Ultimately, he knew that's what everything, every component of existence came down to. Awareness of time, awareness of self, awareness of one's place in the universe, one's exact knit and pearl in the tapestry of life.
Awareness was, he knew, where true power lay. If one's awareness was so in tune with the universe around him, no man could hide from him, because he could feel his presence around him as easily as his arm might feel a chill in the air.
Other assassins would build their power only within their physical aspects, he thought. By becoming stronger, more powerful, by mastering various weapons they seek to make themselves more powerful.
Ultimately, he knew it to be a self-defeating methodology. Too limiting. Why forge and refine yourself into one line of force when it was possible to envelop, encompass and crush your opponent?
His red-gloved hand tightened on his long metal staff, the motion causing the rings looped around the circle of iron to jingle slightly. Though he presently was standing where no one in his or her right mind would have stood, he took no notice, his posture almost defiant.
He was exactly where he needed to be.
He stood, shadowed by several large structures, miles off of any solid ground. Around him, machinery hummed, carrying direct current through steel rails, the dry air sometimes throwing a spark over his shape, like a flash of lighting.
Four black shapes drifted slowly around him, their shape roughly like that of black bird, but flatter, darker, silent. They spiraled outward from him, invisible and undetectable, their triangular red eyes glowing softly as they flew in every direction like fragments of his shadow.
Silently, the man called Karasu waited. His mind was calm, a still pond which would come alive when the man he sought entered his zone of awareness.
And once caught in that web, there would be no escape for him.
The being known as Jayla-2 felt a shadow cross over her as she made her way to the schoolyard. At first she wondered if she weren't just being self-conscious. The stares she got from the various passersby were attention enough, maybe she was being oversensitive.
Or maybe I'm just underestimating how "normal people" react to seeing a six-foot tall grey woman walking into a schoolyard, she thought. She brought her heavy grey coat tight around her, keeping her hand in her pockets. It was an affectation she'd developed months ago, and it was probably just as well. If her grey skin and her generous proportions didnt draw attention, no doubt her clawed fingers would.
She wondered why people still stared. After all, it had been nearly a year since she'd been here at this space colony. And yet, still the stares, still the hushed comments that she could hear easily no matter how low they whispered.
"It takes time," someone had said to her. "Sometimes it never happens at all."
She'd thought about that for the entire span of this whole year. Unfortunately, month after month of turning it over in her head hadnt given her much in the way of answers. Only more questions.
"Jayla-2! Think fast!"
Jayla-2 saw the ball coming out of the corner of her eyes and turned to catch it. Her jacket billowed out as her hands slipped out of her pockets and clapped around the ball, making sure not to puncture it with her claws.
"Nice," the young girl said, walking up to her. "I was sure Id gotten the drop on you this time."
Jayla-2 smiled and handed the ball back to her. "I'm just happy it's been weeks since the last time you clobbered me with it, Angela."
Angela smiled, flicking her dark brown bangs out of her eyes. "I have to admit, it was kind of funny to see it bounce off your face."
Jayla-2 frowned. "That's a bit mean, isnt it?"
Angela smiled and tossed the ball over to a clutch of younger kids, who were staring at her friend. "It wasn't that, really," she said, turning back to her. "I think it had more to do with the fact that you looked so surprised when it happened."
"Well, he told me to pick you up from school, Angela," Jayla-2 said, her jet-black hair framing her face. "He didnt say anything about having to duck flying objects when I did it."
"Oh he always leaves out the good stuff," Angela said, walking out of the schoolyard with her. "That's him to a T. Never tells anyone the whole story. Where is he, anyway?"
Jayla-2 looked up, her eyes fixing on the colony rail system that crossed the central line of the colony like heaven's own train set.
"He said he was taking the train back home after his . . .meeting," Jayla-2 said. "He said to wait for him at home, he wouldnt be long."
"You make him sound almost domesticated, Jayla-2," Angela said.
Jayla-2 laughed softly. "I think you had more to do with any of that than I did," she said, looking at her friend. "After all, it's taken him a year to just barely tolerate me."
The space liner Alseides drifted through the star dotted darkness like a golden arrow. While the white-hot fire from its engines seemed to indicate speed against the timeless night it seemed to be barely moving.
The Alseides was an elegant luxury liner, built more to be worthy of the wealthy travelers who could afford a berth on it than for speed. Inside, the ship was just as refined, almost a throwback to the days when ocean liners crisscrossed the waters of Earth, carrying the wealthy from continent to continent in style.
To Wong Sai Sci, such style was as much birthright as a choice.
He insisted on first class. After all, if he had to travel to a place as benighted as the Frontier, he might as well spend the week in as much comfort as possible.
"Excuse me, sir," the long-legged attendant said, tapping him on the shoulder. His dark brown eyes, hid by his round spectacles scrutinized her with the mix of caution and curiosity that had served him so well in his life.
"Mister Sai Sci?"
"Yes, ah . . .Jessica, isn't it?" Wong said, reading her nametag and flashing her an easy smile.
"Ah, yes sir," she said, blushing a bit. "You have a message waiting for you. It's ah . . .marked "private," so we thought perhaps youd like to be shown to our communications room?"
"Most kind," Wong said, rising from his chair. He rocked back and forth on the balls of his feet, making sure to get used to the limited gravity of the liner before he started moving again. "I'd like that very much."
"Right this way, sir," Jessica beckoned. They walked down the aisle to the aft of the liner, then up a flight of stairs to a darkened lounge. The etched glass doors to the lounge opened with a sound not unlike a sigh. Jessica gestured to him, standing at the doorway.
"Thank you, Jessica," Wong said, grinning slightly as he bowed. "I'd very much appreciate it if I could take this call in private, please?"
"Of course, Mr. Sai Sci," Jessica said. "You can count on our discretion."
"Of course," Wong said, walking to one of the terminals and unbuttoning his jacket. As he took a seat in front of one of the gilt terminals, he withdrew a small object from his pocket, roughly the size of a cigarette case and placed it next to the terminal, his manicured thumbnail flicking a small switch on the edge of the device.
As much as he appreciated Jessica's assurances of privacy, Wong ever erred on the side of caution. He waited for a small light to flash green on the opposite end of the object and activated the terminal.
A few access codes later and contact was established. Audio only, of course.
"This is Tigress," the female voice, deepened and slightly scrambled, said. "There's been a slight change in our plans. Our pipeline encountered some difficulty on the way to the Frontier."
"My," Wong said to himself. "That's unfortunate."
"Recommendation to proceed with existing assets in place upon your arrival at Kuran."
And what makes you think I need your permission for that? Wong thought. I have my own timetable. My plans can proceed without you for awhile, Tigress.
"New ETA for my transport at Kuran, seventy-two hours. Message ends."
Three days, Wong thought. Either she was dealt a more serious setback than she indicated or she's ensuring I do all the hard work for her.
Wong's hands danced over the keyboard, deleting the message and eliminating any traceable elements of it from the Alseides' data banks. Once that was done, he shut off the device and returned it to his jacket pocket.
He walked out of the lounge, to find Jessica waiting by the door.
"Thank you, Jessica," Wong said, nodding to her again. "Perhaps you could tell me when we're expected to arrive at Kuran?"
"My last update said sometime within the next 12 hours, Mr. Sai Sci," Jessica said, escorting him back to his seat. "We're having to proceed slower than normal through Frontier space, by order of the UEF Defense Force."
"Ah yes," Wong said. "The Sekhmet situation. Curious, though. We havent seen a single Earth battleship on the way here and if I read the map at my seat correctly, we passed within ten light years of the Sekhmet border, yes?"
"I believe so, Mr. Sai Sci," she said. "But bear in mind, any Earth vessels would be on constant patrol, and probably running silent. Certainly far away from the trade and travel routes the Alseides is travelling along."
"Of course," Wong nodded. "I apologize if I'm asking too many questions. This is my first visit to the Frontier. I'm quite curious to see if it's as wild as the press back home makes it out to be."
Mao Xai Jan looked at the documents on the data clipboard and frowned. He eased back in his plush office chair and pondered what the real meaning of this directive from his superiors was.
"Situation on Frontier becoming untenable under present organizational strength."
Mao laced his fingers together, tapping the index fingers of each hand together. Clearly the rules of the Blue Dragon Tong were just as worried as everyone else about the tensions along the border. With a potentially hostile alien race mere light years away from the Frontier, things looked unstable, at least from where they were.
The Sekhmet have never even traveled through the Frontier space, he thought. Why would they? They detest other species, and even if the reports from Axanar were true, Axanar is four days from here and was barely a memory before the massacre of the colonists put it on the map.
Not that the facts matter now, he thought, leaning forward and pushing his horn-rimmed glasses up the bridge of his nose. No, the panic has set in and convinced the leaders of the Blue Dragons an attack is imminent. Not really because of anything the Sekhmet could do to us, but it means the Frontier will soon come under direct Earth control.
"Perpetuation and expansion of assets along Frontier colonies must be maintained. Current galactic political trends could affect long-range plans for the Frontier."
The UEF buildup wont happen overnight, if at all, Mao thought. If my superiors had any foresight, they'd realize that we could expand our organization even into the rank and file of the Earth military. But no.
"To facilitate strategic planning, we are sending Wong Sai Sci from Khalis colony to coordinate with you."
Coordinate, or replace? Mao wondered. In some ways, the situation on the frontier was a macrocosm of his own. For nearly seven years he'd been given free reign on all Blue Dragon operations along the Frontier.
The thinking at the time was that a narrow stretch of space with only ten large colonies separated by a week's travel from territory directly controlled by Earth.
They'd never expected him to be a success.
For a time he'd been lauded for it. Every communication with the ruling council of the Blue Dragons had been short and quite favorable to him, a few minutes of being told "well done, continue" once every six months.
Then, as he consolidated the Blue Dragon's power, people began to fear him. He was far too successful for someone who was exiled to a sector of dead space specifically top stay out of the way and quietly fail. Not to prosper while others in the organization felt their control of space they'd held for generations begin to slip.
Mao sighed. As if he had any ambition to rule.
But the last few years they'd feared his autonomy and his growing influence and power. Whether he craved power or not was irrelevant now--he was perceived to be trouble. In the paranoid eyes of the Blue Dragon elders, he was a danger. He either sought to rule himself or would lead others and upset the balance of power.
He knew the day would come. For as long as he could remember, he was always told to exceed those who control you was an unforgivable sin.
And now that the ruling council had an excuse to deal with him, they were going to use it to bring him under control. His agents within the travel agencies told him his minder was three days away.
And whatever he did from now on, he was being watched closely. Mao felt the stare closing in, as though the danger he perceived was walking up behind him.
Several light years away from both the Alseides and Kuran colony, hidden in a dead system was moored the UEF Victory. The massive ship slowly moved out of the shadow of the planet it was hiding behind, the soft blinking of its running lights making points on the rough shape of the starship.
The ship itself was a flat plane, miles long, with a small bridge tower on the starboard after side. From a distance it seemed to be a sheet of featureless silver, but as one moved closer and closer to the ship they could see finer details, like the thousands of gun batteries that lined its bow and the rows of docking elevators that awaited passing starships.
The Victory was a new paradigm for Earth--basically meant to be a floating space station. Like the old aircraft carriers from centuries past, only much larger and designed to service both starfighters and larger capital ships. It had taken an entire year to build the Victory, the last six months of which had been construction on the fly.
The ship was so massive two long transport tubes shot travel cars back and forth at hundreds of miles an hour from bow to stern, and even at maximum speed a trip of that length would take 4 hours.
Captain Marcus Connor leaned back on the bench seat of the travel car he was on and sighed. He couldn't imagine commanding anything on this scale. After all, it had taken him nearly seven years just to get command of the Valiant, and that was a tiny patrol ship.
The travel car stopped, the doors on either side opening. Around him, people were filing out. Every branch of the service, from the orange-suited technical corps to small groups of marines, to fighter pilots filed out. Connor relaxed. His stop was still an hour away. He looked around for a moment. The thought he might have to make that hour's trip alone flashed through his mind briefly.
He sighed and closed his eyes.
"Pardon me," a voice said. "Captain Connor?"
He opened his eyes. "That's me . . .Lieutenant Commander, ah . . .?"
"Frost, sir," the white-haired man said, snapping to attention with a crisp salute. "Lieutenant Commander Jamison Frost, Olympus Vanguard, attached to the UEF Valiant."
Connor raised an eyebrow. "Attached how?"
Frost proffered a data clipboard to him. "Admiral Williams' orders, sir. I'm your new executive officer."
Connor snatched the pad from him, his eyes looking over the official orders. He grimaced. He'd had lunch with Williams on the command deck last week, spent the last two days reporting directly to him while the Valiant was upgraded, and he'd never once mentioned this.
He gave Frost a cursory once-over. He'd heard of the Olympus Vanguard, a semi-regular officer corps that worked in conjunction with one of the major defense contractors. But this was the first time he'd ever seen one in the flesh.
"I'd heard you Vanguard guys were glorified technicians," Connor said. He looked at the pistol and saber Frost had buckled around his black and red tunic.
"That's our field of specialization, sir," Frost said. "In actuality, our training is as intensive as UEF Special Forces, in fact, a good deal more."
"Is that right?" Connor said, turning the clipboard over in his hands. "Well, on my ship, I dont see any special colors, any special divisions, nor do I weigh special training. I dont play favorites. When push comes to shove, Frost, there's one command, and that's mine."
He looked Frost in the eye.
"Think you can handle that, Lieutenant Commander?"
Frost saluted again. "Yes, sir."
Connor smiled and gestured to Frost. "Well, now that that's clear, why dont you have a seat, Lieutenant Commander," he said. "We've still got 45 minutes until we get to the Valiant. You can fill me in on what you've done to my ship while we wait."
Kienan Ademetria sat on his own in the very back of the train car. Above and below him the city sprawls of Kuran colony rotated slowly around him. It had been a long day and he knew he was already late.
He looked out the window at the colony outside, the reflection of his emerald eyes meeting his, like he was looking into himself. He'd been here most of the year, unusually enough. Kienan's job usually carried him all over known space, and not just the Frontier.
To stay in one place for so long felt strange to him somehow, as if he were being held there by some force he couldnt name.
Or maybe it's just things holding me here, now, he thought. I was always taught not to have attachments, have nothing that could be used against me or cause me to hesitate.
Every time I've broken that rule, I've paid for it, and yet here I am doing it again.
As different as things are, some things never change.
It had been a year since he'd brought Jayla-2 here, and another three since Angela had come into his life. And despite all his training, all the platitudes, he was growing accustomed to having them there.
This past year had been about trying to find an answer to his problems. Unfortunately he didnt have one and didnt feel close to one. But at least the number of questions had narrowed down a bit.
Now there was only one.
What do I do now?
Kienan blinked. A shadow had passed by the window of the train. A shape, vaguely like that of a bird's had flown past, or had he only imagined it. He looked across the aisle to the opposite window. Two shapes, exactly like the one he'd caught a glimpse of, flew by that window.
Birds? Kienan thought. On a space colony?
There was a shudder as the train car slowed to a halt, decelerating as it approached its stop. Kienan slipped his hand into his white silk jacket and slid down in his seat, covering his head.
The black birds swarmed over the train car, and suddenly, with a sound like a balloon popping, every window in the car exploded inward, becoming deadly shrapnel. Passengers around him stampeded, breathing in the flying glass and falling dead in the aisles, victims of their own panic.
The rain of glass ended, Kienan was suddenly acutely aware of a certain smell in the air. Ozone.
Energy weapons, he thought, closing his hand around the pistol he kept in his jacket. He couldn't have cared less about the passengers, but if anyone was willing to make a hit this blatant, he knew who the target was without having to think about it for long.
He popped up from his seat and drew a bead on one of the birds. The bullet ricocheted off of the obsidian hide of the bird and nearly struck one of the other passengers, busy pulling one of the wounded through the doors to the next car forward.
Kienan aimed and fired again. Another glancing shot. This time the bird spun around and Kienan saw it's odd red eyes. Soon another bird flew in through one of the shattered windows, and another, and another. They hovered just a few feet away, all of them glaring at Kienan.
Well, he thought. If I had any doubt at all who they were after, I sure as hell know now.
There was a flash as one of them fired a pencil-thin red beam of energy at his feet, then another. Kienan dropped to the floor of the car and rolled away, narrowly slipping through two more blasts. He slipped his body under one of the dead as more of the birds drew a bead on him.
He pushed the corpse forward as the birds sliced off the corpse's arms and legs, their crimson beams cauterizing the wounds as soon as they were made. He pushed through them, the corpse knocking some of the birds aside as he made his way to the door to the forward car.
Kienan didnt like to run, but he needed room to maneuver, and so long as he was in a small car with a half-dozen aerial weapons a mile and a half above any solid ground, he was at a disadvantage.
Even more so now, as Kienan watched the rest of the cars pull away from the one he was trapped in. He threw the body he'd been carrying aside and kicked the door impotently as he watched it pull off.
Trapped, he thought, turning and drawing his pistol.
Only there was nothing to aim at. The birds were gone.
What the hell is going on?
More shadows circled the car, like vultures circling a corpse.
With only seconds to decide, Kienan took a gamble.
Exactly two seconds later, the car was slashed to bits by the assault of the birds. Their lasers sliced through the outer shell of the car, into the support frame of the car, and finally through its inner structure. The bottom of the car tore free with a shriek of metal that sounded like a howl of agony and fell to the colony below.
Karasu stood on top of the car, looking over the edge as the bottom of the car fell to the ground below. Certainly he would have preferred more subtlety, had this been anyone but Kienan Ademetria, the alleged "most dangerous man in the galaxy."
Such superlative opposition deserves all I can offer, he thought, tapping the end of his staff on the top of the car. As if in answer to his tapping there came a hard metallic THUNK followed by a screeching sound.
Karasu calmly kept tapping his staff against the car. His quarry was close now, and he was completely aware of him. Now the time was here to make his quarry aware of the one who hunted him.
The noise underneath him suddenly stopped. Karasu slowly turned around. The man who stood before him looked slightly different, but the Karasu saw through to the essence of him, and knew his quarry had come to him at last.
Kienan pointed his gun at the strangely attired man in front of him. He was dressed in red and black, his face obscured by a hood and a strange hat. In some ways, he looked like the priests he'd seen at some of the temples in the colony, but in other ways, like the pieces or armor inlaid with circuit patterns he wore, he was totally unlike a priest. As he stepped into the light he could see the man had no face at all, only a blank white mask, it's eyes black and empty, its expression neutral.
"I am impressed," Karasu said. "How did you manage to elude my ravens deathtrap below you?"
Kienan steadied himself on the top of the car. In the gentle breeze around them, his long chestnut braid whipped behind him. In his other hand he raised a rather large and threatening knife. "Youd be surprised how determined I am to survive."
"Indeed," Karasu said, amused. "How fortunate then, my intent was not to kill you."
"Wasn't it? You certainly tried hard enough."
"This?" Karasu said, gesturing with a free hand while his staff crossed is face. "This is just a message, Ademetria."
Karasu took a step forward, looking into Kienan eyes with whatever lay behind his mask. "It's been decided that you must be destroyed, Kienan Ademetria, and I will be the one to cause your destruction. But before that happens, you will live to see everything you cherish fall into ruin before you. And then, when you have no escape at all, I will come for you."
Kienan pulled the trigger, firing a bullet at Karasu's black face. There was a shimmer of light as it struck the energy field in front of him. Before he could fire another shot, a now-familiar red laser sliced through his pistol.
Karasu raised his staff. His ravens responded to his call, circling around him, ready to shield him and cut him down all at once.
"You have been warned," Karasu said. "Run if you like, but you cannot escape me, everywhere you are, I am just behind. You would do better to attempt to escape your own shadow. You are dead, Ademetria!"
And with that, Karasu leapt off the train, followed close behind by his ravens. Kienan looked over the edge, but saw no sign that Karasu had ever been there at all.
Kienan sighed and slid his knife under his jacket, now stained and torn from the battle and the climb to the top. Below him he could hear sirens. Soon, this whole sector would be full of them.
Questions I'm not ready to answer, Kienan thought, carefully climbing up the support arm for the train car. I've got too many of my own now. Nervously he reached out to the rail, bracing himself for the shock he knew was coming.
There was no shock. Apparently the controllers had cut power once the train had been reported in distress. He climbed up between the tight coil of rails, eventually finding the service walkway. Slowly, he began to crawl on his hands and knees towards the next stop, his mind turning over the strange man's words to him, the warning within and the strange feeling of urgency rising in him.