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Dark Ozark

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2089-05-17
Planet Ozark

"Send the message..." the lips of the woman on the bed trembled so much it was hard to understand her. The fever ensured that. A bullet in the shoulder wasn't good for your health. "The code—"
     Her companion standing in front of the bed shook her head. "Annie, there's nothing he can do that I can't do myself right on the spot. And you'll get treatment sooner."
     The hand that grabbed the standing woman's wrist was far too hot. "You’d be in for it." Annie swallowed, aware that the other one could shake off her grip even if she hadn't been shot and running a fever, but she... "Promise me… Dark…"
     Opalescent eyes searched her face, conceded finally to what they found there. "I will, Annie. I promise."

Ranger Explorer
on patrol along the border of the Empty Zone

=…elp. The harassments …tinually …st months. Our sheriff's no… against such opponents… now… they shot… We're struggling… hold the house… but… approaching… didn't want… need help. You said, next time you'll fight.=
     For a brief moment only the static of a low-powered hyperspace-comm call filled the cockpit of the explorer before BETA Command switched the recording off. =That's all we received, Rangers,= the commander's voice was relayed clearly by BETA's strong transmitters. =We tracked the call back to Ozark. Gooseman, Niko. You're closest. Go there, find out what's up there, and correct it.=
     "Ozark's a planet with small but widely spread settlements, sir. Any more information about the call's origin?"
     =No, Niko. The signal was too weak for further tracking. You'll have to find your exact destination on your own. BETA out.=
     "Wonderful." She settled back in her seat. "It's going to take us weeks just to find out where to look for—" She powered the hyper shunts up and entered the general coordinates for Ozark. "They finally established marked landing points, Goose. Any preferences?"
     Her partner answered without even looking onto the screen. "Abilene is closest."
     "Closest to what?"
     "Our destination." He checked the charge of his implant. "We better hurry."
     "How—?" She stopped at the impulse she caught from him. "Shane?"
     "Next time you'll fight." An edge of his mouth twitched. "I said that. The caller's Darkstar. Things must be bad for her to risk calling us. Even if it's Annie who's behind this call originally."

Planet Ozark

"Shane! Remember Mel's not a racer like Triton!"
     "Sorry." He ground his teeth while he slowed his horse down enough for Niko to catch up.
     "If you're that worried why didn't we land directly at Annie's?"
     "Ozark's laws. If we ignore them, we have to explain why. I can't explain it without telling about Darkstar."
     "In that case we should find an explanation why we choose Abilene of all available spots."
     He shrugged. "Luck," he said grimly.
     She gave him an encouraging smile. "You said often enough that you don't believe in it."
     "Since the Psychocrypt, I believe everything."
     "Tell that your plants!"
     "I stopped talking to them." He grinned. "They always died when I did."
     "That's because you didn't water them."
     "What?! They need water too?" He sobered and reined in. "We'll be there soon. The house's behind the next hill. Do you feel anything?"
     Niko concentrated briefly. "Nothing clear." And frowned at him. "You are worried."
     "Darkstar called. And she knows how good the voice recognition procedures work. There’s got to be a reason why Annie didn’t place the call herself. And I don't like any of the possibilities that come to mind for that."

"A few horses are tethered in front of the house, some are in the corral. I just wonder why no one's visible." Niko, lying flat on the hill's top, lowered the binoculars. "It's midday. Maybe they’re getting lunch. Otherwise, looks normal to me."
     Next to her Goose narrowed his eyes and stared intensely down at the small ranch that definitely was 'in the making': currently only the main house, a barrack for the cowboys, and a big stable next to an assortment of corrals had been built. The arrangement was clearly made for further development with lots of space between the buildings. Some additional rooms on the ground next to the ranch house were already marked with stakes and strings. The work seemed to have stopped abruptly. Some of the tools were still lying around.
     "Wait a moment…" he murmured and took Niko’s binocs. "Shit!" He gave her the binoculars back and pointed at the horses in front of the house. "Have a close look at the third on the right. The brown one."
     Niko froze. "That's a cybersteed painted brown."
     "Yes," Goose said grimly. "And the ears look like it's doing surveillance."
     "Maybe Annie…"
     "She's breeding horses. My knowledge might be gappy, but I know that’s not done with bots!"
     "Believe me, those gaps are closed," Niko said dryly. She studied the cyber horse again. "Maybe she keeps it for the heavy work."
     "She's trying to make a living by selling biological horses. She won't advertise the advantages of cybersteeds." He shook his head. "That steed doesn't belong here. And it's camouflaged with surveillance capabilities. That bot means trouble."
     Niko nodded. "Still, it could belong to a visitor. We can't—" She stopped, zoomed in. "You're right. They are in trouble."
     "What do you sense?"
     "Nothing, but there's a dead horse behind the far stable."
     Shane followed the indicated direction and cursed. "Must be dead for quite a while. Clouds of flies."
     "Pincer or direct approach?"
     He studied the terrain briefly. "Pincer. Too open ground for a DA. Do you think you can fool the surveillance of that steed?" She nodded. "You take the back. I'll ride up towards the front. If they shoot they shoot at me."
     She touched his temple. "Psionic coordination okay with you?" He nodded and felt the faint whisper of her increased presence behind his eyes. "Be careful," she breathed as they remounted.
     Always, he answered in his thoughts, while Mel was already gaining speed to round the hills.
     …like icicles on Hell's rooftop… her thoughts replied dryly in his mind.

…In position…
     "Okay, Triton." Goose called his horse to attention. "Showtime!"
     The blue-silver cybersteed quickly gained speed down the hillside. Goose didn't try to keep the sound of the hooves low. Annie's ranch was well-positioned in case of trouble. The house lay on open ground and though there were shading trees nearby none of them blocked the view from the house sufficiently. He was sure Darkstar had had a say in how those trees were cut. Some of the sawed-off branches still lay beneath the trees they came from. He just wondered what had made Annie listen that closely to the supertrooper in that regard.
     =Gooseman, I detect a foreign sensor field.=
     "Keep going, pal!" Goose ordered grimly. So, he'd been right with the darn bot. He tore his LR from the saddle holster and fired in the same motion. Flames sizzled out of the mechanical horse's head. Goose focused. Bot done in. Entering house.
     ...Understood...
     The barrel of a rifle appeared in the window beside the door. Laser bolts streaked towards him. He tore Triton out of the line of fire. His return fire was answered with a gurgling sound. Blaster range reached. Goose rammed the rifle back into the saddle holster.
     "SURRENDER AND THE FEMALES MIGHT LIVE!"
     ...Ignore that...
     That's my girl.
     ...Pffft...
The door shattered under Triton's impact. Goose fired the moment he was clear of the door frame. The man near the opposite wall collapsed at the same time as Niko shot through the backside window eliminating the second shootist next to the front door.
     Triton came to a screeching halt in midst of the room. "Don't surrender and the females will live for sure, asshole," Shane clarified.
     "Not quite," a cold voice said from the door to the second room, freezing them both. "One move and the pinto girl's neckless." With a glaring glance at Niko: "Throw your rifle inside. Slowly."
     It clattered onto the wooden floor.
     Goose turned Triton very slowly to face the remaining opponent. To face… Darkstar. The thug held her with a fist in her hair and pressed a combat knife against her throat. Shane raised a brow at the picture. "In your shoes I wouldn't do that, man," he said, cocking his head slightly as if to study something most interesting.
     "Sure wouldn't. You lack the guts for it."
     "Not quite." His eyes narrowed slightly. His left hand formed the sign for attack against the saddle horn. And Darkstar burst into action. She left a fistful of black-and-white strands in the crook's hand as she slammed her head back against his chin. A careless move twisted his wrist, maiming his hand. She countered his recoil, slammed her elbow down and broke his neck in a single turn. Without as much as a shrug, Darkstar straightened and let the body drop to the floor. "It's because I know how she fights," Shane told the dying man calmly, propping his arms relaxed on the saddle horn.
     Niko swung herself through the open window and retrieved her rifle. "Didn't they tell you to get off your horse before entering a lady's house?" she asked him.
     "Ah shit." He grinned as he swung down from his saddle. "I knew I'd forgotten something. – Where's Annie?" he asked Darkstar.
     "Next door." Darkstar run a hand over her the bald spot on her head and drew a face. "She's been shot."
     He sobered immediately, pulled his rifle from the saddle and sent Triton outside. "What's up here?"
     Darkstar sighed. "We don't know. It began some months ago and only got worse. Two weeks ago, we found three of the mares shot. Annie went to town to call the sheriff without me. I prefer staying put. There's always the risk of being recognized. Then I heard the gunfire. She and her mare were already hit when I arrived. Bellestar somehow managed to bring her back before she collapsed."
     Gooseman nodded. "Her corpse warned us that something was wrong here. Any idea about the reason for it?"
     "Not really." Darkstar shook her head. "The land can't be taken by raid, the only valuables we have here are the horses, and they shot them."
     "How could they surprise you?"
     The female ST's eyes flashed at the implied accusation of sloppiness. "They didn't, but Annie forbade me to fight. She insisted on calling you instead," she snorted. "Don't know why."
     "Badges."
     "Rubbish."
     "No… it's true." Annie, shaking, appeared in the doorframe. Goose leaped to steady her before she could fall. "The table… Let me sit." Hesitantly, he obeyed to her wish. "Goose's a Ranger, Dark," Annie told the female ST. "Law enforcement. If he kills a criminal in defense it's lawful."
     "Still, wasn't his kill but mine," Darkstar returned. "So, I'm on the run again."
     "Nope, you're not," Goose said dryly, "because I killed a scumbag who held one of Annie's horse breakers hostage."
     "My foreman," Annie corrected and coughed. "Dawn Morgan."
     "You shouldn't be up," said Dawn said.
     "This is my house. Don't tell me what to do in here." Annie trembled but remained sitting upright. "And I have an idea of what they want – the water." She coughed again. "The land rights are claimed, and if I die it goes first to my brother and then back to the government, but this is the best piece of land in the whole district, because of the water out there."
     "The water's not combined with the land?" Niko asked, surprised.
     "It is. But the rights of use are certified by the owner. I allow my neighbors to use the water for their animals, but I rejected the county's request for industrial water." She sighed. "They'd take too much."
     "And if you die…?"
     "A new owner might not care that much about what they are planning."
     "Do you know any names?" Niko inquired.
     "One. Bovina Incorporated. I heard about them buying land north of mine right before I was shot." She reeled considerably this time and Niko slipped next to her onto the bench and felt her head.
     "Please let me see the wound, Annie," she demanded.
     "In my hou—"
     "Rubbish! It's your house, all right!" Niko snapped. "And if you're dead, it's been your house. So, please, let me examine your wound. Shots need treatment. I assume you haven't seen a doctor."
     Annie shook her head. "No chance to get there."
     "I did my best for her," Darkstar told her, "but I was taught to inflict wounds not to treat them."
     Niko nodded. "Help me to get her next door. – Goose, see those bodies out." She frowned. "And while you're at it, the remnants of the front door as well. Find a replacement for it. It's getting cold in here."
     "Aye, aye, Ma'am." He saluted. Darkstar behind Niko snickered. "On my way."

Niko managed to keep her shock about the look of the wound out of her voice. "Annie, when did that happen?"
     Darkstar answered in her place. "Two weeks ago." She looked away. "She was too weak to place the call herself and I couldn't be more specific without risking discovery."
     "Why didn't one of the cowboys place it?"
     "Nothing cuts back available hands faster than serious trouble," Darkstar said dryly. "There's no one left but me." She straightened. "I have to look after the horses." She left the room almost on a run.
     "She cared for me the last week… last three days non-stop…" Annie whispered. "I doubt she got any sleep herself."
     "She's okay," Niko answered her in a low voice. "She's an ST. They're a tough lot." She gave Annie a weak smile. "I'm more worried about you right now."
     Annie swallowed dryly and begged for water. Niko got her a glass and held her head while drinking. "I was out when they came. I still don't know why Dark didn't defend us."
     Niko sighed. "You told her not to fight, didn't you, Annie?"
     "Yes," she nodded weakly, the water seemed to wake her a little. "She wanted to go after them. I couldn't allow that. She'd be… You know. But why she didn't defend herself…"
     "She's a supertrooper, Annie. She grew up in a military project. Orders were to be followed exactly – literally – not to be interpreted."
     "How do you…?" Annie looked towards the front room. "Shane?"
     Niko nodded. "It was the same with him in the beginning, but I think he had a better start. At least, someone explained him the basics, and he's always been wriggling around definitions to avoid doing things he hated." She sighed. "Darkstar wasn't that lucky."
     "Any suggestions how to deal with that?"
     "Be precise about what you want and why. I know that's not easy with the impatient lot of them, but it's the only way."
     "How do you mean, precise?"
     "Once, I asked Shane if he ate banana salad. He answered with a straight yes." Niko drew a face at the memory. "But he hated the taste of it. Apparently, bananas smell foul very soon for his enhanced senses. Still he ate it for me. I felt awful about it."
     "But why...?"
     "I asked if he ate it, not if he liked it," Niko explained. "He answered what I asked, not what I wanted to know."

"Help me burying Bellestar. We can't have a dead horse lying around much longer." Goose slipped his bandana over his nose and headed towards the stable. "Not only because of the stink."
     "I know. What's with the crooks?"
     "Wrapped and in the icehouse. We'll get them to the authorities as soon as this shit's sorted out."
     Darkstar shook her head and drew a face at the itching sensation of her wounded scalp. "Normals are weird. We bury a fine horse, but keep the assholes that killed her. Does that make any sense to you?"
     "Not really." Goose shrugged. "But it's enough to know that it's done that way. And seriously…" He nodded towards the swollen and fly-covered cadaver. "I'm glad we don't have to drag the big beast in that condition into the cold room."
     "True enough." Darkstar drove the shovel into the ground. After a few digs, she asked, "At the riots… Did you know the world out here's that weird?"
     "I suspected." He shoveled faster. Their hole gained depth quickly.
     "And stayed at what you knew," she concluded.
     "Nope, but running away isn't a solution. Let alone running away with Killbane." He snorted. "And alone... this is a fucking universe, Darkstar. I wasn't stupid enough to think I could conquer it all on my own. So, once running, always running." He growled. "Maybe Ryker was right when saying I'd be no ST, Darkstar." The shovel dug grimly deep into the soil. "But damn Hell, I'm no hare either!"
     "Did you hear anything about the others?"
     He lowered his head briefly. "Not much. Flyboy's in, some of the others as well. Killbane…" For a moment he considered to tell her about his arch enemy's death, then decided against it. Never give ammunition out of hand. And Killbane not-confirmed-dead was too valuable an insurance against the Board. "…I don't know. Morven's smart. She might make it. Chimera, Brainchild, and the rest… are lying low I think. If they're clever for the rest of their lives."
     "Brainchild? Clever?" Darkstar arched an eyebrow at that.
     "Yeah." Goose sighed. "I doubt that myself." Straightening, he measured the hole with his eyes and looked over to the dead mare. "Phew. Now comes the unpleasant part." He tossed the shovel aside. "Triton!"

"Goose." Niko arrived just when they stomped the soil above Bellestar's grave. "We need the med kit from the Explorer. And fast. That wound looks bad. Without antibiotics I'm…" She shook her head. "I can keep her steady for a few hours, but I'm no healer."
     "On my way."
     "I'll come, too." Darkstar wiped her hands on her jeans.
     "No." Goose stopped in his tracks. "You and I are the best fighters we have, Darkstar. I want you to stay here and watch over them in case those f—crooks come back. And you know this place better than I."
     "Aye."

Onboard Ranger Explorer
on landing field Abilene on Ozark.

"Dorskij, is that you?" Goose frowned at the greasy screen. "Damn, man. Switch the enhancer into the line, I get almost no signal from ya." After a moment, the incompetent idiot did what he was told, and the line cleared. "How come you're at the comm, Dorskij?" Goose asked and cursed inwardly at the time he was about to lose – Leonid Dorskij was the living proof that it was possible to pass the academy without gathering any knowledge whatsoever.
     =It's three a.m. What do you think?!= Dorskij barked back. =What do you want?=
     Shit! To get enough skill into Dorskij to find him the information he needed was a divine task, and Goose didn't think he fit that bill. Have to get Dorskij out of the loop. "Get me Doc. If he's asleep tell him I restructure his hardware with a chainsaw if he doesn't pick up the line. Now."
     Dorskij chuckled at the image. =Sorry, Goosey.= – now Doc's hardware was second on Goose's chainsaw-alteration-list – =He's on a diplomatic mission to Tarkon. Shall I relay you?=
     "No!" Goose yelled into the mike. Hell, Leonid Dorskij was stupid enough to try relaying a ship call from Ozark to Tarkon. As if the explorer's engines could provide a quarter of the energy needed for that! Goose's thoughts raced. "Is Ambassador Waldo on Earth or on Andor?"
     =Andor.=
     Phew. Good. "Relay me to him, please. Thanks." Andor was farther away than Tarkon, and in the opposite direction from Earth, but its more sophisticated systems automatically strengthened incoming and relayed calls.
     Waldo's image blurred on screen. "Waldo, please don't ask, but I'm in an explorer on Ozark and need a relay to Doc on Tarkon."
     The dignified Andorian diplomat on the screen blinked. =And why on the now three involved planets don't you call BETA for that?=
     "One name: Dorskij."
     The Andorian sighed. =I see. Connection is on its way.=
     The white haired frame of this face was replaced by an only slightly blurred picture of Doc. =Gooseman? Is that you? What on… Why did you call me out of a diplomatic reception in the King's palace to—?=
     "Stop it. I'm on Ozark. No clue about the time diff to Tarkon, okay?" Goose sobered. "It's serious, Doc. Someone shot Annie. We think it's a company trying to build a factory here. Can you run it through the data bases? Mother company, original owner, what they produce, the risks of the process, and all that shit. Best yesterday."
     =And why don't you call BET—?"
     "DORSKIJ!"
     =Ouch.= Doc's grin on the screen broadened at Goose's fraying nerves. =Do you know the rumor that Donkey's – err… Dorskij's brain was QBall's layout for Buzz's AI? Wait a minute.= He looked back over his shoulder towards what was likely the door of his room. =Can I call you back later?=
     "I have to get the first aid kit to the ranch. You know how tricky hyperspace-ship-to-wrist comm connections are."
     =Yeah.= Doc sighed. =I'll do it right away. Give me fifteen minutes. Maya won't be pleased.= He looked decidedly unhappy, admitting with a broadening smile, =The princess a very strenuous host.=
     Goose chuckled. "Oh yeah. I do know that."

Planet Ozark
Horse Ranch O's Ark

"What took you so long?"
     "Donkey's on duty and Doc's on Tarkon," – Goose threw the first aid kit over to Niko and dismounted – "so I called Waldo on Andor."
     "You wanted Doc on Tarkon and called Waldo on Andor?" Niko raised a brow at that.
     "Yeah." Goose grinned. "Took a bank shot: from behind, through the chest, and into the eye." He activated Triton's far-reaching alarm system and followed her inside. "Got us some interesting data about Bovina." He closed the makeshift house door behind them and stopped dead at the sight of Darkstar. The female ST had cropped her hair short, revealing the black-and-white stripe pattern of her face to continue on the back of her head. "What—?"
     She shrugged. "Looks better than with the hole in it. And there's no danger of being grabbed by it." Niko squeezed herself past her to get with the med kit to Annie. "You should think about that as well," the female ST told her. "Long hair's a hazard in battle."
    "I'm a well-taught telepath, Darkstar. Any direct physical contact enables severe psionic countermeasures. That also goes for the hair."
    "Niko's different from the psis in Wolf Den." Gooseman weighed the rifle in his hand. "Any problems here while I was away?"
     "No. They haven't noticed your arrival so far. What did you find out?"
     "We'll wait for Niko. Is there coffee in the kitchen somewhere?"
     "Sure. Brew yourself."
     "'k." He stopped, frowned. "What's that awful crying?"
     Darkstar froze. "Heavens! Diamond! I forgot him—"
     "Who's Diamond?"
     "Bellestar's foal." She was already at the door. "Annie's pride and joy."
     "Make him stop crying," Goose growled. "He disturbs our surveillance."

Goose had just settled at the kitchen table behind a big, steaming mug of coffee, when Niko came in and wiped her forehead tiredly. "How's Annie?"
     Niko shrugged fatalistically. "If her condition isn't much – much – better tomorrow evening we have to get her to a doctor. No matter what. It would be my suggestion already now. I'm no physician, Goose. I can't be sure. I cleaned the wound, soaked it with antibiotics, and applied a fresh bandage, but if that isn't enough…" She shook her head, looked around. "Where's Darkstar?"
     "Seems Bellestar was a mother. She's looking after the foal."
     "Poor thing." Niko slipped onto the bench and leaned tiredly against the back of it. "What do you think, can we risk bringing Annie to town tomorrow?"
     He shook his head. "I really hope it's not necessary. I'd like to know our enemies first."
    "Then greet this one!" A grey-clad figure was tossed through the kitchen door. "Stupid slimer crept around the stables." A black foal on long staggering legs was shoved into the kitchen after him.
     Niko jumped up. "You aren't serious, are you?!"
     "Of course I'm serious, Ranger." Darkstar slammed the door shut. "The bastard startled poor little Diamond so much, he starts crying when he's left alone now. It's the only way to keep him calm I could think of."
     Goose shrugged and took a gulp from his coffee. "No prob with me."
     Niko shook her head. "Why am I not in the least surprised by that?" she muttered.
     "Let's have a look whom we have here." He crouched down next to the properly tied up bundle of man. "A gag?" he asked Darkstar with a raised brow.
     "Kept yelping. Made the foal nervous."
     "A serious threat," Niko commented.
     "Yeah. Ever tried to get a wriggling colt through a kitchen door?"
     "Then we better let him keep it." Shane smirked, frisking the man's pockets with cold professionalism. "Valentin Trudt…" He flipped the man's wallet open. "Now that's interesting. Seems our unexpected houseguest is the second local district coordinator of Bovina Incorporated." He tossed Niko the wallet.
     She examined it quickly. "Here's a company keycard."
     "DNA coded?"
     "No, passphrase." Niko's eyes lit up. "Does anyone want the numbers?"
     Shane's smile broadened. "Sure. We'll have to visit that facility anyway," – He turned serious – "given what Doc told me, it's a real mess—HEY!" he jumped up when a soft muzzle was nudging his neck. "Stop that!" he ordered the foal that blinked with huge liquid eyes up at him.
     "Small and harmless loves you, Shane." Niko snickered. "Just make sure he doesn't claw into your pants. That's how he got his cat," she told Darkstar. "Or better: how his cat got him."
     "Since when do you believe Poss harmless?"

Goose had cuffed their 'guest' safely to one of the kitchen chairs and returned to the table, just to find out that a nosy foal's muzzle wasn't too big to be squeezed into his coffee mug. Unfortunately, it seemed too big to withdraw afterwards. The result was a frightened foal stampeding through the kitchen, to be chased by two STs and finally caught by the original owner of the dreadful coffee mug.
     "It didn't come to your mind to protect my coffee from being stolen, did it?" Shane asked Niko dryly after they'd calmed the foal again.
     Niko cocked her head. "Not really. Especially, since I was concentrating on the passphrase and not paying attention. But I'll make you a new one."
     "Thanks. Did you get the password?"
     "Yes. 2-15-21-15. That's all."
     "Unimaginative." He snorted. "That's the alphabet numbers for BOVO."
     "You're still quick at decoding." Darkstar pulled an additional chair close.
     "Nope. BOVO's Bovina's mother company, and the rest I found out about them is even worse."
     Niko cursed. "Another branch to breed toxic gengin cattles?"
     "Bovina takes a more direct approach." He had a sip of his coffee. "Why breed cattle that have to be fed till they're grown enough to made steaks, when you can grow the steaks directly?"
     "But lab-grown meat is licensed by DeliCorps. They'd be in violation of—"
     "Different approach. Bovina doesn't grow cells and tissues. They have licenses for biogenic tanks and genetically altered fungi."
     "Genetically altered fungi to produce steaks?" Niko sounded doubtful.
     "Yeah, that's about it." Goose confirmed.
     "But they don't need much land for that, so why aren't they on Earth or somewhere near the crowded areas where the meat prices are exorbitantly high?"
     "According to Doc they wouldn't get permission to grow the stuff there. The fungi are highly toxic. If they are accidentally released into a planet's ecosystem..." Goose shrugged fatalistically. "Good bye, biosphere."
     "And they want to sell meat grown from that stuff?!"
     "They claim it's healthy after being distilled from the fungi."
     "Do you believe that?"
     "No. But the patent officer giving out the license that Doc found obviously did."
     "That's disgusting. And Ozark okayed them to produce that stuff here?" Niko thought aloud. "If not, it would be a sufficient reason to shut the facility down."
     "Doc checked it." Goose snorted. "Their license is valid."
     Niko nodded. "So, we have to prove their harassment of Annie was company business to shut them down."
     Goose shoved the foal's nose away from his refilled mug and stroked it between the nostrils.
     "Then we have to enter their facility." Niko shuddered. "When I think of BEEF and almost being stored in liquid nitrogen..."
     A hard line appeared around Shane's mouth. "Well, I've been told it's supposed to be great fun."
     "Shall we go right now?" Darkstar's eyes glittered coldly. "I'm sick of sitting around waiting for the scumbags to take their next shot!"
     "Not now." Niko shook her head. "We can't risk errors with that stuff nearby and you didn't sleep for thirty-six hours."
     "I'm fi—"
     Goose pushed his emptied mug away into the table's middle to get it out of the foal's reach and straightened. "You're someone with the first opportunity for rest in days. Don't waste it."

2089-05-18
next morning

"Darkstar?" Niko knocked a second time and listened. No reply.
     "Our guest is still bound to stay, though he's a little foal-nibbled by now." Shane grinned, coming out of the kitchen. "And what's up with the woodpecking this early?"
     "Darkstar doesn't answer."
     Goose tore open the door without any preliminaries. "Shit! I should've known." He ran for the door.
     "Shane!" Niko followed. "What's—?"
     "She's gone to Bovina, probably last night." He threw the reins over Triton's neck and mounted the horse. "I'll have to catch her before she blows the shit up."
     "Wait. I'll come, too." She ran to power up Mel.
     "No time." He left the yard by simply jumping Triton over the gate. "Take care of Annie."
     "But—"
     Mel's front plate started to glow.
     "Shane!!"
     =Niko, are we going to ride?= her cyberhorse asked politely.
     But Shane and Triton were already gone. Niko sighed heavily. "No, Mel. It seems we won't." Take care of Annie, he'd said. She turned wearily for the house. "Activate your surveillance, Mel. I don't want any surprises." This day has already way too many of them for my taste!

Planet Ozark
Bovina Incorporated FS1 production facility (nearly finished)

He'd left Triton safely out of scanning distance and approached slowly. He'd been right, she was exactly where he'd settled himself for observing the facility's entrance in detail.
     "Are you done?" he snapped right behind her.
     "Dammit, R—" She caught herself in time. "You should know better than surprising me in field."
     "Know better?" he growled, crouching down next to her. "Remember what I am." His growl intensified. "And what was said yesterday evening."
     Darkstar snorted, returning her attention to the target. "You two were wasting time."
     "We planned ahead," he snapped. "Now get outta here before they detect us."
     "Them detect us?! Please." Darkstar growled. "Do you have the keycard at hand?"
     "We can't risk alerting them. Not without having the equipment to destroy those fungi if necessary."
     "They won't detect us. Goose, I snuck up three times now and nothing but standard, easily avoidable, alarm systems showed up." Darkstar shoved Annie's rifle back onto her back. "Where's your pride, eh? Suppressed by the tin on your chest?"
     "Okay." He ground his teeth at that, scanning the terrain out of narrowed eyes. "Let's have a look at what you found out."
     "Fine—"
     "And Darkstar," he warned her. "When I say it's over, it is over, clear?"
     She nodded, already fixed on their target. "Clear."
     "So where did you sneak up?"
     "Over there." She indicated her path through a narrow creek overhung with dry grass towards the metal fence and they followed it quickly.
     "Fence electrified?"
     "Nope."
     "Cameras or other alarm sensors?"
     "None."
     He narrowed his eyes. "Smells foul. Too sloppy. These sorts of crooks usually spend big on company security."
     "Maybe they aren't done yet. Or they feel safe."
     "Here? With what they plan to do?" He raised an eyebrow at that. "Would you be?"
     "No. But I'm not them. And there was nothing."
     "Nothing you noticed, you mean."
     "Nitpicker."

Goose pulled the card through the slit and entered the hilariously easy four letter code quickly, causing the door to slide back into the wall. He pressed himself against the door frame, indicating soundlessly to Darkstar the timing: three – two – one – inside.
     The sirens screamed while the door was still closing behind them. "F—" He squeezed his hand into the remaining gap, used all his strength to keep it from shutting and locking, and forced the gap wider. "Go. Warn Niko."
     "You can't stay behind—"
     "Go. Niko will find me. Blind the one at the gate. I'll take care of the others. GO!" His eyes darted up and down the corridor while she slid back outside, then the difference between this approach and Darkstar's solo one struck him, and he called after her. "Tell her they detect modern weapons."
     "What—?"
     "Remember and run!"

Planet Ozark
Horse Ranch O's Ark

"He is where?!" Niko leaped up, swearing in a language almost too melodious for it. "He damn well ought to know better than that! – When did that happen?"
     "About forty minutes ago," the female ST panted. "He said they detect modern weapons." Darkstar straightened and added with a cynical grin: "The only modern weapon I had was me. But you better get a replacement for that blaster and rifle of yours."
     Niko ground her teeth. "Does Annie have a spare rifle?"
     "Laser." Darkstar shook her head. "Even out here mechanical rifles are becoming obsolete. Annie keeps hers mostly for sentimental reasons."
     "Phew." The telepath's forehead creased. "Let's hope Shane can stay clear of them for a while. I'll have a keepsake on Ranger-1 that'll do me a favor this time."

Niko, tossing the reins over Mel's neck, threw a look at the female ST who had some hasty swallows of water, then ducked her head quickly into the vat to cool herself. She'd run thirty miles. "Are you fit to go on right now?" she asked.
     "Ranger! I'm an ST." The she-trooper, shaking the water off her short hair, growled. "You wouldn't ask him about his condition after that few miles either!" She bridled a spotted mare that looked as if she could run. "So, stop offending me!"
     "You are wrong about that." Niko corrected. "I'd have asked him as well."
     "Do you believe him weak?" Darkstar patted the horse's back and swung the saddle onto it.
     "No. I believe him worth caring about."
     "It's more a case of 'care for', isn't it?" Darkstar fastened the saddle straps and mounted.
     Niko swung herself onto her cybersteed's back. "It's both. I won't deny that."

Planet Ozark
Bovina Incorporated FS1 production facility (nearly finished)

The ventilation seal in the ceiling opened without as much as a creaking of the plastic frame and Gooseman jumped down the two-and-a-half meters, landing smoothly and soundlessly in what was likely the computer control room. A broad front of windows looked down into a huge hall filled with giant clear-steel tanks connected with thick, hoarfrosted silvery tubes and filled with a slimy-looking yellow-grey-green bubbling mass. The fungi. And the control comps were already active. He spotted a separated terminal showing an AI in screensaver mode. Great, whenever Doc would be of some use… But maybe… It's worth a try.
     "Maintenance technician 38. I have to make sure that you—"
     =No access to my data. Give me your identification and your clearance before I can allow you to access my data.=
     "Hell, I don't want your data. One of the big asses ran off yesterday and might have scattered some stealth viruses in here to harm the company."
     =No access to my data. And who ran off?=
     "That schmock Valentin Trudt." Goose snorted. "Check the personnel register. He's still listed."
     =Enter his ID code, and I consider your request.=
     "2-15-27-15. – Just list the files on screen he accessed. I'll know if the virus is among them."
     =Yes.=
     An endless row of file names trickled over the screen. Praise to Negata for the SEM, he thought cynically. And that it's fucked up enough for me to use it on my own and— 'OzarkOp.dat'. Hey, it really wor— Suddenly, he felt the vibration of approaching guards on the floor and ground his teeth. Damn. They definitely had a way of tracking him, otherwise the detour through the ventilation system would have thrown them off. But how?
     The energy cells of his blasters were stuffed into his pocket, the blasters themselves in the holsters. So, what on this rotten dirt ball—?
     The implant. It was active as long as his skin had contact with the badge, directly or through the shirt adaptor. And his abilities could penetrate the clothes…
     Involuntarily, he bared his fangs. But he knew better than to risk a fire fight within this place. He unfastened the badge from his shirt, scanned the room quickly, then chose a console at random.
     With a worried look across the room, committing its layout to memory, he headed quickly for the door, hoping desperately that the psionic synchronization they hadn't ended consciously so far was still working, hoping that Niko would try to touch him first before trying to enter the building.

Onboard Ranger Explorer
on landing field Abilene on Ozark.

"Do you always keep antiques aboard your ships?"
     "Archaeology's my hobby." Niko strapped the Winchester onto her back. "But this was the gift of a… friend." If that was a correct description of 'the real Louise', that was. "And it definitely includes no electronics!"
     The female ST's eyes narrowed. "But can you use it?"
     "It saved my life two years ago." Niko returned, "And now you offend me."
     "I just want to know if I can rely upon you in battle."

Planet Ozark
Bovina Incorporated FS1 production facility (nearly finished)

He stopped in his tracks at the soft tickling behind his eyes. Niko?
     ...I'm here... An image of her sight appeared in his mind, including the now brightly lit factory and Darkstar. ...What happened?...
     He forced his thoughts in order, forced himself to think of one detail after another, finished with where to find his badge and the AI terminal there. Be careful, he added.
     ...I will. Where are you now?...
     Read my eyes. He scanned the hall swiftly, then rested his look onto a tank filled with a bubbling, boiling grey-green mass. This place's active. And computer contr—

The shock of the abruptly cut thought reverberated in Niko's mental perception. She grasped mentally for the link to touch, to check on him, caught a blurred since unconcentrated eyesight…
     …and froze at the abruptly cut transmission.
     "He's in trouble..." she whispered. "He's near the bio tanks and they'll catch him."
     Darkstar pulled her to her feet and snorted. "Stop forgetting what he is, Ranger." She tried to ease the rough reprimand with a grin. "Nobody in there's a match for him. Not even if they're operating in packs and he's tied up."
     Niko looked anxiously towards the concrete building, praying that his combat reflexes had cut the unnecessary link and not— "But he can't risk a fight. The fungi are already growing. Those crooks might take the risk of shooting in there when they're threatened. He's taken an oath to protect, Dark. He wouldn't put a whole planet on the edge of something like that."
     "Then we better hurry. You know where to go?"
     "Yes.  Can you get us past the guards? They track the badges."
     "Are the artificials no match for the real stuff this time?"
     "We'll see." Niko ground her teeth. "I can shield my active badge from detection, but I can't shield us safely in addition."

"Stop." The cold, amused voice cut in before any of the armed guards reached Gooseman's range of strike. "I recognize him. All of you together would be only a moment of entertainment for this brave ranger here." Goose attempted to move and froze to the spot. "But this does present a problem to you, doesn't it, my very attractive friend?" A matte black APG pointed unwaveringly towards the tube feeding the fungi tanks next to him.
     Shane ground his teeth in helpless frustration. "I'm no friend of arses like you," he growled with bared fangs.
     "Ooooh, how impressive," the other one beamed. "Do you use them on your bedmates, too?" Over his shoulder: "Myers! Prepare my space yacht for take-off. People like the blonde athlete here don't work without consorts to my endless regrets."
     "You—!"
     "Stop!" The APG dodged a little more towards the tube. "In case you believe you'd be able to catch the bullet with your oh-so-nice, all-repairs-inclusive body, be told that unfortunately, this little babe is set to scatter-fire, so…" A suggestive eyebrow was raised.
     Out of the corner of his eye, Goose noticed most – no, make that all, of the guards beginning to edge towards the next marked exits. So, this madman employed not completely brainless people. If only he were able to warn Niko of the changed situation, but he couldn't risk destabilizing his nucleotides in here. If he failed to control them during the psi-messaging, he might poke some holes into the damned tanks himself–

"His badge." Niko nodded at the console with the golden emblem lying tucked under the keyboard. "Exactly where his image told me it was." She stuffed the star into her shirt pocket. "We better hurry, Darkstar."
     "No arguments from me."
     The next corridors Niko was busy keeping up with the other woman. "This way," she breathed heavily. "He's right around—" She stopped dead and stared ahead, stunned. In front of an emergency exit, between two huge, silvery tubes stood Goose facing them with outstretched arms, apparently hale and well. So why…
     =Welcome, Ranger.= A voice oozing irony echoed through the vast industrial hall with the gigantic fungi breeding tanks. =As you see your colleague's already waiting for you. In case you plan to arrest me, which undoubtedly will require some shooting, you might want to consider that the cylinders around here are the main feeding tubes for the cryogenic cooling liquid. Any perforation will cause a very powerful explosive decompression with a following heating of the tanks contents.
     =I'm sure you know by now that wouldn't do much good to this sad planet's current ecosystem. In addition, the about-five-degrees-above-absolute zero temperature won't do much good to our highly-decorated war hero here, either,will it? By the way: I feel honored to be thwarted by such important people. So, I am very confident that you will refrain from shooting at me with those ridiculous-looking museum artifacts you log around as long as these precious tubes might be punctured during the process.
     =Which by the way is also the reason your proud and powerful colleague is currently so tame and well-behaved. Oh, did I mention that I am directing an APG set to scatter fire towards his head? No? How negligent of me.=
     Again cackling laughter screamed through the hall.
     =So, I will now slowly retreat towards the exit and once the door's safely closed behind me and my APG you of course will try to catch and arrest me. So… bon chance, ma bonne Ranger. It's a pleasure to have a deal with y—=
     The shot fired right next to her deafened Niko. "No—" she yelled, expecting to see white freezing liquid helium spreading out of the tubes, expecting to see bullets and clouds of thawing fungi evaporating in the hall. To her deaf ears Shane screamed soundlessly and collapsed forward, blood gushing over his body, his arms crossed over his ruptured abdomen.
     Niko gasped and leaped for him, pressed the badge against his chest, tried to ignore the rapidly growing puddle of nearly black blood as she knelt by his side. She almost collapsed in relief when the golden light cocoon of his bio defenses flashed up around him.
     Casual footsteps on the concrete behind her approached. Annie's rifle carelessly over her arm, Darkstar looked down at her, Niko stared in pure horror at the female ST who appeared so satisfied about her deeds. "How could you—!"
     Narrowed opalescent eyes met blue-green ones. "Stay calm. He's a BDC. He can handle it."
     Hatred shimmered in otherwise bluish eyes. "You always seem to shoot at your men."
     With a strange look on her striped face, Darkstar looked down on her. "He was never my man. There was a time he might have been, but we both decided differently." After a moment, the female ST added faintly. "Likely to the better for him." A strange glitter of amusement sparkled up in the opaline eyes. "How do you feel, Runt?"
     "Like someone killed a crook by shooting through my liver," Goose answered dryly while he scrambled to his feet. "Thanks for reminding me why I hated the place."
     "You're welcome," Darkstar went to the fallen factory boss. The tip of her boot connected with his ribs. "I'm no Ranger, scumbag," she told him. "You didn't have a deal with me!"

Shane had come to his feet, leaned against the cryogen feed tube, and fought against his trembling. Niko touched his cheek, had to convince herself about his condition. …Are you okay?… her thoughts asked, knowing he wouldn't admit weakness out loud.
     Need sleep soon. And water.
     …What's wrong?…
    High blood loss.
     She caught the impression that there was something more. …Aside from that?…
     Any reason not to feed that arse to his fungi?
     The vibrant laughter inside her was dampened by the sensation of his physical shivering.

Planet Ozark
Horse Ranch O's Ark

The door opened soundlessly, admitting Darkstar into the room dimmed by a triple layer of blankets in front of the window. She knew the blue-silver cybersteed was just outside of it. Her emotionless eyes scanned the room. Trained hearing caught the revealingly slow breathing rhythm of the otherwise motionless frame on the bed.
     "What do you want here?" There was a touch of distrust in the other woman's eyes. Her shooting at him was not forgotten. Likely it never would be. Still, the frame under the covers stirred. Darkstar raised an eyebrow, aware he'd see even in the darkness. "Still in bed, dope?"
     "Rrhmpf. Could you two possibly stop shout'n 'nto my ears?" he grumbled.
     "Maybe," Darkstar grinned. Another kill-look from Niko penetrated her sternum, sobering her a little. She'd come to respect the other one's abilities quite a while ago. "That ass called you a war hero," she said instead. "Was that the truth?"
     "Psychocrypt campaign." Niko answered in his place.
     "How could they know?"
     "He was honored. The Nova Star attracts a lot of attention."
     "In gold?!" Darkstar asked in disbelief and started to snicker almost maniacally at Niko's confirming nod. "Of all troopers the one who hated it from the beginning is the only one who became what we were meant to be…" she shook her head. "Nobody say the universe can't make good jokes! Goose, how come—?"
     "Warden-shit," grumbled the hidden figure on the bed half asleep. "We were designed as cannon fodder, nothing else. And that's what we've always been."
     "Are you—?"
     "Leave it." Niko snapped. "He's off again. And for the last time, why are you here?"
     "I have to repay a debt."
     "You've done enough."
     "Listen! Nobody else will tell you. He wouldn't. The others like us won't bother. No one else knows – But where we grew up, trust kills. Still he begged you – not me, you! – to guard a sleep that he knew would be too deep for him to notice approaching danger – like me – in time. Think about it!"
    For a moment, Niko thought, Darkstar would slam the door behind her, but it was closed silently.

2089-05-19
Planet Ozark

The fighter fell vertically from the sky before settling gently on the ground next to the farm house. Their relief had arrived finally, but… Niko frowned. Zach wouldn't land that way, and Doc… she doubted his piloting skills were good enough for that. Goose could do that, but he was in the house she'd just left. So, who…?
     The cockpit opened and the pilot pulled off his helmet. Niko stopped in her tracks. "S—sir." She saluted belatedly.
     "You seem surprised, Ranger. Didn't you know that my license's still valid?" The commander climbed down. "Where is he?"
     "Inside, but—"
     "No buts, Niko." Walsh, the helmet tugged under his arm, walked briskly towards the house. "There's a four-year-old question still open. And this time I will get the answer!"

"You look horrible, boy," Walsh said dryly at the sight of the ST slouching on the kitchen bench.
     "Good, then I look how I feel."
     "Details."
     "Water loss, sir." Gooseman shrugged. "I'll be okay soon. Why are you here?"
     "Did you believe I'd buy for one second long that Niko would shoot through you?" Walsh's expression hardened. "I want to know—"
     "Stop!!" a feminine voice yelled. Small dark hooves screeched over the wooden floor as the black foal came to a skittering halt, looking seemingly astonished at an equally surprised commander. "Diamond, you four-legged spawn of Hell, I'll—" Darkstar froze, her eyes widened with fear.
     "Thank you, Gooseman." Walsh's eyes glittered strangely. "My question is answered." The foal bumped its head against his belly. Thoughtlessly, Walsh tousled the colt's scruffy shock. "Friendly sort, isn't it?" he said to Goose, then nodded briskly at Darkstar. "Ms… Dawn, I assume."
     "Y—"
     "Dark, what on Ozark is Diamond doing in the kitchen?!" An angry woman, wearing one arm in a sling said behind them. "I'm sick a few days and everything turns upside down! Do you want me to cook in the corral?"
     "He cries when he's left alone, Annie. And we had to have a close surveillance—" Did he see right or did Darkstar look rather sheepish? Walsh wasn't sure.
     "He's a horse, dammit!" Annie shook her head. "Foals learn fast. If he gets used to the kitchen… what shall we do when he grows?"
     "Extend the house." Goose suggested.
     "And you housetrain him, right?" Annie snorted. "Bring him outside, bring him back into his stable."
     "You're right." Scratching the thick shock of the foal, Darkstar began coaxing the colt out of the kitchen. She threw an uneasy look at Walsh. "Sir?"
     He simply nodded, waiting for the kitchen door to close behind her and the foal before he turned to his son. "So, now I want to know what happened, Gooseman. The truth, please!"

"Clear shot, sir. Straight through my liver." Goose leaned – seemingly comfortable – on the broad bench in Annie's kitchen.
     For this once, the commander refused to remind him not to pull one leg up on the seat and rest his chin on the knee. He'd noticed that the hand holding the mug with cold water was still less steady than usual, though the boy did a very fine job in hiding his trembling. A huge carafe of water stood nearby.
     After the next sip: "Fine job. No bones involved. Chest shot on the target."
     "Then how come you are in a condition like this?"
     Shane had a deep breath, moved the next mouthful of water around his teeth before he swallowed. "Niko had the badge. She was about thirty meters away and not warned. A fist-sized hole in the liver bleeds a lot."
     "How much did you lose?"
     Another sip. "About five liters. I didn't want to take the risk of hiding that until we returned, sir."
     "Wise." Walsh nodded.
     "Sir." The ST swirled the rest of water in his mug. "We should do something about the badges being trackable." He downed the remaining content. "It made this job damned uncomfortable, and could become a serious hazard next time."
     "What will happen now, sir?" Niko took a seat on the second chair.
     "A unit from the hazmat takes care of the fungi and some of QBall's assistants are already skimming the factory for their detection system. I expect them to come up with updates for the badges soon. By the way: the data found in the comp you mentioned are sufficient for a charge of civilian harassment."
     Niko made a face. "That's nothing but a minor fine for Bovina."
     "It's the only crime the company committed on Ozark. The actions of the factory boss are considered as those of an individual. And since he's dead..." Walsh shrugged.
     "So, they can go on as if nothing's happened," Niko was frustrated.
     "Ozark's government has taken the incident as a reason to have a very close look into their licenses and company businesses." Walsh reached for his helmet and prepared to leave. "Right now, they're stopped."
     "Until the next planet out here is needs money badly enough to license them."

"What happened? Where's—?" Darkstar had given up convincing Diamond to settle in his stable. The foal followed her into the kitchen.
     "I said Diamond has to stay in the stable," Annie welcomed them.
     "He's flown home." Niko told the Darkstar, scratching the foal casually.
     "He doesn't obey. What do you want me to do? Tack him to the wall?" Darkstar caught herself. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean—You mean I'm not gonna be—?" The female trooper gaped.
     "No," Annie cut in. "You're not gonna anything until you house-train this horse!" She threw an accusing glance at something that would do much better on a strawberry bed than on the kitchen floor.
     Darkstar stared at Niko. "But can I trust him?"
     "You better hope so," Annie said dryly, holding out a hand brush to her. "Otherwise you got yourself a lot of additional work here."
     Niko, realizing how the two intertwined discussion threads must sound, laughed faintly. "I have to return the rifle," she said after a moment. "Can you—?"
     "I'll look after them." Darkstar made a face, taking the hand brush and looking for a dustpan. "Though I remember him at least as stubborn as this foal. So, no guarantees, Ranger."
     "I'll be back as soon as possible. I'm sure he'll make less work than Diamond." Niko's grin returned. "I assure you he's housetrained already."
     "Charming as ever," Goose, on the bench, grumbled into his mug.

"So, your colleague's gone for a while," Darkstar pulled a chair close and sat down, astride, after she'd cleaned the foal droppings and had convinced Annie that it was not a good idea to overwork her barely healed shoulder on the first day. "Yesterday, you said something I can't get out of my mind."
     He looked up. "Hm?" He blinked. "What?"
     "That we were meant as cannon fodder."
     A moment of silence. Then: "I was ready to drop, Darkstar. I didn't mean what I said."
     She snorted. "Yeah, you were too dead tired not to mean what you said. So?!"
     "Forget it."
     "No way, Goose. Stop playing a darn martyr. Answer me!"
     He sighed. "Look at yourself. Does an officer need to do what you can do?"
     She shrugged. "Possibly. It can be useful."
     "Wrong example. Take my abilities. Where on a battle field do you need those? Safely in the command post or at the front line?" His mouth twitched cynically. "You know the answer, Dark. And now tell me: which general is ever seen there?" He caught himself. "We were meant for a war that didn't happen, that doesn't mean we have to yearn to get one. I for myself am definitely not dead keen to engineer one for that purpose!"
     "You did know that already back then, didn't you?"
     He nodded wearily. "It was too obvious after I began thinking about it."
     She closed her eyes briefly. "I should have known Walsh would come here," she said finally into the lasting silence.
     He blinked, surprised. "How…?"
     "You got wounded, Goose." Now it was her mouth that twitched. "Everybody knew that a combat scenario ended soon once you got scratched."
     "Nonsense." He blew into the water in his mug, then drunk.
     "No. True."
     "Then why wasn't I wounded more often?" he snorted.
     She laughed out loud. "Because scratching you's not too easily done. Maybe you're the Runt, Shane. But even Killbane thought twice before attacking you after you took his eye."
     "You mean, he tried to think once," Gooseman grunted.
     "I told you you're a nitpicker."

END