Mirage watched the young child sleep in the darkened bedroom. Vain was outside, probably dealing with Jayla-2's incessant questions (and Mirage was thankful it wasn't her who had to listen to them) most of them about Kienan, no doubt.
Angela was sleeping fitfully, at least as Mirage understood it. The Marionettes didnt sleep, per se. When they suffered critical damage, they would temporarily shut down, but that didnt look anything like as peaceful as she'd seen humans like Kienan sleep.
Mirage looked at Angela. Well, usually, they sleep peacefully, she thought.
Angela hadnt wanted to go to sleep, she was too worried about Kienan. Mirage had finally gotten her to relax by changing the subject, but there was no question--from the furrowing of her brow, whatever she was dreaming of, she was worried about him.
It wasn't an emotion Mirage thought was natural to Angela. Usually, she was happy, gregarious, and quite amusing, and compared to Kienan, so very alive. Mirage had noted the look in her eyes when she'd questioned her. It was guarded, tense, and anxious. Worried.
So am I, Mirage thought. I know Vain's thinking the same thing--we should be with him, making sure whoever came after him can't possibly hurt him ever again. I'm certain Angela and Jayla-2 would help us, though I'm not sure what they could really do.
She looked down at Angela. After all, he did say they were too weak.
It was an unpleasant thought, but the truth. Kienan, by virtue of his skill and his experience could handle something like this, and by virtue of Vain and Mirage's physical gifts, they could aid him more readily than Angela or Jayla-2.
He has to do this alone, or so he said, Mirage thought. Last year he said the same thing when he went to Axanar and he came back half-dead, and that had been his vacation. Had I known what would have happened, I never would have left him alone.
Why are we here? Why are we sworn to help him, but also sworn to obey him and stay away, when he's obviously in over his head? It makes no sense.
It was a paradox she knew she'd be turning over in her mind the rest of the night. Meanwhile, Angela kicked her legs as she slept, muttering something Mirage couldnt quite make out. She rolled over onto her other side eventually resumed her semi-peaceful sleep.
Mirage looked down at her and touched her hand to Angela's shoulder. Clearly, everyone's thinking the same thing, Mirage thought, looking at the door for a moment. Everyone was just as disturbed, and most of all, everyone was tired of the waiting.
The crewman fastened the harness around Korin, cinching the buckles under her arms.
"Too tight," she hissed.
"It has to be, Lady Korin," the crewman said, meeting her eyes for a second, then averting them, as if her gaze was like staring into the sun. "The harness will keep you alive until our man retrieves the pod."
"That doesnt explain why the damn thing has to be so tight," she snarled.
The pod in question lay at her feet, a smooth torpedo roughly seven feet long, with several heavy machinery at one end. Another of the crewmen opened the coffinlike vehicle, the pressurized door raising up and revealing the tight, cramped living quarters.
"I'm afraid space is at a premium, Lady Korin," the crewman said, almost apologetically. "We really shouldnt be trying this at all. Escape pods weren't meant to be rigged with Space Drives, even limited ones like this. There's a high risk you could be killed."
"Our approach has been delayed by other traffic, Crewman Tsang," Korin said. "And I need to be there. We have a timetable, and we're falling behind. At little risk is worth it. Now, youre certain our people will pick up the pod?"
Tsang nodded. "Our people are on three of the work shifts on reconnaissance sweeps. After the pod's Space Drive ejects, a beacon using our codes will broadcast, and they should sweep in and bring you in. Since reconnaissance doesnt have to go through any customs and most of their security sweeps are superficial you should have no trouble getting into the colony."
Assuming I survive, Korin mused, fingering the bottle of oxygen dangling from the harness. If I show up on the work shift where none of my operatives are on reconnaissance sweeps, I could float out there for days, and die before I ever get there.
And I won't have that. Not when I'm so close.
Tsang checked his watch. "It's time, my lady."
Korin sighed and clamped the facemask to her mouth and eyes and walked over to the pod, lying down. Tsang pressed a series of switches on the harness, setting a timer on it. The other crewman approached, brandishing a vicious-looking hypodermic gun. He pressed it against her shoulder. She jerked as if shot, and the door of the pod closed slowly over her.
By now, Wong's probably already there, she thought. We're close, but so much can still go wrong. I need to be there, partly to keep my eye on him, but mostly because I want to see it. I want to see my revenge wrought on them both.
First Kienan, then my father.
That was the last thought she had before the drug she'd been injected with sent her into a deep, black, dreamless sleep.
Kienan couldnt sleep. The most he'd managed was an hour here and an hour there. Mostly however, all he could manage was to lie back, close his eyes, and wait for a silence, which never came.
Mostly it was because of the voices in his head, the angel and devil on his shoulders. The voices of his two mentors were echoing in his head, both of them telling him the same thing.
More maddeningly, Kienan agreed with them. What was he doing there, in that tiny cramped room, fretting over being pursued by assassins?
Running scared, Kienan thought bitterly. Being chased by assassins isnt a new situation for me, but in a place I consider home? Having to be responsible for people who might get caught in the crossfire? I'm hesitating. Scared, in other words.
The words and the truth in them went down like he had swallowed acid. With the information on the Onikage, he at least knew the face of his enemy, and he knew the terrain. He even had a fair idea of where they would wait for him, because he'd done thing same thing while he stalked a thousand targets.
"Force them out," the voice of one of his mentors, his best friend called. "You know what you need to know, stop playing their game and force them to play yours. I always told you when you're back's to the wall and you're outnumbered, you attack, damn it."
"Make your weakness your strength," the other mentor chimed in. "Their plans depend on you being on the defensive, on forcing your back against the wall further and further until you have no place to go. Stand your ground and fight."
Kienan turned fitfully, like a man trying to ignore something that made perfect sense. It could work, he thought. If I can get the equipment from my apartment I might be able to hold them off long enough to meet up with Vain and Mirage, get Jayla-2 and Angela to the Silhouette, and then the Marionettes and I could finish off the Onikage at will.
He turned onto his back and stared at the ceiling.
That means getting to my apartment, which is no doubt being staked out right now, he thought. How many would be waiting for me? One? All?
And what happens if I fail?
"A man tries not to think about what might happen if he loses," his best friend called from memory.
Kienan smiled thinly. True.
He sat up and swung his legs over the other side of the cot, talking a deep breath. He fished for a cigarette among the pile of things at the head of his cot. He'd been scared, he knew that now. But he'd had his back against the wall before.
And now it was time to push back.
Mao Xai Jian lay awake in his bed, staring at the ceiling. The estate was quiet, but his mind wasn't. He was thinking of the rail car explosion, in fact he hadnt been able to keep his mind on much else the entire day and night.
They'd done their best to touch base with their people in the colony and find out what had gone wrong. Mao had expressly forbidden any acts that might disturb the colony as a whole, preferring surgically precise strikes to excessive brutal violence.
The Syndicate operated best when the status quo was maintained, and violence was bad for business. If problems were encountered, Mao preferred to send his assassins to quietly remove the problem. It was a big colony, a hub of galactic activity. People came and went all the time, and a few payments in the right place ensured that problems stayed gone as if erased by the hand of God.
And that is why I worry, Mao thought. Because the one man among my thousands of operatives I havent heard from is Kienan. Chang has tried every method of contact, and still no word. When that failed, I sent messages personally.
That is not like him. Kienan would never refuse to talk to me.
He tried to relax, gave up, and resumed worrying.
The only assumption I can make is he was on the railcar and was killed.
That idea was so shocking and unreal to him he gave himself a few moments to process it. In his time as chief of an arm of the Blue Dragons, Mao had retained only two chief assassins, itself a testament to their skill, as chief assassins and their habit of making enemies of their own in addition to being a target of rival syndicates, thus ensuring a high turnover.
Toriares had been the first, Kienan the second. Toriares had been Kienan's mentor, and as good as Toriares was, his student was even better. It wasn't merely his skill, but his determination and resolve (almost single-mindedness, really--Mao had long ago learnt that Kienan's skill was in direct action, not baroque traps) that made him exceed his mentor.
He does . . .did . . .so well because it seemed to be what he was born to do, Mao thought. The hesitation in his mind told him all he needed to know.
He cannot be dead, Mao thought. If there were any way to escape the railcar, he would have done so. But if he had, why has he not contacted me?
He sighed. There were ways of investigating, but it would mean violating his trust. Mao had an unspoken agreement with Kienan--he would be there when he needed him, in return Mao would stay out of his private life. At best, he had a loose affiliation with the Syndicate, and at its heart that affiliation was mostly due to Kienan's personal loyalty to Mao.
As a result, certain bits of intelligence on Kienan's movements had been willfully ignored. But these were desperate times, and there didn't seem to be any other way.
Would he be able to forgive me for this act of desperation?
He closed his eyes and tried to sleep. It eventually came, but only after hours of turning the same thoughts over and over in his mind.
The black mechanical bird made a slow turn around Koriojo, whose icy gaze towards it had the look of a hungry cat. The bird set down beside her on the rooftop, it's red eyes shifting to blue. A could of shapeless mist streamed from it's eyes like smoke and the shape of Karasu formed out of it.
"I'm bored," she said, resting on one knee on the edge of the rooftop. Below her was the window to Kienan's apartment, punctuated now and then by a stream of skycar traffic. She'd been here for hours now, waiting for her quarry to show up, to beat the rest of the Onikage to the kill.
Ademetria, damn him, hadnt been so cooperative, she thought bitterly.
"No sign of him?" Karasu said.
"I had no sign of him hours ago, when you last bothered me," Koriojo said. "By all rights, he should have shown up here by now."
"Unless of course, he knew assassins might discover his base of operations," Karasu said. "Dont underestimate Ademetria, my dear. He's quite resourceful, and more clever than he appears."
"Is that it?" Koriojo replied. "It had nothing to do with your sloppiness in attacking the railcar, then."
"It was merely a test," Karasu said. "I wanted to take our foes measure."
"So you say," Koriojo said. "So you always say. And so we lay traps and do the killing, and sometimes even die, and you? You hide behind your mechanical birds and your illusions and do nothing. Nothing, except send us to our deaths."
Karasu said nothing, the pale hologram hovered like a ghost, the scan lines trailing up and down like a silent shimmer.
"Nothing to say?" Koriojo sneered. "I didnt think so."
"Tread carefully, my dear," Karasu finally said.
"Why?" Koriojo said. "For the last five years, I've won every commission the Onikage has been contracted for. Two hundred and fifty kills. The last one I killed by shattering him right in front of you. Our laws say I should be the leader, and I'm tired of waiting."
"And so you are," Karasu said. "But who will lead you?"
Koriojo's teeth went on edge.
"Your resume is old news to me, Koriojo," Karasu said. "But you dont have the vision, the ability, to do anything other than kill. Youre a power instrument, and that's all you are.
There was a slight click as the bird's eyes shifted back to red. Koriojo looked down at the bird just in time to barely miss a red laser bolt that silently seared into her cheek. Not enough to hurt her, not enough to even scar her.
Just to mark her for awhile.
Koriojo put her hand to her cheek, already internally generating cold to repair the blemish. The bird stared at her with its dull hate, and flew away. Koriojo's eyes followed it, trying to hasten it away with her rage.
Damn him, she thought. Damn him for being right. His skill at controlling us is what keeps him leader. The Onikage are too busy competing among ourselves to ever unite and overthrow him, and with his ability to be everywhere at once almost, he can neutralize any of us before we move against him.
She took several deep breaths, trying to center herself. Too much anger was lethal for Koriojo. The prosthetic limbs she possessed required a constant subzero temperature to maintain their superconductivity-powered high performance. Extreme anger would upset her temperature balance as surely as if she were burned alive.
She stared at her left hand, gently steaming in the cool air.
Ironically enough, she'd lost her arms and legs due to extreme hypothermia, rescued just as she was freezing to death, scientists had taken a risk that an experimental procedure would save her. The new limbs were an attempt to circumvent the older metal grafts that were sometimes rejected by humans, leading to bouts of sickness or insanity, or both.
She remembered waking up and seeing the crystal blue limbs. She remembered screaming so loud and so long she'd forgotten what her voice sounded like when she finally had to stop.
I couldnt feel anything, inside or out, Koriojo remembered. So I decided to pay them back for their "gift," their icy living death, in a way appropriate to their effort.
She spent the next two weeks in the lab pretending to be functionally catatonic, slowly learning what this new body could do. She was permanently frozen--unable to feel, with a thermal siphon inside her to help regulate her temperature and keep her cybernetics working. But she was also stronger and faster than she had been before, than really any human had been. Part of the "gift" of superconductivity to her cybernetic parts--for her, thought and action were one now. Her mind had also quickened; something that would aid her as well in refining the technology used to keep her alive.
But it had other benefits as well. Anything she touched flash-froze unless she concentrated as hard as she could.
It became a game to her. Finally after two weeks and twenty shattered cups of water, she learned to hold the cup in her hands and freeze the water inside it. She remembered drinking the water, and despite it being completely tasteless, she found it sweet, because then she was ready.
One of the doctors had come in to run a diagnostic on her cybernetics. She stayed quiet through the procedure, still pretending to be the quietly mad guinea pig.
Then, as he was finishing she turned to him, her eyes flashing cold rage. She summoned every ounce of her will and reached for him.
It was the first man she'd ever murdered. The icicle, or more accurately, blood-cicle erupted through from his aorta out his back. Blood erupted in huge gouts, almost immediately melting the murder weapon. He fell backwards, a look of shock and almost betrayal frozen on his face.
For the next day, she spent her time learning how many new ways she could kill with her new body. Her favorite became shattering--grasping someone, draining all the heat from them and reducing them to absolute zero, then punching through them and watching them explode like a crystal statue shot with a bullet.
And from those humble beginnings, a career had been born. She was found by Karasu and given the name Koriojo, a name that echoed a mythical ice-wraith. And she'd pledged her soul to the Onikage, which had led her here.
She blinked, almost unable to return from her reminiscence, but also with disbelief. Lights were flickering to life in the apartment. He had done what she'd expected and that fool Karasu had thought he was too smart for.
Kienan Ademetria had gone home.
Kienan stepped into his apartment and flicked on the light switch. The pale off-white of the apartment matched the light--but for the furniture of his living room, and the piano that dominated one side of the room, it was cold, sterile and white.
Angela had been after him to make it more homey, more lived-in, but surely she knew it was a lost cause. For Kienan, one place was really as good as another.
Or it used to be, he thought, his left hand running over the ebony of the piano. But I really did miss this place. Lot of memories here. Most of them not very good ones, either. But some . . .
He took his hand off the piano. No, he said. Pay attention to why youre here.
He walked into his bedroom, a windowless cube even less personal than the living room and opened the closet, sparing a look to the night table and the ashtray full of cigarettes he'd forgotten to empty yesterday.
It would have to wait. Right now it was the least urgent of his messes.
He leaned down against the closet's wall, popping out a false panel with four quick hits. From the panel, he pulled out a large black duffel bag, hefted it and threw it onto the bed. He unzipped it quickly as he undressed with his other hand.
Good as the change of clothes had felt after his suit had all but disintegrated, he'd need a bit more protection than jeans and a T-shirt if he were going to take the fight to the Onikage.
He slipped on his black bodysuit and his long gloves first, pressing hidden buttons on each of them. They went from a loose to a tight fit with a quiet sighing sound. Layered body armor, light as cotton, proof against everything from a blade to a blaster, if nothing else made one feel slightly more secure, especially with seven individual loose in the colony with his murder on their minds.
He slipped on his blue and red pants and black boots next, then quickly buckled his gunbelt around his waist. Having weaponry like this was illegal in the colony--no authority in their right mind would have let someone like him walk around with a belt for of thermite explosives, and that was the least of his weaponry.
He slipped his custom pistols into their holsters and his knife into its sheath in the small of his back, reaching as he did for the third pound from the left on his hip. He unsnapped the pouch, his fingers sliding over the plastic-wrapped package within.
He didn't need a cigarette, but it was nice to know they were there. He had a feeling he'd need one soon enough.
He reached in for his red vest, emblazoned with the blue dragon insignia that marked his allegiance to the Syndicate. Then he slipped on his red gloves over the black ones, adding another layer of protection.
He slipped the duffel back inside the compartment and re-affixed the panel. Then he closed the door, looking at himself in the closet mirror. He felt and looked more like himself.
More ready to fight back.
He shut the light off to his room and walked to the piano, sat down and started to play, his mind quiet and calm for the first time in hours.
The assassins would come. And he was ready for them. Now all he had to do was wait.