Niko tapped the table impatiently with her fingertips, trying to resist the urge
to check her wrist chrono again. It would only tell her that she had just
checked it two minutes earlier. Of course he was late. He was always late. No,
not always, she reluctantly admitted, brushing a few strands of russet hair from
her cheek and tucking them behind one ear. Finishing her last mouthful of tea,
she was about to rise and get another from the food dispenser when she saw Goose
striding across the commissary towards her table. She glared at him.
"Sorry I'm late," he apologized as he settled into the booth. She
continued to frown at him. "Again," he added.
Shane Gooseman. One lock of blond hair threatened to slip over one of his
startlingly green eyes. Niko felt her expression soften against her will. She
could never stay angry at him for long, not that she didn't try. But he was just
too.... Shane. There was no other way to explain it. They had been working
together for over two years, and never even got past the first name stage.
That wasn't really the truth. Shane had always been protective toward her.
In fact, though neither of them were aware of it, their particular closeness had
become a running joke among the tech crews who serviced Ranger I and Goose's
interceptor. It had been said that Shane Gooseman had a harem, with such
prestigious members as Annie O, a savvy cowgirl, Maya, blond amazon Princess from
the anti-techno world of Tarkon, even Daisy O'Mega, Irish outlaw leader. Most
simply believed that it was only a matter of time before Niko joined their ranks,
especially since they had been paired for missions more often of late.
Siobhan Flynn, head of the maintenance crew for bay seven, headed up a pool
as to which member of the brass was playing cupid, and how soon the arrows would
strike. Flynn personally thought it might be Commander Walsh himself, as he was
practically a father to Gooseman, and the team's strongest supporter. Siobhan
hadn't been the only one who had seen the change that had come over the two S5
Rangers since a series of incidents involving someone the council had dubbed "The
Scarecrow". The first time, Niko had come back with a blaster wound in the
shoulder, half on the mend and obviously shaken, and Gooseman hadn't left her
side for days.
And then the second... Apparently there had been some more than friendly
competition between Maya of Tarkon and the lovely S5. And of course, Gooseman,
being a man, hadn't noticed a thing. Or at least professed not to have. One
could never tell with him. No one could accuse the brass of playing matchmaker
when the General snatched Captain Foxx, Doc, and the two ambassadors, leaving
Rangers Niko and Gooseman to go to the tower alone to the rescue. That had just
been divine providence, owing much to the General's fascination with Gooseman and
metamorphs in general.
She continued to glare at him over the rim of her teacup in a playful sort
of way, silently demanding explanation.
"Commander Walsh wants us to charge up, then meet the him in his office for
a new assignment."
"What sort? Why just us?" She was intrigued.
"He wouldn't say over the comm." He shrugged, and they slipped out of the
booth and headed for the lab.
* * *
"Rangers Niko and Gooseman reporting as ordered." Niko smiled at the man
behind the desk as they entered the familiar office.
Walsh would never forget the first time he had seen Niko. Sixteen years
old, with more than a hint the old-fashioned about her, her application for BETA
had council members shaking their heads for days. No surname, a planet of origin
that wasn't even on their maps and a psi rating off the scales. They hadn't known
what to make of her. He hadn't known what to make of her.
Later, he had received a visitation by a tiny, wizened figure (she must
have been sixty-five even then) with hair white as snow and pince-nez glasses
perched precariously on her nose, her blue eyes flashing impossibly bright as she
unfolded Niko's story for the dumbstruck Walsh.
Apparently, Xanadu wasn't on their maps because it had no business being
on their intergalactic maps, and was hidden from prying eyes for a very good
reason. A haven and training ground for people of power from all races, the
inhabitants `adopted' children showing promise and trained them in the use of
their gifts. Niko had been five years old when her parents lifeless cruiser
drifted into their space, drawn by the gravity of the cloaked planet. The child
had been given the only lifepod, and her parents had perished when the
lifesupport systems in the cabin had given out. Ariel herself had raised the
girl, and Niko was her best student. Again and again she told Walsh that the
only reason she had allowed Niko to petition to join the newly formed BETA was
to broaden her horizons and answer some of the girl's persistent questions about
the people and planet of her origin.
Walsh had the girl accepted immediately. Her scores on the applicant's
test were perfect anyway, as were her blaster range tests. He was pleased to
find she had a passion for archaeology, and had seen to it that she was enrolled
in some classes. All of this was done without the girl's knowledge, of course.
It wasn't proper for an incoming ensign to be known as a favorite of the brass,
after all. He had suffered enough from acting as Gooseman's mentor during the
failed Supertrooper project. Walsh still blamed himself for the boy's change
from a sensitive young man into bitter, dedicated adult. That whole project had
been doomed from the start, the council had told him, and wanted Shane to be put
under observation immediately least he show any "abnormal tendencies".
Walsh had been forced to bury his anger, and turn the council's own red
tape and bureaucracy against them. Shane was forever on the "waiting list" of
the medical staff, and in the meantime, Walsh had him admitted on a trial basis
to the Ranger program. With the advent of the Andorian drive and the opening of
diplomatic relations with Andor, Kirwin and others, thanks to his new friends
Waldo and Zozo, he would need men like Gooseman and women like Niko. The council
may have been blind as to the real state of affairs in the universe, but Walsh
certainly wasn't going to be caught napping. He also had his eye on a promising
young tech in Q-Ball's burgeoning computers lab, and career officer Zachary Foxx
was up for a promotion as well....
Walsh permitted himself a small smile at the memories. This team was his
baby, and everyone knew it. Five years in the making, tested mission after
mission, the S5 Rangers were the very best. And he was, despite popular belief,
perfectly aware of Flynn's pool in bay seven. Personally, he had the smart money
on Ariel herself. That old woman had been meddling with official business for
years.... He wouldn't put anything past her.
"Rishawn was only discovered and classified five years ago, and though it
has no indigenous sentient lifeforms, it is covered with very sophisticated ruins
and structures, and has therefore been of interest to historians and
archaeologists all over the universe. Until recently, it was closed off by the
Council until it could be studied and so forth. Two months ago it was opened to
archaeologists, who had been monitored carefully by BETA since their work began."
Walsh paused for effect. "Three weeks ago, their check-ins stopped. They entire
team appears to have disappeared."
"But that was a dig team of 37 people!" Niko exclaimed.
"I am sending you and Ranger Gooseman in to find out the source, if you
can, of the disappearances. A satellite in orbit has shown no craft landed other
than the workers, no intruder, no attempt at a distress call. I have chosen you,
Niko, for your knowledge of the planet and the dig. Gooseman shall be escort and
guard. I would send all of you, but the council thinks the risk too great." So
they send the girl with no past and the Supertrooper. Nice. Shane kept this
ironic little thought to himself, though he knew the same thing had crossed
Commander Walsh's mind as well. What could they do? You can't fight city hall.
Niko, however, was oblivious of any of the Council of Leaders darker
motives, mind whirling with the opportunity to study Rishawn first hand. She had
been following its exploration for years in the journals. It took a hell of a
lot to get clearance to dig there. She knew. She had tried to apply two months
ago when the news that they were opening up security filtered through. She had
been denied, though she knew twelve of the men and women who were chosen.
* * *
They landed the two-seater interceptor without any problems, setting her
down next to the archaeologist's ships. Kind of like a intergalactic parking
lot, Goose thought to himself as they hopped out of the cabin. No two ships were
alike, and there were about fifteen of them in all. Most were small freighters
or personal shuttles. One or two bore the names of influential colleges and
museums. Niko had stopped before one of the freighters, a boxy little number
with just about enough room for three or four people, provided two or three sat
in the hold with the cargo. She was running a hand along the inscription, lost
"This is Professor Ford's ship. I attended a lecture course of his once.
He tried to get me included as part of his team on this dig." She sighed. "I
refuse to get depressed. I have work to do, and am too excited."
"You're excited?" He raised a brow, taking in the apparently vast
wasteland before them.
"Think of the place you would most like to be in the Universe. Now imagine
you tried to get there, but were told you couldn't go. Than, miraculously,
someone hands you a ticket and there you are. That's me."
"It's just a pile of rocks to me."
"You are impossible." She frowned at him. "Don't you understand what an
amazing archaeological find this world is?"
"I guess so."
"You guess so." She sighed. "We'd best set up the signal beacon." Walsh
had given them specific instructions. Once they arrived, set up the beacon. The
satellite in orbit would monitor the signal. Should one or either of them
disappear, or require assistance, the beacon, set to home in on their wristcoms,
would stop transmitting, and they would know to come and investigate. At least
that was the plan. It hadn't exactly been tested before this.
"You are annoyed," Goose observed.
"Of course not, don't be silly."
"You are, you're annoyed with me."
"You just never try and understand."
"You're right, I don't understand why you would want to spend so much time
in holes in the ground, looking for things that people left behind centuries
before you were born."
"Ever since I was a little girl, I wanted to know where I came from, what
Earth was like, and once I studied all I could about the present, I wanted to
know it's past. I guess that spread to every world, not just Earth."
"I just don't understand why you spent so much time with dead times and
worlds and people, when there's so much else you're missing."
"What, you mean instead of hanging out with other cadets and drinking
myself into a stupor and joyriding to the orbital stations every weekend?" Niko
thought back to her academy days with a rueful grin. "I made some really good
friends in those seminars and digs."
"I bet you never dated," Goose shot back, with a grin.
"I did too!" she protested.
They worked quickly, as they only had an hour of daylight left. Rishawn was
in its "winter", and though it could reach temperatures of 40 Celsius during the
day, at night it dropped below freezing. They set up the small camp, consisting
of a tent, two thermal blankets/bedrolls and a cookstove. Niko had hoped to take
a look around before dinner, but there was virtually no dusk, more like night
suddenly descended. One minute they were laying out the bedrolls, the next they
were plunged into darkness, alleviated a little by a powerpack lantern, and the
temperatures were plummeting. The dig site would have to wait until dawn.
"Did you date?" Goose asked as they laid out their bedrolls.
"Occasionally. I'm sure not nearly as often as say... you."
"Oh no, not the harem jokes again."
"Flynn gets around. She's quite in awe of you." She laughed, and he shook
As they got under their blankets, Niko realised something important.
"I'm freezing. I don't think Q-ball realised just how cold Rishawn gets."
"It'd be warmer if you had two," he informed her.
"But we don't....Oh." She suddenly took his meaning. "I'll be okay." She
rolled back over and tried to keep her teeth from chattering. After about five
minutes of this, she heard him get up, kept her eyes tightly shut as he draped
his blanket over hers, and crawled in beside her. She could feel a blush rising
in her cheeks as she felt the warmth of his arms and chest against her back.
"Better?" He asked, and she started, for his mouth was right next to her
ear, his breath stirring her hair.
"Mmmhmm." She managed an affirmative sound, wondering how the hell am I
going to sleep like this? and she thought she heard him laugh. She remained stiff
for a moment, then relaxed a little bit as the warmth began to spread, and she
was no longer shivering. Finally she heard his regular breathing, and knew he
must be asleep, and then she closed her eyes and tried to join him.
* * *
Goose woke first, rather slowly, opening his eyes without moving anything
else so we would not wake her as well. In sleep, she had turned to face him,
nestling her head in the crook of his arm, cheek against his chest. He had his
arms around her, just for warmth, he kept reminding himself, though he realized
it was rather nice waking this way, just watching her sleep, the steady rise and
fall of her chest, her breath warm against his neck. He wondered what it would
be like to wake this way every day, and then as he realized where that thought
was going, he clamped down hard on it. After all, this was Niko, the woman he'd
worked with for two years, fought alongside, joked with, ate with. These sort
of thoughts could ruin a perfectly good friendship, he decided as Niko stirred
against him, her hair brushing his chin, leg against his as she sought a more
This... this is not good.
His arm tightened around her reflexively as she stirred again, and he
wondered what Rishawn had to offer in the way of cold showers. Maybe I should
get up and start breakfast. She stirred again, eyes opening slowly, and she made
some small morning type sound. Then she realised where she was, who she was
with, and exactly how close they were. She blushed.
"Good morning," he offered, still not moving, smiling a bit at her flaming
cheeks. She took a deep breath, and he felt the pulse beneath his hand, could
see it in the hollow of her throat. Beautiful long white throat... he wondered
if her skin would be as soft as it looked beneath.... Stop it, Gooseman. You'll
just get in trouble thinking things like that. Suddenly she was out of his arms,
and getting the food packets out of her pack. He felt a quick stab of loss once
her warm body was gone, and quelled it with a thought, leaning down to pull his
boots back on, fold the blankets. Either they found extras, or he was going to
be driven crazy for the next three days.
* * *
The temperature rose quickly, once the sun was up, and as sweat began to
dampen the back of her uniform and run into her eyes so she had to mop her
forehead every few seconds, Niko wondered how she had ever been cold enough the
night before to do what she had. Not that anything had really happened. Only
something had, she was sure of it. It was all very confusing. She wanted to
shake the cobwebs out, get herself back on track. It didn't help that the object
of her thoughts was right in front of her, a constant reminder.
They descended into the dig site, using a hastily constructed railing
consisting of a piece of rope strung through metal hoops driven into the rock
face the team had been digging into, and she smiled at the memories such a site
dredged up. She hadn't been on a dig in a long time. Maybe next time she got
leave, she would get together with the guys she had studied with and plan
At the bottom of the quarry-like site, remains of several old buildings had
been unearthed. She waved the scanner around, looking for life signs of any
kind, hoping but not really surprised when nothing turned up. The crates for
packing artifacts were still littered around, as were tools, instruments, the
remains of meals. It was like something had just reached down and scooped the
team up. Like they were on a break, and would be back any minute.
"Hey, I think I found something!" Shane called her over to one corner of
the site. There was a wide crack in the rock face, and she could just make out
the shape of columns cut into the stone, almost invisible unless you were really
looking for them. She waved the scanner in front of the opening, looking for any
sort of barrier, trap, anything. The scanner didn't even read it as there. She
frowned, and then decided to take a more direct approach. The gizmo went back
into its case, and she touch the stone with one hand, her badge the other.
As the charge was activated, she felt the familiar world rushing away,
steeled herself for the vision that was to come. She saw the site as it must
have been weeks before, men, women and 'droids rushing about, talking, laughing,
arguing. She saw Professor Ford discover the opening, and then suddenly it was
like a curtain had been dropped over the entire scene, grey blocking out
everything as an undeniable presence of some kind reached out to draw one cold
finger along her spine. She stiffened, unable to move, speak, even breath as
something probed her mind and body, spreading a stone-like cold through her
limbs... She wanted to scream, cry out, something-
Shane saw her features slacken, the pulse beating wildly at her temple, her
cheeks grown paler and paler as all the blood rushed away. He swore, and tried
to wrench her hand away from the stone, but it was as if she was carved of the
very rock itself, immobile. Suddenly she collapsed, like a puppet whose strings
were cut. He caught her up, resting her head against his arm, feeling her cold
hand, looking for a pulse. Her heart had stopped for a moment, he was frantic.
She lay as if dead. Suddenly her color returned, and she sucked in air, taking
a breath like someone who had been drowning, and her limbs convulsed. He called
her name, held her until the spasm passed, and she blinked, then looked at him.
She sat up, still gulping in air, cheeks flushed now.
"There was something there...Something," she repeated, hand to her head as
if it would fall off.
"Something that almost killed you," he remarked, not letting go just yet.
Not till he was sure she was okay. It was a good thing too, because she knew she
wouldn't have been able to stand without support anyway. Suddenly the scream of
engines blocked out all other noise as a small craft, like an interceptor, but
sleeker, commercial as it had no weapons or defenses, streaked overhead and
turned to land next to the site.
Was Shane really all that surprised when he saw Karen Walsh skipping down
the incline towards them? Hell no. He had almost been expecting it from the
"What are you doing here, young lady?" Goose replaced his gun in his
holster, frowning. He knew she must have gotten the coordinates from the
computer at BETA, but how she could have gotten clearance, past the defenses and
the satellite, he had no idea. Karen was always full of surprises.
"I have good news and I have bad news," she chirped, ignoring the fact that
Niko looked about ready to fall over, and was leaning against Goose as if she
would never leave his side. "The good news is, Uncle Joe sent me."
"And the bad?" Niko had a feeling she knew what was coming.
"The bad news is I lied about the good news, and by the way, someone kicked
the communications satellite out of orbit."
"That's impossible! It would have notified BETA, and this place would be
crawling with interceptors."
"Not so, intrepid explorers. The signal is still being transmitted and
picked up by sensors back on Earth. However, the satellite that is supposed to
be transmitting that signal is not, because it is not in orbit any longer. The
signal is coming from the planet."
"There is something here, I felt it. It could be transmitting." Niko
tried to call back the memory of the presence, match it against something
familiar, classify it somehow. "It was what must have gotten the team. I saw
them, and then everything went grey." She tried to put it into words, not very
successfully either. She frowned. "How did you get here?"
"I flew. That handy little pleasure ship over there was my graduation
present from Uncle Joe. It has an Andorian Drive, and everything. It was
shipped from Frisco last week. My mechanic, Skeeter, couldn't get it running
until then. Some problem with the fuel."
"I mean how did you get off Base? Moreover, why? Why did you follow?"
"I just knew you guys would need help. I've got a sixth sense for
"That's because it follows you wherever you go," Goose quipped, and Karen
glared at him.
"You shouldn't have come. Commander Walsh will kill us." Niko sighed.
"No he won't. He doesn't even know I'm gone. I told him I was taking in
a lecture course on New Jersey. I signed up, paid for it out of my own pocket.
He'll never know."
"Great. This is just great!" Goose was a bit exasperated. "Are you
crazy? You don't `tag along' on a search and rescue mission. You're not even
authorized to be on this planet!" But Karen wasn't listening to him, nor even
looking at him. She was staring, dark eyes wide, at something above them, out
of the crater and to the left.
"I think I just saw a fifty foot tall Egyptian guy walk by." She said it
so calmly the two S5's just stared at her as if she had gone mad. "Yeah, I
definitely saw a fifty foot tall Egyptian guy walk by. I think he's heading for
the camp." She nodded, and as if in answer, they felt the ground jump a bit
beneath their feet, as if in time to the step of a fifty foot tall Egyptian
guy. They dashed up out of the site in time to see exactly what Karen had
described, a sandstone giant with the head of a pharaoh lumbering toward the
"No!" All three cried out as it's foot coming crashing down on the nose
of the two-seater crushing it like a bug, destroying an entire line of freighters
and cruisers as it headed off into the west. They just stood there, shaking
their heads in disbelief as if disappeared into the distance.
"What the hell was that?" Karen finally managed, putting words to the dark
look on Goose's face.
"I think it was King-" Niko began, but they never heard the name, because
she was suddenly gone, as if a hand from the sky had plucked her out of their
midst. Shane swore again, just as the desert terrain of the dig disappeared, and
a forest sprang up around them.
"Somebody's messing with the reality machine." Karen whistled, touching
one of the trees to make sure it was solid. She turned back to Shane, and gasped
when she realized he was wearing not the familiar blue and white uniform, but a
shirt of mail, trews and had a longsword belted at his side. "Who are you
supposed to be? Sir Lancelot?"
"Take a good look at yourself." Shane swung the sword, testing the
"Cripes, I'm Robin Hood!" She took in the green outfit, and stupid cap
perched on her short dark hair. She took it off, inspecting the feather tucked
in the brim, and threw it over her shoulder in disgust. Instead of a sword, she
was delighted to find a longbow and a quiver of arrows strapped to her back.
"Thank heaven I can use these!"
"I wonder what kind of game we are meant to play?" Goose touched the
blade, seeing how sharp it was.
* * *
Niko surveyed her surroundings carefully, feeling along the smooth grey
walls for any sort of crack or opening. She was in a dimly lit room, though she
could not find the source of the light to save her life, and her uniform and
badge were nowhere to be found. She was instead in a dark green dress of some
kind, perhaps thirteenth century France or England, trimmed with gold ribbon and
piping, looking nothing so much as like a princess in a fairy tale. And she was
"What have you done with my friends?" She yelled to the ceiling. No
response. Just like the last four times she had yelled the question. "Where am
I?" She began to pace, shoving at the walls every now and again, hoping they
might give, let her out. Suddenly she stiffened, aware of the same presence that
had probed her the last time. "Who are you?" She whispered, sure that it heard
her. Suddenly the grey walls around her vanished, replaced by the stones of a
tower room. She could look out the window, and saw a dense forest bellow. That
had been rock and desert only moments before, she had been sure of it. And the
ruins were gone. Even the contours of the land had changed.
"Who I am is not relevant," a disembodied voice answered, and she almost
"What is relevant?" she asked, eyes narrowing.
"What experiment? Is this-" She fingered the skirt of the dress "part of
"Affirmative," the voice responded.
"What is the purpose of this `experiment?'"
"I am programmed, as you would say, to study and understand the behavior
of humans. For this purpose, you and your companions are to be held here. I
have reconstructed a mating ritual of your people, having discerned from your
actions that you and the male of the species have displayed such tendencies as
described in the chivalric code and all related psychological texts-"
"What nonsense are you talking about, mating rituals, chivalric code-"
"I have scanned your memory banks and found-"
"We are flesh and blood beings. We do not have `memory banks'," Niko
"This is not true. You are not entirely flesh and blood beings. Two of
you have computer implants in your brains. Thus I must study you further." She
realized it was talking about the S5 implants, and her jaw dropped.
"And the thirty seven other flesh and blood beings you studied? What of
"They could not pass the tests I had devised for them, nor withstand the
study. They were terminated."
"And so if we do not pass your tests, are we to be destroyed as well?"
"I cannot say without further input."
"What tendencies did you observe in us that you chose this `ritual' to
"Upon arrival, the male and a female of the species first argued, then ate
together, then shared the same dwelling. By monitoring the physiological
responses of the male and female, I discerned that the pulse rate, body
temperature and nerve ending responses were higher when together in close
proximity than when separated, thus I concluded that there was definite `physical
attraction' between the male and the female, as it is referred to in all related
psychological texts. According to my programming, I must study this phenomena
further, and have chosen this scenario as the most common among humans and most
likely to produce the desired results."
"Are you telling me that while I'm up here in this tower playing Fairy
Princess, Shane is down there somewhere slaying dragons?"
"That's barbaric!" She exploded. "What did you take your research from,
B-movies? Where is my badge?"
"I have confiscated the alien pieces of circuitry for further study."
"What about Karen?"
"The human without the neural implant had been left as an assistant to the
male specimen in this scenario." And then the presence was gone, probably
conjuring up knights for Shane to defeat so it could study his reactions. Niko
fumed, pacing the smaller confines of the tower room, and finally sat on the
window ledge. It must have been over five stories up. If she could activate her
charge to shield her, the jump would have been no problem. As it was, she
thought if she make a rope of some kind, to lower herself part of the way, maybe
then she could clear the distance without broken bones.
She tried to tear the skirt of the dress into strips, but the fabric
wouldn't give. It wasn't organic, that much she could discern. The presence,
which she was beginning to think of as a computer of some kind, could reproduce
objects by sight, but could not understand the actual material of them. For
example, the stones of the wall were perfect down to the last detail, except that
they were not true stone, and the tower had no scent of any kind. No damp
stones, as a real tower would smell. The room seemed to be made of plastic or
metal of some kind. Perhaps a hybrid of both. And it was completely clean,
antiseptic in its rendering. She wondered if it really had gotten its research
from Sword and Sorcery movies.
* * *
"What now, boss?"
"I'm guessing that's our destination." He gestured to the tower that
seemed to have sprung out of nothing while their backs were turned. Karen
blushed, feeling stupid, then fell in step behind Gooseman.
"What the hell is going on? Is Niko there?" She grimaced. "Sorry, stupid
question. Just shoot me. It would be so much less painful." Suddenly she
stopped in her tracks, straining to hear something...
"What is it?"
"Something... Like wings..." The sun seemed to disappear for a moment, and
they looked up to see a long dark shape blocking its light. "Holy shi--" It
swooped down, and they dove to hug the ground as the air above them sizzled.
"A dragon! I don't believe it!" Karen cried as she watched it wing away,
but Shane knew it was coming by for another pass, and drew the sword. "Are you
mad? You don't even have a shield."
"Shut up and do whatever it is you're supposed to do with that damned bow
"I could always play cupid." She smirked, but readied herself for another
pass. When the `dragon' was in sight, red scales glistening in the light, yellow
eyes glowing, she aimed for one of the glowing orbs just as Shane swung the blade
for the underbelly.
Karen loosed, dodging a blast of flame, and Goose heard black blood sizzle
like acid as it hit the forest floor. The beast let out an ear shattering scream,
and another burst of flame almost singed Karen's eyebrows. She let lose another
shaft, and this one found it's mark. The wyrm went down, and Goose was on top
of it in a trice, drawing the sword across its throat, shooing Karen out of the
path of deadly burning ichor.
"So much for trial number one." She kicked the corpse contemptuously.
"Not a bit like Fitzmorris," he remarked.
"Never mind. Let's just get going." The castle looked to be perhaps two
clicks away, hopefully less. Time for a short hike.
* * *
"You are not human." The presence had returned. Niko was sitting indian
style in the centre of the tower room, and did not even bother to look up.
"Of course I am." Stay calm. You have to just stay calm.
"The male specimen is not. His genetic codes differ from yours and the
standard human norm."
"He is a Supertrooper." She raised a brow. Make sense of that, you bloody-
"If he is not the standard human norm, the parameters of the experiment
mush be changed." Her blood suddenly ran cold. Surely it did not mean to
"How changed? You have his badge. He is no more than human without it."
"The parameters of the experiment must change." And then it was gone
again, leaving her to fume in silence.
* * *
"Is it just me, or does that thing get farther and farther away with every
step we take?" Karen frowned.
"Whoever's running this show isn't playing by the rules."
"This game has rules?"
"Quiet." He scanned the undergrowth, which was getting denser by the
second. Something just wasn't right. Besides the fact that their ship had been
stepped on by a stone giant, he was dressed like Prince Valiant, and they'd been
attacked by fire breathing dragons. And the tower seemed no closer than when
they'd started their hike. Something else was wrong. Something more immediate-
"Hey!" Karen yelped as a vine disengaged itself from a tree and wrapped
itself around her forearm. Shane chopped it off with his sword, and found the
entire forest had come to life around them. He started hacking away at the
branches that reached out to grab them like something out of a child's nightmare,
while Karen dodged and backflipped away from dancing vines.
She was a bit too slow, and one snaked around her throat, trying to
throttle her. She tore at it with frantic fingers, and Goose chopped at the
branch wrapped around his thigh. He freed himself and severed the tendril at the
root. The plant gave a squeal of protest and he grabbed Karen and ran for the
edge of the forest.
They broke free of the line of trees, and found the tower directly in front
of them. Behind it the landscape was Rishawn as they had first seen it, and they
could make out the edge of the "parking Lot" in the distance.
"Think it's real?"
"Hope so. You head for the ships. See if any of them are left in one
piece. And keep an eye out for traps."
"Is it wise to split up like this?"
"Only one way to tell. I'm going in. Whatever happens, do not leave the
parking lot. Promise me."
"I swear, I swear. Get in there and get out as quick as you can."
"Aye-aye ma'am." He saluted, and they headed off their separate ways.
Karen set off for the line of ships at a dead run, and halfway across the
field, her clothing changed back. She stopped, looked back and saw the Tower had
disappeared as well. She swore, and continued in towards the remains of the
cruisers. Whatever was going to happen, the rangers were going to have to deal
with it on their own. Something didn't want her around any longer...
* * *
Gooseman saw Karen disappear, and was about to go after her when he ran
straight into an invisible wall.
"Okay. You've got my attention," he muttered beneath his breath, and
headed back toward the tower. He craned his neck, trying to see in the window
half a kilometer up. He stepped back, until he could just make out the ledge.
"Niko!" He called through cupped hands. No answer. He looked around for
a way inside. There was no door at its base. He swore, then shouted her name
In the tower room, Niko continued to pace, furious. She stopped for a
moment, listened, then resumed her pacing. Then she heard her name, clearly this
time. She ran to the window, leaned out.
"Goose!" She saw the tiny figure below, could just make out his frown.
"Are you all right?"
"I was just about to ask you the same thing."
"There's some kind of computer running this show," she called back down.
"This is all part of an experiment." As if on cue, a door appeared in the wall
of the tower.
"Great. I'm coming up."
"Shane wait-" But he had disappeared. She swore. Where was Karen?
* * *
Stairs. Stairs and more stairs. However, no more dragons. At least
something was in his favor. Goose cleared them three at a time, and still they
stretched into seeming infinity.
"Why do you continue?" The disembodied voice stopped him cold.
"Who are you? What do you want?"
"Why do you continue? To what purpose?"
"You are holding my friend against her will."
"She has not been harmed."
"Leave this planet. I give you leave. Your ship is outside, intact. Leave
now, and I will not kill you."
"Not without my comrade."
"You would die for her?"
"Yes," he answered without hesitating.
"You are a strange species." A door suddenly appeared in front of him.
He tried the knob hesitantly.
* * *
Niko saw the door appear. Her jaw dropped when it opened, revealing
"Shane!" He smiled at her, stepping into the room and she rushed to meet
him. "What are you wearing?" She took in the shirt of mail, and bright tunic.
"Appropriate to rescue the damsel in distress, don't you think?" He was
still smiling, but did not move away from the door.
"Hardly. This isn't funny, so you just wipe that grin off your face.
"I'm not grinning at the situation. I'm smiling at you. Nice dress."
"Stop it." She playfully punched him on the shoulder, more relieved than
she could imagine at his reappearing whole, unhurt and in such good spirits.
Suddenly he caught her hand, pulling her close.
"What the hell-" And then he was kissing her.
* * *
Goose slammed into the door and was rewarded by a groan as the wood split
and he stumbled into the tower room. Niko sprang up, smiling, and he was glad
to see she was no worse for wear, though he couldn't help but notice how the deep
green gown was cut remarkably low, and clung to her hips in a most un-regulation
fashion. She blushed, looking down at the dress, and folded her arms over her
chest, tossing her hair.
"Took you long enough."
"That's what I get for playing hero." He reached over to grasp her hand,
and headed for gaping hole that used to be the door, when she suddenly stopped
short. He turned back puzzled.
"For being my hero." She suddenly got up on her tiptoes and planted her
lips firmly on his.
* * *
At first she was so shocked she could hardly believe it, and then when his
arms tightened around her, she felt herself responding to the pressure of his
lips, the sudden hunger that was building up inside her. But something about the
way his hand strayed lower and lower, his lips' hard demand, it wasn't right...
Why were they doing this when the entire place could fall in on them any minute
and where was Karen? She tried to break out of his embrace and found she was
"Let me go! You're not Shane." She struggled, and the not-Gooseman did
not answer, only squeeze tighter.
* * *
To have a warm, willing, and surprisingly passionate Niko suddenly thrown
into his arms was a bit too much for Goose. For a moment the world rushed away
from him as she locked her arms around his neck, and he found his own were around
her waist. She strained against him, and he wondered what exactly was going on
as she turned her head to kiss him more deeply, hands playing with the hair on
He shook himself out of the reverie. No matter how pleasant it may be,
there was a time and a place for this sort of thing, and a make-believe tower run
by a mad computer that might un-form beneath their very feet was definitely not
the right place. He tried to uncoil her arms from about his neck, but she clung
to him like ivy on a wall.
"We have to get out of here. Karen is outside trying to free up one of the
ships in the parking lot."
"We don't have to stop," she whispered against his mouth. "We can stay
here forever, and be perfectly safe. Don't you want me?" He stared at her in
disbelief, and saw a strange fire in her eyes, dilated till there was barely a
rim of blue-green halo-ing the enormous black pupils. Her breath was coming fast
and was sweet as honey on his cheek. He frowned. Something was just too ripe
about this whole thing. He shook her off, and she was still panting, looking for
all the world like she wanted him to tumble her right there on the stone floor.
This was not the Niko he knew.
This was not Niko at all.
The world went grey.
* * *
It was as if the walls began to melt. Niko could sense the presence,
furious as a computer could apparently become, even as she felt the construct
tighten its hold on her, cutting off her air supply. She swore she could see
someone through the swirling curtain of grey, and tried every move she knew to
break free of the hold before she passed out from lack of oxygen.
The world was spinning, and she wasn't sure if it was her or the computer
dissolving the illusion. She caught a glimpse of the figures again, and realised
as the veil parted around them that it appeared to be Shane and her locked in a
passionate embrace. She struggled again, feeling for all the world as if her
lungs would burst, and saw Goose toss aside the copy of herself suddenly. She
opened her mouth to cry out, and could not make a sound.
Is this how you mean to terminate us? she cried out with her mind. Is this
how you mean to end the experiment? She felt the answering shock of anger ripple
through her manifested as a squeeze from the construct, and she swore she heard
Goose saw the construct of Niko hit the floor, or what should have been the
floor had the floor not dissolved a few seconds before. That was when he saw his
double with what appeared to be the real Niko, and it looked as if she wasn't
going to last much longer. He leapt across the odd grey distance between them,
trying to land a blow on some likely part of the construct doppelganger so that
it might release her before she snapped in two.
Suddenly the Niko-construct leapt on his back, arms around his neck, trying
to crush his wind pipe. He flipped it over his head, pleased to see it landed
on the copy of him. The small group went down in a sprawl, and he could hear
Niko's short cry as she was finally able to drawn in her first tortured breath.
She dragged herself away from the two constructs, now struggling to get up, found
the real Goose at her elbow.
They looked at each other, not having the time to be embarrassed, but
feeling it anyway, as well as an eerie sort of disgust as the two copies of them
got to their feet. They braced themselves for a fight when the grey landscape
was suddenly replaced by the dig site.
They blinked in the sudden bright sunlight, saw their uniforms, most
noticeably their badges, were back. They looked at each other, just for a second
to see if it really was their fellow ranger next to them, and not another
construct. When neither of them made a move to strangle and/or kiss the other,
they sighed in relief.
That was when the planet began to shake. It lurched beneath their feet,
and they struggled for balance as the ground broke, stones pushing themselves out
of crevices, rock raining from the sides of the site. They dashed for the
stairs, ducking falling debris.
"It's getting angry," Niko remarked as they reached level ground, seeing
the effect magnified in the parking lot. Dozens of ships, including Karen's
little interceptor, lay on their sides in crevices, crushed or just flipped over
by all the sudden seismic activity. They scanned the yard for any sign of Karen,
stumbling again as the ground leapt beneath their feet. Niko grasped Shane's
forearm in an effort to stay upright, and their eyes met, if only for a moment.
Damn, but they were going to have a lot to talk about later...
Scream of engines made them look up to see one boxy freighter, Professor
Ford's no less, struggling to lift off. They made for it, found the hatch open,
Karen in the pilot seat.
"Where the hell have you two been?" she yelled, jerking her head towards
the hatch to the cargo bay. "Get in."
"I'm driving." Shane frowned.
"The hell you are. My dad used to have one of these old T-40s. It's been
a while, but at least I know how not to blow us up." The planet shook again, and
Niko could feel the presence looking for them, angry and confused. It must be
overloading, she decided, wishing Doc were there to confirm or deny her
diagnosis. It had drawn all of its power back into itself, all the constructs,
in an effort to find them and destroy them. So much for the passive observer.
This experiment was over. They climbed into the back, hearing the door hiss
behind them over the death throes of Rishawn's guardian. Shane was almost
amused. It figures, that thing shorting out trying to make sense of our
* * *
Back in the hold, Niko and Goose didn't look at each other. Niko, for one,
was too confused and embarrassed by the events of the past day, and needed a few
hours just to figure out what exactly had happened, and how much of it was real,
or manipulated by Rishawn's presence. Goose was also hard at thought and had
opened his mouth to say something when he was cut off by Karen.
"You guys belted in back there?" Karen's voice floated back from the tiny
bridge of the freighter.
"What?" Niko began, but suddenly Karen gunned the engine, and the little
ship leap forward, throwing her off balance and against Shane, who held tight to
her until they levelled off.
She kept her eyes screwed shut, fully aware that her cheek was pressed
against his chest, the badge affixed to his uniform beneath her jaw. She could
hear his heart. Feel it beating so fast next to her ear. She moved to
straighten up, sure he could see the pulse beating wildly in her throat, but his
arms remained locked around her. She looked up to find him staring at her in
complete wonder, green eyes dancing. She felt a flush rise in her cheeks, wanted
to break away but couldn't move.
They stood there in the dark corner of the cabin, suddenly awkward. This
was real, not a part of some experiment. He was going to kiss her. They both
knew it even before he bent his head to hers, brushing her lips with his own.
"Hope I didn't scare you guys." Karen's voice shocked them out of the
moment. She had found the intercom, and the speaker was right next to their
ears. "I'm gonna engage the drive in a minute. We should be home in less than
an hour. You two rest easy, okay? Rishawn is just shaking itself to pieces down
there, and it looks like we're home free." There was laughter in the girl's
voice as she cut off the channel. Niko rested her forehead against Shane's
chest, sighing at the cadet's timing, and Goose rested his chin on the top of her
head, chuckling. They parted, finally.
She didn't look at him, not right away. She had no idea what to say, first
of all. She sat on the padded metal bench, feeling along the seat for the safety
belt, cheeks still burning as she held it, not buckling it around her, just
feeling the weight of the clasp in her hand. She knew he was still standing
there, watching her. She could feel his eyes, knew the halfsmile that was sure
to be playing with the corner of his mouth. Well, girlfriend? She could almost
hear Karen's voice. Where's all your confidence now? Finally she raised her
Goose had been waiting for this. He had never realised it before, but he
had been waiting for something like this for over a year. It was more than just
the whole mess with the constructs. That was certainly part of it, but all it
had done was point something out to him that he had always known, but never
really acknowledged. His blood burned with the memory of her in his arms that
morning, the intensity surprising him a bit, though not much. The feel of her
hair, like silk beneath his fingers, the warmth of her breath against his cheek,
he couldn't escape it. And here she was, staring at him with those eyes that
were neither green nor blue, but somewhere in-between. Waiting.
Always she was there, at his shoulder, to warn him, help, cover his back.
Ever since the very beginning. He had called it comradeship, friendship, a
million other names though he had known the truth. From the moment they had met
there had always been the promise of more than just friendship, but both of them
had been afraid to cross the line. He had worked side by side with her for two
years, teasing, laughing, sometimes just watching her. He had never been able
to figure out how someone so young could be so poised, and elegant at the same
time, somehow timeless. Yet now, she seemed painfully young, and he realised how
honest she had always tried to be with him, and with herself. So many hundreds
of little things, all spelling it out, and he not able to read a word of it.
So there they were. The inevitable had happened, and he had no idea what
to say, what words would fit the thoughts running through his head. So he decided
to trust his instincts.
He pushed himself away from the wall, and closed the distance between them
in an instant. She just followed him with her eyes, gaze never wavering as he
took her by the hand, pulled her up, took her face in his hands and gave her the
kiss he had meant to before they were interrupted.
Her eyes went wide, and then she relaxed against him, felt his hands moving
on her shoulders, reaching up to trace the line of her jaw with one callused
thumb. She felt the muscles of his arm move beneath her hand as he sought to
hold her even closer, and she was breathless with it. Consumed by it, the sheer
humanness of it, the emotions coursing through her, the warmth that flooded her
cheeks, every inch of her as she arched against him, feeling the heat of his arms
through the material of her uniform, his hand at the small of her back. His lips
moving against hers. He held her as if he never meant to let her go, and she
didn't think she ever wanted him to. They never even felt the ship jump into
She made some small sound against his mouth, and he pulled back to look at
her, to see the high color in her cheeks, the brightness in her eyes. She was
against the wall of the hold, looking as if it and Shane were the only things
holding her up, and he knew she would have fallen had he not held her so tight.
Feeling a bit wobbly himself, he was beginning to think he would like to
make to love to her on the floor of the cabin, would have most certainly had they
been alone. The only sound he could hear was her soft breathing, the only other
person in the universe the girl in his arms. And he wanted to tell her, wanted
to shout it to the stars, while at the same time he wanted to hold it a secret
next to his heart, share her with no one.
"Shane..." she whispered softly, so softly that he almost wouldn't have
believed she had made the sound at all had he not seen her lips move as she
formed the name. He brushed loose strands of hair from her cheek, left his hand
there to caress her, feel the lips move beneath his hand. She sighed at his lips
on her neck, her eyes, her temple. "I have wanted to do that for the longest
time." She laughed softly, touching his forehead, running a finger along his jaw.
"I know, babe." He was whispering in her ear, and she touched his fair
hair, pulled him back to her mouth.
"You two are awfully quiet back there." Karen's voice over the intercom
a few minutes later. "Everything okay?"
"Everything is fine." Niko held her finger to the button, trying not to
giggle as Goose began to nuzzle her neck, and bit her ear, nibble the tender
flesh there. "You just fly the ship. Trust me, we're fine."
"Whatever you say, boss. ETA is twenty-five minutes and counting."
"Good." Shane clicked off the `com, and drew the laughing woman down on
the bench beside him, growling menacingly.
* * *
Flynn and her crew didn't even bat an eyelash when the boxy little T-40
freighter slid into Bay Seven. They merely did their jobs, keeping a close eye
on the three passengers that emerged from the cabin. Siobhan and her techs
shared bemused glances at the looks the two Rangers were sharing when they
thought no one else was looking and they were being discreet. She waited until
they had entered the lift at the end of the bay, and then casually approached
Joanse, the tech who worked the comnet.
"Pay up." She tapped her palm, smiling like the cheshire cat, and the big
Alpha Centauri male dropped the credit disks into her palm, sighing as a week's
pay went into Flynn's pocket.
"How long till the rumor mill starts grinding?" He asked her, and she
winked, flipping her light brown braid over her shoulder.
"Soon, I'd say. Looks like those two can't keep their hands off each
"Nope. Just common sense."