Highlanders - Chapter 04
Zach slammed his fist on the wall's comm unit. "This is Captain Foxx, requesting space salvage teams to search Sector 10. I want every scrap of metal there, including any trace of the assassin that went out ahead of it!"
Niko sat down heavily on the deck, her head resting on arms crossed over her knees.
Goose dropped down beside her. Snaking an arm around her shoulders, he murmured "You okay?"
Shooting a grateful look at him, she swallowed several times before responding in a scratchy voice. "Fine, thanks... just need a... minute."
Duncan, his jacket buttoned up, knelt down to lay a hand on her knee. He ignored Goose's heated glare, which would have incinerated a lesser man. "If there's anything I can get for you..."
"Nothing... but thanks," she replied.
The Immortal nodded and straightened up, walking towards Connor and preparing for the inevitable barrage of questions.
Goose for his part turned around, using his body to block the curious stares of the growing crowd while she pulled herself together. Giving especially fierce growls at ANYONE who breathed funny got his point across.
Doc grinned at the sight of an entire crowd looking at the floor as he downloaded what he could.
After seeing for himself that Niko would be fine, Zach barked some commands to the arriving Rangers, ordering them to seal off the crime scene. Turning towards the Scotsmen, he asked, "Are you two all right?"
"Yes, Captain, thank you. As you can see," Connor shrugged, "we were nearly Victims #4 and #5. How did you know we were in trouble?"
"Actually, we were on our way down to ask you both some questions about the killings. Niko sensed something was wrong, so we high-tailed it over here. Doc overrode the door's controls and restored the lights; the rest you know. Now then: what happened?"
The elder MacLeod gave intentionally vague answers as he glanced at Duncan, needing to assess his injuries before concocting a flawless cover story. He could still sense the immense pain within the younger Immortal, but the latter hid it well while giving his own version of events.
Holding up a hand that cut Duncan off in mid-sentence, the Ranger Captain sighed. "We'll continue this discussion elsewhere." He lowered his voice for their ears only, getting a serious expression as he continued with "Don't think for a minute that we're buying any of it."
As Connor and Duncan gave each other slightly alarmed looks, Doc finished his work. "All set, Zachary."
Niko glanced up, the color returning to her face. "Ready, Captain."
He nodded at the MacLeods. "Gentlemen, if you'll step this way," he gestured towards the main corridor.
They followed Zach and Doc out, Goose and Niko falling in line behind them as they pushed their way through the crowd of Rangers, onlookers, and gawkers.
Right after the group entered Zach's temporary office, Doc scanned it for bugs with his CDU before pronouncing it safe. The professors sat in front of the desk, placing their katanas on it as the Series Fives spread throughout the room.
Zach contacted the salvage section from the desk comm as he dropped into the seat behind it. "Found anything yet?"
"Not much, sir, except some smashed crates and artifacts, but we also discovered that one of the exhaust ports was sliced open from the outside; looks like someone forced their way into the station. Search teams are spreading out now."
"Tell them to use extreme caution and only track her movements UNLESS lives are at stake. Keep me informed. Foxx out." Looking back up, he nodded at Niko. "If you'll be so kind..."
She took a deep breath and faced the two stone-faced Scotsmen. This wasn't going to be easy. "As you two already know, we've had three murders on this station that are connected with the Archaeology Conference. These crimes were similar to what happened today save that no one was killed this time. The common threads between the victims were prior friendships, rapid healing, old razor-sharp swords used in the fights, decapitation, and unexplained electrical damage to the crime scenes. We have no suspects to date..."
Connor held up a hand, interrupting her dialogue. "With all due respect, if we're being charged then we want to see our lawyers. Last I heard, unauthorized interrogations are against the law within the League of Planets."
"Whoa, we're not accusing you fine folks of anything," Doc replied, holding his hands up. "In fact, this recent attack pretty much rules the two of you out as suspects. We do need your help to stop this gal before she kills again, and hoped you could shed some light on why she's only targeting certain people."
Niko fixed her emerald gaze on Duncan. To his credit, he met and held it. "There's something else," she continued, shifting her gaze to encompass both scholars. "Based on research done during this investigation, we know now that most records of your legal existences are clever forgeries. Since we had nothing else to go on, I psychically scanned your most valuable possessions: the swords on display."
"Those memories in 'em nearly friend Niko's brain; looks like you've been pretty busy these past few centuries," Goose harshly told Duncan, his hard eyes unforgiving.
Zach shot him a warning glance. "At ease, Gooseman." Leaning forward, he folded his hands on the desk top and fixed a calm gaze on the two civilians. "We have no interest in exposing your pasts, since the tangible evidence shows that you two haven't committed any serious crimes in the past few years. But we still need to know why the killer is after people like you," he gravely requested.
The MacLeods faced each other.
"Your turn or mine?" Duncan asked.
"I believe it's yours," Connor wryly replied.
"Very well." Duncan stood up, fixing Niko with a steady gaze. His left hand suddenly grabbed the antique letter-opener on Zach's desk. Before anyone could react, he stabbed the makeshift weapon deep into his heart and yanked it out before collapsing.
The Rangers converged on Duncan's crumpled form. He had died instantly.
After checking for a non-existent pulse, Doc gave Connor a bewildered look. "Why didn't you stop him?! I thought he was your cousin!"
"Wait for it," the older man replied.
The words were barely off his lips when the corpse... stirred on the floor.
The Series Fives backed away, completely stunned as Duncan coughed and came back to life.
He pulled himself painfully back into the seat, nodding at Connor before slowly rising to face Niko once more. Behind his eyes, she could glimpse the pain of ages normally hidden by his outside gentility. "I am Duncan MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod, born in 1592 in Glenfinnan, Scotland. I fell in battle fighting my clan's enemies and became Immortal. Connor here," he gestured at the elder man, "was my first teacher in the ways of survival, civilization, and the Game. In it, two Immortals fight to the death with the winner absorbing the loser's energy after the latter is decapitated -- the Quickening. Most of us want no part of it, but the few evil ones still living will stop at nothing to be the only One: the last Immortal, with the power and knowledge of all the others. The Quickening always causes heavy property damage, hence the continuing problems on this station. Connor and I are the only two Immortals left here. Whoever this murderer is," he locked eyes with Niko, "she's not an Immortal."
"And how in blazes do you know THAT?!" Goose asked in a skeptical tone, glaring at the MacLeods as he leaned beside the sealed office door.
Connor turned in his seat to look at him. "Each Immortal can sense the presence of another of our kind at close range -- no signal, no Immortal."
"Have mortals ever hunted down your kind before?" Doc asked in a distant voice, frowning as he studied the information in his CDU.
"Yes, but that was roughly a century ago," Duncan sighed, rubbing a hand over his tired face. "After that, things returned to their usual state of quiet chaos and assumed identities." His eyes darkened further at the next words. "Who- or whatever this assassin is, somehow she's taken the Quickenings from the slain Immortals. I was within range when Jones was attacked, and he was the only other Immortal I sensed there. When he died, his power should have slammed into me, but nothing happened. In the past, the energy either went to the nearest Immortal or was lost. There was no other way to get it -- at least, not until now. If she can use the power somehow..." he trailed off.
A brief silence fell.
"We DO have two advantages over the killer," Zach finally said, "both of you. If she's really come back, then sooner or later she'll come gunning again. We have to be ready when that happens."
"And how do we do that?" Duncan asked.
"By having one of us with both of you twenty-four hours a day. The instant there's trouble, we'll come running. I also want you two to carry homing devices -- just in case." The Ranger Captain handed them each a small disc-shaped chip, easily concealed within pockets. "You can vouch for the fact that the murderer is not an Immortal, but she apparently has few mortal weaknesses as well."
Doc glanced up from the mishmash of static on the tiny screen. "No clues as to HOW this charming lady got there; all the readings are scrambled but good."
Zach's eyes narrowed at this, but his voice and body language remained steady. "Doc, is there any way we can track her?"
"I can recalibrate the internal sensors to scan for any traces of her on the station. It'll take some time."
"Do it, and pull whatever resources you need."
He nodded his thanks. "Before that, though, I'm going to take a quick peek at the recovered debris. Maybe there's a clue in there we've been missing." Doc headed for the exit, pausing just long enough to tell Connor "I'm placing all my bets on you from now on!" Before MacLeod could reply with more than the beginnings of a smile, the Ranger was gone.
Zach turned towards Niko. "What's your schedule for today?"
"Busy, Captain," she sighed. "The last major shipment is heading out, and I have to be there to make sure it goes without a hitch. But I could take the night shift... I'd better go now." Before anyone could comment on her pale look, she quickly left.
"And I'm stuck with supervising the station security detail, which leaves you, Gooseman," he concluded. "As of this moment, I'm reassigning you as these gentlemen's bodyguard..."
"WHAT?!" the Supertrooper and Scotsmen all yelled at once.
The older man winced; his tension headache was coming back. "You heard me, Ranger. With the rest of us handling the arrangements, you're the only one left who can keep an eye on them." He led up a hand to stop their protests. "Yes, I know you two can take care of yourselves -- believe me, I'm well aware of that after seeing what I have today. But I need to make sure you're kept in sight at all times. I wouldn't put it past the assassin to jam the homing devices somehow, so one of us must be there as backup."
"So why not assign a squad to accompany them?" Goose wanted to know.
"Because our forces are already spread too thin, working security and patrolling nearby space. By the time our request for more people gets approved, this Conference will be history."
Zach looked resigned. "I doubt it'd do any good. This killer has committed her crimes in some of the most secure parts of this station; isolating these two would NOT be in their best interests."
The other three men looked at each other.
Duncan held his hand out to Goose. "Truce?"
The Ranger considered this, then gave a firm handshake. "For now."
"Since you two have signed the treaty," Connor smiled, "let's wash the sweat off before going to that Ancient Empires lecture; no sense knocking out everyone who's downwind, Duncan..."
Zach barely smothered a grin as Goose rolled his eyes.
In a part of BETA Space Station indefinitely closed for repairs, far beneath the living quarters and landing bays, the local vermin had just gotten a big sister of sorts. They shied away in fear, sensing that this was not someone to trifle with.
Security and escape are found within darkness; its cloak gives a sense of protection. The night-shrouded form flowed in and out of the shadows, ruby eyes constantly scanning the walls for a power source. She was too weak to get to her normal method, so she looked all over for an alternative.
There! In the corner -- salvation! She had found "food:" an open console with several wires sticking out of it. Opening a panel above her abdomen, she spliced the plugs stored there with the exposed wires. They faintly crackled as electricity flowed into her damaged systems. The tense waiting till all was clear... She only drained a bit at a time, small amounts that wouldn't be noticed on routine scans. There is safety -- for the moment. Going into passive mode, the murderer's body curled up in a tight fetal ball within an empty space beneath the console; a panel pulled over the opening meant no one could see inside. Her mind began planning ways to eliminate the final opponents. She mentally reviewed the last battle, analyzing her opponent's moves and devising ways to render them useless. Soon as she got enough energy to make it, she could head to one of her "homes" and rest until the next fight.
Niko walked towards the East Launch Bay, mumbling apologies to the ten or so people she literally ran into. They stared after her before moving on, wondering about the peaked expression on her face. Sheer stubbornness and a sense of duty kept her vertical, despite the fact that the two earlier stunts had left her pretty drained. Seeing the light at the end of the corridor, she quickly strode into the main loading area.
The Rangers serving under her were already at work, with Lieutenant Orr directing their movements. It had taken Niko a while before she could pin down just what about the woman set her nerves on edge: Orr's voice sounded remarkably like the Queen's. But her loyalty was unquestionable and work above par, so over time they became friends; now the lieutenant acted as Niko's second-in-command during the Conference.
The colleague in question took one look at her and marched over. "What the heck happened to YOU?!" she demanded with her customary bluntness.
"Had to use my implant to pull our fat out of the fire... nothing to worry about."
"Uh-huh. No offense, Niko, but you look like death warmed over. Go catch up on your rest; we can keep things running here till you feel better."
"No buts! You've covered for us who knows how many times; least we can do is start returning the favor." A chorus of agreements met their ears.
Niko smiled, holding her hands up in a placating gesture. "Okay, okay! Thanks, guys; talk to you later!" In no time flat, she made it back to her cabin and collapsed on the bed, her mind already deep in dreamland before she could pull the covers up.
Zach's wrist comm beeped at 1700 hours. He seriously considered throwing it down one of the disposal chutes, since complaints plus confusion plus Wheiner equaled an unpleasant day. The old break he'd gotten was the half-hour snagged for lunch. "Foxx here," he finally growled.
"Sorry to bug you, Captain, but there's a piece of debris you should see," Doc's voice replied.
That got his attention. "On my way." He had Rowley take over once more and rushed to the Evidence Room. "What've you got, Doc?" Zach asked upon entering.
"Something very weird, fearless leader. Check it out." Gesturing to the far side of the room, where stacks of broken objects rested, he started with "The crates contained minor artifacts and tomes -- nothing irreplaceable. However, buried inside one of them was a stasis box." He walked towards a smashed black cube, opened to reveal a series of nonfunctioning lights covering the inside and a recharge harness suspended in the middle.
The Captain's eyebrows rose in surprise as he followed his friend. "That doesn't belong here."
"Exactly. If this thing were a century old, maybe, but it's state-of-the-art." He pointed out various features: sensor-proof coating on the inside, holographic "masking" field on the outside that made the box look like a stack of tightly-packed books, radio tuned to all known BETA Station frequencies, and small comm screen positioned in front of the harness. "Whoever's giving the orders can feel pretty secure."
"Can we track this back to where it originally came from?"
"The return address attached to this was a false one, but I can hazard a guess: before the circuitry died out completely, Pathfinder and Tripwire ran into some unfriendly neighborhood Slaver programs..."
"So it really IS the Queen," Zach growled. If nasty glares could kill, the stasis box would have been vaporized.
"Right. Niko and I tangled with one of her mechanical assassins before; could be she's sent another one our way."
Zach got an intense look on his face. "Swear everyone who's seen this to secrecy. I don't want any information or rumors leaking out. Can you locate the rest of these boxes and tell me where they are ASAP?"
"Probably could, if the address is the same, but shouldn't we just blow 'em up? No electronic munchies, no killer."
"Sooner or later, she'll recharge her batteries in one of these things. And when she does, I want her to step into one of the 'Doctor's Specials,'" the Captain smiled.
Doc got an evil grin on his face. "Music to my ears, Zachary. Do go on!"
"Hey, guys!" Niko called out, waving across the cafeteria after getting some coffee and food. That nap had done her a world of good; the sparkle returned to her eyes and she walked once more with her customary ease.
Duncan waved back and gestured her over. Both MacLeods wore casual clothes; Connor had on a white shirt with the sleeves rolled up, faded blue denim pants, and high brown boots while Duncan was totally garbed in black. Nondescript carrying cases beside them hinted at the deadly dragon-headed katanas inside. She walked up to see the scholars enjoying an early dinner while Goose leaned against one of the nearby columns, appearing to nurse his own mug of coffee but in reality scanning the room for threats; he had already wolfed down his grub scant minutes before.
Niko slid in between the two Scotsmen. "How's everything going?" she asked, starting to eat.
"Surprisingly, so far so good," Connor smiled. "Duncan and I had already planned to see the final lectures together, so having your friend come along wasn't a problem. He stuck like glue and scared off everyone that came within fifty feet of us!"
She choked on her drink. "Yeah, that sounds like him. Any problems?"
"None," Duncan shook his head. "We've declared a truce of sorts."
"You didn't." Niko saw his bright grin. "You did! Oh, I would've loved to see his face!"
"It was memorable, I grant you that," Connor snickered.
Niko shook her head in amusement as she devoured the rest of her meal, listening as the two Immortals shot good-natured jabs back and forth.
Goose watched the whole exchange with a curious expression. Smiling, Niko rose gracefully from her seat. "Would you two excuse me for a bit?" Both professors nodded as she headed towards him.
"That is one lucky man," Duncan sighed.
"Tell me about it," Connor agreed.
Niko leaned beside Goose, gazing out into space for a few moments before looking at her teammate. "How are you holding up?"
He smiled slightly. "Not bad, overall. Still, I'll be glad when this whole mess is over; playing bodyguard is not my idea of a fun time."
"You'd rather be chasing smugglers, right?"
"You know me too well," he warmly chuckled.
Their wrist comms, both of which read 1800 hours, beeped at the same time. Raising an eyebrow, Niko activated hers.
"Niko, Goose, are the MacLeods there?" Zach asked.
"Yes, Captain," Goose replied for them both. "What's up?"
"Get yourselves and them down to the Evidence Room. We've got a plan..."
"It'll never work," Connor said.
"Are you SURE about this, Zachary?" Niko asked.
"With all due respect..." Goose started.
"People, please! Hear me out," the good Captain interrupted.
They learned the details -- and were still dubious.
"So we're the juicy bait. Figures," Duncan muttered.
"Heh, sounds more fun than being used for target practice during World War II," Connor grinned.
"Hilarious, Connor. I seem to remember that little duel on Boston Green," the younger Highlander shot back.
"No problem! When our little assassin steps into the Doctor's Waiting Room, she'll be drained so fast that Bubblehead will be smarter than her!" the hacker exclaimed with an innocent "trust me" expression.
"Sure this isn't some violation of the Intergalactic Geneva Convention, Doc?"
"Not at all, Niko. Mysterious killers aren't protected under the 'Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause.'"
"And if it doesn't work?" she asked with raised eyebrows.
"We fry her. Any more questions?" Zach asked.
"Yeah. Have you been hanging around Doc too much? This sounds like one of HIS plans!"
"For shame, my Gooseman! Have I ever let you down?"
"Well, there was that one time..." the Supertrooper started.
"Temporary insanity, I swear!" Doc protested. "But don't worry; I'm feeling MUCH better now..."