Summary: Welcome to your new life, Captain...
Disclaimer: Mr. Mandell and company own these characters and have for the last twenty-five years. All I do is take them for a spin every once in a while.
The medical staff helped Zachary into a hover chair. The gold and black prosthetic limbs on his left side still felt like alien things to him. He was still working on being able to walk with his replacement leg. Through sheer willpower, however, he had gained enough control over his artificial hand to work the control stick.
The alternative, according the the Longshot doctors, would be confinement to a hover chair for the rest of his life - unable to move from the chin down and dependent on wires and tubes to stay alive. Either way, he was still hooked up to machines. At least these machines, if Q-Ball and his team were right, would give him a chance of going back out there and fighting. That's why he was going to keep pushing himself. With each passing hour, the chances he would ever see his family again decreased.
He wasn't sure how long it had been since the \x93Phoenix incident,\x94 but it was still all over the Tri-D, as was the news about the raid on Kirwin. BETA was still pursuing leads while the Board of World Leaders used the crisis to mire themselves in squabbling.
As bad as his own situation was, he didn't envy Waldo or Zozo in the slightest. Zozo was getting hit especially hard at the Board's inquiry, as the Crown had decided to attack the Kiwi homeworld days after a planned city of humans, Andorians, and Kiwi, had formally opened for settlement. The colony on Kirwin was a diplomatic symbol only, but an important one. It was supposed to be followed by a group of Kiwi and Andorians settling on Earth, and another integrated colony on Andor.
He'd been headed to Kirwin with his family, set to become the marshal in charge of building the new city's police force. After being assigned as Zozo and Waldo's bodyguard after their arrival on Earth, he'd gone from being just as terrified as everyone else to believing in the League and wanting to make it work. The alien ambassadors themselves were more than his responsibility \x96 they became his close friends. He considered it an honor to take the assignment, and it would also mean fewer long absences from Eliza and the kids.
Now, what would have been a symbol of peace and cooperation was nothing more than charred buildings. His children were missing, and the last he saw of Eliza was her bound and gagged on the bridge of that pirate ship. The xenophobe faction of every League planet was out in full force. The League itself seemed on the verge of disintegrating, and there was nothing he could do.
Right now, Wheiner was grandstanding on every damn Tri-D channel.
\x93The attack on Kirwin proves this idea of a 'League of Planets' a failure. The Kiwi and Andorians are not fighters. They want humanity to fight their battles for them. Well, no more. Let the lives lost be a reminder to us all Let us cut from this alliance and grieve for our lost. Let them fight on their own!\x94
It was hard not to feel like he'd been kicked in the gut. Everything he spent his life defending seemed to be corroding like starstones in UV light. Worse, those humans \x96 including his wife and children \x96 were going to be sacrificed for political agendas while the League splintered apart.
Zachary idly wondered if he could activate that blaster feature Q-Ball said would be designed into the bionics just to turn the Tri-D to slag. Earth had the most developed military, but it couldn't stand alone. Fifteen years after the Andorian hyperdrive, the galaxy was just too connected. Earth was still discovering lost colonies from their sleeper ship era. People of all species looking for new lives and new chances were packing onto ships with what little they had and taking their chances on planets far from their birth world. Criminal syndicates were right behind them, peddling in every vice from slavery to intoxicants custom-tailored to an addict's biochemistry.
The Space Navy was designed for large-scale battleship combat, repelling invasions, holding onto planets. Colony and planetary militias were equipped for local police enforcement, for protecting their small sectors of space from mundane criminals and raiders. The Galaxy Rangers were that bridge between the two, handling things that spanned too far for local forces, but needed more precision than the Space Navy could deliver.
With his writing arm out of commission, and nothing to do but think for hours on end, he dictated a proposal to GV. A specially trained and outfitted squad of Rangers could take down the network of pirates and criminals aiding the Crown. They could sneak behind enemy lines, carry out espionage, and even make contact with allies the League was going to need. A small, elite strike team would also have the best chance of rescuing the captive humans from wherever the Crown was holding them.
He'd sent the proposal off to Walsh, but with the Board of World Leaders busy with the likes of Wheiner, it probably wasn't going to happen.
As the medical techs were finishing the task of securing Zachary in the hover chair, Walsh walked in. BETA's High Commander was always something of a mysterious figure, one Zachary had only seen through reports and quick debriefings. Quickly, Zachary remembered his manners and saluted. Walsh returned the salute.
\x93Captain Foxx, I came here to pass along some good news. The escape craft with your children has landed safely. They're at BETA Outpost Grissom. They're getting a full medical scan, just to be sure, but Commander Kniggendorf assures me they're both physically unharmed.\x94
Zachary let out a breath and almost slumped over in the chair. That terrible weight was listed from his shoulders. After so long worrying, at least Zach and Jess made it back to League space.
Before he could speak, Walsh continued, \x93I also got your report \x96 and your proposal.\x94
Zachary wished he could stand at attention, but the damn chair...\x94And?\x94
Walsh nodded to the technicians, who backed up a little. \x93Come on, Foxx. I need to show you something.\x94
The trip was silent, aside from the whirring of the hover chair and the brisk clip of Walsh's footsteps as he led Zachary through the twisted maze of corridors that made up the Longshot research facility.
Finally, they reached a reinforced door at the end of a long hall. Warnings were printed in the main languages of Earth, Andor, and Kirwin about how unauthorized access could trigger fatal defense systems. Walsh casually removed his glove and placed his hand on the sensor, which was followed up by a retinal scan, a voice print, and a command code. The door slid open, and Walsh waited for Zachary to go first.
They were on an observation deck overlooking three smaller rooms. Walsh brought out his control staff and punched the lowest button.
One of the lights came on, revealing a small room of stark white, large enough only for a bed and diagnostic equipment. The bed's occupant was a tall woman, auburn-haired with a oblong face. She bore a slight resemblance to Eliza, and that was enough to make Zachary even more unsettled.
Then again, Eliza and the kids are all you can think about...
Walsh cleared his throat. \x93Niko. No last name. No known planet of origin. No records \x96 no nothing. We think she's human. Shows up on our doorstep one day and asks to enlist. We've run everything we can think of on her, and all it leaves us with is more questions. Top level scores in xenoarcheology, decent grasp of the natural sciences, too. Then, the Andorians got curious and ran a psi score.\x94
Zachary scowled. \x93Psionic score? Humans never score high enough with those to bother.\x94
\x93She broke their charts,\x94 Walsh said. \x93Telekinesis seems to be her strongest score, but clairvoyance is off the charts, too. The xenoarcheology team loved that, let me tell you. She shows signs of telepathy as well, but not even the Andorians have a scientific test for that yet.\x94
Walsh continued speaking. \x93During a training exercise, she managed to TK one of the other trainees into an energy barrier. Nearly killed him. Of course, we did find that he was carrying a hidden knife dipped in arko-toxin. Seems he had a grudge against another trainee and was planning on making good. He'll be headed for the stockade \x96 if he recovers.\x94
\x93Telekinesis? On a full grown man?\x94 Zachary could not believe what he was hearing. Even the best Andorian psionics could only telekenetically lift a few kilos at most.
\x93I saw it. Very impressive, and I wouldn't want to get on her bad side. Of course, the psionic abilities are backed up with some alien martial arts style. Even if she hadn't sent Trainee Jenkins flying, she probably could have taken him down.\x94
Zachary gripped the arm of the hover chair. \x93So, she's dangerous.\x94
Walsh then pressed another button on his staff and lit a second room. It was like the first \x96 stark white with only a medi-cot and diagnostic sensors. This bed's occupant was a dark-skinned human of about thirty.
\x93Walter Gabriel Hartford. Yes \x96 a member of that Hartford family. But instead of raking it in on the galactic stock market, joining the family empire, or enjoying the life of having more money than the GDP of most colony worlds, he went into computers. God help us.\x94
\x93What do you mean?\x94
\x93From what we could tell, he was always a bit of a problem child. We suspect he was breaking into high end corporate and military-grade computers before leaving prep school. Nothing malicious, but certainly creative.\x94
Zachary scowled. While rebellious children of the rich and privileged were certainly nothing new, they usually went in for something ostentatious like fast cars, wild parties, or glitter addictions. Furthermore, the man didn't look like a computer criminal. The few he did help arrest were unnaturally pale or ashen from long hours in dark rooms. The subculture often adopted such strange body modifications as to make them look like ghastly hybrids of biotech and cybernetics, like their bodies were just another form of machine they could alter to their liking. The man on the cot was fit, well-groomed, and wouldn't look out of place among the corridors of orbital cities where the insanely rich literally lived \x93above it all.\x94
\x93As soon as he got his Ph. D. in Computer Psychiatry, he vanished,\x94 Walsh explained. \x93The family put out a reward, but he was just too good at eliminating any computer trace. The only traces he left behind were the ones he wanted us to find. His creativity grew with his skills, but we finally manage to hunt him down on Mars. Seems he had his shingle out as an information broker, and a gold mine of classified information at his disposal. Longshot's best computer forensic team could have several years of job security figuring out which few systems he didn't manage to hack.\x94
\x93How much damage do you think he did?\x94
\x93No way to know, but after we did manage to catch him, we cut a deal. Turned out to be a pretty shrewd haggler on top of all this, but I think BETA got the better end of it.\x94
Zachary took another look through the glass and pinched the bridge of his nose. \x93I see.\x94
\x93I've saved the best one for last,\x94 Walsh deadpanned.
The third light came on, revealing a third room like the other two. The young blonde man looked dangerous, even unconscious. The diagnostic equipment was joined by a ridiculous amount of security equipment; force-field generators, stunners, sonic neuralizers. There was so much machinery between the security grid and the diagnostic machines that the \x93subject\x94 was almost entirely boxed in. Zachary had seen super-max facilities for the criminally insane equipped with fewer safeguards.
Walsh holstered the command staff. \x93What do you know about the Supertrooper project?\x94
Zachary's head whipped upward in shock. \x93A rumor...a poisonous urban legend.\x94 Feeling his gut go cold, he glanced back at the room before looking up at Walsh.
Walsh's silence confirmed it was anything but an urban legend.
Zachary had always dismissed the rumors because he wanted to believe Earth's elected government weren't that duplicitous or stupid. He heard officials from Premier Dutch on down promise and reassure Zozo and Waldo that Earth was as interested in co-existence as they were.
How many more lies had they all been told?
\x93Zachary, the Supertrooper project was designed for scenarios like the Queen of the Crown,\x94 Walsh said.
\x93I heard it was designed so that we could take the technology from the Andorians and Kiwi and then betray them. I also heard that the experiment was a failure, and that they're all dead or insane, locked away in cryo.\x94
Walsh sighed, not even bothering to deny it. \x93Not all of them...not this one. We gave him the name of Shane Gooseman. He's the youngest, the most advanced of the genome designs. Max Sawyer outdid himself.\x94
Well, that name inspires confidence, Zachary thought with annoyance. Sawyer was caught selling gene designs on the black market and vanished into the black several years earlier. He was still on BETA's Ten Most Wanted for that stunt.
Walsh continued, \x93Because Shane was the 'runt of the litter,' he had to be better than the rest just to survive. Ace marksman, pulls off moves in an interceptor that aren't possible with normal human reaction times. His inborn bio-defense systems are capable of letting him survive in any environment; high radiation, ocean depths, volcanic crater. We even tested vacuum. He's seventeen years old, and has more combat training than soldiers twice his age.\x94
\x93And these three are here...why?\x94
\x93I've assigned them to you. You'll take charge of them after your rehabilitation is complete,\x94 Walsh said.
Zachary looked from Walsh to the three unconscious \x93subjects.\x94 These three were his next assignment? \x93Let me get this right. We have a notorious computer hacker, a woman who could be a living weapon, and a teenager who is a living weapon. What's my assignment? Interrogate them? Escort them to Deltoid Rock?\x94
Walsh smiled wickedly. \x93No, gets better...\x94 Walsh pulled out a datapad and handed it to Zachary, reciting the contents. \x93Captain Foxx, Based on your report, the Board of World Leaders has authorized your special team of Galaxy Rangers...\x94