Kienan lay on his stomach against the long sloping branch of a large tree as the sun set in the distance. The red-orange of the sunset was giving way to a clear and starless night, and with no moon to illuminate the darkness, when night fell, its darkness would be total.
He shifted against the branch, drawing one of his pistols. He reached into one of the pouches strapped around his leg and produced a small slender scope that he quickly clipped to the top of the pistol.
He'd no intention of shooting anyone, of course--he hadnt brought his sniper rifle or the conversions necessary for the pistols to function in their place. Ogress' shuttle was fast--faster than anything he'd ever flown--but it didnt leave him much space for extra gear. Besides, the idea that his target could be brought down by a simple shot to the head from the high ground was no guarantee, at least with the target in question.
Michael Corinthos had already taken a shot to the head and lived, and wasn't likely to go down for the same shot twice.
He pressed a red button on the scope, balancing it against the branch he lay against, the small settlement below illuminated clearly in a radiant green.
I doubt there's anything useful for them left in the town proper, Kienan thought, adjusting the range on the scope. And too much activity would be detected from orbit, especially if they were looking for that sort of thing, so no power generators.
They'd want some place they were familiar with. Some place they could disappear into if their backs were put against the wall.
He narrowed the scope on the church. Despite the modern materials in its construction, the church was still built in a style at least two centuries old--the largest building in the tiny settlement, it stood in the center of town, a large building with a sloping roof. Near the front of the building there was a bell-tower, rising high enough over the buildings in the settlement to provide an excellent view of anyone advancing through it towards them.
Provided it was daylight. Night would be trickier, although from that vantage point they could also detect a low-flying shuttle's running lights in the dark. One of the reasons Kienan had taken a longer route to land, keeping the orbital path of the ship far away from the settlement, and then, to be sure, landing a mile from the tree in which he now lay.
Kienan shut off the scope, disconnecting it from the pistol and putting it back in his pouch. He holstered his pistol and turned, laying on his back.
One of them has more than likely been keeping watch in that tower all day, he thought. They dont have any early warning sensors, and they cant turn off the lights. That means they have about 12 hours up there, constantly awake and vigilant, and then they have to hole up for the night somewhere secure where even if someone moved on them, trusting they could escape, hold them off, or hide and wait for them to pass through.
The last of the dusk finally gave way to night above him. Stars began to shine through like sleepy eyes opening on morning come too early.
The trick is to attack while they're moving to the more secure place, before they can rest, when they most need to.
He slipped out of the tree, landing quietly on his feet, drawing his pistols and quietly making his way down the sloping hill towards the town.
Corinthos had made his peculiar legend before Kienan's time, but had been a contemporary of Toriares'. He spoke of him with respect and in some small sense, admiration.
No one earns Toriares' respect easy, he thought, crawling on his stomach through tall grass, being careful to keep from matting it as he passed. From the way he talked he was some kind of mad genius.
"He stood his ground against 20 heavily armed foot soldiers of the Gold Phoenixes," Kienan remembered him saying. "Took four hits himself, and killed every single one with a shot to the head. Somehow he knew they were inexperienced enough to trust that firing wildly would keep him down, so he waited and took his shots calmly. He made it look easy."
Of course, Toriares meant it as a negative--the lesson was that it what we did was more about shooting them and not being shot, he thought, slipping into the town and hiding behind one of the buildings, pistols raised and ready.
According to him, Corinthos could get away with a suicide move because he knew his opposition and wasn't afraid to die. But good killers don't want to die.
They just want to kill.
He quietly slipped from the darkness of one building to the other, drawing closer to the church.
* * *
J-3 sat alone in the garden. More than anything, she wanted to be alone, now. Sabre had offered to come with her, to keep her company, but she'd declined. When he'd seemed to insist, his master, Reficul, had told him to stand down, saying that some things were best walked through alone.
I can see why Mendel trusts him, she thought. Smart man.
She ran her fingers through her hair, brushing the pale tresses behind her. She looked up at the ceiling, trying her best not to cry or to give voice to the thought in her mind she'd never been able to let go.
I'm going to die, she thought.
It seemed so unfair, in a way, almost as though the universe wouldnt tolerate Jayla Kyren existing in some small way within itself, and moved to correct the system every time this particular aberration came up.
Someone must have it in for me, she thought. I mean, I am the third Jayla Kyren.
Or, the first J-3.
It's hard to know which.
She didn't have a reason why she considered herself Jayla--except at the most basic level she possessed none of the memories of her previous life. There were things she knew--this place, her brother Mendel, the times they'd shared here, but more personal details eluded her.
She simply knew she was Jayla Kyren.
Resurrected, she thought. Silly as that is to say, it's the only word that fits.
Mendel had told her finally, tears streaming down his face, how she'd died the first time. Suicide. J-3 had felt sick when she'd heard--after all, she was so happy and she was Jayla.
What changed? What could have driven her to do something that alien to her nature?
No easy answers, she thought. To anything.
And not much time left to find any, she thought.
She thought about Mendel and how she was breaking his heart all over again. Here she was, about to die, and just like before, he couldn't help her, couldnt save her.
Any more than he could have saved their mother and father.
I guess if it's a curse that Jayla Kyren can't live in this universe, it's his to watch everything fall apart while being powerless.
It's not fair, she thought. It's not fair that we have to suffer like this.
* * *
Jayla-2 couldnt help but wish she were back behind the controls of Mirage's Angelfish. Ogress' shuttle was a power machine, and even a rudimentary pilot like herself could fly it well enough, but it felt unfamiliar, and, in a way, almost terrifying.
Or is it what I'm going to go and do that's scaring me? Jayla-2 thought. Probably the latter.
Ogress' shuttle possessed the Interstellar Overdrive, a connection to her main ship that allowed her shuttles to be slingshot across incredible distances in a fraction of the time travelling at the maximum speed Space Drive allowed. The trip back across the galaxy to Earth's home system would have taken a week and a half.
It's only been six hours, she thought. I kind of wish Id had more time to plan or think or at least let the nervousness about what I'm doing lessen a little.
She looked at the case resting on the arm of the pilot's chair.
But she doesn't have much time, she thought. And whatever happens to her, something tells me I should be there to see it.
Surprisingly, up until this point, she'd occasionally begun to make a few inquiries about Jayla Kyren, and the family she'd left behind. But she'd always stopped herself. At the time she'd brushed it off under the rationale that she wasn't Jayla and didnt think it fair to confront Jayla's family with whatever she was or whoever she was and intrude on them. Surely they'd had enough heartache over Jayla by now.
Her curiosity about her previous life, for want of a better term, didnt seem to justify that, at least to her.
And yet, here I am, rocketing towards Ganymede, she thought. Still not sure what I plan to do when I get there.
I'd rather not fight my way in--Kienan and Vain have taught me well, but I'm no killer. I didnt come here to hurt anyone.
Well, anyone more than those I know I'm going to hurt anyway.
She was jarred out of her thoughts by the collision alarm. She banked the shuttle hard, angling away from the massive ship on her starboard side.
Idiot! Jayla-2 chided herself. Stupid stupid stupid! Passing that close they're bound to have seen you.
She reset her course, keeping her eyes on both scanners, fore and aft.
There was no sign the massive ship was turning to pursue her, or had even noticed the dangerously close fly-by.
She blinked, sighing with relief.
Ogress told me this was a stealth-ship, but it's unbelievable that it's that undetectable. I passed right by that ship, surely close enough for a visual fix and it didnt even do a sensor sweep in response. Incredible.
But I wont worry about believing it right now. I'll just be very glad of it and be on my way.
She checked her navigational system. Twenty more minutes to Ganymede, she thought. Another half-hour beyond that was Earth, she noted with some idle curiosity.
Jayla went to Earth once, she remembered. Hated it. Too quiet, not crazy enough for her, I guess. If only she'd known then what that need for constant excitement would have cost her.
Or maybe she did know. Maybe the drugs and everything else were a way to punish herself for never being satisfied. Jayla-2 didnt really an answer--she only had the memories, but none of the emotions that went with them, and only Jayla's emotions could answer that.
And those were gone forever.
She sighed. More memories she really didn't want to go over again bubbled to the surface and she willed her mind to turn from the subject and think about something, anything, other than the images that flashed by her eyes.
She seized on a scrap, something she'd observed some time ago and played around with that.
Kienan says he's never been, and always gets a little annoyed when I mention it, she thought. Going to Earth.
I wonder why?
She shook it off, her brow furrowing in a mix of concentration and anger. Too much time in her head had nearly ended her trip prematurely. If she had to think about anything, it was how to get in to the complex and what to do when she got there. What to do when she met this other Jayla clone, what to say to her, how to do what Ogress wanted, and how to get out again.
It was a lot to work out, and really only half of what she needed to be thinking about at that moment.
And she had less than twenty minutes.
* * *
Ogress stared out at the stormy darkness, a thin smile on her face. She ignored the horrible grinding noise behind her. The heavy steel door that led to the ship's main corridor was shut and had been ever since she'd send Jayla-2 to Ganymede. While Kienan and his compatriots were good company and better guests, more than anything at the moment she craved solitude.
There were things she needed to think about.
For the Ghram, the concept of manipulating people for the greater good--either theirs or one's own, was an acceptable code of conduct. Their entire empire had been founded on it--convincing less sophisticated races that working for the Ghram's benefit enhanced them as much as it did their masters.
"Good stewardship," she mused. The grinding behind her was becoming a whine, and there was a trace of acrid smoke in the air.
We convinced ourselves that we were only a small step down from godhood and it was out responsibility to lead the other races to enlightenment, whether by force in the old days, or by trick later on.
And sometimes, simply on a whim. The galaxy was our chessboard after all, and we'd achieved so much, only to become lazy and complacent, and like any spoiled children, we took it out on our "toys." Ignorant that we were playing with the lives of sentient beings.
That line of thinking led to our destruction. And yet, I did it, just now. Twice, and once to my own kinsman. Without a thought to the rightness of it or the consequences to him or Jayla-2.
After they trusted my promise of sanctuary.
I thought myself capable of more profound change than this, she thought, frowning.
The whine became a groan and the door finally slid open. Vain strode out into the chamber, her dark eyes determined but not angry. Ogress didn't turn around, still lost in the stormy galaxy beyond and the lessons she had apparently yet to digest.
"Damaging my door was not necessary, robot," Ogress said. "I would have responded to a call just as easily."
"Except that I've sent dozens to you haven't answered," Vain said, standing before her. "And I am not a robot."
"Forgive me," Ogress sighed. "I was just thinking of how ignorant I was, ironically enough."
"I dont have any mercy to appeal to, Ogress," Vain said. "Nor any politeness to observe. So why dont you answer my question without patronizing me?"
Ogress turned to her, raising an eyebrow. "Odd. I didn't detect a question anywhere in there."
"Kienan. Jayla-2. Where are they? Is that direct enough for you?"
Ogress nodded. "Kienan borrowed one of my shuttles to take a job," she said.
"She wanted one to settle a personal matter," Ogress said. "And to do a favor for me."
"Jayla-2's not ready for that," Vain said. "You should have informed us, or Kienan. You shouldn't have let her go alone."
"It was something she felt strongly about, too strongly to keep her here," Ogress said. "Plus, my shuttlecraft would only hold one of you comfortably."
"So you sent her out. Alone," Vain said. The flaring of what she would term anger in anyone but herself began to simmer within her. "Where?"
"One of the Jovian moons. Ganymede, I think."
Vain closed her eyes, stiffening, ordering herself to maintain her control.
What's done is done, she thought. The only thing to do now is to mitigate the damage.
"I want you to send me after her," she said.
Ogress regarded her with some curiosity.
"Because she's my responsibility," Vain said. "I'm supposed to protect her when Kienan's not here."
"My kinsman invests her with a great deal of importance," Ogress said. "More than he himself is aware of, I believe."
Vain looked away for a moment, her annoyance at Ogress' manipulation growing irritating enough for her control to slip for a second.
"I dont know anything about that, Ogress," she said. "All I know is that a woman I'm sworn to protect is on the other side the galaxy thanks to you. I can catch her, but for that I need a shuttle, her exact destination, and I need all of these things right now. Now will you help me?"
Ogress couldn't stop herself. Vain's resolve and determination were too intriguing not to test the limits of.
"Suppose I do not?"
"I'll steal one anyway," Vain said flatly. "And make something of a mess on my way out for the trouble you put me to and the time you cost me."
Ogress smiled and touched the controller on her glove.
"If you'll return to the hangar, you'll find a ship ready to go," she said. "Coordinates and a faster route to Ganymede will be downloaded to it by the time you get there."
"Thank you," Vain said, turning on her heel. Ogress nodded and turned back to the stars.
"Vain," she said, stopping the Marionette as she walked to the door.
"Kienan and I are in similar situations," she said. "Torn from our homes, from the ones we care for. But he is luckier than I am, to have you and Jayla-2 to care for him. Otherwise, the solitude might make him like myself. Aloof. Selfish. Alone."
Vain looked over her shoulder at Ogress.
"I'm trusting you not to let that happen to my kinsman, Vain," she said. "Protect him as you do Jayla-2."
Vain nodded and strode out of the room, her face a mask of determination. Now she was racing against time and that would be a harder opponent to stare down than Ogress.
* * *
"Understood," Wrath said, closing the channel as he set a new course. He turned to War, who stood impassively, arms folded over his chest, staring out at the sea of stars before them. Surrounding them on the bridge of the troop ship they piloted were Guardsmen, scores of them, all of them wearing red and black and carrying very lethal-looking weapons.
Wrath smiled. Three whole ships, counting us, he thought. Thirty men total. War and myself should be enough, but the Guardsmen were a reassuring safety net.
Unlike their cousins at Metatron, these Guardsmen were trained as killers more than guards or a gentle mannered police force. They were a reserve force, used only for situations when the Church authorized extraordinary measures.
And this more than qualifies, he thought, turning to his compatriot.
"Tell me, have you heard of a man named Kienan Ademetria?" Wrath asked War.
"The much-debated deadliest man in the universe," War mused, the modulator in his voice turning his words into a sinister growl. "What an extraordinarily pompous assertion."
"Well, it's your lucky day," Wrath said, a cruel smile splitting his lips. "He's our third target. The Archbishop just confirmed it for me."
"How did he get tangled up with Judgment?"
"Need to know basis, my friend," Wrath said. "But he's down on the planet with him now. Sloane gave me those coordinates as well. Our orders are to head there at once and take care of the three of them."
War nodded. "So why aren't we setting course at maximum Space Drive?"
"I see no reason to be in a hurry," Wrath said. "I say we let Ademetria and Judgment tear into each other, then mop up whatever's left of the victor."
"He's there to kill Judgment, then?"
"That's what Sloane said."
"So why is he a target?"
"Didnt say," Wrath said.
War bristled, annoyed. "A put-up job," he said. "I hate those."
"Oh it's more than that," Wrath said. "It's a put-up job being put up on a put-up job. I'd admire the intricacy of it if I didnt have to do anything."
"So what's our approach then?"
"I figure we come in . . .here," Wrath said, bringing up a map of the star system where Judgment had been located. "That should cover our approach, assuming they have any way of tracking a ship from orbit. Once we're in position, we land in the city and burn the whole rotten settlement to the ground."
"Even the church?"
"It's not a church anymore," Wrath corrected. "Any more than Judgment's one of us. The laws of sanctity and sanctuary are null and void, I think. No. It all burns down."
"It's the only way to be sure," War nodded. "And what about Ademetria and Judgment?"
"They'll be in no shape to oppose us," Wrath said, extending his clawed hand. "They won't be able to do anything except look up just in time to see the blade fall."
He clenched his hand, smiling at the metaphor and the easy day's work to come.
* * *
Kienan had been correct in his assessment of what they'd had in the church. Not much in the way of food only some stores from decades ago. Even less in the way of weapons and power generators.
But they had plenty of candles.
Michael knelt alone in the center of the church, head bowed in prayer. The light from the dozens of candles made his shadow flicker and dance along the white walls of the church. He'd been reluctant to light even these, but they'd need some light and even as many candles as they'd arrayed around the main hall, there was hardly any light to show through the windows and with no power signature no one could spot it from orbit.
Primitive, but effective.
Michael rose slowly, sensing Esperanza walking into the hall, the trailing of her white cape along the carpeted floor like a gentle sigh in the dim silent light.
"You still pray?" Esperanza asked, regarding him curiously.
Michael nodded. "Just because I . . .we . . .left the Church, it doesnt change how I feel, or what I believe. We're renegades, not heretics."
She looked out the window nervously. "I . . .I was thinking about something you told me. One of their secrets."
Michael got to his feet. "The final message?"
"How did you know?"
"It's all I've been thinking about, too," he said. "The idea, that thousands of years ago, someone divined a message from God that predicted when the human race would go extinct. It's . . .scary."
"It's scary enough," she said gently. "But . . .by leaving the Church . . .are you saying that it's all right that the human race will die out?"
Michael sighed. "No, but if that's God's will . . .I guess I have to believe that's what's supposed to happen."
"Crazy? Maybe." Michael said, sitting on the front pew and leaning back. He let out a low tired sigh. "But it's also what faith is. I have to believe God will provide, and if our time's up, then He must have a better place in mind for us to go."
"I understand," Esperanza said. "And I know about faith, but that's a lot of faith to invest in anyone. Even God. And . . . the Church is all I've ever known. And now . . .it's gone. It's starting to sink in now how much I left, and I dont know what I should do now."
Michael stroked his beard. I'd been so wrapped up in what I wanted and what I believed I just assumed the same held true for anyone who'd know what I knew, he thought.
I left the Church because it committed that kind of presumption. I owe it to her and myself not to be hypocritical.
"Do you want to go back?" Michael said. He looked at her, reaching out for her hand. "You could . . .say I kidnapped you. I'm sure they'd take you back."
Esperanza shook her head. "And if they ask me what you told me, how long do you think they'd let me live? They use Espers for detecting truth, remember? It wouldnt take them long--our Mother Superiors are powerful."
"I thought Id offer," Michael said.
Esperanza took a seat next to him on the pew. "I was meant to go with you," she said. "Because I can't go back. I have faith in His will . . .and yours."
Michael smiled and took her hand. He looked into her eyes and smiled gratefully. Then, just as suddenly he stopped, let her hand drop from his grasp and stood bolt upright, his gold-gloved hand going for the pistol holstered in the small of his back.
"You might as well come out," he said, his voice booming through the hall. "I know youre in here. Show yourself!"
"Sssh," Michael whispered, reaching for his other pistol.
Slow deliberate footsteps rang out in the hall. A shape in the darkness moved, then stepped into the poor light of the candlelit hall. It was a man, younger than Michael, dressed in red and black, his long hair braided behind him, thrashing like the tail of a demon.
He looked at them, raising an eyebrow. Then he walked over to one of the candelabras, producing a cigarette and lighting it in the open flame of one of the candles. Behind Michael and Esperanza, his shadow fell on the wall behind him, like the devil's silhouette.
"I'd been dying for one of these," he said, taking a long drag on the cigarette. His eyes narrowed on the pair of them, staying on Michael, who never took his guns off him.
He sized up the distance between himself and Michael and how fast he could close that gap. How much cover he could find if he needed it. And he knew at that very moment Michael was sizing him up just as completely.
"Who are you?" Michael said. "I dont know you."
"I doubt you would," The man said. "My name is Kienan Ademetria. I started working after your time. I know you, though. Michael Corinthos. Or is it Judgment now? You were a master assassin. They say you're legendary."
"That man was no legend. And he died a long time ago," Michael said, and Esperanza could see him visibly bristling at the mention of his name. "You dont work for the Church, then."
"No," Kienan said calmly, shaking his head. "All the same, I'm here to kill you. And you too."
Esperanza ignored him, trying to focus in on his mind and shut him down as she'd done with the Guardsmen.
"Hm," the man said, smiling thinly around the cigarette. "You'd best tell your lady friend that her little mental push is a bad idea. I've been trained in how to resist them, and if I decide to push back, she wont like it."
Michael spared her a glance for a second. She shook her head, and he responded with a curt nod.
"Good girl," the man said.
"If you were coming to kill me, then I'd say you're going about it all wrong," Michael said, his fingers curled gently on the triggers of his pistols. "I've got two guns to your none."
"Hm. So you do." Kienan said, flicking his cigarette against the wall. Michael watched it hit the wall with a quiet tap as Kienan drew his pistols, bringing them to bear on Michael before his carelessly tossed cigarette hit the carpet.
"I'd say those odds just got evened," Kienan said calmly.
Michael kept his guns trained on Kienan, but his mind was elsewhere. With Esperanza.
"I guess they have," Michael said. Esperanza broke into a run behind him as he squeezed the triggers of his pistols, sending a dozen shot's Kienan's way. Kienan leapt forward, vaulting over one row of pews and landing on his back in the seat of the next row, firing blindly above the back of the pew in front of him.
The wild, aimless shots were answered by more in his direction. The shots snapped into the wood of the pews, sending splintered pieces of wood into the air. Kienan slid to the floor and raising his pistols, rolled into the aisle, lying flat on his stomach and firing at Judgment. Three round barked out in the dim darkness. Despite the motion and the impact, his aim was true.
Judgment took three of Kienan's bullets in the chest, his body jerking with the impacts. His stunned eyes met Kienan's, who watched him intently from his position on the floor.
Body armor, Kienan thought ruefully.
No wonder he was never afraid of taking hits.
Then he raised his pistols and fired again. Kienan rolled back onto his shoulders and sprang to his feet, Judgment's shots tracking his every motion. He stepped carefully on the backs of every pew between himself and Judgment, feeling them wobble frighteningly with every step as he pushed off.
He leapt onto Judgment, who attempted to cross him arms in front of himself and pin Kienan in the crossfire of his pistols, but Kienan hit him just before he could squeeze the triggers. His weight pushed Judgment's arms around himself, forcing his shots to go far to the side as they crashed to the ground together. The impact was so jarring one of Judgment's guns slipped from his grasp.
Judgment tried to throw him off, but Kienan was ready for him. He drove his forehead just below Judgment's chin, knocking his head back to the floor. Kienan took the opportunity to holster his pistols and kick Judgment's pistol out of his reach, grabbing and immobilizing his other hand, which was still holding a pistol. He drew his knife wedging the point of the blade in between the armor plates in Judgment's shoulder, attempting to cut it from it's mooring's and expose a part of his body to injury.
Judgment's hand clenched, firing a round into the air. Kienan grabbed his wrist again, using his weight leverage to hyperextend Judgment's arm and force him to drop the pistol.
Judgment groaned. He knew what Kienan was trying to do, but had no way to stop his grip from loosening and the pistol finally dropped from his grasp. Kienan leaned harder into the hold, trying to break his arm, bringing the point of his knife to Judgment's throat. A little more force, a simple turn of his heel would drive the point under Judgment's jaw and into his skull, killing him instantly.
A matter of seconds, is all it would take.
Coincidentally, a matter of seconds was all it had taken for Esperanza to find Judgment's pistol and level it at Kienan. She held in shaking hands, her eyes streaming with tears of fury.
Kienan glared at her, pressing the blade against Judgment's throat to discourage him from trying anything. From this position, even if she were a terrible shot, there was no way Kienan could possibly escape being hit, or swat the gun away, letting Judgment go, and likely being killed, and she could squeeze of a shot before he could draw one of his own guns.
No question--she had the drop on him, and would take the shot, unless he thought of something fast.
My own fault for getting too caught up in fighting Corinthos, he chided himself. Underestimated her and what she'd do if she were too stupid to run and got desperate.
What was that lesson about not being shot again, Toriares?
He stared into Esperanza's eyes, glowering angrily and defiant to the last.
"You . . .hurt him . . .I . . .kill you," she managed through gritted teeth.