The sleek shuttle sailed between the stars like a great black bullet. It slipped past beacon and patrol, past friend and foe, leaving no evidence of it's passing. If a scanner or tracer should have fallen on it, it dissipated the moment the beam hit the outer armor, reading as more empty space.
That was, of course, assuming that there was any sensor suite capable of tracking a craft that traveled as fast as the shuttle was. There wasn't, of course, and that was just what the pilot of the shuttle wanted.
A nice quiet trip.
Kienan sighed, leaning back in the oversize pilot's chair, trying to concentrate on his twin tasks--monitoring his flight and cleaning his pistols. He hoped that would busy his mind enough to ignore what he was really thinking about. When it hadnt he'd lit a cigarette, which now dangled from his lips as he oiled his weapon, hoping he could further distract himself.
But there it was. Or rather, there it had been. Light years behind him. And no matter how fast or how far he flew from it, there it was, echoing in his mind.
"I hope I havent used up my goodwill with you yet," Kienan had said. He stood before Ogress on the command deck of her massive ship, the two of them shrouded by the dim lights of the corridor. "I . . .need one of your shuttles. I have a job, and nothing I have can get me across the border fast and undetected."
"A job," Ogress said, her black eyes seeming to pierce right through him. "An assassination, I'm presuming. And I'm to look after your companions while you attend to this?"
Kienan's face fell. "I know. My timing's not the best, is it? It's just . . .this is the first job I've been offered since the Blue Dragons turned me out. I . . ."
"I didnt say I minded," Ogress said, taking a step forward. "I just want to know why this job is so important."
"Well," Kienan began, willing himself to put the best possible spin on it. "I just . . .I could use the money and . . ."
Ogress's expression hardened. Kienan's stomach knotted.
He took a deep breath, screwing up his courage.
"All right," he said. "I . . .miss it."
"Miss the killing?" Ogress said. "Odd thing to have affection for. I took you for more than driven by bloodlust."
Kienan looked away. "It's all I've known for a long time," he said sharply.
"But you've known more than killing for some time as well," Ogress said. "I should know--I taught you some of it. But you are not my pupil anymore, Kienan, you are my kinsman. Perhaps then you could do me the favor of explaining to me what this is really about?"
Kienan grit his teeth, tightening hips lips in an effort to fight back rage and frustration he felt snarling around his heart. "I dont know what youre talking about."
Ogress looked disappointed. "You could lie a little better than that, kinsman."
"I'm not . . ." Kienan sighed. "I dont know what you want me to tell you."
"I dont want you to tell me anything," Ogress said. "I want to know what this is really about."
Kienan looked away, down the corridor, stretching down into darkness. "You already know what it's about. I recognize that tone of voice--you always used it when I was being hardheaded and you wanted me to see something I couldnt--or wouldn't see."
"Yes, I do," Ogress said. "Now say it."
Kienan looked away.
"Does she really terrify you that much?"
Kienan turned away from her, staring at the bulkhead. His red-gloved hands were clenched in tight fists.
"The girl," Ogress said. "Jayla."
"Jayla-2," Kienan corrected. "Jayla was the other one. And no--She doesn't."
Ogress stared at him. He could feel her eyes on the back of his neck, and the weight of the disappointment he thought she had in him caused his shoulders to droop a bit.
"She's told me things about you, kinsman," Ogress said. "How you take every chance to leave the ship and come back only to leap at the next chance to go out again. How evasive you are when she tries to ask questions or help you. You'll forgive my presumption, kinsman, but youre behaving as someone who's running from something. And that's not usually your nature."
Kienan spun on his heel. "No, it's not," he said, his voice tight, his entire body clenched as tight as his fists. "It's not, and yet, it's all I've been doing for months! Everyone tells me that it's all I can do under the circumstances."
He took a deep breath, realizing how close he was to exploding, and trying to back down a little. She's not trying to make you angry, he reminded himself. She's just trying to bait you.
It wasn't working. Kienan could feel his defenses giving way. Almost unconsciously, as if some machinery in his heart had given way, he began to say what he'd been feeling, slowly and almost dispassionately, as if once the process had been started he could do no more than let it run its course.
"I feel impotent, and I hate myself for feeling that way. Even on Caldera, even with death ready to leap out of the darkness and kill me . . .even then I could fight. But I can't. I dont even know how to begin to fight something like this."
He slammed the side of his fist against the bulkhead, his body so wired with tension he hardly felt the bruising impact.
"So I run, and I hate myself for running too," he sighed. "I hate running, Ogress. I hate not being able to fight. I hate having to pretend I'm in control when I hate myself for every time I have to back down.
"I want things the way they were, damn it."
Ogress took a step towards him, feeling his pain acutely.
"Is that why you run from her?"
Kienan sighed, his clenched fist still resting against the bulkhead. He'd relaxed some, his entire body rose and fell. Ogress was talking about his old life--the apartment on Kuran, the friends, his extended family, the comfort of routine, but mentioning Jayla-2 stirred something else in him.
"No," he said. "That's more complicated. Tension inside, just like there's tension outside."
"You said she was a clone," Ogress said. "I'm guessing you knew the original?"
Kienan turned around, leaning against the bulkhead, exhausted. "I . . .I dont think anyone knew her, really. But yes, for awhile we were . . .uh . . ."
Kienan nodded. "What a mistake that was. She didn't like that I kept running off to do jobs, and I . . . well, we split up, and she died. Killed herself. Jayla-2 was meant to be my payback for driving her to that."
"And you helped her?"
Kienan closed his eyes, folding his arms over his chest. He nodded. "What else could I do? I felt responsible."
"Responsible for her killing herself."
Kienan looked at the deck of the ship.
"Yes," he said. "And I guess I hoped that if I could bring her back, things would be different this time. Well, the joke was on me--things are different--she's not interested. I've tried hard not to blame her, but I catch doing it. Resenting her for screwing everything up. Feeling awkward around her because I dont know how to talk to her."
"So you run."
"I couldnt think of anything else to do," he said. "I feel like I've run so much these past few months I've lost sight of anything I might be going towards. I just know I cant go back, and when I think about what might be out there to look forward to, there's nothing."
They stared at each other in silence for a time. Kienan felt a little uncomfortable, still feeling the callow pupil to her. Still embarrassed and wanting to defer to her, though it had been years since it had been expected of him.
"I'm sorry, Ogress," he said. "I know that's not what you taught me."
"I wasn't asking you as your teacher," Ogress said. "I asked as you as kinsman. And as one who knows you can hold on too tight to the way things used to be. Tight enough to feel it crumble into sand and slip away."
Kienan looked down at the deck again, sighing.
"Youre afraid of the future, kinsman," she said, finally. "This job, how you feel about Jayla-2--it's all signs of you being ill at ease with what has happened to you and trying to freeze time where it was."
"Yes," Kienan said. He looked up, running his fingers through her hair. "That's why I want to take this job--it's a little piece of what used to be."
"And when it's over?"
Kienan shook his head.
Ogress looked at him. "I'll do as you ask." She pressed a series of buttons on the back of her glove. "But I have a condition."
Kienan looked up at her, a little surprised she'd agreed. "What condition?"
"That you answer a question," Ogress said. "Is the idea of a future with her really that terrifying?"
Even hours later, Kienan didnt have an answer for her. But she'd let him go, all the same. And try as he might, he couldn't distract himself from wondering why.
* * *
Ogress stood alone, suspended in midair in the tall, narrow chamber within her ship. While her people may have retreated to the darkness between stars, they'd refused to close their eyes to the universe outside. And so while they may have remained hidden from prying eyes, or grave-robbers attempting to steal their technology, they'd never stopped watching those who came after.
Whatever the races that came after them made of the galaxy they'd kept orderly for innumerable centuries, they would have to do it on their own, without stepping over the corpses of the Ghram to get there.
But like everything the Ghram did now, they did so surreptitiously. Invisibly. Ogress had worked for decades, learning the protocols the other races used to establish their communications networks, learning their languages, learning all she could.
This room, the Argus Room, was the end result. From a tiny backdoor into one navigation beacon, she had a line into the universe beyond, and she'd worked diligently to expand the boundaries of it. Like following a tributary to a river, and finally out to sea.
Now it was time to put that to the test. She pressed a series of buttons on the back of her glove. Images and readouts began to form in the chemically treated mists around her. Programs tuned to trace every item of interest to her and her people began to spit out reports, surrounding her in glowing orange readouts.
I thought I recognized something about Jayla-2, she thought, refining the Argus Room's focus to narrow in on cloning. Kienan's admitting she was a clone confirms it. The Ghram had perfected the art of cloning, or at least perfected it to the degree where they were able to create entire species of beings artificially.
From what I've been able to determine by monitoring the other races, large-scale cloning has fallen out of fashion, she thought. Considered an imperfect science--good in only strictly controlled circumstances. Certainly nowhere at the level of our experiments.
But experiments are being conducted. Jayla . . .rather, Jayla-2's unique nature suggests a hybrid clone, and so far as I know, no other race could do cross-species cloning at that level.
Except for a Ghram. Or someone with access to our technology.
Ogress began a parallel search for the name Jayla, hoping the two searches would better explain the existence of the strange woman who was aboard this ship. She frowned impatiently as the results of the Jayla search began to coalesce, slowly working through the billion billion results. She willed herself to keep concentrating, only regretting a little that she hadnt thought to ask Kienan what Jayla's last name was.
She found a match that crossed over both searches, and narrowed it down even more. A report on a cloning program, written by a Dr. Rachel Kyren. She pulled up a biography of the doctor in another parallel search and found a match in a listing of known relatives. That listing led to a biography of her daughter: Jayla Kyren.
The first, I assume.
In a minute she was into Dr. Kyren's files. The files were encrypted, but the power Ogress could bring to bear soon cracked it, and her secrets were hers.
Yes, she thought. This was what I was afraid of.
She sighed, saving the data to her personal data unit. She had to think of what to do with what she knew, now. The standing order for technology appropriated from the Ghram was the destruction of the stolen technology and any evidence of its use.
If I were to follow that directive, Jayla-2 would have to be killed, as would everyone else who'd so much as touched it. The records would have to be destroyed, perhaps the physical location of the lab would have to eradicated as well.
She bit her lip, pacing around the dark Argus Room. To follow that directive would mean betraying Kienan, and worse yet, doing it while he was gone. While he'd trusted her with his ship and his crew, which whatever he said, she knew meant more to him.
I could not do that. Whatever my loyalties to the Ghram, Kienan is my kinsman.
She blinked, remembering the conversation she'd had with Kienan an hour ago. About his job, and how precious it was to him. And how she'd tried to gently suggest to him there was another way.
She tapped the back of her glove.
"Jayla-2," she said, her voice echoing over the ship's communication system. "Would you join me on the command deck, please?"
* * *
Jayla-2 had run into Kienan just as she's gotten the call from ogress to come to the command deck. He was heading in the opposite direction, towards the main corridor. She muttered a quick apology, but before she could move away, Kienan put his hands on her shoulders, stopping her gently but firmly.
"Kienan . . .what . . .?"
Kienan looked at her, then looked away. He looked nervous and somewhat distracted. Gradually his eyes returned to hers, and he let go of her.
"I . . .I have a job," Kienan said slowly, his voice soft and almost calm, his manner completely belying that. "I'm going to be leaving. Ogress said she'd take care of you and the Marionettes, while I was gone."
"But dont you need . . ."
Kienan stared at her.
"Vain and Mirage . . .wont you need their help?"
Kienan looked away for a moment. Jayla-2 wondered if he'd even considered it.
"No," Kienan said. "This is something I can do on my own." He added under his breath: "I have to."
"I dont understand."
"I wish I could explain it to you," Kienan said. "I have a hard enough time explaining it to myself."
"OK," Jayla-2 said, looking at him. "I'll miss you, Kienan. Please come back safe."
"I . . .will," Kienan said, walking past her. He was a little way down the corridor when he stopped.
"Jayla-2," he began, speaking slowly. "I will be back."
"I know," she said, turning around.
"No, you don't," Kienan said. He sighed and it echoed like the very ship itself was sighing. "I will come back.
"It's very important to me right now that you know that."
Jayla-2 didn't understand exactly what he meant, or why it was so important, but she nodded slowly, watching him walk slowly down the corridor.
He's so different, sometimes, she thought. Sometimes I'm absolutely terrified of him, in awe of his strength and scared of the rage he carries inside him.
And then, sometimes, he's like that, and I dont know what to say to him or how to act, because he's not the man who scares me. He's not what I've come to expect.
He never really is.
He vanished down the seemingly endless corridor and Jayla-2 hastened to get to the command deck. Kienan and his strange behavior was a mystery that would have to wait until later to work out. Now she had to work out why Ogress, who'd spent the most of Jayla-2's time on her ship staring at her in that rather forceful and slightly condescending way suddenly wanted to talk to her.
At least now I know where Kienan learned how to look that severe, she thought, smiling to herself.
Suddenly she stopped, the sudden turn of her thoughts back to Kienan stopping her cold. His words drifted back to her, as did memory.
Jayla and Kienan had no business being together, but it had happened all the same. Jayla was looking for someone to rebel against her mother with, and Kienan seemed like just the bad boy to fill the role.
Except he'd never been around to fill it, and Jayla grew to hate him for it. She'd turned towards her own self-destruction by then, and committed herself completely to it, leaving him with a hastily scrawled note:
Jayla-2 sighed, shaking a bit at the awful memory of Jayla's act and the shame of not comprehending what Kienan meant, when the answer had been before her the whole time.
Damn it--I'm such a fool, sometimes. When I think of what she did to him . . .no wonder he acts the way he does around me. I hope when I see him again, he'll forgive me for not putting it together sooner.
She sighed and hoped Kienan would forgive her, then put it out of her mind as she stepped up on to the command deck. Ogress stood with her back to Jayla-2.
"You are late," Ogress said.
"I ran into Kienan," Jayla-2 said. "He had something he wanted to tell me."
Ogress turned slowly to face her. Despite the fact her expression was warmer than usual--a thin tight-lipped smile as opposed to the severe glare Jayla-2 was used to--the sheer physical size of the woman scared her a little.
"It doesn't appear to have been something that settled well."
"Confusing, I'd say," Jayla-2 said. "There's a lot about that man I don't understand."
"There is a lot about that man that he himself doesnt understand," Ogress said. "Even to me, my kinsman is a mystery to me sometimes. It doesn't make me care for him any less, however."
Ogress studied Jayla-2 for a moment with her dark, inscrutable eyes.
"I see I am not alone in that."
Jayla-2 looked at the deck. "What, uh . . .what did you want to speak to me about?"
Ogress nodded, producing her personal data unit from her belt. She set it into a dock on one of the personal terminals, ordering the computer systems to begin a display of the data she'd received from the Argus Room.
"Could you tell me what you remember of your creation?"
Jayla-2's brow furrowed. "Not much, I'm afraid," she said. "I can remember Jayla Kyren's life verbatim, but there's a lot of time from my . . .uh, birth . . .that I just can't recall. It wasn't until the Haxan restored me--"
"The Haxan?" Ogress asked, flinching with recognition. "They still live?"
"Three of them," Jayla-2 said. "I dont know where they are now, though. Is that what you wanted to know?"
"Not exactly," Ogress said. "Look at this--I have recovered data from your mother's company, notes about your creation . . .and the creation of another."
"What did you say?"
Ogress muttered another instruction to her computer system. A small amber hologram of a human figure--a woman's--resolved in front of Jayla-2.
"I said . . .it appears you have a "sister," Jayla-2."
Jayla-2 put her arms around herself, shaking a little. This was a lot to take in and she didn't know exactly how to feel about it all, so she felt a lot of different emotions, each taking hold of her and gone in the span of a heartbeat. Jealousy, anger, sadness, fear--all of them sinking into a rather upset confusion.
"Another Jayla clone," Jayla-2 said slowly.
"An imperfect one," Ogress said. "Your mother found one of my people's cloning units. She did not understand precisely how to operate it, but she understood enough to create you and this other clone."
Jayla-2 sighed. "I . . .cant believe this."
"There is more: The clone will die soon--its genetic structures are unstable and are breaking down," Ogress said. "And I . . .have to decide what to do about this."
"You have to decide?" Jayla-2 said.
"My people, when we went into hiding, made a determination that what we left behind would not be exploited. You must pardon my arrogance, but no race is ready for all that we know, and trying to grasp it now will only lead to ruin.
"So, if I follow the orders of what's left of our people, my responsibility would be to kill you, destroy the other Jayla clone and the means of creating more. People, machines--all must be burned away."
Jayla-2 stiffened, the confusion dispelling as the implied threat of Ogress' words cut through the fog. She clenched her fists and grit her teeth, preparing to fight.
Ogress reached for something on her belt. She hefted it in her hands and tossed it to Jayla-2, who almost missed it, catching it in fumbling, shaking hands.
"But this argues there is another way."
"What . . .?"
"I will not kill you, Jayla-2," Ogress said. "Provided you do something for me. Open the case."
Jayla-2 did what she asked. In one half of the case was a data crystal. In the other side an auto-injector of green liquid.
"The data crystal is a pernicious an ineradicable virus. It will erase any and all evidence of the cloning process and command the unit to self-destruct. A more subtle method than simply using the weapons at my command to destroy it from orbit."
Jayla-2 held up the auto-injector. "And this?"
Ogress smiled. "That is a choice."
"A choice," Jayla-2 repeated. "Look, could you just explain what all this is directly? I'm not really up to enigmatic and elliptical right now."
"Very well," Ogress said. "That is the stabilizing enzyme your "sister" requires. Provided you can get it to her in time, it will correct most of the imperfections in the cloning process."
"She'd . . .she wouldnt die."
"Everything dies, Jayla-2," Ogress replied. "But this way, she will have a chance at a life of her own, just as you have been given that chance. All I ask is that information that would create any more clones with our technology be destroyed. The choice of whether your sister lives or dies is yours to make."
Jayla-2 took all of this in, her head swimming.
"We're too far out," she said. "I'd never make it in time."
"I have the means to get you there in time," Ogress said. "If you decide to go. What is your decision?"
Jayla-2 had taken all of it in. She'd never gone out with Kienan on one of his jobs. The only time she'd been involved at all was when they'd been attacked first, trying to get out of Kuran.
She remembered being terrified the whole time--fighting wasn't in her nature, after all, and if she went, she might well have to. After all, she wasn't Jayla Kyren, and trying to explain what she was and why she had any business on Ganymede would get her locked up for being a certifiable lunatic.
If she were lucky, only for being crazy.
And yet, she wanted to go. Need to go, really-- For the past two years she'd told anyone who called her "Jayla" that she wasn't Jayla Kyren, she was Jayla-2. Jayla existed as a series of vivid memories in her mind that floated there with no emotional content behind them, lyrics to a song someone else had written and she never intended to sing.
And that was the problem--she had no idea what not being Jayla meant, that made it hard to know what being Jayla-2 meant. Something in her told her it was time to put the ghost of Jayla Kyren to rest and fully be herself again. To close the door on the past for good.
Her "sister" was another matter. Whether by some morbid curiosity or some strange familial connection she couldn't explain to anyone up to and especially herself, something in her heart told her she had to see her.
She hadnt decided yet what to do about the cure, yet--it lay in its case on the arm of the shuttle's command seat. Something in her felt awful having it. Just as she wasn't a fighter, Jayla-2 was no killer, and being responsible for another's life weighed on her heavily.
And so, just as Kienan had done, she was off, piloting one of Ogress's shuttlecraft and heading towards Ganymede. She sat in the pilot's chair, her knees pulled up to her chest, arms wrapped around her legs, trying to hold back tears. Tears for herself, for her fear, and for the need to know that drove her on.
But tears especially for Kienan, for breaking his promise to protect her, and worse yet, breaking it for him. She'd tried to leave a message explaining it all and why she had to go, but discarded it.
Instead, she left the following:
But I'm coming back.