Even If You Dream
By
Lewis Smith


Click here to see the story illustration for Even If You Dream



www.gunmetalblack.com


Kienan Ademetria watched the readouts from his seat aboard the bridge of the Silhouette, balancing a cigarette between the fingers of his right hand. The freighter's mighty engines shook the hip as it pulled free of the orbit of Kuran and made its way into open space.

Kienan tried to relax. After all, this was what he wanted. To be far away from Kuran, to be far away from everything, to be able to concentrate on nothing but work for once.

And for nothing else than to be far away from her.

Kienan sighed, shoving his long chestnut braid off of his shoulder and behind him as he walked over to another terminal. His eyes scanned over his travel logs for the hundredth time since he'd gotten underway. He didn’t have to, actually, Toriares had been good as his word. According to Kienan's logs, he was a trader who had spent most of the last 9 months on a long haul through Khephren space.

Kienan looked at the rest of his readouts. His course was already laid in for Ganymede colony, not too far from Earth. Unfortunately, even at full Space Drive, it would take the better part of two days to get there.

Kienan took a long drag on his cigarette. Moments like this he hated to be alone with his thoughts, especially since they seemed to get louder when he was alone.



"I'm telling you," the heavyset woman behind the counter of the liquor store said firmly. "I'm telling you not to do this Kienan."

Kienan was looking at his pistol, and she couldn’t tell whether he was listening at all. He chambered a round in the pistol and slid it into the concealed holster in his jacket.

"Why, Lil?" Kienan said. "For her?"

"No, goddammit," Lil said. "For you. She's gone Kienan. Let her go. Move on and don’t look back."

"She just ran away," Kienan said, looking away for a moment. "She wants me to come and get her back. She wants me to come to her rescue, what happened last month was just a tantrum."

"You sure that's what she wants?" Lil asked. She reached down behind the counter, grabbing a bottle of old Earth scotch and two shot glasses from under the counter. With practiced ease, she opened the bottle and poured two shots, without spilling a single drop.

Kienan looked over his shoulder at the two shots. "Not thirsty," he said, fumbling in his jacket pocket for a cigarette. He finally fumbled one out, brought it to his lips and lit it, taking a short drag off of it.

"Take it," Lil said. Her gray eyes regarded his emerald green gaze as he turned to face her. He looks like an angel, she thought. But he's just a devil in a white suit. "Please, Kienan. For old Lil."

Kienan let his cigarette dangle from his lips as he reached for the shot. He held the glass up to the light, watching the amber liquid within. Then he took the shot, downing it with practiced ease.

He looked down at the empty glass and then back up at Lil.

"This isn't just about Jayla, is it?"



Harlan Korpil kept stride with the blue-skinned man as best he could, but apparently, his authority was a poor substitute for his colleague's enthusiasm. They made their way down the halls of Omnicorp's Ganymede research facility.

"Can't tell you how happy we are to have you with us to mop up this project," Korpil said, his voice nasal and obsequious. "You come highly recommended, Doctor Reficul."

The blue-skinned man turned and regarded Korpil with his burning red eyes. "I do?"

"Matter of fact, you do. Your mentor, Doctor Sandoval, was a trailblazer in the field of artificial humanoid creation. I understand you're expanding the frontiers of that work."

"Sandoval was a visionary," Reficul said, his voice rich with respect for his mentor. He ran a hand through his hair and adjusted his red work suit. "I can continue his work, but I could never hope to exceed his discoveries."

"Pity none of them survived," Korpil said, waving them through a checkpoint. "I understand his three prototypes make Project: Eve look like mere toys."

"I wouldn’t know," Reficul said. "No one's ever seen them, aside from Sandoval's family."

Korpil and Reficul stepped into a small alcove. The lights shut off and there were several strobe flashes. They stood quietly for about a minute, whereupon the lights came back on, the door before them slid open, and they walked into the clean room.

Reficul's eyes narrowed on the three female forms lying in the capsules on the other end of the room. "These are your . . .Marionettes?"

"Yes," Korpil said. "The blonde is Mary, the brunette is Miri, and the redhead is Mara. They were supposed to be our first three production models, well, until Dr. Gora had his . . . accident."

"His accident," Reficul repeated. "Don’t you mean his suicide?"

Korpil looked shocked. "Not at all," Korpil said. "It was all in that report you read. He got caught in the airlock cycle and blew up. An accident. That airlock had given us a lot of trouble, and I'm very glad we fixed it before we lost anyone else."

"Are you?" Reficul asked, his voice dismissive. He had been locked in a shuttle with Korpil for the last eight hours, and to keep himself from going insane under the repeated assault of Korpil's relentless chatter he had catalogued every single lie he told him.

Eight hundred and nine, he thought. Never let it be said we Oneirans don’t have superb analytical minds.

"We here at Omnicorp like our researchers to feel safe," Korpil said. "After all, there's still a few generations of humans for whom living in space isn’t second nature."

"Mmm," Reficul said. He walked over to a nearby terminal. "I assume I'm cleared for all Dr. Gora's notes?"

"Of course," Korpil said. "Get what you can out of it and update me."

"I will," Reficul said.

Korpil clapped his hands and looked around. "Soooo . . .anything you need?"

Reficul stared at him wearily. "Peace. Quiet. Solitude. All of the above?"

Korpil nodded and took his exit.

The doors slid shut and re-pressurized. Reficul turned to look at the three women. They almost seemed to be sleeping.



Kienan lay in bed in his quarters, trying in vain to sleep, but sleep wasn't coming. He was thinking about what had happened two nights ago, about what Lil had said, and about what had happened when he had ignored her warning.

He sighed, reached over to his bedside table and took his already lit cigarette out of the ashtray. He watched the ceiling, searching the grey metal for some answers, but of course it had none.

I'd be mad to expect any, wouldn't I?

He sighed again. He felt restless, but there was nothing to check or double-check any more. He had done it already. Twice over. And he still had a day to go.

"Damn it," Kienan said, rolling out of bed. He exited his spare quarters and made his way down below decks. If sleep wasn't going to come to him, he had a way of relieving his tensions.

He made his way to the very bottom of the ship, large room right next to the artificial gravity generator. He tapped in some numbers on the keypad next to the door and stepped in as the door slid aside.

The room was totally empty Kienan stepped into the middle of it and ground out his cigarette. "Begin," he said.

Kienan immediately felt his body grow heavier as the gravity generators increased the relative gravity to 2.5 gravities. Kienan ignored the sudden feeling of heaviness and threw a punch. Then a kick. Then two punches followed by two kicks. Then three punches, two kicks on the same leg ending with a flying kick.

He smiled, sweat pouring off of his body. He pulled his loose red shirt off of him and tossed it to the floor. His golden skin was already soaked with sweat, every muscle on his body was tense, straining against the crushing gravity.

Kienan kept training, moving faster and faster, pushing harder and harder against the gravity.



The bottle of Scotch was well on its way to being emptied. Kienan felt none of the shots he had taken. One of the advantages of living in space all your life was that the human body synthesized oxygen much more efficiently. However, it made getting drunk nearly impossible.

Kienan looked at his watch.

"I'm telling you not to go," Lil said. "Stay here with me."

Kienan's brow furrowed in irritation. "Why are you so intent on me not going?"

"Because you're not gonna like what you find when you get there," Lil said, pouring herself another shot. "Kienan, I know you care for that girl a lot. But--"

"Lil, I--"

Lil looked at him as she set the shot glass down.

"But she's not going to come back with you," Lil said. "She can't, not anymore, and you’re a fool to expect her to. You think she wanted this? All she wanted to do was run away from you, and while she was running and looking back over her shoulder, she wasn't watching where she was going. And now . . .she's been swallowed up by something."

"Meaning what?" Kienan asked, suddenly impatient, and a little stung.

"Kienan, she won’t come back. She won’t want to come back to you."

Kienan took a long drag off of his cigarette. "Why? You’re telling me working Gao's place is her lot in life? The woman comes from a life of privilege . . .she wasn't mean for this."

"Maybe not at first," Lil said. "But now she is. She's broken inside, Kienan. The Rush, the . . .what's she's doing now . . .she's broken inside her heart. And nothing you can do can fix that. I know you want to try, I know every single piece of your heart aches to be able to fix it, and be able to save her, but you can't. Not even someone like you."

Kienan looked at her, then down at the counter. One last shot. Lil pushed it over to him.

"You expect me to just take it?"

"No," Lil sighed. "I expect you'll go anyway. I did, once, and my daughter's still there. Just like I used to be."

Kienan put down his cigarette and picked up the shot glass. "I'm sorry," he said.

"Everyone's sorry for something," Lil said, putting a hand on his shoulder.

Kienan powered back the shot and set it down, sighing.

"I'm going," he said.

"I know," Lil said.

"I have to know, Lil."

"I know you do," she said, pouring the last of the bottle into her shot glass. "Just remember . . . the truth doesn’t always set people free."



Kienan stepped into the shower. The workout had helped, but it hadn’t cut into much time. He stripped off his jeans and turned on the water. There was a hiss as the steaming water filled the shower stall. It had been a luxury to have running water on a ship this small, but Kienan figured it was worth it. Especially since he was rich enough to have it installed.

He stepped inside, closing his eyes as the water washed over him. He washed himself slowly, willing himself to only concentrate on the moment. His muscles felt sore, but he felt invigorated all the same.

He took a full ten minutes, then shut the water off, frowning upon discovering that his braid was stuck to his wet back. He had forgotten to undo it. He shook it loose and reached for his towel, patting himself off and stepping back into his room.

Time to get dressed, he thought.

He put on his black bodysuit first. A remarkable invention, not just because of the style, either. The suit was a layered crystalline armor that was as light and flexible as fabric but was in point of fact some of the toughest armor on the market.

He eased into his blue and red pants and slid on his black and white boots, securing the kneepads as he did so. He stretched his arms wide. He honestly felt a little tired, and Earth was still ten hours away.

He pulled on his black gloves, pulling them all the way up to his biceps, then securing them, wiggling his fingers to make sure it was skintight. He didn’t want to lose any dexterity, and given the nature of his mission, he'd need it.

He looked down at his table and saw he still had his gloves to put on, but not before he taped up his hands. He sat down in his chair and looked from the table to the bed.

Ten hours, he thought. No hurry.



"Day Two, personal journal, Reficul, S.G." Reficul said, speaking into a small device he was holding in the palm of his hand. "I can’t believe how close Gora's work was to Sandoval's and myself. These Marionettes are a work of art. Despite their mechanized endoskeletons, these machines have the ability to sustain biomass to such precise degree that they have skin temperature, perspiration, they even react to sudden changes in temperature.

"Truly, they are a work of art. Nowhere near as complex and self-sufficient as Sandoval's Neo-Human model, but well above my own limited work on the subject."

He looked at them again. He had spent most of the day downloading library computer information directly into their brains. Upon activating them, he had discovered they were quite eager to learn, like a child thirsting to be taught.

And they learn fast, Reficul thought. Day One they mastered walking, seventeen complex gymnastic routines and the proper placement of 30 pieces of silverware from 129 different races. Their brains have to be at least six times the speed of a human's cognitive process and twice as fast as my own.

Reficul put down his recorder and stared at them.

And Korpil wants me to find a way to create a stripped-down model. A "less independent" version, I believe he said. Humans. So paranoid about letting their machines, their creations, overtake them.

So unwilling to make a god in their image.

I'll do as he asks, Reficul thought ruefully. But I'll take the Marionettes as payment. They'll allow me to build on Sandoval and Gora's research. Let the Earthers have whatever scraps I pass along. The real prize will leave Ganymede with me.



Kienan's eyes snapped open at the sound of the alarm. He rolled quickly out of bed, and out of the room, grabbing his tape, his gloves, and his gunbelt as he exited. He buckled his gunbelt around his waist as he made his way up the stairs to the bridge. The buckles for the holsters clinked and hung loose as he walked up the stairs.

The Silhouette came out of Space Drive on the edge of Pluto. The main thrusters kicked back in as Kienan set course for Jupiter. He lit a cigarette as he transmitted his code to the listening post on Charon for clearance and headed for Ganymede.

He let the cigarette dangle from his lips as he taped his wrists. One of his many mentors had taught him the value of the practice. For one thing, it saved you from arthritis if you were an acrobat, for another, it saved your knuckles for those unfortunate times when things got violent.

And things always got violent in Kienan's line of work.

Kienan slid on his blood-red gloves, buckled them, and buckled his holsters to his thighs, sliding his twin machine pistols inside and securing them. He flicked off some of the cigarette's ashes into a nearby ashtray as the ship rocketed past Saturn. Kienan felt a sudden jolt of surprise as he flew past Saturn's rings. He suddenly realized he had never gone any farther into Earth space than Titan.

He pondered on whether or not to buy a souvenir, but decided against it. Making a hit in Earth space was too problematic to do anything but get in, do the job, and get back out.

And given the bizarre nature of this job, he'd need all the time he could get.



"Peace and good will brother, I am a man of God," the man in the white robes said. His hands reached for the sky at the hard metallic click of a gun being cocked.

"You damn near joined him," Kienan said. "And if you want to continue serving the Lord, I'd advise against anything sudden, hasty, or rude. I have a gun on you, and rare is the day I'm not itching to kill someone."

"Where are you?" The man in white asked.

"Close enough," Kienan said, his smooth voice seeming to echo forever in the concrete hallway. "I like this place. Nice and private. Good place to squeeze off a few rounds and no one will hear. Now . . .why don’t you tell me who you are and what you want."

"My name is Joshua Duncan Sloane." The man in white stiffened, trying in vain to hide his nervousness. "I . . .that is, my order . . .would like you to commit an act of sabotage."

"That was direct," Kienan said.

"Honesty and righteousness are the watchwords of the Idyllists," Sloane said, trying to keep himself from sweating.

"I know," Kienan said. "Can’t tell you how many times your people have pressed pamphlets to that effect into my hands. What's involved?"

"There is a corporation . . .on Ganymede . . ."

"There are lots of corporations on Ganymede," Kienan said.

"Omnicorp," Sloane sighed. "Omnicorp. They're creating a type of artificial human, more advanced than the andriotics that they've been creating. All the information should have been forwarded to you by now by my brothers."

"And?"

"My order considers it a sin to make any machine in the image of man. Because as God made us in His image, to make a machine in our image without reckoning upon Him is an affront to--"

"Amen, brother," Kienan said, walking up behind Sloane and placing the muzzle of his machine pistol against the back of his head. "Half up front. Half when the job's completed."

Sloane fumbled in his white robes for the money slip. He nervously offered it to whatever was behind him.

"God thanks you for doing His work," Sloane muttered.

Kienan snorted derisively behind Sloane. "God hasn't been on my side for some time. But cheer up brother. How many men of God can say they got the Devil himself to do His work?"

"N-not many, I would imagine," Sloane said, turning around slowly. He relaxed and began breathing normally upon seeing that Kienan was gone. He was just as terrifying, if not even moreso, than his reputation said.

Sloane gathered his robes around him, suddenly feeling very sick and cold with fear. He reminded himself to pray tonight before he went to sleep, and to sleep with the lights on.



Kienan maneuvered the Silhouette into drydock he was just above the atmosphere of Ganymede. Below was Omnicorp's research and development facility, and within it, his targets. Three of them.

He walked down a flight of stairs to his secondary docking bay. In the center pad of the docking bay was a small shuttle, as blood-red as Kienan's outfit. It was Kienan's personal shuttle.

The Ruby Vroom, Kienan thought, grinding out his cigarette. Silhouette's name for it. She was like a kid, always coming up with silly names like that. Odd how empty this places feels without her.

He chided himself for thinking of her at a time like this. Meeting her again was what had led Jayla to leave and end up at Gao's place. He mulled that over as he opened the side door of the shuttle and stepped inside. He tapped a series of keys and the machine hummed to life. He started the Silhouette's launch cycle, and the launch pad was lowered down into open space. The Vroom's engines roared to life, moving free of the launch elevator and heading for the surface,

Kienan hit a series of switches above his head. Metallic plates slid down over the viewports as the ship entered the atmosphere. Kienan took a deep breath as the heat increased and the ship shuddered violently. He was used to it, but that didn't mean he liked it.

Finally the heat settled, the shields retracted and Kienan made his way to the outskirts of the R & D base.



Kienan walked into Lil's store, head hung low. Lil looked at him almost pityingly. He hadn't slept, that much was obvious. His green eyes were bloodshot and red. He looked like he had been drinking--no. That wasn't it.

He looked like he'd been crying, but Lil knew better than that.

Kienan was many things. He was a hard man, a ruthless, cold-blooded killer, but he never cried.

Didn’t he?

He stared at Lil. Lil looked down and could see his hands shaking. She nodded and reached above her and pulled down a pack of cigarettes and matches and pushed them across the counter to him.

Kienan took them gently, opening the pack and lighting a cigarette in a brisk, natural, motion. He took a long drag, and Lil could tell this was his first cigarette of a very long night.

Lil looked at him for a time, not saying a word. The words weren't coming. What could I say to him? Lil pondered, never taking her eyes off of him. What can I say to him that would make the pain in his eyes go away? I've been on both sides of it, I know that I can’t make him not have seen what he saw.

And, God help me, I know what she told him. I've said it often enough.

"The girl?" She asked, after a time.

Kienan closed his eyes and nodded, taking another drag off of his cigarette. He looked away, back through the door at the streets of Kuran Colony. The colony was just waking up, and already there was plenty of shouting from the streetside vendors and the grumble of garbage trucks.

Despite his pain, the galaxy was still turning pitilessly.

"Lil," he said, his voice sounding like a man trying to move ten tons of weight.

"Don’t say it," Lil said gently.

Kienan shook his head and took another puff of the cigarette.

"You were right," he said finally.

I'd give anything not to be, Lil thought ruefully, and reached for the bottle under the counter again.



Kienan ducked into a janitor's closet, a tight smile on his face. He couldn’t believe how sloppy Omnicorp was about visitors. Then again, he thought. Given that they own damn near everything Industria Galactica doesn’t I guess they don’t have to worry much about industrial espionage. Or if they do . . .they probably have a short list of people to go to.

He reached into one of the lockers and found a pair of coveralls and a cap. He tucked his braid into the coveralls as he zipped them up and put the cap low over his head. He looked around and saw a suction broom and pulled it close to hand. Now he had a cover, now he needed to know where this "Project: Eve" was.

He plugged a small device into the computer link next to the lockers and downloaded a floor plan. Ordinarily the janitors used this to see which areas were requesting cleanup, but Kienan had a more precise method in mind.

Central core, third level, outer ring, Kienan thought, committing the path to memory. Good for me, I can rig the place to blow and have the Vroom waiting for me.

He grabbed the broom, pocketed the device and exited the closet, making his way slowly to the central core. Omnicorp's building was built in circles and intersecting towers. From the sky it had looked like a ring-toss game frozen in time. Certain planetary neccesities sometimes dictated strange architecture.

He came to the central core, only to be stopped by a blue-suited and very well-armed guard. He waved for Kienan to come over where he was. Kienan's eyes flitted back and forth, checking for any sign of anyone else.

No one so far.

"Just what in the hell are you doing here?" The guard said. His neutral, accent-less voice was the mark of someone who'd been born in space. Probably on Ganymede. Kienan tensed his vocal cords to match his accent.

"One of the section leaders requested a cleanup," Kienan said. "I caught the report coming off of my break, came down here."

"I wasn't notified," the guard said. "This area has Red Level clearance, any cleaning requests would have shown up on my duty roster and you would have gotten a pass at the desk. Have you got one?"

Kienan fought the urge to grimace. "Sure, just lemme find it," he mumbled, jamming the butt of the suction broom into the Guard's throat, crushing his larynx. The Guard fell backwards, clutching his throat. Kienan swung the broom into the guard's chest, forcing him to double over. Kienan slid behind him and brought the broom handle against the guard's windpipe, pulling back until he heard the last of the guard's breaths wheeze out.

The guard slumped to the floor and Kienan snapped his access pass off of him. His eyes looked around for a place to hide the body, and was about to give up when his eyes met a sign that was a releif.

Kienan opened the door and jammed the man inside, shutting it quickly and hitting the PURGE button. Kienan walked away, stopping to pick up his broom and stare at the sign on the door.

WASTE DISPOSAL.

Kienan smirked and doffed his cap before stepping inside.



Reficul looked at his notes and watched the Marionettes as they sat across from him. They were filling out IQ tests, 500,000-question IQ tests used to train Oneiran children. Reficul had already tested them with the Earth and Rigellian versions, and found them to have permanently wrecked the grading curve.

While the test results were intriguing to him, he was really giving them the tests to ascertain whether or not they were developing actual personalities. It seemed they were, and Reficul was stunned beyond words.

Sandoval had managed to graft his three Neo-Humans with genuine personalities, Reficul thought. Then again, he had engrams of living to people to form a base for a personality matrix. But these three are learning and developing them from scratch, and at a geometric rate, no less.

Quite fascinating.

He sighed and picked up his bound and freshly printed schematic of his proposal to Omnicorp. The Bioroid. Less organic, less efficient, and all around less sophisticated than a Marionette, and even better, cheap and easy to produce. Reficul had worked up the proposal in two hours and had spent the rest of the day with the Marionettes.

His mind touched on his argument with Korpil earlier today. Korpil had bristled at Reficul's desire to want to take the Marionettes to Oneirous for further study. They were Omnicorp property, and besides, they were too dangerous, Korpil had said. Omnicorp would be held to some legal liability if they went rogue.

Reficul snorted at the memory, then set the proposal down on the desk. He had decided at that moment to take them anyway. What could Omnicorp do, in any case? Oneirous was a subject of the Rigellian Empire, and pressing someone like Reficul for a charge of theft, especially after Omnicorp had murdered Dr. Gora, would result in a black eye for them and a loss of money.

And Reficul knew they couldn’t abide that. After all, given what Korpil had said about the Marionettes, they seemed to live in mortal fear of liability. As though a record free of litigation was some sort of absolution.

He was jarred out of his thoughts by a loud klaxon and a flashing blue light.

"Blue Alert. Biohazard warning. One minute for evacuation pending decontamination protocols."

"Damntion!" Reficul said, gathering his things. The Marionettes kept at their tests, and Reficul pondered whether or not he should put them into suspend mode. He decided against it . . .after all, they had no reason to breathe; the rise and fall of their chest was due to the osmotic pumps in their chest.

Reficul made his way out of the door just as Kienan peeked in the window.



Kienan unzipped the coveralls and tossed them away. He withdrew a long slender bar with a device on the end and opened the lock, giving silent thanks that the old trick of pulling an alarm to get the place all to yourself still worked.

He took a look around the lab, stopping only to affix his breathing filters in his nostrils. Decontamination meant selenide gas, and breathing it in without nominal precautions was like trying to breathe acid.

He reached into one of the pouches in his belt and started affixing explosives to banks of computers and anything that looked flammable. Once that was done, he armed the devices and cradled the detonator in his hand.

Goodbye, he thought. See you "ladies" on the other side. His hand tightened on the detonator, ready to tuck and roll towards the wall when it blew out.

Suddenly, Kienan felt himself being lifted by the back of his neck high into the air. He thrashed around, turning to see the person holding him was a very shapely, very pale, very naked, blonde woman.

"What are you doing?" The woman asked. It was an honest question, Kienan mused. He tried to squirm out of her grip, but it was no good. Despite her looks, she was way stronger than a mere human.

Kienan tried kicking her loose, but found hi foot grabbed by another naked woman, this one a brunette. The brunette pulled his leg, not enough to cause him pain, but enough to eliminate any leverage advantage.

Kienan started getting angry, and dug into his pouches, while he still hand his hands free. The detonator clattered to the floor, probably broken. A third naked woman, a redhead stared at him with strange, almost childlike, curiosity.

Kienan grabbed something in the palm of his hand and slapped it against the breast of the blonde woman. The brunette dropped him nearly simultaneously with a gasp of something that sounded suspiciously like fear. She dropped him suddenly, sparks arcing off of her body Kienan fell face first onto the hard metal floor, blood filling his mouth. He wiped a trickle of blood from the corner of his mouth and made a promise that next time he'd try to land softer.

Kienan reached for the detonator and once he grabbed it, rolled to a safe corner of the room. He pushed the button.

Nothing.

Kienan grimaced. Obviously, the fall had broken it. He tossed it to the side, tapped one of the fasteners on his red vest, activating a pre-planned command.

The outer wall of the lab blew outwards with a loud report and a cloud of dust where metallic-polarized concrete had been. Outside, the Ruby Vroom hovered, it two forward gunports still smoking.

The women were frantically digging themselves out of the rubble that the blast had created. Kienan thought quickly and commanded the Vroom to pull alongside and open its doors.

He dove in and turned the ship about, the thruster exhaust now burning the loose bits of paper on the edge of the blasted hole.

Kienan walked to the rear of the ship and hit a series of switches. On the rear of the Vroom a small barrel moved into position. Kienan looked through the viewfinder, his target fixing on one of the explosives. One shot from the graviton gun at low power would set it off, and the others would blow up as programmed. Messy, Kienan thought, but it'll get the job done.

He pulled the trigger, and in an instant, the lab exploded, disgorging fire, debris, and more chunks of concrete out onto the Vroom. The ship shook three times with the force of the explosion, and Kienan moved back to the pilot's seat and kicked in the full force of the ship's thrusters.

Kienan grimaced. What in the hell is wrong with this thing? He thought angrily. I'm at full burn but I'm moving like I'm half that.

Kienan blinked, set the ship to follow a pre-set course, then drew his guns and opened the top hatch. He pointed them toward the rear of the ship and groaned.

The three girls were on top of the Vroom. No wonder I'm going slow.

"Are you going to destroy us?" the redhead asked, her black eyes meeting his.

Kienan looked into her eyes and saw something he hadn’t seen in awhile. He thought of Silhouette, of what Lil had said, and what Jayla had done. The wind whipped through his hair, and made his braid flap in the wind like a battleflag.

He sighed and wondered just what in the hell he was thinking, because it didn’t sound like him at all. "Can they make any more of you?" He asked, pointing with his guns towards the smoking building now vanishing on the horizon.

The redhead shook her head. Kienan looked back down at the hold, pondering something and rationalizing what he felt himself about to do, despite all common sense to the contrary. A proximity alert was beeping, pursuit ships were on their way.

Kienan safetied his guns. "Get in," he said.

The three naked woman followed him in through the top hatch the blonde and the brunette stood while the redheaded one sat next to Kienan, who ignored her.

"Thank you for not destroying us," she said evenly. Despite her blank tone, Kienan could discern some sincerity.

"Believe me," Kienan said. "It's a surprise to me, too."

The blonde and the brunette were studying his weapons console. Kienan looked over his shoulder. "Don't touch that," he said. Kienan's blood seemed to be thrumming behind his eyes and he wanted a cigarette so bad he could taste it. He had managed to add some speed, but those three pursuit ships coming up behind him could still catch him before he hit the atmosphere.

"Primitive pursuit vessel," the blonde said.

"Hey," Kienan said. "Wanna walk?"

The blonde looked at him, then started punching buttons on the console. On the back of the Vroom, two grey panels slid up, revealing two heavy-caliber vulcan cannons. They fired and destroyed two of the pursuit ships. The brunette activated the graviton gun and destroyed the third.

Kienan looked back, shocked. "I changed my mind," he said. "You see a ship behind us, touch those all you want." He whistled under his breath.

The shields slid into place and the Vroom punched through Ganymede's atmosphere, just as the Silhouette's pre-arranged orbit aligned with the Vroom's trajectory. In a matter of minutes, the Vroom was docked and on its way out of the solar system.



"Tissue readings, but only a little," Reficul said, sweeping the scanning device over the ruins of the lab. "What a damned waste."

"Just as well," Korpil said. "We're saved the trouble of putting them on ice or destroying them this way."

"Forgive me if I don’t share your euphoria," Reficul said. "These three were something quite special. We could have built a new mankind and been gods ourselves."

"The Board of Directors doesn’t see anything wrong with the old one," Korpil said.

"No human does, I find," Reficul mumbled. "One of these days Korpil, you should hear what the galaxy really thinks of you. I'm exercising my option, Korpil. I want out of my contract."

"You sure?" Korpil said. "Omnicorp wants you to develop that proposal of yours."

"Can I be guaranteed a safe place to work?" Reficul asked derisively.

"We'll talk," Korpil said. "We've got an R & D facility on the Frontier on lease. Perfect place to work in secret, which is what you Oneirans do best, isn’t it?"

Reficul turned to him, about to chastise him for the implied slur. "Yes," he said. "Promise me a facility of my own, and no interference and you have a deal."

Korpil nodded and Reficul bent down to scan through the rubble and see if any evidence or record of the now-lost Marionettes.

He would find none.



Kienan was in the lower holds of the Silhouette, pulling out three footlockers in rapid succession, their plastic shells bouncing against the deck with a heavy thud. Kienan opened one, his eyes closed, steadying himself for what he would see when he opened it.

He opened one of the footlockers. "All right," he said very calmly as he stood up, digging in his vest pocket for a cigarette. "The only reason I'm doing this is for a little peace of mind. Here are some clothes. Go through them, find something you like, but don't come back to the bridge until your dressed. In words of one syllable--put some damned clothes on."

"Why?" the brunette asked.

Kienan lit the cigarette and took a long relieved drag off of them.

"How about so I don’t eject you into space, for starters?" Kienan said, turning and leaving the hold. "Remember--get dressed or I'm putting you off." Kienan clambered up the stairs up to the bridge again, sighing. He hadn’t really wanted to dig into Silhouette's old things, but he had no choice in the matter right now. Especially since he wasn't altogether sure why he had allowed them to come along.

He thought back to the night he had first met Silhouette, and how he had rescued her from a group of muggers, and she had looked at him in that same way. He sighed.

Why did I do it?

He sat in his command seat, exhausted, and tapped out a secure communications channel. The Silhouette was in Space Drive and they were well out of the Earth system without being seen. It was safe enough.

"This is Sloane," the voice on the other end crackled.

"Mission accomplished," Kienan said. "Marionettes completely destroyed. Lab completely destroyed, no people killed. My contract, to the letter. I'm attaching proof with this message Deposit the other half into the specified account immediately."

"Consider it done," Sloane said a little nervously. "Erm, forgive me, for asking, but you say no one was killed?"

Kienan smiled around his cigarette. He thought of the man he had jammed into the closet and how one of the contract points had been that no humans could be harmed or killed in fulfilling it.

He pondered that for a moment, then took the cigarette from his lips and flicked the ash from the end into the ashtray.

"Not a single dead body." Kienan said. "That was our contract, to the letter. Oh, and preacher-man? It was a pleasure doing business with you. We've gotta do this again."

"Go to hell," Sloane said, severing the connection. Kienan tapped on another console and saw that the money had been deposited.

Pious bastard, Kienan thought. But at least he's an honest man of the cloth. Honest as they ever get, anyway.

He heard footsteps behind him and turned around to see the three Marionettes, now fully dressed. Kienan frowned at bit at the ill fit of some of the garments, but decided not to let it bother him.

It wouldn't be a big deal unless they took really deep breaths, he thought. Whoever designed them had some serious issues with women, I think. Then again, look who's talking.

He took a thoughtful drag on his cigarette and looked at them. I could toss them out at Kuran, he thought, but there's always the possibility that someone would find out what they were, and it would come out, and I'd be disgraced. He had never failed to complete a contract, and while leaving them alive wasn't technically violating his contract, which had called for Omnicorp's ability to make Marionettes to be destroyed, he didn't even want the implication.

But there were plenty of deserted worlds and deserted stations on the Frontier where they could stay and never be found. That was always an option. I could dump them there and they could survive on their own. My reputation would be intact, and I wouldn’t have to kill them.

"What . . .do you think?" The blonde asked.

"I feel much better now that we're all dressed," Kienan said indifferently. "Now . . .where do you three want to go?"

"Go?" the brunette asked.

I'm talking to children, Kienan thought wearily. "Do you want to stay with me or do you want me to drop you someplace deserted?"

"We want to stay with you," the redhead said.

Kienan turned away and grimaced. "I was hoping you wouldn’t say that. I have enough female problems already."

"You need us," the blonde said.

"No I don't," Kienan replied quickly.

"Where would we go?" the redhead asked.

"Into space?" the brunette said. "Didn’t he say that was the only place we could go? I guess we'll shoot ourselves into space." She looked at him. "Thank you for not blowing us up and or letting us fall. It was very nice of you."

They started back down the stairs.

"Wait."

They froze and turned toward Kienan.

Kienan sighed. A million voices were in his head, telling him what a horrible idea this way. Toriares' voice, telling him to never get attached to anyone, Silhouette demanding he open his heart to her, Jayla angrily shouting at him for never telling her the whole truth.

And his own voice, very quiet, asking why he had to be alone at all.

"Stay," Kienan said, flatly.

They walked back up the stairs and sat down in the chairs on either side of Kienan. Kienan stared straight ahead, monitoring the controls.

"Do any of you have a name?" Kienan asked after a time.

"No," the blonde said.

"What do you call yourselves?"

"We don’t know," the brunette said.

Kienan sighed and pointed to the console in front of the blonde. "Call up the dictionary program and pick something. I don’t care if it's something picked at random, but you need names. I won’t always be able to point at the one I'm talking to."

They busied themselves at the console and Kienan lit another cigarette. He mulled over the last week, over what had happened with Jayla and what had happened today.

He took a long thoughtful drag. Was he avoiding his destiny? Was his destiny to be alone, and to die alone? And was having them here a way of protecting against that?

"Vain," the blonde said. "I like that word."

"Vein?" the brunette said. "You’re naming yourself after something that carries blood?"

"No, not V-E-I-N," the blonde replied. "V-A-I-N."

"Why that?" The redhead asked. "It's not even a proper name. Just a noun."

The blonde sighed. "I just like the sound of it. Look, let me find my own name, you'll get your turn."

Kienan suddenly became aware he was smiling around his cigarette. He took out his cigarette and looked at his reflection in the canopy.

When was the last time I smiled while I was on board this ship? Kienan pondered, shocked as though, like the Marionettes, he were experiencing things for the first time. I haven’t smiled . . .since Silhouette left. Not on this ship, anyway. Never had much of a reason to, this place always reminded me of her.

Maybe it doesn’t have to be that way with them around. Maybe I don’t have to die alone, and I can find a destiny like they’re finding their names.

Maybe I don’t have to be sorry.

He stubbed out the cigarette and closed his eyes while the three Marionettes quibbled. That was enough philosophy, the whole week had been too full of it. Right now he wanted to relax.

Whatever happens next, he thought. I'm sure destiny will take care of it.