She checked her weaponry as usual before she left her ship. This planet might lay at the ass-end of the universe but she wouldn't underestimate its possible dangers. She hadn't survived this long in her profession by being careless.
So, the muscle tension activated spurs in the heels of her boots were adjusted; throwing knives, boot shaft knife, palm laser, and the energy cells of her blasters were ok. Good. She glanced at the chrono: 08:11 local time. Now let's see if the offered job is really that good. She put her hat on and tossed her red hair back. "DON, seal the ship after I leave, and standard procedure."
=Will do, Boss.= The AI answered immediately. =But may I mention that local law forbid the scanning of intercom transmissions on this planet that is included in the standard proc–=
"Do it anyway, DON! I'll be back ASAP." She attached her cape to her belt. "And don't call me Boss!"
The board-integrated AI made the electronic equivalent of a sigh after its 'Boss', Daisy O'Mega was gone. It was always the same: if there were any regulations in the way she ordered it to ignore them.
DON produced another electronic sigh. It liked its boss somehow, despite the fact that the first thing she did after she took over the vessel in which it was originally integrated was to rename it: its real name had been DONALD, but because of some obscure comic books from a hundred years ago she refused to own an AI named DONALD. So she called it DON.
But even though the vessel it originally was integrated in was long gone, replaced by another, faster one, which was replaced again, and again, she always loaded it into her new ship, keeping her old AI, DON. And DON took care of its boss who didn't want to be called boss.
It opened the intercom lines and connected the receiver with the wavelength monitor and an automated descrambler...
Like most of the free, uncontrolled landing fields on non-League planets this one was crowded with vessels of all kinds: from top modern space yachts, worth a short excursion into piracy down to an outdated, poorly maintained thing that even had rust on its hull. O'Mega kept her hand on her blaster, prepared to shoot immediately should something happen. More than one of her employers so far had tested her skills by paying some local hotshot to shoot at her on her way to get the job. Every one of those bastards had regretted having taken the money!
A faint plop was the only sound. Something stung her shoulder. She looked down and saw the bright red blowpipe needle. She grabbed for it, but the anaesthetic drug had already entered her system. "NO!" As she yelled, she collapsed onto the permacrete, into the darkness...
...she regained consciousness abruptly. A hint that one of those expensive artificial narcotics had been used on her. She lay on her belly. The gutter's edge pressed into her hip. Her limbs were numb – must have been a damn high dose that she'd got. A throbbing headache accompanied her effort to push herself up into a sitting position with hands propped in the dirt. What– At least she was alive and relatively unharmed and whoever–
Other pains showed up, reporting injuries she hadn't noticed so far: dull throbbing in her cheeks. Shit. Someone's gonna pay for this! But she had been hit in the face before. Burning areas on her skin. Welts. Only one non removable scar and– The sharp pain in her abdomen and between her legs stopped her.
For the first time, she began to shiver. She ignored the throbbing headache, looked down on herself, noticed the tattered, bloodied, incomplete clothes, the dark and red bruises on the skin visible below them and the slimy substance that mixed with her blood down there.
Daisy O'Mega, one of the best shootists on either side of the law, leaned down and vomited till only acid ran burning over her torn lips.
Later on, she couldn't say for sure how she made it back to her ship. The next thing she could remember clearly was the electronic voice of her AI insisting that she turn down the US-shower since maximum intensity ultrasonics caused skin damage when applied longer than two minutes. She ignored it, tore the soiled clothes off and yearned for flooding water... water to clean her again, water to wash off the– She curled up inside the activated shower cabin, screaming, sobbing, hiding herself behind her bare legs and below her arms slung around her head, without naming it.
The safety functions of the stolen high class AI finally took effect and DON deactivated the ultrasonics.
Hours had passed before she managed to get out of the cabin, and stumbled to her bed, arms folded against the pain around her lower body. "How long..." The voice asked out of a great distance.
=You've been away from the ship more than ten hours, Boss.= The AI bleeped.
"Ten hours..." The scratchy voice repeated the AI's statement. "Somebody had ten hours of me..." The voice was hers and again acid burned in her throat. She increased the pressure around her abdomen. "I have to get out of here... Maybe he wants to finish me..." She swallowed and the pain of her wounded lips sent unpleasant images of what could had happen into her mind. In a choked voice, she commanded, "Start... engines..."
=You aren't in any condition to fly, Boss.=
"Obey..." She pulled herself up, stumbled with shaking legs towards the cockpit. "Start the engines."
=I need a destination.=
"Asteroid field..." She swallowed again, bent forward in pain and felt the acid reaching her tongue, when the rough cloth of the pilot's seat touched her bare skin. "Random choice... Don't mention... destination."
...the shadow crept again between her legs into her body, ate from her, expanded in her... Again there was no escape, no hiding place, no shelter...
She woke up with a cry when the light in her ship's cabin reached an almost painful brilliance and needed some moments to get back into reality. "Thanks, DON."
=You should really consider getting professional help, Boss.= Her AI sounded really worried. =Your condition hasn't improved during the last six weeks. You can't hide for the rest of your life.=
"Spare me your preaching!" she snapped, shuddering from her nightmare. To have no face to hate, no enemy to attack, only the feeling of being weak, being vulnerable, being soiled... and the knowledge that someone out there knew exactly what happened in those ten hours she couldn't remember... in those ten hours that her mind filled with more and more horrible images of what had been done with her... that was the worst.
She had to pick up supplies twice since then and whenever she was confronted with people she felt like they were staring at her, whispering behind her back about her, about that soiled woman... and the pain in her abdomen wasn't gone, had grown instead into a permanent companion which made her feel sick to the stomach almost all day. She was used to acting, not to reacting, used to attacking or standing and fighting, and all she was able to do now was run and hide from a faceless enemy that had started to grow into a giant. She couldn't eat, didn't want to eat, either. DON got on her nerves by insisting that she pay attention to her physical condition. Sometimes, she came close to deleting its files.
=We can reach League space within a day, Boss. Their medical facilities–=
"Stop coddling me!" She snapped. "What the Hell were you designed for originally? A nurse?!"
=I was the personal guardian of a High Senator's daughter when he was on election campaign with his vessel.= The AI sounded indignant.
She looked up, for a moment distracted from her physical condition. "You mean you're a high class AI?"
=Of course, Boss.=
"Then you must include an order to contact your owner ASAP if you're stolen. Why didn't you do that?"
=The Senator's daughter was the most unpleasant girl I've ever met.=
"And I'm nicer?!"
=At least, you don't play Rock'n'Roll clips all day long.= DON managed an electronic snort. =Some months ago I received a tri-D-clip in which this senator's brat was performing in a rock music clip herself at Tortuna City. I'm glad I don't have to take care for her.=
Daisy leaned back, trying unsuccessfully to release the tension in her lower body. "DON, you surprise me."
=Will you now follow your nurse's order to go to a doctor?=
"Forget it, Zero-bit! It will heal on its own!" And when it 's healed maybe I can start living again.
One and a half months later she realized that it wouldn't do that.
She milled the ergot she'd collected from abandoned fields on Osage and stirred it in a mixture of wormwood tea and brandy to enhance its effects.
With her hairs cut short and dyed black and an iris coloration she'd used before she appeared now exactly like the cover identity she kept always valid and up-to-date in case she had to disappear sometime. She looked into the mirror, saw the dark shadows under her eyes and two scars where someone's teeth had cut her lips, but... except of one detail she was Denise O'Rourke now, trader in space. And that detail she was going to correct now! She dropped her clothes and wrapped herself in a big bath towel. There was nothing more to lose. Facing it squarely, she swallowed her mixture.
The waves of pain started an hour later, hot and burning, then tearing her. She whimpered, started to scream when the convulsions increased. Her heart thundered in her chest, too fast to maintain proper circulation any longer. She felt liquid between her legs and stumbled for the shower cabin but collapsed before reaching it. Blood poured over her legs, forming a puddle below her...
After its boss had lost consciousness DON activated the engines and set course to the nearest place with extensive medical facilities. When reaching the perimeter of Andor the AI opened a line to space control and called for medical emergency.
"Miss O'Rourke. Miss O'Rourke, are you awake?"
The friendly student nurse looking down on her with a caring smile was obviously an Andorian. Andorian? What the Hell–
"Miss O'Rourke. Are you feeling better now?" She kept talking and talking. "You were in a very bad condition when they brought you in and—"
"Oh, please, don't talk. You must recover first and—"
The smile disappeared and the face above her became very sad. "Maybe you should talk later with the doctor, Miss. I can't–"
"What happened to the baby!"
The young nurse nearly cried. "I'm so sorry for you, but we couldn't do anything. It was too late to save..." Her voice died when she noticed the satisfied look in the eyes of the other woman.
"Miss, you must know that an analysis is necessary if something like this happened." The doctor spoke very firmly. "And normally we don't mention the whole procedure to the mother since she's punished enough with losing her child, but," he searched for words, "the results we got are very disturbing. In addition to a couple of abortive substances in your blood there's something with the fetus itself. Did you participate in some genetic experiments?"
"Genetic experiments?" She frowned. "What do you mean?"
"The DNA of your fetus... it's partly artificial."
"Artificial?!!!" If her body hadn't hurt so much and her limbs weren't still numb because of the high blood loss she'd have jumped out of bed at that. "Say that again!"
"The 'father''s genetic code was constructed, Miss. And..."
She lay back, clenching her hands in the blanket. A trail! This whole shit gives me a trail to track him down! She closed her eyes while the thoughts chased through her mind. You made a goddamn mistake, asshole! You left a trace behind!
The doctor touched her arm and she started. "Miss, do you understand me?"
"Doctor! I've absolutely no idea how something like that happened. The father is a good friend of mine who lives outside League and—"
"Miss, we have to talk to him about this."
"That's not possible, Doctor." She managed a very sad face, even with tears in her eyes. "He died some weeks ago." That's going to be the truth very soon! "I was returning from his funeral when..." She let her voice die and sobbed faintly. I'm on my way to his funeral as long as these bastards don't accuse me of illegal abortion.
"Miss O'Rourke, please, you mustn't get upset."
"But what will happen to me now?" she sobbed.
The doctor sighed. "We're not monsters. I can't believe you'd have taken the abortive substances on purpose."
Don't bet on it, idiot!
"And you've suffered enough. Stay a few days in the hospital till you've recovered and if you like our personnel will help you with arranging the funeral."
"Funeral?" she frowned.
"Of course. It's a nearly five months fetus after all."
"Doctor. I'll take care for the funeral on my own." Because this brat will track down my enemy!
She lay calm after the doctor had left. Thoughts rushed through her mind... Artificial DNA... artificial... She'd dealt only with two men carrying artificial DNA and one of... No. He won't. Never... But the other...
She narrowed her eyes while collecting the horrible memories. The drug... its effects on her... the sudden wake-up... that stuff is really expensive... The whole shit was well planned. Too well planned for that stupid bastard, but he works for... and I've refused to work for the Queen any longer...
Suddenly the whole thing made sense to her. That bitch sent her dog to teach me that I need the protection of the empire to do my business, since my jobs lead me to such dangerous worlds. Daisy snorted. But I bet Queenie hadn't specified how I should be taught! That was his decision. He'll pay for that!!! And later I'll make sure that Queenie will be sorry... She stiffened against another wave of dull pain that flew through her womb and ground her teeth. First the dog, then the keeper!
"Miss O'Rourke." Captain Fox sighed in sorrow, pressing his palms on the glass top of their table at the hotel restaurant on Andor. "I wished we could do anything for you, but as you said, the man who did that to you is outside League space. To hunt someone down out there we need an official wanted file from the government or at least a trial request form. If you could give any proof of it – but it's hard to prove something that happened five months ago."
The dark brown eyes in the woman's pale face suddenly flashed green as she abruptly raised her head.
Fox noticed Goose stiffen beside her, watching Ms. O'Rourke with narrowed eyes.
"You're telling me that Ryker Killbane isn't your business?!" she snapped furiously. "All around the League it's told that the Galaxy Rangers have to bring those like him back to Earth wherever they are! Is that a lie!?"
"No, Miss." Fox said, very calm. "But the League's safety from the Crown comes first. I don't have to tell you that the League's forces are reduced by the battle of Tarkon and that the Board of World Leaders doesn't want to mess with the Queen in the next six months. We are ordered not to provoke her."
"How does that include Killbane?!" she snapped sourly.
"He works for the Queen, more or less." Doc said sadly. "We can't pursue him at the moment."
The lips of the black haired woman trembled. "So you won't do anything, right? Okay then," she hardened her chin, "I'm not working for the League. Tell me how to kill him!"
Fox was taken aback, staring at her. "You don't mean that seriously, do you? Miss, you can't expect us to help you commit suicide."
"It won't be one, if you give me the needed information."
"You can't assault a Super Trooper!"
"He was a goddamn man when he–" she cut herself off, looked aside in discomfort.
"Miss O'Rourke, you've absolutely no idea what an ST can do– What you have to expect–"
Goose interrupted him, speaking for the first time: "Expect someone who's able to jump at least seven meters from a resting position, make the hundred meters in less than thirty seconds, with a reaction time of a fifth of a second, who adapts instantaneously to any weapon fired at him." Shane's voice was cold, his narrowed eyes still fixed on the woman. He spoke fast and didn't give Zachary the chance to interrupt. "If you don't eliminate at least half of his body within his reaction time you'll be dead if you're lucky! That's exactly what you've to face."
"Gooseman!" Fox intervened straightly. "That information is–"
"I want to deter Ms. O'Rourke from her plan, Captain. Is there something wrong with that?" He played with the menu card on the table, scanning through the contents.
Fox sighed. "Right idea, wrong way." He turned for Denise. "Miss, you have to see there's no weaponry available for you to win a battle like the one you have in mind. I'm sad for you but you're alive. Please, don't let him win in the end by giving him the chance to kill you."
"You don't understand, Captain." Denise O'Rourke's lips trembled. "You can't, none of you, you're men and—"
"ANTIMATTER?!!" Gooseman stared at the menu. "Antimatter in a juice!?"
"Don't talk nonsense!" Doc grabbed the card, had a look at the contents and laughed: "That's Anlemallen, a very sweet berry from Kirwin. Are you going to need glasses, my Gooseman, or is it your reduced brain activity that causes you problems with reading?" He grinned.
Gooseman shrugged, eyes fixed on the black haired woman, who got up from the table, meeting his eyes shortly before she left.
"Hey, Gooseman! I'm talking with you."
"Sorry, Doc. Was a long flight. We old men sometimes just need some sleep. I'll go upstairs now."
Fox and Hartford stared at him when he left. "Strange. Even for him." Doc said finally.
Zachary sighed. "I wished Niko wasn't transferred for disciplinary reasons. Sometimes, she seems to be the only person able to deal with him."
"My informants said you're good and won't ask anything." She snapped. "Don't make liars out of them."
The overweight middle aged man in the white laboratory coat raised his hands in a gesture of refusal. "Of course not, Ma'am. But you've ordered a pretty difficult – and I mean difficult – piece of work. That's expensive. I want to be sure that I'll be paid for it!"
She threw a clear plastic bag with credit chips onto the desk. "That's half, you'll get the rest when the work's done."
The gentech rapidly counted the credits. "Okay. So to be sure: You want me to separate the foreign artificial DNA from yours in this fetus and to program a trigger device with the foreign code?"
"Boy, this guy really must have annoyed you! If ya wanna be that sure to hit the right one."
"Shut up, bastard. Do your job! Now! Or do you wanna be top on my list of things to finish?"
He looked at the blaster that suddenly pointed right between his eyes, at the red blinking LED at its side indicating the deadly energy level, and swallowed. "Lady... please..." He gulped, concentrated on his job. "I need a DNA sample of yours." He pushed a retort over his desk towards her. "A bit of saliva should–" He stopped. The woman in front of him had already pulled a knife across her lower arm and poured dark red blood into his glass.
"That should do it! Begin! I've got to do some additional shopping afterwards."
"You'll be a very dead pedulant, if this package isn't delivered to the man I described." The woman with the short black hair played impressively easy with a high-energy blaster. "I'll find you and—"
"Ma'am... Ma'am Humming..." The pedulant stuttered. "I can't say it's from her Highness... Her Highness will psychocrystallize me if I–"
"Her Highness isn't here. There's a chance she won't know. I am here. I know. And I will splatter your rotten remnants throughout the galaxy right now if you don't do what I pay for!"
He gave that crazy pedulant a kick in the backside that it flew out the door and tore open the dark purple paper to reveal a cylindrical glass container. Something fleshy flooded in a pale red liquid. A note was taped to the lid. He made out the handwritten word: Your brat, bastard!
The contacts implanted in the lid and as fine silvery lines in the glass detected the DNA fragments included in the humidity of living skin, sent them as an electronic code to the tiny chip that controlled the sound and transmission device and the stasis field inside the thick black lid.
A faint buzz was audible when the vid sender got activated and protected by one of the most expensive force field generators available. Suddenly O'Mega's voice filled the dirty room: "I always collect my debts, Killbane!"
The stasis field collapsed.
She watched the bright bloom of blue white energy grow in midst of Sorry End's slums through the cockpit window of her vessel in orbit. Her console crackled faintly, recording the transmitted video data.
=No further transmission, boss.=
"Make two crystal copies of the data, DON."
The blinding ball of light collapsed finally, leaving a darkened crater behind where a wooden house had stood. That was the dog. And for the keeper... She leaned back, propped her feet on the console. Queenie put me through hell because I didn't want to work for her any longer. A cruel smile appeared around her mouth, slightly distorted by the two scars Killbane's fangs had left behind. Let's see how she copes with me working against her. She called some files to her display. Notes and orders of the jobs she'd carried out for the Queen over the last years. The cruel smile deepened, became an almost wolfish grin. BETA is going to get some very interesting mail... But first I've got to send a parcel. She loaded one of the data crystals DON had created a moment ago into her console and did some editing on it...
The image went white as the tiny forcefield generator couldn't produce a field strong enough to withstand the annihilation energy of the recombining matter-antimatter-explosion any longer. The images repeated in front of his inner eye and calmed down the memories... of what had happened back then at Wolf Den when he had been eleven, before his bio defenses were active, and Killbane...
Goose still stared at the screen when the white was replaced by a screenshot of the recording he saw before: Ryker Killbane in midst of his disintegration arcing in the sudden agony of annihilation. A line of text appeared below it: "Thanks. I owe you."
The line was still on the screen when he took out the data crystal and clenched his fist around it.
"You owe me nothing, Daisy. Nothing at all!" he whispered.
Thanks to S. 'Trivia' Blank for editing.