Highlanders - Chapter 03
So far, Goose had taken out several walls, burned out his Interceptor, and punched out Senator Wheiner when the idiot got in his face. He subsequently received a standing ovation from the fifty or so people in the room, and the politician never remembered anything that happened that day (not that anyone seriously wanted to enlighten him).
The Range was empty save for Goose, everyone else being smart enough not to get in the way of an angry Supertrooper. After he blew the holograms, hidden lazers, and crash-test dummies to dust, he had to settle for archaic bulls-eye targets. They never knew what hit them.
Finally, the last of the paper circles died in flying shards.
Goose's eyes narrowed as he pondered what else to destroy.
He whipped around, blasters out and almost ready to lay waste to whomever said that.
Zach stood there, arms folded, looking perfectly calm, with that stoic poker face he'd perfected. Deep facial lines, a weary countenance, and the rumpled uniform hinted at the tough day he had.
Goose shoved his blasters back into their holsters and calmed down a bit. "Sorry, Captain."
"I've learned to tolerate things in my ranks, but jealous rages aren't one of them, Ranger."
The younger man scowled a bit. "Jealous, sir? I don't know what you're talking about!" He turned to leave, but Zach grabbed his shoulder and swung him around. It took all of Goose's strength NOT to punch him out.
"I'm serious," he said in a strained voice. "This behavior is out of line. Now, I can request a personnel change to separate you two if this keeps up." He let out a breath and shook his head, his voice changing into the paternal tone. "I don't want to do that, Shane. You're too much of an asset and too good a friend."
Goose dropped his voice, seeing Zach's agitation. "Just what are you implying, Captain?"
"Can it. I know about you and her, but the walls here have ears. We go someplace else."
He nodded and followed the older officer out. They went to the Supertrooper's designated cabin, with Zach telling him about the latest murder along the way. After making sure no listening devices were there, Goose looked him straight in the eye. "You mean NIKO and me?! Sir, I have noproblem working with her! She's pulled my fat out of the fire more times than I can count! And," he went on, "she's a friend -- one of the few trustworthy ones I have. Niko isn't the problem."
"But getting jealous IS the problem. Now, you know BETA policy on fraternization in the ranks; three years ago, I would have been a hard ass about it, but..."
"Don't quote regs to me, Zach," Goose snapped, "I can recite them in my sleep! Niko and I are friends, nothing more!"
"On paper," Zach muttered.
"She's not the problem; it's that new professor she's helping! I don't trust him around her."
"Niko's a big girl. He tries anything, and you know as well as I do that he'll sing in a higher key."
"Oh hell, Zach," Goose muttered, flopping down on the couch. "I know that! I just don't want to see her get hurt -- uh, it'd interfere with how she operates in the field if she has troubles in her private life!"
Zach tried not to laugh. He'd been young once, after all. "Worrying about field performance is my department." He was smiling now.
The younger Ranger cleared his throat, fighting down a blush.
"And I will admit that there's something very strange about that MacLeod fellow. I don't know what yet..."
Goose's face and tone turned serious as he stared up at the Captain. "I've done some checking into this Duncan MacLeod's background. Some things just don't add up!"
"ID, education, his entire blamed past!" He jabbed a finger at Zach every time he made a point. "He was born in a hospital that burned down, destroying all its visual and DNA records. Same with the schools -- and I'm sure his college stuff is falsified. Some of his previous jobs never even existed! I called the older universities, asking for his papers, and they'd never heard of the guy."
"Now that IS strange. Think we have a con man on our hands?"
"It gets better. Colleagues and girlfriends drop like flies while he walks away untouched. Several unsolved murders are linked to him, but the charges always get dropped due to lack of evidence. The only tangible stuff I have comes from the past five years; his university work and published papers from then are legit, but everything before that is iffy!"
"Fraud, con artist, possible murderer... maybe even the same one behind the killings here. Well, show me your evidence."
"My pleasure, Captain," Goose grinned. Stalking over to his personal computer, he brought up Duncan MacLeod's information and corroborated it with the lies he had found. Screen after screen condemned the professor's records: no living relatives, no past, and no measurable life. Goose shook his head. "Who the heck IS this guy?" He jumped up and paced while Zach forwarded the information to his office terminal. "What does he want with Niko? Could he be a spy?"
"If so... whom is he working for?"
Jabbing a finger on the wall comm, Goose said, "Doc, you still there?"
"'Bout to take a break, Gooseman, after avoiding your temper all day. What's up?"
The Supertrooper growled, but continued with "There's some computer records we want you to see. How long would it take you to say they're legit?"
"Give me five minutes -- I'm on my way."
Three minutes later, Doc barreled through Goose's door. He headed for the computer, plopping himself down after Zach hastily vacated the seat. Cracking his knuckles, he went at it like a kid locked in a toy store. It would have been easier to use his Tweakers, but after that little incident with Nimrod in the Horns of Capricorn, he made sure that his manual computer skills were up to par.
Not ten minutes later, Doc pushed himself back from the screen.
Goose and Zach, who had looked over his shoulders while he worked, were startled by his grave expression.
"This is bad, guys... very bad. Most of these records are forgeries -- clever ones, but fakes nonetheless. Whoever did this is an expert at covering his tracks."
Goose leaned on Doc's chair. "Any way you can find out who this joker really is?"
"Probably, but it'll take some time. I'll get started right away, and also go over what we have on Connor MacLeod." The hacker headed out, muttering "How can anyone not exist in an age of obsessive record keeping?"
Goose glared at Zach. "NOW what? Do I get to warn Niko, or keep quiet about this?"
"Swear her to secrecy until we have more proof that this Duncan MacLeod's a threat. We can't jump the gun until we're sure!" he replied. "I'm sorry, Shane, but if he's a plant then we can't tip him off. If we start acting suspicious, he'll bolt. Keep an eye on Niko until we get evidence either way. In the meantime, supervise repairs on what you've destroyed and get some rest."
He tried to be mad, but couldn't find fault with Zach's plan. "Aye-aye, Captain... request permission to collapse after a hard day."
"Granted; I expect everything to be fixed by midnight."
As Zach left, Goose landed on the couch and was asleep in seconds.
Sunrise at 0700 hours saw Niko in an enormous observation room, sitting right in front of a huge floor-to-ceiling window as she sought solace in meditation. The view revealed a slowly growing globe of golden light spilling its rays over the blue-green jewel named Earth, with the occasional starship tracing a red exhaust trail across it. Comfortably sitting cross-legged and breathing deeply, she tried to find the calmness within her own soul. Her thoughts, however, wouldn't stop hounding her. Why does Shane always get so angry whenever I mention Duncan? Is he actually... jealous?
"Penny for 'em, Niko-san."
She smiled and rose to greet Duncan, who was smartly dressed in a gray suit, black shirt, and black loafers. A silver bolo tie hung from the high collar, its oval turquoise stone adding color to the otherwise quiet outfit. His left hand held a well-worn carrying case. She recognized it as one that held precious objects... swords and staffs, in particular. "And a fair morning to you. What's on the agenda?" she asked, gesturing at the case.
"The usual -- more debates and lectures and seminars, oh joy," he smirked.
"I'm lending a katana from my collection to a friend in Paris; he'll display it in his tour next term. And you?"
"Shipping off the last artifacts." Shaking her head, she went on with "Hard to believe so much frenzied activity took place here in just ONE month!"
"Tell me about it," he chuckled. They shared a companionable smile before his face turned serious. "Have you given any thought to my offer?"
Niko nodded as she stood before him. "Yes. I'm sorry, but I have to turn you down -- working with the Galaxy Rangers is too important to me right now."
Duncan sighed and smiled sadly. "I figured you'd say that, but I had to try anyway."
"Scoundrel," she laughed, lightly punching his arm. Her expression softened. "I'll miss you. All the time we spent together has been wonderful, and not once did you ever take advantage of it. Duncan," she whispered while lowering her eyes shyly, "you've been far more than a friend. In fact, you've helped me see the magic in everything again."
He moved closer and was about to speak when Niko sharply glanced sideways to stare outside. At the same instant, Duncan felt a familiar sensation: the Quickening of another Immortal. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Connor grinning as he peeked around an open entrance in the far wall. Recovering before Niko noticed, Duncan squinted to make out what she saw: Goose glaring out the windows of his quarters.
"He cares for you," he told her quietly.
She gave him a startled look. "Goose? Yes, of course he does. I care about him too, same as Zach and Doc."
Duncan held in his amused laughter; it wouldn't do her any good now. "Yes, but I get the impression that he feels more than friendship towards you."
Her eyes widened in shock. "No, that can't be. Regulations forbid romantic entanglements with colleagues. Besides," she snorted, "he has other women in his life: Annie O, Daisy O'Mega, and Maya, for starters." Niko crossed her arms and stared hard at the floor. Her head suddenly snapped up to meet Duncan's steady gaze, the anger in her face leaking over to her voice. "I won't play games with him!"
"I don't think you have to. From what I've heard, he gives his all to the Rangers -- and you." Before Niko could protest further, Duncan laid a finger across her lips. Gently gripping her shoulders, he said "Maybe it's not right for the two of you to get together now. You're both quite young, and have your whole lives ahead of you. It's natural to see a variety of people before making a choice one way or another... don't begrudge him for that. He's had a pretty isolated life so far. As for me," he sighed deeply, "I've had many loves, but never married. The last woman I wanted to wed, Tessa," his voice broke at mentioning her name, "died in a petty crime days before we could exchange our vows."
Her eyes darkened in sadness. "Oh, Duncan, I'm so sorry. I had no idea... you loved her very much, you still do. I can see that even without my Gifts. And until you resolve this for yourself, you won't let anyone else in," she sighed. "It explains a lot. No wonder you always kept a certain distance, even when we went out together."
"That's my choice, painful as it may be. I'm fiercely attracted to you, but I have to conquer my own demons before getting that close to someone again. Besides, even I won't get in the way of a Supertrooper," he winked. "Life is short, Niko; live it while you have the chance. Go to him, fight by his side, be his friend, and in time -- who knows? But don't let fear and past mistakes get the better of you; don't let them stop you from growing, reaching out, and embracing others. In the end, all that matters is what you've done with yourself."
She gazed at him for a long time before nodding. After kissing Duncan on the cheek, Niko called out "Good morning to you too, Connor," and went inside.
"Why didn't you come in while we were talking?" Duncan asked the empty air.
A low chuckle answered him. "And spoil the show? Not a chance," Connor wryly replied as he entered the room, clad in a white gi and sneakers. A long black cloth bag was slung over his left shoulder, obviously used to carry practice weapons. "Who would've guessed that Duncan MacLeod is actually allowing his latest love to be with the one she truly needs?"
"Ye know about the curse, Connor," Duncan said as his voice momentarily slipped back into its original Scottish brogue. "Anyone who I want to marry will die. I've learned to live with that by not getting involved much, but lately it's become hard to remain alone."
"Yes," the elder MacLeod softly replied, locking his gaze on the vivid blue of Earth's Atlantic Ocean. He had only married thrice in his long lifetime, but knew well the pain his clansman was going through. Clearing his throat, he changed the subject. "With Jones gone, we're the only Immortals left on this station. Sooner or later, the killer will come after us."
"Three good Immortals cut down in one week... and friends, to boot! Damn!" Connor patiently waited as Duncan paced like a caged tiger, then slowly calmed down. "Judging by the timing of the attacks, she'll come after us soon. To the best of my knowledge, the Hunters died out in the 1990s. The Watchers are keeping their distance, and not one of them has gone rogue in decades. Most of the surviving Immortals, such as Amanda, Methos, and Robert and Gina, have left Earth for the new frontier. We haven't put many noses out of joint in our current lives. So who's left?"
"I do not know, but we must be ready for any eventuality. I've just finished sparring with Doc in the gym -- care for some 'light' practice before our busy schedules intrude once more?"
That made Duncan laugh. "Lead on, MacDuff."
Connor groaned good-naturedly as they headed out.
Silence greeted Niko the first three times she rang Goose's door chime; it was only after she pressed it for five straight minutes that a bellowed "Come IN, already!" permitted her entry. When she strode into the cabin, he was still staring outside.
Seeing Niko's reflection silently approach from behind, Goose sighed at the concerned look on her face. He had been standing there ever since awakening, trying to figure out a way to apologize for his behavior yesterday. Don't blow it! Turning around, he told her, "I'm sorry," in a sincere voice.
She placed a hand on his shoulder, squeezing gently. "Shane, what's wrong? Even with your normal bad attitude, you've never reacted so negatively to someone before. What is it about Duncan that sets you off?"
Gazing deeply into her vivid green eyes, Goose knew there was no point keeping secrets from her. He motioned her over to a couch in the far corner while he got coffee for them both. Once seated, he took a deep breath and explained as they both drained their mugs.
Niko's expression changed from curious to incredulous to shock while he spoke. Finally, she stood up and started pacing. "This is unbelievable. But if you and Doc say Duncan's past is a lie... then who is he?"
"Beats me, but we've gotta be careful."
"He advised me to come down here, you know."
Goose looked surprised. "As a matter of fact, I didn't. But I'm glad he did."
Niko flopped back down beside him. "What do you think, Goose? Did Duncan really decapitate them?"
He gave it some serious thought before responding. "He's got the skills and opportunity, but no motive. These are people he's supposedly known for years -- why off them now? MacLeod's got no reason to kill them unless he's insane. He knows more than he says, sets off all my alarms, AND annoys the heck out of me... but that doesn't make him a murderer."
"Then who committed those crimes? I psychically scanned all the areas, but didn't get much." She ticked off the mental images on her fingers. "The killer is a female human or humanoid, average height and build, totally covered in a skintight black bodysuit, completely silent, and wields a scimitar. Whenever I try to probe deeper, all I feel is a wave of icy coldness, like she has no soul..."
"After what she did? I seriously doubt she has one."
"I know," she sighed. "I haven't been able to track her down, either. It's like she only blinks into existence to murder people! I wish I could pick up more." After she mused for a few moments, her eyes lit up. "You know, some of Duncan's artifacts are still in that auditorium. What say we do a bit of investigating on our own?" she grinned. "After all, we still have to solve the mystery surrounding his past..."
He gestured towards the front door. "After you, milady."
They laughed softly while sneaking down the corridors. After locking the auditorium doors behind them, the two Rangers strode over to the displays of polished swords behind the podium.
"What about that one?" Goose asked, pointing to a heavy broadsword with the prominent "MacLeod" inscription on its hilt.
"I'm on it." After she carefully laid the weapon out on one of the tables, Niko touched her badge and started the history probe...
Ten minutes later, Goose was really worried.
Niko stared at the blade like she was possessed, a golden aura racing like wildfire over both. She hoarsely whispered over and over "No! How is this possible? No! I can't believe this... No! How could anyone live like that?! No! This can't be! NO!" as images from the past five centuries filled her mind, all with Duncan MacLeod swimming through them. Suddenly, her hands jerked away from the sword as if they were burned. Sinking to her knees, she hugged herself and trembled violently while gazing into nothingness.
Goose was immediately in front of her, kneeling down as he placed his hands on her shoulders. He was shocked at what he felt: Niko's body was ice-cold! Instinctively, he pulled her into a tight hug. His arms snaked around her back, holding her so that anyone trying to get in would have to go through him first. Tears splashed on his uniform shirt as Niko wept. "Shh, babe, shh. You're safe now," he soothed, glaring at the MacLeod broadsword like it was a deadly cobra.
She quieted down several minutes later. Her red eyes and redder face gazed up at Goose in complete embarrassment. "I'm sorry..."
"S'okay," he smiled. "Here, let me help you up."
"Take me over to those other swords. I have to see..."
"See WHAT?! Niko, the memories in those things could fry your brain!"
"The answers to Duncan's past are in them... Connor's, too. I felt so much in just that one broadsword! I need to check out the other weapons to be sure!"
He looked into her earnest, determined face and sighed. "Fine, but if those things hurt you again I'm gonna melt down the whole lot!" He helped her stand and put an arm around her shoulders, keeping her up as they walked over to the next display.
She grinned in return. "Thanks, Shane." Stepping away from his protective hold, she fingered an intricate katana and touched her badge again. She was more careful, moving quickly from sword to sword while mentally grabbing the strongest impressions from each one. When she was done, Niko used her wrist comm to contact Zach and Doc.
Minutes later, the Series Fives met at Goose's quarters. After they re-entered it and made sure no new bugs were there, Niko faced her friends and began with "I know why Duncan MacLeod has lied about his past..."
Both MacLeods were panting, sweating, and grinning ear-to-ear as they dueled with sharpened wooden swords in an exercise room connected to the main gymnasium. The private area ensured that no one would disturb them, but they used practice weapons anyway -- just in case.
"Ooch! Have ye been practicing behind me back, Connor?" Duncan grunted as he blocked a viscous stab to his groin.
"A century's worth of seniority does have its advantages," the other chuckled, nimbly dodging a slash meant to hamstring him.
"Oh, yeah? Try THIS on for size, 'old-timer!'"
They laughed out loud, enjoying the friendly competition; few people still lived who could stand up to either for more than a minute. They circled each other like warriors locked in single combat on the battlefield, or two of those pro-wrestlers popular in the late twentieth century.
After an hour or so of practice, both were ready to stop.
Unfortunately, someone else had other plans.
Several loud clicks echoed throughout the room, alerting them that the doors had been locked. Static blasting from the comm units set into the wall meant that internal communications had been jammed. The overhead lighting dimmed to 10% normal brightness. Environmental control went haywire, lowering the temperature to 0 degrees Fahrenheit. The MacLeods' breath made visible clouds in the air. Faint scuffling noises emanated from a stack of crates in the corner.
Giving each other a wary look, they pulled out their weapons of choice: dragon-headed katanas. Duncan also shrugged on his jacket, but left it open. Covering each other, they cautiously walked over to the boxes... and dodged as a dark shape exploded from behind the pile, bringing a sharp scimitar down in a swift shadowy blur to disembowel them.
Connor jumped out of the way in time; his kinsman wasn't so lucky.
Duncan bit back a howl of agony as the blade nearly cut him in two, then reversed itself to savagely pry open the wound. Hot blood and bodily fluids exploded over his belly. Within seconds, his shirt was stained in mixed-up gory colors. It was all he could do to hold the internal organs in as he collapsed.
Connor roared and ran forward, his katana meeting the assassin's scimitar in a loud CLANG as he prevented Duncan's beheading. Tackling the other, he forced her back towards the exercise machines.
Duncan dragged himself into a far corner and winced in agony as the flesh slowly pulled back together, his night-black eyes locked on the duel.
The two combatants fought like mad, caught up in an insane dance of moves and swords. Neither wavered for an instant. Blades, kicks, punches, and slashes whistled through the air as both tried to gain the advantage. The elder MacLeod went on pure instinct, sharp senses and quick reflexes keeping him safe. Focusing on the killer's hellishly red eyes, he kept track of her easily. He suffered deep bruises and shallow cuts throughout the fight, where he wove through the exercise machines to keep his opponent off-balance. The equipment in question was soon reduced to a pile of metallic weights and pipes. Several ribs snapped as the murderer body-slammed him. Throwing his opponent to the side, Connor whirled around and sliced through her upper back. His surprise was understandable when she resumed like nothing had happened! Charging forward once more, he slashed deeply through the other's chest before backing off.
Light exploded over the room, making both Scotsmen wince.
Blaster bolts screamed through the air, winging the assassin as she feinted at Connor and made a beeline towards Duncan again.
Duncan, now healed save for a huge bleeding gash, somersaulted forward and kicked upwards. A sharp crack echoed through the area as foot met neck. Continuing the roll, he flipped up beside Connor and held his katana in an en garde position.
Their dangerous grins soon gave way to stunned disbelief.
Aside from the obvious crick in her neck, their adversary was still standing! To add to the confusion, underneath the torn black fabric they glimpsed a dull gleam of dark metal.
The Galaxy Rangers flanked the MacLeods, all their blasters trained on the killer.
"Boy, is SHE ugly!" Goose sneered.
Under the bright light, a robot duplicate of the Queen of the Crown stared at them. Hatred burned in her solid red eyes, one of the few sources of color on her. Save for that, though, her face was nothing but a black metal mask. Sans cape and crown, she was garbed in the same clothing as that evil monarch, down to the purple accents. Several tears and burns in the fabric hinted at her most recent battles. While her right hand slashed the black scimitar in broad strokes, the left one involuntarily rested on her left belly.
"You're outnumbered -- drop your weapon!" Zach ordered.
The murderer lunged back into the corner and smashed full-force through an impact-proof window separating the room from the vacuum outside.
Everyone was immediately sucked towards the star-studded void.
Niko slapped her badge and threw a telekinetic shield over the gaping hole. She gritted her teeth as the makeshift plug took hold. A chorus of "whumps," "oomphs," and "clangs" met her ears as artificial gravity reasserted its hold. Face drenched in sweat from the sheer effort, she snapped "Everyone out -- NOW!"
After a quick dash to safety, Doc activated the emergency override to shut the doors tight. Ten seconds later, loud crashing sounds emanated from the room as everything left inside blew out into open space.