm emerged and smacked the surface of the desk once, twice; finally, as the comm pinged a third time, Doc swore again, crawled out, and hit the Answer button. As an afterthought he set a chip down on the desk.

"Hartford here," he said, shooting Niko an evil look. She assumed an expression of innocence that completely failed to mollify him.

"Incoming transmission from Tarkon, Ranger Hartford."

"Put it through, please," Doc said.

The communications tech nodded, and the face of King Spartos' majordomo appeared onscreen.

"Ah, Ranger Hartford," he said with some satisfaction. "Good day."

"Hello, Geren. What can I do for you?"

"Please wait," Geren said. "I must tell Her Highness that you are available." The slender man turned without waiting for an answer and disappeared offscreen, neglecting—as usual, Doc thought in amusement—to tap the Hold key.

"Someone's still not used to comm stations," Goose observed sotto voce.

"Did you find your chip, Doc?" asked Niko, a thread of amusement still running through her voice.

"No thanks to your snickering, Ms. Niko," Doc answered tartly. "They oughta rename those chip holders 'dammit clips,' 'cause they're always going sproing and tossing chips everywhere—and making me say 'Dammit!'"

Niko burst out laughing, and Goose snickered again.

From the comm came the sound of footsteps, and a moment later, Maya entered pickup range. "Hello, Doc," she said with a smile. "I see Geren forgot the Hold feature again. My apologies. I trust you're well?"

"Fine, thanks, and no need to apologize," Doc replied, grinning. "We all go through that phase. How are things on Tarkon?"

Maya's smile widened, and Doc caught himself staring again. Hey, now, you keep your mind on the job, he told himself.

"We are well, and thank you, Doc. As you know, my father has been working to build consensus among the nobles regarding your proposal. I'm pleased to be able to invite you and your esteemed colleague Dr. Q-Ball to Tarkon to study our Great Computer Do you think you'll be able to begin sometime soon?"

"I think you can count on that," Doc said with a grin.

Would it look unprofessional if I got up and did the happy dance?

 

 

 

Staff lounge, Level 5, BETA Mountain

1138

 

 

Doc looked up from his latest case report as Niko came into the lounge. She held a box in her hands, turning it over with a curious expression. As he watched, a brief, puzzled frown flitted across her lips.

He picked up his coffee cup. "What's up, Niko?" he greeted her, and took a generous slurp.

She rolled her eyes at the noise and smiled. "A package for the four of us," she said, hefting it lightly. "From Frontier, on Nebraska."

"Frontier? Who in the Sam Hill do we know in Frontier?"

Niko set it down on the table before her. "It's from Amy Ladd, the sheriff's daughter. The one who—"

"Nearly got herself buried in a mudslide," he finished. "I remember. She sent us something?"

Niko nodded, her eyes on her work as she busied herself with unsealing the package.

Doc took another sip of coffee. "That's expensive for a kid," he noted. "Nebraska to Earth? That must be some allowance she gets."

Niko paused to inspect the postmark. "It looks like she mailed it less than two weeks ago. She must have sent it on an express boat." Her lips quirked in a crooked smile. "I seem to recall a doting father in the picture." She tore open the final seal and lifted out a small packing crate.

"Not going to wait for the others, huh?" Doc teased.

Niko laughed softly. "I've never been all that good at waiting to open presents. And besides—" she tipped her head toward the discarded mailer— "it's addressed to all of us." She set the crate down and tugged at the lid.

Doc chuckled. "Yeah, Niko," he murmured. "You go."

The lid dropped to the table, and she reached in. "There's a card." She lifted it out, unfolded it, and read. "Dear Captain Foxx, Ranger Gooseman, Ranger Hartford, and Ranger Niko, thank you again for saving my life and helping prove that Aidan wasn't a fake." Doc stifled another chuckle. "I thought you would like this because it would remind you of our adventure. Aidan made me one, and I asked him to make another so I could give it to you all." Niko glanced up at Doc, biting her lip to hold back a smile.

"An Aidan special?" he said. "This I've gotta see."

Niko pushed the box across the table toward him and returned to the card. "Please take care and come back and visit Frontier sometime. I'll show you all around town. Your friend, Amy Ladd."

Doc reached into the box and felt cautiously about. "Well, it hasn't exploded yet..."

"Doc! That's not nice." Niko was biting her lip again.

He grinned at her and tipped the box carefully into his left hand. Packing material spilled across the table as a small glass globe on a square, black base slid into Doc's palm.

"A globe? What is it?" Niko asked, staring.

Doc righted the thing and studied it. "It's got buttons, so I'd say it's supposed to turn on like—this." He pushed one experimentally—and a grin spread across his face as within the globe a miniature rainstorm began. He set the globe on the table and watched, eyes dancing.

"Weather! It's a weather globe!" Niko said, beaming. "That's great!" She reached across the table and pushed another button. The rain gave way to a shifting fog bank. She watched with a delighted smile.

Doc poked another button. Snow began to fall. His grin widened. "A weather globe from the Rainmaker. Way cool."

Niko pushed another button. The snowfall continued. She frowned and pushed the button again. Nothing happened.

"Oh, no," she said in dismay. "What's wrong?"

Doc peered at it. "I think I busted it," he said dolefully.

Niko picked it up. "Well, it is an 'Aidan special'..." Her voice trailed off, and she frowned.

"What is it, Niko?" Doc asked, eyes intent on his teammate.

Niko shook her head as if to clear it, shut the globe off, and set it gently down on its side to peer at its base.

"This has been opened," she said quietly. "Doc...?" Without speaking, he dug in his pocket and handed her a slim screwdriver. She pried carefully at the bottom panel, which popped open to reveal a compact mass of chips and wiring. She pointed with one slim finger at a small, silver chip wedged along one side of the base. "That," she said decisively. "That doesn't belong."

Doc stepped close and bent to examine the base of the globe. "Nope, doesn't look like it," he agreed. He drew a chip extractor from another pocket and pulled lightly at the little wafer of silicon. It came free easily, and the two Rangers looked at each other. Doc set the chip carefully on the table and stared down at it.

"What's going on?" Niko wondered.

"Easy way to find out," Doc answered cheerfully and handed the globe back to Niko. While she closed it back up, he powered up his CDU. "Firefly, my good tweaker. Copy the data on this chip and display, please." The tiny orange fireball zipped out of the CDU and danced over the chip's surface.

"Sorry, Dockeroonie! It's encrypted!"

"I might have guessed. Grab it anyway. We might as well have a copy to hack with."

"I don't think Goose would like that, boss."

"Goose?"

"It's his key," Firefly said.

Niko's fingers tightened on the globe. "Gaea," she whispered.

Chapter Text

BETA Mountain Summit Level

6/6, 1245

 

 

Goose stared down at the globe in his left hand, his face devoid of expression. The tip of his right index finger rested lightly on the listening bug in his ear.

"Are you totally sure it's from Gaea?" Doc muttered to Niko.

She tossed him a look, squashing her impatience, and returned to watching Goose. "I'm a telepath and I have psychometry," she said, eyes on the tall Supertrooper. "Do the math."

The three Rangers stood on the overlook at the top of BETA Mountain. The sun had risen only a few hours before, but already the midwinter desert air held a promise of warmth. A light wind tugged at Niko's hair, and she pushed it back behind her ear, from where it immediately drifted loose. She pushed it back again and thought threatening thoughts of scissors and clippers and the utility knife she kept in her boot. But her hair drifted silken around her neck and shoulders, and finally as Goose's hand dropped from his ear she smiled to herself and let it be.

Goose turned and handed the globe to Doc.

"Well? What's on that chip, my Goose man?"

"A message," Goose said quietly.

Doc nearly sputtered. "Well, obviously! What is it?"

In answer Goose held out the bug—to Niko. She caught the barest hint of mischief in his green eyes as she took the little player from him and slipped it into her own ear.

"Hey!"

"You can listen next, Doc," she assured him, unable to keep a ripple of laughter from her voice, and with her finger she tapped the bug.

A moment of silence, and then the voice she had expected to hear: muffled, harried, as if the recording had been made in haste. From a world away, Gaea whispered, "I'm afraid. Something's wrong. I think there are others."

Eyes in a darkened room. A prickling along her spine. Waking suddenly in the night.

"Gods," Niko whispered. Why did I never see it? Shocked, she met Goose's gaze, and her heart went cold at the utter lack of surprise she saw there.

"Niko, what is it?" Doc demanded.

Mute, she held out the earbug, her eyes still holding Goose's. "You knew," she whispered. Doc took the bug and turned away from their voices to listen.

"I suspected," Goose said wearily. "She was a prototype. Why wouldn't they have made more? The design obviously worked."

"Prototype, design—these are people you're talking about, Goose!"

His eyes went icy. "Not to OPS."

"I don't care—"

"Holy smokes!" Doc wheeled slowly to face them, his face slack with shock. "No wonder I—" He cut himself off and looked down at the weather globe in his hand.

"What, Doc?" Niko asked.

Doc frowned, looking uncomfortable. "A couple months ago I was pulling a late-night shift," he said. "I saw something in the system neither my tweakers nor the AI could find any trace of."

"Something?" Niko repeated.

"A text message. Showed up on a couple different screens. 'Watch out, Hartford, or we'll hack you.' I figured it was some hacker pulling fancy pranks—it was actually April Fool's Day, now that I mention it—but it was making me crazy trying to figure out how they'd gotten it past all of my programs and Alberta's sweeps." He shook his head, jaw set in anger. "Guess I know now. It was all just in my head, wasn't it?"

"Probably," Niko answered.

Goose stirred, and Niko's eyes turned back to his face.

"Somebody needs to learn some manners," he said quietly, and at the cold menace in his voice Niko twitched inwardly.

Doc assayed a tight smile. "So let's school 'em." He handed the earbug and the weather globe to Niko and began stalking down the promenade. His voice floated back to them. "You two coming or what?"

Niko studied Goose. "What are you going to do, Shane?" she asked, pitching her voice for his ears only.

He met her eyes, his face stony. "Whatever it takes," he said.

 

 

 

Doc's quarters

1351

 

 

"More of them?" 

"Have a seat, my captain. You're not gonna like what we've been digging up." 

Zachary sank onto Doc's sofa, dismay and shock chasing each other in circles in his mind. 

"I was right about being watched by a telepath, Zachary," Niko said. "I was just wrong about who it was." 

"How could this happen? I thought Gaea was the only one." Zachary glanced at Goose, who leaned, arms folded across his chest, against the wall near the door. 

"It stands to reason, Zach," Doc pointed out. "There were many Supertroopers, weren't there? Why would they make only one of these telepaths?" 

"But Gaea was unstable," Zach protested, feeling dazed. "She had emotional problems—" 

"She had emotional problems," Goose snapped, "because when she was five years old Greer Latham started stuffing megadoses of genetic enabling factor down her throat and it caused chemical imbalances, and he dumped a heavy load of conditioning on top. When no one's messing with her head, she's fine, and a damn sight more stable than most of the STs I know." 

"Besides," Doc said, "the Supertrooper project might have finished with our Goose man here, but it started off with soldiers like Ryker Killbane, and he's nuttier than a fruitcake. " 

Goose held out an earbug, indicating with a twitch of his hand that Zach should take it. "Listen to this, Zach," he said.

Zach put the little appliance in his normal ear and tapped it.

"I'm afraid," whispered that half-remembered voice. "Something's wrong. I think there are others."

In his mind's eye, Zachary saw fear-maddened eyes, a pale face smudged with dirt, dark tangled hair. He sighed. "So because of this message, which you have to admit is cryptic, you've come to the conclusion that OPS built more Supertrooper telepaths? Or do you have other evidence?"

His Rangers all looked at one another.

"Who else would be doing this, Zach?" Niko asked gently. "You already know that someone was watching me. It started at the very end of March and lasted until early May. When did you start having trouble sleeping?"

Zachary considered. "Late March sounds about right," he admitted. "Is that all?" 

Doc said, "Well, I was working late one night at the beginning of April and a message showed up on my screen. Thing is, neither my tweakers nor Alberta found any sign of that message."

Zachary stared at him. "An illusion?" At Doc's nod, Zach pulled the bug from his ear and handed it to Goose. "I still don't see a clear link to OPS," he said . 

"There is one." 

Everyone looked at Goose. 

Zachary saw a muscle flex in Goose's jaw. "They talked to me," the Supertrooper said, and stopped. 

"Talked?" Niko repeated. "Do you mean they spoke to you telepathically?" 

"No, I heard it. With my ears." 

"An aural illusion," Niko said. "What did they say?" 

Zachary looked sharply at her, for her voice held an especial gentleness. He glanced back at Gooseman when the blond Ranger shifted his weight against the wall. 

"Insults. And gossip from Wolf Den, things that wouldn't appear in any of the official records." Gooseman finally met Zach's eyes. "Don't you get it, Captain? They got that stuff from Latham." 

"What about a Supertrooper? Didn't you have any telepaths at Wolf Den?" 

"No." 

Zachary looked at the three of them, all so certain, and raised his hands in surrender. "How can I argue with three-quarters of the Series Five team? But there's still the question of what we're going to do about it." 

"It should be taken care of," Niko said. "Back in May, I put a stop to the watchers by setting up wards around all our quarters. They should keep unfriendly psychic energy out. If any of you experience further harassment while you're at home, please let me know and I'll try something else. I can't cover all of BETA Mountain, but I should be able to let you sleep through the night." 

"Right on, Niko," Doc said. The two exchanged a smile, but then Doc grew serious once more. "The only question I've got now—well, okay, not the only question, but definitely the first—is just how many of these kids are there?" 

"There's a bigger question for starters, Doc," Goose said quietly.

"Oh?"

Zach stared at Goose, seeing suddenly and clearly where Goose's line of reasoning was going.

"The Supertrooper program was supposed to provide Earth with a defense against alien aggression," Goose continued. "But it was shut down after the riot, and the Board passed laws that made it illegal to create genetically engineered humans. Earth's a member of the League of Planets now; we have other defenses against alien attack. So—" 

"Why build them?" Zach asked softly.

 

 

The Series Five team sat around the table in Doc's living room. Stacks of record chips and printouts were scattered around takeout food containers like snow drifted around trees. Goose hunched over his handheld, eyes intent. Niko rested her chin on one hand, eyes closed. Zach sat back in his chair; it squeaked ominously, and Doc made a wordless noise of protest.

"Mon capitan, you've really gotta bring your own chair here, you know? Mine aren't reinforced to deal with all those bionics."

"Quit griping, Doc," Goose said automatically, never lifting his gaze from the screen of his handheld. "You could requisition a heavy-duty chair from Supply any time you wanted. Just tell 'em it's for working meetings like this one."

Zach smiled. Finessing the system again, Gooseman?

Niko opened her eyes. "Doc, what did you do with that big noteboard? I want to write some things down."

Doc got up and went into the bedroom, from which rummaging sounds issued. With his augmented hearing, Zach clearly heard the rustle of clothing, which gave way to an ominous slithering and then to a muffled exclamation from Doc and a sound that reminded Zach of nothing so much as a large mass of snow coming loose from a roof and landing on someone's head.

Goose bent over his handheld, shaking with silent hilarity.

Doc emerged triumphant, noteboard in hand and hair disarranged, and handed his prize to Niko.

"Congratulations on getting back safely, Doc," Zachary said with a perfectly straight face. "I was thinking about sending in the St. Bernards."

"Only if the barrel's full of coffee, my captain." 

Niko had been scribbling furiously, and now she turned the noteboard to display a pair of lists in her flowing hand.

"The harassment started in March, we think," she said. "They disturbed Zach's sleep fairly often. They watched me, and they used aural illusion to harass Goose. They woke him up as well; remember, Doc, the day he came into the office looking like a thunderstorm and I finally had to pry it out of him?"

Goose frowned at her. "I—don't think it was them."

She stared at him, waiting.

"You remember I told you I kept dreaming someone was calling me?" Goose said. "It was—I kept thinking about Gaea all day that day, for no reason. I think it happened once before then as well."

Niko kept staring at him; Zachary saw her jaw tighten. "And that didn't seem important to you?" she asked carefully.

Goose glared at her with a mixture of shamefacedness and irritation. "How am I supposed to know about this stuff?" he demanded. "It's your—" He broke off.

"That's exactly right, Goose," she said harshly, her volume increasing gradually until she was shouting. "It's my department. It's one of my specialties. Stars! Put me on your 'Need to know' list, will you? You big—idiot! Gaea was probably trying to contact you to warn you! We could have known there were others like her weeks ago, and instead you kept your mouth shut and she had to involve a child and use the mails!" She smacked her stylus down, sat back in her chair with a furious huff of breath, and put her hands over her eyes.

Zachary realized his jaw was hanging open, and shut it. Doc's eyes had gone wide. Goose stared down at his handheld, his face sullen.

Niko dropped her hands. "I'm sorry," she said quietly. "I shouldn't have lost my temper. It doesn't matter, Goose. We know now, and we have a problem to solve." She glanced down at her list and continued, "Doc, they seem to have left you alone apart from that one time."

Doc shook off his amazement, following Niko's lead. "Yeah, if you call getting arrested being left alone," he grumbled. "OPS figured out I got hold of some of their data, and they set me up so they could wipe a bunch of drives."

Zach sat up. "That doesn't fit the same pattern," he said decisively. "It has a totally different feel. There was a purpose to Doc's arrest and to the attack on the Saoirse. What purpose does the harassment serve?"

"So you think the harassment is not part of OPS' official activities?" Niko asked.

"If you can call anything they do 'official,'" Zach said. "But yes. I think Doc's arrest and this petty harassment are separate." He felt his mouth twitch as a memory rose in his mind.

"What is it, Zach?" Niko asked curiously.

He smiled sheepishly at her. "I'm remembering Jessie and a slumber party when she was eight—and how she lost phone privileges for a month."

Doc began to laugh. "She and her friends were making prank phone calls?"

"Yeah," Zach said, mouth still twitching. "Just like these kids. Anything else?" he added, looking around at his team.

Goose looked up, still obviously a bit embarrassed. "Seth," he said quietly. "That doesn't fit the pattern either."

"He got shot barely a month after he did that lab work for us," Doc said.

"Elimination of a resource," Goose said, nodding. "Sorry, Captain—that's how they look at this stuff."

Zach unclenched his jaw and nodded back. 

Niko scribbled. "Arrest, shooting," she said under her breath. "Insomnia, harassment... The girl whose impression I got is young. The harassment is petty, you're right, Zach. As if a child or young person were behind it."

"Well, these 'others' would be," Goose pointed out. "Kids, I mean. Teenagers at the oldest. Gaea's only eighteen, and they have to be a few years younger at least."

"We're not any further along to 'why,' though," Zach said.

"No," Niko agreed, quirking one corner of her mouth. "But this is still useful, you know."

Doc turned to his terminal, looking thoughtful. "If we go on the assumption that they got me arrested because I found something really big and they needed to get rid of the evidence..." He glanced back at them, then at his screen, and said over his shoulder, "Go ahead, you guys, I'm going to look through some files—hm. All this stuff was in the batches I vacuumed right before I got arrested." He scrolled through lists of files, pulling absently at his lower lip. "No," he muttered. "Nope, nope, no..." His mumbling trailed off into silence, and Zach turned back toward the table.

"'Why' is a very good question," Zach mused. "Especially considering the risk if the public finds out. There'd be a major scandal."

"Why does anyone ever develop a weapon?" Goose asked, irony heavy in his tone. "They're afraid of something—even if it's just losing power."

"Well, what do we know about what they're doing?" Niko asked. "Doc, you gave us an update a while back."

Another mumble arose from the direction of the terminal, and Zach frowned, thinking. "Weapons research, including nanotechnology and biowarfare," he recalled, ticking items off on his fingers. "Ship and drive research. Spying on enemies and allies."

"They're doing something on Brimstone," Goose said. "The flyover we did over the spot where the Diego Jihad supposedly started proved there's major activity going on at one of the archaeological sites. Quit it with the hairy eyeball, Zach, we've served our time and we needed that data."

Zachary rolled his eyes and crossed his arms over his chest.

"Archaeol—hey." Oblivious, Doc turned from his monitor to level one finger at Niko. "Hey, what about that report? The bits from that might-be-loony archaeologist? He was sure scared about something."

Niko looked doubtful. "Doc, that's a pretty big leap. Have you had a chance to find any more information?" 

"What report?" Zachary demanded, a familiar sinking feeling in his gut. "Doc..." 

The hacker raised his hands in protest. "I wanted to dig up more evidence before I brought this to you, Captain," he explained. "I found this garbled piece of a file—" 

Zach groaned and put his hands over his eyes. 

"Zachary," Niko said earnestly, and he dropped his hands and looked at her. "The man who wrote the report was an archaeologist who by the end of his career was probably mentally ill, a paranoid schizophrenic. His conclusions may be completely unfounded. Doc asked me to look at it, and that's really all I could tell him. I think he was just trying to figure out if the document he found was factual or not. Right, Doc?" 

"Something like that," muttered Doc. More loudly, he added, "The guy seemed to think there might be some danger to Earth. If he was right, and if OPS saw this report, that might be enough for them." 

"Seems kind of thin," Zachary said. "But let me know what you find out, all right? And Doc—" He pointed at the hacker, who had leaned back with a grin. "I don't want to know too much about where you get this, all right?"

 

 

Series Five Rangers' office

5/4, 0800

 

 

"I do wish you were coming with us, Zachary." Niko, sitting on the bridge of Ranger One, reached above her, out of the video pickup range, to toggle a switch. 

Zachary raised one hand in a gesture of resignation. "I suppose I wouldn't mind seeing Wolcab again, but I'm going to have to work double time as it is on the academy admissions selection committee."

"Did Senator Ganz's son really apply?" she asked, curiosity clear on her face.

Zach grimaced. "Yes, he did. And Senator Wheiner immediately filed a protest, saying that the son of a senator gone bad was no kind of candidate for a law enforcement officer. Personally, I think Mr. Ganz is an outstanding candidate—it's not appropriate to tar him with the brush his mother loaded. But—"

"You're going to have to sell it, aren't you?"

Doc's voice came from behind Zach. "Like a veritable door-to-door man, lady, and good luck to you, Captain; I wouldn't want that chore for two years' bonus." He set his coffee mug down on the corner of Zach's desk and leaned forward to grin at Niko, adding, "I'd rather grub around underwater on Wolcab, and you all know how much I love grubbing. Lucky for me I get to go work with Q-Ball on studying the Great Computer's wiring, instead. And we leave—tomorrow!" The hacker struck an exuberant pose. "Yeah!"

Niko snickered.

"Hey, you making fun of my dance moves?"

Zach smothered a laugh. "It sounds like you've got an exciting time ahead of you, at least," he said to Niko. "I know you haven't gotten much chance to do archaeological work lately." He couldn't hold back a smile at the eagerness evident in her eyes. 

"I'm sure they'll call you—if they need any walls reached through," Doc said. At Zach's snort, the hacker picked up his mug and waved to Niko. "You be careful out there, now," Doc added, and sauntered over to his desk.

Zach shook his head, smiling. "You ready for takeoff, Niko?" 

"All set, Zachary. We'll see you in a couple of weeks. Wish us luck." 

Good luck," he said. "Let's hope my work goes well; I'm sure yours will." He saluted. "Zachary Foxx out." 

"Ranger One out." 

The comm screen cleared, and Zachary sat back in his seat and stared at the list on his terminal. 

Almost 200 finalists for 110 spots, the selection delayed already because of the Leonov sting, a political hot potato in the pool, and Wheiner frothing at the mouth... It's going to be a long week.

Chapter Text

The Cavern of the Heart, Tarkon

5/5, 0809

 

 

Q-Ball pushed his glasses back onto the bridge of his nose and squinted up toward the roof of the cavern. "So this is the Great Computer," he said, turning his gaze to the great stone enclosure that held the Heart of Tarkon. "I couldn't quite believe your reports, Doc, but you were right on. It doesn't look anything like—anything I've seen before."

"Yeah, Q, I know."

"The Heart of Tarkon is unique," said Maya proudly.

The other members of the research team were all standing behind Q-Ball and Doc. At a signal from the hacker, they slowly began spreading out to examine the cavern. Ashley Riordan began unpacking her video camera. Asa, his big ears twitching, pulled out his handheld and started taking readings. Ursula walked directly up to the Heart's enclosure and began examining the stone. Bari began assembling her measuring kit, and by the look on her face Doc could tell she was already mentally calculating distance and volume.

"Well, I should introduce you all," Doc said. He raised his voice. "Hello, Shaman."

A great hologram appeared in the air near the Heart. The others gasped, but Doc smiled at the kind face of the old shaman he'd met so many times.

"Greetings, Doc," said the old man's voice. "Have you come to study me?" His eyes crinkled in a smile.

"That's about the speed of it," Doc agreed. "Let me introduce you to my colleagues. This is Q-Ball, BETA's head of research. What he doesn't know about physics, biophysics, computers, and robotics hasn't been invented yet."

"Hello," said Q-Ball faintly.

"Ashley is our linguist, archaeologist, and video gal for this expedition," Doc continued, smiling at Ashley's cheerful wave. "Asa is a botanist and a medical doctor. He and Kwame and Pavlos, who are also doctors, are gonna be studying the biological components of the Heart." Asa nodded, his huge Kiwi eyes twinkling. The two humans were already conferring over handhelds; they stopped to give hurried courtesies before returning to their quiet conversation. "Ursula over there studies rocks." The geologist gave Doc an evil look over her shoulder, then raised a hand in a brusque wave to the shaman before turning back to her study. Doc smirked and then, recalling himself, turned back to his introductions.

"And this is Bari." The Andorian bowed, her stern face softened by a smile. "She's a mathematician and a chemist. Between the lot of us, we've got most of the bases covered. We hope."

"I am pleased to see you all," said the shaman. "I will try to answer your questions as best I can."

 

 

Foxx family quarters, BETA Mountain

5/6, 0219

 

 

Zachary's eyes drifted open. He blinked sleepily and rolled over.

And rolled over again.

And sighed.

I guess I had too much coffee today.

The thought felt oddly familiar.

 

 

 

Meeting Room 291-A, BETA Mountain

5/8, 0905

 

 

"In short, I believe that the son of a criminal is the last person who should be admitted to the Ranger Academy!" Senator Wheiner's meaty index finger stabbed at the air.

"Yes, you've made that abundantly clear, Senator," Walsh said dryly.

 "This is no laughing matter, Walsh! How can we expect a criminal's son to be trustworthy himself? Everybody knows these things run in families! Ganz's son should be disqualified from the applicant pool immediately!" Wheiner glared around at the members of the selection committee, nodded definitively once, and seated himself.

Zachary tamped down the urge to sigh and found himself yawning instead.

Why did I have to get insomnia again now, of all times?

"Captain Foxx," Walsh said, "did you have anything to add?"

Zach rubbed one hand over his face, collected his thoughts, and stood.

"Since you brought up the topic of genetics, Senator..."

 

 

The committee members filed out the door of the meeting room. Empty coffee cups stood about the table; a trashbot was already trundling from chair to chair to collect them.

Zachary powered down his datapad and turned to leave.

"Very well argued, Captain Foxx." Sheela McIntyre, her own pad in hand, stood by the door, her face by-the-book sober... and her eyes amused.

"Thank you, Lieutenant," Zach answered. "But I don't think I won any points from the senator."

"Lost cause," she said, her dry tone so perfect an imitation of Walsh's that she startled a bark of laughter out of him. "But between you, me, and the wall, it's repulsive that he tried to besmirch Stefan Ganz's suitability when his own daughter's been arrested twice for drug possession, never mind that idiotic stunt on Tortuna."

"He won't forgive me any time soon for bringing it up in public," Zach said quietly. "He's not someone you want against you."

"I know," she said, her eyes serious now. "Watch your back, Captain." Her eyes searched his face. "And get some rest. You look tired."

 

 

Foxx family quarters

5/9, 0213

 

 

Zachary rolled over in bed. The readout on his clock seemed to stare at him.

I woke up around this time last night, too.

His eyes opened.

No. At almost exactly this time.

It did seem a bit much for coincidence. He frowned.

But Niko said she'd taken care of that...

 

 

 

The Cavern of the Heart, Tarkon

0803 local time

 

 

Doc stretched and yawned. "Hey, Q, I'm gonna walk around a bit, see if I can't wake myself up."

Q-Ball mumbled something unintelligible. Over the skinny scientist's shoulder, Ashley Riordan grinned and winked. "Go on," she whispered. "He'll never notice."

Doc grinned back and walked briskly toward the entrance to the cavern, passing the other members of the little expedition, all measuring and recording and studying. He passed through the square doorway, squinting as bright sunlight replaced the dimmer light of the cavern.

He stretched again, feeling ridiculously happy, and surveyed the landscape.

No place else I'd rather be.

He stood there a little while, watching the wind through the scraggly grasses that were managing to push up here and there through cracks in the rocks, and then turned to go back inside.

As he turned, a bright scrap of color among the weeds caught the corner of Doc's eye, and he glanced down at the ground. What's that? He squatted to get a closer look, then reached down to pick the thing up. The rectangular, bright yellow tag sat in his palm, a bit bigger than the last joint of his thumb. What the—it's plastic! What's a piece of plastic doing here? Well, whatever it is, it's got a chip in it. And if it's got a chip— Doc unclipped his CDU from his belt and tapped his badge. "Hey, Pathfinder, get out here and check out this doohickey. What is it?"

The little program shot out of its holographic field. "What's the magic word, boss?" it squeaked, and flew in a circle around Doc's head.

"If you don't get on with it, it's gonna be 'Delete self,' bytehead."

"Yow! Right, Doc!" Pathfinder buzzed over the square of plastic, scanning its data. "It's a standard-issue League RFID tag. They use 'em on archaeological sites. This one's blank. Am I still busted?"

Doc stared blankly down at the tag in his palm.

"Hey, Doc, what's the matter?"

"Yeah. I mean, no, it's fine, we're done. Good work."

The League's never sent an archaeological expedition here.

Has it?

 

 

"You found what, where?"

Behind Niko, light refracting off waves danced over the bulkheads of the Flying Sub. One stray lock of hair hung, dripping, down the left side of her forehead. Faintly in the background Doc heard the chitter of dolphin voices.

"Pathfinder says it's an RFID chip, the kind the League uses on archaeological sites." Doc held the scrap of plastic closer to the comm screen.

Niko peered at it, her puzzlement plainly growing. "That's what it looks like to me," she confirmed. "You found it outside the Heart's cavern?"

"Yup. Looked like it got dropped at some point. It was peeking out from under a patch of weeds."

She shook her head slowly. "Doc..." she said, doubt clear on her face, "the League has never sent an archaeological expedition to Tarkon."

"So how'd it get here?" he demanded.

"I have no idea," Niko answered.

"Yeah, well, I have a guess. Who's part of the League but doesn't play by the League's rules?"

She frowned.

"We've even found links to a couple other archaeological sites. Things. Whatever."

"OPS? You think they sneaked into the Haunted Lands and went poking around there? Surely the shaman would have noticed them—"

"Not if they were here before the Battle of Tarkon," Doc pointed out.

Niko went very pale. "If you've guessed right, Doc," she said very softly, "OPS was investigating the Great Computer. And probably the Sleeper. And possibly even—"

"Our old buddy the Scarecrow. Yup. And if Herr Doktor Archaeologist Dude Atkinson wasn't loony tunes and just making stuff up, they were also poking around on other planets that got devastated in wars. Makes ya wonder who was doing all the fighting, doesn't it? And I don't know about you, but it sure leaves me wondering what else is sitting in our space, waiting to get dug up."

 

 

 

Foxx family quarters

5/11, 0224

 

 

Zachary stared at the ceiling. There wasn't much else left to do.

 

 

Commander Walsh's office

5/12, 0901

 

 

"You wanted to see me, Commander?"

Walsh turned from his study of the fish tank and took up, instead, a study of Zachary. Zach had to fight suddenly not to shuffle his feet.

Why do I feel like a cadet on review?

"You look terrible, Zachary," Walsh said bluntly. "Sheela alerted me you've been sleeping poorly again. GV was... most informative on the subject." The commander's bushy brows descended in a glare. "You should have reported to the med lab a week ago. So go. Consider yourself relieved until the docs release you back to work."

Zach came to attention. "Commander," he said stiffly. "I'll obey your orders, but if I'm right about what's going on... the medics can't do anything for me except drug me unconscious. Which I object to. Sir."

Walsh stared at him.

"It was my understanding," the commander said finally, "that Ranger Niko had taken care of this problem."

"Yes, sir. It looks like it's un-taken care of. Sir."

Walsh let his head come to rest on his hand and muttered a crude but highly inventive phrase, muffled behind his hand but still quite intelligible.

"Right. Go to med lab. I'm ordering Rangers Niko and Gooseman back to BETA."

"Commander—"

"Go on."

Zachary went.

 

 

 

Deep ocean, Wolcab

1026 local time

 

 

Niko floated, panning her video camera across a wall on which carvings were still faintly visible. The carefully weighted belt at her waist kept her anchored against the vague stirrings of the currents and maintained her at a fairly constant depth. Above her Winter circled, squeaking faintly.

Her radio clicked. "You know, girl," Goose's voice said, "you could get video just as good from inside the sub."

She laughed. "I know, Shane, but it's nice to get out. Did you need something?"

"I hate to have to tell you this..."

The reluctance in his voice brought her hands to a halt. "What's the matter?"

"Just got a call from the commander. We're headed home."

'But we've barely gotten started!" Niko winced at the sound of her own near-wail.

"I know. Zach's sick, Walsh said. He said it'd take your own special brand of remedy, just like last time."

Niko's mouth fell open, and before she could stop herself she made an inarticulate noise of protest.

"I know, I know. I'm prepping Ranger One for takeoff now. Winter, time to go. Icarus is already back here."

Without a word Niko clipped her camera back into its holder and touched the button on her belt that would begin her ascent. Winter brushed gently by her, chittering a soft message of comfort, but Niko was far too furious to do more than absently pat the dolphin's flank.

At least I got eight days... When I catch those children, they'll wish I believed in spankings!

 

 

 

Doc's quarters

5/23, 1948

 

 

Doc leaned back in his seat for a stretch. "Hanging with the shaman was a blast, but it's nice to get back to my own place," he declared. "Q-Ball's still having way too much fun debating the Heart on life, the universe, and everything."

"At least he's still there," Niko said grumpily. "And you've been back for days. What have you been up to?"

"Are you still sulking?"

She glared at him. "Yes, and I'm going to be at it for a while, so you can just—"

"Whoa, Nellie!" He held up his hands. "Not my fault!"

"Even saints get to be grumpy when their vacations get ruined, and I'm no saint," she said sourly, and indicated the monitor. "What did you find?"

He turned back to the screen and typed a command. "Ba-da-bing, ba-da-boom!" Glancing over, he caught her incredulous stare and pulled an exaggerated pout. "Nobody appreciates my humorous retro quotes!" he said mock-mournfully. "And by the way, I don't think the commander will appreciate your calling it a vacation."

"There was nothing dangerous there this time, so I can call it a vacation if I like. Give!"

"Okay, okay! So you remember all those hoops I jumped through to the find the Navy base in Texas, right?"

"Basically, yes. Haven't they stepped up security since then, though?"

"Yes... But they can't cover everything all of the time, which is what I bank on. So-" With another flurry of keystrokes, he brought up an image on the monitor.

Niko stared. "Doc," she said. "I take it back. I'm not grumpy any more."

 

 

2001

 

 

Goose leaned over Doc's shoulder, eyes narrowed. "It sure looks like it to me," he said. "But there are plenty of things it could be besides a concealed OPS base. How'd you rule out all the other possibilities?"

Doc looked happy. "I was hoping you'd ask," he said, and took a deep breath.

 

 

2003

 

 

"Okay, so it's an OPS base," Goose said, cutting Doc off. "How do you know it's got anything to do with the kids?"

"Well—"

"Formula," Niko put in.

The two men stared at her.

"This isn't rocket science," she said impatiently. Men!

"Neither is rocket science," Goose muttered.

"I don't feel like listening to Doc go through the long version again. From the data in this file, we know that someone at that base ordered quite a lot of baby formula. I know it's formula because I know this brand name—" she tapped one line in the file onscreen—" and I know it because Jessie babysits for Lieutenant Kiley and his wife, and one night she called me for help because they'd run out of formula and the delivery bots were all running late."

"Bet they gave you a look down at the dispensary when you showed up and bought baby formula," Doc mumbled. "Ow! Will you stop that?"

"No. Think about it, you oafs. How many OPS bases has Doc found where the personnel have children?"

"Oafs?" Goose said. "Oafs? Will you get over the vacation already!"

"AAHHH!" Doc screamed. "Will you two stop! You sound like an old married couple!" 

Into the dead silence Doc said, "Okay. So there are kids there. And now that my esteemed colleague points it out, I do believe it's safe to say that no, I don't think OPS tends to hire people with kids. Probably because they'd just have to keep them out of things." Ignoring a muttered "Kinda like hackers" from Goose, Doc pulled up one last file, looking far too pleased with himself. "And this—is the kicker."

Niko and Goose leaned forward.

Onscreen, a succession of satellite photos flickered past. They watched in time-lapse as a plane approached the base, landed, took off again. Goose frowned. Doc stifled a yawn.

"That's a Peregrine."

"Yep," Doc answered. "And look at the date and time of approach." 

Niko's eyes dropped to the stamp.

2098 0804 2101 GMT.

The date transfixed her.

Gaea...

"That's about three hours after a Peregrine left the Navy base in New Corpus Christi," Goose said. The apparent calm in his voice lifted the hairs on the back of Niko's neck; she turned her inner eyes toward him, only to find him as tightly shuttered as she'd ever seen him. Uneasiness stirred.

"Yep," Doc repeated. "Same type—and same transponder code."

"Doc..." Niko began softly. "You're saying..."

"I'm saying that whatever they were taking, they took it there."

"Then that's where we've got to go," Goose said.

"Whoo, sure, right," Doc cracked. "We'll just drive on up to the main entrance and knock."

"Give me a break, Doc," Goose snapped. "You've gotten us into secure facilities before—remember BEEF?"

"Yeah, and that went so well, too."

"Cut it out, Doc," Niko said evenly. "Goose, do you have any ideas?"

He shook his head. "Not right now. But give me a couple days, and I will." He smiled then, and Niko's misgivings wavered.

Don't be stupid, she chided herself. Goose knows we're a team.

Doc yawned. "Hey, you guys, I hate to seem like a bad host, but we've got work tomorrow at 0900, and I'm beat."

"Sure," Goose said easily. "Maybe by then I'll have an idea for you. Thanks for the update." He began to turn, then paused. "You're gonna wait for my suggestion before you mention this to Zach, right? You know he hates this stuff. We might as well hand it all to him in one easier-to-digest bundle."

"Sure, Goose," Doc said, yawning again.

Goose nodded to them both, grinned at Niko, and strode out with a wave. "'Night, guys," floated back as the door slid shut behind him.

Niko watched him go, unable to quite let go of worry. She felt Doc's gaze on her and flushed. "Good night, Doc," she said, not meeting his eyes.

"Good night, Niko," he said gently, and she sensed only sympathy and affection as she hurried out the door.

Chapter Text

BETA Mountain lecture hall A-3

5/28/2099, 0857

 

 

Niko glanced at her wrist comm for the third time in two minutes. Zachary, seated to her right, looked over.

"Is something wrong?" he asked quietly. "You seem restless."

"Just wondering where Goose and Doc are," she answered with a brightness she didn't feel. A moment later Doc hurried in, just in front of the lecturer.

"There's one," Zach said. "Gooseman probably hit the snooze button one time too many."

"Probably," she answered absently. As Doc settled down on her left, she caught sight of Commander Walsh in a chair near the front. At a sudden decision, she rose. "I'll be right back," she whispered to Zach, and hurried across to where Walsh sat. The commander's bushy brows rose as she settled onto the edge of an empty seat next to him.

"Commander, have you seen Goose this morning?" she murmured.

Walsh studied her for a long moment, his eyes—Am I just imagining it?—seeming suddenly kind.

"Ranger Gooseman is on a special assignment for the next few days," he said finally. "He'll be out of touch until he's finished. May I ask what this is about?"

Niko's heart sank. He never intended for us to go, she realized numbly. He only said so to throw us off.

"He asked to do it, didn't he?" she whispered. "He told you what Doc found—" She broke off as Walsh's eyes grew wary.

"Gooseman is investigating a cold case. A lead came through my office a few weeks ago, and late yesterday evening he asked permission to follow up on it," Walsh said. "Unless you have some other information about what he's doing?"

Niko swallowed, not quite able to lie.

Walsh studied her for a moment longer. "See me in my office after the lecture," he ordered. "Bring your teammates."

 

 

 

Commander Walsh's office

1106

 

 

"Niko," Zach said quietly, "I'm disappointed in you."

Doc watched his teammate fighting tears and sighed inwardly. "Hey, Captain, it's not all her fault, you know," he put in mildly. "I'm the one who found all that data. And Goose played us."

"But you all agreed to withhold information from me—and from Commander Walsh," Zachary snapped. "Yes, this team has permission to investigate matters related to Gaea's case, even though it's officially closed, and I've gotten resigned to knowing Doc doesn't tell me everything. But this—" He shook his head. "I expected better of you, Niko."

"I'm sorry, Zachary," Niko whispered. "You're right."

Walsh cleared his throat. "Gooseman's assignment was to take him to Redmond, Washington," he said. "He was to fly to the BPA base near SeaTac and pick up a civilian car. I don't expect to hear from him until later today at the earliest. Because he's undercover, I can't contact him without risking his investigation, so until he calls in, I can't order him back here."

"He had it all planned out, didn't he?" Doc shook his head.

Walsh looked at him. "That's what we taught them to do at Wolf Den, Dr. Hartford," he said. "Fight smart. And it's a good thing for Earth that the most talented product of that damned project is on our side. Zachary, I'll keep you up to date on Goose's progress."

"Yes, sir," Zach answered. "Thank you. Will you call me if he calls in? I want to talk to him."

"Don't hold your breath," Walsh drawled. "He's got to know what's waiting for him back here. Dismissed."

 

 

 

1739

 

 

There was a rap on the door, and it slid open to admit Sheela McIntyre. Walsh glanced up.

"You asked to be informed if Ranger Gooseman reported in, sir," she said.

"He's on the line?"

She shook her head. "No, sir. He sent a progress report via encrypted datalink just a moment ago."

Walsh shook his head ruefully. "The boy's not stupid."

"No, sir," Sheela said.

"You can take off your formal face, Sheela," Walsh said dryly. "I know as well as anyone when someone's pulled one over on me. And I'm still not sure what I'm going to do about it."

"Yes, sir," she said, letting a faint smile play over her lips. "The report's on your terminal." She set down the afternoon mail delivery and left the office.

 

 

Somewhere in Saskatchewan Province, Canada

5/30, 0116 local time

 

He stepped through the shadows on catlike feet, the black of his special uniform blending with the darkness. Just to his left, the security perimeter stretched away, northwest-southeast. Goose had been striding steadily along the fence for a few kilometers now, looking for an opening. This section of the perimeter, far from the main gates, was ill-lit and only sparsely patrolled. The electrified fence was a barely discernible hum to his augmented hearing.

An animal—bear, he thought from the odor—crashed suddenly through the underbrush ahead and to his right. He heard the faint tick of a motion sensor responding to the animal's movement and heard the whir of a camera activating—and panning to follow the bear.

Instantly, without thought, for this was what Wolf Den had trained and hammered and beaten into its children over long years of indoctrination and drills, Goose took three steps back and launched himself in a dead run toward the fence. 

Supertrooper muscles tensed, flexed, and Shane leaped up, flipped—and was over.

He hit the ground running.

 

 

It took Goose nearly two hours to work his way in from the security perimeter and locate the exhaust port where a vent blew stale air out of the base. The grate covered a tunnel bored through the rock of the mountain that the base was tucked into. He bent and studied it closely, keeping an ear cocked for patrols. A moment later he straightened, lip curled in scorn.

If I were running this place, I'd kick the ass of whoever set up this port. That motion detector is at least three generations out of date. And thanks to Doc and his penchant for security gadgets...

Goose placed the interrupt generator carefully—just inside the exhaust port grating, but millimeters short of the motion detection beam. With a fingertip, he activated it, and his sensitive ears caught the subsonic whine of electronics.

Gotcha.

A quick application of a good, old-fashioned screwdriver, and the grating came free. Settling it back into place behind him as he lay in the air vent, Goose bared his teeth in something that couldn't truly be called a grin and began to work his way into the base.

 

 

That's the seventeenth vent that didn't go anyplace useful. Another 30 minutes and I'm gonna have to start working my way back out.

Goose finished backing into the main air vent—he was too big to turn around in the smaller vents that led off to the labs and offices—and began to crawl forward again. He tried not to think about the amount of dust, dirt, and general grime he had to be wearing by now. Hope not all of it's white.

He reached a T-intersection, with a choice to continue on straight or to turn left. He was studying both shafts when a faint, familiar smell drifted by his nose. He sniffed cautiously. Bingo. A lab. I'd know that smell anywhere.

He turned to the left and set off down the shaft.

 

 

Goose's breath left his lungs in something that was neither a sigh nor a growl but that held something of both.

I was right. They're planning on making more. A lot more.

Rows of incubation tanks marched down the long room until they were lost in the shadows. There have to be two hundred tanks in there. Maybe more. He stared for a moment through the vent. From his vantage point it was hard to get an exact count, but he could see at least thirty incubators that were occupied. Gritting his teeth, he unscrewed the grating and clambered down. The lab, dimly lit at this hour, raised the hair on the back of his neck with its smells and its rows of gleaming instruments.

Hoped I'd smelled that for the last time.

Drawn by motion inside one of the tanks, he moved to stand in front of it. The fetus inside squirmed, opened its—not its, Gooseman, her, it's a girl, she's a girl—opened her eyes and seemed to stare right at him. Looks like she's only a few weeks from decant. He reached forward, picked up the datapad clipped to the front of the tank, thumbed the power key, and ran his eyes over the screen. Yeah, due to come out of the tank next month... Gods. She's got object I.D. 183362. That means...

Goose swallowed hard against visions of a file, a long progression of numbers and notations. 

Why?

:?:

Goose nearly dropped the datapad. That baby—space! He hung the pad back up and stared at the baby in the tank. She stared back. She's already telepathic!

A tiny hand unfisted and reached toward him. :?: he felt again. The touch held a tinge of fear. "Hey, I won't hurt you," he breathed.

You poor kid.

Her eyes were green.

He stepped away and walked in among the tanks. He tried not to look closely at the small bodies wriggling and kicking in their artificial environments, but it was impossible not to see details: hair of black and brown and gold and red; skin pale and dark and every shade in between. Some of them stared at him. The skin at the back of his neck prickled. He counted quickly

Nearly fifty STs right now, and obviously more planned. Most of these tanks have never been used. The seals are still intact. His eyes narrowed. Why? Where's the threat? Our intel says the Queen's still rebuilding her fleet after the Battle of Tarkon—and anyway these kids, these soldiers, were supposed to be for intel and covert operations, not for all-out war. Doc's archaeological report? Makes no sense. Why arm up for a threat thousands of years old?

Something big is up. They're stepping up production, they're designing their STs to develop powers way earlier—OPS is running scared. But what—

Fire seared his brain. The floor rose up to meet him.

 

From her place by one of the lab benches, Susanna looked down at the tall man who lay gasping in pain on the floor. Winter, standing at her elbow, leaned more heavily against the bench, her elfin face screwed up in concentration.

"Can't for long," she whispered.

Susanna frowned, and her eyes rose to Minako where she stood by the door. Two pairs of brown eyes met.

:You're going to help me now.: Unspoken threat wound itself through Susanna's mindvoice. :Winter will be tired soon. He's got defenses; he's too hard to hurt. We have to take him down for long enough to evacuate this place. Nothing that will leave a mark. And—yes.: She raised her head, smiling maliciously, and widened her call. :Willow! Go and find the liquor that cretinous guard was swilling two nights ago. 'Port it out of his locker if you have to. Desiree, get in here. Be ready to club the Ranger if he gets out of hand. Cecia, find out when the next police patrol in town goes by that hole of an alley next to the liquor store on Ellis Street. If there isn't a patrol scheduled soon, make one. Vladimir, go and report a Class-One security breach and get those stupid normals moving on an evacuation. We'll need a truck to move the Ranger. You'll have to ask him, so make it good. Minako—:

Winter gasped. "Can't." Her knees sagged. Minako frowned at her.

:Don't overextend,: Minako ordered. :Go and help with the evacuation. Calm Judith as you go. She's afraid of the Supertrooper and she's frightening the others.: Her eyes flicked to Susanna's. :I will help you now.:

They turned toward the man on the floor.

 

 

Through the hammering pain in his head, Goose heard a soft footfall. He turned his eyes toward the sound, but he couldn't seem to focus, and everything had an odd aura. Dimly he saw two figures across the room. Small figures. Kids? He began laboriously to sit up—and a sudden fire flared acid-electric along every nerve in his body.

His muscles jerked, went limp and then tense again, and his head cracked against the concrete floor—

 

Sudden disorientation. Distantly she he they heard echoes—

—the floor, cold beneath her them—

"Lia, honey!" "What's—" "She fell"

—echoes of—

 

—his back arched, liquid fire ran through his veins, and through it his pain-wracked mind screamed,This can't be happening! Can't be— He tried to force his hand to his badge, but no signal reached from mind to arm through the yammering chaos that scorched through his nervous system. As if from a great distance he felt his limbs thrashing against the hardness of the floor, felt his teeth sink into his own tongue, but the small pains were lost within the howling agony that seared his mind.

Through it all, cold eyes bored into him.

 

—echoes of—

"No... Shane..." She they curled on the ground, throat dry, head pounding—

—someone else's pain—

"What did she say?" "...seizure...?"

—cold eyes—

—cold eyes—

—a scream crossed worlds.

:Don't hurt him! He's our brother!:

 

Darkness.

 

 

Susanna glared at Minako. "Why did you stop?" she snapped. "You should have kept suppressing the biodefenses. He's going to recover too quickly."

Minako met the older girl's eyes with a calm she did not feel.

"Then we had better move quickly," she answered, and she turned and walked from the room.

It took all of her self-control not to run. Inside the most secret corner of her mind, a song had begun.

Freedom is not a lie. Freedom is not a lie. Freedom...

Chapter Text

Somewhere in Saskatchewan Province, Canada

5/30/2099, 0424 local time

 

 

 

The cold woke him.

"Nnn..." Goose rolled over—and immediately wished he hadn't as he came nose to nose with a foul-smelling something that might once have been a banana peel. He sat up with a jerk and grunted in pain.

My head feels like someone used it to open a bunker. And what the hell is that smell?

He lifted a hand to uncover his badge, briefly relieved to find he was still wearing it. The headache ebbed as his biodefenses kicked in, and he realized that he'd had a scrape on one cheek and a badly bitten tongue as well. Even as the pain cleared, he scanned his surroundings. He was in a narrow alley, poorly lit and reeking of garbage and stale urine. "Great," he muttered, grimacing in disgust. He blew out his breath and got to his feet. Several meters to his right the alley opened out onto a street; faint sounds told him that vehicles and people were nearby. He cocked his head suddenly at the distant, familiar sound of a police radio.

A few strides took him to the mouth of the alley. He stepped out onto the sidewalk and glanced around: rows of darkened display windows; a saloon on the other side of the street, spilling light and raucous laughter into the night; just to his left, a liquor store, nearly the only business still open at this hour. From a lighted upstairs window down the block he heard a woman cry out, and his face heated briefly. He turned his head, brought his arm up to activate his wrist comm—and stared in dismay at the smashed circuitry.

"Even better," he snarled, beginning to feel distinctly grouchy, and turned to pass the liquor store. From down the block, a public comm station cast a glow of illumination.

It was only as he stepped away from the worst of the stench that Goose realized not all of the objectionable smells were coming from the alley behind him.

He looked down at himself just as the patrol car rounded the corner. A searchlight snapped on, upward; caught him in its beam. His badge gleamed golden in the glare. A voice blared over the loudspeaker. "Hey, buddy, you—holy—!" The light blinked out, and both doors opened. Two cops emerged: uncertain, wary, but clearly concerned.

"Uh, Ranger, you okay?" The officer who'd spoken took an involuntary step back as Goose stepped toward him.

I bet, Goose thought dryly. I reek. He tried not to think too hard about how it looked. "Yeah," he said. "Thanks. I got bushwhacked."

"Uh—you want to call in?" The officer started to hand Goose his radio, paused as the tall Ranger shook his head.

"Don't worry about it," said Goose. "I'm going to call a cab." He jerked a thumb in the direction of the comm terminal.

"...Right," said the officer dubiously, and watched as Goose turned and walked—with all the dignity he could muster considering the state of his clothing—down the sidewalk. With his enhanced hearing, Goose clearly heard the second officer's whisper.

"He smells like a distillery."

I, Goose thought distinctly, am screwed.

 

 

 

Main hangar bay, BETA Mountain

5/31, 2241

 

 

Goose had just jumped down from the cockpit when he saw her. Slender and white-clad, she stomped toward him with murder in her eye.

Oh, great. I was hoping to get back to my quarters without attracting—

"You asshole!"

Her voice echoed in the vast space, drawing glances that darted away as soon as they saw who was being yelled at.

"How could you! You lied! You lied to all of us!"

Her volume dropped then, but her fury abated not at all as she cussed him out in every language she knew. He let her rage, knowing he'd earned it, fighting down waves of guilt for lying to his teammates, his friends—but knowing, too, that the job he'd just done was one that only he, among them all, could have done.

"—and you come back here like nothing happened when the press has been calling all day wanting—"

"What?" he cut in, knowing he was on dangerous ground, but wanting to hear the worst.

Her eyes flashed violet with rage. "'Ranger Niko, tell us about your teammate's alcohol problem,'" she mimicked savagely. "Can you imagine what Zach is feeling? Or the commander? You went off alone, you lied about what you were doing, and you got caught by the local police stumbling out of an alley and doused in booze! You jerk! You should be ashamed of yours—"

"You're right."

She fell suddenly silent, the wind taken out of her sails, her eyes wide with surprise.

"You're right, Niko. I shouldn't have lied to you all, even though—" he held up a hand to forestall her words as she started to speak—"even though it was better for me to go alone, and you know it. You're not trained in infiltration. I am. But you're right that I should have talked to you about it. I should have taken the time to persuade you. I'm—sorry." Inwardly he winced. I hate those words. "I'm sorry." Just words. What the hell use are they? They don't fix anything.

She stared at him, her emotions clear on her face: confusion, hurt, a lingering anger. "This is supposed to fix things," she said flatly. "I'm supposed to stop being angry now?" 

"No," he said. "But there's nothing else to say."

"You—" She shook her head, looking frustrated and upset. "Okay, you're sorry," she said finally. "I'm still going to be mad at you for a while, Shane. I trusted you and you betrayed that trust. You asked me not to tell Zach and I went against my own instincts to do it... and you let me down."

Guilt assailed him again. She's right. What is there to say?

"I know," he said quietly. "Look, I—" This time it was she who held up a hand.

"Let's go home, Shane," she suggested softly. "You need to finish cleaning up, and I want to meditate. Have you eaten?"

"No."

"You look terrible. What happened?"

"They happened."

Her eyes went wide.

"A couple of them attacked me. Let's talk about this somewhere else."

She nodded, turned to lead the way.

"Niko... Thanks."

She glanced back, eyes wary. The look roused a stab of hurt. I put that look on her face. Why the hell am I so bad at this stuff?

"I mean it," he said. "Thank you." He caught up to her and matched his stride to hers.

She smiled—and it reached her eyes. "What are friends for except to scream at you in ancient Greek when you do stupid things?"

He grinned. "Is that what it was?"

"Among others. Come over to my quarters when you've gotten cleaned up. I'll feed you and you can tell me about it before you go to bed. You're going to need all the food and rest you can get before tomorrow."

"Tomorrow?"

She grinned wickedly. "Tomorrow. You didn't think you were going to escape a royal bollocking from Zach, did you?"

He groaned. "You don't have to look so happy about it."

"Hey, I said I wasn't quite done being mad."

"Don't poison me, please."

She laughed. "If I did that, I'd miss the show!"

 

 

 

Commander Walsh's office

6/1, 0816

 

 

"—and to make matters worse, you got yourself spotted in the red light district, disheveled and reeking of liquor!" Zach shouted. "You of all people know the importance of avoiding bad press! Furthermore—"

Goose stood at parade rest, to all appearances listening attentively. Inwardly he was only waiting for the yelling to stop; Zachary wasn't saying anything he hadn't thought of himself. Niko, standing near Zach, caught his eye with a warning look, and Goose gritted his teeth and focused once more on his well-earned royal bollocking. To quote a certain someone, he thought in annoyance. Damn telepathy. She was just waiting for me to tune out.

Someone knows me too well.

The thought wasn't as irritating as he would have expected it to be.

"Gooseman!" Zach snapped. "Are you listening to me?"

"Yes, sir!"

"What did I just say?"

Goose quickly replayed Zach's words in his mind and blinked. "You're sending me and Niko on a mission to get me out of the public eye," he said.

"That's right," Zachary said crisply, not much mollified. "Though I didn't mention that last bit directly. The Basuti have reported that several important artifacts have gone missing from their latest dig. I want you to investigate and, if possible, bring in the smugglers."

"Yes, sir."

"Dismissed. Unless you have anything else, sir?" Zachary said to Commander Walsh.

Walsh smiled. Inwardly Goose winced.

I know that smile. I'm in for all the shittiest missions for weeks.

"No, Captain Foxx," Walsh said. "I think you spoke eloquently enough for both of us."

"Dismissed!" Zach barked. "You leave in one hour, Ranger Gooseman, so you'd better go pack."

"Gooseman, Niko," Walsh added, "don't come back to Earth for at least four or five days. Give the press time to move on to the next scandal. Now get out of my office, all of you. I've got real work to do."

 

 

 

Elsewhere

 

 

:Alaina,: Minako whispered. :I have learned something.: She settled into the chair next to the younger Skollii, set down her readpad, and opened her physiology text to the chapter on neuroanatomy. The library was quiet this time of the afternoon; the younger children were having their naps, and most of the others were practicing in the kinetics labs. Alaina's readpad sat in front of her, displaying the secondary algebra text out of which Alaina was working problem sets. 

Alaina stopped midcalculation and looked sidelong at Minako.

:Gaea is alive.:

Alaina's fingers tightened around her stylus, and she grew utterly still. Her dark eyes were unreadable.

:She is free, Alaina. She is living somewhere, free, and Dr. Latham thinks she is dead.:

Slowly Alaina's hand moved, driving the stylus. She finished the equation she had been working and tapped the readpad screen to bring up the next one. The silence lengthened.

:What is 'freedom,' really?: Alaina asked softly. :I've never had it.:

:We are not free. We don't choose what we do or where we go or even what we eat for dinner. And I—: Minako fell silent a moment. :I don't want to kill people,: she whispered. :The nothing when their minds go out is a horrible nothing. A dead person is just a piece of meat. There's no more mind there. It's empty with a cold feeling that makes me feel empty, too. I don't understand the empty feeling, but I don't want it any more.:

They sat quietly. Alaina was no longer even pretending to contemplate algebra.

:We can never be free here,: Alaina said, her mindvoice both sad and matter-of-fact.

Minako stared blindly down at her readpad. :We'll have to take something to trade,: she said. :No one gives something for nothing.:

Chapter Text

World Federation Criminal Court

6/11/2099, 1137

 

 

"And did you at any time actually see my client handling illegal weapons?"

Goose gritted his teeth. A smug expression settled over the defense attorney's face. In his seat at the defense's table, Brent Carmody smirked.

"No," Goose said. "I didn't."

"So you—"

"Having fun, Runt?" Malicious, amused, the voice seemed to come from a spot near his left elbow.

Goose's head snapped around. The space by his left side was empty.

That's the same voice I heard in the cafeteria, he realized.

"Ranger Gooseman?" The defense attorney looked annoyed now.

Goose shook his head sharply, refocusing his attention on where he was. "I'm sorry, counselor," he said. "Could you please restate the question?"

"I said—"

"BETA's lapdog," whispered a second voice. "Guard duty, bounty hunting, and aping the normals. How pathetic."

Goose stiffened. "Better a Galaxy Ranger," he said under his breath, "than a bratty telepath assassin who can't find anything better to do with her time than write rude notes on the bathroom walls."

"What was that, Ranger Gooseman?"

A spike of pain lanced through his right eye. His face twitched, and he felt something trickling down his cheek. He blotted at the wetness with the back of his hand and looked down at the crimson smear, shockingly bright on his white glove.

Wonderful. Can it get any better?

Gasps arose from the jury box. The defense attorney jerked back, her face shocked. Out in the gallery, someone shouted, "He's bleeding!", and a babble of voices erupted. Faintly Goose heard laughter, now behind him, now in front. No one else seemed to notice.

The doors to the courtroom slammed open.

Niko stood framed in the doorway, blazing with power, her face stiff with outrage. Bailiffs swarmed around her, ineffectually remonstrating. Her arms swept forward, and a silver-gold bubble of force rose around the courtroom. The laughter cut off as if someone had thrown a switch. More shouts arose; a man screamed hoarsely. Niko's lips thinned, and though her mouth did not move, Goose clearly heard her speak.

:How dare you!:

Silence rippled through the room. The spectators closest to the doors pulled back from Niko's fury, pushing against their neighbors as they tried to put more space between themselves and the outraged telepath. Holy shit, Goose thought wonderingly, with pain throbbing behind his eye and a trickle of blood still running down his cheek. I think they heard her across town.

The gavel banged. "We will have order in this courtroom, now," thundered the judge. "Bailiffs, clear the gallery and escort the prisoner to holding. Jurors to the jury room. Attorneys, Ranger Niko, approach the bench. Ranger Gooseman, do you need a doctor?"

Goose felt his lips twist in a bitter smile, and he tapped his badge. The pain faded. "No, Your Honor," he said quietly. "Thanks. But I could use a washcloth."

Brent Carmody sat back a little further in his seat, his face pale. His lips moved, and though the man's voice was the lowest of mutters, Goose's enhanced hearing easily picked out his words.

"I can't believe I tried to put the moves on her..."

 

"How stupid do you think I am?" demanded the defense attorney. "A telepathic attack? That's ridiculous!"

"Be quiet, Ms. O'Connell," Judge Henri Kidenya snapped. "I've had enough disorderly conduct in my courtroom already. Ranger Niko, the fact remains that you had not yet been called to testify. I understand you're somewhat of an authority on psionics, but—"

Goose stepped down from the witness stand. "Excuse me, Your Honor," he said quietly. "I can back her up. I was attacked. You saw the blood. Ranger Niko stepped in to defend me."

Kidenya sighed and rubbed his forehead.

"Your Honor, this outrageous display has jeopardized my client's chance for a fair trial!"

"Oh, quit grandstanding, Celia," grumbled the prosecutor, Manoj Dawar. "It's common knowledge that the Series Five Rangers are unusual people. This didn't touch on Ranger Gooseman's testimony. From what Ranger Niko said, it doesn't even have anything to do with this trial."

"But the jury all saw her do—whatever that was!" Celia O'Connell protested. "Do you think that's not going to influence their reception of her testimony?"

"Ma'am," Goose said coldly, "they're more likely to be afraid of Ranger Niko now. How does that hurt Carmody?" Dawar looked at Goose, the corners of his mouth twitching.

Kidenya cleared his throat. "Ranger Niko, since Ranger Gooseman corroborates your story, I suppose I'll accept it. I'll ask you to excuse me for doubting you; I'm afraid I'm out of my depth here. Psychic powers and the law haven't had much to do with one another on Earth for quite a while now."

"There's no need to apologize, Your Honor," answered Niko softly. "It's a very unusual situation. I would like to ask for a few minutes to talk with my teammate, though."

"Take as long as you need," the judge said. "I believe a recess of an hour wouldn't be out of order."

"And I still need a washcloth," Goose said. "I've never liked sitting around with blood on my face."

 

 

Niko sputtered with laughter. "You said what?"

"Bratty telepath assassin. Shut them up in a hurry," Goose said with satisfaction.

"But they hurt you," Niko pointed out, sobering in an instant.

"They're kids. I pissed 'em off; they lashed out. Very kidlike thing to do, from what little reading I've done on the subject."

"Very kidlike—for sociopaths! Shane, they've gotten very bold. They attacked you in public—in the middle of a courtroom, for stars' sake."

"Escalation," he said, nodding. "Probably part of it comes from frustration that they can't get to us in our quarters any more."

"Quite possibly." Niko looked thoughtful. "I've been wondering for some time now who's been teaching them. If their environment is anywhere near as controlled as the one Gaea described, they're sure to be monitored at some level. Obviously they've been able to avoid those controls at least partially, or they wouldn't have been able to coordinate efforts to harass us for this long. But this—" She frowned. "This is going to make the news; in fact, it probably already has. And that means that whoever is supervising these children is going to have strong reason to suspect them."

Goose grinned, feeling suddenly, disgustingly cheerful. "Busted!" he crowed, and began to laugh.

"Goose! It's not funny!" But the corners of Niko's mouth were trembling.

"Yes, it is," he insisted, still laughing. "My only regret is I didn't get the chance to tell them to go play in traffic before you cut them off. Whew! What a trial. Soon as you testify, you know Brent Carmody's going down, and the brats who've been dogging us for weeks now are getting taken out behind the woodshed." He spread his arms and grinned at her. "I only need one more thing to make my day complete."

Niko eyed him.

"A goddamn washcloth!"

 

 

 

Office of Sheela McIntyre, BETA Mountain

6/15, 1811

 

 

"Excuse me."

Sheela McIntyre looked up from her screen with a start. What on earth—? I don't remember hearing the door open, she thought in confusion. Who are these children? And what are they doing in my office at such a late hour?

Wearily the small Asian girl shifted her grip on the toddler she held. "We need to speak with Commander Walsh," she said. "It's very important."

Sheela's eyes wandered over the half-dozen—no, she corrected herself, counting—eight children standing in her office. They were made in all sizes and colors, not one of them looked older than eight, and all but two were girls. They all looked tired. One of them, a black-haired girl toddler clinging to the Asian girl's skirt, looked about to dissolve into tears. And if I'm not mistaken, that child she's holding needs a fresh diaper.

They stared at her, every one of them. Their eyes were intent and far too self aware. She pushed back uneasiness. They're just children.

"Maybe I can help you, sweetheart," Sheela said gently to the Asian girl. "What did you need the commander for?"

The girl regarded her gravely, and the back of Sheela's neck prickled. Something's not right, she thought, and her foot inched toward the silent alarm trigger on the floor under her desk.

"Please don't do that. We are not here to cause trouble."

Sheela froze. Oh my God.

"Please tell Commander Walsh," the girl continued, "that Gaea's sisters and brothers are here."

 

 

With a tired sigh, Niko slid into a seat across from Goose, setting down her tray. The lounge was quiet; for once no one was vegetating in front of the Tri-D or holding a loud conversation in the seating area. She stirred a little sugar into her tea and set down the spoon. The cup felt pleasantly warm in her hands.

Her wrist comm chimed. 

Not now, she groaned inwardly. I haven't had any food in six hours! She set down her teacup with perhaps more force than was strictly necessary. Goose grinned at her.

"No rest for the wicked, huh, Niko?"

She gave him a dirty look and activated the comm. Sheela McIntyre's face blinked onto the tiny screen. "Hello, Sheela. What can I do for you?"

Sheela's voice sounded just slightly strained. "Niko, could you please come to the commander's office right away?"

"Of course. Is something wrong?"

"Please just come right away." Sheela, tight-lipped, tilted the pickup screen of her desktop comm unit, and Niko blinked as a small crowd of children came into view.

Children?

And then the eldest of them, a little Asian girl, looked straight into the screen, and Niko shot to her feet. "On my way," she snapped, closed the connection, and took off at a run. 

Goose, hot on her heels, demanded, "What?"

"Others," she tossed back over her shoulder. "Others!"

 

 

The door to Commander Walsh's office slid open before Niko and Goose. Sheela, doling out sandwiches from a commissary delivery tray, looked up, unable to quite hide her relief. "Niko, thank you for coming so quickly," the lieutenant said, calm even now. 

The smell of the sandwiches reached Niko's nose, and to her embarrassment, her stomach grumbled. "Not at all," she replied. "But could I have one of those? I haven't had dinner yet." She smiled apologetically.

Sheela smiled and held one out. It floated from her hands to Niko's in a smooth, controlled arc. Sheela's eyes widened slightly. Niko glanced over at the towheaded boy who had handed her the sandwich and smiled at him. "Thank you," she said to him. He ducked his head and hid behind the other boy, who took his hand.

"I'm sorry," said the Asian girl Niko had seen on the commlink. "We are an inconvenience. But we have no other place to go." She stepped forward, gently bouncing the dark-skinned toddler she held, who was inclined to be cranky. She met Niko's eyes with a gaze that seemed far too adult for her age. :I am Minako,: she said. :We want to be free, like Gaea. Will you help us? We didn't come empty-handed. We have information to trade.:

Niko stood quite still. They know Gaea is alive. She stared grimly at the girl. Goose stepped to her side.

"Niko?" he asked quietly, the subtext clear: You need backup? Niko shook her head, her gaze never leaving Minako's, and felt him relax only slightly.

:Gaea?: she answered the girl. :She blew herself up in New Corpus Christi.:

:So you meant us to think,: Minako responded calmly.

The door hissed open.

"What in tarnation is going on here, Sheela? This is my office, not a daycare center! Where did these children come from?" Commander Walsh paused in the doorway, his eyes taking a quick measure of the situation, before they came to rest on Minako and her small charge. He stepped inside and let the door slide shut behind him. "That little girl needs a fresh diaper, young lady," he said crisply. "But I'm sure you already knew that."

Niko gave Minako a warning look. :We'll talk about this later,: she promised the girl, and felt Minako's assent.

:May I have their names?: Niko asked.

Thought flowed from Minako's mind to Niko's. :Cassandra, Holly, Lark, Rose, Darien, Michael, Alaina.: As Minako said each name, a face took shape in Niko's thoughts, and with it, a sense of the child who bore it:

Cassandra, a dark-skinned toddler; tiny, weepy Holly, far too sensitive an empath; brown-eyed Lark, always smiling; red-haired Rose with her distant eyes; Michael and Darien, near twins in heart and mind; silent Alaina, a wary fighter.

:Thank you,: Niko whispered.

"Commander—" Sheela was holding out a diaper bag toward Minako. "There's not really anywhere—"

Niko bit her lip to hide a smile as Walsh stepped forward and took the bag from Sheela. "My desk is plenty big enough, Sheela. Gooseman, bring up some bedrolls from Supply, would you? I think my office is the safest place for these kids right now. And stop at the cafeteria and get some food for this child. Access dietary information for toddlers aged 18 to 24 months."

Goose, who had been watching the children with undisguised interest, straightened. "On my way, sir." He was out the door before Walsh could even answer.

Niko unwrapped her sandwich and took a bite as Walsh led the way into his office, Minako following at his heels. Holly stumbled behind, clinging to Minako's skirt.

"I have never changed a diaper, sir," Minako said. "We have creche monitors to care for the babies."

"That's all right," said Walsh. "I have three younger siblings..." The door closed behind them, cutting off his words. As if as an afterthought, the intercom line opened, and Walsh's voice sounded from it. "Ranger Niko, would you step into my office, please?"

She stepped forward, still holding the food, and the doors opened in front of her.

Oh—stars. That fresh diaper was overdue, wasn't it? She wrinkled her nose and looked down at her sandwich.

"I apologize for forcing you to share the smell," Walsh said. "I'd like your advice on how to proceed with these children."

Niko frowned. "I don't see how we could house them safely, sir," she said reluctantly. "OPS took Gaea right from one of our secure guest rooms. And their training has to continue. There aren't that many people who could do it."

The commander finished taping the fresh diaper on Cassandra, who lay unnaturally quiet for a child her age, her eyes fixed on his face. "I think you're right," he agreed. "That leaves us with a problem."

"Well..." Niko said. "There is someone who could probably help."

Walsh's eyebrows rose.

"My teacher. I'd like your permission to contact her."

He considered. "I don't see why not," he said at length. "You can use the comm terminal on my desk."

Niko smiled. "No need. She's as close as a thought."

 

 

Niko sat cross-legged on the floor of Commander Walsh's office, her eyes closed. Nearby she was conscious of the commander's voice and Minako's, quietly talking, and of the sound of the office door opening. She sensed Sheela McIntyre entering, with one of the children tagging along behind. There was more talking. Her stomach growled. She let the sounds flow over her, preparing to ground and center.

A small, solid weight leaned against Niko's leg. She opened her eyes into Lark's smiling brown face. The dark-haired little girl, perhaps three years old, beamed at her. Her mental presence felt like a gurgle of laughter.

:I'm Lark,: she said, brown eyes dancing. :Pretty hair.: She plunked herself down in the middle of Niko's lap, utterly confident of her welcome. Niko laughed.

:I'm Niko. I have to talk to someone far away. Would you like to talk to her, too?:

:Okay! I'll help!:

The surge of mental energy set Niko swaying, even sitting down. Oh—great stars! This little one's strong. And she's still so young...

:That's very good, Lark,: she said calmly. :I have to concentrate now. I'll tell you when it's time for you to help, all right?:

The little girl smiled again and put her arms around Niko. :Okay!:

It was remarkably easy to find stillness, even with an exuberant and very young telepath cuddled against her. She closed her eyes again, grounded, centered, and focused.

:Ariel!:

There was a quiet moment, and then her mentor's presence. :Niko, dear. What is—:

:Hi! I'm Lark!:

The silence echoed all the way to Xanadu.

:Is it time for a visit, Niko?:

:That's an understatement. Can you be here yesterday?:

Niko felt her mentor's amusement echo along the link. :No. But I can be there very soon. Hold on, dear, and perhaps you could remind that little one about manners in the meantime. And you, little mischief—: The contact expanded to include Lark— :You behave yourself.: Niko felt a gentle touch, like a kiss to the cheek, and then Ariel's presence was gone.

Niko opened her eyes.

"That wasn't quite what I had in mind, Lark," she said aloud, smiling. "Let's talk about manners for a little bit now."

"Outside, if you would, Ranger Niko," Walsh's voice cut in dryly. "The light show was a bit distracting."

Lark giggled. Niko grinned at her.

"Yes, sir," she said, and heaved Lark aside to stand up.

Chapter Text

Commander Walsh's office, BETA Mountain

06/15/2099, 1928

 

 

Outside in Sheela's office, the two boys, Darien and Michael, had climbed into Sheela's chair. Sandwich wrappers lay neatly folded on the desk next to them. Alaina, who seemed perhaps the oldest after Minako, stood warily against the wall by the outer door, her arm around Rose. Their untouched food waited on the nearest table. Niko, ensconced in Sheela's guest chair with Lark—scarcely chastened from her lecture on behavior—once again in her lap, leaned back, ate her sandwich at last, and tried to relax.

What a day, she thought. Just back from a mission, barely any time to eat, and now a small invasion of telepathic children.

I wonder if they have been taught any manners?

The door to Walsh's office opened, and Sheela stepped out, Cassandra in her arms. She was bouncing the child gently in her arms, murmuring gently. "The commander is still debriefing Minako," Sheela said. "She seems to have brought quite a lot of data. This is Cassandra."

The little girl looked at Niko, brown eyes wary, but then Lark giggled again into Niko's chest, and Niko sensed Lark's touch against Cassandra's mind. The baby blinked, stared at Niko with eyes wide and startled, and suddenly smiled. Niko felt her then, a clumsy mindtouch, preverbal, untrained. Niko smiled back, and Cassandra gurgled happily.

"Niko," Sheela said, "Do you think you could get those two to eat? They won't tell me their names."

"Alaina, Rose," Niko said, "are you sure you don't want those sandwiches? I seem to recall Minako saying you'd had a long day."

Rose stared at her. Alaina eyed her, expression guarded.

The outer door slid open, and Goose came in carrying a large bundle of blankets. 

"I still don't under—" Zach, following Goose and similarly laden, stopped short in the doorway. From behind him Niko heard an "oof" in Doc's voice, and Zachary rocked on his heels. Niko sat up straight. Lark beamed impartially at the new arrivals.

"Captain! You stopped right in front of me!" Doc complained from the hallway.

"I brought bedrolls," Goose announced, and walked straight to Walsh's office. The door opened, and the big ST's nose twitched visibly. "I brought you an extra waste disposal container, sir," he said. "Seems like you need it. Belva, please keep the door open."

A grumble emanated from the direction of Walsh's desk, nearly drowning out Belva's answering, "Yes, sir." 

"Gooseman," said Zachary blankly, "what is all this? Niko?" He finally stepped to one side to allow Doc into the room. The hacker, a small carton tucked under his arm, goggled at the sight of Niko holding a toddler on her lap and the unflappable Sheela McIntyre cradling a baby, and then let his eyes rove around the room. A grin slowly crossed Doc's face.

"What was it Goose told us, Zach?" Doc asked in response. "There are some others in Walsh's office? I do believe they're Gaea's... relatives." He glanced around again. "So who gets the food?" He lifted the carton. "We've got gourmet stuff here. Bananas, applesauce, diced chicken—"

Sheela smiled. "That would be Cassandra here, Ranger Hartford. Have you got a spoon?"

Zachary took the carton from Doc, handed Doc his bundle of blankets—"Hey, how come I get stuck with the big load now?"—and stepped to Sheela's side. "So this is why you insisted on stopping by the cafeteria, Gooseman," he said, studying the baby, who stared at him in apparent fascination. "I can take her, Lieutenant, if you'd like a break," he offered. Sheela handed the baby over with a smile and then crouched next to the two boys to speak softly to them.

Niko and Doc shared a grin. "Kids he can handle," Doc said, and headed into the inner office after Goose. Zachary followed, baby on one arm, food in hand, and took a seat in Walsh's extra chair.

Niko watched Goose walk straight to the back wall of Walsh's office and start tossing blankets down on the floor. "How am I supposed to get the kids in the bedrolls, Zach?" he asked. "This is your department." Doc dropped two of his bundles and began unrolling them, working in the opposite corner from the one Goose was filling up.

Zach looked up from spooning applesauce into Cassandra. "It's time for bed," he announced, his voice clearly carrying into Sheela's office. When no small feet moved in response, he added, "There's a large tank in here with more than thirty kinds of fish. Does anyone want to see?"

Darien and Michael looked at each other, clambered to their feet, and sidled into Walsh's office. Sheela watched them go, one corner of her mouth quirked in a smile, and then followed them in. Lark slid from Niko's lap. :Fish!:she burbled, and stumped forward.

Niko glanced over at the two girls who still stood against the outside wall. They stared at her. Alaina tensed, brown eyes calculating and wary.

"It's really all right," she said quietly. "You're safe here. We won't let anyone hurt you, and we're going to get you to someplace where you can live in peace."

Rose, who looked to Niko to be seven or eight, glanced up at her companion, and Niko sensed the flow of telepathic communication. 

They're not ready to trust me.

A shimmer, like sparkling blue dust motes, appeared in the air. The two children broke off their contact and turned to stare.

"My teacher is coming," Niko explained. "She's going to help us find somewhere for you to live."

Rose took a cautious step forward. In Walsh's office, Sheela stood from settling the teary-eyed Holly in a bedroll to peer out the doorway, her eyebrows traveling upwards. Minako turned from her conversation with Walsh. The redhead took another step, then another, and came to a halt directly in front of the sparkles as Ariel faded slowly into sight in the middle of the room.

Ariel looked over her pince-nez glasses at the child before her, her expression growing vaguely startled. "Well!" she said. "Hello, little Rose. I've been wondering where I'd find you, and now here you are at last."

Rose reached out and took the old lady's hand. Ariel made an appraising look around the room. Alaina still stood silent against the wall. Minako paused in the doorway of Walsh's office with the commander and Sheela just behind her. Lark toddled back out, dragging a bemused Doc by one hand, and stopped by Sheela's desk. Zachary, holding a drowsy Cassandra in one arm and a container of applesauce in the other hand, came carefully to his feet. Michael and Darien lay quiet and wide-eyed on their bedrolls, and Holly curled deeply asleep under her blankets.

"I do believe it is bedtime, children," said Ariel briskly. "I can see that you're all very tired."

 

 

Zachary emerged from the commander's office and stopped short at the sight of Ariel and Niko sitting cross-legged on the floor of Sheela's office, opposite the door to the corridor. Sheela herself was nowhere to be seen—Probably went home to bed, Zach reflected; she's always had a lot of senseand the commander sat at his adjutant's desk, working on the computer. Minako perched on top of the desk, reading over his shoulder. Doc lounged in an extra chair, and Goose stood, arms folded, by the door.

"Welcome back from telepath summer camp, mon capitan," Doc said dryly. "The kids get to sleep okay?"

"Yeah," Zachary answered, dragging his eyes away from Niko and Ariel to look at Doc. "Rose didn't seem to want to sleep, but apparently Ariel talked her into it. I wonder how it is that those two already know each other?"

"They're telepaths, Zach." Goose pointed out. "They don't exactly have to pay intersystem comm charges. Ariel said something about Rose living in the past a lot, said she talks more to people who aren't there than people who are." He shrugged. "I didn't get it, either."

Zach looked back at Niko and her mentor. "So what's going on?" he asked, lowering his voice almost unconsciously.

Goose shrugged again. "Niko called it a Convocation of the Circle."

"With capital letters," added Doc.

The Circle? Zach frowned. "The group that trained Niko is called the Circle of Thought," he said slowly. "They must be discussing all of this, deciding what to do."

"Yeah, adopting eight telepathic kids all at once isn't exactly a walk in the park," said Doc. "And considering what Gaea told us, I get the feeling they weren't getting the nicest of upbringings."

From her place on the floor, Niko said, "This may be a while." Her voice sounded peaceful and a little distant. "You may not want to wait."

"I'll wait," Goose replied quietly, and settled back against the wall.

"I'm not missing this," Doc said, but he did take his CDU off his belt and begin tinkering with it.

"If you're sticking around, Gooseman, how about filing a few of those overdue reports?" Zach asked, grinning inwardly at the pained look that crossed Goose's face.

"The commander's using Lieutenant McIntyre's station, sir—" Goose began.

"There's an auxiliary station right over there," Walsh cut in without looking up, pointing to a workstation in the corner opposite Niko and Ariel. "I'm still waiting for your reports on a number of cases, Gooseman. Get on with it."

Goose grumbled under his breath all the way to the chair. Zachary gave up and let himself smile.

Walsh cleared his throat. "And while we're at it, Captain Foxx, you owe me a report or two yourself."

Zach sighed. "Yes, sir. If I could just use that station to download some data to my handheld...?"

 

 

:This is a matter for the League of Planets, not the Circle of Thought.:

:They're children. We can't just turn them away!:

:Calm yourself, Student.:

:They've been trained as assassins and spies. Retraining them could prove difficult.:

:On the contrary; retraining them should be quite manageable. Minako told Niko she had brought only the misfits, those who didn't fit in. Holly was likely to be scheduled for termination at any time, she said, for being overly empathic. Rose trains her mind on the past and on minds she meets through her visions. Their Director was watching her to judge her usefulness—or the lack of it.:

:Yes, Ariel; you said you knew her already?:

:It's true. We have spoken on many occasions, though I was never sure when she was. She moves through the past in a way even Niko does not.:

:As for the others, Alaina and the boys never initiated conflict, Minako said; they only defended themselves. Lark—:

Laughter shivered through the group.

:Lark will need no retraining.:

:That's fortunate. Did you not say that Minako suggested she was, or would be, more powerful than any of them?:

:How can we be sure that OPS will not trace them?:

A current of sobriety ran through the rapport.

:We can't. But—:

:The risk is—:

:Isn't it better to take them with you now and keep them away from OPS? Who's to say that someone there wouldn't eventually decide to investigate my background, and how can we say that none of them would find Xanadu?:

:I believe we should give them sanctuary.:

:As do I.:

:I have strong reservations, but very well. I agree.:

Assent flew from mind to mind.

:Consensus, then?:

:Consensus,: came the answer.

 

 

Zachary beamed his last report to Walsh's workstation and glanced at the silent pair of Xanaduans. Minako still sat upright on Sheela's desk, though Zach could read the exhaustion in the too-taut lines of her small body.

They've been like that for almost an hour, he reflected, not for the first time. I wonder—

Ariel smiled and opened her eyes. Niko sighed and rubbed a hand over her face.

Just in front of the door into Walsh's office, the air began to shimmer. Ariel rose to her feet and stretched, contentment in every movement.

Commander Walsh stood abruptly. "What's going on?" he demanded. 

Niko stood gracefully. "The Circle is coming to take the children home," she answered.

From inside Walsh's office Zach heard a faint, exhausted sob. Minako slid down from her seat and hurried toward the door, skirting the disturbance in the air as it grew more pronounced. The door hissed open, letting the sound of fitful crying into the front office.

As the door closed again, several figures took shape within the shimmer. From the corner of his eye, Zachary saw Walsh twitch as if cutting short a reflexive grab for a sidearm. Ariel fixed her piercing eyes on the commander and smiled.

"All will be well, Joseph Walsh," she said. "The Circle doesn't concern itself with governments or their wars, internal or not. We'll guard these children and help them grow—peacefully."

The figures acquired definition, form, and solidity and became a group of twelve adults, as varied in shape and color as were the eight children for whom they had come. The door, responding to their proximity, opened.

"Ariel speaks the truth," said one of the men in a voice Zach recognized. "No one who is not welcome comes to Xanadu. Hello, Zachary Foxx. You seem well."

Zach blinked. "Yes, thank you. I guess things are back to normal on Xanadu?"

A smile flitted around the circle of people, as if tossed from one to the next.

"What is 'normality,' Captain Foxx?" Ariel asked, a sparkle of mischief in her eyes.

"Not us," drawled Doc, and he rose and made an extravagant bow. "Aren't you going to introduce me, Niko? I've been waiting to meet your teacher."

Niko laughed.

 

 

The Circle of Thought stood in a ring that barely fit within the confines of Commander Walsh's office; the children stood in a smaller circle inside the larger one. Zachary couldn't sense the forces that Niko said were at work, but still it was obvious that the thirteen espers were concentrating intently. Twelve of the strange faces were calm and focused—but from her position in the circle, Ariel opened her eyes to smile at Niko. Rose leaned, drooping with weariness, against the old lady's leg.

Rose has barely let Ariel out of her sight since she arrived, but they've just met for the first time today, Zach noted. I don't think I ever will really understand these people.

"Well, my dear, it seems you've gotten all the excitement anyone could ever want," Ariel said. "I'll see you soon, Niko. Captain Foxx, it was a pleasure to see you again, and to meet your colleagues." Her smile included them all, but then her face grew sober and her eyes returned to Niko. "Take care, student. There are things I cannot guard you from, and this is one of them." She laid her hand on Rose's head. The child's pale face turned upward.

Motes of light began sparkling in the air. Zach shivered as the fine hairs on the back of his neck went suddenly erect, and the sparkles gave way to the same shimmering that had heralded the Circle's arrival. The shimmer grew stronger, then seemed almost to thicken; the figures within began to grow indistinct.

"I know, Ariel," Niko answered calmly, and she raised her hand in farewell as the Circle and their young charges faded away.

Zachary frowned, not liking the sound of Ariel's words. "What did that last bit mean?"

"That's the end of the Circle's involvement, Zachary," replied Niko, still in that calm tone. "We'll have to clean up after ourselves from now on."

"Don't we always?" Doc asked cheerfully. Goose, leaning against the wall, snorted.

Walsh sat back in his chair. "Good work on this, Niko. Rangers," he said, "you're all aware that Minako brought with her data she'd appropriated from the OPS databases. We owe that young lady a debt of thanks—but at the same time, I could almost wish for ignorance."

The office went silent.

"OPS has become aware of a grave threat to Earth and the League of Planets, centered around the archaeological site on Brimstone," Walsh continued. He glanced around at the four Rangers, his face grim.

"If their data is correct," he said, "a Tarkonian war being is buried under those ruins. And there's some concern that the presence of humans there might cause it to wake up."

Zachary felt his mouth open, but nothing came out. Niko went pale. Doc looked horrified but unsurprised, Goose grim.

"I will be assembling a task force to assess the threat and work on finding some way of protecting the settlers there," said Walsh. "We've also got to try to find a way of destroying those things. It's enough of a danger having the Scarecrow at large. I know—" he waved silent Zach's protest. "He was apparently destroyed at the Battle of Tarkon. But we've presumed him destroyed before, and he's always found some way to come back. If there are more potential enemies for him to fight, we need to know about them, and we need to deal with them so they're no longer a draw for him.

"I'm scheduling a meeting as soon as possible. This task force will have to be small; we can't cause a panic. I'm going to have to convince the Board of Leaders to act."

"Some of them probably know about this already," Goose said, his voice flat.

"I know, Gooseman. We'll deal with that later. For now, I need the four of you to go back to work and go about your lives as usual. Sheela will let you know when we've been able to arrange a meeting time. It'll probably take several days to get all our ducks in a row. Of course—" he looked around at all of them again— "you all understand that this matter requires absolute secrecy."

"Yes, sir," said Zach.

"Of course, Commander," Niko answered. "You can count on us."

"I know, Ranger Niko. That's what makes me positive we can beat this." Walsh rose, putting his hands flat on his desk.

"Dismissed."

 

Elsewhere

 

 

Hunter paused in the doorway of Latham's office. From his place by the window, Latham turned to face the room.

"Mr. Hunter. I have an assignment for you."

Hunter stepped into the room, cautious in the wake of his employer's fury.

"You are already aware that eight of my Skollii have—left." Latham laced his fingers before himself and stared across the room. With the light behind him, his expression was difficult to read.

Hunter nodded, still wary. "Yes, sir," he said.

"We tracked them as far as BETA Mountain. That they managed to get there at all is a testament to the success of my design work—but a blot on my training record. I want them found." Latham's voice hardened. "If we act quickly and recover them before they are free too long, we may possibly be able to rehabilitate some of them. Those who cannot be reintegrated into the program must be terminated. I will not tolerate a repeat of our mistake with Gaea. But speed is essential."

Latham glanced at Hunter. "That is where you come in." He reached out and touched a control, and the window polarized to screen out the light.

"Yes, sir." Hunter let his voice hold a question, and Latham shook his head.

"This is not a simple recovery mission. Once they entered BETA Mountain, we—lost the trail."

Hunter blinked. Lost...? With many of them still here?

"They are no longer at BETA Mountain. We do not know where those eight children are, Mr. Hunter." Hunter saw a muscle in Latham's jaw flex. "Eight. Eight telepaths have vanished off the face of the Earth. I cannot think of a single place on Earth or Mars where eight telepathic children could hide in a group. And they must be in a group: BETA does not have the resources to protect them singly or in pairs. If nothing else, if they remained on Earth Susanna would be able to find some of them. She and the others cannot find even Lark, the most... enthusiastic of the group. In concert they are able to find people known to them as far away as the stations on Titan." Latham tapped his fingertips together.

"Therefore I must assume that they are not on Earth or Mars. Neither does BETA have the resources to protect them, without attracting any attention, for a permanent or semipermanent period on a colony planet. Therefore I must assume that they are not on a League colony planet.

"It is possible that BETA has hidden them on Kirwin or on Andor, where our reach does not yet extend. However, neither Kirwin nor Andor can easily make provisions for training and housing eight telepathic human children—not without involving a number of humans who are known to us, the majority of whom currently reside on Earth or Mars. No such large-scale relocation has been noted.

"I must therefore assume they are neither on Kirwin nor on Andor. On Tarkon they would be near-pariahs, feared by many Tarkonians, and the environment is sufficiently backward that I find it extremely implausible that BETA would choose to place them there. Other ally worlds possess the same limitations as Kirwin and Andor and are therefore equally unlikely candidates.

"As you perceive, I have ruled out every League or ally planet. As I have ruled out the likely locales, I must turn to the unlikely—or the unknown." Latham's eyes rose to Hunter's face. "BETA employs one high-level telepath, an agent also closely linked to the disappearance of my prototype Skollii: the Series Five Ranger Niko, no family name recorded."

Latham paced forward. He reached out, tapped a key on the table. An image of Niko appeared on the wall screen. She seemed younger than the Ranger whom Hunter recalled; her hair was slightly shorter, her face perhaps less mature. She wore a simple trouser suit in a dark blue and carried a suitcase in one hand. The image seemed to have come from a surveillance camera.

"The Office has no record of this woman's existence before she took employment with the Bureau of Extraterrestrial Affairs," Latham continued. "She was not raised on Earth, nor on Mars—or if she was, those who raised her also go unrecorded. I find this... implausible."

Latham tapped one finger on the table. "Ranger Niko came to BETA already a fully trained telepath. Someone trained her, someone we can neither identify nor locate." He looked at Hunter again, his eyes cold and filled with barely suppressed rage.

"She knows where my Skollii have gone. Go and get her, and bring her to me."

Chapter Text

Series Five Rangers' office

6/19/2099, 0819

 

 

"You sure you don't mind, Niko? It's really a milk run."

"Not at all, Zach." She smiled. "It'll be nice to get in a little flying time when no one's shooting at me." She finished shutting down her workstation, stretched, and rose.

Zachary chuckled. "Well, the duty sergeant at the spaceport substation knows to expect you. He's holding the evidence packet for you."

A snort arose from the direction of Goose's desk. "What a waste of time. They don't even need a regular Galaxy Ranger for this, much less one of our team. Evidence pickup! Damn senators throwing their weight around."

Niko raised her hands in a shrug. "Well, orders are orders. It's not as if they're illegal; they're just silly."

"It's insulting to the couriers," Goose insisted. "Treats 'em as if they're not trustworthy to carry evidence. Besides, nobody besides Wheiner and the tabloids cares that much about this case anyway. It's just a minor drug possession charge. Two lousy doses! Big deal. She'll get off with community service."

"Tell it to Eve," Niko said dryly, and left the office to the sound of Doc and Goose snickering.

 

 

 

Phoenix Spaceport

1056

 

 

Phoenix Spaceport Cleaning and Maintenance Droid 533-464—which had once been dubbed "Scooter" by a maintenance engineer who liked machines better than people and which had decided, in its dim robotic way, that Scooter was preferable to PSCMD 533-464—tuned its auditory sensors to the unexpected sound of human footfalls echoing down Access Corridor D-539. It scooted away from the spot of oil it had just finished scrubbing off the floor and turned to face the sounds. Its lenses whirred as two men approached pushing a small cargo container. As they passed it and turned right at the intersection ahead, 533-464 briefly considered the puzzle of why two men in Phoenix Spaceport maintenance uniforms would carry items with the energy signatures of weapons, but then another spot of oil caught its attention, and its primary programming sent it to scrub the floor clean.

 

Niko, hurrying down the access corridor, hesitated, a frown crossing her face. What was that? But the only sound was the whirring of a cleaning bot scrubbing at a spot on the floor. She rolled her eyes at her own nervousness and checked the floor plan on her handheld. Good. I'm still on track for the Phoenix PD substation. She pulled a face. Goose was right. There's no reason this evidence couldn't have come to BETA by the regular courier routes.

She scanned the corridor ahead. Good—there's the intersection I need. Left here, then straight, and that should take me straight there. She set off again, replacing her handheld on her belt, and turned left around the corner.

 

As the female human passed it, PSCMD 533-464 retracted its scrubber arm and noted, with the closest a maintenance droid could come to satisfaction, that all traces of oil had been removed. Its sensors swept the corridor, and it paused for a moment to wonder why the two men carrying weapons had stopped just around the corner. It scanned the female and found that she, too, carried an energy source that registered as a weapon. That fact, together with the response 533-464 received from the circuitry of her badge, led to the conclusion that the female was a human of the class Law Enforcement Officer, subclass Galaxy Ranger, On Duty. But just then 533-464 noted some dust in one corner and scooted over to vacuum it up.

533-464 had no eyelids, so it was incapable of blinking when the stunner blast hit the female (class Law Enforcement Officer, subclass Galaxy Ranger, On Duty) in the center of her back and she dropped to the floor, unconscious. It only watched silently, the sounds of its lenses refocusing masked by its little onboard vacuum, as the two men bundled the woman into the cargo container.

As the men pushed the container back up the corridor toward the hangar, 533-464 finished removing the dust and scanned the corridor again, finding all oil stains and debris removed. Its primary program parameters satisfied, it diverted processor resources to finding the logic behind the odd human behavior it had just witnessed.

Its main processor ticking away, 533-464 powered down into idle mode.

 

 

 

Phoenix Spaceport

1121

 

 

"Unit 533-464! Quit loafing and power up! There are dirt spots in three of my access corridors!"

The fussy, indignant voice of the spaceport's central maintenance AI, Melvin, brought 533-464 from standby to wake mode. The little cleaning bot lacked the processing power, to say nothing of the programming, to feel complex emotions, but nevertheless it was conscious of something very like irritation. It had spent nearly half an hour—a great many milliseconds—pondering the strange goings-on in Access Corridor D-539. Because its processor was, compared to the latest in computer chips, rather slow, and because its access to data outside the spaceport's net was restricted, it had not yet managed to come to a satisfactory resolution.

533-464 had no speech-synthesis capabilities, so it merely pulsed an acknowledgement signal to the AI and scooted away along the corridor, following the direction that the two strange human males had gone.

"Not that way, you dim-witted hunk of silicon! Pay attention to your internal map! You're needed in Corridors B-520, C-501, and D-566, not the hangar." Melvin huffed. "So hard to find good help these days..."

Obediently 533-464 turned and trundled toward the corridor farthest away.

"Have you lost all sense of efficiency? What's wrong with your logic centers? Start at the closest location and—"

533-464 transmitted a signal closely akin to a raspberry, followed by a string of binary: "All assigned tasks will be completed."

Melvin sniffed. "Be that way. Why I put up with such behavior is beyond me."

533-464 whirred away down the corridor. As it detoured around a stack of crates, it concluded that one alternative for the male humans' actions could be safely eliminated. Mating behavior unlikely, it decided, and checked one explanation off its list.

 

 

 

Elsewhere

 

 

Still groggy, Niko opened her eyes into darkness. Around her was... nothing. No light, no sounds, nothing touching her skin, only an emptiness that was neither cold nor warm.

She smiled and closed her eyes again. Here in the dark, calm was easy to achieve, even through her uneasiness. But then her captors had no way of knowing that sensory deprivation was nothing new to Niko. The Circle on Xanadu used it regularly as a training and meditation tool. She moved her arms and legs; as if from a great distance, she felt her muscles working, felt an intrusion through the skin on the back of her right hand that had to be a needle, but the sensations seemed oddly dim and muffled.

I don't feel a breathing mask... so I must be suspended in oxygenated liquid. Ugh. I much prefer the Circle's float field. And I can barely feel my own body. They've used some kind of drug to dampen physical feedback, she decided. Relaxing, she put the small discomforts aside.

In her mind, Niko pictured a candle flame: the blue core around the wick, the yellow center, the brighter orange nimbus rising to a point. She held the image... and waited.

And waited.

And waited.

 

Phoenix Spaceport

1208

 

 

533-464 scrubbed the last shreds of chewing gum from the concrete floor and vacuumed up the rubbery pink dust. Within its limited processor, the process of elimination continued.

 

 

 

Elsewhere

 

 

Drifting in emptiness, growing steadily more starved for sensory input, she found herself beginning to open her mind, to reach out... There. Awarenesses, human and bright, like the image of the candle flame she had held within her mind. She Touched one, another: sensation. A mind, busy at its work; its owner, turning suddenly, startled by a feeling of being watched.

Relieved at finally acting, she Touched a third—and found the mind watching her, cold and expectant.

Niko froze, and slammed up her shields.

Another telepath... so the other Skollii are here. OPS obviously planned this carefully and waited until I was alone. I'm not surprised they reasoned out I was the link that could tell them where the children have gone. There are so few telepaths on Earth who weren't trained here—so there aren't many places the Skollii could be.

She took a deep breath, pushed down her impatience, her desire to act, and told herself, Just wait. Ground and center. Have patience. Whatever they're planning, it probably won't be much longer. Wait—and take the chance when it comes.

She set her teeth, kept her breath even, and waited.

 

 

 

BETA Mountain

1608

 

 

The comm pinged. "Answer," said Zachary, eyes still fixed on the case report that was open in front of him. He turned his head as the screen lit to show a man in a police uniform, the expression on his weathered face somewhat put out. "Sergeant Briggs," Zach greeted him. "How can I help you?"

Ray Briggs harumphed. "I've got to go off shift now, Captain, I can't wait any longer. Where's that Ranger of yours?"

"What?" Zach demanded. An odd tightness gripped his insides. "She left on schedule early this morning. You're telling me she never arrived?"

"Well, I know it was inconvenient, you folks having to send someone out special, but—"

Zach gestured impatiently. "Never mind that. Did you check with Spaceport Flight Control? Did she set down all right?"

"No, I just called you," Briggs said, frowning. "You think she ran into a delay someplace?"

"No," Zachary said decisively. "Hold on, please." He leaned back for a moment to tap his wrist comm. "Doc, Goose, get in here on the double. —Sergeant, Niko would never have let this much time go by without reporting in if she'd run into some sort of problem. She's one of my most conscientious people—that's why she took this job. Something has happened to her. Would you please put out an APB immediately?"

Briggs looked dubious. "Well, now, I—"

"How about now, Sergeant," Zachary barked. "Or I could have Commander Walsh ask your captain."

Briggs tightened his lips. "No, I'll do it," he said grumpily.

"Thank you," said Zach, ignoring the man's tone. "I'll have our AI flash an image of her. I know you're going off shift. Whom can I contact about this? My team will be flying to Phoenix immediately."

 

 

Phoenix Spaceport

1710 

 

 

In a remote corner of the spaceport, 533-464 carefully swept up the last bits of a paper napkin. Its processor ticked through a final operation, and the result stood simple and stark in memory:

Female human (class Law Enforcement Officer, subclass Galaxy Ranger, On Duty) abducted by male humans (class Unknown, subclass Purported Phoenix Spaceport Maintenance Staff Members, On Duty).

533-464 cogitated.

Abduction is illegal activity, it concluded.

Illegal activity is to be reported to humans, class Law Enforcement.

Quickly 533-464 mapped out the most direct route to the spaceport police substation. Swinging around, it began to trundle along the corridor, avoiding maintenance workers and the occasional work droid. The little bot had been traveling for perhaps ten minutes when its commlink beeped.

"533-464!" Melvin snapped. "Where do you think you're going?"

533-464 ignored the AI and continued its trek toward the police station.

"Pay attention, you box of spare parts! I've got work orders piling up, and you're headed off in some odd direction—533-464! Are you listening to me?"

The boxy little droid sent Melvin another electronic raspberry.

"What?!"

There was a brief silence, and then a short binary message shot from the cleaning bot's comm to the central AI.

"Call me Scooter."

Melvin squawked in indignant shock—and routed an urgent request to the human maintenance workers of Phoenix Spaceport.

"Help! Mad droid! One of my cleaning bots is running amok! It's even given itself a name! Someone's got to stop it before it disgraces us all!"

 

 

1732 

 

 

"Are you sure it's hers?"

Phoenix PD Officer John Castillo eyed the Ranger Interceptor and the Series Five team members in turn. "I mean, maybe another member of the Ranger Corps came through here," he added. "Isn't it possible your teammate just wanted some time to herself? Or—" He broke off as Doc glared at him.

"Of course it's hers," Doc said impatiently. "GV's assigned to the Series Five team. And that's GV. I'm a computer specialist; don't argue with me."

Zachary tipped back his head to survey the underside of the Interceptor. Goose was already studying the cockpit; Zachary could hear GV's apologetic tones from the hangar floor.

"Look," Doc continued, "flight control already told us Niko set down here a little after 0900 hours this morning. She locked down the Interceptor and told GV she should be back inside of an hour. Your Sergeant Briggs says she never showed."

"She didn't," Castillo said defensively.

Zachary left off studying the ship and fixed the officer with a cold gaze. "Then where is she?" he asked. "She's a good officer, mister, and she knows her job. Something happened to her between here and the substation—and this is your jurisdiction, not ours. What steps is Phoenix PD taking to find my Ranger?"

Castillo licked his lips. "Uh, we're querying people who were on duty then," he said. "We have a couple of officers on this, sir."

"We'll be coordinating with you," Zach said. "I know you've got a spaceport to run. I'd like you to take Ranger Hartford back to the substation with you, and if you don't mind, give him access to your network." He held up a hand to forestall the protest he could see forming on the other man's face. "We don't need access to your secure areas," he said. "Doc just needs to be able to run video and sensor data from your systems through his computer."

"I should be able to get that past the captain," Castillo said, looking relieved. "That all?"

Goose landed, lightly as a cat, on the floor not ten feet away. Castillo jumped.

"I went over GV's sensor data, Captain," said the tall Ranger. "Just like he said when we radioed him on the way, he didn't see anything. Niko left, and that's all. He's been on standby mode the whole time. He's kind of upset."

"I'll talk to him later," Doc put in. "Meantime, Zach, guess I'll be going."

"All right. Gooseman, you and I will be canvassing the area. Let's start with the route Niko would have taken from here to the substation, and work outwards from there. Check in once an hour, on the hour. Any questions?" He looked around at his teammates, both grim-faced, and nodded to them. "Let's go, then. We've got a lot of work ahead of us."

Chapter Text

Elsewhere

 

 

Something touched her mind, probing against her shields. Niko stiffened.

:We're going to get what we want, Niko.: The mindvoice was cold, unmistakably female, and young. :Why don't you just relax and let us in?:

:Let us in, do,: whispered a second voice, mocking. :We won't have to hurt you as much.:

A third mindtouch, then a fourth. Cautiously through her shields Niko "listened" to the contacts, her own touch adept and controlled as she searched for knowledge. She reviewed Minako's data in her mind, searching for weaknesses she could exploit.

They've obviously trained hard in working in concert. I don't think I could break through that rapport, especially not without my badge. She sensed more closely into one of the minds, still keeping carefully behind her own shields. That's the one from the impression crystal, the one Minako said was named Willow. They're all linked in a tight bond. She studied the linkage carefully. These are telepaths who've worked together a great deal. Minako mentioned a group of four who were usually partnered—Willow, Susanna... Desiree, she must be the one who threatened me just now; Minako said she was a bully and unsubtle at best—and Winter. That's who I'm facing. I wish I knew more about them individually. She cast her mind back, dredging for more details.

As if they sensed her concentrating on something else, the pressure increased, the four telepaths pushing at her shields, seeking a way in. In the darkness, Niko frowned.

 I can't hold out forever.

 

 

 

Phoenix Spaceport

6/19/2099, 1755

 

 

Doc had just finished sweeping sensor data for the noon hour when the sound of running footsteps, accompanied by the whine of a small, overstressed motor, caught his attention. He looked up to see the duty sergeant at the front desk come to his feet with an exclamation of surprise.

"What the—"

A moment later, a technician, a short blond woman in the uniform of Phoenix Spaceport, came huffing through the front door of the substation. "Oh, man," she panted. "I'm really sorry, officer, this bot—"

"Hey!" yelped the sergeant, and made some kind of leap off the floor.

"Firefly, what's going on over there?" Doc whispered. 

"Can't tell, Docko! Here I go!" The tweaker streaked across the room, giving the gesticulating sergeant a wide berth, and circled back to Doc. "Cleaning droid," Firefly informed him. "It's running in circles all over the floor. I think it went right between the duty sergeant's feet. It's kinda excited, boss."

The technician pulled out some kind of control pad and began punching buttons. From somewhere on the floor—Doc thought it might be under the desk next to the duty sergeant's—came the sound of a small vacuum being switched on. The woman muttered in annoyance and poked again at the pad, and the vacuum went silent. Scattered laughter rose around the room, interrupted at short intervals by sounds of surprise, and Doc realized he could track the bot's progress around the substation by the startled jumps of Phoenix PD officers as it passed them by. In a low but heated tone, the technician began trying to convince the sergeant to let her into the station proper.

Firefly looped around the room again and reported when it came back, "It's sniffing boots!"

Doc, amused and curious, got up from the uncomfortable plastic chair he'd been given and started to move toward the entrance.

"Incoming, Doc!" Firefly squeaked, and suddenly a small, metallic blur popped out from under the nearest desk. Doc felt a bump on his right ankle and looked down. A boxy cleaning bot sat at his feet, finally still, its LEDs blinking furiously. The tech, cleared at last by the duty sergeant, came through the gate.

"Thanks, Ranger," the woman said. "I've been tracking that little guy for quite a ways now, and—"

Quite suddenly, the bot emitted a piercing squeal. Reflexively, Doc put his hands over his ears.

"Sorry!" the tech called over the noise. "It's obviously malfunctioning. It thinks someone's trying to steal it, I guess—that's its alarm system." She crouched, reaching for a flat red button bearing the universal I/0 symbol that designated a power switch.

Just as suddenly as it had begun, the squeal broke up into shorter, individual beeps—and began to form a pattern.

Short-short-short-long-long-long-short-short-short.

The tech froze, her hand still extended, looking up at Doc. Doc was just as still, staring back. The high-pitched pattern repeated. Around them, the substation had gone very quiet.

Short-short-short-long-long-long-short-short-short.

Short-short-short-long-long-long-short-short-short.

Doc grabbed his CDU and hit his badge.

"Everybody front and center, right now."

 

 

 

Elsewhere

 

 

One of the Skollii pushed hard, a particularly vicious and pointed thrust, and Niko grunted.

"Niko?"

Her eyes flew open in the darkness. Zach's voice? No—the memory of it.

The pressure repeated. Again. Again. Niko winced as random bits of memories fired, chemical signals sparking other signals. Through her shields she felt the Skollii eagerly snatching up whatever leaked through: smell of smoke from Pawnee's fire, grit of sand between her teeth, a slaver lord, the Queen laughing, Killbane lunging at Goose—

Niko drew a deep breath, grounded and centered, and pushed.

The flood of images through her shields cut off. She gasped with the exertion.

And stay out.

 

 

 

Phoenix Spaceport

1807

 

 

Zachary stood at Doc's left elbow, staring at the video as Doc played it again on the terminal he'd been allowed to use. Goose was pacing the floor; he had gotten here faster than Zach, had seen the images already, and looked, Doc thought, ready to rip off someone's head and spit down the stump.

The video ended, and Zach turned incredulously to Doc.

"A cleaning robot?" he asked. "The only witness is a cleaning robot?"

"Hey, Captain, droids are people too!" Doc said cheerfully. "Just be glad we got any witnesses, let alone one with recording capabilities. Too bad his angle was too low for a good shot of their faces."

The maintenance AI cut in again. "Well, this is all well and good, Ranger Hartford, but I cannot fulfill my function if my maintenance bots are allowed to just go running wherever they like, and—"

"I wouldn't worry about it, Melvin," Doc replied, gritting his teeth and maintaining the cheerful tone with effort. "I'm sure the spaceport, or Phoenix PD, or BETA, or somebody, will replace Scooter here. We all know you can't keep the spaceport clean without bots." He patted the droid's casing; it blinked its LEDs at him.

Melvin sniffed. "Scooter," he repeated, leaving no doubt as to what he thought of the name.

"Hey, he wants to be called Scooter, I'll call him Scooter."

"As you wish, Ranger Hartford. If I'm not needed, then—"

"Nope," Doc said. "Thanks."

"Good day, then," said Melvin, and closed the link.

"That's got to be the most annoying AI I've talked to all year," Doc muttered in irritation. "All he needs is a stuffy British accent and a gold chassis."

"We're wasting time here," Goose snapped. "You got a heading from that video?"

"Patience, my Goose man," Doc answered. "Scooter's given us the location; from there he saw them heading back up the corridor toward the hangar. I already checked the surveillance recordings for the spot where the attack happened; no go. The records were wiped. But I haven't had time to try the recordings for the hangar itself."

Goose resumed pacing. Doc exchanged a look with Zachary and then turned back to the terminal.

"Let's go, Searchlight, Pathfinder. You know the parameters; find me some video."

"We'll do our best, Doc," piped Searchlight, and the two programs dived into the spaceport network.

The minutes ticked by, and Doc alternated between watching his screen and watching Zachary watch Goose. We better find something soon, or Goose is gonna blow, he thought. This is the worst kind of waiting for him.

"Woo hoo!" Pathfinder erupted from the nearest screen, tumbling over itself in its haste. "It's not much, boss, but we found it!"

Goose came to stand at Doc's right as a grainy image formed on the screen. The angle was poor. The camera seemed to be located somewhere near the section of the hangar reserved for government vehicles. Government—I'm not gonna like this, am I?

"That's the governmental section," Zachary noted. From the corner of his eye, Doc saw Goose go tense.

Oy.

In the lower right-hand quadrant of the screen, two men in coveralls pushed a wheeled cargo container past the aft end of a sleek corvette. Doc watched, idly tapping one finger on the desktop, as the two trundled the container along a row of ships, apparently exchanging the occasional word. Mentally he noted two spots where he thought he might be able to get good images of the men's faces. The two figures eventually disappeared off the center left-hand side of the screen.

"Pathfinder's right," Zach said. "It's not much. Can you up the resolution, maybe get us some faces, Doc?"

"I can try. Let's go, tweakers."

Doc had Pathfinder bring up one of the frames he'd noticed. One of the men was visible in profile, the other in three-quarter view. "Okay, guys, enlarge and enhance," he ordered, then watched as the new images formed onscreen. "Okay, one more time, and run it through the filters."

The image began resolving, and Searchlight piped up, "This is about the best we're gonna get, Doc."

From his spot at Doc's right elbow, Goose hissed through his teeth. Doc glanced over to see his teammate glaring at the screen.

"Recognize someone, my Goose man?" Doc asked dryly.

"Two of the men from Mars City, the ones who took Gaea out of the police holding cell," Goose said through clenched teeth. "Not the one I hit—the other two. The black-haired one, the guy who was in charge; and the guy with brown hair."

Zachary, still studying the image, pointed. "They have what look like valid spaceport IDs, Doc. Do you think you could get anywhere with those?"

"I can cross-check the photo database... Hang on. Hmm. Hey, now we know they're OPS, I'll have Searchlight go take a look through the records for one of our old buddies—those courier ships. Whenever OPS is in a rush they seem to use them. And I'm guessing they were in a rush."

Barely ninety seconds later, two personnel dossiers appeared on the screen. Doc eyed them and shrugged. "They look valid. Pretty good job on somebody's part. No telling how long ago they were added in here."

Zachary was staring at the screen, looking torn between laughter and disgust.

"What's up, Captain?"

In answer, Zach pointed at the names. "Burke and Hare. I can't believe they did that."

Doc glanced at Goose, found no more understanding in the other man's eyes. "You wanna fill us in, Zach?"

Zach glanced down at Doc; his eyes flicked to Goose before returning to the hacker. "William Burke and William Hare were criminals from the early 1800s," he explained. "They eventually went on trial for multiple murders, but they started out robbing graves in London for cadavers to sell to anatomy teachers."

"Grave robbers?" Doc said blankly "What does that have to do with—" and then it hit him. "They were body snatchers." He stared at the screen, anger rising in him. "Those rats—they're yanking our chains," he seethed.

"Who knows?" Zach answered, looking grim. "Could just be someone's sick sense of humor."

"Who gives a damn?!" Goose shouted, and Doc jumped. "All I wanna know is where the scumbags are!"

"Gooseman," said Zach wearily, "at ease."

"Fuck that!"

"Calm down," Zachary said quietly, his voice tight and intense. "We're going to find her, and it'll be a lot easier if you're using your brain instead of running on anger."

Doc shoved his chair back as the two bigger men looked at each other, Zach calm but intent, Goose glaring.

"Yo, Gooseman," Doc said firmly. "In your shoes I'd be pissed, too, okay? Somebody treated me and my relatives like disposables, I'd be angry. Taking Niko on top of that—seriously pissed. But you're not gonna help Niko if you're so mad you stop thinking straight. You've got the most experience dealing with people like this. We need you, man. Help us out here."

Goose looked at Zach, looked at Doc, and his jaw muscles flexed. "Fine. Okay," he gritted out between clenched teeth. "Did you find anything in the Flight Control logs?"

Hope so, Doc thought, turning back to the terminal. I want to walk out of this substation without a bill in my hand for the broken furniture.

 

 

 

Elsewhere

 

 

The pressure on her mind vanished, and Niko nearly gasped at the release. She sensed outward, cautiously, and found herself running into some kind of barrier.

So they've fenced me in. All right.

She floated in the emptiness, feeling the light movement of her chest and diaphragm as she breathed, feeling the pulse of her blood in her veins.

The minutes ticked onward, and slowly, gradually, drowsiness crept over her, as fog steals over a city in a muffling grey blanket.

No... Have to stay awake...

The fight had been taxing. The constant use of her powers, weak as they were without augmentation from her implant, was draining her reserves, and she had no badge to help her.

Like a struggling animal caught in the current of a slow river, Niko drifted away.

 

 

 

Phoenix Spaceport

1811

 

 

"What the hell?"

Doc sat back from the terminal, utterly dismayed. "It's not there!"

"Doc," Zachary said patiently, "could you please be more specific?"

"I mean there's no destination!"

"Another 'Planetary Security' tag?" Zach pressed.

Doc shook his head and finally looked at his captain. "No, I mean, there's a record of a courier ship being here, even in that corner of the hangar, but there's no destination in the log. The exact entry is 'Not specified.' I've never seen one of those before!"

"I have," Goose said unexpectedly. The big man's face had gone grim. "That's what Wheiner's shuttle flight plan looked like every time the good senator made one of his oversight trips to Wolf Den. The location was so secret that even a secure entry wasn't secure enough. OPS obviously got tired of Doc here ferreting out their comings and goings and pushed the right authorizations through some committee someplace."

Silence settled over the group.

"That's it, then," Zachary said finally, heavily. "They could be anywhere. And we have no way to trace them."

Chapter Text

Elsewhere

 

 

She was lying on a cracked patch of pavement. She pushed herself into a sitting position and looked around. Clouds crouched sullenly overhead. All around her, burned-out shells of buildings stretched broken, scorched walls to the leaden sky. There was a great smell of dead fires. A chilly wind blew down the rubble-strewn streets, raising puffs of ash and dust. Nothing else moved.

Where am I? she wondered fuzzily. Is this an illusion? If it is, it's very sophisticated.

From somewhere nearby she heard a choked whimper.

"Hello?" she called, and got to her feet.

The whimpering repeated and then broke into a weak sobbing. Niko put her arms around herself and shivered. She recalled Ariel's teaching: if you accept an illusion, you strengthen it, and it becomes real for you.

Well, I don't think I can just stand here and listen to that, she thought ruefully, so I'm sorry, Mentor, but if this isn't real, I guess I'm accepting today.

She followed to the sound to a partially collapsed building. An open doorway yawned, and she ducked into it, clambering awkwardly over rubble. She caught her balance on the door frame, and more masonry crumbled under her touch. Something stung and pulled on the back of her hand. She glanced down at it and blinked in surprise. There's a scab, she realized. That's the mark where they put the needle. It hasn't healed yet. But—no, it has to be an illusion.

Doesn't it?

She picked her way across a garbage-strewn floor to the base of a half-ruined stairway. The crying echoed from above. Gingerly Niko began to climb. She moved slowly, testing every step before she trusted her weight to it. From below her she heard a creak and a patter of small objects falling as her weight dislodged bits of debris. She steadied herself and kept climbing. Test and step. Test and step. Before long she was sweating. She reached the landing and paused for breath. Halfway there, she told herself, and put her weight on the next step.

Her foot broke through it.

She fell hard against the wall. The whole stairway shifted under her. She froze, heart hammering.

The stairway steadied again. Niko leaned against the wall and gasped. The floor looks awfully far down—and it's concrete. Maybe this isn't such a good idea—

Another sob from above. She blew out her breath and resumed her slow climb. Test and step, test and step. It seemed an eternity before she reached the last tread.

The room at the top of the stairs still had three walls and half its ceiling. The missing interior wall adjoined a gaping hole in the floor; both opened only into darkness. Dust stood everywhere in piles and eddies, and small chunks of building materials littered the floor. In the weak light from the one broken, filthy window, she searched for the source of the crying.

Something moved in a dim corner, and the sobs cut off in a squeaky hiccup. Niko started, but stepped forward, one hand outstretched toward the child huddled in the shadows. From behind a curtain of tangled auburn hair, a small face stared owl-eyed at her.

"I won't hurt you," she said soothingly, and walked slowly toward the girl. "Come on, little one. It's all right now."

The little girl—no more than five years of age, Niko reckoned now that she was closer—stared up at her, shaking. Niko knelt, only an arm's length away, and reached out to put her arms around the child.

"It's all right," she whispered. "It's all right." Sadness rose up in her heart. What happened to her? What happened to this city? The body in her arms was so small, trembling with fear. Niko stroked the girl's hair, whispering soothing nonsense, comfort sounds, soft mother-words...

:Comfort, soothing, mother:

Fed words and concepts, the human consciousness naturally forms chains of associations: an image began to form in Niko's mind before she even realized that the words had not come from herself.

The silence seemed to lean inwards, listening. 

Niko grew still, suddenly shocked at the knowledge of how close she had come. She smiled wryly and stood, still cuddling the little girl close to her, still stroking the matted hair.

"Nice try," she said aloud.

The building vanished. The weight in her arms vanished—and Niko stared down at a bundle of rags. She let her arms drop to her sides, and the rags disappeared on their way to—the floor? There isn't one.

She stood in darkness that stretched away into infinity.

Time ticked onward, and she began to grow sleepy again.

No, she realized. They're drugging me. They're using drugs to make me sleepy.

Fury swept over her. Grimly, fueled by her anger, she fought the creeping drowsiness—

And lost.

 

 

 

Series Five Rangers' office

6/20/2099, 1542

 

 

Doc sat in front of his workstation, staring at a list. It grew shorter as he watched, until only one item remained. He kept staring in a welter of emotions.

"They have to be somewhere inside the League, Zach," Goose argued. "More than that—on Earth someplace, or on one of our colonies. Can't be any of the ally worlds. What, King Spartos is gonna let them just waltz in and set up shop?"

"You know I agree, Gooseman," Zach answered. "But there's no reason to assume they're even on a planet. They could be on any asteroid large enough to accommodate a small base."

"Worked for the Queen," Doc said quietly, not looking away from his screen. "And the Black Hole Gang."

"We can't just sit here," Goose protested. "It's been more than a day already."

"Space is big, my Goose man," Doc reminded him, peering around the terminal. "You know that as well as any of us. Where are you going to start looking?"

Goose said nothing, but his shoulders slumped slightly.

Doc sighed inwardly. "Well, I got something," he said. "There's only one guy on the Earthmover list who could have made a call to OPS to tell them Niko was heading to Phoenix."

There was a pause. "Who is it?" Zach asked.

"It's Mariampolski."

There was another pause. Doc, his eyes on his screen, could almost feel the glances Goose and Zach were exchanging.

"Oh, that's going to raise hell," said Zach wearily. "BETA does not need any more security problems. If OPS has managed to compromise someone in a position that important, we're worse off than I thought."

Goose said nothing, but Doc could see he was seething with anger.

Zachary stood suddenly. "I'm going to talk to the commander," he said. "He needs to know about your findings, Doc, and he may be able to put some pressure on OPS to release Niko." He glanced at Goose and Doc. "Gooseman, take a couple of hours off. Go work out in the gym or something."

"Yes, sir," Goose muttered, looking annoyed—but he shut down his terminal and stood as Zach walked out the door. "Doc—" Goose started to say.

"Yeah, I'll ping you if anything comes up, Goose. Go on, scram. You're giving me the twitches."

The door hissed shut behind Goose, and Doc, abandoning the pretense of cheer, slouched in his seat and pressed his fingers to his closed eyes.

"Man oh man, lady," he mumbled, "I sure hope you're okay."

 

 

 

Elsewhere

 

 

"'Bye, everyone!"

Niko blinked. She sat in the lounge at BETA Mountain, sleepy and content with a stomach full of breakfast, a mug of tea steaming on the table in front of her. A waft of mint-scented steam reached her nostrils. She wrapped her hands around the mug and breathed in the smell.

Doc sat on the sofa across from her, dressed in plain clothes for traveling. He scanned the screen of his CDU, lips quirked in a preoccupied smile. A suitcase sat at his feet. Zachary, a satchel over one shoulder, walked toward the doorway with Jessica and Little Zach in tow. It was Jessica's farewell that had roused Niko from—

Hm? What was I doing? She yawned. Well, it is early.

"Bye, Zach!" Doc called, never raising his eyes from the mini screen in front of him. "Bye, Jessica, Zach Jr. Have a great time skiing—and when your old man hits that tree, save me some of the kindling." He finally looked up and winked.

"Thanks a lot, Doc," Zach answered dryly. "Such faith in my skiing abilities."

Doc just grinned and raised his hands in a shrug.

The Foxx family bustled out, meeting Goose in the doorway. There was another flurry of good-byes, and then the door slid shut behind him.

"Isn't it about time for your shuttle, Doc?" Goose asked.

Doc glanced at the clock. "Hm, yup." He stood and picked up his suitcase. "Well, then, folks, for the next two weeks, I am—outta here!" He glanced over his shoulder, his teeth flashing white in a wide grin. The door slid open, and shut again on the whistled opening bars of "Stormy Weather."

Niko shared a smile with Goose. "Two down," he said dryly, and grew abruptly serious.

"Oh? Where are you headed?" Niko took a sip of her tea.

Goose's mouth tightened. "Wolf Den."

"Wolf Den!" Niko stared at him.

"Yeah, I—I know it's kinda strange, but with Zach and the kids headed back to his hometown, and Doc going off to see his folks, it's made me realize—Wolf Den wasn't much of a home, but it's the only one I've got."

She shook her head. This sounds so— What's wrong? I can't put my finger on it...

"I feel like I need to work some things out. Does that make any sense to you?" He ran a hand through his hair and looked frustrated.

Niko considered. "No," she finally admitted. "Not really. But if you need to do it, Shane, it's not like you need my approval."

"Aaah, I know, Niko." He grinned crookedly at her. "I just felt like I wanted you to understand."

She sipped her tea again. "So when do you leave?"

"Right away. I was just on my way to the hangar and I thought I'd come say goodbye." He hesitated. "Hey, aren't you going home? We've got two weeks."

Niko drew breath—saw a single flash of Ariel's face in her mind's eye—opened her mouth to remind him—

Goose leaned forward, just a little, and she caught a feral, too-intent look in his eyes. Just a flicker, but... He smiled, that crooked smile that always caught at her, and cocked his head in puzzlement. "Niko? What's wrong? Aren't you going home?"

She closed her mouth, paused, and said firmly:

"No."

Darkness. Four minds hit hers like frustrated hammers.

:Tell us what we want to know, Niko.:

:Tell us!:

:Give in... It's only a matter of time. Just let us in...:

:Where did you hide that little bitch? We'll break you in the end...:

In the emptiness, Niko smiled.

You can drug me 'til the cows come home, you little brats, but you're not going to get what you want.

 

 

Commander Walsh's office

2216

 

 

"An IA man," Walsh said, his face bleak. "That's an unsettling development."

"Yes, sir. Doc's assembling the evidence as we speak. None of us wants to make the arrest until there's incontrovertible proof of the man's guilt. My team's relations with IA are already strained, and Doc's concerned they might think it's payback for his arrest back in March. We have to be able to substantiate our case even before Mariampolski goes on trial."

"Well, keep me posted. How are your Rangers handling our current situation?"

"Gooseman is climbing the walls. Doc's trying to keep up a front, but I can tell he's feeling the stress. We've got to have some movement on this soon, sir, or the team's going to fly apart."

Walsh stared down at his hands where they lay on the desk, flexed his fingers restlessly, and brought his eyes back to Zach's face. "I've already tried pressuring the Office to release her, Captain," he said wearily. "I can't get anyone on the phone higher than an adjutant, and every single person I've spoken to insists they have no knowledge of Niko's abduction."

"Naturally," Zach said sourly.

"I've made a few calls to friendly senators, but no one will admit to having contacts within OPS. Gies even got on his high horse and tried to browbeat me into admitting we have no hard evidence that OPS is to blame."

Zach sat back, darkly amused. "Frankly, sir, we don't. All we have is a stack of circumstantial evidence a mile high. So what are your orders?"

Walsh rubbed one hand over his face. "Take them off duty, Zach. Make sure they get something to eat and at least try to get some rest. Order them if you have to. I'll keep trying, but the odds of my getting anywhere tonight are damned low. Bureaucrats, unlike Rangers, go home on the weekends." He stood. "And you're to rest, too. I don't want a repeat of last month."

Zach stood, smiling grimly. "That makes two of us, sir. Thank you."

 

 

 

Elsewhere

 

 

There were only two of them now. Two, relentlessly pushing against her shields.

Niko breathed slowly, deeply, concentrating on keeping herself grounded, centered, calm. Exhaustion was creeping up on her, but unlike the Skollii, who were plainly switching off to allow themselves breaks, she had no backup, no relief, and no help.

But if she was careful and determined and very, very lucky, she had thought of a way to get some. 

A memory of Ariel rose in her mind: sitting, knees nearly touching Niko's, in the center of a lamplit circle.

"What I'm going to show you now can be very dangerous, my dear. Astral travel means separating your psychic energy from your body. Done incorrectly, it can kill you." Ariel's face grew grave. "I have seen more than one student lost to us through carelessness on the astral plane. Now listen carefully, and watch what I do..."

In the unlit tank, Niko's forehead creased in determination.

 

 

Winter sat up straight. :What!:

"She's gone!" Willow screeched. "That bitch! What did she do?"

Susanna ran to the life signs monitor and shoved a technician out of the way. Her eyes darted over the readouts. "Life signs are those of someone in deep sleep. What do you mean, she's gone?" She reached, and her face went still with shock.

"She's gone," Winter whispered. "There's no one—home."

 

 

From above, the insubstantial form that was Niko watched the four Skollii turn as one toward the tank where her physical body floated.

She smiled, and was elsewhere.

 

 

 

BETA Mountain cafeteria

2251

 

 

This late at night, the cafeteria was sparsely populated. That suited Goose fine.

He grabbed the last pre-wrapped sandwich out of the fridge and tossed it on the tray next to his coffee mug. At least I brought my own coffee. The swill they serve in here wouldn't keep a small dog awake.

He set his tray down at the table where Doc and Zachary sat, Doc slumped over the table, Zach leaning tiredly back in his seat. Goose slid into a chair and began unwrapping the unpromising-looking sandwich.

"I feel like a plague carrier," Doc mumbled sourly. "I couldn't get a conversation started for love nor money all day today."

"The other Rangers feel sorry for us," Zach pointed out, his voice rough with fatigue. "You know the rumor mill around here. Everybody knows Niko's missing."

Goose took an experimental bite. "Ugh." He forced himself to chew. "You eat these things, Doc? I don't ever wanna hear any comments again from you about my custom sauces."

"Hey, man, at least I don't eat anchovy pas—"

The hair on the back of Goose's neck stood up. He found himself on his feet, his tray skidding across the table. The sound of his chair hitting the floor was oddly distant. Every sense he had was suddenly on alert. He cast about, looking for the source.

"Gooseman!" Zach was staring at him, shocked. "What—"

Goose whirled. Zach's voice cut off. Doc gasped.

She floated a meter off the floor, translucent as dust caught in a sunbeam. Her face gleamed pale, her hair ember-bright and rippling about her head as she moved. Her body glowed pale and indistinct, now clothed in her uniform, now in a loose robe.

Irrelevantly Goose's mind whispered: She's so beautiful...

He heard cries of surprise from the few other late-night diners. "Shut up!" he snarled in their general direction, and stepped toward her.

"Niko," he whispered. "Where are you?"

Her eyes flickered over Goose's face, then found Doc and Zachary behind him. Her lips moved soundlessly.

"I can't hear you," he cried. "Niko, where are you?"

She drifted nearer and bent as if to touch him. Zachary lunged forward with Doc at his elbow. Niko's eyes pierced Goose's, and faintly he heard her:

"—ship. I'm on a ship."

"Where are you?" Zachary demanded, just to Goose's left, and he realized with a shock that Zach hadn't heard her.

"On a ship, Zach," he said. "She's says she's on a ship."

"You can hear her?" Zach demanded, and then, "Coordinates, Lieutenant!"

The brilliant eyes turned toward Zachary; her brow creased in a frown. The brightness flickered.

Goose knew, suddenly, as though he had glanced at someone's navigation screen and seen the string of numbers. Her light began fading. He heard Doc exclaim; heard a choked sound from Zachary. Fear clutched at Goose's insides.

"Niko," Goose whispered, and her eyes turned back to his. He met her gaze, wanting to speak, unable to find words for the formless longing.

She smiled, her hands reaching out for them, and faded away.

 

 

 

Elsewhere

 

 

In her sleep, in the dark, Niko smiled.

 

 

Susanna sat up straight. :She's back. Willow, stop whining and focus. She's asleep, so her defenses may be down. I'm through playing games with the bitch. It's time to cause her some pain.:

Willow stared, wide-eyed.

:Focus, you,: Susanna snarled. On wide-band, she shouted, :Desiree! Winter! Get in here!:

The others came running. Their minds focused. The Skollii pushed.

 

 

Niko was dreaming.

:I'm going out among strangers, Ariel,: she said. :I know there are telepaths on Earth, and I know some of them work for the government. I'm afraid that one of them could learn about Xanadu from me, against my will.:

Her mentor studied her narrowly. :What is it, Niko? I can see you have something in mind.:

:Defenses.:

As the image reached Ariel, the white-haired lady smiled. :Ah. An excellent idea, my dear. I shall help you set it up.: She held out her hand, and—

The image dissolved in a spike of pure agony.

 

 

From the mind of the woman in the tank streamed place-images:

Fields of grain under Granna's sun/Tarkon's obelisk singing/the great assembly hall at BETA Mountain/a rugged valley on Mesa/Prairie's frozen lakes/flashing neon in Sorry End—

Desiree shrieked in triumph. :We got her!:

:Moron,: Susanna snapped icily. :Somehow I doubt she was raised by telepaths at the Hot Stars Bar in Sorry End in Tortuna City.:

:Who could have helped her set up a defense this sophisticated?: Winter whispered. :It's wired right into her memories.:

:I've had it,: Susanna snarled. :This bitch has gotten in my way once too often. All of you—focus!:

The girl's mind lashed out; the others, joined in their linkage, were drawn with her. 

The patterns on the life-signs monitors, regular until now, began to spike.

Susanna smiled.

Chapter Text

Commander Walsh's office

6/20/2099, 2317

 

 

"Sir, we've got coordinates! What else do you need?" Goose demanded.

"I still wanna know why Goose could hear her when we couldn't," put in Doc.

Goose shrugged with a nonchalance he didn't feel. It's the pairbond, he thought. I'm sure of it. I can hear her better now. But hell if I'm going to tell that to anyone else!

Aloud he said, "Maybe it's that I reached her at the Deltoid Rock, and then again in Mars City. Not really sure. It's not my department. You're digressing, Doc. Commander?" he demanded of Walsh again.

"Gooseman, I'm not going to authorize you to go haring out there in an Interceptor when we don't know what you'll be facing," Walsh snapped.

"What do you have in mind, sir?" Zach asked.

Walsh's eyes narrowed. "Belva," he said, "open a comm channel to Ned Blake. Use my priority code."

 

 

"You want me to do what?"

Doc bit down firmly on the inside of his cheek to prevent himself from bursting out laughing. Blake sounds like Walsh just asked to borrow the Porsche.

"Exercises, Ned. Look, we have the coordinates. We know Niko's there, but we don't know what the Series Fives will be facing when they arrive. The Laredo's about due for a live fire exercise anyway; no one will question it."

Ned Blake scowled. "I still don't understand how you can be so sure where she is."

"She's a telepath," Walsh said. "You know that. She got a message to her teammates. Now are you going along with this, or not? You know I can't officially ask the Space Navy for a spare battlecruiser, Ned, not without hard evidence. Hell, we still have people in the upper ranks who refuse to even acknowledge the existence of psionics. If you won't help me, I'll have to send the team out in Ranger One. And if OPS is holding Niko on anything bigger than a small corvette, our people will be totally outgunned."

Blake muttered something under his breath and threw up his hands. "You've got the Laredo, Joe," he said. "I'll scramble my crew. We'll be ready for launch at 0100. Have your Rangers report to the space station immediately."

"Thank you, Commander," Walsh said formally.

Blake made that grumbling sound again, then added, "We're even now. Next time just ask for an invitation to the Officers' Club, dammit, or anyway something that doesn't mean dragging my entire crew to the ass-end of nowhere. Only for your team, Joe. Blake out."

Walsh chuckled; then, growing grim again, he spun his chair to face the rangers. "Go bring Niko back, gentlemen. Dismissed."

 

 

 

Elsewhere

 

 

:Susanna,: Winter cried on tightbeam. :You have to stop! You're going to really hurt her!:

A stinging mental slap rebuffed her. The others, sensing a lessening of the assault on Niko, glanced around their circle.

:He wants his damn data,: Susanna said coldly to Winter, letting the others hear. :We're not getting it any other way, Winter. Do you want to be the one to go and tell him we failed?:

:She's got defenses,: Winter said. :We're strong and there are four of us, but she's got more training and she's older. If we ask for help they'll try more drugs and maybe we can get somewhere. Besides, he said not to damage her.:

:I don't care what he said.:

Winter shivered. :Well, I'm tired,: she whispered. :You pulled me off my rest break, and I'm going to overextend soon. If I don't stop I'll get brain-burned.:

Another mental slap, this one contemptuous. :Go ahead,: Susanna sneered. :Desiree's all too eager to help out. Aren't you, Desiree?:

The pyrokinetic smiled nastily. "Run along and rest, Winter," she crooned aloud. "We all know you're a delicate little thing." She and Willow sniggered.

Winter stumbled back a few steps, then regained her balance and walked with dignity to the door, settling her shields around her. The sniggering laughter continued.

As the door slid shut behind her, Winter heard the monitor alarms begin to squeal. She broke into a run.

Reaching her teacher was easy; she did it all the time.

:Sir! Teacher, please, they're hurting her—: As easily as one hands over a photograph, Winter passed along the image, felt her teacher's startled confirmation of the contact, and felt him reach to open a comm channel, but— Too slow, she knew. She bit her lips, swallowed, and focused. I have to, she told herself. I have to break the rules. It's for the good of Earth. Ranger Niko mustn't die.

:Dr. Latham?: she whispered. :Sir? It's Winter.:

She felt his anger, cold and sharp, at the mental contact, and she shivered. 

:Sir, it's urgent. Susanna is hurting Ranger Niko. I heard the life signs monitor alarm go off:

Through the contact she heard him speak and felt his anger redirected. "Understood, Winter. You are excused."

:Yes, sir,: she whispered, and broke the contact.

Behind her she heard faint vibrations through the ship's hull and knew that the director had given orders over the comm system. The attack on Niko, she sensed, had ceased. The others were going to be punished—because Winter had broken the silence.

Winter swallowed again, suddenly alone as she never had been in her life.

 

On board the Laredo

6/21, 0415

 

 

The Laredo warped out.

"Sensors," Blake barked, "commence sweep!"

"Yes, sir," answered the sensor ops officer. "I've got it. Right at the coordinates Captain Foxx gave us, sir. We're practically on top of the signal. It's—" The officer turned, face slack in shock. "It's the Resolute, sir!"

A whisper ran around the bridge. Goose's keen eyes caught shocked and dismayed glances between officers: comm and sensor ops, XO and weapons. The XO turned toward Blake, her face full of doubt. Goose felt suddenly that he could almost read their minds: What the hell is the Resolute doing out here with a kidnapped ranger on board? Does the Admiralty know what's going on? How can this be?

What's going on in our service?

"As you were!" Blake barked.

The sensors officer glanced up from his console. "Sir, a shuttle just launched from the Resolute's bay."

Oh, crap— "Zach," Goose said urgently, but Zachary had already stepped forward.

"Admiral," Zach said to Blake, "if Niko's on that ship, a sensor sweep will detect her Series Five implant."

"Sensors, check it out," Blake said.

"Checking. Negative, sir. No sign of the Series Five implant on the shuttle. —I've got it, sir. She's definitely on the Resolute. "

From the comm officer: "Sir, the Resolute is hailing the shuttle. The signal is scrambled, sir."

"What's up with the shuttle leaving?" Doc wondered quietly. "There something else on that ship they don't want us to see?"

"There's no telling," Zach said. "Right now I'm more concerned with getting Niko back."

Blake ordered, "Open a channel." The comm officer acknowledged, and Blake announced, "This is the SS Laredo. Surrender immediately or we will open fire."

The bridge was utterly silent. Goose counted three seconds, five—

The main screen flickered into life to show the face of its CO, an Asian woman of middling height who stood at rigid attention, her expression a mix of anger and shock. "Admiral Blake, sir! May I ask what this is about?"

"Commander Rialto," Blake answered. "We have intelligence that places Galaxy Ranger Lieutenant Niko aboard your ship. She was kidnapped. What do you have to say for yourself, ma'am?"

Rialto looked shocked. "Ranger Niko—? Admiral, no such person is present on my ship."

"Sensors have already detected her Series Five implant aboard," Blake snapped.

Rialto's head snapped back as if Blake had struck her. She turned and rapped out an order for a scan. After a moment, someone offscreen said in a shaking voice, "Confirmed, ma'am." Goose saw the color drain from her face.

"Admiral, I hardly know what to say," she said in a muted voice.

"Sir," Zach said quietly, "what's the Resolute's current mission, if it's not classified?"

"Deep space patrol," Blake answered. "Nothing that would explain—this."

Doc, Goose saw from the corner of his eye, had stepped over to the sensors station to peer at the screen there. "Looks like Niko's in a compartment on the port side, near the stern."

Commander Rialto glanced toward Doc. "Port side stern?" she demanded. "But that's—Admiral, four days ago I was ordered to accommodate a Navy research team on board, and that area of the ship is where they're located. They loaded the bulk of their equipment the day before yesterday, but this morning we made rendezvous with a cargo shuttle—bringing a piece of replacement equipment, they said."

Goose and Zach exchanged glances. "They planned this well in advance," Zach observed in a low voice.

"You're surprised?"

"Who's in charge of that team?" Blake demanded.

"Dr. Greer Latham, sir," Rialto answered.

The name went like a flash of lightning through Goose's gut. He felt his fingers twitch. We've got you, you asshole, he thought exultantly. You've finally overreached yourself.

"Well, Commander, I'm sending the Series Five team over to bring Ranger Niko back here."

"Yes, sir!"

"Prepare your docking bay for the Laredo's shuttle," Blake ordered. "And put me through to Dr. Latham."

Rialto saluted and snapped orders. The screen darkened for several seconds, then came to life again, and for the first time the Rangers saw Greer Latham in person. He stood, apparently relaxed, hands clasped behind the small of his back.

What the—Gaea told me he was in a wheelchair when she saw him in Texas, Goose thought in confusion. She said she'd obviously fried his nervous system, said he couldn't even breathe for himself any more... Goose stared at the tall, straight figure, and warning bells went off in his head.

"Admiral Blake," Latham said. "Good afternoon." His eyes flickered over the Series Five team without changing expression.

Blake said gruffly, "Dr. Latham, we've traced Galaxy Ranger Lieutenant Niko to this location."

"Indeed," Latham said coolly. "Ranger Niko is in fact here, assisting us with an intelligence matter. I requested information that she possesses which touches on the security of Earth." He ignored the gasps of outrage that rose from around the Laredo's bridge. "But I confess myself surprised to hear that I'm accused of abducting her. The orders for her temporary transfer should have been transmitted to BETA several days ago. However, as the Series Five team has apparently come to retrieve her, you are welcome to send them over. They will meet with no interference."

 

 

On board Resolute

Experimental medical bay

 

The Space Navy medic, Toricelli, studied the life signs monitor attached to the isolation tank. "She's okay, just unconscious," he said. "Looks like she'll need some time in the sick bay, but no signs of injuries. Some drugs in her system, but nothing wrong with her lungs. She's breathing liquid oxy right now. When we get her out of there, we're gonna need to get her awake and clear out her airway. I don't like to suction lungs unless I have no choice. She got any drug allergies?" 

"No," Zach said definitely.

"Good. Should be safe to give her a stimulant then." Toricelli took a closer look at one of the graphs and frowned. "That brain activity looks kinda weird, though. Probably a good idea to run a few tests when we get back to BETA."

"Doc," Zach said, "can you get that lid open?"

"No need," Toricelli said. "There's a switch—" He touched it, and the lid of the tank popped open.

Getting Niko out of the tank left Goose in a cold fury.

Naked, she floated still and limp in the oxygenated immersion fluid. An intravenous line trailed away from the back of her right hand, and they could see that she had also been fitted with a catheter. Goose and Zach reached into the body-temperature liquid, carefully slid their hands under her body, and lifted her upwards, out of the tank. As her body surfaced, they got their first good look at her. 

Goose's guts went cold. Toricelli stared in horror.

"Cristo!" the medic blurted. "She looks like a famine victim! What the hell happened to her? And what's with this weird bruising? Raccoon eyes—like somebody took a poke at her—"

Goose, carefully not looking at Niko, met Zach's furious eyes over their teammate's pale form. "Calories," Goose said. Even to himself his voice sounded rusty and grating. "She was using her psionics a lot, and she didn't have her badge. So she had to burn fat and muscle instead. The bruising—" Anger rose again. "Maybe from the effort. Maybe she'll know. I don't."

"Can we get her out of this thing?" Zach demanded. 

"Hang on," said Toricelli. "Let me get all that stuff disconnected first. I don't want the needle tearing up her hand. Plus I might as well get that catheter out before we wake her up to expectorate the fluid. The things don't feel too great coming out."

As the medic worked, Goose held still, supporting Niko's limp body, and kept his mind occupied by inventing ways to torture Greer Latham. He avoided Zach's eyes, watching instead as Toricelli, working with great care, slid the IV needle out of Niko's hand.

Toricelli noticed his attention. "Gotta watch it taking the thing out," he explained quietly, quickly applying a bandage as the needle slid free. "If it breaks off you're lookin' at heart problems when it gets there."

Goose nodded absently. Behind Zach, Doc stood silent at the tank control panel, working to gather any data OPS might have left on Niko's condition. Even his programs' voices were subdued.

"Okay, you guys, lift on three, set her on the table here—"

Toricelli counted. Goose and Zach lifted. The liquid left Niko's hair plastered to her face, her torso, their hands, outlining the bones that showed suddenly clear through her chalk-pale skin. At the medic's direction they laid her carefully on her right side on the metal table that stood to one side of the tank. Fluid ran out of her mouth, and her body twitched. A cupboard on the wall held disposable drapes; Zach grabbed one, shook it out, and threw it over Niko's limp form. 

"You look like death warmed over, lady," Toricelli said easily to Niko, disregarding her unconscious state. He pulled a pressure injector out of his sleeve pocket. "This is just the stimulant I mentioned," he said to Zach. "I want to get her breathing normally again." He set the flat end of the injector against Niko's neck and triggered it. "She's gonna want to cough, so I've gotta help her sit up." Tucking the injector back into its pocket, Toricelli took hold of Niko's left wrist to monitor her pulse and stood ready to help her.

Niko stirred and twitched; her body twisted, as if she were trying to wriggle loose from something that held her. 

Oh hell— Goose swore to himself as he struggled to strip off his sodden gloves. "Let go of her wrist," he told the medic brusquely, and tossed the gloves aside. 

Toricelli stared at him. "Excuse me? I need to keep track of her pulse, help her sit up—" The man's voice broke off as Goose's eyes went cold.

"She's a telepath," Goose snapped. "You're a stranger. She's been unconscious and she's drugged. She might hurt you—or you might hurt her. So get your hands off her." He stepped forward, took hold of Niko's shoulders and eased her into a sitting position, her right side against Goose's chest, her head propped on his right shoulder. Her twitching grew stronger for a moment but then stopped. Goose tucked the drape around her and slid his left arm around her shoulders, bracing her against him.

Toricelli stepped back, hands up in a defensive movement, expression slightly offended.

"It's nothing against you, Doctor," Zach assured him. "It's just safer for both of you if Niko comes to with a familiar person standing by. She seems to activate some of her defenses almost subconsciously." He smiled slightly, the good cop to Goose's bad. "And you can't help her if you're out cold."

Goose's eyes darted to his captain's face. Zach was watching him, his eyes intent and speculative. Toricelli looked mollified, though, and he went over to the cupboards on the wall and began to rummage.

Doc's voice carried around the corner of the tank. "Zach's right, Doctor Toricelli. Never poke a sleeping Niko."

Niko's body gave a heave against Goose's chest, and her head snapped up. He heard her try to inhale, then felt her body go rigid as she felt the fluid in her lungs. Her hands flew up to grab at his arm. He let it drop. She doubled over, retching and coughing, and liquid splattered to the floor. Her arms were too weak to support her weight. Goose just gently held her shoulders and let her cough, keeping her head below the level of her chest to let gravity help her clear her lungs. From the corner of his eye Goose saw that the medic had grabbed a couple of towels and was standing ready.

Presently Niko relaxed, the breath coming regularly in and out of her lungs, and her head came up. Her eyes moved from Toricelli's face to Zach's, and then dropped to Goose's hands on her shoulders. Goose helped her sit more or less upright. 

Her eyes met his, tired but calm, and she smiled very faintly. Relief swept the last of the anger from Goose's mind, and he smiled back. "Good to see you back in the land of the living, lady," he said. "Next time you need to send us a message, maybe you should try the commlink."

Doc called over, "Hey, Ms. Niko. Glad you're awake. Glad I didn't have to watch you coughing up a lung, 'cause the sound was plenty bad enough. Think I may skip lunch."

Niko's smile widened, and she gathered the drape around herself. It only just covered her torso, and Goose averted his eyes from her long, bare legs.

Just knock that off, Gooseman, he told himself firmly, but for some reason all he could think of was the time Niko had woken him up from sharing Gaea's torment. And all I was wearing was a bathrobe—

Niko blushed.

Utterly dismayed, Goose began calculating a course vector in his head.

Toricelli moved quickly back to the table. "Hi, Ranger Niko," he said. "How you feeling right now? I'm Luca Toricelli, a medic with the Space Navy. We're just gonna get you cleaned up a bit here, get you back to the ship—" Even as he spoke, the medic was mopping the oxygenated fluid from Niko's skin, his hands gentle and deft. Goose noted appreciatively that the man kept a towel between his hands and Niko's skin at all times.

"Can you talk, tell me if anything hurts?" the medic asked Niko, and she raised a hand to her throat, considered, and shook her head. "Yeah, I've gone through that liquid breathing crap myself," Toricelli said cheerfully. "Coughing it out can leave your throat sore. Any other soreness, numbness or dizziness, headache?" At her headshake he smiled. "Great. You'll be fine in a day or two. Okay, guys, give me a hand here, let's get her on the gurney."

 Zach stepped forward, and gently he and Goose lifted Niko from the cold metal table and set her down. She lay back, sighing. The medic laid a blanket over her.

"You're gonna need some big meals in the next few days, Ranger Niko," Toricelli advised her. "Don't worry; we'll get you started on IV fluids, get your blood chemistry sorted out before we dump a bunch of food in your stomach. If you're really lucky we might start you on gruel in a couple days."

He raised the head of the gurney to ease Niko's breathing. She smiled weakly at him.

"Yo," Toricelli said to Doc, "you got anything useful for us off that monitor?"

"Not much. They've got recordings of her life signs from the last couple of days, but that's it. This unit's not even networked. No need for it."

"Grab what you can, Doc," Zach said, "and let's get Niko back to the Laredo."

Doc nodded—"Got it already, Mon Capitan"—and recalled his programs. He fell into step behind Zach as Toricelli started pushing the gurney out the cabin door. "The life signs monitor shows some pretty heavy-duty stress a couple of hours ago. Hard to say what caused it—but if I'm figuring the time right, it wasn't long after she got her message to us."

Goose looked down at Niko. Her eyes were closed, but her face had gone tight. She looked, he thought, quite angry.

 

 

They were just setting down in the Laredo's shuttle bay when Goose heard it.

:Ranger Gooseman, I want to apologize.:

Who the hell—

:I'm Winter. I'm sorry, sir. If I'd known Susanna was actually going to hurt Ranger Niko, I wouldn't have gone along.:

Goose restrained his instinct to run through his inventory of swear words. :Kid,: he thought at her, :you and your little friends caused a lot of trouble and you seriously hurt a good friend of mine. Why should I give a damn for your apology?:

He had the sense of someone gathering her courage. The shuttle's engines cycled down, and Toricelli stood and unlocked the wheels of the gurney. The copilot came out of the cabin and cycled the shuttle's airlock. The cargo ramp extended as the Rangers stood.

:I understand that you may not think so, sir,: the young telepath said quietly, :but we're on the same side: Earth's. I have a duty to protect our people, and I'm going to do it. That's why I was created—and it's why you were, too. I did wrong and I'm sorry for it, and I want to try to do better.:

Toricelli and Zach began to push the gurney down the ramp. Goose was silent, walking next to Niko.

:Ranger Gooseman?: Winter whispered.

:Yeah?:

:Do you believe a person can change?:

Goose paused, and glanced down at Niko. Her eyes were open, and she looked up at him steadily, peacefully, her blue-green eyes clear amid the bruises in her pale, pale face.

:Yeah,: he thought at Winter. :I do.:

There was a silence. :Thank you,: Winter said. :If we meet again, I hope it's under better circumstances.:

He snorted. Niko smiled, just a little.

:It's not me you should apologize to, anyway,: he thought at the girl.

The sense of a smile came across the contact. :I already have, sir,: Winter whispered, and was gone.

"What's she planning?" Goose wondered aloud. Doc threw him a puzzled look.

:We're just going to have to wait and see,: Niko answered. :Sorry, Goose. My throat is too sore for talking.:

"Not a big deal, lady. If it means you're back with the team, I'd let you talk this way for a week."

"Goose, what are you talking about?" Doc asked.

"Nothing."

Doc threw up his hands. "I hate it when you do that! "

"Yup."

"Captain, I hate it when they do that! Tell them to knock it off! It drives me nuts hearing half a conversation."

Niko's shoulders trembled with silent laughter. Toricelli just looked confused. Zach smiled, looking resigned. 

Fifty-fifty, Goose mused, walking slowly across the shuttle bay. This one was a draw.

Niko looked at him again, and he realized that she'd heard.

:It's not a game, Goose,: she said, her eyes very serious. :It's a war.:

:Yeah,: he agreed. :I know. It's a quiet one, though. Secret. A war of ideas that we can't ever talk about.:

:It's one that we'll win, Goose. We have to.:

The hatch cycled open in front of them, and Toricelli pushed the gurney through.

:Something tells me,: Goose thought slowly to her, :that some of them may not be as far from us as we thought.:

:Maybe.: She yawned, turning to face him. :Sorry. I'm so tired...:

:Sleep, Niko,: he said, smiling down at her. :We're going home.:

He watched her eyes droop shut and the smile soften as her face relaxed, and then he looked up to find Zachary's eyes on him.

"Good work today, Gooseman, Doc," was all Zach said, and he headed away down the corridor, already opening a comm channel to the bridge.

"Come on, my Goose man," Doc said cheerfully. "We've got duty stations to report to, and this lady's going on an all-expenses-paid trip to the sick bay." He began sauntering down the corridor.

:See you soon, Niko,: Goose thought, and with a salute to the medic, he followed Zach and Doc toward his duty.

Chapter Text

Internal Affairs office, BETA Mountain

6/24/2099, 0903

 

 

Officer Henryk Mariampolski had a desk in the warren of cubicles that made up the headquarters of the Ranger Corps' Internal Affairs division. He was typing erratically with two fingers as Zach and Doc rounded the corner of his cube. He looked up and saw them, and Zach watched a series of expressions cross his face: surprise, confusion, fear, resignation. His eyes flicked to Doc, and Zach could almost see the realization: the data trail had finally led back to him.

No point in prolonging this, Zach thought, and he stepped forward.

"Henryk Mariampolski, I have a warrant for your arrest on charges of divulging classified information, receiving bribes, and endangering a law enforcement officer."

Another IA officer, shocked and wide-eyed, popped up on the other side of the far wall of Mariampolski's cubicle. The man stood gaping for a moment and then turned and dashed down the corridor. A shout of "Lieutenant—!" floated back to them before a closing door cut off his words.

Zach brought out his cuffs from their case on his belt. Mariampolski stared for a moment longer before saving his work, closing out the file he'd been working on, and shutting down his terminal. Slowly he stood, and slowly he turned his back to Zachary and held out his hands for the cuffs.

The door at the end of the hall banged open, and Lieutenant Gioberti appeared, hurrying down the aisle. "What the hell is this?" he demanded, glaring. Doc held out a datachip. Gioberti snatched it and slotted it into his handheld. As he read, his face went pale. He looked, Zach thought, like a man who'd been punched in the stomach. The cuffs snapped shut on Mariampolski's wrists, and Gioberti flinched.

"The evidence is all there," Doc said quietly. "I'm sorry, man."

So am I, thought Zach. Four good men from the PKF, Seth, Greta, Mariampolski... 

OPS has a lot to answer for.

 

 

 

Niko's quarters, BETA Mountain

6/25, 1926

 

 

Curled lazily on her bed, Niko drowsed, fatigued still from her struggle with the Skollii and sleepy with the large meals the doctors had ordered her to eat. She had come home from the hospital only yesterday, but they'd told her it would be a week or more before she was cleared for normal duty.

Five meals a day, and they're all much too large. I may never move again.

She smiled and settled the pillow more firmly under her head. Then she groaned and pulled it over her head when the door chime sounded.

"Niko, Ranger Gooseman is at the door," said her AI.

"Let him in, please. —Come in, Goose," Niko said, sitting up and tossing her hair, braided for sleep, back over her shoulder. The throw draped over her slithered down to make a green silken puddle around her legs.

Goose came through the door with his typical grin, but he checked at the threshold, the smile fading. "Bad time?" he asked, quirking a brow at her disheveled state. She noticed he had a flat, square case under his arm.

"Oh, yes," drawled Niko, making a show of looking around. "You can see that my schedule's simply packed."

"Sleeping's important when you've lost ten percent of your body weight."

She groaned. "Stop sounding like a doctor. Unless you came to see me to fuss? Zachary's done enough of that for both of you." Then she bit her lip. "Poor Zach," she added, but they were both smiling.

"No, I thought you might be bored." Goose hefted the case he carried. "Think you can handle a game of chess?"

"Ha!" She tossed her head. "I can handle anything you can dish out, mister, so bring it on."

They played without hurry or tension, the friendly repartee energizing Niko as much as the challenge of playing against someone who was, she knew, very good at chess. She could feel that she wasn't at the top of her game, but Goose didn't try to rush her when she was considering her moves.

"They tell you they arrested the mole yesterday?" Goose asked.

"Yes," she answered. "I feel sorry for the rest of Internal Affairs. They don't deserve to have the reputation of their division tarnished that way."

He cocked an eyebrow and smirked. "Sympathy for the devil?"

Niko rolled her eyes and went back to deciding on her next move. Goose's expression grew more serious.

"Doc wanted me to tell you he's been digging under every rock he can find and some he's invented, but he's still coming up short on hard proof that OPS abducted you. He's tearing-his-hair mad—they've got faked documents to support Latham's story, even a video clip that's supposedly from one of the securi-cams on the Resolute showing you—get this—getting off the shuttle with a smile and shaking hands with Latham."

Niko scowled. "As if."

"Seriously. Boot to the head is more like it."

She couldn't help laughing.

"So it's our word against theirs and right now our word's not getting us all that far. Doc said not to worry, though—he's positive he can eventually get enough evidence together for us to build a case on."

Niko sighed. "Well, I won't hold my breath." She reached out a hand toward one of her knights but then hesitated, reconsidered, and moved a bishop instead. "This is how Ariel taught me to control my precognition, did I ever tell you?" she asked Goose.

"Seriously? How?"

"She made me practice trying to see three moves ahead without accidentally Seeing three moves ahead," she explained. "It's not foolproof—you know I still sometimes have visions uncalled for—but there was a time when I literally couldn't walk down the path to the meditation center without seeing half a dozen different possible futures ahead."

"I bet that—"

:Ranger Niko!:

Niko lost whatever Goose had been saying at the shock of the mental call.

:Winter?: she thought incredulously. :What—: Dimly she noticed that Goose had gone silent and tense—almost as though he could sense that someone was speaking to her.

:Please, don't cut me off.: Emotion leaked into the child's mindvoice: anxiety or perhaps even panic.

:What do you want?: Niko asked. Unspoken, but felt between them nevertheless, was the question, Why are you calling me?

:Please, I wouldn't be bothering you except for something this urgent. There's been an event on Brimstone. This morning our archaeological team reported they'd reached some kind of structure, and about twenty minutes ago PKF forces picked up a brief burst of noise from the work site and then lost contact. They said it sounded like screaming. We've since confirmed with Brimstone Control that there's been a major earthquake, but Jo—our precogs say there's something else happening. We've been trying to raise the team ever since without success.:

:Do you know anyone there personally? Have you tried reaching them yourself?:

:Yes, we know two of them. Several of us have been trying, but without any luck. Ranger Niko, we've completely lost contact with our people. None of us knows what to—:

The vision struck Niko like a blow, and she felt Winter gasp as the child saw it too.

Carvings on a wall. A door, secured by a great stone seal. Hands on a hammer, cracking the seal with one great blow. A tremendous burst of light and noise.

Familiar, horrible laughter.

Niko felt Goose's hands on her upper arms and realized she had sagged halfway to the bed. "Niko," he said urgently.

:Ranger Niko?: said Winter, her mindvoice very small. Niko heaved in a hard breath and sat up.

"I'm okay," she said to Goose, knowing Winter could hear her too. "Something's happened, Shane. The situation on Brimstone has just gone critical. It's Scarecrow. He's going to unleash something—something horrible—that war being—if he hasn't already. Something tremendously dangerous. And the settlers on Brimstone are right in the middle of it."