W A R N I N G
rated  R  for
violence, language, character death

If Only...

by
A Kniggendorf


2087-01-25
23:16

     Niko let out a deep sigh as she settled herself on her bed at last, already wearing her nightshirt. She picked up the tiny parcel from her bedside table. It had arrived just before all this trouble had begun, and she hadn't had time to open it. Now she pulled off the brown paper and looked at the contents: a tiny violet-red pendant on a gold chain. Beautiful, she thought, and reached for the paper in which it had been wrapped. A short letter in her friend Iktar's handwriting was written on the inside: "Dear Niko," it read. "We found this in the ruins of Mogul's castle. It is one of the most beautiful pieces we've ever found, and I'd like to give it to you as a special thank-you for saving me and my people. Iktar." She smiled and held the pendant up against the light. The violet crystal flamed, and red sparkles seemed to flash in its depths. Iktar is right, she thought, it is wonderful... She would write him back right now if only...
     She was so tired. No, she was exhausted. It wasn't easy to be the telepath in this unit...
     I'm so sorry for you, Zachary, she had thought after they brought him back from the Psychocrypt. The news that he still had his rank and remained their captain was a true relief, but she was sure it had been a close shave, far closer than the others were aware of...
     They hadn't felt Zachary's torn soul, nor the stresses he'd been through: the nightmares of Eliza, and seeing her as a slaverlord. But she had. She had no choice. She was the telepath. She had to share other people's pain.
     She crept under her soft cotton sheets, the tiny pendant still in her hand. She was so tired.
     I'm so sorry for you, Zachary, she thought, already drifting off to sleep. If only nothing had happened to Eliza...

2087-01-25
23:16

     Niko startled awake as the heavy scent of orchids, blooming all around her bed, suddenly tickled her nose. Orchids? She sat straight up in bed, and dark-violet silk whispered down her bare body. Silk? She looked around in the darkness. After a moment, she reached for her badge to increase her senses with her powers. It wasn't there.
     "Light," she commanded – and a moment later repeated it in Xanad. This time the lights went on. She was in her old room in Ariel's house on Xanadu. This can't be true... But the scents of the orchids around her were real. The heavy sweet odour of the flowers themselves, the slight modder of the earth they were growing in... Ariel was always one for details.
     Niko jumped out of bed. Some of the leaves touching her bare skin reminded her to throw on a gown. Ariel has to explain this! Why did she bring me here? And why did she take my badge from me?! She rushed out of the room towards her mentor's huge suite.

     The old woman woke slowly, blinked, finally put on her glasses and looked curiously at her student. "I teleported you here against your will from BETA?" she asked, astonished. "Niko, are you feeling well? Do you have a fever?"
     "Oh, please, Ariel!" Niko snorted, her arms folded hard in front of her chest. "I knew you never completely agreed with my working for BETA, but I've been doing it for almost a year now!" I refuse to stamp my foot on the floor. "This is ridiculous! And it's beneath your dignity, too!"
     Ariel frowned. "You mean to tell me that you are actually working for BETA?"
     "Of course I work for BETA. I'm a Galaxy Ranger!"
     "But you returned to Xanadu after you finished at the Ranger Academy. All your applications for a job within the League Forces were rejected."
     "WHAT?!"
     "You were disappointed, but life goes on, Niko." Ariel spoke very earnestly now. "Even with such an impolite reply as the one you got from BETA."
     Now it was Niko's turn to frown. "What did they write?"
     "That they had no need of such a freak." Ariel sighed. "You were very angry, and also very disappointed." She looked up at her best student. "You don't mean to tell me you have forgotten, do you?"
     "Ariel, this isn't true." Niko spoke very gravely now, trying to convince her. "I was accepted. I was assigned to a newly formed Galaxy Ranger unit in which all the members have special powers. They are increased by a brain implant..."
     Ariel shuddered. "Horrible! Brain surgery. Terrans really will do anything for their fortune! – I'm glad you never had to bear anything like that. It was only a dream, Niko," she assured her student comfortingly. "Just a bad dream."
     "No! It isn't a dream! It's real! It–"
     Ariel looked straight into her student's eyes, sensed for her, sensed into her, and gasped. "You really believe that..." She sensed deeper. "There are psychic images about it..." She closed her eyes, touched her student's hand now. "They are structured like memories... Shimmering Star. They are real for you." She let go of Niko's hands and looked up. "Something's terribly wrong here!" She pushed back her sheets.
     "Damn right! But not with me!"
     "I know. Something has changed. Something's not as it should be." Ariel hurried through her huge bedroom. "But I'm not responsible for it."
     "But who is?"
     "I don't know, Niko. I wish I did." She lit some candles and concentrated on the crystal ball between them. After a moment, she turned to her student and shook her head. "I can't make out who it is, Niko," she said sadly, "but the world's creaking around you. You must return to where you ought to be... wherever that is."
     Niko drew a deep, shaky breath. "I must get to BETA. Now. – I'll prepare the ship immediately."
     Ariel stared at her. "Xanadu has no ship, Niko. We've never had one."
     "Right..." Niko put one hand to her aching head. "You got the ship in return for my working at BETA... and since that never happened here – wherever, whenever – this is..." She let her words trail off and continued with a touch of despair in her voice. "But how can I reach BETA without a transport?"
     Her mentor looked at her, very concerned. "You are sure you want to go to Earth?"
     "I must, Ariel," Niko said with determination. "I really must. I know it."
     Her mentor turned for the door. "I'll call the Circle. We will teleport you. But there'll be no chance to return to us if you can't get a vessel there."
     "I know."

2087-01-26

     Strange. Nothing's happening here... Usually the feeder road is as crowded as a shopping mall at this time of day. Niko had been walking along the road for almost twenty minutes now. The Circle had dropped her at a lonely area near the street outside Phoenix. She had thought it would be easy to find a lift to the mountain once she reached the road. But no one seemed to be heading for the mountain this morning.
     She sighed and wiped the sweat off her forehead. The day wore on. The sun was already high up in the sky. It grew hotter and hotter. Finally the blue of BetaMountain's lake blurred below her as she crossed the last height.
     Niko stopped. And frowned. A guard house? On this side of the bridge? And what's all this NATO wire along the shore for? People can get hurt by it far too easily. Strange. She began heading down towards the gate. The sooner she could talk to her teammates and to the commander the better!

     "Stop, Miss!" The guard pointed a heavy laser rifle right at her chest. "Who are you and what do you want here?"
     "I'm Niko. And I'm–" She interrupted herself. She couldn't say that she worked here. She didn't know if that was true in this... alternate reality – at least I'm daring to name this horror, she thought.
     The guard aimed his rifle more carefully. "So what?!" he barked at her.
     She caught herself. "I need to talk to some of the Galaxy Rangers and to Cmdr. Walsh. It's urgent."
     "Sure," the guard said sarcastically, grinning, "and they're waiting for you, right?"
     "No, but I–"
     The guard snorted. "I'll lose my head if I disturb the commander, and even if the Rangers weren't always in battle with Crown troops around Kirwin, they wouldn't talk with a vagrant like you!"
     "Please, I need to talk with one of the Series-5 team. A com call would do. Please..."
     "Series-5? Nothing like that exists." He began to grin maliciously. "So you'd better get lost, unless you wanna sweeten my time on duty, sugar."
     "No!" She retreated hastily, hurried back on the road and didn't stop before she was safely out of sight. Then she leaned against a hot stone at the street side.
     Something is terribly wrong here. Crown troops on Kirwin? And a mere gate post guard has the power to decide about an audience or a call? She shook her head and sweat dripped down her back. Obviously her unit didn't even exist. But where are the others then? I must find them!
     But she needed a terminal for that, and even though the mountain was so near it was impossible for her to reach it. With a sigh she pushed herself off the rock. She would have to walk all the way back to Phoenix to use one of the public computer terminals there. I just hope the things exist in this world!

     It was already late in the evening when she finally reached Phoenix. In all that time only a single military vessel had come past her on the feeder road, and after her experience at the gate post she didn't dare to ask for a ride to the city. A lot of people in the huge shopping mall in the outskirts of Phoenix threw curious – and sometimes disapproving – looks at the dust-covered woman who entered and, despite her obvious exhaustion, walked straight towards one of the public terminals.
     She was in luck. The things existed in this reality, too. And as she knew from her own reality, their use was sponsored by the BWL, so she didn't have to worry about payment. Niko pulled the glass door of the booth closed behind her and brought up the public address board. She tried Doc first, using the computer systems for her search; he seemed the likeliest candidate to be quickly found.
     She was right. Only two search commands later, an address and a profile appeared on the screen:

DR. W. HARTFORD, COMPUTER PSYCHIATRIST, MONEY LANE 23, PHOENIX.

     There was also a text advertisement and a contact number for his office:

IF YOU EXPERIENCE PROBLEMS WITH YOUR ELECTRONIC FRIENDS:
CONTACT THE DOC. YOU WILL GET HELP AROUND THE CLOCK.
EMAIL: Doc.Hartford@compsych.com.

     Niko smiled in relief. It seemed easier than she'd thought. She entered the given email addy, wrote a short note including her need to speak with him personally, and hit the Send button.
     A blinking message appeared on the screen:

TO KEEP MY PERFECT SERVICE FROM GETTING BOGGED DOWN WITH MINOR
PROBLEMS OR NON-SOLVENT CLIENTS, PLEASE ENTER YOUR CREDIT CARD
NUMBER. 50 CREDITS WILL BE DEBITED FROM YOUR BANK ACCOUNT.
IF THE DOC CAN'T SOLVE YOUR PROBLEM, YOU WILL GET YOUR MONEY BACK.

     Niko swore. His clients have to pay just to get him to read their emails?! That didn't sound like Doc at all. She began to doubt that this version of Walter "Doc" Hartford would be any help to her. She deleted her request and began a new search, this time for Zachary. He was the most reasonable one on her team.
     A search for Zachary Fox on the address board brought no results, not even as she widened the search parameters to scan data from the whole League. What happened to him here? she wondered. She contacted the public press archive, set search parameters for the last year, and hit Enter.
     This time her search was successful. A couple of news summaries appeared on the flickering screen. She began to read and froze....

KIRWIN TAKEN BY THE CROWN OF TORTUNA
THE LAST TRANSMISSION ALSO SAYS THAT TERRAN AMBASSADOR ELIZA FOX
AND HER CHILDREN WERE KILLED DURING THE FIERCE FIGHT FOR THE
CAPITAL. THERE IS NO INFORMATION AVAILABLE ABOUT THE FATE OF HER
HUSBAND, GALAXY RANGER CAPTAIN ZACHARY FOX.

NEW THREAT FROM TORTUNA
THE LATEST NEWS FROM THE FRONT LINE HAS CONFIRMED OUR EXPERTS'
FEARS. THE QUEEN OF THE CROWN HAS A NEW AND VERY POWERFUL
SLAVERLORD SERVING HER EVIL INTERESTS. A SLAVERLORD WITH THE
FEATURES OF THE FORMER GRC. ZACHARY FOX LEADS A VERY DANGEROUS
CROWN UNIT FORMED OF SOME OF THE ESCAPED SUPERTROOPERS.
THE BWL HAS ANNOUNCED THAT ALL LEAGUE FORCES WILL WITHDRAW FROM
KIRWIN IN THE FACE OF THESE "IMPOSSIBLE ODDS".

     She stared in horror for several minutes at the screen, unable to accept what she was reading there. She clenched her hands till her nails dug into her palms. Accept the reality, Niko... No! This is not right! This has to be changed!! she shouted mentally. Shane... She entered the search commands. It'll be awfully difficult to convince him of something so far beyond the physical world he's used to... We never met in this reality. Her heart hurt at the thought; then she bit her lips. But that will change now! She hit Enter.
     And cursed under her breath in the same moment. She'd forgotten to switch back to the address board; now the press archive was scanned instead. But some seconds later, a news file appeared on the screen...


CLONING EXPERIMENT FAILED
AFTER THE LATEST DISTURBING NEWS ABOUT THE CROWN'S SUPERTROOPER
UNIT, THE BWL, DRIVEN LARGELY BY SENATOR AND CANDIDATE FOR THE
PREMIER'S SEAT ERIC WHEINER, ORDERED THE CLONING OF THE LAST
SUPERTROOPER REMAINING UNDER EARTH'S CONTROL. THE EFFORT FAILED,
ALTHOUGH THE SUPERTROOPER SURVIVED AND IS ONCE AGAIN UNDER ARREST
IN THE HIGH SECURITY BLOCK AT BETAMOUNTAIN. SOURCES INSIDE THE BWL
SAY HE WILL MOST LIKELY BE PUT INTO CRYOGENIC HIBERNATION, AS HIS
IMPRISONMENT DIVERTS RESOURCES NEEDED IN THE WAR AGAINST HIS
'FAMILY.'

     Niko hold her breath. Gods, Shane. That's impossible... She swallowed. What do I do now? Someone knocked on the glass door behind her. A fat woman shouted that her five minutes were more than over. Niko scrambled out of the booth and the fat woman shoved past her, almost pushing her to the ground.
     Niko left the shopping mall as if walking in a dream, a bad dream, a nightmare... What's going on here? How can this be true? Think! she screamed mentally at herself. Think!!! It's your only chance. She dropped herself on a park bench and stared into the night. Think!!! What happened... What happened before all this horror began... before the world was wrong? – I was at home, at BETA, in my apartment. I was tired and went to bed, and then I was on Xanadu... No. She stopped her line of thought, returned to an earlier moment. Iktar's parcel. He sent me a pendant made of gold and a violet crystal... A violet crystal... Niko groaned. If she hadn't been so tired she'd have recognized the starstone immediately. And then I went to bed. With the crystal in my hand... and I wished...
     Her head jerked up. The starstone. I wished that nothing had happened to Eliza... The starstone... Magic. It's magic. And that means the starstone can put things back in order, too... But where is that particular pendant in this reality? She held her aching head between her hands, tired as she was, and tried to recollect what she knew about this reality. Our unit doesn't exist here. And the Queen's attack on Kirwin was successful here, too... That means we were never on the Sorcerer's planet. And we never freed Iktar and his people. So Mogul must be still there... She remembered all the starstones he had had when they had fought him. And he must have incredible power in this reality.... in spite of his stupid assistant. That means the pendant must still be there.
     She recalled the starmaps. If Kirwin belongs to the Crown Empire in this reality, then the Sorcerer's planet... is beyond the front line. She choked at the thought. She didn't have her badge, her rank, her position in this world. How am I supposed to reach it? A frightened whimper choked her. I need help. I'm not a warrior who can cross a front line with Zach and the STs on the enemy's side. I'm no such warrior – but I know only one person who can get me there against those odds. I know where to find him. But how to reach him? My powers are different and weaker without my badge... She narrowed her eyes. My powers are different and weaker, but no one knows that I have them. That won't help me at the front line, but at BETA...
     She jumped to her feet. She had to return the mountain before the daily shift started. She had to get there before the corridors were crowded and before the guard who already knew her took his post at the gate again. It would be far easier to distract someone who didn't remember her...

2087-01-27

     It wasn't difficult to make the guard on duty drop off to sleep near the end of his shift. But the surveillance cameras constantly scanning the bridge and the main entrance to the mountain were difficult. Already exhausted as she was after making the walk between Phoenix and BetaMountain three times in barely 24 hours and without sleep, she was almost trembling with weariness as she finally reached the maintenance entrance to the left of the main entrance. With shaking fingers she entered the general key code and hoped that it was the same in this reality. The door slid open. Hastily she closed it behind her, no longer able to control the camera observing it from the outside. Inside, there were none. That hole in the security systems was always on top when it came to another budget discussion, but it had never been corrected. She looked ahead, searched the bare walls, framed with metal plates. Obviously it's the same with the budget in this world. She sighed in relief. Good. So where do I have to go for the sec block?

     She was pinned to the wall by an iron forearm across her throat the very moment she slipped through the door.
     "Give me one good reason not to squeeze the life outta you," a growling voice hissed faintly at her ear.
     She fought against the pressure against her throat that was nearly choking her. "I'm not one of the guards..." she managed to say, "or one of your torturers."
     "Already know that." The pressure increased as Gooseman leaned his weight against her. "Otherwise I'd be secured." The sound of that word was grim and carried impressions much worse than simple handcuffs attached to the walls.
     She shuddered. "Please. I need your help... You are the only one who can help me..." The pressure against her throat was suddenly gone and a spark of hope appeared in her mind.
     "So one of those, are you!" His disgust was more than just obvious. "Get lost!" He spat at her. "Tell those bastards, whatever they think of me, I'm no breeding animal!"
     She started at his angry words. Gods, Shane, what have they done to you? She stretched out a hand toward him and he retreated instantaneously, flashing his teeth at her in a furious warning. She stopped the unconscious movement and collected her thoughts. "That's not what I want, Shane," she said earnestly.
     He stared with narrowed eyes at her. For a moment she thought he might listen. "How do you know my name?" he asked warily.
     "Because this is all horribly wrong," she said without hesitation and without a thought of what he might think about it. "None of this should have happened. The Crown shouldn't be on Kirwin, Zach shouldn't be a slaverlord, I should be a Galaxy Ranger, and so should you."
     He laughed out loud, a torn sound full of bitterness. "Me? A Ranger?! Lady, you aren't just stupid, you're insane. They locked me up at the first trouble with my kind and threw away the key."
     "And none of that should have happened," she said earnestly. Her hands clawed around her arms to prevent her from shaking.
     "How do you come to this conclusion?" he asked mockingly.
     It broke out of her in a sudden rush of words. Despairing, lonely, frightened words that didn't make much sense even to herself. But she said them; she told it all. To this horrible near stranger with distrustful pale green eyes who'd been trapped in this six-meter-square cell for more than half a year now and who was allowed to leave it only when they wanted to torture him again. She talked and talked and talked, because as long as she was talking she didn't have to sense the pain inside these bare walls, inside him, and now inside herself...
     "I must get the equivalent of this pendant in this reality," she said finally. "I know where it is, on which planet, in which place on that planet. But here that planet is beyond the front line, and between it and myself are enemies I won't win against. But I know you. If you are only slightly the man you are in my world, then you are the only one who may be able to succeed in getting me to that place." She drew a vibrating breath and expected him to interrupt her, but he said nothing. "I know how to get you out of here and how to get a ship out of BETA, and I know the coordinates of the planet where we need to go," she finished.
     He looked at her with narrowed, pale green eyes in an unreadable face. Suddenly, a short half-grin flashed across his face, the face that was much more strongly marked than the one she knew so well. "Okay, lady. Let's go!" He made a mocking gestured towards the door. "You first."
     The sirens began to yell the very moment Gooseman left the cell. Niko started at the wailing.
     "What?" he growled cynically at her. "Didn't you know that my DNA starts the alarms? So you'll better find that ship fast!"
     "Over there!" She ran down the corridors towards the hangars. "There must be a guard at the entrance to the cell block!" she shouted over her shoulder.
     "My game!" He rushed past her, leaped with incredible speed at the man who was just reaching for his wristcom, tore the LR out of the soldier's hands, and cut the man's throat with the bayonet in the same movement. He kicked the dying body out of the way and ran on. "Which turn?"
     "Left..." Her voice was choked. My Shane would never... But this wasn't her Shane. This wasn't even her world.

     They reached the hangar at the same moment as the guards. Gooseman fired without hesitation. "Get to the vessel," he shouted.
     Niko sped through the hangar. Ranger-1 wasn't there. Of course not, she thought grimly. Our unit doesn't exist in this world. But Ranger-22 was never aligned to a specific unit. It must be here... "Here!" She hurried up the ramp, hit the contact panel.
     A yellow eyeball popped up. =Password,= it demanded.
     "Stargazer."
     =Invalid password. The correct password is required.=
     "Shit! Doc chose the password for R-22..." She almost cried out as the first blaster bolts hit the floor and the vessel around her.
     "No problem!" Gooseman growled behind her. "There's no way but ahead!" He fired at the control panel. It exploded and the door opened a small slit. He clamped his hands around it and shoved it open. "Cockpit," he snapped at her. "Disable the AI and power up manually. I'll keep them at a distance till takeoff."
     "But–"
     "Go!" He was already firing. A couple of soldiers in BETA uniforms fell.

     The engines roared up, but all of the hangar exits were closed. "And now?" she shouted back.
     Gooseman jumped into the pilot's seat. "And now... Goodbye, BETA."
     "The airlock is damaged," she reminded him.
     "The cockpit seal isn't." He floored the pedal.
     "And we have no clearance. None of the tunnels is open right–"
     The man beside her triggered the board cannons. "Who cares about tunnels?" Ranger-22 shot through the huge gap in the mountain's walls and sped up towards orbit. "And now for the defense satellites – do you know today's passcode?"
     "These satellites don't exist in my world," she said faintly.
     "Okay, then... fifteen seconds. We make it or we're ash!" He whirled the ship around and the metal creaked, protesting. High energy laser beams burned up beside them.
     "BetaMountain is firing at us."
     "Didn't know that I'm so popular that they won't let me leave..." the ST snickered cruelly. "What a pity." He activated the hyperdrive controls. "That I'm already gone..."
     Niko cried out. "We're still within Earth's gravity."
     "And? Do you have a better idea?" He hit the starter and Ranger-22 left the standard continuum.

     The ship wavered back into reality. At least into one reality, Niko thought bitterly. "Where are we?"
     "About a light hour outside the solar sys," Gooseman said grimly, "and you'd better program those coordinates of yours damned soon. They'll detect us any moment." His voice sounded slightly pressed.
     She noticed it and worried. "Are you okay?"
     A look out of distrusting eyes hit her. "I am," he growled, touching his side.
     Niko saw the blood soaking the cloth beneath his fingers and the upholstery of his seat. "You are wounded. You must use your powers–" She interrupted her ridiculous thought at his derisive snort and remembered: he wasn't a ranger in this reality. The Series-5 implants hadn't even been invented here...
     Impulsively she reached for him to check on the wound and he jerked back from her. "Don't you dare!" he hissed, cautious eyes wide open.
     She took the first aid kit stored next to her seat and showed it to him. "Please, let me help you," she begged. "I just want to treat your injury."
     "No! Hand it over. I'll take care of myself."
     With a sad sigh she did what he wanted.
     "And now enter those fucking coordinates!" he snapped, cutting his coverall open, "or don't you remember them either?"

     "You really aren't from this world, are you?" was the mocking question that waked her.
     "Hmm?" She wasn't fully awake yet. Shane? What is he doing in my bedroom? The reality struck her. More precisely: the wrong reality struck her.
     "No one ever trusted me enough to fall asleep at my side. Especially not a lady," he said with a cynical grin. "But since you're completely insane anyway..."
     "Insane?" she repeated dully, then she understood. "You don't believe anything of what I told you," she whispered.
     "Damned right, lady," he confirmed. "I've never heard such a bunch of nonsense before."
     "Why did you help me, then?"
     "'Cause I'm a realist, lady. I know they were going to freeze me soon. And I hate the idea of being killed slowly in a rotten glass coffin!"
     Her heart went cold. "So you're going to drop me somewhere? Or will you hand me over to the Queen and join your former comrades?"
     "Lady," his voice was very grim, "they won't welcome me, and if I return I won't be welcomed either. In either direction I'm dead. And if I die while trying to save a universe–" he laughed bitterly – "even an imaginary one like yours, at least it'll be what I'm dedicated to." He leaned back in his seat. "By the way, we're reaching your damned coordinates!"

     "Guess that's another difference from your world, eh?" he taunted her, staring down at the planet below them.
     Niko drew a deep breath. "Yes, definitely."
     "You said you had mental powers. Can you sneak our way through them?"
     She stared down through the telescope at the huge camp of Crown troops around the magical castle. Banners with the Queen's face flapped in the wind on every one of its towers. It must be a main camp. Maybe even headquarters. Niko's chin sank to her chest and she shook her head. "No. There are far too many of them."
     Gooseman snorted. "Charming as usual!" He narrowed his eyes. "Your pendant is in the castle?"
     "Yes, it must be."
     "And there's only one castle on this planet?"
     "Yes, definitely." There hadn't been any major differences in buildings so far in this reality.
     "And where exactly?" he asked.
     "What?" She looked up and met his eyes. "What do you mean?"
     "Where exactly do you expect to find this rotten pendant you're searching for?" he repeated impatiently. His fingers tapped on the console. "Hurry, lady, they'll detect us soon."

     "The biggest tower. Near the base."
     "Sure?"
     She drove her nails into her palms. "Yes. What do you plan?"
     His mouth grew hard. "You can't sneak through them. So I'll shorten the way through 'em!" He slammed the engines to max and almost fell at the planet.
     "What–" She cramped her hands around her seat as the vessel rushed through the atmosphere, the nose aiming directly at the castle. "Are you crazy?!" she cried.
     "No more than you!" he grinned.
     And he thinks I'm insane...

     The Ranger ship crashed through the outer walls with the sound of tearing metal and rumbling stones. It crossed at least three more levels before it came to a halt in a hall that immediately filled with the dust of shattered stones. Gooseman pushed the lock open. "Okay, lady. Target hit. You better hurry. We'll have unpleasant company soon."
     She scrambled through the gravel, tried to orient herself, and discovered the huge statue of a space magician at the other end of the hall. Around the stone neck hung a red sparkling, violet... "We're in the right place, Shane!" she rejoiced.
     "For us, maybe; for you, I doubt it," came a familiar voice from behind.
     She turned, saw a slaverlord gliding towards her, and stumbled backwards as Zachary's features appeared on the white shape. "No..." she whispered. "No..."
     Several Crown troopers appeared behind the slaverlord. One of them took off his helmet and a single dark eye glowed at the man with her. "Runt," the trooper grinned. "Good, now you'll pay for your treason."
     A hard hand grabbed her shoulder, yanked her back, and tossed her towards the statue. "Do whatever you want, lady. But I can give you only a few seconds. So go!"
     Niko scrambled towards the sculpture of one of Mogul's ancestors. Behind her Gooseman leaped at Killbane with a deep, furious growl. He hasn't got his powers... her mind whimpered while she ran, he hasn't got a chance under these circumstances... A blaster bolt hit the stone floor near her feet.
     Zachary's familiar voice, still calm, still so polite, ordered, "The woman is to be caught alive. The Queen needs more humans for her psychocrypt, and the woman seems to be young and strong."
     Niko shuddered at his words and at the closeness of his voice. The slaverlord that was Zach in this reality was far too near to her.
     A shadow slammed to the floor next to the statue just at the moment as she reached it. She saw Gooseman, torn, bleeding, on the ground at her feet. She thought she saw some of his ribs jutting out of his chest. The statue was huge. The pendant hung at least two meters above her head. She saw the white form of the slaverlord only two steps behind her. She wedged her feet into the folds of the stone robe, pulled herself up, struggled not to fall back, reached for the pendant...
     She cramped her fingers around it as she dropped to the floor. Her legs gave way beneath her and red-hot pain shot through them as she fell to her knees next to Shane. The slaverlord had almost reached her.
     Concentrate... she berated herself and closed her eyes. I wish that the original fate of Eliza Fox is not altered. The slaverlord touched her, tried to drag her up. It didn't work, her mind screamed.
     The bloody body at her side stirred. She looked at him against her will, not wanting to remember Shane's shattered form, and calm, bright green eyes met hers. Something whispered in her mind: A thought that wasn't hers...
     ...I hope your world exists, girl... If only...
     Her hand clasped the pendant as the slaverlord that was Zachary Fox dragged her across the floor away from the dying man. She took the line of thought from the fading mind: If only... I'd never made that wish.

2087-01-25
23:19

     Niko jolted out of sleep. "Light," she demanded roughly, and looked at the familiar features of her apartment at BETA. I must have had a bad dream, she thought, still feeling shaken, still tired. She couldn't have slept much. A cold shiver crept across her back. It must have been a very bad dream.
     Something slipped out of her fingers and fell to the quilt: the pendant Iktar had sent her. The bright light of her fully illuminated apartment was scattered by the powerful violet crystal of a pure but sealed starstone.
     For Heaven's sake! I must have fallen asleep holding it. She shook her head. I don't want to think what could have happened... She shuddered and hastily put it back into the box Iktar had used to send it to her. I was very lucky that nothing happened to me. She stretched and – on a sudden impulse – got out of bed and threw on her dressing gown.

     The buzzer rang for the third time since he had put his feet to the floor and gotten out of bed. What the hell does anyone want of me in the middle of the night? He opened his door. "Give me one good reason not to squeeze the life outta you," he growled faintly.
     "Shane?"
     Niko?! At this hour? She sounds... strange. "Yes?" He pushed the door fully open. She stood outside, wearing an old, worn-out dressing gown.
     "Shane?" she repeated and suddenly flung her arms around him, holding him closely.
     He stiffened in surprise but, after a moment, relaxed into her embrace. "Do you think this is wise?" he whispered into her ear.
     "No. Not at all..."
     He felt her silent laughter as a vibration against his chest before she let him go. "Are you all right, Niko?" he asked, slightly worried now.
     "Yes," she answered, smiling warmly. "Yes, now I am." At his bewildered look: "I just needed to hug you."
     "In the middle of the night?" he asked with a raised brow.
     "Yes. Absolutely." She smiled and turned back toward the corner around which her own quarters lay. "Sleep well, Shane," she said softly.
     "You, too," he answered automatically and closed his door after she was gone.
     Humans, he thought. If only I could understand– He interrupted his line of thought, shook his head, and berated himself as he went back to bed: No, better not. You have to be careful what you wish for.

END

Thanks to Elizabeth 'fatima' Bales for slaying the mistakes in my English!


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