"Attention passengers," the voice of the Alseides' captain droned over the public address system. "We are now beginning preliminary approach to Kuran colony local space. Our estimated time or arrival is three hours. We ask at this time you secure all belongings and strap yourselves in. Once again, we thank you for flying with us. Message ends."
Wong stretched uncomfortably in his seat. It had been far too long a flight as it was, and even with the Alseides' standards of comfort, he wasn't a man who enjoyed staying in one place too long.
Ironically, it was his ability to turn that restlessness into a virtue that had allowed him to rise so rapidly through the ranks for the Blue Dragon Tong. He'd started out ten years ago as a minor capo, rapidly becoming known for consolidating a power base of his own and accruing large amounts of power and influence.
That on its own wasn't very unusual--the Blue Dragons were full of competent leaders, some of whom ruled semi-autonomously. It was Wong's ability to use his power at the right time that brought him notice and had, in fact, brought him to the home of the Blue Dragon's leaders--the Neptunian moon of Triton.
When I received the directive I was somewhat apprehensive, Wong remembered. I thought for certain I was being called to account for my work.
Imagine my surprise when I found a promotion waiting for me. And this new assignment. Of course, I was more pleased with the one than the other.
The assignment to the Frontier was not a punishment, the Council had told him. It was instead an apprenticeship--the Council saw much potential in Wong, and wanted to "season" him a bit under the tutelage of the last young lion who had risen through the ranks.
Mao Xai Jan, Wong thought. The man who's colony I assumed control of when he moved on to the Frontier. The irony that I'm constantly following in his footsteps has not escaped me, especially under the present circumstances. Now I'm expected to work hand in glove with him. And should I happen to reinvigorate their fortunes on the Frontier, now threatened by Earth's military buildup along the border, so much the better for everyone.
That's what the council wants.
Wong leaned back in the soft chair, trying to get comfortable. The restlessness was with him again as he realized the one place he really couldnt stand to be in for long was in the position of subordinate.
You fool, Kienan chided himself.
He was walking in a half-crouch though a service tunnel miles above the rail system. The intense heat in the tunnel was made all the more hellish by the dim red light within. Sweat poured off his body as he pressed onwards, looking for an access hatch that would lead downward to a passenger stop.
I must have misjudged the distance a bit, he thought. I forgot these cars run at hundreds of miles per hour and a ride down to the next station only seems like a quick trip. Still, better this than trying to explain why of a railcar full of 20 people I'm the only one left alive. No good at answering questions.
He turned over the attack in his mind. Karasu hadnt meant to kill him, he was sure of that. He'd certainly passed up enough chances, he could easily have let Kienan fall to the colony streets below, but he must have known Kienan could have held on, and gave him the time he needed to stand face to face with him.
But why? Kienan wondered. Only one reason came to mind, and it was one that worried him. Karasu had merely theatrically put him on notice--he was coming for him, and Kienan wouldnt know where or when he was coming, only that he was.
It was an old assassins trick--one of the oldest in the book, he thought. Throw your target off balance, keep him on the run and agitated. Like leading a hunted animal, seconds before you pull the trigger.
It was a game. A sick one, but one Kienan knew well. He'd played it enough himself.
Kienan had dealt with assassination attempts before, certainly anyone who made a living in death and destruction would make a few enemies, and those enemies might have friends who's seek to balance the books by eliminating the eliminator.
But they'd never struck so close to his home. Kienan had made sure he was impossible to trace back to this colony--even the crew of his ship was seldom allowed down into the colony and stayed on the Space Ring. Only his contacts in the Blue Dragon Tong knew he was based here, and even then he'd made efforts to conceal certain details from them, like his crew.
It's not the crew theyre after, though, Kienan thought. It's me. And I have plenty of people here that they can get at me through.
Damn me for a fool for keeping them around me.
For him to have any friends at all was a recent innovation, and one he'd resisted. The few times he'd tried before, he'd always come to regret it.
Since the age of fifteen Kienan had been on his own and for most of that time, had preferred it that way.
The added irony that he'd started down this path going through tunnels like this--hellish, hot, full of thinning air and a feeling of inevitable compression--wasn't lost on him either.
The road to Hell apparently doesn't change any more than it ends, he thought.
Once upon a time, Kienan Ademetria had been a happy, well-adjusted young-man who worked on a mining colony not far from Kuran. He spent his days chiseling out ore to be refined into starship fuel and dreamt of one day of being promoted to pilot of the ship that moved the ore off-planet.
Until they woke up something in the dark mines. The Magmadivers. The aliens responded at once, swarming up through the mines, then out through the colony. Whoever they found, they slaughtered, until Kienan was the only one left alive.
He'd been hunted then, and survived. Made them pay for what they'd done. The fire that kept him from being killed then was kindled within him, a quiet rage that simmered just behind his eyes.
Finally, he came to the hatch. He reached into the recessed handle and pulled it free, lifting the heavy metal door and peering downwards. Finding no one around, he slid down the hatch, landing on his feet. His eyes quickly adjusted to the light, mingling with the crowd outside, waiting at the stop for a train that wasn't coming. He looked over the crowd, searching the room for what he needed.
Karasu would have to wait for now. Right now, he needed a phone.
If the Victory was logical physical conclusion of the United Earth Federation's power, the Vindicator was its opposite number. The small patrol ship was moored in one of the Victory's maintenance bays. Outside, technical crews were removing fuel lines and other moorings in preparation for the Vindicator's maiden voyage.
Inside, Captain Connor was touring the ship, walking side by side with Frost. Connor had only seen the ship from a distance before, to actually be on it, much less to be in command of it, gave him a charge he hadn't felt since he'd gotten his first command.
That was only, what, ten years ago, now? Connor mused.
"Captain?" Frost said.
"Hmm?" Connor said, jolted out of his reverie.
"Is everything all right?"
"Everything's fine," Connor said. "I was just thinking about my first ship. The Bellerophon."
"I've heard of her," Frost said. They stopped walking on a causeway above the fighter bays. Below them, five silver Centaur-class fighters were being loaded onto their launch cages by black-suited work crews dressed much like Frost.
"I'm afraid her glory days happened long before I took command," Connor said. "We mainly did diplomatic missions with her, armed escorts, things like that. By the time I'd made Captain, ships like the Bellerophon were already nearly obsolete anyway. Still, it's . . .different when youre on a ship with some history behind it."
"I've never had that privilege, sir," Frost said. "Working with Vanguard means we're constantly laying tracks for the future. New ships, new fighters, even most of the Vindicator's construction was overseen by us."
"So one of us is stuck in the past and one in the future?" Connor said, arching an eyebrow. "We certainly make a curious pair, Commander."
"I like to think of it as striking a balance between facility and experience, sir," Frost said.
Connor looked at him. "Do you always have such slick answers handy, Commander?"
"Yes sir," Frost said. He allowed himself a small smile, as though testing Connor. "I believe that's one of the duties of an executive officer--efficiency."
Connor chuckled. "It is indeed, Commander. So how about you tell me more about this ship of ours?"
Frost nodded. "The Vindicator is a patrol ship--designed more for colonial defense and light combat than a cruiser or a destroyer. We have a flight of five fighters and a complement of twenty-five marines in addition to our crew complement. We cant win a war, but we can hold our own in a fight if necessary."
Connor nodded, watching the fighter crews below. "We're just here to show the flag," he said. "Then we're well-matched to our mission, then. Commander Frost, you're to oversee the rest of the supply and pre-flight checks. Takeoff time is at 1400 hours. I'll be in my quarters until then."
Frost snapped to attention and saluted Connor, who returned the salute and walked down the catwalk to the elevator at the end. He punched the button for the officer's quarters and leaned against the wall.
Yes, we're a long way from the Bellerophon, he thought as the elevator began to rise.
It's not every day a man goes from Captain of a mothball fleet to a gunboat diplomat. Still, Kuran's supposed to be a quiet, peaceful, colony, fairly wealthy place too. Should make for entertaining shore leave for the men, and we'd be far enough away from the Sekhmet border, that barring a full-scale invasion, we'd never see any direct action.
It almost seems like the UEF's offering a paid vacation.
Jayla-2 watched Angela pensively and so intrusively Angela kept turning her back to her as she cupped the portable communicator to her ear. Out of the corner of her eye, she could tell Angela was upset about something, but it was hard to tell if it was what she was being told or Jayla-2's nosiness.
They'd watched the rain car's destruction from close enough to be gripped with a little fear. While neither of them knew much about Kienan's skills, they knew his gift for survival, but even a born survivor would have trouble finding a way out of a rail car sliced to bits a mile and a half up.
They'd spent the last hour or so staring up at the wreckage and the maintenance robots flying up to the wreckage, fearing the worst. Then, just as the worst seemed more likely than ever, Angela's communicator had beeped to life.
"Okay," Angela said. "I dont like this, but I understand. Yes, I know I promised. I know," She looked over her shoulder at Jayla-2. "Yes I'll bring her along too. What do I tell her? All right. I really don't like this, Kienan. No, I'm really scared is all. All right. I guess I'll talk to you when I talk to you then."
Angela snapped the communicator shut, stared at it and sighed quietly. Slowly, she turned to Jayla-2, her brown eyes leavened with sadness, fear, and uncertainty, none of which she was doing a good job of concealing.
"What is it?" Jayla-2 asked.
"We've got to go," Angela said. "Now."
"Was that Kienan?"
Angela nodded. "He says he wants us to go to the alien sector," she said. "And we have to go now. He also told me not to talk about it, but just to do it."
"We cant even go back to the apartment?"
Angela shook her head. "He said it wasn't safe."
"I dont understand," Jayla-2 said.
"I dont either," Angela said, holding the communicator between the palms of her hands. "But he said to go there and wait for him, and be careful."
"Doesnt he always say that?"
Angela started walking. More and more Jayla-2 could see she was badly shaken by something. Finally, after five long minutes of walking and meandering through tightly-knotted crowds, she spoke her mind.
"It wasn't what he said," Angela said quietly. "It was how he said it. How he sounded."
Jayla-2 looked puzzled. "How did he sound?"
Jayla-2 had trouble with that. Kienan had only ever sounded to her a few ways--angry, calmly angry, and absolutely silent.
"I didnt think he ever got scared," Jayla-2 said.
"No," Angela said. "He doesn't."
Mao Xai Jan dismissed the messenger and leaned back in his chair. The worry line between his eyebrows deepened as he looked over at Chang, his chief informant and advisor stared impassively at him.
"So all we know is that a railcar was attacked just outside of a district under our direct control?" Mao said, pushing his horn-rimmed glasses up his nose. "How is this possible? Who could have possibly done this? Any of our people?"
"No," Chang said. "We'd have known well before it happened and stopped it. Our policy on keeping large-scale actions off-colony has been in force for years. Everyone in the organization knows that."
"Then who?" Mao asked. "A rival syndicate? A freelance operator? Separatists?"
"We've kept our rivals from having any presence in the colony," Chang began. "There is no way they could effect a surgical strike like this. Likewise, a freelancer wouldn't be able to get away clean after destroying the railcar. And we broke the back of the separatist movement on Kuran two years ago. They've gained no momentum here since."
"Chang, you realize this means our only explanations then are a ghost or an assassin?"
"Ghosts are unlikely," Chang said humorlessly. "But an assassin is a very real possibility. It certainly wouldnt be the first time, and given the precision of the strike, it indicates a highly skilled operative."
"Was there anyone on that railcar who might have been a likely target?"
"Uncertain," Chang said. "My people are still getting a passenger list from the transit authority. But as it was a local service, far from any official centers, I would say it's unlikely."
"Hmm," Mao rose from his chair, leaning on his cane. He looked at the city outside his window. "The timing of this is unfortunate. Our new man is due in a matter of hours."
Allowing a strike like this so close to our territory makes us look bad, he thought. It draws attention from forces in the colony that were content to ignore us, so long as we did not draw attention to ourselves.
That web of willful neglect is a very delicate one indeed.
"The timing is rather suspicious, if I may say," Chang said.
"You think it's intentional?" Mao asked.
"I will merely say the timing is suspicious," Chang said. "That's all. For the moment."
"In any case," Mao said. "It's time to account for all our people on the colony, eliminate as much suspicion as possible. We must be cautious for now."
Kienan hung up the receiver of the videophone. He sighed. He felt tired, not just from the attack or the long crawl through the tunnel, but from the weight of everything.
Two calls, he thought. One to Angela, one to the people I'm depending on to protect them. They'll have to fend for themselves for awhile, until I draw out Karasu again.
He walked away from the bank of videophones, mingling with the crowd, though in actuality he was a man alone. A marked man.
He desperately wanted a cigarette, but he didnt have the time. Too much had to plan, too much to think about. He had the curious awareness he was being trapped, his boundaries being delineated precisely as the geometry of a spider's web.
Futile struggle wouldn't do me much good, he mused. Struggle too much in the web you end up spent and trapped even more than you were at first. Easy prey for whoever spun it around you.
Best to play dead. Wait for them to come to you.
He racked his brain, trying to think if there was anything he'd missed. He was betting heavily on keeping Angela and Jayla-2 out of danger in the alien sector. Humans didnt go there as a rule, and even the Blue Dragons rarely ran operations in that territory.
It wasn't neutral ground, but it would be close enough, hopefully. Dealing with Karasu would be hard enough without offering him additional targets that could be used to draw Kienan out or tracked so they gave him away.
That only left one person unaccounted for. But Kienan would see her soon enough, and knew she wouldn't run, no matter what came.
No, he thought. Jayla-2 and Angela are liabilities now. It's best they stay away. Let me deal with this on my own terms.
He walked a little slower, realizing he had to repeat that thought a few times before he began to believe it. The thought echoed in his mind in a strange, unfamiliar way, like the ring of a glass after some of the water had been poured out.
Why am I worrying about them?
Why am I missing them already?
He brushed past a woman in a grey cloak, the hood of which cast long shadows over her chalk-white skin. He spared her a look over his shoulder.
"Excuse me," he said quietly, moving past her with motions so fluid it belied the fatigue that seethed in his muscles.
The woman nodded, the shadows running like shaded ink over her skin. Under the hood, her red eyes followed him.
Kienan had long since turned away and was making his way discreetly through the knot of people now pressing towards the station. The rail system had restarted, and there was no shortage of traffic. No one would notice him, even if his suit were dirty and torn. Kienan made his way to the bank of elevators, suddenly grateful for the blurring effect of crowds.
No one except the woman he'd run into, who began shadowing him like a ghost.
Nightfall on Kuran colony was as illusory as sunrise had been. Shadows fell over the city as the massive solar panels closed against the colony's cylindrical outer hull. Above the city, regulators silently activated to keep the temperature from crashing without the funneled sunlight and as darkness fell over the city, the buildings lit up, their lights like the eyes of sleepy children reluctantly awakening. For miles, the skyline was dotted with pale white stars, closer still, blazes of color. They formed their own stars and nebulae, almost a microcosm of the galaxy outside.
Only a few blocks from the "accident" with the railcar, a festival was starting up in the city's lower district, a street festival of some sort. Small firecrackers crackled, counterpoised by the steady rhythmic pounding of drums and cymbals.
Above the festival, watching silently, safe in the cold darkness and obsidian shadows of an abandoned building's rooftop, a pair of cold eyes watched it with silent impassiveness, her silver-white eyes as cold as a glacier.
She stood on her own, arms crossed, her body throwing off a gentle mist like dry ice. She seemed to be a curious mix of an ice sculpture and woman, her white skin shaded in a soft blue. Her black bodysuit seemed to want to pull her into the shadows in which she stood, but the semi-transparent blue on her legs and chest gave her a semblance of form, however curiously spectral.
"Koriojo," Karasu said. He stepped out of the shadows behind her, his footfalls making no noise on the gravel of the rooftop. "I had a feeling you would be the first to join me here."
"I was eager to begin," she replied neutrally, her voice a curious mix of wind chime song and metal scrape against a sheet of ice.
"In good time, my dear," Karasu said. His black eyes were as inscrutable as her own icy stare. "I've encountered out target already. He will be quite a challenge."
"Why didnt you kill him, then?" Koriojo said, turning to look at him, a lock of her blue-white hair falling over her eye.
"This man, Ademetria, is called by some the deadliest man in the galaxy," Karasu said. "Anecdotal puffery aside, I was eager to see how much was exaggeration and how much was true. I was . . .satisfied. Kienan Ademetria will prove quite an edifying challenge to the Onikage."
"You believe he's tough enough to require all of us?"
"I intend to find out," Karasu said. "In another time, he could have been one of us. In some ways he already is--he has a devil's luck, for certain. Dont underestimate him, Koriojo."
"I dont intend to," she said. "Though I did hope to reach him first."
"I didnt encounter him based on our mission, my dear," Karasu said, resting against his staff. The rings rustled silently, then stilled. "This was for my own benefit, simply as a statement of our intent. The true game hasnt begun yet."
She sneered. "What are we waiting for?"
"Our employer insisted we wait for his arrival."
"Does he think we require his direction?" Koriojo glared at the festival below. A red and gold dragon was snaking its way through the crowd, its eyes and mouth moving in time to the drumming. The correlation between a group of people manipulating a dragon's head and herself was not lost on her.
We're both of us echoes of myth, she thought.
"It doesn't matter what his intentions are," Karasu said. "We do as we're told."
"I dislike dragging my feet like this," Koriojo said flatly.
"Dont worry, my dear ice princess," Karasu said, his tone slightly mocking. "You won't melt."
Koriojo made a face. "When do we move?"
"When I give the word to you and the others," Karasu said. "As to when that will be, all in good time. You should cultivate patience, Koriojo. It's the axis on which our universe turns."
In the blink of an eye, Karasu seemed to fade from sight. Koriojo turned around in just enough time to see a small pair of triangular eyes in the shadows behind her. Her expression turned to a thin smile as the mechanical bird flew overhead.
With nothing to do but wait, she turned her attentions back to the festival.