Colony Control was a small module located beneath the Space Ring but in front of the colony sectors. Within the module was a hurricane of activity. Monitor technicians looked at monitors of activity within the colony and the Space Ring, while constant audio information buzzed in their ears.
Every now and again one of the technicians would walk over to the bank of computers Conner sat behind and hand him a data folio. He read over the information contained within it with a sigh.
No word on the incidents within the colony from the interior surveillance systems, the damage control crew or the colonial police, he thought, annoyed. I've got all their reports in, and no leads.
He glanced up from the data folio at one of the screens. A local sensor sweep registered the flight of the two fighters he'd asked Frost to send on patrol, just in case of an attempted escape. Holding them in the colony would invite disaster, but once they were clear, that was a different story.
Or would be, if there was anyone to battle, he thought, tossing the data folio onto the desk with the others. He leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes, rubbing the bridge of his nose to alleviate the migraine he felt coming on.
He became aware of a soft tone and opened his eyes. On one of the monitors there was a personal message being broadcast over the communications network, with Conner's name on it.
I thought we still had the comm system on lockdown, he thought, opening the message. He frowned. Private Transmission Requested? What was this?
He sighed and reached for a headset on the far side of the pile of data folios, plugged it in, and confirmed the request.
"This is Conner," he said quietly. "Who is this?"
"Who this is isnt important," the voice on the other end said curtly. The voice was male, and cultured, with only a trace of an accent. "I have information on the . . .trouble . . .in the colony."
"Youre breaking high-level security for this," Conner said. "It better be good. I've already started a trace on this message."
"For all the good it would do you," the voice replied flatly. "I'm using multiple encryption and relaying it through the entire colony. By the time you trace the message, the equipment and process used to make it will be long destroyed."
"I'm impressed," Conner said. "So what's this information."
"I'm sending you a file on a man. You may find it interesting reading."
"I'm guessing this is . . .hello?" Conner asked. He looked at the trace progress. Stopped cold. He opened the file. It was a fairly small document--a few pictures that looked like they'd been sent through several cleanups and a few pages of text, but with enough pertinent detail that he didnt immediately discard it.
Hmm, this is interesting reading, Conner thought, scrolling through it and skimming it for detail. But since I'm not really a fan of fiction, let's do some fact checking.
Mirage lifted the panel on the Silhouette's docking airlock, opening the service hatch. Ideally, the panel was supposed to be used in case of power failure on the ship to allow for manual release of the door.
For Mirage, it was a quieter way in. She was far enough into the Silhouette's berth on the Space Ring that invisibility wasn't necessary, but there was no guarantee that the snap-hiss of the airlock depressurizing and opening wouldn't bring the marines she'd seen on the concourse down on her.
She felt around for the handle inside and slowly squeezed it. There was a soft hiss as the pressure in the compartment was released, followed by a soft whumph as the automatic motors for the door disengaged. Mirage crouched and slid her fingers in, lifting the heavy door up slowly while she slid herself underneath the crack.
Once through, she slid the door down and used the panel on the other side of the door to pressurize the airlock again. Once done she keyed in the entry code for the main hatch and walked into the pale, spare light of the Silhouette.
Kienan had bought the Silhouette as a stock cargo hauler, but substantial modifications hid its true nature very well. While from the outside and to the occasional nosy scanner it looked like a beat-up drab freighter hardly worth bothering with, inside it was anything but.
Mirage made her way down the narrow main corridor, past the living quarters as she moved forward to the bridge. She mounted the stairs to the bridge, the tomblike stillness of the ship like a strange sort of bubble.
Inside here, it's easy to believe everything's not going to hell outside, Mirage pondered. Too bad I know better.
To rescue Kienan, Mirage would need some things from the ship. To escape the colony immediately afterward, she would need the help of her sister.
The door to the bridge slid open. Like the rest of the ship it was cold and quiet. Only the intermittent blinking of the various computer banks betrayed any activity at all.
"Conscience?" Mirage called.
"Yes?" Called a voice behind her. Mirage turned slowly and beheld her third sister. Conscience had been like them once, until one of Kienan's enemies tried to destroy her as a warning to him.
Kienan hadn't been willing to let her die. Mirage remembered the look of cold determination on his face as he busily tried to keep her from shutting down and frantically reading technical manuals. It had seemed to Mirage as though Kienan had some personal stake in her survival.
The only solution he'd been able to manage in time was to integrate her into his ship. So Conscience dwelled her, locked into the circuits of the Silhouette, suspended from the ceiling by wires and cables designed to keep her alive.
"Something's happened," Mirage said. "I need the Vroom."
"Readying . . .now," Conscience said, her voice blank and without inflection. Mirage found herself reminded of Jayla-2 remarking about how creepy Conscience sounded, though she herself had never thought about it one way or another.
"I'm also going to need a way into the colony and a way out," Mirage said. "Have you still got that back door into the Colony's systems?"
"How far does it go?" Mirage asked. "I need an override of the shuttle access hatch to the colony. After that, we're going to need to take the ship out."
"I will . . .attempt," Conscience replied, turning away from Mirage. Mirage looked at the left side of her face, burned black, with a single red eye glaring outward.
"While you're working on that, I'm going to get ready," Mirage said. She tapped a series of buttons on one of the bridge consoles and moved for the door.
"Mirage," Conscience said. "Kienan?"
Mirage looked down at the deck and then over her shoulder at her sister.
"I . . .we . . .dont know yet."
Kienan walked through the streets, ducking into alleyways and the doorways of buildings every now and again to break his trail. He noted with some surprise that no one seemed to be on the street--for a colony lockdown there was a noticeable lack of police patrols or surveillance remotes.
He wrapped the long grey cloak around him, pulling the hood of it over his face. A surge of embarrassment went through him. He knew full well why the colony had been locked down.
Because I screwed up, he thought. More than I ever could have imagined. I've been attacked while I've been here before, but I was always able to deal with the attacker quietly.
But every time I tried to fix things this time, they only got worse, he thought bitterly. And they may get even more dire before I'm done.
Mao gave me an out, but I couldn't leave them behind, he chided himself. And I've failed there too. Too stupid to realize that attachments are a luxury I cant afford, because they tie me down and have a tendency to . . .
He paused at the store in front of him. Lil's store. The short hairs on the back of his neck stood up as his cold emerald eyes noticed the details, the little things that were out of place.
For one thing, Lil would never have left the door cracked for any reason. He moved closer to the door and saw that it was wedged open slightly, the tarnished copper of the bell Lil had tied over the frame was dented, as if someone slamming it shut had crushed it.
Kienan pushed on the door, the stifling smell filling his nostrils. He grit his teeth, ignoring the stench of fermenting blood and excrement that hung in the air like a specter.
What was harder to restrain was the feeling inside him. Equal parts sorrow and fear and a rage that was building inside him, making his fingers tremble as he reached inside his cloak for his pistol.
The blood and excrement was a telltale sign. Someone had died in here, and long enough ago that the blood had pooled and started to become black and sticky. Long enough that their bowels had let go, and long enough that the whole awful mess had time to dominate the room.
It was what death smelled like.
Kienan pulled out his pistol, making his way through the stifling darkness. He kept himself in control enough to step over the bodies in the aisles and the broken glass, leaving sticky footprints of blood and spilt whiskey in his wake.
In his mind, lies echoed. She could still be alive, he told himself. She could have fought these two off and hid upstairs. Maybe it was just a couple of local thugs looking for a quick score while the colony police were busy with the lockdown.
Maybe . . .
He took a deep breath, and leaned against the counter, leaving his pistol there as he took a long look at the scene behind the counter and the lies fell away.
He shut his eyes for a moment, not to fight back tears, because there weren't any. He'd seen enough death to know better--all the tears in the galaxy, in the universe, wouldn't change the scene in front of him. He shut them tighter, gritting his teeth, hoping to will it all away
He opened his eyes. Still there.
"RRRRRAGH!" Kienan snarled from deep in his throat, swinging a clenched fist backward. It caught against the reinforcement of his glove and shattered one of the few bottles left standing upright on the shelves. Kienan's eyes cut over his shoulder, and he seized another bottle by the neck and thew it against the far wall, the growl of frustration more like an animal's drowning out the sound of it exploding against the wall.
He stalked over the broken glass towards the two corpses behind the counter. He seized the stiff, headless body of the man on top of her and threw him aside with the desperate strength of a man trying to save someone from death.
"Get OFF her, damn it!" he shouted back at the corpse, now slumped against the other side of the counter. Lil lay underneath him, most of her face caved in with from the entry of the bullet, her eyes black and vacant. Underneath her was the red and pink explosion of her skull.
Kienan breathed quietly, the trembling that started from his fingers now suffusing his entire body. He rose up slowly, pounding his fists on the counter so hard the surface cracked and the pistol he'd laid on the other end jumped. It felt good so he did it again. And again. And again.
Finally, he stopped, his fists having created a split in the counter from one end to the other. He took a deep breath, looking down at Lil again. The rawness in his throat came as a sudden shock--he'd been so out of his mind he hadnt realized he'd been screaming.
He looked from her to the crack in the counter. Looks like I've ruined her business, he thought, his eyes flicking from the crack to his pistol to the cash register, broken, nicked by a bullet or two, but most of all, not opened.
His eyes narrowed on it while his mind tried to force a thought through the firestorm of anguished rage that clouded everything.
They . . .they didnt take anything in the register, he thought. He forced himself to kneel a bit, trying not to look at Lil as he looked at the safe. Apart from a few splatters of blood, it was undisturbed.
He rose back up to the broken counter, the deep breaths turning to sighs.
If they didnt take anything, he thought, that means they were here because of me. That means that . . .
A thought almost as hard to take in as seeing Lil murdered began to take shape in his mind.
"Even our people weren't able to locate them," Mao had said, when he'd offered Kienan an exit.
But why would he sell me out?
As if in answer to his question, a thousand explanations filled the vacuum.
Because you got caught.
Because you brought your own trouble into the colony, and if you could be targeted, someone might be able to trace Mao through you.
Kienan bowed his head, trying to blot out the thoughts filling his mind. His fingers reached for his pistol, like a red scorpion crawling along the smashed counter.
What other explanation makes sense? The insistent voice in Kienan's head called. He gave you an exit for only one person. He'd tried to track down your people. There was no exit, idiot--he was going to deliver you to the Onikage, and your people would be dealt with in case they got any ideas about retribution. Lil was just the first. In time, he'd have dealt with them all, and unlike you, quietly.
He sold you out.
He wouldnt do that, Kienan thought, slowly raising his pistol.
He sold you out.
Kienan screamed again, pointing and firing wildly in front of him. More of the bottles exploded and the walls were riddled with shot after shot, the loud reports of his pistol drowning out the sound of his screams of rage.
He finally stopped, having emptied the clip, a slow thin stream of smoke trailing from the barrel of the gun. Kienan glared out at nothing in the room, his teeth bared.
He sold me out, Kienan thought, snatching the cloak off his body. Had to be him. Mao sold me out for making too much trouble on the colony, and whether he was going to give me to the police or the Onikage, it doesnt matter.
He laid the cloak over Lil's body. It was a poor substitute for a funeral shroud, but it felt like something he should do. The least he could do.
After all, he hadnt been able to protect her in life. Making her death a little more dignified was all he had left to give her.
He closed his eyes and opened them again. Take care, Lil, he thought, sparing her a glance.
Dont worry, he thought, ejecting the clip from his pistol and slapping a new one in. I'll be joining you shortly.
His thoughts flashed to Mao for a second.
And I'll be bringing company.
Aboard the Vindicator, Frost watched the status screens on the main viewer while the third duty shift filed onto the bridge. Things had been fairly quiet for a colony and a ship on alert. The crew had done their jobs well, and everything, on the Vindicator's end at least, had gone like clockwork.
But the crew's getting impatient for the alarm to go off, he mused, studying the indicators on the board. We've been on high alert for hours now and no sign of this "terrorist" or any sign of an escape. It's asking a lot for them to be as efficient indefinitely chasing ghosts.
He leaned back in the command chair and sighed, resting his eyes for a second. He was quiet for a moment before the communications officer interrupted him.
"Commander Frost?" The young crewman said. "Captain Conner is contacting us from the colony. Message is coded for your eyes only."
Frost raised an eyebrow. "Pipe it through to the situation room, Crewman. I'll take it in there."
He rose from his chair and walked into the situation room, quickly accessing one of the communication terminals and inputting his access code. "This is Frost, Captain," he said.
"Commander, I'm sending you a file that came through a couple hours ago," Conner said, his voice more muted than usual over the terminal's small speaker. "I'd like you to cross-check the information over the UEF information network and anywhere else for confirmation. Handle it personally, Commander. The colonials are getting impatient for a break and I don't want to get their hopes up."
"Yes, sir," Frost said. "Standing by for transmission."
"Transmitted," Conner said.
Frost began paging through the data on the terminal. "If you dont mind my asking, sir, how did you get this?"
"Anonymous tip," Conner said.
"I thought the colony was locked down and communications were solely for official use."
"They are. I'm suspicious of the source, which is why I'm playing it close to the vest. Understand?"
"Yes, sir," Frost said. "I'll report back of and when I have anything Captain. Frost out."
He opened one of the pictures and his eyes opened wide. Conner had only asked for UEF databases to verify the information, but Frost had seen the face in that image before somewhere else.
It's him, he thought, squinting at the picture, trying to confirm the likeness as he made a mental note to check the information against a bulletin he'd seen on another database a few months ago.
The Olympus Vanguard's database might have something on this man as well.
Angela had started hearing the noise about twelve hatches down. Her ears were trained to filter out the noise she herself made. It wasn't the sound of her feet hitting the rungs of the ladder, or the sound of her grunting as she lifted the hatches up, or even the sounds of her bypassing the locks on the hatches.
No, it was the quiet scratching sound that always seemed to be a few feet above her that was bothering her. It didnt sound like someone following her--even someone trying to be quiet couldnt possibly make that little noise--in a confined shaft like this, even the movement of body weight made some noise.
No, it was something else, Angela thought, willing herself to yank open one of the hatches despite shoulders burning with effort. And what ever it is, I'm almost certain it's nothing good.
As she slammed the hatch shut, she pried open the access panel again, yanking a few wires and one of the wafer-thin circuit boards, dropping it down behind her.
Okay, whatever you are, Angela thought, rapidly making her way down the rungs of the ladder. Let's see you try to get through the hatch with the locks jammed.
She was halfway down to the next hatch when she heard the rending of metal above her. In the spare light of the hatchway she saw orange-tipped claws sinking through the hatch and prying it off its hinges.
Oh crap, she thought, grasping the sides of the ladder and resting the insteps of her feet against them, sliding down to the hatch below her.
Not good not good not good, she thought, quickly bypassing the locks on the hatch. She tried to pull the hatch open, but her arms wouldnt obey her. Too much too rapidly--she was too tired.
She looked up. The claws were gone, but replaced with something she found even more unsettling. Two red eyes, like pinpricks of red were slowly making their way down to her.
She pulled the hatch again, the pain incredible, but she did it. The hatch slammed shut behind her and she jammed it again, sliding down even faster. She couldn't trigger the alarms and set the deadlocks on the hatches until she was all the way through, so she'd have to work fast, especially without Mirage to do all the heavy lifting.
Kienan made his way back to Mao's headquarters neither in a rage nor in any haste. The rage was boiled away, replaced with the cold clarity of what he intended to do--repay Mao for Lil by boring a neat little hole between his eyes with a bullet.
The lack of haste had less to do with Mao or the possibility of pursuit. No, Kienan was fairly certain that the fire he'd set that was had started blowing out the windows on the second story before he'd left Lil's store.
That should keep the colonial authorities busy, he thought. Long enough to do the job, anyway.
A million thoughts and memories went through his mind. He wasn't so much appalled at Mao's ingratitude as he was his dishonesty--if he were so displeased that Kienan had basically caused his Syndicate's operations to be suspended, he could have just as easily ordered Kienan killed or done it himself. Kienan would have even let him do it.
No, it was the lie that fired Kienan's fury. That after all he'd done for Mao--up to and including saving him from a botched coup d'etat by his psychotic daughter--he would lie to him.
He made his way over the house's fence and moved quietly through the garden. He paused at the rustle of branches or the sounds of footsteps. He didn't want to bother with Mao's guards or his subordinates or anyone save Mao.
No, he thought. This is between him and me.
The noises eventually subsided and he made his way through the garden a bit more easily and openly, his hands staying by his side, just in case. With every step, the dull throb of fury fired a little bit higher behind his eyes like an engine of rage.
Kienan was a few steps from the door when he was knocked aside by a dark red blur. Kienan's chest felt like he'd been hit with a cinderblock, as he tucked and rolled back to his feet, his long braid flaring out behind him as he snapped back into a ready stance, facing the thing that had knocked him down.
The details weren't familiar, but the generalities were. It was larger than Kienan, taller by a whole foot and wider by half, its red and black hide barely restraining muscle and sinew. It glared at Kienan with baleful orange eyes, balanced on its toes in a ready stance.
"Ah, the "champion" arrives, at last," he said. "You dont recognize me, I'm sure, but I know you. You may call me Ghidorus."
Kienan glared at him, seething silently.
"You killed my student, Ademetria," he said. "You brought shame to my entire race, and sullied our most sacred ritual in the bargain when you won the bloodmatches, you retarded primate."
Kienan was still quiet as Ghidorus moved closer to him.
"I intend to complete the circle this night," the beast continued. "I will kill you and eat your heart, wiping away the stain you left on my people with your very blood, Ademetria."
Slowly, as if the words had to force his lips open, Kienan spoke.
"What was that? Speak up, "Champion." I'd hate for your final words to be inaudible gibberish," Ghidorus taunted
In the blink of an eye Kienan had draw his knife and slashed at Ghidorus.
"I SAID SHUT UP!" Kienan said, the rawness in his throat making him sound even more feral than he'd intended. "I don't have TIME for you now."
He flipped the blade in his hands, intending to stab Ghidorus and end the battle before it began, but Ghidorus was ready. He seized Kienan by the forearm, squeezing hard enough to immobilize him. His eyes met Kienan's, the line of blood from where Kienan had slashed him tricking down and running in rivulets through the wrinkles in his face.
"Make time, human," Ghidorus said. He wedged his tail against Kienans chest and let go of his arm, shoving him backwards. He looked around the garden. "Hardly a proper setting for our final battle, but I've waited far too long for a little thing like propriety stop me from taking me revenge on you."
Kienan rose to his feet, knife in hand, his eyes radiating rage so wild that it seemed as though it would burst from his body.
"Then come on and take it," Kienan said through clenched teeth. "Take it if you think you can. Come on and let me send you to hell!"
Ghidorus smiled, his long spiked teeth like the grin of a shark that had just found a filling supper just waiting to be consumed. He leaned back on his heels and braced with his tail, springing forward like a leaping tiger.
Kienan leapt forward as well, claw meeting blade, fury matched by fury.