Highlanders - Chapter 05
It was 2000 hours, BETA Station time.
As the Last Quarter Moon shone over the place like a slowly fading beacon, its beams washed through the windows to cast long, lingering shadows over the quiet corridors. Joining those was a female-shaped piece of darkness.
The murderer was finally back up to half power after several hours of covertly stealing energy from the station. She had just enough juice to scout for a bit before heading for the nearest stasis box. Crawling through dusty airshafts badly in need of cleaning, the gray-and-black streaked form followed a path dictated by memory. A few minutes later, she eavesdropped on two officers in the Communications Room.
"So what's all this ruckus about last-minute security?"
"You heard right. Word's out that these two professors -- who have the same last name, of all things -- are keeping watch over their own artifacts till they leave tomorrow."
"Talk about being paranoid. Who the heck are they, anyway?"
"Duncan and Connor MacLeod. Let's see where they are..." The only sound heard for the next few seconds was the clicking of keys on a computer terminal. "Right now, those gents are holed up in Conference Room A-13."
"Hey, if they want to lose sleep over their junk I'm not going to complain. By the way, you coming down to my party in Trinidad next week?"
"You bet! Will your wife and the steel drums be there, too?"
"But of course..."
Their voices faded from her audio sensors as the assassin retreated back the way she came. Coming to a junction deep beneath the South Docking Bay, she stopped to get her bearings. Pressing a tiny button on the inside of her right wrist, a piece of fabric rolled away on her lower arm to reveal a small screen. Manipulating the control dial on its left edge revealed the current locations of her boxes. To her dismay, she found only one left... near Conference Room A-13, according to the information in her data banks. The others were either no longer functional or had been shipped off with the rest of the artifacts. *Is this a trap?* Even if it was, the killer knew her job. Steeling herself, she made good progress crawling towards the target area. Kicking out a grate behind some cargo crates, she passively searched for the closest thing she had to a home. Detecting it in front of a stack located twenty feet down the corridor, she sped towards it and froze. Voices drifted towards her, coming from the opposite end of the walkway. Slipping quickly inside her box, she snapped all the seals shut and lowered her body into the harness. Plugging herself in, she felt the recharge starting and remained deathly still, straining to hear the approaching voices.
"Yo, my Gooseman, this is WAY above the call of duty. Why the heck are we doing this? My next yawn will probably rip the station apart!" To illustrate, a massive one rumbled out of his throat.
"You're our secret weapon, Doc. While you deafen the bad guys with your snoring, the rest of us will nab 'em before they recover!" a younger voice smirked. "Give me a hand with this, willya?"
A sickening lurch, then a hard jolt followed by a feeling of weightlessness. The whine of a grav-lift as the box was moved forward. Reaching back, checking to make sure the sword was still in place. Rubbing her belly, knowing her hard-won treasures were stored within.
"Besides," Gooseman went on, "if you ever leave the Rangers, think how much money you'd make as a mattress-tester!"
"Keep the day job; you'll never make it as a comedian. Where's this thing headed, anyway?"
"Niko wants us to cart over the rest of the MacLeods' stuff plus anything that hasn't been claimed. The off-station shipments are falling behind."
"Ah, scoring brownie points with your lady. I have trained you well!"
A brief pause. "We're friends, Doc, nothing more."
"If you say so. 'Course, saying this strictly off the record, I wouldn't wait too long. I imagine Duncan's not the only one with a fine eye for the fairer sex..." A deep, menacing growl cut off his words. "Okay, okay, down boy!"
A jerky stop as the lift bumped against the wall. Soft clicking on a keyboard panel, cueing the password for entering. Loud swooshing as the door opened, then forward motion once more.
"Hey, Niko! Your humble servants have arrived bearing gifts!" Doc's voice called out.
"Thanks, guys," she laughed, "just put it with that pile down the corridor."
Forward motion again, will hollow echoes all around. More clicks as another code was entered. Moving up a bit before bumping hard on the floor. Footsteps muffled by the sound of a door being sealed. Voices still heard despite the barrier.
"So what's the plan, MacLeod? Gonna leave tomorrow night?"
"Right, Ranger Gooseman. The sooner we're off this station, the safer I'll feel."
"It'll be nice to see you FINALLY going places, Duncan. There is a whole galaxy out there, after all."
"You're saying I'm an isolationist, Connor?"
"Let me out it this way: repealing the law of gravity sounded like a good idea to get you to move on. You can't quit, or let the past hold you back..."
"How I handle my memories is my business."
The awkward silence was broken only by the sound of nearby vents blowing recycled air into the room.
"Sure you folks will be okay by yourselves?"
"Thanks, Doc, we'll be fine. Remember, our last duel will be at 0700 sharp."
"How could I forget? I still owe you for sucker-punching me in that last session!"
Laughter mixed with the sounds of people walking away and calling out greetings to someone named Zach.
"How do you talk me into these things, Connor?" Duncan wondered.
"Must be the MacLeod charm..."
Something is wrong! The murderer felt lethargy spread through her body, slipping in while she was being recharged. It had crept up so gradually that she didn't notice it in her weakened state until now. Her energy drained off at an incredible rate, like a school of Antarean Vampire Fish sucking the blood from a juicy animal. What was that? Heavy thumps and shuddering, which sounded like metal panels slamming down on the deck, thundered around her area. The outside voices were abruptly cut off. Gravity lessened its pull until the crates floated on their own, bumping into each other. The harness started to crush her as sensors threatened to shut down. She ripped it away and reached for the hatch controls, which had just gone black. Wrenching the panel off, she saw only darkness and heard nothing but gentle thumps. The assassin perched on the box's lid, braced herself, then kicked out with all her strength to slam through some surrounding crates and crash into a far wall. Digging her claw-like fingers into the metal provided an anchor against the zero gravity. Raising her head, she activated her night-vision optics. The room was totally encased in solid steel plates, proof against most weapons. Other than the sealed door, visible as a slight bulge in the wall covering it, there were no other exits. No ventilation shafts revealed themselves. No living beings were trapped there. A faint whirring sound grabbed her attention, coming from a small motion camera that tracked her movements from its position in the nearest corner. She snarled at herself for being so careless. Making another hole in the metal with her other hand, she wedged her feet into the gashes to maintain her hold and drew the scimitar. Reaching towards her belly, she pulled aside its panel...
"Damn! So much for spacing the room after she's shut down -- we can't risk her escaping again. What's she doing now, Doc?"
"Going for something in her lower torso, Captain," he reported from a small terminal set nearest to the hallway. The other Series Fives plus the MacLeods waited behind him. "There's some sorta red glow coming out... No! It can't be!" He moved aside for his friend to take a good look.
Zach stared at the image for all of five seconds before swallowing hard, then glanced at the group with a haunted expression on his face. "Psychocrystals... the same size as Eliza's." The Ranger turned back, adding that "There's three total, all clutched in one hand. Funny, though -- they're surrounded by electric sparks."
"But-But HOW did the Queen get her hands on more humans?!" Niko stammered.
"And why are the crystals without Slaverlords?" Goose suspiciously added, blasters already in his hands. "Why didn't she just send 'em on over to attack Earth already?"
The killer made her choice. She tucked the two empty crystals in her belt for later use. Two of the filled ones went back in her belly while she turned the third over and over in her hand. Tiny bolts of blue lightning danced over its surface, framing the rugged face of a human male.
"Unless they were made here," Duncan's quiet voice interjected.
"From our friends. It's THEIR Quickenings in those crystals," Connor realized, eyes widening in shocked comprehension. "And she did it all by herself."
The MacLeods looked at each other, an ashen pallor falling over their faces. They had always wondered if there was a fate worse than an evil Immortal being the last One.
Now they knew... and wished to God they didn't.
"Wait a minute; she's got a built-in, portable Psychocrypt?! Oy vey!" Doc groaned, turning back to the scanners. A deep frown marred his usually cheery features. "Power levels nearly off the scale. Get out the blasters and blades, compadres... she's going to break out!"
The murderer touched her chosen crystal to the sword's six-sided pommel. The unholy red light flowed from it straight into the hilt, then kept going until a cackling ruby aura permeated the whole night-black weapon with a dread power. Placing the blood-colored jewel back into her torso and resealing the panel, she kicked out again, thrusting herself at the door. Digging her fingers beside its frame, she started hacking through. The energized blade sliced through the thick reinforced metal like a hot knife through butter.
"All backup units, implement Plan B," Zach ordered over the comm channels. "If we don't make it, you're under orders: do whatever it takes to bring that thing down!" Turning to Doc, he told him to "Jam all outgoing transmissions from this room and seal it off. I don't want the Queen getting wind of this."
The hacker's fingers danced on the keyboard. "Done, O Fearless Leader. Who's on first?"
"She's MINE," Duncan snarled. Whipping the katana from his storage case, he stormed forward to stand before the rapidly melting door, solid stance unforgiving. No matter what happened, only one would walk away alive.
Connor stopped Zach right before he could protest. "Let him be, Captain," he urged. "This is personal."
The Ranger sighed, blue eyes weary. He knew from experience how personal vendettas led to big trouble, but wasn't about to argue with a centuries-old warrior wielding a razor-sharp sword. "All right, You take cover behind those creates and keep an eye on the fight; be ready to spell for him if he needs it. Niko, you and Doc get on the balconies; Goose and I will stay down here. If _anyone_ gets a clear shot, use lethal force."
"You got it, Zach."
Right after they got into position, the door oozed away in a grayish puddle of molten slag.
The assassin jumped free, her blade returning to normal; its excess power had been completely used up.
Her mad dash was brought to a screeching halt when Duncan swiped at her eyes. At the last second, she dove to the side so that he only gouged her chest, creating an "X" with the slash Connor had made earlier. Hissing, she sprang towards the Highlander, scimitar posed to impale him. He stepped aside and rammed his sword hilt-first into the back of her neck. Fingers aching from the sheer force of the blow, he assumed a ready position as the killer shook her head, willing the static to disappear from her sensors.
He advanced on her, making the female robot back away down the corridor till they were in the main room. Once there, they circled each other slowly, both watching for signs of weakness in the other.
"Like I said -- it's just you and me," Duncan lethally whispered. He shifted his gaze for a brief second, feigning distraction. When she shot forward, he calmly thrust his blade deep into her belly, twisting and sliding it sideways.
The secret panel opened with a crisp snap. Glowing psychocrystals tumbled out and scattered on the floor. Golden energy surrounded all three of them, quickly lifting them up to Niko's perch; they settled down beside her as she kept her aim on the killer.
The murderer took her revenge by thrusting the scimitar up, slicing deep into Duncan's ribs and puncturing his left lung. A second later, before the pain reached his brain, her fist met his nose with the latter audibly breaking. He groaned and roughly kicked her back, wiping his face with one hand as his breathing became labored.
"Duncan..." Connor started, moving forward.
"STAY BACK!" Duncan hotly responded, his eyes never leaving her. He backpedaled to avoid a viscous swipe at his neck, barely staying out of range.
She swung once more, forcing him to parry the blow, then shoved him away and ran for it.
The Rangers opened fire.
Two combined shots from Goose slammed into the assassin's lower back, knocking her down. She immediately got back up and bolted, jumping on and off high piles of crates to land on Niko's platform. As the Ranger telekinetically sent the crystals to Doc, she fired her lazer rifle, winging the killer in both shoulders before the barrel was sliced in two. Niko tossed aside the useless weapon and assumed a fighting stance. When her opponent lunged forward, she slammed her hands on either side of the blade and fell backward. Pulling the murderer down with her, she kicked up with both legs, hitting the other's groin with deadly force.
The assassin released her sword, somersaulting as she sailed clear off the platform. She landed on her feet and dashed behind some nearby consoles to avoid the blaster fire.
Ripping off panels and components with her bare hands, she threw them as deadly missiles, keeping her enemies busy by dodging them; she took special pleasure in hitting the MacLeods. Duncan fell dizzily to the floor, thanks to random objects that insisted on slamming into his head, but doggedly fought off unconsciousness. His re-broken nose healed itself swiftly. Connor's right arm bled from a long nasty gash inflicted when he kept a sharp-edged panel from splitting his skull in two. One of Goose's guns was knocked away, falling to the deck in a shower of sparks. Deep rips in the Rangers' shirts plus the bruises beneath them pointed to where the missiles hit.
"Doc, can your Tweakers help?" Zach called, using his bionic arm to punch anything heading for him.
"Dunno, but it's worth a shot." Crouching down to present a less visible target, Doc tapped his badge and drew out the CDU. "All Tweakers, get in there and shut her down! Watch it: she's probably got Slaver programs swimming in her blood!"
"We're on it!"
Like living balls of light (which in essence they were), Firefly, Lifeline, Pathfinder, Pixel, Searchlight, and Tripwire swooped downwards. The killer threw objects at them like crazy, sensing their true purpose, but one by one they zipped into her dark metal body -- and promptly got booted back out. They tried again repeatedly, buzzing around her like annoying insects.
She kept low, moving towards Doc's position.
"We can't get in! Terminator codes are possessing every inch of her!" Pathfinder exclaimed.
"Oh, great," Doc groaned, covering his programs with some lazer fire until they made it back home. His gaze flickered briefly to the CDU clipped on his belt, closing it tight...
"Doc! LOOK OUT!" Connor shouted.
He glanced up in time to grab the psychocrystals and bolt back from a viscous kick. Shooting fast enough to make Goose proud, his lazers only missed her twisting body by millimeters. "Now, now," Doc sarcastically grinned, "it's not polite to brain someone who's looking the other way!" He pinned the murderer behind a pile of stacked wall panels and threw the crystals to Niko, who had rejoined the others at ground level.
She tossed the scimitar to Goose and ran forward, catching all three of them. The instant her bare hands touched the gemstones, their captive energies spread out to completely engulf her. Niko stared at them, gazing into their ruby-hued depths like they were crystal balls.
Goose shot the murderer in her right knee. When she staggered out of his sights, he threw the blade upwards. "Doc, catch!"
"Many thanks, my Gooseman!" the hacker replied, nimbly plucking it out of the air. He whirled around and blocked a sharp thrust from his opponent, who had just ripped a pipe from an exposed section of the wall. Between his swordplay and aiming lazers at her face, Doc held his own.
A strangled cry died in Niko's throat as three strong life forces mentally begged to be set free. The sheer power threatened to overwhelm her, and the outside world blinked away as she struggled to make sense of the memories flooding in. Her implant activated automatically. The Ranger was surrounded in a blazing gold aura interlaced with bluish-white lightning bolts dancing all through it.
The MacLeods watched her closely, worried faces lined with deep concern as they recognized the power in those bolts. Could a mortal possibly wield the energy of three Quickenings without burning out or, worse, going insane?
Goose and Zach saw her transformation out of the corners of their eyes, but knew she would have to wait until Doc was out of danger. Neither could get a clear shot until he got out of the way.
"Plan 7!" Zach called, touching his badge. His left arm flared up in familiar patterns of black and gold.
Doc nodded and moved the assassin into position, allowing her to wrestle the scimitar away. Just a little more... "Now, Captain!"
With a scream of overpowered electronics, the Thunderbolt hit her left side as she started to dodge it. Her body flew straight up to the ceiling, smacking into it with a sickening CRUNCH before cropping like a rag doll. She fell down, clutching her weapon, and crashed headlong onto an enormous stack of empty crates.
Closing her eyes for a brief instant, Niko's green irises had turned into the deepest, darkest violet upon opening again. She released the psychocrystals, which rose slowly till they circled above her head.
"Niko?" Goose asked quietly. He was as close to her as possible, what with her supercharged force field taking up an area ten feet around her body.
"I'm fine, Shane," she replied in a voice that combined her tone with three others. She levitated towards the smashed crates.
"What's going on?" Doc asked, jumping down from his perch as he looked at Niko in awe.
"Something big," Zach replied, his grave eyes never leaving her.
Connor and Duncan were already at the crash site, cautiously sifting through the mess. They searched it from opposite ends, using their blades to poke at the nasty-looking lumps.
Niko kept quiet, scanning the rubble as though she could see right through it. The other three voices were now united in what they wanted to do. The psychocrystals continued to orbit her head, their barely contained energies increasing to the point where they were all covered in electricity. Tiny lightning bolts bounced between them, forming a circle of power as the jewels joined forces. Both their energy and Niko's spread out from her supercharged aura, touching the ground and debris to probe them. Her eyes flashed with gold energy as the scimitar exploded from the pile, heading for Duncan's head!
With barely a blink, Niko telekinetically grabbed it from the air and pulled it into her hands, wielding it with all the skill of a master swordsman.
At the same time, the killer leapt from her hiding place and tackled Connor, stabbing something red deep into his chest. He landed hard on the deck, eyes already glazed in death as the murder weapon stuck out from his heart: a razor-edged psychocrystal. She grabbed his katana, slashing it towards his throat... then it and her severed right hand fell uselessly beside him.
Whipping around, she stared hatefully at Niko who telekinetically held the scimitar above the dead Immortal's body, pointed straight at her. The Ranger reached out and sent Connor's sword to Duncan, then tossed the floating blade at Goose.
With a shriek of rage, the murderer grabbed her last empty psychocrystal and bolted towards Niko. Goose shouted and ran forward, but was repulsed by the gold shield. She for her part remained calm, like an actress waiting for her cue.
Time stood still.
Or, more accurately, the assassin was frozen in place. The instant she had run into Niko's force field, her entire body was seized in a crushing telekinetic grip. The final crystal slipped from her fingers, shattering on the deck. The active psychocrystals zipped over and rotated around her body as they generated their own field of Quickening power. They bombarded the killer in a blanketing wall of electrical energy that completely engulfed her form. Slowly the bolts penetrated her armor as the circuits were turned into slag. She felt absolute agony in those final moments of her artificial life. Connor woke up in time to see this final act, Duncan having pulled out his crystal moments before. As the humans watched in horror, the murderer's body simply melted away. Entire sections were converted into hot gases as the stench of ozone hung heavily in the air. In the end, there was nothing left save for the miniature Psychocrypt, a collection of twisted pipes that crashed on the floor.
The psychocrystals shone with a soft red light, not the cursed scarlet normal to their kind. They floated back to Niko and crackled with thin white bolts, apparently telling her something.
She nodded and gestured for the others to come over, willing her field to vanish as she leaned heavily against the stack of crates behind her. The battle had clearly taken its toll on her: both uniform and hair were drenched with sweat, the normally pale skin was milk white, and eyes drooped in exhaustion. Still, she was determined to see this last bit through. Duncan supported Connor as the MacLeods made their way to the gathered Rangers. "They want to give their Quickenings to you two," Niko told them. They started to object, but a wave of her hand silenced them. "It's either that or being trapped in those things for eternity. And if those crystals are destroyed, then everything they ever were will vanish."
"Are they sure about this?" Duncan asked.
"Yes." Cocking her head at the floating gemstones, she went on with a small smile. "Diana says you two would've beaten her at arm-wrestling in another thousand years, Helena wants to sue the Crown Empire for damages, and Henry claims that the Psychocrypt belongs in a museum."
Connor laughed, even though it hurt too much. "That's them, all right. I would be honored to carry their legacy; Duncan?"
"Ready whenever they are," he solemnly replied.
Niko smiled dreamily and collapsed.
Goose caught her in time, cradling her barely conscious form in his arms.
"Don't let me miss the good stuff," she murmured.
"Not likely, babe," he grinned.
"Everyone, get under cover," Duncan warned the Rangers. "If you thought ONE Quickening was bad..."
They took shelter behind the farthest crates possible, with Doc grabbing the burned-out Psychocrypt along the way.
The crystals floated to the center of the room, hovering above some smashed crates. They united once more in a circle of power, their energies growing hotter and brighter as they shoved all their might into it. Duncan and Connor stood below them, silently paying their respects as they gazed upwards. They raised their katanas in salute, waiting for the inevitable. It was like staring into the heart of a fierce lightning storm -- the bolts turned pure white, glowing so bright that the Rangers averted their eyes. Tornado force winds blew around the chamber, picking up speed and debris as the ceremony neared its climax. And then everyone was temporarily deafened as three Quickenings slammed into two Immortals. The MacLeods' screams rose above the thunderclaps, crying out in pain and pleasure at the same time. The energy pushed itself into the two Scotsmen, merging with their flesh, minds, and souls to make them stronger than before. Just when it looked like the whole room would explode... it ended. Miraculously, the Rangers and their sheltering crates remained untouched. Likewise, the Station did not suffer another quake. The rest of the chamber, however, was a black smoking ruin. When the haze cleared long minutes later, the Rangers saw their friends sprawled face down on the charred deck with two swords and three brown, drained, dead psychocrystals surrounding them.
After the Rangers dragged them to the safe spot, tore the bloodstains off their clothes, and placed the swords beside them, Zach called the medics and clean-up crews in.