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Oath of Office

Chapter Text

 

Series Five Rangers' office, BETA Mountain

2/27/2099, 0754

 

Zachary Foxx entered the office, paper bag in hand, to find his teammate Niko already there. He tried to squash his dismay; as a telepath, he knew, she was more likely than most to pick up on the fact that he wasn't completely happy to see her. But four faces stood in his mind's eye: four men from the League of Planets Peacekeeping Forces, four voices maintaining their innocence in the matter of the cargo ship Saoirse.

Damn. I was hoping to get the arrest report from yesterday done before anyone else was here. Having to arrest those four PKF officers... I don't ever want to have to do anything like that again. I'm not sure Commander Irving could have looked worse if I'd pulled out my service pistol and shot him.

"Good morning, Niko," he said, and set down the bag on his desk. She glanced up at him with concern in her eyes, but something in his expression must have warned her against asking how he was.

"Good morning, Zachary," she answered. "Great news. I picked up a call just now from one of our colleagues in New Pigalle. Another one of Jackie Subtract's mob got arrested yesterday, and the New Pigalle police managed to find a witness. Officer Moana is very pleased. He says it looks like Moxie will be going back to jail for a long time."

"That's nice to start the morning with, especially considering the day Goose and I had yesterday." Zach rummaged in the paper bag. "Would you like a muffin? Little Zach's experimenting with baking—says he gets tired of waiting all week for Jessie to come home and make him cookies. They're pretty good."

"Thanks." Niko accepted the purple-spotted muffin with a smile and inspected it briefly before breaking it in half and taking a bite. "Blueberry," she noted after swallowing.

"Yep."

The door slid open, and Goose came in, an oversized mug of coffee in hand. His nose twitched. "Baked goods," he said succinctly. Niko giggled.

"Zach, Jr., made blueberry muffins," Zach explained.

"I was wondering about that purple spot on Niko's lip." Goose winked at Niko, who snatched up a napkin and dabbed, pink-faced. Grinning, Goose snagged two muffins from the bag and sauntered to his desk.

"Niko, you don't have—" Zach broke off as his comm pinged. "Never fails," he sighed, and Goose laughed. Zach pushed his chair back and settled into his seat. As Zach hit the Answer button, he heard Niko whisper, "Very funny, Shane!" and held back a smile.

"Zachary Foxx here." 

The screen cleared to show a dark-haired, narrow-faced man in a Ranger uniform that was unfastened at the neck. His skin tone and bone structure hinted at an ancestry that hailed from at least three continents. He was not smiling.

Zach blinked in surprise. "Edward," he said wonderingly. "Ed Robbins. Well. You weren't too high on my list of people I was expecting to hear from today. Nice to see you. How are you doing?" 

Lieutenant Ed Robbins grimaced. "Wish I could say I was great. Things okay with you? How are the kids?" 

Zachary quirked an eyebrow. "Things are okay. The kids are fine. What's up? You still doing detached duty on New Petrograd?" 

"I am, and that's why it's not great. I've been here for months now, working on building a case against Aleksei Leonov. You familiar with his reputation?" 

"Unfortunately. What pie is it this time? Gambling, prostitution, extortion?" 

Robbins' mouth acquired a grim line. "His half-sister, Uliana Leonova, has disappeared. A friend of hers reported her missing a little over a week ago. We did a quick search of her apartment but didn't find anything obviously suspicious, although I did seal the place—with this man it's good to be careful. Then, last Tuesday, one of my informants heard a rumor she was dead. We went back, did a thorough search, and came up with some trace evidence, and I sent it off to BETA. The report has come back to me, and there's nothing conclusive. But I just have a bad feeling about Leonova." 

"You think she's dead?" Zachary asked. "Would Leonov have any reason to kill her?" 

The door slid open, and Doc hurried in. From the corner of his eye Zachary saw a few of the tweakers whizzing around the hacker's head. One of them squeaked a complaint, hastily shushed as Doc noticed Zach's live call session.

Robbins snorted, and Zach snapped his attention back to the comm screen. "Well, it's common knowledge around here that Alex Leonov's taste in women runs close to home." 

Zachary stared at his old friend. "You mean—" He shifted in his seat and fought an unwillingness to say the words. 

"Alex Leonov," Robbins said precisely, "has been shagging his sister for years now. We even found a little genetic calling card on the bedding when we searched the place. And he's possessive as hell." 

"Doesn't New Petrograd have laws about this sort of thing?" 

"Well, sure. But when both of the people involved are over the age of consent, even when one of them probably isn't all that happy about the arrangement, and no offspring results, well... Unless Uliana Leonova wanted to press charges against her half-brother for rape, there's not much we can do about it." 

Zachary rubbed one hand over his face. "Yuck," he said, with feeling. "So what is it you think I can do for you?" 

Robbins looked slightly uncomfortable. "It's not you exactly. It's one of your team members." 

  

 

"Are you really sure you want to do this, Niko?" Zach asked.

"There's no other easy way of finding out what happened, Zachary," Niko reminded him with, Goose thought, commendable calm for someone who's just been asked the same question three times in a row.

Niko sat at her desk holding a small plastic evidence bag in her right hand. She gazed down at it, studying the charred shreds of yellow silk the Samara police had recovered from the fireplace of Uliana Leonova's apartment. "Well, here goes," she said, and touched her badge. Her eyes turned violet as her psychometric Gift took hold of her.

Goose watched closely as beads of sweat came up on his teammate's forehead. Don't let yourself get dragged in this time, girl, he told her silently. Her mouth trembled, she swallowed hard and blinked, and slowly she raised her eyes to her teammates.

"Uliana Leonova is dead," she said softly. "Aleksei Leonov was at her apartment. They quarreled about something. He—assaulted her, and then he strangled her. With a silk scarf," and she held up the bag in hands that shook slightly. The bits of silk gleamed in the cold light of the office.

Zachary splashed coffee into a mug, hastily added cream and what looked to Goose like far too much sugar, and set it down in front of her. She thanked him with a strained smile and took a sip, wrinkling her nose at the cloying sweetness.

"Well, now what?" mused Doc. "We don't have a body, and there's nothing in the apartment to prove Uliana's dead."

"There's a body," Niko answered. "Leonov had one of his men bury it."

"Did you get a location?" Zach asked.

"A vague one. To find the body, I'll have to be on the planet."

Zach nodded. "I'll call the Commander and Ed Robbins and make the arrangements. In the meantime, Niko, take an hour off. That's an order."

Goose took it as an indicator of Niko's state of mind that she made no protest, only stood and left the office.

 

 

0829

 

"Commander, have you received the paperwork—"

"I suppose you're calling about Ed Robbins' request for assistance," said Walsh. Zach blinked and nodded. Walsh continued, "I don't see a problem with sending you and Ranger Niko out to look for Ms. Leonova's body, but I need Doc here. There are some recurring problems with the main science databases, and it's making our AIs twitchy."

And for once, I get to stay home! Aloud Doc said, "Hey, I'll take twitchy AIs over most anything, any day."

"All right, commander," Zach answered, shooting Doc an irritated look.

Hey, not my fault Goose blew out of here like a spell of bad weather. Wonder if—

"Gooseman just texted me a message, requesting permission to go," Walsh added. Doc blinked in surprise. The commander continued, "If you have no compelling reason why he shouldn't, I'm sending him along. He said Niko probably won't be in any condition to handle the body in addition to using her psychometry, and considering what she'll be working on, I tend to agree with him."

"Yes, sir," Zach answered, looking torn between annoyance and amusement at Goose's usual skillful gaming of the system.

"And Zach—I expect you to keep me posted on her mental condition, and to take her off active duty at any time you feel it necessary."

"Of course, sir."

Walsh sighed. "It's an ugly business. Let's hope it winds up with Aleksei Leonov's arrest. He's one of the worst gangsters in a field of bad ones. Keep me posted, and take my compliments to Ed Robbins. He's earned them. Walsh out." The screen went dark.

"Well." Zachary sat back in his chair. "That probably shouldn't have been a surprise."

"Seriously," Doc agreed. Does Goose actually think nobody's noticed his partiality? he wondered. Ha. And let's not even talk about that Lady Liberty–sized torch Niko's carrying.

Zach ran a hand through his hair. "I guess I'd better get my arrest report done," he said—to, Doc rather thought, nobody in particular. "I'd got someplace to be."

"Yeah, and New Petrograd is so pleasant this time of year, too," Doc said, feeling disgustingly cheerful that he didn't have to go. "You better pack rain gear, because it pours for days on end, and you're gonna be out in the middle of it, hunting for a body."

"Thank you, Doc," Zach said sourly.

Doc grinned. "Why Zach's sorry he became a Galaxy Ranger," he murmured. "Reason number eight hundred fifty-three..."

 

 

Samara Police Department, New Petrograd

1300 local time

 

Ed Robbins extended a hand toward the two Samaran officers. "Zach, folks, this is Anna Lisenkova and Marek Goral. They're working with me on assembling data and evidence regarding Aleksei Leonov. Annushka, Marek, this is the Series Five team: Captain Zachary Foxx and Rangers Niko and Shane Gooseman."

As Robbins made the introductions, Zachary studied his two partners. Marek Goral was smiling affably, his brown eyes welcoming. Dark-haired, he stood nearly as tall as Goose, but his frame was larger than the Supertrooper's. Likewise, Anna Lisenkova was a tall, sturdy blond woman who looked perfectly capable of tackling your average thug and pinning him to the ground while simultaneously handcuffing him. At the moment—Zach bit his lip to hold back a smile—she was looking speculatively at Goose, as if he were a new and unfamiliar pastry and she were wondering what he was filled with.

That seems to be a trend with Gooseman, he thought, recalling a not dissimilar look on the face of the Mars City PD's Brianna Lee.

"So," Robbins said, indicating that everyone should sit, "do you have any questions on the local Bratva? I tried to make the briefing materials as clear as possible, but—" He spread his hands in a shrug.

"Why are they still in business?" Goose asked bluntly, pulling back a chair and settling into it. 

Lisenkova chuckled from her seat. "Are you sure you're not Russian?" she asked mockingly.

Zach winced. "Gooseman..."

"No, it's a fair question," Robbins said. "You know we've had problems getting people to testify in the past. People are afraid of retribution. And —" Robbins hesitated.

"We might as well tell them," Goral said, his voice a basso rumble, and folded his hands on the table. "There is someone in the department who is not honest. Evidence disappears, suspects learn of arrest orders in time to leave town, this kind of thing. It began not long after Aleksei Leonov took over the business in Samara, so plainly he bought someone."

"So we asked for help," a new voice said. Everyone turned toward the doorway of the meeting room, where a small, thin, dark-haired woman stood, arms folded. Robbins came to his feet; pushing back his chair, so did Zach, followed by his team.

"Captain," Robbins said. "May I present the Series Five team? Please meet Zachary Foxx, Niko, and Shane Gooseman. Rangers, this is Valentyna Marianich, captain of the Samara PD."

Marianich came forward to shake Zachary's hand. "So you have heard the worst from Marek," she said. "It's a bitter thing for me, to admit that one of my own people let Leonov buy him—or her. For almost ten years this department has been my greatest pride. Now..." She shook her head. "Someone has put personal gain before his oath to the people. Any help you can give Edvard in bringing Leonov down, I will meet with gratitude." Her eyes came to rest on Niko. "And to you, Ranger Niko, our debt is greatest. The story of telepaths on Earth is not well remembered any longer, but my grandmother was one. She lived in the camps when she was a young woman. I have a great respect for all psionics who have the strength to live openly, and for you, who have chosen to use your gift to help find justice for the Leonova, my respect is so much the greater. Thank you."

Color rose into Niko's pale face, and her eyes warmed.

"You're welcome," Niko said quietly. "And speaking of justice—this won't get any easier, waiting. Ranger Robbins, could we please head out now?"

Ed Robbins stood. "Yes, of course. Will you need any special equipment?"

"No," Niko said. "Thank you."

Robbins wavered a moment, then: "I'm coming with you."

 

Chapter Text

 

12 Akhmatova Pereulok (Akhmatova Lane), top floor

Samara, New Petrograd

 

Uliana Leonova's penthouse apartment wasn't terribly large, but it featured every amenity: polished wood paneling, thick carpets over hardwood floors, antique furniture—and a very, very big bed.

Figures, Goose thought cynically. She wasn't just Leonov's half-sister, she was his chew toy. Knowing Alex Leonov, he wasn't about to let his woman look like anything but the most expensive thing around. His lip twitched as he held back a snarl. Nice species, humans.

Niko sat in a velvet-upholstered chair, visibly preparing herself for another psychometric scan of the remains of the silk scarf. Slowly, reluctantly, she took the little evidence bag from her belt pouch. She took a deep breath and touched her badge. Violet washed over her eyes, and, watching her, Goose saw her pupils dilate as she actively sought after visions of Uliana Leonova's death. She flinched once, again. Ed Robbins shifted uneasily, trying not to stare. Goose pushed back a flare of anger.

His body language screams "uncomfortable." Guess he didn't think Niko'd have to do this more than once.

Guess he didn't think about how it'd feel to be her.

The seconds crawled by until Niko blinked, pulled her handheld off her belt, brought up a map, scrolled, and pointed. "Here. At least in this general area." She took another deep breath and stood. "Let's go. The body's been in the ground for more than two weeks already."

None of them dared suggest that she sit. Goose made a point of walking at her elbow as they left the building. It seemed like all he could do.

  

 

Arkhangelsk Forest, 97 miles outside Samara

 

Niko's hand cramped around the evidence bag.

Four. Four times now she had scanned the scraps of yellow silk. The ugly images still stood before her mind's eye, waiting. She stared down at the mud, scattered with pine needles and the occasional pebble, and saw instead Aleksei Leonov's hand twisted in his half-sister's hair; both of his hands, holding Uliana down on the bed; his face, contorted in a snarl as he tightened the scarf around her neck. 

Her teammates stood around her, anxious, tense. Ed Robbins stood by Zach, his face pale, exuding guilt and misery. Stop, she wished at him. You're making this even harder. She looked around at them, shook her head.

The body's not here. It's somewhere nearby, but... 

Niko looked down at the bag in her hand. 

She was going to have to scan it again. Going to have to see that vision again. Some small corner of her mind wailed, I don't want to... 

She drew a deep breath and touched her badge.

 

Crime scene tape stretched around the gravesite. Techs from the medical examiner's office took still pictures and recorded the work as more of them dug. Ed Robbins stood grim-faced nearby, conferring with Anna Lisenkova, who had arrived with the ME team.

A heavy mist rolled in as the sun sank in the west. The Series Five team stood aside from the work, waiting for the body to be unearthed.

 

Samara Police Department

2022 local time

 

Ed Robbins sat at his desk, staring at nothing. The evening shift hummed quietly around him. The PD regulars took sidelong glances as they went about their work.

God, what did I do to that poor woman?

Ranger Niko's harrowed face appeared again in his mind.

I didn't think— His hands tightened. His conscience goaded him, a separate voice in his head.

Yeah, Ed, that's the problem. You didn't think. How would you like an instant replay of a brutal rape and murder going on infinite loop in your head?

Not very well. God. I should never have asked her to do that.

But there was no other way.

Was there?

"Edvard."

He glanced up. Anna Lisenkova stood by his desk.

"Go home," she commanded brusquely. "You look terrible."

He laughed, a short, harsh sound. "I look terrible? Did you see Ranger Niko before her team left?"

"You are upset. It's best you go home. I have already called Maryna. She will be waiting for you."

"Busybody," he retorted automatically.

"Da. You need food and rest, and I think to get laid. Maryna loves you. Go home and let her take care of you." A firm hand at his elbow, urging him out of his seat. "Get up, Ed. I want to go home to my husband."

Marek Goral, passing by unwontedly late with a sheaf of papers in hand, clapped an absentminded hand on Robbins' shoulder and muttered something that might have been "Good night." Ed jerked his head in answer and turned back toward Lisenkova.

"I'm constantly surrounded by bossy women," he complained.

"You are assigned to a colony full of Russians. Russian women are strong. You should be used to it already."

He picked up his coat and slung it on. "Maryna's Ukrainian," he muttered, but he let himself be chivvied out the door.

"Da? So what is your point?"

"I don't know."

Anna snorted. "Let that big blond man worry about Niko," she said. "Maybe she needs to get laid, too. Maybe he will oblige her. If I were not married I would give him a good chase." She swatted Ed's shoulder. "I'll see you tomorrow, Edvard. Don't worry too much."

 

Ranger One, en route to Earth

2039 BETA Mountain time

 

Goose stepped through rear cockpit hatch, clad in his spare uniform. Zach was scribbling marginal notes on a report—it looked like one of Doc's—but he looked around as the hatch hissed open.

"The body's in stasis, Captain," Goose said. "My uniform's in the sonic cleaner... for the third time. Be glad it's winter in Samara." He settled into the co's seat and strapped in.

Zach pressed his thumb to the reader to sign off on a report and looked up from his console. "Where's Niko?"

"Didn’t see her," Goose answered, trying not to show the worry he felt.

"She's sitting in one of the rear cabins, sir," GV said worriedly. "I think she may be crying."

Goose drummed his fingers on the arm of his chair. Crap. She shouldn't be alone right now. Should I go back there? I'm no good with this stuff. Maybe Zach should go... But dammit, I— He cut the thought off and bent his head, ashamed. I never know what to say at times like these.

Zach stood. "Gooseman, you have the conn."

"Aye, Captain." Is he pissed? Goose studied the captain's set face from the corner of his eye. Damn. Zach can stone-face it with the best when he wants to.

And face it: you're relieved you don't have to go.

Gooseman, you are a sorry excuse for a teammate.

The hatch cycled closed. Goose straightened his spine and ran a systems check. This, he knew how to do.

 

 

As Zachary approached the rear starboard cabin, GV slid open the hatch. The overhead cabin lights were lowered, and he paused on the threshold to let his eyes adjust.

A caught breath, like a suppressed sob, emerged from the dimness.

"Niko?"

She stood abruptly, her white uniform gleaming. "Zach," she answered, and swiped the back of her hand across her eyes. Her voice trembled. "I'm sorry, did you need me up front?"

He stepped into the cabin and let the door slide shut behind him. "No, Niko; things are fine up front. I just came to see how you were doing. GV said you were upset."

"I just — there are some parts of my job that I don't like very well sometimes." Her voice seemed to fall away as she finished, and Zach saw that her eyes were filling with tears. She put shaking hands to her face and took a deep breath. "I'm sorry, I just—why are human beings so horrible to one another?" Her voice shook. She blinked rapidly to clear away the tears.

"I know, Niko. I don't like it, either." He moved forward, carefully laying his bionic hand on her shoulder. She had told him once that being touched with a bionic limb was less intrusive than being touched with a natural one. "Is there anything I can get you?"

"N-no, thanks. I should go back to the cockpit—"

He waved her back to her seat. "There's no hurry," he told her gently. "Take the time you need to look after yourself. You take on a lot when you do your psychometric scans, and I want you to be careful not to burn out. In fact, maybe you should take a few days once we get back."

She shook her head almost violently. "No, Zach, please—I'd rather keep working. It's easier."

"All right. If you decide you want time off, please tell me right away."

"Okay," she nearly whispered. "Thank you."

GV slid the door open for him, and Zachary left the cabin, brow furrowed in concern.

First the case with Gaea, and now this. My team needs some downtime.

 

Series Five Rangers' office

2/28, 2004

 

For the third time that evening, Goose caught himself staring blankly at the comm terminal. An overdue report sat waiting on his screen, but all he could think about was Niko's face as they left Ranger One, blotchy and puffy with crying.

I wonder how she's doing?

Stupid question, Gooseman. We haven't even been back a day from recovering Leonova's body. She's probably still pretty bad off. I haven't seen her that upset in a long time. His fingers grew still as he fought against guilt and sadness. Maybe I should have gone to talk to her on the flight back. But what use was I gonna be? Hell.

And what kind of sick fuck rapes his own sister and then strangles her?

His mouth twitched. Don't answer that question, Gooseman, he told himself, but the thought crossed his mind anyway: The kind of sick fuck that Killbane is. If he had a sister.

He forced his mind back to the report. Niko's strong, he told himself. She'll be okay.

Chapter Text

Niko's quarters, BETA Mountain

3/1, 0302

 

Uliana Leonova stared into Niko's eyes. Her bruised and tearstained face was angry. She seized Niko's face between her hands, and Niko flinched back at the icy touch of the dead woman's fingers.

"I'm sorry," Niko whispered.

Uliana did not speak, only held Niko's eyes, her own expression implacable.

"What do you want?"

The cold fingers held fast. The dead blue eyes pulled at Niko, drew and drew like the icy tug of vacuum. Uliana's hands burned on Niko's skin.

"Let me go—" Niko put her hands to Uliana's, tugged at the icy fingers. Like bars of iron, the fingers held. Niko gasped as her own hands grew numb and seemed to meld with Uliana's. Fear speared through Niko's chest. "Let me go!" she cried, breathless.

The cold blue eyes, dead and empty, burned into Niko's as Uliana's face drew closer, closer, and the cold lips pressed against Niko's and Niko felt the air drawn from her lungs in the utter freezing cold and dark—

Her own choked cry woke her.

Niko sat bolt upright in bed, gasping for breath and rubbing her hands over her face. Unbidden, memories from her scans rose into her mind.

Aleksei Leonov's fist smashing across his half-sister's face

Uliana Leonova's naked, battered body huddled in the mud

Uliana's fingers scrabbling at the yellow silk scarf tight around her neck

Aleksei holding Uliana down—

Niko shuddered and drew in another deep breath. "Stop it," she whispered, but the pictures pushed forward like water leaking from a rusted pot.

Aleksei's fist smashing across Uliana's face, Uliana's fingers scrabbling at the scarf, Aleksei holding Uliana down—

"No," she gritted through clenched teeth, and heaved a breath into a chest that hurt with its tightness.

Uliana's fingers scrabbling at the scarf—

"No," Niko grated, and she snatched up the empty teacup she'd left on the bedside table and heaved it at the wall. As the sound of shattering porcelain echoed through her quarters, Niko shrieked, "ακάθαρτος отвратительньій líu máng son of a bitch!" and burst into great heaving sobs.

She cried until her ribs hurt and her eyelids stung, letting go of the horror, the rage, the pity, the sadness.

Finally, empty at last of tears, she slept.

 

0948

:Niko, dear. You know it's not wise to reach so far when you're so upset. Whatever is the matter?: 

Niko sat on her bed in full lotus position. A lit candle, flame dancing, stood on the bedside table. With her eyes closed, she could clearly see the face of her mentor creasing in concern. 

:We're working on a case—it's terrible, Ariel. A man brutally attacked and murdered his own half-sister. The local police couldn't find any trace of foul play, not even a body, so I did a scan of some evidence from the crime scene, some bits of cloth, that turned out to be the scarf he strangled her with. Ariel, I can't get those memories out of my mind. I had terrible dreams last night. It hurts. Oh, I sound like such a child...: 

Niko felt tears beginning, felt them run down her cheeks. :I'm beginning to wonder if I still want to be a Galaxy Ranger. Sometimes this job...: She trailed off, unsure what she had been planning to say.

Ariel's concern flooded across their link. :You did a scan on a murder weapon? Oh, child—you know better than that. It's no wonder your feelings are confused. A weapon can hold the feelings not only of the wielder but also of the victim. After contact with such violent emotion, you must give yourself time to regain your clarity.: 

:It was the only way to find out what happened.:

:And your Captain Foxx permitted it?: 

:He had reservations, but I did it willingly.: 

:And well he should have! That is not a scan to do lightly. You must guard yourself against such things, student, for no one there can truly understand what it costs you.: 

For a moment, other images floated to the fore of Niko's mind: Goose's worried green eyes; Zach's hand gentle on her shoulder; Doc's soft question: "Are you okay?"

She felt her shoulders release a fraction of their tension. :I think some of them do.:

A flash of doubt. :Perhaps, child. But here...: 

Tenderly, delicately Ariel reached, and Niko felt incorporeal fingers stroking her psyche, soothing and comforting. She let her breathing slow, let her muscles relax under her mentor's care. 

:As long as you are a Galaxy Ranger, Niko, as long as you stay in the world of humans, there will be times when you must choose between your peace of mind and your duty. I am deeply proud of your strength. Just remember that if you ever need us, we are here.:

:Yes, Ariel. I know... and thank you.: Niko stifled a yawn.

:Sleep, my dear. This seems a good day to just rest.:

:I called already...: She yawned again. :I told Zach I'd come in later...or maybe in the morning...:

:That's good, Niko. You're tired. Sleep now, as long as you need to. Rest...:

Drowsily she straightened her legs, let her body go limp, lay down, curled lightly into the covers... And slept.

 

 

Series Five Rangers' office

3/2, 0738

 

Niko stared at her screen, the words beating in her mind like a drum.

"Stage of fetal development indicates subject was eight and a half weeks pregnant."

Eight and a half weeks pregnant.

Pregnant.

Uliana Leonova was pregnant.

Aleksei Leonov didn't just murder his sister. He also killed an unborn baby.

Rage rose within her like a slow fire building.

 

 

0740

 

"Good morning, Niko. I hope you caught up on some sleep yesterday. Did you see the note I left you about Doc's being arrested?"

Niko, still staring at the autopsy results, didn't answer.

Zach's smile disappeared. "Niko? What's wrong?"

Slowly her eyes rose to meet his. "Uliana Leonova was pregnant when her brother murdered her."

Zach perched on the edge of her desk, studying her face. "Niko," he said gently, "are you doing all right with this case? You've scanned the murder weapon several times over the last few days, and you seem—upset. I'm concerned about you."

Niko dropped her gaze before the caring look in his eyes. "I'm—handling it," she answered. Keep calm, Niko, just deal with it. "I'm—angry. Alex Leonov raped and beat and murdered his own sister, and he's walking around doing whatever he likes and she's—dead. Her baby is dead. I'm so angry, Zachary. No—'angry' isn't strong enough." She heard her own voice shake with it, tried to steady her words. "I hate that man. Ariel taught me that it's dangerous and even dishonorable for one of—for a telepath—to hate anyone, but I hate him. He—" She broke off and met Zach's eyes, uncertain of what she would see, deafened as she was by the force of her own fury.

Zachary gave her an understanding look. "I know you're angry," he said. "Just remember that you're making a difference, and I don't just mean arresting criminals like Leonov. Anger and even hatred are normal feelings for people who have to deal with the worst part of human behavior, Niko. There's nothing dishonorable about being angry; it's only dishonorable if you act on your anger. And you don't. You set a fine example, and I'm proud to serve with you."

Niko stared down at her console.

"This is why we work as a team—to support one another," he added quietly. "I'm about to head down to Holding to see Doc, but is there anything I can do for you right now?"

She stood abruptly. "I'm going down to the gym." She strode past him to the doorway, paused, and glanced back. "Tell Doc—tell him—"

"I will."

"Zachary... Thank you."

 

 

0754

 

The gym was fairly busy, but the pair of cadets sparring on the corner mat took one look at her expression and got in line for the climbing ropes instead.

Though she was upset, she refused to skimp on warm-up. Finished, she stepped onto the mat, bowed, and launched into the tae kwon do practice forms. For a while she found ease in the feel of her muscles working under her skin, her arms and legs moving through the familiar patterns with a precision born of long, hard practice. But slowly the pictures crept back, ugly not-quite-memories of violence she had never actually seen but had nevertheless witnessed. And then other visions followed and she grew unconsciously still.

Uliana's fingers scrabbling at the yellow silk scarf

Aleksei's fist smashing into Uliana's face

Uliana, bloody and bruised, crumpled on the bed

Brent Carmody's eyes like groping hands on Niko's body

Ingrid Arroyo weeping at her husband's bedside

Gaea cringing, crying hopelessly in Goose's arms

Niko drew a deep breath, feeling the anger smoldering in her guts, and let it out again. She felt the floor under her feet, solid and unmoving, and beneath it the stone of the mountain. She closed her eyes and felt the air move softly against her skin; far above her, she sensed distantly, the wind feathered over the rock face. She inhaled, opened her eyes, and began again to move through the forms, repeating in her mind:

I, Niko, having been duly appointed a Galaxy Ranger of the League of Planets, do solemnly swear that I will defend, enforce, and obey the constitution, laws, rules, and ordinances of the World Federation and the League of Planets.

I will obey the lawful orders of my superior officers and the regulations of the Ranger Corps.

I will adhere to the Law Enforcement Code of Ethics.

I will protect the rights, lives, and property of all citizens and will uphold the honor of the profession, with my life if need be.

I will not persecute the innocent, nor help to shield the guilty; nor will I be influenced in the discharge of my duty by fear, favor, or affection, or by reward or the hope thereof; and in all my doings I will be governed by the laws, rules, and ordinances of the World Federation and the League of Planets.

I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion, and I will well and faithfully discharge the duties required of me as a Galaxy Ranger.

And I will see justice done and Aleksei Leonov rotting in jail.

Chapter Text


Series Five Rangers' office

1306

  

"Hey, Captain. What's going on? I leave on a half-day mission and the whole place goes to shit. What is this with Doc getting busted?"

Zach looked over his monitor and gave Goose a halfhearted smile. "Afternoon. There are leftover bagels in the box on the table if you haven't had lunch yet. It looks like a frame job, but forensics isn't back yet on the trace evidence from Doc's apartment."

"Thanks, I'll grab something at the cafeteria in a bit." Something that won't taste hopelessly stale. If anything from the cafeteria could ever fit that description. "What's the latest on Doc?" 

"His lawyer's working all the angles. If that woman ever took a job with Brappo, we'd never convict him of anything again."

"Good for us. Where's Niko?"

A shadow chased itself across his captain's face. "I sent her to go eat lunch."

Goose studied Zach narrowly. "Something bugging you besides this thing with Doc, Zachary?"

Zachary sighed and leaned back in his chair, his hands falling from his keyboard and into his lap. "It's Niko. She's—here, take a look at the preliminary forensics data on Uliana Leonova."

Goose rounded his desk and went to peer over Zach's shoulder. He ran his eyes down the screen. Oh, man. This case just keeps getting better. "She's upset because Uliana was pregnant?"

"I don't think that's all, but yes, that bit of information didn't help much."

"Can see why. Nasty. Wonder if Aleksei knew? She was only eight weeks along."

Zachary glanced up at Goose. "I had the same thought. They're running paternity tests now. Ed Robbins will be happy to get anything at all he can pin on Leonov. The whole Samara police force has known for years that Leonov was—in a relationship with his half-sister, but if she wasn't willing to enter a charge of rape and testify against him, there was nothing they could really do about it. But if the tests prove Leonov was the father, they've got him under the consanguinity laws."

A "relationship"? Goose suppressed a grim smile. This incest angle really creeps Zachary out. "Yeah, from what Robbins said, I got the idea Leonova wasn't all that happy about it. Guess she was just too scared of her brother to put up a fight."

"Just like half of Samara," answered Zach.

"Yeah, well... not like the Galaxy Rangers."

"Yeah," Zach said—and smiled.

 

 

Samara Police Department

1433 local time

 

Ed Robbins stared at his comm unit as though it might sprout teeth and bite him.

Come on, Ed, don't be an ass. You know you need to do this, so get on with it. Just spit it out.

He drew a deep breath and touched the Record key.

"Ranger Niko, this is Ed Robbins. I'm calling to say thank you, very much, for your help the other day. I—it doesn't do much good to tell you how sorry I am to have put you through that, but I want you to know that I do feel responsible. I guess I'm very ignorant about gifts like yours... I didn't think, Ranger Niko, and I'm very sorry for that, as useless as it is to say so."

He tapped a finger on the desk, stared at the small green light that told him the comm unit was still waiting, and gathered his wits again. What's left of them, he thought sourly.

"Captain Marianich spoke for me, for all of us but especially for me, when she expressed her gratitude. I don't know if it's any small consolation, but I truly believe that with your help we can—make Samara a decent place for people to live again. I don't know if we could have succeeded at taking down Alex Leonov without your help, but you've given this case a huge break. I owe you a debt of gratitude that I don't know if I can ever repay. If there's ever anything I can do for you, no matter how small or how large, I hope you'll call on me, because I'd be glad to help you.

"Thank you, Ranger Niko. Ed Robbins out."

He hit the Save key and winced. Did I sound as idiotic as I think—

"That's a kind thing you did, Edvard."

Robbins turned his chair to face Lisenkova's. "I sounded like a moron," he said moodily.

"You sounded upset and guilty and sorry, but you did not sound like a moron," she said. "You sounded kind. Send the message, Edvard, and let's get back to work, okay?"

He stared down at the comm unit and nodded slowly. "Yeah," he said, and he watched his right hand come down and press Send.

 

 

Series Five Rangers' office

3/3, 1832 

 

Zach read the forensics report again, his puzzlement growing.

This proves it: Alex Leonov couldn't be the father of Uliana's baby.

Then who is?

Zachary opened a line to New Petrograd. 

 

"It's not his, huh?" Ed Robbins tugged at his earlobe. "I'd have banked that the baby was Leonov's," he said slowly, and sighed. "Well, that's a motive off my list. That fetus could have been hard evidence that Leonov and his sister had an incestuous relationship. I'd been wondering if he had her killed to prevent anyone from testing the baby."

"Wouldn't an abortion have done the same thing?" Zachary suggested. "Murder seems pretty extreme."

Robbins shrugged. "Leonov's famous for his nasty temper. If she put up a fuss about wanting to keep the kid, it might have been enough to make him fly off the handle. Forensics did say she'd been beaten badly before she was killed. Maybe he lost it because he found out she'd had sex with someone else."

Zachary winced. "What now, Lieutenant? Have you got any other candidates for the father of this baby?"

"Maybe." Robbins' brows creased in thought. "I'll tell you what: first thing tomorrow, I'll run the fetal DNA profile past the data people here—the ones I'd trust on this have all left for the day already. We have DNA data for a good number of the Bratva in this town—most of them have been arrested at one point or another for something. If that baby's father has ever been booked at Samara PD, we'll find a match."

 

 

Series Five Rangers' office

3/5, 0758

 

"Missing?" Zachary gaped at his monitor. "As in misfiled?" 

Ed Robbins' face was grim. He raked one hand through his hair and then raised it in a helpless gesture. "I wish. No, as in deliberately deleted from the databanks."

"In response to this murder?"

"Looks like. Ranger Niko said one of Leonov's men disposed of the body. I think this was an attempt to make sure we'd have a hard time figuring out who. We're going to have to take new samples for nearly twenty of Leonov's men, and nobody here has time. Or rather, we could find the time, but either nothing else gets done for three or four days or we don't finish taking samples for a month. And all that time, my case is dead in the water, and more evidence could disappear any time."

Zachary frowned and glanced down at his calendar program. "I don't have any court appearances or missions for the next few days," he said. "This case has taken on a higher profile in the past few weeks. I think Commander Walsh would agree you need a hand." 

Robbins' face lit up. "Are you serious?" 

"Of course. I want to bring Niko, too. I think it would help her state of mind for her to come do something concrete to move this case along."

Robbins flinched.

"She's doing all right, Ed. She's a pretty resilient woman." Zach tapped a key, eyed the calendar pages for his team, frowned again. "She's leaving for Tortuna the day after tomorrow, scheduled to be back late the next day. Hm. She's supposed to be going to Tarkon on the 10th on a diplomatic mission. I'll have to send Gooseman instead. Anything else you need?"

"Got a spare platoon in your pocket?"

"I'll take that as a no. I need to get hold of Commander Walsh. I'll let you know if something comes up, but otherwise, you can expect us late on the 9th, possibly early on the 10th. You might as well get started, but the cavalry's on the horizon."

"Thank you, Zach," Robbins said fervently. "You know how much this case means to me."

"I know. We'll see you soon, Ed. Foxx out."

 

 

Samara PD evidence lab

3/11, 1916

 

"You can go now," said Niko, and the hulking gangster bobbed his head and rose. "Thank you, Mr. Glushkin. I'm sure being exonerated of this robbery will be a load off your mind." She picked up the sample case to carry it over to the refrigerator.

Glushkin smiled uncertainly. "Yes, ma'am," he said, and backed up a few steps.

"On your way out, please tell Mr. Kolchin that he's next. Oh, and when you get home, please remind Mr. Andrushkevich that he does have the right not to give us samples, but the next time there's a crime in the area that he doesn't have an alibi for, he's very likely to get arrested, and they'll get samples from him anyway."

Glushkin fidgeted.

"Thank you," Niko repeated patiently, and he rushed out the door, glancing back at her as if to make sure that she wasn't chasing him with any sharp implements.

"Who'd have guessed that a big, tough-looking man like him would faint at the sight of a needle?" she murmured, and shook with silent laughter. 

 

Vassily Kolchin had an unnerving habit of staring.

"We're trying to eliminate suspects in an armed robbery," Niko said, forcing her mind away from her discomfort and back to the cover story she and Zach had come up with. "You don't object to being eliminated from the pool, I take it?"

"No, ma'am," Kolchin said. "Of course not." His dark eyes remained fixed on her face as she removed a sterile swab from its test tube.

"Open your mouth, please," she said, holding the swab in front of his mouth, and swabbed firmly along the inside of his cheek when he obeyed. He kept watching as she closed up the sample and readied a needle for a blood sample. Most of the men she'd done draws for had looked away as she took blood, but Kolchin kept watching her as she carefully took samples from the crook of his left arm.

Niko sprayed sealant on the needle hole, then put a small bandage over it to absorb any leakage. "Hold that in place for thirty seconds," she ordered, putting the tubes into their case, and stripped off her latex gloves.

"Is it all right if I leave now?" Kolchin rose. "I have a date."

"Yes, Mr. Kolchin, thank you." Niko turned to carry the samples to the refrigerator—and realized that Kolchin, left arm raised and right hand holding down the bandage, had just stridden out the door and left his gloves lying on the table.

"Damn," she muttered, and hastily stowed the samples. Snatching up the gloves as she passed by the table, she hurried out the door and into the hallway. "Mr. Kolchin!" she called at his retreating back, and saw him stiffen momentarily before he turned back. She paused, suddenly uncertain. What was that about?

He was staring at her again.

"You forgot your gloves," she told him, holding them out. "And you can let go of that bandage now; the sealant has done its work."

He stuffed the bandage into his pocket and glanced at the crook of his arm, uncovered still by the rolled-up sleeve of his sweater. "Thank you," he said, still looking at the needle mark, and reached out for his gloves.

Their fingertips brushed.

It flared through Niko like an electric shock.

Dimly she realized that her eyes had gone wide, that she was staring at him, that his body had gone tense in reaction—

—but in her mind's eye stood an image of Uliana Leonova smiling softly, her eyes full of wonder, as she took hold of Vassily Kolchin's right hand and pressed it gently to her belly under the ivory silk sheets.

Niko took one stumbling step back, and he was gone, striding out the door without looking back.

 

 

"He's what?" Ed Robbins demanded over Zach's astonished "He is?"

"He's the father," Niko said insistently. "I'm sure of it. He left his gloves on the table, and when I handed them back to him our fingers touched. I saw it, Zach. He was in bed with Uliana and she'd just found out she was pregnant. They were both excited, happy—though Kolchin was nervous. I think he'd already started to plan how they were going to get out of here."

"Shit," Robbins swore. "We can't arrest him based on a psychic insight. His lawyer would have him out of here in an hour, and then Leonov would have some tough questions for him—like why he got arrested when we can't prove he did anything. We need him, Zach. We need him alive."

"It's true, but protective custody is no good," said Goral. "We could as well put an ad in the Samara Times that there is some reason Leonov should distrust him."

"Surveillance?" Zach suggested, but Robbins shook his head.

"Even putting him under surveillance might trigger something," Robbins said. "Marek, Annushka, you both know what a temper Leonov has. And with these problems in the department—" He shook his head. "We can't risk it."

"You don't have any outstanding warrants for him?" Zach asked.

"Nothing." Lisenkova's face was disgusted. "He is one of Leonov's top two lieutenants, and he makes sure to keep his hands always clean."

Zach leaned back in his chair, his face intent. "If we hand it off to one of your lab techs now, we can have results by tomorrow."

Robbins frowned. "Not a good idea to run just the one sample by itself, Zach. It'd be another ad in the paper. No... we're going to have to sit on this and let the samples go through the system, same as the rest."

  

 

3/12, 0803 local time

 

Niko and Zach had just sat down in an unoccupied corner of the station when Ed Robbins strode up to them with Captain Marianich walking at his elbow. Robbins got straight to the point.

"Vassily Kolchin has left town. We found one witness who saw him out on the streets at around midnight, but nothing after that."

Zach found himself on his feet. Niko went white. "Are you sure he isn't dead?" she asked in a low voice.

"He was carrying a suitcase," answered Robbins. His face was set. "Kolchin is one of Leonov's smarter men, even if he was reckless enough to be sleeping with the man's sister. He knew that as soon as that DNA sample went through testing, the paternity of Uliana's child would come to light. He must have decided he was in danger from Leonov." 

"Damn! We've got to find him." Zach sat slowly back down. "He's probably our best chance of getting testimony."

"Da. I know," said Marianich grimly. "My men are scouring New Petrograd. But we're a small colony still, Captain Foxx. My guess is that Kolchin has left the planet."

Robbins put in, "Only one ship has left the planet in the past 24 hours. He has to have been on it. Lisenkova is running the passenger manifest now."

"I must get back to work, Captain Foxx, Ranger Niko," Marianich said. "If I personally can be of any assistance, please come to my office or call at any time." 

"Thank you," Niko answered quietly.

Marianich turned and headed back into her office. Robbins held up his handheld and thumbed a key. A query appeared on Zach's handheld screen: Accept beam?

Zach tapped the Yes button and began scanning the data. "We'll find him, Niko," he said, glancing up at her. "We've got to."

 

 

1716 local time

  

Valentyna Marianich held out her hand; after a moment's hesitation, Niko shook it.

"I understand you have to go back to BETA," the Russian woman said. "Again I thank you for fighting for the Leonova. My name is yours to use at any time."

Niko blinked in surprise. "Thank you," she said finally, her voice clear but quiet.

"We value your work here, Ranger Niko and Captain Foxx," said Anna Lisenkova. "If only so that Edvard here can solve his case and get married."

Ed Robbins snorted. "Busybody."

"We have been over this, Edvard. Of course I am."

"We do our best," Zach said. "Ed, you can get in touch with me anytime for help." The two men shook hands, and Robbins smiled.

"You've already done so much, Zachary. I'm grateful. I'll keep you up to date on developments. Oh—and the APB on Kolchin has you as the officer to contact. Since I don't know who's compromised security here, I don't know if we can keep his whereabouts confidential long enough for someone to pick him up. Leonov's got off-planet contacts—and deep pockets."

Zach nodded. "Makes sense. Thanks for the FYI. We'll be in touch, Ed."

Chapter Text

Niko's quarters

3/12, 2302

 

Niko shifted her weight for the third time in a few minutes, and sighed. She and Zachary had arrived at BETA in the late afternoon and gone straight to work for the rest of the day. She was tired, and tired people found it hard to focus, but even so, she hadn't had such difficulties in meditating in a very long while.

You know why, Niko, she told herself, and the vision came unbidden: chaotic, horrifying, disturbing.

Uliana's fingers scrabbling at the yellow silk scarf

Aleksei's fist smashing into Uliana's face

Uliana, bloody and bruised, crumpled on the bed

She blew out her breath and opened her eyes.

"You know better," she said aloud. "Trying to push it aside isn't working because it never works."

Face your fears. Face what's ugly. Facing it, you take away its power.

She bit her lip.

I don't want to look at those images. I don't want to make order or sense of them. But as long as I keep running away from this, it will rule my life. Her chin set stubbornly. No one and nothing rules my life — or my mind — but myself.

She breathed deep, closed her eyes, and faced what was ugly.

 

 

Uliana can only scream as her brother's fist slams into her, as he tears at her clothes, as he rapes her.

And then he grabs the yellow silk scarf that is still tied around her neck and twists, and she no longer has breath even for that.

When she is dead he stands, breathing hard, and uses the shreds of her skirt to wipe himself off before zipping his pants.

"Call in the cleaners," he orders the bodyguard. "And get rid of this piece of garbage."

The big man bows his head, but he stands silently looking at the naked, battered body, and his face is grim. There is sadness in his eyes, but his boss, turning away, does not see.

 

In her room in BETA Mountain, Niko flinched.

Face it. Go farther back, she told herself, and kept looking.

 

He twists his hand in her hair and yanks. She gives a small cry of pain. 

"Whore! You fucking bitch!"

"Aleksei, please—"

He smashes the back of his hand across her mouth. Blood flies. He begins dragging her toward the bed.

"No—"

She fights him. His breath comes in pants. His expression is furious, twisted, aroused.

"Markov, get over here and tear this whore's clothes off. She's forgotten who owns her. If she's very good I might let you have a turn."

"Please, don't!"

She struggles violently, and rage contorts his features. He raises his hand and begins to hit her.

 

Niko felt tears begin to trickle down her face. Further back.

 

"Where do you think you're going?"

"N-nowhere —"

"Don't lie! You didn't ask my permission to take a vacation!"

The suitcase hits the floor, scattering clothes and belongings as it falls. He stares.

"Why the hell are you taking your old journals on a vacation?"

"I —" She breaks off, trembling, and the realization crosses his face. He slaps her viciously.

"You bitch! You think you're leaving me?"

  

Niko's eyes snapped open in shock. She was on her feet before the thought had even finished forming.

 

 

Foxx family quarters

2316

  

"She was packing, Zach."

Niko stood, feeling energized as she hadn't for days. Zach had been in bed; he stood now in his doorway, wrapped in a bathrobe and tired but attentive.

She continued, "There was a suitcase — he threw it to the floor. I think she was planning to leave with Kolchin, but Aleksei came by and found her. He must have demanded to know what she was doing, and when he realized she was going to leave him, he went crazy with rage and assaulted her.

"There's more. I think there was a witness to the actual murder. Someone else was there — a bodyguard, Dmitri Markov. I think he was the one who disposed of the body. He didn't just come in afterward."

Zach frowned and ran one hand over his ruffled hair. "Are you sure?"

"Completely."

"Well, getting the man to testify is going to be hard."

"Yes, of course," she said impatiently. "But you know what this means, don't you?" At his blank look, she said, "They were planning to leave. I'd bet you good money that Kolchin had two tickets. I think he used both of them. I think he took someone along."

"You're saying —"

"I'm saying we've been looking for the wrong thing: a man traveling alone."

 

 

Series Five Rangers' office

3/15, 0927

 

"Niko's hunch was right on," Robbins said. His face was animated for the first time since he'd called Zachary for help. "We've traced Kolchin as far as Mars. The surveillance tapes we found gave us enough of an image of the woman that we were able to ID one of Leonov's sizable string of call girls."

Zach quirked a brow. "He hired a prostitute to play his traveling companion?"

"It's probably very unpleasant working for Leonov in that capacity," Niko pointed out. "Well, any capacity at all, really, but that must be worse than most. Did you find anything else, Ranger Robbins?"

"I really wish you'd call me Ed," the man said, sounding almost plaintive. "You say Ranger Robbins and I start looking around for my dad."

Niko's breath huffed out in a soft laugh.

"We have half a dozen leads," Robbins said. "We're putting a lot of hours into this search. We'll find him."

"You will," agreed Zach. "By the way, I delivered the swabs to the labs the day before yesterday. They should be done by the end of the day. I'll let you know as soon as they show up."

"Thanks, Zach. I'll be expecting your call, then. Let's hope we find our man among those; getting more would start raising flags we don't want raised. We've put too much into this case to blow it now."

 

 

1347

  

Zach settled into his seat and loaded Seth Devalier's datacube into his reader. At a keystroke, the list of forensics reports came up onscreen. Zach selected Paternity/DNA match, U. Leonova, and the document opened. His eyes skimmed the screen, and he sat back with a sigh.

Evidence, hard evidence that Vassily Kolchin is the father of Uliana Leonova's child, that they surely were lovers — and the man is long gone.

Dammit.

"GV, I need a secure, encrypted line to Ranger Lieutenant Robbins and Captain Marianich at Samara PD, please. Right away. Tell them it's urgent."

GV booped onto the upper corner of Zach's screen. "I'm on it, sir."

Zach stared at the test results again. If Aleksei found out about Kolchin... 

"I've got your connection, sir."

"Thanks, GV." 

Valentyna Marianich's face appeared on Zach's screen. After a moment, Marianich's face shifted right, the screen divided vertically, and Edward Robbins' face appeared in the left panel. "Edward, Captain Marianich, the lab work came back. Kolchin is the father of Leonova's baby. We have our hard evidence."

Robbins sat back in his chair. "This could make the case, Zach," he said in his quiet way, but Zachary saw the gleam of excitement in the man's eyes. "If Kolchin and Leonova were lovers, if he actually had feelings for her, Leonov's murdering her could be exactly the wedge I need to open a crack in this organization's armor." A huge grin split his face. "Whoever did that workup, you can tell him I'm buying him a drink when I get back to the mountain."

"Seth Devalier." Zach grinned back. "I'll tell him. I'll be seeing him later today."

 

 

Series Five Rangers' office

3/21, 1537

 

The face of a man formed on the screen. "Captain, I'm Sheriff Colt, from Texarcota on Prairie."

"I remember you," Zach said. "No more trouble with the local wildlife, I hope?"

Colt snorted. "Only the two-legged tailless kind, Captain. Not a bronto bear in sight. Listen, you've got a search going for Vassily Kolchin of New Petrograd. This the man?" He touched a key, and an image came up in the left half of the screen.

Zach studied it. That's not the file photo, he noted. And it was taken — today? Relief swept over him. "Sure is," he said. "And he needs to be in protective custody right away. Can you take care of it?"

Colt grinned. "Already taken care of. He and his lawyer just walked in my front door. Someone from BETA going to come get him?"

Goose gave a muffled whoop from his desk. Doc flashed two thumbs up with a quiet "Heyyy." But then behind Zach the office fell suddenly quiet.

"I'll be seeing you soon, Sheriff," Zach said to Colt. "My team will be on the way as soon as possible."

"Roger that, Captain Foxx. Colt out."

Zach turned. Niko sat, her hands over her face, leaning back in her chair.

"Niko?" Goose said tentatively. She sighed and dropped her hands into her lap. Her face was a little pale, but Zach saw that she looked more peaceful than she had for nearly a month. She raised her chin and smiled.

"When do we leave?"

 

 

Conference room, Texarcota Sheriff's Department, Prairie

3/22, 0703

 

Vassily Kolchin was staring at her again.

"You have a question, Mr. Kolchin?" Niko asked. The man silently shook his head.

The Series Five team sat across the conference room table from Kolchin and his lawyer. Sheriff Colt, arms crossed, leaned against the doorframe, watching intently.

Kolchin's lawyer, Juan Altamira, was a thickset man with grizzled hair pulled tightly back in a short ponytail. On their first sighting of the man, Goose had whispered, "He looks more like someone you'd see at a biker bar than someone who's passed the bar." Niko had been hard pressed to keep a straight face. But they all knew, from the briefing Sheriff Colt had provided, that Altamira was the toughest criminal defense lawyer on Prairie.

"You understand the terms of the plea bargain, Vassily? Think you can repeat them back to me so I know you've got it?" Altamira was asking his client.

"Yes," the man answered in his accented English. "I am to testify against Aleksei Leonov and anyone in his employ or former employ whom I have observed engaging in illegal activity. In exchange I will be relocated under a new identity. I will have to report regularly to a parole officer under my new name. If I commit any felonies in the remainder of my life, I will be tried only for those new crimes, but my history may be taken into account in the sentencing phase of the trial."

"That's right," said Altamira. "Captain Foxx, do you have anything to add?"

Zach shook his head. "I think you've about covered it, Mr. Altamira. If there's nothing else you need, Sheriff —?" Colt shook his head silently. Zach stood; everyone else followed suit. "Then let's get you loaded onto Ranger One and back to BETA Mountain. Ranger Ed Robbins, who's heading up the Leonov investigation, is already on his way back to Earth. We'll meet him there. Gooseman, take point. Doc, Niko, I want you on either side of Mr. Kolchin — Niko, be ready to raise a shield if you have to. We're not about to lose this witness. Let's go, people. We've got a gangster to bust."

Chapter Text

BETA Mountain Holding Block, Interrogation Room 1

3/22, 0816

 

Niko leaned against the wall just outside the interrogation room, feeling bone tired. Although Ed Robbins hadn't yet arrived, Zachary had already gotten started taking Vassily Kolchin's deposition. She had watched through the one-way glass for a while, but after almost an hour of listening to Kolchin detail Aleksei Leonov's crimes, she felt she couldn't take any more for a while.

"Hey, lady, you doing okay?"

She looked up at Doc, wondering vaguely how long he'd been standing there. She shrugged. "I will be," she said. "I just had to step away from all that for a bit."

"Yeah," he agreed. "The man's got the kind of slime that seems to rub off."

They both knew he wasn't talking about Kolchin.

"I can't even begin to imagine what he must be feeling right now," she mused. "He was in love and he was going to be a father, and suddenly he learned that the woman he wanted to marry was dead and her baby with her."

Doc sighed. "It's a big, bad, ugly world sometimes," he said regretfully.

The door to the observation room opened, and Goose emerged. "Just got the flash from Security," he said. "Robbins just passed the checkpoint upstairs a couple of minutes ago. And—" he cocked his head. "There he is now."

They all looked around at the sound of footsteps. Ed Robbins hurried around the corner, both of his Samara PD partners with him. Robbins checked when he saw Niko, but then came ahead, a wide grin spreading across his face.

"Ranger Niko," he said. "I'm so relieved to see you feeling better. Hello, Doc, Ranger Gooseman."

"Hey, Ed, officers. Didn't know you two were coming also." Doc offered a cheery wave; Goose just nodded.

Lisenkova smiled. "We could not miss this," she said, and she stepped forward and offered her hand to Niko. "Ranger Niko, we can never repay our debt to you," she said.

Niko took the offered hand and smiled in return. "There's no debt," she answered. "I'm just doing my job, the same as you are." She turned toward Goral, her hand extended.

Something flickered in his eyes. Niko frowned.

What — there's something —

Her eyes narrowing in suspicion, she reached out quickly and touched his hand.

The image rose clearly: Goral, speaking with Alexander Glushkin, his body language furtive and tense, and Glushkin holding out an envelope.

Niko's eyes widened — and Goral went for his gun.

He never even got close.

Goose had Goral up against the wall before any of the humans in the hallway had even begun to move. "Bad idea," Goose snarled in the man's ear. Goral struggled for a moment but grunted and went still when Goose clamped down on his wrist and twisted his arm up behind his back. "What the hell was that supposed to be?" the Supertrooper demanded of the big policeman.

"I saw him talking with Alexander Glushkin," Niko said numbly. "Glushkin handed him an envelope — full of money." She felt the shock travel through the group.

"Marek," Lisenkova breathed in shock. Ed Robbins had gone pale.

"No wonder all that data disappeared at such an opportune moment," Robbins said, his voice taut with fury and pain. "What did he offer you, Marek? Money? Drugs?" Niko dropped her gaze at the hurt in his eyes.

Goral glared at Robbins. "You have lived in New Petrograd for almost a year and you've never noticed who gets promoted and who does not, have you, Edvard?" he spat. Goose pulled his cuffs out of their case on his belt and locked them on the bigger man's wrists. Goral turned slightly to keep Robbins in his line of sight. "The mayor is Russian," he continued bitterly. "The chief of police, the captain, everyone in power is Russian or Ukrainian. Poles get in line — at the back of the line."

"What does that have to do with letting human garbage like Aleksei Leonov buy you?" demanded Lisenkova.

"That money was my ticket off that frozen ball of shit you call a planet," snapped Goral.

Goose snorted. "Huh. Well, you're getting off-planet, aren't you?" he said contemptuously. "Interfering in a case with off-world connections gets you tried in the World Federation Court and tossed in a World Federation jail. And you didn't even have to spend any of your hard-earned cash. Congratulations."

"Ranger Gooseman, would you do me the favor of getting this person out of my sight before I forget myself and do something regrettable?" said Robbins.

"Happy to oblige, Ranger," Goose answered. "Just to observe the formalities: you're under arrest for taking bribes — just for starters," he said to Goral. "March."

Niko watched them out of sight.

"I'm so sorry, Annushka," Robbins said quietly.

The tall blond woman shook her head in frustrated pain. "If only he had come to me," she said, her voice muted and tight. "I would have helped him. I would have done anything in my power to help him emigrate, if only I had known he was so unhappy."

"Don't blame yourself," Niko told her. "He did what he did, and all you can do is try to get past it."

The door to the interrogation room opened, and Zachary looked out. "Ed," he said in surprise, "when did you get here? And what are you all doing hanging around in the hall?"

Everyone looked at him. No one spoke. He looked from face to face, spoke quietly over his shoulder, and came into the hallway, shutting the door behind him.

"All right," said Zachary. "Start from the beginning, go on to the end, and then stop."

Chapter Text

1 Solzhenitsyn Prospekt (Solzhenitsyn Avenue)

3/27, 0626

 

The door of Aleksei Leonov's penthouse apartment was made of solid mahogany, but one solid blow from Zach's arm turned it into kindling. Cops and Rangers boiled through the doorway and through to the bedroom, shouting.

"Galaxy Rangers! Samara PD! Freeze!"

The woman curled sleeping at the very edge of the mattress fell to the floor, shrieking and trying vainly to cover her nudity. Leonov started up in bed but went still as half a dozen sidearms drew a bead on his head. The woman dragged a blanket over herself and huddled shivering and silent against the side of the bed.

"There is some reason for this invasion?" Leonov demanded, glaring.

Ed Robbins strode forward, tipping up the visor on his helmet. He started to speak, but then he paused and looked over his shoulder.

"Ranger Niko," he said quietly, "would you care to do the honors?"

She blinked. "Ed," she said, "are you — you've been working on this case for —" She broke off as he shook his head.

"I think I'll defer to you," he said with a smile. She felt an answering grin spread across her face.

"Well, if you insist," she said cheerfully, and she walked over to stand at his elbow. Her handcuffs rattled as she pulled them from the case at her belt. The click as they opened seemed very loud in the suddenly quiet apartment. 

For the first time, Niko looked Aleksei Leonov in the eye. She was vaguely pleased to note that it didn't hurt.

"Aleksei Leonov," she said, "you are under arrest for the murder of Uliana Leonova. You have the right to remain silent..."