...there are already too many broken things at Wolf Den Base... Gooseman roused, sweat-soaked, out of sleep, shook his most common nightmare about the Wolf Den Riots out of his head, and got to his feet after a glance at the chrono. Only an hour left till reveille. He stumbled, sleep-drunk, to his cooking niche and brewed himself a first coffee. Too many of his days started like this one.
He dropped himself onto the single chair at his rickety kitchen table and sniffed at his coffee, then took the first sip. Too many broken things at Wolf Den Base. Walsh had said that when he assured Goose he wouldn't be frozen. Too many broken things at Wolf Den Base. The sentence was important, painfully important, if only he could understand it...
Niko looked up when Gooseman entered the room the S5s used as an office, for research work, and – in rare moments – for free time. He knew she noticed his state but refused to say anything. Nice. That meant he didn't have to lie to her. Too many of the reasons for his dreams were not to be mentioned. He pushed his chair closer to the desk and stared, discomfited, at the heap of reports he should work on. If I wasn't an ST this job would be a combo of panic and paper... He pulled one crumpled file closer to read the title. Mostly paper. "Bah!" He fought not to push it away and opened it instead. Battle of the Bandits... Orion Arena... He read the scribbled marginal notes that had come back on the file. Why the hell do they want the rotten text of that damn song?! He frowned and tried to remember...
Walsh's face appeared on the room's central com unit. =Rangers Niko and Gooseman to my office. Immediately.=
Goose pushed his chair back forcefully and jumped up. Niko, noticing his usual change of mood when finally something happened, grinned at him. "Safe for another day, Goose?"
"Hopefully!" he smirked, hurrying at her side along the corridor.
"Someday your reports will bury you," she promised.
The ST chuckled. "Then it would be pure self-defense to burn them."
Walsh awaited them in his office. The big holo tank next to his desk already showed a detailed chart of the sector in question. Even some of the minor planets and asteroids were marked with name, precision coordinates, number of inhabitants, and some basic information about geology, climate, and economy. Gooseman noticed it immediately after they entered the room. Looks like this is going to be important. Unusually detailed preparations.
Walsh stood up behind his desk. "We received an unspecified emergency call from an outskirt colony near the Empty Zone. Gooseman, you and Ranger Niko are going to clear the situation there," he ordered sharply and handed them a data crystal. "This is a dossier about Z-980, its inhabitants, and so on, also including the nearby inhabited worlds. Most of the data are about a week old. So it's possible that there are broken things. I expect you to take off in Ranger-1 within the next two hours."
As they headed back to their office, Niko said, "Sounds like a pretty standard job. But what was that with the 'broken things,' Goose?"
"That was meant for me," he said grimly. "A warning."
"I'm not sure. I should be, but I'm not." His voice was hoarse and somewhat hunted again. The easy feeling about the impending mission was completely gone. Broken things, broken things at Wolf Den Base... had some of the more dangerous equipment been stolen? But... Whatever it is, it's STP-related. That means it's going to be dangerous.
Demons, she thought, demons of his past again. Sometimes the resonance that still existed between them after the multiple and intense contacts they'd shared was painful, but often it was also the only hint she got about what was going on with him. Something in your youth made a very good liar of you, Shane, she thought sadly, even to yourself. Two well-trained telepaths would have erased such a lasting resonance in an instant, but Shane wasn't one, and if she did it alone, it would hurt him terribly...
Ranger-1 / Asteroid Z-980 - AGZ (Artificial Gravity Zone)
Gooseman checked his weapons and ordered ALMA to scan the landing area.
"You don't like this job, do you, Shane?" Niko asked from her place next to him at the airlock.
He looked over at her with narrowed eyes but didn't say anything.
"Most of the emergencies out here are unspecified," Niko reminded her partner, "mostly because the people around here don't know how to classify their problems."
The ST snorted slightly. "Yeah. But something about this whole shit pile doesn't fit. And I can't put my claws on it."
"That's because at the moment you've got fingernails like normal people have."
"And maybe I'll need claws instead."
She put a consoling hand on his sleeve. "Keep calm. I'm the one who has to worry about premonitions. You'll see, everything's going to be okay. We just have to find out what we have to do here. I guess we should interview the mayor of this stone heap in addition to our customer."
He nodded. "Best we split up. Gives them less time to prepare."
=Landing area is clear, Goose.= ALMA's voice cut in. =No intelligent life forms within assault radius.=
"Stay alert, ALMA. Access to the ship is limited to Niko and me. Visual recognition, keycode, and DNA reading are required."
"Goose, that's max sec!" Niko was astonished. "Don't you think you're overreacting a bit?"
"No. Why?" he asked over his shoulder while accessing the main lock in front of her. "Release the seals and extend the ramp, ALMA."
=When will you return, Goose?=
"Within two hours. After four hours, take off and call for orders."
They walked down the ramp. Niko looked around. "If they haven't moved everything since the last official contact, the administration offices should be over there. I'll see if I can catch the mayor."
"And I'll find the person who placed the call. Somewhere near the mines."
"Meet here in two hours."
Strangely silent here. Niko went up the stairs carved into the rocks of the original asteroid and headed for the administration section. Mining colonies are usually boiling with life till late at night. But here... She shrugged. According to the dossier they'd gotten back at BETA, the main export of this colony was no longer mining minerals but a rare sort of mushrooms that was grown in the old mineral shafts. Maybe the farmer's mentality has taken them over, she smiled to herself. Early to bed, early to rise. She looked around and discovered the sign on the front of the biggest – and oldest – building ahead. Okay, let's wake him and see what the mayor has to tell me.
Aside from some drunks sleeping on the pavement in front of a run down dive, the narrow, winding streets in the immediate area of the mines were empty. And silent. And badly illuminated. Only the yellow blurring from the forcefield dome above cast any light. Goose, scrutinizing the area with eyes adjusted to the darkness, headed, involuntarily soundlessly, for the meeting point. He regretted having suggested that they split up. This job felt a more and more bad. He suppressed a tense growl. It's around the next corner.
A hand grabbed his arm, pulled him with a jerk into the gap between two houses. His knife shot out of the sheath in his sleeve. Grabbing the blade, he tore it across the attacker's wrist.
"It's a trap, Shane. I failed," a voice hissed.
Blood poured from the foreign hand onto his arm. The grip remained. His eyes narrowed. "Darks–"
Her other hand pressed over his mouth. His bite was pure reflex.
"Ssss. They are close," the female ST whispered, pulling him deeper into the absolute darkness behind some broken crates, "awaiting you behind the next corner."
"Stingray and a good dozen minor ones." He saw her as a red-framed figure in the dark leaning against the wall, holding the wrist he had cut. "I tried to talk him out of it. Without success," she explained roughly. "He's mad with hating you."
His eyes wandered along the gap, noticed that it led to a path between the backsides of the houses and the rocks in which the colony was carved. "Let's have a look at the rats," he growled faintly and headed towards the small alley.
Glancing around the house's back corner, blasters at the ready and Darkstar at his side, Gooseman immediately noticed the figures that were hidden on stairs, behind corners and piles of junk, lurking toward the gaping mouth of the street. A cruel line appeared around his mouth. "Minors, right. Thought they at least had the lectures on tactics," he whispered, "since their powers are no good." He frowned. "I count five. Where're the others? And where's Stingray?"
"No idea. He doesn't trust me any more because I spoke out against his plans."
Suddenly, he stiffened. "Something's wrong." He raised his head, eyes widened, but not because of the dark. "Niko."
She hadn't had a chance. The stunner bolt hit her from behind, encompassing and paralyzing her body and her mind in the same moment. She fell, unconscious, into the darkness without seeing the white-haired man laying down the long-range rifle and approaching her. He whistled and his mouth grimaced into a cruel smile. "Well, what do you know? A girl. It's getting better than I thought. He always makes a fuss about them."
He must have made a sound as the sudden emptiness rushed into his mind. Suddenly they lay under fire.
Darkstar slammed against him. Gooseman dived forward, rolled over, and fired as the blaster bolt intended for his head burned across her shoulder, causing her to stagger. His target fell. Some part of his mind noticed that even a bit of the wall behind her glowed red. High energy. That thing would have killed him if it had hit him in the head.
He rushed forward, ducked behind a heap of old mining machinery and fired again. A body lost balance on the side stairs ahead and fell down into the street. Second one. "Will you make it?" he shouted back.
"I'm a Supertrooper!" she snapped furiously, and the third man staggered and fell down, a polished blade sticking out of his chest. In a smoky, very feminine voice she continued: "Ray's gifts are somewhat useful."
He paid no attention, flicked across the coverage in front of him, gunned down the remaining two, and ran on without hesitation. Some fifty meters down the street Darkstar's steps finally closed in, so he could smell the blood on her shoulder and wrist. "Where're you going? Landing field's over there."
"My partner." Gooseman increased his speed. Reaching the main area, he stopped. "Stairs are too far. I'll take the direct route." He headed straight for the wall.
Darkstar threw a glance at the rock and, considering her cut wrist, decided for the stairs. Being an ST didn't mean being stupid – at least not for her.
He immediately saw the specific marks of an energy bolt on the city hall's white-painted front door. A body had protected some areas from being yellowed by the blast and was now visible as a bright white silhouette. He still could smell the ozone. He slammed his fist in silent frustration against the wall. The pain worked. His mind focussed on the situation again. He examined the frame more closely. The clear lacquer over the paint just outside the silhouette wasn't burned. So it hadn't been a high-energy shot. And the yellowed area was pretty big. So it hadn't been tightly focused either. He sighed in relief. That meant that whoever had shot at her wanted her alive – at least for a while. Z-980 wasn't that big. He'd find her soon–
Darkstar arrived, but something else mixed with the sound of her running steps: spacecraft engines powering up. "NO!!" Gooseman whirled round, rushed past her, raced down the steep steps without caring if the female ST followed him or not. As he ran, he shouted into his wristcom: "ALMA. Precision scan of the ship that's starting. Track its course. Prepare emergency start. Now!" He had almost reached the ramp as he spoke; with a deep breath: "Keycode's shattered souls."
Squeezing himself through the opening airlock he hurried for the cockpit, already demanding coordinates and collected data. They appeared on the main screen. He scanned through the list of rare elements... his fist crashed on the armrest of the pilot's seat. "Fuck it! She's on board." He'd feared it.
=Sir? What about the woman outside?=
He looked up, saw on the viewscreen that Darkstar was standing on the ramp. She warned me. He remembered the HEB that had barely missed his head. I'd likely be dead without her. "Get her aboard and take off. Follow the vessel at maximum speed."
=It entered hyperspace two minutes ago.=
A star chart appeared on the screen, overlaid with circles expressing different possibilities that the vessel was heading for the enclosed area. At least five life-supporting worlds lay within the most likely area. "Destination: Central position between the most likely life supporters, ALMA. Complete sensor block right from the start."
Ranger-1 / Sector 874-022-106
Darkstar looked up when Goose entered the rear cabin.
"Your wounds need treatment," he said and, with a glance at her injured wrist: "I'm sorry for that."
"Don't make such a fuss about tiny scratches. I'd expected it," she stated coldly. "You're an ST, as am I."
"That's no reason to bleed all over the ship." He tossed the first-aid kit over to her and leaned against the doorframe. "Why did you warn me?"
"You gave us a chance. And if Sting can't see that, I can." She bandaged her wrist before she started with the blaster wound on her shoulder. "I thought I owed you the same." She interrupted her efforts, narrowed her eyes, and looked up at him. "How could you know that something happened to your partner? You were never psionic."
"I'm not, but she is."
"She?" Darkstar frowned. "Your colleague is a woman? Shit, that'll play for his plans." She strapped the bandages tighter around her shoulder and upper arm.
"What are his plans, Darkstar?" Goose inquired.
"Don't know the details. But you're the target. He always talked about 'shooting the hunter.'"
"Then he's using Niko as a bait." His nails scraped on the doorframe. "If he touches her–"
"He's not interested in normals, Shane. I can assure you of that." There was a slight bitterness in her voice. After a moment: "If I help you to free her, will you give us a second chance?"
"I can't give him another chance, Darkstar. I gave him one. He wasted it."
"You will risk your ass if you go after him right now without any support or backup. This time, he's prepared for you."
"He can't be prepared for me."
His voice was calm, almost soft, and held a deadly cold that froze her. Darkstar saw pale, icy green eyes in an iron face. Sting, you are in more trouble than you can imagine. She remembered the last encounter between the two men, and the last scene she had had about it with Stingray yesterday morning. Her cheek still hurt. Suddenly, the decision was bewilderingly easy. "Even so, I'll help you find her. You begged me to take care of him. I failed." With a furious jerk, she fixed the bandage's fastener. "I won't fail again."
Gooseman considered that for a moment. Then: "I've got five likely destinations. Any idea which it is?"
"Maybe. We used some abandoned settlements out here for a while." She got up and scrutinized her shirt, soaked with drying blood, before throwing it aside. "May I have a shirt of your colleague's?"
"Take one of mine." He pulled one out of a locker and threw it over to her. "Niko's a fair bit smaller than you." That was exactly the truth, but he didn't want to mix the two women in any way. Something inside him warned that that would be too dangerous for him.
Darkstar followed him to the cockpit. "What are your likely places?" He nodded towards the main screen and the data displayed there. "Scarred." She pointed at the monitor. "We were there for about a month before we went to Frontier. Don't know the others."
"What's it look like there?"
"Tiny farm settlement, but it's abandoned, and most of the houses have fallen down. A corrugated iron hangar was the only intact building when we were there." She frowned, then straightened. "We hid supplies and some tech there before we left."
"ALMA, maximum speed. New destination: OSO of Scarred. Sensor block on. ETA?"
=ETA in 5 hours 20 minutes, Goose.=
Gooseman was in the cockpit, though ALMA had complete control during the flight through hyperspace. Sitting in the pilot's seat, one foot resting on the front console, the other leg dangling over the armrest, he took a sip of coffee. The filled mug inside the cockpit was as forbidden as his posture in the seat. He stared with narrowed eyes into the grey-and-red chaos of hyperspace and tried to work on a plan. Waiting had never been his strong point. But he had to wait now, wait till he got sensor data about the combat ground, about the exact number of enemies, their positions, Niko's position... They were awaiting him and they knew him...
"She's more than a girlfriend to you, isn't she?" Darkstar asked from behind him.
He looked grimly ahead and didn't answer.
The female ST laid her hand with the bandaged wrist on his sleeve. "I have a right to know. I'm risking everything for you."
He sighed and hardened his chin. "We both made our decisions long ago, Darkstar. You made yours and I made mine."
"I'm not satisfied with mine. I'd like to change it."
He closed his eyes at her words, tried to imagine the world behind her words. He had chosen life and the diffuse offer of something more even if he didn't quite know what that meant for him. Darkstar didn't have a place in there. But someone else did. Someone fragile. And unbelievably strong at the same time. Suddenly, he looked straight at her. "But I won't change mine."
A sad smile flashed over Darkstar's black-and-white patterned face. "I knew you'd say that, I've seen you fighting before, and now fighting to free her, I envy you." She raised a single brow. "Though you're probably gonna die. Ray will take care that you can't use your badge. He knows you."
He jumped up from his sprawling position. "No!!" His fist slammed against the cockpit wall. "He knew me more than three years ago! I've chan–" He interrupted himself, continued in a much fainter, somehow thoughtful voice, "changed since then." His eyes began to glow as he drove his nails into the back of the pilot's seat. "Differences. New differences he can't know..."
Still cautious, Darkstar left the fighting position she'd instinctively fallen into at his outbreak, but didn't let him out of her sight.
Thoughts chased through his mind, rushed back in time collecting the events of his life since Wolf Den, the greatest changes in it, the most impressive moments, the things that had changed his world... The shock of awakening in a glass coffin after his mission at Deltoid... Granna... I'm going to get you out of there, Niko, I promise! ...The emotional chaos of his withdrawal from the behavior-controlling drugs, the days when he was nearly dying of panic and fear while his senses betrayed him and he couldn't control those paralyzing emotions previously suppressed by the drugs... previously suppressed by the drugs!
He turned for her, chose his words carefully. "Darkstar. About one and a half years after you left Wolf Den, did you go through anything strange?"
She frowned at him. "No. Not that I remember. Why–"
"Did you have a feeling of uncertainty or anything like that for a while? Did you feel rattled? Or even frightened?"
She snorted. "Don't talk shit, Shane. We are STs! We're above anything like that."
"That's it!" He turned for the comp. "ALMA, ETA?"
=1 hour 53 minutes, Goose.=
"How far ahead will the other vessel be when we arrive?"
=Approximately six minutes, Goose.=
"Precision scan of the landing area the moment we arrive there, ALMA. How close do we have to be for you to get reliable data about a specific person's heart rate?"
=Approximately three kilometers.=
"Then prepare for a direct dive on arrival."
"What are you planning, Shane?"
"To rescue my partner – with her own help."
Sitting in front of the main screen again, Goose stared at the first data displayed there. The hangar Darkstar had mentioned was shown in false-color pictures. The people inside were visible as blurred orange-red figures.
"Which one is your partner?"
"She's there." He pointed at a red spot by one of the pillars that supported the hangar's roof.
"Yes." He grinned, satisfied. "See there? That's the implant she carries. But she's still unconscious. We've got to wait."
"Why? It'll be easier if they haven't had time for preparations," the female ST pointed out.
"I need her awake for it." The grin was gone and a cruel line appeared around his mouth. "Stingray may know me." – the line deepened, and a faint growl appeared in his voice – "but he definitely doesn't know her."
"You'll need as much backup as you can get."
"You?" he asked in surprise.
"I won't fight against Sting," she answered coldly, "but I'll help your teammate get out of there alive." She made a rough calculation."About fifteen miles to walk if we land out of direct sound range. You still should consider a way to enter secretly."
"No," he growled deeply. "I'm going straight through the main door!"
Scarred [Planet-#36204, Type: life supporter, Status: abandoned]
Her mind crept slowly through the fog of dizziness out of unconsciousness. After a while she could distinguish the pain in her back caused by what must have been a stunner bolt, from the bruises caused by the squared supporting pillar to which she was strapped. Opening her eyes slightly, Niko noticed nylon straps around her ankles. The bands around her lower arms must be of the same material, judging from the way they cut into her skin. Her upper body was bent forward, which increased the aching in her arms, but her muscles weren't stiff, so she couldn't have been in this position for long. Whoever had caught her didn't pay much attention to physical comfort. At least not to mine.
She began slowly to straighten up along the pillar to reduce the pain in her arms and to get an overview of the situation. A group of men hurried around near walls that seemed to belong to some kind of hangar, old, in bad repair. None of them seems to be in command. She must discover her primary enemy before she could analyze the situation...
She had seen the white-haired man with the black sunglasses before. He was standing to one side and slightly behind her. But where... No, not personally... Shane's memories! The face was among those she'd seen when they searched for the stolen Mindnet part. An ST! She closed her eyes as she understood finally. This isn't because of me. I'm the bait for Goose! Xanadu's Star, Shane, be caref–
The main hangar door slammed open. Bright sunlight blinded her, but her recovering senses recognized him immediately. "Shane, no!"
Stingray grabbed Niko's hair and jerked her head back against the pillar. "The lady cares for the freak, eh? Good to know that." He sneered at Goose across the short-barreled blaster rifle he pressed hard to her temple. "Your badge, bounty hunter."
With icy calm, Shane unfixed his badge and threw it halfway toward the other ST. "Let her go, Stingray. She's worthless to you." Two heavily muscled men grabbed his upper arms.
"No imitations, Runt! This time we both play as we are." With a cruel smile he added: "But first, I teach Runty's girlfriend some basics." He increased the pull on her hair, forced her to look at him. "An ST in love. Tsss. You must know that that doesn't work, baby. Runty has to kill you, you know?" he asked, grinning, though without letting Goose out of his eyes, "because lovers are dangerous. They are weaknesses." He moved the barrel slightly so that she could see the muzzle from the corner of her eye. "And..."
"Go on, kill her! Do me the favor." Gooseman spat suggestively into the pause. When Stingray stared at him in surprise, he continued: "Remember Walsh's lectures: Weaknesses are to be erased! It's really a nuisance that I'm not allowed to do it!" Hatred and disgust shone in emerald glowing eyes. "You forgot again what I am, didn't you, Stingray? You always had such a bad memory!"
The white-haired man let her hair go and turned furiously to Goose. "This is the last time you get on my nerves, Runt!" He grabbed for his glasses, took some steps forward. "Who cares about the girl of a weakling? Let her see how you get roasted–" A red beam burned through the cloth of Goose's uniform. The sizzle mixed with his deep, furious growl as he tried to leap at his enemy but was overwhelmed by the strength of the men who held him.
Niko sensed fingers tugging at her bonds and tried to get a psionic impression of the person behind her – to her own surprise, without success. A very faint voice whispered: "Ssss. Don't act. Wait till you can move. He said you'll fight. Then." She felt the bonds around her arms loosen. Something sharp scraped across her boots.
"Who are you?" she whispered, uneasy that she couldn't sense the other woman.
"Darkstar. I'll hide you, but I won't fight. Hope you're as good as he expects."
Gooseman struggled in the grip of two renegades, they staggered. One of Stingray's beams crossed the upper arm of the left one.
"Hey!! Watch out who you're burnin', asshole!!!"
A hand tapped the back of her leg. "He said the general key's fear. Now!" Niko darted to the side, took cover behind some metal freight containers. Her eyes flashed around noticing the other woman right beside her – Darkstar. The female ST pointed at the group of renegade Supertroopers in the hangar. "I'm jamming them. They can't see us. But stay close. It's difficult to hide other people." With a quick glance around, "Take care for Shane."
Niko just nodded, already concentrating on the one who was hurting Goose. He seemed to be the most dangerous of them at the moment. General key's fear. He wants me to project fear... Something in the back of her mind asked how far they could trust Darkstar. On the other hand, Shane obviously trusted her, otherwise... "I won't focus on one, so stay within my shield or I will hit you, too." She made contact with the furious brain signatures, found the motivational imperatives and the driving emotional base, shuddered briefly at the disfigurements in them, then started to send waves of the fear she'd gone through during the last minutes and the memories of all the times in her life she'd been frightened out of her mind...
The fear reached him, cut into his mind, dragged at his reason, his consciousness. He used the growing panic to power his abilities, just as he'd done when he was eleven and Killbane attacked him. Fear couldn't control him like it controlled the others now, because he knew it, had gone through the hell of it during the drug withdrawal after Wolf Den. The X-factor had saved them from it... He riled the predator within...
Ignoring the severe burns on his arms and chest, Gooseman threw his full weight against the already wounded one on the left. His claws appeared; he tore them across the man's eyes and slammed his feet into the man's pelvis to push himself away. He felt bones breaking under his boots. He drove his fangs into the next one's throat. Blood pulsed across his face and down his throat as his teeth tore open the carotid. EMs didn't have enhanced self-healing abilities.
He tore himself free of the dying men's grips and leaped for Stingray, who struggled like the others to escape the unfamiliar waves of fear eroding his mind. Time seemed to slow. Fangs, shimmering under the blood, reached towards the enemy's throat... Just before they could sink through the skin, the back of Stingray's head exploded in a shower of bone fragments and burned brain tissue. A second HEB hit his back, burned a fist-sized hole through his heart, and slammed the corpse to the ground. Goose stopped his momentum by driving the claws of his left hand into the ground next to the body and looked up with predatory pale green eyes.
Darkstar put down the rifle. "I'm nobody's weakness!" She left Niko's side, knelt down next to the corpse, wiped some blood off the skin above the now harmless eyes. "I was begged to take care of you," she whispered, her opalescent eyes wet. "You won't feel the freezing."
Next to her, Gooseman had a rifle at the ready, as Niko had some meters away. He hissed with bared fangs at the remaining minors: "Get lost. I'm not interested in you. This time!" It seemed to take only seconds till the sound of powered-up spaceship engines filled the hangar.
Ranger-1 / Sector 874-022-106
Niko sat at the table in the main cabin opposite Darkstar, who stared into her already cold coffee. Niko herself hadn't taken a single sip from hers. I wasn't trained to kill, Niko. I was trained to kill efficiently. There's a difference. Today she had seen behind those bitter words of his. She hadn't been able to imagine something like that, even knowing his powers, and the last scenes in the hangar were still painfully prevalent in her mind...
...Again she heard her own voice saying it was over after the roar of the foreign spacecraft had faded, again saw Darkstar getting up and leaving the hangar without looking back. She had asked Goose what was going on with her, and he had said, in a voice stripped of all feelings, that the man was dead, had lost, didn't matter any more. Then he had picked up his badge, cured the burns on his arms and chest, canceled the slight changes he'd used in combat and stood there, still covered with someone else's blood, his eyes resting on the torn bodies, before he had left the hangar with slow, somehow wooden movements, the rifle over his arm. It had taken her a moment to realize that he wouldn't return to her in here...
"Shane was always strange," Darkstar said suddenly into the silence. "None of us thought he would make it, especially when Ryker called him the prey, but he has this ability to turn weaknesses into strengths." She took a sip of her cold coffee without even noticing it.
"Prey?" Niko asked, trembling slightly at the image the word created.
The female ST nodded. "Favorite target, because he was believed to be the commander's pet." She snorted. "But as far as I could see he wasn't. He had to fight his battles alone like we did – otherwise Killbane would have been in for trying to rape him."
"Killbane tried what?!"
"To rape him. Was before Shane developed his powers." She shrugged. "But he won the fight. None of us really knew how he did it, but he gave Killbane no chance, just like today with Ray."
In the rear cargo bay Goose stored the bodies, wrapped in sealed foil sacs, and tightly strapped down the atrocious freight for their flight back to BETA. With his enhanced senses, it was impossible not overhear the words spoken in the main cabin. He drove his nails into his palms as the memories of that day appeared again in his mind and were interpreted by the changed possibilities of the person he now was. He hadn't understood back then...
"After we left Wolf Den–"
"Wolf Den was the base of the Supertrooper Project, right?"
She sensed pain in the woman in front of her, but the feeling was distorted, didn't really break through, as if Darkstar only knew that she should be sad now. She wondered whom Darkstar had tried to protect with her shot: Stingray against Goose or the cryocrypt, or Goose against being the cold killer they'd tried to make of him? Considering the disfigured emotions she felt inside the young woman in front of her, Niko wasn't sure if Darkstar herself knew the answer...
"Hell, sometimes I think I never really left that rotten place!" Darkstar nodded at Niko's question. "But I often thought that Shane's maybe the only one of us who fits in here."
And today, he returned to that hell, for me... The thought was incredibly painful. Broken things... The strange phrase the commander had used in their briefing appeared in her mind. She remembered Shane's discomfort about it, his uneasiness that he couldn't fully understand it. Oh, Shane, it's so horribly easy. The broken things are the STs themselves... Wolf Den's shattered souls... When the second phrase that he'd used as a keycode for Ranger-1 crossed her mind, Niko got up, left Darkstar staring silently into her mug, and headed for the rear cargo bay...
He didn't turn toward her when she entered the room, continued with his work, tightening the straps with short, angry movements. When he finally spoke his voice was hoarse and difficult to understand. "It wasn't the fighting, Niko. We were made for it. I fought before – to stay valid, to be left alone, to make them believe I was what they wanted..."
That's why you've turned into such a good liar, she thought sadly. You saved the unwanted part of yourself from being destroyed.
Another short jerk at the safety straps. "I never wanted to be like that again."
She walked over to him, touched his back, ran her hands over his shoulders and upper arms and felt her own shivering in comparison to his sudden rigidity as she embraced him. He seemed to be frozen except for his heartbeats... It seemed an eternity until his hands slipped around her, embraced her, more and more forcefully, almost painfully at the end. She leaned against him, feeling secure in his strength, his presence...
Till she noticed that he wasn't holding her but himself to her.
"The Board will buy the report, Gooseman." Walsh threw the black file onto his desk and turned toward Goose after the door had slid shut behind Niko. "But I won't." Leaning against the front of his desk, the commander studied him. "What really happened out there?"
"We had help, sir."
"From the second nonbroken thing from Wolf Den."
With a deep sigh: "Where is she now?"
"I don't know, sir." He met Walsh's demanding look with clear, dark-green eyes that showed nothing...
The tired woman reined in the rented horse and waited when she saw the other woman trotting a grey mare along the fence towards the high gate with the sign "O's Ark." She saw the brown-haired woman stopping her horse and, despite the readied rifle across the other one's knees, she decided against reaching for her own.
"I'm Annie. This is my land. Are you looking for someone?" the other woman asked her.
"I'm Dawn. I need a job and a place to stay for a while. A friend of mine said I might find them here."
"Who's the friend?"
"Shane." After a moment she added, "I know him from school."
Annie looked suspiciously at her. "You are like him, aren't you?"
Her mouth twitched but she answered anyway. "My powers are different." She lowered her head and decided to risk it. "They are looking for me."
"Because of what you did?"
"Because of what I am."
The other woman seemed to make a decision. "Are you afraid of untrained horses?"
"Only of people I can't understand."
"Then it's good that this is going to be a horse ranch," Annie said with a wry smile and pushed open the gate. "But I warn you: it's hard work and I can't pay much." When the other woman had crossed through the gate, Annie asked softly. "And who are you really?"
Gooseman entered the cryocrypt slowly, almost fearfully. They had insisted that even the corpse had to be frozen here, despite his guaranteed death. He went over to the new glass coffin, looked down at the man frozen there. He knew the other man couldn't hear him but that didn't matter. "Weaknesses are to be erased. Right. But what you didn't understand, Stingray, was that she was never my weakness – she's my strength. And strength is to be protected!"