Frost idly paged through the latest crew reports and dispatches at his desk in his quarters aboard the Vindicator. His bored eyes strayed to the framed picture on his desk. In a small obsidian frame was a picture of a woman slightly younger than he, cradling a small infant.
He'd never seen her in the flesh--Melissa had been conceived while on leave from the Vanguard, born sometime during Frost's time on the Victory. He paused. Had it really been nine months since his last leave, he wondered. He made a mental note to request an extended furlough soon, perhaps even as soon as the Vindicator's initial tour of the Frontier was complete.
He eased back in his soft black chair and attempted to return his attention to the reports. He sighed. In the one hundred years human beings had been in space, the hardest thing to comprehend even now was the distance. Crossing from one world to another could take days, weeks, even with the latest Space Drives.
And in times like this, he felt the distance more than usual.
The door chime jolted him out of his reverie and gave him an ideal excuse to set the data clipboard aside and rise to his feet. He adjusted his uniform out of habit. "Enter," he said.
The door slid open. It was Conner.
"Yes, Captain?" Frost asked, snapping to attention.
"At ease, Commander," Conner said, gesturing for him to relax. "I'd just finished my duty shift, and was just curious to see how you were settling in."
"Well enough, sir," Frost said. He gestured to the reports on his desk. "Engine room reports optimal status on our reactors, the three tactical drills we've run over the last four duty shifts show we can be at full readiness from alert . . .one minute, thirty seconds."
"That's good, Commander," Conner said, walking over to his desk. His eyes went to the picture. "Your wife?"
"Yes, sir," Frost said. "My daughter, as well. I'm eager to see them again."
Conner nodded. "I never found the time for a family, myself. Must be nice to have something to go home to."
Frost raised an eyebrow. "Home, sir?"
Conner smiled, running his hand through his auburn hair. "Forgive me, Frost," he said. "Old man's regret. The UEF has been my home for most of my adult life. I havent lived off-base since I signed up."
"It's never too late to start, is it?"
Conner pondered it. "For me, perhaps. I joined up after the Wars, Frost. Full of blood and thunder, ready for adventure on the stars. Unfortunately, by the time I got out, the wars were all over with and there was nothing to head back to.
"So I hung around," he said with equal parts bemusement and veiled frustration.
Frost let all that sink in for a moment. He wasn't quite sure how to react to this, really. The Olympus Vanguard had it's own code of conduct--in some ways stricter than the UEF, but it stressed camaraderie in its officer corps. And Conner seemed a good man.
"As someone I quite respect once said, "A man can find all the glory he can handle in duty," Frost said.
Conner let that sink in. "He's obviously never pulled some of my details," he said. Frost at first thought he was being rebuked, but the thin smile on Conner's face belied the true meaning of his words.
"Commander," Conner said. "Youre on duty in--two hours?"
"Care to join me in the officer's mess for a drink?" Conner asked. "
"Id be honored, Captain," Frost said.
Conner walked to the door and hit the button to open it, Frost followed him out of his quarters. They talked and reminisced as they made their way down the hall.
Kienan made his way down the darkened street to the storefront on the corner. He read the sign above and fumbled in his pocket for his key. He hadnt come to this place specifically for a drink, but he wouldnt turn one down given the circumstances.
He felt tired, mentally and physically drained. Had it only been a twelve hours ago that his day had gone completely to hell? It felt like a week. His body ached. The fight with Ronah probably hadnt been a great idea given the wear and tear he'd put on his body trying to survive Karasu's attack on the railcar.
But more than that, there were some deep cuts in places other than the physical. In those same twelve hours he'd been ambushed and forced to run. And in a roundabout way he owed his escape and the means to perhaps counterattack his enemies to perhaps the last person in the universe he wanted to owe anything to.
I dont like running, he thought bitterly.
He closed the door behind him and flipped the lock back. He looked around the darkened store, the passing lights outside creating fans through the half-shut blinds. The lights outlined the shape of the bottles on the shelves in front of him. Behind him was pitch darkness.
The darkness moved momentarily and Kienan felt a hard piece of metal jam him in the small of his back in a place already sore. Even as exhausted as he was, he could have disarmed the person holding the weapon, but Kienan knew the person holding it.
"It's me, Lil," Kienan said.
"Jesus Christ Kienan, do you know what time of night it is?" The husky but unmistakably female voice called back from the darkness.
"My watch stopped," Kienan said. "I think it got damaged when someone tried to blow me up today."
The voice sighed and two footsteps echoed on the linoleum tile. There was a soft click, and the fluorescent lights flickered to life. The short, slightly heavyset woman locked on him, glaring with eyes darker than just their color. "What the hell have you gotten into now?"
"Trouble," Kienan said. "I need to use the room upstairs for awhile."
Lil cradled the shotgun in her hands, walking over to the stool behind the counter and sitting down, watching him. "Someone found you?"
"Not sure," Kienan said. He fished into his jacket and produced the case "But I got a tip."
"What about Angela and Jayla-2?" Lil asked.
"I sent them somewhere where they'll be safe," Kienan said. "I didnt want to take the chance that whoever's after me would come through them. And that brings me to the other reason I'm here."
"I'm not leaving, Kienan," Lil said.
"No," Kienan said. "I figured youd say that. But I just thought I'd make the offer."
Lil put the shotgun under the counter and produced a pack of cigarettes, taking one for herself and tossing the rest of the pack to Kienan. She struck a match from a paper pack of matches.
"Didnt think you smoked anymore," Kienan said, taking one from the pack as he fumbled through his pockets for his lighter. He took a long drag and exhaled a thin stream of smoke.
"I only smoke when I'm really stressed," Lil said. "Like when someone comes in around midnight looking like hell on toast and telling me he's marked for death and oh by the way, can he hole up in the room upstairs?"
Kienan looked at Lil. His eyes were suddenly sad. Lil's hard gaze softened too. It was the way they were with one another. There was no reason for it, save the simple closeness and trust formed by people who are bonded in quiet pains and secrets.
Kienan smiled gently. "Well, while you're indulging in destructive vices," he began, his hands closing around a green bottle on one of the shelves. "How about finding us some glasses. I've got a lot to tell you, and I could use one."
Lil reached under the counter and found two tumblers. Altarian Whisey was really too strong to be drunk in anything but shots, but from the look on Kienan's face and the quiet anxiety behind his words, she had a sneaking suspicion they'd both need a good strong drink tonight.
Wong ran his manicured fingers over the seatbelt, already impatient. The Alseides had docked with Kuran's Space Ring half an hour ago, a long, dull, painstaking process of matching the station's rotation, waiting for an open berth and docking. Then another fifteen minutes of powering down and securing the ship in berth.
He leaned back in seat, bored out of his mind. He had enough to do once he actually got to the colony, and these long drawn-out procedures only made the tasks he'd have to perform even more onerous.
As the visiting lord, tradition dictated that Wong come humbly to the local chief. Once there, he would humbly submit to Mao Xai Jian's tutelage, or so tradition dictated.
Wong didn't do "humble," at least not very well. He could manage it enough in small doses, but he felt personally diminished when he did so.
I didn't amass all this power and rise to a station to genuflect, he thought. If anything, I rose to lordship to watch other people bow and scrape.
He tried to remind himself that this was advancement, but the words the ruling council of the Blue Dragons had used to sell him on the idea seemed even more hollow when he tried to use it as a mantra to soothe his wounded ego.
The rulers of the Blue Dragons traced their origins back centuries, back to when the syndicates were simple societies of rulers, efficient systems of codes of conduct designed to amass wealth and power in straight lines. Up.
He remembered meeting them on Triton. A thoroughly unpleasant group of five, he remembered. So old and infirm they wore exo-suits under their robes to keep themselves standing upright, because their own bones were so old and brittle they'd splinter like balsa wood trying to hold them up. Every sentence was half-whispered, half-wheezed.
What annoyed me most of all is how small and weak they were. The rumors in the Blue Dragons had said the ruling council were perpetually cloned--older than the stars, but kept young and vigorous thanks to the next best thing to immortality. When one body gave out, so the fable went, their memories were written into their clone. Pity truth is so much more disappointing than fiction.
No wonder I've felt held back all this time. Five timid, ancient men, following precepts centuries old rule us. Space is virtually limitless, and here we are, thinking just as small as always.
He sighed, willing the light above the door at the end of the aisle to change so he could unfasten his seatbelt and get on with things. The waiting wasn't making it any more appealing.
Finally, the light changed to green and Wong was free to unfasten his seatbelt. He did so with all safe haste and rose from his seat, allowing himself a small stretch.
He felt like walking. His entourage would handle his belongings, but after all this time, his legs felt like they'd locked in place on board the ship. He might as well have a good look at this colony he'd been sent to before the unpleasant business of humbling soured the experience for good.
Jayla-2 stared at the woman named Vain with the silent recognition that comes from two unique things recognizing their singularity (or in the case of Vain and her sisters, plurality) among everything else in the universe.
Jayla-2 was a clone, of a sort, of a woman long dead, altered by technology so advanced it might as well have been magic. Vain was one of a trio of Marionettes, an advanced type of artificial human designed to approximate (and in some cases, improve) on a human being.
Vain's plain, irisless eyes narrowed on Jayla-2.
"What is it?" Vain asked.
Jayla-2 twisted a lock of her hair around her finger. "I was wondering if Kienan had told you anything more when he called you."
"He hasn't been in contact with us since he told us to come and protect you," she said tersely.
"Was he okay when you talked to him?"
Vain looked at her. "I don't understand what "okay" means, Jayla-2," she said. "However, considering this is all part of an emergency contingency he laid out years ago, I can deduce that no, he is not "okay," because if he were, Mirage and I would be back on the Silhouette and you would not be here."
"So because youre here it means he's in trouble?" Jayla-2 said.
"Yes," Vain said, almost wearily. Remember, she cautioned herself, Kienan's words echoing through her memory. "Despite having the memories of Jayla Kyren, she's still learning things as completely new. You might have to be a little more patient with her than seems apparent."
Funny, Vain thought. Kienan seemed to be at a loss of patience dealing with her sometimes himself. And yet expects me to be the soul of patience with her.
"You should rest," Vain said.
"I'm not tired," Jayla-2 said, sitting down backwards in a nearby chair. "I'm worried about Kienan."
"Kienan can handle himself," Vain said.
"Are you sure?"
Vain blinked. Her brain worked six times faster than an average human's did. Even so, questions like that seemed to slow her thoughts down. In her own way, she was having the same kind of dissonance Jayla-2 had.
She's managed to bring me to her level, Vain thought ruefully. If Kienan were truly in trouble, we'd be by his side. Helping him. But he was nearly killed and he sent us away.
"Kienan relies on us to help him," Vain said. "If helping him means protecting you, then we're sworn to obey him."
"You take that really seriously, dont you?" Jayla-2 asked.
"We owe him our existence," Vain said. "In return for letting us continue to live, we pledged ourselves to his service. Rational transaction."
"In that case, I really don't understand why we're waiting here, then," Jayla-2 said, her green eyes seeming to glow in the darkness of the apartment. "I feel just as obligated to him. But more than that I feel like he's in trouble, Vain. Bad trouble. I want to go to him and help him."
I want to as well, Vain thought. But Kienan wants you kept safe, and in fact knew you'd want to come to help him. And he told Mirage and I to stop you.
But how do I stop you from doing what I want to do as well?
Vain looked at her with as much sympathy as she found herself able to simulate. "You should rest, Jayla-2," she said. Then she added, "If I hear anything from Kienan, I promise I'll tell you."
Jayla-2 looked at her boots as she pondered that. He mind was going a mile a minute, so it was hard to relax enough to rest. She looked up at Vain for a moment. She'd spent time with her before she'd been given leave to stay on the colony with Kienan. So far as she knew, neither Vain nor her sister Mirage much liked her.
But in some way Jayla-2 recognized something in them she felt in herself. In her own way she was bound to Kienan, if not by oath then by gratitude, and if not by gratitude than by a strange fear that without Kienan, some important part of themselves would be gone.
And so Jayla-2 felt closer to Vain than she ever had before. Because they both owed their lives to one man.
Kienan carefully cut the bandage and quickly wrapped it his left bicep. A few glasses of Altairian Whiskey hadn't made the pain go away, but he found himself minding it a little less.
Talking to Lil had helped as well. He wouldnt have told Angela anything, and Vain and Mirage didnt need to know, but to able to talk to someone else about the events of the day seemed to help at least get it off his chest. Even if figuring out what to do next was still stumbling in the dark.
He sat on the edge of a small cot in the spare apartment above Lil's store. In a corner of the room in a heap was his suit. He'd changed instead into jeans a T-shirt. This hadn't been the first time he'd used the apartment as a safe place, like the contingency plan he'd relayed to Vain and Mirage, he'd planned for this.
Or so he thought. He looked down at the case sitting next to him on the cot and sighed. So small and so heavy.
The information in the case wasn't the problem. No, the problem was the source. The White Dragons. The anti-syndicate. The people who he'd been sent after on more than one occasion to prevent Blue Dragons from going to the other side or escaping the syndicate altogether. The organization pledged to eradicating the Blue Dragons and the other syndicates just like it.
The one run by my ex-girlfriend, Kienan thought with a heavy sigh.
Six years ago, Kienan had taken a young woman named Silhouette under his wing and taught her as he'd been taught. She'd been an apt pupil and a great partner in crime.
And more, he thought, taking another cigarette from the pack Lil had given him. At least until she developed a conscience, started questioning what we did. Questioning me.
So I killed her. Or so I thought.
He remembered pulling the trigger like it was yesterday, remembering how time seemed to grind to a halt and freeze solid as she leapt in front of the target and Kienan's finger squeezed the trigger. The round was designed to penetrate and explode. There was no way she should have survived.
I dont remember ever teaching her how to take a fatal shot and live to tell the tale, Kienan said. I wish I had. I have a feeling that trick might come in handy. But survive it she did. Then she vanished for a year or so, and the next time we meet we're enemies and ever since then she's been nothing but trouble. A shadow always at my back.
And also, my unwanted guardian angel, it seems, he thought as he opened the case with one hand as he fumbled for the small data clipboard under the cot.
God, she makes me furious, he thought, carefully taking the data crystal out of the case. I hate owing anyone anything. Never mind the woman you used to love. He slid the crystal into the data port, with a weary sigh. Funny how we never seem to be able to get away from each other. It's like trying to outrun your own shadow.
The data clipboard's screen flickered to life and a series of documents began to read out onto the screen. Kienan's eyes narrowed on the picture of Karasu and read on from there as the history of the Onikage, the Devil's Shadow, was laid out before his eyes.
Karasu walked through the dark, empty room, taking note of the shining webs around him. The rings of his staff made a short jangling noise with every step as he made his way to the other end of the massive warehouse.
It looked like the warehouse was the home of a gigantic spider. On every wall, on every corner of the ceiling were webs, perfectly symmetrical. Not the classic spider's silk but a light material laced with fiber-optic circuitry.
The darkness seemed to ripple before Karasu. A shape walked out of the darkness like someone walking through a waterfall. The small petite woman stepped out of the darkness and immediately seemed to come into focus as if by her own luminescence.
She was dressed in a tight red and black suit. Where her skin shown through, it was randomly cut through with purple tattoos that seemed to gleam in the light of the warehouse. Her long purple hair was pulled into a tight ponytail and it framed her red-irised eyes and made her seem even crueler.
"Akumo," Karasu said. "Where were you?"
"Back home," Akumo said, her blood-red lips shaping into a thin smile. "In the gardens. "Watching the cherry blossoms fall."
"Just an illusion," Karasu said. "Such things are no longer ours to enjoy."
"I deal in illusions, Karasu," Akumo said defensively. "I can enjoy it any time I wish."
She extended her left hand forward, the twisted mechanical claw like an insect's feelers. "No holograms this time?"
"No," Karasu said. "Is Tenma with you?"
As if summoned by magic, a small red light began to glow behind Akumo. It slowly oscillated in a horizontal pattern outlining the demon mask of the other member of the Onikage.
"And what of the others?"
"Everyone is here," Karasu said, resting on his staff. "And I have been in contact with our client. It's time."
Akumo's thin smile expanded to a vampire's hungry grin. "At last."
"Remember the rules, Akumo," Karasu said. "You compete as much with the others as you do to find the prey. That has ever been our way. Once we have destroyed the man known as Kienan Ademetria, the game is complete."
"Let the others use their clumsy methods to trap him," Akumo said. "I will merely wait for him, as the spider waits for the fly."
"So you always say," Karasu said. "But this is our eighth game since you joined us and only you've only one three times. Besides, what of Tenma?"
Tenma put his hand on Akumo's shoulder, and Akumo put her hand over his as well. "Tenma and I are bound together, Karasu," she said. "We work as one."
"Of course," Karasu said. "I will be monitoring you, in case you require assistance from the others."
"I want no help from them," Akumo hissed.
"You'll still be given full credit for the kill," Karasu reassured her. "But my information suggests Ademetria has allies within the colony, and he's quite a formidable opponent on his own. Handling both may prove more difficult than you imagine."
"Then I will go through them," Akumo said flatly. "The dead can pose no threat."
"Very well," Karasu said. "Then it's only a matter of time. Soon, Kienan Ademetria will die."