Breakdown
By
Lewis Smith


www.gunmetalblack.com

The club was soaked in a soft blue light. It caught the layer of smoke hanging in the room and gave the place a sense of palpable melancholy. The quiet murmur of hushed voices was overlaid by the soft music, itself a sorrowful paean.

It was exactly where Kienan Ademetria wanted to be. He sat at the bar, staring into the shotglass between his elbows, waiting. He'd agreed to meet someone here but his thoughts weren't focused on that meeting.

A month ago, he'd learned that a woman he'd been seeing and was quite fond of had killed herself. He'd spent the ensuing month trying to come to grips with it. In fact, he couldn't even work out why it bothered him so.

His emerald eyes stared at the shot for a few more minutes until he downed it, the sweet taste of the Silaran cognac giving way to the burning aftertaste of the alcohol. He waved a hand for another, leaning back in his chair and taking a deep breath.

He turned and looked over his shoulder, waiting for his contact, who appeared once again to be keeping to her own schedule. He frowned. He'd agreed to meet her on impulse, but there was risk involved this time. He'd just completed a job and even under the best of circumstances, the two of them meeting was a major risk.

The bartender slapped the shot down on the bar, looking past Kienan as he felt a familiar touch on his shoulder, delicate fingers brushing his long chestnut hair from his ear and a soft whisper in his ear.

"You can stop worrying, Kienan," the voice said. "I told you I’d be here. When have I ever said no to you?"

Kienan stiffened, then relaxed. I must be distracted, he thought. Letting even her sneak up on me. He cursed himself a bit more and downed the shot as the woman took the seat next to him.

Kilana Montero ordered club soda and looked at the man she'd come to meet, thinking back to the first time she'd seen him walking out of a meeting, so long ago now. She'd never quite been able to get him out of her mind since. She'd seen him a couple of more times since then--"stolen moments," as she referred to them--but she'd only seen him this way once before.

"I'd say you're looking good," she said, sipping her club soda. "But I know that look a little too well."

"You know me a little too well, Kilana," Kienan said, reaching into his jacket for his cigarette case. "That was always the problem, wasn't it?"

"It was only a problem for me inasmuch as I kept feeling a draft when you’d move to the foot of the bed and just sit there by yourself," she said raising the tumbler to her lips and smiling thinly.

In the darkness of the club, Kienan almost blushed as he fumbled for his lighter. But he didn't smile. "Is that why you asked to see me, Kilana?"

Kilana looked at him, almost hurt. "No, and you know it isn't," she said. "I just wanted to see you again, Kienan. I wanted to see how you were. I know how you live, remember. All that time alone isn’t good for you."

"Who says I was alone," Kienan muttered, lighting his cigarette and taking a slow drag.

"I do," Kilana smiled, countering the verbal jab. "I know you. Even in a crowd you’re alone. Now are you going to tell me what's wrong, or do I have to draw it out through the verbal fencing? I do have other ways, but they're not really fit for a public place, although if you’re willing, I'm an adventurous girl."

Kienan sighed and his expression seemed to soften. Despite his determination to be miserable, Kilana had found a crack in his resolve. "It's been . . .a complicated few months for me."

"The job?"

Kienan shook his head. "No," he said. "Everything else."

***

The redheaded woman lay on her stomach in the dark remove of the construction area. Hidden by the shadows, both her and the large sniper rifle she carried were shrouded by darkness, only occasionally lightened by the lights of a passing shuttlecar.

The woman's irisless eye stared unblinking through the rifle's telescope. She'd drawn a bead on Kilana, the back of her head dead center in the crosshairs, various readouts within the scope calculating wind resistance and other factors.

The woman's trigger finger tapped softly on the side of the rifle, from the safety switch to the trigger and back. If she could have been said to feel anything, she would have felt a strange kind of nervous tension, as if her awareness were directed through the scope and into the bar.

The first sign of trouble, start shooting, she recalled. The rifle would do its job well. One shot for her target, then a few sweeps on full automatic to clear out the bar and offer her man time to escape.

"But be prepared for nothing to happen at all, Conscience," she remembered him saying. Despite a few months in his service, Conscience had never come to fully understand Kienan's behavior, and sometimes wondered if all humans were as unpredictable as he was.

In any case, she thought, it's not mine to reason why, is it? I'm pledged to him forever, as are my sisters. We're sworn to protect and obey him, no matter how illogical his actions are at times. Though I sometimes wonder if that debt goes both ways.

***

"Killed herself?" Kilana said, sipping her club soda slowly. "Because of you?"

"I don’t know," Kienan said, grinding out his cigarette. "I think she had problems. Besides me, anyway."

"You really think you were the problem?"

"I don’t know," Kienan said. "I've been trying to work it out ever since I heard about it whether I caused her to kill herself or I just touched it off. I mean, you know me."

Kilana nodded and smiled. Keep it light, she reminded herself. It's the only way you'll draw the poor boy out and keep him from taking himself so damn seriously.

"I . . .well, the few girlfriends I've had . . ."

"One of whom you killed," Kilana added.

"No," Kienan said. "As it turned out, she was still alive. Faked me out."

Kilana blinked. "So rather than break up with you, she let you think you'd killed her. I knew there was a reason I didn’t like her."

"We met again just about the time things started really going wrong with J- . . .with her," Kienan said. No names, remember? He chided himself. She's doing you a favor by listening to you, but that's not exactly what she came here for.

"They didn’t meet each other, did they?"

"Oh, no," Kienan said. "I left on business, and ran into her. When I came back, she was gone."

Kilana leaned over and put her hand on his shoulder. "God," she said. "I'm sorry. That sounds so awful. I shouldn’t joke about it."

"It gets worse. She--the first one, the one you met--found another guy. Met him too."

"I'm guessing you too didn't hit it off?"

"There was a lot of hitting, sure. I hate that guy. Promised to kill the son of a bitch next time we met."

Kilana smiled. "Well, at least you handled it with maturity and diplomacy," she said, smirking. "What about the other girl?"

"I caught up with her once we got back," he said, his voice seeming to halt, like the words were causing him real pain to speak. "We . . .didn’t talk again. I tried to protect her as best I could but . . .it wasn't enough."

"And that brings us here," Kilana said. "With you beating yourself up about it."

"I'm not . . ."

"Kienan, please," Kilana said. "I know you."

"Anyways," Kienan said. "Since then, things have gone on . . .maybe gotten a little more complicated, but . . ."

He let his thought drift off, leaning back on the barstool and exhaling the smoke from his cigarette slowly. He closed his eyes for a moment, opening them again very slowly, he frowned and moved the long braid his hair was in out from behind him and over one shoulder.

Finally he said what was on his mind. "It's good to see you again, Kilana."

Kilana smiled, not the smirk or the thin, slightly false smile of before. The pretense was gone for a few moments and she was back with him in her mind, holding him, making love, giving him a respite from the anger and despair he seemed to trail behind him like the braid.

"It's good to see you too, Kienan," she said. "Good that we finally have a little time together without everything else hanging over us."

***

It was a fallacy most people had when they saw Conscience they assumed she was a human, with all that implies. It was an intentional one, too, Conscience, like her two sisters were created in the image of humans, but were in some ways superior.

One of those superiorities was their discrete perception. While most humans would have shrugged off the amber shimmer that shone behind them for a millisecond, Conscience immediately rolled onto her back, taking the safety off the rifle and aiming it in one smooth motion.

What she took aim at was, like herself, in the image of a woman, but not. In fact, Conscience looked more human than she did. The woman's skin was metallic, streaks of silver over a golden base. In addition to being a counterpoint to the austere red and black of her clothing, it also gave her a strange sort of beauty, one wholly undercut by the hardness in her eyes, the blue a dull shade that gave a strange counterpoint to the brilliance of the rest of her.

The woman began to reach for her, but Conscience was too fast for her. Again and again she pulled the trigger, pumping bullet after bullet into her attacker.

Her attacker didn’t so much as flinch. Conscience switched the rifle to automatic, spraying her with hundreds of bullets in a matter of minutes. The woman didn't stop for that either.

"Are you finished?" The woman asked, smirking. Conscience tossed the weapon aside and rolled back onto her shoulders, whipping her legs around the woman's neck and using her leverage to throw her down to the ground as she moved to her feet.

"No," Conscience said. "I'm not."

***

"So," Kienan said. "Enough about my problems. How are you?"

"About the same as always," Kilana said, sighing and running the tip of her finger around the lip of the empty tumbler of club soda. "Spend all my time babysitting my sister, who still hates you, by the way."

"Nice to be remembered fondly," Kienan shot back.

"I figured you'd say that," Kilana said. "She's got big dreams. We're taking on bigger jobs now. Getting to be a force of our own."

"And what about your dreams?"

Kilana frowned. "I'm there for my sister's benefit, really," she said. "I don’t think too much about what I want because it seems like . . .well, it's seeming a little out of reach."

"What is it?"

Kilana sighed and smiled wanly. "You'd laugh in my face if I told you."

"No, really. I want to know."

Her smile dropped completely. "No."

"How about if I tell you where I imagined myself being at this age?"

"Let me guess," she said. "Concert pianist?"

"Space pilot," Kienan said, reaching for another cigarette.

"You’re serious."

"Yeah," he said. "I didn’t care what I was flying, I just wanted to get out into space."

Kilana stared at him for a long time, trying to let this sink. "Doesn’t sound like you at all, honestly. Still, I guess you could say you got what you wanted."

Kienan's expression darkened almost at once. "Or what I deserve," he said quietly. "So what's your ambition?"

Kilana tapped her glass, weighing whether or not to tell him the truth. She looked up, took a deep breath and decided to take the plunge.

"Kids," she said. "One, three, five--I don’t care. I just always wanted to be a mother."

It was Kienan's turn to be surprised now. "Seems like an easy ambition to fulfil," he said.

"Not so easy as you’d think," she said, looking a bit sadder.

***

The woman known as Gold, like conscience, depended on some fallacies of her own. The process that gave her her armored skin had made her indestructible, a talent she'd exploited on many profitable occasions.

Oftentimes it was enough that her quarry was too stupid to resist after their initial attack--confusing "indestructible" with "invincible" and surrendering then and there. Or they would kill themselves trying to kill her.

In any case, it was always a surprise to her when they decided to fight back.

Conscience was most definitely fighting back. Gold allowed her to score a few hits to take her measure of her opponent.

She's fast, Gold thought. And . . .maybe twice as strong as I am. She can’t do me any lasting damage but I wasn't expecting it to be this hard to put her down.

After a time, Gold started fighting back in earnest. But Conscience was too quick for her, and even when Gold could land a blow on her, it didn't seem to stagger her opponent all that much.

Conscience fell back and reached for something in the construction area. Gold had just enough time to make out what the woman was swinging at her before the heavy steel girder stuck her hard in the side of the head. Gold flicked the hair from her eyes and attempted to grab it from her, only to have it knock her off her feet.

Gold rolled to her feet and reached for a weapon of her own. Her hands closed around something that felt sufficiently deadly and lunged forward. She tried to lead Conscience to thrust the girder in one direction, then she shifted her weight and rolled her body along the girder, whipping the piece of rebar she held toward Conscience's face.

Conscience brought her arm up in time, but Gold's strike was strong enough to do some damage. The rebar whipped through the armored fabric in her sleeves and tore through her artificial skin. Conscience whipped the rebar out of Gold's hands, grabbing her by the throat.

Gold returned the favor, her steely blue eyes meeting the black irisless doll's eyes of her opponent.

"You might as well give it up," Gold said. "You can’t hurt me, and I just hurt you. There's only one way this fight can end."

Conscience glared at her, lifting her off her feet, much to Gold's shock. She'd been beaten by people weaker than her before, but it had been a long time since she'd fought someone this strong.

In a way, it was intriguing because it was such a new sensation to her, but more than that, it made her feel helpless, immobilized. Stopped.

And that was Gold's secret fear.

Conscience shoved her backwards, and Gold tumbled backwards into a pile of concrete blocks. She smashed through a few of them, the ones above them falling on her head.

Harmless, but humiliating, she thought bitterly. She cursed herself for letting her fighting skills atrophy like this as she drew herself to her feet, her gold skin dulled by the dust of the shattered blocks beneath her. She looked around for something she could use as a weapon, and found two more pieces of rebar, gripping them tightly in her hands as she walked forward again.

Since this worked once before, maybe if I double up, I'll have a better chance of finishing this, she thought.

All right lady--it's round two, now.

***

"So what's stopping you from having a kid?" Kienan asked. The bar was beginning to thin out somewhat as the hour got later. He waved the bartender away as he stopped to tell him it was last call.

"The way we live out there, are you serious?" Kilana asked.

"Why not?" Kienan asked.

Kilana's eyes narrowed. "Why don’t you chuck it all and become a space pilot? You’re good enough to where you’d make a great one. All this other stuff . . .do you really need all that?"

Kienan looked down at the bar. "I guess it turned out that I was better at all the other stuff," he said quietly.

"You make it sound like you’re locked into the life," Kilana said gently.

"This thing with this girl . . .makes me wonder," Kienan mused.

"Wonder what?"

"Well, this is the second time death's come between me and . . .being with someone," Kienan said. "I'm beginning to wonder if this is the string I'm destined to play out to the finish. Alone."

"Well, we're together, and I'm not dead yet," Kilana said with more than a little black humor.

"Are we together?" Kienan said. He took a puff on his cigarette.

"I like to think so," she said. "Maybe not that way--er, how close were you to this girl?"

"Pretty close, I thought."

"Okay, so not as close as that, but I like to think in our own way, yes, we are close."

Kienan looked down at his cigarette, then back at her. "Have you ever . . .I don’t know . . ."

"Wondered about being closer? Sure."

Kienan took another drag, waiting for her to continue. When she didn't he exhaled a thin stream of smoke in what sounded like an exaggerated sigh.

Kilana smiled. "It wouldn’t work, Kienan."

Kienan ground out his cigarette. He looked hurt and managed to hide it everywhere but the slightly pained look in his eyes.

Kilana picked up on it at once and cursed herself for joking in places she shouldn't, and decided to change tack.

"Remember when you asked me why I wasn't in charge instead of my sister? It's kind of like that. I'm smart enough to know my limits and content with how things are."

"Well, not completely, though," Kienan countered.

"Kienan, no one is completely content. Even if one could be, you'd never survive that way."

***

Conscience could have survived the strikes of rebar, and she could have survived against Gold's fairly impressive strength, but against both at once, she was starting to fold. Over and over again Gold struck at her with the metal bars, as if powered by some maddening rage. She'd found a weak point, and like a shark smelling blood in the water, Gold was determined to exploit it for all it was worth.

Her right arm was shredded to her internal circuitry, her left was well on the way to a similar fate. If she were capable of emotions as humans understood the terms, a panic would have settled in to her now.

Gold swung again, but this time Conscience caught her by the wrist, as she did with Gold's follow-up strike. Her eyes met those of her attacker, and she turned, plated her feet and threw Gold over her shoulder.

The rebar clanged to the floor, dropped by Gold as surely as Gold had been dropped by Conscience. Gold felt rage and humiliation rising in her. To be dropped like this, when I'm winning, she thought. With so much at stake . . .

She rose to her feet and kicked Conscience hard in the stomach, whatever rust her skills had accrued from disuse now well and truly shaken off. She seized Conscience's arm by the gash she had torn in it, planted her feet, and yanked it free from her body with a clean and jerk motion.

Consicence was staggered by the repeated blows Gold rained on her. The shock of having her arm torn loose was causing her severe disorientation, and the fact that Gold was targeting her head wasn't helping her get her bearings.

Gold watched her stagger and lean against a support column. She smiled and grabbed one of pieces of rebar she'd dropped, walked over slowly to Conscience, and, summoning all her strength, shoved it through her body.

Conscience, unable to feel pain, felt a burst of static frying systems and further disorienting her. Systems were crashing, even one of her eyes had shut down. The other one was providing barely comprehensible images. Every second or two, Gold flickered into view, this time holding another piece of the metal, slapping one in end to her hand. Taking her time and sizing her up.

And though Conscience had never felt emotions, a flicker of one fired through her as Gold plunged another stake through her, this one shoved down through her shoulder, barely missing her main reactor. Conscience fell to the ground on her knees before Gold, who regarded the living machine with the morbid curiosity a child might have given an insect it had just shoved a pin through.

She walked over and picked up the gun Conscience had cast aside, trying to remember which window she'd been looking in on when she attacked her.

She must have been his cover, so where is . . .ah, there, she thought. A thin smile crossed her silver lips.

Good. Now I don’t have to go very far to send my message.

She walked back over to Conscience, now in shock of some kind, still kneeling and twitching. Gold fished in her pockets for something, then pried open Conscience's jaws and slid it under her tongue.

"Now," she said, hoisting the machine over her head. "Take care not to swallow that. You're going on a little ride my dear. And tell your master his turn is coming soon enough."

***

Kienan turned his head perhaps a second before the window shattered. Things seemed to slow into a comical slow motion as the window exploded and Kienan pulled Kilana down with him under the bar. Whatever pulverized the window sent the patrons into a panicked stampede, and the few that were left after last call ran out in short order, except for a few that were still rubbernecking.

Kienan stood up and moved through the small crowd, picking up bits and pieces of their reactions as he did so. Behind him, Kilana moved through the crowd, the worst suspicions about what they'd find darkening her thoughts.

"Oh my god, it's a woman--"

"--stabbed, can you believe it--"

"--still breathing, I think--"

Kienan shoved through to them and saw the broken form of Conscience laying in the middle of the bar. The acrid smell of burning plastic and dry smoke testified to the severity of her wounds. He ran his hands over her, looking for a sign, some sign she was still alive.

Functional, he thought. But barely. I've never seen any of them damaged this bad. I don’t even know how I could fix her!

Panic, fear, and especially the awful fear of failure began to sear in him. His thoughts became disjointed, chaotic. He was becoming unglued and angry, and that was a dangerous combination.

"Take it easy, young fella," one of the patrons said. "Someone's already called for the ambulance. They’ll take care of her."

Kienan looked over his shoulder, glowering. His jacket fanned open and he drew his gun, pointing it at them.

"Get the hell away from me," he said quietly. "I'll kill every one of you!"

Kilana stepped to the side, moving behind him. Things were definitely getting bad, and Kienan was getting crazier than usual.

She moved quickly behind him, her hands around his waist, her lips brushing against his ear.

"Calm down," she whispered. "Don’t make it worse by getting us noticed."

Kienan kept the gun trained on the steadily retreating knot of people. His emerald eyes were alive with the kind of crazy fire in them Kilana had seen many times before when he was on the job. Ordinarily, she'd admired his ability to turn that on and off like a switch.

Clearly, the switch is broken, she thought. So I better defuse mister self-destruct before he makes a scene.

"I can help you fix her," Kilana said. "But we have to get away, and we have to do it right now, and if you keep this up, you’re going to have a fight on your hands, and we'll lose her."

Kienan kept glowering at them, his gun still raised, protecting Conscience from the small throng.

"Do you want that?"

Kienan blinked, his resolve and rage abating a little. "I . . ." he began.

"Sssh," Kilana said. "Just call for your ship and get us out of here. The sooner we go, the sooner we can start helping her."

"O-okay," Kienan said quietly, reaching down and activating his remote for his shuttlecar. "But you'd better be right about being able to fix her."

"You know I'll do my best Kienan," Kilana said. "I promise you that."

Kienan lowered his pistol, and slowly got control of himself. They moved closer to the window as his shuttlecar moved into position, extending the rear ramp as Kienan dragged her aboard. Kilana followed close behind, pondering what to do next, one thought in her mind repeating like a tape loop.

Was this really the way it was supposed to go down?

***

If any word succinctly defined Dr. Rachel Kyren, it was "focused." Below her, men in strange white, red and black armor were moving a large lozenge-shaped unit into place and making quite a racket of it. A level below them, another man was driving a motorized cart carrying vats of brightly-colored liquid on its flatbed up to her. Levels below that, even more of them worked to establish stable atmosphere and gravity requirements for the entire station. All of it very busy, very noisy work.

None of which Rachel heard at all. She sat in the center of a semicircular computer display, her hands flowing over the keys on two separate terminals. On the one was a display of a DNA helix, with white vector lines targeting specific areas. On the other was a similar display, only overlaid with a sonographic image.

While humans lagged behind in some critical areas of space science, even after a century among the stars, the one skill they were well on their way to mastering was that of genetic manipulation and enhancement. It was the science that had allowed them to breed children, fifteen to a mother, all of them destined to grow up strong. The ideal population for a space colony on a habitable, but untamed planet, generated virtually instantly, free from disease or defect. It had allowed the human race a foothold in space in a mere hundred year's time.

And it had made Rachel Kyren and the research firm she headed extremely wealthy. The money had no interest to her, really--all she had ever cared about was the next puzzle, the next problem.

And a daughter she'd never managed to connect with.

She squinted through thick eyeglasses at the display of the helix in front of her. In one of life's little ironies, her daughter had become the next problem. Only a month and a half ago, Rachel had learned her daughter had committed suicide on a backwater colony on the Frontier.

Despite years of estrangement, Rachel dropped everything and left at once. She was disgusted by what she'd found. Apparently, in absence of Rachel's hand to guide her, she'd wasted her life. First, as she'd discovered she'd fallen in with some criminal scum who'd no doubt turned her toward drugs, then selling her body for more drugs.

The rage she felt when she thought of that had the curious effect of buttressing and threatening to shatter her sense of clinical detachment. While Jayla had brought her here, her work, and the accounts it would settle, was keeping her here.

The thought of it turned her stomach all over again as she tapped a series of keys, changing an amino acid sequence around. Then, as if the clouds had parted, it all made sense to her. It was all so simple.

Children, genetics--it was all just a problem, and it could be solved. Like an offensive eye, offensive traits or flaws--dependence, tendencies--could be plucked out and replaced with traits that would strengthen, enrich and protect.

And so Dr. Kyren set herself the task of solving the ultimate problem--life and death. Jayla could be reborn, as new, and this time, built far better.

***

Kienan's personal ship, the Silhouette, was usually a place of quiet activity and tomblike silence. Kienan and his three companions were quiet and solitary and whatever laughter had rang out in the darkened corridors of the modified freighter had ceased echoing long ago.

But not today. Today the ship was alive with the sounds of panic. On the main landing and maintenance deck lay Conscience, or what was left of her. As they'd made their way to the ship, she'd gone deathly still, and Kienan had nearly killed themselves ramping up the burn to get here faster.

But he'd made it, so I shouldn't complain, I guess, Kilana thought, hefting the tools one of Kienan's assistants had proffered. They were cumbersome and a little bulky, but much the same as her own.

Stop being so damn picky, she ordered herself. You have work to do.

She ran the handheld scanner over Conscience's wounds. Strange fluid began to dribble out from her lips as she convulsed. Kilana frowned at the scanner. And laid it down.

On either side of Kienan and Kilana were Vain and Mirage, Conscience "sisters," (at least that was how they referred to themselves) looking on with what Kilana marked (even though she'd been told over and over again that they were machines and were incapable of feeling emotion) as terror.

"It's no good," she said. "The damn rebar is interfering with the scan."

She looked at Kienan, who was looking on as he held her down with what was definitely terror overlaid with more of the craziness he'd exhibited in the club. "What's the brunette's name?"

Kienan blinked, pulled hastily back into the real world. "M-Mirage," he said. "Mirage."

Kilana nodded. "Okay . . .Mirage? Come here. I need your help."

Mirage stepped over to her side at once. Kilana noted that, dressed as she was in loose work pants, boots and a top already stained and scored from many hours spent in this repair bay, Mirage was the only person really dressed for this work.

"The metal that she was stabbed with is interfering with my scan," she told Mirage. "I need you to pull it out--carefully but quickly. One turn of your wrist could make things even worse. Can you do that?"

Mirage nodded and took hold of one of the piece sticking out of Conscience's shoulder and neck.

"Okay," Kilana said. "On three. One . . .two . . .three!'

Mirage pulled the rebar free in one smooth motion, tossing it aside, where it clanged noisily to the floor. Kilana jumped at the noise, then reached for the scanner.

She's lucky, she thought. Apparently, the rebar just nicked the shield for her central processing unit. Doesn’t look like it was enough to cause any serious damage, but her endoskeletal structure's been sheared in a critical area, and I don’t have the first idea of how to fix that.

She sighed and laid the scanner down, cradling Conscience's head like she would an accident victim suffering from shock.

"Okay Mirage, very good," she said. "Now let's get the other one."

***

"You were successful, then?" The blue-haired woman said. She was sitting at the controls of a small cargo shuttle, modified to carry troopers. Flanked on either side of her were two benches, each holding ten troopers, clad in white, black and red armor, their impassive faces regarding Gold with the dull interest a hall of a statues might have.

"Successful enough," Gold said. "I'm certain he's got the message my boss wanted him to get. He'll come."

"That's great," the woman said, rising from her seat. She took two steps towards Gold. She frowned for a moment as she saw herself reflected in Gold's skin, and effect she'd always found mildly disturbing.

"So where's Kilana?"

Gold sneered. "Obviously not here."

"I could work that out for myself, Gold."

"Really? I sorely underestimated you, then."

The troopers behind Gold planted their feet, ready to rise at their mistresses' command. The woman raised her hand to Gold's face, and Gold could smell the ozone in the air.

"Don’t flatter yourself, Pirate Red," Gold said. "Your weapon won't harm me any more than your troopers could. Besides which, we're supposed to be working together, remember?"

"It's easier sometimes more than others for me to remember that," Red sneered. "Maybe if my partners were a little more polite and forthcoming with their information it would make things go more smoothly."

"Maybe," Gold said. "But not today. Lay in a course back to the station. I have to report to Dr. Kyren what happened."

Red spun around on her and glared. "Remember who's ship you’re on."

"Meaning it's yours or should I defer to whoever you stole it from?" Gold asked insouciantly.

"A simple "please" will get you a lot farther in this ship than more insults, which will just get you thrown out into space with the rest of the junk metal."

"You wound me, Red."

"I wish I could."

This cold war continued for a few moments. Silently Red seethed with anger, then tried a different method.

"The sooner I get a little cooperation," Red said, more gently this time. "The sooner you'll get back to the station and meet with the good Doctor. From how insistent you are about all this, something tells me this isn’t something you can call in."

Gold took her seat. Unconsciously, her right hand touched her stomach. "No," she said, her voice losing some of its insolent steel. Something passed over her face and Red noted a strange combination of melancholy and sheltered hope flickering in her eyes. "No it can't. Please, Red, lay in a course back to the station."

"That's better," Red said, laying in the coordinates. The engines hummed to life, and in a matter of seconds, the ship had entered Space Drive and was heading for a secluded spot deep in the Frontier. "Remember, there's no need to insult one another. We're all on the same team.

"I mean, we all want Kienan dead, right?"

***

Conscience burbled up more fluid in her mouth as her limbs, or what remained of them, twitched. Vain brushed a lock of her blond hair behind her ears, her white-gloved hands clenching and unclenching.

"You’re losing her," Vain said as Kilana gently ran a sealing torch along one of Conscience's severed lubricant conduits. "I can feel it. She's going offline."

"You said you could fix her," Kienan said, enraged.

"I said I'd try, Kienan," Kilana said, reaching for another tool. Apparently the damage to her CPU was worse than I thought, if simple things like micro-suture patches were making her go offline.

"This machine is more complicated than anything I've ever seen," Kilana said, slipping a probe into another damaged part of her body. "I barely have a concept of how it works at all. Remember--I work out of a junkyard usually."

"Just do it," Kienan said, still seething with anger. He blinked, and in just that amount of time, his expression seemed to soften.

"Please," he said quietly. "I can't lose . . .again."

Kilana looked at him and wondered if he was going to cry.

All right, she thought, I can either fix her or watch him go insane. What's it gonna be, girl?

"Okay," she said softly. She took a deep breath and turned to Mirage. "Do you have a portable power unit, something you use for system tests and the like?"

Mirage nodded.

"Bring it here. We're going to hook her up to it, and maybe then I can work without knocking her offline," Kilana said, using the small tools she held to move pieces of a shattered strut off of one of her primary systems. She looked up at Vain, who stared quietly at her sister as Mirage brought the power unit and hooked Conscience up to it with a patch cable.

"Can you still hear her, or whatever?"

Vain nodded. "She's back online, and she seems . . .stronger now."

"It won’t last," Kilana said. "Maybe long enough to finish the major repairs. I need you to keep her calm and if I hit something that's damaged, have her send you the signal, you got it?"

"Yes," Vain said, watching as Kilana worked.

***

Red leaned over to where Gold was sitting, her brown eyes looking over her metallic companion with a lazy curiosity. Gold looked back at her impassively, then stared at the stars ahead, her hands still folded over her stomach.

"You know," Red began. "You never did answer my question."

"About what?" Gold asked wearily.

"About whether we all wanted he same thing," Red said. "You have to admit, the three of us--me, you and Kyren--we make an unlikely trio."

"Hate brings people together, I suppose," Gold said.

"You don't seem the type," Red said. "To hate, I mean."

"I don’t wear it on my sleeve, like some people," Gold said, quietly.

"Guilty as charged," Red replied, her black lips spreading to a thin smile. "Except for that iceberg Kyren, you’re really reserved about all this. What'd he do to you and how come you didn’t kill him for it?"

"I certainly tried," Gold said. "He killed my lover."

"Oh, what was his name?"

"Her name," Gold corrected. "Silver. Her name was Silver."

"Cute," Red said. "You guys had a thing going, with the name."

Gold cocked and eyebrow, rolling her eyes and, nodding at the dunderheaded obviousness of Red's statement. "She was . . .sick. I was looking for a job for us, so I could afford some help, but he found us . . .he found us because Silver did something stupid and I didn’t stop her. And trying to save her from Ademetria, he set me up so that I killed her. Then threw me her body, so I could watch her die."

"So . . .you killed her, or he did? I'm confused," Red said.

"He set me up, so it looked like I did it," Gold said. "Ever since then, I've only wanted two things. One of them's to be able to kill him with my bare hands."

"What's the other one?"

Gold looked out at the stars. "What about you?"

"Me?"

"Why do you want him dead?" Gold asked, speaking slowly this time.

"Pride, mostly," Red said. "I needed his help to get where I am today, let's say. And when I tried to kill him for it, he took it somewhat personally."

"And took personally the fact he took it personally?"

"Yeah," Red said. "Plus, the fact that when he finally caught up with me, he apparently thought I needed a beating. Ever since then, every time we meet, it just adds up."

"What about your sister?"

"Kilana?" Red said, laughing. "Love at first sight. She enjoys sneaking around and stealing some time with him, every now and again. Makes me sick, but I don’t say anything to her."

"Why not?" Gold asked.

Red leaned back for a moment. "Let me put it to you this way," she said. "This girl you were in love with--Silver--I'm sure she did things that you couldn’t figure out the why of to save your life, could you?"

Gold looked down. "No," she said.

"Exactly," Red said. "There's no accounting for what people do, sometimes."

***

Two hours later, Kilana lay on Kienan's lap in the observation lounge, mentally and physically shattered. Kienan leaned back against the couch, exhausted, the adrenaline he'd been running on gradually receding into the beginnings of an exceedingly painful hangover.

"Don't let me go to sleep," she said weakly, her hand clumsily patting his chest. "I've got an hour, maybe an hour and a half."

"Before what?" Kienan asked.

"Before that power cell runs out and your friend down there dies," she said.

"WHAT? I thought--"

"I stabilized her, Kienan," Kilana said. "Most of the damage I could fix without replacing parts is fixed. But if I can’t figure out a way to keep her operating independently, she's going to di--go offline. For good, this time."

"Then what the hell are we doing up here?" Kienan demanded.

"We're up here so I have a little peace and quiet to figure out just how I'm going to keep her going," Kilana said. "I either need to find a way to patch up her own power core and charge her up, or connect her to a really large, perpetually operating power source. And I know option 1 is completely beyond me."

She rolled over to look up at him. "They really are . . .like us."

"Who?"

"The Marionettes. Vain and Mirage," she said. "They seemed so concerned about their sister. Not like any robots I've ever seen."

"They don't feel emotions--"

"So you keep saying," she said, cutting him off. "But I'm not so sure. Whoever programmed and designed them was some kind of genius."

"Good thing I have a genius here with me to save one, don't I?"

Kilana frowned. "That better not have been sarcasm."

"It's not," he said. "This . . ."

"I know," she said gently. "I could tell it got to you when we were in the club. You nearly snapped."

"I can barely remember," he said.

"I'm not surprised," she said. She rolled back over on her side. "Kienan, I really don’t know how to fix her power core. The only way I can see to keep her alive is to patch her into the power cells. That works, but it’s not permanent, unless you have a really big power cell."

Kienan leaned back and stared at the ceiling, watching the stars through the dome. "What are you planning, then?" Kienan asked. "To wire her into the Silhouette?"

Kilana sat bold upright and almost smacked Kienan in the chin with her forehead.

"I hope you weren't being sarcastic," she said, getting to her feet.

"Because I think . . .I think I might be able to make that work. Come on."

***

The shuttle carrying Pirate Red and Gold crossed over into the region of space known as Tartarus within the hour. The small shuttle passed by fields of space junk, derelict ships and a space stations, the dead zone from which the space pirates launched their missions of pillage and plunder.

Gold surveyed the zone from the viewport in the cockpit. How Pirate Red could consider this wasteland her own fiefdom, I'll never know, she thought. Then again, if circumstances were different, I wouldn’t even be out here, would I? I didn’t take Dr. Kyren's job to get rich enough to leave the Frontier or to get rich.

She noticed her hands were still folded over her stomach.

I’d settle for being happy.

They finally made their way to one of the space stations closer to the central core, this one smaller than some of those they'd passed, and from the lights that shone from within, no longer, derelict.

Red brought the ship into a parallel course and docked with the space station, the rumble of the station's clamps indicating a positive seal. Red unbuckled herself and rose from her command chair, stretching.

"You know something Gold," Red said, looking down at her companion, who unbuckled and rose from the chair a little slower than she had. "When your boss came to me, I was a little surprised. I figured a person like her, head of a big research combine and all, would have her own resources. Hell, she could get a station like this towed out to the Frontier and do whatever she wanted, no questions asked."

"Probably," Gold said wearily. "I wouldn’t know. She doesn't really talk to me unless she has to."

"Doesn't talk to anyone much," Red amplified. They walked to the rear hold as her troopers filed out to replace others within the station. "According to my troops, she's been at that workstation of hers for days at a time, no food, no rest. One of them actually saw her sleep for a few hours, slumped over one of the consoles."

"She's a dedicated woman, obviously," Gold said as they walked towards the station's main elevator. "More than that, I wouldn’t know."

Red waved a hand. "Don’t worry, I'm not trying to pump you for information or anything," she lied. "Just . . .curious. My pirates run a lot of operations from Tartarus . . .usually real estate sales aren’t one of them. If there's money in it, hell, maybe I should take out some ads on the nets."

Gold brushed her white hair from her face, leaning against the rear wall of the elevator and sighing.

"I didn’t think you got tired," Red said quietly.

"I'm indestructible," Gold corrected. "You’re thinking of indefatigable."

"Oh, right," Red said.

"You mind if I ask you a question?" Gold asked, the tone of her voice making it clear she'd known Red was prying all along.

"Shoot," Red said.

"Why a junkyard?"

"Hm?"

"You've got the makings of a fleet, a pretty large army from what I could see, and something of a reputation out here," Gold said. "Why live in a junkyard."

"Two reasons," Red said, as the doors opened to the top floor and she and Gold walked out into the sterile white of the station's main corridor. "Kilana's reason is that hiding in a zone like this means we have a mobile attack force that can hide where people don’t usually like to go. Remember, Tartarus is listed as a hazard to navigation on all the major charts--people tend to be reluctant to give chase under those circumstances."

"Okay," Gold said. "What's your reason?"

Red smiled, not the arrogant sneer she usually wore, but this more of a sad, reflective smile. "The old base for the pirates had a lot of a bad memories attached to it. I was married to the last ruler, you see."

"And you killed him to move up?" Gold asked. She couldn't say she was particularly surprised Red would be capable of that.

"No," she said quietly. "Because of him I lost my chance at a family. Because of him, Carmen, my Carmen, is gone forever."

Her . . .daughter? Gold pondered. The shock of that realization disturbed for her reasons more than underestimating Red.

Gold asked a question so obvious she hated herself as the words left her lips.

"So . . .where is Carmen now?"

Red's brown eyes darkened as she looked down.

"With God."

***

Like all freighters in its class, Kienan's Silhouette was structured with versatility in mind. One of the reasons he'd chosen it was how easy it was to modify it. Even if his needs had pushed the initial design far beyond its specifications.

An example of this philosophy was the ship's bridge. A number of hardpoints leading down to the central core of the ship were inset into the deck. As necessary, consoles could be plugged into the hardpoints and directed to control specific systems.

Plugging in a console, however, was one thing. Linking Conscience to the central core was quite another.

Kilana and Kienan lay on their stomachs, pulling the conduit wires from the hardpoint up onto the deck. Above them, Vain and Mirage held their sister in their arms, keeping her suspended at precisely the height Kilana had directed they hold her at.

Kilana's idea had some hitches that had needed to me smoothed over. Conscience's legs had been damaged in the fall, and while she was capable of some range of motion, the agility she'd possessed previously was no longer possible. Since she'd be anchored to the bridge if this worked, Kilana had made the suggestion removing her legs entirely.

Poor Kienan acted like I was sawing his own legs off, Kilana thought, connecting some of the cables from the hardpoint into the stumps of Conscience's legs. I can’t say I blame him--this whole thing seems more than a little morbid, even she is a machine.

She adjusted the connections and added a few, then checked them against the monitor.

"All right, Mirage," Kilana said. "You can take her off the power cell now. She's tapping it directly from the ship's core now."

Mirage nodded and took the patch cable linking her to the power cell off of her sister.

Hard for me to remember she's a machine when her sisters care for her so much, Kilana said. Never mind how Kienan to feels about them. I know him--he'd never admit it, but he really loves them.

She sighed, resting one of her tools against her chin. "Okay, that takes care of the power problem," she said. "Now, let's get to work on hooking her into your ship's CPU."

***

"Doctor Kyren," Red said with a flourish to the hunched over shape sitting in the center of her workstation, an austere black void in a sea of plain white. "We bring news!"

"Do you," Kyren said flatly, her fingers still clacking over the keyboards on her workstations like a concert pianist feverishly pounding out a concerto.

"Gold was apparently successful in delivering the message," Red said. "Kienan should be here soon."

"What makes you so certain?"

"Doctor, I once tried to dump Kienan out of a ship in high orbit and then left his friends to suffer a slow death, and he still came after me," Red said. "He'll come, trust me. Payback at any cost is in his nature."

"And what about the item I purchased from you?"

Red looked down at the deck, her expression suddenly very grim.

"That's been secured from the planet and send on its way to Ganymede," she said. Reminded of things she'd rather have forgotten, her face hardened a little. "And my money?"

"It's already been transferred to the account you specified," Kyren said.

"I hope it's what you wanted," Red said bitterly. "I'm not going back there to get you another one."

"From what you've told me, it will be sufficient to allow me to work simultaneously here and at Ganymede."

"Good," Red said, folding her arms. "How are things here, by the way? Is the station working to your satisfaction?"

"It's adequate," Kyren said, rising to as straight a position as she could manage. She spun around in her chair, looking to Gold. Her pale hazel eyes flitted to where Red was standing.

"I need to speak with Gold. In private, if you don't mind," she said, waving Red away. The way she squinted and the way her entire face seemed pulled taut from the nose back gave her the look of a bird of prey to Red.

Or a vulture, she thought.

"I'll see you around, Gold," Red said, bowing her head and excusing herself. Kyren waited until she was out of earshot to begin speaking to Gold.

"I've been working on your problem," Kyren said. "I think it's possible to do what you want and give you your child."

Gold covered her mouth and suddenly felt like she wanted to cry. I could do it, she thought. Silver's child . . .

"There is a problem, however."

Gold felt the happiness she'd been holding in her hands and been afraid to speak off lest she ruin everything slip from her fingers and drop to the deck.

"What's the . . . problem?"

Kyren took off her glasses, using the stem to point at her skin. "Your . . .modification. I have no idea how it works, how it functions with the rest of your physiology."

"I wish I could help you," Gold said. "I was unconscious most of the time, and well . . .after we were both modified, Silver killed the doctor who did the process. From what I can understand, the process he used on me died with him."

"As you see," Kyren said. "The problem as I see it is that pregnancy could cause your body chemistry to alter and whatever balance of biology and mechanics that facilitates your strength and durability would be upset."

"Meaning . . .what, Doctor?"

"The three most obvious results as far as my simulations bear out are--your body begins to reject the cybernetics and you go mad and die. Or your cybernetics treat the fetus like a disease and terminate it. Or, your survive the labor, but the cybernetics become inert, and you lose your strength and durability, and probably spend the rest of a very brief life suffering from what ravages the cybernetics installation and removal have wrought on you."

Gold took a deep breath, and for the first time in a long time felt the pain of every single outcome Kyren laid out for her. Even in the last one, she might have some time with the child, but she'd lose it all the same.

Just like she lost Silver.

"I'm . . .sorry," Kyren said, the corners of her mouth twitching as if nothing that emotional or sympathetic were ever supposed to come out. "I know this isn't what you wanted to hear."

"No," Gold said. "It's . . .I guess I knew in the back of my mind this sort of thing was possible."

"I do have another alternative for you, Gold."

Gold blinked. "What is it?"

"Assuming I can find sufficient genetic material from you, I could grow a clone of yourself and merge it with the material from Silver. The clone would carry the child to term, and then be terminated."

"But I would . . .I could have her child."

"In a manner of speaking," Kyren nodded. "But it would be the version of yourself before the process that made you what you are."

Gold thought about that. There was something more than a little macabre about what Kyren was suggesting--grow a version of herself, force it to age just old enough to be able to carry the child to term, and then kill it and give her the baby.

Something about that doesn’t sit well, she thought. Is that what I want? What Silver would want me to have?

"You needn't worry about the clone, Gold," Kyren said, as reassuring as it was possible for her clipped, cold voice to sound. "I will keep the clone somewhere away from prying eyes. Seeing oneself cloned is somewhat unsettling, as I understand it."

Gold leaned against one of the consoles. She took a few deep breaths, blinking and willing the tears back.

"Can I have a little while to think it over?"

"Ademetria's not here yet," Kyren said. "You have some time to decide."

***

Kilana carefully secured the retaining ring around the nest of cables above and below Conscience as Vain and Mirage closed the canopy around her. The transfer had been completed and hour ago, but at Kienan's insistence Kilana had installed an actual workstation for her, though rather than ship's systems, the status monitors circling Conscience were dedicated to monitoring and maintaining her status.

I have to admit, if Kienan hadn’t said anything about interfacing her directly with the ship, it would never have occurred to me, Kilana thought, running one last systems check. I can’t believe I didn’t think of it myself, since this is a cruder version of what I do when I'm piloting Red's ship.

Panic tends to limit your thinking, I guess, she thought, taking a step back from her work. Everything seems to be running all right, whether it would stay that way was anyone's guess.

Her eyes looked over to the rest of the people in the room. Now the hard part comes in convincing them, she thought.

"All right," she said. "Everything looks to be running well, she's interfaced with the ship, and I can’t detect any faults that should be interfering with her functions, so . . .Conscience?"

"Yes?" Conscience said, slowly and painfully lifting her head.

"Can you understand me?"

"Yes . . .but . . .reactions are slow . . .the ship . . ."

"What about the ship?" Kienan cut in.

"I wondered about that," Kilana said. "Conscience is tied in with the ship. Her brain is tied in with the ship's main computer operating system, that's why she's slowed down so."

"Correct," Conscience said.

"What do you mean?" Vain said, stepping a little to close to Kilana for her comfort.

"It means, for all intents and purposes, she is the ship, so while she's talking to us, she's running however many billion processes are needed to run this ship simultaneously. So she's going to be a bit slow responding unless you shut down some systems."

"She's slaved to the ship?"

"Beats being destroyed, doesn't it?" Kilana shot back.

Vain turned away from her, towards Kienan. "In her mind I saw the woman who attacked her," she said. "I can give you a full description."

"It was a woman?" Kienan asked. In his mind he was running through his list of enemies, anyone who'd be strong enough to destroy one of the Marionettes.

"When do we go after her?" Vain demanded. Kienan was slightly taken aback by this. The Marionettes, and Vain especially always seemed to be content to defer to his judgement, and this sounded almost like a demand.

"Hold on," Kienan said. "First, I need to know as much about who attacked her as you can tell me, Vain. Being ambushed is what got Conscience in this state. Let's not charge in blindly."

Kilana stepped in and took Kienan's arm. "I think before you make any decisions, now that she's seen to, I have something I need for you to hear. "

"The woman who attacked Conscience had metal skin," Vain said. "She never gave Conscience her name, but from what she was able to determine, the woman had an extreme resistance to any form of physical injury."

Kienan squinted. Metal skin, impervious to damage, he mused. More than familiar to me. But how would she have known about Conscience? How would she have known where I was going to be?

"This skin of hers, it wasn't gold by any chance, was it?" Kienan asked Conscience.

"Gold," Conscience repeated.

Kienan sighed. There was no doubt, then. He opened his hands, looking at the small gold coin in the center of his palm.

It had fallen out of Conscience's mouth during the operation. Considering the placement and the description Conscience had just given, there was no doubt at all.

"Gold," he said.

***

Kyren paced back and forth in front of the lozenge-shaped capsule resting against the wall. Inside the capsule was the shape of a woman, suspended in green fluid. Every now and again, Kyren looked at the figure in the capsule, but was in truth, looking past her.

According to Pirate Red, Kienan would come, it was only a matter of time. And the plan for revenge she'd carefully nurtured since she'd learned the truth about what happened to her daughter, her Jayla, was about to enter its final phase.

She remembered being so angry, so full of wild crazy despair at first that her mind refused to accept that Jayla had come to this, that that man had led her to this as surely as if he'd dug the grave for her and shoved her in.

Clarity returned slowly as she carefully began to work through how she would repay Kienan for it.

Re-creating Jayla as a clone had been part of that, but to deal with the man who killed her, well, that was where things became complicated.

Two Jaylas were needed. The one before her now was her weapon of revenge. There was a little of her daughter within its features, but not much. For example, instead of the honey blonde her daughter had been, the clone in the tank had a mass of jet-black hair like her mother.

The other Jayla, the one meant for her mother, would be the true version. Created as an exact duplicate, only better. Free of the imperfections that had led her astray.

When this one's task was done, she'd terminate it, as it would have served its purpose. It had just enough of Jayla within it for the reason of making sure Ademetria knew who it was that would kill him.

Beyond that it was easily disposable. The better to perfect the true Jayla still to come.

"Jayla," she said quietly, addressing the capsule. "You'll never understand why I'm doing this, but I hope when the time comes and I've created you as perfectly as I intend to, that someday you may forgive me for it."

***

It was all Kienan could do not to wrap his hands around Kilana's throat and crush the life from her. He stood on one end of the observation lounge, staring out the window to the stars beyond.

"So," Kilana said. "You’re just not going to say a word to me, then?"

"You set me up," Kienan said. "I have nothing to say to you."

"You know I didn't," Kilana said flatly. "If I had, you’d be in Tartarus with Red and Dr. Kyren right now. Never mind I certainly wouldn’t have told you about the setup, would I?"

Kienan lifted his head and looked over his shoulder.

"Doctor who--?"

"Kyren. Rachel Kyren," Kilana said. "She runs a big research combine on Ganymede. Does a big business in med--"

Kienan leaned forward, looking a little pained.

"Are you all right?"

Kienan balled his hand up into a fist and slammed it firmly against the bulkhead.

"No."

"You know her?"

"I don’t know any Dr. Kyren," Kienan said. "Not personally, anyway. But I did know her daughter."

Kilana quickly put two and two together. I've only ever seen that reserve of him crack twice. The first time was when he though he'd killed his first girlfriend. The second was tonight.

He wouldn’t be this upset over a simple assassination--that's his job, after all. No, this is personal. Personal as it gets.

Oh God, she thought. I really have set him up, and Kyren's set us up too.

"All right," Kilana said. "Without prying, I think I have a good idea now why Kyren would spring this elaborate plan. Now maybe you can help me."

"Why in the hell should I help you do anything?"

"I didn’t have to help you repair Conscience, Kienan," Kilana said. "You know that. Don’t use me as a scapegoat because of this. I want to know some things because it just dawned on me that my sister and I've been drawn into your personal vendetta, and I don’t like the way the pieces of this puzzle are fitting together."

"What puzzle?" Kienan said, annoyed. "What are you talking about?"

"A few weeks ago, my sister was contacted by a representative fronting for Kyren," Kilana began. "The rep inquired if we had any spare research stations or listening posts floating around the debris field we could lease to her."

"Her company?"

"Dr. Kyren personally," Kilana said. "She was willing to pay in gold, and honestly, we could always use the money. She made the transfer to us personally, and her people set her up in a small station."

"So?"

"You don’t think it's odd that someone with that much industrial muscle would set up in our junkyard, never mind personally?" Kilana asked. "Anyway, once she got set up, she stared requesting some of our workmen and troopers, and on a trip over there, I got an idea of what she was up to."

Kienan turned around, leaning against the bulkhead.

"Cloning," she said. At the sound of this, the angry tension in Kienan's face seemed to slip and shatter. "I managed to steal a look at one of her workstations. The project heading was "J-2." Does that meaning anything to you?"

"Too much," Kienan said. He looked over his shoulder, his eyes sad and dark. "Suddenly I'm not much liking how this puzzle's coming together, either."

***

Gold lay on her back, alone in what passed for her quarters. She rarely needed to sleep, one of the benefits of her modifications. When she needed to sleep, like she did at the moment, she couldn't.

All she did was lay there and think of Silver.

Not a minute of every day went by when she didn't miss her. Not a minute went by where she didn’t reflect on why she'd died. Kyren's words to her about her cybernetics causing madness and death had brought it all back to her once again.

Silver hadn’t been as lucky as Gold had been when she'd gotten her cybernetic implants. Her body had begun rejecting them, causing occasional bursts of psychosis at first, then came the long nights where she'd been wracked with pain and Gold had held her close and assured her that everything was going to be all right and she'd take care of her, no matter what.

Then, finally, came the moments when Silver was crazy all the time and Gold never knew who she was going to attack. And that, apparently, had caught Kienan Ademetria's attention.

At the time, Gold wondered if it wouldn’t have been kinder to kill Silver herself, but she never found the strength within herself to do it.

I would look at her, and still remember the woman I loved, she thought. Somehow, whenever I had decided, I would look at her and all of a sudden the madness, the violence, the long nights of her screaming in pain didn’t matter.

And I felt guilty for what I was thinking and hated myself for being so selfish.

She sighed, staring up at the dimmed fluorescent lights.

Kyren had contacted her about a month after Silver had died. Initially, Kyren only seemed interested in the nature of her cybernetic modifications. She wasn't able to duplicate them, but the concept seemed to intrigue her.

Sometimes, between scans of my skin, I let slip what had happened to Silver, and how I found out about Kienan Ademetria, she thought, her mind drifting back to that day. She grabbed my arm and stared at me, demanding all the information I had on him.

I didn’t have much, but the telling of it elevated me beyond the status of a lab rat to her, Gold mused. And when the time came for her to compensate me, and I asked if it would be possible to clone Silver, she'd talked me out of it.

"Why run the risk of a creating a clone who might not feel the same way about you as the original, and have your heart broken twice?" Kyren told me. "I can give you her child, make it possible for you to have something of hers."

Now it turns out that's easier said than done, Gold thought. Just to get this far I had to sacrifice all I had to give Kyren all I had left of Silver, a lock of her hair she'd given me a year after we'd been modfied.

Our anniversary present.

And now . . .I have to decide whether or not all I've given up is worth revenge on Ademetria, and not even mine or Silver's. Kyren's.

She took a deep breath. Vengeance or hope, she thought. Neither way is all that easy.

***

Vain was bent over one of the worktables in the cargo bay, busily assembling components and examining a data pad slowly scrolling information when Mirage found her.

"Who's flying the ship?" Mirage asked, looking over Vain's shoulder.

"Conscience," Vain said flatly. "I . . .needed time away."

"Oh," Mirage said. "You were as disturbed as I was by what happened, then?"

"I was more disturbed, Mirage," Vain said. "The entire time, I was linked to Conscience. I could hear her as she nearly d--went offline. Once she was hooked into the ship, I needed time alone, so I came here to work on some things."

"Weapons, apparently," Vain said.

"I saw who it was that nearly destroyed Conscience, this "Gold" woman," Vain said, snapping two of the components together. "Kienan can’t possibly survive a fight with her without help."

"So," Mirage said. "You think he'll go after her too, then?"

"I . . .had assumed he would."

Mirage looked away. "I always understood that we were pledged to serve him," she said. "Because we owed him our lives. He could have destroyed us, but he took us with him. But today . . .seeing him so determined to help Conscience . . .I suppose it never struck me that he might feel that dedicated to us."

"He's difficult to understand at times," Vain said.

"Did you?"

"Did I what?"

"Realize he cared that much?"

Vain took a step back from her work, brushing her long blonde hair away from her face.

"I've never given it that much thought," she said. "Even if he hadn't managed to save her, I would still have kept to my vow to serve him."

"And now that you know?"

Vain went back to her work. "Now that I know," she said. "Nothing changes."

"I suppose not," Mirage said. "Nothing changes, except perhaps . . . we're closer than we knew."

Vain nodded gently. There was a stretch of silence for a time, and after awhile, Mirage decided to help her with her work.

***

Pirate Red stared out of the main viewport, occasionally pacing, her teeth clenched and her jaw set tight.

Where the hell is she? Red pondered. There's no way, after Gold wrecked one of Kienan's assistants, she'd stay there with him, and the shuttle came back with her on board and not a single trooper even remembered seeing her.

She snapped her fingers, beckoning one of the troopers to her.

"Trooper--"

"Sands, ma'am," the trooper said, his voice hollow and tinny over his armor's speaker system.

"Sands," Red clarified. "Get four of your squad and take the shuttle back to the colony. Find my sister."

The trooper clenched his right hand into a fist and put it against his chest. "Yes, ma'am," he said, briskly starting off to accomplish his mission. Red went back to pacing and cursing herself.

I had to prove I was smart too, didn't I? Red rebuked herself. Had to set up this deal with Kyren, then the sale of the device, and keep my sister out of the loop as much as possible. Didn’t want everyone knowing that Kilana was the real brains behind all of this.

She sighed. Now I'm as good as stuck babysitting Kyren and her shiny bodyguard while we wait for Kienan Goddamn Ademetria to come pay us a call. Kyren's confident enough whatever's in that vat in the main lab will kill him, assuming Gold or I don't get to him first.

But what about all the troopers he's going to slaughter getting to us? What about all the damage he'll do? What if he's already found out about the snare we set up and killed Kilana for it?

It's not impossible. He's certainly crazy enough to do it.

Red kicked the wall.

This is why Kilana warned me after we took over not to get involved in anything personal except our own. It always gets messy.

***

Kienan slowly wrapped the white tape along his forearms as Kilana paced back and forth in front of him. Occasionally she looked at him, her eyes blazing with frustration and she opened her mouth to say something, only to close it again and resume pacing.

Finally, after a few minutes, she managed to get it out.

"You’re insane, you know that?"

"It's been remarked," Kienan said, tearing off the tape and smoothing it out. "But I have to go."

"Kienan, I realize I've been trying this for the last half-hour, but I'm going to try one more time, okay? This is a trap, Kyren is setting you up. The teaser is payback for what Gold did to Conscience. The bait is the idea that she's cloned Jane--"

"Jayla," Kienan corrected. "And even if it is a lie, I have to know, Kilana. I can’t even explain why, I just have to know."

"What are you going to do, Kienan, look the woman in the eye and say, "I'm sorry?" You know as well as I do it won’t help. If she went through this much trouble, she's after one thing--your head. Something she can shrink down and swing around by that braid of yours."

"Maybe so," Kienan said, standing up and buckling his gunbelt. "And no, I'm not going to apologize, because I wouldn’t know what to say. I just have to know if there's a chance . . .that Jayla might be able to live again."

"What makes her so damn important to you, Kienan?" Kilana asked, her voice ringing in the hollow stillness of the room. "From what you told me, it sounds like she barely knew you."

"We barely knew each other," Kienan said, slipping on his red vest. "Because I didn’t want to repeat the mistakes of the past, I kept her out of it, and I wonder every single day lately whether or not that's what pushed her off the cliff. And maybe if I had another chance, and was honest with her this time--"

"You're going to make me say it, aren’t you?" Kilana said, her brown eyes dark and baleful. "Kienan, you kill people. For money. And you’re good at it. Because you’re so full of anger and every kill is just you lashing out at the universe for whatever the hell it did to hurt you. But . . .what the hell makes you think you deserve anyone's affection? Is there room in between all that rage you carry around? Are you even capable of loving anyone?"

Kienan blinked and looked down as he reached for his red gloves. His shoulders hunched a little, as if she'd struck him in the stomach.

"I . . .don’t know," he said, thoughtfully and deliberately slipping on his gloves.

Kilana sighed, crossing her arms around her chest and sighing. "I'm sorry," she said after a time. "That wasn't fair. You are capable of it and you do deserve it, I know better than most that you are, and if I ever doubted it, what you did for Conscience proved it. It's just . . .you make people crazy trying to find that out."

Kienan thought about that quietly as he reached for his knife, sheathing the blade in its scabbard in the small of his back. He looked at Kilana.

"There's a request in here somewhere, isn't there?" Kienan asked.

"Well, as I'm the only one who can get you in with a minimum of discomfort to you, I think I'm entitled to one, at least," Kilana said, brushing her hair out of her face.

Kienan snapped his vest closed. "I'm listening," he said.

"If we go, I'm certain Red will be there, if she's not turning the colony upside down to find me," Kilana said. "Whatever the situation . . .I want you to promise me you won't kill her."

Kienan blinked. "I hadn’t thought about it."

"I have," Kilana said. "You two bring out the worst in each other, and I know the second you two clap eyes on each other, you'll want to fight. You want to see what's going on there, and honestly, so do I. But I want my people out of what's obviously a vendetta against you and Kyren with a minimum of pain."

"Hm," Kienan pondered, slapping a fresh clip into one of his pistols.

"Can you do that? For me?"

Kienan thought about it for a moment, then slowly nodded. He'd been so focused on Jayla and the business with Dr. Kyren and the possibility he didn’t dare think about, lest it prove to be a false one, and he was putting himself at risk for no reason other than guilt.

Still, he thought. Stupid or not, I have to know.

"All right then. I guess we should go."

***

"I was hoping I'd run into you," Gold said. She stood in the doorway of one of the observation lounges. On the far end, near the window, Pirate Red paced nervously back and forth, her thoughts with her sister.

"Hm?" Red asked, distracted. "What is it, Gold?"

"I was . . .hoping we could talk."

Red studied Gold's gleaming visage. Something in her tone lacked the usual stoic arrogance she's often displayed to her. Despite her sister being foremost in her thoughts, she had to admit, she was curious as to what this could be about.

"Sure," Red said. "Why not?"

Gold walked over to her, looking at the stars with her. Red shuffled her feet, a bit annoyed she'd put herself in the path she'd been pacing on, but decided to join her.

"What's on your mind?" Red said.

"I . . .was thinking about what you told me before," Gold said. "About . . .Carmen?"

Red bit her bottom lip and took a deep breath. "What about her?"

"I . . .wanted to know . . .what it was like. Having a child."

"The actual labor, or--"
"No," Gold said. "Look . . .there's . . .a chance I could, and I wanted to know if . . .it's worth it?"

"If you’re joking with me," Red began quietly.

"No, I wouldn't," Gold replied, trying to smooth things over. "Not about that. I just . . .wanted to know if well, if it made you happy."

Red blinked and furrowed her brow, slightly annoyed by the question and the clumsy way it was being asked. "It did," she said. "Every moment."

"Ah," Gold said. She didn’t know what else to say. "I don’t know whether I should or not."

"If you’re expecting one to plug a void in your life, I'd advise against it," Red said gently. "That's not what they're for."

Gold frowned and stared at the deck. Not exactly what I was hoping to hear, she thought. Especially put that bluntly.

Gold took a deep breath and sighed as she exhaled.

"Something wrong?" Red asked, more gently than before.

"Just trying to work something out," Gold said. "I thought talking to a mother . . .someone who had been there . . .would help me work out what I should do. Thanks, Red."

Red looked at her for a moment, looking beyond the previous stoic arrogance, past the invincible gilded shell to the woman within.

Funny, she thought. Inside, she's anything but tough. But then, neither am I, really.

"Gold," Red said evenly. Gold paused at the door for a second.

"If I still had Carmen," she continued. "I can tell you one thing. I wouldn't be doing this."

Gold nodded and left the room. Red returned to the stars, thinking about her sister, the daughter, and what her life might have been like, without the taint of loss darkening everything.

She sighed and pushed it all out of her mind.

Too much noise, she thought. Right now I just want a few minutes where I'm not thinking dark thoughts or worrying about what's coming next.

She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, ready for a few stolen moments of peace.

She got exactly one before the communication unit on her wrist started chirping.

"This is Red," she said.

"Trooper Sands, ma'am," the voice of the trooper, now twice as muffled came back. "We're en route back to the station. We’ve found your sister and . . .well . . .we have a prisoner."

"A prisoner?" Red asked. Well, that rules out Kienan, she thought. Half the planet would have been destroyed if they'd tried to take them alive, knowing him.

"Sands," Red said. "Who's the prisoner?"

"Give me that, trooper--Red, it's me," Kilana's voice crackled over the comm. "It's Kienan. You heard me. I've captured Kienan Ademetria. Expect us soon. Kilana out."

The communicator chirped as the channel was closed. Red took a deep breath, feeling like she'd been knocked for a loop.

Kienan, she thought. A prisoner. It doesn’t seem possible I could be that lucky.

***

Gold is invulnerable, Vain thought, carefully soldering circuitry together in the small box-shaped device laying on her work table. We are not. These are immutable facts, and the result of a contest between her and myself would leave me like Conscience, or worse.

Outlasting her isn’t an option, as it would take too long. We're going to free Kienan, not to engage in a long protracted war against the pirates on their territory.

Behind her, Mirage zipped up her black and red body armor. Neither of them had said anything for the past few hours, mostly because the pair of them were alternately thinking of Conscience and Kienan.

"Do you think this plan of yours will work?" Mirage asked.

Vain nodded, clamping the outer shell of the device to the part she'd been working on. "But if you have a better suggestion, I will certainly listen."

"No, not really," Mirage said. "It just . . .feels strange, that we've run across someone we just can’t shoot, you know. Who's stronger than us."

"Gold isn't stronger than we are, Mirage," Vain said. "More durable, yes. But that's not the same thing. Conscience tried to exhaust her, keep her attention focused on her and wear her down. But to stand toe-to-toe with her, even taking the long view of the battle is not what's required here.

"Okay," Mirage asked. "Then what is?"

"Kienan told me in their first fight, he incapacitated her," Vain said. "Trapped her in a block of steel. Being an invulnerable roadblock is only useful so long as your opponent has to go through you. None of us can beat her, but if going straight through something defeats us . . .we can always go around."

Vain tossed the device to Mirage, who snatched it out of the air without looking.

"Hang on to that," Vain said. "It's the only bullet we'll ever need with Gold."

***

Red and Gold both wanted to see it. The concept of Kienan Ademetria, not only in Tartarus, but shackled and being brought to her was so unbelievable a concept that it demanded personal contact.

They weren't disappointed. Two troopers came in; rifles at the ready covered another pair, hauling Kienan, whose forearms were shackled behind him, followed by another pair of troopers. Kienan kicked and trashed, cursing under his breath. Finally Kilana walked in, a sanguine smile across her face.

"Look what I found," she said to Red, grinning.

"You betrayed me," Kienan said, his voice ragged with anger. "I should never have trusted you, Kilana."

"A wise man once said that human beings have to distrust one another, Kienan," Kilana said, smirking. "It's the only defense against betrayal."

Red looked to Trooper sands. "Inform Kyren that we've got him. The rest of you, throw him in one of the holding pens in the cargo bay until she's ready for him."

Kienan looked up, his bangs giving his eyes a foreboding shadow. "If you don’t let me out of these, when I break free on my own, all of you are as good as dead, I promise you."

"Ooooh . . .grrr," Red said. "Someone get his belt. Even shackled, I’d feel better if he wasn't armed, huh?"

Kilana reached around Kienan's waist, unbuckling his gunbelt and offering it to Red.

Red smiled, hefting it and turning it around in her hands, inspecting his guns, his knife, and all his various weaponry.

"Yes," Red said. "I feel much safer now. Take him away."

The troopers, minus Sands, dragged Kienan, still kicking and screaming off to his cell. Gold followed every move, her eyes a steady glare, not of hatred, but of contemplation.

Here's the man who murdered Silver, in the flesh, she thought, turning her head to follow him as they dragged him down the corridor. I should be happier than ever that Kyren's going to kill him soon.

And yet . . .somehow, it's not enough.

Kilana turned to Red. "We've got some things to talk about," she said grimly. "Alone."

"All right," Red said. "Considering we're on Kyren's timetable until she's ready we've got nothing but time anyways. Let's go to C deck. Gold?"

Gold was looking back at the door at the end of the long corridor, not saying a word.

"Gold?" Red repeated.

"What is it?" Gold asked, her voice distant and distracted.

"You will inform us when Kyren's ready to kill that demon we just lucked up, won’t you?"

Gold nodded. "Yes. Of course."

Red cocked an eyebrow, sizing her gilded cohort up. "Uh . . .huh."

Red and Kilana departed, leaving Gold alone, staring at the door.

Where was the big swell of triumph I was supposed to feel? Gold pondered, searching herself for emotions that were not only absent, but never seemed to have existed at all. Kienan's here, Kyren's promised me he'll die in the ugliest way possible, I could have Silver's child, but . . .none of it seems to be connecting. None of it feels all that real.

She started down the hall. She had to see Kienan. She didn’t know why, but something in her told him she couldn't just leave it like this.

***

Kilana waited until the door was closed and locked behind them before speaking, her brown eyes flaring with anger at her sister.

"Red, you have seriously screwed us," Kilana said. "Kyren's after Ademetria because of a personal vendetta, and her fight's become ours. That's not how you promised me this would go. This is a business, for God's sake, not an army for hire. There's plenty of hitmen she could have contracted to deal with him."

"Well," Red replied. "We did need the money."

"There are better ways to get what we need," Kilana said. "This is dangerous, Red. Whatever Kyren's got in mind for Kienan it's happening on our doorstep. The ends in one of two ways. Kienan dies and whatever Kyren sets loose kills us too, or Kienan murders all of us trying to escape."

"He'll never make it past our troops and Gold," Red said.

"As I recall, you were pretty certain once you pushed him out of that ship he was done for, too," Kilana said. "What happened then?"

Red grimaced. "Then I guess you're not gonna be too happy with the other deal I made, then."

Kilana blinked slowly, getting steadily angrier. "What . . .other . . .deal?"

Red licked her lips, swallowed and started speaking. "Well, you remember what Dragos was using to create his army?"

"Yeah, he . . ." Kilana trailed off, putting two and two together. She put her head to her hand. "Oh no."

Red grimaced. "Just one," she said. "She was willing to pay top dollar, and thanks to that sale I at least guaranteed we have enough medical supplies to care for our troops. A ship carrying a consignment is on its way to us now."

"And for that humanitarian gesture you gave her a cloning unit that is full of not only some Byzantine alien technology even I couldn’t figure out, but was geared to grind out homicidal aliens? None of this strikes you as a slightly unfair trade?"

Kilana groaned and turned her back on her sister. "I went along with you when you wanted to kill Dragos and take command of the pirates," she said. "Because I was just as angry about what happened to Carmen, and plus I figured we could do a better job than him."

"Well, we are, aren’t we?"

Kilana grimaced. "Right now, I'm not so sure," she said. "Don’t you see, Red, the deeper we get involved with Kyren, the more dangerous it is for us?"

"Oh come on," Red said. "How could connections with real industry on the other side possibly be bad for us?"

"Kyren's not interested in doing anything to help us," Kilana said. "She'll help us if its suits her purposes, but, God Red, have you seen her? She's myopic to the point of insanity."

"How do you figure?" Red asked.

Kilana pondered what she should say here. Talking with Kienan had put a lot of the puzzle together and maybe if she'd had a week, she could walk Red through every step, but she didn't have a week.

In fact, she thought. I have less than an hour. So when in doubt, go for the dose of cold water.

"That thing she's got in that cloning tube on the main deck?" Kilana said, looking Red in the eyes. "It's some perverted clone of her daughter, Red. Rather than bring her back and try to have a normal life, she's using her own daughter as a weapon to kill Kienan."

***

"Stare as long as you want," Kienan said, looking through the mesh wire of the cell door at Gold, who was staring at him with a blank look that nevertheless carried a lot of force. "I'm not going anywhere."

Gold didn’t say a word.

"If this is about your friend, Silver," Kienan began. "I won't tell you it wasn't personal, because it was. She made the mistake of attacking someone I cared about, and she paid for it."

Gold kept staring at him, the mention of Silver surprisingly never causing her to change expression.

"If you're planning to wait here for an apology, I promise you--there isn’t that much time in the universe to wait long enough for me to give you one."

"Did you enjoy it?" Gold asked, breaking her silence.

"Did I enjoy what?"

"Killing Silver. Paying her back for hurting your friend."

"It's not the kind of thing I enjoy or resent doing," Kienan said. "It just happens to be what I do."

"That's not an excuse."

"I never said it was," Kienan said. "I am what I am, and I'm fine with it. Are you?"

Gold dodged the question. "So I guess that means I'm on your list now, after what I did to your robot."

Kienan nodded.

"That . . .wasn't--"

"Be professional Gold. Don’t lie to me," Kienan said coldly. "You're absolutely right--you hurt someone I care about quite a lot. And if it takes me until the time I get out of this cell or a thousand years, indestructible or not . . . you will die for it."

Gold blinked. "Then I suppose I could always kill you first."

"I understand on this station, that would put you at the end of a very long line," he replied, unimpressed.

Gold blinked. The calmness and quiet patient confidence he had was unsettling in its own way as Kyren's ice-cold clinical detachment.

"What if I gave up?" Gold asked.

"Gave up what?" Kienan said. "You have nothing I want, except your life."

"What if I never bothered you again? Left the Frontier, left the life . . .did . . .something else?"

"I’d find you and kill you. Probably in twice as ugly a way as I was planning for making me chase you."

"Just like that?"

"Just. Like. That."

Gold leaned in to the wire, speaking quietly. "Look," she said. "I have a chance . . .to get out of this."

"It's an illusion. Spare yourself the agony of finding that out the hard way and don't take it."

"You don’t even know what it is!"

"I don’t need to," Kienan said. "I've been at this longer than you, Gold. I know there are plenty of doors that look like the way out, but they only pull you in deeper and deeper. There's only one way out, and that's when you’re dead."

Gold sneered and stepped back.

"You make it sound like people like us are damned."

"We are," Kienan said flatly. "Believing otherwise is just another delusion."

Gold began to feel anger rising in her again. This isn’t fair, she thought. Why can’t he see, that even with everything that he's done, I'm still willing to . . .

"We're done talking about this," Gold said, turning on her heel.

"If you didn't like what I was saying," Kienan asked. "Why did you come?"

Gold looked over her shoulder.

"I had to see you," she said. "See if you were really the monster who's been in my nightmares since you killed Silver."

"I hope I exceeded your expectations."

"Go to hell, Kienan," Gold said. "However horrible whatever it is Kyren has in mind for you, far as I'm concerned, it's not nearly bad enough as you deserve."

Kienan's sanguine smiled faded as she left the cargo bay. He sat down on the deck of the station and pressed his feet against the wall, slipping his legs through his arms and bringing them around in front of him. Once that was done, he rose to his feet, running his fingers through his braided hair. He held the small narrow band in his fingers, passing it to his teeth, beginning to probe the mechanism keeping his hands bound.

The whole time his thoughts kept drifting to Jayla.

I worked so hard to keep her from this, he thought, slipping the piece of metal against a small micro-switch. And keeping her behind that wall, if anything, made things worse. First the drugs, then the rest, and at the end, death.

Now, thanks to her mother and me, she is in on it. Worse yet, it's after I thought for sure she'd finally get some peace.

Gold can’t say I wasn't honest about being damned if you do and damned if you don't.

Assuming everyone follows the timetable, the trap should just about be ready to be sprung, he thought. Time to get ready.

***

The Ruby Vroom maneuvered its way through the beginnings of the debris field, the slim red craft expertly rolling over under and through the various discarded spaceship parts, derelict satellites, and abandoned stations that made up the zone called Tartarus.

"I have to hand it to the pirates," Mirage said, sending the Vroom into a roll to avoid an engine cluster tumbling in space. "Hiding your operation in a debris field is tactically smart. Navigation through this would be hazardous under any circumstances. Never mind being in a hurry."

"To anyone except us," Vain said.

"Well, in addition to having superior reflexes, we have the benefit of having a trail left for us," Mirage said. She checked the readouts on one of the displays on the side of the Vroom's control panel. The trail of microscopic particles Kilana's shuttle had left behind was being activated by a beam of radiation from the Vroom, the trail illuminating out to several thousand kilometers.

Vain busied herself tuning the Vroom's communications frequencies to a specific channel. "Remember, once we get the confirmation tone, we've got to close the distance, dock and begin an all-out attack. Once we find Kienan, we get out of here as fast as we can."

Mirage nodded. "You don’t think Kilana will be able to hold off any patrols in our area long enough for Kienan and ourselves to make an effective escape."

"I find concerning humans that any plan that involved them lying to one another means I should be somewhat skeptical about anything they promise me," Vain said.

***

Kienan was relieved he didn’t have to wait long for more visitors. Another group of six troopers carried him out of the cargo pen and to the elevator. Once the elevator had reached the main deck he was shoved outside and surrounded by the squad again, six weapons pointed at his head. All of this transpired in silence, pregnant with anticipation.

"All right," an unfamiliar voice called. "You may go, troopers. I can handle the prisoner from here on. Tell your mistress our business in concluded."

Footsteps echoed on the metal floor. Kienan turned his head and was surprised by the confidence of the person speaking those words. She was short, bespectacled, and old. Her face looked taught, but there was anger behind her eyes that he recognized from many glances into mirrors.

"Dr. Kyren," Kienan said.

"You know me, Ademetria?"

"Until recently, no," Kienan said. "But I think we have a mutual acquaintance in common."

"If that was all I shared in common with you, Ademetria, I would still find myself unclean," Kyren said. "I hope you came prepared to be judged."

"What's my crime?"

"You murdered my daughter, Jayla."

"Not the first time I've been accused of that. I'm afraid I didn’t, Doctor," Kienan said. "If anything, I tried the best I could to keep her safe."

"From yourself?"

"I guess you could say that."

Her baleful eyes seemed focused through her glasses like sunlight through a magnifying glass. "Explain yourself."

"Jayla and I got together, and stayed together off and on for several months," Kienan said. "I made sure she never knew what I did, or where I went when I disappeared for weeks. Unfortunately, keeping that distance made her worse. She became a drug addict--"

"You’re lying," she said, her voice tightening with anger.

"I wish I was," Kienan said. "A few weeks of that and she left me. I caught up to her after a month. Working in a brothel."

Kyren backhanded Kienan with all the force she could, her bony hand leaving a mark on even his dark golden skin.

"Again, I wish I was lying about it," Kienan said. "A few months after, I found out she'd died. Killed herself."

"She would never have done what you say," Kyren said. "She wasn't like that."

"According to what she told me," Kienan said. "Her ideas of who she was and yours weren't exactly compatible. You didn’t know her as she really was, and neither did I."

"No," Kyren said, shaking her head faster and faster. "No. You're lying. You're no victim in this Ademetria. I know what you did. You took my daughter from me and made her into something I couldn’t even recognize as my own, and I've spent these past few months trying to figure out how best to punish you for it."

Kienan sighed. So much for reason. "And what did you come up with," he asked.

Kyren walked away from him, pressing a panel on the wall.

"I decided to do to you what you’d done to me," she said as the door's slid away. On the other side was a huge bank of machinery with a lozenge-shaped chamber in the middle. Inside the chamber, being revealed by a steadily draining green fluid was a woman, at least the general shape of one. Her skin was gray, her hair long and jet-black. Her eyes opened slowly as the glass door of the chamber slid up and open. Her eyes glowed an eerie angry green, punctuated by reptilian black slits where pupils should have been.

"Kienan Ademetria, meet Jayla-2," Kyren said, stepping off to the side as the clone rose to life. "Jayla-2, kill Kienan Ademetria."

Jayla-2 spared her "mother" a brief glance then leapt from the chamber to the floor below. Kienan flicked his wrists, slipping loose of the manacles and taking a ready stance, eyeing her warily.

Kyren perverted her as much as she accuses me of doing, he thought. Physically, there's nothing the same . . .except, the way she stands, the way she breathes. The body language . . .

It really is her.

Kienan tried to sort out how to handle this, but before he could react, Jayla-2 took a swipe at him, her glowing green-edged claws shredding one of the manacle's cuffs off his arm.

As they fought, Kyren watched them with the dispassionate air of a scientist methodically overseeing an autopsy. She'd done all she could to ensure Kienan wouldn't survive, crossing Jayla's DNA with every adaptive advantage she could think of to breed into her. She was stronger than he was, faster, more agile, and whereas he was disarmed, she was a living weapon.

And as she could tell from how he attempted to restrain her rather than strike her, that he knew Jayla-2 carried enough of the original to be real. That made him hesitate, made him less eager to fight.

She leaned against the wall, waiting for the inevitable outcome.

***

"See? You were worried about nothing," Red said, sparing Kilana a brief glance as she ordered the troopers to begin evacuating the station. Kienan's gunbelt hung loosely around her waist, cocked unsteadily against one hip.

"Hm," Kilana said, turning her attentions to the communications console. She tapped out a series of keys, putting the transmitter on the station on a timed delay of fifteen minutes.

To the untrained eye, she thought, it'll seem like messages are still being sent and received, even though the lag will be keeping us in the dark. Hopefully that'll be enough time for Kienan's harebrained scheme to work.

It was hard for her to believe she had agreed to it, even if she'd exacted a promise from him in return for her cooperation. If the desired effect had been to resolve the problem with Kyren without causing any more anxiety, it had produced exactly the opposite effect.

Kilana looked up, noticing Sands and his squad was still protecting the control room. "They're not leaving?"

Red shook her head. "If this really is the end of Kienan, I want to be here to see it," she said. "In any case, he's not going to leave this station alive, no matter who finally finishes him off."

***

From above, Gold watched Kienan fighting Jayla-2, her blue eyes studying the battle carefully. For years she'd heard stories of Kienan's prowess and skills as an assassin, but to actually see him in action not directly involving her, she could see how the reputation had been earned.

He seemed to be holding back on her before now, but that seems to have gone by the wayside, Gold thought, watching as he snaked his arms around Jayla-2's, breaking the arm at her shoulder and forearm. Jayla-2 popped her shoulder back into position and struck at him again. Kienan ducked and threw her into the far wall, nearly missing Kyren.

What is she doing down there? Gold thought, worried.

Kienan threw a series of kicks at Jayla-2's head. Brutal as it looked, he seemed to be trying to knock her out rather than kill her. Nevertheless, the longer this went on, the closer the fight got to Kyren. Whenever Jayla-2 picked herself up from nearly colliding with her "mother," she seemed to look with almost human deference at her.

The clone won’t hurt her if she can possibly help it, Gold thought. Kienan I'm not so sure of. Surely Kyren knows that.

Gold tried to make sense of why Kyren was behaving this way and kept coming back to what had Kienan had said in the cargo pen. About how there really was no escape once you were in. Not for Gold, not for Kyren, not even for Kienan.

Kienan killed Silver to pay us back for hurting his friend, she thought. And I wrecked his robot to pay him back for Silver. And in return for that he intends to kill me.

It just feeds on itself, over and over again.

Gold grimaced and changed down the stairs to the main deck.

Unless I can break the cycle, for myself, if not for anyone else.

***

The Ruby Vroom didn’t enter the hangar bay of the station in anything like a standard approach. It came to a hurried stop, rotating around the cargo bay, blasting at the assembled troopers and answering the fire from their rifles with its own more powerful cannons.

The plasma bolts ripped apart troopers with a single hit and began causing fires in the hangar bay. Once the bay was thick with smoke, Vain and Mirage disembarked, weapons ready.

The troopers fired through the smoke, their blaster bolts missing by wide margin. Mirage leveled her two submachine guns and sawed through the smoke in a perfect line. Vain backed her up with several bursts from the heavy chain-gun she carried. The troopers, certain there was an entire battalion behind the curtain of fire and smoke fell back to the hangar's doorway, throwing covering fire in the direction the shots had come from.

They were somewhat surprised by the statuesque blond woman who strode through the smoke, chain-gun hanging from her shoulder. She barely spared them a glance before reaching for a device on her belt, pulling the pin and hurling it at them.

The absurdity of the situation, to the trooper's credit, only distracted them for a second. A few of them fell back from the corridor as the others covered them. Vain ducked, turned on her feet and fired low, killing the two closest troopers as the grenade wiped out another three.

Vain looked around. Mirage was nowhere to be seen.

So far so good, she thought.

***

Kienan felt himself getting tired. The clone was certainly his equal, and probably more, and being gentle hadn’t gotten him anywhere with it. In an instinctual, physical sense it was Jayla, but there was no memory of him, nothing he could reach and reason with.

That left him with am unpleasant alternative.

He let her grab him, her glowing green talons sinking into his black body armor. He could feel the heat against his ribs. In a matter of seconds she would be able to rip the heart from his chest if she wanted to.

Unless he did something awful first.

He struck her, as hard as he can, shutting out the palpable and all-too-familiar fear in his eyes. He thought of every time he'd tried to reach her or talk to her and been rebuked and hit her again.

He slipped from her grasp, landing on his feet. He kept up the pressure, channeling his rage and frustration at not being able to save her no matter what he did, the anger that had built up after a whole year of never being able to do the right thing for her and struck her again and again, feeling sick as he did so.

Forgive me, Jayla, he thought mournfully. This is the side of me you were never meant to see.

He laced his hands together and smashed it against her jaw, sending the clone crumpling to the deck, unconscious. For how long, he didn’t know.

Kyren's heels clicked along the deck behind him. Kienan met her with an elbow to the throat. She stumbled backward, her glasses falling to deck seconds before she did, one of the lenses coming loose and cracking on the hard metal.

"How . . .dare . . .you," he said, his voice quiet and vibrating with anger so potent it saturated the air like the sky before a storm. He stepped towards her, his boot grinding against the lens, smashing it to powder.

"I could . . .ask you the same question," Kyren said, rubbing her throat. "I have . . .every single day since I learned she was dead. I never knew you then, never understood what you really were or why I hated you so much.

Kienan grabbed her by the lapels of her jacket.

"And now?"

"Now I wish I'd worked harder to make sure you’d died," she said, her lips working as if preparing to spit in his face.

Before she could get the spit out, Gold charged through one of the doors to the main deck, shoving Kienan away from her as she caught Kyren before she could hit the deck.

"I'm afraid I can’t let you harm her, Kienan," Gold said. "It's me you have the problem with, and if you're ready to make good on that vow you made to me back in the cell, I'm more than ready to accommodate you."

"I'm always ready to kill you, Gold," Kienan said, his voice thick with a undercurrent of hatred and Gold was struck hearing him just then, that this was the Kienan she remembered.

The one from her nightmares.

***

The klaxon was all the confirmation needed for Red that everything was going south. Kilana marked it more as everything was going according to plan. Red was about to order her squad up to main deck to take control of the situation but Kilana grabbed her arm.

"Hold on," Kilana said. "This is a personal matter between Kyren and Kienan, remember? We agreed to let them sort it out?"

Red grimaced. At the moment she hadn’t given any thought to Kyren at all, and had in fact subconsciously hoped she'd fail, as she wanted it to be her who finally killed that bastard Ademetria.

"Oh, right," she said distractedly. She sighed and pointed to Sands. "Squad, secure the secondary hangar bay. We'll leave through the back door. Kilana, you follow the squad to our ship and get clear of the station."

"What are you going to do?" Kilana asked.

"I'm going after Kienan."

"Red, NO. We talked about this."

"I'm not doing it for Kyren or anyone else, Kilana," Red said. "This is a personal matter. Between him and me."

Kilana sighed. "Don’t you think this might not necessarily be the time to settle up?"

Red grit her teeth. "It's the perfect time," she said. "After all, I've got his weapons, plus my own. What does he have?"

Kilana rolled her eyes. There wasn't much point in arguing about it now. She just hoped Kienan remembered his promise to her regarding her sister.

In the heat of the moment, given how readily they bring out the worst in each other, he might be tempted to forget.

"All right, squad," Kilana said. "Let's move."

***

Kienan dashed towards Gold and Kyren, waiting for Gold to throw a punch. Her armored skin, coupled with her great strength was sufficient to punch right through his head.

Fortunately, Kienan thought, slipping under her arm and shoving his feet against the inside of her knees and dropping her to the floor. Fighting is as much about not being hit as much as it is about hitting.

Gold rose to her feet, but it was too late. Kienan had closed the distance between himself and Kyren and had her in a full nelson, locking his fingers behind her neck.

"Go on," Kienan said. "Take a swing. You'll have to go through her to get to me, but you might be able to kill us both in one strike."

Gold grit her teeth, furious. She raised her fists, ready to try.

"She means that little to you, then?" Kienan asked, turning slightly as Gold did, always keeping Kyren between them.

"Is this how you killed my daughter, Kienan?" Kyren responded. "Did you use her as a hosta--AARGH!"

Kienan cinched up the pressure on her neck.

"Not now, Doctor," Kienan said. "Gold and I have a discussion to finish. If you want to settle things up, Gold, now's the time to try. I'm totally unarmed, and the only bargaining chip I've got is the good Doctor, here.

"If you want vengeance bad enough, settle it. Punch right through her. My body armor's been weakened enough by fighting that sick clone she claims was made from Jayla--

"She is made from Jayla, imbeci--AAAHHH!"

"I told you to shut up," Kienan said. "Once more and I'll dislocate your shoulder. You'll live but believe me, you won’t feel much like interrupting me."

He returned his attentions to Gold, fists still raised defiantly. Her eyes however, lacked some of the resolve she'd had seconds before.

"Now, if you punch through her, you could still probably pulverize by ribcage, reach in and pluck my heart out. Crush it like a grape. So go on. Kill her to get to me."

Gold took a step forward. Kienan didn't even bother moving. From behind Kyren's now disheveled graying hair she could see Kienan's eyes, now crazy with a strange kind of madness.

"Go on and do it."

Gold's fists started to shake.

"DO IT!"

If I kill her to get to him . . .I won’t have anything, she thought. No future, no past . . .no hope, no revenge, but . . .

"No," Gold said. "I'm not falling for it. There's more to life than vendettas."

"Coward," Kienan said. "But if you really feel that way . . .catch HER!"

Kienan slipped free of Kyren and shoved her off to the side. As Gold moved to catch her, Kienan slid down between her legs, moving towards the door. He pressed the release sequence and the door slid open, revealing Vain, chain-gun at the ready.

"Kienan," Vain deadpanned. "We've been looking all over for you."

***

Vain looked at Kienan, who, apart from being a little tattered and disarmed was very much the way she'd remembered him. She flicked her head in his direction, as if beckoning him to move away from the door.

Kienan cocked an eyebrow and did so, slowly.

"The Vroom is on the main hangar deck, Kienan," Vain said. "We'll join you shortly. Once we've taken care of Gold."

"Taken care of me?" Gold asked, incredulously. "You and what army? I just wrecked one of you robots, and she didn’t even scratch me. What makes you think you'll do any better."

Kienan moved to the far side of the room, looking at Jayla-2. Still unconscious, but there was no way of knowing how long that would last.

A plan came to him quickly.

There might be a way, Kienan thought. He scooped her up, throwing the clone over his shoulder and walking out of the room, covered by Vain. The door slid shut behind them leaving Vain, Kyren, and Gold alone, apparently.

"Now, as to your question, Gold," Vain said. "Two things. One, I doubt you want me discharging a weapon capable of ricochets in this close a space with the person you're presently trying to shield. That ties your hands somewhat."

Gold grimaced. Yes, these were definitely trained by Kienan.

"What's the other reason?" Gold asked.

"Vain didn't come by herself."

She felt a hand between her shoulder blades, and looking over her shoulder, saw Kyren's reaction to something appearing behind her.

"Kyren, what--" Gold said, turning around. Behind her, Mirage stood, placidly, smiling with great satisfaction.

"Hi there, Gold," Mirage said, reaching for Kyren. "By the way . . .you’re taken care of, now."

"What are you--" Gold said, throwing a punch. She felt the air become heavy around her as if she were punching some kind of membrane. She saw her hand stop short of hitting Mirage and there was a shimmer of amber energy as Gold went flying across the room.

Gold crashed through the window of the observation area, falling inelegantly over Kyren's status consoles as she attempted to find her feet.

"Come on, Doctor," Mirage said. "I think you’re done here."

"What did you do to her?" Kyren asked.

Mirage turned to Vain. "Go on," she said. "You sounded so pleased with yourself when you told me."

Vain smiled. "Simple physics in action, Doctor," Vain said, grabbing Kyren's other arm. "Gold is in the middle of what I call a slingshot field. Anything kinetic energy she throws against it will bounce back against her, amplified somewhat. She could try to attack from now until the end of time and all she would accomplish was to bounce herself back and forth around the station."

Kyren grit her teeth "You'll never get away with this," she said quietly. "Even if I failed here . . ."

She quietly summoned her last bit of strength and tried to work her hands free, screaming like a banshee as she did so.

"I'm afraid that's not going to work," Mirage said. "Our grip is quite strong, and we have no compunctions about dragging you to the hangar."

***

Kienan slumped Jayla-2 on the deck of the Ruby Vroom, simultaneously warming up the engines for takeoff as he looked for the medical kit. Opening it, he prepped a heavy dose of tranquilizers and hoped it would be enough to keep the berserker out long enough for what he had planned.

Got two more accounts to settle, he thought, searching the clone's features for any sign of the woman he'd known. Had there actually been those signs, or had he been lying to himself, seeing what he'd wanted to see?

There was no way of knowing, and no time to work it out.

Maybe there is something of Jayla in you, he thought, brushing the clone's black hair from her eyes. Maybe, given a little time I can work out just how to get at it.

He sighed. When I told Kilana "I had to know," I was expecting answers a little more definite than this, he thought, rising to his feet.

But when has anything ever been easy?

He sighed and shut the doors on the Vroom, exiting the small craft and hoping that the clone didn’t wake up before he could complete his last two items of business here.

***

Red waited for him at the end of the hangar bay. Kienan grimaced when he saw her wearing his gunbelt.

"You don't know how bad I was hoping Kyren would fail to get rid of you," Red said. "Seriously, Kienan. I have been dreaming about killing you and settling up for that humiliation you handed me before."

"Uh-huh," Kienan said. "Well, I'm sorry to disappoint you, because I don’t plan on fighting you right now. I am, however, going to get my gunbelt back."

Red smiled. Kienan caught a whiff of ozone as she charged up a weapon she carried on her person.

"Just how do you plan on doing that? Without fighting me, I mean."

Kienan rocked back and forth on his feet.

Red blinked, raising her fist.

"Not going to tell me?"

Kienan shook his head. Red motioned like she was about to say something else and threw a punch at Kienan's head. Kienan heard the sizzling of the air as her fist sailed over her and he slipped under her arm, around and under her leg, putting his back to hers.

"What--" Red said, throwing an elbow behind her, "are you DOING?"

Kienan dodged the elbow and slipped around when she tried to catch him with the other elbow. He hit the quick release on his gunbelt, and with a silent clink, it opened and fell into his hands, just as Red tried to back him with a backwards kick.

"RRRRR!" Red sneered, throwing punches and kicks at Kienan, who was still dodging her attacks. "Stop making me look stupid!"

"Wasn't aware you needed my help in that," Kienan said, rolling his neck around her punch and buckling his gunbelt around his waist.

"I'm going to kill you!"

Kienan grabbed her arm and shoved her towards the bulkhead.

"Not with such obvious techniques like that you aren't," he said.

Red rushed him again, this time throwing a punch, followed by a quick combination. In the fractions of a second between blows, she could have sworn she saw him smiling.

"Okay," Kienan said, whipping his hair around and catching his braid in his hand. "Now that I've gotten back what I wanted, I think we're settled up, Red."

Kienan pulled on his braid, pulling her legs out from under her before she knew what was happening. Red got a look as Kienan vaulted over her, then groaned and slammed her fist to the deck.

***

Vain and Mirage made it to the docking bay in time to see Pirate Red rising from the deck, looking quite furious. Vain motioned for Mirage to go to the Vroom while she covered her, letting go of Kyren as she did so.

Mirage rushed to the ship, opening the rear door as she struggled to hold on to Kyren without the crazed doctor tearing off her own arm trying to get away from her. The shock of seeing the heavily sedated Jayla-2 on the deck made her let go long enough for Kyren to slip from her grasp.

Red, having got to her feet was about to take out her thwarted aggressions on Vain when she caught sight of Kyren rushing towards the hangar bay's controls. She gestured past Vain to her former ally.

"Kyren!" Red said. "What are you doing!"

"You won’t take me," Kyren thundered to no one in particular. "You won’t take me like you did her. You won’t ruin me, do you hear. You won’t take me!"

She pressed a sequence of keys and pulled a lever.

There was a rumble as the decompression sequence started, following by a howling rush of wind as the atmosphere in the hangar deck began to rush out into space, the heavy doors to the bay starting to slide open. Kyren was yelling something over the maelstrom, but no one could hear her. She ran to the space door, pushing off the deck with her feet into the airless vacuum of space.

Red felt herself sliding down the deck as she tried to hold her breath. She activated her gauntlet, using it to sink her fingers into the deck and anchor herself. Mirage held on to the Vroom, anchored in place as it was by its magnetic landing gears.

Vain walked on her hands very deliberately towards the console, avoiding the suction by grasping the loops for tying down cargo in the hangar. Hanging on to one of the bulkheads, she keyed in the recompression and seal sequence. The heavy doors of the bay shut and re-pressurize the area.

Vain walked over to Mirage, her eye warily on Pirate Red, who was slowly and painfully pulling herself up off the deck, gasping as she did so because of the still-thin oxygen.

Red looked at Vain and Mirage, trying to get on steadier feet. Finally it appeared she had decided discretion was the better part of valor and decided to leave it be.

After all, it's Kienan I hate, she thought. Not his machines.

***

"I'm almost certain we've got one somewhere around here," Kilana said.

"Good," Kienan said. "I can pay you--"

"I think you've done more than enough there, Kienan," Kilana said. "How about we call it even, huh? Besides, my sister's head would explode if she found out you’d bought something from us."

"I figured it would," Kienan said. "I may need your help installing this thing. I don’t know much about the care and feeding of clones."

"Kienan, I'm surprised by what it is you do know," she said. She grimaced and pointed at his gunbelt. "You didn't--?"

"I kept my word," Kienan said. "We didn’t fight."

"Good," Kilana said, slipping her arms around him and gently kissing him. "I guess whatever else I can say about you, you are a man of your word."

Kienan smiled and slowly broke her embrace, starting to make his way down the corridor, his long braid swishing behind him.

"I'll be seeing you," she called after him.

Kienan raised a hand, acknowledging he'd heard it. He'd have stayed longer, but being in enemy territory with the sister of the enemy in question was pretty foolish.

He sighed, his chest heaving as he made it to the docking bay. Fatigue was starting to set in. The fight with Jayla-2, the standoff with Gold, dodging Red . . .coupled with the stress of saving Conscience was starting to wear on him.

He willed himself to keep running as he charged into the hangar bay, the door of the Vroom ready and waiting for him. He rushed in, sparing Jayla-2 a look over his shoulder as he took the seat beside Vain.

"Where's Kyren?" Kienan asked.

"I'm afraid she's waiting outside," Vain said flatly, bringing the small craft around as she triggered the launch sequence. She blasted the space doors with the Vroom's weapons and hit the engines, launching them out into space.

Kienan leaned back in the black chair. It was stiff and uncomfortable, but with his adrenaline slowly receding he felt like he could sleep even here. The soft sigh of the Vroom at its cruising speeds made it even more seductive.

Try not to think about what you've just been through, he told himself. Don’t think about Kyren, or the clone, or most especially, who she's cloned after. Just . . .think about nothing for a little while.

"Kienan," Mirage called from behind him. Kienan opened his eyes, glowering a bit. "Who's this?"

"Our new passenger," Kienan said quietly.

***

Gold had managed to get to her feet, but to her frustration had found the slingshot field had made her less than useless. She'd been powerless to stop Kienan from escaping, powerless to stop them from taking Kyren, powerless even over herself.

Fortunately, the device had a short battery life and after a few hours of randomly caroming off walls as she tried to smash it or knock it off her back had finally drained the battery.

Vain's words about the ease in which she could be neutralized haunted her as she made her way through the now eerily empty corridors of the station. The past few weeks it had seemed so busy, and now it was so deserted it was like it had never been.

Where was everyone? Gold wondered.

She made her way down to the main hangar bay and was surprised by the activity within. The black, white and red uniforms of the crewmen working on the station marked them as members of the pirates, but instead of the crossed skull insignia, these had a skull in front of a gear emblazoned on their armor.

"Excuse me," she said, asking one of the crewmen, who was busily sealing a bulkhead damaged when the Ruby Vroom had come in blasting. "What's happened? Where is everyone?"

"They evacuated," the workman said, not even bothering to look at her. "Whatever the Captain was doing here, it's over with, so she sent us to fix whatever needed fixing in case we needed the place again."

"Over?" Gold blinked. "Where is Dr. Kyren? Where's Ademetria?"

"Ademetria got away, from what we were told," the workman said, finally giving up on finishing his repair job while simultaneously conversing. "Did all this damage on the way out, too. As for the doctor . . .I don’t know. They found some lady floating outside in the station's orbital eddy, maybe that was her?"

Gold took a deep breath, as if she'd been punched hard in the stomach.

Not again, she thought, closing her eyes.

"Hey," the workman said. "You all right?"

Lost my chance at revenge, lost any hope of keeping anything of Silver, she thought ruefully, her mind screaming with anger and frustration. I've lost everything, and just like before; there was nothing I could do about it.

Damn it all. Left alone with nothing. Again.

Gold screamed under her breath, slamming her fist into the bulkhead, putting a deep dent in the metal. Despite the exertion and the expression of her rage, it didn’t make her feel any better.

"I'm sorry," she said. "I'm afraid you've got something else to fix, now."

***

"How long has she been out?" Kilana asked, tightening the seal on a hose in the medical bay.

"Most of the day," Kienan said, attaching a nest of wires to the ceiling. "I've run through just about all my supply of tranquilizer trying to keep her asleep."

"I'd say you were crazy to keep her around, but I know you," Kilana said, checking the display on the side of the heavy device. "You never give up, not even on people you love. Even their clones."

"Yeah, I'm pretty crazy, all right," Kienan said. "Thanks for bringing the cryo-unit, Kilana."

"No problem," Kilana said. "You know, I can’t even remember where we found that sleeper ship."

Kienan shrugged and finished the last few connections.

Kilana turned to him.

"So, uh," she began. "What are you going to do with her?"

"I don’t know yet," he said. "I'd intended to force Kyren to make her less of a threat, but well . . .that's impossible, now. So I'm going to put her on ice, until I can learn something or find someone to help her. Try to do right by her this time, at least. Better than I did before."

Kilana grimaced. "I'm sorry for getting you mixed up in this, Kienan."

Kienan walked over to the medical table, lifting Jayla-2 up in his arms. Despite her slight frame she was a lot heavier than she looked. He carefully made his way to the cryo-unit, opening the hatch and placing her inside as if he were putting a child to bed.

He clapped a monitor bracelet around her arm and checked the connections, then shut the hatch and began the cryogenic cycle. He watched as the clear glass of the hatch fogged up, then resolved into the now frost-covered shape of Jayla-2.

He sighed and walked away from the cryo-unit. Kilana moved over to him and took his hand in hers.

"I'm sorry," she repeated.

"It's OK," Kienan said, sighing. He walked over to one of the chairs in the medical bay and sat down slowly, wincing a bit from pains physical and otherwise.

"Are you going to stay for awhile?"

Kilana looked at him. "I wish I could," she said. "Because I'm very worried about you right now. But . . .I've got to get back to Tartarus."

"Duty calls."

"Yeah," Kilana said, sparing a glance to the clone. She couldn’t help but feel a pang of jealousy shoot through her, which she immediately cursed herself for. "Besides, after what happened, do you really want me to stay?"

Kilana looked at him, waiting for an answer, waiting for some sign he genuinely wanted that, but Kienan merely lit a cigarette and shrugged.

She frowned. Guess I can’t blame him, she thought. Considering the memories this churned up, I can't imagine him being good company to anyone right now.

"Kienan," she said. "I . . .wanted to thank you. For not fighting with my sister."

"I did promise, didn’t I?"

Kilana smiled. "Yes," she said. "You did. In spite of yourself."

She walked over to him and leaned over, wrapping her arms around him. "You take care of yourself, OK? You need me, you call me."

"I will," Kienan said, closing his eyes. "And thanks again."

Kilana looked at him, hoping that he'd change his mind and ask her to stay, but he didn’t. The words hung in uncomfortable silence for a few minutes, and she finally relented.

"I'll see you around, corazon," Kilana said, opening the door to the medical bay.

Kienan waved with his cigarette. The door closed and he was alone with his thoughts, alone with his ghosts.

He'd thwarted Kyren's plans for revenge, thwarted Gold's, and Pirate Red's, but there was no victory in it.

Conscience is still good as crippled, Kienan thought, gesturing with his cigarette as if he were talking to the clone in the unit in front of him. Which means they got pretty close despite my attempts to cover my tracks.

And then there's you, Jayla, he pondered, his eyes narrowing on the clone. I don’t know what I'm going to do with you. I'll try to bring you back, but I don’t even know how the hell you came to be.

No, I didn’t win anything. Just got lucky things didn’t get worse. No victory here.

He sighed and stubbed out the cigarette, angry at himself, wondering if the two lives he saved would feel any gratitude to him for it, as one was cryogenically frozen in front of him and he'd rooted the other one in his ship for all time.

If I were them, probably not.

The lights within the medical bay dimmed for a moment, and Kienan looked up, agitated. What was going wrong now? He wondered angrily. Didn’t I just get everything sort of working again?

"Kienan," Conscience's voice called over the ship's intercom. "For saving me . . .thank you."

The lights returned to their usual strength and there was silence again. For a while Kienan sat in the shadows, feeling a little happy and unworthy for her gratitude at the same time.