06:27 Apt. 219
Warm water rushed in soft streams across her already tingling skin. Niko stretched comfortably under her shower and then shut it down. Still relaxed, she enjoyed the feeling of the last water droplets dripping down her body. Tiny metal feet clicked on the tiled bathroom floor behind her. Her service droid must have began its work. Already 06:45? She reached for her big bath towel and noticed that it was wet. Seems I enjoyed my morning shower too much today. The stabbing pain in her ankle made her cry out.
Pain rushed through her leg. Blood flowed along with the last water down the drain. The cleaning droid raised another of its eight spidery legs to stab her again. The wet bath towel slammed it to the side. Niko leaped out of the shower cabin and ran for her badge, leaving a track of bloody left foot prints behind. The clicking of rearranged metal droid legs closed in again.
She grabbed her badge from the board next to her bed and a pulse of her psionic powers left only a smoking heap of crumpled metal on her shimmering green bedside rug. She dropped herself onto the bed, panting. Lucky that I only own one of those things! She collected herself, examined her bleeding ankle and limped back into the bathroom to get an emergency dressing for her way to MedoStat.
06:31 Apt. 206
Captain Zachary Fox stared with knitted brows at the remnants of his service droid, which lay scattered all across the kitchen floor. The thing tried to assault me! His eyes wandered across the two gaps in the artificial skin of his bionic arm.
After a glance at the wall chrono he got his jacket and headed for the door. It would take quite a while to replace the damaged skin and QBall wouldn't be too pleased to be called that early. "I've got a lot of cleaning to do this evening," he grumbled, leaving the apartment.
09:08 GRS5 Office
"Sorry I'm late, Zach –" Niko stopped in the door and looked, astonished, into the empty office.
"I am, too," came Zachary's answer from behind. "Good morning."
"Thanks. Ditto." She made a limping step into the office and noticed that he carried his jacket in his hand. One of his shirt sleeves was rolled up. "What's with your arm?"
He shook his head and threw his jacket on the back of his chair. "You won't believe me, Niko, but my household droid–"
"–attacked you," she finished the sentence.
He nodded. "During breakfast. I got two cuts in the artificial skin before I could smash it."
"The same with me." She headed for her desk. "But I wasn't that lucky."
"You're wounded." Fox saw that she favored her left foot.
"Mine caught me in the shower. It stabbed my ankle before I got my badge and shattered it." She took a seat on the edge of her desk and let the wounded leg dangle relaxed. "That's why I'm late. MedoStat was really crowded."
"Serious?" He nodded towards her leg.
"No. I'm fit for duty."
"Captain!!" Doc hurried into the room, heavily breathing. "Please excuse my late appearance but this morning was complete chaos!" He dropped himself onto his chair and shook his head while he powered his working console up. "It's a miracle that I'm already here and not stuck somewhere in between breakfast and bath!"
Fox looked frowning at the hacker. "What happened exactly, Doc?"
"My household AI shut down all my droids." Hartford snorted. "The stupid thing told me something about a suddenly activated execution prog. I had to do everything by hand! Everything!"
Niko got up from her desk and limped toward him. "It likely saved your backside, Doc. Zachary and I weren't that lucky."
Doc got half up from his seat, noticing for the first time Niko's limping and the patch of new artificial skin on Zachary's bionic arm. "You mean you actually were attacked by your droids?" he asked disbelievingly.
"Yes, Doc," Zachary confirmed, "we were. And it doesn't bear thinking about what would have happened if my kids had been at home instead of being on a class tour to Kirwin." At least some good came from that toy invasion. They are on that tour because of the extended repairs their school needed.
"But household droids... those things include hardware versions of Asimov's robot laws because of the permanent closeness to people." Doc swivelled his chair away from his desk and looked at his two teammates. "And I own Dormins."
"Just like me. The thing that decorates my kitchen at the moment was also from Dormin."
"Strange. What if other people's droids have malfunctions like that, too, and—"
"Where's Goose?" Niko, forgetting her injured leg, jumped suddenly up. "He had early shift today."
Zachary got up, too. "He should have been here for two hours already, then."
"What if one of his droids has gone mad, too?"
"Don't worry, Niko." Doc reminded her. "He's a Supertrooper. He'd slam the thing through the next wall and that's it."
She ran. "Not if he was caught sleeping."
09:23 Apt. 217
They hit the doorbell twice before Niko noticed that it obviously wasn't working. "Doc. Can you get us in there?"
"Sure, milady. No problem." He activated his CDU. "Tripwire. It's a standard door system. Enter and open."
=On another nighty hunt, Doccie-Poo?= panted the program sparkle. =Are you going to be a big bad–=
"Shut up and do your job!" He turned with a broad apologetic smile towards his colleague. "Please remind me to never again watch old fashioned movies with the CDU turned on." The sparkle reappeared and jumped into its home. "Et voila!" The door slid open.
The first thing they saw was a shattered and half molten metal thing near the entrance on the floor and blaster marks where the door bell should have been. The second was Gooseman, who shot lightning-fast off his bed, blaster at the ready until he recognized that the possible threats were his teammates and not alien intruders, and lowered his weapon.
"Are you okay?" Niko asked, worried.
"Sure. Why I shouldn't be–?"
Fox cut in. "You should be already on duty, Ranger. What do you have to say in your defense?"
The ST looked around till he spotted the molten metal heap on the floor. "Shit. The fourth alarm clock this month!"
"You shot your alarm clock and didn't wake up doing it?" the captain asked with raised brows.
"If the first shot hits, yes."
"You sleep with your blasters?" Doc asked with a grin, "my Gooseman, that's–"
"Old habits die slowly." Goose's warning growl cut the hacker's comment. He put his blaster back into the holster hanging at the bedpost. "And what do you all want here? I overslept before and none of you stormed my quarters."
"We thought you may've been at–" Niko stopped, noticing for the first time that Goose was wearing nothing but black tight fitting briefs, and turned away with flaming cheeks.
Shane didn't seem to notice. "You thought what?" He looked questioningly over to Zachary when Niko refused to say anything further.
The Captain shook his head. "Get dressed first. We'll explain at the office."
"And for male fairness." Doc put on a fake grim look. "We'll talk about uniform regulations, Gooseman."
After a moment Zachary explained with a sigh, "They insist on shorts."
"Are you going to control that, Sir?" Goose asked dryly.
09:58 Cmdr. Walsh's Office
"Captain Fox. I summoned you and your team thirty minutes ago. Why are you that late?!"
"Ranger Gooseman wasn't prepared in time, Sir."
"Why?" Walsh snapped.
"The captain ordered me to change all my clothes, Sir." Goose answered. Niko next to him fought with a sudden coughing fit.
After a short glance with brows threateningly drawn together, the commander decided to leave it at that. "You may have already noticed: household droids, even the most expensive ones, started going mad this morning. We received several emergency calls from base personnel and the situation in and around Phoenix is the same."
"Then that's why MedoStat was so crowded this morning," Niko said. "My droid cut my ankle before I destroyed it," she explained shortly. "A lot of people must have been hurt by these machines."
"I fear it's worse, Ranger Niko. I got a call for assistance by Phoenix' chief of police. Some people got killed." Walsh stood up behind his desk and, leaning forward, propped his hands on the plate. "I decided to grant the requested assistance. Captain Fox, you and your team of Galaxy Rangers are going to investigate in the case of mad droids. Do whatever you have to to eliminate the threat for the population."
"Aye, Sir." The situation must be really bad. He gave us a carte blanche for a job on Earth!
"And Gooseman." The commander turned to the ST directly. "This is Earth. Don't you dare run around without your papers again. I do not want to have to get you out of jail for driving without a licence again. Clear?!"
"Clear, Sir." Goose saluted. "Captain, can we make a short detour to my quarters on our way out?"
10:34 PPD 1
"Lt. Nanata Clint?"
"Who wants to know?" came the brusque answer. The black haired woman didn't look up from her terminal screen.
"I'm Captain Zachary Fox. We are Galaxy Rangers. BETA ordered us to investigate the incidents with aggressive droids in and around Phoenix. We were told to contact you."
"Hi," Lt. Clint still concentrated on her monitor, entering requests. "Look, Captain Whoever-You-Are–"
"Zachary Fox, Ma'am. We need to see at least the places where people got killed."
"Okay, Zachary Fox, then. Me and my partner are stuffed with enough work for half a year. All of it to be done yesterday. Those droid cases include over 2,000 crime scenes. We're trying to find a pattern in the attacks. We don't have time to hold hands and go sightseeing with ya!"
"Ma'am. We are ordered by our commanding officer and the chief of police to–"
"Martyn!" Nanata shouted across the crowded room causing a couple of heads to turn for her. "Martyn! Where are the holos from scene #2542? I made them myself and they aren't in the comp!"
A tall but skinny man with styrofoam mugs in his hands and a big brown folder under his arm squeezed himself through the overcrowded room, hurrying towards them. "Here." He panted. "I couldn't enter them. The holo-system crashed again. Conway said the tech comes tomorrow. Maybe."
"Wonderful." Lt. Clint threw a sarcastic look at the ceiling. "Big Manitou obviously believes us undersupplied with work."
The man called Martyn shoved himself past Niko and Doc and nearly lost one of his coffee mugs as Gooseman growled at him when he came too close to the telepath. "Who are those people, eh?"
"Prima donnas from BETA. Sent to save us!"
"Hello," Martyn looked up and gave a weak smile, "please excuse my colleague. It's almost her third shift now." He pushed a heap of files and single transparencies aside to put down the mugs then handed his folder to his partner. "I'm Martyn East–"
A door on the far side of the hall slammed open and a shout thundered through the room. "CLINT! EASTWOOD! IN HERE, IMMEDIATELY!!!"
"Aye, Chihuahua," Nanata sighed. "Let's go, Martyn. The boss barked."
"I bet we'll be ordered to help them."
The S5's watched them making their way through the crowded hall. "It's always great fun to work with local authorities," Doc said calmly.
"Lt. Clint is very dedicated to her job," Niko said, "I felt a strong impulse of frustration about their helplessness towards that droid problem. For her, we have to prove that we are useful to solve that problem. Then we'll have all the support she can offer."
"That's my thought, Niko." Zach nodded. "Doc, have a look at that holo input sys. Get it working, if possible."
"Will do, mon capitaine." He took Lt. Clint's seat. "Huh, a password request. Sweet..." He rubbed his hands and activated his CDU. "Pathfinder. I..."
"Hey! What do you think you're doing?! Take your hands of my comp or I'll shoot some holes into them!"
"Madam." Doc turned round on the swivel chair with his hands in plain sight. "What I'm doing is hacking. What I'm thinking is that your holo system is back online now." He got up and offered her a seat.
Lt. Clint frowned and checked it. Then a broad smile lightened up her face. "Guess I owe you a big apology. All of you. Sorry. You are somewhat useful." She pushed her black hair back and turned away from her desk. "Let's start again, okay? I'm Lt. Nanata Clint and that's my partner," she made a gesture toward the skinny man at the next desk, "Martyn Eastwood. And your people, Captain Fox, are?"
Doc's playboy smile shone as he introduced himself: "Walter 'Doc' Hartford, computer psychologist and genius, at your service for hacking and fencing, Ma'am." He managed a short bow before Goose pushed him in the back.
Zach, ignoring it, continued. "Rangers Niko and Gooseman."
The police woman nodded at Niko, then scrutinized Gooseman. "Old enough to drive, boy?" she asked.
"Old enough to shoot," came the dry reply.
That's a group. Nanata thought by herself, Hartford entered our compsys as if it's a public cafe, that woman is somewhat strange and the big blond looks like he should still get milk and cookies instead of coffee and donuts. Nice! She suppressed a sigh and turned to their commanding officer, who seemed to be about her age. "Captain. What are your orders and how can we help?"
"We are ordered to assist you in any possible way and to do our own investigations with the aim to eliminate the problem because our authority reaches farther than yours. – First, we'd like to see some of the scenes. Fatal ones, if possible, since it looks like those droids are programmed to kill."
The lieutenant took her jacket. "Martyn, can you finish the holo input?"
"Sure," Eastwood shoved his coffee mug across the desk and squeezed himself past Goose to get a seat at his console. A deep furious growl with a clearly audible snap of teeth let him jump backwards. "Whoa." Martyn held his hands raised in plain sight. "You got Mattel's beast warrior set as a child, don't you?" The ST just stared at the police man with glistening eyes.
"Mattel's a popular toy company, Goose," Zachary explained hastily. "It's no offense."
"No Mattel's?" Martyn Eastwood seemed astonished, "What did you play with as a child?"
"AK-1011-bayonet-LG." Shane strode for the elevator. Needless to say, he didn't have to shove through the crowded room: a free path appeared mysteriously in front of him. Niko smiled and followed in his tracks.
Eastwood's mouth popped open then he laughed uncertainly. "Your man has a weird sense of humor, Captain. Where did he get it from?"
"It's better not to ask, detective." Zachary said grimly and, too, turned for the lift.
Martyn shrugged, took his seat and entered his password. "Anything else?" he called after his leaving colleague.
"Continue the cross-check of what brands of droids are involved." She called back.
He nodded affirmatively. "Okay, Nan. I'll do my best."
"Doc." Zach held the lift door open and sent Doc back. "Help Lt. Eastwood with his research. Use your programs for it and contact us as soon as you find something."
"May I use your terminal, Ma'am?"
"Pfff. You'll do it even if I say no. Right?"
Doc flashed a toothpaste smile at the already closed lift door. "Believe me, it's just because I'm commanded to do so."
10:55 Crime Scene #2007
The door was closed with a great cross of yellow plastic tape – as far as Zachary knew such tape had been in use for more than a hundred years now to mark an area as restricted by police – but the computer pad attached above the access key panel was quite modern: an AI's blurring eyeball bopped on the tiny LED screen. =Palm press identification.= it demanded. Lt. Clint pressed her hand on the sensor field below it and told her name and rank. =Identity confirmed: Nanata Clint, Police Lieutenant, First Precinct.= The AI chirped. =Access granted.= The door slid open.
"It's unlikely that you'll find additional information. Our people have scanned the place almost down to the molecular level," Nanata said and stepped aside to let the three Rangers in.
"We search in other ways, Lieutenant." Niko said faintly. The first impressions of violence throbbed against her shields and she put her hand to her temple in an involuntary gesture of defense.
The police woman shrugged. "As you say. The victims were over there. In the bedroom."
They followed her. Some bright orange colored tape lines marked the position of the corpses on the bed. "Do you have holos of the scene?" Zachary asked while Gooseman squeezed past him and started to examine the scene.
"Sure." Lt. Clint pulled out her complink and entered a short request. "It'll take a while. The precinct comps are pretty overloaded after all the trouble these devroids caused."
"Devroids?" Niko asked.
"Combination of devil and droid," Nanata shrugged. "Our boss has a foible for word creations."
Goose straightened beside the bed. "Captain. It looks as if the left victim was caught sleeping and died immediately, but the right was awake for a while." Zachary left Lt. Clint and came over to him. The ST pointed at some splattered blood droplets. "From the pattern of the blood trails it looks like those things assaulted the second one first at feet or legs and then climbed up along the body toward abdomen and throat."
"How many droids were involved?"
"Hard to say, Captain." The ST shrugged. "From the trails and the smeared prints on the quilt I'd say three, maybe four."
"Wow. Forensic Squad told us the same. But they needed two hours for it." Lt. Clint joined them. "The droids got completely shattered as we entered the house. Our precinct's techno wizard is still working on the way they were linked for the attack."
Gooseman shook his head, almost amused. "Not linked. Damn inefficient tactics. They weren't coordinated, otherwise the second victim wouldn't have had that much time to splatter blood."
"Zachary," Niko said, very composed, "this is going to be quite difficult. If everybody would give me some room, please." She reached for her badge, fingers slightly trembling.
"Captain, I'm not sure she should use her powers in here," Gooseman said in a low voice without letting Niko out of his sight, "it could be too rough."
"I agree. But it's her decision."
she started awake. Deadly spiders swarmed over her, coming from her husband's body lying in his blood next to her, climbed up her legs, stabbing her through thighs and abdomen. She cringed, twisting in agony. Tearing her mind free of the dying woman's self she scanned the spiders, sensed for the foreign mind that had to be there, that she had to touch, to pull her self out of the death emanations. But nothing was there. Death dragged her, showed sharp spider legs stabbing for her covered with their owners' entrails...
"Hey, what's going on here?" Lt. Nanata Clint demanded to know.
Zachary started to explain. "Psionic read–"
Niko stiffened and nearly collapsed. Goose caught her before she could fall. She propped an arm against his chest, shivering violently, "Are you okay?" he asked, worried.
"Almost," she panted, eyes still wide and unfocused, mentally grasping for the feeling of vitality inside him. "Zach, no other people than the victims were involved in this."
"You mean only them and the droids?" Zachary frowned. "I'd expected at least someone who'd programmed the things."
She shook her head and straightened, slowly leaving the support Gooseman offered. "No, nobody touched them but the owners and the workers in the factory that built them."
"Guess we can safely assume that the owners didn't program their own death," Goose said dryly. "That leaves the workers still in question."
"Or more generally, the company," Lt. Clint threw in. "I don't get how you got the information we're talking about, but that's my two cents worth."
"Exactly, Lieutenant," Zachary said. "Are your holos already downloaded?"
She had a glance at her pad. "Yes, they're here. But they won't show anything you haven't already found out." Her wristcom beeped. "'scuse me. – Jefferson Plaza Hightower? – About two minutes. – Yes. On my way." Nanata Clint whirled round. "Okay, folks. This's finished. We've got an emergency call and I'm the closest. Captain, either your group comes with me or you stay behind, but whatever you do, get out of here now. I've got to seal the apartment again." She chased the Rangers like chickens out of the door.
"We'll accompany you, lieutenant."
Zachary's wristcom beeped. "Yes?"
=Doc here, Captain. Lt. Eastwood and I are about three quarters through the files. From what shows up so far, it seems that mostly Dormins are affected.=
Fox frowned. "What do you mean by mostly?"
=About 85 till 90%. The rest is scattered across all brands on the market, mostly older ones. But the Dormins are the most and also the only brand-new ones.=
"Isn't there a big Dormin factory outside the city?" Zach asked.
"Yes, Captain, " Lt. Clint answered from the backseat, "in the outskirts. Elwood Industrial Belt."
"Did you hear that, Doc?"
=Yes, Zach. What do you want me to do?=
Fox threw a look out of the racing glider. "We are on 19th Avenue, heading for Jefferson Plaza. Get a glider and pick Niko up at there." He looked up from the tiny screen. "How long till we get there?"
Nanata shrugged, "Ten, fifteen minutes. Depends on the traffic."
"We'll be there in about three minutes. Goose's driving. You two sniff through Dormin's. I think something's smelly in that company."
=Oui, mon capitaine.=
11:43 Jefferson Plaza
Gooseman lay his head back and stared with narrowed eyes at the top of the building. "Up there, Lieutenant?" he asked.
"Yeah," Nanata confirmed. "148th floor and the lifts are deactivated because of the droids."
"It's almost as far down from the roof as it is up from here." Fox thought aloud. "Unfortunate situation."
"Takes at least two hours without the elevators, counting a bare minute for a floor, Captain."
"The people will be dead when we arrive," Zachary sighed. "Any ideas to make it faster, Goose?"
"You have a chopper?" Goose asked the detective.
"Yep. It's one of our newest acquisitions. But Chang's the only one who can fly it."
"Then call him, Lieutenant," Zach urged.
"His droid cut his arm nerves, Captain. He's in the hospital."
"Boy, nobody except Chang's allowed to use the thing."
"Lady, I can do it with a heli, but I thought you'd like to keep that building," Goose seemed to be eager about it. "Captain?"
"Goose, can you fly it?"
The ST shrugged, "I flew the prototypes a while ago. The final version can only be easier to handle."
"Okay." Fox turned for Lt. Clint. "Where's the machine?"
"Engine park of Precinct 1. We have to ret–" She didn't finish her sentence as Goose floored the pedal.
They stopped at the driveway to the landing field. Nanata nodded towards a cabin at the entrance of the landing field. "The gatekeeper looks after the keycards."
The man in the bulletproof glass cabin looked up. "The chopper?" He frowned.
Lt. Clint confirmed. "Yes, Morris. It's okay."
"Licence?" He mumbled past his chewing gum.
"The keycard, please." Zachary ordered.
Morris spat his chewing gum into the waste basket. "I need to see the special flyer licence of the guy who's going to use the baby."
"Officer, people are in danger during this discussion."
"Hey," Goose snapped, "I'll short-circuit the heap." He grinned cruelly and turned for the landing field. "If they hate their city enough to want me flying around here without fly-by-wire. Okay, no problem with me–"
Zachary stopped him. "No way, Goose. I'll be onboard, too. – Hand over the keycard, officer."
"No licence, no key, Ranger."
"But–!" Zachary took a deep breath.
Gooseman's hand lay on his arm. "Wait, Captain." He started to search his pockets and finally found a transparent plastic card in his left back pocket which he slammed on the counter in front of the police man. "That should do it."
Morris' jaw flapped open, as he stared on it. "That's... that's a..." he stuttered.
"Goose?" Zachary asked, amazed.
"General licence, Zach. Whatever's on this planet, I'm allowed to drive or fly it," the ST explained with a smile showing slightly too many teeth to be reassuring. "Though I don't really know what difference it makes."
"I've only seen something like that once," Lt. Nanata Clint's voice sounded very impressed. "And that man was the Premier's chief bodyguard."
Goose ignored it. "Keycard!" he growled at the man behind the counter and held out his hand. "Now." Morris never before moved that fast.
"Stop," Zachary's voice sounded sharp – he didn't feel well in choppers, specially not in choppers with Goose at the controls – and kept his eyes on the altimeter, "we should be at level 148."
"Good. Everybody fasten their safety-belts please." The ST said with a grim smile, "I'm going to hit the wall!"
"If I fasten mine any tighter I'm going to need resuscitation," Zachary grumbled.
"Not from me, Captain. I've got–" the tiny, fragile looking chopper banged with a loud clong against the wall, "–enough to do." Goose fired the detonation bolts to attach it firmly. After all six LED's blinked green, he retracted the rotor blades and turned in his seat. "Okay, Captain. Burn the entrance."
Lt. Nanata Clint, in the rear seat next to Zachary, mumbled while he adjusted the construction laser with the controls in front of his seat, "I'm using the stairs going down, even if it takes me a week."
"Over there," Lt. Clint pointed along the marble corridor, "it's apartment F." Arriving at the door she reached for the doorbell.
"Don't." Goose pushed her hand aside. "Don't warn them."
"Goose." Zachary ordered with a short nod. "Open."
"Aye." The door withstood only one of his kicks.
Silence. Fox turned toward Lt. Clint. "Are you sure the call came from here?"
Goose beside him suddenly raised his head, sniffing, eyes flashing around. "We are right," and continued in a grim voice: "And too late. I smell death."
"Where?" The Ranger Captain didn't seem to be surprised by his teammate's statement.
"In there." Gooseman nodded towards a wide double door to what must be the salon of the first class apartment.
Fox, his blaster at the ready, pushed it open. "Goose. First."
"The droids must be–" Nanata began and a group of metal spiders jumped at them.
Gooseman fired immediately. Three droids exploded before Lt. Clint, standing in the entrance, could even aim her service weapon. She fired and missed. The droid exploded as the big blond ranger whirled round and fired again. Fox's hand gripped her shoulder. "Keep out of there. He can handle it better if he doesn't have to worry about where we are."
The next moment was complete chaos as all remaining four droids seemed to leap at the intruder and ended up at smoking heaps on the carpet. The ST straightened. "Captain."
Lt. Clint looked at the remnants as she entered the room behind Fox. "The AK-1011 wasn't a joke, right?" she asked dryly.
"No, Ma'am. – The corpse is over there, behind the sofa."
"That's my job, " Nanata said bluntly and pulled out her investigation pad, "I'm sorry, Captain, but my captain is going to roast me if I don't do at least the primary data collection before anyone comes near it." She entered the commands for suspected homicide.
"We understand tha—"
It sizzled and a yellow-white flash flared up behind the couch. Lt. Clint jumped back and was nearly hit. Goose leaped across the sofa and drove his fingers into the household droid which was caught by one of its legs, still stuck in the bloody, ripped body of its owner. It sizzled and spat sparks as it sent another electric shock through its surface material. Goose pulled the wildly stabbing droid with a short jerk out of the corpse.
"No!!" Nanata cried warningly. "That's a window cleaner. They can produce 20,000 Volt shocks!" But it was too late, the droid already sizzled again.
Golden light flamed up around the young ranger, as it faded, his left hand seemed to be made of ceramic. He held the struggling droid up. "Funny sort," he grinned broadly and shook it. "Captain, do we want to save 'em up for later?"
"Sure. Maybe QBall can tell us more if he gets a functioning one." Fox holstered his weapon, obviously unimpressed.
Nanata Clint stared from Goose to Zachary and back. "You told me who you are," she began, "but, hell, what are you?!"
Gooseman grinned, showing unmistakable eyeteeth. "Special forces, Ma'am."
11:57 Dormin Household Droids – factory in the outskirts of Phoenix
Doc hit the brakes in front of the big facility and looked around. "Wow. That I call large." He turned for his teammate. "Where do we start?"
"Let's start with the boss."
"Mental advice?" he grinned.
"Common sense," Niko replied. "Don't waste your time with the servants, catch the top critter!"
"Sounds like something Goose would say."
She smiled. "He did say it. – Over there. There's a sign for the direction area."
They were directed to a large, very elegant reception room all covered in soft creme colored carpet and tapestries. After some minutes a tall, burly man with a red face wearing a construction overall entered the elegant room through a side door. "You wanted to talk to me?" he asked, smiling.
"We need to talk with the authority responsible for the factory and production of droids in this facility," Niko said carefully. The man looked like an assembly line worker.
He grinned broadly. "That's me." He wiped his hand across his overall and held it out. "My name's Mike Orson. I'm the founder of the company. How can I help you?"
"Early this morning a lot of household droids in and around Phoenix went mad. A lot of people are injured. We have been ordered to investigate the incidents."
"Good lord. I hope nothing serious happened." Orson seemed to be pretty shocked.
"I fear it has, Mr. Orson," Doc cut in. "We have several deaths reported. You must understand that in circumstances like this we have to check out all possibilities. We hope we'll have your full cooperation."
"Of course. Of course." The technician leaned himself against the marble desk in the center of the room. "I can't believe it. How could something like that happen? The safety rules are built into the hardware. Even the most careless customer can't change them accidentally." He wiped across his forehead and straightened. "I'll help you as much as I can."
"First, we'd like to have a look around your production facility. Have you had any suspicious incidents during the last weeks? Burglaries, irregularities in the depots, anything like that?"
"No, Ranger. We haven't." Orson pushed himself off the desk and waved them towards the side door through which he entered the office. "I never feel comfortable in here. Doesn't suit me, I think. Come on. I'll show you everything. – Mad droids..." He shook his head again. "People hurt. That shouldn't happen!"
The assembly line was in a huge hall, crowded with construction machines, robots, and people. Doc had stayed behind in the computer room, checking the databases. The hall was illuminated brightly, with walls painted in friendly colors. Niko looked around, astonished. The appearance of this facility didn't fit with the grey-black spidery droids they were producing. Something tapped against her boot.
"Eek!" Niko leaped and whirled round, reaching for her badge.
"Don't worry, Miss." The friendly, burly technician had stuffed his hands in the pockets of his overall and smiled. "You're pretty nervous."
"I had an encounter with one of your products myself this morning," she said coldly, "It's not so easy to forget being stabbed by a droid." and looked skeptically at the round, bright red colored droid on six ball rolls with two grip antennae. It rolled slightly back and blinked its big yellow spotlight 'eyes' at her.
"That's Sunshine." The tech explained. "She's the first droid we built in here, about ten years ago. None of us could bear to sell her."
"Her?" She raised her brows at it and the droid rotated slowly on its place before it bumbled against its creators boots. Niko giggled. "It looks like a big ladybug."
Mike Orson smiled. "That was intentional. Sunshine's heirs were our best products, were selling like hot cakes, but then, the new fashion with ankle-deep carpets came in and there was no way to make our little ladybugs able to work their way through them and clean. The rollers always got caught in the long threads." He shook his head. "We nearly went bankrupt those days till we gave up and used the spider-design." Mike's mouth twitched. "It worked. We got orders en masse again. But somehow... I never liked them. I didn't like building droids that ugly." He gave the red droid a wink and it raced around them, brightly blinking with rotating antennae, then appearing next to Niko again, pointing its 'spotlight eyes' at her. "She likes you," Orson grinned.
Niko couldn't help but smile. "It's cute. – Those long-haired carpets aren't used any longer. Why do you still build spiders?"
Orson snorted. "We were nearly bankrupt before we changed the production line. Without some investors our factory would have been closed. Dormin's a consortium now and all of those types have something to say about what we do or don't do. I voted to switch back to building 'Sunshines' – with the newest technology available of course – like most of the old staff around here, but the investors vetoed the idea. So we're still building spiders." He crinkled his nose and looked straight at Niko. "I founded this company, built up the main factory here, was the head of the team that designed our little Sunshine here. And now all I can do is watching hundreds of ugly dark grey spiders leaving the assembly line. It sucks!" He stopped and apologized. "I'm sorry, Miss. I didn't want to be rude. If I can help you somehow–"
"I'm finished." Doc appeared, his CDU still in his hands. "I congratulate you, Sir. It's been a long time that I saw a compsys that good under service."
"Thank you," Orson was pleased, "the making of droids depends strongly on accurate computer programming. That's why I am always after my people to do it properly."
Niko threw another glance around the wide hall, looked again at the ladybug-droid trundling around blinking with its funny eyes. "Mr. Orson, we are finished for the moment. But it's likely that we'll need to talk to you again once we get further information."
"Of course, Miss. Do you want my number?"
"And test objects from every one of your products," Doc added.
"Sure. It's in our own interest to get those incidents solved as fast as possible."
"Very nice factory." Doc said on their way back to BETA.
"But something doesn't fit in there." Niko thought aloud. "I can't really say what it is, but the things they produce and the place they produce them in feel completely different. That shouldn't be that way." After a moment she added thoughtfully: "Mr. Orson didn't tell us the whole story."
"You mean he lied to us?"
"No, Doc. But he left things out in his tale." She shrugged. "I can't be more specific. Maybe after QBall's checked the test droids I'll try to get a reading of them."
17:14 QBall's Laboratory
"What took you so long?" Niko asked as Zach and Goose entered the room. "Doc and I have been waiting for more than three hours now."
"Long way," Zach murmured.
"The captain didn't want to use the parachute fall of the chopper," Goose informed her, grinning.
"Not with you at the controls and one of your hands busy with that thing." He didn't indicate if he meant the droid or the chopper with 'thing'.
Shane shrugged and held out the sizzling, sparking droid that cut the air with its sharp spidery legs. "Where's QBall? Little Sizzley needs a cage. Preferably an isolated one."
"Back there somewhere." She nodded into the lab and suppressed a shudder at the mad droid.
QBall, burdened with droid parts, came towards the work plate on which Niko was sitting. "I'm sorry, Niko, but I can't find anything on these droids. They're totally normal." Lost in thought, he shoved Zachary aside, pushed his glasses up his nose and–
"WATCH OUT! This one isn't!" Goose shouted and raised the mad droid high above his head as QBall came too near to him.
"Wh– What?" The skinny scientist looked up from his droid fragments in surprise. "Which one isn't? I've checked them all. None of th–"
"I mean this one." Goose held out the black spider droid that struggled with its blood covered legs. "And you almost ran into it."
"This is a mad one?" QBall looked closely at it and Gooseman pulled it a bit away as the droid slashed out at the scientist's face. "Are you sure?"
"It was still stuck in the body of its owner when I found it."
"It stuck?" Niko asked, horrified.
"Yeah. One of its legs got stuck in the pelvic bone."
The telepath shuddered at the cold description.
"Put it over here. I have to examine it immediately." QBall was all business now. "It's the first mad one I got to see functioning. Fine. Let's have–" He reached out for the backplate and the droid sizzled with electric sparkles. QBall jerked his hand back.
"Ooops. I forgot to mention: it's a barbecue fan." Goose grinned. "Electro-roasts your sausages in no time!"
QBall, hurrying back into the depths of his lab, murmured. "Guess I'd better get an isolated container. And gloves. And a..."
"How long do you think the examination will take?" Zachary Fox looked at his watch. "We are stuck as long as we don't have further results."
QBall shrugged, still concentrating on the controls of the isolated mechanical arm that he used to examine the droid. "Hard to say. It takes much longer working this way..." he murmured something incomprehensible.
"What did you say?" Zachary pressed him.
"Tomorrow morning." He snorted. "Early tomorrow morning, if none of you disturbs me any longer!"
"Whatever." Zachary sighed. "That's it for today. We won't get the results before tomorrow morning. Meeting here at 8:00. On time, Gooseman." He threw a flaring glance at the ST.
"Aye." The ST stretched. "Can somebody wake me? With all this trouble today I haven't had time to get a new alarm clock."
"If you don't shoot me, I can." Doc made no effort whatsoever to hide his grin. "That saves the others from getting in trouble with your neighbors for the noise in the corridor."
The ST grunted. "No guarantees, Doc." He nodded at Zachary. "Captain."
The lab door slid shut behind them. "And least we've still got some time to clean up the mess our droids left behind." Niko said, slinging her jacket over her shoulder. "There are still bloody footprints on my carpet. Hope I can wash them out."
"And my droid's still scattered across my kitchen." Fox made a face regarding the household work in front of him.
"Captain, I hope this is the last mech problem this month," Goose said dryly. When his captain frowned he specified: "First your arm and now this! I fear I'm going to develop an allergy to droids."
"Don't dare, Shane!" Niko laughed. "You're our secret weapon against such problems!"
The ST groaned. "At least I'm safe."
"Your home-tech could be affected, too." Doc reminded him, grinning. "Except your mechanical friends are too frightened to try it with you."
"ALMA and Triton behaved normal."
"It's hardware programming, an AI can't include that, my Gooseman." Doc explained.
"Only household droids seemed to be affected by it. Especially the newer ones." Niko told him about the results she and Doc had gotten.
"Then I'm really safe," he grinned and stuffed his hands in his pockets while walking.
"Your bio defenses?" she assumed.
"No droids?!" All three looked astonished at him. "But how are your quarters cleaned?" Niko asked him.
"Base service," he shrugged.
"Base service?!" Fox started. "Only the quarters of high officers are cleaned by base personnel, Gooseman. Even my rank is too low for that!"
The ST looked – now astonished himself – at his captain. "I didn't know that, Zach. It's been done once a week since I moved in. I thought it was normal."
18:12 PPD 1
"Finished for today." Nanata took her jacket from the back of her chair and threw her colleague who still worked fascinated at the comp, an amused look. "Hey, Martyn. What's up? Usually, you hate comp work."
"It's what the Ranger did, Nan." He still concentrated on his screen. "Somehow he sped up the mainframe." He shook his head. "It's more than twice as fast as before. I can't find out what he did. And..." he entered a new commando sequence, fascinated, "he has left a password behind that grants us calculation priority one if we use it."
"Really? That would be wonderful. What is it?" Clint asked Eastwood.
21:11 Apt. 251
Walter Hartford, called Doc, called genius, called – more simply – hacker, leaned back at his console and gazed, frustrated and slightly angry, across his chaotic living room. My sainted mother was right, he thought sadly, I'm definitely not much of a housekeeper. I have to fix that droid problem as fast as possible. He sighed theatrically and started doing what he did best. But first I find out why Mr. Muscle isn't disturbed by such a nuisance...
Fifteen minutes later, the information glowed in soft yellow letters on his screen: "Order for cleaning of BMMP Apt. 217 placed by... J. Walsh, base commander."
"And the devil serves at McDonald's," Doc grumbled and pulled a smelly sock off his monitor. "I just wonder why." But that information wasn't likely to be found inside the memory banks.
06:39 Apt. 217
The door slid back and Doc entered with a broad smile on his face the room. "Hello, my Goose man. It's already past half past six. Time to get–" He ducked and jumped to the side as the ST shot up from his bed, already grabbing his blaster. "HEY, GOOSE. It's me, DOC. REALLY!" He held his hands in plain sight as he slowly got up from behind the footboard, just in time to see Gooseman dropping back on his mattress, pulling his blanket up over his ears.
"Gooseman. I'm here to wake you."
The figure beneath the quilt grumbled and rolled to the other side, turning his back to Doc.
"No chance, Goose." Carefully, the hacker came closer to the bed. "I promised to wake you and you are going to WAKE UP!"
The result of his shout was that Goose pulled his pillow out under his head and pressed it over his face, crossing his arms over it.
"Gooseman. I'm going to tell you the whole lecture on politeness that I got in Ms. Abercrombie's Charm School if you don't get up now."
The mumbling from beneath the pillow sounded much like: "...starts in the sewer and all stairs go downwards..." Doc plucked up some courage and grabbed the pillow. Goose's sleepy gaze met his and Shane's next sentence was clear: "I'm gonna hate this day!"
Doc grinned. "You're going to start a lot of days like this, my Goose man. I'm going to make sure that you always come to work on time from now on."
The ST growled and put his feet to the floor. "I have to increase the security level of my quarters."
"Your door system will never keep me out, you know?", Hartford grinned and patted against the doorframe.
"We'll see, Doc."
"You challenge me? With this?" He knocked again on the door. "Now, that's going to be fun. You'll soon be used to starting the day with looking in my smiling face." He ducked as a boot flew in his direction and leaped out of the door.
"And, my Gooseman, are you going to fulfill the regulations for underwear from now on?" Doc asked, teasing, as they headed together for QBall's Lab a quarter of an hour later.
"As surely as Zach is going to control it, Doc."
"What we have here is a formidable proof," QBall put a box with droid parts onto the main table. "of the old lesson about the—"
"QBall," Zachary interrupted the slim scientist, "the short version. Please."
"Try telegram style," Goose grumbled.
"He had a rough start of the day," Doc explained, smiling.
"Continue, and you'll have a rough early end of the day, Doc!" The ST shot back.
"Stop that!" Fox intervened. "We've got work to do." He turned to QBall. "Please continue." When the scientist took a deep breath: "In brief, please."
QBall sniffed indignantly. "Short," he muttered, "they always want it short. No one cares for details, and backgrounds, and..." Fox threw him a dark look. "It's the central chip. The hardware programming includes kind of a countdown that starts an execution program. As far as I could determine it's targeted against all human beings."
Doc jumped up. "That's impossible! The Asimov Laws–"
"This central chip doesn't include them," QBall said drily, placing the chip in plain sight for all of them on the table. "Not even the slightest hint of them. Instead there's the execution program that starts at preset times."
"Good Lord! When's the next?"
"In two days, Captain Fox."
"Seems our tele-killer likes to give his babies time to find new victims."
"Or to allow the escapees of the first slaughter to buy new – safer – droids with another killer chip inside." QBall took the chip back.
Zachary frowned. "You mean someone intercepted the deliveries and replaced the standard chip with the fatal ones?"
"Unlikely. The socket doesn't look as if it was connected twice. The fatal chips are built in during the production cycle."
"That fits." Doc had a close look at the chip. "Niko and I already got the opinion that something's wrong at Dormin."
The telepath slowly shook her head. "I'm not so sure, Doc. The shock about the events I felt within Orson was real, also his pride about his factory and the work they do there – despite his dislike of the spider droids. I can't imagine that he would do something that does harm to people and would compromise work he's loved for years."
"But most of the killer droids are from Dormin?" the captain asked.
Doc hit a key on his CDU and had a look at the tiny display. "92.6 percent, exactly."
"And the rest?"
"As I said yesterday, all brands equally likely, mostly older models. It looks as if someone repaired them with killer chips."
Fox frowned. "That doesn't make sense. If someone was selling the dangerous chips, there would be far more of other brands involved. And a company like Dormin doesn't sell essential parts of their products to keep rival products working."
"Maybe we should put more pressure on Dormin," Niko suggested. "There's something odd about their production facility with respect to the things they make."
Fox nodded. "I'll go myself. Call for our PPD contacts. It's their responsibility, too."
"Doc, Niko, you two stay here and help QBall, maybe he can discover something more about the chip if he dissects it."
08:56 Dormin Household Droids – factory in the outskirts of Phoenix
Gooseman hit the brakes and brought the glider to a screaming halt next to the armored police glider with Lt. Clint already waiting near the entrance of the factory's main building.
"Stay outside with the vehicles, Goose," Zachary said getting out of the glider. "I don't want anyone to tamper with our electronics while I question their boss."
"And have a look at the exits. Maybe we'll stir someone up."
"You believe us at Dormin to be responsible for all this horror?!!" Mike Orson just gaped at the Ranger Captain who entered his factory hall and addressed him directly in front of his workers without any preamble. "Our company has had the highest reputation for more than twenty years–"
"Mr. Orson," Lt. Clint standing next to Fox cut in, blinking with her police badge, "we don't care about your company's history, we are concerned about the present! So how do you explain that mostly your droids are running mad?"
"I– I can't believe that anyone around here would do..." He swayed and breathed heavily. "That's impossible, Ma'am."
"Lieutenant." Nanata corrected him icily. "And it is possible. We can show you the data that proves it."
"Mr. Orson." Fox took over the conversation. "The central control chips are the reason for all this madness. And they weren't replaced later in the process, they were built in right from the beginning."
"So how are you going to explain that the control chips your company is using lack the primary safety rules?" Lt. Clint snapped. "Answer."
"It is a violation of League Law to use unsecured processors in droids," Zachary added firmly.
"But..." Mike Orson clenched his hands then answered finally. "we checked the seals and safety labels on the crates when they were delivered and everything was fine–"
"Stop." Fox interrupted him. "You use foreign chips?"
The company chief seemed to feel discomforted. "Yes, we do," he admitted in a low voice. Nanata Clint frowned but said nothing. "We didn't have a choice."
"Why not? The whole story, please."
With a deep sigh the chief of Dormin continued. "As I told your colleagues yesterday, we were nearly bankrupt before we decided to skip our familiar design in favor of the spider style. We needed capital for the restructuring of the production line, for the materials needed for the first series of the droids and for the presentation necessary to sell them. It was a very close shave, but finally we found an investor who brought in the capital that we needed - but he insisted on very extended rights within the supervisory board."
"Who is this mysterious investor?" Lt. Clint asked.
"I don't know."
"You don't expect me to believe that, do you?" she snapped.
"Lieutenant, the deal was arranged and confirmed by one of the most famous industrial lawyers on Earth. The capital was given immediately and we never got in trouble with him afterwards. Since the new droids, in spite their ugliness, sold like hot cakes because of their efficiency, he made good profits out of his investment. The money was sent online and every one of the transactions was confirmed immediately."
"But there's more to it than you're telling us," Zachary pressed him. "You mentioned extended rights you had to grant him."
"That's right," Orson stared at his shoes. "About two months ago he insisted that we reduce the production costs for the spider series by using imported chips instead of our own."
"Who produced these chips?"
"I don't know who produced them. They are no-brand ware." At Fox darkened expression Orson added hastily. "We knew it was risky, but one of the rights our investor got was the choice of supply companies."
"Sounds pretty stupid to me," Nanata said and attached her badge to her belt next to her clearly visible service weapon.
"Everything's possible in such contracts, Lieutenant," Orson said faintly, "there are no limits except law and it isn't unlawful to split responsibilities under such circumstances." A bright red ladybug-like droid bumbled against his boots and he shoved it aside, "Away, Sunshine. Clean the floor." He gave the two officers in front of him an apologetic smile and grew very earnest again. "We were very concerned that our investor suddenly used this particular right of his and I personally insisted that the foreign processors be put through the strongest checkups and tests we have. They passed." He swallowed. "But Asimov's Laws aren't included in the test procedure. Fundamental as they are, no chip with failures - or lacking them - would leave a production facility."
"On Earth!" Zachary snapped, "on Earth maybe. Outside... " he snorted. "So you don't know who produces these chips. Do you at least know where they come from?"
"The crates carry the customs label of Oregon."
Fox narrowed his eyes. "That's near the frontier to Tortuna," he muttered. "Do you have any further information about them?"
"No, I'm sorry, Captain. I wish I could–" he interrupted himself and turned for Lt. Clint. "We have to shut down immediately, right?" he asked her, pleading that he was wrong.
"Damn right, Mister," she snapped, "and you have to call all delivered droids back right now! You are lucky that I don't lock up you and all your personnel for possible mass-murder and attempted mass-murder." She turned on her heels. "Stay within reach, Mr. Orson. The same for your personnel."
On their way back to their gliders: "You and your people are going to track these chips down, aren't you?"
Fox nodded. "Indeed, Lieutenant." He threw a short look at the police lieutenant. "I don't believe that the people at Dormin's are responsible for this whole mess."
"So do I. It's likely that they won't get more than a stern warning and strict security conditions as long as it isn't unlawful to use imported parts..."
"BETA itself uses imported technology. Most of our vessels come from Andor's shipyards. Our own production facilities are still under construction." He narrowed his eyes and looked ahead at the wide main entrance doors. "That's not the problem. But the technology safety standards have been in effect for more than fifty years. And because of that people who never left Earth are usually too confident regarding technology."
"Too confident?" The woman at his side snorted. "You mean gullible."
"Both fit." Zach smiled grimly. "Our chief technician discovered a countdown embedded in the chips. It starts the kill program at preset times."
Lt. Clint looked over to him. "When's the next?"
"Tomorrow morning, 06:25."
"I'll make sure that the droids are switched off until then." She turned briskly at her glider, already unlocking it with her sender, and looked back at him. "Please keep me informed about your search. I'd like to know what's behind it."
Fox smiled at that. "I'll do. Promised."
The ST leaned against their glider, waiting. "Has anything happened, Goose?"
"Nope. But one of the warehouses stood open and–"
Zachary got into the front passenger seat and adjusted his safety belt carefully. "You didn't leave the glider out of your sight, did you?"
"Not at all. It's a huge warehouse, with a huge gate," Gooseman grinned. "The glider fits perfect through the gate."
Fox rolled his eyes. "And?"
The ST powered the engine on and floored the pedal. "Lots of dirty empty crates, Sir. Things stunk like a sidewalk in Sorry End."
10:38 QBall's Lab
"Dormin has a mysterious investor from outside Earth who forces them to import the central chips from outer space, likely Oregon." Zach briefed the others shortly.
"That fits with what we found out, Zach." Niko pushed herself off the working table with the fine scanner she had been working with. "There are still no perceptible psionic imprints on them, but the plastic of the chip hull isn't very clean. There are a lot of embedded particles and the concentration of the different elements differs from what one expects on Earth. The plastic hull must have been formed on a different planet."
"Were you able to discover where?" Fox asked.
"No positive identification. But from the elements I found so far, a world with fewer oceans and more deserts than Earth. Oregon would fit into the pattern, especially the dry plains around the capital. But a lot of other worlds, too."
"We have a track running to Oregon." Fox said grimly. "We'll follow it. – But there are still the mad non-Dormin-droids."
"The chips pass all standard tests as long as the first of the preset times isn't reached." Qball brought in. "I tested hundreds of them from the unsold, therefore previously unactivated, Dormin droids and found nothing."
"But Dormin wouldn't sell essential components to be used in foreign systems. Nor would they allow them to be sold." Doc contered. "That's economically suicidal."
"Someone forgot to ask." Goose pushed a dissected chip aside and took a seat on the table edge.
Zachary looked up. "The open warehouse. Dormin's not best in company area security. Goose could drive the glider through it without being noticed."
"They wouldn't notice a cargo transport in there, Captain."
"Doc, what's the total amount of affected non-Dormin droids?"
The hacker threw a glance at his CDU. "427."
"How many chips are in one crate?"
"Standard would be 500, Captain Fox." QBall said.
"Considering that maybe not all cases had been detected already, and that there's the chance that some of the chips hadn't been in use so far, it fits with a stolen single crate."
"That could be carried in a personal glider's trunk. Single target."
"No target, Goose." Fox decided. "Most of the chips had already been used. We need to find the source where they come from. – Okay, Rangers. It's Oregon for us."
23:16 [11:59 LST] Ranger-1 at Calahan Space Port - Box 5
"I hate night shifts."
"It isn't night here, Goose." Niko activated Mel and checked her cybersteed thoroughly.
"But my Goose man." Doc seemed shocked to the bone. "Look, the sun's high up in the sky. It's midday here."
"I don't care about that damned star." He mounted Triton and took the reins up, briefly answering the cybersteed's greeting. "At my bed it's midnight. And that's all that counts for me!"
"Always look on the bright side, Goose," Niko smiled. "Doc won't wake you this morning–"
"Galaxy Rangers." Fox took the lead and ended the quarrel. "We'll go to the local customs office first."
23:49 [12:32 LST] Luther Whitney Lane 2211
They reined in their steeds in front of the white painted five-story house. Zachary tilted his head back and looked at it. "According to the customs officer is this the address of 'Hunter Enterprises'." He frowned. "Doesn't look like an office building, more like a hotel."
"It is one. Look at the sign next to the entrance." Niko pointed at the white plate with blue letters: 'Rooms to Rent. 10 Credits a night. Please ring.'
Zach shook his head, dismounted and walked up onto the porch. "I'll check it out." He vanished into the house.
"The address is correct," he confirmed when he reappeared. "The owner said the company rented the rooms right under the roof."
"A company in a boarding house?" Doc grinned. "And that hotelier wasn't astonished about it?"
"Seems not." Zachary shrugged. "She said the customer's one of her most polite guests, pays his rent in time, and hasn't caused trouble so far. The lady was pretty shocked that a law enforcement man asked for him." He fetched his rifle out of Brutus' saddle-holster. "Doc, Niko, we go in there. Goose, have a look at the surroundings. It isn't likely that that crook stores his killer chips under the bed."
"There's no one in there. I can't sense anyone's presence." Niko looked up. "But I have a feeling it's someone we know."
"Who is it?"
"I'm not sure. But we know this guy." She concentrated again. "It's a mechanical lock. Just a..." The lock clicked. "...moment." She pushed the door open.
They scanned the two connected rooms quickly. A big, proper desk covered with hyper-modern styled – obviously unused – utilities; a rubber plant that seemed to have gotten too much water judging by its drooping leaves; a filing cabinet without files... The first room seemed like a parody of a high class office.
"Looks good, but here's nothing that answers our questions." Doc pushed open the door to the second room and made a hasty step back. "Phew!" He waved his hand in front of his face with a nauseated expression.
Niko threw a look into the room from her position behind Doc. "Needs a good cleaning!"
"Even a horde of Dormins wouldn't be able to clean that mess! That needs the Biohazard Dept. at least."
Zach glanced into the room and agreed wordlessly: the disheveled bed with stinky socks and underwear on the stained quilt, the open wardrobe that seemed to be also the 'dirty clothes hamper', the remnants of at least a dozen meals on the table told enough. Unfortunately, it didn't tell what they were looking for. "Seems we have to wait till the creator of this mess comes back."
"Could take awhile." Doc grimaced. "The dish here's still warm and—"
The entrance door to the first room slammed open. The sound of someone struggling helplessly accompanied the two heavy steps with which Goose entered the room. "Pretty big roof rabbits around here, Captain," he grinned. "Someone lose a pussycat?" He held his catch at the neck and shook him not too gently. "Dropped right before my feet into the backyard."
"'Hunter Enterprises'," Doc groaned. "We should have known."
"So what's your business here?" Zach asked coldly.
"Oh nothing, Sir. Nothing. Really– I assure–"
Gooseman intensified his shaking. "Reconsider that!"
"Goose, let him down." Zachary ordered. "He can't answer while you're squeezing his throat."
"Hrmpf." He dropped the Darghun.
Nimrod staggered backwards only to find his way blocked by Doc and Niko. He raised his hands. "But, dear Galaxy Rangers," he explained hastily. "I'm only a businessman. A honest businessman. I made some investments on Earth to get a market for computer- and droidchips I trade with. I have some very expensive hobbies to be financed."
Gooseman took a step closer and growled. Zach held him back, shaking his head.
"I buy chips cheaply and sell them less cheap. That's legal. There's nothing illegal in my business!"
"Except the two dozen League wanted posters with your face on them." Doc threw in.
"And the Crown one for your head in particular." Goose grinned with flashing teeth.
"Those chips of yours caused deaths on Earth, Nimrod." Niko snapped. "Where are they from?"
"I'm a mediator. I can't compromise my clients!"
"That's enough!" Zachary sighed. "I need a coffee. Doc, Niko. Aren't there still those reports from last month?" He turned already for the door.
Nimrod straightened. "So you believe me and I can leave?"
"Goose, take care of him."
"Fine! I still have a rendezvous with his whiskers left from his deadly games." He made a gesture of plucking out a hair and clarified his statement. "With every single one of them."
Nimrod howled out. "Gods, you can't do–" He hastened after Zach as the ST reached for him. "Pleeeeaaase!"
Fox turned back to him. "Where do you get these chips from?"
"Chipolyta Chips. It's a small but very respectable comp–"
"Location?" Zach interrupted him briskly.
Zach grabbed his collar, tore him almost off the ground. "You sold Tortunan chips on Earth?!" He tossed the Darghun over to Goose. "Arrest that! Before I forget myself!"
03:11 [–:– LST] Ranger-1
"What shall we do when we reach Tortuna, mon capitaine?" Doc turned in front of his console to look at Fox. "If this 'Chipolyta' is as well marked as the employment agency was we'll search till eternity is over. And Sorry End is not a place I like to spend that much time in."
"We can't scan the area from orbit." Goose pointed out. "The Crowns may be a frustrated, underpaid pack of idiots, but that's something even they'll notice."
Zachary sighed. "All true. We need more information. Maybe a deal–"
"A deal?" Niko looked aghast. "With Nimrod?"
"Formally, he didn't commit a crime in this." Zach gnawed at the words. "He sold chips. But he hasn't the technology to test them, or the skills to notice that they're fake ones. And investments on Earth aren't illegal." He snorted. "As long as we don't find an irregularity in his finances there are only the old warrants for kidnaping." He snorted, frustrated, and shrugged. "So Walsh's carte blanche for this job would cover it."
"The moment you offer it you'll get a bunch of demands and no useful info at all." Doc made a face at the idea. "You know the crook yourself."
"That's the problem, folks." He leaned back in his seat. "Any ideas?"
Goose, standing behind Niko's seat, began to grin. "We can put Pussycat to the question."
Zach's head flew around to look warily at the ST. "I hope that wasn't a suggestion to torture, Gooseman."
"Nope," Gooseman grinned, "not that way."
"What do you mean then?" Fox asked with narrowed eyes.
"Pussycat doesn't quite qualify as a hero, does he? It's still more than four hours till Tortuna. After that time he'll be grateful to help us."
"Gooseman," Fox warned.
"I won't touch him. I promise." The ST held both hands up in plain sight. "You can control me with GV and the boardcam if you like."
"What do you have in mind?"
"To give the hunter an impression of being hunted."
04:51 [–:– LST] Ranger-1
Gooseman came back with a paper mug of coffee and again took a seat on the chair he'd pulled in front of the arrest cell onboard, stretched his legs comfortably out, took a deep sip of coffee, leaned back and looked with a relaxed but slightly predatory smile out of half-closed eyes at the prisoner. Pussycat grows nervous even faster than I thought.
The Darghun lost his nerves: "Why do you sit there and stare at me all the time?!" he scowled.
"I'm waiting." Goose said in a soft voice and took another sip of coffee.
"For my captain to take a nap. And then..." his eyes wandered suggestively across Nimrod's body and the predatory smile deepened showing the tips of his fangs.
Nimrod laughed out. "You're trying to bluff me! Forget it! You guys have a name to defend. Your captain will never allow–"
Shane simply smiled and sipped at his coffee. "I've got time."
07:56 [–:– LST] Ranger-1
"Who ever thought that Goose can have such patience?" Doc sighed and knocked a fast rhythm with his fingers on the console next to the monitor.
"Well, it seems to work, Doc. Nimrod has grown more and more restless during the last hours." Niko looked at the screen across his shoulder and shuddered slightly. "It's frightening."
"Frightening indeed," Zachary agreed, "I just hope it leads to something. We're reaching Tortuna in less than an hour. If he's not finished by– There's the sign!" Gooseman on the screen lay his head back against his folded hands. "Showtime!"
He yawned while he entered the rear bay with the arrest cell. "Gooseman. Are you still alert?"
The ST gathered himself up quickly. "Sure, Captain. This isn't exhausting in any way."
"Good. I'm going to take a nap while Doc scans Tortuna for this production facility–"
"NO!!! Please! This– this monster is going to kill me if you sleep–" Nimrod screamed inside the cell.
"Nonsense," Fox grumbled impatiently. "He's a good officer." He patted Goose on the shoulder and turned back for the door.
"I can show you where the factory is!"
The captain stopped and turned slowly back to Nimrod. "And why shall I trust you?" he asked in a slightly amused voice.
"I'd do anything not to be left alone with–"
"Hey!!" Gooseman growled with flashing fangs at the Darghun who jumped away from the forcefield.
"Easy, Goose," Zach intervened. "So where is it, Nimrod? And no games this time. I warn you." He looked from Nimrod to the ST and back. "I really warn you."
"A real horror show," Doc said as Goose came back into the cockpit.
Niko suppressed a shudder. "Where did you learn this?" she asked.
"Wolf Den. 'Information procurement' was one of the courses." A cynical half-grin flashed across his face and was gone when he looked at her. After a moment he added in a harsh voice: "I hated it."
"What?" Doc tried to ease the sudden tension. "To sit opposite people till they lose their nerves?"
The ST ground his teeth at that. "We also learned the less-subtle methods."
Fox joined them in the cockpit. "It's an address on the main street. Maybe fake. I can't remember anything around there where chips could be produced."
"We should take Pussycat with us," the ST suggested and added grinning: "For further reference."
"Can you keep him under control out there?" Zach asked.
Goose narrowed his eyes at that, then nodded hesitantly. "Yes, I can."
09:38 [16:02 LST] Sorry End
"It's right over there." Nimrod pointed at a nearly wrecked wooden house that's appearance distinguished in nothing from that of the ones around it. "I pick up the crates two times a week."
"How's the money handled?" Fox asked, muffled by his Zanquil-costume.
"I leave it in the mailbox."
"Real honest business it seems." Doc commented.
"The house is too small for the chips to be produced there." Zachary frowned. "When's your next delivery day?"
"I really can't give that information aw–" The Darghun began and finished hastily, "Tomorrow," as Gooseman behind him growled deeply. "The crates always lay on the sidewalk in front of the house."
"No crates there, now." Niko scanned the street quickly. "They haven't been delivered yet."
"So it's likely that the delivery will be in the next hours," the captain concluded, "Okay, we'll wait and follow them."
"Hey, can I leave now?" Nimrod spluttered. "I told you everything I know. It's not wise to be seen with you guys – or Zanquils – in this town."
Fox snorted. "Forget it, Nimrod. We have no proof for your story yet, and there are still the warrants for kidnaping."
"Goose," Zach still hadn't got his calmness back, "watch him. If he causes any trouble, I'm blind and deaf for ten minutes."
"Aye, Sir." The ST grinned provocatively at the Darghun. "Come on. Make my day."
"Tortuna at night is definitely not worth sightseeing." Niko muttered and slung her arms in the thick Zanquil costume closer around herself. "It stinks and it's cold."
"Who do you tell?" Doc asked, shivering. "Holy Byte, they have a dome up there and don't even try to heat it!"
"Shut up!" Gooseman at the corner snapped. "They're coming."
"What do you see?" Zachary asked, relying more on the ST's night vision than on his night goggles.
"Crown troopers. Five. Second rate from how they move."
"Okay, people. Let's get warm with some movements. Follow them."
14:07 [20:31 LST] Tortuna City – outside the tall dome – near the landing platforms
"Doesn't look large enough to produce anything." Niko frowned behind her night goggles, looking down onto the small building at the socket of the landing platform above the abyss in which the five crown troopers had vanished.
"You don't know how deep the facility reaches into the rock." Zachary scanned the surroundings of the building. "There are several huge ventilation installments. We have to go inside to be sure."
"I don't believe that's a good idea..." Doc muttered.
Fox ignored him. "Suggestions?"
"There are skylight towers on the first level roof." Goose studied the building with narrowed eyes. "Low enough. I should be able to hold Niko up so that she can get a look in there without being seen."
"Okay..." Zach didn't sound happy about the idea but agreed to its logic. Neither he nor Doc were that likely to manage it unnoticed: Doc wasn't athletic enough, and regarding himself, his bionics were – unfortunately – a weight to be considered when planning to move soundless on a roof. "Niko, can you get a reading yet?"
She shook her head. "Not yet. But some of the Crown's forcefields are scattering psionic signals slightly as you know. Maybe if I'm nearer."
"You go with Goose. Just a short glance. Not more."
"You are completely crazy. There's no way I'll participate in your suicide attempts. I'm a hunter not a–" Nimrod began.
"Shut up, Pussycat. Or I'll throw you through a window to see what's inside!" the ST hissed. "Captain?"
"Looks like a standard crown facility," Niko whispered, "lots of troopers, few workers, one or two slaverlords, a huge main computer..." She stared concentrated through the smoke-streaked skylight. "Nothing unus– Wait! There's–"
"Sssh." Gooseman grabbed her around the waist, pulled her off the skylight tower and pressed her down onto the roof behind it.
"Wha–?" His hand covered her mouth, then she heard it, too: the roaring of badly tuned glider engines quickly coming closer. She gave Goose a sign with her eyes indicating that she understood and pressed herself deeper into the shadows.
He nodded. "What did you see?" She felt his breath at her ear as he whispered.
"Slade." She breathed back. "Feeling nervous. Expectant."
The ST narrowed his eyes, looking down onto the on-coming glider. "Because of their guests?"
"Likely. The reason is close in time."
They both watched the glider coming to a screeching halt in front of the door below them. The doors swung open and a couple of slaverlords floated out, escorting a way too familiar figure.
"Now that's a reason for Lazzie to be nervous." Goose grinned almost soundless.
"Lazzie? I thought that's a dog in ancient movies."
"That's Lassie." He winked. "But it fits, too." She saw his fangs flashing in the darkness. "Look, he's wagging at his mommy." Niko suppressed a giggle. The Queen rushed inside, ignoring Slade's explanations. The ST concentrated on his eyesight and hearing. "The way back is free. Go. Tell 'em what's going on."
"What are you going to do?"
"Be the fly. – Lazzie always talks too much. Maybe we'll get first hand information about what they plan for the future before Doc's programs cause a little trouble at that mainframe in there."
"Okay." She disappeared into the darkness.
"Now, Slade, what do you have to show Us, that you deemed impossible to tell one of Our slaverlords?"
"Your most gracious Highness–"
"Short, Slade! Or you'll be shorter in body height soon!"
"Your Highness! I managed to increase the efficiency of Your chip production facility by a hundred-forty-eight percent by using the construction plans Your agents captured during the—"
"I said short! Not long and boring."
"By using the new plasma manufacturing line we will be able to build more chips in less time."
"Aside from that?"
"And also to copy precisely the league safety signatures implanted in the chip hulls. We will no longer need a back door to bring our chips onto the Terrestrian market."
"You mean My chips." The Queen looked icily down from her pedestal onto him. "And We are pleased that We are now able to eliminate more of Earth's nasty personnel by hitting their infrastructure from the inside. And We are grateful. You may explain your improvements..." She made a generous hand movement.
"As Your Highness may see – the plasma is heated outside the building in the huge tank and then lead to the assembly line by the covered pipes You may see over there where they cross the walls and enter the hall to be led..."
"Slade?" Zach nodded. "Sure. This case is surely his sort of crime."
"The Queen's currently there. Goose is listening. He suggests using Doc's programs because of the facility's extended computer control."
Fox nodded. "Makes sense. A direct attack under these circumstances would be suicide. Doc?"
"Wait a moment, I sent Lifeline to spy on the comps..."
=You never send me to nice places, Docco!= The pale-green sparkle appeared out of the darkness. =Always these ugly fourth-choice motels with–=
"Display the comp scheme."
=Bah...= The image popped up.
"The engines are directly controlled by the comps, Zach. No human monitoring device." The hacker began to grin, "I can mess up the whole system, with a little luck even cause physical damage with the malfunctions in the machines themselves before they get to know about it. Shall I?"
"Yes, but allow Goose to leave before the whole house blows up."
"Okay, I'll send Pathfinder over to him."
"Hope Mr. Muscle comes soon!" Doc muttered, double-checking his readings on the holographic display above his CDU. "Lifeline, Tripwire, and Pathfinder are almost finished and at the first button press after that all hell will break loose down there."
"Niko, go ahead and warm up the engines for an emergency start. We'll surely have to get out of here fast. And don't forget to prepare the arrest cell. We still have a guest," he added with a look at Nimrod squatting next to them. "Doc, are you sure that they won't be able to produce any more of these chips when your programs are finished?"
"As sure as I remember my lessons in politeness at–" Three program sparkles appeared out of the dark and buzzed into the holographic display. "Pathfinder. Did you inform Goose?"
=Yes. As you ordered, Sahib-Master-Bwana-Sir!=
Doc rolled his eyes. At Zach's questioning look: "Never again a Di-D movie festival!"
"Ranger Captain." Nimrod tried it again. "You sure see that I kept my word and now that your beastmaster–"
"Keep silent." Fox snapped and continued in a voice as threatening as he could manage. "And in case you didn't notice: I am Ranger Gooseman's commanding officer! Maybe you should try to imagine how I do that!" The Darghun jerked back at that. Zachary sighed and shook his head. "He really gets on my nerves." He looked at his chrono. "Where's Goose–?"
"I'm here, Captain." He shrugged. "Sorry I'm late. Short detour."
"Spare me that." Zach ordered sharply. "Back to the ship. And look after Puss– –ahem– Nimrod."
With a broad grin: "Sure, Sir."
"Trouble." The ST stopped dead as they reached the open, blast-glassed ground between the actual foot of the rocks and the next ragged wall of the glassed impact crater where they'd hid the ship.
"The understatement of the galaxy!" Doc whispered regarding the company of crown soldiers between them and Ranger-1.
"Did Niko get through?" Zach asked, scanning the rocks near the crater through his binoculars with narrowed eyes.
Goose narrowed his eyes, watching their opponents. "The troopers are too calm for them to have a captive or a casualty among them."
"Yes, but was she able to reach the ship?"
"If she's invisible and can fly–" Doc muttered fatalistically.
"Shut up!" Goose growled, concentrating even more.
"It's imposs– MRRMPF" The ST pressed his gloved hand across his mouth, nearly strangling him.
"Engines." He released Doc from his grip, who coughed and panted, as he finally could fill his lungs with air again. "Ranger-1's powered up."
"So she's there." Zach concluded. "Good. Once we left the rocks she can cover us with the onboard weapons." He looked ahead, checked his weaponry briefly, and took a deep breath. "Your preferred method, Goose. The crown troopers hear the engines, too.."
"Please..." Doc stuttered, hands defiantly raised. "Don't say—"
"There's no way but ahead!" The ST grinned.
"I'm not that stupid!!" Nimrod hastened back, jumped to the side and ducked between the rocks.
Goose turned for the Darghun, but Zach held him back. "Leave him. The crown troopers hear the engines, too. We can't waste time to chase him."
"And the bastard knows that." the ST ground his teeth.
"We know the crook. He's like a bad penny: he'll turn up again," Doc mentioned, "and it spares us the paper work."
"Galaxy Rangers. "Zach threw a final glance at the crown soldiers and released the safety switch of his blasters before he barked the last word into his wrist com. "Go!" The engines of Ranger-1 roared up. Niko lifted the vessel in record time, howled it at eye's height across the valley ground, whirling up huge clouds of glass dust that covered their way better than most of the weapons fire could have done. They almost had to fight only if one of the crown soldiers accidentally ran into them while they followed mostly the sound of the familiar engines...
"Gods!" Doc came to a staggering halt as a crown trooper four heads larger than he was appeared less than two steps in front of him. "Where did they find this one?"
"Doesn't matter." Goose growled beside the hacker, "He's..." he kicked the trooper in the groin and knocked him over with his elbow crashing against the chest armor while he was already running on, "...in the way."
"Please excuse him." Doc made a huge step across the fallen trooper. "He didn't have enough sleep today..." He followed Goose.
"Gods, where's Tom Selleck when he's needed?"
"Forget him," Goose growled. "We need a Magnum."
"Watch out!" The ST grabbed Doc's collar and pulled him back before he could slam into Ranger-1's lower hull. "The boarding platform is more left."
Zachary leaped on board, just behind them, slammed his hand on the lock and barked over board com. "All in! Lift off."
"Yes, Zachary. Already done," came Niko's reply.
15:49 [22:13 LST] Ranger-1
"For the last time, my Goose man, I did not cry 'mommy' when the three troopers trapped me against that rock!"
"Oh, yes, you did. You were pale as a ghost, Doc!"
"That was the dust sticking in my face!"
"Glued to it by your cold sweat!"
"Could you two please stop that?" Zachary intervened. "Don't you dare to tell me that either of you could understand anything outside in that noise!"
"At least they won't produce any working chips in that factory from now on." Doc pulled the Zanquil-disguise off and smoothed his uniform shirt. At Zach's questioning look: "My tweakers restructured their mainframe a little."
"I don't think they'll produce anything in that factory from now on." Goose next to them said dryly and pointed through the lock's window at Tortuna City, becoming smaller and smaller while Ranger-1 rushed away from Tortuna's gravitation well to enter hyperspace soon. The big flower of a powerful explosion bloomed next to the landing platforms. Smaller light domes appeared one after another in what seemed to be a row of tunnel entrances into the rock.
Zachary saw it, too. "What did you do?!"
"Punctured that plasma line Lazzie was so proud of." He grinned. "He told me about it while he bragged to Queenie about his advanced systems. Not good to bore me."
Fox shook his head.
"Do you think the Queen or Slade were still at the facility when it exploded?" Niko's voice came via board com.
"Never." Goose leaned back and reloaded his weapons before holstering them again. "That would have been thirty minutes."
"And?" Niko asked back at that.
"Girl, nobody can stand Lazzie talking for half an hour without being bored to death."
16:02 [22:26 LST] unnamed one-person-spaceship racing out of Tortunan Space
"Ah, my dearest Queen..." the man in the narrow cockpit sighed and continued his self-conversation. "What nasty advisers you have, accusing me, your greatest fan, of treason and sabotage..." he shook his head. "I will continue in my adoration. And I will regain your gratitude..." He threw a look at the rearview display. "As long as you don't catch me until you've had time to calm down, and I, to regain your gratitude by proving that I'm the greatest scientist throughout this galaxy. – Newton," he addressed the onboard AI, "set course for Mesa."
=As you wish, my lord and master.=
15:38 Cmdr. Walsh's Office
"Good work, Captain Fox." Walsh put the first report down and looked at the four S5's standing in line in front of his desk. "The production facility at Tortuna is destroyed, the plans of the Queen are known and the targeted businesses warned in case some of the chips escaped the destruction. Well done." His glance stopped at Fox. "I give you permission to inform your contacts at PPD about the results, Captain. Do it as soon as possible."
"I've arranged to meet with Lieutenant Clint, our contact from PPD, this afternoon, Sir."
Walsh commented that with a raised brow but didn't say anything about it. Zach's team wasn't that graceful after they left the office. "So you gonna have a date, chief?" Doc asked, grinning. "I'm shocked, Sir." He put a hand in theatrical gesture over his heart. "You know this woman for less than a month and you already–"
"Doc!" Zachary clenched his bionic hand and released it slowly to tighten his patience. "I'm meeting Lieutenant Clint for coffee to tell her the result of our investigations. Nothing more."
"Did you tell that to Lt. Clint already? In your shoes I wouldn't be so sure about her motives..."
"Do I smell a new aftershave, Zach?" Niko asked with an innocent smile. "Or is it just the fresh cleaned uniform?"
"It's aftershave," Goose at her side confirmed. "I know the difference to detergent."
Zachary grunted and increased his speed muttering something about 'unbearably nosy special forces personnel' and vanished around the next corner.
"Don't worry, folks," Doc rubbed his hands grinning in eager expectation, "I'll convince GV to tell us when he comes home this evening."
"Yup," Niko grinned. "Everything past 18:00 is suspicious."
"And if he's alone. His kids are on a class trip, remember?"
"Don't you think you're going too far with violating privacy?"
"What? Do you want to tell me you don't want to know?"
16:27 Coogan's Cafe – Downtown Phoenix
He scanned the cafe for the second time when a slender woman in red raised her hand in greeting. "Over here, Captain Fox."
"Lieutenant Clint. I didn't recognize you for a moment wearing a dress." He took a seat on the second chair.
"I seldom get to wear it in my job. Usually, I wear it to knock Martyn off balance." She grinned. "He tends to forget that his partner is a woman."
"Hard to believe." He raised the hand to signal the waiter.
"Not for Martyn." She shook her head. "I almost believed you wouldn't come at all, Captain."
"It was pretty difficult to come at all. – A coffee, black," he told the waiter and asked Lt. Clint what she wanted to have.
"A cappuccino, please."
The waiter noted their orders and left. "My team had one of its weirder days today."
She raised a questioning eyebrow.
"At the moment they believe us to have a date."
"And is that so impossible?" she asked in a soft voice.
He pulled his gloves off and laid them aside to make place for the tablet that was just brought, revealing in passing the gold ring on his right hand. "Yes, I'm afraid it is."
"I meant more their weird abilities than their weird ideas, Captain," she said after an odd moment as she took her cappuccino over to her.
He gave her an amused smile. "Well, that's no problem. I'm part bionic."
"Ouch." She made a face. "Is there anything more to step in that slipped my attention so far?"
He laughed faintly. "You haven't accused me of being Wheiner's election manager. So it can't be that bad. Aside from that... No, not really."
"So you couldn't arrest any of the responsible villains?" Nanata sighed and stirred her cooled down cappuccino.
Zachary shrugged. "We destroyed the production facility and a great part of their storage. Their import line is closed, their dealer on the run. In our job it's considered a success, Lieutenant."
"Nanata." She corrected with a smile.
"Okay, Nanata. Our operation eliminated the threat for the moment and gave BETA and the BWL the time to set up prevention measurements in case something similar is tried again."
"Seems to be a pretty frustrating job. I've at least got the pleasure of seeing my crooks thrown into the slammer for a couple of years from time to time..."
"Some of our customers are there as well." Zachary said dryly. "But just not all."
"Whom do you tell that? But especially in this case I'd like to see the crook put into an iceblock!" she snorted. "We ended up with 2963 deaths and more than 4000 people wounded in and around Phoenix. The knowledge that those villains can't go on is great, is important." She slammed her hand next to her cup onto the table. "But it's damned unsatisfactory!"
She caught herself. "Please excuse my temper in this case. I tend to take it too personally because my daughter got scratched when the first droids went mad."
"You've got children?"
"A daughter. She lives with her father." She swallowed the rest of her cappuccino and put the cup down.
"We are divorced," she explained roughly. "He was... too home-bound, too... inflexible in his daily schedule, you know all this 'my home is my castle' thing... to be able to cope with my job. It worked while I was a detective, but with the higher rank there was more work, changing shifts and more night shifts..."
"More trouble brought home with you in the evening."
"Exactly. He could cope with it and even support me a while, but in the end his exact daily schedule won." She shrugged in fatalism. "Angela's like him. She's happy there with him and his parents."
"I'm sorry for you. How old is she?"
Nanata sighed. "She's twelve. I get to see her every second week."
"My son's fourteen, and Jessie, my daughter, is eleven." He showed her the tiny holos.
She smiled at the pictures. "Nice. – I wish I could show you a picture of her, but it's in my other wallet..."
15:39 GRS5 Office
"Gooseman," Zach knocked with his lightpen on his datapad, working on the in-depth report. "Do you remember how many droids we destroyed in that house at Jefferson Plaza?"
"Are you sure? I thought there were seven."
The ST leaned back in his seat. "I needed eight shots. Eight shots. Eight droids."
Fox shook his head. "Why did I ask?"
"Goose?" Niko entered the room, a package under her arm. She tossed it over to him.
He looked up. "For me?"
"Naturally," she smiled. "I won't give someone else's present to you."
He tore open the bright colored paper and exposed an alarm clock with a funny shaped box beneath it. He turned it around. "I already got a new clock, Niko."
"But not like this one," she said earnestly. "Activate the alarm and put it on your desk." He did it. "Shoot it."
"Shoot it, Shane. Believe me, it's okay to do it."
He shrugged and obeyed. A blue sparkling field appeared around the clock when the blaster bolt hit its target. The alarm level increased considerably when the weapon energy was absorbed. "Hey. Great!" He laughed out and fired again. The bell reached an almost painful noise level. "No more reprimands for killed clocks in the future!"
"Turn it off!" She shouted across the noise. When he did it, a tiny LED-panel extended above the clock. A =10.0= blinked with bright red numbers. "Your score for accuracy."
Shane collapsed into his chair, uncontrollably laughing.
"The techs at SHoD's – formerly Dormin's – labs had a lot of fun constructing it," she explained, grinning, at her Captain's questioning look.