He pulled his grey raincloak around himself a bit tighter, weaving past the street vendors and the knots of people eagerly haggling over their wares, oblivious to the sad, steady drizzle that seemed to hang in the air, cooling nothing and making every structure steadily dribble the rain from every corner of roofing down onto the stone streets.
The just and the unjust, the man thought, moving past people he didnt dare make eye contact with. Assassin and renegade, hunter and hunted, we're all equal in the end. We all get wet.
And some of us, Kienan Ademetria thought bitterly, end up all of those.
He ducked into an alleyway, the water draining away in sheets around his black and white boots.
How long has it been now? Kienan mused. Five months? No, six, now. Six months of being on the run, trying to stay hidden and stay one step ahead of people who just a half a year ago were your allies. Six months of running to the limits and losing.
Six months of learning that in places like this, you find what you need to keep going when being choosy about your options isnt an option anymore.
He made his way down a flight of stairs, following a waterfall of grey rain down into an underground entrance. Down in a shadow-covered alcove he found a heavy door and a weather-beaten keypad, hidden far from the prying eyes of the streets above. Punching a series of keys, the door slid open and he slipped through.
It took his eyes some time to adjust to the spare blue and red light of the chamber, even once he flipped down the hood of his rain-cloak and rolled up the sleeves. For the sake of decorum as well as comfort he'd have removed it altogether, but that was a luxury, now.
He ran his hand through his chestnut bangs, soaked with rain despite his best efforts. He knew the rest of his hair was dry--he could feel it between his shoulder blades, occasionally snagging uncomfortably in the folds of his raincloak and his clothing underneath.
Kienan felt a familiar urge run through him. He desperately wanted to take the cloak off, not simply for his own comfort, but because the chance that he'd be recognized by someone wanting the considerable bounty on his head and the fight for his life that would ensue afterwards had a certain appeal.
Six months on the ship, he thought, sighing. Making me stupid when I cant afford to be.
He made his way deeper into the chamber, his eyes adjusting to the darkness and making out that the place he found himself in was a club of some sort. Kienan had a hard time imagining there being much of a nightlife on a planet like this and ignored the temptation to sit and have a drink with the people.
Business first, he thought, his eyes looking over the patrons, sizing them up with a glance. Quietly he filed every bit of suspicious body language for future reference.
Just in case.
Gradually the crowd thinned away the further towards the back of the club he moved towards. Finally, seated behind a long table, he found the man he'd been looking for. He was Kienan's age or a little older, smartly dressed in a charcoal-grey suit. His dark brown eyes regarded Kienan strangely, and his lips curled into a smile.
"I've been expecting you, Ademetria," the man said in heavily accented English. He gestured to the man standing before him.
"Sorry I'm late," Kienan said, taking a seat. "My first time on this colony. You're Forsa, I'm guessing."
Forsa nodded, watching Kienan reach for a cigarette and his lighter. He tried several times to light it, his brow furrowing in frustration.
"May I?" Forsa asked, standing up and leaning over the table with a lighter.
"Thank you," Kienan replied, taking a long drag off the cigarette and leaning back in his chair.
"You should remove your cloak," Forsa said. "A man with an umbrella is a man praying for rain, after all."
Kienan looked down at it. "I'll take my chances, mister Forsa. Better all around, really."
"How can I help you, mister Ademetria?"
"I understand you handle shipments and consignments of cargo left over from larger shipping companies," Kienan said. "I'd like to buy some cargo lots and also to rent a ship from you for the transfer."
Forsa took all of this in, his eyes never leaving Kienan as he laid out the offer. It was most generous, as far as the numbers went, and he was offering half up front for the rental and the cargo, but something about it, something about him, made him want to know more.
"You obviously haven't negotiated a price before, mister Ademetria," Forsa said. "Forgive me, but your naivete in the ways of it are somewhat obvious."
Kienan exhaled a thin stream of smoke, looking at him blankly.
"I have certain questions, if you wouldn't mind?"
Kienan waved a hand. "Go ahead."
"I was under the impression you were with the Blue Dragon syndicate," Forsa said. "I'm rather surprised they would deal with me."
"I'm . . .not with the Blue Dragons anymore," Kienan said. "So youre not dealing with them, youre dealing with me."
"Ah, of course. You'll pardon my next question then. How is it that someone as young as you are has the money to make an offer like this?"
"I notice you didn't question whether or not I had the money or not."
Forsa shook his head. "No," he said. "Your finances checked out."
Kienan smiled thinly. "Let's just say I saved up for a rainy day."
* * *
Half a galaxy away on the Jovian moon of Ganymede, Mendel Kyren stood on a narrow catwalk overlooking a landing pad. He shoved his hands into his pockets, trying to keep himself warm against the wind, which was howling and cold this time of year, owing to Ganymede's slow orbit around Jupiter.
The only thing he anticipated more than returning to his warm comfortable offices was the event that had brought him to this lonely site in the first place. None of which stopped him from wishing the person he'd been waiting for would hurry up.
Within five minutes of impatiently looking at his watch there was a silent sound above him, one part roar, and one part sigh. Above him, a small, wing-shaped shuttle passed over him, the shadow rolling over him in the muted light of the city like a giant bat. There was a screech of machinery being engaged as the shuttle hovered and its wings folded up as the command pod lowered.
The shuttle came to rest with an almost catlike silence, its landing pads finding purchase on the smooth landing pad. A moment later the bay doors opened and a ramp extended downwards to the pad. There was a cloud of steam released as the hydraulics vented pressure. Once the cloud had dispersed, two shapes walked down the ramp.
Mendel didnt recognize the first man. Except for his black and white streaked hair, he was armored from head to toe, his face obscured by a blank white mask with no features save for piercing glowing green eyes. The rest of his armor was dark blue and purple, and on his back he wore a very dangerous looking sword.
That man paused at the end of the ramp as another man descended. This one Mendel recognized on site. He was clad in a rumpled red and black jacket and blue pants, his shock of close-cropped white hair a stark contrast to his lined blue skin. He balanced himself on a black cane, coming to the end of the ramp, sparing his companion not even a glance as he walked past.
Mendel made his way towards him, stopping short as he saw the man behind the blue-skinned man tense.
"No, Sabre," the man said, raising his cane to obstruct his companion's path. "Mister Kyren is out host. You have nothing to fear from him."
Mendel stopped short; nervously shifting his weight from one foot to the other as he eyed the one called Sabre nervously.
"Er, Doctor Reficul?" Mendel stammered. He took a tentative step forward, his eyes never leaving Sabre. "Is he--"
"Forgive me, Mendel," Reficul responded in calm, measured toned. "Sabre has only recently entered my service, and takes his duties somewhat seriously."
"It's all right," Mendel said. "It's just . . .been so long, hasnt it?"
Reficul nodded. "You were hardly much more than a child when I worked here with your mother, as I recall. She would be proud to see the man you have become, I think."
Mendel waited for Reficul to walk towards him and took stride alongside him, his eyes still nervously glancing Sabre's way every now and again.
"I . . .well, I hope so," Mendel said. "It sort of caught me by surprise, getting control of the company's assets. I wish the circumstances had been better."
Reficul put his hand on the young man's shoulder. "One's inheritance is never gained easily, Mendel. If studying genetics all my life has taught me anything, it is most definitely that lesson."
Mendel looked at his shoes as they stepped back inside the building, feeling suddenly ashamed. Reficul had befriended him when he was 8, when he and his sister played in the main atrium of the building while his mother and Reficul unlocked the mysteries of human and alien genes, cured disease, and made the first tentative steps towards cheating death forever.
He tapped the call button for the elevator, staring at the featureless gray double doors and sighing. Not that all that research had ended up helping him all that much.
The door slid open and he gestured for Reficul and Saber to enter the car, following them in. Reficul cocked a eyebrow, measuring the demeanor and behavior of his host.
"If I have said something wrong, Mendel, I am sorry," Reficul said.
"It's not that, Reficul," Mendel said. "I was just thinking about what you said, about gaining knowledge easy. Seems like that's been the lesson my family's been learning the hard way these past six years."
Reficul nodded. "Your mother, you mean?"
"Oh not just mom, Reficul," Mendel cocked his head, sighing. "Mom, Jayla, now my father as well. In some way, because of this . . .thing we built up, I've lost them all."
"You profited by it," Reficul said. "Your race profited and benefited by your work."
"That's just money," Mendel said. "As to the benefit, I never saw any personally. And honestly, even if I had, it's not at all worth losing a family for. Father's death just seems to be the end of the line, the third strike--"
"I beg your pardon?" Reficul asked.
"Sorry," Mendel said. "Old Earth reference."
"Ah," Reficul said. The car descended in silence for a moment. "So I take it you've not reconsidered your plans to sell the company?"
Mendel shook his head. "I want out," he said. "Nothing it's ever gotten me has been worth what it took away, I think. My plan is to oversee these last few projects and determine what to spin off and what to sell off, then retire somewhere on the Frontier. I'm told Cabiria is really nice."
"Whatever I can do to help, Mendel, you may rely on me," Reficul said.
"Well, I'm not geneticist, but most of the active projects I've got a decent enough handle on to make a ruling on," Mendel said, favoring Reficul with a smile that for an instant recalled the young boy he remembered.
"What I called you here for is, well, kind of a mystery to me," he continued. "A mystery to everyone except my mother, apparently. You see, I've had the staff inventorying for the past year, trying to get everything in order for the sales--projects, research groups, physical assets--that sort of thing."
"You found something you didn't expect, then?" Reficul asked.
Mendel took a deep breath. "Well, someone and some things I didnt expect, you might say."
* * *
To the untrained eye, the small silver freighter called the Silhouette was much like the many others of its kind; a long silver torpedo, ringed with a trio of large cargo pods amidships and propelled by an engine cluster and maneuvering vanes, to all appearances, just another tramp freighter, just as unremarkable as the deserted backwater of space it was currently travelling through.
The two golden fighters skimming over the surface were a good deal more exotic. They darted and flew over the surface at fantastic speeds, their spaceframes rotating around the spherical command pods as they banked and turned.
Occasionally, strobing flashes of light would burst from the weapons emplacements on the fighters, blinking harmless damage on one another as they continued their dogfight in the silence of space.
"Very good," the blonde-haired woman piloting one of the fighters said into her communications unit. Her severe expression and neutral gaze conveyed no approval. "However, you tend to slow down before you fire. A good pilot will pick up on that and be able to outmaneuver you before you can destroy him."
"But dont I have to line up the shot?" The softer, gentle voice called back into her earpiece. "If I come at you as fast as possible Vain, I'll miss."
"No," Vain said, turning back over the dorsal cargo pod. "The targeting computers will do the necessary compensation automatically once you establish a lock. By slowing down you cause the targeting computers to re-establish a lock. It slows you down far too much and plays into your opponent's hands."
"Okay," the voice called back, sincerely chastised. Vain rolled her eyes. "I'm sorry, Vain."
"Dont be sorry," she replied. "We'll repeat the same maneuver now. I'll come around behind you. You will evade and destroy me."
"I . . .Ok."
Vain closed the channel as she poured on the thrust. If I keep talking to her, shell never take this seriously, she thought, coming around as her targeting sensors established a preliminary lock on the other fighter. I realize she's little more than a child in most respects, but Kienan insists that she must be protected under any circumstance, and the only way I see to do that is to teach her to protect herself.
Even if that means giving Mirage fits worrying about whether Jayla-2 will return her fighter in working order.
In the other fighter, the being known as Jayla-2 gripped the controls tightly, frantically watching the readouts for any sign that Vain was coming. A signal pierced the silence in the small pod and she snapped her head around, looking for the source.
Is she coming? Jayla-2 thought. Or is that the other signal? No, wait--it's the warning klaxon. Target acquired.
Jayla-2 gripped the controls, arming her weapons and engaging her thrusters. She sped on as the tone changed. She banked to avoid most of Vain's opening salvo and banked to the left, Vain following close behind.
Jayla-2's glowing green eyes narrowed as her clawed fingertips clicked out another evasive sequence. Sweat began to beat on her forehead as she continued to stay one step ahead of Vain.
She's pressing the attack a little harder this time, she thought, a little annoyed. Uh . . .what was that other maneuver she taught me? I'm running out of tricks.
Jayla-2 banked her fighter steeply, aiming straight up. The inertia pushed her back against the cushioned control seat, but she hung on all the same. Vain pressed the attack, scoring more hits according to the computer. Jayla-2 banked down again, trying to move into position behind her like Vain had taught her to do before firing.
"You're thinking two-dimensionally, Jayla-2," Vain's voice said evenly into her earpiece. "Space has three dimensions, stop thinking so linearly."
Jayla-2 grimaced and tried for a high banking loop, but Vain roared past her, activated her roll-jets and dove for her head-on.
"You just used that maneuver," Vain admonished. "You cant rely simply on what I've taught you. Stop being so predictable."
Jayla-2 checked her readings. The sensors indicated that she was taking heavy damage, at least for the purposes of the exercise. Even if she could continue to elude Vain's fighter, it was only a matter of time. A few more shots and she'd be "dead."
C'mon, Jayla-2 thought. Improvise. Think of something. You cant make her chase you forever. She's too good and knows more about the ships than you do. Eventually you'll get tired and the chase. . .
Hang on, she thought. Maybe that's the problem.
She gunned her engines again, heading straight for the Silhouette. As she picked up speed and the freighter became larger and larger, she thought of something Vain had told her the first day she'd started training her to fly the fighter.
"The Angelfish are heavily armed, but also extremely maneuverable," she'd said. "Their controls are extremely sensitive, and if you overcorrect you can do yourself and the ship a good deal of damage. But if you pay enough attention to where youre going, the ship will take care of you."
Jayla-2 took all that in as her right thumb tightened on a specific trigger. Behind her, as usual, the warning klaxon was sounding. Vain was chasing her, matching speed, and her systems had good tone.
If this doesnt work, the very least I'll hear is more lectures, Jayla-2 thought, biting her lip and jamming hard on the button underneath her right thumb.
Her Angelfish blasted thruster fire from its forward sections, roughly settling it into a stop as Vain's fighter whizzed past. Vain caught what Jayla-2 was doing a second later, engaging her own full stop as she engaged her roll-jets to turn to face her sister fighter.
Once she was head-on with the other Angelfish, the repeated strobes told her what she'd suspected.
"All right, Jayla-2," she said, he manner softening as much as it ever did. "That's enough. You did well."
"Did I win?"
"Well, not exactly," Vain flipped a series of switches, securing the fighter from their sparring mode and back into standard operation. "But you did surprise me with that sudden stop, and you are showing real improvement with both your piloting and your dogfighting."
"I . . .am?" Jayla-2's voice came back, quavering like a child who'd just been given a gold star. "Thank you, Vain."
"Thank me by going in for a landing, Jayla-2," Vain said, engaging her thrusters and signaling the Silhouette that she and her wingman were returning to the ship. "I will follow you in."
"But . . .Vain . . .I . . ."
"There's a first time for everything," she said, taking up a position behind Jayla-2's fighter. "Whenever youre ready."
* * *
Michael sat in silence, so stunned he'd even turned the overhead lights off. He guessed it had taken him roughly six hours to read every document on the data crystal. Every translation of the scroll of paper, every projection based on the prophecies written upon it, and every secret project created as a response to what was contained on it.
It was almost too much to take in. Not so much what was said--that was ominous, sure enough, but nothing that contradicted things overmuch. In fact, if you followed the logic in the document itself, it was a blessing--the ultimate proof that God's reward awaited the faithful. The means were a little different, but there it was.
What wasn't there was an explanation for why the Church would be working so hard to subvert, thwart and altogether prevent such a blessing.
Hard to believe one page of a group of scrolls that spent thousands of years at the bottom of a lake could cause this much trouble, he thought, looking down at the golden pistol on his lap.
So much made sense now. Why Jericho had destroyed the town and the church. Why certain things at Metatron seemed to happen invisibly around him, why doors were locked even in what was supposed to be the greatest house the Lord ever directed be built.
Jericho meant it as a sign. But being just a man, a flood or a burning bush wasn't in order.
So he chose fire.
He stood up from his chair, walking back from the cockpit to the small living area in the ship's stern. He thought about the scripture's he'd read, and how after seeing signs like this, there was always confusion as the enormity of what had happened.
He knew how they felt.
He tucked the pistol into the waistband of his pants and bent over the small sink, cupping his hands under the thin stream of water and splashing it over his face. He looked up and stared at his reflection in the mirror, the water beading off his heard and dripping back into the basin. A thin shaft of light crossed his reflection, illuminating his face, lined but not tired, determined but still gentle, the only echo from his old life, the cruel scar between his eyes.
His own private sign.
Michael had taken a bullet to the face, and lived.
His thoughts drifted back to the day he'd learned he'd survived certain death, and how he knew somehow that it meant only the most blessed of things. He'd not been meant to die that day. God had preserved him for something else. Another task.
I wonder if this is it, he thought, running his fingers through his hair and brushing it out of his eyes. I thought God's work was preaching the word, occasionally taking up the gun again in His service.
I thought it was enough. But now . . .how can I go back, knowing what I know? How can I look the people who I know now have been thwarting God's work, perverting it and wrapping it all in His message to justify themselves.
Is that right? Is that the right thing? Was all this just a prelude for my real work in this world?
He had no answer, and apparently, neither did God.
He sighed and returned to his chair in the cockpit, reaching as he did for the battered pocket Bible he kept with him at all times, leafing through it's well-turned pages to a story about a powerful man who judged a people and ultimately tore their temple down around them.