Highlanders - Chapter 02
Goose had just finished making the rounds, ending his double shift as he swooped all around the station in his Interceptor. The zero gravity maneuvers, dives, and barrel rolls sent many an onlooker into conniption fits, but for him it was business as usual. With all the priceless artifacts currently housed there, he had more than his share of hunting down con artists, smugglers, thieves, and assorted vermin who were desperate enough to break in any way they could. He'd seen it all over the past month: attempted bribes, boarding pods attaching to the station and incoming vessels, cat burglars sneaking through airshafts, diplomatic incidents, falsified documents, hostage situations, masquerades, thieves hiding within hollow forgeries, threats, etc. Thanks to the Galaxy Rangers and BETA Station security, no criminals came close to the coveted treasures.
Activating the radio, he contacted his wingman. "Lock, I'm heading in for some downtime. Take over and stay in touch; anything so much as twitches out here, call in the Calvary!"
"Will do, sir. Have fun!" the young Ranger replied, zooming ahead to assume the route.
As he brought his craft in for a perfect three-point landing, Goose mentally griped Thank the stars this mess is almost over! And I thought that blasted Art Show was bad. Glorified security guards again sheesh! He jumped out of the cockpit seconds after the bay re-pressurized. Striding though an opening set of heavy metal doors, he headed into one of the main areas.
"Hey, Gooseman!" Doc called out from behind a nearby console. "You feeling okay? That was the FIRST time you landed something without crashing it!"
"Only because you weren't on board, Doc," he laughed.
The hacker groaned and slapped his forehead. "I knew it; he does it on purpose to give me heart attacks," he muttered as he turned back to the sparking sensor grid controls.
Shaking his head in amusement, Goose walked down a busy corridor leading to the auditoriums, cafeterias, and personal cabins. His thoughts turned back to the conference's imminent closure.
Over the past month, Niko acted as BETA's liaison to the delegation in general. Her archaeology skills and knowledge had made her the best candidate. Thanks to her friendships with many of the professors and scholars present, things ran smoothly with egos kept in check. She also diffused a lot of explosive situations before they got out of hand. Goose had personally witnessed Niko in action, and he'd bet on her when push came to shove.
What bothered him, however, was that she had become friends with a darkly handsome Scotsman named Duncan MacLeod during that time, doing everything from trading notes to sparring with wooden swords. They even went to dinner a few times, for crying out loud! And what REALLY happened during their "tour of the Acropolis" and that "lovely moonlit stroll on Waikiki Beach?" He didn't trust the professor, to put it bluntly, because the man set off all of Goose's internal alarms. Duncan was also too perfect. Perfect manners, perfect credentials, perfect knowledge of his specialty -- ancient and modern warfare. And he liked Niko; it was fairly obvious to anyone within the solar system! Well, no big surprise there. People would have to be dead not to notice HER!
But did she feel the same way?
Goose had no idea. The few times he tried to ask, he'd gotten nervous and backed off.
Niko didn't know what to make of his behavior, but became defensive whenever he got hostile about Duncan. Right, like I should talk! If I flirt with women in front of Niko, then why does it bug me whenever she goes on a date? Even off-duty, he still felt a strong urge to protect her. However, Goose was constantly on the security watch and had almost no time to observe MacLeod.
To top everything else off, Niko had told him over coffee yesterday morning that Duncan had asked her to sign on as his assistant. It was a wonderful opportunity for her, but she was still uncertain over whether or not to accept. He had glanced at Duncan's records before, and found that his legal stuff checked out okay. But after Niko dropped that bomb on him, Goose dug deeper and found some interesting discrepancies unfortunately, serving two straight shifts had occupied all his time after that.
It didn't help that another blasted murder had been committed while he was stuck in space. In fact, he'd witnessed the whole station shaking pretty badly from the outside; screws and panels flew loose as the whole thing bucked up and down like Triton throwing someone off. Goose had immediately requested clearance to get back in, but was flatly denied. He fumed over the possibilities for hours after receiving Doc's radio report.
Face it, Shane, he chided himself, maybe you're just jealous 'cause this guy can give Niko everything you can't. With THAT cheerful thought in mind, he turned the corner only to find her balancing a grav-lift crammed with boxes of artifacts. Running forward, he steadied the left side before it could tip over. "Need a hand?"
"Goose, thank you!" Niko smiled as she kept hold of the right side. "Connor and I threw so many things on this that I'm amazed the power hasn't given out yet!"
Soft male laughter erupted from the rear of the cart. "Then let's proceed today without delay, my friends."
Right now, all Zachary Foxx wanted was an injection of maximum-strength painkillers. Heck, he'd settle for two aspirin swallowed dry. As he supervised security for the Gemstones: Fact and Fallacy exhibit in one of the main lobbies, which included the British Crown Jewels and the Star Cluster of Andor, the Captain's mind drifted over why he had to participate in this madness.
It was a good idea on paper: when the Archaeology Conference came to Earth after starting out on Andor and Kirwin, host it inside the BETA Space Station before it toured the frontier systems so that heightened security would deter thieves seeking the priceless artifacts displayed. In reality, the Galaxy Rangers had to stop numerous break-ins, coordinate civilian traffic within a military installation, deal with complaints from the participants at all hours, get everything ready for transport, investigate those blasted murders, and handle dozens more assorted headaches.
Given a choice, Zach would rather be shot by a disrupter at close range.
"Oh, well," he murmured as he rubbed his aching temples, "three more days of this and it's all over. Can't wait to see the kids Earth-side tonight; it'll be my last chance before this whole thing ends."
The lights flickered and died as a muffled boom echoed up through the deck-plates. Seconds after everyone started murmuring
A massive tremor knocked them off their feet. They held on to whatever was bolted down, screaming above the roar of electronics going crazy and everything else crashing down. The quake finally died down two long minutes later, with aftershocks rumbling throughout the place.
As Zach picked himself up and started to survey the damage, a surprise sonic attack nearly deafened him. "CAPTAIN Foxx!" a loud, obnoxious, nails-on-blackboard voice bellowed in his ear.
He winced and ordered the nearby Rangers to help the others, then silently counted backwards from a thousand as he turned to face Wheiner. "Yes, Senator?" As the older man began his latest diatribe, Zach's headache grew exponentially. Three days? HA! Three decades, more likely! In response to his prayers, his wrist comm beeped urgently. "Excuse me, Senator." Walking quickly away before the other could react, he breathed a sigh of relief as he activated it. "Whoever this is, I owe you big time."
"I'll remember that, my fearless Captain," Doc good-naturedly replied before turning serious. "You'd better get down here to Cargo Bay Five -- we've got another body."
"On my way." Grimacing, Zach told Lieutenant Rowley to take over and ran to the nearest lift. The intermingled smells of spilled blood and strong ozone hit his nose as he stepped out. Working his way through the crowd gathered outside of a smoking storage room, Zach saw Doc and a middle-aged East Indian coroner starting to cover the corpse with a white sheet. "Hold it," he requested, "let me take a look." Standing behind a kneeling Doc, Zach examined the body: Caucasian male in his late thirties with deeply tanned skin, light brown hair, rugged features, and a decapitated head. He was dressed in a rumpled tan suit and clutched a bloodstained broadsword in his right fist. Turning back towards the crowd, Zach called out "I don't suppose any of you saw who did this?" Silence was his answer as they shook their heads or glanced elsewhere. Only the ebony eyes of one met his gaze; a professor from the University of Vancouver named Duncan MacLeod. Zach remembered the fellow -- mainly because he had to supervise the movement of the Canadian's blasted weapons, all in usable condition, up from Earth for his presentations. The scholar finally turned away with a troubled expression on his face, smoothing his black ponytail back as he headed for the conference areas. The captain's gut told him that MacLeod wasn't responsible for this, but resolved to talk to him later just to be sure. Frowning, his eyes drifted back to the corpse. "Professor Jones, I presume."
"Correct, Captain Foxx," Dr. Ranchala replied, typing in some final details on her datapad before looking up. "He's just like the others, too; aside from the decapitation and several deep cuts, this man was in perfect health at the time of death. Even his most severe wounds show signs of rapid healing, but nothing in his biochemistry could possibly account for it." Her calm gray eyes narrowed as she continued. "Also, there was enough electrical energy released in here to fry a Bronto Bear; that caused the quake we just experienced. No idea where the power came from or how it was released, though." Straightening up to stand at Doc's height, she pushed a long salt-and-pepper braid off her shoulders before regarding the two Rangers solemnly. "You'd better solve this mystery fast, gentlemen; I don't even WANT to consider what'd happen if this station shook apart at a critical time."
"Thank you, Doctor," Zach nodded. After Ranchala wheeled the cadaver out, the two Rangers searched the room with a fine-toothed comb, but found only intact airshafts, bolted-down deck and wall plates, sealed artifact boxes, and scorched metal.
"Nothing unusual on scans -- just like the other times," Doc shook his head as he put away the CDU.
Right after he ordered the crime area sealed off, Zach's wrist comm beeped again. "Captain Foxx and Ranger Hartford, contact my office on a secure channel! I want to hear what happened," Commander Walsh's voice ordered.
Doc raised his eyebrows after the transmission ended. "Perfect end to a perfect day?"
Zach groaned as they rushed to the Communications Room. They stopped several dozen times along the way to free people trapped under fallen boxes, exhibits, sculptures, and tables; two hours later, they finally got there.
The darkness was pierced by muted patterns of light that shifted all around every few seconds.
She listened to loud voices outside, knowing they would never find her. The noises disappeared after a time.
Crammed into a small hiding-place, she felt cold and alone. Familiar friends, they are. She gained strength as well, finding safety within the secret space.
It was a job well done. "Excellent, my pet. You've carried out my orders perfectly: by disposing of those annoying humans, nothing can be traced back to me. Too bad these new psychocrystals are unstable, but your improved sensors have exceeded my expectations in tracking down humans with the strongest life forces! With this pitiful gathering going on, no-one will suspect a thing until it is too late," a cackling voice laughed over the speakers. "Make two more crystals, then RETURN TO ME!" The transmission ended in a fit of static.
She would use the airshafts once more, going back through them tomorrow to hunt down the next victim. The dark assassin held her blade lovingly and got the closest she could to a smile, photoelectric red eyes narrowing in anticipated pleasure. *Oh, yes.* Very soon, and her final tasks would be complete.
"Everyone okay?" Goose asked as he stood up.
"I'm fine," Niko replied, pushing stray locks of hair out of her face.
"Shaken but not stirred," Connor grinned as he brushed some dust off his brown outfit and black vest and boots. He also picked his glasses off the floor, reshaping the bent gold frames.
Leaving Connor to guard the crates, Niko and Goose spent the next half-hour helping everyone that needed it. After finding out that the other Series Fives were investigating and the station was returning to normal, they headed back to help load and balance the cart again.
"What IS all this stuff, anyway?!" Goose grunted as they rushed down the hall. "Leftover art from that exhibition we rode security on? The Po Doll wasn't nearly THIS heavy!"
"No!" Niko chuckled. "Connor here has some rare artifacts from Scotland and England showcasing how weapons evolved over the past thousand years: forges, smelters, tools, the real things!"
Goose raised an eyebrow. "Can they be used in combat?"
"Some of them, yes," Connor answered as he peeked around to catch a glimpse of the younger man. "Do you use a lot of hand weapons in your line of work?"
"Quite a few," Goose nodded, "though I stick to blasters myself."
That led to a debate over which was better, lazers or blades, that lasted till they got to the huge auditorium. Small tables were scattered all over the inner perimeter, and Connor directed Goose and Niko over what to put where. The two Rangers laughed and joked as they worked, which brought a wistful smile to Connor's lips. The Highlander himself straightened out everything that had fallen during the "station-quake." Leaving only a few more things to put into place, the three took a lunch break, heading down to a nearby cafeteria for some chow. Niko and Connor reminisced about the time she took his classes three years ago. Goose listened with great interest, and his perseverance paid off when the scholar recalled some embarrassing incidents that made Niko blush. The blond Ranger laughed out loud, green eyes gently teasing his friend. Finally, they went back and finished ten minutes before the seminar was due to begin at 1200 hours.
"Will both of you stick around for the show?" Connor asked.
"You know I will," Niko replied. She looked up at her teammate standing right beside her. "Goose?"
"I've got some free time; don't see why not," he smiled at them both. "All of THIS is for your lecture?"
"It's for a joint presentation given by Duncan and myself."
Goose turned three shades of red.
Before anyone could ask why, Duncan strode through the door. He was attired in a mahogany-red shirt, dark brown pants, and black boots. A long cedar-paneled case in his right hand pointed to yet more weapons joining the party.
"Connor, Niko, everything all set?" he asked in a rich timbre, flashing a large grin at Niko.
The elder Highlander nodded. "Yes, Duncan, the room's ready. I'm going to download the last few things we need now." With that, he wisely got out of the line of fire, moving to the computerized podium in the front of the room.
Goose knew he had to get out NOW. He tried unsuccessfully to wipe the scowl off his face. "If you two will excuse me?" he growled. Not waiting for an answer, he quickly strode from the room.
"I'm sorry, Duncan," Niko apologized, crossing her arms as she glanced worriedly after her angry friend. "I don't know what's gotten into him lately."
"Oh, I have a good idea," he responded with a slight smile as he took off after Goose. He tracked the Ranger down to a nearby deserted lounge, which for some reason had been hastily abandoned by everyone else.
Goose whirled around, sensing Duncan as he silently approached from behind. "What do YOU want?!"
Not bad, the older man thought as he held up his hands. "Listen, I don't know what your problem is, but let's settle it here before anyone gets hurt."
"'Problem?!'" Goose harshly laughed. "Let's see, you're perfect in every way, get whatever you want, and spend all your time with Niko. Now what 'problem' could I possibly have with all that?!"
"Look, it took a lot of hard work to get where I'm at now. The artifacts alone."
"Oh, I know your story, MacLeod, including how all your lady friends wind up dying or vanishing. You're NOT adding Niko to the body count, not if I can help it!" he declared, jabbing a thumb into his chest.
"Ah, I see. You're jealous," Duncan chuckled.
That overloaded all of Goose's disobedience circuits. "That's IT, pal! We settle this now, once and for all!"
"Shane, you... you IDIOT!" Niko's voice exploded from behind them. "Control your temper!" Turning to Duncan, she snapped "Everyone's arrived, so whenever you're ready," before storming back out. She disappeared into the crowded corridor right before their stunned eyes.
"Leave her be, kinsman," Connor said as he entered the room. "We've got that seminar to teach." The elder MacLeod rolled his eyes at the pair; his best student was barking up the wrong tree while this young mortal didn't know about Duncan's true power.
Goose gripped Duncan's arm as the Immortals passed him. "Stay away from her," he growled.
The Scotsman raised an eyebrow. "That depends on what Niko wants." Smoothly twisting his arm out of the Supertrooper's grip, Duncan followed Connor out.
Behind them, Goose's temper reached the boiling point. He took it out by punching the closest wall; not surprisingly, he won.
After Zach and Doc ordered everyone out and locked the door, they secured a channel to Walsh and briefed him on the situation. He in turn warned them that the Board of Leaders was getting nervous about the killings, all within the past week, three in total so far. They had put him on notice, but BETA had precious little to go on aside from the bodies and electrocuted surroundings. All three professors covered different fields: Prince gave overviews between ancient and modern cultures, Wayne's specialty was criminal law throughout history, and Jones taught hands-on archaeology. The victims were in perfect health, found decapitated with sharp swords in their grips, and surrounded by massive, unexplained electrical damage that gave the surrounding station a good jolt. Despite repeated appeals regarding their safety, the scholars stubbornly refused to leave until the Conference was done. The three officers spent roughly an hour brainstorming possibilities, but were still at square one. As usual, the Rangers were caught between a rock and a hard place.
Walsh knuckled his eyes tiredly on the screen. "Inform Niko and Goose about what happened. For the moment, his goes no further than them and us. Do whatever you have to, Rangers, but stop this madman."
"Yes, sir," they saluted and ended the transmission. Before they could speak, Zach's wrist comm beeped one more time.
"Aren't you Mr. Popularity today?" Doc snickered.
Zach glared back as he answered "Foxx, go." The face of a young man with dark brown hair and eyes appeared on the tiny screen. "Captain, we have a problem. Ranger Gooseman's been on a tear for the past hour, including knocking Senator Wheiner unconscious."
"Some guys have all the fun," Doc murmured.
"Now he's holed up in the Range and shooting down everything there. Should we send a squad in?"
"No, Daley, thank you. I'll handle him; best if we keep the casualties down to a minimum." Giving Doc a martyred look, Zach asked him "What did I do to deserve a day like this?"
"Beats me, but it must have been a doozy. I'll talk to Niko and get those sensors working; call me if you need backup, hear?"
"Will do." Both men ran in opposite directions to their respective problems.