Still in trouble, he thought.
"How . . .how long?" Kienan asked, sitting up and taking the cup of hot tea Chang offered. The rest had done him good--after the two battles with Tenma and Koriojo, he'd been more dead than alive. He was still bandaged and still bleeding, but he felt like he had gained some strength back.
But how much time have I lost?
"Two and half hours," Mao said. "I insisted you rest for as long as possible, until my meeting with Wong had concluded."
"Two hours," Kienan repeated. He looked down at the carpet, mustering the courage to ask the question on the tip of his tongue. "What about--"
"Your escape?'" Chang finished. "I've formulated a route that will take you past the security cordons, even through the contingent of UEF marines they have guarding the Space Ring now."
"Marines?" Kienan blinked. What the hell were the UEF doing this far out in force?
Chang nodded. "Our people say an entire garrison will be on the colony by tomorrow. Apparently, a patrol ship put in port and offered assistance in pacifying the situation colony-side."
Kienan groaned. More than anything, he wanted a cigarette. "Marines," he said grimly. "Looking for me. I dont suppose there's been any sign of the Onikage at work, have there?"
Mao shook his head. "There have been no "terrorist attacks," as the official colonial advisory puts it," he said. "The Onikage are waiting for you to show yourself, obviously, that they may try to kill you again."
Kienan nodded, sitting up and swinging his legs around to the floor. He looked at Chang. "I dont suppose my guide can protect me from them, can they?"
"If it comes to a fight, no," Chang admitted. "The exit we've devised for you relies mostly on speed to elude both the UEF and the Onikage. We cannot easily move an armed team of operatives through a security net this tight."
Kienan took a deep breath, and was relieved to find that the pain in his ribs had abated enough for him to breathe fully. There was enough weighing on him without that.
"There is more bad news, I'm afraid," Mao said. Chang moved to speak, but Mao waved him off. "No, I want Kienan to hear the bad news from me. Kienan, the exit we have for you is only good for one person. As Chang said, moving groups through this security is next to impossible."
Kienan closed his eyes. In his mind, he weighed the stakes. Leave behind Vain, Mirage, Jayla-2 and Angela, he thought. All on the assumption that the Onikage will chase me and not go after them.
What happens if they dont take the bait?
"I'm sorry," Mao said gently. "Believe me, we tried. But if we weren't able to locate your people on our own, perhaps they will be kept safe from the Onikage until you return."
"I know you tried," Kienan said quietly.
In his mind were the voices of his mentors again, the same voices that had spurred him to take the fight to the Onikage were again giving him the expected advice: "Leave them behind. What does it matter if they die, so long as you live to thwart the Onikage and someday settle the score? The life you chose doesn't allow you to have ties like this without any cost, and you've cut them before. Cut and run."
Kienan looked at Mao, realizing that they were waiting for him to speak. An air of tense sadness seemed to electrify the room, the very air was thick with it. However he decided, whatever he decided, the time to make the choice was now.
Kienan took a deep breath, weighing the wisdom of his mentors against what was in his heart. He exhaled gently and told Mao his decision.
Jayla-2 looked out at the window while Vain cleaned the fierce-looking weapon laying on the end table before her.
"At least they finally opened the colony panels," Jayla-2 said. "I guess morning just . . .came a little late."
"There is no such thing as "morning" in a space colony," Vain corrected, fitting two of the gun's components together. "Starlight is reflected and magnified by the colony's solar panels and directed to the habitats inside. It only seems like daylight, but with no sun, there is only a diffuse daylight that lasts for a proscribed time each day. It's just an illusion."
Jayla-2 looked at her. "Oh," she said. "I keep forgetting that. It's . . .so easy, you know, once you've lived here for a while to . . .fool yourself, I guess."
Vain fit the joined components to a third component. "I have been here for several years, now," she said. "I've never forgotten that it's an illusion."
Jayla-2 looked back at the window. Talking to Vain wasn't making her feel much better. "I . . .Vain?"
Vain hefted the assembled weapon up to closely inspect it. She cocked an eyebrow in Jayla-2's direction.
"What will we do if Kienan's . . .dead?"
Vain looked at the weapon, then looked at Jayla-2.
"Self-destruct," she finally said, with the same matter-of-fact tone she'd just used to explain the illusion of daybreak.
Jayla-2 looked back at her companion, shocked. "Seriously?"
Vain nodded. "Mirage, Conscience, and myself will all self-destruct if we discover Kienan is dead," she said. "Conscience will pilot Kienan's ship into the nearest star, destroying it as well."
"Kienan . . .asked you to do that?"
"No," Vain said, attaching the weapon's other components to the weapon. "We decided it would be best."
Jayla-2 just stared. "Just like that?"
Vain put down the weapon and looked at Jayla-2. "You know we're sworn to serve Kienan?"
"How could I . . .how could any of us continue to exist knowing we'd failed him? He allowed us to continue living, it's our duty to ensure that he continues to live. To let him die is to fail to do for him what he did for us. I will not allow that."
Jayla-2 looked at her. "I wondered why you went along with me. I understand a little better why, now."
Vain rose from her seat and walked towards Jayla-2. "You gave me little choice," she said. "Kienan ordered me to protect you and I could no more let you die than to let him be killed."
Jayla-2 bit her lip. She blinked, her green eyes moistening slightly. "Vain," she said, her voice quavering slightly. "I'm scared. I mean, I know I was the one who suggested we do something but the longer it takes . . .the more I feel like something terrible is going to happen."
"You have every reason to feel terrified," Vain said. "We dont know who's out there, how strong they are, anything, really. We could be destroyed before we even reach Kienan. We could go and find that Kienan's been dead since yesterday. We could find him and all of us die together."
"Youre not exactly making me feel better, Vain."
"I'm not trying to," Vain said. "But I want to ask you this--even with everything that could go wrong, everything we could lose . . .will you still do whatever you must to save Kienan?"
Jayla-2 blinked, and nodded her head several times, as if to emphasize it.
Vain slowly took her hand. "Then I will be with you and help you to save him."
Wong fit the ring device into the cradle on the bottom of the ungainly flat device that lay on the bed, squinting as the screen above the cradle flickered and hummed to life.
Behind him, Korin lay on one of the beds of the hotel room, staring at the ceiling with such hate it seemed like she might blast through the ceiling to the stars beyond. She made a theatrical sigh loud enough for Wong to hear, as if to remind him she were still in the room.
"No one is forcing to you to stay here," Wong said icily. "If youre bored, I'm certain you could find something to occupy your time. The UEF's landed a detachment of Marines; perhaps you could go meet with them and jeopardize their timetable like you're doing with mine."
Korin sat up on the bed. "It's the waiting," she said, ignoring his insult. "I don't like it. I hate it. We're so close. I'm ready to go there Wong, look my father in the eye, and settle this."
He sighed as he scrolled through data fragments on the screen. "You know," he sighed. "For your sake, I'm really glad we got together. I don't know how you've managed to live this long without patience."
"I've been patient," she hissed. "It's been three years."
"Uh-huh," Wong said. "Three years of cutting a bloody swath through anyone and everyone in your way and grabbing all the power you can in the confusion. There's only so many times you can use the same strategy, Korin, and expect to succeed."
"It's done fine for me so far," Korin said. "What about you? Bowing, scraping, biding your time, hiding the contempt you feel for the old men who run your Syndicate behind a fake smile and making empty plans even though they're weak enough to where you could take what you wanted if you just had a little backbone."
"Backbone is highly overvalued as a means to an end," Wong said. "You and I both know we wouldn't have had a prayer of getting past Ademetria had I not engaged the Onikage and kept him busy. If we'd followed your plans, at the very best we'd be busy fighting him and kept far away from our goal."
"Keep talking," Korin said, reaching for her pistol.
"Go ahead," Wong said. "I've got my shieldsuit on now, remember?"
"I never pay attention to what you wear," Korin leveled the weapon at the back of Wong's head. "Besides, that's only good against lower-powered weapons and projectiles," she said. "Why do you think I carry such a heavy gun? One shot and I could watch you burn up from the inside out, until youre just a pile of ashes."
"Perhaps," Wong said. "But even if your disintegrator gun could get through my shieldsuit, you need me alive. If for no other reason than to appreciate what my guile and patience this morning has netted us."
Korin blinked, annoyed. "What are you talking about."
Wong hefted the device and turned to face Korin. "During my meeting I was able to use my ring, here," he said, pointing at the ring in the cradle below the screen. "And I happened to find a report Mao commissioned to track down Kienan."
Korin safetied her weapon and tossed it aside on the bed. "You what?" Korin asked incredulously, bouncing a little closer on the bed. Her brown eyes flitted over the screen. "Oh, wow," she said, a bit of the girl she still was slipping through her dark psychosis. "It even has one of his safehouses!"
"Yes indeed," Wong said, smiling triumphantly. "I intend to give this information to the Onikage, and that should flush him out so they can snuff him out."
"You think he's even at one of these places right now?" Korin asked.
"No," Wong said. "Actually, I think he's at the Blue Dragon's headquarters, recuperating."
"If you're joking, Wong, so help me, I'll--"
"Well, Mao and his lapdog Chang were sure trying to keep me from something this morning," Wong said. "To make sure I asked after him. Mao's evasiveness told me all I needed to know. What other explanation makes sense to you, my dear Korin?"
Korin frowned. "So why not just kill him there at the headquarters?"
"The Onikage have been retained by other branches of the Blue Dragons in the past," Wong said. "I don't think mounting an assault on one of those branches to kill one man is in their best interests, really, do you?"
"So they plan to draw him out?"
"Very good," Wong said, patting her shoulder like a teacher might a good student. "And while they're busy with him, we will be at Mao's . . .renewing acquaintances."
Korin glared at him, the joy gone from her face like it had never been there. "Stop touching me."
Wong made a big show of looking hurt and took his hand away. "See? We're closer to the endgame than you thought."
Wong turned back to the table, downloading the information on the console to the data crystal port.
"Wong," Korin said.
"Hmm, what?" Wong replied distractedly.
"Is there any way I could . . .arrange to lead him out?"
Wong blinked and leaned back in his chair. "I thought you wanted to see your father again. You just told me five minutes ago you couldn't possibly wait anymore. Now you want to go shoot up one of his safehouses?"
"Well, not me," Korin said. "But the Jade Tigers have people here, people who could probably do it. This is supposed to be an alliance, after all, shouldn't my Syndicate hold up its end?"
Wong looked over his shoulder at her.
"What's this really about, Korin?"
"I just want to hurt Kienan," Korin said. "I want to destroy something precious of his, and once he's dead and rotting in hell, he'll be able to see my hand in it . . .and know I've hurt him in a way he can never pay me back for."
Wong pondered that for a few minutes. "You know," he said, looking at her. "The more I'm with you, the more I'm convinced that youre deeply sick and insane."
He watched her hand close around the butt of the gun.
"That said," he began. "What exactly did you have in mind?"
Angela was pouring sweat, even in the cool air of the empty Space Ring. It had taken two hours and forty-seven maintenance hatches to get here, and she was glad, because her body ached so badly she was certain a forty-eighth hatch would have killed her.
Mirage was ahead of her, looking to see if the coast was clear.
She didnt have to give it much of a glance to see it was. She walked back to Angela, pushing her gently into the shadows next to the hatch.
"Wait here," Mirage said. She walked back towards the wall, a weird shimmer seeming to ripple over her body. Mirage faded like a ghost, seeming to vanish into the cold silence of the Space Ring.
She took a few cautious steps forward out into the main concourse. Even as early as it was the Space Ring should have been full of activity. Kuran was a main stop along the Frontier's trade routes, traffic went back and forth all the time.
On every day save this one, she thought, invisibly moving towards the section where their ship, the Silhouette, was berthed. She was about to open the airlock to it when the sound of boots on metal stopped her in her tracks.
There were five of them on the far side of the concourse. Their uniforms were a drab blue-grey, with white body armor covering them. White helmets covered their faces, all except for their mouths. They were gesturing to someone past her field of vision, their thin smiles indicating that perhaps they were sharing a joke. Mirage took one look at the heavy plasma rifles they were carrying and didnt feel much like laughing.
Mirage had never seen them in person until now, but she knew enough.
Marines, she thought. A whole squad of them.
Quickly, she evaluated the situation, then made her way back to the hatchway. Air seemed to ripple and shimmer and Mirage appeared again.
"Can you go back the way you came?" Mirage said quietly.
"Yeah," Angela whispered. "But why?"
"There's a large squad of Marines here," Mirage said. "And unless you can turn invisible and never told me, I don't think we can both make it to the ship."
"But--" Angela said.
"No," Mirage said. "Listen. They need to know what's waiting for us when we try to blast out of there. Besides, if I'm tied up, maybe you can find a way to get them to Kienan. Right now, they need you more than I do."
"You're not playing fair," Angela said quietly.
"No," Mirage said. "I'm not. I really cant afford to, can I? Neither can you. Go. Please."
Angela nodded, sighed and quietly lifted the hatch, shuffling down the rungs of the ladder. She paused, her head just looking over the hatchway.
"Mirage?" Angela hissed.
Mirage looked at her.
Mirage nodded to her, rippling and fading from view again. Angela sighed, her muscles groaning as she embarked on the long way down again.
Akumo stood quietly in the darkness, tears flowing from her red eyes.
"Tenma," she said. "My Tenma. Murdered."
"If it's of any comfort, he died well," Karasu said. "He very nearly killed our target before the end. He even tried to annihilate him with his self-destruct mechanism."
"It's not," Akumo said, turning to Karasu and glaring with white-hot fury. "It's no comfort at all. Karasu, whoever is next in line to fight this Ademetria person . . .call them off."
"I'm not certain that's wise," Karasu said. "After all, you're an illusionist. Kienan's killed two of our finest assassins."
"Dont you dare belittle me!" Akumo thundered. "Koriojo was skilled but she wasn't motivated enough to eliminate him! But I am. More than any of the others, I would walk though all the hells in infinity to kill him."
"What about Tenma?" Karasu said. "Did he lack motivation as well?"
Akumo took a deep breath, more tears running down her dead-white cheeks. "Tenma . . .was unlucky. That's what I intend to find out when I kill Ademetria. I'll find out what happened to my beloved before I finish him."
She raised her mechanical arm, the long spike concealed in the forearm extending on her mental command. "I'll rip it from his mind," she said, lost in her rage.
Akumo looked at Karasu. She'd forgotten he was there.
"Then, Karasu, I'll desecrate his miserable corpse," she sneered, the spike retracting back into his arm. "Give me this. Give me my revenge. You've held me in reserve while my beloved laid down his life."
Karasu pondered this, the expression on his mask just as black, dead, and impassive as always. He leaned on his staff for a moment as one of his ravens lit on his shoulder, the smooth ebony wings folding as it came to rest, it's red eyes glaring blankly ahead.
Karasu received the transmission from the raven with surprise. At last, he thought. A break worth exploring. And since Akumo is so eager to actively join the hunt instead of reconnaissance . . .
"I will grant you what you ask," Karasu said.
Akumo bowed to Karasu. "Thank you," she said quietly.
"There are conditions, Akumo," Karasu said. "You will not go alone."
Akumo stayed bowed, allowing herself a few deep breaths. "Just . . .whomever you send, make sure they know that only I will deliver the death strike on Ademetria."
"Of course," Karasu said. There was a heavy thunk behind him, then another, as though some large beast were stomping towards him. "It appears our target Ademetria has allies within the colony. I want you to have sufficient force to deal with them."
The noise behind him stopped. Seconds later a hiss of pressurized air issued behind him. Akumo rose and looked behind Karasu.
"And that, my dear Akumo, is why Ashura will accompany you."
The massive black and green robot loomed over Karasu, casting a shadow over the two of them. It stood rigid behind them, its six arms folded over its chest. Its glowing orange eyes framed an otherwise featureless face, encased in a helmet bristling with spikes.
Karasu stood between them, allowing himself the slightest bit of satisfaction. Let Ghidorus wait for his "perfect moment" if he cares to, he thought. The information I've received should end this whole matter shortly.
Ademetria, it's only a matter of time, he thought. I was angry, and allowed myself to forget that my way is to envelop and trap. As you are now trapped.
There is no way you can escape me now.
Lil drummed her fingers along the stained countertop and sighed. She hadnt quite worked out why she didn't simply close the store--after all, with the lockdown in effect, there was little to no chance of having any business today. The streets were deserted and it was hard to feel like partying when the fear of being attacked by terrorists was a possibility.
She fumbled for a cigarette. Of course, the real reason she was staying open had nothing to do with wringing so much as a nickel from a desperate wino who'd brave the lockdown.
I'm waiting for Kienan, she thought, her trembling fingers turning the cigarette in her fingertips. Like I always seem to end up doing.
The sound of the door opening and jangling the bell startled her so bad she nearly dropped her cigarette. She regained her composure and watched as four men walked into the store, quickly filtering out into the aisles of liquor bottles.
Lil made a show of fumbling for matches as she watched them. On the surface they seemed like any other customer, but that was what bothered her.
When one person acts like that, walking through the aisles slowly, looking at a bottle every now and again, it's normal enough, she thought, bending down below the counter.
When four people come in and act exactly the same, never mind on a day like this where even one person walking in would be suspicious, it means theyre sure as hell not looking for a fifth of my best.
"Need a light, lady?" one of them said, holding a silver lighter with a flame far too high for a cigarette. Lil leaned up just enough to catch the tip in the plume of flame, her eyes focused on the bulge under his coat.
"Thanks," she said. "I really needed that."
She didn't even take a drag on the cigarette before she leaned back, her hands tightening on the sawed-off shotgun under the counter. Time seemed to move at a glacial pace as she kicked back on the stool she sat on, planting her feet as she raised the shotgun at the man across the counter.
The shotgun kicked as she fired, the man's coat, shirt, and chest shredded as the impact threw him back towards the aisle, jostling it enough to knock some of the bottles off.
Lil pumped the shotgun again and fired again. The other men ripped their coats open and drew their machine pistols, dropping to the floor as she fired again, shattering another row of bottles.
Lil searched the aisles for the others, heard bottles rattling and blasted at the noise. On the other end of the store, one of the gunmen took aim at her. The first bullets hit the cash register, the third shot got her in her left elbow.
Pain blew through her body like she'd been hit by lightning, and Lil screamed louder than she could ever remember screaming. Her blood added a fresh stain to the countertop as she tried to turn and fire one-handed at the man who'd shot her.
She caught him as he was dashing from one aisle to the next, the kick from the shotgun shoving her back and momentarily tangling her legs up in the stool. The man hit the floor with a sick wet thud, the load from the shotgun smearing the dirty while tile like a red shadow.
But while she'd killed one, the other two gunmen drew on her. A shot caught her in her left shoulder, another in her right hip. She screamed again, the pain so bad she couldnt breathe. All she got was a few gasps of air that seemed to burn her lungs. Unable to cock the shotgun, or stand, or do anything, she leaned against the wall, her right hand holding the gun as she braced it against the wall, trying to pump it one last time.
It was no good. Another bullet ripped into her stomach, her already dirty grey shirt turning a dark brown, then a dark red as it got wet and heavy. She screamed again, her vocal chords ripped raw with a scream of pain and frustration and anger. The more effort she put into standing, the faster she slumped down behind the counter, the two remaining gunmen quickly moving behind the counter to check to see if she was truly dead.
One of them stepped gingerly over his dead friend, his pistol low and ready. He lifted the partition and stepped behind the counter. Lil was in a heap, the stool underneath her body, the front of her shirt soaked through with blood that was slowly dripping onto the tile floor.
He was just about to relax when she moved again, blood spurting from her wounds as she surged ahead one more time. She slammed the stock of the shotgun against the floor, the sound of the weapon cocking ringing out like an alarm bell in the tense quiet of the store.
She raised the shotgun unsteadily up at him as he brought the gun to bear between her eyes. They fired at the same instant, the buckshot of her gun stilling his heart as the bullet from his pistol punched between her eyes.
The last gunmen moved to see what was the matter but it was too late. His friend was dead, just like the others.
But finally, so was she.
He looked at the register, it's green display shattered by one of the stray bullets and momentarily thought about grabbing what was inside, but reminded himself that wasn't why he'd been sent.
He holstered his pistol, looking at his reflection in the glass as he tried to compose himself. Despite what had happened here, he had to look composed, in the unlikely event anyone stopped him when he went outside.
He opened the door, and yanked it shut behind him, trapping the bell between the door and the frame, its formerly cheerful ring now so much hollow clanking.