Highlanders - Chapter 01
Revision as of 16:49, 14 August 2020 by RabbiBob
Highlanders - Chapter 01
By Jayce Knight
At the end of BETA Station's second shift, Dr. Diana Prince strode down brightly-lit corridors towards the storage rooms. The adopted name amused her to no end, considering it came from a fictional Amazon while she had originally been raised by real ones. Clad in a smart military-style blue dress and pumps, the tall woman's heels made sharp clicking sounds on the metal-plated decks. Scanning the areas around her with piercing blue eyes, she relaxed slightly upon sensing no threats from any of her kind. The professional look and cool manner normally deterred small talk, but her late afternoon lecture on the parallels between the American West and modern society had garnered dozens of admirers. She stopped several times to answer questions and talk to colleagues before continuing on her way. Taking no notice of the crowded chat rooms and lounges she passed, her only desire was to relax after a long day's work.
Sighing, she undid the tight bun and shook long raven-black hair out, running her fingers through the full mane as it streamed down her back. That takes care of the headache; must be getting old, she thought amusedly. Rubbing her long sleeved arms, beneath which ancient silver-colored bracers rested, the doctor resolved to make her inspection quick and meet her close friend Helena Wayne for dinner. After all, who'd disturb artifacts of no material value whatsoever? Dusty scrolls and yellowed papers, indeed! Looks like this West Point scholar will have to make a few changes considering the storage policies of these things.
Still something just wasn't right. A cold hand gripped her spine in a vise of ice, sending chills all the way to her soul. Her ancient Amazon tribe would have pronounced her "death-stalked," the modern equivalent being "one foot in the grave." This is ridiculous. Most of her enemies were dead or elsewhere, and no one had come forth to challenge her in decades. But the sensation only increased the closer she got.
Diana had never run from a fight in her life. Bad feeling or no, she wasn't about to start.
Unbuttoning her loose jacket, she reached in and withdrew a Greek-style sword strapped diagonally across her back. Its gold hilt and double-edged steel blade gleamed beneath the overhead lights, almost glowing like it was alive. She kicked off her heels and ditched the glasses. The hammering of her heart was the only noise she heard while creeping quietly to the door. Pressing herself into the wall beside it, she entered the access code and threw herself in. The Amazon's sky-colored eyes searched the place for danger, but all she saw were crates stacked from ceiling to floor, hers crowding the left corner. She still felt no sign of any other Immortals nearby. The rest of the small, dimly lit chamber was empty.
She turned back, heading towards the door and heard a whisper of cloth sliding across the metal deck. Whipping around fast enough to make a god proud, she found herself crossing swords with a living shadow -- or, at least, that was how she appeared. Cold ruby eyes gleamed from an expressionless face as a slight shine betrayed the presence of a wicked scimitar clutched in both hands.
They jumped back from each other and stared for an eternity, the air between them charged with tension.
Diana deliberately relaxed, waiting for the right moment. Her right hand held the sword in a versatile grip while the left one was poised to strike. I take it back; THIS is ridiculous! She's no Immortal, so why in blazes does she want to fight?! "Look, whoever you are, we don't have to do this. Surrender, and you can go free."
The night-garbed intruder remained silent, tensing her body in preparation for battle. Suddenly, she lunged forward, her sword meeting the Amazon's in a loud CLANG! Both opponents slashed at each other for long moments before she broke off and leaped away, vanishing into the deep shadows.
Ears straining for telltale sounds, Diana gave chase. Slight shuffling noises from above alerted her to movement on top of the crates. She silently climbed up and slowly turned, sword weaving in a complicated pattern to protect her sides and head. A faint rustling, then falling as the perch fell to pieces beneath her, giving way before the slicing scimitar. Twisting around to land on her feet, she glared up just in time to sidestep the shadow's thrown pipes, which imbedded themselves like spears into the wall inches behind her dodging back. Grunting as the intruder tackled her and broke some ribs, the Amazon chopped her hand into the red optics, making the dark-clad woman back off.
"No more games," Diana snarled. She was tired, ticked off, and cranky -- always a deadly combination for her. Foolish mortal or not, her supply of patience ran out. She lunged forward, hacking furiously away at the intruder until the force of her blows finally knocked the scimitar away. As it flew high into the air, she let loose a bloodcurdling war cry and went in for the kill.
The shadow fell to her knees at the last second, left hand thrusting something red at the Amazon's chest. An unholy red aura emanated from it, covering her form
"AAAAAAHHHHHHHH!!!!!" Agony shot through her, stabbing claws tearing her insides to shreds. Every molecule screamed in protest. Muscles jerked reflexively. Numb fingers released the sword, letting it clatter on the cold steel floor. The doctor's whole body was paralyzed with pain, slightly swaying back and forth, as her neural energy flowed into the crystal. She fell to her knees as the very life was sucked out of her. Dying NEVER felt like this! Mercifully, the pain faded as even its power was drained away. Before her vision faded to black for the last time, Diana saw her own sword slicing through the air straight for her neck.
A deadly silence as her head rolled free. The universe held its breath for one timeless instant
Then exploded in insane shards as the Quickening burst from the Amazon's decapitated form.
The sheer force of it knocked both assassin and corpse to the floor, her hand still pressing the psychocrystal into the unmoving chest. At first, she thought that the station had exploded as loose debris smacked into her body, thrown around by hurricane-force winds. That same force tore her enemy's sword from her grasp, spinning it out of sight. Nearby crates blew themselves to smithereens. Ancient scrolls burst into flame. White lightning bolts started to stream from the body, dancing over the deck, debris, and walls. The overhead lights died in blazes of glory. Just when the Quickening should have reduced everything to powder, all the power suddenly shot into the psychocrystal, appearing much like a narrow white tornado channeling itself into the red gemstone. The jewel in question throbbed with energy overload, shaking and rocking in the killer's grip as she used all her strength to hold it.
Ten seconds later, it was all over. Scattered debris landed everywhere, with her enemy's sword landing neatly next to the severed head. The surface of the newly filled psychocrystal held the human's face in its center (which was normal) and had tiny crackling bolts flickering over the surface (which wasn't).
The murderer cocked her head in puzzlement, then heard pounding steps coming her way. Slapping the scimitar on her back, where a weak magnetic charge held it in place, she clutched the still-throbbing crystal to her chest as she headed for her dark hiding-hole, securing herself just in time as the doors flew open. Once there, she gently disconnected the jewel from her left palm, which boasted a six-sided "plug." This was used to activate the crystal by channeling power from her reserve directly into it, in turn creating a vortex that drew out life force from sentient beings. It was limited to touch, though, so the assassin had to slap it on her victims for the "mini-Psychocrypt" to work at all. Placing the glowing crystal inside a secret compartment, she fastened it securely so that it wouldn't jump around too much.
As muttered curses and scattered screams reached her audio sensors, she powered down for the night, savoring her first kill as her mind slipped into a soothing darkness.
Two hours later, things were finally quieting down at the scene of the crime.
"During the midmorning break, Diana and I discussed our plans for the Conference's next stop on Granna," a shaky voice stated, tinged with tears and grief.
Zachary Foxx sighed inwardly. All his years of experience, and he never knew quite what to say to those who lost loved ones. He gave her a few moments to collect herself before pressing on. "And that was the last time you saw her alive, Ms. Wayne?"
"Yes, Captain. We were supposed to meet for dinner in the main lounge after she checked her shipment to make sure everything was packed away -- she was due to leave tomorrow."
"Did Dr. Prince have any enemies, like colleagues who were jealous of her work or jilted lovers?"
Wayne frowned in thought, straightening her long violet dress. "Not that she ever said." Steel-blue eyes focused intently on Zach as her face turned serious. "I think that whoever did this targeted her, but as to who or why I have no idea."
"Thank you, ma'am. If there are any more questions, we'll give you a holler."
She nodded and quietly walked away, blue-black ponytail swinging as she vanished behind a far corner.
Foxx turned around and headed for the crime scene. A squad of Rangers had already placed a barricade to keep curious onlookers away. Jumping over the shimmering blue force bars, he saw Goose emerging from the dark room. "Status, Shane?"
"Perpetrator still unknown, Captain. Scans say nothing's been tampered with in the surviving crates -- a bloody miracle, considering how everything else was wasted. We've moved the lot to the auditorium 'round the corner, where the owners are reclaiming 'em now. Looks like a bomb went off in here, but there's no trace of an explosive device! There's no sign of forced entry, and no clues pointing to who did it or what kind of weapon could've caused this mess."
"What DO we know, then?"
"Well," Goose began as he led Zach to the shrouded body and head, "whoever killed her was a master swordsman; the throat slice was precise, perfect, and quick. She tried to get in some good hits herself, judging by the blade found right next to her head. The entire place looks like a freak storm had a party. And the whole station bucked like a wild horse; at last count, thirty people were injured."
The Ranger Captain looked at the physician-in-residence as she directed two Rangers to place the still forms on a floating stretcher. That night, she was covering for the regular coroner who had a family emergency. "Besides the obvious cause of death, any other injuries on the body?"
"None found, sir," Dr. Shinjen replied, the Japanese woman's dark brown eyes evenly meeting his stare. "In fact, Prince here has to be the healthiest corpse I've ever seen."
"Keep us posted."
With that, the two Series Fives headed out.
"This is weird, Zach -- even for us," Goose muttered.
"I know, Shane. I've never encountered anything like this before."
"Thought you'd seen it all, Captain," the younger Ranger smirked.
"Just about," Zach deadpanned. "Let's go over Prince's schedule: what she did, movements, people, plans, everything. One way or another, we have to solve this before anyone else dies."
Despite covering all the bases during the next morning, no other clues were found. They informed the other Series Fives and Commander Walsh, who ordered them back to their regular Conference duties while keeping a sharp eye out.
Helena Wayne, Professor of Law at Yale, grimaced as she leaned against the wall at 1800 hours. She had searched the place thoroughly beforehand, just in case Diana's assailant was lying in wait. True, she sensed no other Immortals in the vicinity, but better safe than sorry. Between giving her last lecture, attending two seminars, and answering umpteen questions, she felt ready to collapse.
Glancing at the far right corner, she noted that the doctor's surviving crates had been placed there safely. She had agreed to take custody of them along with the unclaimed ones. The youthful-looking woman had gotten no sleep that previous night, gruesome images of the corpse consuming her mind. I would have to be the one to identify her. The Immortal had put off her own departure so that she could return the Amazon's extra materials Earth-side; it was the least she could do, for one who had been both mentor and friend.
Closing her deep blue eyes, Helena vividly remembered the first time they had met. In the early 1980s, she was an up-and-coming attorney who gave her all to the job. She acquitted Diana in a libel suit, and the woman had made some cryptic remarks about "being there when your time comes."
Helena had found out what she meant the hard way three years later, when a mobster she was putting away planted a bomb in her car. The burns and injuries had been pretty severe, but a week later she arose as a new Immortal. She had to leave behind her life, job, father, and fiance. Diana helped her through the tough months that followed, teaching her everything from swordplay to creating new identities.
Even when Helena struck out on her own, the two remained close.
I swear, Diana, whoever killed you will PAY. I don't know who did it, but when I find out the Game will be short one player.
The professor headed for the bathroom, peeling her cobalt-blue pantsuit off once she locked the door securely. She reached into the left leg and withdrew a sharp cutlass-type sword. The platinum-plated hilt slipped into her grip with the ease of fifty-plus years of use. No sense taking chances.Clouds of steam rolled into the room as she went through the fastest shower of her life. Braiding her long hair loosely and changing into indigo pajamas, she went back out. Settling down to eat while reading the latest scholarly journals, she faced the door with her back to the crates. The sword never left her side.
Around 2230 hours station time, she decided to call it a night. Just when she pushed herself off the couch, a curved black blade sliced through where her head had been resting. Helena spun around to face her assailant. She couldn't help but snicker at the sight. "Isn't it a little late for Halloween?"
The assassin wasn't amused; apparently, a sense of humor didn't come in her programming. Hacking through the couch, she shot like a bullet towards her prey.
This time, the professor was ready. Time for the hunted to become the huntress. When the killer came within range, her right hand shot out and grabbed the cloth on the chest. Shifting her weight in a split second, she threw the shadowy form clear over to the bedroom fifteen feet away. Her opponent skittered inside. Helena guessed from the crashing sounds that the lights and comm had been destroyed. She briefly considered calling for help, but no. Much like her teacher, she believed in fighting her own battles. However, she also favored discretion. She took cover behind the nearby crates, patiently waiting for her chance.
A black blur exploded from the darkened room. The murderer slowly turned her head, scanning the area as her eyes filled with ruby fire then stopped at the Immortal's exact position.
"Great, that thing WOULD have advanced sensors," Helena muttered as she was caught in the bulls-eye once more. Her eyes widened as she hastily dodged the chairs and tables rocketing her way. The assassin was relentless, grabbing every piece of furniture (bolted down or not) and throwing them towards the professor's position. Only fast reflexes and lots of experience kept her from getting crushed. Many of the crates were destroyed, rare documents within them shredded in a blink. Her feet were soon bloody from traipsing on broken shards, but Helena ignored the pain. She rolled, jumped, and sliced through the unwieldy projectiles, doing whatever it took to survive.
"Who sent you? Why me? Why DIANA?!" Helena snarled. "Answer me!"
The killer threw over a heavy coffee table -- with her still hanging on to it. Caught off-guard, Helena hastily raised her sword as the other jumped off, black booted feet slamming into her chest. The cutlass stabbed deeply into the murderer's left leg, but that wasn't enough to stop the momentum. She completed her arc by slamming her victim into the deck, vertebrae making sharp cracking sounds upon impact.
Although she couldn't feel anything below her waist, the Immortal knew her fractured spine was healing rapidly. Looking up just in time to avoid getting impaled, the scimitar imbedded itself hilt-deep through her braid into the deck. Both hands clung to the sword with a death-grip; the hasty swing had been interrupted when the murderer grabbed the pommel with her right hand. The other slid out a large red crystal tucked inside her belt. She slammed it into Helena's solar plexus. The professor grunted, then pulled back and stabbed her cutlass through the murderer's right shoulder. The horrible screech of metal slicing through metal confirmed her foe's robotic origins. A tidal wave of pain then obliterated all coherent thought. Her life drained out, piece by agonizing piece, until she felt nothing at all. As she saw the cutlass shoot down towards her neck, Helena closed her eyes for the final time.
The head rolled free.
The Quickening commenced, no less loudly than the last one. The main difference now was that most everything was already trashed beforehand. Like before, all the energy was pulled into the crystal, making the dread stone throb with unbelievable power.
Loud alarms made the assassin take notice. Grabbing her scimitar, she sprinted towards her secret box, the only thing to survive the battle relatively intact. Five seconds after pressing a red button just inside the lid, it was totally vaporized in a blaze of light. Running to a ventilation opening whose grill had blown off during the Quickening, she fell down seventy feet while securing the psychocrystal and sword. Then she reached out, grabbing hold of one of the connecting shafts and crawling down the new path at top speed. After half an hour of twists and turns, she stopped to get her bearings.
With a mere thought, she turned her bio-energy scanner on. It had the singular ability to detect ONLY the life force generated by sentient beings, which showed up as different sights in her vision. Kiwis, Andorians, and most other species appeared as psychedelic-colored smudges. Humans looked like oddly shaped stars, glowing with steady white energy. The strongest among them had the intensity of a supernova, and it was those that the murderer had to find, drain, and destroy. Two such "contained explosions" appeared fifty meters to her right.
Skittering like a spider down the dusty airshafts, her eyes glowed in anticipation of more kills. Faint tracks of light finally appeared in front of her, tiny squares mapping out a ventilation grill. She rushed to it, then stopped suddenly upon hearing dozens of voices ahead. Daring to peek through the opening, the assassin's dark form served as perfect camouflage.
She saw a large storage room, obviously used to house even more boxes for the convention. The workers were finishing up the second shift, putting fallen crates back into place and getting some last-minute changes done before leaving for the night. Her telescopic vision made out a rugged-looking human male whispering to someone out of sight behind a tall pile of crates; both shone like beacons on her sensory sweeps.
"...I hope whoever just died wasn't someone we know. What's your take on last night's killing, Connor?" the visible man asked in a rough voice, pushing a battered brown fedora from his forehead.
"It might be one of us, but something doesn't feel right. Why kill her in so obvious a place, where mortals are certain to start asking questions?" the other responded in a cautious, slightly accented tone.
"Maybe this jerk don't know the Rules."
"Thanks, Henry; that'll make me sleep better tonight."
"Shame about Diana; that lady had class."
"Not to mention a wicked right hook."
"Professor Jones! We need your signature on these forms" a BETA tech called out from across the bay.
"In a minute, in a minute!" he shouted back. Turning back to his friend, he went on with "Duty calls. You'll brief Duncan on our little chat?"
"Aye, and I'll also say that you've okayed him using the museum artifacts; he'll be here around 1000 hours to pick them up from you. Care to spar with me in the gym before then?"
"No way, MacLeod; I still have scars from the last time!" Henry laughed. "But give your victims my regards; those morning matches of yours have become quite popular. I hear the bets are running in the thousands now!"
Connor snickered, then continued with "And you'll keep Helena informed. I take it you two are trying to patch things up?"
"Well, I am. She just doesn't know it yet!"
"An archaeologist and a lawyer. Ah, true love."
After some shared laughter, Jones shook Connor's hand. As the latter went out the door, the rugged professor stormed over to the hapless tech, glowering at the poor guy before signing the papers.
The killer didn't get a good glance of the one who left, but she could always track him down later. The tanned human down below was of greater interest at the moment; she knew his plans for coming back, and could catch him off-guard when he least expected it. Scanning the room once more, she found another secret hideaway, which gave her the chance to recharge before tomorrow's showdown.
An hour later, after the rest of the humans had finally left, she dreamed deeply of blood and triumph while sequestered deep inside her box.
The early morning chatter was shattered by the clash of metal on metal.
"En garde, you fool!"
"Have at thee, knave!"
A mixed group of BETA personnel, Rangers, and scholars swiftly gathered around a large practice mat inside the gymnasium, watching in awe as two white-clad men parried, thrust, and sparred with real foils. Their thin blades flashed like quicksilver, moving almost too fast for the eye to follow. With their expressions hidden under grill-like fencing masks, they repeatedly fought to a standstill with no quarter asked or given. The shorter, stockier one used unorthodox methods, dodging, and acrobatics while the taller, thinner one fought like a master, almost seeming to read his opponent's mind in countering the moves; irresistible force versus immovable object. Both seemed equally matched, but one thing was certain: this fight was to the finish.
The shorter of the two jumped back and stumbled for a fraction of a second. That was all the time his opponent needed. Dashing forward, the taller one swung his rapier in a sweeping, circular motion and disarmed the other with a resounding CLANG that echoed through the suddenly silent room.
The crowd held its collective breath.
Slowly rising, the vanquished was very careful not to let the victor's sword tip pierce his throat any more than necessary. They stared at each other, seconds stretching into eternities, while their heavy breathing quieted down.
The shorter one, greatly daring, took off his mask to reveal a handsome face with large brown eyes. "Wait a minute," Doc said, eyeballing the blade this swordsman had knocked clear across the room. "We might be on the same side. Besides, beheading someone leaves a terrible mess on the carpet."
The other dryly chuckled in a unique, whispering accent. "Heh-heh, true enough. So why did you challenge me?" he asked as he lowered his epee to a standby stance.
"Because she," Doc glared sideways at a grinning Niko, "claimed that you would be happy to show me a few tips if I demanded that we do it the hard way." Grimacing, he wiped rivers of sweat from his face. "I think my bruises have bruises. But thanks; that was some workout!" Walking over to pick up his foil, he saluted with it as the other did the same. Coming back, he held out his hand. "Doc Hartford, Galaxy Ranger and Hacker-at-Large."
The other gave a firm handshake before discarding his mask. Dark blond hair was plastered to his head, damp with the heavy exertion, but his green-gray eyes were bright with amusement. "Connor MacLeod, Antiquities Professor from the University of Edinburgh. I'm with the Archaeology Conference at BETA space station."
Doc turned to an approaching Niko, who passed through the dispersing crowd. "Niko, Niko, Niko! Was it REALLY necessary to risk my life for the sake of your fieldwork?" he jokingly demanded, dark eyes twinkling.
She laughed out loud. "No, but I thought Connor could give you a run for your money."
"It went both ways, my dear." Connor smiled as he kissed Niko's hand, then turned back to Doc. "Where did you learn to fence like that?"
"The Abercrombie Charm School, my good man."
After the men grabbed their towels and bags, the three talked as they walked down a connecting hall towards private quarters. Along the way, they snickered while passing by at least three groups betting on their next match.
"Robert and Gina de Valicourt were your teachers, eh? That explains a lot; they're experts with epees," Connor mused.
"How long have you known each other?" Doc politely inquired.
"Not me personally, but they are old friends of Duncan, my cousin who's also teaching some seminars here. Speaking of which, have you seen him yet today?" the professor asked, craning his head back to glance at Niko.
"No, but he did ask me to help you move some artifacts for the joint presentation."
"Thank you -- that is most kind." Giving Doc an encouraging look, Connor went on with "You're more than welcome to come."
"Wish I could," he sighed, "but there are some bugs in those new docking bay sensor grids I gotta clean up before they go on-line. I'd love to fence with you again, though; let's start a couple of hours earlier, say around 0600?"
"Perfect," the other man smiled. "Till tomorrow -- nice to meet you again."
"Same here. Oh, and no matter what Niko says, she really enjoys doing everyone's work for them!"
Niko swung at Doc just as he danced out of the way and dashed down the hall.
"Are your other friends so unique?" Connor laughed as he opened the door to his quarters.
"Goose and Zach? Well, yes -- in their own ways," Niko mysteriously smiled.
He got her some water and gestured towards the couch. "Let me wash the sweat off; I'll be right back."
Niko waited patiently, getting up to walk around the room. She studied several old artifacts on display. In particular, her attention was drawn to a blue plaid costume on display behind a glass case; it was an actual Clan MacLeod kilt, dated 1536.
Connor reemerged, fully dressed and toweling off his hair. "Any leads yet on the latest killing?"
"No," she sighed, turning away from the case to face him. "It's the strangest thing; the corpse and head were still intact, but the rest of the room else was, well, flattened. Everything was similar to the first killing almost identical, in fact. Doc couldn't retrieve any data from the computers because the circuits were fried. I got some basic impressions, but nothing that can help us track her down or figure out her next move."
He placed a gentle hand on Niko's shoulder, squeezing it. "Hey, don't worry. I'm sure you and your friends can solve this."
"Thanks," she smiled in return. "Remind me to get you to speak on our behalf the next time Wheiner takes a crack at us." With that, she put her empty glass down. Pointing towards some huge crates crammed into a spare room, she jokingly asked "Shall we begin moving these?"
"I really must budget some money for hired muscle the next time."
Amidst a lot of laughter, grunting, and Gaelic swearing, the grav-lift was soon loaded stem to stern. With Connor pushing and Niko balancing it, they left his quarters and slowly made their way towards the auditoriums.