That's totally out of the question. You've got a screw"
Her lunge over the desk was intercepted by an arm hard as steel
clamped like a vise around her waist. She struggled, kicked
backward and felt her heels slam into something. "Take your
hands off me!"
until you calm down." The grin she heard in the voice just
beneath her ear made her gasp furiously for breath. "'Tore
commanding officer to pieces' doesn't look good in your
She took a deep breath, got back on her feet and looked over at
let her go and rubbed his aching shin.
she won't have a problem getting into the role!" Doc said,
She shot him a glare.
"Watch it, Doc!"
Niko! If you are now open to rational discussion, we may
continue. Captain Fox, explain it to her."
The facts are these: For some time now, the League's security
service has been collecting information from reliable sources
about a new criminal hideout, a kind of New Blackwater, somewhere
in the Empty Zone. The rising number of pirate attacks in the
border regions also indicates increased criminal activity.
Somebody's building a complete organization out there. But we've
got no hint as to the coordinates. That's where you come
"We want you to
work undercover in one of the most popular saloons on planet
Noon, where you are to scan the customers for the
I need far too much energy for forced scans."
has already constructed a portable recharging station. It'll be
integrated into your luggage."
snorted. "And what's this garbage about..."
has checked it out. The ID is still valid and accepted on most of
the worlds in and around the Empty Zone. And nobody actually
seems to know what she looks like, though most of them seem to
dream about her. She's a legend. No one will question your
identity once we rig you out. Therefore..."
Ranger, you will report immediately to supply division to get
everything you need. From there you'll go to the makeup artists.
Ranger-1 will take you to a waste area on Noon. The others will
stay there to back you up. And do not forget..." Walsh
looked at her with his brows drawn threateningly together. "From
now on, you are Louise!"
should have cooked Walsh's brain! she swore to herself while
balancing a couple of half-empty bottles on her tray, avoiding
the usual grabbing hands and ignoring the leers. "Don't
bother, rat!" She kicked away one groping paw and just
managed not to lose a bottle of whiskey. How long since she'd
entered this hell? Three weeks? Four? Definitely far too long,
anyway. With a sigh of relief Niko reached the owner of the
'Lucky Flight' saloon where she waited behind the bar. As
she cleared the bottles off her tray, she sighed, "I can't
different, sweetie," Mae giggled. "That turns the
fellas on. You're the only girl in town who doesn't make some
extra money with the oldest profession in the galaxy. Except me,
of course." She laughed in her croaking voice. Mae was
around 60, with grey-white hair which always escaped from its
braid and a really eccentric sense of humour. According to her,
she had owned the Happy Flight since Christ's birth and it was
still making a profit. Mae would never allow anything
"That's not my way,
Mae!" Niko pushed the horrible image out of her mind. "I
could never do anything like that."
okay, dear." Mae patted the back of her hand. "I don't
need to demand that from my girls. You're good at your job."
She grinned with her yellowed, splintered teeth. "By the
way, you're the only one who serves the new guests without my
asking. The others avoid it because they don't know what kind of
customers are coming at them." Mae winked at Niko. "So
don't be afraid for your job. That's all for today, Lou. I
need you tomorrow morning. New ships are arriving. There'll be
plenty to keep you all busy."
locked the door and leaned her back against it. "Xanadu's
Star I hate men!"
The voice out of
the darkness startled her. She grabbed for her knife before she
recognized Gooseman. "Shane, it's you." She sighed in
relief and pushed herself off the door. "Never scare me like
that again. How did you get in here?"
the window." He switched on the tiny lamp on the bureau.
"The latch wasn't much of a barrier."
hole to plug up."
if someone else comes up the facade." He let silvery claws
flash in the dim light. "Seems real unlikely."
can't stand this any longer." She dropped herself on the
edge of the bed. "Why are you here?"
wants to know if you have any information yet about New
new ships arrive tomorrow. Maybe then."
broke out in the saloon below them. Men bellowed drunkenly. One
voice rose above the others. "You'll see..." The sound
of feet stumbling along wooden steps accompanied the rest of the
sentence. "This time I get Iron Lou!"
no!" She pressed her hands against her eyes. "Here we
go again. I'd need hours to discourage this asshole." She
sighed tiredly. "I can't go on like this. I need a night's
"I think I can
manage this." He put on his black hat again, flung open the
door when the stumbling stopped in front of it and raised his
hand. "Piss off! She's mine!" The blow threw the man
through the wooden railing and down one floor into the bar. Goose
stepped up to the splintered gap and looked down on the drunken
crowd. The scumbag crawled out of the remnants of a gaming
reached to get her rifle from behind the bar, but changed her
mind in favor of catching the credit chip Gooseman tossed towards
Tipping his hat: "That
happens sometimes, ma'am."
checked the figure on the chip and waved the plastic card at him.
"For this you can destroy some more tables, boy."
anybody else tries to bother my woman, he'll get the same!"
He shut the door and looked at Niko. "You should have peace
herself back on the bed. "I wish I could sleep through a
what he can do!" He pulled a chair into place opposite the
door. "Sleep. I'll keep you safe till morning."
Damn curls!" Furiously she battled for control of the chaos
of her sleep-mussed hair. "I'll be really glad when I get my
own hairstyle back."
hammered at the wall downstairs. "That's for me. I'm on
early shift today." She shook the dyed red-blond mane back
over her shoulders and knotted a soft green ribbon around it.
"Come out with me through the front entrance. It's more
walked down the stairs together. Halfway down, he put his arm
around her, possessively pulling her close. "So any idiot
will know what he's risking if he bothers you." His fiendish
grin gave the lie to his words. Niko laughed out
incorrigible," she whispered.
hope so," he answered as quietly. Aloud: "See you
that's why you're Iron Lou." Mae smiled a bit
lecherously after Goose and whistled faintly. "I can
understand why the others leave you cold." When Niko looked
at her in shock, Mae laughed loudly. "Yeah, girl. Once upon
a time I was young, beautiful, and far too impetuous, and I got
the greatest guy in the galaxy just like you. And I let
him go. Was a damn mistake, I tell you!" Mae sighed. "He
gave me a rifle once, a Winchester. I still have it." She
blew out a breath and energetically shook her head. "Forget
it! The new guests are coming." Mae pushed Niko from behind
the bar. "See that the tables are clean!"
last! Here come the drinks! Hurry up, sweetie! We're thirsty!"
To roars of laughter Niko lugged the tray to the table where the
new customers lounged. Their apparent boss was around his
mid-forties, with two big scars on his face and ruffled
grey-blonde hair. Grabbing hands reached out for her, trying to
pull her close by the skirt. She was already used to avoiding
"Leave it, boys. Drinks
first!" She forced a laugh, put down the bottles and started
to pour the whiskey into the glasses, leaving her leg as if
purely by chance leaned against the boss...
...a name Yurk a family, a son... New Blackwater
sweetie. I asked you a question!"
can't keep my mind on work around you," she murmured, still
concentrating on the coordinates. "Yurk, you ought to know
tha" A fist clamped around her wrist.
do you know my name?!"
didn't! I hate this name! The only way you could know it
...images of hatred
and blood dripped through the connection. She felt a flash of
horror and realized too late that it must have appeared on her
"Dammit! This bitch
is a mind-reader!"
rammed her knee into his crotch, broke loose and knocked the
table over as she burst out of the room. Blaster bolts hit the
wooden wall beside her. She gathered up her dress, rushed around
the corner... This damn dress was always in the way! A hand
grabbed her arm, pulled her to the wall of the saloon. "Ssh!
In there. Fast!" The board fell shut behind her. Old Mae
pressed herself against it, put a hand over Niko's mouth and
listened to the men's heavy steps on the unpaved street. After a
while the old woman lit a cold light. "Come along here. Up
there." She pointed at a small ladder against the wall. The
trapdoor was hidden under a crocheted carpet, which fell back in
a cloud of dust as Niko pushed the door open and pulled herself
up. She tried to help Mae, but the old woman ignored her hand,
pulled herself into the room with astonishing speed and locked
"You have to
get the hell out of here, girl." Mae looked around the room.
"These swine are far more dangerous than they look. I've got
a feeling for it. If they don't get you fast, they'll start to
search this hole house by house. And it will be better for both
of us if they don't find you here!"
why are you helping me?"
you remind me of myself, girl whoever you are ."
She laughed croakingly while watching the street below. "Myself
forty years ago." Her face went serious. "I have some
horses in the corral behind the house. Take the brown one. Let it
go when you reach your people."
like you don't work without backup. Don't take me for stupid! At
the least, that big blonde from this morning is waiting somewhere
for you." She took an old rifle off the fixture above the
fireplace and threw it over to Niko. "Here. You'll need
"Should I leave
it clipped to the saddle?"
it, child. As a reminder not to let your friend go like I once
did mine." She glanced again through the curtains. "It's
quiet outside. Go now, girl. And good luck!"
"Don't thank me.
I've had to disappear myself at times." She giggled at the
memories. "But that was a while back."
was horrible, Zach." Niko shook the annoying curls back in a
swirl of dust and finished her short verbal report on the last
five hours. "First I need a good shower and then I'm
scraping this disgusting stuff off my face!"
nodded. "We just need to give the coordinates to the fifth
angle: 135* 17' 57", 289.67992 light years away from the
galactic core, 27.3 AU above the ecliptic."
Zach took another short look at her. "It was really a close
the rifle from old Mae I wouldn't have made it. I just wonder why
she gave it to me. It was a gift from her long lost lover, after
all." She shrugged her shoulders and disappeared into the
ultra sound shower. "Well, I'm never going to find out..."
Goose was waiting for Zachary, the Winchester held over his arm,
when Zach returned to the front cabin. "Look." The ST
had scratched the patina of soot and dust of many years from a
tiny bronze plate on the butt: