"The Queen wants to see you," the first one droned.
He didn't move, speak, or so much as twitch.
"Think he's alive?" asked the other one.
They walked over to him. Zachary didn't even seem to notice their presence, staring "He's breathing."
The guards pulled him up from the seat. He gave no resistance. It was almost like handling an atomoton. With a minimum of prodding, they led him out the door and into the hallway.
"Captain," said the Queen. "Come and watch."
A little prodding sent Zachary walking over to her side.
"What's the matter, Captain?" the Queen said. "Don't you like watching history?"
On the monitor in fromt of them, the Queen saw her forces going out to meet the BETA fleet.
"Your fleet is no match for mine. They are outnumbered three to one. From the safety of my palace, you will see the end of your insignifigant League of Planets, and the beginning of your species' extinction."
"No..." Zachary whispered.
"I wouldn't hurt you if you didn't try to stop me," she said, anger seeping into her voice. "Submit to me, and I promise you'll be treated well."
Zachary seemed to snap out of it for a moment, moving his hand to lean on the Queen's throne.
"As you can see, Captain, it is too late to resist. Kneel to me, and I will spare you. Beg for mercy and I may spare your children the Psychocrypt."
Zachary's hand shifted, pressing a control on the Queen's throne. Projected in the air before her, in miniture, was a 3-dimentional projection of the injured Niko.
"I'm sorry, Zach. I tried..."
The Queen's eyes grew wide as she was unable to do anything out of pure shock. The recording played its endless loop. The wounds appeared, the image screamed, then vanished, only to repeat its death endlessly.
"Another dream..." Zachary droned. "Another illusion."
Recovering her will, the Queen tried to force Zachary away, but the recording still played, despite removing his hand from the controls.
"I'm sorry, Zach...I tried...I'm sorry, Zach...I tried..."
"I know what you want," Zachary said dully. "You want me to see my friends die. You wanted to make me tell everyone that I can't fight you...But I fought you..."
The Queen backed away as the scene played in miniature. "Niko" said her final words, then the wounds appeared, then the holographic tape played another lap.
"I know why you aren't going to let me die," Zachary said. "I know why you don't want to put me in the Psychocrypt..." He started to laugh, but it wasn't sane laughter.
The Queen lept out of her throne and backed away, then grew harsh and angry. "You've foiled my plans once too often, Ranger Foxx! The Crypt is too good for you."
She concentrated, and started to summon an energy bolt at her fingers. She was about to raise her hand against Zachary when the alert signals in her palace went off.
"Highness," cried the voice of Captain Jaol, commander of the Destroyer *Fury,* "BETA's fleet has sliced through our first line of defense."
Temporarily forgetting her rage at Zachary, the Queen hit the communications panel. "Then send out all we have! Call reinforcements in from neighboring sectors."
"We already have!" yelled Jaol.
The League was holding their own, but the fighting was fierce.
"Give the Queen everything we've got!
"We're trying. Deflector shields on Crown Destroyer down to seventy percent.
A jolt slammed into the large ship.
"Shields down to fifty percent!"
Walsh had a sickening feeling. Let's hope the Traash fleet made good on its word...
Three Fighters were on the tail of Ranger One as Niko swerved the ship to avoid yet another asteroid.
They fired, and Niko fell forward in the chair as GV's screen went blank.
"GV?" she asked, trying to get the AI back on line. "Come on, GV."
The eyeball icon pulled itelf back. "I am...not damaged. Aft shields have taken a lot of hits.
"They might take a few more. Hold on!"
She rocked in her seat as the ship rocked dangerously to avoid hitting asteroids. Two of them were drifting together right in front of her.
The Crown fighters were still on her tail. She couldn't take much more of this.
Hunkering down in her seat, she made a few jerky turns with the stick. This had better be right, or she'd be nothing but space debris.
GV closed its eyeball, afraid to look.
The larger battlecruiser swerved around the asteroid, and narrowly missed the other by a bare few meters, making a tight "S" pattern through the belt. It was like driving a tight mountain road at speeds that would make a professional racecar driver blanch.
The fighters attempted to puresue her, but the vibration left by Ranger One's engines disrupted them at such a close range. The fighters spun it out of control, smashing head-on into the asteroids behind her.
Niko breathed a sigh of relief, but continued her breakneck course through the asteroid belt. Finally, she was in the provervial eye of the storm, right next to the Queen's Asteroid Palace.
"Great piloting, Ranger Niko." GV said.
Niko managed a laugh. "I think even Shane would be impressed."
"I would not want to guess," the AI unit responded. "But I am most glad to be in one piece."
"That makes two of us," she said. "Any more company to worry about?"
"No more pursuit vessels," reported GV. It would appear that they have other targets."
She nodded. "Then, GV, find the nearest airlock, and prepare to dock. I'm making a rescue attempt."
As she loaded her blaster, however, she got a keen sense of dread. She could sense the Queen on the station, and she remembered Vallian's words.
*If you confront Jesset now, you will lose the battle.*
Niko closed her eyes and took a deep breath. She checked once more to make sure she had Shane's crystal with her.
She took careful note of his face one more time before slipping it back into her belt pouch.
*I hope you'll understand,* she thought.
Checking her pistol one more time, Niko strode through the airlock, and into her fate.
"Estimated Crown Strength?" asked Nagata.
"The Queen still has fifty Fighters, Three Destroyers, and Two Slaver transports."
"BETA Fleet?" asked Walsh.
"We've lost the *Argo,* the *Liberation,* and the *Courageous,*" reported the Kiwi at the sensor grid. "Thirty interceptors destroyed. The *Scorpion* has taken very little damage, and is isolating the last wave of fighters."
"Keep it up," Walsh ordered.
A hit jostled the Babylon, sending Vallian sprawling against the wall. A technician ran up to him.
Walsh turned. Indeed, the psychic was dead.
Orthallan was cheering. "Hit them. Kill them!"
The Crown giunners were giving everything. Already, several of those BETA ships were going up in smoke. Perhaps this day, they would claim victory.
Oh, yes. Millions of Slaverlords. all the Glory of the Empire. Those rebellious Andorians and muddle-minded Kiwi would learn their lesson soon enough.
"Sir," said the Dathian pilot at the helm. "I'm reading another fleet of ships."
"What?" said Orthallan. "What Configuaration?"
"Traash, sir. I can't believe those League bastards - they have those insects helping them!"
"What are the Traash doing?"
"They are wiping out any reinforcements coming into the sector. All we have is all we'll get!"
Niko dashed down the corridors, blaster ready. She turned left, then right, then left again.
Only to run into a dead end.
Turning, she saw three Slaverlords. Niko raised the blaster and picked off two, the crystals shattering. The robes fell uselessly to the floor.
An awful feeling of coldness hit her before the Slaverlord changed. Niko found herself staring at a ghostly version of Doc.
Reflectively, she lowered her blaster. She had to find some way...
The construct lunged for her, grabbing her arm. It felt every bit as solid as if it had been a person, and not just life-energy holding her.
She wrenched out of his grip, and kicked twice, dodging another kick sent in her direction.
"No, way, Doc. We spar together in the gym, remember?"
She dodged again, and whirled right into his grip, like some sort of strange dance. Reaching up, she grabbed the crystal, and ripped it from the robe.
The slaverlord collapsed in a heap of robes. Niko took the three robes, and ducked into a ventelation duct.
Niko climbed through the twisted maze, two lives literally jangling in her belt pouch.
A level above, and further into the castle, it would appear to anyone watching that a Slaverlord had kicked out the ventelation grating and slid out.
Only this slaverlord had boots on underneath her robe, and a shock of red hair sliding into the face mask.
Niko replaced the grating, and draped the two other robes over her arm.
*Funny. No guards here...*
A large, wooden door stood in front of her. Niko walked to the door, and opened it.
It was a lavish study, almost a replica of the one she'd seen in the Forbidden Chambers of the Tower. It was the same magic.
This was probably the private study of Queen Jesset, Student of Kest, Holder of the Crowns of Xanadau.
Niko stole into the study. She examined the various books and things with distaste. The column in the center appearred to be some sort of safe. The forcefield was turned off, and the safe was empty. Niko touched it and opened her mind.
She saw a mental image, and shuddered. This was where the Queen usually kept Eliza's crystal.
She hunted around, and found a button near the column. She pressed it, and the far wall began to slide open.
Two crystal coffins. Niko stumbled back for a moment, and reflectively checked her belt pouch.
She wrinkled her nose. The stasis period did nothing for their injuries. Shane still had that awful lump in his arm, and Doc was battered and bruised all over.
Niko reached into her pouch and pulled out Shane's crystal. She opened the crystal coffin and hesitantly joined Shane's life-force crystal to the half resting at the base of his neck.
There was a flash of light, as blueish light circled his body for a few moments. Shane opened his eyes, then gasped, and toppled from the coffin. Niko caught him, and eased him to the floor.
He was as limp as a rag doll, and his eyes were unfocused.
"Lie here and wait for you strength to return. It will take some time."
"Who...are you?" he asked weakly.
Niko pulled down the hood on the white robe. "Shane, it's me."
He reached up with an unsteady hand, caressing her cheek. Niko took his hand in hers. She saw tears starting to well up in his green eyes.
"Shhh...you rest here."
Shane pulled himself up to a sitting position, and just looked at her for the longest time.
"Niko, I...You know I love you."
"Yes, I know."
Temporarily forgetting where they were, they leaned into each other. Niko almost gasped more from what her Thought-Sense was telling her than from the kiss itself. His barriers were gone completely, as were hers. When the Queen had broken the barriers, their link brought awful, soul-destroying pain. Now, he was practically broadcasting into her mind and heart all his love for her, all the relief that she was alive, and the gratitude of being rescued.
They broke off the kiss after what had seemed an eternity, but was only a half-minute.
"Wow," Shane said. "I'm awake now."
He and Niko chuckled a moment. She grinned, and pulled Doc's crystal from her belt pouch. "Good. Now to wake up Doc."
"Hopefully not the same way," Shane joked, starting to stand shakily, leaning on the wall for support.
Niko laughed, and opened the crystal coffin. "No chance, love."
She rejoined the crystals. In a few moments, Doc groaned, and shook his head. "Damn, Walter, find yourself a new line of work..."
"Good morning, Doc," Shane said.
"Huh?" Doc opened his eyes, squinting in the dim room. His face, still contorted with pain due to the headache, nevertheless brightened when he saw his friends.
"Niko...and Gooseman! How wonderful it is to see you both in the flesh again."
They helped him out of the coffin, and supported him so that his feet didn't collapse out from under him.
"Better in the flesh than in the crystal," Niko said. "Now, it will be a few minutes before you can stand. In the meantime, we have to find Zachary."
Doc thought a moment. "Wait a minute. I know where he is."
The other two looked at him in disbelief. "How would you know?" asked Shane.
"Because the Queen had me...or half of me in the room with him ten minutes ago."
Niko was pulling a few other things from her robes - a pair of blasters, a CDU, and two badges.
"I raided the detention level," Niko said. "You were right, Doc. Before I shot the technician, he was still cursing about your encryption."
Doc and Shane took the blasters and badges. Doc pressed a few buttons on the CDU.
"Not much in the badges. One hit, maybe two. Better save it for a complete emergency."
Niko crouched on the floor, and pulled the two robes off her sleeve. "Okay. We need to form a plan. In the meantime, gear up and put these on."
The Queen shot a glance over to Zachary. The Ranger captain was cowed, defeated. Nothing of his pride remained. She smiled, and took Eliza's crystal from her pocket.
"As you can see, Captain," the Queen said. "I shall be victorious."
No answer. Oh, he must be devestated. Wonderful. Just as she wanted. She wanted that self-satisfied Ranger Captain to watch it all with his own eyes.
"I never had any intention of turning you into a Slaverlord, Captain," she said. "You are much more use to me as a symbol - a symbol that humanity cannot withstand my power."
She ran her fingers over the crystal. Eliza was the first...and she wouldn't be the last.
She looked down at the cluster of three Slaverlords near the Psychocrypt controls. She smiled and started to try and shift her consciousness to them.
Only to hit a shield...a *gold-colored* shield.
One of them reached up for its helmet, and pushed it away. The Queen's eyes widened in shock, as a dark-skinned human face stared back at her. "April Fool."
She bolted upright. "How dare you!"
The second knocked away its hood and pulled a blaster from the folds of his robe. The third dropped the robe altogether and stepped out into the middle of the floor. The Queen was too stunned to issue orders until one of the Guards raised his blaster. She held up her hand. "Hold your fire."
Niko was dressed in a gold-colored tunic and leggings. A belt at her waist was fastened by her Ranger badge. A large crystal hung from her neck. The Queen recognized it - it was the formal attire of a Circle of Thought Adept. It was her bearing that was more chilling. She captured and tormented a girl, but it was a woman dressed in gold.
*But Niko was a girl - a Novice. I shattered her shields...I destroyed her...she wouldn't have survived, even if she did escape. The psychic burns...*
Niko looked up and shouted, "Queen Jesset!"
The Queen turned around, eyes registering fear.
"Jesset Dal'Kest," Niko said formally, striding forward. "I am Niko Dal'Ariel, Adept of the Circle."
Doc leaned over to Shane. "Goose, what the hell is going on?"
Shane whispered, "I don't know, Doc, but I get the feeling that this is something we shouldn't interfere with."
The Queen straightened, and Niko stepped forward. "As an Adept, I call my right to challenge you. You have disgraced the Circle, and used your Gifts to directly violate our most cherished law."
The Queen glared down at Niko. "Don't you dare, little girl! The Circle didn't risk trying to destroy me." She laughed, but her nervousness was starting to show. She stumbled a little as she pulled strength from another Slaverlord, turning it to ash. "I've taken care of Circle members more powerful than you, little Niko."
Niko wasn't intimidated. "Will you accept the duel?"
The Queen smiled. "I accept."
The Queen raised her hands above her head, and Niko slapped her badge - she'd need every source she could tap at this stage. Gold mage-light surrounded Niko, and an omnious red-purple mist shrouded the Queen. Shane and Doc staggered back. Zachary only stood by the Queen in silence, eyes still vacant.
On the bridge of the *Babylon,* things were looking bad. Consoles belched smoke and spit sparks. Controles ionized, and the attacks kept coming.
"We've lost another Interceptor!" shouted the Kiwi technician before her console detonated. She was dead before she hit the deck.
"Helm, what are the enemy forces?" asked Walsh, addressing a young Andorian at the navigation panel.
"We're down to three battlecruisers. The *Rhiannon's* taken heavy damage, the *Shardad's* shields are gone, the *Laredo's* still holding her own, and we've got a hull breech on deck Twenty."
"Interceptors and transports?"
"The sensors are malfunctioning, I can't get a good reading on them, or on the Crown forces!"
Walsh's face hardened. A brash plan of action came to his mind. No time for doubt now.
"Helm, set a course. Go right into the asteroid belt."
"Do it. We'll last longer against the asteroids than we will against the brunt of the fleet. If they follow us in, we should be able to take a few of them with us."
"I do not plan to join them, sir." the helmsman answered.
The *Babylon* broke off and went straight for the asteroids. Piloting a large battlecruiser throught an asteroid frield, and only taking a few hits was nothing short of a small miracle. Crown fighters and a few mid-sized crafts tried to enter the belt, but hit asteroids moved in the wake of the large ship's movement.
There was a cheer through the bridge of the Babylon.
"No pursuit, sir!" yelled the helmsman. "And no evidence of more launches from the base."
Aboard the *Drakkuul,* Orthallan was trying to put out the fires cropping up on his consoles.
"Engines minimum. Fire suppression out. Life support failing...weapons systems..." the Crown robot was calmly reporting their doom, much to the Dathian's dismay.
"What of the League fleet?"
"We are now outnumbered," the guard droned. "And the Traash are picking off all our fighters."
"Damn!" yelled Orthallan, leaping out of his seat and grabbing a fire extinguisher and trying to put out the sudden fire that erupted on the control panel near his seat.
"We can send a message."
"Hail the Queen! Tell her to flee! Tell her to -"
His orders were cut off when a the flaming wreckage of an interceptor spun out of control and slammed full on into the engine of the Destroyer. A fireball swept over the ship in seconds, incinerating everything from ship to stern as the ship silently detonated in space.
Niko let off with a full surge of power, and the Queen strained, but pushed away Niko's gold energy beam with a huge burst of purple fire.
Niko strained against it. Sweat beaded on her brow. The crackle of energy, and the smell of ionized air filled the chamber. Niko grunted as she pulled all the energy at her implants' disposal to push against the beam.
Finally, she cried out as she fell back onto the stairs near the Psychocrypt.
"NIKO!" Shane yelled.
"It is too bad, Niko *Dal'Ariel*, that you did not become Niko Dal'Jesset. Now, you leave me no choice..."The Queen cackled. "It's too late. The League will fall. You and your friends will pay for your folly. Your lack of vision has proven to be your downfall." The Queen turned to Zachary and smiled wide. "And all as my enemy witnesses it helplessly..." she laughed loudly.
She raised her hands over her head and started to summon another blast. Another Slaverlord turned to ash beside her. The Queen lashed out, and a jolt of purely evil energy coursed through Niko. This was so much worse than torture, worse then the healing. Pain just lit every part of her on fire. She cried out in agony.
In a moment of clarity, Niko looked up at Zachary, standing helplessly by, unable to do anything but helplessly watch.
*Oh, Gods...Zachary, I've failed you.*
"I'm sorry, Zach!" Niko shouted, her voice torn with agony. "I tried..."
Niko's words lanced through the shroud of Zachary's conscious mind. Rage upon rage...bottled and controlled for so long. He turned to see the Queen next to him, almost in arms' length. She was going to kill Niko again. She was going to twist his memories again. She was going to turn Eliza into a Slaverlord again...and she would do this over and over again...it wouldn't stop.
It wouldn't stop.
It wouldn't stop.
"Not again..." he said.
The Queen laughed as she prepared to throw another bolt at Niko. This bolt, much more powerful than the last, would kill her.
Zachary rushed the Queen, screaming. "*Not again!!*"
He knocked her to the floor and pinned her, still yelling. " You won't kill her again. YOU WON'T! **YOU WON'T!!**"
The Queen looked into Zachary's eyes, and reeled in shock. There was no sanity in those eyes, only a whirlwind of pain and insane rage. She had meant to break him - but what she had really done was drive the Ranger captain mad.
The Queen tried to push into Zachary's mind, tried to find a memory, a thought...SOMETHING other then the insane, blind rage and chaos of his conscious mind. She pushed as hard as she could, but there was nothing there to use, only his mind pushing against her, only the insanity. The Queen howled in fear as she was forced from her victim's mind.
As the Queen drew on more life force to stay alive, the Slaverlords started to howl and turn to ash as she drew their life force one by one.
Zachary grabbed the Queen and pulled her down the stairs to the Psychocrypt. The Queen struggled, but Zachary was a strong man. His anger and his bionic implants give him too much strength.
"I won't let you..." he said, laughing. "You aren't going to make me have that bad dream again." Zachary's voice was a eerie singsong. "This is my mind, and I KNOW this is a dream."
Shane and Doc ran up and pulled Niko to a relatively safe position behind a fallen stone column. A row of guards dashed in front of them, blocking their exit, but not their view.
Zachary's face was blank as he carried the Queen in front of him, using her as a shield. With the Slaverlords gone, the guards turned to each other, scattered and panicked.
"Lower your weapons!" shouted the Crown Guard Captain. "We can't risk shooting the Queen!"
Niko gasped. "Oh, Gods...he's insane."
"Captain!" Doc shouted, as he tried to stand up suddenly from a crouch. The headache was blinding, and he still didn't feel up to speed, but adrenaline was making for a quick fix. As he tried to step forward, Shane stopped him.
"I don't think he can hear you," Shane grumbled. "Even if we could reach him, none of us are strong enough to stop him now."
"WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!" The Queen demanded as Zachary dragged her up the set of stairs.
"Ending this nightmare." Zachary said tonelessly as he opened the door to the Psychocrypt chamber. "I won't let you use me anymore."
The door slid open. Zachary pushed himself and the Queen inside, sealing the door behind him.
"Oh, my God..." said Doc.
Shane gasped. "He's killing himself."
"ZACHARY!" Niko cried out, trying to get to her feet.
"What does he think he's doing?" Doc said.
Niko swallowed, and answered hoarsely. "He feels it's his only way to stop her."
"FIRE!" a Crown Guard yelled.
"BELAY!" the Captain answered.
"Our Queen will be killed by that madman," another guard shouted.
"We'll ALL be killed, our Queen included, if there's an energy surge in the chamber. Destroy that, and this palace will self-destruct."
The Queen looked up, into Zachary's eyes. There was nothing. A total void. She was really afraid for the first time in however long she could remember...
She backed away. "Captain Foxx, you aren't well."
"And you're the reason for it."
"I can give you much, you know," she said. "Power...a planet to rule...I can even give you your mate's crystal..." She pulled out the crystal. "I haven't drained her."
"You've taken my wife, raped my mind..." Zachary said, walking up and taking the crystal from her hand, placing it absently in his belt pouch. His voice was a creepy monotone. "I'm not going to wake up to more of your nightmares. Not again. Never again."
The Queen was quaking now. Zachary almost seemed lucid as he said it.
The team looked on in horror, wishing they could stop their captain. Doc's CDU set off an alarm.
"Holy Shit!" Doc yelled as he saw the scanner.
"What?" asked Shane.
"I don't know how he's doing this, but I'm reading an implant ignition!"
"Implant?" Niko's eyes were the size of plates.
Sure enough...They looked in on the crypt and saw a glow...and it was moving...
"The Thunderbolt," Shane whispered. "Oh, shit. He really IS crazy."
"Zachary..." Niko said, and this time it was no more than a whisper.
"Captain! Zach, don't do it!" Shane shouted out, hoping that somehow Zachary would hear him.
The Queen was backed up against the far wall, watching on helplessly as Zachary flexed his arm, priming the Thunderbolt for action.
"Captain Foxx..." The Queen was begging now. "Don't do this. You'll murder yourself."
"If it will end the nightmare, then I don't care. I'm already dead," Zachary continued in the same toneless voice. His eyes blazed again with a sudden, insane fury. "This is for the two years of my life you've stolen from me, you BITCH!!!"
He thrust out his arm and it shattered the wall of the Psychocrypt.
The three Rangers gasped. They were sure they were witnessing their captain's suicide and there was nothing they could do to stop him now...
The Thunderbolt burst the side of the Psychocrypt walls. The controls on the far wall exploded, and the red beam filled the chamber. The whole room was enveloped in an eerie red glow.
The glow became so bright that the three team members were forced to shield their eyes. The Crown Guards staggered back, shielding their eyes from the bright red light, and their ears from the agonized death-howls of their monarch. They were at a loss without her to command them.
Glass shattered, Slaverlords collapsed. The whole asteroid tilted and rocked like some sort of demented carnival ride.
The Rangers huddled together, equally stunned. Shane had his arms wrapped around Niko, each supporting the other, trying to comfort the other. Doc just stood, jaw flopped open.
"Captain..." Doc said in a stunned, despairing voice.
Finally, the Queen's screams, and the red light subsided. The Rangers were able to look at the chamber...
"See anything?" Doc asked.
After the light faded out entirely, the Rangers walked up to the chamber, breaths held.
All that was left of the Queen was what appeared to be a pile of smoking, putrid-smelling ash.
Zachary was lying on the floor outside the chamber. His clothes were smoking and scorched down to the skin in places. Several nasty burns showed through the holes in his clothing.
Niko bent over him. "He's alive." Feeling his belt pouch, she pulled out the crystal, then quickly replaced it. "And he has Eliza!"
Doc punched in the information into his CDU. His eyes widened. "Then let's get him out of here...Massive energy surge. The whole place is about to explode!"
The Crown troops rallied for one last counteroffensive, but their Slaverlords were not present to command them, so they were divided and attacking more out of desperation than anything.
"We have to get out of here first," Shane said, as he found a pair of blaster pistols and started shooting. "Doc, I could use some back-up here!"
"Ten minutes until melt down!" Doc yelled, then rushed off to help Shane, picking up another blaster and covering for Shane.
"Let's get outta here!" Shane called out. Using the last bit of charge still in his badge to augment his strength, he knelt down and swung Zachary up over his shoulder and headed out after the others. Niko staggered to her feet and followed, taking out soldiers with her blaster.
The four managed to get right out the door as Doc sealed it. A second later, the door fell inches behind their heels as the Crypt Chamber blew up behind them, taking out the rest of the Crown guards. The shockwave knocked the team off their feet. Niko struggled to get to her feet. Even with the adrenaline boost, she was still pretty shaky. Doc and Shane weren't faring well, either, especially with the added weight of carrying Zachary.
Red lights, alarm klaxons, and evacuation warnings echoed through the asteroid.
"Three minutes until this place is space debris! We'll barely have enough time to get out of range." Adding, Doc grumbled, "I KNEW I should have paid my life insurance."
Shane just smiled grimly. "Doc, we're not dead yet."
They raced down the tunnel, to the waiting Ranger One. They could hear GV's worried voice. "Hurry!"
"What the hell do you think we're doing, GV? Taking a stroll in the park?" Doc huffed out, as they ran for the ship.
The four of them managed to pile aboard. Shane propped Zachary up in the small medical bay in the back. Doc stayed in the cockpit, disengaging the umbilicals and firing up the drives.
"I'm getting us out of range," said Doc. "GV, I hope those nav computers are up to spec."
They barely got out of range before a HUGE explosion sealed the tunnel they came through, and the entire asteroid palace started to cave on itself.
Shane had strapped Zachary into a chair in the sickbay. He and Niko stumbled into the cockpit. "GV, get us out of here, NOW!"
"No argument from me, Sir Goose." GV said before engaging the hyperdrive and setting off for BETA. They were out of danger.
Shane, Doc, and Niko collapsed against a wall, panting furiously.
"That was too close!" Niko said after she managed to catch her breath.
"Yeah," Shane said, as he wrapped an arm around her shoulders.
"Tell me about it," Doc said, hanging his head down. "Too close if you ask me,"
The reports came in. The battle had been bloody, and the reports poured in. While they had caught the Queen by surprise, her troops had rallied quickly and fought back hard. Several members of the Circle had been lost as well, but as the Rangers rode back to Earth, they could at least take comfort in knowing that the Queen was gone forever. GV was autopiloting the ship back to BETA, as none of the Rangers were in any shape to pilot.
The three of them managed to get up and walk back to medical bay. Their priority now was to the captain.
He seemed to be oblivious to everything. The only movement he seemed to have made was to pull Eliza's crystal from his belt pouch, and put it on his lap. He stared blankly at it, not making a movement or sound on his own.
Niko looked up. "Captain..."
Zachary only stared off into space.
Doc switched his CDU to read Zachary's physical condition as monitored by the implant. "Good news is that he's only got a few burns and bruises."
"Bad news?" asked Shane.
"Is that while I'm picking up a neural reading on him, it's nowhere NEAR his norms," Doc reported grimly. "Mentally, he's not there."
"Psychocrypt?" asked Shane.
"No," Niko said with a frown. "Worse than that..."
"What happened?" asked Doc, getting out the emergency supplies needed to take care of the injuries.
"The Queen," Niko commented, with a deep sigh. "She tortured him...Done things..." An uncharacteristic frown crossed her face. "He survived by going mad."
"Hell of a way to survive," Doc grumbled, pulling out the medkit and using his limited field medical skills to patch some of the burns.
"The damage is extensive," said Niko. "She's all but destroyed his psyche. I don't know whether he'll be able to pull out of it."
"Well, he must have been crazy to do what he did," said Shane.
"He was," Niko said grimly. She straightened, then looked to her team mates. "You two, go get some rest. This is something I have to do on my own."
"You sure you'll be okay?" asked Shane.
Niko nodded. "You and Doc rest."
Doc left, but Shane stayed for a while. Niko sighed and slumped over. Shane walked over and took her in his arms.
Niko pulled him in close and hugged him tight, drawing comfort and strength just from his closeness. "Shane...I thought I lost you."
"Same here," he said.
Shane stiffened, and Niko turned around. She saw Zachary and winced.
"I hope there's something that can be done," Shane said. "Maybe the doctors at BETA..." Niko shook her head. "Not with what I was sensing."
Shane knelt to examine closer. "He's cold, Niko. It's like he's dead."
Niko shivered, despite the warm setting on the life support controls. *How can I reach him?* Nothing she had said so far seemed to get through to him. When she *had* tried to touch him, he yelped and knocked her hand away.
Niko looked up. "He's frightened to come back. He believes that the Queen's still here, ready to kill him if he comes out of hiding. Soon..." she choked. "Soon, he will be dead. I can already feel the life in him fading."
Shane whipped around. "Is there ANYTHING we can do?"
Her eyes wandered as she thought, finally settling on the crystal Zachary held.
*As his friend, you have the strength...*
Niko's eyes widened, and she put a hand on Shane's shoulder. "Yes. There is something I can do. I'm not sure if it will work."
"What is that?"
"My Thought-Sensing Ability, Shane. I have the Gift, and the strength...if I can reach out with my mind..."
"Niko, are you crazy?! I'd lose you to whatever it his holding Zachary. You know you have trouble controling that...that thing. The Queen used it to rip both of us apart." He choked on the last sentence, his voice dropping. "I don't want to lose you to this, Niko."
Shane was right. Niko didn't know the capabilities of this new Gift quite yet. She knew that it worked, but she didn't know its limitations. She hadn't tested this ability very often, and when she had, it raged out of control. She had also been healed less than a day, and the battle with the Queen had taken a lot out of her. Doing this could easily undo all the healing Chrysalis had provided, and the possiblity of going insane was a definite risk.
Niko clutched the green crystal around her neck. "But I HAVE to try, Shane. I...owe him that much."
"And I owe him the chance to let you try," Shane said. "He's taken care of us. Now, it's time to take care of him."
Niko looked up.
Shane reluctantly let her go, reaching out to give her cheek a caress. "Niko, I'll be back later. Go see if you can help him."
"I'll do whatever I can."
Shane disappeared to the back. Niko squared her shoulders and sighed. This would take a lot.
As run-down mentally as she was feeling, Niko didn't know where she had found the strength to make it through the battle. Maybe it was because she had turned Adept, maybe it was partially due to Chrysalis, or maybe the reaction just hadn't hit her yet.
Zachary looked awful. He stared vacantly into nothing, a truly horrified face looking out into some private hell. His skin was ashen, and he had his arms crossed, his knuckles turning white. He was bent in on himself in the chair, staying eerily still.
Aloud, she tried to speak to Zachary one more time. "Zachary. It's over. She's gone."
Zachary continued to huddle and just stare at nothing. Slowly letting down her shields, she lightly touched his mind.
*You're not gone. It was all a trick.* The thought-voice was not his normal, commanding tone. He sounded so weak and faint - almost like a lost child.
Niko sighed and centered herself, dropping herself back into a trance. With all she had, she reached out with her mind toward Zachary.
It was like walking into a whirlwind. Screaming emotions, maelstroms of pain...this went a LOT deeper than just these few weeks. There was nothing of what she knew to be him.
*Go away!* came the yell. *Get out of my mind!*
Zachary sounded faint and muffled, as if far away. She tried to reach out for him, and he only retreated deeper into the chaos, blocking her attempts to come any further in. Niko just kept reaching. She couldn't give in, and let him be lost. Any longer, and he wouldn't have the strength to come out at all. But, the harder she pulled, the harder he struggled.
With irony, she remembered the MindNet. Then, the captain's stubbornness and sheer hatred of the Queen was an asset. He readily opened his mind then. Niko hadn't anything past the vaguest Thought-sensing ability at that point, but she could remember the sheer force of will he could summon.
*Zachary... it's Niko. I'm here to get you out, Captain.*
*Niko...* He seemed to waver for a brief moment, then the wall slammed down harder. *No! She's dead. You can't be her! You're just the Queen playing another trick!*
A strong psychic jolt hit her as Zachary summoned all his pain-fueled will to try and throw her out of his mind.
Niko fell back as contact was broken for a brief moment. She shook her head and examined Zachary again. The ashen pallor had grown worse, and the expression of fear had gone to blankness. At least fear had been SOMETHING...
Niko pushed her own fear aside, regaining control. Now was not the time to bring more fear into an already devastated mind.
"Zachary," she said aloud, hoping that something might get through. "I'm trying again. Don't give up."
She closed her eyes and tried again.
This time, things started to look less surreal. She was standing on a platform in what could only be the Queen's Palace. She had the impression of being put there artificially, of being "pasted into" actual memories. She was wearing the robes of a Slaverlord. Everything seemed to be frozen, like a still life. The Queen grinned wickedly at Zachary, who looked down into something going on the floor below.
She tried again, *Zachary, this isn't real. What you're seeing isn't happening.*
Zachary didn't want to listen. Niko looked into the pit below, and saw herself, beaten and bloody. Everything seemed to be playing in slow motion now.
"Zach, I tried...I tried..." the shadow image of her said, repeating like a computer simulation caught in a feedback loop.
Zachary shouted at her. *You're THERE, Niko!*
She saw the Crown guard run her through with the lightsword, over and over.
*It's you. You're dead.* His voice was choked and eerily quiet. *I let you die. I let you die...and I let Doc and Goose be thrown in the Psychocrypt...You're dead. I failed all of you.*
*But, Zachary, I'm NOT there! I wasn't there! Doc got me out of the palace. What you saw was just another of the Queen's tricks!* Niko tried to convince him, reaching out with her mind. Already, in the physical world, her hands were gripping his shoulders. *Zachary, reach out to me. I'm NOT dead...*
He almost reached out, then pulled his hand away.
*Just let me go...* he said, resigned. Zachary looked up at her, pain on his face. *You've twisted my memories of Eliza, you've killed my friends...Haven't you done enough, Majesty? I can't fight you anymore - you've won. Are you happy now?*
The scene shifted again. Niko was still dressed as a Slaverlord. Zachary was lying on the floor, beaten bloody by a horde of guards. The kept beating him and kicking him, though it was obvious that he had been knocked unconscious. She gasped and tried to intervene, only to be held back by another Zachary standing beside her, looking on at his tortured self with shame.
*I was too weak to resist.* she heard his thought filter through her.
The scene jolted and the guards disappeared. Zachary had a shard of sharp glass in his hand. He looked at his wrist, a somewhat confused expression on his face.
*I was even too weak to die.*
If the words hadn't chilled Niko, the emotionless tone did. He hadn't been broken, he'd gone mad trying not to break, and that was even worse. She started to feel rage at when the Queen had done, but stuffed it down.
She couldn't give up. If she did, then Zachary would be lost forever, running from his own mind for fear that the Queen was still invading, still violating his memories. Eventually, the small part of Zachary that managed to survive all the hells of the Queen would be suffocated by the pain, would exhaust itself and give in to the oblivion. She reached out for him, and managed to touch his hand.
*Zachary, you aren't weak. You resisted. You're safe. You've survived...*
He pulled away, *No! you're playing a trick on me!*
Niko took heart and said, *Zachary, what about Jessi and Little Zach? Are you going to leave them without a father?*
That seemed to jolt him out of some of it. The wall didn't seem so impregnable now...
The scene shifted again. A woman Niko knew to be Eliza was resting on a hospital bed, holding a small infant in a pink blanket. Zachary was younger, and a small boy stood by his side. Eliza and the children seemed frozen in time. Niko was slightly behind Zachary.
*Yes, Zach. Your children. What about them?* Niko pressed in her advantage
He turned around and stared her down. *This is what I was...* he said, gesturing around. *Then...*
He started to push back, assailing her with his own memories...images rushed by, emotional photographs...sharp clarity, but with the constant, steady blur of pain. Everything jumbled together as she saw things through his eyes and emotions.
...To the Phoenix being yanked out of hyperspace by Capt. Kidd.
...To the searing pain of being hit with a blaster trying to escape...to collapsing in a shuttlecraft, trying to steer...seeing the *Phoenix* detonate with Eliza apparently still aboard...
...To waking up in a hospital, every nerve burning, not knowing where the children were...then discovering that his left arm had been amputated at the shoulder and his leg had been amputated at the hip...To the sight of the gold and black prosthetics being brought out, and Q-Ball droning about replacement...The fear of turning into a machine...
To seeing a red glass panel slide open, and finding Eliza's limp body...To seeing the crystal less than a meter from his feet sail upwards to the Queen's waiting palm and evil visage.
...To the "funeral" as BETA put her body in stasis...to explaining to the children why their mother wasn't coming home...to crawling into a bed, reaching over, and feeling only cold sheets...
...Then, to the dreams and nightmares imposed by the Queen. The nightmares that never let up. The jumbled fragments of distorted memories that Niko couldn't understand.
Then to darkness.
*No,* she thought to herself, defiantly. *Not when I'm finally starting to get somewhere.*
*Just leave me alone.* She could hear Zachary in the darkness, feel his presence. *I'm not coming out. Just go away.*
*Are you just going to lock yourself in this dark little corner of your mind until you die?* Niko thought out.
Niko felt the darkness closing in around her. She was starting to weaken, as the shadows pressed in on her, the Queen's evil cackle, the horrors...
They threatened to drown her, overwhelm her with their evil and shadows. She made her presence glow even brighter, driving the shadows back, and the nightmares with them... She dug deep down into herself and found the strength to go on, but her strength was starting to falter. In the physical world, her body was beginning to tremble and sweat with the strain she was undergoing.
She could sense him. So close...but they were about to push her away, and drown him. He was drifting further and further away, growing weaker.
The shadows howled and cackled around her, dimming her light. She couldn't go any further, and it she was being overwhelmed. With as much as she had, she tried to pull out of his mind to save herself.
It was just as she feared. Instead of coming out of Zachary's mind, Niko was pulled further into the hell. She was going to drown. She was too far into his mind to return to herself. She was going to be swept away. They were both going to go mad...
*ZACHARY!* she shouted, calling out with everything she had. *CAPTAIN, HELP ME!!!*
Just when it seemed that the shadows would finally drown her, she felt a presence...saw a light. Niko felt the presence helping her, fighting the shadows, but struggling.
The light was coming from Zachary! He stumbled towards her. *Niko? Niko, is that you?*
*Yes, Zachary. Come back. I'm here to bring
you back.* She tried to project emotion as well as thought with whatever strength she had left. He was astonished. *You really ARE Niko.*
*I'm here to bring you back, Zachary. You're safe.*
He still looked undecided.
*Please. Zach Jr. and Jessi need you...Shane and Doc need you...I need you...* She continued, her voice growing weaker, *And Eliza needs you...*
*Eliza's part of her,* Zachary said bitterly.
*Zach, no. We have the Crystal. You saved her.*
He reached out and touched her. Already the shadows were melting. They still lingered, but the maelstrom had quieted.
They were safe. *You aren't lying...*
She nodded. *No, I wouldn't do that. Not about this.* She gave him a faint smile. *It's safe now, Zach. Time to come home.* She started to drift away as she felt Zachary's presence grow stronger and stronger.
He whispered, *Thank you, Niko.*
Niko's strength was gone. She fell back into her body with a jolt. She was lying on the floor next to Zachary's chair. She pulled herself back into the chair, and nearly threw up as the blinding reaction-headache hit...
But she had to know if she had been successful. He hadn't moved, and she couldn't see very well with the headache. She knew that she didn't have the strength to try again, and by the time she did...
*Gods, I hope I didn't fail.*
A second later, she got her answer. His breathing increased, color and life returned to his face.
She looked up at him and said weakly, "Captain, can you hear me? It's Niko."
Zachary looked up. His voice was quiet, horase. "Niko? Is that you?" His eyes lost their vacant look and focused intently in on her.
She brightened a little, despite the fact that it hurt too much to smile. "Zachary."
He shook his head. "Oh God, Niko..." He seemed to take notice that, indeed he was on Ranger One. "I thought you were dead...How'd you escape? How did I get here?" He shook his head. "I was so sacred that it would all be a dream and that I'd still be with the Queen." "The Queen's dead, Zachary. You killed her."
He thought a moment. "I don't remember it."
"I'll tell you some other time," murmured Niko. "But right now, I think I'm going to pass out..." She proceeded to do just that as the blinding reaction-headache drove her under. She fell back into the chair, unconscious.
"I think I'll do the same," he said tiredly, then looked down in his hand. He saw what he was holding. The red crystal pulsed with warmth. He held it up to the light, then his eyes widened with shock.
Just then, Shane emerged from the back of the ship. He looked at Niko in alarm and then in shock to his restored captain.
"Captain?" he questioned. "What's going on here?"
Zachary ran his fingers over the face of the crystal, not really paying attention to Shane. "She's here. After all this time..."
"Yes, Captain. You finally got her crystal back." Shane answered, moving slowly forward. He still didn't have all his strength back yet.
Finally, Zachary looked up. "How are you, Goose?"
Shane just stared at him in confusion for a moment as he checked out Niko. She was breathing steadily, at least. He answered Zachary's question.
"I'm okay. What happened to Niko?"
"I'm not too sure. She pulled me back or something." He shook his head. "She also convinced me this rescue is genuine."
"I see," Shane answered.
Shane brushed a stray lock of red hair from Niko's face, and seemed ready to lean in and kiss her, but broke away abruptly.
Zachary looked up, and smiled feebly. "I know about the two of you, Goose, and I know how long it's been going on. It's all right. For what it's worth, I'm happy for you both."
Shane relaxed a little. "Thanks, Captain. I guess she and I weren't hiding it as well as we thought."
"Doc and I figure that it's not our business," His smile was just as faint as his voice, but also as clear. "Besides, I know what being in love feels like. Especially when it's the right person."
Gently, Shane picked Niko up, then turned to Zachary. "Are you going to be all right?" "I think so, in a little while." Zachary answered. "I know that it's over, though. The nightmare's over...Eliza and I are finally going to wake up."
Shane nodded and vanished to the back with Niko.
Then, forgetting all semblance of dignity and decorum, the proud captain laughed hoarsely, then started to cry like a child.