-Mercedes Lackey, "Threes"
Zachary was busy readying himself for another duty shift. In the kitchen, he could hear the clanking of dishes and the hiss of running water.
*Is it Zach or Jessi's turn to make breakfast?* he wondered, worrying with a couple of buttons that didn't want to match up with the buttonholes.
Finally getting the offending buttons fastened, Zachary straightened and checked his appearance one more time in the mirror. Okay.
*I hate inspection day,* he thought. *Even if I'm the one doing the inspecting.*
He walked over to the nightstand to get his gloves, and accidentally knocked over a picture. He didn't pay attention to it as he was busy trying to get evrything regulation-perfect on the uniform. It wasn't setting a very good example to the cadets if the person running the inspection didn't have everything on right himself.
"GV," he asked the home AI, "What's the date today? Earth Calendar?"
"June eighth, 2104."
Zachary shot up, paralyzed for a moment.
His stomach took a lurch not unlike the feeling of an elevator decending too fast. He didn't know what had really caused it - the date itself, or the fact that he was getting ready for just another day at the office and forgot.
He looked back, at the fallen picture.
Zachary picked it up off the floor. Frozen in time was a young Ranger Lieutenant, newly graduated, and trying to look dignified in his new dress uniform (only partially succeeding). Standing next to him was a pretty young woman wearing a simple, lace-trimmed white dress, and a long veil of white gauze.
The date read at the bottom, "June 8, 2084."
Zachary sighed and put the picture back on the nightstand. . *I'm sorry, Eliza. I'm really sorry we aren't celebrating right now. I hope you understand...wherever you are.*
Walking out to the kitchen, he saw that Jessi was munching her toast and fruit. She gestured to an empty seat. "Good morning, Dad."
He mussed her hair. "Morning, kiddo."
Jessi straightened her hair out a little bit. "Zach's got some fruit cut up in the kitchen, and some toast. I'm cleaning the dishes after he's done, since I know you want to get to work early."
"Thanks," Zachary said. "How's the science project coming along?"
Jessi grinned. "Well, Donna's got the graphs and stuff. I'm recording the data. You wouldn't believe how just varying one element can totally change the way a plant grows."
"Oh, I will," Zachary replied. "I missed your last science fair. I'm not missing this one."
At this point, Zachary Jr. emerged from the kitchen, carrying his own plate of breakfast. "Oh. hi, Dad."
Zach Jr. pushed his way past his father, and sat at the table, proceeding to wolf down his breakfast.
*Teenagers,* Zachary thought with a smile before walking into the kitchen himself. Life went on, and so would he.
Out the corner of his eye, Zachary saw that Jessi had taken down one of the home security cameras, and had it in her lap. Zachary stood up and watched with alarm.
"What are you doing, young lady?"
Jessi looked up. "Relax, Dad. It's all right. GV even showed me how to do this."
Zachary frowned and walked next to his daughter. "Well, what are you doing to the camera, exactly?"
"Modifying the signal so instead of sending it to GV's internal sensors, it sends the output to Donna's house. I send her my science project data that way.
"How does it work?"
Jessi grinned, and gestured to the chips on the couch. "Well, that over there are recording chips. The red one is a recording of the plants, and graphs of the sample data. I just take out the record chips..."
Jessi explained the set up. Most of it involved switching a few directional chips and avoiding GV's internal alarm systems. As she cheerfully talked him through it, Zachary shook his head. Seeing Doc pull something like this was one thing. Seeing his kid pull it off was quite another. He made a mental note to ask GV if there were other tricks built in that he should know about.
Jessi replaced the camera's cover. "Just press in her transmission code, and we're all set. See, Dad, it's simple."
Zachary picked up the camera and looked it over. "Thanks for showing me. Maybe I'll try it myself sometime."
Jessi put down the camera. "Dad, are you okay?"
Zachary looked up, startled.
"Well," she said. "Zach didn't want to bring it up, because he knows you get upset...I mean, this being the day you and Mom got married and with her being gone and all..."
Zachary patted her shoulder. "I think I'll be okay. I've got a lot of work today. Tonight, I might take you and Zach to see a movie or something."
"Dad, you don't have to -"
"It won't do any good to stay here, Jessi. Remember what she used to say to you two when I was out on assignment?"
Jessi smiled. "She started in on this imitation of Commander Walsh. I wish you could have seen it."
Zachary laughed a little at the mental picture. "She did, huh?"
Jessi nodded, still laughing. She squared her shoulders and dropped her voice. "'Captain Foxx, I want you to scout from here to the other end of the galaxy in the next twenty-four hours or else...'" Jessi coughed with the effort of keeping her voice twisted.
His ribs shook with silent laughter, but he strained to keep a straight face. "I don't think the commander would appreciate that, even though it *is* funny."
"She had a whole speech prepared," Jessi said with a shrug. "Wish I could remember it." She looked up at the wall chronometer and picked up her coat. "Well, the shuttle going to school's leaving soon. See you later."
She kissed her father's cheek before dashing out the door.
Zachary looked at the chronometer on the wall. He still had a half hour before he had to report in. Picking up a few chips and the security camera, he tried to repeat what she had done.
* * * *
It was too early when Niko's alarm clock had gone off, or at least it seemed that way.
But she was already up, and in the shower. Shane turned over and tried to ignore the obnoxious beeping.
"Damn it, babe," he muttered, still half-awake. "Does that thing *have* to be so obnoxious?"
No answer. He reached over to Niko's side of the bed. It was empty, but still warm. He groped around until he found the alarm clock on the nightstand.
His dexterity hadn't woken up yet. He missed the snooze button, and slapped the whole clock onto the floor, where it still beeped loudly. With a groan, Shane realized that he had to get up if he wanted the thing to quit blaring.
He grumbled and turned over on his stomach, covering his head with one of the pillows. That muffled the noise, but he realized that he was now too awake to go back to a sound sleep.
The shower quit running. A few minutes later, Niko walked out in uniform, casually picked up the alarm clock, and reset it. She shook Shane. "Come on, Shane. No sleeping in."
"Five more minutes."
"No way," she said with a small smile. "If *I* have to be up, then so do you."
"I just *had* to start sleeping with a morning person." A muffled sigh, and Shane turned over. "At least I get to wake up to a pretty face."
Niko blushed. She didn't think she'd ever get used to hearing him pay her compliments like that.
A quick kiss, then Niko pointed to the bathroom. "All yours, love."
With much reluctance, he got up from the bed, and headed towards the bathroom.
Niko padded out to the kitchen, and started to brew a *strong* pot of coffee for both herself and Shane.
Relaxing back in her chair, she stretched her muscles, and looked out the window. The sunrise was actually very pretty, painting all the clouds in shades of pink and orange.
*Wonder if she's making coffee...*
The intrusive thought-whisper startled Niko from her musing. Damn it all, weren't her shields working?
She sighed, and consciously blocked off her mind. She wasn't "hearing" Shane's thoughts, at least for now. With a mix of annoyance and fear, Niko realized that she had been having more and more difficulty with her "Gifts" lately. It was minor, but the fact that she wasn't able to fully shield herself was cause for concern. Shielding used to be instinct, something as natural as breathing. It used to be that she had to consciously let down the shields so that she could use her natural psychic gifts.
It had started, she guessed, when she was fitted with the Series Five implant. Using it allowed her to pull on more power than she'd been trained to use. At first, it just allowed her to increase her abilities. Like a muscle that had grown strong with use, after two years in the field, using her special gifts had required less implant power. Now, she was using the implant more to shield herself, and activating it to let *down* the shields. Same amount of charge needed, just refocusing it.
That was something she could manage. What she couldn't manage was this new ability that had manifested itself. When she had left Xanadau, she had only the barest ability to sense the thoughts of others. She had been told that since it hadn't manifested itself during adolecence, it probably wouldn't manifest itself at all.
They were wrong.
Shane had a latent Thought-sensing ability. It wasn't powerful enough for him to use unaided, but there was one assignment where he had no other option but to try to "send" he a message. He would have died if they found him any later, either by the *Laredo's* guns, or by his own changeling ability.
The contact had triggered something in both of them. It was barely noticeable in Shane's case. With Niko's still-growing psychic Gifts, the Thought-Sensing ability surged in growth to catch up with her FarSight and telekenetic abilities, growing wildly out of control. At first, the only one she could sense clearly had been Shane, then she started to "hear" the occasional stray thought from Zachary and/or Doc. Now it seemed that she had to be constantly shielding against that, and, it wasn't only the guys she was having to shield against, but just about anyone she came into contact with.
It had gotten a lot worse over the past few months, no doubt a result of Shane and her moving their relationship to a more "intimate" level. They both felt a need to keep their affair a secret, though. At this point, the only one Niko really trusted with the good news was her mentor, Ariel. Ariel had *encouraged* her to pursue the relationship, after all. Despite the secrecy, though, they were both glad they took the plunge.
She was still sitting at the kitchen table with a far-away look on her face when Shane emerged from the shower a few minutes later.
He was toweling off his hair, wearing the black shirt and jeans he'd come over last night with. "Hey, Niko..."
He caught himself in mid-sentence and walked over to her. "What's the matter? Shield going bad?"
She looked up at him with a troubled expression, "Oh, Shane, I..."
He sat down with her. "It's okay. You should talk to Q-Ball about it so he can do something with the implant. You don't have to tell him about us."
"I'm not sure about modifying the implant. After all, it's still experimental. I really don't want to risk a modification to it if I can help it."
"Niko, I don't understand. I know how powerful that new ability is."
"Which is why I don't really want to use it, Shane," she said, a little sharper than she would have liked. "I already depend on my implant a little too much. To depend on it more...I'm not sure I like the idea."
"What about Xanadau?"
Niko thought about it. "I already filed for a leave of absence, but I don't know when it would clear."
He sat in the chair next to her. "I just know how hard it is on you, babe. I hate to see you running yourself ragged when you don't have to."
"I think I'll be all right," she said. "But thanks for caring."
"That's what friends are for," he said, a lopsided smile lighting up his face.
"Friends and lovers."
He laughed. "Well, we're living proof that it's a pretty fine line between the two sometimes."
He leaned over and kissed her again. When he finally broke it off, he gestured to the chronometer on the wall. "I've got to go back home and get in uniform, Niko. We don't exactly want Zachary asking questions, do we?"
"Or worse," Niko chimed in, "Buzzwang. That thing's got to be the snoopiest creation Q-Ball's ever come up with."
Shane laughed. "Anyway, babe, I'll see you at base."
He walked out the door, letting it slide shut behind him.
* * * *
After the inspection was over, Zachary walked back to the recreation lounge to get himself another cup of coffee. He walked in to find Doc at a far table, engrossed in his own cup of coffee, and the latest technical journal.
When the door hissed open, Doc looked up and put down his datapad. "Hey, Zachary. How was inspection?"
"Either I'm getting old, or they keep recruiting them young," Zachary said, walking over to the coffeepot and pouring a fresh mug for himself. "A few of the new cadets aren't much older than my son."
Doc grinned. "Just tell yourself you're twenty-nine and holding."
"Yeah right, Doc," Zachary said before sitting down with the coffee, and pulling out a datapad of his own.
"Thought you usually did your paperwork at home or in your office, Zachary," asked Doc. "Something wrong?"
Zachary looked up. "Am I being obvious?"
"I've never known you not to be," Doc answered.
The door in the front of the room opened. Doc and Zachary turned to see who had come in. Shane and Niko were talking quietly as they entered, his arm around her shoulder in a way that might have been friendly if one wasn't looking at the rest of their body language. The two younger Rangers sat on a couch near the holoviewer and continued their conversation, seemingly oblivious to their colleagues.
"Young love," Doc chuckled. "Strange stuff."
"Well, what about you?" Zachary teased. "Don't tell me you haven't been hit." "Been hit, got burned," Doc said. "It was great while it lasted, though. I suppose I could be called 'sadder but wiser.'"
"What was she like?" asked Zachary.
Doc thought for a moment. "Crazy...but great while it lasted. "
Zachary decided to change the subject. "I heard something from Powell today."
"Oh?" asked Doc, perking up a bit. Powell was a cadet that had been mentoring under Doc for a few months now. Mentoring was the primary form of education that the Kiwi used, passing skills from master to apprentice. When put in practice at BETA, field officers mentored cadets, giving them the necessary "hands on" skills to work when they were put out on their own.
"He tells me that you just passed up another shot at promotion."
Doc sat back, somewhat deflated. "Oh, that."
"Come on, Doc. There are folks who think you should have been a field captian three years ago. They want to kick you up the ranks."
"But I'm refusing to let them, I know," said Doc. "Command's just not my thing."
"Still, rank has its privleges."
"And its drawbacks. I don't want to be promoted out of the field. I love what I'm doing a little too much. Besides, I'm not the command type."
"Still, there's nothing quite like having a team of your own," said Zachary. "I know how nervous I was to take the reins."
Doc shrugged. "Seriously, I really don't want to become a desk pilot before my time. Spent a few too many years behind one trying to get my Ph.D."
Zachary nodded. "I know how that works, especially for Specialists."
"Yeah. Give them a chance, and your illustrious career gets buried under 6 feet of paperwork. Besides, I couldn't ask for a better group of people to work with."
A lengthy pause followed. Doc broke it by changing the subject.
"So," said Doc. "Back to my earlier question. What's up with you?"
Zachary smiled a little. Typical Dr. Hartford diversionary tactic. Duck the question, smile, then change the subject with such an invisible charm and grace you didn't notice it until it was too late to return to the original subject without sounding like a fool. Sometimes, it was a trait that got on Zachary's nerves, but he had come to accept it and actually enjoy playing along. It was pretty obvious by now that the computer hacker had said all he was going to say concerning his status in the ranks, anyway.
Zachary looked sadly at the wedding band on his finger. "Today is...or was supposed to have been, my twentieth wedding anniversary."
"Geez," muttered Doc. "You got hitched young."
Zachary tried to laugh, but it hurt too much at the moment. "I don't know. Twenty-two didn't seem so 'young' at the time."
"Twenty-two," Doc thought. "Nope. You never do think you're young at that age. Eighteen, Nineteen, you know it. Hit twenty, though, and suddenly, you feel like you're up on everything." Doc then laughed. "True wisdom doesn't catch up until you're at least thirty-five. Which means, I've only a couple years left to act like a complete fool."
Zachary laughed. "What about forty?"
"Plan retirement and start panicking because your kid wants to use the land cruiser."
Now Zachary was really laughing. Zach Jr. was taking driving school, and asking to borrow the land cruiser almost daily.
"I don't know about retirement, Doc," Zachary answered. "I've put some away for the kids in case something happens to me, but I'm not thinking too much about retirement."
An announcement over the intercom interrupted the conversation. "Series Five Team, report to Commander Walsh's office."
Zachary looked over the room, "Duty calls, everyone. Come on."
Commander Joesph Walsh was reading the security brief that his aide had given him when the door slid open, admitting the four Rangers.
Walsh made no secret of being proud of the Series Five Team. They were the best agents BETA had to offer, and any objections to their conduct or unorthodox methods were balanced out by the end results of their missions.
He took a head count. Dr. Walter Hartford, the top computer scientist in the Ranger corps, possibly the whole League. There always seemed to be an air of "stage magician" to Doc's bearing, as if he was going to reach inside his belt pouch and pull out a rabbit rather than his CDU. Despite (or perhaps because of) his easy-going disposition, could be a very skilled diplomat if the situation warranted.
Trailing right behind Doc was Specialist Lieutenant Niko, the mysterious young woman whose psychic abilities were only matched by her skill at martial arts. She had no surname, no records prior to entering the Ranger Academy, and sometimes Walsh had to wonder if the girl was even full human.
She stood next to Ranger Lieutenant Shane Gooseman, possibly the most controversial addition to the team. There were still Senators and high-ranking officials who wanted to put the former Supertrooper in a cryogenic coffin. Walsh had his own reasons for sparing Shane, a few of them personal.
And the motley trio was led by Captain Zachary Foxx, whose orderly manner and by-the-book approach seemed to make him an odd choice for the job. Then again, Walsh remembered, Zachary also had demonstrated the potential to go rogue on occasion. Whether it was because of the loss of his wife, or due to the influence of his team, Walsh really couldn't say.
Walsh nodded tersely. "Good. You're all here."
"What's on the table today, Commander?" Doc said, flashing his trademark grin.
"We need you to go to Tortuna and pick up an informant."
"What is he doing on Tortuna?" asked Zachary.
"He's on the run from the Queen. He knows the current status of the Crown fleet," Walsh said. "She's been up to some rather suspicious activity lately, and we need to find out what she's planning."
"What kind of information do we have, Commander?" asked Niko, crossing her arms.
"That's the problem. Virtually nothing. Our usual informants have stopped reporting. Crown Communications are virtually nil, and this has been going on for the past eight weeks."
"Maybe the Queen's taking a vacation," Shane commented dryly.
Walsh ignored Shane's comment. "The Crown lost most of her fleet when she tried to attack BETA last time. She was down to about thirty percent of her previous strength at last report."
"The only drawback to that," Zachary observed. "Is that we also took a pounding in that battle."
"That's why she's resorted to attrition tactics," grumbled Walsh. "Lots of hit and run attacks along the Border. Even though her ships aren't really designed for those kind of tactics, they still have caused a lot of damage."
"I know," said Zachary. "We've lost a few ships. A lot of good men, too."
"However," said Walsh. "The border's been quiet these past few weeks. That could be a good sign, but there's been no information coming our way. We can't even listen in on her communications. It appears that the Crown is going for silent running for some reason we have yet to discover."
The screen behind Walsh's head flickered, and the picture of a Dathian man flashed up on the screen. Dathians were humanoid, with blue-tinged skin and dark hair. This Dathian was short and wiry, typical of his species. Dathians were one of the few species who were willing members of the Crown Empire. Their physiology made them incompatable with the Psychocrypt, but they served in the Queen's army, and their homeworld was a primary technological and ship-building center for the Empire.
"This man is Kerr Orthallan, a Crown military officer who deserted from the Crown Royal Guard. He has been sending to Crown military secrets to BETA for six months. In exchange, BETA has granted his request to defect to the League, as well as granting him political amnesty."
Shane was unimpressed. "What has he done?"
"Several raids on Gherka, commanded the fleet that destroyed the *Defiance* and the *Admiral Rekel* ten months ago...even commanded a Destroyer during the Kirwin raid two years ago. He almost gave the Queen eighty human Slaverlords."
Zachary winced. There had been eighty-one human captives at the Crown palace. Rescuing them had been his team's first mission.
"So why are we rescuing this creep?" Shane said.
"According to previous information, there's been a concentration of the Crown's forces in a few sectors near the border. The concentration and patterns of the skirmishes seem to confirm this, as wel as the fact that they've stopped. He claims that he has reports that quite possibly singal an imminent Crown invasion."
"An invasion?" asked Niko.
"Her forces have been stuck down so far that she'll use it as a last-ditch strike at BETA," Walsh said, "We know that she's coming, and we've arranged our own defenses on the border, but there is the question of when and where the Queen will try to strike," Walsh answered. "Right now, we're spread very thin due to the skirmishes. I don't have to tell you that the Crown's got more fire power at her disposal than we do, even though she's been knocked down a few pegs."
"And this Orthallan has information about that?" asked Doc.
Walsh nodded. "Or so he claims. Without this information, BETA won't be prepared when she does invade. She raises an armada and attacks one or two sectors, BETA won't be able to stop her before she takes a border planet." Walsh nervously smacked the palm of his hand with his command wand. "When she does, she'll no doubt increase her forces by Psychocrypting the human population. If that happens, then the League would probably crumble within days."
"With all due respect, sir," said Zachary. "Should we trust someone like Kerr Orthallan, or even grant him amnesty?"
"That's not your jurisdiction, Foxx," Walsh said gruffly. "We need this information. Just go to Tortuna and pick him up. Geezy's got access to the safe house. You have twenty-four hours to make the pick-up and return."
They left the briefing room, on their way to the ship. On the way, Zachary stopped at a communications relay. "Go on ahead. This will only take a minute."
The others nodded and continued while Zachary punched in the code for GV. "GV?" Zachary asked.
The blue and green eye flashed up on the screen. "Yes, sir?"
"GV, are the kids home?"
The eyeball bobbed up an down in an imitation of a nod. "Yes, sir. Both of them."
"Good. I've got a message for them."
"One moment, sir."
A second later, GV's icon was replaced with the faces of Zach Jr. and Jessi. "Hi, Dad," Jessi said.
"Hello, you two," Zachary answered. "Look, I'm not going to be home tonight."
"Another mission?" asked Zach Jr.
Zachary nodded. "Yes. With any luck, I'll be back by tomorrow." He smiled. "Just keep the house clean and get dinner for yourselves."
"Can you tell us about it when you get back?" asked Jessi.
"I'm afraid it's one of 'those' kind of missions, Jessi," Zachary answered. "But don't worry too much about me. I'll be back."
"Good luck, Dad." Zach said.
"Bye, said Zachary. "Love you both."
"Bye, Dad," both of them answered before cutting the transmission.
With that, Zachary walked down the hallway quickly in order to catch up with his team. He caught up with them at the lift, and all four of them were on their way to the Recharge Chamber and the shuttlebay.
* * * *
Zachary silently piloted Ranger One, sending the other three to the back to prepare. Once they had donned the flashy robes and scarves marking them as Zanguil peddlers, the other three Rangers spent the remaining time with a deck of cards.
Doc was grinning under the blue scarf. He stared down Shane from across the table. "See your raise and up you five." The hacker put a few more chips in the pile.
Shane stared down his opponent for a long time, looking for any sign of weakness. Finally, he got annoyed and lay down his cards. "Fold."
Doc lay down his hand. Three useless cards and a pair of fours stared back. "Gooseman, I really need to teach you how to play poker."
"If I wasn't playing with a smart-ass..." Shane began, picking up the cards and re-shuffling the deck.
"Well, you didn't exactly work your way through school by dealing cards in a tavern," said Doc.
"I didn't know you used to work as a card shark, Doc," Niko said.
Doc leaned back. "I didn't. Friend of mine did."
Niko shook her head and counted her chips. So far, the men were bleeding her dry. "There's just something about this assignment that doesn't seem right."
"No kidding, but it's what we've been trained to do. BETA says, 'Oh gee, the Queen is getting under our skin,'" commented Doc. "'But we don't want to send in the troops. Let's send in our special suicide squad!'"
"Hey," Shane said. "There are worse jobs out there."
Doc shrugged. "True, but you ever get the feeling that we're just overglorified kamakasie pilots?"
Shane started to deal out another hand. "You get used to it."
Niko wasn't paying much attention to Shane and Doc's banter. A outside thought-voice echoed in her head.
*I have to stop thinking about how much I miss her. I have a mission to do...*
The thought-voice was Zachary's. Niko shook her head. Damn it...why did she let her shield drop? She shielded in a split second, so that she stopped "eavesdropping."
*Gods,* she thought. *I really must watch that.*
She looked up at the cockpit. Zachary was flying silently, already dressed in his peddler's garb. He seemed to be staring off into nothing, as he often did.
She asked Shane and Doc, "Guys, is something wrong with Zachary?"
Shane looked at her warily, but Doc quietly answered the question.
"Yeah. It's his twentieth wedding anniversary, and you guys know how he is about anything relating to his wife."
Niko scowled. "I'll bet going to Tortuna to pick up Captain Orthallan isn't helping much."
Shane said, "I think he needs some time alone. Piloting the ship gives him something to concentrate on."
"It's actually a tough call," said Doc. "Maybe staying clear would make it worse. I think if he gets through today, though, he'll be fine." Doc cleared his throat. "Anyway, talking behind someone's back like this is definitely NOT proper. Deal the cards, Goose."
Niko got up. "You two play. I'm out of chips."
Niko walked up to the co-pilot's seat, and sat down. She took a moment to slip into a trance and work on her shields. She couldn't afford to have them fall on her when they arrived on Tortuna. Today was really a bad day, and having an off day on Tortuna could be fatal. There was one thing she could do for "insurance," though. She felt for her waist, and pressed the gold star underneath her parka.
It didn't take much power, just a quick burst. She concentrated. Ground and center....then shield. She formed the mental image of herself surrounded by a gold, glowing light and concentrated on it until she was certain it was complete. No one would notice.
She brought herself out of the trance. The shield was temporary, a "quick fix," but it would last long enough for them to make the pick-up and leave. She didn't like having to draw off the implant's energy to keep the shielding up, but it was better draining the implant than endangering herself and her colleagues with a gift gone rogue.
Niko looked over to the pilot's seat. Zachary was still working on the ship's controls silently.
"Zachary," asked Niko. "Are you all right?"
The words seem to unfreeze him. He relaxed a bit in his chair.
"Doc told me about today," she added.
Zachary took in a deep breath. "Yeah. I told him this morning." He turned to her and afforded her a smile. "I'll be okay, Niko, but thank you for coming up here."
Niko smiled gently.
"The three of you help me more than you know," he said quietly. "It doesn't hurt as badly when I have you guys to take care of."
"Really?" asked Niko.
"The three of you are like another family," he said, touching her shoulder. "I may have lost Eliza, but in some ways it feels like I adopted three more children."
Niko was a little surprised that Zachary said it aloud. He was something of a stoic, especially when he considered himself "on duty."
"Really?" she asked.
"I hope you don't take offence to it," Zachary said.
Niko shook her head. "Of course not. I don't mind the thought of being 'adopted,'" she said wryly.
He turned to her, his movements much more fluid. "The scary part about it is that Ambassador Skye thought you *were* my daughter."
Niko was surprised. Skye was an ambassador from Jouret Five, a human colony recently signed into the League as a planet of its own. He was a sweet old man who went out of his way for guests and gladly topped off the treaty signing with a large gala. It was actually more of a vacation than an assignment.
Zachary smiled. "I really didn't know what to say for a few seconds. I told him that you weren't related to me. All he said was that you were somebody's daughter."
"Somebody's, but your guess is as good as mine. I don't remember anything before waking up on Xanadau. Ariel said that she 'found' me, but when or where, she still hasn't said."
"Does it bother you? Not knowing where you came from?"
Niko sighed. "Not really. Goose is the one who wants to know everything he can about his background, and who can blame him?"
Zachary nodded silently.
Both Shane and Niko were orphans. Niko just simply never knew how she'd been found by the Circle, and by Ariel, the odd-looking woman who mentored her. Zachary recalled Ariel as being quite charming, albiet eccentric. He also had seen Niko's adoptive homeworld of Xanadau. It was an incredibly lovely place, full of fields and trees. He'd been told later that he was the first "outsider" to see the planet in a long time.
By contrast, Shane's "parents" were nothing more than anonymous genetic donors, donating their DNA to help create ultimate soldiers. If he let himself think about it, the idea made Zachary physically ill. Creating children and designing them to kill was a chilling prospect. It was a joyless life those Supertroopers had led - small wonder they'd all gone outlaw, except for Shane. Even he was a bitter, angry young man at first, trusting nothing and no one. Shane wasn't as harsh or as wary as he was two years ago, and Zachary knew Niko had a lot to do with it.
He knew why Shane and Niko were trying to keep the true nature of their relationship a secret. To the brass, personal feelings were a liability in battle. Human emotions didn't lead to tactically sound decisions. Soldiers were expendable - lovers and friends weren't.
On a personal note, though, Zachary wished them the best. They had both seen so much strife and isolation in their young lives. If they'd found comfort in each other, then to hell with what the brass thought.
An alarm sounded, and Zachary punched in the order to drop from hyperspace. The red and brown planet of Tortuna gleamed below them.
Zachary stood up, and turned around. Once the mission began, he was a different creature entirely. He addressed the team.
"All right, everyone. Geezy should be waiting for us once we touch down. We'll most likely be using the underground tunnels to get into the city. More than likely, we'll get Orthallan out by the same route. Keep your blasters set on max. If this is a trap, I don't want to take chances."
Ranger One touched down behind a ridge, a few kilometers from the Great Dome. The platform descended, and the Rangers walked out, onto the dry, hot desert surface.
Doc looked up and down the valley. "I don't see Geezy anywhere."
"Funny," said Zachary. "I've never known him to be late."
There was the sound of metal grinding against rock behind them. The Rangers spun around, blasters ready.
A door was opening in the rock. A very-well hidden door. If one hadn't been scanning for it, one wouldn't know it was there. A four-fingered hand poked out from the small crack and opened it further. A yellow, elephant-like trunk soon followed.
Geezy cursed, and pushed the door a little more before he was able to pry it open enough to get through.
He waddled up to the Rangers, and said, "Oh, you again."
"You were expecting someone else?" asked Shane
The joke was lost to the Pegelount. "This way, Ranger Hummings," grumbled Geezy, motioning the four into the hidden door, and making sure to seal the passageway behind them.
"Tell me what you know about the Crown forces, Geezy," Zachary asked the Pegelount.
Geezy brushed a spider's web away. "Not much, Hummings. Queen is keeping secret lately. My usual informants can't even bribe her guards. All I know is that she seems to have a lot fewer Slaverlords about."
"I wonder why," Zachary wondered aloud.
"Beats me," Geezy answered, punctuated by a sigh trumpeted through his trunk. "All I know is that three years ago, there used to be hundreds of Slaverlords in Tortuna. The number's dropped to only a few dozen. The spydroids have taken over the job, though."
"That does sound odd," Niko said.
"It's just my observation, Hummings," the Pegelount warned. "I know she's desparate for Slaverlord materials as the League has cut off her supply. Perhaps she doesn't want to put the Slaverlords in a vulnerable spot."
"What can you tell us about Kerr Orthallan?" asked Shane
Geezy frowned. "Not much. He came to me six months ago. His information is good, and he *was* a Crown Guard Captain. He maintained the Tortunan Palace when the Queen was somewhere else. He's a brutal one to prisoners. A real nose-wringer."
Geezy reflectively rubbed his short trunk. Zachary wondered for a moment if Geezy had crossed paths with Orthallan before.
They walked up a metal flight of stairs up to another metal door recessed in the wall. "We're at the street. I'll take you as far as the building."
Geezy opened the door, and the Rangers stepped out into the city of the Great Dome.
Tortuna was a place where paranoia was a way of life.
Zachary pulled the heavy cloak around him tighter. The Zanguil garb always seemed too thin a shield between his team and the Psychocrypt. He'd been there once, and wouldn't wish it on anyone, especially anyone under his command.
Geezy warily eyed the spydroids. The Pegelount was familiar with the streets, the pattern of the pink, all-seeing robots.
*Geezy's right. There's more of them.* Zachary noticed. The number had definitely increased since their first arrival on Tortuna two years ago. One could hardly cross the street and not have their actions recorded by a pink sphere.
*..."It was a bright, cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen...Big Brother Is Watching You."*
If it wasn't the spydroids, though, it was Slaverlords, and the fewer of either Zachary had to deal with on any trip to Tortuna, the better.
They came upon the city outskirts, to a particularly ramshackle hovel that used to be an apartment or boarding-house.
"This is the place," Geezy said.
"You going in?" asked Doc.
The Pegelount shook his head. "No way, Ranger Hummings. I stay safely out of the way. Big ears, big tears. Remember - you never saw me."
Niko checked her blaster. Out the corner of her eye, she saw that everyone was doing the same. Cautiously, they entered the shabby building, and walked up to the stairs. She was getting a very uneasy feeling about this.
"So far, so good," Shane said, still keeping his hand near his blasters, and not taking any chances.
Orthallan's hide out was in a typical Tortunan apartment building. The windows that weren't gaping with holes were boarded up, and the doors locked three different ways, at least one of the locks broken by forced entry or lockpicking. Evidence of vermin was everywhere, and trash stacked up in reeking piles. What wasn't typical of the building was the noise, or lack of it. You could hear the whizzing of the spy droids outside. Suddenly, a rat ran across the floor and across Niko's boot. She jumped and stifled a startled gasp, then reflectively jerked up her boot, and kicked the offending rodent clear across the hallway.
"Great accommodations," Shane commented sarcastically. "Dozen and a half roach motels each floor."
Doc laughed uneasily. "I've lived in worse. Besides, the sign outside *did* advertise free meals."
Zachary looked back over his shoulder. "Quiet it down, you two."
They arrived at the door. It was on the top floor, at the end of the hall. Great place for a trap.
Niko spoke up, "Zach, I don't know about this.... I'm getting a real bad feeling..."
"I know, Niko," Zachary answered. "I don't like this either, but the information is vital." He turned to Shane. "Goose, watch our backs. This could very well be a set-up."
Shane nodded. Zachary took a deep breath and knocked on the door, using the code Geezy had specified.
It seemed to take forever for the door to open. When it finally creaked open, and a tall, thin humanoid with pale blue skin peered out. Zachary recognized him from the holos as being Kerr Orthallan. He had something of a world-weary air to him, fatigue showing on his long face.
"Zanguils?" The man frowned.
Zachary gave the alias he had been told to use. "I'm Jorel, you have what my associates and I ask for?"
The Dathian nodded. "Very well. You know my payment?"
"Then come in," Orthallan invited.
Shane eyed the man warily, but he also kept a keen eye on the hallway behind them.
The Rangers slowly walked into the room. Zachary and Niko went first, Doc came in after Niko, and Shane brought up the rear. After Shane was inside, Orthallan closed the door
They looked around the room. Niko was very uneasy. Something was definitely not right....she tried to pass it off as just nerves. She always had a bad feeling about Tortuna, but it was even worse than usual.
She was tempted to lower the shields and try to sense Orthallan's intentions, but she didn't dare. First, she might not get anything out of the Dathian at all. She could sense some sort of shields. Dathians, she remembered, hated telepaths. Second, with the gaggle of minds in the city, trying to use that gift would be like grabbing a Poe Mutant Sensation Doll with both hands. It would wind up backfiring and crippling her, putting everyone in danger.
The room didn't help. All the windows were boarded up, a door at the other end of the room was likewise boarded up. The only thing in the room was a filthy mattress and a battered nightstand. It was very dark, except for thin rays of light coming in through the cracks in the boards. It would take too long to blast out the boarded up windows, and then, there was no fire-escape to climb down. It was just too good a place to not be a trap.
"Nice place you got here," Doc commented, looking at possible escape routes, and growing tense at finding none.
"A fugitive has no luxuries," the man said. "I am Captain Kerr Orthallan, Royal Guard." He looked steadily at Zachary. "And you must be the esteemed Captain Foxx I have heard so much about..."
Under the scarf, Zachary frowned. He didn't want to make a positive id. "Possibly."
Orthallan nodded coolly. "Wise. Very wise. The Queen has chosen her enemies well."
"We're here to hear whatever you have to say," Zachary said, "And then take you back to BETA."
Orthallan rose from the mattress and inspected the Rangers carefully. "What I have to say is simple, Captain. Dead men tell no tales."
There was the sound of splintering wood, the whine of blasters, and the cracking of plastic as the walls fell away, revealing that they were hollow and fake - filled with Crown Troops.
"An ambush!" yelled Zachary. Everybody, fight an escape route!"
The rangers already had weapons in hands and were quick to obey their captain. They stood with their backs to each other.
Shane growled and began fighting the robots with his bare hands. Zachary was already starting to shoot, but there were way too many guards. Doc was shooting into packs of soldiers, hoping to scatter them. Niko was doing the same, felling a few in the process.
"Get them!" yelled Orthallan, hiding behind a pack of soldiers. "Look out for the badges!"
Shane was plowing his way through the tangle when he turned and realized that he was surrounded. There was a huge crack and Shane winced and stumbled back. He slapped his badge, and the pain deadened, but more shots were coming, and it was starting to drain him. Pretty soon, he wouldn't be able to hold out.
Niko saw Shane trapped in the corner. He had taken a lot of hits, and was a too busy struggling to see a robot guard raise its blaster and aim it right at him. Niko rushed the guard and smashed its helmet with the butt of her shotgun. She fired almost blindly, picking off guards, but more flooded in.
After smashing another robot, she whirled around to see three guards raising their blasters. Before she even had a chance to activate an energy shield, the blasts hit her, and she was unconscious before she hit the floor.
"Doc! What about your tweakers?! Can they do anything to help us out here?" Zachary called out over his shoulder.
Doc would have to stop shooting to get them out. Could he take the chance?
"I don't know which of 'em are robots," he said. He decided to take the chance. It seemed to be their best option under the circumstances. "Cover me, Zach!"
"Right!" Zach answered, and tapped his badge, activating his Thunderbolt.
He sent the Thunderbolt towards the door, the yellow energy burst shattering the door. the wooden door burst into flames. The dry, old, and ill-maintained wood started to blaze like kindling.
This forced other legions of Crown Guards back, but it also trapped the Rangers in an inferno. With no way out, all four of them would die of the smoke and the blaze.
Zachary was burning with a dark rage. He didn't care. Death was better than the Psychocrypt.
A loud crack, and a startled human cry. Zachary whipped around to see the five holograms flickering and dimming, and their wielder lying unconscious on the floor. Doc had been hit, falling just inches from Zachary's heels.
"Zach! We've got to get out of here!" Shane called to his captain.
Zachary grew even more harshly determined. "The building's on fire. No chance."
Shane punched another Guard. "Been an honor serving with you, sir."
Orthallan called out from his secure spot, "Surrender, Galaxy Rangers, and maybe the Queen will have pity on you."
*I've had enough of the Queen's pity, Orthallan,* thought Zachary. He activated his badge again. The Thunderbolt shattered the wooden floor, taking Shane, Zachary, and half the guards crashing to the basement.
There were more guards waiting on the first floor. All fresh, and all armed - too many of them. Some of them worked on putting out the fire, and surrounding them.
Shane was staggering. The Crown guards were overwhelming him, and Zachary couldn't see him, only hear the sounds of struggle in his general direction get fainter and fainter.
Guards armed with gas guns and blasters came in...two or three new to every one he was able to take down. They had him up against the wall. No escape. More shots. It didn't knock him out, but sent him reeling off-balance. Zachary managed to activate his wrist communicator, and pant in a last command. "Foxx to GV - Condition Black Arrow! Repeat Black Arrow!"
He turned to face another group of opponents, but only met with the business end of a blaster pistol, and the purple-blue beam coming right for him.
A huge crack, and every nerve in his body sang with hellish pain for a spilt second eternity before he finally blacked out and collapsed to the floor.
Orthallan straightened. "Everyone take them," he said. "And get a medical team. We want healthy Slaverlords, after all."