"I'll do it, damn you," she said, her voice trembling as tears streamed down her face.
Kienan glared at Esperanza with a mad fury.
"Are you sure you can do it?" He taunted, keeping Judgment immobilized underneath him. "Have you even got the safety off?"
The gun shook slightly in her hands, and her eyes began to look around frantically, and Kienan took his moment, sheathing is blade and shoving himself off Judgment in one fluid motion while tumbling into her. He swatted her arms upward, then slid his forearms between hers, spreading them out to break her grip on the pistol.
Then he sent her to the floor with a hard punch to the face, taking care of the immediate problem of her shooting at him, while unfortunately creating another one.
Judgment was up on his feet. And very angry.
He seized Kienan by the shoulder and punched Kienan hard across the jaw with such force Kienan was throw back into the pews, the back corner digging hard into his back. He kicked at Judgment as he came towards him, unable to hurt him through his body armor, but just trying to buy himself some time.
Can't get any advantage in the main hall, he thought. And his body armor neutralizes my guns, more or less.
He drew his knife.
The blade, then.
But I'll need cover to find my chance.
Judgment lunged for him, and Kienan caught him in a headlock, driving his knees into Judgment's stomach as he trying to immobilize him. He looked up, noticing a small passageway near the main altar.
He flipped himself over Judgment, grabbing him by his hair and smashing his head into the back of one of the pews. Judgment felt his nose break, but as Kienan readied himself to do it again, he drove his elbow into Kienan's stomach, freeing himself from Kienan's grip.
He threw Kienan over his shoulder, sending him sprawling to the floor. Judgment bent down and grabbed Kienan's throat with one hand, the other grabbing his long braid and wrapping it around his fist. He punched Kienan hard in the face with the hand holding the braid. Kienan felt blood filling his mouth, and he glared at Judgment, spitting in his face.
"You'll have to do better than that," he taunted. He drew one of his pistols from its holster and jammed it against Judgment's chest, pulling the trigger three times. They couldnt penetrate his body armor, but at this range, they felt like someone striking his chest with a sledgehammer.
He gasped for air against the incredible pain and Kienan seized his moment, slashing at Judgment with his knife. Then he braced himself against the back of the pew and kicked out with both his legs, driving Judgment back and buying Kienan time to escape to more favorable terrain.
He waited for Judgment to get his bearings, their eyes meeting from their respective positions in the hall. Kienan allowed himself a thin smile and then bolted for the passage to the bell tower, hoping Judgment would give chase.
Judgment rose to his feet, wiping the blood streaming from his nose and mouth as he walked towards the altar. He knelt next to Esperanza, gently turning her over and seeing to his surprise that Kienan hadnt knocked her unconscious.
She'd been lying there, sobbing. She looked guiltily at Judgment.
"I'm sorry," she said. "I tried to . . .but . . .I couldnt . . ."
Judgment pulled her up into an embrace. He tried to ease her over to one of the pews so she could sit down and collect herself. Her eyes were glassy and she seemed to be staring at something far away.
"It's all right," he whispered gently. "It's not anything I'd want you to learn."
He sat her down, his hands on her shoulders. He looked into her eyes, as if willing the shock and terror she felt to dispel. He understood the fear, anger, and terror she felt, but he also knew nothing he could say would help her through it.
He knew, because he'd tried many times.
"Stay here," he said. "Keep safe."
He reached for the one pistol of his he could find in the steadily dying candlelight and spared her one more glance before heading up the bell tower after Kienan.
* * *
"In my time here at the Kyren labs," Reficul began, dictating into the small machine he cradled in the palm of his hand. He sat behind a large white desk in one of the small offices circling the Central Core. "I have come to the following conclusion: While there is evidence of great breakthroughs in the cloning process and hybridization experiments in Doctor Kyren's work, most of the results were more in the vein of interesting accidents rather than intended consequences of controlled experimentation.
"Owing to what I can only assume was Doctor Kyren's rather . . .unhinged mental state at the time, her notes do not indicate to me any intention for her end result save resurrecting her late daughter. Beyond that, there is little in the way of objective analysis in her later notes, please see attached . . ."
He paused for a moment, staring at Sabre, who stood with his back to Reficul, staring down at the garden below. He shook his head, reminding himself that in hundreds of years of Oneiran science, emotions were the one thing that slipped beyond the laws of science to accurately explain.
"Having no way to purge the original biological template from the cloning unit Kyren acquired, it appears to have altered the sample of the human's tissues and created hybrid clones, the second of which is fatally unstable. Data on the first clone is lost to us, as it is presumed destroyed, so data on its stability and development can only be speculated upon.
"Nevertheless, analysis of the data in question does provide interesting theoretical avenues we may pursue to further our own aims. It is my belief that while her experiments do not provide a definite blueprint, they are well worth further study under more controlled conditions."
Reficul pressed a button on the device and plugged it into a data port on the desk. He flipped a switch and the data was transmitted far beyond the stars to its intended destination.
He rose from his seat, unplugging the device and slipping it in to one of the pouches on his belt. Sabre turned to stare at him, his green eyes seeming to glare silent but white-hot anger at his master.
"It is nearly time for our departure," Reficul said to his silent companion. "Ready the ship."
Sabre didnt move a muscle.
Reficul sighed, leaning on his cane as he pondered his bodyguard's strange behavior.
"She has but a short time left," he said. "You know this. You knew it before even Mendel did. What does it matter to you what happens to her now?"
Sabre turned and looked away again, back down at the garden. Reficul sighed, shaking his head sadly.
"What was done to you should have cleansed those emotions from your psyche," Reficul said, watching as Sabre bristled silently at his words. "That you still have them is either a testament to your intrinsic sense of character or a sign our methods may not be as successful as we anticipated.
"Certainly another piece of data to study, in the fullness of time."
Reficul stood, looked back and forth impatiently, then, deciding on a course of action, tapped his cane on the plush carpeted floor.
"Very well," he said, not even bothering to disguise the weariness in his voice. "I will allow you time to say goodbye to her, if you feel you must."
Sabre turned back to him, the tension suddenly gone from his form. One who didnt know him, or know what was done to him, might have imagined he was almost relaxed at that moment.
He bowed to Reficul, then strode past him as he shook his head.
Sabre paused at the door, the tension returning to his form the moment Reficul spoke to him.
"I expect unaccountable and inexplicable emotional response in humans," he said. "Indeed, it seems to be as fundamental to their existence as the need for oxygen. You were created to be better than they were, without such encumbrances. You appear to be like them, but were bred to be better."
Sabre glared at him again.
"I must say, I am very disappointed in you."
Sabre shoved through the doorway, as Reficul stood alone in the office by himself. He could have forced Sabre to do what he'd ordered him to, but he preferred to use a gentler hand when dealing with him.
The Rigellians believe torture, applied judiciously, will ensure results, whether upon the tortured or the people who witness it, he pondered. I have never believed that to be true. Force must be applied judiciously, with careful consideration of the consequences.
It is a delicate instrument and must be used carefully to keep its edge. Very much like Sabre himself.
* * *
Jayla-2 made her way across the catwalk from the shuttle dock to the main building with some small nervousness. She was hidden by a rain-cloak that covered her features and was drab enough to hopefully not draw attention as she made her way inside, her mind searching Jayla Kyren's memory for information about this place, little details that might help her find her way in and do what she intended to do.
Whatever that ended up being.
Jayla-2's memory of Jayla's life was fine, even if the emotional content eluded her. She knew precisely which exit to go to, where in the complex was cleared only for members of her family, even some of the access codes for the public entrances.
The last might have come in handier, had the public access code not been several years old. She sighed, trying the code again, and then again, then reversing the order of the numerical sequence in case she'd made a mistake, even though she hadn't.
It was simply a code far too old for the system to recognize. And unless she could find another way in, she'd come all this way to be stuck at the front door.
She sighed. I wish Id listened now to that voice in my head that told me this was crazy and I shouldnt do it, she thought. Now what do I do?
Someone behind her cleared his throat.
Oh, right. Get captured and really make a mess of things.
"Excuse me," the voice called from behind her. It was a man's voice. "Are you trying to get in?"
Well . . .no reason to lie now, is there?
"I . . .yes," she said. "My code's too old for the system, I think."
"Oh no, again?" the man said, squeezing past her. He was shorter, and from his dress, and manner, obviously not a member of the security forces. He leaned over the console, his nervous squinty eyes regarding the access panel with familiar annoyance.
"I swear," he said, his fingers tapping over the keypad. "These security measures . . .they're really good at keeping people who work here out, dunno about anyone who might want to break in. Four years I've been coming here, and I'm all the time having to prove to how honest I am to these sons of . . .ah, here we go."
The door slid open and the white pale-lit corridor stretched before her.
The man gestured for her to first and Jayla-2 walked inside, with him following after.
"I havent seen you before," the man said. "Where do you work at in the complex?"
"Er . . .cen . . .Central Core," she said. "Project for the Kyren family, actually."
"Oh, yeah," the man said. "Top secret stuff, huh?"
"Where do you work?"
"Ah," Jayla-2 said. She felt a little nervous now. Either her ruse was working, or the man didnt care, but if the latter was true, she didnt want to run the risk of changing his mind on that score.
However, the only way to do that was to do something she'd never been terribly good at: small talk.
"So . . .how is it . . .working in the mailroom?" Jayla-2 said, cringing at how idiotic she was certain she sounded.
"It'd be great if the coffee the break room was actually hot," he said. "And if I didnt have to deliver mail or come to work. Days like this, I just wanted to sleep all day and not come in at all, you know what I mean?"
"Uh-huh," Jayla-2 nodded. "If I'd known how today was going to go, I'd have stayed in bed myself."
She saw the sign for the path to the Central Core, pulling down the hood of her cloak and looking over her shoulder at the man.
"I'll see you later, I hope," she said. "Thanks for helping me."
"No problem," the man said, smiling back. "If you get mail, we'll probably run into each other some time. It's a lousy job, but meeting new people's always fun. Seeya round."
Jayla-2 smiled and walked into the corridor leading to the Central Core, quietly amazed at her luck. She sighed and brushed her hair from her eyes. She thought about Mirage's lessons to her about not being seen, and how the key to invisibility was not appearing or doing anything that seemed to be worth looking at.
"Or, if you must, do it when no one's looking," she recalled. She found another access panel, bringing up a map of the complex. She was somewhat relieved that they hadn't added any major additions to the complex since Jayla's time here--it would make J-3's location a little easier to find, as well as find a secured terminal close enough to the central computer to eradicate the data Ogress had asked her to delete.
She knew she was no fighter. Vain and Kienan had taught her well enough, and she'd absorbed the lessons as best she could, but, as Vain had long bemoaned, she hadnt the killer instinct necessary to be a superior combatant.
Jayla-2 understood what she meant. And she wasn't sure it was instinct she ever wanted to develop.
Once she had an idea of her bearings, she took a deep breath and put in Jayla's older code for access to the Central Core.
Might as well try it, she thought. I doubt I can rely on the good graces of the mailroom past this point.
To her surprise, she was granted access.
Why would they leave her code in the system and delete the other? Jayla-2 wondered. They know Jayla's been dead for years now, and it's a little ridiculous to save it for sentimental reasons. I mean, just about anyone could stroll in the door with it . . .
Of course, she realized. The clone.
She sighed and made her way into the Central Core, looking down at the lush garden at the very bottom of the core shaft, trying to imagine where a newly minted clone of Jayla Kyren was likely to be.
* * *
Judgment made his way up to the darkened bell tower; his every sense tuned to its maximum. In the darkness and closed quarters, given a head start in time, Kienan could attack him any number of ways.
He drew his pistol, stepping carefully and quietly through the darkness. The bell tower was part of a larger room, with a ladder running parallel to the bell rope on the far side of the room. The thick dust that had accumulated on the deserted settlement made his nose itch as he made his way forward, waiting for the assassin to leap out of the shadows.
He paused for a moment, standing in front of the bell, his instincts telling him something was wrong.
The air feels . . .flat, somehow, he thought. Poison gas? No--it'd just sink down to the lower levels. There are easier ways of killing me than that, and he's too direct for that.
He wants to be certain.
All the same . . .
Gradually, an idea came to him. He gently tapped the bell with the barrel of his pistol, wincing in anticipation that the sound would give him away and Kienan would be on him.
Only the bell gave no sound at all.
He tapped it again.
Then he hummed for a moment under his breath.
Somehow he's dampened the sound completely up here, he thought. He's clever all right. Up here, in the dark, we're both handicapped with regards to sight, it's too dark to cover the room in gunfire and risk a ricochet for anything but a kill shot.
And he's effectively stripped another sense away.
Judgment brought his gun up into a low but ready position, slowly creeping around the bell. He couldnt hear anything, so he couldnt hear Kienan above him, his legs wrapped around the support beam holding the bell, hanging upside down behind him.
He slipped his arms around Judgment's neck, his forearms braced against either side of his neck. He pressed hard on Judgment's trachea, trying to incapacitate him, then either snap his neck or slash his throat.
Judgment stiffed as he grabbed him, but was ready. This close, he didnt have to hear Kienan to know where he was. He twisted his body, slipping between Kienan's arms and punching his would-be strangler hard in the stomach.
Kienan held fast to the beam with his legs, biting back the pain as Judgment hit him in the stomach and ribs again and again. Finally, Kienan gasped silently for air as he fell to the floor on his stomach.
Judgment raised his pistol and pointed at his head, but Kienan was playing possum. He leapt from his position on the floor at Judgment before he could aim his shot, knocking his arm away as he fired a shot into the ceiling. Kienan grabbed his wrist and slammed it against his knee again and again until Judgment dropped his pistol.
Once that was done, Kienan elbowed Judgment in the throat, shoving him back into the bell, which rang out silently, though the vibrations from it could still be felt. Its momentum carried Judgment back into Kienan's arms and he seized Judgment by the hair, returning the gut punches Judgment had given him by yanking Judgment down by the hair as he brought his fist up.
He threw Judgment to the ground, bringing the point of his elbow down between his shoulder blades. Judgment moaned silently as he felt the blow through his body armor.
He saw the glinting golden edge of his pistol and tried to lunge for it, but Kienan kicked it aside and stomped down hard on his hand. He seized Judgment by the hair again, his other hand grabbing the back of his belt, driving his knees into Judgment's spine and sending him dropping to the floor again.
Judgment felt pain exploding through his body, so excruciating for a moment he couldn't get a breath. For a second he was happy Kienan had nullified the sound in the bell tower--he felt his throat vibrating with a plaintive cry of agony.
Bad as Id been hurt before, Id never cried out, he thought ruefully. I wouldnt have done that before. I'm definitively not the man I was, but up until now I wasn't sure that was a bad thing.
Kienan stood before Judgment, beckoning him up on his feet. He seemed to have shrugged off most of what Judgment had dished out to him earlier and had found his second wind. He waited for Judgment to rise to his feet, knees bent, and then Kienan sent Judgment back to the floor with a roundhouse kick so fast Kienan appeared to be little more than a blur. Judgment felt his teeth loosened as Kienan's boot caught him in the jaw. He tried to blink back the pain, but found it difficult under Kienan's relentless assault.
He attempted to get to his feet again, and sure enough Kienan tried to kick him back down again, but this time Judgment was ready. He caught Kienan's leg and pulled him down to the floor, twisting his body in an attempt to get leverage enough to break it.
But Kienan was ready. Through he couldnt get leverage enough to counter the hold, his knife was in easy reach and he stabbed into Judgment with it. Judgment screamed in silence as the blade slipped between the plates of armor protecting his solar plexus, past the cloth below them, and into his skin.
He gasped again, kicking Kienan away from him. He felt the blade slip out of his stomach with sickening slowness and tried to move away, taking care to favor the right side of his abdomen, lest too much activity rip the wound Kienan had made wide open and cause him to die from the blood loss.
He looked around in vain for his pistol. There was no sign of it--whichever dark corner Kienan had kicked it into, Kienan was between him and it, and he was armed, and knew he was hurt.
I wouldnt have done this before, he thought. I wouldn't have given up. Even it had killed me; I would've made sure this bastard died too . . .
He closed his eyes for a moment, holding his wound even tighter, as if the pressure outside would reciprocate inside him.
NO, damn it, he cursed himself. Whatever happens, you are not the man you were. Youre better. And if you die, at least you'll die as a better person. And wake up in a better place.
He sighed, taking a step back. There wasn't much he could do from this position, nothing he could improvise as a weapon and leaping to attack would only aggravate the wound and give Kienan a perfect shot at finishing him.
There were only two places to run: Up the tower would trap him even more than he was now. Down was a straight drop into the main hall with nothing to stop his fall but the bell rope, and the floor.
He shuffled backwards on his feet, blood tricking from the corners of his mouth through his beard. Kienan approached him cautiously, knife drawn, taking care to close the distance without leaving himself open and conserving his energy, waiting for Judgment to make the first move.
Judgment took another step backward, feeling nothing between his heels. One more step backwards and he'd fall through the trapdoor back down into the main hall. At least a fifty-foot drop, with nothing but a bell rope to stop his fall.
He blinked, trying to squeeze the pain from his mind. There was a chance, but he couldn't think about it, only commit and hope for the best.
He said a silent prayer, then opened his eyes, looking at Kienan.
He smiled and took a step back, falling down through the trapdoor behind him.
His arm snapped out, catching and wrapping his hand around the rope as sound banged into his mind again, every noise deafening, the loud ring of the bell most of all. He groaned as he held on tight, trying not to slide further down the rope as he felt his stomach wound tearing open a little, willing himself not to cry out.
He hung there for what felt like forever, but what was in reality only a few seconds. The bell continued to ring, gently lifting him up and down as he tried to get his bearings through the shock and the pain.
Come on, he thought. FOCUS!
The clouds parted just in time as the bell rang again, louder this time. Kienan had seized the rope and rappelled down, stopping just short of where Judgment was, drawing one of his pistol and pointing it at Judgment's face, at the very point the bullet that had scarred him years ago had struck. No body armor to stop the bullet short now--Kienan had the kill shot.
Judgment looked up at him. There was nowhere to go no--his last trick was all used up. He had two options--fall to the floor and buy himself a few seconds while he bled to death, still defenseless, still wounded.
Or he could meet his fate right now.
As it happened, he would do neither. Kienan kept the muzzle of his gun pressed close against his face as he looked to the door. Judgment managed to sneak a look out of the corner of his eye and noticed two things.
Esperanza wasn't sitting at the pew where he'd left her several minutes ago. While she was still there, she wasn't alone. The main hall was full of soldiers, clad in red and black, surrounding her and two others.
The soldiers weren't familiar to him. The people in the center of them were.
Wrath stood, a sick smile crossing his lips as he held Esperanza by one clawed grip around the throat. The other, glowing with a strange greenish-white energy danced over her face, throwing sharp shadows over her terrified glare.
Next to Wrath stood War, taciturn and silent. None of the many weapons he carried were drawn, his sanguine demeanor suggesting that the guardsmen's various weapons were more than enough to do the job at hand.
Kienan looked at them, his gun still pointed at Judgment's face. He noted the superficial resemblance between their armor and Judgment's and grimaced.
Sloane hadnt said anything about this when he'd contacted me, he thought. If he had people he could use in-house, why contract me for this hit?
"Friends of yours?" Kienan sneered.
"Not . . . exactly," Judgment said, still trying to hold back the pain.
"I've got this one," Kienan said, pressing the gun into Judgment's face a little harder. "Take the girl with my compliments, so your trip out wasn't a total waste."
War shook his head slowly and drew one of his weapons, leveling it at Kienan as they hung there.
"I dont think you understand your position, Ademetria," Wrath said. "We're not here for the girl or for Judgment."
Kienan's eyes narrowed on the short vicious little man, whose eyes positively shone with malice and cruelty. The cold fire of his emerald eyes bored hatefully into his gaunt form.
Wrath ignored his attempt to intimidate him. They had a ten to one advantage and superior firepower. What did he have to be scared of?
"We've come for you all," he said, the smile splitting into a sick, toothy grin.
"None of you will leave this church alive."