Actions

Work Header

A Quiet Little War Part I: Revelations

Chapter Text

Sun Garden Mall

Phoenix, Arizona

12/21/2098

 

 

Crowds streamed along the sunlit sidewalks. Traffic moved sluggishly through the congested streets. The small, pale-blond girl in the bright red coat moved easily among the holiday shoppers with their bundles and bags. She pulled behind her by the hand a woman bundled in a heavy brown overcoat.

"Stop sulking," the girl said over her shoulder. She spoke with a crisp authority that contrasted oddly with her age, for she looked no more than eight years old. "I have a job to do, and I don't have time for your prejudices."

The woman kept silent, but the corners of her mouth twitched downward. The child's lips tightened, and suddenly the woman gasped and started.

"People remember an angry face," the girl said. "Smile. If you can't smile, look tired. I'm told tired is normal this time of year."

The woman bit her lip. Her face assumed a more neutral expression.

"Better."

They waited at a corner for the light to change, and the girl let her eyes rove over the crowds. Her nose wrinkled very slightly. :They're like so many sheep.:

:What were you expecting, Winter? A city full of geniuses?:

Winter's lips twitched in a smirk. :Not likely! Have the spotters seen them yet?:

:They're exactly on time.: Susanna's mindvoice held a wealth of sarcasm. :Just what we've been led to expect of Galaxy Ranger Captain Zachary Foxx. They're using the east entrance to the mall. The four Rangers... plus Foxx's two kids.:

:Am I supposed to imprint the kids, too?: The light changed, and Winter stepped forward, tugging her escort, Lucinda, behind her. As they were passing, a tall woman in a red hat looked down at Winter and smiled before glancing at Lucinda.

"Looks like your little girl is very eager to do her Christmas shopping."

Winter let her face round in a beaming smile as she squeezed her escort's hand in a warning. Susanna's voice sniggered in her head.

:Of course you're supposed to imprint the kids. What a cow! That hat is perfect for tossing into the street... There's a truck coming.:

Lucinda spoke at the same moment. "She does like her shopping." Her voice held just the right measure of affection tempered by weariness. She reached forward and stroked Winter's pale hair. Only Winter's telepathic gift betrayed the woman's revulsion; Lucinda was too experienced an operative, Winter knew, to let her feelings show in face, voice, or gesture.

:At least when she's "on.": Susanna's mental voice grew chilly. :I'd have done worse than just pinch her.:

As she and Lucinda passed the woman by, Winter sent the mental equivalent of a shrug. :It did the job. She remembered that there are worse things than touching one of us... Like quietly disappearing.: Winter let her eyes lose focus for a moment. :That woman's heart isn't in very good shape.: She let Lucinda take the lead and open the door of the shopping mall. Warm air billowed out, carrying the sounds of canned music and children's voices. Winter wrinkled her nose again.

:He says remember why you're there,: Minako cut in. :Teacher told him you were prying. And Teacher says be careful. This is very dangerous.:

Winter shrugged again and pushed ahead. She wended her way among more crowds of people, rubbing her forehead absently at the buzz generated by so many minds. The whole place was a nauseating array of color, light, and noise, a jarring contrast to the relative quiet of the training base. :You really couldn't get imprints through the video feed, Susanna?: she asked privately.

:No,: the older girl snarled on tightbeam, :I really couldn't. Patterns of ones and zeroes on a storage medium—there's no mind there to find! If they wanted imprints remotely they should have stolen personal items for you to snoop with.:

Winter flinched. :I'm sorry.: Through the general link, :Where are they?: 

:Foxx's kids asked to stop at the chocolate shop, seven doors in from the east entrance,: Susanna answered. :Foxx is inside with them and that woman. The freak and Hartford are just outside.:

Winter and Lucinda moved at a leisurely pace down the mall. From the corner of her eye Winter saw Lucinda, fully in character now, looking about as if considering where to go first. They kept moving at the same swinging stride, in and out of the crowds. Ahead, Winter saw the atrium where the four wings of the mall came together in a cross shape. At this time of year a huge artificial tree dominated the space. As they drew near she saw a line of children and adults, clearly queued up for something. Winter craned her neck to see and realized that the adults were waiting for the chance to put their children in the lap of an old, obese, white-haired man in a hideous red-and-white costume. :What is that? They call these people normals, but they're bizarre!:

:Winter!: Susanna's mental voice tightened. :The spotter thinks the freak's seen him. He's moving on. He wants to know if you can take it from here. The backup spotter says she'll need a few minutes to get into place.:

Winter and Lucinda rounded the crowd of children and parents, and in the distance Winter caught an unmistakable flash of auburn hair.

:Tell her not to bother. I've got them in line of sight.: 

She and Lucinda kept walking hand in hand, moving steadily toward the eastern end of the mall. As they approached the group, Winter stared, taking in impressions, sounds, feelings: 

The tall, wary blond man in black towered over the graceful woman with waist-length auburn hair who smiled up at him and then turned to accept a chocolate from the leggy brown-haired boy who looked so like the tall brown-haired man whose blue eyes laughed down at the golden-haired, ponytailed girl who held his hand and giggled helplessly at the joke the smiling brown-skinned man had just made...

Through the link, Winter felt Susanna smile.

:We have them. Come home, Winter.:

As Winter and Lucinda passed by, Ranger Niko of no family name looked around suddenly, as if someone had called her name. Winter smiled, already deep behind her shields, her grey eyes as chilly as the season. She looked up at Lucinda.

"Mission accomplished... Mommy."

Chapter Text

On board Ranger One

2/20/2099, 1437

 

 

"This is the Earth cargo ship Saoirse calling BETA. We have been attacked near the Brimstone System and left flying off course. Our ship's AI is in psychological distress. Request immediate assistance. Earth cargo ship Saoirse to BETA Mountain, request assistance. Please respond, repeat, please respond."

Tense and urgent, the woman's light alto voice held the rhythms of a native of Eire.

Commander Joseph Walsh, framed in the comm screen of Ranger One, touched a key on his desk and sat back in his chair. "The distress call came in twenty minutes ago. We've been unable to contact the Saoirse so far, but they're in an area near the Brimstone system that's known for interfering with radio transmissions. I know you're on your way home, but you're closer than any other unit, so I'm diverting you to investigate."

Zachary Foxx frowned. "They weren't very specific about the problem with their ship. Are we still trying to raise them?"

"Yes, Zachary. Lieutenant McIntyre is standing by, awaiting word from the comm center."

Shane Gooseman considered the recording. Brimstone System... Why's that familiar? "Commander, wasn't there some kind of trouble out that way not long ago?"

Walsh cocked an eyebrow. "You're familiar with the Diego Jihad?"

It clicked in Goose's mind, and with the name came memories of an old briefing. "Basically," he answered. "Some kind of local religious revolt on Brimstone that kicked up a couple years back, wasn't it?"

"The founders of Brimstone were peaceful, deeply religious, and committed to building a society not dependent on high technology," Niko said softly. Goose heard a thread of anger in her voice. "They didn't consider technology evil; they just wanted a simpler way of life. They were considering joining the League when the Diego Jihad started. The Jihad bombed settlements and archaeological sites, murdered civilians, and seized control of the system before the League could agree on a course of action. They're—well, they're not completely anti-technology; they just consider some high technology—like AI's, genetic engineering, and the like—an abomination. Anything that could be interpreted as 'playing God,' essentially. They have no problem with radios and spacecraft, though." She paused. "Or bombs."

Walsh cleared his throat, and Niko fell silent. "As a result of the incident, there's a no-fly zone around the Brimstone system, authorized by the Board of World Leaders and the League of Planets," Walsh said.

"Not that a no-fly zone really means squat in space," Goose noted. "Space is so damn big that effective blockades become nearly impossible unless you've got a huge number of ships."

Walsh said, "True, Gooseman, but the PKF has managed to catch a few blockade runners closer to the planet, where they've concentrated their forces. In any case, there's some concern that the Saoirse may have violated the zone."

"But the peacekeeping forces have authorization to shoot down noncompliant ships," Zach pointed out. "The distress call said they were 'attacked and left flying off course,' whatever that means, not that they were shot up and left drifting. That tells me they're still in shape to fly. And they didn't report damage to the ship."

The wall screen blinked into life to display Sheela McIntyre, Walsh's adjutant. "Commander, incoming transmission from the communications center," she announced. The face of a comm center technician replaced Sheela's.

"Commander Walsh, we've managed to raise the Saoirse," the man said. "Patching through."

The screen flickered, fuzzed into static, and cleared. The sharp, tired face of a middle-aged human woman took shape. Her dark hair was cropped short in a spacer's cut.

"I'm Captain Dervla Brennan of the Saoirse," she said. "You are?"

"Joseph Walsh, commander of BETA," Walsh replied. "You have the Series Five Rangers on the other half of your screen. How can we help you, Captain Brennan?"

Relief softened Brennan's expression. "It looks like we were attacked  by pirates," she said. "We were traveling near the Brimstone system, well outside the no-fly zone, when the entire crew lost consciousness. When we all woke, the better part of our cargo was gone. But there's no trace of gas that we can detect, and no one's suffering the aftereffects of a stun blast. And I swear to you we weren't anywhere close to the zone."

Brennan hesitated. A brief burst of radio noise sent a line of static across her image. "That's not the strangest part. The attack was over six hours ago now, Commander Walsh, and our ship's AI has lost every bit of that time.  Aside from the theft, which we think could have been accomplished within two to three hours, we've no idea what happened in those missing six hours. None at all."

 

 

 

On board Saoirse

2/20/2099, 2151 BETA Mountain time

 

 

"Welcome aboard, Captain Foxx." Brennan shook his hand, her grip firm. "We're more than glad to see you, I can tell you. This is Iain MacInnis, my co-pilot." She tipped her head toward the short, wiry man with jet-black hair who stood at her elbow. MacInnis gave Zachary the briefest of nods and passed a quick, bright smile around the group.

Ranger One had made rendezvous with the Saoirse at the coordinates where the crew had regained consciousness. The two ships had docked without incident. The Series Fives and the Saoirse's officers stood now in a corridor just outside the ship's airlock.

Niko was already checking her handheld for readings; Goose, the only one in a pressure suit, looked ready to head right back out the airlock for his external inspection of the Saoirse's hull.

"Thanks, Captain," Zachary said. With a gesture, he indicated the rest of the Series Fives. "My team: Rangers Hartford, Niko, and Gooseman. Ranger Hartford will need to examine your ship's computer. We were told that was the first priority here; from the briefing we were given, I understand your AI isn't doing so well." 

"Indeed he's not, Captain Foxx. How d'you do, Rangers. Ranger Hartford, you'll be talking with Ben Woodhouse, our steward, quartermaster, and computer jockey," Brennan told Doc. "He's most likely in the processor bay—Ben!" she shouted down the corridor. "You've got your help!" Turning back to Doc, she continued, "Hope you've got plenty of practice with this sort of thing. Poor Seamus isn't feeling well at all. He's been saying he's sure he's off his nut. Losing time's bad enough for us humans, but an AI—" She shook her head. "The processor bay's in the aft of the ship on the port side." 

Doc swept her an extravagant bow. "The Doctor is on the case, ma'am." He sauntered away as Goose snorted softly.

"Captain, if you don't have anything else for me to do here, I'll head out," the Supertrooper said. "A cargo ship's got a lot of hull to go over."

"Go ahead, Gooseman. Keep in touch by comm."

Goose saluted and strode to the airlock.

"I've got more work below, as well," Iain MacInnes said. "Aine will still be wanting help, I imagine." He headed aft, turned through a hatch, and vanished from view.

"Problems?" Zach inquired.

Brennan grimaced. "When our AI, Seamus, realized we weren't where we were supposed to be, he had a sort of—fit—and threw us out of warp. The drive needed more than a bit of tuning. Aine ni Suileabhain, our bosun, has been swearing up a storm ever since she came to and heard how it sounded. Not that our medical officer Nuala is much happier, mind you, what with this blackout we all had. Thank God they're both down in engineering, or we'd all have blue ears."

Niko looked up from her scanner. "Captain Brennan," she said quietly, "I haven't picked up any residues of gas yet, but my scanner here isn't calibrated for ultrafine scans."

"I'll take care of that, Niko," Zach put in. "I brought the bigger scanner along. I've got something else in mind for you to do, if you're up for it." She nodded, understanding clear in her eyes, and the corner of Zach's mouth quirked. There are definitely advantages to having a telepathic team member. "Captain Brennan," he added, "where were you when you lost consciousness?"

"On the bridge." Brennan jerked her head toward the nose of the ship. "This way."

"I'll start here, Zach," Niko said. "I'll comm you if I need anything."

"Affirmative."

 

 

Zach frowned down at the scanner and looked around the tiny ship's galley. Same thing as on the bridge: a bit of ordinary knockout gas—and faint traces of MZ-9. Awfully well connected pirates... His wrist comm beeped, and he answered. "Foxx here."

Doc's face blinked into the screen. "Captain, this is the weirdest data swipe I've ever seen. You know Captain Brennan said the memory logs are missing six hours worth of data? Well, get this: the data wasn't just wiped off the memory core. Someone copied everything but those six hours of data onto an entirely new core, pulled the old one, and swapped in a new one. It's even a slight upgrade—they don't make the old model any more."

Zachary stared in blank bewilderment. "Why go to all that trouble? What's the point?"

"Well, you know when data's deleted off a storage medium, it's not really gone, right? It's just marked as available space for the next time the computer needs to store something, so it's possible to recover the deleted data. I guess someone wanted to make sure that couldn't happen. I mean, you can burn drives clean, but it takes hours, and they didn't have the time."

"Understood. Anything else?"

"Well, their flight data checks out; just like Captain Brennan said, they weren't inside the no-fly zone. For whatever that's worth. Does make it a lot less likely the peacekeeping forces could have seen anything, though. I know if I were gonna commit random or not-so-random acts of piracy and mayhem, I'd avoid peacekeeping forces at all costs."

"Thanks for the alert," Zach said dryly. "How's the AI?"

Doc leaned back and flexed his hands with a cracking of knuckles. "The Doctor has operated. Seamus is feeling much more the thing now, as he puts it. While I was in here, I even helped him work out a little twitch he'd developed—"

Zach cleared his throat, and Doc broke off. "Right," he said. "Sorry. You finding anything?"

"They used MZ-9; it's one of the newer military-grade stun gases."

"Hey, I do actually read briefings, you know. So we're definitely not talking just your average common crooks here. Weird. Where do pirates get hold of MZ-9?"

"I don't know," Zach said, "and I don't want to speculate." At least not where civilians can hear me, he thought.

Doc laid one finger alongside his nose and bobbed his head ironically. "Gotcha, Zach. Anyhow, I'm done here. Heading forward."

"Roger. Foxx out."

 

 

Niko stood just behind the pilot's chair on the bridge of the Saoirse, hand on the seat back. Doc lounged against a console nearby, while Zachary stood just by the hatch. Dervla Brennan sat sideways in her seat, head canted sideways to look up at Niko, and watched, curiosity plain in her eyes.

Niko touched the badge at her belt. Her face grew still and intent. "They came through the hatch," she said softly. "Three of them. They never took their p-suits off. I can't see their faces. Injections. They used drugs on the crew to keep them unconscious." Niko closed her eyes in concentration; opened them again. "Captain Brennan, I know Dr. Casey did exams of all the crew members, but did she look at their skin from head to toe?" 

"Only the standard exam, ma'am. It's needle marks we'll have to look for, then?" 

"Yes," Niko said. "And I think taking blood samples would be a good idea. Some drugs leave traces our forensics teams can detect."

Brennan touched the communicator at her wrist and began quietly to issue orders. 

"Anything else, Niko?" Zach asked, keeping his voice low. 

"They came through the airlock, I saw that out in the corridor... And from what I saw in the computer room, one of them did something with the memory core, but we knew that already."

The three looked at each other.

"Let's see what Goose has to say," Niko suggested. "Maybe he'll have the final piece of the puzzle."

 

 

Goose took off his helmet and hung it by the hatch of the airlock. "I've got images for you, Zach," he said, and unclipped his handheld from its holder on his thigh. He held it out and pointed at the image on the screen. Craning his neck, Zach made out a small, round mark just beyond Goose's gloved fingertip. Brennan's bosun stepped forward to peer around Goose's other side.

"They landed a drone on the exterior of the hull, burned through it—probably with a laser—and pumped gas through the breach," Goose said. "They sealed it with the right stuff—looks like professional work. You can see minor scuffing to the enamel here, here,  and here"—the finger tapped the screen—"where the drone's landing gear made contact. If I hadn't been taught how to find that specific kind of damage, I'd have passed over that hole as just another ding from space junk."

Aine ni Suileabhain swore. "Drill holes in my hull, will they?"

"Calm down, Aine," Dervla Brennan ordered. "The Rangers will find the parties responsible or they won't. Be glad Ranger Gooseman saved you the trouble of inspecting the hull yourself."

"It gets better," Goose said. "A drone like this one will usually use that same hole to plug itself into the internal computer network of the ship it's disabling. I'm guessing it launched cracking software to lock down your AI before it actually started pumping the gas—to keep the AI from alerting the crew the atmo was going bad, or from calling for help."

Brennan looked aghast. Ni Suileabhain's face flushed an angry red.

"They were mighty thorough," Doc said. "If Niko couldn't see their faces, neither could the security cameras. From what Goose said, I bet they sent that drone ahead to gas the crew before they even warped out, so none of the crew members could have seen anything on scans or cameras. Same deal goes for Seamus. Poor guy. Not that we'd know if he had seen anything—that missing memory core is the only place you'd find sensor readings, long-range scans, anything that covered the time after the crew passed out but before the pirates boarded."

 Goose thumbed a key on the handheld. "By the way, I noticed a couple of places where the hull's gonna need patching in the next several months," he said to ni Suileabhain. "You want the data?"

The Irishwoman's face grew a bit less grim. "Yes, thanks. I hate doing EVAs, if you want the truth. Can you just beam it over to Seamus, please?" 

Goose hit another key. "Got it. Zach, what's next?"

Zachary stared down at the screen of his handheld. "I think we've picked up all the data we can here," he said. "Captain Brennan, if there's anything else BETA can do to assist you, please let us know. Please be sure to have Dr. Casey follow up with BETA medical regarding the blood tests—plus our docs recommend full physical exams for everyone the next time you're at a port with a certified doctor. Commander Walsh has already told me that if you present yourselves at a BETA facility, there won't be a charge for the exams."

Brennan nodded. "Many thanks, Captain Foxx," she said. "We're grateful for your help." She offered her hand, and they shook.

Zachary looked around at his team. "We've got the coordinates for the site where the Saoirse was ambushed," he said. "Let's go take a look."

Chapter Text

On board Ranger One

Site of the attack on the Saoirse

2/21/2099, 0129 BETA Mountain time

 

 

Doc looked up from his screen. "Well, this is a whole lot of nothing," he complained. "We're outside the no-fly zone, there's no debris, and this is one of the least-used shipping lanes in the entire darn League of Planets. GV, are you having any more luck?" 

"Yes, sir," GV answered. "I've been scanning this entire area since we warped out. As you requested, I concentrated on traces left by drive activity. It appears that an Andorian hyperdrive did indeed emerge from hyperspace within very close range of the Saoirse's last confirmed location."

Zachary sat up a little straighter. "An Andorian drive?" he demanded.

"Yes, sir," GV answered.

"Well, that eliminates Captain Kidd as a suspect," Goose noted.

"Yeah, but it brings in a whole boatload more," Doc said unhappily.

"There," GV said. "Ranger Hartford, I've taken the liberty of downloading the sensor logs to your handheld unit, and Ranger Niko's as well." 

"Thanks, GV," Niko said. "Good work."

"Guess we're done here, then," Doc said. "Hope we make it back to BETA in time for lunch."

 

 

 

Enroute to Earth

 

 

"So, Captain."

Zachary suppressed a smile. "So, Doc," he answered.

Niko, sitting in one of the rear pair of seats, giggled. "That opener won't work on  Zachary, Doc," she said teasingly. "Little Zach's used it once too often."

"Right. So, Zachary—" Doc looked over his shoulder and waggled his eyebrows at Niko, who laughed again—"I've been thinking, and I get the feeling you have a theory you're not sharing. Want to let the rest of us in on it? 'Cause you know that four heads are better than one."

Zachary, seated at the helm, hesitated. "Yes," he said slowly. "It's a touchy subject, though. I know I don't have to tell you all to keep this to yourselves."  Because unless we have hard evidence, all it would do is stir up trouble and cause hard feelings.

"Whatever it is, nobody's gonna hear it from me, my Captain," Doc assured him.

"What's up, Zach?" Goose asked. He unfastened his flight harness and came to lean on the back of Doc's seat.

"I think it starts with the question 'Where do pirates get hold of MZ-9?' And now that I think of it, there's also the one that goes, 'Why do they bother mixing it with regular knockout gas?'" said Doc.

"That last—" Zach said. "I'd guess the attackers were either trying to cover their tracks or stretching their supply of it, maybe both. MZ-9 is in use right now because it dissipates faster than other gases, so troops using it to deal with riots can move in more quickly after deploying it. If we hadn't been on the way home from another mission and in this general area, we might not have gotten here in time for our scanner to pick up the traces. It's also not being manufactured at very many labs right now, so there isn't a lot of it in circulation yet."

 "While we're at it, I've been wondering just what kind of pirate goes to so much trouble not to kill people," Goose said. "I didn't want to say anything in front of the Saoirse crew, but you all remember that hit out near Granna? I had to scrub down three times to get the smell out of my nose. You know as well as I do that that's a lot more typical. "

"Are we sure it was pirates?" Zach asked.

Doc's eyebrows shot upward. "What, you think it wasn't?"

"You said it yourself, Doc—where would pirates get MZ-9?"

"Well, who, then?" Niko asked.

"It's military grade. That suggests that either someone with access to the gas is selling it to pirates or—I don't like to say it—"

"Someone with access is picking up a little extra income on the side?" Goose said. "Now there's an ugly thought."

"Very," Zach agreed.

"Something else, Zach," said Goose. "Drones like the one I described earlier are damned expensive. Theoretically a bunch of pirates with a really good mechanic could salvage parts to build one, but you put it together with MZ-9 and your second theory starts looking more and more likely."

Niko leaned forward. "How are we going to proceed, Zach?"

"Carefully?" suggested Doc.

"I want to come at it from three directions," Zachary said. "We can try to find out if anyone's missing MZ-9. We can establish a list of everyone who has access and search through them for anyone with opportunity and motive—we'll have to cross-check to see who could have participated in the attack on the Saoirse. Finally, we can try to trace the stolen cargo."

"I can work on that first one," Doc said.

Zach involuntarily twitched in his seat.

"What!" Doc said defensively.

"Don't tell him any more, Doc," Goose advised. "Results are everything, method is best not talked about."

Zach ran a hand over his face. "I'm not listening," he muttered.

"It works better if you stick your fingers in your ears and say 'la la la,'" Doc said cheerfully. "It works great for Jessie."

The others burst out laughing.

"Gooseman, you'll assist me in working on the list of possible suspects," Zach said over the laughter. "Niko, you try to trace the stolen cargo."

"All right, Zachary," Niko said agreeably.

 

 

 

Series Five Rangers' office

2/22, 1116

 

 

The office was filled with the sounds of keyboards in use. From across the room, Doc heard Niko on the comm, starting her investigation on the Saoirse's cargo. Zach and Goose sat at their desks, complementary searches running in separate windows, each duplicated on the other's screen. Doc glanced over at a low-voiced command from Goose and watched Elma refine a search result to narrow the field.

Fingers flying, Doc routed requests for data, signed off by Zach, to the appropriate offices within BETA. His CDU rested on the desktop by his keyboard. "Searchlight," he said under his breath, "while we're waiting to hear back on those, have a look through incident reports from any agency that has access to MZ-9. See if there were any times when someone could have gotten to the stores, even if nothing's been reported. Dig?"

The little program flashed a brief acknowledgement in the corner of Doc's screen and was gone.

Doc turned his attention to the preliminary report he was writing on the previous day's findings. In only a few minutes more he had it finished, saved, and signed. "Zach, my Captain!" he called. "Sending my preliminary report on yesterday your way for your sig."

"Acknowledged, Doc," floated back. Doc caught a flash of green eyes as Goose shot him an evil look. Niko finished her call and started typing furiously.

Wait for it—

"Goose, Niko, I haven't seen preliminary reports from either of you two," Zach said. "Please have those to me by the end of the day today."

Doc grinned at Goose, whose glare deepened.

"And leave Doc alone."

Niko snickered. Goose looked disgusted.

"Hey, Doc!" Searchlight was bouncing lazily from one side of Doc's screen to the other, like a billiard ball on tranquilizers. "I got search results for the BETA incident reports, and a Space Navy AI answered one of your queries!"

Doc raised his eyebrows. "That was fast. What've you got?"

"I think he was bored, 'cause he was cranky, too. He says the Navy's not missing any MZ-9. We're not, either."

"Officially or unofficially?" Niko leaned back in her chair and turned her head to listen.

"Well, Searchlight?" Doc asked.

"BETA's not missing any, period," the tweaker answered. "We just did inventory last month and all of the canisters were accounted for. The armory's still under seal and Dorian says nobody's opened that locker since then. The Space Navy hasn't officially reported any missing."

"But—" Niko turned her chair toward Doc's desk. "Who else has access to MZ-9 besides the Ranger Corps, the Space Navy, and—" she broke off. "Oh, surely not. The Planetary Defense Corps? They have only a few deep-space vessels, and anyway—"

"And anyway, if you're real nice and hand 'em a map and a flashlight and maybe point 'em in the right direction," Goose drawled, "they can about find their asses with both hands."

"Gooseman!" Zach chided, but Doc, grinning himself, could see he was working to keep a straight face.

"You missed one," Doc said, growing serious. "The League Peacekeeping Forces."

There was a pause.

"Yeah," said Goose. "I wondered. But actually... we missed two."

Another pause. Zach looked blank, Niko wary.

"What would the Saoirse have to do with planetary security?" Doc asked dubiously, and saw Zach wince.

"Don't know," Goose answered. "But the Office sure seems to have all the resources it wants." He shrugged elaborately. "Just reminding you not to write off our pals in Texas, or whatever rock they're hiding under these days."

"Goose, we haven't narrowed the suspect pool enough to start drawing conclusions," Zach said. Glancing at Doc, he said, "But we can run a correlation among personnel in all of the service branches and see if we can use that to identify any persons of interest. Members of the PKF have certainly had more access to that sector of space than anyone from the Space Navy. As for finding out what the Office is doing, there's not much we can do about it, whether or not it's illegal, immoral, or just plain wrong. We don't have probable cause and they're not officially part of our jurisdiction. So let's get going on something that is." He turned back to work, and he and Goose took up a quiet back-and-forth conversation as they coordinated.

"Keep at the unofficial search, tweaker," Doc commanded softly. "You never know what might turn up."

Searchlight flashed an answer and was gone again.

 

 

 

Doc's quarters, BETA Mountain

2/22, 1927

 

 

Alone in his quarters, Doc danced the net.

Knock knock, Mr. Planetary Security, sir.

Through a back door that had taken days to establish, he slipped onto an old backup mainframe ostensibly owned by the Space Navy. What've we got? He requested a file list and snorted. Empty, my Aunt Sadie's biscuits. A flurry of keystrokes, and a small program came up. Doc watched in satisfaction as, byte by byte, it began recovering deleted files and copying their contents to one of his "bunkers"—triple-encrypted storage on obscure, half-forgotten servers sitting in the depths of BETA Mountain.

"Yeah," Doc said softly. "Come to Papa, all you beautiful scraps of data."

Mining for gold. I'll find you, you son of a—

The comm beeped for attention. Doc flipped his search into the background and brought up a nearly finished case report before answering. "Yeah, this is Doc."

The face of a young man in a tech's uniform formed on screen. "Hi, Ranger Hartford," he said, his tone clearly apologetic. "Sorry to call after hours."

"Bernard, my man! No problem. How's it going?"

"Weird, sort of. We're having this odd problem with the databases, and I've been working on it for almost my whole shift now. I was wondering if there was any way you could—"

"Sure could," Doc answered cheerfully, and opened a new session. "Tell me more."

 

 

 

Series Five Rangers' office

2/24, 1551

 

 

"All right," Zach said, looking around their conference table. "Let's hear summaries of everyone's findings so far. Doc?"

The hacker nodded. Zach noted that he looked a bit tired, as though he'd been getting too little sleep. "We know that BETA's supply of MZ-9 at Longshot is fully accounted for, and Security Chief Da Silva did a hand count to verify for us. Neither the Space Navy nor the Planetary Defense Corps have reported any missing. My unofficial queries have backed that up, but we're still waiting for word on a hand count. The Peacekeeping Forces haven't gotten back to us yet."

"Thank you," Zach said. "Niko?"

"Okay, Zachary," she said with a smile. "The Saoirse was carrying farming equipment and seed for Prairie, and heavy mining equipment, food concentrates, and a small cargo container of luxury items for the asteroid belt out at C-44. The seed and the food concentrates I haven't been able to trace yet. There are signs that the farming equipment may have ended up on the gray market on Tuscaloosa, but I'm still waiting for word back from the local sheriff. The mining equipment is sitting in impound on Mesa while the commander goes round with local law enforcement and also with the sheriff in Fort Windham on Nebraska—the suspect is wanted on smuggling charges there, too, and Commander Walsh is working out who's going to get him first. The luxury items were the easiest to trace, oddly enough—it was mostly midgrade alcohol, and someone tried to relabel it and pass it off as high-grade on Mars, of all places."

"You're kidding," Doc said in disbelief.

"Nope," she answered cheerfully. "Sometimes they really are that stupid."

Goose laughed. "What'd they do, try to sell not-so-fine liquor to a fancy restaurant?"

"Yes!"

He stopped laughing and looked startled. "You're kidding."

Niko burbled with laughter over Doc's quiet, "Hey, my Goose man, that was my line."

"Career criminals they ain't," Goose said. "So the cops there are sweating the fence?"

"Yes, but they're ready to hand over the suspects to BETA at any time," she answered. "It doesn't look like they're behind the attack, though—they both swear up and down that they bought the wine from the fence, and she corroborates their story. I've requested access to question her, but I told the detective in New Pigalle we shouldn't need to talk to the rest unless there are any new developments. The smuggler on Mesa used an anonymous drop—part of a warehouse."

"Dead end?" Zach asked.

"I'm not sure yet. I'll let you know."

"Good work, Niko," Zach said, and nodded to Goose to report for the both of them.

"Zach and I sifted through files on people who might've been able to get access to supplies of MZ-9," Goose said. "We eliminated anyone with a verifiable alibi, which was almost all of 'em, and ran cross-checks for motive and opportunity. We've narrowed it down to about a dozen people—nine PKF and four Space Navy. One of the PKF probably has an alibi, but we haven't been able to confirm it yet. All nine of them are posted out at the Brimstone no-fly zone. The four Navy are still on the list because they are each other's alibis."

"What about cross-checking that with my data?" Niko asked.

"Elma's working on it now."

Zach said, "That's as far as we can take this investigation until Doc and Niko get answers to their inquiries. I don't want to start interrogating suspects until we narrow the field as much as we can first. This case has a lot of potential for stirring up friction between the PKF and Navy and the Ranger Corps, and none of us need that." He pushed his chair back and stood.

"Nice work, people.  Carry on."

Chapter Text

Series Five Rangers' office

2/25, 0809

 

 

"So I've been nosing around for a while, digging up whatever I could on our old friends from the Office of Planetary Security, and I figured you all might like an update." 

Doc's teammates broke off their tasks and stared at him. Niko looked startled, Zachary resigned, and Goose—Goose just looked interested.

Well, that got their attention, Doc noted, exercising all his control not to smirk. He leaned back in his chair, enjoying their reactions, and fiddled with his CDU. "Let's see... Looks like they're doing weapons research, including nanotechnology and biowarfare. They're sponsoring research into ship and drive design—guess they want to build a better warship. And best of all, they're digging up dirt on everyone from the Queen to the Andorian and Kiwi ambassadors." 

"They're spying on our allies?" Zach nearly shouted. "That's disgusting!" 

"Relax, Zach," Goose said quietly. "It's not all that unusual. 'Course, there's no way they'd stand for the Andorians or the Kiwis spying on us." 

"It's an outrage," Zach said just as quietly, his face tight with anger. 

Goose raised his hands in a shrug. "Hey, I never said it was ethical. It stinks, but what are we gonna do, go tell them to stop poking through Waldo's underwear drawer?" 

Doc wrinkled his nose. "I could have lived happily for the rest of my life without ever thinking of Waldo's underwear drawer, my Goose man."

"Doc," Niko put in, "Have you found any more background information about Gaea? And is there any evidence to suggest they're still looking for her?" 

Doc shifted uncomfortably as Goose pinned him to his chair with a cold green look. "I... haven't found anything," he said. "But that doesn't mean there's nothing to find. Don't worry—if there is anything, I'll dig it up eventually."

"What about the technology they used to keep Gaea from sensing them?" Niko asked.

"I thought you said that might just have been stress," Doc protested.

"I said I wasn't sure," Niko countered. "And she said she sensed out her apartment fairly carefully before she went in. It just didn't feel right to me. Her training was incomplete, yes, but she seems—seemed—to be fairly practiced at sensing people. It kept her alive while she lived on the street, if you'll recall."

"Okay, okay..." Doc held up his hands in self-defense. "But no, I haven't found anything. I'll keep an eye out."

"Have you heard anything from the commander about the watch list you generated last August?" asked Zach.

"Uh... Belva told me a couple weeks ago she's still watching fourteen of them. She was able to eliminate a few right off the bat. The next few took a little longer, but none of them is our mole, either. I asked her to get back to me when she'd narrowed the field to under ten people. Just so you know, we're using the codename Earthmover for the list of suspects."

Zachary drew a deep breath and blew it out over Niko's soft groan. 

"What?" Doc asked, all innocence.

"That's a horrible play on words, Doc." But Niko was smiling.

"Thanks!" he answered with a wink.

"Thanks, Doc," said Zach. "Goose is right; there's probably not much we can do about any of it. But it's good to know about it. I'll pass it on to the commander in my next meeting with him." 

"Uh—" Doc licked his lips. "You going to tell him where you got this info?"

Goose snickered. Niko giggled. Zach raised an eyebrow.

"Never mind," Doc said with a sigh. "I should know better by now."

 

 

 

0831

 

 

"Yeah! Throw me a party!"

The other three Rangers looked up from their screens.

"Doc, what on earth," Zach said.

"It's official, my Captain: there's MZ-9 missing from the PKF's stockpile. So we can cross our Space Navy guys off the suspect list."

"Not so fast," Zach said. "It's possible, though not likely, that one of them could be working with one or more of the PKF suspects."

"No, Zach," Goose cut in. "I just finished typing this up: Elma's run the numbers, and the naval officers couldn't have made it out to Brimstone System, then to Mesa or Tuscaloosa—or even Mars, for that matter—and still been on time for duty the next morning. And they did all show up, so they're off the hook."

"That'll make Commander Walsh happy," Zach noted. "He wasn't looking forward to having to tell Admiral Blake that members of his service had done something like this. Niko, have you heard back from the police about the fence in the Mars case?"

"They said the suspect's being transferred here so we can interrogate her. ETA is around 1000, they said. I haven't heard back yet from the sheriff on Tuscaloosa, but he said he'd be able to get back to me by end of day today. And Commander Walsh is working out an extradition deal for the smuggler on Mesa. He said he hopes to have the man here by tomorrow, but that it may be faster for me to fly out there if the sheriff in Fort Windham won't agree to wait. The Nebraska charges are older, so I might just have to go."

BETA Mountain Holding Block, Interrogation Room 3

1345

 

 

Ying Toh. Age 41, unmarried, no children. Possession of stolen property, intent to sell stolen property, transporting stolen property across state lines, conspiracy, network fraud, identity fraud... Four arrests, no convictions.

As Goose might say, what a piece of work.

She looked up from her handheld to study the woman on the other side of the one-way glass. Ying Toh was doing her best to come across as tough and indifferent, but her body language told a different story. She was rather tall for a human of Asian background, nearly as tall as Niko, but with a stockier build that had been let run to a certain thickness about the middle. She wore her black hair in a spacer's crop. Her only claim to attractiveness lay in a pair of bright blue eyes, startling against the light golden skin.

Until her arrest two days ago, Niko noted, Toh's crimes had been handled by local police agencies on Mars. She probably never expected to run afoul of the Rangers, Niko thought. She was small fry and happy to stay that way. It shouldn't be hard to turn that to good account.

Niko let the door of the interrogation room close behind her and stood, arms folded, surveying the woman who sat sullenly behind the table. She let the silence stretch out, just watching as the suspect grew nervous and fidgety.

"Who're you?" the woman finally demanded, and Niko smiled and sat.

"I'm Ranger Niko, Ms. Toh," she said, setting her handheld on the table in front of her. "I have some questions for you."

"I'm not sayin' a word 'til my lawyer gets here."

"That's fine," answered Niko, knowing that the defense lawyer was currently taking the elevator down to the Holding area. She wanted the opportunity to study Toh face to face. This was probably the best chance she'd get to—What's that saying Zach uses? Put the fear of God into her? She let a smile curl up the corners of her lips. Or maybe just the fear of me.

"What's so funny?"

Niko raised her eyes to Toh's and let the smile turn reassuring. "Just a passing thought. Nothing to trouble yourself about." She reached into her belt pocket, pulled out the plastic bag containing Toh's few personal items, and held it up. "Do you recognize these items?"

Toy looked wary, but at length, she nodded.

Niko unsealed the bag. "This is a pretty watch," she said, drawing out an old-fashioned gold pocket watch on a fob chain and setting the bag back down. "It looks old. Was it a gift? A family heirloom, maybe?"

The suspect clenched her jaw but remained silent.

"You may as well tell me. I'm very good at learning about things. You could say they talk to me." Niko held the watch in a cupped palm and dropped her fingers to her badge. She held silent and still, eyes unfocused, letting the images come. "Your father? No... grandfather," she murmured. "When you were very small, he used to hold you on his lap and let you play with it while he told you stories about China. Every night he let you wind it." Niko smiled. "That's a lovely memory," she said sincerely.

Ying Toh pressed back against her chair, her face going pale. "Who—" she said in a voice gone hoarse.

"He left it to you when he died. You had to fight to keep it... your older brother wanted it. It's been through a lot with you, this watch." Niko glanced up at the other woman.

The whites were showing all around Toh's irises. "Where—"

"I told you, things talk to me." Niko smiled and reached into the bag again. "Now, shall I tell you about your ring...?"

 

 

Four and a half minutes later, Ying Toh's defense attorney was admitted to the interrogation room.

Five minutes later, Ying Toh agreed to a plea bargain.

 

 

 

Series Five Rangers' office

1736

 

 

Niko walked into the office, tired and ready to go home. She hadn't expected to see any of her teammates, so the round of applause that greeted her caught her by surprise. She laughed, pleased but embarrassed.

"Fantastic job, Niko," Zach praised her. "That was as fine a use of psychology in interrogation as any I've ever seen."

"Yep, mighty smooth, Niko," said Doc. "Mighty smooth. Too bad they can't teach that method at the Academy. Or, well, no, because can you imagine the embarrassing stories people could get off my keyboard? But that was some job you did."

Goose just gave her a silent thumbs up.

"Thank you, guys," she said, still flushed with pleasure at the praise. "So... do I want to know how many people have seen the vid of that interrogation?"

"Oh, only a few... dozen people," Doc told her blithely. "The OIC down at Holding was so impressed he sent it straight to the commander, who forwarded a copy to Zach, who showed it to my Goose man and me, who just sort of oops-did-I-really-sorryyy sent it to the Tactics and Procedures distribution list for the whole active Ranger Corps—"

Niko's face turned bright pink.

"You've received three phone calls already," Goose said quietly.

"Yeah, and GV couldn't help booping with excitement every time another congratulatory e-mail showed up in your queue," Doc put in. "I've counted twelve boops already."

"GV!" Niko said, a little shocked. "You don't make a habit of that kind of thing, do you?"

"Oh, no, ma'am! But we're just all so pleased for you—"

Niko dropped her face in her hands and groaned. "All? This would be—?"

"Yes, ma'am, all of the BETA AIs who are cleared for information related to criminal investigations," GV answered. "Belva was the first to send a message of congratulations—oh! I'm sorry! The Commander wanted to see you as soon as you got ba—"

"GV! And you only remembered now?"

"Sorry, ma'am—"

The door slid shut behind her. Zach laughed, shaking his head.

"Doc—life is never boring with you around, is it?"

 

 

 

Commander Walsh's office

1749

 

 

"Well done, Ranger Niko. Very well done." Commander Walsh sat back in his chair, folding his hands on his desk. "You should know that the Officer in Charge at Interrogation has already sent me an informal letter of recognition for you. He's only sent me three of those in all the years since BETA was formed."

Niko flushed with happiness again. "Thank you, sir."

Walsh harrumphed. "You've earned it, Lieutenant," he said. "That was a clever use of your psychic abilities. Now I know you haven't had the chance yet to write your report, so I won't keep you for much longer, but I'd like a quick summary of the information you got from the suspect."

"Yes, sir." Niko composed herself and took a moment to prepare. "Ms. Toh confirmed that two men sold her the luxury items, including six bottles of midgrade table wine, five cases of assorted distilled liquors—all midgrade as well—four tins of tobacco, and five kilos of premium chocolate. She provided rough descriptions; in her deposition she said they'd covered their faces. The details will be in my report."

"Nothing else? Did she get a look at their ship?"

Niko shook her head. "No, Commander. She said they brought a small cargo sled from the port."

"Well." Walsh blew out his breath in frustration. "And because there were only two of them, but at least three attackers, we can't cross any PKF names off our list."

"That's right, sir," Niko agreed. "After I question the smuggler on Mesa, I may have more useful data for you."

"All right, Ranger. Dismissed."

Chapter Text

On board Ranger One, at Brimstone System no-fly zone

2/26, 0734

 

 

They had barely warped out before they were challenged.

Well, no one can complain that the PKF aren't doing their job, Zach thought, and keyed the comm terminal. The face of an Andorian male resolved on his screen.

"PKF cruiser Aegis, this is Captain Zachary Foxx of the Galaxy Rangers. We have a sealed packet for Commander Irving," said Zach. "My orders stipulate that we deliver it in person."

The Andorian nodded politely. "Understood, Captain. Please wait a moment while I speak to the commander."

The hold screen blinked on, and after a moment Zach recognized the pattern.

"Fractals," Goose said. "Nice."

"Not a surprise, though," Zach said, smiling a little.

"That's for sure. What do you bet he originally put up formulae?"

"No bets. I'd lose." They both laughed.

The Andorian returned. A moment later, a flight plan was transmitted.

"Captain Foxx, the commander is expecting you," the Andorian said. "Your flight plan places you in Docking Bay Two. Privates Byrne and Keyes will meet you there. I am Flato; if you should have need of anything while you are aboard Reliant, you may ask to speak to me."

"Thank you," Zach responded, and Flato cut the connection.

"He didn't get posted here for his people skills," Goose noted, already laying in their course.

"As long as his flight path is good, he can be as blunt as he wants."

"Huh. If blunt is the worst we get on this trip—"

Zach sighed. "Don't remind me. This is going to be ugly."

 

 

 

On board Aegis

Commander Irving's office

0811

 

 

"You think some of my people did what?!"

Ouch, thought Goose, wincing at the volume. This guy could give Commander Walsh barking lessons. And judging from Zach's reaction, his bionic ear just made pickup a little too well.

Zachary, seated to Goose's right, gestured to the datachip that Irving had yet to examine. "The facts of the case support our conclusions, Commander," he said firmly. "If you would—?"

Irving scooped up the chip and slotted it into the reader in his desk. Goose watched as his eyes skimmed down the screen and his expression grew more and more troubled. Finally he sat back in his chair.

"Well, you've definitely established probable cause to question your 'persons of interest,'" he said with obvious resignation. "I'm not about to stand in the way of a criminal investigation."

"Thank you, sir," Zach said. "Are you able to definitively eliminate any of your people from our list? Anyone in sickbay or with another alibi for the time the crime was committed?"

"Pallas," said Irving. An AI shaped like a statue of a woman appeared on his monitor. "Can you establish alibis for any of these personnel?" Two of the names were immediately highlighted. "Thank you. Get these two gentlemen any pertinent information they ask for on those seven people who are still on the list—duty schedules, movements, financials. If in the course of the investigation you have a question about what constitutes 'pertinent,' query the legal database. If that doesn't resolve the difficulty, query me. If the Rangers' investigation implicates anyone not named in the file on that chip, notify me right away so I can clear you to release the appropriate data."

"Yes, sir," the AI Pallas answered in a firm, calm voice.

"Do you have any questions, Pallas?"

"No, sir."

"Where would you like us to work from, sir?" Goose asked quietly.

"The portside aft conference room is unoccupied today, Commander," Pallas volunteered.

"That will do," Irving said. "Pallas will create a schedule for you, gentlemen. Do you have any preference about who you talk to first?"

Zach said, "We put the men we think are more likely at the top of the list."

The commander turned his eyes back to his screen and frowned, and Goose noticed that the AI had added notations to each entry on the list. "Damn. Four of the men on your list are not on the ship at present because they're out on a patrol."

Goose sat up straight and traded a look with Zach.

"Are those four usually on duty together, Commander?" Zach asked.

"Yes," Irving answered slowly. He looked disturbed. "Yes, they are."

"Were they on patrol on the day of the attack?"

"Pallas?" Irving asked without turning his head.

"Affirmative," the AI asked. "The four soldiers in question were on patrol on that day."

Irving's face seemed to age a decade as Goose watched. "Well," he said. "Well. Do you want me to recall them?"

At once Zach said, "No. I don't want to alert any of the personnel on that list that we're interested in them." He gestured at the screen. "Our cover story is appended to the list there. In short, we're going to be asking your personnel about fictitious Crown activity near the site of the attack. And even with this new information about that team of four, we'll still want to question the other people on the list as planned."

Irving turned to read the text on his screen and then nodded, visibly pulling himself together. "That makes sense; even humans who'd steal from other humans usually draw the line at anything that could help the Queen. As for my four patrollers, they're due back late tonight. You're welcome to stay aboard as my guests, or—"

"We've got plenty to do on board Ranger One," Zach said with a smile. "There's always more paperwork than time, it seems."

"Isn't it the truth," Irving agreed.

Zach rose, and Goose and then Irving followed suit. "Thank you, Commander," Zach said. "You've been very cooperative. I know this is hard for you. Please comm me right away if I can help with anything." Zach turned for the door.

Commander Irving ran a hand over his face. "I'm going to have to get straight on the horn to Commander Walsh to start working on a statement. This is going to be ugly."

Zachary glanced back at the other man. "Yes," he said somberly. "I know. Gooseman, let's go."

Goose paused and stood at attention before Irving's desk. The commander, just sitting down again, glanced up. Goose saluted and saw the other man's face ease a little at the sign of respect.

What's that Niko said to me once? Small things matter.

He turned to follow Zach out the door.

 

 

 

On board Ranger One

1516

 

 

"It's all there, Zachary."

Doc's image on the comm went slightly fuzzy, and a bit of static chased itself across the screen.

That solar flare activity really does play hell with our equipment, noted Goose.

Goose and Zach had spent several hours that morning interviewing the three PKF personnel who'd been left on their list.

And all three had alibis, Goose thought. And then: This is almost too perfect.

Doc continued, "They're all in debt to one degree or another. A couple of them have massive debts—well, for some values of massive. The Premier probably spends that much on breakfast cereal every year. And they all made unusually large deposits into their bank accounts a couple of days after the attack."

Zach was looking perplexed. "This is almost too easy. Are you sure, Doc?"

"Hey, this is my department, Captain. But don't think I don't agree with you. They're the sloppiest thieves I've ever heard of."

"They might as well hang out a sign," Goose said sardonically. "'Please come and arrest us—we're guilty!'"

Doc shrugged. "Be that as it may—it's definitely suspicious."

"That's putting it mildly."

Goose scanned down the data on his screen again. Four names, four images, four concise backgrounds.

Alan Yates, Chief Petty Officer. Paulo Echevarria, Petty Officer. Roland Nesi, Specialist. Salim Uddin, Specialist.

They all have spotless records. If it weren't for Doc's evidence I'd never believe these four would do something like this. Echevarria and Nesi both fit the rough descriptions Niko got from the Mars fence, to boot.

"If these debts are fairly recent, it may account for the sloppy work," Zach was saying. "They're not career criminals; they're just desperate."

Goose frowned. Something doesn't add up...

"Captain," he said, "the work with that drone was anything but sloppy. That was special-forces level precision."

Zach asked, "Doc, do any of them have special forces or covert ops experience?"

Doc glanced away from the comm pickup, and there was the faint sound of clicking keys, nearly lost in another burst of radio noise. "...Yes," he said slowly. "Paulo Echevarria. He was in special forces for eight years before he went on detached duty with the PKF."

"It's definitely not enough to convict on," Zach said. "But it's actually enough for an arrest. When they get back later today, we'll take them into custody."

 

 

 

2018

 

 

In the end, the arrests were rather anticlimactic.

"I'm telling you, we didn't do this!" Yates was saying from the holding cell he shared with his men.

Yates had submitted to the handcuffs with only a verbal protest; Nesi hadn't even offered that much, only looking stunned as Zach read him his rights. Uddin scandalized Zachary and disgusted Goose by beginning to sob as Zach cuffed him, a reaction explained when Commander Irving explained quietly that Uddin was the only support for his disabled mother and his three younger siblings. "He's all they've got," Irving said, his face shuttered and heavy with the effort not to show his pain and mortification. "The PKF will take care of your family, Specialist," Irving told Uddin. "We're not about to let them get thrown out onto the street." After that the boy grew calmer, going where he was told, miserable and pale with shock.

Echevarria went tense all over when Goose approached him with the cuffs. Goose just looked at him.

"Don't make me break your kneecaps, Petty Officer," Goose said quietly. "I don't feel like filling out the paperwork."

In the end the man submitted without a fight, but Goose could tell it cost him. "You're making a mistake, Ranger Gooseman," Echevarria said. "We're innocent."

"Nobody's innocent," Goose had answered, and snapped the cuffs on.

Now Zach stopped in front of the cell and looked Yates in the eye. "You'll get your day in court, Chief," he said. "The truth will come out, either way."

The four suspects were already on board Ranger One. Irving had signed the paperwork releasing his men into the custody of the Galaxy Ranger Corps. Now Zach extended his hand. Irving looked at it as if unsure what it was; after a pause, he shook it.

"I'm more sorry than I can say, Commander," Zach said. "We will do everything in our power to ensure these men get a fair trial. Please let me know if there's anything at all I can do for you."

"Thank you, Captain Foxx," Irving said. His face was haggard.

Goose just saluted. He watched the commander nod and then turn away. Watching the man walk out of the hangar bay, Goose thought, He walks like he suddenly feels ten years older.

Poor guy.

He turned and caught Zach's eye.

"Let's get out of here, Goose," his captain said. "I want to go home and see my son."

Chapter Text

Series Five Rangers' office

2/27, 0730

 

 

Niko wasn't surprised on arriving at work to find that she was the first person into the office.

In fact, I wouldn't wonder if Zach and Goose sleep late. What an awful day they must have had yesterday.

She started up her terminal and pulled up a blank report form.

How many ways can you phrase "The fence didn't know anything useful, and the sheriff's deputy was rude"?

She made a face and began to type. Presently Zach's comm station chimed once.

"Ma'am?" said GV's voice. "An Officer Moana with the New Pigalle Police Department is on the comm. He's asking to speak to Captain Foxx. He says it's about a member of Jackie Subtract's organization."

"I'll take the call. Thank you."

Niko spoke briefly to the officer from Mars, who was calling to let Zachary know that the New Pigalle police had arrested a notorious thief who worked irregularly for Jackie Subtract.

"I'll give him the message, Officer," she said. "He'll appreciate the call. And thank you. Moxie isn't the worst of people, but he's definitely far from the best."

The brown-faced man laughed. "That's a fact, Ranger. Mahalo."

"E como mai," Niko answered with a smile. "Mahalo nui loa."

He laughed again in delight. "A linguist! Excellent. But I have to be going. Aloha, Ranger Niko. Come visit us in New Pigalle sometime."

"Yes," she said mischievously. "I hear the bugs are great at this time of year."

He was still laughing when, with a wave of farewell, he cut the connection.

"Well, GV," Niko said, "that won't make Zachary feel any better about the arrests yesterday, but it might cheer him up a little."

"I hope so, ma'am!"

"Yes," she said, frowning. "I hope so too."

 

 

 

0816

 

 

The door swished shut behind Niko, and quiet settled over the office. Goose glanced at the evidence bag lying on Zachary's desk. An unfinished report waited onscreen; Goose had been working on it when Zach's comm rang with a call from Ranger Ed Robbins on New Petrograd, asking for Niko's help with a suspicious missing persons case. Suddenly paperwork seemed like the least important thing in the world.

"You think she'll be okay, Captain?" Doc asked. All of them had watched Niko leave, and now Doc and Zach looked at each other, both grim-faced. Goose sat still behind his terminal, not wanting to know what expression he was wearing.

"I think so," Zach answered. "This Leonov murder is about as nasty a case as we've ever seen, and she just experienced the worst part of it. Maybe I should have turned Ed Robbins down."

"Sure has all the angles," Doc agreed soberly. "Murder, rape, incest... Alexei Leonov is a rotten excuse for a human being. "

"Well, Niko's one of the toughest people I know," Zach said. "I think she'll do all right once she has some time to herself to deal with... all that."

Why the hell did she agree to scan that evidence? Goose thought, nearly despairing—but he already knew the answer. Same reason why she risked getting turned into a veggie when the Queen stole the Mindnet device. Same reason why she put up with Brent Carmody trying to grope her—and why she tried to help me find Gaea through our link. She cares. She's willing to use her psionics to help solve cases. But nobody could have known those bits of fabric were a murder weapon. She's got to have stuff running through her head right now they'd never let on live Tri-D in a million years.

Zach turned his gaze to Goose. "Gooseman, I'll be leaving for New Petrograd shortly, and I still don't have your final report on the Saoirse incident. How far along is it?"

Goose gritted his teeth. "It's started," he said. I hate this shit. Irritation began rising, a slow wave in his mind.

"I take that to mean 'Not very,'" Zach said crisply. "Get the lead out, mister. And while you're at it, you still owe me paperwork for the last time your crashed your Interceptor."

Goose stared at his screen, his jaw still clenched, and pecked out a couple of sentences. Shut up, Zach, just shut up. You're trying do the right thing, but for gods' sakes just—

"I know you're worried about Niko," Zach said, much more gently. "But I need you to do your job, and part of your job is filing reports."

Anger flared. You condescending— Goose glared at his commanding officer. "You don't have to tell me my job, Captain," he gritted out. "You'll have your reports before you leave." He shoved back his chair and came to his feet. "May I be excused, sir?" he continued. "I'd like to work from home. I'm having trouble concentrating here."

Goose saw Zach's jaw clench, saw a slight flush rise over the captain's face as his nostrils flared in annoyance—but Zach, with the self-control that had earned Goose's respect from the beginning of their relationship, simply nodded. "You may," Zach said, once more crisp and correct. "I expect those reports by the time I leave for Samara, Ranger Gooseman. Dismissed."

Goose was out the door before it even finished opening.

Yeah, I'll get you your reports, Zachary, he thought. But first I'm going down to the gym, or you'll have another file on your desk to initial: a requisition for a new terminal for my quarters.

 

 

Doc watched the door slide shut behind the second of his teammates to leave inside of two minutes. "Man! What's eating him, Captain?" he asked Zachary. "Feels like Hurricane Goose just blew through here, and I don't think it's just Niko."

Zach, still staring after Goose, didn't answer for a moment. "I don't think it's Niko at all, Doc," he said finally. "I think he's been doing research. The same kind he was doing last summer."

Doc blew out his breath. Oh hell. Remind me never to give in to one of the Gooseman's "little favors" again, he thought. The last one keeps landing me in hot water... "Anything you want me to do about it?" he asked.

"I doubt there's much either one of us can do," Zachary answered. "I think it was seeing Max Sawyer again that got him on this track, and the only thing I can think of to get him off it is—putting Greer Latham behind bars. Even if last September did help."

"Might as well wish for the moon on a string, Zach," Doc said ruefully. "It's about as likely."

Zach fixed him with a piercing stare. "Is there something I should know, Doc?"

"Nothing I haven't already told you. Intel on those bad boys hasn't gotten any easier to dig up, you know. Especially now they know I'm looking at them, they're playing it pretty cool. But like I said last week—soon as I dig up anything that can help our young friend, you'll be the second to know."

Zach sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. "Thanks, Doc. Guess I'd better get on the horn to the commander."

"Yep," Doc answered, and made a face. "New Petrograd in the winter. What fun."

"You're not helping," said Zach, and opened a line to Walsh's office.

 

 

 

Foxx family quarters

3/1, 0251

 

 

Zachary struggled up from a deep sleep to the sound of his wrist comm beeping. He flailed at the bedside table for it and nearly knocked it to the floor before he could get his hand around it and bring it near his face.

"Foxx here," he mumbled, and forced himself to alertness as Walsh's face appeared on the miniscreen.

"Zachary," Walsh said, and vaguely Zach thought, He's upset. Then, a bit more awake now, He's very upset.

"Commander?" he answered.

Walsh's face and voice were both grim. "I've just had a call from the officer in charge of the holding block on BETA Space Station."

Space Sta—

Zach sat bolt upright in bed. "What?" he demanded.

"There's been a fire in the holding block," said Walsh. "They've confirmed thirteen deaths already. The four suspects from the PKF are among the dead."

The words sank like ice-cold stones into the pit of Zach's stomach.

"What," he said numbly. "Oh my God. What happened?"

Walsh's face went tight with anger. "There was an arson suspect in one of the cells," he said. "A pyromaniac. The investigators have already confirmed that the fire started in his cell."

"Someone didn't search him carefully enough, and he started a fire that got out of control?"

"That would be a good guess to begin with." Walsh ran a hand over his face. "I'm not looking forward to this."

"You're heading up to the space station?"

"Yes. I'm enroute now."

Zach swung his feet over the side of the bed. "Are you going to call Commander Irving," he asked carefully, "or am I?"

"That's my responsibility, Zachary. But thank you. I'll comm you if I need your team. Walsh out."

Zachary sat, elbows on knees and head on his hands, for a long time after the screen went dark. Presently there was a quiet knock on the door. "Dad?" Zach, Jr., called through the door.

"Come in, Zach."

His son's lanky frame was silhouetted against the light cast down the hall from the small bedroom. "What's wrong, Dad?" Little Zach's voice sounded scared, but he was trying his best to hide it. "Was it from the school?" He came in and sat down on the bed next to his father. Zachary straightened.

"No, no—I'm sure Jessie's fine. That was Commander Walsh. There was a fire on BETA Space Station, and some people were killed, including some that Goose and I had to arrest recently."

"Oh, Dad, that's awful. I'm really sorry."

"Thanks, son." Zachary put one arm around his boy and tightened it briefly.

"Are you going to be okay?"

Zachary smiled painfully. "Yes. But if you're going to become a Ranger you'll more than likely face something like this yourself someday."

"Yeah." A pause, and then, "I'll sit with you for a while, all right? You look upset."

Zach felt his face relax. "Thanks," he said quietly.

They sat like that for a long while before Zach felt able to sleep again.

 

 

 

Series Five Rangers' office

0900

 

 

Doc came into the office to find Zach and Goose both already there. "Morning, Captain, Goose," he said, not even trying to sound cheerful. The rumor mill was running overtime that morning, all of it depressing. A grunt from Goose's desk was his only answer from that quarter. It had been a while—since Gaea, now I think about it—since he'd seen the big Supertrooper look so grim.

Zach was reading something on his monitor, and Doc wasn't sure he'd even heard the greeting. His frown grew deeper as Doc watched. He looked up finally and met Doc's eyes.

"Hello, Doc," he said. "I guess you've heard the news about the four suspects from the PKF?"

"Yeah. I'm sorry, my Captain. It's a lousy piece of luck for absolutely everybody involved."

"Yes," Zach agreed. His face grew pained, and he added quietly, "I promised them their day in court."

"Not your fault, Zach," Goose put in, with the air of someone who's said a thing more than once already. Doc glanced over at him.

"It isn't, but we're still the reason they were up there, Gooseman."

"Not to poke a bruise, here," said Doc, "but why were they up there? BETA has a perfectly good holding block right here in the mountain."

"Politics," Goose muttered in disgust.

Zach said, "They're—they were PKF. The commander worked it out with Commander Irving and the brass at the Forces that they'd be held on the station on grounds that it's more neutral territory than BETA Mountain."

"It's BETA Space Station," Doc said in disbelief. "That's neutral?"

"Like I said, politics," said Goose.

Doc asked, "So what's next, Zach?"

"We don't have enough evidence to determine innocence or guilt, so we're going to have to close the case without a resolution," Zach answered. "We can always reopen it later if new information emerges."

"Ouch." Doc winced. "The families are gonna hate that."

"Yes," Zach agreed. "And that kind of accusation will stick with a person and his family for good, even if he's exonerated later."

"I still say it was too easy," said Goose.

"And I still have to answer that we have nothing that would even begin to point at anyone else,"  Zachary said wearily.

Goose shrugged. "I know. I just hate closing out a case like this."

"No more than I do," Zach answered. "Like I said, it sticks with people. It's a heavy burden to put on someone when you're not even sure he's guilty." He turned back to his computer and tapped out a few more keystrokes, but in his memory he was seeing Commander Irving's hagridden face and hearing his own voice. "We will do everything in our power to ensure these men get a fair trial."

The obligation doesn't end because your men died, Commander, Zach thought. I won't forget about it.

None of us will.

Chapter Text

Doc's quarters, BETA Mountain

3/2, 0018

 

 

"Great," Doc grumbled. "More problems with the databases? What's going on over there, anyway, Bernard?" He opened a fourth session and started a search on chromosome clustering. In the secondary window, his data sort ticked onwards.

And behind Door Number Three... Pathfinder flashed a silent message in the tertiary window. Doc schooled his face to calm, but in the back of his mind he exulted. Outstanding. Another possibility off the list. You can't hide from me forever, you damn torturing baby snatcher... A single keystroke closed the session and dumped the data out of memory and into another of his "bunkers."

"Sorry, Ranger Hartford." Technician Bernard Vasquez looked embarrassed. Doc flipped back to his main session and stared at the lines of code. "It's the second time it's happened now," Bernard continued. "Do you—"

Doc's sessions froze. He stared blankly at the unmoving lines of data. His tweakers popped out of the computer as if spat from a cold plastic mouth and began to dance wildly around him.

"Hey, Doc!" Pathfinder squeaked. "We're off the network! Blammo!"

"What?"

"What?" said Bernard.

The door to Doc's quarters hissed open. Booted feet clattered in the corridor.

"Internal Affairs! Stand up and put your hands on your head!"

Doc spun in his seat. A Ranger Corps Internal Affairs team boiled through the doorway into the office, guns at the ready. An officer strode through in their wake and stopped, leveling a cold stare at Doc. Onscreen, the technician's eyes bulged.

"Buh," Bernard said.

"What?" Doc demanded, bolting up out of his seat, and froze as gun muzzles drew a bead on his head.

"Hands on your head! Now!"

Doc complied, glaring. "You're making a big mistake, buddy," he bit out as one of the Internal Affairs troopers stepped forward, cuffs at the ready.

The officer—Lieutenant Gioberti, according to his badge—shrugged. "I'm doing my job, Hartford. You're under arrest for data piracy."

Doc goggled. "What?"

"You've gotta be kidding me!" Tripwire squawked. Gioberti looked irritated.

"Yeah!" Firefly added, buzzing furiously around Doc's head. "Doc only pirates data from the bad guys!"

Doc ground his teeth. The Internal Affairs trooper waved the little program aside, drew Doc's arms down behind his back, and snapped the cuffs on Doc's wrists.

"All of you," Doc snapped. "Into the CDU and shut up." The tweakers obeyed in a flurry of pixels. "And you—" he glared at the IA officer. "I'm not saying another word without my lawyer present."

"Whatever. Mariampolski, Hseh, Carrows—search the place," Gioberti ordered. Doc opened his mouth to protest, and the officer flourished a search warrant in his face. "You were saying, Dr. Hartford?"

Doc shut his mouth. From the comm screen Bernard said faintly, "Uh, Doc, I'm just gonna call Captain Foxx," and signed off.

"Well, then." With a jerk of his head to his troopers, Gioberti turned and marched back out the door. Two of the troopers hustled Doc after him. As they pushed him out the door, Doc saw one of the troopers bagging his CDU for evidence and another powering down the main workstation, doubtless preparing to pull the drive.

Doc ground his teeth again. Well, at least they're not gonna get anywhere with breaking into my system, he consoled himself. They'd have to melt it down first.

Now how am I gonna figure out who set me up—and what am I gonna do about it?

 

 

 

Holding Cell 016, BETA Mountain

0829

 

 

Three hundred eleven, three hundred twelve...

The lock on the holding cell door beeped, and the door slid open. Doc stopped counting the spots on the ceiling and sat up.

"Visitor, Hartford," the guard said. She sounded bored.

Zachary stepped through the doorway. Doc sighed inwardly at the resigned expression on his captain's face. The guard shut the door behind Zach, muttering, "If my CO asks, I didn't just leave you in there with him, okay, Captain?"

"Hey, Zach," he said cheerily. "Come to smuggle me a hacksaw?"

Zach frowned at him. "I don't see that there's much to joke about, Doc," he reproved the hacker. "You're in a lot of trouble. Internal Affairs found a data cache full of classified information in your quarters. I don't suppose you know how it got there?"

"That would be telling." Doc cast a significant glance at the speaker grille near the ceiling and put on his best You-don't-expect-me-to-say-anything-significant-in-here-do-you? expression. "And I'm waiting for my lawyer, anyway."

"Doc—"

"No, Zach, I don't know how it got there. I don't think I should say anything else without my lawyer around, though. Not where IA can hear me."

"Do you have any idea how paranoid that sounds?" Zachary demanded.

"Absolutely. So how are the kids?"

"What? What does that—" Zach shook his head, half amused, half incredulous. "They're fine."

"How's Niko?"

"Fine, I think."

"Really?" Doc let himself sound skeptical.

"She's back in the office today and asked me to wish you well," Zach said curtly. "Doc—"

"How is the commander doing?"

Zachary shook his head. He was beginning to look mildly irritated. "Fine. He's only been back from the space station for a few hours, and he's fit to be tied with this happening on top of... the fire. Doc—"

"What?"

"You would try the patience of a saint," Zach said with feeling. "What are you going to do about all this?"

"Me? I have a lawyer for a reason, Zach. Now, if you want to do something, maybe you could drop a word to the commander about getting me the heck out of here."

"He's working on it."

"Fine," Doc said gently. "That's good, Zach. Thanks." He glanced at the comm on Zachary's wrist. "What time is it, anyway? They took my CDU and wrist comm."

"A little after 0830. Your tech friend Vasquez called the office last night and got hold of GV, and GV commed me immediately. I spoke to the commander just afterward. He's been going back and forth with the head of IA, but I'm afraid you're stuck here for a while longer. No one was happy at being hauled out of bed in the middle of the night, either. I understand that Commander Walsh had a few choice things to say to Lieutenant Gioberti about his timing."

Doc forced a smile. "Nice to have friends."

The lock beeped again and the door hissed open. The guard stepped into the cell and thumbed over her shoulder. "Your lawyer's here, Hartford."

 

 

Liz Gibson, Esq.—Slick Liz to her friends, Doc had whispered as the guard escorted the two teammates to the conference room—was a statuesque blonde with the most calculating eyes Zachary had ever seen. She wore an elegant trouser suit in a dark red that was very close to the shade of dried blood. Zach had the sudden feeling she had chosen the color for that precise reason. She set down a stylus and rose as they entered. He saw her lips move as she subvocalized, doubtless to an AI in the sleek handheld on the table in front of her. Automatically he deciphered the movement: "Ears on, Magister," she'd said. "Confidentiality mode."

The handheld pinged. "Sweep complete, ma'am," the AI announced in a mellow baritone. "The room is clean. Confidentiality mode on."

"Landed yourself in the shitter this time, Walter," Doc's lawyer said by way of greeting, and eyed Zachary up and down. "This your captain?"

Zach bit back laughter. Is she going to ask to look at my teeth?

"How do you do, Ms. Gibson?" he said. "I'm Zachary Foxx, Doc's commanding officer."

She held out her hand. Her grip was firm but not crushing. "Going to back up your man, Captain?" she asked curtly, and turned to Doc before Zach could respond. "Walter, I've read the Internal Affairs report. Doesn't look good for you, fairly cut and dried. The data cache they found held more classified data than the Premier's mistress, none of it stuff you're cleared for. Let's sit."

Zach pressed his lips together to hide a smile as they all settled into the uncomfortable chairs arranged around the table.

"Where'd they find it?" Doc demanded.

"Toilet tank."

"Toilet tank?" Doc nearly screamed. "What kind of moron do they take me for? If I was gonna be stupid enough to have an illegal DC in my apartment, the last place I'd put it is the toilet tank!"

"I take it you're pleading not guilty," Liz said.

"Damn right I am! I did not steal that data! Liz, this could ruin my reputation. Forget the hacking charges—if word starts getting around that I got caught—and I didn't, because I didn't do it—I'll never live it down."

"Doc!" Zach exclaimed. "Aren't you worrying about the wrong problem here? You've had criminal charges brought against you. I'm hearing noises about treason."

"Hey, Captain, I do have my pride, you know."

"If I may interrupt," Liz drawled. "Got any proof you didn't hack that data?"

"Yeah," Doc shot back. "I'm here. Whoever really did it left traces, spoofed data that pointed to me. That's why they came after me, right? The trail led back to my apartment."

 Her eyebrows rose. She pushed the handheld across the table. "Maj, show him the reports," she commanded. Doc snatched up the little unit and began to read. Liz turned to Zachary. "So, Captain," she said. "You going to back up your man?"

"Of course," Zach replied. "If he tells me straight out that he didn't hack that data, I trust that he didn't. And besides," he let his lips quirk in a faint smile, "I've read that report as well, Ms. Gibson. Doc's too good to leave the kind of trail that led IA back to him."

"You flatter me, Mon Capitan."

"Read, Walter," Liz insisted.

"Yes'm."

"I charge time and a half for putting up with sarcasm."

Zach burst out laughing. "You must get a lot of time and a half out of Doc."

Liz's eyes flashed in a brief answering grin, but she sobered quickly. "So, you think this was a frame, Captain Foxx?"

"I—" Zachary frowned. "Well, I can't see any other way that data could have gotten into Doc's apartment. You don't put something in someone else's toilet tank by accident. I guess it's up to us to find out who did the framing. Lieutenant Gioberti is satisfied he's got the hacker, and he's not going to listen to my telling him that Doc is innocent, not with his record. —I'm sorry, Doc, but you know it's true." Zach turned his gaze to Doc, who pulled a resigned face and pushed the handheld back toward Liz.

"Too true, Zach. Guess my bad old days are catching up to me... again. Anonymous tip, huh?"

Liz Gibson picked up her handheld. "So. We've got an anonymous tip traced to a public comm station in Alice Springs. We've got the hacker's relative lack of skill—or maybe tremendous skill to leave a false trail that'll pass checks," she mused, scanning the screen. "Not enough by itself. Hm! No forensic data received yet. Maj, query the Internal Affairs AI, see if they've got anything they haven't sent over."

"Yes, ma'am," Magister answered placidly. He paused and then added, "Report incoming."

Liz's eyes grew intent, skimming rapidly across the screen. Zach, watching her, came to the decision that he wouldn't want to be in the prosecuting attorney's shoes when this case came to trial. If it does, he amended.

She sat up straight, eyes still glued to the handheld, and smiled unpleasantly. A soft sound came to Zach's ears; he realized after a moment that Liz was humming.

"What?" Doc demanded.

Liz glanced up at him, that unpleasant smile still on her face. "The forensic results from the DC," she said. "It was sealed in a layer of plastic to keep out the water, and they got a tiny smudge of dead skin from it. They're running DNA testing now."

"Are there any preliminary results?" Zach asked.

"They can say it's from a male, but aside from that, no. We'll have to wait until tomorrow for the test results."

"So they can't conclusively connect that DC with me?" Doc asked.

"Aside from its presence in your toilet tank, no, not so far," Liz retorted. "That's a problem. Who else has access to your apartment?"

"No one!" Doc protested.

She gave him a hard look, eyebrows raised.

"Well, I thought no one," Doc amended, his voice a tad sulky.

Zach frowned, thinking, Wait a minute. "Commander Walsh has authority as base commander to override your security codes, Doc, though somehow I doubt he was putting illegal data into your toilet tank." He stood. "But there's a source of information I haven't checked yet: the security logs. I'll go get copies. We'll find out whose codes have been used to open your door, Doc."

"Yeah! My Captain!" Doc's face lit up. "And if you can get a look at the computer logs IA used, maybe get me a copy, we can figure out who really hacked that data." He sighed. "Wish I had my CDU."

"You're off the net, Walter," Liz noted. "Internal Affairs considers you a flight risk."

"Yeah, yeah. Just get me those logs, Zach, and I'll figure out who framed me."

Zachary nodded, glanced at Liz. "Ma'am." He caught his fingers reaching for the brim of a nonexistent hat and grinned sheepishly at her. "I'll be back."

 

 

 

Series Five Rangers' office 

0901

 

 

With a light sigh, Niko put her thumb to the sensor pad attached to her terminal.

"Signature and thumbprint recorded, ma'am," GV chirped. "That's your third report this morning. Just two more and you'll be all caught up!" He bounced, and a new document appeared. "Here's the next one!"

"Thanks, GV."

"You're welcome, ma'am."

The door hissed open and Zachary strode in. "Hello, Niko," he greeted her.

"Hello again. How's Doc?"

Zachary shook his head. "Mad as a cat that's been tossed into a bathtub. It doesn't look too good, Niko." 

"I was hoping you wouldn't say that," she said, feeling suddenly weary. "Well, I assume Doc was framed. Do you have any idea who it was?"

Zach swung his chair away from his desk and settled into it. "That's what I'm here for. GV, I need the security logs from Doc's apartment door for... Oh, the last three months, I suppose. You know he's been arrested?"

"Oh, my, yes, sir. It's all over BETA's network. We're all quite upset. What would we do without Dr. Hartford? He's our best psychiatrist." GV bounced for emphasis. "I've beamed the data to your handheld, Captain. Is there anything else we can do to help?"

"He wants to have a look at the log files Internal Affairs used to track that trail to his apartment."

"Oh, that!"

"Oh, that"? Niko echoed inwardly, a smile spreading over her lips.

"We've been working on it all night, sir! Belva, Dorian, Simon, Alberta, and I have been sorting through the logs for the entire network to screen out all the extraneous data. We have our suspicions, sir!" GV's voice acquired a definite edge of indignation. "But of course we aren't allowed to testify, so we'll have to hand over all the data—well, I've downloaded it to your handheld, sir."

"Thank you, GV. Good work. I'll be sure and let Doc know you helped."

"Thank you, sir. I—oh. Oh! Oh, no!" GV shook in place, then bounced from the bottom of the screen to the top—just as Niko's report froze on the screen.

"What's the matter, GV?" Zach asked.

Niko hit a key hopefully—and bit down on the urge to swear as nothing happened. "The network's halted," she said. "GV, please tell me this doesn't mean what I think it means."

"I'm afraid it's not just the network, ma'am," GV answered. "One of BETA's servers has just crashed. Thank goodness none of us live on that particular server—it would be much worse without AIs, if I may say so." He rotated in place. "Oh, my. Initial reports indicate this is likely to be a bad one, with some loss of data. You have been backing up your important files, haven't you?"

Niko and Zachary groaned in concert.

"And Doc's in jail. He's going to tear his hair when I tell him about this." Zach rose. "I'd better get back. Oh, Niko—could I borrow your computer? There are three of us and only two handhelds. They confiscated Doc's CDU and he's missing it mightily; he's latched on to his lawyer's computer instead. While he's handling it, the Internal Affairs AIs won't let it access the network, and I'm sure Ms. Gibson will want net access. And speaking of his lawyer, I wouldn't want to be facing her across a courtroom." He grinned and rubbed one hand over the back of his head.

Niko smiled and pulled the handheld from its loop on her belt. "Here you are, Zach. I'm nearly done with my reports here. I can still work on them locally and file them later. Once I'm done I'm going to spend the rest of the morning working out. I shouldn't need my handheld back until after lunch at the very earliest."

"Thanks." Zachary tucked the little unit into his pocket, waved, and was gone.

 

 

Secure Conference Room A, BETA Mountain Holding Area

1216

 

 

Zach rubbed his fingers over tired, burning eyes and leaned back in his chair, setting his handheld down on the table. Doc sat hunched over Liz Gibson's matte-black unit, his expression just as intent as it had been two and a half hours ago when Zach had returned with the promised data. The hacker had turned off the holographic display after barely 20 minutes, complaining about image diffusion. Liz, using Niko's unit, had only rolled her eyes.

"Military-grade," she'd noted. "Very nice."

Well, the door logs were... interesting, Zach reflected. Good thing they aren't stored on the server that crashed. I thought Doc was going to have a stroke at finding out that someone used Walsh's code to get into his apartment—almost as big a stroke as the one I thought he'd have at the news about the crash. Well, they'll get the data back or they won't. He stifled a yawn. The person who stole that code made a big mistake using it on a day when the commander was on BETA Space Station. His stomach growled, and he sighed. He'd barely had time for a muffin and a cup of coffee on his way to the office to borrow Niko's handheld.

Doc set down Liz's computer and straightened. "Vendez," he said.

"What?" Zachary frowned, trying to recall where he'd heard the name before.

"Eduardo Vendez. Computer specialist in the accounting department. He thinks he's hot stuff, and he can't stand me because I came in last year and fixed a major glitch in the accounting system that he'd been trying to track for three days. Took me twenty minutes with the tweakers. Wouldn't have thought this kind of data theft was his bag, though, to be honest. He always seemed more like the type of guy to hang around in a corner at BETA mixers and make dumb remarks at my expense." Doc shrugged. "But anyway..."

The hacker pushed Liz's handheld forward on the table. "His ID is in the logs here," he pointed, "and here—these times correspond to the data thefts exactly. Don't know how he managed to get hold of the commander's security code, 'cause frankly I wouldn't have thought he had the chops for it." He shrugged. "Maybe he's just better than I think. But it doesn't make sense, from what I know of him. Anybody that good shouldn't have needed my help with that accounting system problem." Doc sat back a bit, obviously absorbed with the problem. Zach exchanged a wry look with Liz Gibson.

"Is that all, Doc?" Zach prompted.

"Well, there's that back door they found that pointed straight to my apartment's network node. If you got me the original source code—not reverse-compiled, the original—for that back door and two or three other programs Vendez wrote, I could read 'em like handwriting. Not that they'd let me testify, but any competent security specialist could do the same thing. You've gotta find that source code first, though—if it's still out there. Not the kind of thing that tends to get left around, unfortunately. It's a long shot."

"I know just the person for tracking down code on the network," Zach said with a grin. "Or rather, just the AI." He turned to the comm terminal on the wall. "GV, are you and your friends up for it?"

The AI's blue-and-green eyeball bounced once and spun 360 degrees. "We'll get right on it, sir!" he assured Zach, and vanished with an audible pop.

"Outstanding," Liz said, that unpleasant smile back on her face, and triggered her comm. "As for the analysis, I've got someone who'll do just fine. I'll tack it onto your bill, Walter." The comm pinged to announce a connection, and she turned slightly away from Zach and Doc. "Sachin? Liz Gibson here. I have a job for you..."

As she murmured into the comm, Zachary pushed back his chair and rose. "I'm starving, Doc," he said. "I'll have some sandwiches sent up, but I have to go get some food—and talk to the commander. Sounds like you and Ms. Gibson have things well in hand."

Doc grinned. "You betcha, Captain. And Zach—" The hacker's usual flippant expression gave way to seriousness. "Thanks."

"The Galaxy Rangers stick together," Zachary reminded him. "I'll see you soon, Doc."

Chapter Text

Commander Walsh's office

1247

 

 

"What?!"

"It was your code," Zachary repeated. "But I've already confirmed that it was used while you were on the space station yesterday. Of course that was a dead giveaway that it couldn't have been you."

Walsh blew out his breath and pinched the bridge of his nose between thumb and forefinger, his eyes closed for a moment. "I don't have to tell you what a serious breach in security this represents," he said through a tight jaw, opening his eyes again to fix Zach with a grim stare.

"I know, sir. Do you think Vendez managed to get hold of it himself?"

"No idea. But we're going to find out. But first—"

Walsh turned to his terminal, typed in a request, and—after a wait of several seconds—stared at the form for requesting a new security code. "Belva, fill this thing out for me, will you?" he grumbled.

"Right away, sir," his AI responded. There was a momentary pause, and Zach saw text appearing in the form's various fields. As the last one filled, she added, "It's ready for your signature, sir."

Walsh pressed his thumbprint to the scanner on his desk and used the lightpen to sign the form.

"Form saved, sir," Belva said. "I have downloaded a copy to your handheld as stipulated by Integrated Security Department procedures."

"Sir, the network's a mess right now," Zach said. "I stopped by IS before I came here, and it took almost ten minutes even to get anyone's attention. When I asked about a code change, the technician actually laughed at me. He said they and Operations will be lucky to get that crashed server back online and the data restored by morning if that's all they do. I didn't mention it was your code, though. Somehow I think he'd have changed his answer."

Walsh snorted. "He's going to," he said, and opened a line to his adjutant. "Sheela! Get the head of IS on the line for me, please. Tell him it's about a major security breach."

 

 

"A full security audit?" BETA Mountain Security Chief Per Torvaldssen gaped at Walsh. "Commander, my people are scrambling to patch up the server right now. We won't have the manpower for a full audit until after the restore is done."

"That's fine, Chief," Walsh said. "Until then, at the least, I need a new security code, and my old one needs to be removed from the system. Not just disabled—I don't want some hacker someplace just flipping a bit and getting access back. Wipe that code from your databases. And I need it done immediately."

"Yes, sir!" Torvaldssen replied, snapping a salute. "I'll take care of it myself, sir. My people are overwhelmed with the server repair and the problems it's causing."

"Very good," said Walsh. "Now—remind me what was on that server? I'm not as familiar with the contents of any given machine as you are."

"Mostly data storage," Torvaldssen said. "The bulk of it scientific, but also some anthropological and archaeological records, that kind of thing. The IS servers have redundant drive setups, similar to the old RAID arrays. Same with the Ranger Corps criminal and forensic databases, sir—we keep the most sensitive and vital data backed up live so that this kind of thing can't happen. You can count on my department, sir."

"Scientific?" Zach said. "There must be some pretty unhappy people in the labs."

Torvaldssen winced. "You could say that, Captain," he admitted with a sigh. "Q-Ball was on the line earlier."

"Ouch," Zach said, suppressing a smile. "Well, I wish you luck, Chief."

"Thank you," Torvaldssen answered. "I think what we really need is about five more people with all the right expertise and clearances, but—" he shrugged. "IA picked a hell of a time to arrest Doc. I'll get on that code right away, Commander Walsh. In fact, if you'll wait a moment—" He turned away from the video pickup at his desk, his face growing intent. Zach heard the light clatter of a keyboard. After perhaps thirty seconds, the security chief nodded. "Okay, Commander, your old code's gone from the system. I'll need you to come down to my office to enter the new code. I'm sorry for the inconvenience, sir, but it's the most secure method."

"Thank you, Chief," Walsh said. "I'll be down shortly. And while I'm there, we can talk about security at BETA."

"Yes, sir." Torvaldssen saluted again, looking resigned.

 

 

 

Series Five Rangers' office

1442

 

 

"Captain, I've found it." GV floated lazily in the upper right-hand corner of Zachary's monitor screen. "And may I say that was no small job with the network in this condition. It was on the space station's auxiliary mainframe. It seems odd that Mr. Vendez would keep source code for an illegal back-door program in any of his personal directories, even if he had hidden the code within an image document." The AI gave a derisive sniff. "It wasn't even encrypted. It's not as though it's difficult for AIs to filter unencrypted code."

Zachary paused, tapping his stylus on the desktop, and frowned. "That does seem odd," he agreed. "Can you send a copy of that code to Doc's lawyer, please? She'll want to get her contractor started on it, I'm sure." 

GV bounced. "Already done, sir," he responded. "Anything to help." 

"Thanks, GV." Zach resumed working on his report. Slick Liz must be smiling right now, he thought with a faint smile of his own—but the smile turned slowly to a frown, and again his stylus went still.

Something's not right here. He stared down at the desktop, seeing a face from a personnel file instead of the smooth plastic of his writing pad.

Does Vendez really have the skills for this? He doesn't have half the experience Doc does.

He shook his head. The evidence points to him. And either way, IA's not going to listen—so we'll have to get them something they can't ignore. He stood abruptly. Goose, slogging through another report, glanced up as Zach stopped by the younger man's desk. The Supertrooper removed the clip speakers from his ears, and Zach suppressed a wince at the pounding drums and screaming guitars that emerged as the external sound buffers disengaged.

"I thought you had enhanced hearing," Zach said. "How can you stand that?" 

Goose shrugged, a slight grin crossing his lips, and shut off the recording.

"Save that, would you?" Zach requested, pointing at the report. "There's something I want your help with."

"Sure, Captain," Goose responded, closing out the document with a speed Zachary couldn't help but find unbecoming. "What's up?"

"GV found source code for a back door program in a directory belonging to Eduardo Vendez. By itself that's not enough proof to take to IA. But clearly the person who set Doc up has access to sensitive BETA data files—plus Doc found traces of Vendez, who doesn't like Doc, doing something in the system right at the times those files were stolen. All this together doesn't make Vendez look very good, in my mind."

An unpleasant smile spread itself across Goose's face, and he rose from his chair and stretched, catlike, before drawing his pistols and checking their charge. He glanced up at Zach, teeth bared in something Zachary could no longer quite call a grin. "What say we pay Mr. Vendez a little social call?"

 

 

 

Accounting department, BETA Mountain

1530

 

Eduardo Vendez was a dark, stocky man of medium height who wore his perfectly pressed uniform with the kind of stiffness Zach was accustomed to seeing only in soldiers in full dress. He ran his hand over his combed-back hair and shifted in his seat.

"I'm still not sure how you think I can help you, Captain Foxx," Vendez protested. "I mean, I know BETA's accounting system inside and out, but security's just not my specialty. No disrespect intended, but your man Hartford knows much more than I do about hacking. " Gooseman, lounging insolently against the frame of Vendez's office door, shifted his weight, and Vendez shot a nervous glance at the Supertrooper.

"Well, Mr. Vendez, strictly in confidence, IA strongly suspects that Doc didn't do it," Zach explained. 

Gooseman snorted. "That, or they're thinking he had an accomplice," he said. "Either way, I wouldn't want to be this hacker when IA gets hold of him. Gioberti is flaming mad at being lied to. And if they get hold of that scumsucking, lying, anonymous tipper, the guy's ass is grass. I think Gioberti is even more pissed at the tipper than he is at the hacker." 

"It seems to me," Zachary said casually, "that the hacker's best hope is to come forward and plea-bargain. If he tells IA and the network security folks how he did it, they might let him off a bit easier. If IA has to track him down, I imagine the sentence will be much heavier." 

"Won't be long now," Goose cut in. "They've got a DNA sample. And if that weren't enough, they found that source code, and Doc's lawyer has a contractor working on it—" 

"Gooseman!" Zach snapped. "Put a lid on it. " 

Vendez had gone deathly pale. "A heavy sentence, huh?" he asked, failing to hide the tremor in his voice. "Any idea how heavy?" 

Zachary shook his head. "Because of the highly sensitive nature of the data, IA is talking about bringing charges of treason against this hacker. So you can understand, I'm sure, why we're so anxious to prove Doc's innocence. It looks good for him, though. Enough of the evidence is pointing away from Doc—" 

Vendez abruptly leaned over and put his head in his hands.

"Mr. Vendez, you don't look well. You all right?" asked Zach solicitously.

"I think the highly sensitive nature of Mr. Vendez here isn't doing so hot with all this talk about treason, Captain," Goose said.

"Treason is a pretty ugly charge, all right," Zachary agreed. "It's enough to make anyone upset. But we didn't come here just to chat with you, Mr. Vendez. We were hoping, since apparently some of the data touched on accounting matters, that you could tell us who might have access to it. Strictly off the record, of course—professional courtesy, seeing as how we told you a bit about how the case is going. And we know you're as anxious as we are to see Doc's innocence proved." 

Goose took out his knife and commenced to clean his nails with it.

"Well, anybody in Accounting with an access privilege of 'Top Secret' or above, of course," Vendez said, his voice gradually steadying. "And any member of the command staff who was actually working on the Helios Proj—"

Vendez broke off as he realized what he'd just said. 

"That's very interesting, Mr. Vendez," Zachary said coldly. "Especially since the only person outside of IA who would know what was on that data cache is the hacker himself. " 

Without a sound, Gooseman moved to block the door. "Very astute, Captain," he drawled, and his voice went suddenly soft and menacing. "So... you got something to tell us... Eduardo?" 

 

 

 

3/4, 0827

 

 

"Yeah!" Doc stretched and flashed his teeth in a grin as the elevator door slid open in front of them. "My Captain! You and my Goose man came through again."

They stepped out into the main booking area of BETA's Internal Affairs department. Across the room, Zachary saw a worn-looking Marco Gioberti sitting at a desk and staring sourly at his monitor. Gioberti looked up as the three Series Fives crossed the room, and his face went stiff and defensive. Zachary met the other man's eyes and nodded.

Good officer, though I wish he'd give up this dislike for Doc. It made him jump too fast on this one.

"Ha!" Goose smirked. "I was all for letting you stew a couple more days, Doc, but Zach came in this morning and said Jessica's been messing with GV's interface code again, and—"

"Goose, you wound me!" 

Zach sighed inwardly. From across the room, he heard Gioberti's comm ping, heard the IA lieutenant answer and take up a conversation in low tones.

Doc stepped up to the Records counter, behind which stood a stone-faced IA officer whose eyes registered the hacker's approach with something less than enthusiasm.

The last time I saw an expression like that, Zach thought in amusement, the next thing I heard was Brappo asking what we wanted this time.

"My CDU and other belongings, if you please, Officer Llewellyn," Doc said cheerfully.

Llewellyn pushed a datapad across the counter. "Sign here," he snapped, holding out a lightpen and indicating the proper entry field with the index finger of his free hand. As Doc took the pen, the officer slid forward a shallow box labeled Hartford, W. The box held Doc's CDU and badge, his wrist comm, a high-end hard drive, and a motley assortment of small tools, chips, and junk.

Zach peered at the box. Is that a—on second thought, I don't want to know.

Doc signed with a flourish before scooping up his CDU, still in its evidence bag. The plastic crackled as he pulled it loose. "I trust this and my computer's drive are fully intact?" he said to Llewellyn. Doc clipped the CDU to his belt and began gathering the rest of his belongings.

Llewellyn grew, if possible, even stiffer. "Talk to the lieutenant," he said, nodding toward Gioberti's desk.

"I'm sure it's fine, Doc," Zach reassured the hacker. "Let's go."

"Bye, guys!" Doc called to the room at large in a voice so aggressively cheerful that Zachary winced. He heard a pair of IA officers grumbling to each other, glaring in the team's general direction.  One of them, he realized suddenly, was staring at Goose. The other spoke; Zach, reflexively turning his bionic ear in the man's direction, caught a muttered phrase.

"—all belong in the deep freeze," the man was saying. The partner hissed a warning at him. The man looked up and met Zach's eyes, flushed a dark red, and turned away. Zach, shocked to the core, turned numbly back toward his team.

"Let's go, Doc." Goose put his hand on Doc's shoulder and steered the protesting hacker quickly out the door.

Zachary, recovering, gave Gioberti an apologetic look and followed.

"So?" Doc said as they headed for the elevators.

"So, what?" Zach asked irritably. "And did you really have to tweak IA's nose just one more time, Doc?"

"Absolutely. So, what about Vendez? They getting anything out of him?"

Zach shrugged. "I haven't heard a thing."

"Gioberti got a call while we were there," Goose said.

"I heard him answering," Zach said. "What about it?"

Goose smirked. "The beauty of having enhanced hearing in the age of two-way comm connections."

"I have enhanced hearing, too," Zach said, deadpan, "but I was taught never to eavesdrop."

"Right," Goose said with a snort. "Well, I heard the cop on the other end. He's been sweating Vendez all night and getting nowhere. Sounded like Gioberti hadn't been off interrogation duty for long, himself. The other guy said Vendez still won't say a thing about why he did it, just falls back to name, rank, and serial number."

Doc whistled. "Who'd have thought ol' Eduardo had it in him?"

"Something Gioberti said..." Goose mused. "I got the idea he thought Vendez was scared spitless of something."

"Data-trafficking charges?" Zach asked with a snort.

"No, that's what Gioberti thought was weird. He said it was almost like Vendez was protecting someone—out of fear."

Chapter Text

Doc's quarters, BETA Mountain

3/4, 0918

 

 

The shoe—left, brown leather, size 9B—hit the wall with a resounding smack that completely failed to make Doc feel any better. 

"Shit!" he raged. "Those low-down, no-good, arrogant scumbags!" 

"Naughty language, Doc!" squeaked Tripwire. "It's not your fault they crashed the server and blew away two of your bunkers." 

"Of course it is! They figured out I found something, and they got me out of the way while they tried to cover up—and in the process, they screwed over half of BETA. Even with the backups, you know how much work got lost? Q's flipping out!" 

"They didn't get all of your bunkers, Boss," Tripwire offered. 

"Small comfort," Doc grumbled. "Bernard and his buddies were up all night two days ago, and they didn't get much rest last night, either." 

Pathfinder popped out of the CDU. "You're not gonna tell them, are you, Boss?" 

Doc snorted. "Fat chance. I like my skin all in one piece."

"You really sure it's OPS, Doc?" Tripwire asked. "Servers crash all the time." 

"Of course I'm sure. One of my other bunkers is gone, the last server I vacuumed has a bright shiny new hard drive, and our network guys are too busy cleaning up to notice a few more missing files. It's all way too tidy. Bastards."

"Hey, Boss?" squeaked Codebreaker from inside the CDU.

"Yeah?"

"How'd they know you found whatever it was?"

Doc paused in his pacing.

"Good question," he said quietly.

Tripwire asked, "Think it's the mole?"

"Don't know." Doc was looking thoughtful. "If it is, that suggests it's gotta be one of the security people on Belva's shortlist."

Firefly emerged from the CDU to circle Doc's head. "So they're low-down, no-good arrogant scumbags," it said. "What're you gonna do about it, Doc?"

The hacker's eyes narrowed. "They're hiding something, something specific," he said. "Something they don't want me to know about. Something from one of those servers." One hand clenched into a fist. "I'm gonna find out what they're so afraid of, and I'm gonna make it blow up in their dirty, rotten faces."

Series Five Rangers' office 

3/4, 1008

 

 

Niko strode through the office door as if she were charging it. Doc took one look at the determination in her eyes and thought, Whoa. Guess she's worked out her upset over the Leonov case, 'cause she's obviously feeling better. And I can improve on that.

"The commander just called me a bit ago, Niko," he said. "We got an assignment. We get to enjoy an all-expenses-paid trip to Tortuna City for a sting operation."

She blinked. "A sting operation?"

"The commander wants us to pose as smugglers and sell some chips on the black market. The idea is, the chips have one special component that we can scan for, so when the buyer starts moving 'em out into the parts stream, which of course he'll do by selling them to smugglers and their fix-it guys, we'll be able to track the stuff the chips got used in."

"…Which will largely be illegal weapons," she said, nodding. "It's a good plan. When are we supposed to leave?"

Some of the weight seemed to come off Doc's heart as he saw the interest in her eyes. This is just what she needs, he thought. Something to focus on besides poor Uliana Leonova and her disgusting brother. "Day after tomorrow, and we'll be back in plenty of time for our diplomatic mission to Tarkon."

"In which case," Zach's voice cut in, "I'd like both of you to get caught up on your paperwork."

Doc groaned theatrically—and was absurdly gratified at the small smile that flickered over Niko's face.

 

 

 

Goose's quarters, BETA Mountain

3/5, 0247

 

 

In the dark of his quarters, Goose crept across the net.

Somewhere it's out there, you bastard. The one bit of data I need to nail your hide to the wall.

Goose let his search run, tapping his fingers on the edge of his desk.

Wonder if Niko's okay?

The tapping grew louder. The search results popped up onscreen—another dead end—and he closed his session with a sigh, his thoughts drifting back to his teammate. She'd seemed calmer over the last few days, but a sadness still haunted her eyes when she thought no one was looking. She's more upset over the Leonov case than she wants to let on. I'm sure of it.

He accessed an account he'd cracked four days ago and opened an e-mail session. His eyes raced down the screen. Methodically he skimmed the messages, copied three of them from the screen onto an encrypted storage chip, and exited the account.

Won't need that one again. Next.

He opened another session and typed a series of commands—and shock froze him in place. He stared at the screen.

It's not Latham, but—holy shit.

 

 

 

Doc's quarters 

0746

 

 

"You know what time it is, Gooseman?" Doc grumbled, but he let Goose past him into the apartment and waved him to a chair.

"Sure, Doc—it's morning." Goose, feeling obscenely pleased with himself, sat, leaned back, and stretched out his legs in front of him. He smirked at his teammate's bathrobe. "Nice plaid."

Doc glared at him. "I was up till the wee hours, catching up," the hacker complained. "That darn server crash has played hell with my sleep schedule. So what's got you out of bed so early?"

Goose excavated a chip case from his pocket, tossed it to Doc, and sipped at the mug of coffee he'd brought with him—because, as he thought to himself, Doc's coffee lacked that certain something.

"Yeah, battery acid," Doc had grumbled once when Goose told him as much.

Goose watched as Doc popped the chip into a reader, entered his decryption passkey, and began to read.

 


 

To: Director, Office of Planetary Security

From: Nighthawk

Subject: Project Hawk

Date: 7 January 2099

 

I have reviewed the proposal from Director Fenman as requested, and I must inform you that Hawk is not viable at this time. 

Earth's security currently depends on BETA and our allies. The Series 5 Program has produced BETA's most dependable front-line defense, first contact, and extreme situation team. To eliminate the current Series 5 participants would undermine BETA's ability to provide defense against the Crown Empire and alien intrusions while BETA rebuilds. Until and unless there is another option for immediately filling the security void the Series 5 team's elimination would leave, we cannot risk the damage that their assassination or removal would bring to the Series 5 project itself.

In addition, all four members of the program have honorary or actual status with a number of nonterrestrial allies on whom we currently depend for defense and intelligence against the Crown.

Captain Foxx and his family were formally "adopted" into Kirwin's ambassadorial family prior to his aborted posting to their planet on 8 January 2096. Therefore, any attack on Captain Foxx is considered an attack on the Kiwis by the precepts of their culture. There is reason to suspect that this status is extended to the people he commands as well.

Doctor Hartford was made an honorary member of the Tarkonian Royal Guard for his actions in defense of the Royal family and Tarkon itself during the attempted Crown invasion. He is considered a hero to the Tarkonian people who have embraced technology. In addition, he is a personal friend to the royal family, as are Rangers Niko and Gooseman.

Ranger Niko is the official ambassador for the League of Planets in the Traash Protectorate. The Traash High Command has been reluctant to accept the posting, even unofficially, of anyone else. Anthropology has reported that the Series 5 members, as well as Ambassador Zozo of Kirwin and the pirate captain Kidd, have been honored by the creation of an entire new "class" for the species: the Peacetalkers, who are second only to the High Command in the social structure.

Ranger Gooseman, unlike his colleagues, does not have high-level nonterrestrial ties other than those already mentioned. However, the BWL believes that he is vital for the recovery of the escaped Supertroopers. So far, this belief has proven correct, as he is the only one to have had any success in this endeavor.

I recommend that all Hawk plans be shelved indefinitely. OPS can survive and outmaneuver many of the disclosures the Series 5 team has forced in recent months, and the program itself can be contained by legal means from now on. The contingency protocols still remain in effect, should the worst happen. Further proposals and projects such as Hawk will only serve to undermine our security and organization, and squander resources needed for Starfall, Blackthorn, and Raptor.

 

Nighthawk

[memo appended]

 

 

To: All Departments

From: Director, Office of Planetary Security

Subject: Hawk

Date: 11 January 2099

 

 

Hawk is abandoned until further notice. All work on this project will cease immediately.

 


 

 

Slowly Doc sat back in his chair, his skin nearly gray with shock. "Holy shit," he breathed. 

"Yeah," Goose answered.

"They were gonna—OPS was gonna take out a hit on us?"

"Looks like it."

Doc studied his screen again. "And this 'Nighthawk' put the kibosh on it. Don't suppose you've got any ideas about who that is? 'Cause I wanna send him a year's worth of flowers."

"You're hilarious," Goose said flatly. "Check out that second file." He watched as the hacker opened the file in question and studied the information on his screen.

"Whoa," Doc said. "You think a Major General in the PDC is working for OPS on the side?"

"I think so. But this isn't exactly conclusive. Think you can come up with anything?"

Doc affected an offended look. "My Goose man! This is the Doctor you're talking to. If it's there to come up with, I'll find it. But what makes you so sure?"

Goose stared into space for a moment, seeing instead holly-green eyes in a heart-shaped, delicate face framed by dark hair. "On Mars," he answered at last, "Gaea said to me that Latham used to talk to 'men,' that one of them once called another one General." He shifted his eyes to Doc's and pretended not to see the look on the hacker's face. "How many generals could OPS have?"

Doc forced a smile. "Well, they don't come in six-packs. Sure, my Goose man, I'll see what I can dig up. And now I better hit the shower and get breakfast, or Zach'll be on my case again for being late." 

"Right." Goose rose abruptly. "Thanks. I'll see you later."

"You bet, man. Thanks for the lead."

Series Five Rangers' office conference room

0826

 

 

"Niko!"

She turned away from the conference table at Zach's call. Doc, sitting in the chair next to hers, paused his CDU's output and looked up.

Zach stood in the doorway, frowning. She saved her work and stood, clipping her handheld to her belt, but he waved her back to her seat and came to stand next to her chair.

"What is it, Zachary?"

"You're off the mission to Tarkon," he said. "We have to go to New Petrograd on the tenth. Ed Robbins just called; nearly twenty DNA profiles are missing from the Samara PD's databanks. There's no way they're going to find a paternity match on Uliana Leonova's baby without that data. I've agreed to take new samples and get the analyses going on BETA's end. You and I have the most experience collecting biological samples, so you're coming with me."

"Oh, that was accidental," Doc drawled. "'Ooops, Captain Marianich, looks like I erased a bunch of data we needed for busting Leonov! Sorryyyy...' They got any idea who did it, Zach?"

"No, they don't. Robbins was pretty grim, though. He said Marianich was fit to be tied."

"Zach, are you sending Doc to Tarkon alone, then?"

Zach shook his head. "Gooseman will go instead."

Doc made a speculative noise. "Well, that should be interesting."

Niko kept a pleasant expression on her face, uncertain whether to be glad she could skip dealing with Maya or annoyed that the Princess of Tarkon would be getting a chance to flirt with Goose. Oh, get a life, Niko, she snapped at herself.

Zach was looking at her questioningly. She felt the heat come up in her face. "Okay, Zach," she answered hurriedly. "Thanks. I assume the Tortuna City mission is still on?"

"Yes. You leave as scheduled, day after tomorrow at 0500."

Doc rose. "Speaking of which, I have some laundry to do. And my CDU needs fresh batteries." He frowned. "And geez, I almost forgot about—"

Niko poked him. "Go on, Doc," she said, laughing, "or we'll be here all day."

 

 

 

Series Five Rangers' office

3/6, 1638

 

 

Niko leaned back in her seat and sipped her hot chocolate. Once again she scanned the list of potential contacts she held. This M'krek seems like the most likely option, she mused. I know how to push buttons on a Gonosian, and he moves enough components to serve our purposes. There's not much data on him, though; we'll have to pay Geezi a visit. The corners of her mouth quirked. He'll love that, I'm sure.

"Miss Niko!" Doc breezed into the office. "Got your packing done yet?" 

"No, I'm waiting for my clothes to come back from the laundry," she said with a smile. "Did you get a chance to review the documents for tomorrow's mission?"

"Sure did. You got any opinions on the right fixer for us to contact?"

"A fixer named M'krek. He's a Gonosian."

"...And didn't you write a research paper on Gonosian social behavior?"

She smiled. "Wow. Imagine your remembering that. Yes, I did, back in Academy."

He clicked his tongue approvingly and winked. "We must respect Ranger Niko's authori-tay. Nice to know I'm partnered up with the baddest Gonosian wrangler in human space."

"Oh, no!" she protested, but she was laughing helplessly. "Doc! They're not cows!"

She heard Goose laugh, too. "Nah, just big and ornery."

"Don't you start, too, Shane! They're only ornery if you show dom—"

He held out both hands, palms out as if to stop her. "Not the complete rundown," he begged. "We'll be here all night! And don't you have packing to do?"

She pitched a paper clip at him. "Barbarian," she teased him, beginning an old routine from their Academy days.

"Egghead," he retorted over Doc's faint "She's got you there, Goose!"

"Goon." Both of them were beginning to snicker now.

"Snob." Doc went off into gales of laughter.

"H-hooligan!" she countered.

"Elitist!"

A spark of mischief lit in Niko's mind. "Metamorph!" she sputtered, and collapsed into hilarity.

"I am not a—Niko!" But Shane was laughing, too.

"Got you!" she crowed.

Oh, it feels good to laugh. It seems we haven't had much to laugh about lately...

Niko left a few minutes later, heading for the laundry depot to pick up her clean uniforms. Doc stayed at his desk to finish, he said, "a few minutes of prep." Niko exchanged a look of resigned amusement with Goose on her way out and, as she walked down the hall, commed GV and asked him to keep track of Doc's time. "You know he'll work too late if someone doesn't kick him out of there," she said, "and we have to leave at 0500."

"Niko!"

Stopping, she turned. Goose was striding down the hall after her. She looked inquiringly at him.

"I've got laundry to pick up, too," he explained. "Might as well keep each other company."

She smiled. They walked in silence for a minute, and then Goose said, "Found out something a couple days ago."

Niko turned her head toward him, one eyebrow quirked in question.

He looked uncomfortable. "Uh—I shouldn't say it out loud."

The other eyebrow shot up. "Are you actually asking me to—" she started, then broke off at the expression on his face. "Okay," she said cautiously, and she tapped her badge and brushed the fingers of her other hand across his forehead. She felt him shiver, and her face went hot.

:What is it, Goose?:

She felt him thinking hard of something and followed him there. What she found made her reel in shock. He caught her elbow and steadied her.

:They were planning to—:

:Yeah. But they didn't.:

:...Gods.:

:Niko, walk. We'll attract attention.:

She forced her feet to move; the effort gave her mind a free space to reorder itself. They reached the elevator bank, and absently she tapped the call button.

:Where—: She sensed his discomfort and stopped the thought before it carried her, in his mind, to a place he did not want to share. :What, then. What are we going to do about this?:

He shrugged. :Nothing to do. At least not yet.:

The elevator arrived and they both got on. The pair of Series Two Rangers already there went quiet. Niko barely noticed them.

:Did you find any indication of how they were planning to carry out the—: Her mind balked at finishing the question.

:How they were going to kill us?: he asked brutally, and ignored her gasp of shock. Vaguely she sensed uneasiness from the Series Twos. She smiled at them without conscious thought. :No. But the response makes it pretty clear that unless there's a major change in leadership, we're safe—from them, at least.:

She shivered. The elevator chime sounded for the cafeteria level, and the Series Twos sidled off, eyeing her and Goose like Bovo-6 cattle faced with a pair of very large lycans. Goose smacked the Door Close button, shutting the doors nearly in the face of an adjutant carrying a loaded tray.

:Goose,: she chided him.

:Sorry,: he answered with a perceptible lack of remorse, :but you're not that good at covering your reactions and I'm not in the mood to be stared at. As for what we're going to do—nothing. But watch yourself out there, girl.:

She stared at him. :Have you told Zach about this?:

:Not yet. I'm looking for the right time. Soon. Don’t worry about Zach, Niko. He's been a cop for a long time. He's got a lot of practice at thinking six paranoid thoughts before breakfast every morning.:

The chime sounded again. "That's our floor," Goose said aloud, and he held the doors open to let her exit first.

:Don't worry about Zach,: he repeated. :Just take care of yourself. Watch your own back.:

He pulled back, trying to close off contact, but not before she caught a thought he had not intended to share.

:I can't always be there to watch it for you.:

Chapter Text

Tortuna City

3/8, 0941 local time

 

 

The door of Geezi's shop slammed shut behind them, nearly catching the hem of Niko's Zanguil garb. From the corner of her eye she caught a flicker of movement and glanced behind her to note that the jumpy little pedulont had just put up the "Closed for lunch" sign. She smiled behind her face mask.

Lunch, Geezi? It's still more than two hours until midday.

"Not obvious at all, is he?" Doc murmured from her right flank. Mischief showed clearly in his brown eyes.

 Niko stifled a snicker. "We've got our contact information," she said. "Shall we go?"

"By all means, my lady Zanguil. Let us go sell our wares to the good black-market dealers of Sorry End. Or one of them, anyway."

She rolled her eyes, and they moved out into the foot traffic. Passersby gave them a wide berth: the Zanguils as a species were widely feared as slavers and, as Niko had once heard Goose say, "all-around bad-ass sticky-fingered motherfuckers." Mouth hidden, she stuck out her tongue at a spydroid whizzing overhead.

It wasn't a long walk to their destination, the shop of one M'krek, a trader in weapons and weapons components. The door was solid metal with a barred window of shatter-resistant polymers. The display windows were made of similar materials, and Niko's keen ears caught the faint whine of a badly tuned force field generator.

She and Doc traded a look. "Likes his security," her partner noted under his breath, and he reached out one gloved hand to tug the door open. She clenched her teeth lightly and felt the unfamiliar tickle of the distorter attached to her throat as it activated in response to the muscle tension.

A buzzer sounded as they crossed the threshold. From behind the counter, a massive Gonosian with skin like grey leather watched them cross the floor. From the way the person's rounded ears flipped back, Niko judged that he didn't much care for Zanguils. She and Doc came to the counter, and the distrust she sensed confirmed her guess.

"What you Zanguils want in M'krek's place?" he growled in heavily accented Tortunian pidgin, showing a neat row of pointed teeth. His black, pupilless eyes stared unblinking.

"We have chips to sell," Niko announced, her voice distorted to a grating tenor. "For repair of—electronics."

"They're highest grade," Doc promised, and he shook the sample case out of his sleeve and set it down on the counter before the Gonosian. With a fingertip, Doc flipped open the case.

"High grade! Huh. Zanguils don't know high grade if it bites them!" But Niko sensed greed behind the opaque black eyes as they studied the gleaming bit of circuitry.

"Test and see," Niko answered. "You don't like it, we'll go elsewhere."

M'krek bent, looking closely, then straightened. One trunklike arm snaked out behind him to snatch up a tester, which he set carefully on the counter next to the sample case. With a surprisingly deft touch for one with such thick, stubby fingers, he extracted a hair-fine probe, uncoiling its lead as he lifted it out. He commenced touching the probe lightly to the sample chip, muttering and grunting to himself as the tester fed back data.

Niko kept her eyes away from Doc, instead watching the bulky arms dealer as he grew perceptibly more excited to her inner senses. Her fingers, seemingly tapping idly on the counter, shaped a message to Doc: He's interested.

From the corner of her eye, Niko saw Doc, idly scanning M'krek's merchandise, stiffen.

What's he seen? she wondered.

"Dunno," M'krek grunted, and Niko focused her attention back on him. "Seen better."

"Where?" Doc shot back. "Can't get better except from royalty."

M'krek shifted uneasily.

Watch it, Niko's fingers said.

Doc shrugged elaborately. "There other traders in—electronics." He made as if to pick up the sample case.

"Say I like this," M'krek said, smoothly sliding the case away from Doc's hand. "How many you got?"

"One hundred," Niko said. "Top condition. Keep your customers repairing electronics for months."

M'krek grunted. "I give you ten credits each."

"Ha!" Niko answered. "Twenty-five."

"These chips crawl from crate, clean my office till I use? Eleven!"

"Tortuna credits not worth a plago's butt off Tortuna," Doc snapped. "Twenty-three."

"What kind bargaining is this?" M'krek barked. "I bargaining with that one," and he pointed to Niko. "That one spoke first."

"Twenty-three," Niko repeated.

"Fourteen!" The Gonosian bent toward her over the counter. "This not a charity."

"We not running one either. Twenty." She sensed a knot of avarice and stubbornness in the being she faced and briefly considered her options. He's not at his upper limit yet. If I stop this soon, he'll suspect something.

"Fifteen."

She leaned forward, eyes boring into M'krek's, and glanced away. "Eighteen."

He growled, twitching.

I've got him. Going eye-to-eye and then away pushed exactly the right buttons. Her fingers twitched as she passed it on to Doc.

"Sixteen," M'krek said stiffly. "You don't like sixteen, you go find another trader, Zanguil."

"Sixteen, done." Niko thumped her left fist lightly on the counter. M'krek repeated her action. 

"Sixteen, done. When you deliver?"

"By midday," Doc assured him. "Where you want delivery?"

M'krek made a show of looking around. "You see me someplace else, Zanguil? Back door faces Four-ten Alley. You bring crate, ring buzzer."

"Done," Niko said. "We come back with crate."

Doc and Niko bowed slightly. M'krek jerked his head down, then up. As one, the two S5s turned and left. The Gonosian watched them go.

As they strode down the sidewalk, Doc muttered, "Where'd you learn to bargain like that?"

"Audra Miles."

The corners of his eyes crinkled in a grin she couldn't see behind the face mask. "Why am I not surprised? So... you'll never guess what M'krek had in a pile of components in that bin on the counter."

"If I'll never guess," she countered dryly, "I'm guessing you're about to tell me."

"The Saoirse's memory core."

Niko stopped dead in the middle of the sidewalk.

"Niko!" he hissed, not breaking stride. "You're attracting attention."

She blinked and hurried to catch up with him. "Doc, are you sure?" she whispered.

"Of course I'm sure. I stole it, didn't I?"

"Doc!"

"Shh. If I'd started trying to buy, he'd have gotten suspicious, and we have to have it."

They walked on in silence.

"What," Niko wondered softly, "was a memory core stolen from an Earth trading ship doing in a components shop in Tortuna City?"

"Sitting there."

"Smartass."

"Always. Don't worry, Niko. I'm as eager to figure it out as you are. I can't wait to get that baby back to BETA."

 

 

 

Tortuna City

1419 local time

 

 

M'krek finished counting credits and handed the pile of chits to Niko. She tucked it in a belt pouch and made another shallow bow.

"You get more good merchandise, maybe we trade again, Zanguils," M'krek said.

"Maybe," she answered. Doc bowed, and the two of them stepped back from the door. It slid shut, and they clearly heard the click of a lock arming.

"Let's blow this joint," Doc muttered. "We've been here too long."

Another spydroid swooped past as they emerged from the alleyway and took up a brisk walk toward the western edge of Sorry End, where a small, beat-up hovercraft awaited.

They had been walking for nearly half an hour and had covered perhaps three-quarters of the distance back to their 'car when a wave of uneasiness swept through Niko. She consciously kept her pace even but began scanning the crowds from the corners of her eyes.

"Doc," she whispered. "I think something is wrong. Do you see anything?"

A pause. "No, but tha—Yikes!"

A spydroid dropped out of the sky and came to a dead stop two inches from Niko's nose. She checked, then forced herself to keep walking, staring straight into the camera. She almost fancied she could see a miniature version of the Queen staring back. The spydroid clicked and whirred as it fell back before her, keeping that same close focus on her face. From her peripheral vision, she could see that another droid was doing the same to Doc. Niko clicked her teeth again to reactivate the distorter.

"What you want?" she asked stonily, her distorted voice nearly a growl. "You want we help Crown some way?"

"Certainly, my dear." The Queen's voice. Ahead—and behind.

Niko spun, putting her back against Doc's. Crown troopers erupted from between two buildings, flanking two tall, white-garbed figures. Slaver lords. The Queen's illusory face gloated out from under the blank hoods. Perhaps a dozen weapons came to bear on the two Rangers.

"Uh...oh..." Doc said faintly.

"Lay down your arms and surrender, little Niko—and the ever-flippant Hartford. Now!"

"Well?" Niko hissed at Doc. She took quick stock of their surroundings: plenty of cover, crowds quickly vanishing into buildings and down alleys.

"White's not my color," he whispered back.

"Then let's make it good. My left, your right."

With one accord they drew and opened fire, running in the direction Niko had suggested. The Crown agents returned fire; ducking, Niko snatched a grenade from her belt, armed it, and tossed it into the largest clot of agents. "Down that alley, quick!"

They reached the corner just as the explosion went off.

 

 

Niko popped her head and shoulder around the corner of a building and snapped off a quick burst of five shots. A distorted electronic cry told Doc that she'd hit whatever she was aiming at—a Crown trooper, by the sound of it. They had fallen back to a blind alley where, Niko said, they could get access to the tunnels under Tortuna City.

"I think," she'd added.

But their position was at least defensible, so no Crown agents could circle around to flank them, and Niko could lay down enough fire to keep the Crown forces away from them while Doc opened the hatch. He grabbed his CDU off his belt and tapped his badge.

"Okay, Firefly, get out here," he said. The little ball of flame shot out of the CDU and bobbed in the air in front of him.

"Another Tortuna City access hatch?" it complained.

"Same old, same old," agreed Doc. "Get in there and do your stuff."

"Doc!" Niko ducked back into their alley as a volley of shots streaked through the space she had just vacated. "Are you going to get that access cover open before I die of old age?"

"Hey, now." But Niko wasn't paying attention; she'd just pitched a grenade around the corner and was protecting her head.

"Fire in the hole!" she snapped a moment before the blast went off.

"Got it, Boss!"

"Come on, Niko, we're leaving," Doc called. "Get in here, Firefly!"

She armed and threw her last grenade, dashed past Doc, and was already halfway down the ladder by the time he clipped the computer to his belt. He jumped for the hatch.

"Wait for me!"

The grenade blew. Under cover of the noise he pulled the hatch closed behind them.

Good luck figuring out where we went—chumps.

 

 

"Down to the end of this tunnel, turn left, up the ladder, a short run to the hovercar and I need a rest now." Niko leaned against the wall to catch her breath.

"Pretty smooth, Niko," Doc said admiringly. "You get better at navigating these tunnels every time we come here. Pretty soon we won't have to walk around upstairs at all."

"Oh goody," she answered, and pushed away from the wall. "Let's go. I'm more than ready to get off this rock. We've got things to do back at BETA."

 

 

A ring of light shot past them, and Ranger One entered hyperspace. Niko sank back against the command chair and blew out her breath.

"Well, I think that counts as a resounding success," Doc announced cheerily. "M'krek should start moving the tracered chips into the parts stream any day now. And the Saoirse's memory core was an unexpected bonus."

Niko nodded, glanced over at him—and burst out laughing. Doc's eyebrows shot up, which only made her laugh harder.

"What?" he demanded, his expression growing just slightly defensive.

"Doc—" she choked out, pointing at his white-and-blue uniform. "'White's not my color'?"

He grinned sheepishly and raised his hands in a shrug. "Uh, well..."

GV giggled faintly, and Niko went off into another gale of laughter.

"What? It's not that funny! Geez..." Doc sank lower in his seat and sighed. "Gonna be a long flight," he mumbled. "A looong flight."

Chapter Text

Series Five Rangers' office

3/9, 1008

 

 

Doc hurried into the office, his CDU in his hand. 

Zachary glanced at the time. "Nice you could make it, Doc. Late night?" 

"Yeah," Doc mumbled. "Something. Pathfinder, do your thing." 

Zachary raised his eyebrows as he watched Doc's little program whizzing around the office. Niko and Goose stopped their work to watch, plainly curious. 

Pathfinder returned to Doc's CDU with a squeaked "Nothin' here, Boss." 

"Whew." Doc dropped into his chair. "Man, have I got interesting stuff for you people. I've been working on the Saoirse's memory core most of the night."

"I still wanna know how it happened to end up in the one shop in Sorry End you two walked into," Goose cut in.

"That's not hard," answered Doc. "M'krek moves a lot of parts. He may not be the number-one fixer in Tortuna City when it comes to the volume of stuff he buys and sells, but he's definitely in the top three."

Niko added, "He also specializes in older equipment. Didn't you say the core was an older model, Doc?"

"Yep. Anyway, whoever took it off the ship did a pretty basic data wipe, so recovering wasn't too hard, though it was a bit of a pain in the butt." He held up the CDU. "Pathfinder, show the nice people our data." 

The program popped into Doc's workstation, and a window opened on the screen. Zachary got out of his chair and came to look over Doc's shoulder. The monitor showed a schematic of a planetary system, with a green dot labeled "Saoirse" blinking nearby. A red dotted line demarcated the no-fly zone, and another dot, this one blue, was labeled "Andorian drive warp-out."

"Just like the new one did, this core also confirms that the Saoirse was outside the no-fly zone," Doc said. "The ship's sensors picked up a blip about 15 minutes after GV's bogey warped out into the system—it was probably the drone either launching or landing. They wrote it off as space junk. And that," he concluded, leaning back in his seat, "is it."

Zachary frowned. "What do you mean, that's it?"

"There's no outward clue of why this mystery ship dropped in on top of the Saoirse, gassed and drugged the crew, and swapped out their memory core for a new one."

"Why would anyone bother, then?" Niko asked. "It doesn't make any sense."

The Series Five Rangers looked at one another.

"No," Zachary said quietly. "It doesn't. And what that tells me is that we're still missing something."

"Doc, send me the last two hours worth of data in the sensor logs," Goose requested. "I want to look at it."

Doc shrugged. "Sure, have a ball, Goose. Pathfinder, zap that data over to Goose's workstation."

"Okey dokey, Docko!"

Zachary watched as Goose sat back in his chair, eyes intently skimming down the screen. The Supertrooper leaned forward suddenly and began tapping at the keyboard, and a window popped up. Zach recognized a database entry for the Brimstone system just as Goose brought up another window, this one containing data on astronomical conditions. The tall man's green eyes narrowed.

"What is it, Shane?" Niko asked softly.

"The area around the Brimstone system is usually pretty noisy as far as radio goes," Goose said. "Their sun produces a lot of flares in general, a lot more than ours, so you get a lot of radiation in that neighborhood. Modern radiation shielding keeps the travelers from getting fried, but ships that spend much time there have to have hardened sensors and communication systems with special filters, and even then you pick up a lot of garbage signal."

That's true," Zach said. "The Board of World Leaders cited the communications problem as one of the biggest contributors to the Jihad's succeeding." He pretended not to hear Niko's muttered comment and continued, "But you said 'usually,' Gooseman."

"Brimstone's sun went into its calm phase a couple of weeks ago," Goose said. "There isn't another significant increase due for nine more Earth days."

"So sensors work better in the system right now. So?" Doc put in.

Goose gave Doc an even look. "Yeah. They do. The Saoirse's did, too, until someone drugged the crew and tossed the ship off the shipping lanes and outside sensor range."

There was a brief pause, and then Zachary said, "You think someone in the Brimstone system wanted to be sure that the Saoirse's crew wasn't able to use their sensors while they were near the system? What's there to hide, Gooseman? You sound—paranoid."

"You said it yourself, Captain: the Space Navy admiralty wasn't behind this attack. We weren't, that's for damn sure. And it's too slick and sneaky for those wonks from the PDC to have been in charge. Considering the attackers had access to MZ-9, one of Earth's newest military-grade gases, who does that leave?"

Zachary stared at Goose. I don't like it, but he's making sense, at least about who. But why? It doesn't add up. Why would OPS care about one backwater system with one habitable but relatively undeveloped agrarian-resort world?

"Why?" he said aloud, and winced inwardly at the snarling grin that crossed Goose's face.

"Maybe we should go find out."

 

 

Zachary pushed his chair back from his desk. "Niko, it's about time for us to head for the charging platform. How's that mission report going?"

"It's done already. I was just catching up on some e-mail. I'm ready to go any time."

Zach nodded, saved his work, and put his terminal on standby as Niko tapped a few more keys.

"Doc, Goose, good luck on Tarkon," Niko said, closing out her session. 

Goose lifted his head. "Thanks," he answered, his tone resigned. "Too bad it involves that damned diplomatic uniform."

"Hey, it's not all bad, my Goose man," Doc offered. "It's Spartos' birthday. The food'll be great."

Goose grumbled something unintelligible and retreated behind his terminal.

"Hope you catch our guy, Niko," Doc called as she and Zach lifted their bags and headed for the door. "Have fun sticking swabs in mobsters."

She turned back and stuck out her tongue at him.

 

 

 

Samara PD evidence lab, New Petrograd

3/10, 1704

 

 

Zach, slotting sample tubes into a case, glanced over at Niko, who was carefully labeling her latest set of samples. She looked up suddenly and caught him watching.

"How are you doing?" he asked her, and was rewarded with a small smile.

"I'm glad I'm here and not on Tarkon," she answered. "At least here I know I'm doing what I can to move this case along." She looked away. In a near whisper, she continued, "Some people we help never really get justice. Like Gaea. I know Shane and even Doc want to find some way of proving Greer Latham's guilt. I just don't have much hope for it. But here—" She looked at him, putting one hand, as if unconsciously, to the door of the refrigerator. "We do have a chance to get justice for Uliana and her unborn baby. I think somewhere in all this evidence is the proof we need to send Alex Leonov to jail." 

Zach nodded, but in his mind's eye he was seeing not Uliana Leonova's blue eyes, but Gaea's green. I haven't told them yet, he recalled. Well, better not to bring it up right now. I don't really know what security measures Captain Marianich has in place; there may be live audio pickups in here, considering the problems the department has been having. And officially Gaea's case is closed, so I'd have no reason to be bringing it up. 

Niko was looking at him curiously. "Zach?" 

"I'll tell you later," he said uncomfortably. "When we're back at BETA." 

Her eyebrows rose, and a small smile crept across her lips. "I'll be looking forward to it. And in the meantime, we have to go take more samples." She glanced at her list. 

"Who's our next victim?" 

"There are only two more today. Alexander Glushkin, and one of the lieutenants, Vassily Kolchin."

 

 

Royal Palace Ballroom, Tarkon

3/10, 2136 local time

 

 

Goose once again settled his shoulders inside the stiff diplomatic uniform. At least it's not as bad as that damned tuxedo. He watched with a half-smile as Doc and Maya circled the dance floor. Gotta hand it to Doc, he's doing a great job. That Abercrombie school turns out good dancers. 

The music drew to a close, and the dancers bowed to one another. Maya took Doc's arm, and the two of them approached Goose. 

"Goose, you're not dancing," Maya chided with a smile. "My ladies will think you don't like them." 

And they'll be right. Goose assumed an apologetic smile. "Sorry, Princess," he said. "Doc's a better dancer than I am. I'm more comfortable on the back of a horse or at the controls of an Interceptor." And I'm also lying through my teeth, but you don't have to know that.

Guests swirled around them, heading for the food tables, gossiping, laughing. Goose stepped closer to the pair so as not to be swept along in the crowd. 

"I'll forgive you," said the Princess of Tarkon, "if the next dance is mine."

Goose consciously refrained from gritting his teeth. Oh, what fun, he thought. "Delighted," he answered, and bowed over her hand.

 

 

Maya extended her right hand. "You were away from BETA for a long period last year," she noted. "Your August and September, I believe. No, your left hand, that's it. I sent a message for you. When you didn't answer, I contacted Commander Walsh to inquire as to whether you were all right. He said you were away on a long mission." 

Goose took the excuse of concentrating on the dance—a slow one, at least, that gave him time to recall the steps and that didn't involve putting his arms around her—to delay in answering the princess. Don't ask what she wanted, Gooseman, just don't, he told himself. "That's right," he answered. "That's weird, though. I never got your message."

She blushed. "I—recalled it. I didn't want it sitting there on the computer where someone else might find it."

"I see." Now I'm really glad I was away. Goose tried not to picture Niko's expression if she ever heard about this. Oh hell, don't think about that now—

"Um. Well. That mission—" The Princess broke off as they went into a stately, stylized turn, their left hands clasped and held high. For a few measures Goose wasn't facing her. From across the room, Doc looked over his partner's shoulder, caught Goose's eye, and grinned and winked. 

"I suppose it's nothing you can talk about," Maya said when they came back to facing one another. 

"Afraid not, Princess," he agreed. She looked disappointed.

"Was it a difficult assignment, that you were away for so long?" 

Goose could tell he had tensed slightly; Maya shot him a startled glance.

"Yes. Difficult." He forced himself to smile. You could call helping Gaea deprogram difficult—but you'd be understating. "Looks like you're doing well at integrating technology here..." 

 

 

 

King's council chambers, Tarkon

3/11, 0840 local time

 

 

"But we still don't know nearly enough about the Great Computer," Doc concluded. "And what we don't know about, we can't fix." He spread his hands. "So—I hope you'll consider my proposal, Your Majesty."

King Spartos frowned. "What you ask is difficult, Ranger Hartford."

"But not impossible?" Doc persisted.

"Perhaps," the king said reluctantly. "You know that the mountain where the Heart lies is the most sacred ground on Tarkon. I have long since accepted the fact that the Heart is a supercomputer, but there are still those among our people who do not wish to hear. For us to permit a scientific mission to study the computer—" Spartos shook his head slowly. "As I said, Ranger Hartford, it is difficult."

"You've got the shaman on your side," Goose pointed out.

Doc glanced over at his teammate. Goose had been largely silent throughout their breakfast meeting with Spartos, perhaps feeling out of his element, perhaps only preoccupied. Doc knew that the Supertrooper wasn't especially comfortable serving in a diplomatic capacity, but Doc had been faintly surprised at how well Goose was doing. It struck him suddenly that he'd never been on a diplomatic mission with Goose, only with Niko or Zach. Unless you count the Traash, the hacker amended, and that mission didn't exactly make use of your usual methods of diplomacy.

"True, Ranger Gooseman," Spartos said. "He will doubtless be able to help persuade some of our more conservative nobles, though some of them mistrusted him even as a man walking among them."

Maya tilted her head, blue eyes thoughtful. Doc sat firmly on a sudden desire to stare at her for a week or two and forced himself to pay attention.

"Father," she said, "if you can win over Baron Kandos and his brothers, the southerners would fall in behind them. And I think I know how. I learned from Tibos that the shaman healed Kandos's baroness, Daeva, when she had river fever. Tibos's cousin Tayli is one of Daeva's ladies-in-waiting."

"I had never heard of this," Spartos said in surprise. "Kandos sent for the shaman?"

Maya smiled. "No," she admitted. "Tayli heard the shaman was in the southern capital, and she sent a footman out to find him. Kandos was furious at first, but the old man saved Daeva's sight. I'm told that when the bandages came off Daeva's eyes and he realized that she could see, the baron wept. He held the shaman in great respect. If the old man tells him it's for the good of Tarkon, I believe Kandos will support Doc's study."

"So." Spartos smiled. "Your learning in statecraft progresses, daughter. I must invite Kandos to the capital for a special meeting. I will take him to the Haunted Lands myself." His face grew serious again. "That leaves only the easterners, and I fear they will not be so easy to convince. It may be that this study must go forward over the objections of some factions." His eyebrows lowered in a deep frown. "I do not wish to ignore the people's feelings in a matter that touches on the sacred places, but Doc is right. The possibility of losing the Great Computer has troubled my thoughts more than once. And—let the easterners say what they may, I am still king on Tarkon."

"Good thing we've got a couple more days to find a solution, then," Doc said cheerfully. "We'll think of something, Your Majesty. This is a very important study."

"Yes." Spartos folded his hands on the table before him. "And there is more than just the possibility of systems failure," he said. "Many records were lost in the Interregnum. Our people have been reduced to barbarism more than once. We don't know who built the Heart of Tarkon, nor the Eye, nor the fortresses on our moons. You have said that you, Ranger Gooseman, heard the Sleeper under the mountain say that it, and the Scarecrow, were things left over from a great war. But that part of our history is gone or garbled past recognition. I have asked the Heart to tell me of its making, but it will not or cannot speak of it. Perhaps this scientific mission of yours could uncover our lost origins. I am king of a greatly varied people, people not even apparently of the same species, and I do not even know why."

"We'll do our best for you, Your Majesty," Goose said. "It's not a good thing not to know where you came from."

Maya turned her head toward Goose, plainly curious, but a knock at the door forestalled any questions. Spartos' majordomo bustled in, a schedule in his hand.

"Your Majesty, please forgive this interruption," the man said in his reedy voice. "The festival games will begin in one hour, and you wished to be reminded."

"Thank you, Geren," Spartos said. "Rangers, will you wish to participate? I have seen you fence, Doc; you might enjoy a bout or two in the exhibition matches. And I understand that Ranger Gooseman is an accomplished athlete. Perhaps a foot race?" The king's eyes flicked between the teammates' faces.

"Aah, mmm," said Doc. "I mean, I'd love to participate in the fencing matches. I can't speak for Goose, though."

The Trooper was silent a moment. Doc winced inwardly, picturing the diplomatic disaster building as Goose won every event he entered. Hoo boy.

"Is there an archery event?" Goose asked. "An exhibition event. I don't want to compete with your people, Your Majesty. Too awkward."

Doc turned to stare blankly. Archery?

Spartos smiled. "Yes, of course. You would be welcome to join in, Ranger Gooseman." He rose, and the rest of them pushed back their chairs and stood.

"Thank you, Rangers, for a most fruitful conversation," said Spartos, and with a nod he turned and left. Maya followed, tossing a smile over her shoulder. Doc couldn't seem to stop glancing between Maya's retreating back and Goose.

"You know archery, Goose?" he asked in disbelief.

The ST raised an eyebrow. "Yeah. So? Learned it at Wolf Den. And I go to the ranges with Niko sometimes. She does Zen archery. I thought it looked interesting. She's better at the Zen part, but I like hitting the targets." He settled his shoulders and turned to go. "I'm gonna go see about a bow. See you in a bit, Doc."

Doc watched him go, shaking his head. "He likes hitting the targets," he muttered, and his shoulders shook with silent laughter.

Chapter Text

BETA Mountain cafeteria

3/13, 1017

 

 

The Series Fives sat around a table in the cafeteria, empty plates and glasses pushed into one corner. The breakfast crowd had left long since, and lunch was still more than an hour away, so the great space was largely empty.

"You missed a serious party, Niko," Doc teased. "Spartos may not be as young as he used to be, but when it's time to celebrate his birthday, haul out the wine barrels!"

Goose smirked. "Don't leave out that you were lying low with a headache the whole flight back, Doc." Doc shot him an aggrieved look, but Goose only grinned wider.

"It's all right," Niko answered, tapping her fingers on her mug. "I'd rather have gone with Zach. At least I feel like we're making something happen with the Leonov case." She sighed, lunch sitting sour in her stomach. "I still can't believe the one person who could probably help convict Leonov got away from us."

"We'll find him, Niko. We've got to; it's our best shot," Goose answered, growing serious. "That slimeball's got the best lawyer money can buy. We need Vassily Kolchin, and we'll find him."

Niko picked at the remains of a croissant on her plate and shook her head. "I just keep feeling like there's something else I could have done."

Zachary glanced at his wrist comm and took a final sip of his coffee. "Don't. You did exactly right, Niko. We couldn't have arrested him without this evidence we brought back; the courts won't accept a psychic insight as admissible. Speaking of which, I have to drop off the packet at the analysis lab," he said. "Goose—" he broke off. All three of the other S5s looked at him.

"I need those samples you've been keeping," Zach said in a low voice.

Niko stared in surprise. She saw from the corner of her eye that Goose's hand tightened around his coffee cup. Is this what Zach was hinting at back on New Petrograd?

"I've figured out a way to get them analyzed," Zach continued. "But it has to be now."

Goose stared down at the table. His stony face betrayed no hint of his thoughts or emotions, but even through the Supertrooper's natural shields Niko distantly sensed racing thoughts and emotional turmoil. Abruptly he stood.

"I'll have to go get them," he said quietly. "You coming, Zach, or should I meet you someplace?"

Zachary frowned. "Well—where are they? Is it someplace we'd draw attention?"

Goose rose. "Nah. Come on, Zach. See you later, Niko, Doc." He smiled, and his eyes caught Niko's. She returned the smile and raised her cup in a half-wave, wishing her heart weren't suddenly pounding, wishing he'd smile more often. She watched them go and then turned to find Doc watching her with a poorly concealed smirk.

"What?" she said irritably.

"Nothing, Niko," he answered with a toothy grin. "Nothing at all."

 

 

Goose and Zach got off the elevator at the hangar level, and Goose started them down the corridor toward the stables, as the cybersteed techs called their workshops and repair bays. As they walked, Goose surreptitiously watched Zachary from the corner of his eye.

"What is it, Gooseman?" Zach sounded almost resigned, Goose thought, a bit surprised, and realized that the other half of the "almost" was amusement.

"Little Zach gets a look something like that when he's about to tell me something he's done that he knows I won't like." 

Goose snorted. Zach laughed.

 "Fathers get a special kind of radar that tells them these things, Goose. Spit it out."

"Well, you're not going to like it, Captain. I don't need radar to tell me that." Stopping by the wall, Goose unzipped a sleeve pocket and extracted a chip, already slotted into a portable minireader. He held it out. Zach eyed it, and Goose thought, He looks as though he's wondering, Hanging or electrocution?

But the older Ranger took the reader and thumbed it on. Goose watched as his captain's face went through a series of emotions that was really rather predictable if you knew the man: Disapproval, disbelief, shock, horror, and anger. Zach actually seemed to swell with wrath, but his face was pale rather than red, and his eyes were ice-cold.

"Has the commander seen this?" he asked in a clipped voice, switching off the reader and dropping it into his pocket.

"Not yet, sir. I wanted to show it to you first."

"Good. I'll take it from here."

"Uh, Captain—"

He looked at Goose.

"The commander mostly looks the other way when Doc goes dredging up old dirty laundry, but I don't know if he'll be able to do it for me. You gonna tell him where you got this?"

Zach's expression grew no warmer.

Here comes the blowup, Goose thought, resigned.

"Can you give me a good reason why I shouldn't?"

"Cryocrypt."

The coldness broke and Zach looked shocked. "He wouldn't send you there just for this, would he?"

"Not him, no. But he can officially not notice stuff Doc does, at least up to a point, 'cause everyone knows that's part of what makes Doc... Doc. Effective. There's stuff they seriously do not want me to know about—" From Zach's face, he was remembering Goose's wrecked quarters last summer, and Goose winced. "I don't have the same status or protections Doc does. He makes trouble, they throw him in the brig short term, jail long term. I get the express train to Longshot's cryo lab."

"I—" Zach was still looking horrified. "No. I can't say that I'll lie if he asks me straight out, but I won't volunteer your name. He'll most likely assume Doc found this; he's supposed to be keeping tabs on the Office anyway." He shook his head. "I knew you had to be cautious, but—" He put a careful hand on Goose's shoulder.

"You're family, Shane. They're sticking you in the freezer over my cold, dead body."

Goose couldn't hold back a shocked laugh. Zach smiled uncomfortably and started walking again, then paused. "Where are we headed, anyway?"

The corners of Goose's mouth twitched. "This bit you'll like," he said, and led the way.

 

 

Zach stared at Goose across the cyberhorse's back. "You put them in Triton's chassis?" he asked, incredulous. "Anyone could have come in here when he was powered down and searched him easily."

Goose snapped the access panel shut, his lips twisted in a smile that was half bitter, half amused. "After the time Scarecrow took over Triton, I reprogrammed him to return to wake mode and escape or defend himself if anyone touches him but me. Of course he can't do that when he's opened up for repairs, so I do all that myself. The repair crews didn't like it much at first, but they don't mind any more. Nobody touches him but me now." He looked down at the little case in his hand for a moment, and then he reached out and set it gently in Zach's palm.

"Look after it, Zachary," Goose said soberly. "It's not replaceable."

 

 

Zach paced down the main corridor of BETA's Biological Research Division, uncomfortable as always in the sterile surroundings and acutely aware of the little bundle in his shirt pocket. A passing technician, looking surprised at Zach's presence, snapped off a salute. Zach returned it automatically and took a firmer grip on the packet he held in his left hand.

He rounded a corner, neatly dodging a vaguely familiar security specialist who was shuffling down the hall, eyes fixed on the screen of his handheld. The man didn't even look up. Three more doors, and Zach paused in front of the genetic analysis lab. Last chance, he told himself. After a moment, he stepped forward. On the screen by the door, an AI bobbed into view.

"This is a restricted area," the AI announced in a pleasant tenor, dark blue eye blinking placidly. "Please look directly into the retinal scanner and state your name and your reason for seeking entry."

"Captain Zachary Foxx, here to deliver forensic evidence for detailed genetic analysis," he announced. He held up the packet and had to force himself not to blink as the scanner flashed briefly.

"Identity confirmed. Thank you, Captain Foxx."

The door slid open, and Zach stepped through. The room beyond held rows of workbenches and scanning equipment where technicians bent over their work.

"May I help you, Captain?"

He turned. Maritta Polanska, the lab chief, stood at his elbow, her dark brows lifted in inquiry. Zachary smiled and held out the packet in his left hand. She took it and scanned the label.

"This contains forensic evidence from a case my team is working on," he said. "I've filled out the usual paperwork. We need a pretty detailed workup on this one, Dr. Polanska. We've got to make an airtight case against this suspect before we even make the arrest. He's got a very good lawyer."

Still studying the packet, the round-faced scientist nodded. "I understand, Captain Foxx." She looked back up at him. "Unless you have a special request, I'll assign the workup to Seth. He's not too overloaded this week, unlike Greta and Peter."

"That's fine. It's your lab," Zach said, smiling, and watched her begin to turn away. You have no way of knowing that I've been waiting for a week when Seth would have time, he thought. The Leonov evidence is just a convenient excuse... "By the way, Doctor, if it's all right, I'd like to take a few minutes to go over the case with him. There are a few details it might help him to know."

Polanska paused, glanced over her shoulder with a nod. "Well, if you're going to talk to him anyway, would you hand him this?" She handed the packet back to him. "Have him sign for it, of course."

"Of course," he said agreeably. "Thank you, Dr. Polanska." She turned away again, heading back to her work, and Zachary permitted himself a tight smile as he strolled toward Seth's cubicle.

 

 

"I need a favor."

Seth Devalier, just pressing his right thumb to the receipt chip on the evidence packet, looked up, startled. "Huh?" Zachary suppressed a wince at the younger man's volume. The chip beeped softly and said, "Receipt acknowledged. Signed for by Seth Devalier, Lab Technician, BETA Genetic Analysis Laboratory." Seth popped the chip off the package and held it out to Zach, who took it and dropped it in his shirt pocket.

"What kind of favor?" Seth continued in a lower tone.

Zach stood in Seth's cube, leaning just slightly against the desk at an angle that put his back toward the security cameras. He reached back up to his shirt pocket and drew out the small bundle Goose had guarded so carefully for so long.

In his memory Goose's voice said, "Look after it, Zachary. It's not replaceable."

I knew that already, Goose, Zach thought. I want justice just as much as you do.

Seth blinked as Zach set it on the desk: a case holding three small vials.

"What's this?"

"I need you to run a complete genetic workup on these samples," Zach said softly. "Please don't tell anyone about this request or about the results of your tests. Nothing. Officially, these samples don't exist."

Seth blinked again, swallowed nervously, ran a hand through his sandy hair. "How am I supposed to do that?" he demanded in a near-whisper. "What is this?"

"Don't whisper," Zach said calmly, quietly. "It draws attention. You're on the record as running the workup on the Leonov case for me. Just run this workup at the same time."

"But they track my time! I can't—"

Zach sat down in the cube's extra chair and leaned forward. The chair squeaked in protest. "Seth," Zach said, "I'm asking for your help. Please."

The young man began to shake his head, then held up a hand as Zach started to speak again. "What is this, Captain?" he asked, furious, frantic. "Somebody's paternity case? Some—some scam or—"

"Whoa, son," Zach murmured. "You can't honestly think I'd get mixed up in anything crooked." Inwardly he winced, imagining the look on Eliza's face if—when, always when, or I may as well give up—he told her about this conversation. Hypocrite, he berated himself. He sighed.

"Seth, these samples came from a scared little girl I knew for maybe one day, a kid who had things done to her you wouldn't want to see done to anyone. I'm hoping that the information locked up in her genetic structure will help us bring the people who abused her to justice. Will you please help me?"

Zach held Seth's eyes, blue to blue, until the young man dropped his gaze and sighed.

"Yeah. Okay, yeah, I'll help you. I owe you anyway, Zach, don't think I forget it for a minute." Seth looked down at the sample vials, picked them up, and slipped them into a pocket of his lab coat.

"Don't do it because you owe me, Seth," Zachary said. "You don't owe me a thing. Do it because it's right. That's why I helped you. Don't forget that." He leaned back and drew a deep breath. "Thank you," he said.

Seth nodded, not speaking.

"Now, about the Leonov case..."

 

 

 

BETA Mountain

3/16, 1302

 

 

"Hey, Niko, have you got a minute?"

She turned, pausing, and watched as Doc hurried out of the dining room past a pair of enlisted Rangers and dodged around a security guard. The hallway leading to the cafeteria was crowded so close to noon, so Niko stepped to one wall to make way for others.

"Hi, Doc," she greeted him as he caught up with her. "What is it?"

"I was hoping to get your input on a file I've been working on," he answered, the trademark Doc smile firmly in place.

Niko nearly frowned. Something's bothering him. That's his Can't-talk-about-it-here face. "Any time," she said. "And I've just finished lunch, so I can help you right now if you'd like."

"Perfect. It's just in my home office."

 

 

Niko watched as Doc touched the keypad inside his door in a pattern she didn't recognize, then unclipped his CDU and hit his badge.

"Standard cleanup measures, guys," he ordered, and his voice now was devoid of his usual cheer, even grim.

She raised her brows at him; he nodded once, eyes on his programs as they whizzed through the air. The two Rangers waited as the tweakers swept the room and returned to the CDU.

"Nothing here, boss," Pathfinder reported. "Your place is clean—no bugs."

"Doc, what is this all about?"

By way of answer, he stepped to his workstation, then pulled back the chair and indicated that Niko should sit. "I found something," he said soberly, "five days before I got busted." He touched a few keys and pressed his thumb to the reader built into the keyboard. "I didn't know I had it at the time—I was just sweeping supposedly empty hard drives for file fragments that might contain anything useful. I hadn't even looked at what I got before IA showed up." More keys, and a session opened up. Doc continued speaking as he typed. 

"See, most government-owned storage devices that don't contain classified data get burned in a very specific way when the data on them isn't needed any longer. The proper procedure is to write a stream of ones to the whole drive, then a stream of zeros, then alternating ones and zeros, and so on in half a dozen patterns, some of which are randomly determined. This whole procedure is supposed to be done seven times."

"That's for nonclassified data?" Niko asked in amazement.

"Yeah. For classified data, you do the same thing, only 99 times, and then you saw the drive in half and send each half to a different facility to be melted down." Doc shrugged. "You'd be amazed what you can recover off a drive if you need it bad enough and you've got the time. Anyway, after I got out of jail I went back later and looked—and every one of the devices I'd accessed that day at this particular data repository was either offline, burned clean, or replaced by a brand spanking new drive. Looks like our old friends noticed where I'd been after the fact and got nervous—so they got me out of the way for a few days so they could clean up. I've suspected for a while that the crash that hit while I was in the slammer was part of the job."

A file opened on the screen, and Niko cocked her head. "What's this?"

"Someone got sloppy, Niko," Doc said quietly, "and they didn't burn a drive that crashed a few years back. They just restored it—mostly—and forgot about it. I'm not too sure I understand what's in this report, but it looks bad. You're the archaeologist. What does it look like to you?"

 


 

James Atkinson, PhD

20 December 2095

 

q138p4thgakjsd2%$%ite 955X fits these parameters, as do sites 4171X and 332X. The inscriptions on the surviving outer walls at 955X and 4171X [video evidence recorded 3/16-3/18/94 by Joffries and Li] offer some hint that the A7a#igy4fbnX`847&nfortunately, the promising research that had been started at site 192X, which might have given us more information on the Ancients' wars, had to be terminated as a result of the events leading to the Battle of Ta87`1ja0

 

Although only four of the sites show evidence of heavy bombardment, surviving structures at every site so far discovered exhibit at least some level of damage characteristic of the weaponry in use by the Anci914`362@@(. sa8f testing has confirmed that the damage to the ruins at 332X dates to between 95,000 and 99,000 BCE, but the researchers at the site haven't yet conclusively determined the exact date when 332X was built—and these are probably not the oldest Builder structures. 

 

Signs of meteorite strikes and wear patterns in, as well as radioisotope dating of, the recently unearthed stone walls at 4171X demonstrate that the planet's atmosphere was burned off at least 90,000 years ago. We have further corroboration that the atmosphere was purposely destroyed—the transmission from 4171X, which seems to have been sent to an ally world somewhere in the current Empty Zone. A copy was recovered from site 192X [see record 5188X-vr]. The use of such a weapon against a populated world is too terrible to think about.

 

The structure buried at 955X must be carefully investigated. Civilian populations may need to be relocated in order to prevent damage tf#*&%!#T`dang^^of#@jd1.,0+

 

8Xx!)as01g]89&(*&rth and the League do not currently possess technology that offers any defense from such weapons. We must inform the Boa8/ee42398qpayehz

 


 

 

 

"Atkinson? James Atkinson?" Niko glanced up at Doc, shaking her head. "Doc, the man who wrote this was probably an undiagnosed schizophrenic. It's rather sad, really. He was one of the best archaeologists in the field from the mid-'60s all the way into the early '90s, but by the time he died he had delusions about government consp—" Niko broke off. Oh...

Doc looked at her, trying—But not very hard, she thought grumpily—to conceal a smirk. "Delusions about government conspiracies, huh? Yeah, he must have been crazy, all right." He sobered. "So is this what I think it is, Niko?"

"I don't know what you think it is," she retorted, and sighed. "It looks like part of a summary report setting out Atkinson's conclusions on the findings from some unspecified number of archaeological sites. From looking it over, I would say that we're looking at battle sites." 

Doc's shoulders slumped. "That's what I thought," he said quietly. "He seems to think there's some danger."

"Doc, he's talking about battles that probably occurred hundreds of years ago, if not thousands. He specifically mentions this site dated around ninety thousand years ago. Surely, if whatever did that damage still posed a threat, we would have seen some sign of it in all the traveling we've done." She held up one hand to forestall his protest. "I'm not ruling it out. But keep in mind that it's possible this man was sick. I'd like to see some corroborating evidence before we start worrying over a threat that may not even exist. This file was deleted before the drive ever crashed. Why? Was it being suppressed, or just thrown out in disgust? For whom was he doing this research, and where? Did he ever see any of these sites, or was he writing up other people's findings?" 

Doc waved his hands to stop her. "Okay, okay, I get it," he protested. "You want more information. Never let it be said that the Doctor failed to get the goods. I'll see what else I can find. And thanks for the expert advice, Ms. Niko." He gave her a wink and a thumbs-up and stood back as she rose from the chair. 

 

 

 

Series Five Rangers' office

3/18, 1227

 

 

"Hey, Captain..."

Zachary turned from his workstation screen, raising his eyebrows questioningly. "What is it, Gooseman?" he asked.

"I think we should tie up those loose ends in the Saoirse case," Goose said. "I don't know about you, but I'm not satisfied with leaving it the way it is. Closing a case without proving who did it just bugs me." He tapped a key on his handheld, and a dialog box appeared on Zach's screen: Accept beam?

Zach tapped a key, and two data windows popped up. The first contained all the proper forms for ordering a mission; the second held a graph. Zach studied the image, noting that it charted solar flare activity in the Brimstone system.

Goose continued, "I've been checking the astronomical data, and Brimstone's sun will enter a new solar storm phase in two more days. This is our last chance to check things out there for more than six months."

Zachary eyed the other man warily. "What do you have in mind?" he asked. I don't believe for a minute that the report is the part that bothers you, he thought, but it makes a fine cover. He contained a grin. I'm constantly gaining new appreciation for Gooseman's ability to finesse the system.

"Just a temporary listening post. I want to see if I can pick up anything on sensors that might've given anyone a reason to attack the Saoirse. Just me and an Interceptor, Zach. Low-cost mission. You up for it?"

Zachary stared at the graph again, considering. "If the Office is involved," he said carefully, "I think it's better if someone else goes as well. Niko probably knows that system better than any of us. She's studied the Diego Jihad pretty extensively; she'll be able to tell one of their ships, or one of their transmissions, from anyone else's."

Goose leaned back in his seat and grinned. "So you'll approve it?"

And that grin's not just because I said agreed to this mission. Zach hadn't missed the lightening of Goose's expression at the mention of Niko's name.

"I'll approve it," Zach said, and put his signature to the paperwork. He glanced at the team's schedule for the next few days, figuring. "You'll take off tomorrow at 0600. Take a P-38. Better go find Niko in the cafeteria and let her know. It's time for lunch, anyway."

The door slid shut on Zach's words, and he chuckled.

"That boy needs to get out more," he said softly—and the smile faded from his face. Shaking his head, he saved his work before following the Supertrooper out.

Chapter Text

Brimstone System no-fly zone

3/19

 

 

Niko winced as another burst of static sizzled through the cockpit.

"Try it again," Goose suggested, as calmly as if the noise hadn't just blasted his enhanced eardrums. "Try boosting the dampers another notch."

"I never enjoyed this at the Academy, and I'm not about to start," Niko grumbled. "Filtering noise out of radio transmissions is about as boring to me as sifting through dirt for pottery shards would be to you." Maybe more boring, she added mentally.

Goose grinned at her. "You need the practice," he said slyly, and dodged her halfhearted swat. 

They had warped out well outside of the Brimstone System, as far as they could get from any of the peacekeeping forces. From there they'd flown direct to a spot just on the edge of the no-fly zone and taken up a position in the radar shadow of a small asteroid field. In the upper corner of both of their screens, a timer counted down the minutes remaining until the next sweep of the peacekeeping forces.

Niko sighed and touched the controls, boosting the dampers to screen out the noise of Brimstone's sun, slowly scanning through the frequencies.

Static. Static. Static. 

The distinctive sound of a high-frequency scrambled transmission.

Slapping the switch to begin recording, Niko looked at Goose, who looked back at her.

"The Diego Jihad have military-grade scramble tech?" Goose asked.

"No," Niko said softly. "No, they don't. At least, they're not supposed to."

"So either someone's sold 'em the equipment—"

"Or that's not the Diego Jihad. But we can't tell just from a scrambled transmission, and we don't know what scramble code they're using. Finding the right one could take days." Niko tapped at the controls. "I can at least trace where it's coming from..." She'd barely gotten started when the transmission cut out. "Damn!" Well, that's why I recorded the silly thing, she consoled herself. "At least we have a copy of it," she said aloud.

"I'll start working on the scramble code," Goose offered, and set to work. His voice was a little too casual, and Niko turned to look at him.

"Is there something you're not telling me, Shane?" she asked—and she felt him tense mentally, though his muscles remained relaxed. She sighed silently. He eyed her. "No need to answer," she added. "If you don't want to tell me, that is."

He hesitated, then shrugged, and a grin flashed across his face. "Let's just say I found some scramble codes used by a few friends of ours."

Niko groaned. "You're getting to be as bad as Doc."

"I'll take that as a compliment," Goose shot back, and he turned back to his work with the grin intact.

Niko rolled her eyes and turned back to her boards. Even better than sifting static; now I get to just wait to see what else pops up on that channel. Lucky me. Why can't it be dirt?

 

 

"Hah."

Niko straightened up, stretching a bit to relieve a kink in her back, and turned to Goose.

"One of the codes worked," he explained with a grin. "The wages of sin is success!"

"Very funny," she retorted. "So what does the message say?"

"I haven't listened yet." He touched two keys, and a man's voice filled the cockpit.

"—als ready for transport. Repeat, materials ready for transport. Cargo ships proceed to the drop point for loading. Any ship deviating from the approved flight path will be shot down. Repeat, any ship deviating from approved flight path will be shot down. Emergency transmissions only. Starfall protocols apply. OPS Brimstone Control out."

There was a dead silence.

"OPS?" Niko almost whispered. "So it really is them. What are they doing out here?"

"Makes you wonder what's down there on Brimstone, doesn't it?" Goose said coldly. "Planet full of anti-tech fanatics—or planet full of unmarked graves?"

A sick feeling crept over Niko at the thought. "But Shane," she protested, not wanting to believe him, "what could they be loading there? The only things on Brimstone are the volcanic hot springs, a number of agrarian communities, and—" Niko broke off.

"You said there were archaeological sites," Goose said.

"Yes, but—that doesn't make any sense. What kind of site would yield something so important that OPS would close off an entire system to hide it?"

"Not that you could've stuck the thing on a ship," Goose pointed out, "but the Stargate on Wolcab could just as easily have been an archaeological find."

Niko shuddered. "Just as well it wasn't. Okay, I'll grant you that they may have found something really significant."

"What other reason would they have for jumping on the interdiction like that? The no-fly zone suits their needs perfectly. You'd almost think," he concluded sarcastically, "it'd been made to order."

Niko stared at him, feeling cold. "Do you really think—" she said, her throat tight.

"Can't prove it," he answered. "Maybe so, maybe not."

"Shane, that's horrible."

"No one ever accused OPS of being nice guys."

Pushing aside the revulsion she felt, Niko stared at her screen, thoughts racing. "Well, whether OPS orchestrated the Diego Jihad or not, they're here now, they're down there doing something or other, and we have no way of going down there to find out what it is." A thought occurred to her. "Whatever OPS is interested in might not be on the planet itself, either. They could have found something on the moon, for example. Even the peacekeeping forces don't go close enough to find—what are you doing?"

Goose had turned back to his console and was touching controls, his hands quick and sure. "I'm turning off our transponder," he answered, as casually as if he'd said he was scratching his nose.

Niko choked. "You're—Shane! You could be court-martialed for that!"

She found herself fixed with an amused green eye. "What, are you gonna tell 'em?"

"No, but—"

"All we have to do," he said, touching two final controls, "is not get caught." On one corner of the heads-up display, the little green telltale marked Flight transponder went dark. He turned to her with a cocky grin that faded as he saw the look on her face.

"Goose—" she said shakily. "Even if no one catches us, there's going to be a gap in our black box records. This—you can't possibly be thinking of doing a flyby? There are peacekeeping forces ships all over the system."

"Hey," he said softly, looking at her in concern. "Don't worry about the black box records, Niko. Elma knows how to take care of these things. You think OPS is the only outfit ever to send people on classified missions?"

Niko stared at him.

"Hey, lady, you say the word, I flip a few bits, the transponder's back online and Elma fixes everything for us. But aren't you even curious about what's down there?"

She stared at him some more.

"C'mon, Niko," he said his tone just a bit on the wheedling side. "How many times have we sneaked into someplace we weren't supposed to be? This is no different."

"It's our own government," she said, but even she could hear the uncertainty in her voice.

"It's OPS, and don't tell me you don't know the difference."

There was a long pause.

"I—" she started, and then stopped, unsure of what she'd been going to say.

"I'm not gonna pretend there aren't gonna be consequences, Niko. We could both get in deep trouble for this. We could get court-martialed. But if I'm right, OPS is guilty of a lot worse. They either created this conflict or they're prolonging it for their own purposes. A lot of people have already died, and more probably will, and I don't know about you, but that thought leaves me more than a little pissed off."

She bit her lip, wavering. He searched her eyes... and a grin lit up his face.

"C'mon," he said, teasing now. "Think of it. We get to tweak OPS' nose, we find out what's going on down there—and we get to enjoy the adrenaline rush."

She groaned. "You're out of your mind." Then, "I have to be out of my mind."

He laughed. "Yeah, and the look suits you!"

Goose turned back to the console, happily tweaking controls. Niko, pressing her hands to her flaming cheeks, was grateful he wasn't looking at her. She took two deep breaths and centered herself; when he glanced over, she smiled easily, calm once more.

"Okay, Goose," she said. "What do you need me to do?"

 

 

"Nonessential systems going down. Ready for hyperjump, Goose," said Elma.

They were cruising at high speed in the direction of Brimstone. Both Rangers had put on their spacesuits—"There's a very real possibility we could get holed, doing this," Goose had told her—and they'd powered down everything but sensors, drives, and life support.

"Weapons go down, too," he'd told her. "Going in weapons hot invites people to shoot first, ask questions later—and we don't want to shoot people, anyway; we want to dodge them."

Now Goose glanced over the controls and then looked over at Niko. "Last chance to abort," he said seriously. Niko took a few deep breaths.

"I'm ready," she said, willing her hands not to shake.

"Let's do it, Elma." Goose's hand came down on the Jump switch, and the P-38 flashed into and out of hyperspace, the in-system jump over almost before it started.

Several seconds later, their radio came to life. "Unidentified ship, this is the League Peacekeeping Forces vessel Aquila. You have entered an interdicted area. Power down and prepare to be towed."

Niko had to still her hand as it reflexively twitched toward the radio toggle.

"Easy, girl," Goose murmured. They hurtled on toward Brimstone.

"I say again, unidentified ship, this is the League Peacekeeping Forces vessel Aquila. You have entered an interdicted area, and we are authorized to use force. Power down and prepare to be towed. This is your second and final warning."

Above and just ahead of them Brimstone hung, blue-white and shining. On Niko's sensor screen the planet was represented by a large hollow circle. She could see half a dozen blips that represented PKF ships. Two of them were already accelerating toward the P-38, but Niko didn't even need her astrogation training to know there was no way the PKF could physically reach them before they shot past the planet. The only thing that could reach them now was light: the weaponry of the interdict force. As she watched, a third blip began to move on an intercept course.

"We'll be in telescope range in five seconds," Goose said softly. "Ready on the cameras?"

"Yes," she murmured back, and triggered recording.

Under Goose's skilled hands, the P-38 accelerated toward Brimstone. Faintly through the hull Niko heard the sound of the ship's three camera pickup mounts swiveling. Her fingers flew over the sensors, finding the origin of the encoded transmission they'd intercepted, zooming the cameras in on the location as best she could. The results made her breath catch in her chest.

"Shane—" she said, hearing her voice shake and not caring. "There's no sign of civilian activity at those coordinates."

"Doesn't have to mean they're all dead, girl. Easy enough to dream up some halfway plausible story why they have to move out and sell it to them."

"Yes," she murmured, refining her scans. "Elma, you're faster than I am, I need high-resolution images here—" she swiftly tapped the screen with her stylus, "here, and here."

"Roger, Niko," answered the AI. "Images captured. PKF ships firing weapons, Goose."

"Brace yourself, Niko, this is going to get interesting." He put the ship into a spin. Her instruments registered a pulse of energy sizzling by close off their portside thrusters.

"Niko?"

"Okay. Refocusing," she answered, forcing her voice out of a throat gone tight with fear. But her hands seemed to move of their own accord over the sensor controls, swift and sure and completely steady.

"Good. Hold on—"

He fired vernier thrusters and pushed the ship into a high-powered maneuver Niko was sure it hadn't been designed for.

Then, "Shit," he said, his voice cool and dispassionate and running over the top of Elma's warning "Goose!" There was a terrific jolt to the ship, and Niko's portside camera array went dark. She couldn't seem to breathe for a moment.

"Correcting. Okay?" The ship spun around its long axis again as energy blew by their starboard aileron.

"Yes," she said, her voice shaking again.

"Good girl," he said calmly. "If you start to feel nauseated, remember it's better to activate faceplate suction in your suit before you get sick than after." 

"I learned how not to throw up in unstable environments when I was twelve," she snapped, and recorded another series of images. There was a pause while Goose evaded another shot.

"Right," he said, not even bothering to disguise the ripple of laughter running through his voice. "You got—"

A PKF ship warped out right in front of them.

He cursed again, louder. His correction was violent this time, and Niko felt her head slam against the side of her seat. Her suit helmet absorbed some of the shock, but she seemed to come back from a long way away to the sound of his voice.

"Niko," he said, sounding desperate, and she realized it wasn't the first time he'd said her name.

"Yes," she said faintly, head pounding. "Go, go—"

Goose jinked the ship again. "Hold on, girl," he said, and lit up the engines. There was another jolt, not so bad this time, but Goose swore and for the first time she heard worry in his tone. It seemed a little hard to focus, but Niko struggled to stay present.

Have to stay conscious—

"Elma, jettison the starboard fuel tank and get me room to go to warp!"

"Roger, Goose," came the soft answer. There was a third jolt and the ship put on another burst of speed. "Fuel tank jettisoned. Leaving Brimstone gravity well," said Elma. "Jump coordinates plot—."

Swifter than human, his hand came down and slapped the Jump switch.

They had barely entered warp when Niko heard him rattling keys. "Hull integrity?" he queried Elma.

"Just under 80 percent," came the answer, and Goose sighed. "Life support?"

"Life support is nominal. No hull breaches into the cockpit."

Niko heard him unlatch his own helmet and clamp it to the back of his seat.

"Niko?" He leaned over her, his face pale and strained.

"Yes," she mumbled, wishing her head didn't hurt so much. He uncoupled his gloves and tossed them onto his seat, then worked the latches on her helmet and lifted it off.

"Come on, lady, stay with me," he said, and she realized her eyes were closed. She struggled to open them, to focus. He turned away, and she heard him rummaging in the med kit strapped to the underside of the control panel.

"—on, Niko, open your eyes." He was pleading. She felt something prick the side of her neck. "Elma, get us back to BETA, priority code one. Near-Earth-orbit jumpsite."

"No, no," she muttered, the meds flooding into her system. She felt him uncouple her suit gloves and heard him set them aside. "It's not that bad—"

"Shh. Just rest."

"No," she repeated, clearer now. "The meds're—helping, just gi'—gimme—give me a minute. Don't need such a dangerous jump—"

"Just rest."

Niko rested. Presently the pain in her head receded, and she took a deep breath and opened her eyes. Goose, chalk-pale beneath his tan, was sitting tensely on the edge of his seat, holding her left hand. She smiled, a little fuzzy still but feeling steadily clearer.

"You think you'll ever learn to fly a ship without wrecking it?" she murmured, and had to close her eyes briefly against the relief on his face.

I can't fall in love just now, thanks; we have to go get yelled at and we have surveillance images to review...

"You scared the hell out of me, girl," he said, quietly but fervently, and she opened her eyes again to smile up at him.

"It's just a slight concussion, Shane. You want to be scared, try finding the wreckage of your teammate's ship after he's gone through an entropy dive."

He heaved in a breath. "Don't joke," he said passionately. "You'd gone through that thing, there might have been enough to bury. Shit. I'm so—I shouldn't have taken us on that idiotic—"

"Shh." She put one fingertip to his lips. He caught her hand in his, held it gently. "I took some very pretty pictures, Shane. You'll like them." She let the corners of her eyes crinkle, laughing, and saw his expression grow lighter.

"You got what we need?"

"I think so," she said. "I can't be sure until we have time to study it. But I think so." She sobered.

"I know an archaeological dig when I see one, Shane. They were excavating. We just have to find out what."

Chapter Text

Commander Walsh's office

3/20, 0800

 

 

"ARE BOTH OF YOU OUT OF YOUR MINDS?!"

Goose winced at the volume and glanced at Niko. She was white around the mouth but otherwise outwardly composed.

"Pay attention when I'm talking to you, Gooseman!" Goose stiffened and brought his eyes front again. 

Walsh shouted, "You two went out there to do a simple listening post mission, and you came back with half your portside wing shot off, a missing starboard fuel tank you clearly jettisoned before it could set your ship on fire, and a set of surveillance images you obviously took from close orbit around Brimstone! You're lucky I haven't already thrown you both in the brig!"

And you haven't because...?

"The only reason I haven't is that I might as well take out an ad in the Earth Times announcing two of my Series Five Rangers have gone off the deep end and decided League no-fly zones don't apply to them! There's a major uproar in the military and law enforcement arenas over the 'unidentified intruder' into the Brimstone no-fly zone, and I don't need that 'intruder' and your wreck of a P-38 being linked up! Ranger Niko—" Walsh's volume dropped dramatically. "I depend on you, as the diplomacy specialist on this team, to be a moderating influence on Gooseman's wild-ass ideas. What the hell were you thinking?"

Her chin went up, and Goose groaned inwardly. Aw, hell, Commander, you might as well have waved a red flag in front of a bull—

Niko shot him an evil look out of the corner of her eye, and he realized to his dismay that she'd overheard him. Her chin dropped back down a touch, though, and he breathed a bit easier.

"It was obvious from the transmission we intercepted that OPS was operating on Brimstone, sir," she answered.

"And this is your problem how, exactly?"

"It's the League's problem, sir. The Peacekeeping Forces are supposed to represent the interests of the League as a whole, not to be a covert arm of a partisan agency like OPS."

"I know that, Ranger Niko," Walsh said sarcastically. "I'm still not clear on why you considered it your job to violate a legally declared no-fly zone around a world that's been officially declared off-limits."

"The transmission—"

"Should have prompted you two to come straight back here to report to me," Walsh barked. "The Series Five Rangers have quite a bit of latitude with respect to your autonomy, but we still have this thing called chain of command that you're supposed to obey. Just what is so funny, Ranger Gooseman?"

Damn. Caught. With Walsh in this mood, Goose knew, there was nothing to do but brazen it out.

"With respect, sir—" Goose ignored Walsh's none-too-subtle "Ha!" and continued, "OPS has a strong track record of making evidence disappear. We had no way of knowing whether conditions on Brimstone would remain stable for long enough for us to go through channels. And you know better than I do that going through channels with OPS will more often than not get you—if not screwed, then just squat. Based on what we saw on Brimstone, OPS either engineered the entire Diego Jihad, with—how many people died in the first wave of violence, Niko?" he asked blandly, turning his head to look at her. She was watching him, half amused, half appalled.

"Conservative estimates place it around 1800," she answered.

"With 1800 casualties just in the first wave," Goose said to Walsh. "If OPS didn't orchestrate the whole thing, then they're almost certainly at least guilty of prolonging the conflict. Our briefing on that mess said they estimate something like 5500 people have died since the whole thing started. You don't think one unauthorized mission is less important than an additional 3700 dead civilians? People who probably wouldn't have died if OPS hadn't seen the opportunity to exploit the situation for their own ends?

"If you think you've gotta throw me in the brig, throw me in the brig," finished Goose. "I'm not sorry for what I did. I think Niko and I did the right thing, even if it wasn't the legal thing. That's all I've got to say, sir."

Walsh stared at him. Niko, he saw from the corner of his eye, was staring at him, too, though she'd schooled her expression to one of mild curiosity.

Moving slowly, Walsh leaned back in his seat, never letting up his scrutiny. Goose, no stranger to such tactics, kept his face impassive and just waited.

"The four of you," Walsh said finally, briefly passing one hand over his eyes, "are going to drive me into an early grave. You're staying out of the brig, Gooseman, but you can stop congratulating yourself on being so clever—as I seem to recall having said to your team once before. You can just count yourself lucky that you're better at covering up your gross insubordination and flouting of regulations than Captain Foxx was. Probably," he added sarcastically, "through long practice."

He picked up the surveillance file Niko had laid on his desk and opened it, leafing through the hard copy she'd created.

"Go on," he said to them, still looking through the printouts. "Get out of my office. Write a report saying you were attacked by outlaws, and make it good. Report to Captain Foxx for whatever measures he deems appropriate." He watched them wince and added, "And you'd better plan on doing the legal thing as well as the right thing for the foreseeable future if you know what's good for you."

Goose and Niko exchanged a startled glance before saluting. "Yes, sir!" they said in chorus.

 

 

 

Series Five Rangers' office

3/21, 0820

 

 

"Excuse me, Ranger Hartford."

Doc turned to his comm terminal. Belva, Walsh's AI, was floating placidly onscreen.

"Good morning, Belva," he greeted her. "What can I do for you?"

"As you requested, I'm informing you that I have narrowed the list of suspects in the Earthmover file to ten. The file is in your directory, encrypted with your most recent key. I will of course continue monitoring these ten people and will let you know immediately of any further developments."

"Hey, great! Thanks."

"You're welcome," answered Belva. "Please contact me if you have any questions regarding the list or its contents. I'm afraid I must be going, as the commander has a full schedule today."

Doc had already decrypted the file and was perusing its contents. "Sure, Belva," he said absently. "I really appreciate the help."

"Of course," she said, and closed the connection.

Still reading, Doc began tapping keys. He had set up monitoring routines when Zachary had first put forward the suggestion that BETA had a mole reporting to OPS, so it was only a matter of entering in a few commands.

The door slid open and Zachary came in. He'd been looking grim ever since Goose and Niko had returned from the Brimstone System in a P-38 that Doc was amazed they'd been able to make planetfall in. 

"Zachary, my Captain! Got something for you. Belva's eliminated 248 out of 258 of the Earthmover suspects. Just nine more and you can arrest the guilty party yourself."

Doc was rewarded by a slight lightening of Zach's expression. "That's good news, Doc. Thank you."

"Glad to help. Uh—" Doc couldn't keep himself from glancing over at Niko's empty seat. He winced when Zach's face grew severe again.

"Niko is supervising a team of Rangers providing escort to a convoy bound for Granna. And before you ask, Gooseman is supervising a land survey mission on Mesa."

"Ouch."

Zach's lips flickered in a small smile. "That was the idea."

"Guess they'll think twice before they go off on loose-cannon ideas like that again."

"I think Niko will. But Gooseman?" Zach looked resigned. "I doubt it."

"Man was born to it, seems like," Doc agreed. "You know things are mixed up when I seem like the most by-the-book of the three of us!"

Zach laughed, which was all Doc could have hoped for.

 

 

 

BETA Mountain cafeteria

3/22, 1152

 

Zach looked up from his half-eaten lunch as Seth Devalier slumped into a chair across the table. The younger man was pale and unshaven, and his hair looked as if he had been combing it with a rake. His dark-circled eyes showed a rim of white around the irises.

"What the hell have you gotten me into, Zach?" he demanded in a hoarse whisper. His voice barely carried over the hum of conversation in the cafeteria. With his right hand Seth pushed a datacube case across the table. "Would you please sign for this, Captain Foxx?" he asked in a louder voice, holding out a small data pad. "I'm on my way off shift, and you said you wanted it as soon as it was done."

Zach pressed his right thumb against the reader. It beeped and said, "Receipt acknowledged. Signed for by Zachary Foxx, captain, Galaxy Ranger Corps."

"Thanks, Seth," Zach said in a normal tone. "Looks like you've had to pull a lot of overtime. I really appreciate the effort. It's going to be hard enough to nail this guy; we need all the forensic backup we can get." He smiled and picked up the case. It was too heavy to hold only one cube. Seth gave him one anguished look and began to rise. Zachary waved him back to his seat. "Can I get you something, son? You look beat."

 

 

"So you're sure it's an augmented human?" Zachary leaned forward and pitched his voice for Seth's ears alone.

Seth stared down at his coffee. "Look, Zachary," he said in a low voice, "I can't tell you much more than that without doing some heavy-duty work in the databanks, and all that stuff gets logged. You wanted it strictly off the record, and I kept it that way. The raw data on the entire genetic sequence is on that cube. But I'm not even remotely qualified to interpret that freaked-out genome on my own. You want somebody like Owen Nagata."

"No, I don't," Zach answered decisively. He stared at Seth for a moment, thinking, and then grinned. "How would you like to come by for a beer after I get off duty?" He consulted his chrono. "It's another six hours for me, which would give you a chance to at least get some sleep."

Seth eyed him.

"It's Lieutenant Kiley's amber ale," Zach coaxed. "I've only got three bottles left. Think of it as a thank-you for the trouble you went through."

"You're going to put me through some more," Seth grumbled. "I can tell."

Zach shrugged, embarrassed. "Yeah," he admitted, growing serious. "I don't like to ask any more of you, but I don't have anywhere else to go. It's just—"

"I know. It's the right thing." Seth sighed. "This kid, she really got under your skin, didn't she?"

Zach blinked in surprise. The younger man laughed, his voice a little strained.

"Captain, for you to stray from the straight and narrow, it's not going to be anything small. Yeah, I'll come by. Let me guess, your hacker's gonna be 'dropping by' too?"

Zachary chuckled, shaking his head. "Not worth trying to get anything past you," he said. "Yes, Doc will be there. If he can get you unlogged access to the computers, can you get the data you need?"

"I think so. But if my guess about the level of security on the enhancements on that genome is right... If we get caught, it's been nice knowing you and I hope we get out of jail before we die."

Zachary winced.

"I know, Captain. It's all right. I don't like what happened in Texas any more than you do." Seth smiled crookedly in the face of Zach's surprise, pushed back his chair, and stood. "See you in six hours, Zach. The beer should be good and cold by then."

 

 

 

Zachary's office, Foxx family quarters

1938

 

 

The double helix rotated silently onscreen. Seth sat at Zachary's console, his bowed head leaning on his hands. Zach stood at the scientist's side. Doc leaned, unwontedly silent, against the door frame, arms crossed over his chest. His dark eyes were serious.

"I could have died happy never knowing someone had done this, Captain," Seth said wearily, and raised his head to stare at the screen. "Wasn't the Supertrooper project a big enough mess for one lifetime? And this person—" He gestured at the data in front of him. "She's got the potential for abilities just as dangerous as the Supertroopers' worst." He spun the chair to face Zachary and stood. "And you're telling me she blew herself up in New Corpus Christi? No—don't answer that."

Zach took one step back. "Seth—"

Seth shook his head, his eyes sad and tired. "This is so ugly," he murmured. "Why do people take something that should be used to help other people and turn it so ugly?" He turned back toward the console and hit a few keys. "The data's all here, Captain. The full genome, the analysis, the subj—, person's phenotype—I mean, how the genes expressed, what abilities she's coded for and how strong. God knows what good this data will do you, but it's here." He blanked the screen and pulled the datacube out of the reader. Holding it out to Zachary, Seth assayed a halfhearted smile and continued, "You got that second beer now?"

"Yeah, Seth," said Zach quietly. "Thank you." He took the offered datacube and laid his free hand on the young man's shoulder. "Thank you very much."

I don't know how we'll manage it, he vowed, but if there's a way... 

If there's a way, we will put Greer Latham in jail and throw away the key.

 

 

 

Series Five Rangers' office conference room

3/25, 1012

 

 

"No," Zach said with finality. "The Saoirse case is going to remain closed. Officially, at least."

The Rangers were sitting around their conference table, going over their caseload. The table was littered with bagged evidence, datacubes, handhelds, record chips, printouts, takeout containers, charge cartridges for Goose's pistols, lightpens, and, in Doc's corner, spare wiring, microtools, and technical manuals.

What a mess, Niko thought ruefully. And it's only Wednesday.

Goose, just back from his punishment detail on Mesa, scowled at Zach's answer. "But, Captain—"

Zach cut off Goose's protest with a chopping motion of his hand. "I know you don't like it, Goose, but your—illicit—findings from Brimstone don't offer any incontrovertible evidence that OPS was behind the attack. I know—" He raised his hand again. "It's very suspicious, and as it happens I agree that it probably was the Office. But we've got no leg to stand on to launch an official investigation."

"Does that mean I can investigate unofficially?" Doc asked, grinning. Niko laughed at Zach's pained expression.

"Let's put it this way: I don't happen to believe I can keep you from it," Zach said with resignation, giving Niko a reproachful glance. She couldn't help giggling again.

"That's the spirit, Zach!" said Doc.

Niko asked, "Zachary, are you leaving it as an unresolved case with no leads?"

He nodded. "It'll go in our cold case files. Like I said when I closed it, we can always reopen it later."

"Relax, my Goose man," Doc told his teammate. "Someday, some way, we'll crack the case and bust the people who really attacked those traders. My Captain—" he added, turning, "I have got to get back to work. We done here?"

The Supertrooper's sour expression didn't change. Doc's and Zach's voices faded into the background as Niko caught his eye and smiled at him. Slowly his face softened and he smiled crookedly, almost unwillingly, back; watching, she hardly noticed their teammates leaving the conference room. Unhappiness still lurked in Goose's eyes, though, and Niko had to fold her hands around each other to keep from reaching out to him. For what felt like the thousandth time, she told herself that she couldn't: that he'd never be allowed to get involved with a human woman, that the risk of ruining their friendship was too great, that to reach out might destroy the precarious orbit they had built unspoken, each circling the other—now closer, now farther, but never quite touching.

But still her breath stopped in her lungs for an instant at the sensory memory of his hands on her face and his lips on hers and the sharp arousal she had felt there in the Nav Bay, leaning into his body and wanting.

Someday they were going to have to deal with that, she knew. 

He was looking at her questioningly, and she blinked a few times and forced herself to smile.

Someday, she thought. But not today.

"A credit for your thoughts," Goose teased her, and she quirked her brows at him, welcoming a return to their customary lighthearted banter.

"I happen to think they're worth at least fifty," she said airily. She hooted with laughter when he solemnly reached into his pocket, extracted a credit chip, laid it down on the table in front of her, and said, "Give, lady."

"I was just a bit worried about you, actually," she said. "But I can see you're going to be fine."

"Yep. That's me." He curled one corner of his mouth in that half smile she knew so well, but a shadow crossed his eyes again. He was quiet for a moment and then said, low-voiced, "I wonder what they're doing down there?"

"We'll find out, Shane," she assured him—and frowned.

"What is it?"

"Skollii," said Niko softly. "The end of the world. Brimstone." She stared into the distance. His voice seemed to drift toward her from somewhere far away.

"What about them, Niko?"

"They're connected."

"How?"

"I don't know." Her forehead creased as a welter of images flashed through her mind's eye. She reached for them, trying to See, but they melted away. With an effort she brought her eyes back to his face. "But I know this much: we're going to find out."

Yes, she thought. We're going to find out.

Chapter Text

Elsewhere

 

 

:Susanna!:

She cocked her head, Seeing Winter standing in a dingy place Susanna couldn't identify immediately.

:Where are you?:

:One of the supply rooms. Susanna, you've got to come right away! I've found something!: 

 

 

:WHAT?!:

The small blond girl flinched at the force of the older girl's mental cry. :She's alive,: she repeated. :Gaea's alive. She's not dead, Susanna! Look!: Winter held up a pillow—clean, featureless, pale blue, like every other pillow in the complex—but in her hands a storehouse of memories and associations. Distantly Susanna felt the younger girl's mind spiraling out and away through the web of impressions, following one single, threadlike strand of memory that trailed away across the nonphysical world.

In her mind's eye, Susanna saw what Winter's psychometric gift had shown her:

Hot sun beating down on dusty streets. Hands holding fabric, pushing a needle through the layers. Soft humming, a children's song. The ineffable but unmistakable quality of a mind that every one of the Skollii had sensed as it raged and shook the walls of their refuge.

:What are we going to do?: Winter bit her lip. :He thinks she's dead!:

:Are you going to tell him differently, Winter?: Susanna's eyes narrowed, hatred clear on her face. Winter stared at her, eyes large with shock and a little fear. 

:I hate it here,: Susanna continued. :The weather is nasty, even worse than New Corpus Christi. We're in the middle of nowhere, with nothing to do but train, train, train, and that stupid teacher poking into our business right and left. And it's all because of that weak-minded waste of genes and her stupid friends. I've been thinking about how to pay them back, and now we can get her, too.: Susanna's lips curved in a soft smile. :No, Winter, we're not going to tell our tin god of a director about this—not for a good long while.: