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Cold Comfort

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Now

 

"I blew it, Goose."

Shane Gooseman tore his eyes away from watching the street below to look at Niko. The whites of his eyes gleamed faintly in the dim light from the streets outside. They huddled by a wall in the dark, and around them the condemned hotel shifted its weight and seemed to sigh wearily.

It's so cold, she thought, even through a survival blanket.

Trying vainly to find a more comfortable position, Niko shifted her weight and drew the blanket a little closer around herself. Even that slight movement brought dizzying pain from her wounded leg. The painkillers, she thought muzzily, are not cutting it. And then, almost deliriously, Pardon the pun. She closed her eyes against the nausea that rocked her and lay still on the floor, and so she heard rather than saw Goose step to her side.

I can hardly see him anyway.

A chill draft stole in through a gap in the window frame. The old building creaked faintly in the dark.

The thought repeated in her mind like a twisted mantra: I blew it. The mission is a disaster. I blew it. The mission...

Niko could not remember having been so depressed in yonks.

 

 

Then

 

The mission had started off so well.

Two months ago she and Goose had settled into a cheap apartment in the slums of Texarkota and started establishing themselves as small-time arms smugglers. It hadn't taken long to get the attention of the man they were looking for. Brent Carmody did not like competition.

"Cute bit of tail," Carmody's voice whispered in her mind. "You want to keep her that way, mister?"

Her skin crawled afresh at the memory of his eyes on her body. Disgusting man. And my clothes were no help. I hate that I had to dress like a tart for this mission...

Niko herself had had to do some very fast talking to keep Goose from correcting Carmody's manners... but when she was done, she and her teammate had jobs as couriers for Carmody's gunrunning network, a nicer apartment in a better part of town, and all the fearful respect from people on the street that a galaxy ranger could grit her teeth at.

"Prove you're trustworthy," Carmody told them, "and you could go places."

 

 

Now

 

Niko smiled humorlessly. Sure. Go places. Like condemned hotel buildings. In the dark. This isn't the kind of place I had in mind...

"You didn't blow it, Niko," Goose whispered out of the darkness above her. "Sometimes shit just happens."

"It does. I know it does. But who knows when we'll get another chance, Goose?  Carmody's surely pulled up stakes already. Even if we serve out a warrant based on what we've seen so far, he's smart enough to have gotten rid of the evidence by now. At the most some of his lieutenants will do a few years."

"You couldn't have done anything else," he said. "You're not the kind of person to let people die needlessly. Troy was shooting at everything in sight. You did exactly the right thing—you focused his attention on you."

"I hope you'll forgive me it I say that's pretty cold comfort right now." She shifted again and gritted her teeth against crying out.

"I'd forgive you just about anything," he murmured, eyes intent on her face, his expression worried.

Niko, riding a fresh wave of pain, barely heard him.

The world went away for a moment.

His hands on her shoulders. "Niko. Come on, stay with me."

She caught at him, drew a few deep but shaky breaths, and got enough control to speak coherently. "Goose. One dose of painkiller's not enough. There's nerve block in my medkit. If they come—I can't be doped up."

He had to turn her to unfasten her clothes and place the block patch, low on her back to leave her breathing unfettered. She bit down hard on her lip to keep silent and felt blood trickling down her chin.

"Niko?"

She lay on her back, panting, and stared into the darkness, waiting for the patch to take effect.

"Hey, come on, lady, talk to me." He leaned a little closer and she heard his indrawn breath. "You're bleeding. I can smell it. Did the wound break open?"

"It's just—my lip," she whispered, and felt the creeping weightlessness of nerve blockers as her left leg went slowly away. Her whole body let go the tension she had hardly been able to register, and her mind began waking up.

"How much longer do you think we'll have to wait?"

"It's been two hours since we missed check-in," he said. "Zach won't waste much time trying to raise us, so they're probably already on their way. Too bad we don't have our wrist comms. These little radios don't have much range."

She laughed breathily. "We were lucky to even be able to make it to the stash in the tube station, Goose."  She didn't finish the thought aloud: Because without this survival blanket I probably wouldn't live through the night.

Firmly Niko turned her mind to a less unsettling subject.

"Shane—what happened out there?"

 

 

Shame washed over him, and for a moment he couldn't answer.

"I got careless," he said.

 

 

Then

 

They had just come back from a delivery. More than anything else about this mission, Shane hated handing over deadly weapons to people he knew would not hesitate to use them on innocents.

He knew they had no choice, for while Brent Carmody was coarse and crude and generally inspired Shane to visions of stuffing the man's teeth down his throat, he was no idiot. Carmody rarely handled his own merchandise, leaving his lieutenants and stooges to take the fall should anyone ever dare to sting him. And so Shane and Niko waited for that one chance: the moment when Carmody might get careless.

Shane knew that Niko also loathed the things they were doing in the name of shutting Carmody down. He knew, too, that if Carmody ever got her alone, she might have to break her cover to avoid a fate Shane preferred not to envision—and so he stuck by her, even escorting her to the bathroom, though he knew that at times his protectiveness irritated her.

He and Niko had returned to the street corner where Carmody's lieutenant Raz waited with orders for their next errand. From half a block away Shane had seen that Raz had a customer, a tall man who had his back to the two rangers.

Why didn't I suggest waiting?  Stupid mistake. Rookie maneuver, Gooseman.

You asshole.

 

 

Now

 

"Goose?"

He sighed. "The customer was a Supertrooper," he said.

 

 

Then

 

In memory it took on a kind of surreal tinge: he and Niko walking up behind the customer; Raz and the big man shaking hands; Raz calling out to them over the man's shoulder; the man turning...

Shane and Troy had recognized each other at the same moment.

"You!" Troy screamed—and brought up his brand-spanking-new laser assault rifle.

The shot blew Shane off his feet and into the car parked behind him.

 

 

Now

 

He heard Niko's little gasp. "That's why he went berserk," she said, voice tinged with surprise, understanding—sympathy?  "He recognized you."

"Yeah. I guess he figured we were there for him. I should have suggested waiting till he took off considering we couldn't see his face, and odds weren't bad we'd eventually run into a lowlife one of us knew. And Troy Marx always was a paranoid f— ...guy."

 

 

Then

 

Through a haze of pain and fury Shane, crumpled on the pavement against the skirt of the hovercar, heard Troy screaming about rangers. The sound of high-powered laser fire echoed off the buildings nearby, and he smelled ozone as bolts whizzed everywhere. Shane was worming his hand under his clothes to touch his badge when Niko's voice rang out.

"Hey, chuckles! You're under arrest! Put your hands on your head."

Oh shit, he groaned to himself.

Raz bellowed incoherently. About the only word Shane caught was "dead."

Shane hit his badge, felt his biodefenses activate, and rolled to his feet just as Raz lunged forward at Niko and time seemed to slow as Raz swiped viciously at Niko, long knife gleaming in his hand, and she, dodging laser fire from Troy, screamed and fell among bright drops of blood and he heard her hit the pavement as Troy fired at Raz

—and time started again as Raz fell to the sidewalk, wheezing, clutching at the charred mess of his belly, and Shane's pistol fire dropped the rifle from Troy's hand. Troy gaped at Shane.

"Get out of here, Flyboy," Shane snarled. "Go!"

 

 

Now

 

I'm gonna have to bring him in. Not today, but soon.

"Goose?"

He glanced down at Niko's face, pale in the dimness.

"It must be hard," she said softly, "having to arrest—"  She broke off, but in his mind he finished for her.

Having to arrest your own kind.

"Not really," he said deliberately. Lied deliberately. Through my teeth, he thought. "They're renegades, aren't they?"

He added to himself: Thanks to Wheiner.

The good senator.

The old anger twisted at his guts.

"I'm sorry, Goose."

"It wasn't your fault, Niko," he said.

 

 

Then

 

The flight from the street corner had been hellish.

Goose dropped to his knees beside his teammate. "Niko! Are you with me?" He pressed one hand, hard, to the wide, shallow slash on her left thigh and reached into his pocket for the scarf he usually wore around his neck.

Lucky for her Raz missed her femoral artery.

As he tried to maneuver the scarf into a knot one-handed, she roused with a jerk and a cry of pain.

"They're coming," she said faintly, and gripped one end of the scarf to help him. "We have to go, Goose. The spotter called it in—and Raz is still alive to talk." Her eyes turned to Carmody's lieutenant where he lay in a puddle of blood on the pavement. The stink of burned meat reached Goose's nostrils. The breath hissed through Niko's teeth as he pulled the knot tight.

Shane nodded curtly and heaved her up from the sidewalk. As he ran awkwardly down the street, half-carrying Niko, he heard the screech of old-school tires on the road behind them.

By the time they lost their pursuers and got to the emergency supplies they'd hidden in the tube station, Niko was faint from pain and blood loss, and night was falling. From the station Goose wended his way deeper into the slums, feeling eyes on them at every turn—but no one ventured forward to help them. He bared his teeth in an unconscious snarl and looked around again.

The sign on the dilapidated building before them read "T xarkot Hot l," but he saw no sign of life to indicate that the place was occupied. He set Niko gently on the steps and prowled the long front porch. The boarded-up windows yielded no hint as to the interior, and finally he shrugged and kicked in the front door. All that emerged was a couple of rats.

"Looks like we found our squat for the night," he said dryly.

 

 

Now

 

In the light filtering in the window he could see that Niko had begun to shiver violently.

"Cold?" he asked quietly.

She hesitated. "Yes," she admitted.

He laid a gentle hand on her forehead. Her soft skin was too cool to the touch. Shane reached for the medkit and rummaged through it for meds against shock.

 

 

As the drugs took effect Niko drifted, floating in her own small, cold world, depression weighing her down. From a distance she felt Goose take gentle hold of her wrist to check her pulse, and she turned vaguely toward the warmth of his body.

"Niko?" he whispered. "You feeling any warmer?"

"Mmm?  No..."

Gently, then, he lifted one side of the survival blanket and slowly, carefully eased under it to lie next to her. She sighed and turned her face to his shoulder as he wrapped one arm around her back. Gradually her shivering lessened as she grew warmer, and a wistful sort of sadness drifted through her mind.

This is nice. Comforting. I wish... for something I can't have.

 

 

Shane looked down at his teammate's bowed head, wondering at his own feelings. It feels good to have her near me. I always noticed she was pretty, but... She's just easy to be around. With.

But...

Well, that's exactly it, isn't it? "But."

Niko slipped her arms around him. He stiffened in surprise.

"Goose? Are you all right?"

He groped for words.

"You'll get cold too," she murmured. "Texarkota gets very cold at night."

Shane's lips quirked in a slight smile. 

"Yeah, Niko, it does," he said softly. "It sure does. Now sleep. I'll keep watch, and keep an ear out for Zach. Sleep."

As he watched her drift off, Shane tucked the survival blanket closer around them and settled in to wait.