She didnt know if the store was really that precious to her or not, but over the years she'd grown to see it as all she had left. She chewed on that thought as she shrugged off her nightdress and grabbed the same washed-grey pair of sweatpants she'd worn the day before.
Some might say a person should have more to show for her time in this life than just a liquor store in the worst part of town, she thought, rummaging through a pile of clothes in the corner of the room and finding a shirt that looked a little less dirty than the rest in the pile and put it on.
Considering what I left behind, though, it's a triumph, she thought. She'd grown up just as the big drive to move to the Frontier had started. Her father had worked on free-floating colonies like this one--a risky job, as it had turned out.
She lost him at the age of eight. The superstructure he'd been working on shifted and broke, and he drifted out into space, to slowly die in the cold darkness. Without him to support them, they were condemned to poverty, scrounging for work as they hopped from colony to colony, searching for the break that would allow them to live with dignity.
Her mother never saw it, either. She'd managed to find a job at a planetary colony, running an ore-hauler. It was hard work, work that gradually wore her down. They found her dead one day at the controls of the hauler.
She'd gone in early, trying to make a little more to save for Lil. She'd worked herself to death, and the mere pittance she'd managed to save had been just enough to bring her here.
Lil brushed her graying hair from her face and sighed. She didnt like to reflect much on what had happened since she'd been here. Young as she was, there was only one job she was ideally suited for, and compared to what she'd had to do, driving an ore-hauler or working in the dark was a godsend.
Those years were an ugly red shadow in her mind. She'd had a daughter and lost her in that time, but gradually fought, scratched and clawed until she'd managed to save enough money to buy this place.
It never turned much in the way of profit but it was comfortable enough. More security than she'd ever known, for certain.
Oh yes, she thought. And Kienan.
Her thoughts turned to him as she slipped her feet into her shoes. He was a mystery and a half, partly because of who he was, and partly because she was never entirely sure how she felt about him.
I can be as patient as eternity with him sometimes, she thought. I guess I see in him the same sort of loss I had to make it through. He's just a lot angrier about it than I was. I dont mind helping him through that.
It's when he's already made a mess, needs my help, and refuses to talk about it that I dont like.
She sighed and walked out of her shabby apartment, walking down the darkened hallway towards the staircase to the store below. Her eyes drifted to the door. Taped to the door was a note. Lil snatched it off the door, tearing the top of the paper as she did so. She touched the switch on the wall and pale light flickered and filled the room.
Got some things to do. Thanks for letting me stay here tonight. I let myself out. I'll be back to let you know everything's OK later.
Lil frowned and folded the note. See, she seethed quietly. This is exactly what I'm talking about. She made her way quickly down the stairs and brushed the gauze curtain separating the storeroom from the store away and walked behind the counter. She looked at her communications unit. There was a message waiting.
She tapped the playback button and reached for her broom with no reason to suspect anything was amiss. Gradually, the tone of the message made her stop in mid-reach.
What in the world? Lil thought, listening to the dull monotone voice tinnily reading the lockdown notice over the speaker of her comm unit. She walked back and played it again, leaning over it like it was whispering secrets to her.
Lockdown, she thought. Terrorists?
She blinked, the image of Kienan staggering in looking like he'd been through hell itself flashing in the split-second eyeblink. She looked down at her right hand and saw the note folded in her palm.
She thought about what she'd been complaining about before. About how annoying it was to have to be in the dark and yet be ready to take him in whenever he got in over his head.
Now that she knew a little, she wasn't sure she wanted to know any more.
Governor Sheen was an old man of roughly fifty-five, thin with thinning hair, and smelled, even in the sterile conference room, of money. Conner regarded him from his seat on the other side of the conference table.
He looks tired, but that's probably due less to his age than to the fact that this alleged terrorist attack on the colony dragged him out of bed hours ago, Conner thought, leafing through the information on the data folio.
"This is all you have, Governor?"
"That's a complete a report as we've been able to get," Sheen said. "I got that same report two hours ago and made the decision to institute lockdown protocols, at least temporarily, hoping that if anything happened we could at least minimize casualties until you got here."
"No eyewitness reports on these," Conner said, his brow furrowing.
"No," Sheen said. "At least not yet. Our colony police are having a little trouble getting reliable reports. No one survived the railcar attack yesterday, the apartment that was bombed tonight was deserted, and the club attack . . .well, theyre still working on that."
"Mmm-hmm," Conner said, closing the document on the folio and pushing it forward as he leaned back in his chair. "So you could have a single terrorist, or a group of them loose within the colony? There's no chance these are natural occurrences? Mechanical faults?"
"My rescue and maintenance teams say no," Sheen replied, his old thin fingers drumming on the smooth black table. "Whatever happened, it was deliberate. Still, my people are still compiling reports."
"What's the civilian situation been like since you instituted lockdown?"
"Well, the real test of that wont begin for another few hours, really," Sheen said. "Considering the level of traffic my dockmasters have told me to expect today, we're bound to have real difficulty. Keeping them out and us locked in is going to cost us."
Conner nodded, taking it all in. "And if you do have terrorists around making trouble, they're bound to be looking for a way out," he said. "If the lockdown goes on too long, what's to stop them from laying low until we give up trying to flush them out?"
Sheen looked confused. "Are you asking me Captain, or just thinking out loud?"
Conner looked up. "Well, I've got an idea that might minimize the economic impact and flush your "terrorists," if that's what they really are, out in the open."
"You don't think so?"
"I didnt say that," Conner said. "I dont like jumping to conclusions, Governor, but since it's the hypothesis that makes the most sense, let's try to test it out, shall we?"
"What do you propose?"
"An intermediate lockdown," Conner said. "I've got an entire garrison of Marines that could guard the Space Ring, and stop anyone who might be looking for an escape route. Likewise, I'll order fighter patrols around the station and coordinate half-hourly sensor sweeps of the colony."
Sheen looked at the table for a long time, then looked at Conner.
"In other words, martial law."
"My ship's not equipped for that detail, Governor," Conner said. "I can offer assistance, but I'm not here to grab the colony. You think it's terrorists. Fine. Let's be sure, loosen the chains a bit, and see if your terrorists try to make a run for it."
"And if theyre not?"
"We'll cross that bridge when we come to it," Conner said.
* * *
Chang carefully applied the regen gel to those wounds of Kienan's that were visible through his body armor. Kienan sat on the sofa and didnt wince. Every time Chang touched him, it was like the very nerves of his body were being shredded, but he'd had to gut out worse pain than this just to make it this far.
Kienan kept his eyes on Mao, who was busily pacing in front of him. Mao's eyes were locked on something that seemed to be just in front of his shoes, his brow knitting and relaxing as he digested Kienan's explanation of the night before.
"So someone's marked you," Mao said. "I dont understand. You've been so careful not to leave a trail back here."
"Apparently not careful enough," Kienan said. "It's the Onikage who are after me. I've already killed two of them, but their leader gave me the distinct impression the entire group was here on the colony."
Mao rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "The Onikage do not come cheap," he pondered. "Nor would they risk making an enemy of our Syndicate by causing such flagrant destruction in a colony under our control."
"Under normal circumstances, I'd agree," Kienan said, taking a roll of bandages from Chang and taping up the wounds where Chang had applied the regen gel. "But they didnt seem all that concerned with anything except eliminating me."
Mao stopped and turned to look at him. "You have suspicions?"
Kienan shrugged. "Nothing solid," he said. "Anyone wealthy enough to hire the Onikage and who'd know where I operate out of would have . . .well, let's just say it's a short list."
"It couldnt be one of your old enemies?" Mao asked. "From one of your freelance jobs, perhaps?"
Kienan shook his head. "They'd have the money, but no way to get information that detailed about the colony and where I live."
That leaves only one option, Mao thought. He looked in his eyes and knew Kienan was thinking the same thing.
Someone in the Syndicate ordered Kienan's death. But who?
"You should have come to me, Kienan," Mao said. "We could have protected you."
"I didnt want to involve you unless I had to," Kienan said, resting his elbows on his knees. Like everything else he'd done or was doing, it hurt like hell. "Plus, I had the feeling the Onikage might not stop with me and might go after everyone I was connected to. That's why I sent my people into hiding and tried to lay low."
"And you planned to . . .what? Eliminate the Onikage single-handedly?"
"Not exactly," Kienan said. "Id gone to my apartment to retrieve some things Id need in case I ran into them on my way to the Space Ring."
"You were planning to run, then?"
"Not exactly," Kienan said. "I was planning to get my people and fight the Onikage, but considering the damage we've done already, that's out of the question. My fallback was to take my ship into space and draw the Onikage out behind me. Then I'd at least be able to spare you and the colony the mess dealing with them was bound to cause."
Mao considered that. "It would be a good plan," he nodded. "If only the colony wasn't in lockdown."
Kienan frowned. "I figured. That's gonna make things tougher."
Mao thought about it for a few minutes. He knew better than to argue that Kienan should stay here under his protection or to offer assistance to him.
"How much time would you need?"
"Maybe an hour, hour and half to get my people out of the safehouse and to my ship. Maybe another fifteen minutes to get out of spacedock," Kienan replied.
Mao pondered that for a few minutes, then looked over at Chang.
"Not impossible, even in full lockdown," Chang said. "After all, we're already bringing Wong through the security cordon."
"Mmm," Mao nodded. He looked at the large clock on his desk. "He should be here any minute. Given the circumstances I'd gladly postpone the meeting, but there's no way I can avoid it."
He turned to Chang. "Start making preparations to move Kienan where he needs to go," he said. "In the meantime, I'll entertain my . . .new lieutenant."
He looked at Kienan. "You should rest."
Kienan sighed. "If I rest here, I've as good as put a big bull's eye on you and the Syndicate," he said. "That I wont do."
"I'm not asking you to let us," Mao said. "The fact is, you need to rest. Give Chang and myself time to clear a path for you. Give the people who are counting on you the comfort of knowing you'll be as close to one hundred percent as possible."
Kienan nodded. It made too much sense to argue with.
Mao nodded to Chang, who discreetly bowed, moved to the desk to recover the data folio and hastily exited the room.
Mao looked at his chief assassin for a few more minutes then moved to leave as well. His hand paused at the switch for the lights and he looked over his shoulder.
"Kienan," Mao said. "When you've settled things with the Onikage, you must promise me you'll return."
"I've got every intention of it," Kienan said.
Mao smiled and flicked the lights, quietly closing the door. Kienan waited until he couldn't hear his footsteps anymore and stretched out on the sofa. The exertion didnt hurt quite so much now--the regen gel was doing its healing work well.
He flipped his long braid over his shoulder and leaned back. He closed his eyes and eventually, a tense dreamless sleep enfolded him.
Two of the Onikage. Dead.
Despite his near-infinite patience and intellect, Karasu was not infallible. However, he was usually so good at anticipating the movement and behavior of his enemies, sometimes even he forgot he wasn't omniscient.
He rested on his staff. From the darkness surrounding him, pairs of red eyes stared at him impassively, as if asking him what they would do next. At the moment, he didn't have an answer--Ademetria had proven so skilled that he was beginning to regret not killing him when he had the chance on the railcar.
He willed himself to focus, concentrating on the situation as he purged himself of the frustration Ademetria had caused him.
Behind his eyes, data collected by his ravens flashed into his brain. Absorbed in the purity of the data flow, the frustration ebbed slightly. The frustration at Ademetria was gone as if it never had been.
Now it was just another problem to be solved. What was the simplest way to bring him into the grasp of the Onikage?
Ademetria's managed to survive the assault of two of the most powerful of the Onikage, he thought. His plan now will be to escape and try to regain the high ground. Perhaps to leave the colony altogether, to control the fight against the rest of us on a battleground of his choosing.
That will not do. The contract specifically said we must keep Ademetria on the colony.
Data on the location of Kienan's starship scrolled behind his eyes.
Yes, he thought. Here is where we shall draw the line.
He turned and walked to the far side of the room, through various shadows thrown from the spare light of the room he dwelt in.
On the far wall were two boxes, finely polished ebony. Karasu looked at them for a long time, then waved his staff of them. A sound like machinery falling into place hummed from deep within the box.
Karasu watched it, the expression behind his mask as impassive as the one his mask permanently wore. The Onikage were supposed to be a group of eight--two men, two women, two aliens . . .
. . . and two robots. Karasu had elected not to follow that practice exactly, preferring to keep his ambitious charges in check with his own skills coupled with instigating conflict between one another. A handy way of keeping them sharp.
When his minions proved rebellious, the robots stepped in and enforced his will.
The ebony box fell away. The shape within stirred, small motors from within its body. It was vaguely in the shape of a human but larger, and leaner. Wrapped around its body was a wild mane of long white hair. It raised its face to Karasu. The smooth mask of its face had no nose or mouth. The only indication it was alive at all were the eyes, black save for two blazing orange pupils.
"Shishimaru," Karasu said quietly. "Our target intends to escape us. See that he does not."
Karasu touched his staff to the small jewel embedded in Shishimaru's forehead. Almost as fast as Karasu himself had assimilated the relevant data he had collected, Shishimaru was brought up to speed with all the information he would need to achieve his task and his specific orders.
Shishimaru rose to his full height. His sleek body was human-like, but not entirely so. The machine's mass had been pared to the bare minimum to allow for the maximum strength and flexibility possible. His appearance recalled the Kabuki players of ancient Earth, but whereas they had played at being demons, Shishimaru, like the rest of his Onikage brethren, actually was.
"Go now," Karasu said, waving his staff.
Shishimaru's facemask split open, revealing an inner mouth full of fanged teeth. He screeched out a reply that sounded like an engine roaring, his facemask snapping closed again. His body fell into a relaxed half-crouch as he silently moved away and out of the darkened room, his white hair like the trail of a ghost behind him.
Karasu looked at the other box. Ordinarily he would have sent Shishimaru and his "brother" to the Space Ring together, but he had other plans for him.
He'd given Ademetria his head long enough. Now it was time to complete the contract.
Wong stood in the reception area, his fingers lacing and unlacing as Chang led Mao through to see him. Wong greeted him in the traditional style, easily masking his contempt for his counterpart just as totally as he had when he'd met the rulers of the Blue Dragons.
Among the Chinese, age was a sign of wisdom, or at least that was the accepted theory, Wong mused. Unfortunately, wisdom seems to mean stubbornness, cowardice and intransigence.
He bowed to Mao, who returned the gesture with a curt nod of his head. As he rose up again, he saw the wizened face of Chang, his cold dark eyes picking Wong apart as if he were doing a drawing. Wong couldn't help but feel like a bug in a jar. With any luck, the strategy he'd worked out might lessen that.
"It's an honor to meet you, Lord Xai Jan," Wong said. "Especially under such difficult circumstances."
"I pride myself on my people being able to operate under any circumstance within the colony," Mao said.
"If you'll forgive the presumption, sir, I feel I may be able to help you there," Wong said. Careful, he reminded himself. The minute he feels you're leading him around by the nose, youre as good as caught. "I could perhaps speak with them on your behalf, see if I couldn't persuade them to lift the lockdown protocol."
Mao's eyes narrowed on him. For a moment Wong felt the icy cold of panic in his feet. "You are a newcomer, Wong. Besides, my organization maintains no contact with the colonial administration."
"Well, naturally," Wong said, his words slowing as he chose each one carefully. "I understand the need for autonomy, but they need us as surely as we need them. Both organizations maintain order in the colony in their way, yes?"
Mao considered this. "I doubt they would see it that way."
"Perhaps not," Wong said. "But with respect sir, the lockdown hurts us just as much," Wong offered. "It's in our mutual interest to see it lifted."
"Theyre looking for terrorists," Mao said. "Until they find them, we will simply have to learn to operate under increased scrutiny without drawing attention, and you will learn the value of that arrangement."
Wong took a breath. "Of course, sir. Forgive my presumption."
Another of Mao's aides opened the door. Chang walked over to him and a whispered exchange took place, the quiet of the indoor garden disturbed by their sibilant hissing. Wong fidgeted with the ring on his finger as he stared at Chang for a few moments.
Chang looked to Mao and nodded. Mao nodded and Chang exited the room. Wong watched the entire exchange with strange curiosity. The entire pantomime was innocuous enough, really--Chang and Mao had perhaps worked together for a long enough time to where verbal communication was wasted time--they had one of the most efficient branches of the entire syndicate, after all.
But if this is just routine business, Wong pondered, why did they glance at me right before they left the room? They dont need my approval for any decision, I'm just an advisor.
He fidgeted with the ring some more as Chang exited the room, his eyes going back to Mao.
Time for a different tack, he thought.
"Where is your chief assassin?" Wong asked. "Id looked forward to meeting Ademetria. I wanted to thank him for a service he performed for me a few months ago."
"He is on assignment," Mao said casually. His eyes narrowed on Wong for a few seconds. "You refer to the business with your former aide . . .Esteban Marco?"
Wong nodded. "A personal betrayal of the worst kind," he said. "When someone you've worked that hard to make an integral part of the organization betrays you. . .it's disheartening."
"To be sure," Mao said. He looked at Wong with the same scrutiny as Chang had earlier. "It's interesting you bring up the business with Marco, Wong. I meant to ask you something."
Wong nodded, realizing what Mao was driving at.
"I found it curious that Marco would have sent feelers to my organization about meeting with me. According to your message, he'd stolen several files he intended to auction to the highest bidder or turn over to the White Dragons."
"That's right," Wong said.
"Then why would he want to meet with me?" Mao asked. "I would not have paid him a single credit for any information, and turned him over to you to deal with. What did he expect to gain from meeting with a representative of the syndicate he was trying to sell out?"
If you knew the real answer to that question, Wong thought nervously, I'd be just as dead as Marco.
"Perhaps he thought youd go easy on him," Wong said. "He did start out under your command."
"Perhaps," Mao said. He's not buying it, Wong thought. "Yes, that must be what he was after. An escape route."
Chang re-entered the room. Mao turned to face him, then turned back to Wong and excused himself. More hissing whispers. Wong stood by himself and looked at the garden around him, resisting the urge to exhale.
He'd nearly found me out, he mused. But he doesn't know enough yet to catch me in anything. Just general suspicion, but he's a lot sharper than I assumed him to be.
He looked back over his shoulder at the two men, unobtrusively observing their discussions.
Of course Mao's no slouch in secrets department, either, Wong thought Whatever this little song and dance is about, they're taking great pains to keep me out of the loop. And the absence of Ademetria only confirms that something's not right here, but they're sure trying hard to pretend it is for my benefit.
He took a deep breath, making plans to get away as soon as possible. Perhaps with some distance from the situation he could work out what was really going on.
He looked down at the ring. And if observation failed to provide an answer, he thought, the data my ring device snagged from Chang's data folio should fill in some blanks.
Mirage held on to the rungs of the ladder as Angela balanced on her shoulders. The young girl's fingers worked over the massive service hatch, looking for the manual release.
Below them, stretching so far into the darkness it looked almost as infinite as the space outside the colony stretched the service tunnel. If Angela so much as slipped, the very best she could hope for was a quick broken neck on the rungs of the service ladder.
Angela's brow furrowed as she worked her fingers into the groove of the panel, her fingers already red and streaked with welts from the eight times they'd done this before. Her mind went back to a time--what was it, two years ago now?--where Kienan had given her a map of the colony's service tunnels.
It had been like getting a birthday present, one she was very grateful for at the moment. Angela's own great gift was her ability to go anywhere, most especially places where she wasn't wanted. Lockpicking, breaking and entering, these skills had served her well.
If it were possible to be a prodigy at burglary, she was one.
It was how she'd met Kienan, actually. Fascinated with the strange sullen man she'd watched walk by her on the streets of the colony she shadowed him one night.
The next morning I broke into his apartment and he sure wasn't happy about it, she thought, popping the panel off and pocketing it temporarily. Her fingers looked for a specific wire, found it, and carefully took it loose, separating it from its brothers. But I either talked glibly enough or impressed him by getting into his apartment enough to where he let me live.
She took another wire loose. And that's how I got my big brother.
She'd never asked what Kienan did. Part of her imagined she really didnt want to know. All she knew was that he'd never tried to talk her out of what she did and, in return, she never pried into what he did.
Maybe not a relationship normal people would understand, she thought. But whatever he does, he looked out for me when no one else would, and besides which, normal people get on my nerves.
She flicked the hair from her eyes as she drew the wire over one of the connecting points. There was a small spark and a whiff of ozone, followed by the loud clank of the service hatch's locks resetting. Angela quickly reconnected the wire, turned the handles of the hatch and pushed on it.
Her muscles strained as she swung the heavy hatch outwards. They shuffled through the hatchway and Angela leaned back over the hatch, connecting the other wire and slapping the panel back over the hatch. Mirage moved to shut it for her as they sat and rested for a few minutes.
Angela's muscles ached as she wiped the sweat-matted hair from her brow. They didn't have a lot of time to rest, she knew but she had to. The service tunnels were a nightmare--miles and miles of climbing through passages barely large enough for one person.
Two people in the same hatch made it even worse.
There's no other way, she reminded herself, trying to steel herself for a few seconds before she started climbing. You want to get to the Space Ring through the lockdown, this is the only way to do it, and you're the only one who can.
Kienan's counting on me.
That seemed to give her the will to climb again. She walked to the wall, placing her hands and feet on the rungs, hand over hand, with Mirage following close behind.
Only twenty-five more hatches to go.