Jayla-2 cradled her friend, holding her close and trying to accept that she was gone for good. Tears streamed from her eyes as Vain watched over her, pacing impatiently back and forth with her weapon brandished in case anyone else called.
It still wasn't sinking in. How could this have happened? Why had Angela been killed? None of this was her fault, she thought, her body wracked with sobs. But she's dead. Just because she was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Just . . .so unfair.
There was a whining, howling noise outside. A cloud of dust and debris blew into the remains of the small apartment, gradually thinning out and revealing the shape of the Ruby Vroom. The side doors closest to the broken window slowly opened as Vain turned back to Jayla-2.
"She's here," Vain said. "We must go, Jayla-2."
"Angela is dead," Vain said curtly. "As you may be soon. Mirage says she lost a pursuit force on the way here, but the longer we just stand here, the easier it will be to catch us."
"We can't just leave her here," Jayla-2 sobbed. "Vain, we can't . . .she'll be all alone."
"We have to," Vain said. She looked from the window to Jayla-2. "I . . .understand how you feel, Jayla-2. But she's gone."
"How could you know?" Jayla-2 said, angrier than she meant to.
"Because I feel pain of my own," Vain said. "I failed Kienan. I failed to protect Angela. Don't make me fail again. Please. We have to go now."
Jayla-2 looked at her friend, her eyes wide with the fatal shock of death. Then she looked at Vain, and detected a trace of the same thing she was feeling.
The sense that they had both lost something precious and essential. Something they would never get back and always miss.
Jayla-2 stood up slowly, still holding Angela's stiffening body in her arms. Vain put her hand on Jayla-2's shoulder, and Jayla-2 shut her eyes as she let go. Quietly, Angela's body slipped back down to the floor, into the settling dust.
Jayla-2 felt like someone had pulled her heart from her chest and yet she still lived. Slowly she walked to the Vroom, Vain keeping her hand on her shoulder to keep her steady as they picked their way through the twisted steel and broken glass. And also, Jayla-2 supposed, to prevent her from looking back.
After all, there wasn't anything else to see anymore, was there?
They clambered aboard, Mirage sparing them a glance over her shoulder. "What kept you? I think the patrol ships are keeping their distance while I'm this close, but that's not going to last."
Mirage's eyes narrowed on the two of them. "What happened to you? Where's--"
Vain cut her off with a curt shake of her head. "Take us to the human sector, Mirage," she said, taking a seat at the weapons console. "We'll deal with our pursuers as we go. Sit down, Jayla-2."
Jayla-2 looked at the deck of the ship and sighed. She looked over her shoulder, back where her friend had fallen and slowly, as if every step were like walking barefoot on razors, took her seat.
She thought about her bravado before, how she'd grandly rallied everyone to action, and felt a small ache in her heart.
Talk like that had gotten Angela killed, she condemned herself. Because you insisted we do something to help Kienan, you've paid for it. You've ruined everything.
Vain looked at Jayla-2 while she brought all of the Vroom's weapons online. "Are you all right?" Vain asked, unusually gentle.
Jayla-2 thought about it and burst into tears.
"N-no," she said. "No, I'm not."
CRACK! CRACK! CCCRRRRRACK!
Wong had barely finished speaking to Chang and sending him off to find Kienan when the secret panel Kienan had entered from hours ago shattered.
Wong looked at Mao's chief assassin, trying not to let his fear show through. Wong was a fairly confident man, but there was something about Kienan standing there, covered in both his own blood and some viscous black mess that looked like blood. Maybe it was the fact that he was standing at all.
No it's more than that, Wong thought. His eyes. So empty, and full of hate all at once. He doesnt even acknowledge Korin sitting behind me.
"Hello, Kienan," Korin said. "It's been awhile. I wondered how Id feel if I ever saw you again. You've certainly looked better."
"You shouldnt have come back," Kienan said. "You sure as hell shouldnt have tried again to take power. Especially not with him helping you."
Kienan took one look at Mao, then back to Wong. "Karasu told me about what youd planned," he said slowly. "I hope you've enjoyed it, because you're as good as dead."
Wong smiles, tweezing the crease of his robed. "And how precisely do you intend to stop me, Ademetria? You had your chance already."
Kienan's eyes narrowed. "What?"
"Esteban Marco," Wong said. "Remember him? You killed him about a year ago on my directive.
"You should have heard him out. He had a recording of Korin and I organizing this little takeover bid. You were the one person we were worried about, you know. In our whole plan you were the wild card. That's your strength, isnt it? Your unpredictability.
"But even unpredictability is predictable," Wong said, taking a step away from Korin. "So I engaged the Onikage to keep you on the run while Korin and I put our plan into action. And like a good lap dog--" Wong spared Mao's corpse a glance. "Pardon me--like any good lapdog without a master--you did exactly what we wanted."
Kienan's hands drifted slowly to his hip.
"And now you'll be made to take the fall for the whole thing," Wong said. "It's perfect, you see, because by coming back here, you've written the last chapter for us. Kienan Ademetria, killed Mao Xai Jian, and was himself killed while trying to escape."
Wong's robe flared out as his hand lobbed something to Korin. Kienan caught sight of the disintegrator gun as it tumbled through the air, his own hands going for his pistols. The gun fell into Korin's hands as Kienan drew his pistols, the sight on her gun moving into position.
Kienan shot twice before Wong was on him. The first shot ripped through Korin's body armor at the wrist turning the green a reddish black as bone and muscle were shredded by the bullet. The second shot struck her in the stomach--neither of them immediately fatal wounds, but she'd keep.
Wong kicked one of his pistols out of his hand. Kienan retaliated by trying to smash him with the butt of his other pistol, but his strike stopped short of Wong.
Shieldsuit, Kienan thought angrily. Time to improvise.
Kienan turned, dropping his gun and seized Wong by the wrist, flipping him over his shoulder onto Mao's desk. Wong's flailing body kicked Mao's back to the wall behind him. Kienan drew his knife and began forcing it against the shield as his other hand reached for something--anything--on the desk. His hand closed around a paperweight of black marble and bashed it against the shield.
The fool thinks that shieldsuit will protect him from anything, Kienan thought, blood and sweat flying off his body as he hit the shield over and over again.
Maybe so, but not with constant pressure applied somewhere else.
"AAAGH!" Wong said, as the Midare-Giri found purchase past the shield, prying under the plate of armor on his chest. Kienan smashed him once more with the paperweight as he tore the plate loose, short-circuiting the shield around Wong once and for all.
Kienan glared at the unconscious man on the desk. "You started this whole thing for power, didn't you?" He asked, driving the blade into Wong's stomach and simultaneously activating the energy pulse within. Wong's body spurted blood and convulsed with the shock.
"There," Kienan said coldly. "There's your damned power."
Kienan sensed movement behind him. Korin dove for the pistol Kienan had dropped, but Kienan put his foot over it and her hand when she reached for it.
"Now," Kienan said. "It's your turn."
Korin looked up at him, hair matted to her face by her sweat, her eyes made with thwarted anger. "I knew I . . .shouldnt have depended on him."
"Youre right," Kienan said, pressing harder on her hand. "Why did you do it?"
"I wanted to hurt you," Korin said through teeth grit in pain. "You were . . . supposed to be mine. Killing the woman was the first step. I wanted you disgraced and dead."
"The woman?" Kienan said, squatting down, keeping the pressure on.
"The woman . . .at the liquor store," Korin groaned. "I . . .had . . .my people . . ."
Kienan snatched her up and gathered her by the hair, pulling her inches from his face. His eyes were even more made and enraged than hers. "WHAT DID YOU DO?"
"Had her killed," Korin said, enjoying the visible pain and anger on Kienan's face. "If she were special to you at all, I wanted her to die."
She tried to spit in his face, but her throat was too dry. Kienan, still yanking her by the hair, threw her onto the sofa so hard the back of her head banged against the wall.
Kienan looked at her, walking back over to the desk. "So," he said. "You killed your father, took your revenge and took his power. And you hurt me. I hope it was worth it."
Korin chuckled, then started to cry as much from the spreading wound in her stomach as some dark inner pain. "It's . . .not enough."
"It's all you get," Kienan looked at Wong, wiping the blood on the blade of his knife off on his robe.
"Oh no," Korin said. "I . . .wanted one more thing."
Kienan seethed silently, waiting for what he knew was coming next.
"I wanted you to die."
Kienan moved like a red blur, the pain vanished in a surge of adrenaline. In the flashes of seconds, the Midare-Giri was in his hands, turned then thrown. Korin caught the tip of the blade in her face, the force of the strike slamming the knife through her face, out the back of her head, and into the wall.
"You first," Kienan said quietly.
He walked over to her, regarding her curiously. The first time he'd met Korin she'd tried to impress him with her station and her regal bearing. The next she'd thrown herself at him and been brushed off.
And from that seed, apparently had been born enough hate for her to survive and return, destroying everything in her path, Kienan thought. It felt uncomfortable, like looking in a mirror.
Fortunately, Wong's weak laughter broke his reverie and prevented him from being too introspective about it.
"Th . . .that was most kind of you . . .Ademetria," Wong said, his voice weak. He tried to raise himself off the desk, but he'd lost too much blood. He spoke quietly through relentless hacking coughs. "I . . .can't tell you . . .how much I was . . .dreading muh . . .marrying that woman."
"I didnt do it for you, Wong," Kienan said, yanking his knife from Korin. "And you'll be in hell right along with her soon enough."
"It's . . .enough that she went first," Wong said, leaning back on the desk. He laughed. How ironic, he thought. I've gotten all he wanted--control of Mao's Syndicate, freedom from having to depend on Korin. I've won.
He looked at Kienan. "You know . . .I won," he said.
Kienan looked over his shoulder. Slowly, he nodded.
"But I'll s-say this for you . . .youre a poor loser, Ademetria."
Kienan's eyes flashed fire and he spun on his heels, grabbing Wong by the forehead and slashing him across the throat. There was a loud pop as Wong's arterial spray decorated the desk, Mao, and the walls with his blood.
Kienan glared at Wong.
"I surely am."
Conner banked hard and to the right as another of his patrol craft exploded on his pursuit craft's port side. The red craft they were pursuing was proving its formidability several times over--both in speed as well as armament it was well superior to the pursuit craft.
All we're doing is risking the colony's safety, Conner thought bitterly. We cant catch them without risking damage to the colony, and they know it. Every time we get close they duck into the city and pick their shots.
"Dammit," he said quietly, hitting a switch on his console. "All craft break off pursuit and regroup at the Space Ring, repeat, all craft break pursuit and regroup at Space Ring."
He waited for the running lights on his wingmen to confirm their signal and Conner banked his ship to match theirs. He didnt much enjoy the idea of retreating in the face of the enemy, but there was no way to win while their pursuer could use the colony's safety as a shield.
"Conner to Vindicator," he said.
"This is Vindicator, Frost here, Captain," Frost voice crackled over the craft's speakers.
"Bring the ship to full alert," Conner said. "Launch all fighters as soon as theyre ready. Colonial blockade. I'm heading back to take command."
"Aye, sir," Frost said. "Launching fighters now, our gun stations are being manned and armed."
"Good work, Commander," Conner said. "We're going to let these bastards slip out of the colony and let them have a taste of what it's like when we take off the gloves."
"Aye aye, sir," Frost said.
Conner engaged his engines to full burn. They weren't going to escape, he thought. Not this time.
Chang found Kienan in the center of the room, surrounded by corpses, quietly serene in what looked like the middle of a sacrifice gone wrong.
"Kienan," the wizened old man said. "What is the meaning of this?"
"Wong double-crossed you, double-crossed Mao, double crossed me," he quietly replied. "I . . .paid them back for it, but Mao's . . ."
Chang reached into his jacket for his pistol.
"If I was the person who'd really done it, what would have stopped me from killing you?" Kienan said.
"Nothing, I suppose," Chang replied. "But I only have your word to go on. And there will be explanations. With no one to adequately answer them."
"I know," Kienan said.
"And you . . .understand what that means for you?"
Kienan nodded, looking down at his vest, the vague shape of the dragon insignia still visible through the slashes and bloodstains. There was a loud ripping sound as he tore it from his chest and threw it to the floor.
"I will do what I can to explain things," Chang began. He started to say more, but stopped. It was false comfort. Kienan made his way back to the hidden entrance, the enormity of what Wong and Korin wrought beginning to sink in.
Wong had won, all right. The ruling council of the Blue Dragons would never believe his assertion--with three corpses, two of which he'd left himself. They would draw the easiest conclusion with the evidence they had.
That evidence being that I killed Mao and killed Wong to cover my tracks, Kienan thought, walking through the garden. It was ruined, trees shattered, grass matted, the ground stained with blood. They'll assume Korin turned me instead of Wong.
I'm a renegade. For the rest of my life--however long that is now--I'll be pursued by the Blue Dragons for what they will think I did.
He thought about that. He thought about Lil and Mao and Vain and Mirage and how history repeated itself. On Caldera he'd watched his sister butchered in front of him and was nearly drowned in the blood of his loved ones, then left alone to survive while being stalked relentlessly.
And every bit of armor, every defense he'd put up to keep it from happening again had failed. He stared at the ground in front of them, unable to hear his own footsteps anymore.
For a moment he thought his hearing had gone, then he looked up and saw the running lights of the Ruby Vroom above him. Jayla-2 was the first to leap out of the rear door and when she saw him, she threw her arms around him but didnt smile. He looked into her eyes for an instant and picked up the slightest hint of something absent.
Then he collapsed into her arms with a mixture of relief and total exhaustion.
The good news was that Conscience hadnt been shut down accessing the colony's control system. The Ruby Vroom slid into the rear-docking bay of the Silhouette with an almost eerie ease.
The bad news was that once Conscience activated the engines, Colony Control had worked out what was happening and sent a squad of marines to the Silhouette's berth to find out what was going on. Conscience trapped them in the airlock and flushed the oxygen, killing the entire squad.
Things were getting worse, fast. Once the Vroom was securely aboard and everyone was accounted for, she activated the Silhouette's engines, backing the ship out slowly as she armed the Silhouette's hidden weapon systems. A few cursory scans of the colony exterior had revealed the presence of the Vindicator, fully armed and ready for a fight.
So am I, Conscience thought, concentrating on her work as Vain and Mirage filed onto the bridge and took up weapons and navigation stations. The Silhouette cleared the Space Ring and slowly began to turn it's nose outward into space as the shadow of the Vindicator passed over it.
The Vindicator began firing as soon as they had a clear shot. Fortunately the Silhouette's shields and armor were strong enough to handle the disabling fire the Vindicator was lobbing its way.
The sleek Centaur fighter moved in for an attack run, diving and turning as they prepared to skin the survive and strike the Silhouette's engines, stopping them dead in space.
The Silhouette's gun batteries responded, tracking and destroying two of the fighters as Conscience ran the engines up to speed. The Vindicator took this chance to increase the intensity of its fire and started pounding the Silhouette with strong enough blasts to punch through their shields.
Conscience felt the damage as actual pain and responded by activating her heavier cannons to return fire, all the while trying to increase the distance between them. Even the Silhouette, with its vast repertoire of powerful weaponry wasn't designed to slug it out toe-to-toe with a UEF battleship.
Vain glowered as another shot found its mark, striking them amidships.
"I've had enough of this," she said. "Conscience, charge the main gun. It's time I called their bluff."
Vain kept an eye on the meter that indicated the weapon was charging and activated the communications unit.
"Attention, Earth ship," Vain said, brutally cold. "Break off your attack at once or we will open fire on the colony. Repeat--break off your attack now or we will fire on the colony."
"Are they serious?" Frost asked.
"Theyre trying to divert us and give them time to get away." Conner glanced at a status indicator. "Our scanners show their weapons are charged and they're locked onto the colony's fusion reactor. Can our gunners take them out before they can fire?"
The gunner captain shook his head. "We're not close enough to knock them down before they could get a shot in. Our other long-rage weapons arent strong enough to cripple them.
"Press the attack as best you can," Conner said. "If we let them get away, we'll never catch them before they can engage the Space Drive."
The Vindicator fired a salvo at the ship as their quarry's main engine cluster flared to life.
"They're making a run for it," Frost said.
"Engine room, I need all the speed you can give me," Conner said. "Weapons, full spread on my command. NOW!"
The Vindicator fired at the Silhouette once more as a blast issued forth from its forward section.
"They did it," Frost said. "Unbelievable."
The Silhouette shimmered and vanished into the sea of stars beyond. Conner pounded his fist against the armrest.
"Track them," he ordered. For all the good it'll do, he thought. The scanner officer set to work on it. "Damage to colony?"
"Superficial," Frost said, reading from the main screen. "Apparently it was a de-powered version of a high-yield anti-proton weapon. Without the charge, it only weakened some armor around the reactor. Repair crews are responding."
Conner sighed. "Well, that's something at least," he said. "Status of tracking?"
"Negative on track," the scanner officer said. "They apparently launched countermeasures before they activated their space drive. I'm getting no reading."
Conner leaned back in his chair. "All right," he said. "Secure from alert status, recall our fighters and open a channel to the colony. We'll make repairs as best we can and get underway as soon as possible."
He looked at the large display and the sea of stars beyond. "We'll have to let them go this time."
Kienan lay in the small medical room of the Silhouette, staring from the ceiling to the cryo-unit leaning on the far wall. For the past few years he'd kept Jayla-2 there, until he could find a way to re-create her in a way she could take care of herself.
Now, ironically enough, it was Kienan who was lying helpless while Jayla-2 cleaned and bandaged his wounds. Once that last rush of adrenaline had left him, there was nothing else in the tank, even as his ship was under assault by the UEF.
He sighed as she brushed his bangs from his eyes, looking weakly up at her. Her eyes were kind. They had always been kind, but now there was hesitancy, a sadness that seemed to hold that kindness back.
That tells me all I need to know about what happened, he thought, closing his eyes and wanting to die. I should be grateful for Jayla-2 and the Marionettes being alive but . . . Angela. I should have listened when Lil said not to get you involved.
He opened his eyes again slowly, Jayla-2 looking with concern over him. "You've lost a lot of blood, and I think you have a few broken bones."
"I count . . .about two," Kienan sighed and shifted to lay on his side, groaning with pain as he did so. "Maybe three."
"It's OK," Jayla-2 said. "I'll look after you, I promise."
Kienan nodded. "Where are we?"
"Vain said something and hour ago about taking us to the edge of the Frontier," she said, carefully repeating the words. "I don't really know what she means, do you?"
Kienan nodded. The edge of the Frontier was largely uncharted and not often traveled so they'd be safe in there for a while. Long enough for him to be up and about and plan their next move.
"Jayla-2," Kienan whispered.
Jayla-2 blinked. "Yes?"
Kienan motioned for her to lean down.
"I'm . . .sorry," he whispered.
Jayla-2 put her hand on his chest, over his heart. "It's all right," she whispered back. Outside, the Silhouette rocketed away from pursuit and the glowing embers of many bridges burned.