BETA Mountain, Earth
Doc Walter Hartford's wrist comm beeped.
"Figures," he growled around a mouthful of bristles and toothpaste. Hastily he spit and set his toothbrush down by the sink before answering. Can't even get a minute to brush my teeth... We just got home. He took a deep breath and forced a smile onto his face.
Captain Zachary Foxx's face took shape in the miniature screen. "Doc, we need you up in Commander Walsh's office," he said. "Niko and I were here for a briefing when—well, you'll see when you get here."
Doc saluted and picked up his toothbrush once more. "Be there in five minutes," he said, and signed off. "Or maybe ten," he added under his breath. "Can't show up cranky."
Doc met Shane Gooseman in the hallway outside Walsh's office.
"You know what's up?" he asked with a wave of greeting, noting with a small, private grin that Goose's hair was damp.
"Nope," Goose answered. The door slid open to admit them into Walsh's office, where the others stood waiting for them. Doc and Goose barely had time to come to attention before Commander Walsh pressed a key on the command pad of his desk. An image of a building in flames came up on the large viewscreen on the wall.
"Twenty minutes ago we received a high-priority request for assistance from the Mars City Police Department," Walsh said. "Yesterday evening they logged reports of shots fired in this building in Mars City shortly before the place went up—'went up' being the operative phrase. Witnesses say the entire building was in flames in a matter of a few minutes. No explosion, just flames. They're asking us to investigate."
"But this sounds like a job for the fire department, Commander," Doc put in, puzzled. "Why do they need us?"
"This vid came from the local news media," Walsh answered, indicating the screen. "But a resident from the building across the street from the burning building caught this with his personal vidcam."
He pressed another key, and the image on the wall changed. This video was grainier, with poor-quality sound, and had obviously been shot from a different angle than the news vid. The flames danced and shivered, so hot that its cracks and pops sounded clearly even over the hissing audio track.
Doc was just opening his mouth to say "And?" when he saw it.
From the flames a figure emerged.
Doc's eyes widened and he flinched—before he realized that the person seemed untouched by the fire.
The figure ran several feet from the burning building to crouch near a parked car, where it began scanning its surroundings. The video image jerked noticeably as the cameraman started, obviously surprised, and then trained his viewfinder on the hunched form. As the figure moved again, sprinting away from the burning building, a faint nimbus of light became visible around it.
"Holy—" muttered Goose.
"Force field?" Doc wondered softly, but looked over to see Niko shaking her head.
"Keep watching," she whispered.
Suddenly the figure stopped, whirled, and looked upward toward the camera's lens. As the cameraman began to zoom in on it, a blinding flash of light lit up the viewscreen, and when it cleared, the person was gone. Suddenly the image jounced and shook, as though the person running the camera had staggered, and then it froze as the recording apparently ended.
Walsh pressed a key, and the viewscreen went dark.
"What the heck was that?" Doc demanded.
"That's what I want you to find out," answered Walsh. "Analyze that video, gather all the information you can, and find out what burned down a multistory building in spite of its fire suppression systems. I also want you to track down whoever walked out of those flames and temporarily blinded a Mars City resident. And do it quickly. They've found four bodies so far, and the mayor is screaming."
Goose stirred restlessly. "Sir—" he began.
"I know, Ranger Gooseman," Walsh cut him off. "Analyze the evidence first. As soon as you've got anything solid, all of you," and his gaze swept across the four Rangers, "are to head for Mars. Any questions?"
"Got vid?" asked Doc. Walsh ejected a storage chip from the player and handed it over. Pocketing it, Doc glanced around at his teammates.
"Dismissed," Walsh said. "Go get me some results."
The Rangers saluted and filed out of Walsh's office.
Series Five Rangers' office
Doc stepped over to the reader at his desk and took the chip out of his pocket.
"Hang on a minute, Doc," Zachary said. "Niko, can you do a scan on this?"
Niko smiled. "If you want a reading of the commander, sure." She gestured toward the chip. "He requested that video data from the Mars City police, and they sent it as a transmission. So it's at least a copy, if not a copy of a copy—and the person who made the original recording never touched this chip. When I scan something, I receive impressions of the people who touched it or were nearby when someone else touched it, usually people who meant something to the owner. Basically, as far as psychometry is concerned, there's no connection between the cameraman and that specific chip. I'd have to scan the original to get anything useful."
"It was worth a try," Zachary said. "I never knew your powers had that limitation, Niko."
"You knew there had to be some reason why Niko isn't running the world, Captain," Doc cracked, and fed the chip in to his comm unit. Zach headed for his desk and the comm station there. Goose, arms folded, leaned against the wall and watched, his face sardonic. Niko perched on her desk.
"I want to talk with the cameraman when we get to Mars City," Zach said. "I'll get on the horn to arrange an interview while you work on that video, Doc."
"Right." Doc picked up his CDU, touching his badge with his free hand. "Okay, tweakers, front and center," he said. "The Doctor must operate!"
A narrow beam of light shot from the handheld minicomputer and expanded into an octahedral field filled with twinkling lights and mathematical formulae. One light, then another, grew brighter than the rest.
"What's up, Doc?" one of them asked in a shrill little voice.
"Searchlight, Pathfinder, go hit that image file. I need better resolution. Pull whatever you can get from this sad heap of electrons they're calling video."
"Right-o-rooty, Docko!" Pathfinder answered as the programs vanished into the reader's input slot. A frame of the video centered on the figure appeared onscreen. Gradually Doc's programs zoomed in on the image, resolving as they went. "This is really tough, Doc," Searchlight chirped from the guts of the reader. "The resolution blows!"
"Keep working on it," Doc answered. "Zach," he asked, glancing back over his shoulder, "any luck getting hold of the guy?"
"Mars City police put me through to his comm line, but no one answered," Zachary answered. "We can try again once we get there. In the meantime..." His voice trailed off, then rose again: "This is Zachary Foxx of the Galaxy Rangers, calling for Captain Dansky—"
"Okay, Docko, here's whatcha got," Searchlight piped up. Doc, Goose, and Niko gathered around the screen, and Zach turned from his conversation to fix his eyes on the image.
Doc sighed. "This the best we can do?"
"Garbage in, garbage out, boss," Pathfinder said. "Like he said, the resolution's bad."
Goose stared at the blurry image, eyes intent.
"It's hard to make very much out," Niko observed. Doc noticed that she was watching Goose closely from the corner of her eye. "It looks like a dark-haired woman, but it's difficult to tell anything more."
"Thanks, Captain," Zachary said into the comm, and rang off. "Well, Doc, it's more than we had," he observed, stepping closer to the screen. "Judging from the car she's next to, I'd say she's about, maybe, five-eight, five-nine, give or take a little."
"Looks about right to me," Doc agreed. "Think that's solid enough for the commander?"
Zach shrugged. "Well, it's what we have. I just talked to Captain Dansky, and he's detailed a couple of detectives to meet us at the spaceport. Pack your bags, everyone. We're headed for Mars."
Mars City, Mars
2308 local time
She wandered through the streets of one of Mars City's shopping districts, watching the evening crowds flow down the sidewalks. She could not seem to stop darting quick glances around her. That woman with the bundle of shopping bags—is she following me? She stopped to look in a display window and caught her reflection staring back from a mirrored stand. Her own frightened eyes caught at her until she jerked them away. She used the mirror to scan the street behind her and stared for a moment at a man on the sidewalk across the street. Wasn't he there four blocks back?
Stop it, stop it... They're dead, she told herself, tightening her lips against the nausea of fear. I felt them die last night. Tears rose and she forced them back. I didn't want them to die. But there are more of them looking for me...
Unbidden, a picture appeared in her mind: A pair of eyes staring blankly at the ceiling, a mouth dropped slightly open. Then a voice, deep and commanding: "Never tell anyone who you are." She flinched.
No, she told herself firmly, and pushed the picture away. He's dead. He died a long time ago.
He can't hurt you ever again.
A blast of noise jerked her head around, jolting her sharply from her disordered thoughts. Music blared from a display window filled with home vid systems. Heart hammering, she relaxed slightly, sighed and turned her mind to the immediate question of where she was going to sleep. Wonder if my apartment's safe? She shivered. If it's not...That would mean they know where I live.
A scruffy teenaged boy passing by bumped against her shoulder and mumbled an apology. She jumped again, whites showing clear around her irises, and stumbled to a bench to let her knees lose their wobble.
At least there was no one watching my locker.She shifted the bag on her shoulder to rest in her lap, hand unconsciously brushing the concealed panel she'd added.
The youth hostel? No, they might look there—and I don't want any more people to get hurt. Maybe I should sneak into one of the multiplex shopping centers after closing and find a supply closet to sleep in...
A flicker of motion caught her eye. She turned her head to look straight on at the screen of a news kiosk. She recognized the footage they were showing; it was the same image they'd been repeating, every hour on the hour, since last night: the office building where she worked—used to work, she corrected herself soberly—engulfed in flames. The unctuous face of Sabrio Hoffman, Mars City's favorite anchor, appeared below the image of the burning building. Half unwilling, she rose to look. The kiosk, sensing her approach, raised the volume slightly.
"—death count continues to rise, Mars City police are still refusing to release the details," Hoffman was saying, "but an unconfirmed report from a source inside the fire department would seem to indicate arson. Meanwhile, sources at the Mars City Spaceport confirm that a team of Galaxy Rangers has just arrived from Earth." The screen cut to an image of three men and a woman walking through the spaceport. The crowds gave them a wide berth.
"Our sources have positively identified the Rangers as a team of specialists who handle the League's toughest cases," Hoffman's voiceover continued as the camera continued to follow the four law enforcement officers. The tallest, a blond man who looked too young to drink, let alone wear a badge, gave the camera a cold stare over his shoulder. The screen cut back to Hoffman in the studio, his face showing just the right amount of concern.
"Why have BETA's top troubleshooters been called in to investigate an 'ordinary' case of arson?" he demanded, his voice stern and indignant. "What aren't the authorities telling us? Mars TV intends to find out, because the citizens have a right to know."
Hoffman folded his hands and directed a penetrating gaze at the camera.
"I'm Sabrio Hoffman, reporting for Mars TV."
The kiosk moved on to another news item. She turned slowly and stepped away down the sidewalk, avoiding passers-by with unconscious grace.
Why? she thought. That's a good question.
She gripped the strap of her shoulder bag with both hands and tried to pretend she wasn't terrified.
Mars City Spaceport
"No, Goose! Don't!"
Niko's voice arrested Shane Gooseman's right fist midswing. He snarled into the cameraman's face and released his grip on the front of the man's jacket. The man stumbled back and fought to catch his balance without losing hold of his camera.
"Gooseman!" Zachary barked. "At ease!"
Goose snapped to attention.
"Well!" sniffed the reporter, nose in the air. "I must say I'm disappointed to see what kind of people BETA has sent—" She broke off as Niko fixed her with icy, glittering green eyes.
"No comment. You'll have to excuse us, I'm afraid. We," and she picked up her bags again, "have work to do." The emphasis on we was slight enough that one might overlook it, but the reporter flushed, her lips tightening. Niko smiled thinly.
"But Captain Foxx—"
"No comment," Zachary snapped, and set off across the concourse with Niko and Goose a step behind him. Doc paused just long enough to toss the woman a charming, apologetic smile and a shrug before trotting after the others.
"Nice PR job, my Goose man," he panted, catching up. Goose's only response was a growl.
"They're meeting us at the passenger pickup area, aren't they, Captain?" Niko asked, glancing sidelong at a glowering Goose. He caught her glance, and she jerked her eyes back to front, her face flushing.
"That's what Captain Dansky said," Zach answered, scanning the crowd ahead. "It'll be a plainclothes officer in an unmarked car, so we'll have to wait for him to find us."
"Avoiding the media zoo?" Doc wondered.
"Probably," Zach replied.
"Just as well," Niko put in, making her voice as annoyingly perky as possible. "We don't want to have to bail Goose out of jail in our first evening here." Goose rewarded her with a dirty look. Niko just smiled—and relaxed for the first time since they'd left Earth. He's handling it, she thought in relief. Then sensory memory arose, and she felt her face heat again at the thought of what had happened on the trip to Mars.
That's not all he's handled today, jeered a small voice in the back of her mind. Or all you'd like him to...
She told the small voice to shut up. In five different languages.
They all turned as a low voice sounded from a polite distance away. A tall, dark-haired, rawboned man stood, hat in hand, next to a diminutive, sturdy woman of Asian descent. Niko hid a smile, for somehow he contrived to look rumpled even wearing dark, tailored trousers and a jacket over a plain white shirt, while she managed to make slim trousers and a dark red turtleneck carry the panache of a suit. Clearly clothes don't always make the man... Case in point. The man stepped forward, hand extended, a smile lighting his pale blue eyes. "I'm Detective Meeno Ridley, and this is my partner, Detective Brianna Lee. We're here to escort you to the department." He and Zach shook hands. "It's an honor to have you and your team here, Captain," Ridley continued. "If you'll come this way—"
The Rangers fell in behind Zach as Ridley led the way. Niko caught Detective Lee sizing up Goose and raised an eyebrow. Wonder what that's all about? she thought; the other woman looked at Goose not as though she liked his looks, but more as though she were solving a puzzle. The woman moved like a martial artist, and Niko wondered idly what school she followed. Hard to tell for sure. Maybe kung fu?
"You do much sparring, Ranger?" Lee asked Gooseman.
He turned his glower in her direction. "Some. Why?"
The tiny detective shrugged. "Maybe we'll work together sometime." Her dark eyes shifted to Niko, and a slight smile crept across her lips. She winked.
They had reached Ridley's sleek grey van and started loading their baggage aboard when the cry went up.
"There they are!"
Six heads turned in unison to see a veritable cavalcade of reporters and camera operators stampeding toward the van.
"Sir—" Ridley began, but Lee was too quick for him.
"In!" she barked, pitching Zach's bag into the back of the van and leaping into the driver's seat. Goose threw his bag into the rearmost seat and followed it bare moments later; after a second's startled hesitation, Niko followed. Ridley scrambled into the shotgun position and slammed the door as Zach jumped into the middle seat, dragging a protesting Doc after him.
Niko, belting herself in, yelled, "Do you really want to talk to them, Doc?"
"No!" Doc answered, voice muffled by the immediate proximity of his face to the seat cushions. Zach wrestled the door closed as Lee hit the accelerator and cut sharply away from the curb. Doc hit the floor a moment later.
"Buckle up, Doc," Goose said cheerfully.
Niko leaned toward Goose. "I think she drives worse than you do, Shane," she whispered. Maybe kidding around will get us back on track.
"Yeah," he whispered back. "I think I'm in love."
She hit him.
Back on track, all right. She rubbed her knuckles.Ow.
Elsewhere, Mars City
She tossed and turned on her makeshift pallet of paper towels, desperately tired but unable to sleep. Twice now night-shift janitorial staff had approached the supply closet, but it had taken very little effort to "remind" them that the lock was jammed and a locksmith arriving in the morning.
Why did they bring in that team of Rangers? she worried. What do they know? Do they know how the fire started?
A voice sounded in her mind: "Never leave a trace of your presence..."
Her face crumpled.
I didn't mean to...
She wept quietly, smothering her sobs in the cloth of her bag.