"--Repeat, there has been a major incident within the colony, and the colony's emergency protocols have been initiated. Until further notice, all citizens are directed to remain within their present locations until the incident has been resolved. Travel to and from colony blocks or to the Space Ring, as well as all communications not of an official or emergency services nature have been suspended indefinitely, by order of colony command and control. Message repeats: There has--"
Angela blinked. She wasn't able to read minds or anything, but the expression on the faces of the three women she was sharing the room with reflected the same thought back at her.
"It's Kienan, isnt it?"
Vain's eyes narrowed on the screen. "Go back to sleep, Angela. It's fine. It's . . .fine."
"Youre a terrible liar, Vain," Angela said. "Something's happened to him, hasn't it? Is he--?"
"We dont know yet," Mirage said, cutting in between Vain and Angela. Now would be absolutely the worst time to panic. "All we know is something happened. Probably something bad."
"And we have no way of finding out what it is," Jayla-2 said, her eyes fixed on something far away from all this. She licked her lips and sighed, then stood up.
"We have to go find him."
"Out of the question," Vain stood up, moving between Jayla-2 and the door. "One, we have no way of getting through the security blocks," she began. Her irisless eyes met Jayla-2's gaze as if she were trying to turn back a great force. "Two, we gave Kienan our word--"
"Kienan's word doesn't matter to me anymore," Jayla-2 said. She paused for a moment, stunned that she'd actually said what she'd said. "They didnt lock down the colony for the first attack, but they did for this one, so whatever's happened we need to know--"
"I wont go against his command," Vain said, stepping closer to Jayla-2.
"You'll have to hurt me to stop me from going after him," Jayla-2 said, her heart thudding in her chest. Things were getting out of control, but something was insistently telling her this was the right thing to do. "To stop me, you'll have to hurt me . . .and that means breaking your word just as surely as letting me go."
Vain glared at her with an amazing simulacrum of anger.
Jayla-2 took a deep breath. She didnt want to fight Vain at all, she really didnt want to fight anyone, but she knew she had to do this. Even if it meant going alone.
I have to see him again, she said. I have to tell him I finally understand--
Jayla-2 took a deep breath. "Help me. Please."
"I mean it, Vain. Help me find him."
"Youre insane. Were you not listening when I told you I won't go against him?"
"So you'll leave him to die then?"
"That's not fair," Vain said, almost hurt. "I owe him. Mirage and I both owe him. He let us live, and we serve him out of that debt. You can't understand--"
"I understand just fine, Vain," Jayla-2 said. "Kienan did the same for me. He let me live, he did everything he could to save me. He plucked Angela off the streets. And saved both our lives.
"So I think I know a little about your debt," Jayla-2 said, her eyes beginning to water slightly. "I think we all do. We're all of us here because of him. We owe him. And since he never would, I'll call in that favor for him . . .he saved your life. Saved us all. Help me save him."
Vain pondered this for a second, the phenomenal speed her mind worked at formulating a thousand possible reasons why it was insane, what would happen if Kienan learned that she had broken her word. And less apparent facets of the problem too. What would she do if Kienan were dead? What would her purpose be? She had the power to protect him, and had done so on hundreds of occasions--this she knew because her brain kept an exact track.
In another second, she made a decision.
"This is Captain Conner of the United Earth Federation ship Vindicator to colony command, please respond," Conner said. This made less than zero sense to him. They'd arrived at the agreed-upon time, just as day would be breaking within the colony, and yet the colony's solar panels were shut up tight, the sensor masts flashing only intermittently.
He sat in the captain's chair and sighed. It had been a quiet enough maiden voyage. He wouldnt have minded that quiet to last just a little longer . . .
He cocked his head slightly and looked behind him. "What do you think, Frost?"
Frost's eyes narrowed on the display from the bridge's central monitor. "Something's not right, sir," he said. "This is early morning colony time. There should be sweeper crews, and the Space Ring should be showing some signs of traffic."
Conner nodded. "I thought this was the busiest colony in the Frontier," he said. He hit a series of switches on the arm of his chair. "No way it should be this quiet. I've patched in our comm-system to the local colony channel. Let's see if that sheds some light on this."
On a small screen next to the switch, a text version of the repeating emergency message scrolled onto it.
"Well, that explains it," Frost said, reading over his shoulder. "Theyre in lockdown."
"But why? Our flash traffic would have had something had their been a Sekhmet attack or terrorist bombing."
"Maybe it's a simple malfunction?"
"A malfunction big enough to lock down a whole colony would be something we'd be able to see from here," Conner said. He turned to his left. "Any apparent sign of damage to the colony?"
The scanner crewman surveyed a series of screens. "No apparent damage, sir," she responded. "Colony's rotation speed is for Earth-standard gravity, no apparent deviation. No evidence of hull breaches, internal or external."
"All right," Conner said. He tapped one white-gloved finger to his temple and sighed. "Let's assume it's an internal problem for the moment. Maybe we can help if they'll let us."
Frost nodded. "Comm Officer," he said. "Send a transmission to colony command again, please. Include our security code. Advise the colony that we are aware of their situation and we offer our assistance in resolving their emergency."
"Yes sir," the comm officer said, his fingers flying over the keyboard. He turned in his chair to a flashing screen off to his side. "Message acknowledged. Response: "Vindicator, message has been understood. Security code confirmed. Your assistance would be greatly appreciated."
"All right," Conner said, rising from his command chair. "Transmit the following message: Please inform colony command that I am arranging immediate departure with a squad of marines. I'd like to request a meeting with colony command immediately upon our arrival to discuss the emergency and an expedient method of resolving it."
The comm officer nodded. "Message acknowledged. Response: 'We await your arrival.'"
"Very good," Conner said. He turned to Frost. "Commander, inform the marine commander to select a squad of no more than six of his best men, equip them for light combat operations and place the rest of his men on standby until he hears word from me. Ready a launch, I'm going over. You have the con."
"Yes, sir," Frost said, moving to his console to issue the appropriate orders.
Conner strode past the consoles to the lift, taking a deep breath. He'd been a fan of mysteries, but something about this one disturbed him on some gut level. From all outside evidence this was a by the book lockdown. All the responses to their hails had been strictly by the book, there was no sign of apparent damage.
So what could it be? Conner wondered as the doors slid shut around him. Things seem a little too tense for a mere drill, so what could it be that would make them this anxious, and yet be totally invisible to us from out here?
He shook it off. No sense in worrying about something you cant even get a good picture of yet, he thought, centering himself.
The beast's eye opened and glared at the shimmering image in the darkness and the two red mechanical birds that flanked him. He wiped caked blood from his lips with his callused clawed hands and snarled a curt acknowledgement to the ghost.
"I told you I wished to be left alone, Karasu," Ghidorus snarled. He hadnt moved from the fighting ring, in hours, in fact, the last time he'd moved was to eat the hearts he'd torn from his alleged opponents chest.
This was time to spend training and focusing on his goal. On Ademetria.
"I thought perhaps you'd like to know," Karasu said. "Koriojo and Tenma are dead. Ademetria killed them both."
Ghidorus cocked an eyebrow. "Did he? Impressive. I believe they were two of your most skilled minions. What a pity. I dont know how you'll replace them. I suppose you could always build more, like those two clumsy robotics you take such pride in."
"Thank you for your wholly unsolicited opinion," Karasu said. "I was merely curious when youd decide to show my august assemblage how you plan to eliminate our target. In simpler terms, when we might expect you to do your job."
"In my own time," Ghidorus said. "Send the others after him if you're attempting to try again. I intend to hunt him alone."
"I plan to," Karasu said. "And know this, Ghidorus: When the others succeed, I'm sending them after you. I do not tolerate dereliction of duty."
"You are free to try, Karasu," Ghidorus said, rising from his kneeling position. "And to suffer the consequences."
He turned to the hologram. "You of all people should understand, I'm simply waiting for the proper time to strike. When Ademetria is stripped of his devices, his tools, the tricks humans like you rely on in place of skill, then I will strike."
"Still fighting your student's losing match, then?" Karasu said icily.
Ghidorus fixed him with a intense gaze. "At least I will fight him."
Wong had managed to get halfway back to his motel when the alert sounded. He'd made the rest of the distance by breaking into a run and staying out of sight of the skycar sweepers. A quick bolt up the service stairs and he'd quickly made it back to his floor before anyone could have spotted him.
He had a good suspicion of what the alert was all about. In the abstract he hadn't quite counted on things getting this out of control, but once the initial wild flush of panic had subsided, he'd regained control of himself.
This was just a wild card, he reminded himself. Just a tiny variable, a small bump in the road. The game would continue, and everything would run smoothly. It had to, now. If for no other reason than it meant that the gears had meshed, and there was no stopping the machine now.
The initial burst of fear having subsided, Wong had barely pushed the door open when a brand new wave of panic washed over him.
She was standing on her own, staring out the window on the far side of the room. Things were still dark, but a constellation of streetlights still wreathed the ground below. And framing that view, the reflection of a face--beautiful but cold, with brown-black eyes that radiated a deep hate and lips permanently curled in a contemptuous sneer.
It was a face he knew well.
"Hello, dear," Wong said, closing and locking the door behind him.
"You know better than that," Korin said through gritted teeth.
"Of course," Wong said, making a disingenuous flourish of correcting himself. "Lady Korin. You know, I could have sworn I had two bodyguards with me--"
"I recommended to them that they give us a few minutes alone to talk," Korin said. "It took some persuading, but eventually they acquiesced."
Wong swallowed. "You didn't kill anyone did you?"
Korin snorted. "I disintegrated the chair. Nowhere near as satisfying, but an effective object lesson."
"What amazing restraint," Wong said. "When did you get in?"
"An hour ago, maybe two," Korin said. "I came in on a sweeper shuttle. Customs doesnt even know I'm here."
"Lovely," Wong said. "I don't suppose you managed to bring anyone with you, did you?"
Korin sighed and raised her disintegrator gun. "I brought this," she said. "Would you like to see what it can do?"
"I'll pass," Wong said. He looked around the room. "I'm probably more of a job to disintegrate than a chair, but I didnt come this far taking stupid chances, like running into a strange hotel and intimidating guards of the Syndicate I'm presently a fugitive from. No, I would never be that stupid."
Korin sighed and holstered the weapon. "You know, Wong, when I hear your voice, I think back to the first time I tried to usurp power and the partner I had then. I miss him for one special reason, one quality you lack."
"His eternal patience?"
"No. He was a mute."
Wong sat on the bed. "Well, now that we've reacquainted and I've learned all over again just how much I missed you, perhaps youd like to know where we are with the plan?"
"I certainly didnt come here for the pleasure of your company."
"All right then," Wong said, smirking. "The Onikage are on the case. Apparently they've already tried hitting him three times--"
"It's taken them three tries?" Korin sighed, looking out the window and rolling her eyes. "I thought they were supposed to be the best?"
"I'm confident they'll do their job," Wong said. "They've already destroyed his apartment--"
"Wong," Korin said, raising a hand. "Think. We're trying to kill Kienan. Not his apartment. I realize you're too stupid to do this kind of thing without supervision, but even you can tell the difference between where a man lives and the man himself, cant you?"
"It's just the first step," Wong said. "Eventually they'll eliminate all his hiding places, and when he has nowhere left to run they'll either kill him, or hell be out in the open and we'll be in control and we can easily deal with him ourselves."
"No," Korin said. "I'll be the one to kill him."
Wong raised his hands. "Fine, go right ahead," he said, smiling. "I've no taste for violence--"
"You have no spine," Korin interjected.
" . . .And you can consider his death my wedding gift to you," Wong said.
Korin glared at him. Wong looked at her placidly.
"Never forget, Korin: We're in this together," he said. "I could care less about Ademetria, I'm in it for myself. This is the first step in a plan to gain a foothold in the Syndicate. You just happened to be a means to an end. Do what you want to him, but when the time comes to assume power, that's mine. That was our agreement: I get the Syndicate, you get your revenge. You can't do this without me and my resources."
Wong laughed. "Hardly. I've never met anyone as easy to provoke as you. You don't have the soft touch a good leader requires."
"I suppose not," Korin said, her voice suddenly losing the acid it had once contained. She drew her pistol and pointed it at him. "No, I surely don't have a soft touch. Not at all. But I do have a weapon, and the will to use it on you."
Wong blinked and felt himself began to sweat as she began walking toward him, the gun leveled at his head.
"You ca-cant kill me, Korin," Wong said. "You need me, remember? This may be the 22nd century, but among the Blue Dragon's it's still a man's world. You need to be in that world to exact your vengeance, and I'm the one holding the key to it."
Korin stopped, aiming between his eyes. Her lips split, showing teeth grit so tightly Wong was amazed they didnt grind to dust.
Finally she relaxed and holstered the gun. "Apparently I'm easier to provoke that you imagined, hm?"
"I learn something new every day," Wong said, rising from the bed. "I hesitate to ask, because you seem angry for some reason, but what are you planning to do until I get back?"
Korin cocked an eyebrow. "Back?"
"I have a meeting with Mao in an hour and a half," Wong said. "Initially it was just supposed to be some tedious ceremony involving my formal induction into his Syndicate branch, but with this colony alert, I'm pretty sure we'll have more pressing business."
Wong loosened his tie. "I figure there's a good chance with his apartment toasted, Ademetria's only got a few hiding places left. Eventually he'll come to Mao for either sanctuary or a way through the lockdown and out into open space."
"We cant let that happen," Korin said. "Our whole plan hinges on him not only staying out of our way, but staying trapped within the colony."
"Yes it does," Wong said, slowly unbuttoning his shirt. He looked over his shoulder as he turned his back to her, walking towards the large clothes closet on the nearby wall. "But circumventing a colony lockdown takes time. Lots of security layers to thwart, and a lot of eyes that have to be told to look the other way. Even if he asks, it'll take time to set up and execute."
"Hm," Korin said. Time was their ally and their enemy. The whole scheme turned on feinting, and keeping Ademetria and though him, Mao, busy pondering what the nature of the feint was while Wong and Korin put the real plan of attack into action.
Wong slipped out of his slacks and reached for the black suit in the closet, quickly slipping it on. He pressed a hidden button in the collar and the suit shrank to fit tightly over his skin. He took a deep breath and began fastening small objects to ports on his suit.
"That and the Onikage should keep Ademetria busy, I think," Wong said. He flexed his gloved hands. He started at his left hand for a few moments, and then satisfied slipped a simple gold band on the ring finger of his left hand, then reached for his suit again. "There's only so many more attacks he could endure, and in any case, every time he has to fight back, it brings the colony authorities down on him. He cant afford to be caught by them any more than he could the Onikage, could he?"
"I suppose not," Korin said. Her eyes suddenly looked far off into the distance. "I don't like waiting," she said. "We're so close and so much can still go wrong . . ."
"You should be more confident," Wong said. "He's handled, and before long, the endgame will begin, and once that happens, I promise you, my dear Korin, you'll have your revenge and I'll have the Blue Dragons. Just as we agreed."
Vain looked at Jayla-2. "Youre right," she said. "We do have to help him."
Jayla-2 looked back at her. She seemed honestly surprised Vain had agreed with her and she had to fight very hard to keep herself from bursting with glee.
Angela opened her mouth to say something. "But," Vain said, cutting her off. "We cant just rush in and ride to his rescue."
"We can't?" Jayla-2 asked.
"No, I'm afraid not," Mirage said. "The way I see it, we have about 15 levels of security to break through just to get what we need, only to have to go right back through them to get to the human sector, and deal with the resultant pursers while we try to find out what's what."
"Youre saying no, then?" Angela asked.
"I'm just saying it's going to be tricky," Mirage replied. She looked at Vain.
Mirage nodded. "We load the Ruby Vroom up with everything we need, use it to punch through the security levels and hunt for Kienan, then we board the ship and leave the colony."
Jayla-2 pondered that sobering news for a little while. "Can we . . .do that?"
"All four of us?" Vain said. "Probably not. Besides which, one of us should be here just in case Kienan had a contingency plan for getting through a lockdown."
They looked at each other for a few minutes.
"I guess I'll go then," Jayla-2 said. "It's my idea."
"No," Vain said. "To get to the ship's going to require stealth." She looked Jayla-2 up and down. "No offense meant, but that's not you."
"I'll go, then," Angela said. "I can get through the locks--the physical ones, anyway."
Jayla-2 looked at her. "Youre a lockpick?"
Angela nodded. "You can ask Kienan about how we met the morning I broke into his house."
"I'll go with you," Mirage said. "Two stay, two go, and we're the two best equipped to get to the Space Ring." She looked at Vain and Jayla-2. "You two going to be all right here by yourself?"
Jayla-2 looked at Vain, then at Mirage. "Uh . . .I think so."
Mirage pointed to Angela. "All right," she said. "Get what you need from your bag and get ready to go. As for you two, wait here. If Kienan comes, we'll at least have a little time cut off our escape. If we come here first, be ready to leave the instant we get here. I don't doubt we'll be bringing friends along with us."
"You can count on us," Jayla-2 said. Vain looked embarrassed.
Angela ran back to her room to get some fresh clothes from her bag. Mirage watched the door to the bedroom close behind her and turned to look at Jayla-2.
"Okay," she said. "Now, what is this really about?"
Jayla-2's naivete bled away and she became serious. "I guess I finally realized what repaying him would mean doing," she said. "I mean, he . . .and you . . .risked a lot to bring me here. It just seems like the right thing."
"A lot of people are being put at risk just so you can do the right thing," Vain said. "If I were you, I'd make every effort to be certain I was doing the right thing. That we're doing the right thing."
"And what if when we find him, we tell him this was your idea?" Mirage asked. "What if he decides to make you pay for disobeying him."
Jayla-2 had considered that, though she'd mostly pushing it to the back of her mind. But something about the dream she'd had, or the memory, or whatever it was had shown her that Jayla, her former self, had been the one running from him. Whereas he'd never given up on her.
If I have a second chance, then I should make the most of it, Jayla-2 resolved.
"Kienan will do what he has to, I guess," Jayla-2 said. "I just want to do the right thing for him for once."
Mao couldn't believe the items contained in the data folio. Not because Chang's research had been incomplete, not because of anything in the information, but the secrets it revealed filled him with an almost childlike sense of wonder.
He had a safehouse just down the street from this office and I never had the slightest inkling, he thought. I never doubted Kienan's skills as an assassin, but it appears I sorely underrated his cunning.
He leaned back in his soft chair and looked around his office. But what to do with it now? Mao wondered. The lockdown would be a slight hindrance in any attempt to locate him, especially if I sent people to investigate the explosion at his apartment.
He sighed and set the data folio down. In any case, for the next few hours, his hands would be tied and he would be busy entertaining his new "lieutenant," Wong Sai Sci. He'd received word he'd gotten to the colony well before the lockdown, and would be ready to make the meeting on time. Chang was already briefing one of his many runners to go fetch Wong from his hotel and bring him here quietly and unobtrusively.
It was a lockdown after all, and one had to proceed carefully.
Mao sighed. His mind really wasn't focused on any tedious ceremony at the moment, and the enormity of what Wong's joining his syndicate branch meant in the larger scope of syndicate politics was a little too much for a simple old man to deal with at the moment.
He closed the data folio and rose from his chair. He picked up the data folio, making a few mental notes about where best to direct the search for Kienan. No reason to leave that completely unattended while he dealt with Wong.
He passed by a large panel wall painted with a replica of an old painting; some great ancient warrior fighting a dragon. Mao didnt spare the painting a single glance.
At least, not until he heard a dull thudding against it. His brow furrowed, and then the thudding came again. Mao tucked the data folio under his arm and walked over to the painting, his fingers sliding into the crack between the panels and pressing a hidden button within it.
There was a dry click, and the panel swung outwards, like a great door.
Half-crouched in the narrow passageway was a bleeding, battered Kienan Ademetria. He shuffled out of the passage and closed the panel again, leaning on it, as he appeared to Mao to be standing on willpower alone.
"I'm guessing you were probably looking for me?" was all Kienan said.