"No!!! 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!"
"Not 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 personal file."
"I–" She took a deep breath, got back on her feet and looked over at Walsh. "Commander."
Gooseman let her go and rubbed his aching shin.
"Well, she won't have a problem getting into the role!" Doc said, grinning.
She shot him a glare. "Watch it, Doc!"
"Ranger Niko! If you are now open to rational discussion, we may continue. – Captain Fox, explain it to her."
"Niko. 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 in."
"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 coordinates."
"Nonsense. I need far too much energy for forced scans."
"QBall has already constructed a portable recharging station. It'll be integrated into your luggage."
She snorted. "And what's this garbage about..."
"SecServ 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..."
"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!"
I 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 stand it!"
"You're 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 less.
"That's not my way, Mae!" Niko pushed the horrible image out of her mind. "I could never do anything like that."
"It's 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."
Niko locked the door and leaned her back against it. "Xanadu's Star – I hate men!"
"I hope not."
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?"
"Through the window." He switched on the tiny lamp on the bureau. "The latch wasn't much of a barrier."
"Another hole to plug up."
"Only if someone else comes up the facade." He let silvery claws flash in the dim light. "Seems real unlikely."
"I can't stand this any longer." She dropped herself on the edge of the bed. "Why are you here?"
"Zach wants to know if you have any information yet about New Blackwater."
"No. But new ships arrive tomorrow. Maybe then."
Turmoil 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!"
"Oh 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 rest."
"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 table.
"Hey!!" Mae reached to get her rifle from behind the bar, but changed her mind in favor of catching the credit chip Gooseman tossed towards her.
Tipping his hat: "Sorry about the mess, ma'am."
She checked the figure on the chip and waved the plastic card at him. "For this you can destroy some more tables, boy."
"If anybody else tries to bother my woman, he'll get the same!" He shut the door and looked at Niko. "You should have peace for tonight."
She threw herself back on the bed. "I wish I could sleep through a whole night."
"Should I stay?"
"Zach knows what he can do!" He pulled a chair into place opposite the door. "Sleep. I'll keep you safe till morning."
"Ouch! 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."
Somebody 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 plausible."
They 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 loud.
"You're incorrigible," she whispered.
"I hope so," he answered as quietly. Aloud: "See you soon!"
"So, 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!"
"At 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 it.
"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 coordinates!!!...
"Hey, sweetie. I asked you a question!"
"I 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.
"How do you know my name?!"
"I didn't! I hate this name! The only way you could know it is..."
...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 face.
"Dammit! This bitch is a mind-reader!"
Niko 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 the trapdoor.
"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!"
"Mae, why are you helping me?"
"Because 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."
"I don't have..."
"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 it."
"Should I leave it clipped to the saddle?"
"Keep 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."
"It 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!"
Fox nodded. "We just need to give the coordinates to the fifth fleet first."
"Basic angle: 135* 17' 57", 289.67992 light years away from the galactic core, 27.3 AU above the ecliptic."
"Thanks." Zach took another short look at her. "It was really a close shave."
"Yes. Without 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..."
"Captain." 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: